Advertisements

Archive for January, 2019


Review by C.J. Bunce

After more than a decade watching our all-time favorite series take place in Korea (M*A*S*H), it’s refreshing to at last to see in wide U.S. release a quality series set in Korea.  That series is the first South Korean series released by Netflix, a fantastic medieval historic mash-up with zombies called Kingdom, which began streaming this past weekend.  Sprouting from a well-documented, mysterious plague that killed tens of thousands of people in Hanyang (present-day Seoul) during the 19th century Joseon dynasty, this story nestles the viewer in a fully realized Korea of the past, complete with opulent sets, costumes, and production values said to have cost nearly $2 million per episode.  The result matches a stunning script (based on a web series by Kim Eun-hee, who counts herself a zombie aficionado and proves it with this series), top acting from a slate of South Korea’s most award-winning actors, and cinematography showing locations most Westerners have never seen, with an exciting Braveheart of the Far East meets The Walking Dead genre action feast.

The region’s king comes down with smallpox, and on his sick bed his latest wife, a young pregnant queen (played by Kim Hye-jun) schemes with her father and the king’s supposed confidante, Lord Cho (Masquerade’s Ryu Seung-ryong), to seize control of the throne, conspiring with Cho’s embedded clan of thugs to shun the true heir, the Crown Prince, played by Ju Ji-hoon (The Spy Gone North) as an earnest, Henry V-inspired leader.  But is the king really dead, and what other secrets does the queen keep?  Father and daughter bar access to everyone outside their circle, and so the Crown Prince escapes with his trusted and fierce lieutenant Muyeong, played with equal parts grit and humor by Sang-ho Kim (Octopus), conjuring the versatility of Japan’s Toshiro Mifune.  They set out to discover the source of the spreading plague, meeting up with a doctor played by Sense8 and Jupiter Ascending‘s Doona Bae, and (in a twist worthy of a Tom Clancy novel) the realization fosters the Crown Prince’s viability as a real leader against an unthinkable threat.  Rounding out the main cast is a mysterious warrior named Yeong-sin, an angry, defensive villager who buries a group of the dead against local traditions, played by Kim Sung-kyu.  His character is cloaked in his own secret past.

Deception.  Murder.  Conspiracy.  A prince who above all else looks to protect his father the king and be a good leader.  A heroic race to a stronghold via horse cart.  A mother infected who turns on her own child.  Swords and bow and arrow, and early rifles, as the only means of defense.  Gorgeous, truly cinematic imagery.  Western viewers get an incredible look at a beautiful island, forests, waterfalls, bubbling brooks, palatial estates, lakes and mountain views probably never captured for a wide modern audience, thanks to some stunning cinematography.  Fog, night, and fire eerily presented among cinematic storyboarded action sequences.  The music is a blending of traditional, medieval, Eastern themes, and sweeping programmatic action movie cues.  Costume designs in exquisite fabrics and designs at first may seem odd to modern viewers, but their similarity to the garb of Akira Kurosawa films (that Western audiences have had greater access to over the decades) should ease in most viewers.  The production sets and artistry are probably matched only by History’s Vikings of the current historical and fantasy TV series available.  And the expected horror of the zombie genre–sword beheadings were never filmed so believably.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Review by C.J. Bunce

The first ten minutes of the new CNN documentary film Three Identical Strangers is intriguing enough to merit a major motion picture adaptation.  The film re-tells the story of an adopted teenager who steps into the life of someone else on his first day at community college, only to find that he had an unknown identical twin brother who attended the school the prior year.  Director Tim Wardle‘s introduction and interview with Robert Shafran, now 57, and the best friend who in 1981 knew the newfound twin brother, Eddy Galland, and was shocked to meet Robert on campus, is the kind of exciting filmmaking that illustrates why there are fans of documentaries.

But that was only the first unlikely collision of events.  Only days later when the story was published in New York newspapers, another teen, David Kellman, born on the same day, was reading the story, and his mother showed him the photographs of the twins that looked identical to him.  Identical triplets, adopted out of the same agency, which had separated the triplets at birth instead of trying to place them into a single home.

The story was reported everywhere back in 1980, on shows like Donahue, and the triplets would go on to appear in a scene with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985.  Only the collective forgetfulness of a country of the men’s 15 minutes of fame allowed the story to fade away over the decades.  But there was more to the story, and Wardle would put together a contemporary writer’s research and remnants of the past, busting open a psychological study that breached any sensible person’s ethics.  The triplets weren’t merely studied from afar, their families were specifically targeted for placement, and their parents conned into letting the researchers into their homes each year for subsequent testing.  And yet there’s still more to the story, as Wardle interviews other relatives, an investigative reporter, and two former researchers involved in the study.  It’s a creepy look into the kind of science carried on by Nazi Germany during World War II and banned by the medical profession since, all with an eye toward digging into the battle between nature vs nurture in determining who each individual is in life and what they become.

Continue reading

  

Review by C.J. Bunce

Life in California is not all that sunny for everyone.  The fourth and last of our reviews of the initial release of graphic novels from new publisher TKO Studios looks at Goodnight Paradise, a peek into the day-by-day drudgery and dim chance of survival of the homeless.  When a homeless girl is found dead in a dumpster, the man who found her has enough information to find her killer.  Unfortunately his mind is addled through a rough life, alcoholism, and mental illness, and he’s struggling to put it all together.

Readers are introduced to a story “ripped from the headlines” like an old Law & Order episode, as real-world tech corporation Snapchat makes new millionaires and billionaires, and outside its doors across Venice Beach the poor and the homeless are getting shuffled away, the culture of the town turned upside down as real estate shifts and the past culture of the area is squeezed out.  The people living in the alleys all are at the end of their ropes, just to varying degrees.  As more young people hit the streets without income sources, those with mental illnesses run out of their prescription drugs to keep them in control, compounding their struggle as they spiral into confusion and anger.  Enter Tessa, a young woman who leaves home to come to the coast to see the ocean.  She befriends a small, tight group of people who protect each other.  When she videotapes a woman being drugged for sex by one of the new rich types at a party, she’s hunted down by his thug to protect the guy’s reputation.  But is everything as it seems in Goodnight Paradise?

Writer Joshua Dysart (Unknown Soldier, B.P.R.D.) creates a deconstructed superhero of sorts out of his homeless protagonist.  This man is like DC Comics’ Oliver Queen, but stripped of his money and his sanity, yet his sense of right and wrong remain intact.  Artist Alberto Ponticelli (Unknown Soldier), with colors by Giulia Brusco (Scalped), introduce readers to layered characters in scenes not using sleight of hand so much as revealing the realities of perception and bias.  Scenes that seem one way at first only are rediscovered by the reader to have their meanings changed when seen and explained from the perspectives of other characters–in a way Ponticelli shows the comic book medium can take advantage of.

Here is a preview of Goodnight Paradise:

Continue reading

  

Review by C.J. Bunce

In the next inaugural TKO Studios series we’re reviewing here at borg, classic fantasy meets action-adventure in The Fearsome Doctor Fang A modern update to early 20th century mystery stories like The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, The Fearsome Doctor Fang blends elements from Doctor Strange, The Shadow, Tomb Raider, Allan Quatermain, Indiana Jones, and H.G. Wells’ sci-fi and fantasy novels.  No relation to the DC Comics Doctor Fang, readers meet this Doctor Fang in San Francisco–he’s a mysterious Chinese hero cloaked as a masked villain in pursuit of the location of the legendary treasure of Kublai Khan, all to save the world from a deadly menace.

Writers Tze Chun (Gotham, Once Upon a Time) and Mike Weiss (The Mentalist) create a story mixing stylistic influences from the likes of Alex Raymond and Alan Moore.  The Dr Fu Manchu comparison is obvious–the writers even incorporate the unusual character name Nayland from Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories).  Artist Dan McDaid (Firefly) provides the Amazing High Adventure look to the story, with layouts and close-ups reminiscent of Neal Adams, full of turn of the (20th) century exotic locations and historically costumed denizens bustling among the city streets.  Doctor Fang is a Zorro-esque hero for the people of China–and the world.

Readers will find great surprise twists and several funny scenes.  Think the 1999 big-screen version of The Mummy–the male and female leads darting between Doctor Fang and the book’s arch-villain have much in common with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in that film.  Bright period color choices by Daniela Miwa (Shaft) and interesting lettering by Steve Wands (Batman) support a unique look for the new adventure series.   Where the first two books from TKO Studios we reviewed feel more like standalone one-shots tales, this is a book you’ll no doubt want to see continued in subsequent series.  (*Editor’s Note:  Every time I type or say The Fearsome Doctor Fang, I hear the classic Dramatic Sound Effect).

Here’s a look at some covers and the first pages from The Fearsome Doctor Fang:

Continue reading

   

Review by C.J. Bunce

The second of the new TKO Studios titles we dived into this weekend is The 7 Deadly Sins.  Yesterday we reviewed Sara, which conjured scenes from Sands of Iwo Jima, and now The 7 Deadly Sins feels like a modern twist on the John Ford/John Wayne classics Stagecoach (celebrating its 80th anniversary this year) and The Searchers.  Despite the basic story building blocks from a John Ford movie, this isn’t a John Wayne film or Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, or something like more recent Western comic book series like Dynamite’s The Lone Ranger.  This is a far less traditional Western–far from Classics Illustrated, this is a story that could wrap up the trilogy of Quentin Tarentino’s bloody violent modern Westerns The Hateful 8 and Django Unchained. 

1867.  A post-Civil War frontier “cowboys and Indians” era tale, the story introduces readers to a white man raised as Comanche whose signature is a unique style of scalping homesteaders and U.S. Cavalry soldiers.  A priest wants to broker an unholy peace with the Comanche, and a black ex-Union corporal named Jericho Marsh is trying to find his daughters.  Marsh finds himself in jail and breaks out with a pregnant ex-slave, a cannibalistic ex-Confederate soldier, a Chinese prisoner, a well-known crack shot, and a woman mistaken for a man, and they bring on an orphaned mountain boy and a Comanche child along the way.  The story pulls from Three Godfathers and The Magnificent Seven–not so much derivative, it pulls on the strings of plenty of Western tropes.  A handful of strangers, all outlaws, must join to fight off the Cavalry, a wealthy landowner, and Comanches, and it’s anyone’s guess who might make it out alive.

The 7 Deadly Sins comes from writer Tze Chun (Gotham, Once Upon a Time), artist Artyom Trakhanov (Undertow, Turncoat) and if the color work looks familiar to Western readers that may be because it’s created by Giulia Brusco (Scalped, Django Unchained).  Letters are by Southern Bastards’ Jared K. Fletcher.  Parts of Trakhanov’s panels are drawn similar to the very traditional, archaic layouts of Stan Sakai’s Japanese motif Westerns, landscape shots reminded me of the stark feel of Moritat’s work on the Jonah Hex book, All-Star Western, and choreographed action sequences carry the more stylized influence of Frank Miller’s interiors later in his career.

Take a look at these great preview pages:

Continue reading

   

Review by C.J. Bunce

If there was a Sergeant York or Audie Murphy on the Russian side of the fight in World War II and the soldier was a woman, you’d have the lead character in Sara, a new six-part graphic novel from TKO Studios, a new publisher for 2019 (more on that below).  In Nazi-occupied Russia, the Russian forces are losing.  A small band of skilled Russians snipers is making headway one kill at a time.  The undisputed best of the bunch is Sara, an ex-college recruit reputed to have 300 kills.  She soon becomes the target of Nazi Germany’s own best special military forces.  From Eisner Award winning writer Garth Ennis (Preacher, War Stories and Battlefields, Fury) and artist Steve Epting (Velvet, Batwoman, The Winter Soldier, The Avengers), with color by Eisner and Harvey nominated artist Elizabeth Breitweiser and letters by Rob Steen, the gritty realism, badass protagonist, and top-level artistry is sure to make Sara a contender come award season.

If you’re a fan of Russia or Soviet-era stories like Doctor Zhivago, From Russia with Love, and The Hunt for Red October, or graphic novels Nevsky: A Hero of the People, Red Son, and The Death of Stalin, there’s something in the Sara graphic novel that you’re going to like.  But that’s just the setting.  The real fun will be the callbacks readers will experience along the way.  With a Russian twist, expect the same kind of war experience from watching movie classics like Stalag 17, Sands of Iwo Jima, Memphis Belle, To Hell and Back, and Sergeant York.  Ennis’s historicity and Epting’s adherence to detail anchors the story in a way that will have you feeling like you’re right there in the forest among the soldiers.  This is the story many of us were hoping for when we heard of the Russian espionage movie Red Sparrow.  

As with all new TKO Studios releases, the story is available as a graphic novel in a digital or print edition, or as six issues in a collectible box.  The six issue/chapter shifts are well plotted: an introduction of key characters in the middle of activity and flashbacks to Sara’s military training are all nicely paced to a vintage 1940s war movie style, and the battlefield threat increases gradually culminating in a nicely planned cliffhanger, followed by a satisfying payoff–it has all the beats in the right places.

Continue reading

The 80th anniversary of what has been called by film critics the greatest year of movies is here.  In 1939 audiences were first introduced to the landmark Western, John Ford’s Stagecoach, John Ford also released Young Mr. Lincoln, Frank Capra released his most patriotic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Charles Laughton starred in The Hunchback of Notre DameDrums Along the Mohawk, The Little Princess, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Dark Victory, Son of Frankenstein, Golden Boy, Destry Rides Again–all premiered in 1939.  And then there was director Victor Fleming, who released not only the definitive historical romance, Gone With the Wind, but the celebrated greatest fantasy movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz.  To celebrate its 80th anniversary, Turner Classic Movies/TCM Big Screen Classics and Fathom Events have teamed up to show special screenings of The Wizard of Oz beginning Sunday, to appear at more than 700 theaters nationwide.

Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, and Terry as Toto, The Wizard of Oz, in a controversial and competitive year of Oscars, would take home the Academy Award for best song (Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg‘s “Over the Rainbow“) and Herbert Stothart‘s musical score (it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Special Effects).

It’s the classic that would be celebrated by generations as one of the rare films re-broadcast on television year after year before the advent of home video, but hundreds of millions of fans have never seen it as it was meant to be seen.  Take the advice of author Elizabeth C. Bunce, who reviewed the movie for its 75th anniversary here at borg, if you have never seen it in the theater, do yourself a favor and grab everyone you care about, and get to the theater to see The Wizard of Oz.  

Continue reading

With winter settling in and another cold snap crossing the U.S. and the film’s nomination for a Best Animated Film Academy Award, audiences are continuing to discover Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in theaters (reviewed earlier here at borg).  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse–The Official Movie Special is a new hardcover book going behind the scenes of the movie, and it has a different twist.  The book interviews all three of the film’s directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, who provide different perspectives on working with Phil Lord on the script, and share insight into the pre-production, voice actor recording, and visual effects.

Senior animation supervisor Josh Beveridge recounts the steps of the animation process used for the film, including inkline methodology to make the film look like a comic book, using a large team of animators.  Several pages are devoted to each of Miles Morales and his family, Peter B. Parker, Spider-Man Noir, Gwen Stacy, Peter Porker, and Peni Parker and SP//dr–how each was designed, how each was presented to distinguish their different comic book origins using variations in light, color, and dimension, and how each voice actor approached the performance.  The villains get coverage, too, including the Prowler, Kingpin, Tombstone, and a new Green Goblin and Doc Ock.

The best look at stills from the film released so far can be found in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse–The Official Movie Special.  It also nicely references all the writers and artists that created the various Spider-Verse characters used in the film.  It features concept art and production art from production designer Justin K. Thompson, art director Dean Gordon, and creators Jesús Alonzo Iglesias, Seonna Hong, Patrick O’Keefe, Shiyoon Kim, Yashar Kassai, Naveen Selvanathan, Paul Lasaine, and Craig Kellman.  Voice actors Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, and Hailee Steinfeld also provide contributions.

Take a look inside at a few pages from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse–The Official Movie Special:

Continue reading

Review by C.J. Bunce

The trailers appeared like it could have been so much more, but it wasn’t to happen.  Instead of the science fiction thriller promised in the trailer, this month’s Netflix movie Io is a slow, dry character study about a character who isn’t all that interesting.  Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) has the lead role as Sam, daughter of a world-renowned scientist in the years after a toxin has finally pushed life from Earth.  Most of humanity leaves for a colony on Jupiter’s planet Io, including Sam’s boyfriend, who tries to prompt her to meet him there via future email (that looks like text on a vintage Commodore 64).  But Sam’s father has died, and she continues his research, attempting to prove “life will find a way” on Earth.  Her father’s speeches persuaded many to stay, including Micah, played by Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Infinity War), whose wife has died.  Via air balloon, Micah travels to Sam’s science station, one of the rare places where oxygen still allows life to go on.  He comes to murder Sam’s dad, but when he learns of Sam and her desolation, he tells her she needs to come with him on the last flight from Earth.  Most of the film time is quiet thought, Sam doing her experiments, including killing a bee, apologizing blandly like that makes it okay.  And Sam and Micah talk at each other, contrived anger in spots from Micah, seeming indifference to anything from Sam.  Should they stay or should they go?

Without any emotional punch by Qualley, not much about the film works.  It’s a tale that has been told so much in science fiction and in so many better ways, that Io’s effort to tell the “end of days” story has little to offer other than an attempt at splicing in several mythology allegory references.  But without compelling, believable characters and a story with a coherent message, the effort is pointless.  The entirety of the film is in the Netflix trailer, and the rest of the film is filler.  The message of any apocalypse story is for humanity to wake up and not let the world go to hell.  Beyond that, many other movies have used the concept of apocalypse that are more accessible and interesting.  Netflix’s own Orbiter 9 is much better, and the Tom Cruise sci-fi tale Obsidian offers a similar story with much more to keep viewers engaged.  Even the Mad Max series offers characters who act like they want to survive.  Fans of the slow-paced, sci-fi dramas Arrival or Interstellar might very well like this film, and that may have been Io’s target audience, but with little budget or script it doesn’t come close to those either.

The production expects the audience to infer too much about the character of Sam from the performance of actress Margaret Qualley.  But the director, newcomer Jonathan Helpert, never settles in on who Sam is supposed to be and how much empathy we’re supposed to have for her.  The easy part is understanding her loneliness, since her father died and left her alone.  But the entirety of her emotions are held within–the audience cannot tell anything about her by her methodical, scientific mannerisms, her limited written messages to a boyfriend off-planet, or her stilted conversations with newcomer Micah.  We know she wonders about artwork off in a museum in a territory that is deadly, but so what?

Continue reading

Known for providing George Lucas with the original designs for several spaceships for the original Star Wars, concept artist Colin Cantwell has revealed photographs of his actual model ships created for Lucas in 1975.  Cantwell, who we discussed here at borg back in 2017, has only in the past few years entered the pop culture convention circuit.  For thirty years Cantwell left the movie design business, working at a computer engineering firm in Colorado.  Now 87, Cantwell has embraced fans of his early work, traveling the country, signing prints of his original Star Wars concept art from 1974-75.

At the same time noted artist Ralph McQuarrie was designing characters and environments in his concept art for Lucas, Cantwell designed the first concept artwork for the X-Wing and Y-Wing Fighters, the TIE Fighter, Star Destroyer, Death Star, T-16 Skyhopper, and the original Millennium Falcon, which was rejected and repurposed as Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV Blockade Runner–the first ship seen in the film.  He designed two other ships that were not used in the film, his Landspeeder and Sandcrawler.  Cantwell has been selling prints of his concept art for the past two years, but this month he began to release images on his Facebook page and website of the actual, original models he made–based on his own designs–that he presented to Lucas in 1975.  He’s selling autographed prints of these images now on his website here.

His models were “kitbashed”–he used existing plastic model kit parts and re-purposed them to make a real-world feel for his ships (and without the time, effort, and cost required for molding his own parts).  Industrial Light and Magic would use this concept to create the Star Wars aesthetic, and set decorator Roger Christian used the idea with real world tech to make the future look lived-in, earning an Oscar for doing so (Lucas offered Cantwell the opportunity to create and lead ILM, but he declined).  Cantwell used the body of a dragster kit, painted pill bottles, plastic Easter eggs, and a WWII bomber turret among other model kit parts.

Cantwell’s original designs were substantially used for the final production models, but Cantwell’s actual T-16 Skyhopper model was used by Mark Hamill as Luke’s own ship model in an early Tatooine scene.  Most recently, Cantwell was recognized by Disney and Hot Wheels with a series of replicas, including his Millennium Falcon/Tantive IV, TIE Fighter, X-Wing Fighter, Star Destroyer, and the unused Landspeeder design.

Continue reading