Archive for December, 2019


Review by C.J. Bunce

A new cyborg, old heroes, a new fate, and another revised timeline.  It must be a new Terminator movie.  If you’re in the mood for science fiction nostalgia with a new twist this month, Terminator: Dark Fate is still in theaters and it’s one of those films meant for a big screen.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s also coming to all home video and streaming formats next month and is now available for pre-order here at Amazon.  Featuring the return of two of science fiction’s greatest movie icons, Arnold Schwarzenegger′s original cyborg Terminator and the woman who would save 3 billion lives, Linda Hamilton′s Sarah Connor, Terminator: Dark Fate is a worthy addition to one of sci-fi’s biggest and best franchises up there with Doctor Who, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Alien, Star Trek, and Predator.

It turns out skipping over the third (Terminator: Rise of the Machines), fourth (Terminator: Salvation), and fifth (Terminator: Genisys) movies didn’t really matter all that much.  Skynet kept sending Terminators back in time, and when a new hero sees another new hero in the future, you get the feeling the timeline has been visited and revisited many more times.  In many ways it’s ideal for a series–you’ll never really arrive at an ending.  When the timeline is revised again in a spectacular opening that de-ages Schwarzenegger and Hamilton (the best de-aging CGI on film this year), you just jump on and enjoy the ride.  We meet a new time traveler named Grace, played by Blade Runner 2049’s Mackenzie Davis, a tough, tall-statured cybernetic human who returns to the present to save a young Mexican woman named Dani (played by Natalia Reyes), who has a potentially important future.  Dani is pursued by yet another updated Terminator, an REV-9 model played by Gabriel Luna (Ghost Rider in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), who can split into two and reabsorb himself Robert Patrick/T2-style to and from a metalized slime state.

What makes a great entry in a Terminator movie, or for that matter, any movie?  That right combination of humor and action.  For me in these films it’s how they use Schwarzenegger′s strengths as an actor.  So the weakest film was where he was absent from acting (governing California)–during Terminator: Salvation–which was also the film with no humor, darker than the others, entirely set in the grim post-apocalypse future.  I prefer Arnold as the Terminator, since no matter who is writing for him he delivers the best lines–writers always seem to know exactly how to get the best from him.  So long as Arnold is around, we’ll have a Terminator franchise, and after that, who cares about the series anymore?  Deadpool director Tim Miller combining with producer James Cameron to bring these actors and characters back together in Terminator: Dark Fate was always going to be a great idea.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

At one level The Aeronauts is a welcome reminder of how much humans take the science and technological achievements of their forbearers for granted.  It is a harrowing adventure, heart-pounding like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (the story of a climb to the top of Mount Everest), and will leave you feeling like you, too, have spent a few hours dangling from the top of a temporarily frozen gas balloon on a record-breaking flight in 1862.  And the Mount Everest comparison is no joke, as the balloonists soon realized what happens to the body on a climb that high was happening to them, including the addled brain from hypoxia.  Of course this flight was 91 years before Edmund Hillary made his record-breaking ascent at 29,029 feet, about 6,000 feet lower than the real-life flight documented in The Aeronauts, so everything they learned on their balloon flight was new.

The real-life scientist James Glaisher is played by Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and the balloon pilot–a fictional composite named Amelia Rennes–is played by Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)–reuniting both Oscar-nominated stars of the historical, scientist biopic The Theory of Everything (which earned Redmayne his first Oscar).  Glaisher seeks to prove that the study of weather can result in the possible prediction of weather and seeks the expert aeronaut Rennes to partner with him so he can prove his theories to the doubting aristocrats of London.  To do that he needed to get higher into the sky than ever before.  Rennes’s role was based on actual aeronaut balloonists Henry Coxwell and Margaret Graham, with even more elements based on Sophie Blanchard, who was the first woman to work as a professional balloonist, and, like Jones’s character, became famous as aeronaut following her husband’s death.

The Aeronauts is based on the death-defying feats of aeronauts in Richard Holmes’ 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.  Since the real flight itself lasted less than two hours aloft, the film is a great character study and closed room story, with an undeniable friendly, non-romantic chemistry between the two leads.  But it’s Jones’s circus-esque, Flying Wallendas-like showmanship and stunts that will make you want to come right back and watch it again.  Inspiring, soaring, and adventurous, it’s the kind of film you’ll want to show kids to get them excited about being all they can be.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Despite living in an international economy with the ability to communicate via portable devices with literally anyone on the planet, it’s a shame that the exchange of culture between the Western world and China is still stuck in the 20th century.  We only just saw an English translation of one of the best, most widely read, epic fantasy novels from China this year with the release of A Hero Born (reviewed here at borg), only the first book in author Jin Yong’s 1950s wuxia novel series.  The books have been adapted and interpreted over the past 70 years into dozens of films, TV series, and spin-offs.  But until recently they have only been available in China, or for those outside of China who have taken efforts to seek them out.  A Hero Born is only the first of twelve novels in the saga The Legend of the Condor Heroes Even without global circulation the series has influenced countless other stories, including so many elements of George Lucas’s Star Wars saga audiences will lose track of all the common elements.  If you think Lucas based his story only on the works of Akira Kurosawa’s films from Japan, think again–there’s as much Condor Heroes in Star Wars’s galaxy as Hidden Fortress. 

The most recent adaptation of the The Legend of the Condor Heroes story can be found in a 2017 series, starring well-known actors in China.  It’s only available if you’re willing to pick up an international DVD player, or you track it down on YouTube (both available in subtitled English editions).  But if you watch it–a whopping 52 incredible hour-long format episodes, you’re in store for one of the finest, most exciting genre series you’ve ever seen.  The quality of the production, the incredible martial arts work and visual effects, and top quality acting is prompting us to add this series to our own “Best of 2019” review coming later this month.  Sure, it’s two years since it came out in China, but there is no U.S. distribution channel.  Ideally Netflix would pick it up as they did for this year’s Korean series, Kingdom.  Two pregnant women escape an early 13th century conflict as their husbands, sworn brothers in spirit, are killed.  Their sons grow up separately, unaware of each other.  Guo Jing is honest, loyal and righteous, but slow to learn socially, and more importantly in the ways of the martial arts.  The other, Yang Kang, is clever and suave, but scheming and treacherous. They eventually meet each other and their respective lovers, Huang Rong and Mu Nianci.

Directed by Jiang Jiajun (also known as Jeffrey Chiang), the series follows Guo Jing, raised as Song and living on a rural farm with his mother.  He soon saves a man, a warrior in conflict with a general who will rise to become history’s Genghis Khan, and in doing so he is trained in bow and arrow in Khan’s legion.  Soon he is also taken on by seven martial arts masters in the techniques of kung fu, but they train him for a reason he is not aware of.  They made a wager at the boy’s birth with another martial arts master, a man who agreed to train the other boy, Yang Kang.  On the boys’ 18th birthday they are to meet at a restaurant where they will compete–the winner will determine who wins:  Jing’s seven masters or Kang’s master.  Unfortunately, Jing is awkward at basic moves including skywalking, while the other boy takes to kung fu very well.  But circumstances favor Jing, and others come along to fill in the blanks so that he can make a good showing when he turns 18, form a bond with friend and lover Rong, and go on to meet the Five Greats and compete in a mountain contest at the highest level.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Nothing taken away from the work of actor Joseph Fiennes in the romance-comedy Shakespeare in Love, but in the 2019 biopic All is True, it’s hard to imagine any actor as perfectly cast as William Shakespeare himself than Sir Kenneth Branagh.  In one conversation between Branagh’s Shakespeare and Sir Ian McKellen′s Earl of Southampton, the quiet beauty of language and craft they convey will make you think no two people were better suited to their art.  Taking a cue from the subtitle of Shakespeare’s final play, Henry VIII–the play being performed when Shakespeare’s Globe Theater caught fire (pro tip: don’t put stage cannons in your scripts)–All is True takes Shakespeare from there to his death, as he quits writing and returns to his home, his wife, and their two daughters to retire.

Ghosts of his past catch up with Shakespeare, as the rural village of his birth does not forget the scandals of his family’s past and present, silly things today that meant everything to English society in 1613.  One of those ghosts is that of his son, Hamnet, the twin of his younger daughter, who died in real life of unknown causes at eleven, and which is expanded upon for dramatic sake in this story by writer/comedian Ben Elton (Much Ado About Nothing).  Elton’s script smartly stitches together what history knows about Shakespeare and his family after his plays and what is probable or at least possible, providing a faithful, glorious look at what someone who knew his own legacy in his own time might have done next.  Branagh reflects the kind of ego that must have been behind the man.  Shakespeare neglected his family for years, and his youngest daughter, played by Kathryn Wilder (Ready Player One), lets him know it.

Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, 18 years his senior in real life, is played as impeccably as audiences would expect from Dame Judi Dench, and although 26 years his senior in real life it all works seamlessly.  Branagh is hardly recognizable at first, until his undeniable voice takes over, thanks to a prosthetic nose that never leaves any doubt that Branagh conjured the ghost of Shakespeare for this performance.  Equal to the performance is the year’s best cinematography by Zac Nicholson (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society), who frames every scene as if it were an adaptation of an original oil painting by Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt van Rijn.  His use of light–especially his scenes shot by candlelight to mimic chiaroscuro–is magical.

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The second trailer for a sequel to a 1980s action film, two animated shows, and two films about courageous dogs make today’s installment of Trailer Park.  We saw our first trailer previewed earlier here for Tom Cruise′s return to the skies in Top Gun: Maverick.  Now we have the next preview, with co-star Jennifer Connelly.  The Fast & Furious franchise is expanding to the small screen with a new kids’ show, Fast & Furious: Spy Racers, featuring the fast driving young cousin of Vin Diesel’s character in the movies.  Another animated movie brings a modern comic book tale to the screen, Superman: Red Son, an alternate history version of Superman where baby Superman landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas.  It features the voices of Harry Potter’s Jason Isaacs as Superman, The Drew Carey Show’s Diedrich Bader as Lex Luthor, Grimm’s Sasha Roiz as Hal Jordan, and Oscar and Grammy-winning pop star Paul Williams as Brainiac.

Two CGI movies are bringing tales of loyal canines to the screen.  Call of the Wild is a remake of the 1935 film based on Jack London’s 1903 novel.  It stars Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, and Karen Gillan.  And based on a true story, Togo stars a dog named Diesel and stunt doubles from The Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours, Inc., with Willem Dafoe, telling the tale of the dog that had the toughest leg of the journey to get medicine to Nome, Alaska, in 1925, before handing the package off to the more well-known dog Balto and his team.

  

Check out these trailers:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and director Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon) are going to surprise a lot of people this December.  Their new film, a direct-to-Netflix, big-budget action spectacle called 6 Underground, is the kind of movie that belongs on the big screen leading the box office rankings.  It has big, over-the-top, expensive action sequences that leave last year’s seemingly impossible to beat Mission: Impossible–Fallout, in its wake.  It also stuffs about two movies into one: giving the audience a slight breather between action sequences, its edits are sharp and quick, so much so it offers one of those strobe warnings upfront, with an amazing new weapon we haven’t yet seen anywhere that it keeps for its third act.  If you loved the team of crooks in Baby Driver, the good guys seeking revenge of The Italian Job, and the speed of The Fate of the Furious, get ready for the next watchalike.  It’s Leverage on steroids.  It’s the best direct-to-Netflix movie yet–and a whole lotta fun.

Reynolds is a billionaire genius fed up with not being able to do good with his money by following the rules.  He fakes his death and recruits and tries to maintain an international band of six “ghosts” who have complementary mad skills and are willing to leave their lives (including names) behind to change the world.  This includes an incredible driver played by Dave Franco (Now You See Me), a badass ex-CIA spook played by French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), a hitman played by Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (The Magnificent Seven), a doctor played by Puerto Rican actress Adria Arjona (True Detective), and a parkour whiz played by Brit actor Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody, X-Men: Apocalypse).  When one of the team dies in a messy job, Reynolds’ character, known only as One, recruits an ex-marine sharpshooter played by Corey Hawkins.  And the movie gets bigger and better.

Although the opening 20-minute action scene will be talked about for years, it’s Hawkins arriving new to the team as Seven where the story takes off.  He was willing to leave the military service behind because he was held back–he tried to save his fellow soldiers in an attack but was ordered not to–but with this new team he finally has the freedom to do all he can for the greater good, all under his own terms.  Reynolds as Reynolds–the same snarky, smartass character he played in Deadpool and Life and R.I.P.D. and Green Lantern is here, and he makes it work yet again, thanks to funny banter and a team of actors and characters with chemistry.  He carries the leading action man role that would normally be taken by Jason Statham and twists it a bit, not doing all those kicks and physical feats, but getting in the middle of the action and staying there with all the other stunt-heavy moves going on around him (not that he doesn’t get to play in the punches, too).  If that weren’t enough, 6 Underground also has amazing international settings and gorgeous, James Bond universe-type cinematography thanks to photography by Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, Snake Eyes).

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Review by C.J. Bunce

A blend of Spectre, Mission: Impossible, and Zootopia is coming your way this Christmas, and it has the look, humor, strong writing, and overall vibe of The Incredibles.  It’s director Nick Bruno and Troy Quane′s new animated film, Spies in DisguiseWant to see a U.S. version of James Bond?  How about Will Smith as James Bond?  Or a story focused on the character Q?  Like The Incredibles it has a great musical score, fast action, quick edits, lifelike CGI environments, and fun that will having you laughing out loud throughout the entire movie.  That and more is what you get with Spies in DisguiseIn his third film this year, Will Smith isn’t actually playing James Bond, but a familiar type of spy named Lance Sterling, who works in a U.S. spy facility in Washington, DC, located under the National Mall.  At the section that is the equivalent of the Bond world’s Q Branch is a host of scientists making the latest weaponry and safety equipment for Sterling and his peers.

Enter Spider-Man actor Tom Holland′s Walter Beckett, who has been an inventor of spy gadget toys since his youth, living with his mom who was a cop who later died on duty, and now he’s creating the real thing.  Only Walter’s gadgets don’t kill or hurt–they resolve conflicts in other ways.  Sterling learns this when he tries to set off a bomb when surrounded by 70 villains at a drug lord’s lair in Japan.  Instead of leaving everyone dead, it sets off Walter’s Kitty Glitter bomb–which allows Sterling to escape by temporarily disorienting the enemy with a glitter cloud and cute cat video.  This is a great family film with heart like you’d find in the Aardman’s holiday treasure Arthur Christmas, putting a stiff master spy with a young optimist very much like Arthur of the Christmas movie, borrowing that film’s theme, “being weird or different is cool.”

To defeat Sterling’s greatest foes–a cyborg with a high-tech arm named Killian voiced by Rogue One, Ready Player One, and Captain Marvel’s Ben Mendelsohn and the drug lord, Kimura, voiced by Heroes, Hawaii Five-O, and The Meg’s Masi Oka–Sterling needs the ultimate weapon.  Walter thinks he has that weapon almost perfected, but before he has a chance to explain it Sterling drinks down the formula for it.  As advertised in the trailer, it makes Sterling d-i-s-a-p-p-e-a-r, and in Walter’s view disappear means take on the form of a pigeon–yes, a pigeon–so the spy won’t be detected, because nobody pays attention to pigeons, right?  Every city has ’em.  And it only gets better from there.  Walter’s Q shop of tech ideas is nothing short of brilliant, funny, and even thought-provoking, including his all-protective Inflatable Hug.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As dramas about the current problems in the world are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than The Laundromat, one of the many direct-to-Netflix dramas premiering this year.  It’s full of genre favorite actors and the subject is that “ripped from the headlines” variety.  The film begins with a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary with a trip to Niagara Falls.  Unfortunately they do like many do on any vacation, they take local transportation.  Here that is a small commuter boat.  When a minor wave hits the side, the boat rocks and sinks.  The man, played by James Cromwell, dies, and his wife, played by Meryl Streep, lives.  We then meet the crooks of the story, two law partners in Panama played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, breaking the fourth wall to explain the rules of modern finance, and ultimately a step-by-step guide to international money laundering via the U.S. tax code.  The duo is perfect, dressed to the nines to reflect their wealth, courtesy of costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (Starship Troopers, The Chronicles of Riddick).  Like every villain in any story, these villains see themselves as the victims.  Director Steven Soderburgh then spins a story requiring some bizarre worldbuilding–in our own world–that recounts only a few of the many strange aspects of the real-life Panama Papers scandal, which ultimately took down all sorts of politicians and multi-millionaires.

Unlike any other good film about an actual historical event that follows the basic sequential framework, like, as an example, The Post, which also starred Meryl Streep, the value of this film is in its style and design and the way it tells the story.  It’s also an educational tool that explains the realities of “wealth management,” but it doesn’t do it in a bland way, incorporating the law partners like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but because of the actors’ charm, it’s handled much better than previous similar efforts, like, say, The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas.  As good as Soderburgh’s The Informant!, the style of his Ocean’s 11 series, and the gravity of his Erin Brockovich, this should be counted as a big film for 2019.  It’s funny when it needs to be, but its scope is real and grave, highlighting the fragility of life with not only the story it tells, but the precariousness of every player as they go to and fro in the film, all one slip from becoming Streep or Cromwell’s character at any point.

The Laundromat has an all-star cast of genre favorites, featuring great work from the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Rosalind Cho, David Schwimmer, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Sharon Stone.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

From Hong Kong to the U.S. and Australia to Uganda, Australian director Serge Ou and writer Grady Hendrix track the scope of the Hong Kong kung fu movie industry and its pop culture influence on the world in the documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, now streaming this month on Netflix.  Splicing interviews with kung fu legends of the past with new discussions with martial artists and actors influenced by them, Ou offers up a surprisingly rich look at how and why kung fu movies gained an international following that continues to this day via Jackie Chan comedies, the Matrix movies (with a sequel due in theaters next year), and new television series like Wu Assassins and Iron Fist. 

Beneath what is in essence an overview of the genre is a smart mixture of social and cultural commentary on a global phenomenon centered on an artform mixing athleticism, dance, and grace.  Kung fu made its way to American audiences with Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, and into millions of homes via the Kung Fu series.  This was paralleled by Bruce Lee movies and lesser films (they call them Bruce-sploitation) from China and U.S. studios, direct-to-video crotch-kicking and “squirrel-grabbing” action on VHS tapes in video stores, heroines leading the way as a sub-genre, eventually moving to black and inner city audiences embracing the culture, starting with martial artist and actor Jim Kelly (who co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon), re-emerging later as an influence on hip hop music.  The genre got even bigger boosts with Jackie Chan heavy-stunt comedies, followed by The Matrix and the Academy Awards arrival of the genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Chinese co-productions with other nations, and actors of Chinese background in the mainstream outside of Asia would eventually come along.

Viewers meet (or revisit) early kung fu icons Cheng Pei-Pei and Sammo Hung in new interviews, along with Billy Banks, who would turn the genre into his own fortune via the creation of the Tae Bo workout, early American female kung fu star Cynthia Rothrock, martial artist Richard Norton, plus from the 21st century shows, Iron Fist actor Jessica Henwick, Wu Assassins actor JuJu Chan, Doctor Strange actor Scott Adkins, and Marvel stuntwoman and choreographer Amy Johnston, among others.  It’s all interspersed with great action sequences and other clips from more than 100 films.  A theme underscoring much of kung fu movie history is a distinct lack of safety standards, with more than one participant in the documentary stressing that Hong Kong kung fu movies couldn’t be made anywhere else for that reason.

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We’re three episodes into the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, sixth of the now annual efforts to get interest from the audience of Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Batwoman, or Black Lightning in more than just one of their several adaptions of DC Comics.  The Crisis crossover has so far aired during Supergirl, Batwoman, and The Flash, and is now streaming on the CW app, continuing January 14 with episodes on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.  If you’re able to not be critical of all its flaws, you may be able to sit back and have fun with all the cameos and guest stars.  But the clunky writing and even clunkier dialogue may also leave you thinking about what could be–what could be done with the DC characters if only someone would put forth some extra effort.  Nobody expects TV series to produce the results you get with a movie budget, yet so far CW’s series have been more faithful to the spirit of the comic book source material than DC at the theaters (this year’s movie Shazam! as the welcome exception).  With all the money going into so many related series, why not cut a few of the series and combine efforts to focus more on compelling combined team scripts?  The actors are great, a cut above the material they’re working from, and it’s difficult to watch the crossover event and not wish executive producer Marc Guggenheim & Co. would give the actors something more.

Sure, it’s tough to cram so many characters into so few minutes.  But you also don’t want your fans making excuses for you.  We like fan service, a term host Kevin Smith uses a few times in his after show to describe this crossover, but how about that extra push to boost the quality?  That said, there is something for every taste in the Crisis crossover, and if you’re willing to sit back and let it all come at you, you’re going to find some great efforts to pull at your nostalgia strings.  Everyone involved, especially as they discuss their efforts in the after show, seem to love the material.  The overall big wins include John Wesley Shipp, who still holds the title for all-time best superhero adaptation, returning again for some scenes as the Flash from his 1990-91 series, Brandon Routh playing both his regular series character The Atom and donning the cape again he wore as the big-screen Superman in Superman Returns, and Matt Ryan, who couldn’t be more dead-on from the comics in his performance, reprising his role as John Constantine (more Justice League Dark, please!).

In part, the CW is stuck because of deals and studios, which (sort of) explains no Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, (yet two Supermans?) or big-screen Batman actor–although voice actor Kevin Conroy has a legion of fans who are probably more than happy to see him take a turn as a Kingdom Come-inspired Bruce Wayne.  Having a voice actor who doesn’t look like any comic version of Batman is just something you have to go with here–maybe close your eyes and imagine him in the animated Batman series.

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