Archive for March, 2020


Review by C.J. Bunce

How many sci-fi and outer space tropes can you pack into one hour of TV?  You’ll find out in the first episode of Syfy’s new space fantasy series Vagrant Queen It’s like Firefly and The Fifth Element as if they were directed by Sam Raimi.  Star Wars elements meet Doctor Who aliens with effects that feel a lot like The Last Starfighter.  And humor that’s a cross of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Or maybe it’s just sci-fi created by Canadians.  Whatever it is you’ll be all-in with the crew of the spaceship Winnipeg as it takes off into adventures in some galaxy out there that is… not ours.

Adriyan Rae (Atlanta) plays the scavenger Elida, a mix of Marvel’s Valkyrie and Rey from Star Wars, who stealthily has masked her former persona as Queen Eldaya, being pursued by the dreaded Republic, led by Commander Lazaro, played by Paul du Toit (remember Gary Oldman’s Zorg in The Fifth Element? He’s like that guy).  Tom Rozon (Lost Girl, Wynonna Earp) is Isaac, a frenemy from Elida’s past (part Han Solo or Jack Harkness or Lone Starr from Spaceballs or Bruce Campbell in… anything).  They come together with a Kaylee-inspired ship mechanic named Amae, played by Alex McGregor, to save a space station’s bartender, get a ship back, and rescue the queen.  And that’s just the first episode.

It’s light-hearted, campy fun a la Xena: Warrior Princess featuring a group of actors who seem to be competing to see who has the most fun.  It’s a little bit… everything… that you enjoy about space travel, with a cool lead like Killjoys and alien makeups reminiscent of Farscape.  Goofy banter and situations, you’ll find yourself calling out the inspiration from nearly every scene, beginning with an opening rif on The Mandalorian.  This is the escapism you’re looking for right now.

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Omnibus 2

If you have a houseful of kids and both spouses at home, all for the first time for longer than a school break, it may start getting… close… soon, especially if you’ve exhausted your collection of games, and finished cleaning out your garage and basement for the second time.  If that’s the case, or you’re just looking for some good reads, Titan Books has just the thing, three new, big books that are sure to keep at least a few of you entertained for the coming weeks.  The theme is Marvel Comics superheroes, but they aren’t comics.  They are part of Titan Books’ ongoing series of paperback novels delving deep into your favorite superhero characters.  Each volume, called an omnibus edition, is a hefty volume featuring three novels by a frequent Marvel writer.

Choose from Diane Duane’s Spider-Man: The Venom Factor Omnibus, including the novels The Venom Factor, The Lizard Sanction, and The Octopus Agenda, Christopher Golden’s X-Men: Mutant Empire Omnibus, featuring novels Siege, Sanctuary, and Salvation, and Greg Cox’s The X-Men and The Avengers: Gamma Quest Omnibus, with novels Lost and Found, Search and Rescue, and Friend or Foe? 

Diane Duane’s 656-page Spider-Man: The Venom Factor Omnibus is the ultimate look at the life of Spider-Man.  For Peter Parker, it’s one counter after another with three major Spidey characters.  Each novel confronts a key adversary, Venom, then the Lizard, then Doctor Octopus.  But these aren’t the only familiar faces readers will encounter.  And it’s not called The Venom Factor for nothing–look for Venom in a key role throughout these three novels.

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Die Hard board game

Looking for your next game to keep you family occupied this spring?  Gamemaker Usaopoly has a recently released board game for fans of Bruce Willis’s John McClane and the Die Hard franchise.  It’s the Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game.  While you’re sheltering at home (you’re doing that, right?) you can order the game from two good sources we found: Amazon here and Entertainment Earth here.  Bookmark this link to Entertainment Earth for future reference, because as Amazon reprioritizes shipments, it may be the quickest shipping method for the coming months for all your game and toy purchases.

The Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game is a one-versus-one, two, or three players game of stealth, combat, and action-tactics, following the story of the original Die Hard film.  The game has several components and plays out with cards and tokens in a sequence of three acts.  One player is John McClane and the rest play thieves, moving through Nakatomi Plaza, while the thieves try to stop him and break into the vault.  Thieves proceed to break six locks to get to the seventh level, when the FBI breaks in.  McClane must complete objectives to get to each new level.

Die Hard cards   Die Hard tokens

Players have shoot and punch attack actions, and McClane sneaks around the board–yep, walking through glass.  Thieves get “line of sight” to draw blood (not “first” blood, that’s a different movie).  Thieves get reinforcements, and McClane can get radio support.  The game ends when McClane dies, the thieves break into the vault, or McClane kills Hans Gruber.

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PatrickPicard

Patrick Stewart is back again to save the day, and he’s doing it in two ways.  As Sir Patrick Stewart, he has begun reading sonnets and sharing his readings online.  And as one of our favorite Captains, Jean-Luc Picard, he’s sharing news of the ability for anyone to stream the first season of his new series Star Trek: Picard on the CBS All Access streaming service–free.

As most know, the master thespian was an actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company before appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation and as Charles Xavier in the Marvel X-Men franchise films, including one of his landmark performances in James Mangold’s 2017 Oscar-nominated film, Logan.  On his social media (see his Instagram page here) Sir Pat has begun reciting a sonnet a day, in the hopes that “a sonnet a day keeps the doctor away.”  He has so far read Shakespeare sonnets 116, 1, and 2.

Patrick Stewart

And Tuesday he announced more good news for his Star Trek fans: “Our #StarTrekPicard season finale is Thursday, and starting today until 4/23, you can watch for free on @CBSAllAccess in the US with the code: GIFT.”  All you need to do is sign up for the streaming service and use the code GIFT.  Check out the CBS All Access website for full details.

Star Trek: Picard takes place twenty years after the events in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis, which resulted in the death of Brent Spiner’s character Data, and also after the events of Star Trek (2009), which resulted in the destruction of the planet Romulus.

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Nora from Queens pic 2

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you need something to laugh at–and who doesn’t?–a quick fix can be found with Comedy Central’s new series Nora from Queens (full title Awkwafina is Nora from Queens), the latest of that niche New York neighborhood local comedy show.  The series was produced by Comedy Central, but airs across several cable channels, including MTV2, which is airing all ten episodes beginning this afternoon.  The series of half-hour episodes is a semi-autobiographical look at Awkwafina, stage name of rapper/actor Nora Lum, who switches up her name slightly to Nora Lin for the series.  Viewers will find a lot of truth with Nora, whose real-life persona won a Golden Globe best actress for The Farewell, and she’s had breakout roles in Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and Jumanji: The Next Level.  Just don’t let the kids in the room–Awkwafina’s humor is over-the-top, all-out vulgar at times, and right there with Sarah Silverman’s stand-up comedy, even evoking some Cheech and Chong ghosts of comedy past.

As with the real Nora, Nora in the series was born of a Korean American mother (who died when Nora was young) and Chinese American father, and raised by her father and grandmother.  Here BF Wong (Jurassic Park, Mr. Robot, Awake, Gotham) plays her amiable dad, a single father whose own mother lives with him and Nora (creating the core of the humor).  Looking for a girlfriend, he sets his sights on a woman he meets at a single parent support group, played by Jennifer Esposito (Spin City, The Boys).  Nora is frequently entwined in chaos with her nerdy but somehow more successful cousin, played by Bowen Yang (Saturday Night Live), who proclaims 2020 as “Year of the Ass.”  He couldn’t be more on point.

Nora from Queens pic 1

But the best of the series is Nora’s sweet, mouthy, and feisty grandma, played by Lori Tan Chinn (Roseanne, Spin City, Orange is the New Black).  Chinn has all the range, and gets the best writing and dialogue in the show, crude and endearing at the same time, like Ruth Gordon in Every Which Way But Loose.  Grandma goes to the casino, but not to gamble, instead to watch Korean dramas with her friends.  She picks fights with Korean Americans, is a bit racist toward Italians, and a highlight of the series is a flashback episode centered on her meeting Nora’s grandfather, all produced as a melodramatic Korean drama.

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The Five cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard of Jack the Ripper.  I do remember being quite young when the sensationalizing and romanticizing of the serial killer started to bother me.  “What’s wrong with you?”  I would growl at the TV, comics, Halloween costumes, and centuries-spanning obsession about the murderer.  Where was the attention on his victims, on the real women who lost their lives?  No one seemed to care—in 1888, or now.  They existed only to fuel the fascination surrounding the murderer.  I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper while doing unrelated research for my Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries series.  I knew immediately I had to get my hands on this book.  Here, at last, was someone else who felt exactly as I did and set about to rectify the situation.  The premise alone makes the book worthwhile, and Rubenhold’s research and writing makes it a must-read.

Rubenhold’s The Five is long overdue, and definitely a welcome addition to the field of Victorian social history.  It’s a tough but fascinating read, handled with an equal mix of sympathy and outrage.  What this book is not:  It’s not true crime.  It’s not a whodunit.  It makes no fruitless speculation about the identity of the murderer, and it does not linger over the salacious details of the crimes.  It is a gripping story of characters who are every bit as fascinating, vivid, and richly drawn as their notorious killer is imagined to be.  And it is a stunning social history that spans the mid-late Victorian era and the life and times of working class women.  Rubenhold unearths known, previously unknown, and totally ignored details from each woman’s life, and skillfully fills in the gaps with information drawn from other historical records—what life was like for workhouse inmates, laws that targeted and disproportionately disadvantaged working-class women, contemporary commentary from social reformers, and more.

In five sections, arranged chronologically by the dates of their deaths, Rubenhold examines the family backgrounds, childhoods, young adulthoods, and last years of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and the woman who called herself Mary Jane Kelly.  She takes readers on a journey across England, overseas to Scandinavia, from the tinworks of Birmingham to the barracks of Queen Victoria’s guard, to ambitious charity schools and factories and homes, the open road of ballad-sellers, the terrifying spectre of white slavery, and the sad backstreets of London’s poorest neighborhoods.  In telling the stories of these five individual women, Rubenhold also tells the story of all Victorian women, exploring the ruthless social rules that crippled poor women and condemned them to a downward spiral of poverty and violence.  Rubenhold corrects nearly a century and a half of misconceptions and assumptions about these five women (spoiler alert: they weren’t all prostitutes), and restores the truth of their real lives.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Screenwriter Sarah Phelps (EastEnders, Dublin Murders) is back with her next project, another adaptation of a well-known Agatha Christie work, a year from release of her first Amazon Studios project, The ABC Murders (reviewed here at borg), which starred John Malkovich and Rupert Grint.  The new series is Christie’s creepy tale The Pale Horse, a supernatural mystery from 1961, directed by Leonora Lonsdale (Beast).  The series stars Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle, Zen, A Knight’s Tale) as Mark Easterbrook, a man of questionable character whose wife dies in the bathtub at the beginning of the story.  Remember his name, because it is included last on a list found in the shoe of another dead woman.  Why women are ending up dead found on the list, and why Easterbrook’s name was included, is the key mystery of this two-part series.

As Easterbrook is hounded by the local police led by Sean Pertwee (Gotham, Doctor Who) as Inspector Stanley Lejeune–who is investigating the string of deaths.  Easterbrook decides to investigate himself, to beat the inspector to the answer, which takes him to the small town of Much Deeping.  Much Deeping has an inn, an inn that is home to three witches, and he figures that somehow they are connected.  Easterbrook’s second wife, a key player in the story, is played by Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Maze Runner).  This is another Christie story of lies, and the lying liars that tell them, with the oddball, quirky twists we saw in both The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express.

Rounding out the cast are familiar genre faces Georgina Campbell (His Dark Materials, Krypton, Broadchurch, Black Mirror) as the first Mrs. Easterbrook and Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Sherlock, Doctor Who) as another man interviewed in relation to the deaths.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

One of the failings of many creators for kids is talking down to them.  If you treat children from the very beginning like adults, they will step up to the task and embrace acting like adults.  Kids know when adults are speaking down to them.  They also will be excited when you give them the straight dope.  So if you’re creating anything for an audience that includes kids, whether they are seven to seventeen, don’t hold too much back.  And that applies double for relationships–kids are smarter than you think and they listen to everything and absorb everything.  One of the best parts of Troop Zero is that you can’t tell if its a coming of age movie for adults or kids.  And that’s a great thing.

Troop Zero is a new Amazon Studios direct-to-streaming release, and a great movie to watch while sitting at home with your family this weekend.  We love coming of age movies (scroll through several we’ve discussed over the decade here at borg), and Troop Zero easily makes our top 20.  This is the more nostalgic, sweet, genuine brand of coming of age film (the best kind), part The Bad News Bears, part Paper Moon, and it’s obviously a little bit Moonrise Kingdom and maybe even enters Shirley Temple territory like in The Little Princess.  It also ties into one of our favorite NASA accomplishments, the Voyager space probes and golden records prepared by Carl Sagan with voices and music from Earth (also add the PBS documentary The Farthest–Voyager in Space to your must-watch list, reviewed here).

The movie stars the then-12-year-old actress McKenna Grace, who performs like someone with 20 years of experience.  This girl has done everything, from playing young Sabrina in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, to young Captain Marvel in last year’s hit film, young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, and she’s the star of the coming summer release (we hope), Ghostbusters: Afterlife.  Plus Independence Day: Resurgence, Ready Player One, and a regular on The Haunting of Hill House (the list goes on!).  In Troop Zero she plays Christmas Flint, a girl with that same awkward but adorable appeal as Tatum O’Neal in her Oscar-winning performance in Paper Moon.  Christmas has the reputation at school for still wetting the bed, she wears red galoshes so no one notices one leg is longer than the other, and no matter how much bad is thrown at her she responds with this incredible positivity.  She also loves space, and thinks her dead mother is looking back at her from the stars.  When she learns a member of NASA is in town to select a girl to voice the greeting on the Voyager space record, she assembles a ragtag team of girls (and one boy) to join the local scouts, and earn the minimum merit badge each to qualify to go to Jamboree where the troop with the best performance routine will have their voices recorded.

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A new sci-fi television series is coming your way next week with a similar vibe as Killjoys and Farscape.  It’s an adaptation of a comic book series, but don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it.  Like many TV series adapting comic book stories of late, the production was practically overlapping with its release.  The series is called Vagrant Queen and it hails from one of the smaller publishers, Vault Comics.  The comic was written by Magdelene Visaggio and illustrated by Jason Smith, and the TV series is written by showrunner Jem Garrard (Killer High), Mariko Tamaki (X-23, Tomb Raider, Lumberjanes) and Mika Collins (Travelers).

Adriyan Rae (Atlanta) plays the series lead Elida, with Alex McGregor (Blood Drive) as Amae, and Paul du Toit (Maze Runner, Tremors) as Commander Lazaro.  Fans of Wynonna Earp, Lost Girl, and Being Human fans will be happy to hear Tim Rozon is the series co-star, playing Elida’s old frenemy, Isaac.

The series promises cannibalistic aliens, dangerous planets, shootouts, karaoke, and parking tickets.  Order Vagrant Queen–the graphic novel–now from Elite Comics (it’s also available at Amazon here).  And check out this preview of Syfy’s Vagrant Queen:

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SA

Strange Adventures is a 12-issue limited series, resurrecting the title of a famous 1950s series, with that familiar DC superhero vibe you’ve seen in series like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s successful All-Star Superman.  Tom King (Batman) is writing the story, and the first issue of the series is available this month at your favorite comic book store.  Much like the CW series Arrow, the series featuring DC Comics space fantasy hero Adam Strange tells its story in staggered flashbacks.  And it has the distinct vibe of the limited series Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer–good comic book fantasy fun with a serious edge.  Many comic book stores and other bookstores remain open, many with call-ahead and drive-up options, and Strange Adventures is one you may want to add to your own comic shop pull list.

Inspired by Flash Gordon and a progenitor of Rocketeer, Adam Strange is a classic, iconic character from the end of the Golden Age of comics, created by Julie Schwartz and Murphy Anderson, with the great Gardner Fox–master adapter of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard characters, writing early stories, among others.  It’s space fantasy, more than science fiction–think Guardians of the Galaxy–and in the premiere issue of the new series Strange is a national hero, living with his wife on Earth, recounting images from his war-torn past.

Strange Adventures 1 cover a  Strange Adventures 1 cover b

Strange Adventures even has a similar artistic style as All-Star Superman, courtesy of alternating artists Mitch Gerads and Evan Shaner–you may not notice the difference since they use the same color palette–but one style is a bit more painterly than the other.  That’s Gerads, whose present day world is visually stunning like Mike Grell’s run on Green Arrow in the 1990s.  In images of the past, Shaner seems to aiming at more of a Tomorrowland or Darwyn Cooke look at the character.  Both shuffled together actually work.  Each artist will provide a cover option for every issue of the series.

Here is a look inside the first issue:

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