Category: Con Culture


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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Review by C.J. Bunce

Like most things about baseball, The Battered Bastards of Baseball reflects as much about an era of American culture, economics, and politics as it tells a wonderfully engrossing story about a brief history of the sport.   Independent baseball–privately-owned teams unaffiliated with the Major League Baseball conglomerate–was a thing of the past when Portland, Oregon’s minor league baseball team the Portland Beavers left town.  It was the early 1970s and Portlanders weren’t spending their time or money on minor league games.  Then enters the well-known TV actor Bing Russell, stepping off his last of 14 seasons on Bonanza where he played a deputy sheriff.  Russell appeared in everything back then, from Westerns from Wagon Train to Rawhide, and modern fare like The Munsters, The Rockford Files, and The Twilight Zone.  There begins an underdog story, a mix of The Bad News Bears, Necessary Roughness, and Moneyball.

If you’re lucky enough to trip into the Netflix documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, you’ll wonder where this story is headed.  It’s a brief history of 1970s Portland and national baseball, and then actor/movie star Kurt Russell and his mother Louise Russell begin discussing his father in a typical documentary format.  It turns out father Bing had a life-long affinity for the game, even being part of a significant piece of baseball history as mascot for the New York Yankees, befriending Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, and Lou Gehrig, who gave Bing the bat he used in his last game before retiring.  That love for the game apparently never left Bing, who concocted an idea to bring baseball right back to Portland by taking the entrepreneurial route–forming a pure upstart baseball team to play minor league ball.  Resurrecting the independent team model he would hold an open tryout for the new Portland Mavericks–if you build it they will come.  And they did.  Players rejected from the big leagues, some retired, many with paunches, and pre-movie star Kurt on the team, too, some players older than most teams would favor, and a bunch of hairy-faced guys decades before it became the “in” thing–all would come together to form a motley band of brothers that would earn a crack at the pennant.  With a 30-man roster, and Bing’s personal brand of fun, fans packed the stadium again, the team setting a record for the highest attendance in minor league history, blazing the trail in other ways, naming the first woman general manager in baseball, Lanny Moss.  But like all good things it seems, a villain would enter the picture to wreck it all.

The real deal: Kurt Russell playing in the Minor Leagues with the Portland Mavericks.

With that nostalgic, cheery vibe of Ivan Reitman’s 1970s movie Meatballs or a dialed-back Slap Shot, Bing’s grandsons Chapman Way and Maclain Way splice together both baseball, Hollywood, and Portland nostalgia to assemble a completely engaging, crowd-pleasing story of underdogs and misfits and the pied piper who led them.  If you remember that every baseball stadium in 1970s America–and every grade school–had kids chomping on Big League Chew–you’ll learn that connection to the Mavericks, too.

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We watched them get the band back together the first time with Muppet Guys Talking, a fun documentary we discussed two years ago here at borg.  Now not even sheltering at home will hold back the fun-loving Muppet Guys, who are returning once again to share some more about Muppet creator Jim Henson, and the incredible creative process and their experience as Muppet performers, all while earning some money for front-line COVID-19 workers.  Part in honor of Jim Henson, who passed away 30 years ago, and part reason to get some of our favorite people back together virtually, it’s all happening this Saturday, and everyone is invited.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If you’ve been watching Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up Series from its first installments, you know each new chapter in the real-life time travel journey makes the viewer feel like he or she has also reached some kind of achievement with the arrival of the new episode.  But the series of documentaries is not for the faint-hearted, filled with gut-wrenching views into participants’ lives, participants who feel like family after watching them over 56 years since their first appearance.  So compelling and personal is Apted’s look at this select group of fourteen English boys and girls turned men and women, revisiting them every seven years of their lives since 1964, the documentary series is practically an interactive experience.  With Apted passing away since the UK premiere last year, and the U.S. arrival of the latest installment–the eagerly awaited 63 Up arriving on BritBox via Amazon Prime this weekend–the question is whether this ninth installment is the last.  Key members of the crew since 28 Up have expressed an interest in continuing the series in 2027, but until then expect this to be a bittersweet end for the series, which Roger Ebert called the noblest project in cinema history and among the ten best films ever made.

At last Apted addresses the thesis of the show to each participant, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and asks whether they agree after decades participating in this unique social experiment.  Apted was a researcher when working on director Paul Almond’s Seven Up! in 1964.  Seven years later the well-known director of Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorky Park, was just out of university, and at 22 he revisited the original Seven Up! project.  He would go on to direct the subsequent eight episodes over 56 years.  The idea was to get a glimpse of England in the future year 2000 when these kids, the future leaders of England, were only seven years old.  It is difficult to surpass the jolts and surprises of 42 Up, but 63 Up holds its own, although sadly viewers will say goodbye to one participant who has died, another is seriously ill, and another decided not to participate.

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Shang Chi pics

We got our first peek at Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings here at borg this past April.  The new, full-length trailer reveals a plot that has the feel of Wu Assassins, and only a few days since the Snake Eyes trailers, with Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters and on video, and a new Kung Fu series airing on TV, audiences are getting new opportunities to watch AAPI actors shine.  While you’re in the vibe, don’t miss the live-action Mulan, the historical horror zombie series Kingdom, the action movie The Night Comes for Us, the fantasy wuxia series Legend of the Condor Heroes, the animated movie Over the Moon, the supernatural graphic novel Ghost Tree and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, the overview of martial arts in the movies in Iron Fists and King Fu Kicks, and the Bruce Lee documentary Be Water Long-time comics readers will know Shang-Chi as the Master of Kung Fu from the pages of 1970s Marvel Comics by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Originally the son of Fu Manchu, the character was an attempt by Marvel to create a monthly like the Kung Fu TV series after they failed in their bid to get the adaptation rights.

Check out the new trailer below for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Video game dabblers and players turn into game company entrepreneurs in Netflix’s latest retro fix, High Score, a documentary in the vein of shows like VH1’s Behind the Music and The Toys That Made Us.  Pioneer designers and creators like Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado, Nintendo’s Hirokazu Tanaka, and Atari’s Nolan Bushnell piece together a brief history of video games with an emphasis on home play in this new six-episode, limited series now streaming on Netflix.  The series goes through the development and rise of games moving from upright consoles to the television set, with Mystery House, Space Invaders, Star Fox, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Madden Football, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Doom rising to the top as the touchstones of this modern corner of history.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Twenty years ago the last episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered, and for its anniversary a crowdfunding project funded a feature-length retrospective on the series.  Deep Space Nine: What We Left Behind will be familiar to any fan of Deep Space Nine who has delved into the special features found in the DVD sets or online via YouTube.  It’s full of those reminiscences, albeit updated, diehard fans have viewed countless times in interviews with cast and crew and via panels at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas.  But the unique feature for this new documentary is a reunion of writers from the series who sit down and block out what a possible next episode of the series might include.

Deep Space Nine showrunner and executive producer Ira Steven Behr leads the documentary, hitting the high points of his seven years creating Deep Space Nine, intercutting new and old interviews with key and supporting cast members, a few members of the production staff, co-creator Rick Berman and the man representing the business side of production, Kerry McCluggage, former chairman of Paramount Television Group.  Deep Space Nine: What We Left Behind does not look closely at the production from a design, costumes, props, music, or technical standpoint, but is almost exclusively focused on the writers and actors, and why the crew thinks its show was different from competing programs in the 1990s (although some art production familiar faces including Herman Zimmerman, Michael and Denise Okuda, and Doug Drexler make brief appearances).

The writers room reunion of Behr, Ronald D. Moore, René Echevarria, Hans Beimler, and Robert Hewitt Wolfe talking through a spec script idea for a new 20th anniversary reunion episode is a great guide for anyone wanting a glimpse at the process of developing a television show.  Backed by a cartoon art/Ken Burns-esque multimedia mock-up of characters and sets by artists Magdalena Marinova, Kai De Mello-Folsom, and Luke Snailham, it’s a better presentation format than watching more talking heads.  The result feels quite like a Brannon Braga or Ronald D. Moore series finale episode (see Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “All Good Things…” and Star Trek Voyager’s “Endgame”), complete with a time jump and appearances by grown-up regular players, in this case Jake Sisko and Molly O’Brien.  Vedek Kira?  Captain Nog?  With some make-up and new costumes, the writers’ episode creation would have actually made a fine final episode to the series, providing some resolution to the fate of Avery Brooks′ Captain Sisko.

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tcm summer movie cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re just a little over the midway point of Summer 2021, so there’s plenty of time to squeeze the pulp out of the sun and fun.  Summer means movies, often big movies, and Turner Classic Movies’ latest in-depth research into the best of classic and genre films continues in the new book, TCM’s Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics available now here at Amazon.  Think about it–What would you recommend for the 30 best summer movies of all time?  Writer John Malahy makes his selections, and pulls in an additional 30 movies as suggested “double features,” meaning you have 60 key suggestions that will either re-affirm your own picks, or more likely, provide at least a few new films you may want to try out.  Over the past decade I have reviewed most of the books from publisher Running Press’s chronicle from the TCM library, and this latest is on the heels of TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter and its sequel (reviewed here and here least year).  Today I’m reviewing and previewing the new volume in what has become a major film library for the film historian.  You may quibble with some of the picks, but I bet you’ll find at least 20 movies that make your own list of movies or at least help get you in the spirit of summer.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Both Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) tried it, but didn’t complete it in time.  Professional comic book writers and artists and especially the combination writer/artist most likely have all heard of the 24-hour comic challenge, but not everyone has given it a try.  Twenty-seven years ago comic book writer/artist Scott McCloud came up with the idea to improve his skills and speed in creating a 24-page comic book complete with story and art, which normally can take about 30 days.  The result was not so much a contest but a personal achievement challenge like running a marathon or climbing a mountain.  A new documentary titled 24 Hour Comic, directed by Milan Erceg, screened for attendees Saturday at the Marriott Grand Ballroom at San Diego Convention Center as part of San Diego Comic-Con.

Eight participants.  24 hours.  Gravitas Ventures’ 24 Hour Comic follows an event hosted at my old local comic book shop, Things from Another World, in Portland, Oregon.  24 Hour Comic is both a celebration of the Portland comic book creator scene and a close-up look at eight individuals of differing levels as they each try to meet the challenge.  Not everyone makes it to the end.  Four-time Harvey Award and Eisner Award winner Scott McCloud appears in the film, describing the origin, process, and history of the 24-hour challenge, which is hosted by comic book shops, schools, and art studios around the world, often following a designated annual 24-Hour Comic Day.  Eisner and Harvey Award winner McCloud wrote the useful guide to sequential art Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and several other comic book art texts.  He also compiled several attempts at the 24-hour comic in his book 24 Hour Comics, where he showcases the efforts of Neil Gaiman, Steve Bissette, Alexander Grecian, and others.

The rules can be found here, and are detailed in McCloud’s book.  The biggest surprise having read about the contest and several 24-hour comics over the years was that I assumed the artists used standard comic book pages, those full-sized 11×17-inch art boards.  In the film each artist uses what appears to be paper half that size, splitting each sheet into two full pages, which would seem to take less time to fill.  Erceg introduces us to his eight subjects, each in different phases of skill, from a 13-year-old girl to a 16-time participant, a web creator, a design professional, independent creators, and an ex-creator returning to give the process another try.  The final works for those who completed the challenge?  We don’t get to read the entirety of the final books from any creator in the film, but the excerpts given are surprisingly polished. Far from the frantic scribbles you might expect from anyone missing a night’s sleep to work round the clock, the comics appear professionally done, clever, and humorous, reflecting each artist’s creativity and talent.  The film is dotted with interviews by several well-known faces, including Dark Horse Comics president Mike Richardson, Dark Horse Comics editor-in-chief Scott Allie, cartoonist Batton Lash, and graphic novelists and digital creators Arnold and Jacob Pander.

The hour-long documentary provides a fair look at a cross section of a profession where the median income for a full-time comic book artist is about $38,896, according to the film.  Although the challenge is not a competition per se, a few participants throw about some contrived and good natured trash talk to keep the film light-hearted.  One participant had some interesting insights into the comic book profession, a bit of a creators’ quagmire: “You work on a project you don’t care about, but make good money, but you work on a project you do care about, and don’t make any money on it”–something reflected in many fields, no doubt.  This is not a time-compressed look at the 24-hour period of this challenge, but provides interviews with subjects about their status at intervals throughout the day, night, and following morning.  So to fill some of the time Erceg follows two subjects on a quick trip to Stumptown Comic Con, other subjects are interviewed at local studios or homes, and another is followed on a side trip to Seattle to discuss a commission project.  The majority shared how difficult it is to succeed in the comic book industry, and one tried and left the industry after initial success because it couldn’t pay medical bills.

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Feel like you’re late to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing?  In addition to online and televised events we discussed yesterday here at borg, you have several other ways to look back at Apollo 11 this week as we approach the anniversary of the Moonshot this Saturday.

Last year’s Todd Miller documentary Apollo 11 is back in theaters for a limited engagement.  Check local listings or the film website here for participating theaters.  Also in select theaters is the new documentary Armstrong, narrated by Harrison Ford.  Both Apollo 11 and Armstrong are also available now on Vudu.  Based on James R. Hansen’s book, the movie First Man, although neither an uplifting, exciting, or celebratory film about Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong, it does illustrate the personal toll, the lives lost, and the downside of life as an astronaut (probably save this one to view without the kids).  On Netflix, you’ll find a different but fascinating angle in Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo.  National Geographic’s Apollo: Missions to the Moon, Apollo’s Moonshot, and Al Reinert’s For All Mankind can be rented or purchased on Vudu.  And The Lunar Rover: Apollo’s Final Challenge is available for viewing free right now on Vudu.  Most of these can also be viewed with Amazon Prime.

You can get any book these days overnighted to you from Amazon.  Just beware there are a lot of substandard books out there and many self-published without any actual insight into Apollo 11.  Many others are highly recommended.  Just after the Moonshot Apollo 11 command pilot Michael Collins wrote an autobiographical account, Carrying the Fire, available in a new edition.  Collins also recommends Jim Donovan’s Shoot for the MoonNo Dream is Too High provides lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin’s personal life lessons from Apollo 11 and his life.  The historical account American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley has been praised by critics and historians including Doris Kearns Goodwin.  BBC science correspondent and ex-NASA astronomer David Whitehouse wrote Apollo 11: The Inside Story.  Jay Barbree has written the most definitive account of mission commander Neil Armstrong in his Neil Armstrong: A Life in Flight.  And the most recent work on Apollo 11 is this year’s well-reviewed One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman.

Get the new stamps and pre-order your own first day covers from the U.S. Post Office here (the yellow dot indicates Tranquility Base, landing site of the Eagle).  And don’t forget the U.S. Mint still is selling its 50th anniversary commemorative coins.  See our discussion of them earlier this year here at borg.  Stay away from the original memorabilia unless you’re an expert–fakes are for sale all over the Internet this year, especially items like space-flown patches and astronaut autographs.

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