Category: Fantasy Realms


 

Review by C.J. Bunce

Six have been chosen by their clans.  New dangers have arisen, and they must work together and learn to fight for each other to achieve their mission, ridding the land of new threats.  Unfortunately none of these chosen warriors trust each other.  We meet the cast of characters in the first chapter of Rising Sun, a new comic book series from IDW Publishing set in 12th century Japan, based on the 2017 CMON Limited tabletop board game Rising Sun, where clans must use politics, strength, and honor to rule the land.  The story was created by Skylanders writers Ron Marz and David Rodriguez.

Readers follow Chiyoku of the Koi Clan as she confronts a dragon who fells a fellow warrior.  The introductory issue paints Chiyoku like a cross between the DC Comics character Katana, Disney’s Mulan, or China’s Lotus Rong on a journey Red Sonja might take–It’s drawn in the style we’ve seen of Red Sonja on her bloody adventures with similar sweeping action.  Artist Martin Coccolo (Star Trek: Year Five) renders characters that are lifelike and recognizable from panel to panel.  The costumes and vibrant color work by Katrina Mae Hao bring along a realistic, historical vibe to the world of the game (check out the core Rising Sun game and expansion packs here at Amazon).

 

Readers encounter a similar pantheon of color-styled clans as we met in the movie The Great Wall, this time the red Koi clan, the orange Fox clan, the purple Lotus clan, the gold Bonsai clan, the blue Dragonfly clan, and the green Turtle clan.  As a bonus for gamers, the first issue includes an appendix with suggested game modifications.

It has vivid action and beautiful characters, presenting a good beginning for the series.  Here is a preview of the first issue of Rising Sun, plus some cover art (above) for the first three issues, courtesy of IDW Publishing:

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You’ve all been selected as Agents of Nonchalance.

With its critically acclaimed series Lodge 49, which starred Wyatt Russell, Brent Jennings, and Sonya Cassidy, apparently canceled after only two series, the cable network AMC looked to fill the quirky drama niche it left behind.  It found Jason Segel′s quirky dramedy Dispatches from Elsewhere, releasing its first trailer this week.  This is labeled an anthology series, which typically means individual stories in each episode and different characters, yet it lists its five leads in all ten episodes.  So what’s going on here?  It’s an anthology to the extent that the series gets renewed–meaning you’ll likely only see the billed cast of characters in the first season, with a new story and characters in subsequent seasons.  It’s billed as “a transcendental series about a group of ordinary people who stumble onto a puzzle hiding just behind the veil of everyday life.”  That describes Lodge 49 perfectly, too, right?

Dispatches from Elsewhere has similar bits going for it compared to AMC’s departed Lodge 49.  It looks like it was filmed on the same paneled set and it, too, features a directionless guy lost in his own world, detached from a meaningful existence, with How I Met Your Mother and The Muppets co-star Segel in that role (along with serving as show creator, director, and producer).  And like Lodge 49, with its street cred of actors like Paul Giamatti, Bruce Campbell, Cheech Marin, Bronson Pinchot, and Brian Doyle-Murray, Dispatches from Elsewhere has its own style of actor cred, co-starring Academy Award winner Sally Field, Academy Award nominee (Doctor Who star, new Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker villain) Richard E. Grant, and Grammy-winning musician André BenjaminMr. Robot’s Eve Lindley rounds out the main cast.

It looks strange in the vein of Lodge 49, Mr. Robot, Russian Doll, or Legion.  But is it the good kind of strange?  See what you think.  Here’s the first trailer for Dispatches from Elsewhere:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The “Moviemaking Magic/Cinemagic” series from Abrams Books is my current favorite book format for genre tie-in non-fiction works.  Check out my reviews of the volume on the Marvel Studios Heroes and Villains here, and the first volume on Star Wars, The Moviemaking Magic of Star Wars: Creatures and Aliens, here.  The format is interactive, featuring several series of foldout photographs that allow the reader to see the changes in design over time, like ships from concept to realized model.  And these books allow for hundreds of photographs and how-to film production process accounts and interviews, arranged in an easy to reference chronology.  With the latest film in theaters, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has published the next look behind the scenes at the production process, The Moviemaking Magic of Star Wars: Ships and Battles, the most comprehensive account of the 11-film franchise’s models, sculptures, concept artwork, and their creators since Sculpting a Galaxy was released in 2005 when we only had six films available (you can see my review of that book here).

The book is targeted at a younger audience, but Star Wars fans of any age will appreciate the detail and information they may not have read about before, including notes from George Lucas from the first idea for the film, his treatment for The Star Wars, to Colin Cantwell and Joe Johnston′s concept drawings, all the way through the two “Star Wars story” movies Rogue One and Solo, and all nine Skywalker saga films, including a preview page of concept art from The Rise of Skywalker.  The original trilogy gets the biggest share of the coverage, including the full run of major ships, how they were developed, and what method was used to get them on the big screen, but the 21st century films and the prequels also get significant sections.  Readers will follow the development of filmmaking methods old and new: full-sized sets and vehicles like the landspeeder and X-wing fighter, scale models (both small and large scale), kitbashing, matte painting, and CGI.

Fans of the Millennium Falcon specifically will not want to miss this book.  They can track the development of the many models and designs used across the original trilogy, which had to be resurrected for the final trilogy with a side trip to an early, modified version of the ship for Solo: A Star Wars Story.  Coverage includes concept art, unused designs, and photos of the pocket-sized models through the multiple full-sized, walk-on creations. The various Death Star space stations and Star Destroyers get similar handling in the book.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

With the much anticipated ninth episode Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker here at last, writer/director J.J. Abrams has succeeded again at managing a major film franchise challenge and making the best of it.  With Star Trek in 2009, he took a waning property and shot new life into it, but came up short four years later when he tried again and delivered Star Trek Into Darkness, heavily milking the nostalgia of the fan base with its retread of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.  In 2015 Abrams was handed the keys to the other big space franchise, where he revitalized a left-for-dead movie saga and delivered Star Wars: The Force Awakens, notable for the introduction of Daisy Ridley’s curious and mysterious desert scavenger Rey, arguably one of the most fleshed out characters in the entire franchise with this final installment.  Fortunately Abrams’s return to Star Wars will likely net better results for its fanbase with a movie that rises to become the best in the final trilogy, or at least as good as his The Force Awakens.  Is this still George Lucas’s Star Wars?  No, but that just shows the power and unique status of the original trilogy–even Lucas couldn’t capture the magic again with his prequels.  The Rise of Skywalker is the kind of movie that could be judged on its merits as a J.J. Abrams movie and separately as a Star Wars sequel.  Whether you as a viewer like this installment or not will depend on your own expectations.

Abrams may be at his best, with his unique style, lens flares and all, when he gives fans what they want.  Abram’s success this holiday season is a bit of a salvage effort, bringing Rey back as the focal hero/heroine of the story, incorporating some of the saga’s best “Jedi being Jedi” sequences, and tapping into the nostalgia for the 1977 original in bite-sized bits instead of leaning on it like he did so unapologetically with Star Trek Into Darkness.  If only Abrams had made all three Star Wars films, this third chapter could have been much tighter, and the whole trilogy would likely be better received by most of the fanbase.  As a viewer if you don’t (or can’t) just sit back and enjoy the cameo performances, throwbacks, and Easter eggs, you’ll get the feeling that using two directors instead of one over the three films is the crux of any problems in The Rise of Skywalker.  Upon its release, the previous installment The Last Jedi felt like it belonged to an entirely different story than The Force Awakens.  Plot threads created by Abrams were summarily abandoned.  Key characters were eliminated without explanation.  New plot threads came from out of nowhere.  In short, the director-flipping was the big mistake from a storytelling perspective.  Abrams has the extensive portfolio behind him to demonstrate he would have been the right choice to direct all three films.  So this time Abrams had a greater task than ever before, because he was stuck making major course corrections, all to get this tale back on track, re-focused again on Rey.  The necessary patchwork aside, The Rise of Skywalker will go down as one of Abrams’ best works.

Will Star Wars, or more specifically, the Skywalker saga with this three-part conclusion, endure the test of time?  If audiences continue to believe in its value as entertainment, there is no reason why studios can’t keep going back to this material repeatedly–think Shakespeare’s plays, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dickens’s Ebenezer ScroogeRecall how even more recent stories like the Terminator, Predator, and Halloween (and Star Trek) film series have continued to make sequels and wholesale reboots, disregarding a film that doesn’t do as well and continuing like it was never made.  There’s no reason that can’t happen someday with Star Wars.  So those fans who still want to see the Expanded Universe on the big screen–the complexities and triumphs of both Timothy Zahn’s sequel trilogy and Dark Horse Comics’ many stories like Dark Empire that did so much more with heroes Luke and Leia–just wait.  Someday the right new visionary will step in and make it happen, but fans will need to accept new actors as their heroes, just like we saw with the latest Star Trek trilogy.

Want to dig in further?  Spoilers follow.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

In brief, it’s the best adventure, fantasy, and comedy in theaters in 2019 and a great way to begin your new year.  Jumanji: The Next Level is still packing-in theaters a little more than two weeks into its run–an alternative to the other holiday releases and guaranteed to leave you smiling at the end.  The four stars didn’t miss a beat in their return, swapping roles and adding new laughs, and the new characters inside and outside the game are perfectly matched to tell a new tale.  Two films down and Jumanji: The Next Level is now the new major adventure fantasy franchise, up there with Tarzan, The Jungle Book, Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mummy, and Indiana Jones.  Put this sequel at the top of the best of those franchises.

The studio didn’t hold back on new action sequences–inside the movie again Jumanji is the same video game of curious origin.  The new levels introduced this time increase the stakes in bigger and better ways.   A bridge-crossing scene with swarming apes and a geometric, Mario Brothers/Donkey Kong-like element is now going to be the adventure film standard to try to beat.  Sure, there are throwbacks to jungle adventures of the past, but it’s not derivative, all presented in fresh ways.  As another tour inside a video game (like Tron and Ready Player One), you’ll have the added fun of spotting video game influences (like Pitfall and Q-Bert), including a new, more difficult gauntlet.

The movie does double duty as an epic quest and rollicking comedy.  Comedians turned comedic actors Jack Black as Dr. Shelly Oberon and Kevin Hart as Mouse Finbar again are comedy gold.  Even the small bits are a scream–Hart riding and getting off a camel is a lesson in physical comedy.  They make the movie loads of fun, but straight man roles performed by Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan as in-game characters Dr. Smolder Bravestone and Ruby Roundhouse share the credit for the laughs, too.  If you’ve seen Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, you’d expect big comedy from the sequel.  And that’s where the writing genius comes into play, thanks to a script by writer/director Jake Kasdan and writers Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg.  How do you bring back the hour movie stars, the four young actors who played the original players (Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, and Ser’Darius Blain), the rescued Alex played by Colin Hanks, and in-game characters played by Nick Jonas, and Rhys Darby without re-hashing the first movie?  You’ll have to see it to find out.  Just be prepared for some great twists and surprises.

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It’s been another long year of great entertainment.  It’s time for the seventh annual round of new honorees for the borg Hall of Fame.  We have several honorees from 2019 films and television, plus you’ll find some from the past, and a peek at some from the future – 28 new borgs or updated variants in all, bringing the borg Hall of Fame total to 221.

You can always check out the updated borg Hall of Fame on our home page under “Know your borg.”

Some reminders about criteria.  Borgs have technology integrated with biology Wearing a technology-powered suit alone doesn’t qualify a new member.  Tony Stark aka Iron Man was named an honoree because the Arc Reactor kept him alive, not because of his incredible tech armor.  The new Spider-Man suit worn by Tom Holland is similar to Tony’s, but it’s not integrated with Peter Parker’s biology.  Similarly Peni Parker, seen outside her high-tech SP//dr suit in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Black Manta from Aquaman are merely wearing tech suits.  We’d love a reason for a Mandalorian to make the cut, like Boba Fett, or Jango Fett, or the new Mandalorian from the series, since nobody has more intriguing armor.  Maybe the second season coming next fall will give us something new to ponder.

Also, if the creators tell us the characters are merely robots, automatons, or androids, we take their word for it.  Again, integration is key, but in the Hall, once a member, always a member.  

So let’s get on with it.  Who’s in for 2019?

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Our borg Best of 2019 list continues today with the Best Books of 2019.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2019 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2019 here, the Best in Television 2019 here, and the Best Comics of 2019 here.

We reviewed more than 100 books that we recommended to our readers this year, and some even made it onto our favorites shelf.  We don’t print reviews of books that we read and don’t recommend, so this shortlist reflects only this year’s cream of the crop.

So let’s get going.  Here are our selections for this year:

Best Read, Best Fantasy Read, Best New Edition of Previous Published Work, Best Translated Work – A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes 1 by Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood (St. Martin’s Press).  The first book in one of the most read books of all time finally makes its way to the U.S. after its premiere in Great Britain.  Readers will learn why George Lucas pulled its concepts for his Skywalker saga, and why generations of Chinese fans of fantasy of flocked to its heroes and villains.  Honorable mention for Best Fantasy Read: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock (Tor Books), The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz (Algonquin Young Readers).

Best New Novel, Best Horror Novel, Best Historical Novel, Best Mystery Novel – The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils by James Lovegrove (Titan Books).  A truly literary work combining a smart Holmesian adventure and the dark mind of H.P. Lovecraft.  Readers will love Lovegrove’s approach, Holmes and Watson’s journey, and all the creepy surprises.

Best Sci-Fi Novel, Best Thriller – The Andromeda Evolution by Daniel H. Wilson (HarperCollins).  Wilson successfully conjured the spirit of Michael Crichton for this smart, creepy, and oddly current sci-fi sequel to The Andromeda Strain.  A cast of characters just like Crichton would have put together, and a must-read.

Best Franchise Tie-In Novel – Firefly: Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove (Titan Books).  One of the best authors around crafts a worthy story to expand the Firefly canon and give fans their own new movie of sorts for the franchise.  Runner-up: Alien: Prototype by Tim Waggoner (Titan Books).  Honorable Mention: Death of the Planet of the Apes by Andrew E.C. Gaska (Titan Books).

Best Retro Read – Mike Hammer: Murder, My Love, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Titan Books).  Collins continues to bring Spillane’s characters to life with thrilling prose and all the best pieces of noir drama and action.  Honorable mention: Brothers Keepers by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime).

Best Genre Non-Fiction – Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making of Solo: A Star Wars Story by Rob Bredow (Harry N. Abrams).  Bredow’s unique access to the production made for a rare opportunity in any production to see details of the filmmaking process.  Every movie should have such a great deep dive behind the scenes.  Honorable mention: The Making of Alien by J.W. Rinzler (Titan Books).

There’s much more of our selections for 2019’s Best in Print to go…

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Our borg Best of 2019 list continues today with the Best in Comics.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2019 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2019 here, and the Best in Television 2019 here.

We reviewed comics from every major publisher this year, and were pleasantly surprised with all the new characters and content available.  You’ll find both some new creators on the list this year and some fan favorites who keep making better comic books each new year.

Here are the best comic books for 2019:

 

Best Limited Comic Series (tie) – Sara by Garth Ennis and Steve Epting (TKO Studios) and Goodnight Paradise by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli (TKO Studios).  The new publisher TKO Studios began with a bang with these two incredible stories.  Sara is what every fan of war comics hopes for, and Goodnight Paradise brings the realities of life in the 21st century to the comics page in a story that will stay with readers a long time.

Best Ongoing Comic Book SeriesGhost Tree by Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane (IDW Publishing). Haunting, mythic, and sweeping, this story of a man reflecting on his past and coming to terms with the present combines with Asian legend tropes to form an emotional and curiously funny tale. Sure to leave readers begging for more.

 

Best Sci-Fi Comic Series, Best Comic Book WritingAscender by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen (Image Comics).  Lemire owned this category with two fabulous science fiction tales, both with strong female lead characters. Runner-up: Sentient by Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta (TKO Studios).

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This year we found one series that could easily sweep most of the categories–a single television series that had everything: compelling story, a full range of emotions, great characters, tremendous action, a sharp use of humor, all kinds of genre elements that were satisfying and left viewers feeling inspired.  Richly detailed sets and costumes.  An impossible feat to replicate.  No drama came close.  No other visual effects spectacle could touch it.  And its audience is everyone.  A truly epic addition to television viewing, that series is The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the greatest television series to come along in years.  If you love genre like we do, this was as good as it gets.  And like icing on the cake, along came The Mandalorian at year end.

But we’re not going to ignore the other good things that happened on the small screen this year.

Our borg Best of 2019 list continues today with the best in television.  If you missed it, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2019 here and the best Kick-Ass Heroines of 2019 here.

Without further ado, this year’s Best in Television:

Best Borg SeriesDoom Patrol (DC Universe).  With this year’s series Doom Patrol we got a look at two borgs, DC Comics’ Cyborg, an update to Martin Caidin’s original Bionic Man from the 1970s, and an older borg created before the word was even coined in the 1960s, Robotman.  Both characters revealed a glimpse at what life might be like with significant cybernetic enhancements (when brought together by a modern Dr. Frankenstein).  For 2019, it was the way to get your borg fix on the small screen.

Best TV Series, Best New Limited TV Series, Best TV Fantasy, Best Writing for TV, Best TV Costumes/Makeup, Best TV SoundtrackThe Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix).  It was worth the wait.  Jim Henson’s seemingly impossible to replicate artistic vision was successfully achieved thanks to his daughters and the company he founded.  The kindest heroes, the darkest evil, a truly epic, legendary story for the ages.  Everybody is cranking out CGI extravaganzas, but how many are creating artistry so fundamentally real, with so many individual artists and artisans contributing and achieving so much?  Even that wouldn’t be enough if not for the layered mythology and epic adventure story.  Add great humor, high stakes, emotional impact, an all-star voice cast, Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim’s  imaginative musical score, and those puppets and all that go into them–it adds up to a rare thing–a Henson masterpiece.

Best TV Sci-fi Series, Best TV DramaThe Man in the High Castle (Amazon).  Amazon Studios could not have adapted a series more faithfully, making changes for the medium and the times, than its take on Philip K. Dick’s most celebrated novel.  The use of science fiction to tell a deep and twisty level of subplots and unique setting all came to a perfect conclusion in the series finale.  Exciting, intelligent, frightening, and the most thought-provoking series this year, it was also different from its sci-fi competition.  Honorable mention: The Mandalorian (Disney+)–but only if we allow space fantasy since the series is not true science fiction, The Orville (Fox)–for its two-part epic movie-worthy space story, “Identity.”

Best New Ongoing TV Series, Runner-up: Best TV Soundtrack, Runner-up: Best TV Costumes/Makeup The Mandalorian (Disney+).  Not a lot needs explaining with this series, which in only its first two hours we rated it closer to the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back than anything with the Star Wars label on it since.  The Western motif is still alive, not all that hidden here in space fantasy garb.  And we won’t get started on the impact of The Child (aka Baby Yoda) on the genre-loving world and beyond.  Credit Jon Favreau’s visible enthusiasm and love for the original movies for the success of this surprisingly awesome arrival–the series is proof Star Wars is far from over.

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When we created last year’s preview of 2019 movies we were pretty sure we were going to have some great movies this year, but we were surprised by what ended up being the best.  All year we tried to keep up with what Hollywood had to offer and homed in on the genre content we thought was worth examining.  We went back and looked at it all and pulled together our annual picks in our Best Movies of 2019.

GenredomAs always, we’re after the best genre content of the year–with our top categories from the Best in Movies.  There are thousands of other places that cover plain vanilla dramas and the rest of the film world, but here we’re looking for movies we want to watch.  What do all of this year’s selections have in common?  In addition to those elements that define each part of genredom, each has a good story.  Special effects without a good story is not good entertainment, and we saw plenty of films this year that missed that crucial element.

Come back later this month for our print media picks, and our annual borg Hall of Fame inductees.  And if you missed it, check out our Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines of 2019 here.  Wait no further, here are our movie picks for 2019:

Best Film, Best Superhero Movie, Best Re-Imagining on Film Shazam! (Warner Bros.).  Movies are supposed to be a wonder, right?  What brought the magic of the movies back to theaters more than Shazam?  Why did DC take so long to adapt a superhero to the scene perfectly?  Who cares–they finally did it.  Faithful to the character from the #1 selling superhero book of the 1940s, this was the superhero movie many of us have been waiting for for the past 50 years (or more).  Full of superhero fun, one of the best training montages ever, Zachary Levi’s boyish hero was perfectly matched to Jack Dylan Grazer’s take on best pal Freddy.  It’s also the only superhero movie we can think of that got better as it went along, culminating in a fantastic, satisfying third act and finale.  This is what we want more of.  And it was the first DC superhero movie of the millennium that could be watched and enjoyed by the entire family.  Honorable mention: Glass (Universal), Spider-Man: Far From Home (Sony Pictures).

Best Fantasy Movie, Best Adventure Movie, Best Comedy MovieJumanji: The Next Level (Columbia Pictures).  The only issue with this film was that its status as a sequel will prompt some to not recognize it for the gigantic success it truly is.  With adventure scenes bigger and better than anything in the entire Indiana Jones franchise, two movies in and director Jake Kasdan proved a sequel can actually be as good as the original.  The four stars didn’t miss a beat, swapping roles and adding new laughs, and the new characters inside and outside the game were perfectly spliced in to tell a new tale.  The bridge crossing scene is now the adventure film scene to beat.  An epic fantasy that’s loads of fun.  Honorable mention for Best Fantasy Movie: Shazam! (Disney/Marvel), Captain Marvel (Disney/Marvel).

Best Movie Borg, Best Borg Film – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Carl, Terminator: Dark Fate (Paramount Pictures).  It would have been almost impossible for James Cameron and director Tim Miller not to get this right, a new thread through time reuniting Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and a new T-800 with Arnold back with another take on his greatest borg of all time.  New characters and new effects kept the franchise from getting boring, but this was more than just getting by, a big sci-fi spectacle with great cyborg battles, and easily the best cyborg fix this year.

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