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Tag Archive: Best of 2018


Review by C.J. Bunce

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the rare show that tries to be many things and actually succeeds at them all.  If you are looking for the ideal way to spend this Halloween, absent a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon, you’re not going to find a better TV pursuit than this new Netflix series.  It features a captivating lead in its teenage witch Sabrina, played perfectly by Kiernan Shipka, who shows every frustrating feeling, emotion, and indecision any teenager must go through, reflected in a mythology-rich world with enormous stakes.  Sabrina is a kid–a smart kid, but still a kid–so she makes the kind of mistakes teenagers make.  Raised in the occult world by a family of witch aunts and a warlock cousin, Sabrina is a half-breed (her mother was human, her father a high priest in the dark arts), but viewers will see she shares some commonality with Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books–she’s loyal, she’s book smart, she’s street savvy, and conscientious, dabbling in the magical world.  She also is trusting and able to be manipulated by the adults around her.  She may not be the fully realized, badass, confident heroine everyone wants to see–just yet–but by the end of Season 1 she’s well on her way.

The series protagonist is actually not Sabrina, but a demon who takes over the body of Michelle Gomez‘s Ms. Wardwell, a teacher at Sabrina’s mortal-realm high school, an ever-present mentor steering her out of dilemmas when Sabrina’s aunts fail to give Sabrina the help she wants.  Gomez, who played Doctor Who’s #1 nemesis The Master, is even more engaging here, fully inhabiting a character whose motivations are hidden by a fog–a blurred reality paralleled by a clever fuzzy tweak in cinematography throughout each episode.  Sabrina’s aunts, played by Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings #1 heroine who saved Middle-earth (“I am no man!”) and Lucy Davis, the #2 female lead in the WWI era of the movie Wonder Woman, unite to create a classic duet in the spirit of Arsenic and Old Lace.  Otto’s Zelda is strict and a devout believer in her dark religion, Hilda a sweet and doting aunt who gets excommunicated for her support of Sabrina.  All three actresses bring their genre star power to the series, providing a jolt of heroine gravatas to support the title character.

Sabrina is approaching her 16th birthday, when she must choose between the world of mortals and the world–and protections–of the witching world.  She must decide whether she will relinquish her decision-making from then on to the devil himself or take her chances as a mortal.  She is surrounded by those she thinks she can trust and others whose motivations are hidden in a dark world of several levels of good and evil.  Making sense of the darkness and evil and placing a pantheon of 56-old comic book characters he rejuvenated in the pages of Archie Horror comics four years ago onto the screen for a new audience is Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, chief creative officer of Archie Comics, and executive producer and writer for the comics and CW’s Riverdale and Netflix’s Sabrina.  Quite shrewdly, Sacasa doesn’t comment on the dark religion of the series or any political stance his characters may reflect, instead letter the viewer bring their own value set to the show and making their own analysis.  Who do you want to cheer for, the equivalent of Darth Vader or Princess Leia in science fiction, or Sauron or Eowyn in fantasy?  Sacasa pulls from age-old classic stories, like Cain and Abel from the Bible, W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, John Carpenter’s films including The Fog, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and a classic horror film mirrored in the comics that might be a spoiler for Season 2–so we’ll hold that title back for now.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The music biopic is as much a cinema fixture as Film Noir or the Western.  Just look back at a quick swath of the genre and you’ll find Clifton Webb as John Philip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever, James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.  If Milos Forman’s Amadeus was worthy of a Best Picture Oscarif the Academy gets it right–then director Bryan Singer’s new biopic Bohemian Rhapsody should also take home an armful of Oscars.  Actor Rami Malek, in one of the decade’s most immersive, riveting, and powerful performances, conjures the spirit of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in a sweeping whirlwind of music and seismic spectacle celebrating individuality.

Few bands have the extensive catalog of music that can support a 2.5 hour film with familiar hit songs that fit the mood of every scene as Queen has.  With the participation behind the scenes of Queen lead guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor as executive producers, from the first scene Malek’s Freddie Mercury will take Queen fans back in time, and yet it’s the casting of the other three band members that provides a cohesive whole, convincing the audience this was a real band, and a real family.  Where Oliver Stone came close to getting his four actors lined up as mirrors for The Doors, anyone who grew up with the band can see how closely director Bryan Singer came to matching up the acting talent to Queen’s members (and it’s right there for comparison with archival footage in the film’s end credits).  Audiences already knew Malek was a unique talent from his series Mr. Robot and his previous TV and film appearances.  Like Val Kilmer transformed into Jim Morrison, American actor Malek becomes Anglo-Asian rock god Freddie Mercury.  British actor Gwilym Lee (Ashes to Ashes, Midsomer Murders) is the all-out doppelganger of Brian May, and the next acting talent to watch for.  The growth of American actor Joseph Mazzello from the boy in Jurassic Park to bass guitarist John Deacon (with a seamless British accent) is an eye-popping surprise.  And Ben Hardy (The Woman in White, X-Men: Apocalypse, Mary Shelley) holds his own as edgy drummer Roger Taylor.

Anthony McCarten‘s (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) script has several parallels to both Amadeus and The Doors.  Some clever–and some audacious–decisions include scenes incorporating Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, 54) as record producer Ray Foster, Tom Hollander (Gosford Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible series) as lawyer Jim Beach, and scenes showing the development of Queen hits “Another One Bites the Dust” and “We Will Rock You”–altogether 20 hit songs made the soundtrack, including five of the eight songs from the band’s memorable 1985 Live-Aid concert.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The right mix of writing, acting, art direction, and music come together in Orbiter 9, a direct-to-Netflix Spanish film that really has it all.  Like the critically-acclaimed Midnight Special, saying too much about the plot will give away too much of what is compelling about this film.  But you can be sure to find a tense piece of science fiction derived from those classic tales of great writers of the past like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick.  It’s a tale of future Earth where Earthlings have ravaged the planet, so, like recent sci-fi entries Passengers and the Lost in Space reboot, the only chance for humans is to embark on long voyages to distant worlds.

Clara Lago (The Commuter, The Librarians, LEX) masterfully plays Helena, a young woman left on board a spaceship heading from Earth to a distant colony who encounters an engineer named Álex, coming to repair the ship’s oxygen system, played by actor Álex González (X-Men: First Class).  We learn from a video image Helena is re-watching that her parents left her alone three years ago when the oxygen system broke down–their math showed that with Helena flying alone the oxygen could still get her to Celeste safely.  Raised on the ship since birth, she has never met another human.  She is diligent in her daily rituals, including exercise, with a determination to complete her mission prompted by her parents’ sacrifice.  But after Álex’s arrival, everything changes.

More believable than prior visions of the future in this sub-genre (Passengers, Moon, the Cloverfield series), Orbiter 9 may pull its tale in part from classic Greek sacrifice mythology or closed-room mysteries like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and wrestles with the limits of sacrifice, for family or others–again, a concept addressed in many past sci-fi stories, Star Trek in particular (think Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “Suddenly Human” in Star Trek: The Next Generation and “Child’s Play” from Star Trek Voyager).  Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one?  Orbiter 9 attacks this question in many surprising ways.  And unlike many a recent sci-fi film, it’s story belongs in a full feature format like this–it’s not just another short story dragged out to fit a movie-length format.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Marvel has diversified its creations on film and television so much that anyone can find a series or film that grabs them and surprises them with action, drama, strong characters, superheroics and great storytelling.  It’s going to be a subjective call for anyone, but the depth of every storytelling component in two seasons of Marvel’s Luke Cage makes it our nomination for the best superhero series yet.  With all that a comic book fan could want (except maybe supersuits), Season Two of Marvel’s Luke Cage, now on Netflix, rises to the occasion again.  The writers, actors, and other creators of Luke, his partners, and the crimelords of Harlem, could hold their own against any of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A “best of” list of the villains of Marvel adaptations will no doubt have Loki and Killmonger from the movies fighting for top spots, but it also must now have Season One’s Cottonmouth Stokes, and this season’s trifecta of villains:  Bushmaster McIver, Shades Alvarez, and Mariah Stokes.

We compared Season One–which was borg.com’s Best TV Superhero Series of 2016 along with Cage actor Mike Colter and Misty Knight actor Simone Missick taking top acting kudos for the year–to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and again, Season Two is worthy of that comparison.  All the key social and cultural issues affecting every-day people inside or outside New York City neighborhoods, from the 1960s and today, work their way into the storytelling of the series.  The season kept its fresh approach with a new director at the helm of nearly every episode, while maintaining its focus thanks to Cheo Hodari Coker penning the overall story and leading the series as showrunner.  The show’s style is unique.  Even more than in Season One, nearly each episode featured the setting of the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise with an incredible performer on-stage with a relevant song to the episode.  Where a modern take on 20th century Speakeasy-inspired jazz and blues was the background for Season One, music derived from the roots of hip-hop and the heritage of key show characters in Jamaica defines the style this time.  This was topped off in the last episode with a song performed by Rakim that echoed Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s 1970s retro-funk series theme.

Family roots and legacies left behind top the season’s themes.  Along with the drama, the superheroics were present in Cage’s Power Man persona and new villain Bushmaster’s exquisitely choreographed battle scenes.  Charismatic actor Mustafa Shakir, who isn’t Jamaican, is perfectly convincing with the accent as Johnny “Bushmaster” McIver, and like Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk and series star Colter, Shakir looks like a superhuman with no need for any superhero costume.  And yes, Shakir performed most of the fabulous stunt fights with Colter, with training incorporating capoeira fighting, aptly selected for the series from its focus on power, speed, kicks, and spins.  Looking for the best superhero genre one-on-one battles at the movies or on television?  They can be found in Season Two of Marvel’s Luke Cage.  It’s even more refreshing because the series casts aside the current lazy trope in cinema of slow-motion action sequences, which can pull you out of the momentum of the action every time.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Arsenic and Old Lace?  Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction.  Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century.  Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently?  A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life.  Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper.  And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century.  It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting.  Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic.  Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette.  But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right?  It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper.  But why “witch fever”?  That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic.  To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill.  Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use.  Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life.  Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real:  young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor.  From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata.  A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers.  In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors.  It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

YouTube attempts to crack down on misinformation and conspiracy

Facebook officer reportedly leaving over misinformation dispute

The headlines this week speak for themselves–the time seems right for a new understanding of misinformation.  The subject has been written about before and from different angles, and author and journalist Rex Sorgatz includes dozens of references to those previous books that inspired his new treatise.  Part An Incomplete Education, part In Search Of…, part Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, a new book coming from Abrams Image is also a useful Guide to Living in the Modern World.  It’s The Encyclopedia of Misinformation: A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Impostors, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Frauds, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies & Miscellaneous Fakery.  It’s a smart, compelling mix of information you would find in updates and appendices to college textbooks on advertising, public relations, psychology, criminology, politics, journalism, futurism, and current affairs, with a dose of pseudoscience and other quackery.

For most, The Encyclopedia of Misinformation will get readers caught up on what everyone else has been talking about, or in some places, defining a thing you already know with a succinct word or phrase.  The author puts his own spin on nearly 300 concepts–some terms may be familiar, some newer ideas may be defined with more recent turns of phrase.  Sorgatz discusses many more concepts than the core defined terms as he fleshes out each alphabetized key word.  Happily for any reader, this book does not read like an actual encyclopedia.  Instead Sorgatz interconnects concepts with a series of visual hotlinks that aren’t really links (it’s a printed book, after all), including citations to words not specifically defined in the book.  But it’s very clear that were a reader to read the book cover to cover and actually look up all the linked terms he/she doesn’t know already, that reader would be pretty caught up with current affairs.  Although the author suggests bouncing around and reading whatever seems interesting, The Encyclopedia of Misinformation is one of those indispensable, unputdownable non-fiction books that easily can be read straight through in two or three sittings.

So this book’s for you if you don’t know alien space bats, that an auto-tune has nothing to do with the radio, that canned heat isn’t hot, the difference between modern catfish and Chilean sea bass, who was or still is Tony Clifton, if you can’t tell a cryptid from capgras, what’s a deep state and how you doublethink, that false flags and foreign branding are not the stuff of international relations, the difference between a honeypot and a honey trap, that lorem ipsem is not Latin, if you don’t know the Mandela effect and are concerned you haven’t visited the moirologist lately, what’s a noddy and what’s a nonce, what the heck is pareidolia, plandids, and retconning, sampuru and simulism, or why you should know Zardulu.  Do you want to know how a fake band beat Dylan, Aretha, Elvis, Jagger, Bowie, Iggy, Janis, McCartney, and Lennon for the biggest hit of 1969?  How can the author explain the inclusion of cyborgs and cosplay as misinformation terms?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Nearly one hundred years after Bushnell’s Turtle (the submersible, not the sandwich shop), Jules Verne introduced the world to his futuristic advanced submarine the Nautilus.  In the pages of his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, an expedition is investigating a giant sea monster that ends up being Captain Nemo’s famous submarine.   A predecessor to modern steampunk stories, 20,000 Leagues gets a sequel 145 years later in C. Courtney Joyner’s new steampunk novel Nemo Rising

Pushing aside Verne’s own sequel The Mysterious Island, Nemo Rising finds Captain Nemo a prisoner of the United States, jailed in a vault in Virginia in a form of solitary confinement and set to be hanged for destroying the USS Abraham Lincoln.  Partially destroyed but slightly rebuilt and sitting in drydock, the Nautilus would seem to be calling for its captain as a bevy of sea monsters begins to destroy European vessels in the Atlantic.  U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant is eager to hang Nemo, but realizes he needs to negotiate a deal for Nemo’s cooperation to prove that these sea monsters are causing the destruction to get the international community off his back.  As the President dodges assassination attempts riding his trusty horse Cincinnati, he finally resorts to using a new invention, an airship, to redouble the efforts to see that Nemo completes his mission and learns the truth behind these attacks.  Accompanied against his wishes by the airship inventor’s intrepid daughter, Nemo seeks his own form of payback as he takes the choice of the mission over the gallows.  The result is a classic seafaring adventure any fan of classic science fiction or pirate tales will love.

First edition of the original Jules Verne Captain Nemo novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas.

With the pacing and action level of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, Nemo Rising reveals a brother-in-arms of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab on the footing of a modern vengeance story as found in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Netflix’s The Punisher.  This Captain Nemo story is a fun read that will be gobbled up by fans of Verne (especially his novel Master of the World) and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  It also reflects the realism of living and working at sea, but without all the precise detail like you’d find in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, the Patrick O’Brian Jack Aubrey books, or the famous mutiny stories–it’s more like watching their television adaptations.

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