Tag Archive: Best of the Best retro review


It’s one of the greatest films ever made, a primer for creating the ultimate sci-fi and coming of age story.  Its sprawling opening scene features “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears, which sets the tone for the everywhere/every kid world view of the young star of the story, simply one of the best efforts by a director to incorporate a popular song into the fabric of a film.  25-year-old actor Drew Barrymore financed the film and served as executive producer, while creating one of the best versions of a (cool) school teacher to ever hit the screen.  And it was a springboard for Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone’s careers and features the likes of Katharine Ross, Mary McDonnell, Noah Wyle, and Patrick Swayze, with a memorable villain played by Beth Grant.  The film is of course Donnie Darko, and it’s finally getting a deluxe edition worthy of director Richard Kelly’s movie masterpiece.  For its 20th anniversary the director and cinematographer Steven Poster oversaw a new 4K resolution restoration from the original negatives for the Donnie Darko Limited Edition UHD The two-disc Ultra HD Blu-ray box set contains the theatrical and director’s cut with the new 4K versions, plus some good Donnie Darko swag.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Is there a better way you can think of for New Year’s Eve than spend it with Nick and Nora Charles and their spunky dog Asta?  If you haven’t met them yet, read on, or just check out the TCM marathon tomorrow featuring Dashiell Hammett’s iconic trio as played by William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Skippy.  Find the amiable, put-upon, imbibing hilarity and forced sleuthing–and much more–with 1934’s “Pre-Code” movie The Thin Man, followed by After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947), beginning tomorrow morning at 8:15 a.m. Central on TCM tomorrow all day–appropriately on New Year’s Eve.

But where did it all begin?  In Hammett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang continue their landmark English translation of Jin Yong′s Legends of the Condor Heroes novels in A Snake Lies Waiting, now available in bookstores and here at Amazon, the first English translation of Volume 3.  Another expert translation of Jin’s breathtaking adventure, full of wit and wisdom, expect to find the most action in the saga, as well as the single best scene of the entire series.  In the spirit of Homer, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, and George Lucas, A Snake Lies Waiting is among the world’s greatest fantasy novels.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of many major fantasy series: losing the steam built up in the first two installments.  If Book Two was The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers or The Godfather II, consider this volume another The Empire Strikes Back.  The 1950s series has sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the books are finally being made available to U.S. and UK readers as part of this series.

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We often critique a series for its inability to get off the ground running.  Perhaps no television series excelled at that (both literally and figuratively) than the one and only original 1969-1970 animated series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You?  The entire series is airing this month on Boomerang.  The cultural impact of “those meddling kids,” the Scooby Gang, Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and their Great Dane Scooby Doo, cannot be overstated.  The pop song introduction, the 1960s van, the clothes, the cameraderie, mix with the first shake cam most of us ever noticed, cool colors, and a laugh track telling us we weren’t the only ones in on the fun.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If there is a better writer of pulp crime fiction in the long history of the genre than Erle Stanley Gardner, I don’t know who it is.  Yes, Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake are in the running, too, but even if you push aside Gardner’s more than 60 novels featuring Perry Mason, you’re going to be challenged to find a better duo of detectives from the 1930s onward than Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  Gardner wrote 29 novels published in his lifetime featuring the larger than life Bertha of the B. Cool Detective Agency and loyal and well-trod upon employee Lam, the narrator of the tales who lost his license to practice law and uses his smarts to keep money coming in to the agency.  Where the Hard Case Crime imprint is at its best is finding lost gems, and they have one in The Knife Slipped, written by Gardner and intended to be the duo’s second case, the publisher kicked it way back in 1939 because of Bertha’s brash, bombastic, and profane style.  Maybe that attitude just reflected the era of the day, but reading the novel now it’s clear Gardner was ahead of his time. 

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Usually we reserve Trailer Park for a pile-on of new movie trailers, but this year has seen a serious dearth of new both new movies and previews for new movies.  So let’s highlight some true classics you need in your repertoire if they aren’t there already.  Three standouts are airing on basic cable–depending on where you live and what you subscribe to–Saturday and Sunday.  First up is the baseball comedy classic Brewster’s Millions And then we have two different brands of war movie.  So what are they?

Let’s get to it.

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A Bond Undone

Review by C.J. Bunce

As the paperback edition of Anna Holmwood’s English translation of A Hero Born–book one of Jin Yong′s Legends of the Condor Heroes novels–arrives in bookstores tomorrow, the first English translation of Volume 2 is coming late this month.  In the spirit of Homer, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, and George Lucas, Jin Yong’s epic adventure continues in A Bond Undone A sequel as exciting a follow-up as The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather II, Jin Yong takes his epic, legendary wuxia heroes into a riveting, unputdownable volume of honor, loyalty, bravery, cunning, and devotion.  And English audiences get to experience it for the first time this month thanks to a compelling, tightly written translation by Gigi Chang.  The 1950s series has sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the books are finally being made available to U.S. and UK readers.

Two young men whose destinies were determined before they were born, Guo Jing and Yang Kang, were made sworn brothers by their fathers, and their lives came crashing together 18 years later in A Hero Born (awarded our Best Read of 2019, reviewed here at borg), as the truth of their shared past finally caught up with them.  By the end of the first book they had each developed relationships with powerful women, Lotus Huang with Jing, Mercy Mu with Kang, all four among the most promising martial artists of the early 13th century of this work of historical fantasy.  The story takes on tones of a Shakespearean tragedy, as Mu and Kang’s relationship is one of confusion and despair, as they are driven together and then apart by Kang’s fear at parting ways with a life of privilege, the only life he has ever known.  Jing, the saga’s hero, is constantly mocked for his ignorance, but the quick wit and love of Lotus, and his pursuit of her hand, allows him to come under the teachings of the greatest of China’s masters.

Adding to their former teachers or shifus, in A Bond Undone Jing and Lotus learn secret kung fu from a new shifu, Count Seven Hong, Chief of the Beggar Clan, a comical sort who will do anything for great food.  As Jing stumbles into getting himself engaged to more than one woman (one by order of Genghis Khan, one by his former shifus and a mentor), Lotus is pursued by Gallant Ouyang, a handsome but conniving member of a tribe who has amassed an unwilling army of women warriors, all at his beck and call, as well as a more powerful kung fu.  Jing has his own enemies, not the least of which is the deadly Cyclone Mei, who possesses one of two volumes of the Nine Yin Manual, a book of secret, ultimate martial arts, the understanding of which could make someone the greatest master of them all.  The book is both the Holy Grail and One Ring of the series.  But Mei was also the student of Lotus’s father, the Heretic Apothecary Huang, as was her husband Hurricane Chen, inadvertently killed by the reflexes of a six-year-old Jing, told in the first volume of the series.  Apothecary Huang is repulsed at the thought of his daughter betrothed to the killer of one of his students, which sets up the key action of the story.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

When you think of epic adventures, maybe first that comes to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Maybe the cinematic stories of Akira Kurosawa, like The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and Rashomon.  Or maybe your epic adventures are more fantasy, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror, or historical, like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, C.S. Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower, or go farther back, like Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte De’Arthur, the Maya’s Popul Vuh, the Old English Beowulf, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, or even the stories of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey.  What if someone wrote an equally exciting, rich adventure in the 1950s that has been read by more than 300 million readers, and you missed it, simply because it hasn’t been translated into English yet?  That would be the first English edition just released of A Hero Born, by Jin Wong, the pen name of Chinese author Louis Cha.  His novels sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the series is finally available to U.S. readers.

Two men, Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang, grow up together around 1200 AD.  Becoming best friends and blood brothers, they get married and have their firstborn both due at the same time.  They swear loyalty to each other, including a vow binding the futures of their family together that will survive these men, just as intruding warriors divide and even kill members of their family, leaving the friends and their families to disperse and flee.  Enter the Seven Heroes of the South (known by their enemies as the Seven Freaks of the South).  When the two friends are feared dead, this elite Magnificent Seven of sorts, a fabulous mix of warriors with every type of skill and weapon, makes a bargain with one of the revered seven Immortals, Eternal Spring Qiu Chuji.  They will separately train the offspring of the men, and in 18 years return for a showdown to see who are the better masters or shifu.  To one of the women a boy is born, named Guo Jing, and it is his story–his mythic hero’s journey–that the reader follows in this first adventure, which takes him from birth into adulthood, toward a destiny he may not be prepared for.  Guo Jing does not know his life and training is all based on a wager.  What does it take to have honor, to have character, to be a hero, and what surprises will he stumble upon on his way to meet his destiny?

Books like A Hero Born are why we have words like “epic.”  First published in Chinese in 1957, A Hero Born is the first novel in Jin Wong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes series set in the 13th century, following the life of a family in a community under the Song Empire who escaped to join Genghis Khan and his people.  It’s hard to believe the novel wasn’t written a hundred or hundreds of years earlier, or that George Lucas didn’t base his entire Star Wars saga on this story.  Anna Holmwood′s use of prose in her translation is pure artistry–A Hero Born reads seamlessly as if the novel was originally written in English.  Holmwood conveys the meanings of the hundreds of Chinese terms without seeming to explain them, weaving cultural nuances, the unique characters, the rich history of China, the Mongols, and Jin, the Taoist philosophy, and visual kung fu choreography into easy reader understanding.  The world-building will suck readers in and leave you wanting even more.  Luckily the entire series has been translated now, to be released over the next few years.

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Last week The Princess Bride turned 30 and it returned to theaters this week as part of the Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies partnership (more classics are on their way to your local theater so keep an eye on the Fathom Events website for updates).  We’re big fans of The Princess Bride here at borg.com–more than five years ago it made 3 of our 4 lists of all-time favorite fantasy films.  This week’s screenings included Ben Mankiewicz interviewing director and producer Rob Reiner, and what shines through is Reiner’s enthusiasm for the film, three decades later.  He’s had several hits, from This is Spinal Tap to A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and The American President, and more, and now in theaters is his latest–LBJ.  But so few films are beloved like The Princess Bride.

Why does it work so well?  Part of the film’s success is due to its sincerity.  It’s true to its source material, William Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride–the favorite of the author’s works.  Reiner tells a story of the difficulty in getting novelist William Goldman to sign over the film rights.  After countless big names were denied, Reiner was successful by agreeing simply not to change the story.  Goldman, who won Oscars for his screenplays to All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also penned the film adaptation, further ensuring his original vision.  The story is bookended as only a fairy tale could be told (with a few interruptions) by Peter Falk’s Grandpa and Fred Savage’s Grandson, just having storytime.  The Grandson’s 1980s room provides plenty of nostalgia for kids from the period–a “Refrigerator” Perry poster, a Cubs pennant, Burger King The Empire Strikes Back drinking glass, He-Man action figures–this Chicago kid had a fun room.  But the family bonding is the thing–an old book keeping a story that bridges generations, inside the movie and out, told by an old man with glasses, gray hair, and a fedora.  And the story is sweet and about love–nothing in the movie is embarrassing or gross or disturbing–it’s safe territory to kick back and have a good time–for everyone.

Rob Reiner’s humor must also be a big component of the film’s success and appeal.  His choices, his casting, his own humor comes through, no doubt influenced by a lifetime in film thanks to his comedy dad Carl Reiner.  Carl belonged to that classic comedy school that also includes Mel Brooks.  It’s Brooks’ Young Frankenstein that The Princess Bride reminded me of the most in the theater.  What Young Frankenstein was to classic monster movies, The Princess Bride was for the fantasy film genre.  Is The Princess Bride a parody?  It doesn’t have those obvious, direct ties to specific classic scenes like Young Frankenstein, but it’s an homage to several–from Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood to Zorro and from Ivanhoe to Captain Blood and Sleeping Beauty.  The Pit of Despair, where Cary Elwes’s Dread Pirate Roberts is tortured, looks as if it could have been designed by the same crew as the laboratory set in Young Frankenstein (it didn’t but it did share its set designer–Richard Holland–with fantasy classics Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal).  But Rob Reiner’s humor is his own.  He never sits on a joke like the old masters of Hollywood comedy.  He leaves a laugh and keeps moving, which keeps in step with classic fantasyland storytelling.  You can laugh but the goal is the goal:  Rescue the Princess!

The classic archetypes are there: the Princess (Robin Wright), the Farmboy Hero (Elwes), the Three Woodsmen (Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant), a Wizard (Billy Crystal), a Crone (Carol Kane), an Albino (Mel Smith), and plenty of Villains including the Evil King (Chris Sarandon)–with a classic “rescue the Princess” plot.  But the movie is also unique.  What else has Rodents of Unusual Size?  The accents of Wallace Shawn as Vizzini and Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman?  An ad-libbing Billy Crystal partnered with a wonderfully badgering Carol Kane (Humperdinck! Humperdinck!)?  A real giant?  Two brave, swashbuckling heroes and two key villains (don’t forget Christopher Guest’s Count Rugen).  And the quotable lines!  It surely has as many big lines as Caddyshack: As you wish… My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my Father.  Prepare to die… Never get involved in a land war in Asia!…  Inconceivable!…  I do not think that word means what you think it means… Mawwiage! … And an endless litany of “boo”s.  The Pit of Despair!  The Cliffs of Insanity!

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Elmore Leonard’s 30th novel would become one of his most widely known stories.  Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit” and one of America’s greatest crime authors, wrote 45 novels before his death in 2013, including Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and later popular works Get Shorty and Be Cool, but his own favorite film adaptation, and the best screenplay he’d say he had ever read, was Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown, the film adaptation of Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch.  Although Jackie Brown will likely not go down as the most popular of Tarentino’s films–that will probably always fall to Pulp FictionJackie Brown is probably his best work, a straight crime thriller without all the over-the-top operatic bloodbaths of his other films.  It’s also one of the most faithful film adaptations you’ll ever see, keeping most of the dialogue and sequences from the novel.  Rum Punch is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and Jackie Brown celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.

Only a few chapters into Rum Punch and it’s easy to understand why Tarentino acquired the screen rights to adapt the novel for film.  The characters are edgy and typical of the pulp crime genre, yet they are also unique in their depth.  Leonard weaves Jackie, Max, Ordell, Louis, Melanie, and Ray into an intricate and fulfilling caper and con job.  Jackie is driven, determined, and a little rough on the edges.  Max is a straight shooter and ex-law enforcer who plays by the rules.  Ordell and Louis have years of crime between them and are moving beyond the petty crimes of their past.   And the book is filled with cool–cool people, cool ambiance, cool talk.  The biggest difference between book and film adaptation is in Leonard’s handling of the relationship between Jackie Brown and bail bondsman Max Cherry, played so well by Robert Forster in the film.  Jackie Brown sketches what may be one of the best modern romances on film–a subtle and almost teenage infatuation between the two film leads that culminates in a simple kiss at the end of the film.  Jackie and Max seem to care sincerely for each other, and the film leaves Max to return to his life of writing bonds while Jackie drives off into the unknown.  But the original novel left open whether the two characters would go off together, while making them a romantic couple early in the story.  In the novel Max has been estranged from his wife for a few years and he’s finally getting to filing the divorce papers.  But Max doesn’t have much to drive him until Jackie shows up and they end up in the sack, almost taking away from something Tarentino was able to tap into to make more touching for the film.  Leonard gives Max and Jackie individually second chances and an opportunity to start anew with each other–if only they’d just take it.  Leonard leaves the question open–is there a happily ever after in the cards for them?  But Tarentino has Max watch as Jackie drives off.  It’s a gut punch–there’s no happy ending here.  The viewer can’t help but imagine him getting into the car and going after her, after the credits roll.  Which is better?  That answer is in the eyes of the reader.

But there are other differences worth noting between the novel and the film.  Leonard’s heroine is a blonde woman named Jackie Burke.  Initially Tarentino was nervous about discussing with Leonard the re-casting of the lead to Pam Grier for his film, but Leonard was in favor of it.  And the name shift was simply because Tarentino thought Jackie Brown was a cooler name than Jackie Burke.  Rum Punch, the title of the 1992 novel, was the term used to identify the scheme that Ordell (played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson) was using to bring money into the U.S. from Jamaica (this is the same type of arms purchase scheme and players that were the focus of this month’s new Tom Cruise movie American Made, reviewed here).

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