Tag Archive: Best of the Best


Review by C.J. Bunce

If you can’t imagine the greatest noir crime story you ever read was about a firm of private investigators researching a claim of insurance fraud, you’d better get ready.  The fifth–and what appears to be final–retro re-issue of a classic work of crime fiction by Erle Stanley Gardner (who was, at his death, the best-selling American writer of all time) is now available from Hard Case Crime.  One of the novels Gardner penned under his pseudonym A.A. Fair, the author mastermind known for dozens of Perry Mason novels (60 in total) and Cool & Lam novels (30 total) penned Shills Can’t Cash Chips sixty years ago, and it’s as exciting, current, funny, and full of intrigue as any modern bestseller.  Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are back at it again.  Although Hard Case Crime notes this is the last of their series of Gardner books (with this review I’ve reviewed all but one, including Turn on the Heat, The Count of 9, and the first ever publication of Gardner’s “lost,” Cool & Lam novel, The Knife Slipped)–which is a sad thing–that just means it’s time to begin tracking down the rest.   

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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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Although it wasn’t renewed for a second season, streaming service DC Universe’s Swamp Thing was the 2019 adaptation of a comic book series that stood apart in a year where every other series seemed to be based on a comic book.  On the small screen, from The Umbrella Academy, The Boys, and Watchmen, to the last seasons of Netflix’s The Punisher and Jessica Jones, plus new seasons of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Gotham, and Legion, and new Batwoman and Doom Patrol series, 2019 meant a lot of comic book adaptations that either looked the same or they fought hard to try to be grittier and different.  And that’s great–that means there’s something for everyone.  But none compared to Swamp Thing.  For our money, if you’re looking for fun, creepy timed for Halloween and not cartoony, soap opera-ish, or comic booky, and a series that earned its way to be one of the top 10 comic book adaptations of all, give Swamp Thing a try.  Moving from DC Universe to the CW network where anyone can watch it, the first episode of Swamp Thing begins again tonight at 7 p.m. Central.

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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

So often big budget dramas dressed in sci-fi dress rise up the box office rankings, you might miss the best films, the ones that don’t need the big budgets or major stars, the refreshing sleepers that surprise you.  One of those great surprises was Midnight Special, which I reviewed here at borg back in 2016.  The next spectacular science fiction work is even better–The Vast of Night–the brainchild of writer-director-producer-editor Andrew Patterson (who is billed under multiple names), now streaming on Amazon Prime.  Could this freshman filmmaker be the next J.J. Abrams, John Carpenter, or Steven Spielberg?  Think Super 8, The Fog, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in a setting like American Graffiti and The Outsiders, with stunning cinematography, superb dialogue in a tightly written script, and a fresh and eerie use of sound.  If you missed this Amazon Studios arrival earlier this summer, you’re in for a treat of 1950s teenage sleuths, a radio station, and strange goings about town: An ambitious film that comes pretty close to perfect science fiction in the classic tradition of The Twilight Zone, The War of the Worlds, and the short stories of Philip K. Dick.

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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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