C’est la Divertissement Vie. (That’s the Entertainment Life.)

Games:

I may seriously never purchase another game from Konami again.

mgsvYes, I’m late to the party. But their last great game, Metal Gear Solid V, was never given the chance to be completed. The game was delivered in an episodic fashion that spanned 50 missions. 51 was supposed to effectively be the game’s final boss battle. Cut material from the collector’s edition showed a half complete last episode, which would have been an excellent note to satisfy one last dangling plot thread and go out with a bang.

It was never released. And according to Konami’s spokesmen, never will be.

This information was never quite clear to me given the layouts of story-focused wikis, or the strategy guides and commentary boards that avoided discussing the plot for fear of spoilers: I only just learned of the mission conclusion after completing 89% of the game. But imagine, if you will, the Harry Potter series sans the final battle with Voldemort and the epilogue. Or Star Wars: Return of the Jedi without the Battle of Endor.

Others have covered the likely cause of this sad state of affairs better than I have, but the likely culprit was the Konami/Kojima split. I’ve played several Kojima games in my life and I know that he would never willingly leave a story incomplete. Of those titles were Zone of the Enders and its sequel, as well as Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater. While he always had more stories to tell, leaving the current arc incomplete was simply never his style.

Of the game itself, I could see how it was almost a masterpiece. Almost. The game play constantly brings me back again and again for its completeness, it’s total immersive elements. The depth of strategies is profound in and of itself, where no item or weapon ever seems to have just one purpose. Every game play session, I learn something new about how to combat my foes; some trick, a tactic or vantage point I never considered before. Even without the cut ending the story was somewhat weak, but this was countered with dozens of great moments that constantly made me forget vulnerabilities in the overall tale. Mission 51 would probably make me condone this, but I will never know for certain.

That being said, I refuse to give up after coming this far. I’ll see this through to the end but that is all, despite my disappointments and reservations.

Movies:

The Professional: Golgo 13golgo13 feels like something that could and should have been better.

Golgo 13, sometimes known as Duke Togo, is Japan’s answer to James Bond: an ageless, ongoing assassin whose stories often have to entertain without ever developing the man himself. Instead, the creators rely heavily on crafting sensational plot twists, over-the-top sex scenes, backstories for his victims, visually insane villains or researching mind-boggling but physically possible acts of sniping such as ricocheting a bullet off an ocean wave. Anything to avoid piercing the titular character’s stoic demeanor and mysterious allure.

In this film, Mr. Togo is contracted to end the life of Robert Dawson. However, it happens at a sensitive time during a company coronation, when Robert is dubbed the new CEO of a massive, massive enterprise. Although Togo succeeds, the contract’s legacy turns sour as the would-be CEO’s father (the current CEO Dawson) seeks revenge for the death of his son.

The beginning feels almost distracted by another contract that Golgo accepts, which concludes with him being chased by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon. All these agencies under the employ of Dawson himself, who wields his company’s power in a way that the Sherman Antitrust Act was exactly designed to prevent. Despite the threat, Togo seems oblivious to the danger and completes another contract. Only then does he realize how unrelenting the government’s hitmen are, as Golgo’s informants are either killed or turn on him.

The visual style of The Professional was somewhat distracting. While the action scenes were straight forward, coherent and well handled, Director Osamu Dezaki seemed determined to punch up even basic dialogue with flair unnecessarily. The movie also used some CGI animations to handle some helicopter assault scenes, but the technology was simply too immature at the time to effectively tell a story. Likewise, the story concocted several Bond-level villains for Golgo to fight as well, the story actually suffers from the introduction of too many antagonists to effectively develop in its 90 minute running time. However, the final plot twist at the end was somewhat satisfying (highlight to see spoiler): It turns out that Robert Dawson ordered the hit on himself, an act of suicide because of his fear of being unable to live up to his father’s expectations.

Television:

I gave up on Orphan BlackAmazon’s sci-fi series about clones.

“Where’s this madness going?” I asked myself after the ninth episode of season two. The plot consisted of most of the characters milling about in circles. Once again, the protagonist’s daughter had been kidnapped, after a long season of hiding about the countryside to no real effect. Meanwhile, antagonist Helena was stolen by some strange religion-meets-genetics commune who took her eggs. After she escaped and then willfully came back, she threatened a harsh nanny for mistreating the children under her care, not long before Helena sets the compound on flame regardless of the lives of the kids inside.

Characters portrayed by anyone besides Tatiana Maslany became less interesting, and except for concerns regarding a genetic disease amongst the show’s many clones, the entire season felt like little more than “filler.” ggrThe show felt like it willfully resisted growth despite a strong first season. Only Maslany’s skillful acting kept me going this far, as she slips in and out of versions of herself in a believable manner.

On the plus side however was Good Girls Revolt, an amusing and unexpected show actually made me realize how bloody boring Mad Men sometimes was.

I can see how Good Girls Revolt was probably stiff-armed by Amazon for years until the latter show came to an end. Mad Men was/is the Oscar of television, but sometimes didn’t feel like it wore enough of the sixties (at least the pieces we wanted to remember) on its sleeve. GGR certainly does, but the other huge difference is that the series focuses around one major climax that the main characters built towards through behind-the-scenes politicking and subterfuge.

The girls seemed to truly wrestle with their guilt; a sharp contrast to the occasional acts of Mad Men’s cruel, tragic and unapologetic attitude.

The bad news however is that the show isn’t going to get a second season, at least not on Amazon. One aspect downplayed is that GGR is built on real events, namely Newsweek’s EEOC lawsuit in 1969. Although the name was changed to the fictional “News of the Week,” the historic aspects are still very highlighted. It’s safe to doubt that Newsweek enjoyed someone dredging up a nearly 50 year-old legal filing that put them in a bad light. And I could see why Amazon might not want to start a mudslinging contest with the news outlet in all in the name of entertainment.

Stranger Things Season 1 Review

Stranger thingsUntil indicated, this review is spoiler free. If you’ve seen it, skip below for analysis.

No one saw it coming. No one. Like an alien invasion or a paranormal event, Stranger Things is a bolt of 80’s goodness out of the blue.

On a cold night in November of 1983, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears in his hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. As the search gradually begins, spearheaded by the haunted Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) has strange revelations as to the whereabouts of her missing son. Her antics grate and worry her eldest child Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who starts his own investigation, eventually crossing paths with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and plain crossing her new boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery).

Meanwhile, Will’s friends Lucas, Dustin and Nancy’s brother Mike (Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Finn Wolfhard respectively) decide to buck the rules and search for their missing chum despite the danger. Instead they find a strange girl in the worlds named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and are pulled into a far greater mystery that is part man-made, and part not…

There are absolutely no limits to the 80’s references in the show. Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer gently borrowed ideas and hints from a myriad of movies and shows, or even just used toys and games of the era. These ranged from hints of Aliens to Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T.A Nightmare on Elm Street and It (although that was released in 1990), to impressions of Yoda. Yet despite the reliance on nostalgia the show stands on its own, entertaining whether or not the audience is familiar with these titles.

AlphabetThat last point raises a critical question about whether or not the show is suitable for younger children. The show’s heroes range from adults to teenagers to kids, pulling in audience from all age groups, giving appeal for the whole family. But although most of the violence happens off screen and the gore is subdued, some of the scarier elements risks nightmares for the youngest. This is especially true during the mesmerizing finale.

That said, Stranger Things is the engine of fan conversion. The perfect blend of science fiction and horror, carefully balanced between concerned and aware adults as well as a group of lovable children. No one is immune to the charm of Lucas, Mike and especially Dustin who all flip from their goofiness to concern just as real kids do. And although Stranger Things is a quintessential homage of the best of a decade, the show is a phenomenon no one can, or should, resist.

Analysis and spoilers follow from here on. 

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Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 Review

 

Voltron

For some reason, no one could nail a solid reboot of the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe.

There were attempts before, and my understanding is that they’ve been lackluster. Strange, because the original show adhered to a relatively simple premise; a group of space explorers for the Galaxy Alliance are captured by the Drule Empire and taken to Planet Doom. After escaping, they make their way to Planet Arus where Princess Allura helps them discover five legendary robotic lions. These assemble into Voltron, who defends the planet from King Zarkon.

The American version of the original series stuck to a formulaic approach. After the movie-long introduction of Voltron and the team, each episode resulted in the appearance of a huge robeast (robotic beast) who would then perish to Voltron’s sword. Occasionally the team would face a real problem, such as one of the team being injured or some espionage that prevented forming the eponymous hero. Other times actual changes to the plot would drive events, such as the introduction of Prince Lotor, or the transformation of Commander Yurak into a robeast followed shortly thereafter by his legitimate death.

But the original Voltron did have a huge impact on other media and pop culture in general. Gestalt combinations of robots were integrated into the Transformers series, and there’s no doubt where the concept of Power Rangers came from. And to this day, the phrase “And I’ll form the head!” can still invoke laughter from those in the know.

All of this is why Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s new series, Voltron: Legendary Defender, shocked and awed by possessing a forward-thinking story, subplots, great character development and solutions that don’t always revolve around slashing kaiju in half. And as if it being green-lit for season 2 wasn’t awesome enough, we’ll be getting it January of next year.

This review will avoid spoilers, but the same cannot be said of the links. Click with caution.

Voltron TeamThe show opens with the abduction of Shiro (a re-envisioned Sven) and his research team during first contact with the alien Galra Empire. A year later, Galaxy Garrison space cadets (in both rank and metaphor) Hunk, Pidge and Lance prove themselves a crew in need of cohesion.

But just as Pidge lets on that he knows more about the events of the universe than they’re being told, the trio go to investigate an incoming distress call. The emergency proves to be an escaped Shiro, who the Garrison is about to take into custody and quarantine. With the help of academy wash-out Keith, the five escape the garrison forces. And by combining their knowledge, they are eventually led to the hiding place of the blue lion who auto-pilots them to Planet Altea. There, a desperate Princess Allura and Coran instruct them in reassembling Voltron.

If this synopsis of the first episode sounds a little rushed, that’s because it is. The first is also the longest of the series; almost 70-minutes compared to the ten 23-minute episodes that follow. The pacing relies on the viewers wanting to cut to the meat of series rather than worry about minor details, like how Princess Allura happens to speak the same language as the earthling team. Or the Galrans too for that.

GalraBut it’s the following episodes when the show really begins to shine. Unlike the original series, the Voltron force doesn’t stick around to play some ridiculously prolonged defensive campaign. The Castle of Lions is actually a modified spaceship that is grounded, and the team embarks on a guerrilla campaign to free the galaxy from Galran control.

And this is no small task. In the opening episode(s), it is revealed that the Galran Empire is a huge sum of galactic space but has yet to come into regular contact with humanity. The showrunners actually treat the empire realistically too, with infrastructural concerns like refueling stations for their fleets, production and mining facilities— economic considerations light years ahead of what Defenders of the Universe ever pondered. The ten episodes barely scratched the surface and yet they’re off to a bang-up start.

But more than the “evil empire” trope, all of this is unexplored territory for a bunch of earthlings who have never been outside human-controlled space before. Although how they overcame language barriers isn’t explained, there is plenty of culture clash. Hunk learns what the Alteans consider food the hard way , Pidge questions their concept of time and there are many alien races out there to meet. And if culture is the “little stuff,” then there are bigger discoveries out there such as the colossal Balmera, which not only add to the depth of the universe but also serve as interesting story elements themselves.

HunkGoofiness seems to be the most defining characteristic of much of the cast. Compared to his Defender of the Universe bonhomme counterpart, Coran is almost over-the-top with ridiculousness. This is strange when mixed with his otherwise traditionalist views and position as the show’s lore-keeper. The rest of the team is prone to rib-poking too, particularly at the expensive of good-natured Hunk. There’s a few times when the humor risks being ill-placed, especially in the first episode. But the series tempers itself to know when to crack a smile and when to hold off.

But unlike the original series, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery proved willing to build on both the heroes and villains, and found subtle ways to indicate a willingness to lose them as well. For the pilots, the two biggest changes have been Pidge and Shiro. The latter was given a great backstory with forward-moving motivation, while the former slowly unravels the mysteries of what happened to him during his abduction. Lance and Keith primarily provide rivalry and personalities this season, while Hunk becomes more personally involved in one mission the team undertakes. Even Voltron itself gets more of a backstory.

Then there are the villains. Except for more litheness than the past, Space Witch Haggar is relatively untouched in role and menace. Her services to Emperor (a welcome promotion from “King”) Zarkon are the same; advising and creating new technologies and robeasts. For fear of spoilers, the changes to Zarkon himself will not be addressed. Still, these alterations exemplify the ethos of the show to rarely come out and say something. Rather, Voltron: Legendary Defender prefers to show the audience the pieces and allow the mystery to reveal itself on its own time in a rather organic manner.

But it’s Princess Allura who received the most revisions. The prior series cast her initially as something of a damsel-in-distress who eventually steps up to the plate to become a lion pilot. This time, she and Coran are in charge of the ship, and she takes a commander’s role to Shiro’s captaincy. She also reveals that Alteans are not space humans and, perhaps in the biggest piece of foreshadowing, suffers a personal loss halfway through the series.

Voltron GangThis loss was of a cornerstone element of Defender of the Universe. While not really a “death,” this event may subtly indicate that DreamWorks is willingly to write permanent changes to the course of the plot. As Sven (Shiro) was killed early in the original Japanese series, it is not impossible that other deaths may follow. Time will tell how much everyone’s favorite robot show has matured.

Whether you’re a fan of 80’s nostalgia, good anime or just something family friendly, check out Voltron: Legendary Defender before the start of the second season.

Entertainment in July

Stranger ThingsRejoice. This entry is spoiler free.

On Sunday I screamed at my friends, “You have to watch Stranger ThingsRight now!”

And they did. Alec added it to the to-watch list. Andrew binged it to completion on Friday while Manuel and his wife became so absorbed, he put down working a new cover for us to stream the entire first season.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, shame on yo— I mean, the show takes place in sleepy Hawkins, Indiana in November, 1983. A stormy night preludes the disappearance of young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), setting the entire town on edge. Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Finn Wolfhand, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo respectively) break the town’s emergency curfew to search for their abducted friend, and happen across a strange girl (Millie Bobby Brown).

Meanwhile the missing boy’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) struggles to accept her boy’s loss while Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) slowly becomes a part of the mystery herself. Toss in a police sheriff (David Harbour) with a tragic past and a mix-match of elements from The X Files and you have a phenomenal homage to all the great things from the 80’s; E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third KindStarman and a whole slew of Stephen King’s best.

Speaking of the 80’s, I’ve finally figured out what is bugging me about Halt and Catch Fire. While the second season was generally good, the problem was that it spent too much time trying to wow us with “predictions of the future.” The first season focused on a single, great idea with the invention of the laptop, with hints of query-based operating systems. But the second season just went crazy with the fortunetelling; T1 cable lines, how chat rooms were the secret to America On-Line’s success, computer security, online gaming, time-sharing data processing, made-to-order custom built PCs and first-person shooters (aka Doom).

By the end of it, the audience is left with the impression that basically all the major growth in the computer industry was foreseen by just four people who all just happened to be in Texas. Halt and Catch Fire was green lit for a third season, but I’m not certain my inability to believe what I’m seeing is going to keep me glued to the screen. 

Admittedly, my reading has somewhat slowed because of a newfound love of podcasts. Or rather, that of Jason Weiser’s Myths and Legends. Podcasts solve my problem of not getting enough fresh, non or semi-fictional material, allowing me to work out or just walk to my job while absorb new tales. Unfortunately, sometimes the episodes run over the time it takes me to get to the metro. Since I’d rather wrap up the episode, this then cuts into my reading.

Watership DownBut I am closing in on the final chapters of Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s strange how folks gape in awe when tell them I haven’t partaken in reading it before. Like there’s no respect for there being hundreds of classic books to read, and to expect even a prolific reader to have covered them all is ridiculous.

A brief synopsis goes that two rabbits, Hazel and his brother Fiver, tire of life in their warren where they are not exactly high ranking. Upon a prophetic vision from Fiver, Hazel gathers a crew to try and split off from their home without the approval of their elders. Escaping with a dozen bucks, they travel into a hostile world, facing unusual dangers and troubles until settling at a place christened Watership Down. Acknowledging that they have no does to perpetuate their warren, Hazel and company attempt to rectify the situation. This runs afoul another, more militant warren whose glory-seeking leader brokers no dissension.

Watership Down isn’t exactly something you can spoil; if you try not to explain the plot, you’re not left with much to describe it with. But it’s not about the suspense of “what happens next” but rather the journey itself, complete with cunning and tricks and the lore of El-ahrairah, a mythological trickster hero and the closest thing to lapine-religion.

Finally in games this week, I downloaded Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Firmly understanding that it’s basically the tech-demo/prequel to The Phantom Pain, I’ve nevertheless invested time and effort mastering it, trying to earn the 100% completion rate before purchasing the main game. So far, I’m over 40%, so definitely doing alright.

Ground ZeroesMy record of playing the Metal Gear series is spotty. Peacewalker and MGS4 remain to be played. But I own Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty, the latter of which feels underrated as many fans did not like the main character being someone other than Snake himself.

And then my favorite, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

The game was strange as the third of any series is rarely the best and, as if not bizarre enough, it was also a prequel. And I’m not alone in this, as many polls suggest that the third installment was other gamers’ favorite as well. It was just… so unexpected. Initially I almost snubbed the game, but instead found my expectations totally reversed. I became less interested in getting MGS4, believing the emotional power of the third game simply couldn’t… and perhaps shouldn’t, be topped.

I’ve made few secrets before how Metal Gear has been quite the inspiration for some of my writing in the past. While the gameplay remains action and stealth based, the plots have frequently proven to have very few genre limits. The term “super hero” is never used, but several characters have abilities and skills that seem nigh-super powered. The rules of politics, military and science fiction are often bent and occasionally broken.

And while the thought of nuclear deterrence is a unsettling subject matter, some of the antagonists’ schemes have proven even more nefarious, such as the Patriot’s attempts to control culture itself by “info-cleansing” the internet. Given that all modern politics revolves around controlling the narrative, this actually scares me more than nuclear weaponry.

 

A Trope to Twist, AKA the Rise of “Meta-Movies”

GoosebumpsThe weekend before last I enjoyed watching Goosebumps on Netflix. A blend of comedy with thriller-horror, the film was weirdly delighting and a fun surprise for someone whose only entry into the series was Say Cheese and Die.

The premise was unusual as well; high school student Zach (Dylan Minnette) is forced to move to Madison, Delaware so his mother can take a new job. Initially with no friends of his own, he bonds with his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush). But concern for his new friend leads Zach to investigate her father, whom is the reclusive (to say the least) writer R.L. Stine, portrayed by Jack Black. His reason for hiding from society? Stine’s original manuscripts are gateways to unleashing the monsters he wrote. And when Zach accidentally unleashes them, Madison pays the price for his mistake.

Goosebumps is another addition to the growing genre of “meta-movies,” mildly self-aware films that make use of unusual source material in a way that acknowledges cultivated clichés and tropes, yet integrates them with care. These films are not parodies like Meet the Spartans or the Scary Movie series, but rather they walk a fine line between taking themselves seriously and having fun. The Lego Movie is another such meta-movie, telling the majority of its story before acknowledging its characters are, in fact, toys. Also Wreck-It Ralph, which portrays its eclectic cast of video games characters more as “actors” on a stage of digital lights. These films accept that telling a dramatic tale with the toys and games would difficult, and their approach vastly differs from other product-franchise adaptions like Battleship and Transformers which take themselves seriously (although the latter had considerable source material to draw from).

But products aren’t the only source of meta-movies. Entire genres too can fall in this category, such as with The Cabin in the Woods. Rather than avoiding them, Drew Goddard’s movie dives into the clichés, embracing and wrapping them around a “second tier” plot twist that changes the dynamic from traditional horror to a pre-apocalyptic tale. And it works very well.

An important distinction however is that they do not totally breach the fourth wall, but may create avatars for the audience and make them somehow integral to the story. For The Lego Movie, it was the child played by Jadon Sand and The-Man-Upstairs, Will Ferrell’s live counterpart. Goosebumps had Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee), while The Cabin in the Woods relied on Bradley Whitford and his team of voyeurs.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph differs however. It has no audience-avatar character, but still acknowledges that it takes place within a world hidden in the hardware, using props rather than a person to construct the stage and uses many gaming references to “speak” to and for the audience.

So where did the ideas for all these movies come from? A good question.

Goosebumps likely borrowed from The Cabin in the Woods, which was likely written based on critical reaction to patterns in horror films as a whole. The Lego Movie likely took a cue from Toy Story (which used a few brand toys but was mostly archetypal). Wreck-It Ralph could trace its origins to the Canadian animated show Reboot which in turn may have taken a hint from 1982’s Tron— all of whom take place within the hardware world.

These earlier films are not “meta-movies” but rather the forerunners, phenomenon that either immediately or in time altered pop culture as we know it. The ideological tree whose fruit gives us the very tropes to twist.

Still, the cats out of the bag and the pattern has emerged. Meta-movies are ultimately a kind of gimmick, a clever idea that will likely become more and more telegraphed until meriting retirement. But I’m not one to declare that any good idea should ever entirely be discarded. After audiences tire of them, the concept will probably be set aside until audiences forget they exist, before they make a resurgence. Just as Star Wars is the modern space opera and Indiana Jones is the archetype adventurer mixed from King Solomon’s Mines and similar but pulpier tales, no good idea goes unremembered for long.

Game of Thrones Season 6 Recap & Review

Spoilers are to follow. 

The reversal was stunning, to say the least. From the rough start to the incredible ending, the sixth season of Game of Thrones was the reward the show’s faithful have long awaited.

In order to ease reminders for readers, I’ll mostly be using links to the Game of Thrones wikia. However, a few links go to A Wiki of Ice and Fire which covers the books. Although the show has passed the timeline of the novels, there may still be spoilers that have yet be introduced on the screen. I will specifically warn the reader about such links.

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A Return to Form

So before I begin discussing some of the television shows of late, it is time for a confession. I’ve been seriously considering rescinding my policy regarding no book reviews.

The policy existed for a few reasons. There are concerns about conflicts of interest (promoting friends or nay-saying authors within my genre, etc) and also about the risk of creating enmity over honest critiques of works that fall below perfection. Although a heavy helping of tact and constructive criticism is essential to kaizen, there will always be those who are angered by the truth.

However there is a dearth of purposeful reviews. Product sites are host to star-ratings and plenty of unconnected praise, but they rarely go more than skin deep. What I’d like to see is true analysis; a discussion of themes, dissection of character motivations, breakdowns of any technical mistakes found by proofreading such as typos, misspelling or formatting concerns. 

Therefore I’ll be establishing three basic rules:

  1. The author or editor must request the review in the first place.
  2. Friends and colleagues can request, but I will mention a prior relationship with them alongside the release.
  3. The work must be available for purchase on at least one major outlet– This is to prevent trying to obtain “free” proofreading before release.

If anyone feels comfortable with these arrangements, feel free to contact me once the official page is available with my email. You can also simply comment here.

These reviews are spoiler free, but are lighter as a result.


Game of Thrones: Salt and Faith

Jon SnowI’ve finally cracked the seal on watching the latest season of Game of Thrones. Two episodes in and something was very amiss. There was the story line to Dorne which feels hampered by a missing faction elsewhere (which was present in the books).

Likewise, the situation at the wall involving Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) seems to have materialized from effectively nowhere, resulting in deal-making with someone he ought to hate. This proved frustrating personally as Davos is one of my favorite characters.

These incidents are justifying my concerns that deviations and omissions from the source material are starting to hamper the series. Thus the screenwriters have begun hot-wiring threads together, hoping to keep the engine running. Yet the 10-episode format limits available time to smooth the wrinkles of these transitions.

George R.R. Martin’s novels give the impression that he’s fairly good at avoiding pointless tales and subplots. Even the things that seem unconnected (and there are many, many such elements) often connect and trigger events down the road, although sometimes these have to be taken with a hint of salt and faith. Why the screenwriters didn’t respect this more, I cannot say. But their hastiness instills me with patience for Martin as he carefully crafts the final installments.

The book series is, after all, his Magnum Opus.

This is not to say that this season has all been bad. Watching a childhood dream come true for Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) on screen was rather amazing. And Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) complicated situation has my full attention. It simply maybe one of those moments when a few bad scenes must be overlooked to arrive at an otherwise good season. Time will tell.


The 100: Murder Made More 

The 100Going from fantasy “past” to science fiction “future,” I’ve finally cracked the code that is The 100.

There has been a trend where the first few episodes seem to have it rough, with character connections rampantly making or breaking. But as the story gets closer to mid-season, the alliances are finally sealed and the show tells the plot that it wants to tell… and quickly gets better for it.

This seems why the early episodes feel inorganic as the characters play musical chairs with pairings, the emotions they’re supposed to portray being jerked about. It could be that the producers have been trying to tweak and figure chemistry between its stars to best please its audience.

Another peculiarity has been the flip-floppery with regard to killing its darlings. In the prior seasons, killing characters was sometimes a painful, drawn out affair. This season saw sudden deaths claim two characters from the show’s dramatis personæ– one who resulted in a fair amount outrage. 

Be forewarned, there are spoilers within this news link if the reader is curious.

However, the death of this person was absolutely necessary to advance the plot in a vital direction. And curiously, it seems we’ve also learned more about this character post-death than anytime while they were alive. And, as usual, it’s the pow of each season’s finale that keeps its fans coming back to next season’s slow start. That’s one thing we’ve learned to count on.


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Dangling Storylaces

Kimmy SchmidtIt was unclear what exactly was missing from this season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Only after being put side-by-side to the first season does the issue stick out. The first had an easier time weaving its most outlandish elements into the central plot. To this day, I still giggle over Titus Andromedon’s (Tituss Burgess) amazing Pinot Noir music video and the autotuned remix of his “Gonna Be Famous” (which is exactly what happened as a result). And Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) had her flashbacks to life in the bunker (occasionally revisited this season but not as often nor as rewarding). But this season, bizarre antics came more out of the blue, and were less memorable.

The plot-juggling was weirdly handled this time. Titus’ cliffhanger ending of last season was turned into an episode and then resolved with very little impact, although his follow up plots were simultaneously more interesting and entertaining. But less so for the rest of the cast. Jacqueline White’s (Jane Krakowski) hunt for spiritual meaning kept jabbing at a political cankersore. Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane) labored against the gentrification effecting her neighborhood to no immediate effect for all thirteen episodes, although the ending suggested an intriguing thread for the third season.

Kimmy’s story lines were a Boggle board; first on her forbidden relationship with Dong before folding into deeply embedded psychological issues– resulting in animated scenes that were strange and out-of-place. Then there was the dynamic between her and Jacqueline that seemed little more than filler.

Her finale simply didn’t have that coveted “full circle” plot that Seinfeld and The League were renown for possessing. The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt accomplished this in a less karmic way then those other shows, returning to the origin of the problem. But the second season simply didn’t try, arriving at some catharsis that doesn’t feel as meaningful as one may hope.

That’s all for now. Keep an eye out for Penny Dreadful and Halt and Catch Fire reviews next time.

Jessica Jones Season 1 Review

Jessica Jones Poster

This review contains spoilers.

This reviewer has very little prior knowledge of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, although he is familiar with the Purple Man from early-era Daredevil comics. As such, these reviews are against the material as presented on television. And on that note, Marvel’s knack for turning little known heroes and heroines into amazing small screen series cannot be understated.

Like its movies and series before, Marvel’s success continues to hinge upon top notch casting decisions. Krysten Ritter stars as the titular character, a former super hero turned private investigator with a tragic past. Ritter perfectly captures the essence of a woman tired of the altruism of the superhero gig, and has nothing to show for it but scars caused by the violent shattering of good intentions. Foul mouthed, sardonic and utterly jaded, Ritter successfully blends her comical wit and slyness from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 with the dramatic talents she proved to possess in Breaking Bad.

Most of Jones’ work involves the typical, misanthropy-inducing sleaze that comes with the occupation; gathering dirt for clients to ease their divorce proceedings. Jessica’s lowness is further highlighted by her more successful associations. These include her adopted sister, famous talk show host Trish Walker, and high-powered-high-profit Attorney Jeri Hogarth who is the source of most of Jones’ dubious clients.

However, Jessica haunts her past as much as it haunts her. She all but stalks Luke Cage, the owner of a local bar, for reasons of her own. And the rest her time is spent as inebriated as possible. Yet her path changes trajectory when she’s charged with locating a missing girl named Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty).

This chase eventually crosses paths with Kilgrave, better known as the Purple Man, a sociopath from Jessica’s past with the ability to control minds. Determined to hurt Jones’ for the pain of her abandonment, Kilgrave uses his powers to frame the kidnapped Shlottman for the murder of her parents.

David Tennant plays the role of Jones’ tormentor and nemesis Kilgrave. While Marvel’s movies seldom possess the time to carefully cultivate their villainy, their small screen work truly makes their bad guys amazing to behold. Just as Vincent D’Onofrio did with the Kingpin, Tennant makes the Purple Man shine with his warped sense of morality and refusal to accept responsibility for the actions partaken by those under his control. Driven by injured pride and obsession, Kilgrave returns from Jones’ past to try and reclaim what is “his.”

PosterPurpleManMarvelOne of the best elements of Jessica Jones has to be the unorthodox approach to handling the origin story. Too many comic-derived works take the Fantastic Tales approach of laying out the source of a protagonist’s abilities and heroic drive very early. And often rehashing it again and again whenever a new print starts or whenever a fresh introduction is required for new and expanding readership.

Rather, series creator Melissa Rosenberg wisely chose to wrap Jones’ past in two layers of mystery at least; the origin of Jones’ powers (to be discussed later) and Jones’ sordid history with Kilgrave and Cage, which is the center stage of this season.

For Jessica, Hope and a cast of other characters (including Eka Darville as Jones’ drug-addicted neighbor Malcolm), being a Kilgrave-survivor is a point of psychological intrigue. Kilgrave’s abilities raise unspoken questions regarding the nature of free will, as his victims are conscious and aware of their disturbing, involuntary actions, often voicing regret and remorse even as they obey. Yet the most horrible aspect of it is the sense of relief some of Kilgrave’s victims feel, assigning responsibility for their acquiesce to the man in charge. This psychological phenomenon is a carefully explored hypothetical that fairly puts the series in the realm of true science fiction.

Indeed, Kilgrave’s influence is felt absolutely everywhere and by everyone, no matter how much they try to elude him to deal with their own subplots. Those threads are a point of brilliance for the show. All the major characters are luckless enough to be caught by the Purple’s Man’s entangling web, which no one passes through without injury or consequence. And every subplot save one ties back into the centerpiece. Chekhov’s gun is observed and obeyed but the results aren’t without twists that shock and surprise.

CageOf those subplots, perhaps the highest praise could be paid to Mike Colter as Luke Cage. Like Jones, he is haunted by his past; a dead wife (at Jones’ hands and Kilgrave’s command), which led to a stint in prison where he achieved his powers of indestructibility. The original character is often classified as part of the blaxploitation era of the 70s, but care and vision had been given to the role’s reconstruction since then to stand above and beyond stereotypes.

Cage appears in roughly a third of the series, but his application moves the plot forward without overshadowing or distracting from Jones, while imparting depth and intrigue on his own. Colter’s passion for Cage has inspired this reviewer’s increased interest in the character’s forthcoming series, effectively selling it long before production finishes.

Then there’s Jeri Hogarth, portrayed by Carrie Anne-Moss. While the role was originally that of a man, Anne-Moss engaged the character with a sense of powerful rottenness that makes Don Draper of Mad Men look utterly meek in comparison. Hogarth’s story involves a tricky divorce from her wife for the love of her secretary, the strains of which grow until they are masterfully woven into the main plot. Her self-interest veers on the edge of antagonism even, such as preserving a sample of Kilgrave’s DNA for future study, even as the consequences turn karmic. Despite the tragedies that are inflicted on Hogarth, these traits are unlikely to have been erased, and one cannot help but wonder if she may become a villain.

Cage and JessicaWhile Cage provides a complicated love interest for Jones and Hogarth the professional and legal expertise, emotional support stems from her sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Grateful for Jessica’s help in escaping the clutches of their overbearing, fame-oriented mother, Trish’s attempts to aide her sister invoke the ire of Kilgrave. It’s here that Walker’s story interlaces with Officer Will Simpson (Wil Traval).

Turned into a pawn for the Purple Man, Simpson regrets his attempt on the life of the popular talk show host, and he and Trish eventually begin a relationship while the try to help Jones. A former soldier, Simpson has applicable experience for such situations. But Simpson’s extreme methods prove frictional for the women, who need Kilgrave alive to prove Shlottman’s innocence. The polarizing situation eventually drives Simpson back into the arms of a group known as TGH, who supply him with drugs that cause his combat prowess to match the intensity of his increasingly unstable demeanor. Walker’s research into this issue casts light on the mystery of the origin of Jones’ powers, hinting that TGH was responsible.

TrishThe remainder of the main plot proceeds as follows. Kilgrave’s attempts to manipulate Jessica fail, despite trying to exploit her past and Jones’ temptation to convince Kilgrave to use his powers for acts of decency. Kilgrave is eventually captured, and Jones discovers that she’s immune to his powers. Homework reveals that Kilgrave’s parents, inadvertently responsible for his abilities after trying to save his life from a disease, have been monitoring the situation from afar. Jessica involves them to build her case to the police.

Kilgrave escapes by exploiting Hogarth’s desire for an amicable divorce, but only after he slays his mother. Simpson appears later and destroys the gathered evidence, believing it folly to involve the law. Hogarth leads Kilgrave to her wife, who is a doctor, in order to treat a wound. Through Hogarth, Kilgrave learns of the fetus (of which he is the father) that was taken from Shlottman and preserved for study. Disgusted, Kilgrave leaves Hogarth to face the vengeance of her wife, but is saved by her secretary. Freeing Shlottman by coercing a DA, Kilgrave offers the girl in exchange for his father Albert. However the deal goes sour for Jones. Shlottman takes her own life as Kilgrave escapes with his father.

Let’s pause in the recap for a moment. If there was any weakness in Jessica Jones, it was here in the tenth episode. Kilgrave’s final escape risked being one chase too many, one dangerous step beyond the limits of audience’s interest, fractured by the wasted efforts of Jones, Hogarth and Trish to prove Shlottman’s innocence. And for many viewers, the scene was nearly as heartbreaking as a murder in Game of Thrones. Although the final three episodes rebound the desire to continue, this particular episode felt prolonged and almost needlessly tragic. These two factors made the tenth episodes “AKA 1,000 Cuts” the most difficult to watch.

NukeThe skills of Kilgrave’s father are harnessed to improve his son’s abilities, while Simpson’s volatility proves too dangerous. Trish and Jessica are forced to subdue Simpson, who disappears. Kilgrave proves the depth of his new-found power by deeply programming Luke Cage to lure Jones into his trap.

After rendering Cage dangerously unconscious with a shotgun blast to the face, Jones enlists Nurse Temple (Rosario Dawson) to keep her friend alive while Jones and Trish pursue the Purple Man. With no choice and no one left to defend, Jessica tricks Kilgrave into getting close before snapping his neck. Hogarth uses the implausibility of the circumstances to get Jessica off the hook legally. After regaining consciousness, Cage flees. Jones is alone again with only Malcolm, while Trish, given aide by her mother, begins researching TGH…

Jess-Jones-PosterHowever, the plot line involving TGH was the aforementioned mystery that remains unresolved for now. The second season hasn’t been announced as of yet as Marvel’s The Defenders likely takes priority. However, it’s not impossible that Jones’ may make appearances in Luke Cage or the second season of Daredevil between now and then.

Compared to DaredevilJessica Jones feels the more superior show by a few increments. Daredevil was somewhat handicapped by the sheer number of villains it was saddled with, and had many faces and story lines to introduce or at least hint at, both for its own sake as well as setting up the forthcoming miniseries. Jones was more free to explore the character and her yarns against 1.5 villains, and as a result handled its material slightly better.

If the first season of Daredevil has taken care of all the heavy lifting, and Jessica Jones is any indication of what to expect from now on, then we have a lot to look forward to from Marvels’ television studios.

Penny Dreadful Season 2 Recap & Review

PDS2

This review contains spoilers.

Whatever weaknesses the first season of Penny Dreadful suffered from, the second has completely overcome them like a vampire who has discovered how to exist in daylight. The character development paces better and covers the whole cast, while the story expands and the plot thickens in all the right ways. Penny Dreadful season two is superior in every way.

Once again the intrigue revolves around Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), sought by the Devil for her incredible abilities as a spiritual medium and, as we discover, witchcraft. However her friends and protectors within the home of Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) are distracted by powerful dilemmas and charmed by new, terrible foes; a coven of witches known as the Nightcomers. Servants of the Devil who are capable of acting in both and day and night and in public or shadows, they’ll stop at nothing to have Ives as the bride of Lucifer.

PDCutWifeIn the flashback episode “The Nightcomers” we learn of Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone), the Cut-Wife, who reluctantly comes to protect and mentor Vanessa in both sides of the magical arts. Although only present for a single episode, LuPone’s performance beautifully portrayed her character as she balanced the line between her pragmatism and loneliness, a woman with a rough exterior that belies her genuine good heart.

By transferring the focus from Vanessa to Joan, showrunner John Logan wisely prevents audience-fatigue with Ms Ives while still strengthening her background. Furthermore, the connection between the two women improves our understanding of Vanessa’s knowledge and sets the stage for a test against her soul. Joan is connected to the aforementioned coven of witches, as her sister is none over than head-witch Madame Kali, who has long coveted Vanessa. Helen McCrory returns as said villain, revealing herself as the true foe after a brief guest star role during the first season. Her coven’s unusual methods of subversion result in Clayton’s tragic immolation by a mob, and set the stage for Vanessa to seek vengeance. More on Kali in a moment.

Meanwhile Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) struggles to keep a cap over the events of the first season, which are unraveling in ways brilliant and unexpected. The fury of the Creature (Rory Kinnear) has been temporarily assuaged with the death and revival of the “Bride of Frankenstein” Lily (Billie Piper), whom veterans of the earlier season will recognize as Brona, Ethan Chandler’s former lover, and the prostitute once in service to Dorian Gray.

Victor persuades the Creature to grant the young doctor time to teach Lily, as to prevent the confusion and horrors that befell his first creation. The situation sets up an inevitable conflict between Dr. Frankenstein and his friend Ethan (Josh Hartnett) who believes Brona dead and gone, but this has yet to pass. Worse yet, Lily’s innocence and interest in the world lead Victor to fall for his third creation, blinding him to the fact she has recollected her memories.

Meanwhile, Ethan Chandler has his own problems. The law has not forgotten the hotel massacre committed by Ethan’s werewolf persona. Nor has the lone surviving bounty hunter, who attempted to capture Ethan for delivery back to his as-of-yet unrevealed father.

The legal pressure on Ethan grows thanks to macabre Inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) who reveals Ethan’s real surname as Talbot, hinting at the identity of his fatherThe increased police presence is felt by the residents of Sir Murray’s Manor, and Ethan turns to Murray’s Senegalese servant Sembene, played by Danny Sapali, to help manage his lunar proclivities. These revelations further build their friendship.

Finally, Sir Malcolm Murray himself grapples with the demons of his past. The death of his vampire daughter Mina has destroyed what little remained of his marriage to Gladys (Noni Stapleton) and has left him persona non-grata in his wife’s presence. Yet honor prevents an official divorce. This unfortunate situation is “resolved” by an affair he has with Madame Kali, unaware of her motivations. The curses spun by her coven soon leave Gladys buried alongside both her dead children… a death seemingly by her own hand.

On the other side of the fence, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) has slowly emerged as a villain in his own right. Starting a relationship with transgender prostitute Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp), the show reminded us of the times and how their relationship would be generally frowned upon. Dorian himself seems admirable, a true gentleman despite the struggles Angelique has with her identity.

PDAngelique

Unfortunately for Angelique, she stumbles upon Gray’s secret and we learn that even her acceptance of it isn’t enough to keep him from insuring her silence. Angelique’s murder feels complicated by myriad reasons. Keeping her from talking is but one, rather Dorian may have found some thrill in betraying and killing someone he loved. It could also have been because Dorian needed to clear the way for his new relationship with Brona, who seems intent on taking revenge upon the world itself for her previous, abused life.

The ending is powerful, shattering the group’s cohesion entirely. Victory was very costly, as the psychic assault the coven leveled against Sir Murray and Dr. Frankenstein drove them to the brink, while Ethan was tricked into committing a terrible act against his friend. Vanessa Ives emerged from her struggle the least damaged and even stronger for it, but seems the only one to do so. And although Madame Kali was defeated and slain (though death is questionable when the devil is involved), her treacherous daughter Hecate Poole (Sarah Greene) escaped to cause havoc another day.

PDASembeneThe hardest hitting moment of the season was undoubtedly Sembene’s death, at the hands of a transformed Ethan. The Senegal hunter had become an intriguing and likable character despite his aura of mystery, and watching his friendship with Ethan grow was remarkably enjoyable. It seemed likely that Danny Sapali was let go from the show for good, as he joined the cast of The Bastard ExecutionerHowever, with that show’s cancellation, and how often Penny Dreadful reverses death, a window is open for Sapali’s return.

For the rest of the cast, they become divided and ultimately alone. Victor Frankenstein, upon discovery of Brona’s rage, takes to the needle. Likewise the heartbroken Creature joins an expedition going north, after Brona rejects him and the family for whom he worked attempted to turn him into a freakshow attraction at a wax museum. A regretful Ethan Chandler turns himself in, only to discover that Rusk has orders to send him back to America. Murray returns to Africa with Sembene’s body. Only Vanessa stays put, alone in the manor.

As it stands, the third season is setting itself up for the difficult task of covering multiple plot lines. With the crew so scattered, the expansion of the story will be quite demanding. Season three is set to premiere in Q2, 2016.

Battletech Memories and Favorites

AtlasThe Battletech Kickstarter is doing very well, so it seems a good time to discuss the nostalgia consuming my psyche. I admire how Harebrained Schemes has been stirring fan conversations, either to gather metrics for game design (preferred mechs, ideas for mission designs) or just to generate PR buzz or maybe just for fun. But it’s effective and has gotten fans stoked.

I guess the best way to kick off is by telling a secret. Battletech played a major role in inspiring me to become a writer.

I’m serious. My first introduction to the Battletech Universe was through Mechwarrior 2. I procured the game on a whim, after having scored a fine report card and earning a reward from my parents.

While browsing PC games, a tough decision was laid before me. I very nearly took home a copy of Crusader: No Remorse. In the end, the classic mech sim won out. That very night I installed and played through a training mission. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to walk. However, I discovered that by shifting left and right, I inched forward just a little bit.

You read that correctly. I penguin walked my mech to my very first objective.

Two minutes of studying the instruction manual later I discovered this nifty thing called “throttle.” Before I knew it, my Firemoth was rushing from Alpha to Bravo, actually completing the laundry list of goals to accomplish. Everything after that was smooth sailing.

Until I accidentally fired a potshot at my training commander.

One violent death later and I was hooked. The game had no play timer that I knew about, but hundreds of hours of my childhood were invested playing and replaying trial missions and beating both campaigns inside and out.

Decision at Thunder RiftAs I progressed, I spent some time trying to understand the greater conflict between Clans Wolf and Jade Falcon and the universe as a whole. Later, while at the local bookstore, I noticed a connection between Mechwarrior and Battletech. That’s when I received my first Battletech novel, Decision at Thunder Rift.

For the audience members who haven’t read it, the book revolves around young Grayson Death Carlyle, son of the leader of Carlyle’s Commandos. While stationed on the desert planet of Trellwan, a bandit ambush cost Grayson his father, his unit and his inheritance.

Grayson survives, but is left stranded on a planet that has become hostile. However, after jumping into a battle between the bandits and the local militia, Grayson manages to turn his luck around and convince Trellwan’s government to set up their own Battlemech lance. Yet before he can finish off the bandits, Grayson is plunged into a greater political plot that threatens his home nation.

As a thirteen year old kid, this novel blew my mind. William H. Keith Jr did an amazing job of grabbing the reader’s attention regardless of their age and throwing them into the adventures, political intrigue and battles of the 31st century.

And as if it wasn’t awesome enough, the sequel Mercenary’s Star was even better. The kind of perfect guerrilla war story that was rife with conflict, challenges and betrayals. These tales helped set me down the path of trying to polish my writing craft on online message boards. Sometimes I produced fan fiction, and sometimes it was original pieces. Mechwarrior was a ton of fun, but it was Keith’s awesome novels that made me want to become a scribe in my own right. 

Back to the games themselves. Not long after Mechwarrior 2 came the Ghost Bear’s Legacy expansion, followed by my absolute favorite entry of the entire franchise, Mechwarrior Mercenaries. It was in this title that I developed a preference for medium battlemechs. They possess very good speed, can absorb some punishment and usually provide just enough firepower to legitimately threaten far-end heavies and assault mechs.

And as Mercenaries taught me, they’re a good price. Everything I thought I learned about being a Mechwarrior was turned upon its head once I learned to manage the flow of C-Bills. Before, the only punishment for using missiles and ballistic weapons was simply a little less ammunition with which to complete that mission. But the addition of financial considerations make me consider the price of every shot and every expenditure. And rewarded me with savings for preferring energy weapons.

For that reason, I have to give two mechs which I consider my favorites.

CenturionThe first is the Crab. I first piloted this mech during a campaign between rebel forces and House Kurita during Mechwarrior Mercenaries. The Crab’s exclusive focus on energy weapons, including two useful large lasers, helped me to outlast the competition and saved money in the long run. For the attrition-minded, you just can’t beat the value of a Crab piloted by a skilled mechwarrior.

The second must be the classic Centurion. Sure, I could easily list the Shadow Hawk, Wolverine or Griffin, all respected for their well-rounded designs. But while the trio were jack-of-all-trade types, the Centurion knew its role; peppering foes from afar and preferring to outgun over outrun the competition. When paired with other mechs, it did a great job at fire support. On its own, a strong raider.

The further along the Kickstarter gets, the more convinced I am that it’s the game I didn’t even know I wanted until now. All the elements of Mechwarrior Mercenaries with the tactical considerations of Mech Commander. A persistent lance, missions throughout the entire Inner Sphere and hopefully multiplayer arena battles, all set in the era of classic Battletech. 2017 never seemed so far away.