Cultural Sabbatical for June

It’s been a while. Writing projects have kept me and the team remarkably busy. I’m happy to announce that we’ve finished the first round of edits for our novella series. More on this later, perhaps even as soon as next week. But for now, a little of what I’ve found time to enjoy.

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As the fictional adventures continue, I have a tendency to rarely return to the same author within a year. This happens for many reasons; to prevent burnout, to keep my head filled with new ideas, and to rotate the geek-with-the-chic. Sometimes you get books that can blend those two things together, but this doesn’t usually happen until the novel transitions to the the screen, big or small.

But on that point, the “no author more than once a year” guideline was violated twice this year by Philip K. Dick, with The Man in the High Castle and my current read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which is rapidly disappearing in my hand. The story is a blitz that is hard to put down, interesting in its own right though vastly different from its film adaption, Blade Runner.

PKD was, and pretty much still is, the “idea man” that made science fiction what it is today. While many such authors tend to focus on the more academic sciences, the beauty in Dick’s concepts are their psychological inspirations. His themes ooze and seep, capable of invading any genre no matter how timeless. It wasn’t so much about androids, but what androids tell us about us. It wasn’t the facts and dates of Nazi occupation of America, but rather how we live in such times, how we felt and why we do. PKD used his head to tell it from the heart.

On the subject of fast reads, I’m also rather impressed with the vanishing act performed with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I finished over last weekend. The book was the perfect mix of fantasy and fairy tale, tying its carefully woven mix of behind-the-scenes theological suggestions with the philosophies of its characters. It spoke with such depth that one’s life felt changed after reading.

American GodsThe final achievement on the literature front was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which I purchased before even knowing about the upcoming television series. The novel was my first book by Gaiman (outside of the movie Coraline and the graphic novel The Dream Hunters with Yoshitaka Amano), and I truly appreciated the effort he put into researching and cultivating the world’s mythologies and not just the most common, such as Greek and Norse. The overall story is fairly satisfying on its own, although there is a sense that there should have been more to the story at times.

Perhaps that’s something that Starz will soon rectify.

While a part of me is looking forward to the book’s television rendition (considering it stars Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle), there’s reason to be cautious. Especially since HBO attempted the script with three writers and just couldn’t get it down, eventually giving up. Still, although HBO generally employs good writers, the somewhat prematurely finished show The Leftovers would suggest that the channels struggles to engage its audiences in matters of theological consideration. Well, since we’re on that topic…

Television

On the live action front… I have a horrible confession to make ladies and gentlemen. I have never seen Orange is The New Black

“What?!” Some readers might be screaming. “The show is amazing! How could you not see it?”

For me, Orange is The New Black is kind of suffering from a form of TV debt. Simply put, right now there is actually too much great television these days. HBO and Showtime used to have the corner to themselves, then AMC came along and proved that ordinary cable can deliver, followed swiftly by the lineups at Netflix. Now, it seems every channel has at least one hit show of some kind. USA has Mr. Robot (of which I’ve seen season one). PBS has Downton Abbey (currently I’m on the third season). The History Channel has Vikings (unseen but on the to-watch list).

With so much television out right now, it’s difficult to really catch up on golden oldies and prior seasons of current hits. OITNB is just one of those shows I put on the back burner to spend time on other projects. I may pick it up.

PrintHowever, disappointment abounds that the third season of Penny Dreadful is the final of the series. I didn’t see this coming at all, but my understanding is that this was premeditated long ago.  I’ve yet to begin watching it, although anyone who is familiar with my blog knows how much I’ve gushed over seasons one and two.

I intend to start Penny Dreadful shortly, but have been catching Game of Thrones first whenever possible. It’s not that I value the latter series any higher but simply because thoughtless fools on social media continue to ruin it, spoiling events if I don’t rush to see it. This has happened twice this year alone due primarily to memes. I am truly looking forward to the finale however, considering how awesome the last (ninth) episode turned out.

A couple of years ago, the last thing I expected was to be pulled back into anime ever again. But here I am, working my way through both the new and old; the third season of the classic Armored Trooper Votoms and Netflix’s latest, Voltron: Legendary Defender, of which I’ve seen the 69-minute initial episode (I will be watching the remaining, 23-minute episodes later). The short lengths of both series’ episodes, and the fact that they’re all immediately available, is a factor in my watching them.

I can’t really explain what it is that keeps me hooked on Votoms. At first glance, one would think it’s a show about mecha– large, combative robots often in a war-drama that justifies their usage. Mecha shows are often characterized by the “tech creep” of an arms race through improvements or new models, and a “boxing title bout” mentality between pilots. But Votoms bucks these trends hard.

After the signing of a cease-fire, war veteran Chirico Cuvie is tricked into a mission against his own side. Unable to trust anyone and now a fugitive, Chirico makes reluctant friends with a group of smugglers and lovable low-lives while trying to stay under the radar of a corrupt police force. But Chirico’s quest for survival transformers into a hunt for the truth, which threatens to reignite the fighting all over again.

AT VotomsGritty is the best way to describe the series. Jaded Chirico Cuvie barely forms attachments to anyone or anything, as he burns through ATs (Armored Troopers) like popcorn. They’re merely tools, to be used and discarded when no longer useful. They don’t upgrade as much as they adapt; swapping out weapons and parts to adjust for battles in space or underwater. Repairs and replacements are fairly grunt work and commonplace.

Voltron is the exact opposite in every way. While Votoms is gritty, cynical and hard science fiction, Netflix’s new series is more mythical, hopeful and exponentially more humorous. The disposable nature of the ATs gives way for the unique and important lions. The always-on-the-run survival exchanged for a defensive campaign. And yes, Votoms is for adults while Voltron makes itself appropriate for the whole family.

Cheekiness is Voltron’s best element, with plucky characters who can’t stop poking each other in the ribs. But peppered between the jibes comes a moderate amount of personal drama to punch up the plot lines; Pidge seeks his missing family while Shiro (a rechristened Sven from the original series) can’t remember his life while he was a prisoner of the Galran Empire. Elements like these are ideal for preventing the gladiator match episodes that the first series became known for.

But two weaknesses dog the new series. First, the humor can sometimes be ill-placed and over the top. And second, the pacing was fairly rapid in the rush to establish the universe, such as how everyone shares the same language or why the main characters could be trusted with a considerable amount of power.

Here’s hoping the Game of Thrones finale is one to remember this Sunday.

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Penny Dreadful Season 2 Recap & Review

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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.

Déjà Vu

The title will probably make sense in a moment.

It has been an incredibly chill weekend for me. Television wise, I started finishing off the final episodes of this season’s Game of Thrones. But more awesomely, I completed the second season of Penny Dreadful. The series greatly improved over the first, being better rounded with its character development, stronger with its emotional impact and incredibly addictive story line, yet still setting and expanding the greater stage. I’m not going to go into too much detail right now simply because it deserves a full, in depth review later.

But Penny Dreadful isn’t alone in deserving discussion. I finally saw Ant-Man this Sunday. It was interesting hearing people’s various gripes regarding the movie, but I had a terrible amount of fun and couldn’t help but think it one of the Marvel’s best. If you’re a little tired of the superhero movie, or even if superhero movies aren’t normally your thing, Ant-Man is unusual and trope toppling as to be worth catching in theaters. This too will probably deserve a full review.

On the gaming front, I’ve been working through Final Fantasy VII for the PC. I’ve been taking my sweet time too, building great levels, earning my Limit Breaks and strengthening my materia early on. In the plot, I only just finished visiting Cosmo Canyon. I’m curious as to what changes will be made for the upcoming remake, so at least now my memory will be fresh.

Finally, writing.

Hate to say it, but I had my hopes up to submit to a “hunting” based submission call. The window of opportunity, being open in Australia, closed at 10:00 am EST. My story had more than 5,000 words down, but it just wasn’t ready yet and still required formatting. The story will be complete and submitted elsewhere. It’s not a total loss, just not what I hoped for.

On the plus side however, I did finish cementing some publishing deals and took care of some domains that I would be needing. For starters, I finally started my own website at www.jamesfadeley.com. As well as my own company, Thunderbird Studios.

At the moment, Thunderbird Studios is more of a tool than a company. An easier means of managing sales concerns and building a brand. My friends and I have a horde of ideas to put together, including a friendly, fan facing Wikipedia for an upcoming series. We plan to go full scale with certain ideas in the next year, but for the time being are content just to tinker and get our technological infrastructure down.

Penny Dreadful Season 1 Review

This review is spoiler free.

Vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s creature… it’s not original to suggest these monsters unite in some shape or form. There have already been several such crossovers, in games like Castlevania or in movies such as The Monster Squad. But John Logan and Showtime have decided instead to revisit these old themes in the era of adult television. And when the word is out about the quality of the show and the depths of the story telling, fans of classic movie monsters will come running to catch horror drama Penny Dreadful, currently in its second season.

Much like True Detective, Penny Dreadful pays homage to an entire genre of writing, even in the name “penny dreadful” which references cheap literature from the Victorian times. The show slithers and scuttles, prodding the psychological as well as biological and bodily in disgusts. There is no kind of horror it will not blend into its well crafted amalgamation.

Set in London, 1891, Penny Dreadful combines not just the aforementioned monsters but their stories and source material into one very large universe that overlaps, though not rushing to do so. The main plot revolves around Grand Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) who lost his son in Africa and returns to find his daughter Mina missing, presumably abducted by vampires.

With considerable income and influence at his disposal, Malcolm employs several enigmatic characters, including spiritual medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and the physician Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). But where as each of these characters have their own reasons and secrets for siding with Sir Murray, their personal histories force them to keep each other at arm’s length. Today’s allies could easily become tomorrow’s problems. Thus the first season maybe the beginning of their alliance, it is far from the start of the story.

Penny-Dreadful-VampireSeveral works are referenced, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Exorcist and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of these, Frankenstein’s plot thread is uniquely both the most faithful, and yet the most surprising in its twists, as it also borrows a trait or two from The Phantom of the Opera.

Despite this, there are very slight changes to the rules. For example, vampires come in two varieties; the infected slaves, with red eyes and white hair, and the masters who have rodent like features, and are utterly incapable of hiding in plain sight. Penny Dreadful isn’t afraid to put its own slight spin on the monsters fans hold so near and dear, but not so much as to push its audience away with alienating revisionism.

The show’s greatest blessing and curse is the reluctance to use computer generated effects for its characters. While this makes the monsters truly look incredible, I fear that there are certain elements which could be held in check… the full visual effect weakened. It remains to be seen in future seasons if this rule is broken or if John Logan can bring dazzling, classical movie magic to the small screen.

Another aspect that sets Penny Dreadful apart from so many other shows is its plentiful yet very mature approach to sexuality. The screenwriters seemed to know and fully understand that sex is not without consequences, which manifests in strong plot twists and revelations about the nature of the characters, even if it takes a few episodes for the effects to be felt. Hedonist Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) seems to be the central force in this, as his antics naively damage those about him despite his total amicability to the protagonists.

proteusThe first season was eight episodes long, each being an hour apiece, and the characters were very well developed and portrayed. But my only complaint about Penny Dreadful lies not in the quality of this but in the balance. The show tended to overload the audience with disproportionate personal development, and very little rotation. Victor Frankenstein gets almost two or three episodes of back story in a row, followed by Vanessa Ives.

The problems these character have are so extensive, they both require a third of the entire season just to stabilize. And while the show faithfully rewards its viewership for their patience, it can benefit from being more even.

But one weakness does not a bad show make, especially one as much fun as this. Catch Penny Dreadful on Showtime on Sundays, and check out the first season on Netflix DVD.