Penny Dreadful is in a unique position. On the one hand, it’s chock full of great visuals, fun occult subject matter, and two Bond movie alums: Timothy Dalton and Eva Green. On the other hand, it asks questions and establishes mysteries before it introduces the characters or the rules of the world. You won’t know what the hell is happening for the first 20 minutes of the premiere episode. The series relies on the viewer's knowledge of a variety of subject matter, and patience. This might be where it gets its namesake. Penny Dreadfuls were British serial stories, purchased for a penny, that featured lurid and sensational stories occasionally Gothic in nature. It is definitely going for a pulpy and occult, but feels like a very pretentious version of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
“Who the f**k are you people?”
The episode begins with a girl sneaking out of her bed opening a door and screaming her head off. Then we cut to an older woman (Green) who is frantically praying as spiders, presumably not radioactive, crawl from a crucifix to her arm. Then without warning we cut to Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) a.k.a. Wyatt Twerp, a charming sharpshooter in a Wild West Show... in England. Despite poor career choices, he (or Hartnett’s butt double) does well with the ladies. Without much of an introduction Green’s character tries to convince him to work with her, and we understand that she must be some sort of witch. After all, Green played similar characters in The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, and Camelot. At this point, the show is getting precariously close to going up its own rear with pretension. Is it above exposition? Great visuals and creepy mysteries are great but even better if we know who the hell the characters are.
Despite all human logic, Wyatt Twerp meets Green’s character without knowing her name or what she wants at a seedy opium den. Enter Sir Malcolm (Dalton), he tells Ethan to join him in a creepy basement... and he does. Then he proceeds to talk to a bunch of men in a weird language, maybe Elvish or ancient Sumerian. Who knows? All we know is they are vampires because they have fangs. Then they attack and they kill them all. Ethan, is unfazed until they enter a room full of dead bodies and get attacked by a snake creature. They are able to fight him because Green’s character stares him down. They take the dead body to some weird lab where people are dissecting bodies. A doctor cuts open the creature they killed and it has hieroglyphs written all over its skin. Then after 20 minutes where the audience doesn’t know what the hell is going on, Wyatt Twerp who, up until know, has been entirely stoic, says, “Who the f**k are you people?” Their response: come to yet another undisclosed location.
Let the Magic Begin
Ethan shows up at the house and, surprise, he gets to learn Green’s character’s name, Vanessa Ives. She’s creepy and gives him an awkward card reading and then explains what’s going on. Sir Malcolm’s daughter is the girl who disappeared and they are looking for her. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa take the hieroglyphs to an eccentric Ancient Egyptian expert who looks like an extra in The Hunger Games. It turns out the writings are fromthe Egyptian book of the Dead.
Remember that doctor that cut open the creature. He’s an important character apparently and gets invited to Sir Malcolm’s home, The Explorer’s Club. He, like Wyatt Twerp, is getting drafted for some sort of secret undertaking. This is starting to become the origin story of a Victorian England version of The Avengers, only without the luxury of any exposition. Suddenly, Malcolm sees his daughter. Only she’s not a child, she’s a creepy monster teen. He and Vanessa have a strange connection. It’s unclear yet if she is responsible for his daughter’s condition, or if they’re trying to cure her. But who cares? Because...
That Doctor who is so vital to the team? The one whose name we never learn? That’s for a big ol' reveal. On his way home from dinner, on a rainy night, he decides to raise the dead. He pulls a tarp to reveal a corpse sewn together and then he reanimates it because he is none other than Dr. Viktor Frankenstein. His monster flashes his peen for a few minutes and they share a tender moment of new life.
It’s unclear where the show is going as the next episode is primed to introduce more characters. It seems engaging, has a pretty terrific cast, and some great production value. However, mystery for mystery’s sake can be sloppy storytelling. It seems like we won’t know for sure if this is a worthwhile watch until the next episode.
Based on the popular children’s book by Jeanne DuPrau City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don’t build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair the original “Builders” of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn’t account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn’t care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan) who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan best known for her amazingly sophisticated Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she’s thinking without her ever saying a word. She’s quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn’t nearly as effective but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted including Toby Jones as the Mayor’s henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city’s pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon’s inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters but there’s just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help. Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart it’s easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina’s yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn’t a flick for the younger audiences either with dark scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan however isn’t quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember and it delivers the goods on all accounts.
It's that time of the year again; When people flock from all directions to the south-westernmost tip of the United States and take in the festivities of the San Diego Comic-Con. This year, Fox Walden Studios offered up a fantastic new treat for some of us journalists making the trip down from Los Angeles; a railway train themed after the upcoming fantasy film City of Ember.
The film, based on the children's book series by Jeanne Duprau, tells of a vast underground city called Ember .The inhabitants have grown used to living in their specialized society and are kept away from the dark mysteries that lay at the city's edges, dwelling in an intricate construct illuminated by a generator that has been running for hundreds of years. History lost to the citizens of Ember, their generator has started to fail and it falls to two children, Lina and Doon, to uncover the answers that may lie beyond the city walls.
Arriving this morning at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, I was instructed to keep my eye out for people in blue jumpsuits. These "Citizens of Ember" lead me to the train car; an old-fashioned carriage decked out with props and costumes and everything on-board from serving bar to a working barbershop. As we boarded, a brass band played a cheery farewell from the railway platform and an Ember official lead the passengers through the city's rules, making us all swear a loyalty oath.
In Ember, children graduate at a young age and are -- through a lottery process -- given jobs that will stay with them for their entire lives. One costume near the back of the train is a long red cloak worn by messengers. Because there are no phones in the city, it becomes the job of the messenger to deliver news through the city streets.
Director Gil Kenan -- the creative force behind 2006's impressive Monster House -- gladly escorted us to an improvised screening room in the back of the train. The first thought of pairing Kenan against the footage is that he looks so young, as though he's fresh out of college, while his film has the determined style of a fantasy auteur.
The first scene he showed introduced us to the characters and the city (which, Kenan explained, was intended to play as vital and as personable a role as any of the actors). The streets have an almost art deco quality combined with a heavy influence of German expressionism. Imagine a utilitarian and fully-functioning rendering of the streets from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and you'll get a sense of some of the visual magic at play in Ember.
Bill Murray plays the Mayor of Ember in the perfectly deadpan way that only he can, presiding over the citizens and doling out the jobs on graduation day. The lead, Lina, is played by Saoirse Ronan, straight from her Oscar-nominated performance in last years Atonement. Arriving late to her graduation day, Lina is appointed a job working in the sewer system but manages to trade with her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) and become a messenger instead. It's not long before her new job causes her to find out some secrets about Ember that propel the two of them into a quest to find the city's secrets and a way to keep the lights burning.
Though the original book was written for children, Kenan explains that movie is designed to play to all ages. It's a fantasy and an adventure film, complete with puzzles and chases. "If Indiana Jones were in it," laughs Kenan, "It would be an 'Indiana Jones' movie."
Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter behind cinematic classics Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas was charged with the task of transforming Duprau's world for the silver screen. The intent, she explained, was less about matching the novel exactly and more about providing the same sense of wonder. To that end, there are few creative additions including creatures (some bizarre and some beautiful) that our heroes encounter.
Gracious as he is, Kenan explains that the feel of Ember would have been impossible without the sizable contribution of Production Designer Martin Laing. Laing, coming off years of pre-production work on James Cameron's Avatar and Battle Angel, was overjoyed at the chance to get something up on the screen in such a major way. Ember was built as one massive set, based on sketches and paintings Laing created by hand.
Though a self-contained film, the trilogy of books leaves open the potential for Ember sequels, something to which everyone involved seems interested in potentially pursuing. As for me -- and as exciting as Comic Con is looking to be this year – I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed to step off the railway car in San Diego and leave the City of Ember behind.
I'm looking forward to returning for a full visit on Oct. 10.