Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I quite liked the first Hellboy film, which came out back in 2004. Despite a plot which didn’t make a lot of sense, it was stylish and funny and basically a satisfying action-adventure film. So I was enthusiastic about the sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I’d hoped that director Guillermo del Toro had learned through doing Pan’s Labyrinth to tell a better story and that Hellboy II would be a more serious, dramatic and sensical film than its predecessor.

My hope was completely misplaced, and I was quite disappointed in the film.

The film opens with a scene in the 1950s in which Hellboy’s father, Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), tells the story of the Golden Army, an indestructible, unbeatable mechanical army created by goblins and controlled by elves to fight mankind, until the king of the elves was saddened by the bloodshed and came to a truce with humanity and agreed to put the Golden Army away forever. Unfortunately his son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), feels this has doomed the elves to eventual extinction, and embarks on a plan to gain the three pieces of the crown which can control the army, and awaken them and conquer the world.

In the present day, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is living with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), but their relationship is rocky at best. During a mission to clean up after an attack by Prince Nuada, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) learns that Liz is pregnant, and Hellboy reveals his existence to the world, to the frustration of his boss, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor). This causes the government to send the ectoplasmic Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth Macfarlane) to take control of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. The team goes to seek the mythical Troll Market, where they meet and rescue Prince Nuada’s twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton), who has the third piece of the crown, and whom Abe falls in love with. But Nuada tracks them down and critically wounds Hellboy, forcing the team to decide whether to deal with him or try to defeat him, even though they haven’t had much success so far. They end up going to confront him in Ireland at the resting place of the Golden Army.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with how badly this film goes wrong. Fundamentally, Hellboy is about two things: Modern unearthing and explorations of ancient mythical beings, and big monsters hitting each other. So while the myth of the Golden Army is a fine starting point, the sequence in which the team tries to fight off a horde of ravenous tooth fairies is just disgusting and no fun at all. Seeing people eaten alive is just gross, and I wish we could declare a moratorium on it in films like this. Yuck.

The romance between Hellboy and Liz, and also between Abe and Nuala, both are handled so heavy-handedly that they’re pretty painful to watch. There’s a scene in which Hellboy and Abe get drunk talking about women, and although it has a couple of funny lines, it really feels wrongheaded. Not to mention rather insulting to Liz, who’s mostly treated as a fifth wheel, even if she is one who can blow up a building with her mind.

Hellboy isn’t a very subtle character, but he acts so stupidly here from time to time that it’s hard to be sympathetic to him, and seeing Johann teach him a lesson seems well-deserved, but also quite a departure from the comic books, in which he has both brawn and brains. Del Toro tries awfully hard to show that Hellboy is more like the monsters he fights than the people he protects and that they’ll eventually turn on him, but again he beats us over the head with it – and then just sort of drops it in the latter part of the film – that it’s completely unconvincing. Johann experiences a sudden and unexplained change in attitude late in the film as well, which really makes no sense at all.

The best part of the film is the final sequence, which starts with them meeting a goblin who agrees to take them to the army and also find someone who can heal Hellboy – which turns out to be the Angel of Death. And then we have the confrontation with Nuada and the Army itself, and the Army is indeed very cool and badass, and the final fate of Nuada is also quite well done. Even before they got to the Angel I was thinking, “Gee, I want a lot more of this and a lot less of what we’ve been watching for the first 90 minutes.”

I think Del Toro really lost sight of what makes Hellboy interesting and fun, and tried way too hard to make some points about Hellboy’s unique situation and his relationship with Liz, and it all sunk quickly under the weight of its heavy-handedness. So rather than being an improvement on the first film, Hellboy II feels like a bit of an embarrassment. And a huge disappointment.

Excalibur Poker Room Going Electronic

The first time I played Texas hold ’em was at the Excalibur casino in Las Vegas (admittedly only a couple of years ago). It was a pretty nifty room then, set aside from the casino and brightly-lit. They’ve since moved it to a dimly-lit area in the middle of the casino, which made it harder to get away from the smoke. I’d still play there from time to time, though.

So it’s with a little sadness that I read that the Excalibur poker room will be going all-electronic later this month, with dealer-less tables. Chatting with the dealers is one of the perks of playing low-limit hold ’em, and the better ones are both good dealers and fun conversationalists. Of course, not having a dealer to tip means more profit for winning players. It still seems weird, though. The dealer is also the accountant and policeman for the table, and a good one can have a calming effect on a rowdy or out-of-control table.

I’ll be curious to see how this experiment works – will the players embrace it, or will they abandon the Excalibur to go play with actual dealers? My guess is some of each, depending on how much each player is concerned about the rake and tips.

Moment of Clarity

So I’m working on a story tonight (yes, at the coffee shop; yes, I know I’m not fooling anyone) and getting pretty bummed about how it’s going. The writing feels forced and artificial, stilted sentence construction, not jocular enough. Sure, the scenario is rather downbeat, and it’s supposed to be an introspective piece, but it still just feels all wrong. The main character is talking about going to his new home in a new city and what he sees on the way there.

So all this is sucking and I keep telling myself that it’s just a shitty first draft and once I get a good hunk of it written I can go back and edit it into shape.

Then he finally gets there and meets another one of the characters and suddenly there’s, you know, dialogue and jocularity and stuff.

So yeah, all that earlier stuff? Needs to be edited right out of existence. Anything worthwhile in there can be filled in later, during an episode when something’s actually happening.

Sometimes I just need to be smacked upside the head, I guess.

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion

After the main character of her Miles Vorkosigan series got married, the series kind of stalled out and Lois McMaster Bujold turned to writing fantasy novels, of which this was the first. She’d previously written an uninspiring fantasy named The Spirit Ring, and since in general I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy I dithered for a long time before reading The Curse of Chalion, but since my book discussion group is reading its sequel Paladin of Souls this month, I finally sat down and tackled it.

Chalion is a nation in a generic European medieval fantasy setting, set between two other nations with whom it fights wars from time to time. Our hero, Cazaril, is a former soldier and a broken man; he’d once captained the defense of a castle until their negotiated surrender, and then he was left off the list of names ransomed back to Chalion and sold off as a galley-slave. Eventually freed, he returns to Chalion at the age of 35 – but in a body that feels far older – seeking some small employment with a noble family he’d served years before.

Cazaril gets a lot more than he bargained for, as the provencara of the castle is grandmother to the heir to the throne of Chalion, Teidez, and his sister Iselle. After just long enough to get his bearings, the provencara hires him as Iselle’s tutor (in an exchange which is probably the high point of the novel). This would be difficult enough except that not long after Teidez and Iselle are summoned to the throne of the kingdom. The king, Orico, is old and ill and is largely controlled by his chancellor, Martou dy Jironal, and his younger brother Dondo. The dy Jironals want to get their claws into Teidez and Iselle so they can control the next generation of the throne, and while Iselle is smart enough (with advice from Cazaril) to recognize that she’s being played, Teidez is easily seduced by the riches and flattery the brothers heap on him. Worse, for Cazaril, is that the brothers are responsible for his being sold off years ago, and he’s certain that they plan to get rid of him to cover one of the few tracks they’ve left. When the brothers try to force an alliance by marriage, several desperate souls are moved to stop them, including through the use of death magic – in which one sacrifices oneself to kill another – but things go strangely awry, to the confusion of everyone.

On top of this, it turns out that the royal family of Chalion has been cursed for several generations, that this is what’s holding down Orico, and that Teidez and Iselle will surely inherit the curse when they inherit the kingdom. So Cazaril and Iselle are put in the position of trying to end the curse – through means they can barely imagine – while trying to foil dy Jironal’s ongoing machinations. Along the way they meet some interesting allies while trying to avoid their myriad enemies.

While Bujold still meets the requirements of telling a story that goes somewhere, and flashes some of her skills with dialogue and humor at times, but overall I found this to be a bland book. The setting is relentlessly generic, with nothing to set it apart from any number of other heroic fantasy settings. The characters are also pretty generic, with a standard assortment of “strong women trying to rise above their medieval stereotypes”, “misguided young men”, “corrupt schemers trying to eliminate their rivals”, and so forth. The novel is essentially plot-driven, with character developments that seem de rigueuer given the story developments.

Unfortunately, one of the worst problems a plot-driven novel can have is to be slow, and The Curse of Chalion is oh-so-very slow. It starts with one of the least informative opening paragraphs I can recall in a novel, telling us essentially nothing about the setting, character, or scenario. From there the story drags on for over 50 pages before anything interesting happens, and then bogs down again for more than another 50 pages before the characters finally head off to the royal court. And though Bujold doesn’t generally write action stories, the dialogue here isn’t much to write home about, so the text doesn’t even keep things moving along through lively exchanges between the characters. It just drags.

The novel’s saving grace is Cazaril, the one character who has any, well, character, as a former soldier whose spirit has been broken and has to put himself back together again for the good of the kingdom and of Iselle. His position as the wise advisor to Iselle and some of the dumber supporting characters is a pretty stock position, and his rewards for deeds well done at the end are likewise routine, but his internal struggles to overcome his burdens make for the book’s most interesting moments, especially when he’s revealing his past to another character, or being amazed at the unique position in which he’s been placed.

But overall The Curse of Chalion is merely light entertainment, and it could easily have had 200 or so pages edited out of it. I was a big fan of Bujold’s earlier novels, but I think she peaked with Mirror Dance and her writing has been in decline ever since. This one’s one of her weakest, and it doesn’t give me optimism towards Paladin of Souls.

Twittering Away

A few weeks ago I gave in to peer pressure and joined Twitter. You can find me there under mrawdon. Okay, I wasn’t really being pressured, but I’d several of my cow-orkers were hanging out there making pithy remarks, so I decided to sign up.

I’ve joked that Twitter is “like blogging only without the pesky content”. I’ve also seen it called “microblogging”, which I take to mean, “There is content, but there isn’t very much of it.” Which seems about right: I see little tidbits of real content here and there, but most of Twitter consists of tiny, generic snippets of thought which are either devoid of depth, or devoid of meaning due to a lack of context.

It’s the lack of context that really makes Twitter a suboptimal experience compared to blogging: If I didn’t know the people I’m following personally, there’d be essentially nothing there for me. So it’s no surprise that the few times I’ve tried to go out and find new Twitterers to follow, I’ve come up empty because it’s all just random nattering without any context to give it meaning, or any depth to give it value in the absence of that context. (By contrast, I’ve found many fine journals and blogs over the years simply by poking around in one place or another on the Web, even if I didn’t know the author beforehand.)

If I were to use a single word to sum up Twitter, I think it would be “disposable”. It’s hard enough to build anything of lasting value in a blog format, and it looks to be nearly impossible on Twitter. I don’t expect to become educated or informed through Twitter, and I strongly doubt there’s anything of interest in “the archives”. Will I ever go back to look at my old tweets to recall what was, like I do with my journal? Probably not. I wonder whether anyone else does so with their tweets?

Clearly a lot of people are having fun on Twitter, though. A tool like Twitteriffic turns Twitter into something like a push-notification system, which means less effort on your part to keep up with what your friends are doing. (This isn’t very different from following a blog via an RSS feed, though.) But it seems like most of the fun is in following the snarky remarks and exchanges and the occasional raw outbursts that pepper the site.

So there’s some value in that; people have fun and get a few laughs. But there’s a lot of fun and plenty of laughs elsewhere in the world, and a lot of it is more rewarding when it’s not restricted to 140 characters.

This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America Annual #1, by Geoff Johns, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • newuniversal: 1959 #1, by Kieron Gillen, Greg Scott & Kody Chamberlain (Marvel)
  • Thor #10, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Girl Genius: Voice of the Castle vol 7 HC, by Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio (Airship)
  • Project Superpowers #5 of 7, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)
  • Locke & Key #6 of 6, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
Justice Society of America Annual #1 Justice Society of America Annual #1 is just a big tease.

In the currently convoluted DC continuity, Power Girl comes from an alternate Earth, the “Earth-2” from before Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this issue, wonderfully illustrated by Jerry Ordway (one of my favorite artists), she’s been returned there by the powers of Gog (the main plot element in the ongoing series), and she catches up with the Huntress and the rest of the Earth-2 Justice Society, who have continued to live their lives since the first Crisis. The Huntress is dealing with the last few villains of her father – the deceased Earth-2 Batman – and the JSA has undergone some significant changes, with most of the original members having retired. It’s good stuff, with convincing characterizations, and some effective revelations about these old friends. It doesn’t really deal with the fact that the characters here would be pretty old by now – the members of Infinity Inc. would be in their mid-to-late 40s, and Robin would be pushing 70 – but I’m willing to chalk that up to artistic license.

The books real problem is that it’s just a lead-in to another plot thread in the ongoing series, in which Power Girl finds herself on the run in a world that might be what it seems – but might not. So it’s not a complete story, which is especially frustrating given the tradition of annuals to be complete or to be the climactic wrap-up of a longer story. It’s just another cog, and it left me feeling cheated.

The art sure is lovely, though. Ordway’s best stuff in years.

newuniversal: 1959 one-shot newuniversal: 1959 is a prequel to Warren Ellis’ newuniversal series, highlighting a few extraordinary individuals in the late 50s and the arm of the government which investigates them. It’s a pretty good story, although it basically just fills in the details of what’s been described in the regular series. So it’s not essential reading, but I enjoyed it anyway.
Girl Genius vol 7: Voice of the Castle HC Girl Genius is still one of the most entertaining comics going, and I’m happy that it’s had so much success as a webcomic, since it looks like it’ll be sticking around for a long time. Meanwhile the family Foglio are still collecting the series more-or-less annually in both paperback and hardcover, and I sure hope that that continues, as I’ve been happily snapping up almost everything Phil Foglio’s done as they print it in hardcover.

I was somewhat disappointed in volume 6 since it turned away from Agatha, the main character, and had a convoluted story which didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Volume 7 is a return to form, as Agatha and her allies arrive in Mechanicsburg so Agatha can claim her position as the heir to the Heterodynes. Of course, the badly-injured Baron Klaus Wulfenbach and his son Gil have gotten there ahead of her. Moreover, claiming her heritage is harder than it seems, since she needs to be recognized by the sentient Castle Heterodyne, but the castle isn’t intact and people who enter it tend not to come out again. Plus, another claimant to the position has turned up and entered the castle with her own schemes. Finally, word of Klaus’ injuries have gotten out, which means people who want to overthrow or supplant him are showing up heavily armed.

The book is full of action, adventure, and rampant silliness, all of which you expect from a Foglio story. There are also some nifty glimpses of the Heterodyne past – I love poring over the pages in the vaults below the castle to see what jokes and suggestions the Foglios have thrown in there, whether or not it directly impacts the story. Plus Agatha’s chat with one fragment of the castle is not to be missed, and Gil has his own test in trying to protect his father.

Perhaps Girl Genius‘ pace has slowed down a bit too much with the shift to webcomic form, as it often seems like things move along a bit slowly, with this volume ending on a cliffhanger. A paradigm shift in the series is going to occur sooner or later since Agatha is going to have to grow up completely and become a major player on the continental stage in the fictional world in which she lives, and I wonder whether the Foglios are finding it difficult to get past Agatha as the still-somewhat-innocent foil for her more experienced companions. Maybe that’s what’s holding the story back a bit. Or, maybe they just want more scenes like Agatha building an industrial-strength coffee maker (which are cute, but just intermissions between “the good stuff”). Nonetheless, this is great stuff. I read it on-line every week, and you should too.

Locke & Key #6 Locke & Key finishes its first mini-series this month. It’s been pretty good, but also disappointing: It ended up being little more than a straightforward “being stalked by a lunatic with a gun” story. To be fair, it does set up the premise of the series, but I’d hoped for a lot of sense of wonder and a lot less routine suspense and horror schtick. The ending suggests that future series will be a little more fantastic, and I hope they will be. I’ll come back for the next mini-series (starting later this year), but if it’s more of the same then that might be enough for me.