More noise than signal

Uwe Boll

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

At some point in the dim and distant past of last year, prompted in part by the welcome news of his retirement, we’d decided we should look at the career of Uwe Boll. I say we. As it turns out, no-one has quite the same level of disregard for their own sanity as myself, so you are, I’m afraid, stuck with me hollering at you as we crash through this whistlestop tour of Boll’s lowlights and, I suppose by comparison if nothing else highlights in this selection of what I suppose we can just about call films. Normally on this podcast we’re discussing films we enjoy, or seeking new films we think we will, and I think we’re broadly more positive than negative. This is very much redressing that balance, so if that’s not your bag, no hard feelings and see you in 10 days with normal service resumed. Everyone else, strap in. Its going to get bumpy.

The House of the Dead

Before this ill-considered notion, my exposure to Uwe Boll was limited almost entirely to his adaptation of Sega’s zombie based lightgun shooter The House of the Dead, and, well, that was enough for me, thanks. The most frightening aspect of the film these days was that it was made fifteen years ago, a terrifying milepost on my march towards the sweet release of death.

What I’m trying to say is that fifteen years is more than my addled memory memory can contend with, so I’m left with only vague impressions of some rave-going teens striking out to a mysterious island on a boat Captained by Jurgen Prochnow, of all people, finding a plague of zombies. And a house, I assume. I could, I suppose, have rewatched this to see if it was merely a decade and a half ahead of it’s time, but I’m not that daft.

What I most vividly recall, with perhaps the exception of a banging Prodigy knock off track “Danger Danger” by a group I’m apparently supposed to call Codetrasher, was Boll’s “visionary” decision to splice in footage from the arcade game into his awful, cut-price action sequences in such a way that we couldn’t work out if it was satire or a budget cutting exercise.

I’ll leave the overall judgement to Craig’s words from our old review – “House of the Dead is childish, directed in the most amateurish fashion imaginable, has the cheapest production values imaginable, feels like a TV movie and yet has still managed to find it’s way into cinemas. ”

Alone in the Dark

Still, while charting Boll’s career, you might as well start at the bottom, and Alone in the Dark fights off stiff competition from House of the Dead to be the bottom of Boll’s deep, dark barrel, as far as the general opinion goes. But is this actually a misunderstood work of great import, unjustly sullied in an internet pile-on?

No. Sorry to ruin the dramatic tension. I know I had you going for a second.

Christian Slater, of all people, joins us as Edward Carnby, the private investigator who can’t escape the supernatural in the adventure games of old. This is very loosely based on the re-booted game of 2001, which wasn’t very good, so I suppose there’s some truth to Boll’s work.

Here Carnby is on the hunt for some ancient artefacts from a lost Mayan-esque civilisation, however so is Matthew Walkers’ Professor Lionel Hudgens, who has an altogether more sinister reason for wanting them. Sinister, but in no way practical, as best as I can remember.

It turns out that Carnby was part of some secret program to experiment on children to give them enhanced abilities, which Prof. Hudgens led, and who is now obsessed with finding gizmos that act as key to a portal to another dimension, or something like that, it’s not very well elucidated. This turns out to unleash a horde of awful CG Alien knockoffs that Carnby must stop, aided by Stephen Dorff and his G-Men soldier goons from Bureau 713, and his girlfriend, Tara Reid’s Aline Cedrac. She’s supposedly a museum curator and archaeologist, which as credulity-stretching casting goes is up there with Denise Richards the Nuclear Physicist.

Apparently there’s a initial version this script that hewed closer to the suspense horror roots of the video game, if so it’s been completely eradicated in favour of quite the dumpster-fire of horrible action nonsense, featuring CG so appalling I literally cannot even. I tried very hard, but no even was forthcoming.

Now, I don’t particularly like any of the actors in this film, but when you look at what, and who, they’ve got to work with, it’s hard to blame them for putting in the bare minimum to collect the cheque. I don’t know the actuality of what it’s like on the set, but it’s hard to imagine Boll working any actor to get the most out of the performance.

The plot’s a poorly woven mess of strands that don’t make much sense, although admittedly by the time the halfway mark rolled round I’d stopped paying more than cursory attention to it.

Awful plot, awful characters, awful action, awful acting, awful dialogue, awful effects, awful smell, just all sorts of awful. Sits comfortably in the unsweet spot of being bad enough to be terrible, without being terrible enough to be good. Do not watch, even ironically. I regret wasting time on this pish.

Heart of America

When I’d said House of the Dead was most of my exposure to Boll’s work back in the day, this was the asterisk that you might have heard in my voice. After that bafflingly dreadful experience, I’d poked around the dark corners where people with some regard for his prior works hid, and the general opinion was that Heart of America was a good film. Not like House of the Dead, which no-one’s eager to defend. So, I tracked it down, and watched the first third of it before coming to the rapid conclusion that these people had some sort of warped perception of what a decent film construes, and wrote the whole thing off as a bad idea. If only I’d done the same fifteen years later.

To be scrupulously fair, Heart of America does start off with a well executed, long, reasonably complex tracking shot establishing a small American town – unfortunately this is a high that the rest of the film will not match. It purports to tell us of the last day in a typical American high school, with slices of life from a variety of characters featuring teen pregnancy, drug abuse, affairs, trouble teachers and most prominently bullying – and the bullied’s method of getting even on the last day of school, in a Columbine Trench Coat Mafia sort of way.

I’ll get on to much worse films later, making this comparatively good, but still sub TV-movie of the week. The dialogue is, well, let’s politely say not brilliant, but there is at least some talent on board who can pull some charm from it – hello again Jürgen Prochnow, Clint Howard, and an early appearance from Elisabeth Moss, later to find plaudits aplenty in The Handmaid’s Tale of course.

However, many characters do not fare quite so well, including Brendan Fletcher, who’s going to appear many times on this list, and I really wish he wouldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because he’s not directing in his native language, or if it’s due to a lack of time or money to reshoot, but throughout Boll’s career there’s some roles where the acting performance is so bad it’s hard to believe anyone’s happy with it, and it’s at these moments the hackneyed melodrama of the script really shines through. Or, well, whatever the opposite of shining through is, I suppose.

It is, of course, a real shame that the mass shootings portrayed here and listed just pre-credits have in no meaningful way been addressed, the highlighting of which if I believe was Boll’s stated aims. That, however is no reason to watch this film, nor the odd decent bit of camerawork amongst a script this lacklustre. As with many of the films to be discussed here, not recommended.

Postal

I have never understood the appeal of the video game Postal, which in a nutshell is like Grand Theft Auto had it been written by a sociopath who thinks themselves funny, and not reprehensible. Ideal fit for Boll, then. Zing! Curiously some had touted as one of his better video game based films, and I suppose it’s the one that comes closest to capturing the nature of the source material, for what very little that’s worth.

Zack Ward’s Postal Dude attempts to find work in an American Hellhole called Paradise, but nothing seems forthcoming. Partly in desperation he turns to his Uncle Dave (Dave Foley. Oh, Dave…), a scam artist who’s running the local religious cult. Dave does have an idea to make a bit of money, as he needs to pay off a sizeable tax bill himself.

There will be a shipment of valuable dolls coming to the Little Germany theme park, and they’re going to steal them and sell them on eBay. Heist of the century. Unfortunately, Al-Quieda are intent on using the same dolls to spread avian flu across the USA, leading to a violent shootout that sees Uwe Boll getting shot in the bollocks after admitting his films are financed with Nazi gold, which isn’t even the most tasteless joke in that scene.

And so it goes, with Dave’s right hand man and unfortunate true believer Richard (Chris Coppola) also incrementing the chaos by mounting a coup and trying to fulfil Dave’s apocalyptic prophecies, by getting a thousand monkeys to rape Verne Troyer, before everything ends in a big ol’ mess of violence, bringing the whole sorry affair to a close.

Clearly, everything in Postal has been pushed to the extremes, with the intent of satirising everything from Islamic extremism, attitudes to 9/11, capitalism, violence in culture, hell, even Boll’s work itself, but also criticism of Boll’s work. It’s perhaps not fair to criticise Postal for having all the subtlety of a half brick hurled through a window, as that’s exactly what it’s aiming for, but it’s a such an overwhelmingly ugly thing to be aiming for that you just have to make clear what a bad idea it is.

Its scattergun nature means that while a few jokes will most likely land for you, it’s hidden amongst a tonne of purile garbage that’s far more tiresome than it is offensive. As always with comedy, it’s tough to give it much more of a damming critique than just saying it’s not remotely funny, so, consider it damned, I suppose. Yet, sense of humour is a very personal and individual thing, and I suppose I can imagine the thirteen-year old version of me being amused by the combination of bad taste, violence and boobs and cutting this more slack.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is a film by idiots, for idiots, so if you’re an idiot, you’ll love Postal. My condolences.

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Have you ever wondered what would have happened had we lived in an alternate universe where Uwe Boll was somehow given the rights to Lord of the Rings? If so, seek medical attention immediately, but this loose adaptation of the Dungeon Siege game will also give you an approximate idea of the blighted hellscape that alternative Earth must be.

Jason Statham collects a paycheque as a character named Farmer, who is a farmer, because of course he is. But a farmer with a mysterious past! Ooh. How exciting. At any rate, the call to adventure comes when a rampaging force of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Orcs, the Krugs, barrel through Farmer’s village and kidnap his wife Solana (Claire Forlani) and his young lad, amongst others.

King Konreid (Burt Reynolds. Yes, Burt Reynolds. Deal with it) and his army shows up too late to do anything apart from promise vengeance, but Farmer and his buddies Norick (Ron Perlman) and Bastian (Will Sanderson) decide that vengeance is a dish best served by yourself. Sort of like a vengeance buffet. Don’t fill up on the vengeance breadsticks, though. That’s how they get you.

It transpires that all this is going down because evil sorcerer Gallian (Ray Liotta. Yes, Ray Liotta. Deal with it) is conspiring with Duke Fallow (Matthew Lillard. Yes, Matthew Lillard. Deal with it) to overthrow the King and claim the throne. Trying to stop this are the King’s Mage Merick (John Rhys-Davies), and his magically inclined daughter Muriella (Leelee Sobieski), Army Commander Tarish (Brian J. White), and Elora (Kristanna Loken), the leader of the Certainly Not Elves of the forest.

Some common or garden fantasy swordplay nonsense occurs for two hours, during which the truth of Farmer’s mysterious heritage is revealed, and Gallian’s plan is foiled with great sacrifice, and no-one gives much of a toss either way.

A sad fate for $60 million dollars, which could have been better spent tossed onto a bonfire. To be scrupulously fair, this cash has at least translated into a higher production value than we’ve seen before from him, with a more name recognition in the cast list, even if it their roles were seemingly decided by a random number generator.

Also, while the execution isn’t great, this does at least have characters with clear motivations, and a structure that makes sense, and the least worst action scenes so far in his career. If you squint at it a little bit, this is a proper film. Unfortunately it’s a proper film in the way that Dungeons and Dragons was a proper film. It’s just bad in conventional ways, rather than Boll’s more usual off the wall bad.

In anyone else’s hands I’d be a little puzzled as to how this went wrong – sure, some of these roles are terribly miscast, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Statham, Perlman and John Rhys-Davies, in familiar enough roles that Boll should have eeked some charm out of them, but in common with the rest of his films, Boll wastes his cast. Speaking of those miscast, Burt Reynolds at least just looks puzzled by the whole experience, but Matthew Lillard and Ray Liotta were apparently just told that no amount of over-acting could be overacted enough, and go hog wild, making this a very silly film indeed.

None of the films we’ve spoken about so far were close to mediocre, let alone good. While there’s probably some rationale for saying that, on paper, this is a better film than any of those, at least those other efforts had the saving grace of being obnoxiously terrible. In The Name of the King is just boringly, conventionally sub-par, and therefore less interesting than Boll’s other bellyflops. Bad on all levels. Avoid.

BloodRayne: The Third Reich

At some point the Boll video game gravy train came, if not entirely to a halt, down a more poorly financed sidetrack, which brings us to the third in the series of BloodRayne films, from a game series that only featured two instalments. From the first film’s $25 million budget and the likes of Ben Kingsley, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kristanna Loken, we are reduced to $10 million, Natassia Malthe and Michael Paré. And ironically, a better film, but that’s only barely hurdling the lowest of all imaginable bars.

BloodRayne: The Third Reich is also the instalment with the closest relationship to the video game. However, the videogame was about a vampire fighting Nazis, you can make up your own mind whether that’s a good thing or not. And, well, there’s not a lot more details to tell, you, really. Natassia Malthe plays the half-vampire, Blade Daywalker-esque Rayne, who teams up with local resistance fighters headed by Brendan Fletcher, him again, doing an accent from somewhere on Earth, can’t narrow it down much further than that.

It turns out that, amongst all the usual Nazi tomfoolery – concentration camps, all that jazz, a Mengelesque doctor played by Clint Howard (him again) and his CO, Michael Paré’s Commandant Brand has got his hands on some vampires and seeks to understand their strange powers to give Hitler eternal life. Rayne and the resistance must stop them, at great cost, and through means I don’t think will help anyone if I recount here.

Now, $10 million isn’t all that much to try and produce a period action flick, let alone one with a supernatural bent. The charitable thing to say would be that the budget is stretched to accommodate the story, and the less charitable way would be to say that this looks cheap and unpleasant.

Again, the dialogue could use a lot of work, and the action scenes wind up flat and uninteresting. There’s a small amount of joy to be had from Clint Howard’s scenery chewing, but the rest of the cast is pretty much a bust. In Natassia Malthe’s case, quite literally. She’s wooden enough to make Brendan Fletcher seem like a master character actor by comparison, but the two leads have no chemistry whatsoever, meaning there’s nothing at all that’s worth looking at here. And again, this is the best in the series. Yes.

Max Schmeling

Here’s a novelty, a Boll film that, and I’m as shocked as you are, isn’t bad. It’s not a great film, but it is at least a film, and for that we should all be thankful.

It’s a biopic of, who else, Max Schmeling, the German boxer active at, unfortunately, the same time Germany was rather becoming active in burgeoning goose-stepping scene of the thirties and forties. Framing devices aside, we join him pretty much just as he comes to international prominence, controversially becoming Heavyweight Champion after Jack Sharkey decided to punch him in the dick during their match.

The bulk of the film is about Max’s attempts to prove that he’s a worthy competitor, deserving of better nicknames than “the Low-Blow champion”. I agree – I mean, “Dick Punch Champion” was right there, people. After some struggles, he eventually achieves respect by dealing the rising star of Joe Lewis one of his three career losses, the two becoming life long friends in the process, with Schmeling losing the eventual rematch.

Outside of the ring, there’s also Max’s relationship with his eventual wife, Czech actress Anny Ondra to consider, and also his ongoing struggle to remain an active boxer without joining the Nazi Party as part of a difficult pre-war balancing act. He’s forced to go to war once that breaks out, becoming a paratrooper, but once the war ends Max is left with nothing. He tries to reclaim some pride and cash with a comeback in the ring, but it’s not to be, retiring from boxing to a successful life as part of Coca-Cola’s expansion back into post-war Germany which is not covered in the film.

Perhaps I’m cutting this a little too much slack, in part because I could only find this through certain alternatively-legal avenues and the English subtitles I obtained, well, let’s just say have a hint of Google Translate about them. however, between that and my barely-remembered high-school German I think I pieced it together.

Caveat aside, this film does a decent job of hitting the main points of Schmeling’s life – if anything it’s trying to cram too much in, and would perhaps have been a more interesting film had it focused exclusively on the attitudes of the world to a athlete perceived as a Nazi, despite doing his best to remain disassociated with them. However, that would perhaps stray from the biopic descriptor too far for comfort.

There’s nothing greatly wrong with Max Schmeling, apart from it feeling much like every other boxing biopic. There’s only so many ways you can frame the story of someone punching someone else, and this isn’t a particularly new one.

In the present company, that makes in a masterpiece by comparison, but it’s still not something I’d particularly recommend anyone see – certainly not unless a reasonable English translation appears.

Auschwitz

Rounding out this Nazi themed interlude, Boll’s look at the most horrendous chapter of his country’s history is… super weird, on a number of levels. It starts with an introductory spiel from Boll, outlining why he made this, and he makes a fair case – despite any pelters I’ve thrown at his output over the course of this, after reading assorted interviews and such as background I can at least appreciate that he’s no dummy, or deluded about his own work.

His contention is that the Holocaust has, essentially, been too sanitised in recent works for the supremely understandable reason that it’s literally the worst thing, and in part he thinks this is why its become easier to deny that it ever happened, along with some woefully inadequate teaching. It’s not a ridiculous position, and one that’s backed up with interviews with assorted school kids at the end of the film who vary from highly informed to ill informed to not caring about being informed.

It’s the middle third that’s the gut punch, with a re-creation of a batch of inmates being admitted, systematically stripped of possessions, clothing, dignity and their lives, in largely unflinching detail. There’s not many other films that will show a baby being shot in the head. There’s moments where the films low-budget roots show through, but it’s tough to notice them on the periphery given the horror unfolding centre stage.

Obviously, it’s disturbing, and for once Boll achieves exactly what he sets out to do. The problems with Boll’s Auschwitz, for once, have nothing to do with the quality of the film, but rather with the problems of nearly every other film he’s made pre-Attack on Darfur.

If we were to imagine Boll’s career focusing on issues like this, and Heart of America‘s violence, he might have had the credibility to pull something like this off and, perhaps, be recognised as a low-budget indy film-maker trying to shine a light on unpleasant subjects and be rather more warmly regarded.

But Boll made House of the Dead, and all that other garbage, and Postal, which uses Nazis for a couple of gags. I found it impossible not to watch this with all that baggage, without expecting it to be exploitative nonsense.

I don’t think it is, but the miasma of disreputability that Boll has brought to it makes it feel as though it is. I’d try and talk about it dispassionately, but it’s not really the topic to be dispassionate about.

So. Yes. Super weird. Not, in any sort of traditional sense, a film, and not something for which terms like “good” or “bad” really apply, but it’s a work that deserves better than the understandable passing over its received.

Attack on Darfur

Another of Boll attempts, and again for all the snark poured his way here, I believe an entirely genuine attempt to put something of a spotlight on tragic world events, Attack of Darfur follows a number of western journalists played by the likes of Billy Zane, David O’Hara, Edward Furlong and Kristanna Loken as they investigate the genocide in Darfur.

They are escorted by the Hakeem Kae-Kazim’s Captain Jack Tobamke of the “Allied Nations”, who I believe are the same ersatz UN shower that JCVD worked for in the Street Fighter film. They interview some villagers, giving some insight into the behaviours and mindsets of the militias and rebels across Sudan, before the Janjaweed hit squads show up. They turf the observers out, and set about razing the village to the ground, pillaging, raping and murdering (again with the babies) in quite gruesome detail, while the more action-orient of the journalists decide that they can’t stand by and head back to make a difference. This would be tempting to start labelling as a white saviour narrative, except there’s not really any saving going on, as it turns out.

I won’t belabour the point other than to say exactly the same analysis of Auschwitz applies. Of any of the films we’re talking about today, it would be the last three I could almost recommend – Max Schmeling being a traditional but competent bio-pic, and Auschwitz and Attack on Darfur at least having some value in keeping some of humanity’s worst moments in mind, albeit in ways that could perhaps be handled better by realising that it’s somehow easier for us flawed humans to focus on an individual, rather than the horrors inflicted on the many as shown in Attack on Darfur and Auschwitz.

Rampage

We’ll round this off with a brief look at Boll’s own little franchise, starting out with Rampage. In which our good friend Brendan Fletcher stars, so you can perhaps guess where this is going.

A seemingly normal early twenties Bill Williamson works as a mechanic, while his parents encourage him to either go on to college or move out of the house already. Bloody millennials. Anyway, despite not seeming all that unhappy with life, apart from not getting the coffee he ordered made properly, he seems to take on board the ranting of some eco-warrior, too-many-people-on-Earth internet video personality and decides to do something about it.

That something being a assembling a home-made suit of bullet proof armour, getting a bunch of guns, and shooting people for, like, an hour. After which he frames what was supposed to be his friend for the deed, showing a frighting degree of planning, and escapes with the money he stole from the bank during the events of the film. Which rather undermines the attempts to paint him as a disaffected loner seduced by extremism. Which may have been the point. Except if it is, the two sequels don’t make sense. Possibly all of the above is simultaneously true. It’s hard to say with Boll’s films.

At this point in the podcast I must admit I’m running out of interesting ways to say “I didn’t like this film”. It’s politics are sophomoric, the dialogue atrocious and the acting abysmal. I get the impression that Brendan Fletcher is supposed to be a charismatic, mesmeric presence, a sort of anti-establishment Charles Manson, but only ever seems like some daft wee kid, making this a difficult series to take seriously on any level at all.

Perhaps some message could be better divined here if there was more time devoted to quite why Bill goes off the rails, but so much of this film is just random gunfire, like a really boring Commando cosplay, that there’s no reason to recommend this film. Apart perhaps from the scene where a heavily armed, armour clad psychopath wanders into a bingo hall of oblivious OAPs, eats half a sandwich and leaves without anyone batting an eyelid. As you do.

Rampage: Capital Punishment

Following on from Rampage as one may follow on from a fart, Capital Punishment returns to our psychopathic antihero Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher) after a few years of living off the grid. For reasons left uncovered, he emerges briefly from hiding in order to post a YouTube video of a rambling anti-commercialism, anti-authoritarian, pseudo-anarchist manifesto before burning down his house. As you do.

He won’t be needing it any more, you see, as he packs up his bag o’ guns and daft suit of armour and heads off to a television station with the intent of broadcasting his message to a wider audience. So, in short he rounds up obnoxious anchorman Chip Parker (Locklyn Munro, another returning anti-champion of many prior Boll works) along with the rest of the studio staff and holds them at gunpoint to do just that, with the threat of explosives keeping the quickly assembled SWAT teams at bay.

And, well, there’s not much more to it than that, really, bar a lot of ranting and killing, in both a narrative and wider meaning sense. Williamson appears to be inciting the country to violently rise up against the status quo, like a gun-toting Russell Brand, but as he has less charisma than a tube of Pringles, I suspect this revolution would go lightly sniggered at and then politely ignored.

Likewise, I suppose I’m supposed to be impressed with the level of forethought shown in his planning of his brutality, the placement of cameras and traps and the like, as though this is the Darkest Timeline version of Home Alone or something. If only he had slapped aftershave on himself, perhaps this could have magically transferred some of the charm over as well as the basic setup.

This film is largely boring. Kill with fire.

Rampage: President Down

Oh God. There’s another one. Thankfully the last, and don’t think you’re getting to see anything interesting like the planning and execution of an assassination of a President. No. That happens off camera. Because that’d be expensive.

You know what’s not expensive? Woods. So most of this film is Bill dribbling his by now usual nonsense to camera, while the FBI sit in an office nominally hunting him down while discussing amongst themselves his mantras, ranging across race to military interventionism in extraordinarily forced manner, before heading into the woodland deathtraps Bill has been preparing.

I am as tired of saying it as you are of hearing it. This is the most awful film in an awful series of films, and no one will derive any joy from it. This effort, it goes without saying, has been a colossal waste of my time and energy, and I hope it at least provided some enjoyment for you, dear listener, as that means it is something I won’t necessarily regret on my deathbed.