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Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.

Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?

It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.

The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.

Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.

The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (2011)

It took five years and three movies, but notorious film director Uwe Boll has finally gotten to the original time period of the Bloodrayne video game. The popular game concerns a lithe, redheaded half-vampiric lass killing nefarious Nazis in World War II. You would have thought that would make for a decent starting point. But Boll instead took his time, possibly always envisioning a trilogy to due the character and his storytelling ambition proper service. Or it was just a way to make more money. So after stops in 18th-century Romania and the Wild West, Rayne comes home, so to speak in Bloodrayne: The Third Reich. What if somebody was adapting the Grand Theft Auto franchise into a film and took Boll’s dawdling approach? The first film would probably start with horses and buggies.

Rayne (Natassia Malthe), our favorite dhampir, is back at slaying them dead. She teams up with Nathaniel (Brendan Fletcher) and his band of resistance fighters on the Eastern front. They rescue one train filled with prisoners and get into a shootout with Commandant Ekhart Brand (Michael Paré). But Rayne makes the unfortunate mistake of biting the Commandant before impaling the guy. She has unknowingly turned the Nazi officer into a vampire like her, one that can walk in daylight. You would think after 200 years of existence she would have a handle on this. The Commandant is educated in the ways of the vampire by a mad scientist, Dr. Mangler (Clint Howard), who enjoys torturing human and vampire alike for science. At one point the doc says, while slicing up a living body,” Vampires no longer have any bonds to the moral laws of man.” That seems like a pot/kettle situation to me. The Commandant assembles his own undead army of vampire soldiers. Rayne feels responsible for this ugly mess and vows to kill the Commandant again and to a satisfying degree of dead this time.

For a while, Bloodrayne III looks like it might be the best in the trilogy, admittedly a dubious honor. Despite all my misgivings, Bloodrayne III almost works on its own lowered-expectation exploitation genre level. Almost. The campy combination of Nazis and vampires is a wild premise, though hardly original, and should reap some ripe and schlocky exploitation entertainment. The locations in Croatia are terrific and add just enough authenticity for a story about a vampire lady killing Nazis. In fact one sequence plays like Boll’s take on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, involving a tavern showdown where people play a tense game of secret identities. There are moments that work, little bursts of promise, but they get reaped all too quickly. Boll’s action choreography is sadly limited in scope and editing. He sticks too close to his characters, never allowing for complicated tussles or expanding the scope of the action. There are a few serviceable explosions, some minor gore effects, but Boll does nobody any favor when the action is too brief and brittle. Everything feels pared down so most of the fights involve minimal players and the sequences themselves mostly give way to redundant posturing.

The failings of Bloodrayne III are roughly the same failings that dogged Bloodrayne II: Boll does not embrace his film’s inherent cheesiness. I wrote about 2007’s Bloodrayne: Deliverance: “Boll seems uneasy about embracing its supernaturally campy potential. Bloodrayne II has little blood, zero gore, no nudity, no sex, and a pitifully scant amount of action. In other words, it’s missing all of the exploitation elements that make a movie like Bloodrayne II worth watching.” While Boll has seen fit to correct the absence of certain genre elements, notably blood and boobs, he still cannot seize the pulpy premise into Grand Guignol. Nazi vampires, an immortal Hitler, a 200-year-old ass-kicking woman with signature arm-blades AND Clint Howard as a mad Nazi scientist and this is the best you can do? That’s unacceptable. The supernatural potential is wasted here. Rayne’s vampire side is barely utilized. She bites people, she jumps high once, but there’s nothing really vampiric about her beside one scene where she complains about having to drink pig’s blood. She might as well be anything else if you’re not going to take advantage of what makes a vampire a vampire. At one point, the Commandant turns his best tracker into a vampire for the purposes of finding Rayne (her secret hideout turns out to be a not very discreet large castle). That idea had great promise, all things considered, but like most of the other fights, it’s one-and-done. Rayne takes out the guy and we move along. Rayne is betrayed by one of the brothel girls who has her eyes set on running the business (“You’re a cocksucking entrepreneur,” someone declares, though I wouldn’t put that exact terminology on a resume). She gets turned into a vampire too. All right, she could work as a character that could get close to Rayne. But then she too is dispatched with mercurial swiftness. Why the hurry? Bloodrayne III runs a total 72 minutes before end credits. The film could have used a lot more fleshing out, and it could have benefited from being less serious with something so flatly ridiculous.

It wouldn’t be a Boll movie without the whiplash-inducing shifts in tone. One second we’re dwelling on the campy idea of Herr Hitler becoming a powerful vampire (there’s even a goofy dream sequence where Rayne is terrorized by Adolph with fangs) and the next minute the film descends into soft-core porn territory. Rayne visits a brothel to get an oiled massage, because apparently being a centuries-old undead slayer of evil can really cause some killer knots that only hookers are properly trained to knead away. Anyway, Rayne saves one of the brothel girls from an abusive Nazi john, and the women of the brothel wish to show their gratitude via some sex “on the house.” We’re then treated to a solid four minutes of heavy breathing and gauzy soft-focus shots of hands, nipples, and crevices. To Boll’s credit, it’s on par with most soft-core porn productions. When Rayne is beating the Nazi john she becomes a feminist mouthpiece: “I can’t punish you for the legions of women who have been brutalized by men, but I’ll give it my best shot.” If Sucker Punch proved anything, it’s hard to stand on a feminist soapbox when your characters are pure male fantasy figures. The onscreen lesbian tryst would fit the context of the film better if Boll kept a continuity of tawdry sensuality. I don’t recall any other lesbian leanings in previous entries but I suppose spontaneous lesbians/opportune bisexuality just goes with direct-to-DVD territory. The only other element of sexuality occurs late in Bloodrayne III, like ten minutes to credits. Rayne and Nathaniel decide it’s time to get it on. Oh, did I mention that they come to this decision while in the back of a German transport truck on the way to Berlin. Nonetheless, an awkward and deeply unerotic sex scene follows before their rescue. They appear to be making the most of their time, though curiously both participants leave their fingerless gloves on while they copulate. I call it “hobo lovemaking.”

Boll doesn’t seem to understand what a truly juicy concept vampire Nazis are so we are treated to a lot of talking. But it’s not talking that really establishes character, setting, or plot; it’s mostly a jumble of self-aggrandizing, hyperbolic asides as heroes and villains are constantly reconfirming the stakes. Vampire Nazis. Trust us, we get it. But alas, the Commandant keeps gripping his fists and speaking about being “power incarnate” and how everyone shall bow to his power and how he’s “the prodigal son of the Third Reich,” which I don’t think is the proper analogy to apply. Dr. Mangler (too on-the-nose or an attempt to reference Dr. Mengele? You be the judge) will not let any situation to bray about the obvious go to waste, sometimes with peculiar anachronisms. Over the course of the film, this talkative evil scientist will reference Shakespeare, say “the world is your oyster,” and even, “The times they are a changin’, gyspy.” He even slams the father of penicillin, saying, “Alexander Fleming had his fungi. I have [Rayne].” But the worst offenders have to be Rayne and Nathaniel. At one point they bellow, “He’s not just a vampire! He’s a vampire with an entire German army behind him!” You know, in case you couldn’t grasp the subtleties of the narrative. Rayne is given to long passages of voice over where we get to listen to her wax poetic about man’s inhumanity to man, the cycle of violence, and other hilarious grasps at being mistaken as having, you know, depth or thoughts. This is the same character who ends the film saying, “Guten tach, mother fuckers!” Yeah, this one’s a regular Rodin.

The film is populated entirely with Boll’s stock players, so you know the acting returns will be fairly diminished. Malthe (Elektra) returns for her second go-round as the titular half-vampire half-human heroine. For what reason, I could not say. Perhaps the former Maxim model had a large gas bill one winter. Malthe hasn’t advanced much as an actress in the layover between sequels. She fills out a bodice heavenly, but her acting is about as emotionless and dryly ineffectual as a corpse. Speaking of, Malthe looks deathly pale in the film with alabaster skin. Apparently in the 60 years since the events of Bloodrayne II, she decided to keep the cleavage-accentuated fighting outfits but lose her skin tone and her heretofore signature red hair. But fear not video game aficionados because this Rayne has streaks of bright red amongst her otherwise jet black tresses. I suppose she found the one Hot Topic open on the Eastern front. Malthe is a fine-looking woman who will look the part, no matter what improbable form-fitting outfit she chooses to slay evil in, until she opens her mouth and destroys the illusion. There’s a reason not too many Maxim models have transitioned over into being award-winning actresses. To be fair, the Rayne character is mostly defined by costuming and weaponry. Don’t believe me? Read the user reviews by fanboys and see what they quibble over most.

It wouldn’t be a Boll film without his lucky charm, Paré (11 Boll film appearances!). The plainspoken actor was actually a fine fit in Bloodrayne II as a cowpoke. He’s not so well a good fit as an evil Nazi officer. Paré is never truly threatening in any capacity as a Nazi or a vampire. That’s pretty sad. He’s given tough guy things to say, and he bites people, but he never comes across as menacing. He’s letting the uniform do the acting for him. Likewise, Howard (first Boll appearance since 2003’s House of the Dead) gets lost in the broad generalization of his character. Howard always seems like he’s on the verge of breaking into third person. He seems lost in a daze too often. Howard comes across as more Igor than mad scientist. He’s definitely not going to be one the scientists other countries offer asylum for at war’s end.

Bloodrayne: The Third Reich could have been a ridiculously yet enjoyably campy B-movie that knew how to play to its strengths – vampire Nazis, attractive woman killing vampire Nazis. You would think that salaciously junky concept would write itself. The problem is that Boll seems to have made a movie that seemed like it would write itself. It’s not enough to just have a handful of genre elements (vampires, Hitler, lesbians!), you have to present those elements in an appealing manner. The premise is workable but the plot, characters, action, and tone are not given necessary attention. I never thought I would say this, but there’s just not enough holding together a movie about vampire Nazis. The dialogue is mostly characters talking in circles, rehashing what should be obvious, explaining why the bad guys should be threats when they fail to be credible onscreen. The film might be the best of the ongoing trilogy, but what exactly is that saying? Barely covering 75 minutes, with negligible action and an overall rushed pace, Bloodrayne III is a sterling example of disposable entertainment that hasn’t even been given the necessary components to be “entertainment.” Instead it’s just eminently disposable. The saddest part is knowing it’s only so long before this character gets resurrected for a fourth movie. Perhaps by then Boll will have figured out what to do with his vampire-killing hottie. Fourth time’s the charm, right?

Nate’s Grade: C-

Max Payne (2008)

I have no idea whatsoever what the point of this movie was. Adapted from the popular video game, Max Payne follows a hardened police officer played hysterically super serious by a grumpy Mark Wahlberg. He scowls, he grumbles, he chews over laugh-out-loud “tough guy” dialogue as he searches for his wife’s killer. For whatever reason, this storyline dovetails with a super drug on the streets that makes people see hallucinations of winged demons/angels. The entire storyline has no merit except to squeeze in some semi-cool effects shots. But when you know they’re all just hallucinations, what does it matter? Can that really be scary? But then these creatures seem to interact with reality and pull people to their deaths, so what are the rules here? There’s not an ounce of fun to be had amidst this drabby neo-noir landscape. The plot is a formulaic revenge tale, where every turn is easily telegraphed and every character is a one-note stock role, complete with the video game favorite of doe-eyed pixie girl who carries huge guns (Mila Kunis, why?). Even the action sequences are dour and dull. Max Payne is a movie that was built to exist in moments and not as a whole. The most troublesome aspect of this whole sodden adventure is how much the film openly fetishizes guns. The end credits are like a reel of money shots, watching glistening CGI guns rattle off. What better way to end such a thoughtless exercise in pseudo entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: D

Fary Cry (2008)

Say what you will about Uwe Boll as a writer and director; Lord knows I’ve written nearly a Master’s thesis on the notorious schlock filmmaker. However, this man would be an asset to have as a producer, at least initially. The German tax loophole was closed and yet the man still finds a way to make like three to four movies a year. He can pull together resources and organization as well as anybody in the business. So what if the final product happens to be substandard? This man knows how to produce. He’s just not as skilled at other positions. Far Cry, Boll’s latest video game adaptation, is a clunky action movie that treats genre clichés as virtues. It is not a bad movie but it’s not a good bad movie either. It’s just Boll’s version of disposable action.

Valerie (Emmanuelle Vaugier) is a Vancouver newspaper reporter who has got a great lead on a story. Turns out Dr. Krieger (Udo Kier), your classic mad scientist, is running experiments on a nearby island and he has an armored guard. Our spunky heroine is determined to investigate. Her uncle Max (Ralf Moeller) is actually working for the mad doctor and having misgivings, which is why he tries to send Valerie classified info on the experiments. Dr. Krieger is bankrolled by the (Canadian?) government to develop genetically modified super soldiers. They have a layer of armor under their skin and the only foolproof way to kill these super soldiers is to shoot them in the eye or mouth. My best guess why is because they both lead to the brain, but then why stop there? Why not shooting into ear and nose cavities? Anyway, the super soldiers won’t take orders so the mad doctor and his mercenaries capture Max and turn him into the newest test subject. Valerie has chartered a boat to meet up with her uncle. The boat captain, Jack (Til Schweiger, who sounds like his voice was dubbed by an actor that could not widen his mouth to enunciate), just happens to be an old Special Forces buddy of Max’s. This comes in handy when both Jack and Valerie are attacked once they reach the island. The duo must run for their lives and inflict much ass-kicking justice.

Far Cry is a mediocre cliché-ridden action vehicle. You’ve got so many formula elements widely circulated in numerous other action flicks, and I’m not even talking about the standards like that the good guys are marksmen, the bad guys are terrible shots, and anyone can move unfazed if they get shot in the shoulder. We also have the fact that all evil hideouts, when not hewn into volcanic rock, must be located in giant warehouses with too many catwalks and chains and extraneous machinery that do little else but spit sparks when called upon. Jack also pulls the timeless tactic of stripping an enemy solider, putting on his uniform, and then infiltrating the enemy camp under a flawless disguise – a change in clothes. Let’s not also forget the tried-and-true method of throwing a rock in a different direction to cause a distraction. I think at this point only dogs fall for that. By the thirty-minute point, we’ve already seen two separate shots of Jack swimming underwater while an explosion rages above the surface. Though the word has likely lost all meaning to Boll, I would describe that as excessive.

Another major cliché of action movies is the forced coupling between Jack and Valerie. It doesn’t take long before their bickering leads to smooching. Shortly after just escaping mercenaries and a helicopter explosion in a lake, Jack and Valerie find a shack nearby and tend to their wounds. She changes out of wet clothes and makes sure that he doesn’t catch a peek (he does) and he dresses a flesh wound on his rippled abdomen. Eventually she crawls under the blankets on a bed to warm herself for the night. He does too, to stay warm of course. “I have to take off my wet pants, you know,” he reasons (oldest trick in the book). But after they’re in bed together they have to still talk about how cold they each are still, and then Jack suggests, “shared body heat,” you know, just to stay dry. After what seems like forever, these two just give up this charade and start kissing and have them some sex. Naturally, the introduction of an attractive female character in an action movie is designed so that she can snuggle and then be put in danger. Valerie does little else to the story. I want to know why either of these two is acting so casual moments after they escaped fiery death. They know that they’re still being hunted, and the shack is within walking distance from the crash site, which is being investigated by the mercenaries. For that matter, why do the bad guys call off each attack to search and confirm for kills? Are they that concerned with paperwork?

Far Cry feels like every generic moment rises from the shadow of other generic action movies. The final conflict between Jack and Max the Super Solider boils down to an appeal to the man inside the monster, trying to tap the humanity buried beneath the killing machine. You’ve seen this in countless other movies. Dr. Krieger has a dominatrix-esque second-in-command that has some personality to her; it must be hard to be a female henchwoman, having to be even more evil than the henchmen to prove her self. The initial plot setup even reminds me of Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster — girl reporter investigates mad scientist. The whole island-based setting, with the aquatic inclined stunts, led by a Central European action star, buddied up with a yammering idiot as a comic sidekick … it oddly reminds me of the entirely forgettable 1998 Jean Claude Van-Damme movie, Knock-Off, with also had the misfortune of co-starring Rob Schneider. A knock-off of Knock-Off? Well it is time for the tenth anniversary after all.

Boll stubbornly tries to make his mundane action movie into a comedy. The comic elements never fully gel with the rest of the film, and yet Boll keeps transforming the movie into this screwy action comedy. There’s the bickering between Jack and Valerie, which is expected territory for the genre, but then the movie fills its time with excessive wisecracks, strange digressions, and so much comic relief that it fails to be relief (or comic). Chris Coppola chews as much scenery as possible as Emilio, the irritating, hapless sidekick to Jack. He’s introduced at almost the hour mark and seems to be trying to make up for lost time in annoyance. He’ll offer to help Jack fight but then recoil and scamper off. This is the kind of movie that has the overweight Coppola lovingly caress a sandwich and coo, “I’ve been thinking about you all day.” Get it? He’s fat. Fat people love food.

But by far the funniest and weirdest aspect abut Far Cry is how unbelievably prepared Jack is for any situation. He hands Valerie a handcuff key from his pocket, which he always carried with him because, presumably, Jack lands in handcuffs often or cannot be trusted to remember his “safe word.” But then late in the movie, Jack is handcuffed and he literally regurgitates ANOTHER handcuff key. This means that Jack keeps a key in his pocket and swallows a spare. Does he eat these daily? What else is hidden among his body? The man could be a human Swiss army knife.

No one ever seems to question what the chances are that a German former Special Forces agent will work at a Canadian lab, within reach of his Canadian niece ace reporter, who will charter a boat from another German former Special Forces agent who also happens to be within reach of this lab. I guess when you’ve got invincible super soldiers you don’t sweat the details.

Despite all its flaws and general laziness, Far Cry is a semi-decent action movie, especially one with a low budget. Boll manages to construct some passing action sequences with respectable camerawork, and the end battles between our heroes and the Super Soldiers is actually well-edited, with sharp cuts that help ratchet up the energy level, and has plenty of good stunt work. A chase through the nondescript warehouse between Jack and a super soldier actually makes use of some spiffy Parkour choreography, a welcomed addition. The forced comedy can actually succeed at times during the action, like when Valerie is hurling grenades with the pins still attached or when she accidentally lassos a helicopter with a harpoon gun (Dr Krieger scolds her, “You know, you owe me a helicopter.”).

In the pantheon of Boll movies, Far Cry lands more toward the top. It’s a middling action movie that tries too hard to constantly inject misguided humor into every freaking minute. The movie suffers from the same boneheaded flaws that plague the action movie genre, but by the end of its admittedly brief running time, Boll has pulled off a minor success. Far Cry is not a good movie and has too many derivative and unimaginative elements, but Boll seems to have cranked this one out. While Far Cry is not a particularly good action movie, it is relatively indecipherable from the thousands of other cheap mediocre action movies that pollute the direct-to-DVD market. He’s made an easily digestible product that isn’t even bad enough or weird enough to be memorable. To him that’s victory, but to me, an avid Boll expert, that’s just plain boring.

Nate’s Grade: C

Bloodrayne II: Deliverance (2007)

It’s been some time since infamously derided director Uwe Boll reared his head and much has changed. 2006’s Bloodrayne was his last theatrically released movie but that movie was originally shot in 2004 and pushed back. In the meantime Germany revised its tax code closing the loophole that helped finance many of Boll’s cinematic duds thanks to German financiers being able to write off their debts. Boll has finished an additional three movies that are all scheduled for release in 2008, including the star-studded (for Boll) Lord of the Rings rip-off, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale opening this month. Boll may never get a chance to direct a theatrically released film again, which may explain his decision to helm a direct-to-DVD sequel to Bloodrayne.

The dusty town of Deliverance, Montana is under assault from the monstrous Billy the Kid (Zack Ward). Except Billy is no ordinary bandit but a powerful vampire intent on keeping his dastardly deeds nice and quiet until the railroad moves in with a nonstop supply of fresh meat and future members of the undead. Newspaper reporter Newton Pyles (Christopher Coppola, no relation to the famous family) has ventured to Deliverance in hopes of witnessing and writing exciting tales of the Wild West, and instead he’s become the man forced to write the cover-up of Billy’s actions. The vampires have kidnapped the town’s children with the idea of feasting off them while they wait. The town’s only hope is half-human, half-vampire Rayne (Natassia Malthe). Under the guidance of rustler Pat Garret (Michael Paré), the pair gather a team to combat Billy the Kid and free Deliverance from evil.

Stylistically, Bloodrayne II: Deliverance is Boll’s desperate attempt to ape the look and feel of HBO’s popular Western series, Deadwood. It really is rather obvious to anyone that has ever seen the show. The costumes in Deliverance look similar, the sets are dressed similarly (though they still come across as too tourist attraction stagy), the gas-lamp lighting and use of darkness seems pretty similar, and the screenplay even manages to sprinkle in a few “cocksuckers,” which any Deadwood fan would know was the term of choice for historic cowpokes. Boll has the directing habit of borrowing liberally from his sources, so I expected nothing less for his attempt at a Western. The mundane cinematography goes to great lengths to declare how handheld the camerawork is. There is a noticeable difference between following the action as it develops for a docu-drama feel and simply shaking and bobbing the camera for a misguided attempt at artistic effect. After a while you feel like the cameraman must be balancing on a unicycle. There’s an over reliance on particular camera shots and close-ups are strictly reserved for the eyes and fingers during buildups to gunfights. The lavish mountain scenery of Canada (er, I mean Montana, yeah, Montana) is probably the visual highlight of a film that includes a sexy redhead kicking ass in a midriff barring leather bustier.

The action is surprisingly decent. The climactic shootout between the forces of good and evil isn’t going to rival anything I saw in the updated 3:10 to Yuma, however, to Boll’s credit, the action is not ineptly constructed. He develops parallel lines of action and separates Rayne’s posse to deal with separate heroic last stands. Gunfights are naturally easier to stage than sword battles (shot 1: bad guy fires, shot 2: good guy ducks then fires, shot 3: bad guy gets hit) and that might explain why Rayne doesn’t break out her signature arm-blades until the very end of the climax. Rhetorical question time: who brings an arm-blade to a gunfight, anyway?

But it is structure that weighs down Bloodrayne II. Boll finally has a handle on crafting some workable action sequences and he just blows it. Bloodrayne II has exactly three action sequences and the first two are rather puny. There is a long drought in between action and in its place are a lot of dull conversations amidst increasingly dull characters. Vampires and the Wild West is a concept that can work; fun can be had with vampire cowboys and high noon (make that midnight) duels, and yet Boll seems uneasy about embracing its supernaturally campy potential. Bloodrayne II has little blood, zero gore, no nudity, no sex, and a pitifully scant amount of action. In other words, it’s missing all of the exploitation elements that make a movie like Bloodrayne II worth watching.

Screenwriters Christopher Donaldson and Neil Every throw in a lot of side characters into the stew but then quickly dispatch them as well, which at least keeps the audience on their guard and wary that anyone that assists Rayne is destined for a sudden end. Most egregiously, they speed through one of the best segments in all of movies: the getting-the-team-together sequence. Rayne and Garret are collecting a posse that includes a con man preacher (Michael Eklund) and a drunk affectionately known as Slime Bag Franson (Michael Teigen). Part of the enjoyment of the Western is following the unifying of a team and watching relationships form, and Bloodrayne II rushes through this process. It collects its gunfighters in brief introductions and then heads right for the finish.

There seems to be little continuity between the two films even ignoring the change at lead vampire slaying hottie. The vampires in this entry behave drastically different from the older European ones in the first film. Rayne seems to have lost her healing abilities, which were what the circus folk put on display when she was their money-earning star of their own little freak show (apparently during the 100-plus year gap between films Rayne got a little hammered during Spring Break and got a lower back tattoo). I bring up the healing issue because at one point Rayne is shot several times while escaping via swimming through a river. She’s struggling to regain her strength and confesses to Garret about her true nature and her need for blood. In one of the most curious moments for a movie that pairs vampires and cowboys, Garret slices open his arm and holds it over Rayne, dripping blood all over her face. The characters even seem to catch the weirdness as they both remark how much more useful a simple cup might have been.

It wouldn’t be a Boll movie without an abundance of the bizarre, the ludicrous, and the unintentionally funny. Rayne travels great distances on horseback to Deliverance with the intention of slaying some vampires she knows are responsible for murdering her friends. She finds the reflection-free accomplice (House of the Dead‘s Tyron Leitso) and holds a stool to his windpipe, choking the bastard. Instead of finishing him off Rayne relents and lets him live because, wait for it, he let her participate in his card game. Talk about a strange shift in motivation. During the climax, the townsfolk are stirred to rise up against Billy and his vampire clan thanks to the mayor and Pyles finally growing some spines. They set out to shoot them some vampires, but really what will they accomplish? Bloodrayne II established earlier that the vampires could take being plugged with bullets unless the ammunition is combined with garlic. I doubt the townspeople know they need that key ingredient to their firearms. How do the people in 1880s Montana manage to get a copy of the Chicago newspaper Pyles writes for? The railroad hasn’t made its way to Deliverance so I’m at a loss for the speedy spread of print journalism 1,000 miles away.

But the most unintentionally funny moment comes at the end when Billy has staged an elaborate system of pulleys so that when Rayne opens a door it drops a weight that will raise a series of noose around the captured children’s necks. The kid on the furthest right is hung to death and the children seem to be arranged according to height, which seems a little OCD even for a vampire. The tallest kid on the far left of this makeshift gallows reacts very differently. While the rest of the child actors are crying, fretting, and acting like the ropes are cutting their breathing, this kid on the far left is just standing stone-faced and still. He’s not even bothering to act and it shows.

The dialogue is expectantly awful, including clunkers like Pyles saying, “I have a question. I came looking for stories of the Wild West,” and then never actually asking a question (what kind of reporter doesn’t know what a question is?). The best/worst example of dialogue is literally the final line spoken and it blindsides the audience like a car crash. Garret says with a glint of wisdom, “Life is like a penis. When it’s hard you get screwed and when it’s soft it can’t be beat.” Wow. Someone alert the motivational poster industry because I have a gut feeling this will rival the perilous “Hang in there” kitty.

The first Rayne, Kristanna Loken, decided she’d rather stick with her crummy Sci-Fi TV show, which has since been cancelled, than don the arm-blades once more for Boll. Malthe (Elektra, Skinwalkers) has the acting prowess you would expect from a former Maxim magazine model. It’s not like the role of Rayne involves much emotional complexity; mostly an actress has to be able to deliver some clunky dialogue and look attractive while swinging a sword. Malthe is certainly a fine looking woman but she is a non-starter when it comes to the world of acting. Yeah she looks good in leather chaps but whenever she speaks it’s in the same emotionless, dry tone even when she’s supposed to be angry. She comes across like an ineffectual dominatrix who’s studied acting by watching tapes of Shannon Doherty. Malthe seems to have a few faces in her acting repertoire and one of them is stink-eye, which you will be very familiar with by the end of the movie.

Ward is hilariously miscast and completely unconvincing as an evil bloodsucker cowboy. Ward got his start in the classic A Christmas Story and I remember him best playing the goofy, dumb younger brother on comedian Christopher Titus’ hysterical TV show, Titus. Ward tacks on a lousy Eastern European accent that comes in sharp conflict with the setting and material of the film. Are vampires immune from having accents rub off on them, because Rayne seems to have assimilated well into frontier speech patterns? I challenge others not to crack up when he yells, “Now the slaughter begins.” In his defense, Ward isn’t given many scenes to play and the screenwriters have to fall back on the cheap “kids in danger” device to establish his villainy.

The other actors don’t fare much better. Coppola annoys within minutes of appearing onscreen. A helpful bartender (Chris Spencer) is astoundingly bad even for an Uwe Boll movie. He plays the part like Ted Lange in the Wild West. Boll go-to actor Paré actually seems at home with the Western material and his curt, monotone delivery fits well with the material. He’s a good fit for this genre but that doesn’t excuse his poor performances in four previous Boll flicks. The best actor in the movie is the original sheriff-turned-vampire (John Novak) who works an impressive snarl and a natural physically intimidating presence. He would have made for a serviceable lead villain over Ward.

Bloodrayne II: Deliverance is far less fun than the original while being better in some regards and worse in others. There isn’t much artistic growth shown. Boll was naturally meant to transition to the relegated realm of direct-to-DVD movies. It’s more his terrain what with the queasy production values, bad acting, and shoddy, repackaged scripts. In the world of direct-to-DVD a movie can live on into infinity thanks to assembly line sequels. Did anyone realize there are now, thanks to direct-to-DVD releases, seven Children of the Corns, four Bring it Ons, and a whopping 13 Land Before Times. It’s here where Boll’s quick production turnarounds will yield the most gain and where he may even thrive. He’s already planning to direct a Bloodrayne 3 and producing an Alone in the Dark 2 (regrettably there was a 2005 direct-to-DVD sequel to House of the Dead though it had no Boll involvement whatsoever). I think Uwe Boll is finally where he belongs.

Nate’s Grade: D

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a short but sweet documentary that follows the lengths two men will go to set the records for the classic arcade game, Donkey Kong. We learn a whole lot about the many faces that populate the world of competitive video games, like Walter Day as official record-keeping referee, Steve Sanders as a fraudulent Donkey Kong champ in his youth who has now become a lawyer, Mr. Awesome, and the gaming world’s superstar, Billy Mitchell. He holds several world records including a score of 800,000 for Donkey Kong. Enter Washington science teacher Steve Wiebe who dutifully plays Donkey Kong in his garage. He challenges Billy’s score and videotapes himself passing 1,000,000 points; all the while you can hear his son in the background screaming to have his butt wiped.

What becomes very apparent is that the entire record-keeping system is tilted in Billy’s favor. It’s both sad and funny to watch a group of grown men who have all gravitated toward one man at video games. Billy’s claim to fame is he’s the best at video games, and he has a restaurant, a line of hot sauce, and other products that sell because he has that small sliver of fame. And this select circle of gamers essentially is a freaking tree house and they don’t like someone from the outside crashing their private party. This group of man-child sycophants is clinging to their small notoriety like a life preserver on a doomed ocean liner. It’s baffling how serious and self-involved they all come across; while on the phone with Billy, Steve Sanders, while dining, says in the most hyperbolic alertness that Steve has come into the restaurant “uninvitedly” like it’s some grave offense. It’s a restaurant! (Billy at one point literally says, “No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It’s sort of like the abortion issue.”) These few established gamers throw hurdles at Steve and even dismantle his Donkey Kong machine to snap pictures looking for some tenuous proof that his score was inflated somehow. When they find a small dew drop of glue in one corner of the control board, they claim that this, compiled with the fact that the board was given to Steve by a known enemy to Billy, is enough to disqualify Steve’s record-breaking million point score.

They challenge him to break the record in public and that’s what Steve does, which is more than what Billy Mitchell is capable of. Steve travels to renowned New Hampshire arcade FunSpot and, under the glare of Billy lackeys, breaks 900,000 and gets to the heralded “kill screen,” where the old arcade game, because it has exhausted its memory, begins a stage simply to kill Mario within seconds. We’re told only two others have been ever known to reach a kill screen in public.

And then Brain Kuh pops in a videotape that Billy sent. The tape is a recorded game, presumably of Billy playing, where he passes 1,000,000 points on Donkey Kong and undermines Steve’s recent accomplishment. The sycophants are all abuzz, with Kuh on the phone with Billy relaying every moment in hilarious fawning detail. Apparently, it wasn’t kosher for Steve to submit a recorded video of his score but Billy doing the same thing is acceptable. This double-standard is even more dubious when you realize that Billy Mitchell is one of the deciding members on whether or not to credit Steve’s million-point tape; isn’t that a bit of a conflict of interest? Billy’s record-breaking tape has a mysterious blur that only appears on the side of the screen with the score, and the blur conveniently or coincidentally covers the score as it passes into seven digits. Surely that is more questionable than a dollop of glue on a control board, but oh well, the score stands.

The last part of the film involves the Guinness Book of World Records reaching out to Walter Day to setup a section on video game score records. The location for this showdown is even in Billy’s own backyard of Hollywood, Florida. Steve travels 3,000 miles to be there and challenge Billy head-to-head in public, but the many days go by and Billy refuses to put his skills to public scrutiny. Is he afraid to lose in public, or is there really something funny with that record-breaking tape he submitted to FunSpot?

King of Kong is pleasantly structured like a sports movie. Billy is portrayed as the villain, the establishment, and Steve is the underdog that just wants to succeed at something in a life that seems filled with disappointment. Even better, the filmmakers made a training montage set to “Eye of the Tiger.” The movie follows the expectations of a triumph-of-the-will tale, and King of Kong is all the better because of the silliness of the world of competitive old school arcade games. The sincerity and seriousness is so high that you cannot be faulted for asking whether or not this film is a mockumentary. It doesn’t seem to be real but that’s part of what makes it’s so fun to watch. Yes there’s some bias in the editing, but Billy Mitchell sure makes it easy to be characterized as a villain living high on his spoils of long ago. He openly connives and an old woman he’s helping reach a Q-Bert record even refers to him as “devious.” I think Billy even relishes the role of villain.

King of Kong is filled with great personalities and Kuh may be one of the funniest and most pathetic real-life figures I’ve seen in recent documentaries. He’s a self-described “prodigy” of Billy’s, and he was one of the two people who ventured into Steve’s garage while he wasn’t home. He “retired” at age 30 and was one of the most vocal proponents of Steve proving his skills are valid in a public site. He says the true game player must perform in public, under pressure, with another gamer looking on, possibly playing mind games with you (he really does say this, I swear). Yet when Billy doesn’t follow suit, it’s legit. Steve was playing at the time the video was shown and asks to watch it. Kuh declines, saying it was a “one-play only show,” never mind the fact that Billy could have studied Steve’s own winning tape for hours. His hypocrisy and weasel nature aside, when he speaks directly to the camera to narrate Steve’s ongoing Donkey Kong game is where the true depth of how sad this guy is comes on display. He’s talking about how far Steve is advancing with thinly veiled envy and desperate hopes of a bad turn of events; he advises to be on alert for “wild barrels” and “aggressive fireballs.” It’s altogether pathetic. “For someone else to beat me to the kill screen would be a letdown,” he says, “but let’s see what happens, maybe he’ll crack under the pressure and maybe I’ll get my chance to do it first.”

King of Kong is a vastly entertaining documentary told with wit and visual flair. Debut filmmaker Seth Gordon has crafted a highly enjoyable little glimpse into the strange lives of competitive gaming. Following a sports movie model, it’s easy to root for the underdog and get swept up in the compelling, if bizarre, storyline. King of Kong is arresting and fascinating documentary on the agony of defeat and the thrill of competition.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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