Saturday, February 18, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Rings

Hey guys, it's finally here! It's The January/February Film Dumping Ground! Yes, it's that magical time of the year when the major studios burn off all the celluloid bombs they didn't dare release during the all-important Summer and Xmas blockbuster seasons! Awesome! Brace yourselves for two solid months of watered-down PG-13 horror films, cheap CGI kid's movies and fart comedies. It's a fantastic time to be a film fan!

Rings was written by David Loucka, Jacob Aaron Estes and Akiva Goldsman. Really? Three people worked on this script? I'm honestly surprised there was one screenwriter, much less three of them. It was directed by F. Javier GutiƩrrez.

Louka previously wrote The Dream Team, Eddie, Dream House and House At The End Of The Street, none of which I've ever heard of. Estes previously wrote Mean Creek, Nearing Grace and The Details, which I've also never heard of.

Goldsman is a prolific and VERY uneven screenwriter, who previously penned The Client, Batman Forever (!), A Time To Kill, Batman & Robin (!!), Lost In Space (!!!), A Beautiful Mind, I, Robot, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend, Angels & Demons, Winter's Tale, Insurgent and The 5th Wave. Yep, you read right somehow the man responsible for the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind also wrote the execrable Batman & Robin! The world is a very strange and nonsensical place.

I don't know what actually went on behind the scenes, but if I had to guess I'd bet that Akiva Goldsman was hired to take Louka and Estes' lousy script and attempt to make it filmable. It didn't work.

GutiƩrrez previously directed a couple of short films, as well as Before The Fall, which again, I've never heard of.

Rings is the third film in The Ring franchise, coming after 2002's The Ring and 2005's The Ring Two (man, that's a lot of "rings" in one sentence). The history of the series is actually far more interesting than Rings itself.

Back in 1991, Japanese author Koji Suzuki wrote his second novel, titled Ringu, about a reporter investigating four teens who died after watching a mysterious videotape. The novel became an instant bestseller. A Japanese film adaptation followed in 1998 (why'd they wait seven years?), which broke box office records there.

Toho Studios produced a sequel called Rasen (which means "Spiral"), based on a 2005 novel by Suzuki. For some reason it was released at the same time as Ringu, which seems counterproductive to me. 

Rasen was a huge flop— so much so that the studio decided to pretend it didn't exist. They made Ringu 2 the next year, which is considered the first official sequel (even though it's technically the third).

Hollywood took notice of Ringu's success, and in 2002 Dreamworks Pictures filmed their own version, because god forbid Americans read subtitles in a movie. This remake was imaginatively titled The Ring, and starred Naomi Watts as a reporter who investigates a series of deaths related to a cursed videotape, featuring a ghostly girl named Samara. It was directed by Gore Verbinski, who would go on to helm the massively successful Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. 

The film was a huge success, grossing $250 million worldwide against its $48 million budget. It also kicked off a short-lived "J-horror" craze in Hollywood, as studios rushed to remake other successful Japanese horror films. 

In the months following The Ring, we were treated to The Grudge (a remake of Ju-On), Dark Water, Pulse (a remake of Kairo) and One Missed Call

In an effort to cash in on the success of the first film, Dreamworks produced The Ring Two in 2005. Naomi Watts returned for the sequel, which was directed by Hideo Nakata. Oddly enough, Nakata was the director of Ringu and Ringu 2! It all came full circle (see what I did there?)!

Unfortunately, The Ring Two was critically panned and made significantly less than its predecessor, grossing $161 million worldwide against its $60 million budget. In the end, the box office did what Naomi Watts was never able to do— kill Samara The Angry Ghost.

After that, the Ring and Ringu franchises both laid low for several years. Then in 2012, Sadoko 3D premiered in Japan, and featured the return of the vengeful ghost ("Sadako" is the Japanese equivalent of the name "Samara"). The film was a huge hit in Japan, renewing interest in the franchise. The film's success prompted a sequel, Sadako 3D 2 (nice to see Japan has to suffer through the 3D movie infestation as well).

In 2014, Paramount (not Dreamworks this time) announced it was reviving the American Ring franchise as well.

Rings began filming on March 23, 2015, and was slated for release on November 13, 2015. In September of 2015, the film was pulled and rescheduled for an April 1st (hah!), 2016 release. 

As we all know by now, any time a movie is shelved or delayed, it's always a very, very bad sign. Nine times out of ten it means that test audiences laughed the film off the screen, prompting studio executives to pull it from the schedule as they scramble to figure out how to dispose of the bomb they've got on their hands.

Apparently the studio ordered reshoots in July 2016, in a flailing effort to try and save the film. Hint: it didn't work. Rings was then pushed back to an October 28, 2016 release date. On September 22, 2016, the film was delayed a THIRD time, to February 3, 2017, which brings us to where we are today.

Too bad it wasn't worth the lengthy wait. Rings is about as scary as the proverbial basket of kittens.

It's a given that the watered-down PG-13 horror films that litter the cineplex these days contain little in the way of scares. Rings goes these films one better, and gives us the world's first totally scare-free horror movie! Somehow it contains less than zero scares. It's negative scary!

It's hard to believe I can see more gore, blood and frightening images at home on The Walking Dead than I can see in a theatrical movie like Rings.

Rings is less a sequel and more like a stealth remake, as it follows the plot of the original film almost to the letter. I assume this was done to introduce the franchise to a new generation of viewers who likely weren't even born back when The Ring premiered in 2002. 

That's too bad, as this was definitely the time to try something new with the franchise instead of going back to the well (see what I did there?) and rehashing the same old tired plot points a third time. 

Rings is more of a detective procedural than a horror film. Main character Julia spends most of the movie tracking down clues as she tries to discover Samara's origin. I suppose that's par for the course though, as Naomi Watts' character Rachel Keller did the exact same thing back in 2002 in The Ring.

The appeal of horror franchises like Final Destination lies in the many creative ways in which the various characters die. The Ring movies don't even have that going for them. Because of the rigid rules of Samara's curse, every character has to die in the exact same way. They watch the tape, they get a phone call, and seven days later Samara appears and scares them to death. Over and over and over. It's time to take the series in a new direction.

There's exactly one new and interesting idea in Rings, which involves scientifically studying Samara and her curse. Unfortunately the movie quickly loses interest in this subplot, as it it can't wait to get back to the same old formula.

The best part of the film is the opening scene, set on an airplane (which seems like a deleted scene from one of the aforementioned Final Destination movies). Once that brief scene's over though, it's all downhill from there.

The characters don't do the film any favors either, as they're just as dull as the stale plot. Our heroes Holt and Julia are both about as one dimensional as cardboard cutouts, and we learn absolutely nothing about them in the film other than they like one another.


The Plot:
On a plane heading for Seattle, a college-aged man, who'll I'll call Archie, fidgets in his seat. A young woman across the aisle, who I'll call Betty, sees him and thinks he's scared of flying, and says sometimes it helps to talk. Archie then launches into an awkwardly stilted story about how he was recently duped into watching a cursed videotape. Seconds after seeing it, his phone rang and a voice on the other end told him he would die in seven days. Today is the seventh day. His nose then starts bleeding, and he runs to the bathroom.

A woman next to Betty, who'll I'll call Veronica, wakes up and asks what's going on. Betty says the guy across the aisle is a psycho who watched a movie that kills you. Veronica looks stricken, and immediately rushes to the bathroom and pounds on the door. 

Archie opens the door, and Veronica asks him if he made a copy of the tape. When he says no, Veronica curses in frustration. Betty rushes up and asks why everyone's so upset, as it's just a stupid story. Veronica reveals that she recently watched the tape too. Wow! Two people in the same row on the same flight just happened to watch the cursed tape at the same time! What are the odds, eh?

Suddenly the tape begins playing on all the TV screens on the seat backs all over the plane. It even appears on the readout screens in the cockpit, which doesn't make any sense, as they're not TV screens, but whatever.

Black water begins pouring from the bathroom, as the plane shudders, shakes and starts diving toward the ground. Archie runs toward the back of the plane, but falls and slides back toward the cockpit as the plane tilts forward. He looks ahead and sees Samara The Not-So-Friendly Ghost from The Ring and The Ring 2, climb out of one of the cockpit screens. Smash cut to black.

And so ends the best part of the movie, which sadly lasts under three minutes. If you see this film in the theater, you might as well gather your belongings and leave now.

Two years later, college professor Gabriel (inexplicably played by Johnny Galecki of The Big Bang Theory fame) is rummaging in a yard sale and stumbles across an old VCR. He oohs and ahhs over this find, as if he's just discovered the Lost Ark Of The Covenant. Jesus Christ, it's a VCR! They just stopped making them a couple years ago. The technology's not THAT old. It ain't like he found a goddamned Victrola!

Anyhow, apparently Gabriel fancies himself a hipster and buys the VCR. He takes it home, finds a tape wedged in it like the message Princess Leia jammed into R2, and plays it. It just happens to be a copy of Samara's cursed tape. It's filled with bizarre, surreal and unsettling images that are vaguely reminiscent of Un Chien Andalou (insert eye roll at Bob's attempt an an art house reference here). He thinks, "Well, that was weird," as his phone rings. He picks it up and a haunting voice on the other end croaks, "Seven days."

We're then finally introduced to the heroes of the film, some ten to fifteen minutes in. Holt and Julia (no last names, please) are two improbably attractive nineteen year olds, who are spending their last carefree day together. Holt's leaving to attend an out-of-town college, and Julia makes him promise to Skype her every day he's gone (ouch!).

Holt and Julia video conference for a few weeks, then he suddenly stops. Julia tries to contact him, and is shocked when a girl named Skye appears on his video camera. Fearing Holt's cheating on her, she packs a bag and heads for State U. or wherever he's going to school.

Julia arrives at the college, and goes to one of Holt's classes to confront him. He's not there of course, but she meets Professor Gabriel (what a coincidence), who's shifty and evasive and abruptly leaves.

She tracks Gabriel to a restricted floor in a campus building. Inside, Gabriel has an entire lab that's devoted to studying the cursed video. He's showing the video to numerous students, using them to try and figure out if there's an afterlife or if the soul lives beyond death or something. There are numerous clocks in the lab, each counting down a different student's seven days. Once Gabriel's got all he can out of them, the students have to make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else called a "tail" in order to pass on the curse and save themselves. It's all quite organized and scientific.

Skye's in the lab and spots Julia. She invites her to her apartment, saying she has info about Holt. In the apartment, Skye tries to get Julia to watch the tape, which has now been transferred to a video file on her computer. While she fiddles with the computer, Holt texts Julia and tells her not to watch the tape and to get out of the apartment NOW!

Julia tries to leave, but the door's locked. She locks herself in the bathroom. As (bad) luck would have it, Skye's seven days are up right that minute, and Samara crawls out of her TV and kills her. Holt arrives shortly after and takes Julia back to his dorm room. He tells her that he's part of Gabriel's experiment, and he has to find a "tail" soon in order to pass on the curse.

That night as Holt sleeps, Julia decides it's up to her to save him, and watches the file on his computer. The second it's over, her phone rings. For some reason she picks up the land line phone, which is something all college students still have, and answers it. She hears the voice say "seven days," as the receiver heats up and severely burns her hand.

Holt's furious when he finds out what she did, and takes her to Gabriel for help. He scans the burn on her hand, apparently thinking it'll be important to the plot later. Gabriel then tries to make a copy of the cursed file for Julia to pass on to some sucker, but there's not enough disk space to do so. Somehow the version Julia watched is bigger than the original (?). Gabriel opens the file and watches a few seconds of it (which I guess doesn't re-curse him?) and discovers it contains deleted scenes not found in the theatrical version. I guess Julia watched the Director's Cut of Samara's file?

The new footage contains scenes that hint at what happened to Samara. Somehow Gabriel determines she was buried in a town called Sacrament Valley. Gosh, nothing could ever possibly go wrong in a place with a name like that! Holt and Julia head there to drag out the runtime, er, I mean search for clues. 

After they leave, Gabriel examines the scan of Julia's burned hand. He realizes the pattern of dots seared into her palm is really braille. He translates it, gets a horrified look on his face, and rushes after them. Eh, I'm sure we'll find out what it says later, at the dramatically appropriate time.

Holt and Julia arrive in Sacrament Valley, and check in to a motel. Julia sees a photo on the wall of three girls, and recognizes one of them from the deleted scenes in the file. She asks the desk clerk about the girl, who says her name was Evelyn Morgan, but refuses to say any more. As we all know (I guess), Evelyn was Samara's mother, the one who killed her by throwing her down a well.

Julia sees a church she recognizes from the deleted scenes. She and Holt explore a cemetery next to the church, and spot an unmarked, above-ground tomb. Julia's sure it's where Samara is buried, so she breaks into it. Unfortunately it's empty. A groundskeeper catches them and takes them to Burke (played by Vincent D'Onofrio, a blind man who apparently runs the cemetery or something. 

Burke tells them that Samara was buried in the tomb by a local priest, but shortly afterward various disasters struck the town. The nervous townspeople demanded her body be moved, and she was buried in a potter's field outside of town. Are you getting all this? Don't worry, it doesn't really matter. Burke clasps Julia's hand as she leaves, noting the mark.

Holt and Julia head out of town, but encounter a police roadblock due to a car accident ahead. Julia recognizes the car as Gabriel's. She runs through the police line to his car and sees Gabriel trapped inside, still alive. He tries to warn Julia about something, but Samara appears. She makes a utility pole fall on Gabriel's car, electrocuting him. For some reason, they return to Sacrament Valley.

Julia then has a vision of Evelyn. She goes back to the church and discovers a hidden dungeon underneath it, complete with leg chains bolted to the floor. She sees hash marks on the wall, which add up to around nine months. From this she makes the incredibly intuitive leap that the local priest raped Evelyn, then locked her in the dungeon until she gave birth to Samara. I guess this drove Evelyn nuts, which is why she killed her daughter?

Julia confronts Burke, who says HE was the priest (GASP!), and after Samara was killed, he blinded himself so he could never see the tape. He then shuts off the lights, leveling the playing field, and attacks Julia. She kicks him backward and he falls down the stairs, seemingly breaking his neck.

Julia then enters a bedroom, and senses Samara's skeleton is behind a wall. Burke reappears (of course) and starts choking her. Suddenly a swarm of cicadas swarm in, and Samara somehow crawls out of a phone receiver. She then restores Burke's sight so she can kill him.

Julia and Holt then take Samara's bones and burn them, hopefully laying her spirit to rest at last.

Some time later, Holt and Julia have set up house together. Holt sees he has a voicemail from Gabriel (sent before he died, natch) warning him of the braille on Julia's hand. Holt uses an online translator and sees the braille message means "rebirth." Meanwhile, Julia's in the shower, and starts coughing up a long string of black hair. She looks in the mirror and sees Samara's face. Apparently Samara is now possessing Julia? I guess? Suddenly the cursed video starts going viral on social media worldwide, and no doubt setting up another sequel, box office willing.

• In the unlikely event that you're a fan of this franchise, DO NOT watch the trailer before you see Rings. For some insane reason the trailer spoils the entire end of the movie— it blurts out the fact that the braille on Julia's hand spells out "rebirth," and then shows her coughing up a big wad of Samara's hair.

Why the hell would they do that? Why spoil the closest thing this dimwitted and vacuous movie has to a plot twist?

The trailer also contains several scenes that aren't in the movie, including one featuring Julia's mother— who makes no appearance in the actual film.

This "Deceptive Trailer Syndrome" has become a real concern in recent months (I'm lookin' at you, Rogue One). It's gone from "mild annoyance" to outright deception.

• As mentioned earlier, the original Japanese film Ringu was remade in America as The Ring. It was also remade in South Korea, where it was called The Ring Virus.

In Japan, the long-haired watery ghost is called "Sadako." In America her name is "Samara," and in Korea she's "Park Eun-suh."

• At the beginning of the movie, "Archie" is on a passenger plane and admits he watched the cursed video seven days ago. Right on schedule, Samara appears and kills him by causing the entire plane to crash (!).

Yeah, I get that she's a malevolent demon and all, but was it really necessary to murder hundreds of innocent people just to stick to her schedule and kill one guy? Couldn't she have just scared him to death and then crawled back into the screen or whatever she does once she's done?

And yes, I know she made her cursed video appear on all the seat-back screens, so all the other passengers saw it. But so what? She doesn't kill a person immediately after seeing it. According to her rules she has to wait seven days. 

Apparently she figured the other passengers were now doomed anyway, so she might as well wipe 'em out now and avoid the Xmas rush.

• Odd product placement alert
— when Gabriel finds the old VCR at the yard sale, it's a Sony model. That's interesting, given that this is Paramount film. Weird. I wonder if Paramount had to pay Sony a licensing fee to use their name?

These are the types of things I was thinking about while watching the movie, folks. That's how riveting the plotline of Rings is.

• Alex Roe plays Julia's boyfriend Holt in the film. You may remember him from 2016's sci-fi "classic" The 5th Wave.

Roe has an interesting set of eyebrows. The right one looks fairly normal, and is located directly above his eye, as eyebrows traditionally are. The left one though is big and bushy, looking very much like it came from someone else's head. It also extends well past the midpoint of his face, as if it's crawling across his forehead to possibly mate with the right eyebrow. 

Take my word for it, once you see this, you can't unsee it. You're welcome.

Once again, that's how enthralling and engrossing this movie is. I had to entertain myself by staring at Alex Roe's eyebrows.


• Right before Holt leaves home for college, he tells Julia he thinks it's awesome of her to stay in town to take care of her mother. I'm assuming from this that her mom's in poor health and needs constant care.

Then Julia suspects Holt's cheating on her and she up and drives to his out-of-town college. She then spends the rest of the movie travelling all over trying to rid herself of the curse.

Gosh, I sure hope she got someone to take care of her poor old sick mom while she's gadding about!

• As I said earlier, the movie contains exactly one new and interesting idea. After Professor Gabriel watches the cursed video, he begins scientifically investigating it, trying to determine if there's such a thing as an afterlife and a human soul. 

He unethically hoodwinks numerous college students into watching the video, studying the effects it has on them. His lab is filled with monitoring equipment and dozens of timers, which he uses to keep track of the time the students have left, before they need to pass the curse on to someone else and keep Samara at bay.

Using science to quantify the supernatural is an intriguing concept. THIS is the movie I wanted to see! Too bad the movie devotes about five minutes to this idea before dumping it and going back to the same old worn out plotline. 

• By the way, Samara is quite a tech-savvy ghost. Originally her cursed video was somehow recorded onto VHS. Since that format's now extinct, she's upgraded her video to MP4 files! She's also learned how to crawl out of flat screen TVs, smart phones and video monitors. Glad to see she's keeping up with our technological advances!

• Credit where credits's due
— at the very least, Samara's curse has some simple and easy to understand rules, unlike some other films I could name (cough The Bye Bye Man cough). You watch the cursed video. Immediately after it's over, your phone rings. You answer it and hear Samara say, "seven days." The timer then starts and you have one week to live. If you make a copy of the video and show it to someone else, then the curse is lifted from you and passed onto them. If you don't do this, at the end of seven days Samara appears and scares you to death. Pretty cut and dried.

Unfortunately the film was so dull I spent most of the runtime thinking up loopholes in Samara's curse.

For example, what happens if after watching the video, you just don't answer your phone? Would that foil the curse? Do you have to hear her say "seven days" for the timer to start? If you smash your phone and never hear her, are you home free?

What if you watched the video, then on the seventh day watched it again? Would that reset the clock? Could you keep Samara at bay indefinitely that way?

After Holt watches the video, Julia deliberately watches it to save him. What if he watched it again to save her? Could they keep passing it back and forth to one another forever, avoiding the need to infect an innocent person?

I want to see an SNL skit in which Samara appears on Judge Judy, arguing that her curse should apply even if the victim doesn't answer their phone when she calls!

• The cursed video the characters watch seems to be the same one that was used in The Ring. Curiously they never show the entire video in this film, but the scenes we do get to see are the same. 

The "deleted scenes" are of course new and different.

• Apparently the "Text Superimposed Over The Scary Monster" poster design is very popular in the horror genre.

• What was the point of the braille message (which spells out "rebirth") that Samara burns into Julia's palm? Why write in in braille? Why not just burn the word "rebirth" into her hand and be done with it? 

The only person in the entire film who could read braille was Burke, the blind priest who turns out to be Samara's father. But there's no way Samara could have known that Julia would track him down. Or that Burke would touch Julia's hand, feel the braille and be able to read it. 

It appears the only reason Samara used braille was to keep the message a secret from the characters, and the audience as well, until the most appropriately dramatic moment. In other words, because the script said so.

How the hell does Samara even know braille in the first place? She wasn't blind, so why would she have bothered to learn it? Doe they have extension courses in the afterlife, and she took a "Introduction To Braille" class there?

• Several times during the movie, Julia emphatically states she's not afraid of Samara or her curse. Wha...?

Here's a helpful tip for screenwriters— if your main character isn't scared of your monster, then why the hell should the audience fear it?

Rings could have taken the franchise in a fresh new direction, but instead it's a stealth remake of the original The Ring, featuring absolutely zero scares. There's an interesting subplot which involves using science to study the curse, but it's dropped almost immediately in favor of rehashing the same old story beats. If they'd have at least attempted to do something innovative with the storyline, I'd have given it a C- or higher, but as the film offers absolutely nothing new, I can't bring myself to give it more than a D+You may not die after watching this movie, but you'll surely want to.

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