Monday, April 25, 2005

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

If anything is assured in the motion picture industry, it's that a successful movie will spawn a sequel. Many times, these sequels are undeserved or not necessary. I mean, how many people did you hear begging for Blair Witch 2? Other sequels merely regurgitate the plot of its predecessor and present us with the exact same thing we saw before with some minor changes (such as the majority of the Friday the 13th sequels). But a few times, we get a sequel that is a little different, one that actually continues the story for a change. Movies like Terminator 2 and the final two-thirds of the Back to the Future trilogy are examples of that, but what's rarer is a sequel that's actually better than its predecessor. That list is so short, you could probably count all the movie's on the list on two hands and have fingers left over.

But one of the movies on that list is Spider-Man 2. The first Spider-Man was great, but its sequel actually surpasses it. Spider-Man 2 is one of those rare sequels that is more entertaining than its predecessor, earning a spot as not only one of the best sequels ever, but joining an elite list as one of the best superhero movies ever made.

It's been two years since the end of the previous movie, and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is finding it extremely difficult to lead his dual life. He loses his job as a pizza delivery boy and nearly loses his job as a photographer at the Daily Bugle, he's slowly flunking out of college, and he has barely enough money to pay his rent. For the life of me, I can't figure out why ol' Pete's landlord is always up in his grill about the rent. You couldn't pay me enough money to live in Peter's apartment, so I don't really blame him for being a little lax in regards to his rent payments. In a fair world, Peter's building would be condemned and scheduled for demolition, because people in third-world countries have better living conditions. But hey, it's just a movie, I should really just relax.

Anyway, Peter's one more crappy situation away from a complete nervous breakdown, but he isn't the only one who's struggling; his loved ones are struggling too. His beloved aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is unable to make ends meet, and is facing a foreclosure on her home. Peter also often finds himself struggling to get along with his best friend and OsCorp Industries chief Harry Osborn (James Franco). Harry has become quite bitter since we last saw him, blaming Spider-Man for his father's death in the prior film and resenting the fact that Peter won't tell him anything about our friendly neighborhood web-slinger. He also seems to have become a raging alcoholic, but that's just the impression I get. Of course, little does Harry know that not only was his father the Green Goblin, but that his best friend and the man he wishes death on are one in the same.

Unfortunately, not only is Peter's friendship with Harry strained, his relationship with budding actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) on thin ice as well. He and Mary Jane obviously love one another and want to be together, but despite her best efforts, Spider-Man is higher on Peter's list of priorities. While Peter's desire to keep Mary Jane safe from various supervillains is noble, his inability to explain why he continues to disappoint her unfortunately pushes Mary Jane into the arms of another man: respected astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), the son of Peter's boss, Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).

But Peter's life is about to get much more complicated. After a little discussion with his physics professor, Peter sets about on actually doing some schoolwork for a change. He decides to write a paper on Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a brilliant scientist whose latest project is being funded by OsCorp. An enthusiastic Harry introduces Peter to Dr. Octavius, and the pair have a long talk that stretches into the evening. The two bond over dinner, and when the discussion turns to their love lives, Dr. Octavius and his wife Rosalie (Donna Murphy) offer Peter some quality advice on how to win a girl's heart.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Octavius and OsCorp host a demonstration of the doctor's project, a self-sustaining fission reaction that could infinitely generate the power of a small sun. What's even more impressive is the tools that Dr. Octavius utilizes to manipulate said fission reaction: four massive robotic arms that plug directly into his cerebral cortex via a series of pins into his back, operated by an artificial intelligence programmed to follow the doctor's mental commands. Dr. Octavius plugs his robotic tentacles in and begins the process, but unfortunately, an error in his calculations leads to disaster. Fate decides to play a cruel joke on the gentle scientist, as the fission reaction goes out of control and causing an intense magnetic fluctuation that results in Rosalie's death and the four robotic arms becoming permanently fused with Dr. Octavius's spine. Said fusion also destroys a crucial piece of safety equipment and allows the A.I. of the arms to directly access the doctor's brain.

With his wife dead and his dream ruined, Dr. Octavius is a broken man. The tentacle A.I. senses it, and using their open tap into the doctor's brain, the tentacles direct Dr. Octavius to stage various bank robberies to fund an even bigger version of his fission reaction generator. Dr. Octavius protests at first, but relents, soon earning the nickname "Dr. Octopus" (or simply "Doc Ock" for short) from the Daily Bugle. He creates for himself a new laboratory in an abandoned warehouse on the East River, but the bad part is that if his previous error goes uncorrected, his fission generator will end up vaporizing the entire island of Manhattan.

With a new supervillain in town, and more stress and frustration piling on as time goes by, Peter soon finds himself losing his powers. He begins slipping off walls while climbing them, he finds it harder to spin webs, and his spidey-sense starts dulling. It's capped off by Mary Jane's announcement that she'll engaged to marry her new beau, which finally pushes Peter over the edge. In perhaps the movie's hardest-hitting moment, Peter dumps his costume into a trash can and proclaims "I'm Spider-Man no more." His retirement from the superhero world apparently creates nothing but rosy skies for Peter. He's finally able to start enjoying life without those pesky crime-fighting responsibilities, he makes nice with his landlord's daughter Ursula (Mageina Tovah), and he even takes a few steps to rebuild his crumbling friendship with Mary Jane.

But he isn't able to enjoy his new life for long. Doc Ock turns to Harry for an extremely rare mineral needed to rebuild his fission device, and Harry promises him as much of the mineral as he can get if Doc Ock brings him Spider-Man. How do you get to Spider-Man? Through his personal photographer, Peter Parker. Doc Ock kidnaps Mary Jane and threatens to kill her if Peter fails to produce Spider-Man, thus beginning a third act that climaxes in Peter once again donning his old red and blue suit to not only rescue the love of his life, but prevent Dr. Octopus from activating his device and destroying Manhattan.

Wow. That pretty much says it all, "wow." I mentioned in my review of Spider-Man that I thought it ranked up there with Superman II as one of the best comics-to-film adaptations ever, but Spider-Man 2 quite possibly exceeds it. And I love Superman II too, so Spider-Man 2 has gotta be good to be better than that. As with the prior movie and the comic books, Spider-Man 2 is not about a superhero struggling with a secret identity; it's about a young man struggling with life. And yeah, he's got that whole superpower thing going for him too.

The movie succeeds in directly translating what made Spider-Man so popular to begin with. Peter Parker is such an identifiable character, and each of us can connect with him on some level. He's not some godlike crusader from a far-away planet like Superman, nor is he a shadowy millionaire consumed with vengeance like Batman. Spider-Man is just a regular kid with an inferiority complex and slipping grades, who's unlucky in love and unready to accept the responsibilities that come with his superpowers. All the feats of daring-do are fun to look at, sure, but the story is what drives the movie.

Sam Raimi returns to the Spidey saga's director's chair, and he once again presents us with a film worth talking about. His directing shines brightly, and even echoes some of his older work with the excellently-done operation scene following Dr. Octopus's accident. While there were some bits I could have done without (such as the awkward Peter/Ursula subplot that went absolutely nowhere, and the cheesy Uncle Ben dream that was probably just included to get Cliff Robertson and the "with great power comes great responsibility" line into the movie), Raimi's work here is much slicker, even better than what we saw in Spider-Man. The CGI is also drastically improved, looking much more realistic. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin looked like video game characters in the previous movie, but Spidey and Dr. Octopus look lifelike here. So whoever decided to improve the CGI, good job. I also would like to give props to Danny Elfman, who keeps churning out these wonderful superhero scores like it's nothing. The guy's definitely earned his reputation as one of the greatest in the industry.

Just like the first movie, Raimi not only gives us a film to talk about, he shows us a villain who's just as conflicted as its hero. While the Green Goblin was a criminal simply because he was a schizophrenic psychopath, Dr. Octopus is a villain simply because fate dealt him a crappy hand in the card game of life. Despite not having a lot of screen time before his transformation into a supervillain, we learn that Dr. Otto Octavius is a peaceful man who's madly in love with his wife and truly desires to make the world a better place.

His true nature only makes it all the more tragic when he's becomes a half-mechanical maniac who has no qualms against putting millions of lives in danger in order to make his dream a reality. While his descent into madness can be blamed on his tentacles and their malicious A.I., his new life of crime can also be attributed to the psychological scarring brought on by the failure of his experiment and the death of his wife. He's a broken man with a broken spirit, but the tentacle A.I. offers him a chance to rebuild his experiment through lots and lots of robbery. Because he has nothing else left, he lets the A.I. guide him as an escape from his failure.

The effectiveness of Dr. Octopus's duality is a testament to the talent of Alfred Molina. He'd be the highlight of the cast if it weren't for Tobey Maguire, who returns as the titular web-slinger. He once again carries the movie, displaying the strength and inner struggle that Peter Parker needed. Meanwhile, James Franco turned his James Dean Brood Machine™ up to eleven and gave us another watchable performance. And unfortunately, I wasn't as thrilled by Kirsten Dunst as I was in the previous movie. While she certainly isn't bad, I just wasn't impressed. However, I will give her credit: she and Maguire have great chemistry, and if the Peter/M.J. love story gets an even bigger piece of the pie in Spider-Man 3, I'm ready for it. And a great big thumbs-up to J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, who unashamedly stole every scene he was in.
A few people have dismissed Spider-Man 2 as overrated claptrap, but I absolutely love it. I'm not even that big of a Spidey fan, but there's no denying that Spider-Man 2 is nothing shy of unbelievable. With better CGI, more exciting action scenes, and fun humor, the movie can easily look past the love story being accentuated to almost annoying proportions and a lack of main emphasis on Dr. Octopus. Complaints aside, I found Spider-Man 2 to be much more satisfying than its predecessor, and quite a satisfying movie in general. I'll give the movie four and a half stars, and I think it fits fine there.

Final Rating: ****½

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Spider-Man (2002)

"With great power comes great responsibility."

That one line, simple as it may be, is a line that has inspired countless comic book fans while serving as the motto for one of the most beloved characters in comic history. Spider-Man has become perhaps the most enduring character on the Marvel Comics roster since being created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, his popularity rivaled by only a few. A character that millions have connected to and identified with in the four decades since his debut, Spider-Man's motto has echoed through the years and has driven him to serve the greater good with the hopes of atoning for one tragic failure to act.

The character sparked at least three animated shows, and was one of a number of Marvel characters (including the Incredible Hulk and Dr. Strange) to inspire a live-action TV-movie in 1977. Much to the dismay of fans, the TV-movie was poorly done and has been forgotten for the most part. Twenty-five years passed before Spider-Man was seen in a live-action movie again, but after comic book movies became big business, horror director (and longtime Spidey fan) Sam Raimi stepped up to helm Sony's big-screen adaptation of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man that's worth talking about.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is your typical high school geek. He's a brilliant student and genuinely nice guy, but he's a total social outcast whose shyness barely allows him to even say hello to the girl that's won his heart, next door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). His only friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco), but their relationship is often strained with jealousy, as Harry's wealthy industrialist father Norman (Willam Dafoe) prefers the intelligent Peter over his own average son.

During a class field trip to Columbia University's genetics lab, Peter is bitten by a biologically-engineered spider that has gained various extraordinary powers via the wonders of science. A huge blister appears on his hand around the bite, and the spider's venom makes Peter so sick, he barely makes it home before he passes out in the floor of his bedroom. After a difficult night's sleep, he wakes up seemingly unaffected, but soon discovers that his body has been altered dramatically. Not only has Peter gained 20/20 vision and a significant change in muscle tone, but he has the ability to shoot strands of strong webbing from his wrists, an ability to climb walls and cling to any smooth surface, and a "spidey-sense" that gives him a psychic warning of danger. While he loves the fact that his new superpowers allow him to humiliate bullies and things like that, Peter's secretive behavior prompts the concern of his uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and aunt May (Rosemary Harris).

On a trip to the library, Uncle Ben confronts Peter and stresses to him that with maturity and power comes great responsibility. Peter impatiently yells at him, telling Ben to stop acting like he's his father before sneaking off to his true destination: Madison Square Garden, where a local pro wrestling league is promising a $3,000 payday to anyone who can last three minutes against their top star, Bone Saw McGraw (Randy Savage). Dubbed "The Amazing Spider-Man" by the ring announcer, Peter soundly knocks out McGraw in a cage match and stands triumphant.

However, despite his victory, the fight promoter only pays Peter a meager 100 bucks, unfairly cheating him out of the full prize because Peter won in two minutes instead of going the full three. Naturally, Peter's a little honked off at getting gypped. You would be too, if you were promised 3000 George Washingtons to hang out with and you only got one lousy Ben Franklin wanting to bum a ride off you and raid your fridge. Peter does, however, gain a little satisfaction in his subsequent retaliation, refusing to help an arena security guard stop a criminal from taking off with the gate money.

Returning to the library, Peter's satisfaction turns to horror when he discovers Uncle Ben has been shot by a carjacker, arriving on the scene just as Ben dies. Enraged, Peter dons his wrestling outfit and pursues the carjacker, swinging over the crowded streets with his webbing. He confronts the killer in an abandoned warehouse, only to learn that the man who murdered his beloved uncle is the same man who held up the arena box office. Peter loses his temper and violently pushes the killer, who trips over a pipe and falls out a window to his death.

Following his graduation from high school months later, Peter's guilt over Ben's death prompts our hero to put his uncle's advice to good use. He designs a new and improved Spider-Man costume, and becomes a masked superhero fighting crime across New York City. He eventually thinks of a way to earn a living from it, taking pictures of himself in action and selling them to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Jameson gladly purchases Peter's Spidey photos, falsely portraying Spider-Man as a criminal because it sells newspapers. While this is going on, Norman Osborn is undergoing a transformation of his own.

To protect his company from losing a vital military contract, he tests an experimental performance enhancement chemical on himself. The chemical increases his strength and intelligence, but as a side effect, it drives him completely over the edge, forming a malevolent alternate personality that urges him kill anyone who stands in his way. Using his company's prototype armor, a glider, and a spooky green helmet, Norman goes on a rampage at a festival in Times Square, incinerating his company's board of directors with a grenade, nearly killing Mary Jane in the process. Spider-Man saves the day, but after an incident at the Daily Bugle, Jameson soon prints headlines that the two are in cahoots, dubbing Norman's violent new persona "The Green Goblin."

As the Green Goblin, Norman sees the potential in forming a partnership with his wall-crawling nemesis. Both of them are masked, both are made to look bad by the Daily Bugle, and both have abilities beyond those of normal people (even if the Goblin's abilities are thanks to military technology). Good ol' Spidey chooses the side of good, but wouldn't you know it, the Green Goblin doesn't respond to rejection too well. Peter must now deal with the Green Goblin while his own dual identity further strains his friendship with Harry and puts the lives of Aunt May and Mary Jane in danger.

Spider-Man is one of those rare movies that transcends the superhero genre, and becomes just a great movie overall. The thrills and acts of superheroism are secondary to actually telling a story about people, and how their lives are affected by heroes and villains. The movie actually takes the time to give us characters that we can truly care about, connecting to the story's more human aspect. Peter Parker begins as a shy teenager that everyone kicks around, but by the end of the movie, we've come to really know him. We can see inside his head, and watch as he evolves from a nerdy little wiener living with his aunt and uncle in Queens to a weathered young man who's probably seen more tragedy than he should have.

That evolution is something that is also seen in the relationships between each character. The development of Peter's at-first unrequited love for Mary Jane is wonderful, definitely the movie's key ingredient. As stated in the opening monologue, "This, like any other tale worth telling, is all about a girl." While Spider-Man 2 deals more with the relationship between our hero and his lady love, the blossoming Peter/Mary Jane love story can definitely lay claim on a portion of center stage here.

As far as staying true to the comic book, that I can't comment on. I'm not a regular reader of comic books, but I did think some of the liberties taken were well-done. I personally felt giving Spider-Man organic web-shooters was a great idea, as I thought the homemade shooters probably would have just gotten in the way. So I'll give them credit for actually one-upping the source material here. Longtime horror director Sam Raimi ventures into the world of action fantasy, and while restrained, his style definitely comes through.

Well-crafted shot compositions, well-made fight sequences, and he even worked in Bruce Campbell, his brother Ted, and his old '73 Oldsmobile. From The Evil Dead to multimillion-dollar blockbusters and movies with Katie Holmes topless... our little Sammy has grown up. And that score by Danny Elfman is wonderful! Quite different than his score for Batman and Batman Returns, his engaging score here works to up the excitement during the big action sequences. Great stuff from Elfman, as usual.

Meanwhile, while the visual effects are great for the most part, I found the CGI to be really lame in some places. Once scene features Peter proudly jumping from rooftop to rooftop after discovering his newfound powers, but he looks more like something from a video game than a kid who just got bitten by a mutant spider. And the Green Goblin's glider work many times looks like someone's holding a picture in front of a backdrop and moving him around, especially in the Times Square scene. This kind of stuff might fly in Spider-Man: The Game, but I'm not letting them off the hook here. That's not how I roll.

Tobey Maguire is absolutely superb as Peter Parker. In fact, he's so good as Peter than he's almost more charismatic than his superhero alter ego. Imagine a Superman movie where you'd rather watch Clark Kent for two hours instead. Yeah, it's like that. He wonderfully shows us a young man with an inordinate gift, torn with guilt over the senseless death of his uncle. And Spidey's nemesis, Willam Dafoe, is nothing short of brilliant. The guy just looks insane from the start, and it's fun to watch him switch between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as he straddles the line between convincing and completely over the top. James Franco's low-key brooding is fun to watch, and Kirsten Dunst is both pretty and charming as usual.

I doubt they could have gotten a much better J. Jonah Jameson than J.K. Simmons, because the guy is hilarious and steals almost every scene he's in. Perhaps the most understated cast members are Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Peter's beloved aunt and uncle. They make Ben and May the kind of relatives we'd all like to have on our family tree, bringing a much-needed warmth to the movie.

Along with its sequel, I'd say Spider-Man ranks right up there with Superman II as one of the best comic book translations ever made. The cast is awesome, the action is fun, the love story is gripping, and the direction is absolutely awesome. Even if you don't read comics or don't know much about the character, you can't go wrong with Spider-Man, folks. Four stars easily.

Final Rating: ****

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Ring Two (2005)

I often talk about how if one thing is guaranteed in horror cinema, it's that sequels prevail. Almost every horror movie, if they have even a minuscule amount of success, will probably get a sequel. Or at the very least, it'll be ripped off by no less than six other movies if it didn't rip anything off itself. However, something else equally as prevalent as sequels are remakes. Remakes aren't limited to horror movies (such as recent movies like The Stepford Wives and Alfie), but it seems like horror movies are quicker to be remade than movies in other genres.

The list of horror remakes is endless. From classics like Night of the Living Dead and The Thing From Another World to lesser-known movies like Thirteen Ghosts and Willard, remakes in the realm of horror/science fiction have been around for a long time. Hollywood was even doing remakes as far back as 1978, with a remake of Don Siegel's 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a movie that was remade a second time as simply "Body Snatchers" in 1993). Since both horror sequels and horror remakes are so common, why not do a sequel to a remake of a horror movie?

That's what we got when The Ring Two was released in 2005. Based on the 1998 Japanese movie Ringu, the runaway success of The Ring in 2002 not only inspired movie studios to remake any Asian horror movie they could get the rights to, but prompted DreamWorks to green-light a sequel. Instead of going the obvious route and remaking one of Ringu's sequels, the producers struck their own chord and created a whole new adventure in the Ring cycle. How does it hold up?

Our film opens roughly six months after the events of The Ring. Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) have relocated from Seattle to the coastal hamlet of Astoria, Oregon, hoping to begin new lives and put the past in the past. Aidan has developed an affinity for digital photography, while Rachel has gotten a job as an editor at the local newspaper. Unbeknownst to (and unfortunately for) them, they aren't alone. Word comes through the newspaper office's police scanner about a teenage boy who died under mysterious circumstances. When certain bizarre details arise (the victim was found close to the television, water is everywhere, and the police and paramedics can't stop talking about his face), the cogs in Rachel's brain start working overtime.

She rushes to the boy's house, slinking into the unattended ambulance to sneak a peek at his body. But when she unzips the body bag, none other than vindictive ghost Samara Morgan (Kelly Stables) pops out, grabbing Rachel's arm and whispering "I've found you." The frightened Rachel runs out of the ambulance and heads to the police station, hoping to speak with the sole witness to his death, his friend Emily (Emily VanCamp). Rachel manages to get a quick word with Emily, who confirms that Samara's killer videotape is still in the VCR.

So what does Rachel do? She does what any cute blond reporter who's been haunted by a dead little girl in massive need of a haircut would do: she's gonna cut this problem off at the knees. Rachel sneaks into Jake's house that night and steals the killer videotape, taking it out to the middle of nowhere and destroying it. If only it were that simple.

Soon thereafter, things start going to hell. The first clue is when Aidan begins acting stranger than usual. Nightmares about Samara make him more withdrawn, but then he pulls a complete 180 and acts less like himself (i.e. more like a kid). He even begins calling Rachel "mommy" after years of calling her by her first name. It gets much weirder than that, as Aidan begins showing signs of advanced hypothermia for no reason. His body temperature dips to dangerous lows, causing his mother to panic and turns to coworker Max Rourke (Simon Baker) for help.

They put Aidan in a hot bath to warm up, and when Rachel returns from her house after getting Aidan a change of clothes, she finds Max trying to beat down the bathroom door. Aidan isn't responding, and water is gushing from under the door. Max goes downstairs to get some tools, and the door flies open, allowing Rachel to really get a good look at the trouble. Aidan is still in the bathtub, but the water is floating upwards toward the ceiling. The water suddenly falls back to the floor and into the tub, and Rachel watches in horror as Samara rises from the water and grabs Aidan, leaving large hand-shaped bruises on his back. Rachel rushes to pull Aidan away, but as she reaches for him, she finds just Samara in the tub. She speaks just one word, "mommy," and turns back into Aidan.

Max chooses now, of all times, to finally walk into the bathroom, where it looks like Rachel is drowning Aidan. His body temperature is even lower, like he's been living at the bottom of a well for a week. Max pressures Rachel to take Aidan to the hospital, and she finally relents. That may not be such a good idea, because after noticing the bruises and hearing Max's story, local physician Dr. Emma Temple (Elizabeth Perkins) forbids Rachel to see Aidan. Fearing for Aidan's well-being and with accusations of child abuse circling around her, Rachel returns to Seattle to dig deeper into Samara's past. Seeking information from the now-abandoned Morgan ranch and Samara's institutionalized birth mother Evelyn (Sissy Spacek), Rachel must find a way to circumvent Samara's apparent plan: to regain corporeality by taking over Aidan's body and making Rachel her new mother.

Many reviewers were extremely negative regarding The Ring Two, mainly because they thought it was a disappointment. I'll be the first one to admit, The Ring Two not as strong as The Ring, but it's still worth at least a watch. What the producers have done here is taken the story in a direction that leads to a quite cerebral movie. Unfortunately, the cerebral aspect of the movie isn't fully realized, and they spend too much time attempting to wrap it around the stereotypical Hollywood formula. And it seems like they made an extreme jump in logic too. In the first movie, Samara's trying to seriously cramp the lifestyles of the Kellers by making them not alive anymore, but in The Ring Two, she wants a family. I mean, I don't have a problem with a shift in plot, but how they went from Point A to Point B is beyond me. If they explained it, I missed it.

Don't get me wrong, The Ring Two is fun as long as you detach your brain and not worry about the silliness. The movie is at its most frightening when it makes absolutely no sense at all, still managing to generate a tension akin to the first Ring. Much of the tension is generated by Rachel's search to find Samara's origins, which is ironically the thing that also kills some of the tension in the first Ring. The previous Ring is all about Samara's ambiguous nature. Like many horror movies, it's far more intense if you don't know the reasons or the intent of the villain. You just know that they're evil, which sometimes is all that matters. I'm actually torn on this. While Samara is incredibly scary when we know only the bare bones of her motive and history, part of me wants to see answers to the questions the character raises. Some of those questions are answered in The Ring Two, but I guess that's what Ring 3 or a prequel would be for.

As with the previous Ring, the main cast helps elevate the movie above mediocre. Naomi Watts is once again brilliant in her role, making a fun switch from a curious reporter in The Ring to a curious concerned mother in the sequel. Upping his game is David Dorfman. While I thought he was just watchable in the previous movie, he really won me over with his return to the role of Aidan. That kid is just plain creepy in his own right, and he's even creepier and weirder here. Kelly Stables is fine as "Evil Samara" (credited as such because Samara was such a little sweetheart in the first Ring), but I didn't find her to be as eerie as her predecessor, Daveigh Chase.

Chase is credited as playing a version of the raven-haired harbinger of doom, but unfortunately, the producers utilized cleverly recycled footage from The Ring along with a computer-animated depiction of her, so critiquing Chase's performance would be like critiquing Crispin Glover's performance in Back to the Future 2. Perhaps the best performance of the movie, however, is Sissy Spacek as Samara's wonderfully eccentric birth mother. Spacek plays her character as if she were Carrie White's mother without the religious zealotry, and I'd love to see the character turn up in any future Ring sequels.

The movie also bears some nice direction from director Hideo Nakata, who helmed both Ringu and Ringu 2. While it doesn't have the same stylistic flair as Gore Verbinski's direction in the previous Ring, Nakata's direction (along with some great cinematography by Gabriel Beristain) gives the movie a much-welcomed Asian feel. The score, by Henning Lohner and Martin Tillman is nice, and I thought it was great that they brought back some of the haunting themes from Hans Zimmer's score for The Ring, but Lohner and Tillman only wish their score was as good as Zimmer's.

I also call Ehren Kruger's script into question. His script (and the movie in general) just reeks of Hollywood involvement. It's like the script would have only made a 90-minute movie, and they tried to stretch it into a two-hour frame. The Ring Two had the chance to be an awesome supernatural/psychological thriller, but it just comes off as a less-than-stellar hybrid of The Ring and Gothika instead. Any potential is almost completely wasted by simply thinking the audience is full of morons and catering to them.

However, as I said above, the movie succeeds in being spooky without making any sense whatsoever. There's one scene where a group of CGI deer (who look like they were animated by the same group who worked on the live-action Scooby Doo movies) attack and nearly demolish Rachel's car; when Rachel enters the basement of the Morgan house near the end of the movie, we see antlers and stuffed deer heads. The audience feels a sense of dread seeing these antlers and starts making connections that aren't there. There's no reason (that I could see, anyway) for the antlers and deer heads to be connected to the kamikaze deer. It's like Chewbacca living on Endor; it just doesn't make any sense. But no matter. Even if we don't truly know why, it's still a little spooky. I also would have liked to see the "Samara cult" from the short film Rings (a sort-of "Ring 1.5" from the DVD re-release of The Ring) mentioned here, but again, I guess there's always Ring 3.

There are many good, scary parts, but there are other parts that are just plain unsatisfactory. The ingredients are there and the recipe is great, but ultimately, the final meal starts to fall flat. Yes, I know not every sequel can live up to their predecessors, and I'll at least give the filmmakers here credit for making an attempt. As much bad as I've said about the movie, I still thought it was entertaining for what it was. And for being entertaining, I'll give The Ring Two a solid three stars. Worth a Friday night viewing, at the very least.

Final Rating: ***

Friday, April 8, 2005

The Ring (2002)

You know, until 2002, there weren't very many horror movies that could really, truly, scare me. The only one that came close was the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I guess it's the fact that many horror movies simply tried to be shocking instead of scary, while others simply were more interested in ripping each other off until they all started to look alike.

And then I saw The Ring. Even after repeated viewings, it's one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen. A remake of Hideo Nakata's popular Japanese horror movie Ringu, which itself was based Kôji Suzuki's novel of the same name, The Ring is a movie that makes an attempt to stand out from standard American fare. Seemingly taking inspiration from murder mysteries, Asian ghost stories, and David Cronenberg's Videodrome along with its source material, The Ring ended up becoming a big hit and prompted American studios to start optioning the remake rights to any Asian horror movie they could get their hands on. But let's get to the review, shall we?

The plot may sounds simple, but there's more to it than it seems. We begin the movie in the Seattle suburbs with schoolgirls Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella) watching television, discussing how the magnetic waves from TV and cell phones rot your brain. Since nothing good is on TV, the pair decide to start telling ghost stories. Becca starts, telling of an urban legend about a nightmarish videotape. After watching the tape, the viewer's phone rings, and a voice says, "You will die in seven days." And a week later, the cryptic warning comes true.

As Becca finishes the story, Katie grows horrified. She tells Becca that something similar happened to her and three friends exactly seven days earlier, but smiles and tells Becca she was just joking. The girls go downstairs to answer a phone call, and Becca heads back upstairs. Katie pours herself a glass of lemonade, and the living room TV turns on by itself, blaring static. She turns it off, but it turns itself back on. Katie, understandably freaked out, unplugs the TV and runs upstairs, where water is coming from underneath her bedroom door. She opens the door, and her TV flashes an image of a well. Katie begins to scream and we cut to black.

We move along to Katie's cousin Aidan Keller (David Dorfman), hanging out after school. His mom, newspaper reporter Rachel (Naomi Watts), arrives to pick him up, at which point Aidan gets up and announces he'll be waiting in the car while his teacher conducts a little parent/teacher discussion. Aidan's all mature and proper, and he even calls Rachel by her first name. If my kid acted all hoity-toity, called me by my first name, and was a know-it-all pain like this kid, I'd knock that little turd back to the future. But that's just me. Anyway, the teacher's concerned about some rather morbid drawings Aidan drew of a girl being buried. Rachel blows it off as Aidan's way of coping with Katie's death, but the teacher says that Aidan started drawing the pictures several days before she died. Sounds like the kid has a complex. If this were anything but a horror movie, little Aidan would be what we call a "serial killer in training."

Anyway, at Katie's funeral, Rachel's sister asks her to investigate, since Rachel's credentials as a reporter obviously make her the leading candidate for discovering the truth behind the supernatural death of a teenage girl. The initially skeptical Rachel overhears three high school students talking about what happened, one of them claiming that the killer tape is what led to Katie's untimely demise.

Rachel digs deeper, discovering that Katie and her three friends all died at exactly the same time on the same day. Rachel heads out to the cabin the four friends stayed at and talks to the caretaker, who says they rent out videos (most of which are hand-me-downs from guests who left them behind) because the TV reception isn't that great. It's the 21st century, and they don't have cable or a satellite dish? I guess they aren't offered in their neighborhood. Anyway, Rachel notices a tape with no box or labels, and takes it with her to the cabin Katie stayed in. She pops the tape into the VCR, and it's nothing but bizarre, surreal images. Disembodied fingers, a woman jumping off a cliff, a burning tree, dead horses on a beach, a ladder against a wall, and most prevalently, a large glowing ring and a well in the middle of nowhere. It looks like what would happen if David Fincher and Ingmar Bergman got together and did a movie.

The tape ends, and in one of the film's most eerie moments, the phone rings. Rachel picks it up, and a voice whispers, "Seven days." The urban legend is true, and Rachel's clock is ticking. She enlists her video geek ex-lover Noah (Martin Henderson) to help her investigate the tape, and the estranged pair race against time to not only save the lives of themselves and their son Aiden, but solve the puzzle of how the mysterious videotape relates to a series of tragic incidents at a horse ranch and a long-dead little girl named Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase).

The Ring is one of those movies that you're either going to really love or really hate. Me, I love it. The bleak, rainy atmosphere are both frightening and stunning. Gore Verbinski's direction and Bojan Bazelli's cinematography are absolutely stunning, the washed-out blue-green colors and wonderful camerawork making the film look brilliant. Also brilliantly scary is Hans Zimmer's mellow, haunting score, and his use of recurring themes throughout the movie. One particular piece (the music that plays over the end credits) repeats numerous times for chilling effect, and its use throughout the movie never grows tiresome or repetitious.

The acting is superb, though David Dorfman came off as trying to emulate Haley Joel Osment's performance from The Sixth Sense with a smarmy holier-than-thou attitude. Martin Henderson is fun, and Brian Cox (who I'd only seen as Hannibal Lector in Manhunter prior to seeing The Ring) hands in a wonderfully intense performance as pissed-off horse farmer Mr. Morgan, but holding the show together is leading lady Naomi Watts. Jennifer Connelly, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Beckinsale were all offered the role prior to Watts, but I can't imagine anyone else as the star. Watts is perfect here, taking Ehren Kruger's screenplay and making it even better than it is. If she decided to become a 21st-century scream queen, I wouldn't complain.

However, one could argue that the highlight of the cast is Daveigh Chase as Samara, the spooky little girl with the long dark hair and the deeper, darker intentions. Without spoiling too much, she plays the role excellently, making me pity and fear her at the same time. Despite only being twelve years old when The Ring was released, I found her portrayal of Samara to be seriously frightening. It takes some serious talent to go from being the lead character in Lilo and Stitch to the villain in The Ring, folks.

We Americans are used to having our horror movies explain everything to us, but The Ring is different. The movie is ambiguous and vague, perhaps because American audiences simply wouldn't get the explanations given in the Ringu films. If someone in the movie said the killer videotape and those weird x-ray drawings were created via "nensha," would you get it? I'll bet you wouldn't. But that's the thing. Even though it doesn't explain everything and tie up all the loose ends, it prompts the viewer to use his or her imagination. Our own imaginations can create things far scarier than anything a filmmaker could actually show us, which is a lot more fun.

The Ring is a rare horror film, one that relies more on dread and atmosphere than graphic violence or loud noises to scare its audience. Sure, the movie has a few jump scares, but its fear is accomplished elsewhere. And unlike most remakes, The Ring honors its source material. Many remakes take a famous movie title and a skeleton frame, and go off in some insane direction that is nothing like the original. While that works in some cases, The Ring sticks much closer to Ringu and is better because of it. Sure, there's some changes (like the aforementioned ambiguity), but what we have in The Ring is a fine example that not all remakes are bad. The movie is well-crafted, well-acted, and downright scary. Say nay all you want, but The Ring is one of the best horror movies I've ever seen. For that, I'll give it four stars. Check it out if you have yet to see it, and don't be surprised if televisions and wells make you nervous afterwards.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, April 7, 2005

Batman Forever (1995)

Despite being a massive success, Batman Returns ultimately proved to be a financial disappointment when compared to the previous chapter in the Dark Knight saga. Pulling in almost 163 million dollars domestically isn't something to sneeze at, but it was still a whopping 35 percent less than its predecessor's American box office returns. Average moviegoers were turned off by the moroseness of Batman Returns, while the reaction from the Batman fan community was mixed.

Many cried foul, unhappy with the way Batman was portrayed. They argued Batman was above the sort of grim fairytale that Burton liked to tell. Others enjoyed the movie, its fans arguing that Frank Miller's classic graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns was proof enough that Batman was a dark character that could be in a dark movie. Apparently siding with those who viewed Batman Returns in the negative, Warner Brothers decided to go a different route with the Batman franchise. Gone were Tim Burton's grim fantasies and the bleak, oppressive Gotham City, leaving us with a new director, a new Bruce Wayne, a new neon sheen to Gotham City, and a boy wonder.

The movie opens quickly enough, with Batman (Val Kilmer) rushing to the scene of a robbery orchestrated by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) at the Second National Bank of Gotham, two years after Batman first captured him and had him committed to Arkham Asylum. Two-Face was once Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent, a man dedicated to cleaning up the city. Unfortunately for him, a mob boss threw acid at him, leaving the left side of his face hideously scarred and his psyche permanently fractured. Now suffering from what appears to be a great big bundle of mental disorders (he's a bipolar schizophrenic, at the very least), Two-Face has taken to flipping a two-headed coin to determine many of his major decisions for him. If it lands on the happy smiley side, hooray, no crime committed. If it lands on the pissed-off scratched side, there be a crime a-happenin'. Okay, enough of that, back to the plot for now. Batman thwarts the bank robbery, yet Two-Face gets away.

Shortly thereafter, Bruce Wayne is introduced to Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a Wayne Enterprises employee working on a new invention called "The Box," a device that taps into brain waves and allows viewers to see television broadcasts in 3-D. Wayne squashes the idea of the Box, claiming that messing with brain waves "raises too many questions." Visibly crushed by the rejection, Nygma alters the Box into something more devious: a device that can suck the contents of a person's mind right out of their head. Knowledge, memories, fears, fantasies, the sky's the limit with the Box.

Nygma promptly leaves Wayne Enterprises (after killing his supervisor and making it look like a suicide), and begins to anonymously leave bizarre riddles for Bruce, who has quite the crush on psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman). That name sounds more like a major metropolitan bank than a sexy Australian psychiatrist, but I'm not a screenwriter, so what do I know? Anyway, the circus is in town as a special charity fundraiser, and Dr. Meridian agrees to be Bruce's date. Unfortunately, Two-Face chooses the circus to be the site of his latest crime. He rigs up a massive time bomb and chaos ensues, but Bruce sneaks away and returns as Batman.

Batman fights off Two-Face's goons while the circus's trapeze artists, the "Flying Grayson Family," try to dispose of the bomb. They succeed, but with disastrous consequences: they're all killed, save one Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell). Impressed by Dick's heroism, Bruce opens his home to the orphan, whose stubborn nature causes him to butt heads with Bruce's own stubbornness. That stubbornness leads Dick to discover the Batcave and his new host's alter ego, prompting him to petition Bruce to make him his partner so he can get avenge the death of his family and kill Two-Face. Bruce rejects the idea at first, but after a particular series of events, he finally agrees.

Meanwhile, we see that Nygma is continuing to leave riddles for Bruce, and his fondness for puzzles leads him into creating an alter ego called "The Riddler." He sees a news story about Two-Face crashing Bruce's fundraiser, which gives him an idea to enter into a business partnership with the former district attorney. That goes over like a fart in church with Two-Face, but he decides to humor the Riddler and give it a flip of the coin. Heads he agrees, tails he kills Riddler. You can guess how that resulted. Anyway, the pair go on a crime spree, and Nygma uses the profits from their robberies to create "NygmaCorp." He begins mass-producing Boxes, and they start selling like hotcakes. Everyone's got to have a Box in their house, which tickles Nygma pink because he's become more popular and wealthier than Bruce Wayne in a shorter amount of time.

And as the Boxes continue to sell, his IQ balloons to astronomical heights, and his wealth and knowledge allow him to create a more advanced version of The Box that allows people to experience virtual reality depictions of their greatest fantasies. After tricking Bruce into using the new Box at a ritzy NygmaCorp gala, Nygma discovers that his rival is the one and only Batman. He and Two-Face use this newfound information to their advantage, invading Wayne Manor, trashing the Batcave, and kidnapping Chase. Using what's left of the technology in the decimated Batcave, Batman and his new partner "Robin" set into motion a plan to stop The Riddler and Two-Face once and for all.

To me, it seems as if Batman Forever attempted to retain a little of the feel from the Burton movies, yet added some comic book flair and a heaping helping of camp by way of the old '60s Batman TV show. Sure, the Riddler's puzzles here aren't as outlandishly hokey as they were on the TV show, but still, you can see the movie was at least slightly influenced by the show. There's even a cute reference to Burt Ward's catchphrase near the end of the movie. But at its chewy nougat center, the movie is a tale of Bruce Wayne's struggle to live with the inner demons created by his pointy-eared alter ego. Before, we'd only seen glimpses of what happened to Bruce's parents, but Batman Forever actually attempts to go the extra mile and show how their deaths continue to eat away at him even in adulthood.

Batman Forever is perhaps the strongest character study of our Caped Crusader in the Burton/Schumacher era. We learn that Bruce at least partially blames himself for the tragic murder of his parents, and that he became Batman to not only seek revenge, but to perhaps atone for the guilt buried deep inside him. The subplot featuring Bruce being haunted by repressed memories and that weird red diary were a good way to show the evolution of Bruce into Batman, but thanks to some rather revelatory scenes being left on the cutting room floor, it wasn't as fulfilling as it could have been. They had a chance to psychoanalyze one of the comic world's most complex characters, but alas, it was not to be seen here. I understand why the scenes were cut (to squeeze it into the studio's desired two-hour time frame), but the movie suffers because of it.

A lot of people knock on the rampant neon in the movie, and I have to agree. I have nothing wrong with the filmmakers wanting to have a lighter tone, but they really erred with the neon. Gotham City is supposed to look grim and gritty, not look like someone was throwing the world's biggest rave. If it was just an excuse to justify the scene where Batman and Robin fight a bunch of thugs wearing fluorescent clothing and makeup while underneath a blacklight, then it's really, really weak. No matter what your opinion on the two Tim Burton movies, it's safe to say that at least his Gotham City looked far better than Joel Schumacher's. I have nothing wrong with a director wanting to make a comic book come to life, but this was just stupendously inane.

He also drove all the special effects into the ground. There's only too many times you can see an outlandish stunt before you start to grow numb towards them. When you have a helicopter crashing into Gotham City's version of the Statue of Liberty and the Batmoble driving up the side of a building (!) within the first hour of the movie, that's what I call overkill. And don't even get me started on the nipples on Batman's suits or the awkward closeups of Batman's posterior. I did, however, like the slanted camera angles, so I won't fault Schumacher or cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt for that.

I enjoyed the script by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman for the most part, but unfortunately, they didn't seem to get the character of Two-Face. He's actually one of the more tragic and compelling characters in Batman's rogue's gallery, and unless you're really familiar with the character's history, you'd have no clue why he hates Batman so much. In the movie, you'd just believe he hated Batman because Batman had arrested him in the past. His origin story is almost non-existent, and unless you paid attention during Batman '89, you'd never know that Two-Face was once a good guy.

What holds the whole film together is the acting. The character relations give the movie a leg to stand on, despite the insane amounts of special effects. While Michael Keaton is my favorite out of the three Bruce Waynes in the Burton/Schumacher era, Val Kilmer is a fitting substitute. I wasn't too keen on Kilmer's performance the first few times I saw the movie, but I've since warmed up to him. His Batman is both heroic and conflicted, almost an improvement over Keaton's portrayal of Batman as a borderline psycho. Kilmer's performance definitely proves him to be a worthy successor, but as always, your mileage may vary.

I also thought that Chris O'Donnell was better than expected as Dick Grayson, Batman's boy wonder, and actually turns out to be quite important to the film as a whole. The origin of Robin is handled excellently, making him a hero in the face of adversity. The character is central to the movie's true core storyline: Bruce Wayne seeing almost a mirror image of himself in his young ward. Robin's family was murdered, and his first thoughts were to seek revenge and kill the man responsible. This leads Bruce to confront his inner demons, and make him question if what he's done in the past is truly right. O'Donnell's performance is actually pretty good, and I don't know if I could really see any other actor in the role. Fun fact: Casting the role of Robin came down between Chris O'Donnell and Leonardo DiCaprio. The producers asked groups of 11-year-old boys at a comic book convention who would win a fight between O'Donnell and DiCaprio, and the kids overwhelmingly picked O'Donnell. Imagine Leo DiCaprio as Robin. Blows your mind, doesn't it?

Nicole Kidman is watchable here, in what is perhaps her breakout role. Sure, she had Days of Thunder under her belt prior to this, but Batman Forever quite possibly made her a star. I loved Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, but thanks to the script, he ends up becoming like a bipolar version of The Joker, and overacts to the point of seemingly trying to over-Carrey Jim Carrey. Like I said, I enjoyed Jones, but I wonder what it would have been like to have Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face. Y'see, Williams had a clause in his contract for Batman '89 that said he had the right to reprise his role as Harvey Dent should Two-Face be used in a future sequel. Warner Brothers really wanted to cast Jones, so they simply bought out Billy Dee's contract. Nothing against Jones, but I do wonder how different things would have been.

But perhaps the brightest star of the movie is Jim Carrey, who does a fantastic job in his dual role of Edward Nygma and The Riddler, playing the character like an evil genius version of his character from The Mask. Carrey's Nygma begins as a groveling little toadie with dreams of greater glory. As he becomes more and more extroverted and confident following his transformation into The Riddler, Carrey's performance becomes more and more over the top, but still manages to be almost equal to Jack Nicholson's Joker in terms of the on-screen portrayal of Batman villains.

And all of it is set to a fine score by Elliot Goldenthal. While I'd pick Danny Elfman's brilliant music any day of the week, Goldenthal's score is inoffensive and can hold up on its own. But on the non-score musical side of things, I'd take the songs over the score. From rock (U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me") and punk (The Offspring covering The Damned's "Smash It Up"), to R&B (Seal's "Kiss From A Rose" and the Lenny Kravitz-penned "Where Are You Now?" by Brandy), the soundtrack is great.

While not the definitive Batman movie, Batman Forever is a spectacle to behold. The movie succeeds at entertaining both adults and children, something that Tim Burton's live-action "Batman by way of the Brothers Grimm" stories don't do. Here, Batman is nothing but hero from beginning to end, the way it should be. So on my usual scale, Batman Forever gets three and a half stars. It gets a bad rap, but I liked it.

Final Rating: ***½