Monday, February 6, 2017

Rings (2017)

In 2002, director Gore Verbinski introduced American audiences to a cursed videotape and thereby kick-started the wave of American Remakes of Japanese Horror [or J-Horror as The Kids call it - ED.].  Much like any trend in film -- especially Horror -- the imitations quickly paled in comparison to the original.  The Ring was a fine film starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, and Brian Cox, which scared up millions at the box office for DreamWorks, with something that was original to US audiences.  Sequels were inevitable and The Ring Two followed in 2005 . . . though the less said about that one, the better!

Twelve years later, Samara returns in F. Javier Gutierrez's Rings, a sort of sequel/reboot trying to breathe new life into a somewhat forgotten franchise.  The biggest question going into a film about a cursed video tape in the year 2017 is "Does the target audience even know or remember what a VHS tape is?"  This, of course, is quickly addressed by Johnny Galecki's Gabriel, a pot-smoking, deep-thinking professor at the local college, when he laughably refers to a VCR at a flea market as "vintage".  And all the hipsters looked up from their lattes and squealed.

The VCR that Gabriel purchases comes from the collection of a kid who once again falls victim to Samara's curse in the film's opening sequence aboard a turbulent, late night flight.  For what it's worth, this could have been a very cool opportunity to do something unique and interesting -- what with all the TV screens available on an enclosed flight (the TV monitors on the seatbacks, peoples' portable DVD players, smart phone screens, etc.) -- and the film tries to play up this idea a bit, with Samara appearing even on the cockpit monitors!  Though things quickly fall apart when American Horror Story's Lizzie Brocher√© shows up proclaiming "I've seen the tape too!" and all logic goes out the window and the story becomes muddled for the sake of the film's shock opening. 

Of course, Gabriel investigates his new/old VCR and finds a tape, labeled "Watch Me!" jammed inside.  In an age where VHS collecting has definitely become a thing (I'm a proud collector and VHS Misfit), there's an inherent thrill to scoring tapes from thrift and GoodWill stores.  Sometimes picking up tapes of the unlabeled variety with the hope of finding some bizarre, comic gold in the form of someone's personal home movies, so it's not unexpected that Gabriel would go down the rabbit hole with this cassette. 

In a small town not too far (?) away, young Holt Anthony [to quote Mad Dog Tannen in Back To The Future Part III, "What kinda stoopid name is that?"- ED.] lays in bed with his too skinny girlfriend Julia (played by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) on the eve of his leaving for his Freshman year of college.  Holt is played by Alex Roe, looking like a budget version of Dave Franco (himself a budget version of his older brother) with distractingly annoying Martin Scorsese-esque eyebrows [seriously...once you see them, you cannot unsee them...or the fact that they appear to be a uni-brow that was clumsily split not quite in the middle, with one straying a bit far over the borderline - ED.]  Roe plays Holt with all the "hero" factor of Rick in Friday the 13th Part III; the guy is as dumb as a box of rocks...but he's got six-pack abs for the girls in the audience.
Alex Roe, his eyebrows, and Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz
When their Skype session is interrupted by Holt's obnoxious college bros, Julia becomes concerned about her knight in skinny jeans.  He won't answer her texts or calls and then Julia receives a strange Skype call from a girl looking for Holt.  Since she apparently doesn't have a job or any responsibilities at home, she heads for Holt's college campus -- which must not be too far away -- and wanders across the grounds and into his dorm room [this college must have a helluva Campus Security team - ED.].  She finds his iPhone (which dies just after she reads some frantic texts from a girl named Skye), a strange key, and Holt's course list, with one particular class highlighted -- which is conveniently happening right at that exact she wanders over to whatever building that class is being held in and walks right into the middle of Professor Gabriel lecturing.

After Gabriel brushes off Julia's interrogation about why Holt isn't in class that day, she decides to follow the ironic weasel to an elevator, which he takes to the unauthorized 7th floor.  She soon stumbles into a workshop/party environment of what appears to be an entire class who have seen or are currently watching The Tape, with its imagery plastered all over the room via monitors and printouts of its various cryptic images.  It appears that, after watching The Tape himself, Gabriel did some research on Samara and the curse and has turned his findings into some sort of experiment about soul searching/soul jumping.  Whatever.  Anyway, for every one of his students that he selects for the experiment, he must eventually find them a "tail" who will then watch The Tape as well, thereby it's assumed, lifting the curse from the previous person . . . I think . . . are you following?  Since it's 2017, the experiment consists of making copies of the .MOV file of The Tape and passing it along to the next idiot succumbing to peer pressure. 
Those aren't eyebrows, they're forehead moustaches!
After actually seeing Samara come out of a flatscreen TV (yay modern times!) and claiming a hapless victim, Julia, of course, watches The Tape herself in a desperate attempt to save Holt.  Though, since she sees different imagery than what everyone else sees, this sets the rest of the plot in motion and calls for a roadtrip to mine the backstory of Samara and uncover the secrets of Rings

Rounding out the cast is Vincent D'Onofrio, who looks to be phoning it in so much that the moment he appeared on-screen, I exclaimed "Private Pyle!"  He does his best impression of James Earl Jones in The Sandlot here and chews up every scene he appears in; even a phoned-in D'Onofrio acts rings around his young co-stars! 
Apparently Gunnery Sgt. Hartman made good on his promise.
First things first:  like any Horror sequel, Rings falls victim to its need to explain Samara even more than what already was explained in the two previous films.  Hey screenwriters, sometimes it's okay NOT to have a reason "why" for some of these characters and films -- they're scarier that way.  The screenplay by David Loucka, Jacob Aaron Estes, and Akiva Goldsman piles on one ridiculous twist after another [a couple of which are fairly obvious right from the get-go when a particular character is introduced - ED.] in the hopes of wowing or "freaking out" its intended teenage audience.  In what was supposed to be a tense cat-and-mouse game in the final act, one is reminded of how it was done better in last year's Don't Breathe!  The film's poster even spells out one of the twists as well!  Forhelvede!

Somewhere around the midpoint, Gabriel discovers a pivotal plot point and immediately tries to call Holt to warn him and Julia, but the call goes straight to voicemail.  By the film's coda -- literally the very end of the picture -- Holt finally looks at his phone and sees that he has a voicemail.  What kind of teenage/college-age kid isn't looking at their phone constantly these days?  Granted, Holt is a pretty dumb buffoon for most of the film, but surely he'd glance at his phone at least once during the movie and see that he had a missed call and voicemail! 

It's unfortunate that principle photography on Rings started almost two years ago, as it aided in the screenwriters missing what could have been a very obvious angle for the story . . . all of these stupid Youtube challenges that The Kids do these days.  Instead of Gabriel's experiment and desperately trying to find "tails" for his students, the entire movie could have been over if they just uploaded the video to Youtube and labeled it as "The Samara Challenge"; dumbass teens would have been all over it and everyone would have been saved! 

Unfortunately, Rings is a bit of a mess that will likely make enough money at the box office to warrant yet another sequel -- theatrical or direct-to-DVD -- when it should hopefully be put out to pasture.  What started off as a great remake of a truly scary Japanese film has become so watered down as a franchise that it drowns in its own mediocrity.

No, please don't.  Save yourself.