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Moriarty Reviews THE RING TWO, STEAMBOY, and OLDBOY!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I’ve got a bunch of stuff for you this week, but to kick things off, I wanted to finally get around to reviewing two films that are rolling out this week, as well as this past weekend’s biggest movie, all of which are from acclaimed Asian filmmakers who are at very different places in their careers right now.

If you’ve been a fan of RING since the original was released in Japan, then by now, you’re probably at the same point I am with both the original Japanese series and the American remakes: oversaturation. In many ways, Hideo Nakata’s original RING shaped horror as we know it right now. It’s no secret that Asian filmmakers have been the leaders of the genre for the last five years or so, and RING was the film that kickstarted it all as far as international recognition. I remember when I first started hearing about the film. New Line was developing it as a remake, and there was a lot of hubbub about whether or not they would ever release the original for viewers. Appropriately enough, when I did get to see it, it was on an unlabeled videotape, a copy of a copy of an import disc, and it looked suitably crappy. Nakata’s film had a rough intensity to it, and there was a surreal nightmarish quality to it that was hard to shake.

I wasn’t crazy about any of the Japanese sequels, but I have to say... I quite liked the American remake that Gore Verbinski directed. I think it took all of the ideas of the original and did a nice job of turning it up. Some fans have complained that the film was too slick, and I’ll admit that the cursed video in Verbinski’s film looks a lot like a Nine Inch Nails video, but it’s a strong film overall. Naomi Watts helped a lot, contributing a gravitas that wasn’t possible with the all-teen casts that were so popular after SCREAM. Sequels are hard, though, especially in horror. The more times you go back to the well (no pun intended), the more you risk diffusing the menace of anything. Freddy Kruger, for example, started out as a horrific child killer and ended up as a stand-up comic with a glove.

I didn’t really know much about the sequel, and I was curious to see how they planned to extend the mythology. Dreamworks sent me a copy of the short film RINGS, currently available as part of the DVD reissue of the first film, and I watched it the afternoon before the screening of RING TWO. Written by Ehren Kruger and directed by Jonathan Liebesman (who directed DARKNESS FALLS), the short is a fairly groovy extension of the ideas introduced in THE RING. An underground of information has spread about the tape, and a casual cult has sprung up around it. All over the country, people are using the tape to get cheap kicks, forming “rings” where they take turns watching the tape. The game is to see how long you can go without making a copy and showing it to the next person in line, your “tail.” You get to experience all the thrills with the knowledge that you will be able to save your own life before the time is up. The closer you get to your full seven days, the more you see and the cooler you are. Ryan Merriman stars as the newest initiate in one particular circle of friends. What he doesn’t know is that they want to see what happens when you go past the seven day deadline, and he ends up desperate to find someone he can show his tape to... anyone, with no regards to consequences. He just needs someone to save him.

RINGS introduces several ideas I really like, ideas that suggest a larger world just starting to grapple with the problem of Samara. I would imagine it has to be pissing her off, the way people are playing with the tape for fun. Merriman and Emily Van Camp appear in both RINGS and the first scene of THE RING TWO. I was hoping the sequel would build on the ideas the short contains, but instead, the opening scene barely even hints at what’s happening. Almost immediately, the film cuts to Rachel (Naomi Watts) and her mighty creepy son Aidan (played by the mighty creepy David Dorfman). They’ve moved to a small town to get away from the events of the first film, and the movie deals with what happens when Samara finally catches up with them. That’s the most obvious decision in the film (of course they were going to bring back Watts as the star), and it’s the thing that ultimately cripples the film creatively. “Of course” is just deadly dull. The minute you say “of course” about a horror film, the suspense is just gone. It seems like a huge narrative mistake to try to make Naomi Watts the center of the film.

That’s not to say they couldn’t have done it in another way. After all, they defeated the curse in the first film. I’m sure Samara would love another shot at them, but they know better than to watch a tape. It would have been interesting to deal with Naomi’s survivor’s guilt as she watched the horror spread. That would have seemed more natural. Instead, Samara targets them in this film for no real reason, and Rachel doesn’t seem remotely worried about what she unleashed on the world. From moment to moment, director Hideo Nakata does a nice job of creating mood and atmosphere, but the film’s just too ludicrous to work. Rules go out the window, meaning anything can happen, meaning nothing really matters. Samara seems unnaturally powerful this time, and randomly able to do anything she wants to anyone she wants. For some reason, she decides she wants to be reborn using Aidan’s body as a conduit. Even stranger, there seems to be a history of her having tried this many times before, even though there’s no hint of it in the first film. There’s a lot of new backstory here involving adoption and infanticide and Sissy Spacek that is all very somber and moody, but it’s just not as creepy or interesting as what we learned in the first film. There are some cool water effects, primarily in one scene with Aidan in the tub, and there’s one scene where Rachel and Aidan are attacked on the road by a bunch of CGI deer that is pretty well-staged. But again... I have to ask... where did this come from? The press notes talk about how deer are powerful mythological symbols in Japan. Okay. I’ll buy that. But what does that have to do with a freaky dead girl in a well who uses her psychic powers to kill people using TV sets?

There’s one really bold and dreadful idea set up in the film involving the way Rachel has to drive Samara out of Aidan, but even that gets softpedaled by the end. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m getting tired of having to make excuses for every Asian director when they start making American films. “But you should see his other stuff... really!” We went through this with action icons like John Woo, and now we’re starting to see horror masters turn out compromised, sub-par movies that exhibit none of the flair of the work that made them so interesting in the first place. What’s next? A SCOOBY-DOO sequel by Takashi Miike? More than anything, THE RING TWO is a clear indicator that stagnation can dull even the sharpest director’s skills.

I’m surprised how much wrath and hatred has been heaped on Katsuhiro Otomo’s STEAMBOY, which just opened around the U.S. this weekend. Maybe it’s the crushing weight of expectation. After all, AKIRA may well by the biggest anime title of all time. It’s certainly the first one to break through to American mainstream awareness, and it’s still the one that many people use as the high watermark they compare everything else to. What blew my mind about AKIRA the first time I saw it was the deranged, obsessive attention to detail. The story is vaguely impenetrable, especially since it’s a highly condensed version of a much larger manga series. In the years since AKIRA was released, Otomo’s been one of those frustratingly unproductive filmmakers. He wrote the script for METROPOLIS, Rin Taro’s beautiful animated film from a few years ago, and he wrote the underrated-but-lovely ROUJIN Z as well, but he hasn’t directed an animated film aside from one short segment of MEMORIES since 1988. When rumors of STEAMBOYstarted to appear, fans refused to believe he was really making another movie. It was like when Malick announced THE THIN RED LINE. Even when I ran a link to some early test footage, the TalkBack was filled with people saying, “It’ll never happen. It’s been cancelled.” Now that the film’s finally been released, it seems that the most common response is disappointment.

Baffles me, to be honest. STEAMBOY is a beautifully realized family adventure story. It may be a bit overlong, but it’s also filled with some of the most eye-popping battle footage I’ve ever seen. Are there some confusing character motivations and some stock types? Absolutely. But any animation fan who sits through the last hour of this film without getting giddy about the sheer majesty of the craftsmanship on display is just being sour for the sake of it. This is an imperfect film, and there’s no way it will have the same impact that AKIRA did, but it certainly can’t be dismissed outright. There are some stunning action sequences, the scale of which is absolutely amazing. The soundtrack is incredible. When we screened this at the Egyptian last month, it shook the theater and everyone in it. It’s just plain fun to watch in a way that AKIRA never was, much more innocent. Otomo seems to take particular glee in the wholesale destruction of Victorian London, and he’s stuffed the film with visual digressions and gags. Even if I don’t think this is a consequential film, it’s certainly an entertaining one. Give it a try. When it works, it really takes flight.

Next weekend, Tartan Films is finally going to release Park Chan-wook’s OLDBOY for American audiences. I know many of you have seen the movie via festival screenings and import DVDs, but I’m hoping that even if you’ve seen it, you’ll support this one theatrically. And if you haven’t seen the film before, I envy you. That first viewing is a gutpunch, a grenade under your seat. This isn’t just about shock, though. Ultimately, the film’s brilliance is the way it draws you in, makes you care, then breaks your heart.

Choi Min-sik has got a great film face, like a Korean Charles Bronson. When we meet him, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik) has been arrested for public drunkenness, and he’s cooling off at a local police station. Oh Dae-su is a clown, a buffoon, a soft and pathetic middle-aged man. His friend comes to bail him out, and they stop at a pay phone so Oh Dae-su can call home and speak to his little girl. He’s got a birthday present for her, a pair of angel wings, and he can’t wait to see her. In the middle of the phone call, Oh Dae-su vanishes. What unfolds for him over the next fifteen years is a nightmare. He’s imprisoned in a dingy hotel room, never given any reason, and his personality is slowly stripped away as he goes completely mad.

I would recommend this film even if the rest of it wasn’t great based on how powerful Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment is. One room, one actor, fifteen years. That’s a challenge for a filmmaker, and Chan-wook more than proves his ferocious visual acumen here. We watch Oh Dae-Su crumble before our very eyes, a real testament to the work that Min-suk does. What happens to him goes well beyond a trick of make-up or wardrobe. You see the fire in his eyes go out, and it’s just awful. At the same time, Chan-wook wrings all the jet-black humor out of this material that he can. What I loved about watching the film again with an audience last week was listening to the crowd. People laugh a lot at the start of the film, and they should. It’s wicked and sinister, and as Oh Dae-su finally gets out of prison and starts to hunt down whoever imprisoned him in the first place, it feels like we’re in for a KILL BILL VOL. 1-style rampage, pure bloody fun. And, for a little while, that’s exactly what it is. But there’s more... much more...

Oh Dae-su finds shelter with a strange, pretty sushi chef named Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), and their relationship bends the film in yet another direction, introducing the possibility of reconnection for him, a chance at some sort of normal life. The way we whip back and forth between the beautiful and the brutal is dizzying, and images leap off the screen... a live octopus being consumed, Oh Dae-su, a hammer and a hallway full of guys, purple boxes bound with purple ribbons. That accumulation of images that jump out at us adds up to a film about the power of memory to either destroy or to heal, not a film about revenge. Chan-wook uses some fairly over-the-top devices here (hypnosis seems to be the thing that some viewers really get hung up on), but it’s all a heightened reality anyway, so I’ll buy OLDBOY’s hypnosis the same way I’ll buy MEMENTO’s amnesia. Neither one strikes me as remotely realistic, but it doesn’t matter. OLDBOY is as confident a film as you’ll see in a theater in America all year, and of the three films in this column, this is the one I’m urging you to see. I’ll be presenting one more screening of this film, this Tuesday at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. It starts to roll out in limited release for everyone else on the 25th.

I’ll be back later this afternoon with my review of SIN CITY, and I’ve finally gotten the go-ahead to publish my article about my trip to the set of Darren Aronofsky’s THE FOUNTAIN. I saw THE CLONE WARS VOLUME 2 this weekend at the Egyptian, so toss that and my new DVD SHELF column into the mix, and I’ve got plenty to keep me busy for the next few days. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • March 21, 2005, 3:15 p.m. CST


    by cganimation

  • March 21, 2005, 3:15 p.m. CST

    Actually, Steamboy looks pretty lame

    by cganimation

  • March 21, 2005, 3:26 p.m. CST


    by awrobert

    I have heard rave after rave. I'm ready. Bring this mother on!

  • March 21, 2005, 3:57 p.m. CST

    Samara's New Powers

    by Squashua

    MY THEORY: Watts destroyed a

  • March 21, 2005, 3:58 p.m. CST

    Don't forget to watch the Clone Wars tonight at 7 on CN

    by George Newman

  • March 21, 2005, 4:23 p.m. CST

    finally THE FOUNTAIN report, can't wait for that!

    by Biko Salamar

    Aronofsky rocks!

  • March 21, 2005, 4:54 p.m. CST

    my name is Miike and this is the plan

    by Nerdboy1423

    Scooby Doo 3: The Ghost of Hanna-Barbarra "Alright, Fred, yeah, okay...lay down on the ground. yeah, just like that. Now, Velma, get on that nurses outfit and those black leather fetish boots. Now, mount him and slowly stick pins through his eye lids, and then, slowly saw through his left leg." I can see the auditioning process for that movie going very well.

  • March 21, 2005, 5:02 p.m. CST

    Thank you, Moriarty

    by Roguewriter

    Can always count on you for clear, precise, useful and insightful reviews. Nice job. Makes the hunt for great filmgoing experiences much easier... THANK YOU.

  • March 21, 2005, 10:28 p.m. CST

    Am I the only one who *liked* Ring 2?

    by Osmosis Jones

    Honestly, the logic is a bit wonky (the "deer" setpiece reminded me of that safari park scene in The Omen, only it's never really explained why the deer want to attack Aidan, and if they *do* want him dead, why do they just stand there calmly at the end of the scene and let Rachel just drive off?), but I still found the film to be creepy and atmospheric (Hans Zimmer's terrific score helped a great deal). I agree that the ending was too soft-pedaled. What is it that prevents horror filmmakers from ending their movies on the downbeat it requires, aside from having to keep the door open for more sequels? That said, I thought Ring 2 was a more-than-adequate sequel.

  • March 22, 2005, 12:08 a.m. CST

    Right on, Moriarty. RING TWO was aweful

    by sharondeitz

    This is a hard lesson for Dreamworks to learn. It is foolish to dumb down what is considered a quality horror story in order fit within the framework of what they THINK appeal to TEENAGER'S cinematic desires. That's right, DW, you know what I'm talking about. Kruger was probably forced by Walter Parkes to write the sequel for folks 13 years and up. It really shows. The scares are grossly cliche, even expected, and poor Naomi Watts had to dredge through hopeless dialogue. At the theatre I was at in Seattle, one filled with teens, they were booing at the end. Nice going, DW.

  • March 22, 2005, 12:33 a.m. CST

    Hit the nail right on the head (or through the finger)

    by jtp972

    This review not only sums up the things that are wrong with "The Ring 2" but offers an alternative vision that would have made much more sense and moved the mythology forward in a way faithful to the rules set up in the first film. With any luck, "The Ring 2" will do just well enough to warrant a 3rd installment...Watts will refuse to come back, and they can do it right the next time out.

  • March 22, 2005, 5:10 a.m. CST

    new remake: Michael Bay

    by CuervoJones

  • March 22, 2005, 2:59 p.m. CST

    Moriarty Got It Wrong

    by Mako

    I didn't think it was as much as Verbinksi's American Remake. But THE RING TWO is a decent sequel. It veered off into a different direction and was not dull or tired. See you take a chance... and get blasted for it. So what Moriarty and the people who liked RINGS but don't like RING 2 are saying they just wanted more of the tape... we'll that's what we got in the 1st movie. So it baffles me when I hear comments like "doesn't move the story forward"... "doesn't make sense". Huh? You know how stupid that sounds coming from people who watch a movie and think ghosts and werewolves make sense? Is this movie supposed to be Schinlder's List? If anyone at all watches Asian Horror movies... you'll know that ideas and plot devices are not always spoon-fed to the audience like all American Movies are.

  • March 22, 2005, 4:01 p.m. CST

    at the end of The Ring...

    by Shigeru

    Rachel helps Aidan save his life by copying the tape. But you have to copy it AND show it to someone WHO DID AIDAN SHOW IT TO?? This was never answered, right??

  • March 22, 2005, 4:34 p.m. CST

    If you have to actually write "no pun intended"...

    by Spike Fett

    Then it was intended.

  • March 22, 2005, 11:52 p.m. CST

    OLDBOY in the US??

    by Drworm2002

    Hollywood is fucking up again. I found out that there is going to be an american version of OLDBOY. I don't think it can be as good. LEAVE KOREAN MOVIES ALONE...

  • March 23, 2005, 12:48 a.m. CST


    by Mister Man

    "Ring" originally included an ending scene where Watt's character places the video on the shelf of a video store.

  • March 23, 2005, 6:54 a.m. CST

    Unneccessary remakes

    by brynmonkey

    Did we really need that remake of 'The Grudge'? Do we really need a remake of 'Oldboy'? Why don't they just distribute the original film in cinemas and save some money to genetically engineer some scriptwriters.

  • March 24, 2005, 8:10 a.m. CST

    "You lived here for 15 years"

    by evergreen

    "Yeah, but after 9 years it really started t feel like home" Don't miss OldBoy!

  • March 24, 2005, 10:33 a.m. CST

    oh cool

    by Shigeru

    that would have been a sweet ending they should have kept that scene in. thanks guys

  • March 24, 2005, 12:21 p.m. CST

    World will be saved by steam

    by LordSoth

    The problem with Steamboy was that everyone in the movie besides Steamboy was completely nuts. It doesn't so much have a plot as a bunch of people losing their minds. Right on about amazing aerial sequences and good music though.

  • March 26, 2005, 4:44 a.m. CST

    bought the Ultimate Edition

    by quentintarantado

    I bought the Ultimate Edition DVD after the strength of the buzz on this site and a picture of it online, a pretty purple box. Now I've seen it, God I've got a box in my room! My copy's spines got damaged by the copper rivets of the box but since I had to import the darn thing through informal means, I can't get it replaced. Oh well, better to have it than NOT have it.