Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Rings: Another Middle-of-the-Road Horror Flick


Director: F. Javier Gutiérrez
Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio

Fun fact: the first DVD I ever bought was The Ring from 2002. It was a total blind-fire in my movie-watching infancy: I thought it looked really scary, I heard it was really scary, and I bought the really scary movie. Nostalgia is likely what brought me to the movie theater yesterday and asked for enough butter on my popcorn to drown a toddler. I didn’t go into this movie with a lot of high hopes, but I ate most of my popcorn by the end of it. It wasn’t a stellar movie, and it wasn’t a bad movie—it was just okay. There wasn’t much that was really striking about it, but it had its upsides and downsides.

Rings is a third installment of The Ring movies—and here I was thinking that it was only the second installment. I completely missed The Ring 2. This newest movie branches off from the original story of The Ring: if a person watches a certain internet video, one full of cryptic images and grotesque frames, that person will receive a phone call immediately after the video; a mysterious voice says, “Seven days,” implying that that is when the viewer will be killed by Samara—who is something like a technological ghost. Samara was an abused orphan who died in the bottom of a well after her adoptive mother tried to suffocate her and dispose of her body, and she now exacts revenge for her earthly suffering on viewers of the video. Rings picks up the story as Holt (Roe) leaves his girlfriend, Julia (Lutz), to go to college. Once there, Holt joins an experiment about the afterlife with Gabriel (Galecki), the lead professor and researcher. When Holt stops returning Julia’s calls, she decides to visit his college and find him—but the two of them fall into deep water as they uncover more about Samara’s past. (Get it? Like they’re falling into a well! I’m so sorry, keep reading.)

There were a couple of instances where Ring’s cinematography struck a chord with me. Julia and Holt think that by finding Samara’s body and cremating it, that might do the trick to setting Samara free and ending the cursed video. When Holt and Julia find the crypt where the body is held, Julia crawls into it to investigate. It’s a horror movie, right? Crawl into the crypt, why not. As she crawls inside, though, the cinematographer carefully places the camera in such a way that all of the walls of the crypt are visible around Julia—thereby creating a feeling of being surrounded or trapped, almost as if she was being buried alive. In another part of the film, Julia stumbles across a makeshift prison cell, and again, that “trapped” cinematography comes back. In one frame, Julia stands in the doorway of the cell, and we see the left wall, right wall, ceiling, and floor—the frame, itself, closes in around her. I thought it was a neat effect.

At the same time, some of the visuals in Rings were cliché or blatantly contrived. It’s a horror movie, so to fit with the horror movie genre, the filmmakers had to throw in some creepy-crawly stuff: there were ants, centipedes, a random snake, and a swarm of cicadas, just to make sure that we got those people with bug phobias (read: me) to writhe in their seats a bit. To highlight that something paranormal is happening, we also have a very quick scene with Galecki standing in front of a wall of windows where the rain is falling upward. The images throughout the movie feel very contrived, and that’s my bigger peeve about Rings. To go along with the ideas of The Ring, the original movie, the main characters had to watch Samara’s doom-video, and then the rest of the movie piece-meals the video together in a fairly natural way—if an image appeared in the video, Naomi Watts’ character would find that image in real life, and the original movie would have a quick jump cut back to the video to show the connection. While this felt very natural in The Ring, the images in this Samara doom-video seem quite deliberate, as though the filmmakers sat down and said, “Hmm, what’s kind of ominous and spooky and ring-shaped? Oh, I got it! A church bell when you look at it from below!” Some of these images seem like a stretch to fit the “ring” motif, and it pulled me out of the movie.

As far as acting goes, I wasn’t horribly impressed—with one exception. I had never heard of Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz or Alex Roe before, so placing them into leading roles for what felt like a large box office film seems a bit odd. The two of them had a goopy love story, just a couple of young adults in a relationship; while the goop of their love was quite strong, the rest of their acting was just okay—nothing really breathtaking. Johnny Galecki certainly stepped away from his recurring role as the nerdy, timid Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, trading particle physics for afterlife studies, and I actually enjoyed his acting for the most part. Some of it seemed like a stretch, such as the first encounter between him and Julia: she very politely asks him if Holt had been to class lately, and being the stereotypical asshole research professor, he tells her a bit too bluntly to forget about Holt and move on. Overall, the acting was okay, but it was nothing groundbreaking to me.

The one exception in the acting department comes from Vincent D’Onofrio, and he steals the show toward the end of Rings. The last time I saw D’Onofrio was in Netflix’s adaptation of Daredevil as Kingpin, the massive mob boss who shakes things up in Hell’s Kitchen. I liked him in that role and found him very believable—just as believable as I find him in this role. In Rings, he plays a kind-hearted, soft-spoken blind man who lives in the town where Samara’s body was laid to rest. As Julia and Holt search for answers about Samara’s life—if it can be called such—he invites them into his home and answers the questions he can answer. There wasn’t a moment that felt contrived from his performance, so it was nice to see some stellar acting in this movie.

Overall, again, I wasn’t horribly impressed with Rings, but it could have been a lot better. As bits and pieces of Samara’s life were being uncovered by Julia and Holt, I always felt like I was one step ahead of them, so the story felt fairly predictable. I saw where things were going before they showed up on the screen, but it’s a (1) a horror movie and (2) a sequel. Things aren’t ever thought out or as planned out as the original, and that definitely shows here. The writing isn’t horrible, and the dialogue is okay, but again, this movie is a popcorn-muncher and not much more. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Gods of Egypt: Where to Begin? Why to Begin?

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldu, Brenton Thwaites, Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush

Because it’s January, it’s cold outside, and I don’t have any papers to grade yet, I figured I should get up to speed on a few movies I missed over the past couple of years. Last night, I realized that I hadn’t used my free month trial of HBO content via Amazon Prime, and I fell into a rabbit hole of movies that I’d wanted to see. I’d originally planned to watch a few movies and do another compilation post like I did with my summertime horror-fest, but this movie…needed a lot more explanation than a mini-post could give. My usual recommendations are “Sure, watch this” or “Watch this when you get a chance, it’s okay” or “Don’t waste your time”—but Gods of Egypt gets a special recommendation: watch this with your friends and turn it into a drinking game. I’m sure there will be some easy way to do that. The story (and film, as a whole) is bloated and ridiculous, the acting and humor is forced most of the time, and the CGI overwhelms the movie.

Horus (Coster-Waldau) is about to receive kingship over Egypt when his uncle, Set (Butler), ruins the party and steals Horus’ eyes—which magically pop out of his head and turn into shining blue gems. Set takes the throne as a tyrant, and Bek (Thwaites) plans to steal Horus’ eyes from Set and return them to Horus in hopes that Horus will regain the throne and benevolently rule. After Bek, a mere mortal thief, steals one of the eyes and returns it to Horus, the two set out on an odd-couple adventure leading through the pyramids, over the Nile, and even up to visit Grandpa Ra (Rush) who controls the sun.

What…even is this? By the trailers I saw when this movie came out, it looked like a train wreck of a story. I’ll be honest: I went in wanting to hate this movie, and that goal was verily achieved. This is a bloated mess, as if I’d show this to a bored history student to say, “See?! Egyptology can be super cool and interesting!” The director must have really wanted to cram as much Egyptian mythology as possible into this flick, because there’s a ton of stuff that could have been cut, such as the numerous action scenes that didn’t really progress the plot at all. The movie was two hours, but it could have been cut down to 90 minutes pretty easily. We didn’t need to have a ten-minute fight with giant snakes, we didn’t need another ten-minute fight with the sphinx, and we didn’t need a climactic battle against a space monster. Yes. You heard me. Let that sink in.

The treatment of female characters in Gods of Egypt helps cause the bloatation of the story. You might have noticed that I didn’t list any women in the “Stars” section at the beginning of this post. That is because the women in this movie really serve no purpose: they’re plot devices. Horus wants to overthrow Set—why? Number one, yes, Set is a jerk of a king, but Set also took Horus’ girlfriend. Bek wants to help Horus overthrow Set—why? Because Bek believes Horus can help bring back his girlfriend from the underworld. Set besieges the temple of his ex-wife, Nephthys—why? Not because she’s a threat or anything, but because he wants to strip her of her godly powers and use them for himself. The women in this movie don’t really do much or have much agency of their own, so I’m not sure why the director wanted to keep all these loves stories in here. Wouldn’t it be enough for Bek to want to help wrest Egypt away from Set because he’s a bad ruler? No? Well, better give Bek a girlfriend to save. This is a classic case of “How do we sell this movie? Oh yeah, we need a love story.”

Throughout the film, the acting was pretty bad, even with the big names they tacked onto it. The poster for this movie on Amazon Prime lists Coster-Waldau, Butler, and Rush—again, throwing out the big names to draw people in, but a good amount of the cast wasn’t anybody I recognized from other movies (except Chadwick Boseman). It seemed
like most of the actors realized what a bomb this movie was going to be and said, “Eh, it’s a paycheck.” In period films like this, especially the ancient period, it seems like there’s a convention where all the actors try to put on an English accent, like an English accent is somehow related to antiquity; that being said, the actors weren’t really on the same page there: some actors did the accent, some actors didn’t, and Butler’s accent is…all over the place. He tries to drop his regular Scottish accent, but it still comes through quite a bit. Even Rush, an Oscar-winning actor, seemed to be half-hearting his role. Most of the cast seemed to go through the motions, and this definitely showed in the humor.

Amazon lists this as a fantasy-adventure movie, so it’s probably going to have some campy moments or, at least, some humor injected into the dialogue. I recently watched The Hobbit trilogy again, and there were plenty of funny moments there for a fantasy-adventure, but Gods of Egypt forced a lot of the dialogue—which, in turn, forced a lot of the humor. Because the actors didn’t seem into it, the dialogue fell pretty flat, and the humor that did show up was fairly predictable to me. For all the light-hearted moments in the film, I don’t remember laughing a single time. I laughed at the movie as a whole, but not the jokes that were being told. Maybe that’s how Gods of Egypt can be turned into a drinking game: drink whenever you don’t laugh at a joke in the movie. If you drank whenever there was a CGI effect on-screen, you’d need a new liver by the end credits.

With all the advances in motion capture technology in Hollywood, it seems like every new action movie—especially fantasy-adventures—are using tons of CGI. That’s exactly the case with Gods of Egypt, and it’s overwhelming to say the least. For starters, the gods are said to be much taller than mortal humans, so there’s some CGI to make those actors look taller than the extras around them; I’m assuming that Proyas based this on ancient hieroglyphics depicting the gods speaking to humans, but I found it very distracting. Next, the gods can turn themselves into fantastic beasts made of metal (or something?) when they want to really fight tooth and nail, so there’s even more CGI. Add in sandstorms, the underworld, Ra’s sun-ship, a space monster, and numerous overhead shots of the kingdom of Egypt, and that all makes for a hell of a lot of CGI. I don’t really have anything against CGI work, but the filmmakers could at least try to use some practical effects before going to the computer and saying, “No, I want the laser beams here, here, and here.”

Practical effects: make up and costuming that looks good

CGI to make Anubis, god of the underworld

I’ve said all this, and I didn’t even touch on the film’s controversial “whitewashing”—casting white actors to play roles that are logically meant for non-white actors, such as Egyptian gods who are played by a bunch of white folks. I could have taken this a little more seriously without the whitewashing, but that’s something you can find online for yourself. Like I said at the beginning, this movie is an absolute train wreck. Again, it’s a movie I wanted to see because it looked so bad. I’d like to say that this is a thoughtless popcorn movie, but there’s so much weird stuff—bad stuff—happening that I can’t really recommend it. Unless there’s drinking involved. This is one of those movies that’s so bad that you need to watch it with friends and play Mystery Science Theater to make it truly enjoyable.