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Videodrone
By Shawn Stone

The Ring
Directed by Gore Verbinski

The Ring, based on a hugely successful Japanese film, presents audiences with an everyday horror in which your own VCR can be a messenger of death. It’s a great concept: A videotape that kills you.

The last video you’ll ever watch: Henderson and Watts in The Ring.

The fun begins with two teenage girls trading conspiracy theories about the evil effects of television on the brain. Becca (Rachael Bella) tells a story about a literally ‘killer’ video: A week after you watch it, you die. Katie (Amber Tamblyn), who has been cheerfully prattling away about nothing, suddenly remembers that she watched such a tape, exactly one week before. The mood changes, weird things start happening, and the girls meet their fates.

One could be forgiven for thinking: Huh? The tone is all wrong, and the change is too abrupt. If part of the innate horror of the situation is that you know you’re going to die, why is the girl so chipper and heedless, almost to the very end? Worse, the jokey dialogue and giggling teens can’t help but make audiences think back to the self-conscious opening scenes in the Scream films. (It doesn’t come close to the impact of Drew Barrymore’s famous demise in Scream, either.) It takes The Ring a good 10 minutes to recover from this and settle into the right feeling of dread.

Reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), the dead girl’s aunt, decides to look into the mysterious death. She hears the rumors about the tape, and tracks down a copy. At first she hesitates, but finally watches the mysterious video. A collage of random images, the video is a cross between a Luis Buñuel film and a Nine Inch Nails video, though less intriguing than the former and less creepy than the latter. As soon as the tape is over, the phone rings: A little girl’s whisper informs Rachel that she will die in seven days. She enlists the help of her friend Noah (Martin Henderson), and the hunt is on. The film feels like it’s starting all over again.

Though individual images are disturbing, the film lacks any forward momentum. Director Gore Verbinski—on whom most blame must fall—has no sense of pace and little talent for creating suspense. The story plods along with the reporter as she pieces together the mystery hidden in the tape’s cryptic images: a burning tree, a beautiful woman, a lonely lighthouse, a forlorn little girl and a bright ring of light against absolute blackness.

This is not to say that The Ring is a complete disaster. For one thing, it looks wonderful and makes effective use of its rainy Pacific Northwest locale. Credit cinematographer Bojan Bazelli for the film’s dark, beautiful look—it’s a black-and-white film in color. Also, the performances are first-rate. Watts, who made such a splash in Mulholland Dr., is again strikingly focused as the dogged reporter, and Brian Cox is a poignant mix of weariness and pain as a man who knows more than he can admit.

In retrospect, one can appreciate the beautifully structured story, and the parallels between Rachel and Anna Morgan (Shannon Cochran), a dead woman at the heart of the mystery, and between Anna’s missing daughter Samara (Daveigh Chase) and Rachel’s odd son Aidan (David Dorfman). The reason the tape’s curse affects some differently than others is ingenious. The problem is that this is a film, and these pleasures should be enjoyed while it is actually being projected in the theater.

God’s Favorite Salad

Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie
Directed by Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer

A few years ago, you may have noticed a plethora of signs outside local churches, advertising showings of VeggieTales. A series of colorful videos featuring vegetables with names like Larry and Bob, VeggieTales tells uplifting stories through comedy and music, some of it very inventive. Founded by Big Idea, a company whose core purpose is “to markedly enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our society through creative media,” the Tales were an instant success among the Sunday-school circuit. Now, the company hopes to promote biblical values and encourage spiritual growth on a much bigger screen with Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.

Obviously, the whale makes for a great visual. And most people probably have at least a vague recognition of the Jonah story. In this take, the Pirates Who Do Nothing (including a zucchini and a pea) regale little veggie tykes with the biblical tale, retold using asparagus Jonah and a new creation, Khalil, who is half caterpillar and half worm (“but I’m OK with that now,” he explains). A crash course in Sunday school by a former teacher: Jonah was a prophet of God who balked when asked by the big guy to deliver a message of forgiveness and mercy to the notorious town of Nineveh. Jonah had no problem preaching to the choir, but this was asking too much. He attempted to escape his responsibility, which ended in his nearly one-way passage to the belly of the whale. After three days, he was regurgitated, and went on to spread the originally requested sermon. His fish story only enhanced his believability, and Nineveh was saved.

Despite some great tunes, including “Our Lord Is a God of Second Chance,” sung by [I think] an asparagus gospel choir, and the finale, “Jonah,” which features neat syncopation, this Jonah is a problematic concept. It’s not just that the filmmakers come across at times as a little too preachy and focus on the more vengeful Old Testament God. More damaging is that the story Big Idea has chosen to illustrate their themes of compassion and mercy is in itself problematic. That’s because our man Jonah doesn’t get the point—having spread the message in Nineveh, he waits outside the city gates, hoping to witness its ultimate destruction by a wrathful God. When that doesn’t happen, he sulks, unable to comprehend that the salvation of thousands was far more important than his own thirst for retribution. Even the little veggies wonder what happened at the end of this oddly unsatisfying story, and the pirates can’t really answer. It’s a strange kids’ tale indeed when our protagonist doesn’t get the message; no amount of colorful animation and occasionally wry humor can disguise that essential flaw.

—Laura Leon

What Were They Smoking?

Formula 51
Directed by Ronnie Yu

It’s hard to escape the feeling, watching Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Carlyle joyfully mug their way through this noisy, incoherent thriller, that Formula 51 was a fun film to make. It’s too bad this happiness can be shared only intermittently by the audience.

Elmo McElroy (Jackson) is a chemical genius who has been forced to cook illegal drugs for a Los Angeles crime lord known as the Lizard (Meat Loaf). When he comes up with a really tasty, powerful cocktail that may revolutionize the drug business, McElroy leaves the Lizard—in a ridiculous scene of pointless explosions—and flies to Liverpool.

Liverpool? Apparently, Liverpool is the best place to sell a chemical formula worth $20 million. One would have thought that New York, Marseilles or Moscow would be better markets, but as the film was partially financed by a British government-sponsored lottery—it’s Liverpool. Logic aside, Liverpool does make a swell location: It’s grimy, rainy, and packed with nasty football hooligans.

On arrival, McElroy is met by small-time gangster (and big-time football fan) Felix DeSouza (Carlyle). Carlyle hates Yanks, chemists, middle-class “gits” and practically anything unrelated to Liverpool’s big match against Manchester United being held the following day. Naturally, after a silly series of car crashes and senseless gunplay, they become jovial partners in crime.

Unfortunately, Ronnie Yu—director of the Hong Kong cult favorite The Bride With White Hair—tricks up the violence too much. Aside from the explosions, car chases and gun-crazed shootouts, he speeds up and slows down the action with a sense of humor that can be charitably characterized as heavy-handed. (When McElroy tricks a group of skinheads into swallowing a powerful, fast-acting laxative, the ensuing montage of screams and stained shorts goes on a bit too long; at least the film wasn’t released in Smell-O-Vision.) Yu would have done better to realize that with Jackson and Carlyle on screen—two actors who are electric and authoritative when embodying menace and violence—it wouldn’t be necessary to hammer every point home with a bloody stump or colonoscopic zoom into someone’s bowels.

It also wasn’t a good idea to let Meat Loaf give such an embarrassing, over-the-top awful performance as the Lizard. He isn’t the most irritating performer in the movie—Rhys Ifans’ incessantly chattering club owner wears out his welcome fast—but Loaf is easily the worst. On the plus side, there’s lithe Emily Mortimer as a hit woman whose romance with DeSouza rises to the level of almost interesting.

To sum up: Jackson tosses insults with his usual skill, and Carlyle kicks ass with blunt Brit wit. The story’s gimmick—a miracle drug 51 times more powerful than cocaine or heroin—has all the punch of a placebo.

—S.S.

Get Yourself a College Girl

Abandon
Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Abandon, about a student at an elite university who is being stalked by her memories, falls into the category of collegiate gothic—and not just because it’s set on a campus of creepy stone buildings. Following the internal turmoil of Katie Burke (Katie Holmes), who is haunted by feelings of abandonment stemming from her childhood, the film is more of a gothic romance than a thriller: Katie escapes into the idealized memory of her boyfriend, Embry (British heartthrob Charlie Hunnam), a wealthy and flamboyant genius who mysteriously disappeared two years earlier.

Preternaturally driven, Katie is up for a big job with a hot consulting firm, but the pressure of finishing her thesis on global communications technology is getting to her. And so is Embry, who seemingly communicates with her from beyond the campus, appearing without warning to threaten her into resuming their passionate fling. But once abandoned, twice shy, so Katie turns to detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), who is investigating Embry’s disappearance. A classmate who lurks, er, works in the dungeonlike library warns Wade that men are drawn to Katie “like bugs to a bug light.”

The directing debut of Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, Abandon is rhapsodically atmospheric and visually and psychologically saturated in moody blues, with Holmes’ melancholy beauty adding to the seductive miasma. But this fugue state is sparked by unusually sharp dialogue. Katie’s friends, who are vividly, almost weirdly realistic—especially sex-on-the-brain Samantha (live wire Zooey Deschanel, who steals every scene as easily as she did in The Good Girl)—are obsessed with status and success but also vaguely troubled by the emptiness of their pursuits. And everyone is chemically under the influence: Embry, a Ritalin kid, first reappears to Katie while she’s on ecstasy. Soulful Wade is recovering from “extreme substance abuse,” which doesn’t deter Katie from romanticizing him as her rescuer. And who could blame her? Attractively damaged is a role that Bratt does exceedingly well.

Viewed as a tone poem to collegiate anomie, the film is smartly hypnotic. But as a thriller, it’s a washout. The skillfully artful buildup has only two paths to stumble down, and neither is very suspenseful: Either Embry is back, or he’s not—in which case Katie needs more help than she’s getting from the smarmy college shrink (Tony Goldwyn). Then again, maybe it’s to Gaghan’s credit that the sellout ending seems all of a piece with the mood on campus.

—Ann Morrow


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