Naomi Watts in The Ring TwoTHE RING TWO

After sitting through the lifeless horror sequel The Ring Two, the only thing I wanted - besides a major jolt of caffeine to wake me up - was a towel. What is up with all the freakin' water in this movie? With the exceptions of Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Esther Williams in anything, I can't think of a leading actress who spends as much screen time soaked as Naomi Watts does in this half-hearted follow-up to 2002's The Ring.

Granted, that drippy little girl's demise at the bottom of the well is the linchpin that sets these films' nominal plots in motion, but characters and sets are constantly drenched in this movie; you're not concerned about Watts' fate at the hands of supernatural forces so much as you're worried that the poor thing will die of hypothermia. (Nor can you tell if Watts' uncharacteristic misery is an actor's choice or if she's just praying for a change of underwear.) Director Hideo Nakata - he of the original, Japanese, Ringu - piles on the water imagery with a relentlessness that would make even Chaucer blanch, but at least he creates a serviceable analogy for the movie as a whole: The Ring Two is - sorry - all wet.

A couple of moments work well. There's a creepy sequence wherein a group of deer, in a variation on one of The Omen's better scares, attack Watts' Rachel and her troubled son, Aidan (David Dorfman), in their car, and the pert Elizabeth Perkins, in the film's only sustained performance, experiences a memorable death with the aid of an empty hypodermic. Yet the movie is almost pathological in its senselessness, and although I didn't care for The Ring the first time around, it seems almost perverse of the filmmakers to create a sequel that completely trashes the one element that most audiences enjoyed: The mysterious, murderous videotape makes a mere token appearance at the start and is barely dealt with again. (A follow-up to The Ring that doesn't even include the phrase "You have seven days"? Heresy!) All The Ring Two has to offer are third-rate frights pulled off with second-rate skill, and its scenes seem to go on forever; probably no one expected the movie to be a work of art, but it wasn't in the cards that it would be this boring. But to all those fans of Americanized Japanese horror, fear not. At the screening of The Ring Two that I attended, we in the audience were treated to not one but two trailers - scare flicks both - that proudly proclaimed themselves to be "from the author of The Ring." (Lots of water in those clips, too.) I'll inevitably see these upcoming films, as will the masses lining up for this sub-par sequel, but when I do, I'm planning to bring along a penlight and a book.


Bruce Willis in HostageHOSTAGE

Few cinematic images fill me with as much dread as the sight of Bruce Willis with a gun. Willis has now played variants on his steel-jawed, taciturn - but human! - action-stud-with-attitude so many times that there's nothing fresh about his performances in thrillers anymore, and his post-Die Hard endeavors are nearly indistinguishable from one another. (The Jackal, The Siege, Mercury Rising, Tears of the Sun ... does anyone remember anything about these movies?) But perhaps Willis was feeling the ennui himself, because he's pretty terrific in his latest potboiler, Hostage, and the film itself is edgy and energetic. The dialogue might be perfunctory at best and the film doesn't quite hold together, yet it's a deliriously nasty genre piece, and Willis has some effective moments when his macho posturing gives way to true fear and even grief; it's been a while since Bruce Willis showcased the talent to match his fame. Hostage's labyrinthine storyline finds him as a negotiator who must contend with two kids imprisoned in their mansion, two sociopathic teens and their unwitting accomplice, an accountant in the witness-relocation program, his Mafia benefactors, the FBI, the local police, and an estranged wife and daughter, and the too-muchness of the plotting is one of the most entertaining aspects of the movie. You can't believe that director Florent Siri will make anything coherent, or even watchable, out of this material, but from the opening credits on, Hostage is pulp that happily concedes to being pulp. It exudes a refreshing honesty about its amoral goofiness - even the music has a playful, noir-ish air - and despite the considerable tension in individual scenes, Hostage never takes itself too seriously. From the implausible twistiness of the Panic Room-meets-Aliens air shafts to Ben Foster's sublime hamminess as the craziest of the crazy kidnappers, nearly every excessively decadent element of the film is given its due; Siri might have a great future turning Hollywood crap into marvelously enjoyable Hollywood crap. And in a movie year as unequivocally wretched as this one has been, a work such as Hostage is nothing to sniff at; it might only be 2005's best movie by default, but it's still, thus far, 2005's best movie.


Aliens of the DeepALIENS OF THE DEEP

I don't frequent the Putnam's IMAX theatre nearly as often as I should, but I might have made it to James Cameron's docu-adventure Aliens of the Deep sooner had I not found his previous underwater opus, Ghosts of the Abyss, so dull. Yes, the 3D effects were enjoyable, and the film had historical and scientific merit to spare. But for the most part, Ghosts was a snooze, a rather pedestrian outing that was like a 50-minute loop of Titanic's dreariest scenes; despite showcasing some deep-sea marvels, the film merely exacerbated the fact that Cameron's pomposity knows few bounds, that he throws far too many paychecks Bill Paxton's way, and that he might have the tinniest ear for dialogue of any A-list writer-director.

Aliens of the Deep, thankfully, is a lot more fun. In this most recent cinematic expedition, Cameron's miraculous cameras again show us never-before-seen oceanic sights - the likes of which work spectacularly well in the IMAX format - but this time, Cameron knows exactly when to nip a particular sequence in the bud; he lingers on the fascinating, deep-sea creatures and their habitats just long enough to keep us both transfixed by what we're witnessing and eager to see even more. Aiding the movie further is Cameron's decision to spend a good chunk of time with the young researchers and biologists studying said life forms. Script-wise, this crew might be saddled with Cameron's typical gee-whiz gushiness (unless, in some bizarre coincidence, they all happen to speak with the same banality of a James Cameron screenplay), but they're a smart, engaging lot, and they make this big-screen science lesson go down smoothly, like a particularly energetic field trip.

Compared to the refreshing earnestness of these professionals and the magic of the film's undersea encounters, Aliens' computer-generated sights, while technically accomplished, don't quite pass muster - the movie also imagines life forms on the moons of Jupiter and, in a hilariously misconceived finale, the underwater cities they might have built there - but they're a minimal blight on what is, overall, a fine, educational, and entertaining excursion; though it deserves to be seen on an IMAX screen, Aliens of the Deep should also play beautifully in marine-biology classes for years to come.

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