Thursday, February 27, 2003

I saw Gore Verbinski's The Ring, a remake of the Hideo Nakata's Japanese thriller of more or less the same name. I had thought that this would be difficult to translate to an American setting, as the film's mixture of Japanese mysticism, set in this world that's a mixture of urban creepiness and secluded islands and lighthouses struck me as hard to translate. When you go to Japan and travel around a bit, one thing you realise is that the country has a great deal of seaside and this has an impact on the Japanese psyche, particularly when you get out of Tokyo. (If you walk around Tokyo it becomes apparent there too, but most people don't). Given that the country consists of a large number of people on four Islands, how could it not? But it's largely absent in western perceptions of the country. And the presence of the sea adds a lot to the creepiness of this particular film. (There is a ferry ride in bad weather that is in both movies and is I think crucial to the mood). But, as it happened, in this film it translated okay. The filmmakers were clearly very careful as to where they set the film, because Seattle (and the areas around it) has something of a similar quality.

Plus, this film has great art direction and cinematography. Rather more care has been taken with it than with most horror movies. Although some would say it is a one concept movie (and the concept is a relatively simple one: watch this particular video tape, the phone rings and you hear someone say "seven days" and exactly seven days later you die) the remake is extremely faithful to the plot of the original. At least, it is until the end, which the American filmmakers changed somewhat. This isn't actually so bad, as the ending of the original didn't work particularly well. The remake's ending doesn't work particularly well either, but I don't think the film is notable the worse for it. The film attempts to explain (and explain) something that is ultimately unexplainable.

Still, I liked the remake more than I expected. And so did a lot of people. The film was a largely unexpected hit for Dreamworks in the US late last year. After the film, I head someone behind me say that in most horror film, you know exactly what will happen next, but in this one you don't. And that is the best argument for making a remake of a foreign film. It does come from different cultural traditions, and you don't always know what to expect. It would be nice if studio executives would learn this lesson and greenlight less formulaic stuff more often, but that is probably too much to hope.

This is particularly so if you pay attention to what the studio has said since the film was a hit. Dreamworks is a very filmmaker friendly studio, largely because it was founded and is partially owned by filmmakers, and the ultimate head of live action films at the studio is Steven Spielberg. The studio has a tradition of giving filmmakers a free hand to make the film their way. This has led to some good films, and has also led to one or two projects where the director has spent far too much money ( Snow Falling on Cedars and Almost Famousare the two most notable examples).

In any event, shortly after The Ring was clearly a hit, I read an interview with someone from Dreamworks' marketing department interviewed in the LA Times, talking about the possibility of sequels). It is normal for sequels to cost far more than original films, because the actors demand large raises to play the same parts again. What this person said was "The great thing about "The Ring" is that it is an actor-free franchise. It's all about the concept". Presumably what he meant by that was that if Dreamworks makes another film about a video tape that kills people, the same audiences will show up again. And this is shortsighted. It ignores the fact that the film was successful because of terrific production values. And it also was successful because of its star.

The most important part in The Ring is played by Australian actress Naomi Watts, whose character is not introduced until a little way into the movie, but who after that is on screen for nearly every second of the film. And she is great. She captures the initial mixture of scepticism, followed by anxiety and fear (mostly for her character's son, rather than herself) and then desperate action beautifully. She has absolutely wonderul screen presence. She makes the audience feel for her character.

This isn't any surprise, or course. Watts had spent a decade hanging around Hollywood and mainly playing small parts (her biggest part was a supporting character in Tank Girl when David Lynch saw something and cast her as the lead in Mulholland Drive. She was one of the actresses up for consideration when Lynch's film started being seen, and the buzz that got back to the people casting the film was that her performance in that film was "strong" and they cast her. "Strong" wasn't the half of it. Lynch had managed to get one of the best performances of recent years out of her. Truly she is dazzling. She seems an absolute natural. She's one of those actresses who obviously had something, but somehow nobody noticed it until she was about 30, when a slightly offbeat, non-mainstream director saw it and did something amazing with it. And then everybody else noticed it. And she carries at least some of this presence into The Ring, which is essentially a well made genre film. She helps lift the film. Which is why it is foolish to say that a sequel to The Ring doesn't depend on the casting.

The more charitable explanation is that Dreamworks, like everyone else, is aware that Naomi Watts is this close to becoming a very big star, and that her agents are using this argument to push up her price for the sequel, and that Dreamworks are simply suggesting that someone else might be cast in the sequel in order to try to push the Naomi Watts' salary down again. Do I believe this? Not really. However, it is possible.

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