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Must Love Dogs (2005)

Seriously, is there anything more that can be written about modern romantic comedies? If ever there was a genre comparable to horror, it’s these easily digestible, 90-minute love fests. I feel like I’m becoming a romantic comedy connoisseur. And it’s all because of my girlfriend. You see, without her I never would have seen Miss Congeniality 2, let alone in a first-run theater. I wouldn’t have seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and that was a very pleasant film. Added to the list is Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy released right before the dog days of summer.

Sarah (Diane Lane) is a newly divorced 40-something preschool teacher (who looks freaking adorable dressed as a cat). Her very tight-knit family consoles her but also can?t stop from putting all their efforts toward helping Sarah get back on her feet. Sarah’s younger sister scours through her wardrobe and asks, “Where are all your boob shirts?” Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates an online profile for Sarah without her knowledge and submits it to an Internet dating website. She ends the profile by saying, “Must love dogs.” This allows for many disastrous dates, including one awkward date with her father (Christopher Plummer), himself on the dating scene. Jack (John Cusack) has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and his heart is fragile. He carves old fashioned wooden boats but struggles to make any sales. His buddy sets up a date with Sarah at a dog park. Jack borrows a dog and things don’t go so smoothly, but he sees something there. They go on additional dates and really feel a connection, even if the dates don’t go according to plan. But Sarah also has Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a hunky single dad to one of her preschool tykes, to choose from. What’s a hot single woman to do?

Must Love Dogs is a grab bag of romantic comedy clich├ęs. You’ll find most everything here, from the sassy sister, the gay best friend (for 21st century advancements, the movie presents a gay couple), people trying to learn to love again after having their hearts broken, precocious children that say unusually adult things, a sing-along to a classic song, and the inevitable moment where one person finally has a late revelation and runs to catch their soon-to-be leaving love.

What hurts Must Love Dogs from its other cookie cutter ilk is how contrived so much of it feels. For the longest time the movie presents both of Sarah’s male options in a positive light, but because we see Cusack’s name above the credits and his face on the poster we know he’s destined to win out. Despite this, the film manufactures an entirely contrived scenario to put a wedge between Sarah and Jack. Bob walks in and, in an attempt to convince Sarah he didn’t bang her younger co-worker, kisses her on the spot. Then they pull apart and we see Jack standing there with Sarah’s drunken brother over his shoulder (how did he get back in the house anyway?). Must Love Dogs is another romantic comedy where the conflicts would be resolved with one levelheaded conversation between all parties.

What does keep Must Love Dogs afloat is how enormously likable and appealing Lane and Cusack are as actors. They’ve both been acting since they were teens (Lane was even on the cover of TIME magazine before she had a training bra), so it’s pleasant to see them mature gracefully but still remain vibrant, charismatic, and very good looking. After her blistering turn as the errant wife in 2002’s Unfaithful (which she should have won the Best actress Oscar for), Lane has found stable footing in romantic comedies dealing with the overlooked stories of a 40-something woman in love. In Must Love Dogs she’s generally strong despite the weak material. She has her funnier moments dealing with reaction. Cusack’s character is like Lloyd Dobbler (from the masterpiece Say Anything) in 15 years, and he manages to put his offbeat/sexy Cusack magic all over the film. With different actors as the leads, Must Love Dogs would be mostly forgettable.

Must Love Dogs also gives ample material to Sarah’s father and his pursuit of a mate of his own. Plummer is excellent as the wry old codger and has some very tender moments with Lane. It’s rare for a mainstream movie, let alone a romantic comedy, to sensibly deal with an elderly man’s own search for love, after losing the love of his life. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals realistically with a 40-something woman and a 60-something man in the dating world, well as realistic as romantic comedies can get (cue the spontaneous sing-along).

In the formulaic world of romantic comedies, Must Love Dogs lands right smack in the middle, feeling equal parts contrived and enlightened. Lane and Cusack still shine as wonderfully charming leads and elevate this standard cookie cutter material. Plummer adds a nice addition in a smart, tender storyline of an old man looking for Mrs. Right. Fans of the romantic comedy genre will have their every expectation granted and feel the standard warm and fuzzies leaving the theater. Must Love Dogs is a typical romantic comedy that?s slightly funny, slightly charming, and slightly frustrating. And maybe that?s the film’s biggest flaw: it’s slight.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Ring Two (2005)

I loved The Ring. Loved it. So I had some trepidation when I found out they were making a sequel. Surely it wouldn’t have the punch of the first film. To see Ring Two I went to a theater frequented by somewhat affluent teenagers and pre-teens. Big. Mistake. People were chattering away the entire time, laughing stupidly, and shouting ridiculously lame jokes: (on seeing a damp bed: “Oops, somebody wet the bed”). There were two managers that had to patrol the theater to keep order. Worst of all was a team of easily riled prepubescent girls that sat behind me, shrieking like banshees even during movie trailers. The same thing happened to me when I went to see The Village at the same theater. I must attract the most annoying people in the crowd. The sound quality in my theater was also very poor. Now, I can’t help but think that this was some divine act to warn me how bad Ring Two was going to be.

Rachel (Naomi Watts) has taken her son Aidan (the creepy David Dorfman) to a new town to start a new life. It’s been years since the incident with the videotape, and Rachel feels guilt about her role in spreading the killer tape. She’s got a new job at a small town newspaper but yet she can’t escape her past. A teen has been found with a contorted face, soggy floor, and a certain videotape. Rachel finds the tape and burns it. Samara, the evil young girl who started the evil tape, is none too pleased. Seems the evil tyke wants to be a real girl with a real mommy, and is slowly taking over Aidan. His temperature is dropping, he’s not sleeping, and bad things are happening. Rachel confronts more of Samara’s history to learn what it takes to stop her and get her son back.

Everything that worked in the first film feels forced and meaningless when rehashed in Ring Two. In the previous film, there was context for the image of a tree on fire and Rachel yanking a fly right out of a TV screen. In Ring Two, these plot points are now reduced to being contrived signs of doom. There’s a scene where we’re supposed to be scared because a single fly comes out of a faucet. Huh? The fly and the tree made sense in The Ring, but in the sequel they are stripped of their context and seem alien. And dumb. After everything fit so tightly together in The Ring, it’s disappointing that little makes sense in the sequel.

Watts is such an enormously appealing actress that even in dreck like this she can come off as luminescent. With the two Ring films and Peter Jackson’s upcoming King Kong, Watts could establish herself as the scream queen of her generation. She’s a gifted actress and melts into whatever role she plays.

Ring Two‘s director, Hideo Nakata, knows a thing or two about the territory. He did direct the original Japanese Ringu films, which the American remakes are based upon. Nakata generates a fun sense of anticipatory dread. He also lucks into the occasional eye-opener like a bathtub whose water flows up and fills the ceiling. Nakata has a confidant touch but I miss the sheen of Gore Verbinsky’s direction.

What’s sorely missing is a killer premise like in The Ring. The premise was razor sharp, presenting a videotape as a virus and human nature’s willingness to taste forbidden fruit as the vehicle for its spreading. There was a sense of urgency because of the looming seven-day death deadline. In Ring Two there is no sense of urgency at all. In fact, the film takes an overly leisurely pace. It’s quite awfully boring. Samara wants a mommy and can?t really be stopped until a late revelation. This leads to a lot of impotent pacing and waiting. Except for a snappy opening, Ring Two completely ditches the videotape virus storyline that made its predecessor so compelling. As a result, it also ditches suspense and most of its intelligence.

The Ring had a strong central mystery and a sense of urgency, which both blended to create tightly wound tension. Ring Two sputters around and relies on gimmicky jump scares as its main source of spooks. We see a character look into a mirror, look away, and then look back and something else is right there! Does this really work for anyone still? I just assume when a character ducks out of the way of a mirror that something’s coming. It’s these kinds of creaky, transparent tricks that Ring Two goes back to over and over to goose an audience. Because the story isn’t engaging the filmmakers have to resort to gimmicks. Since we’ve seen the results of Samara’s murders (the grotesque facial distortion) is it even scary to see it again when we know exactly what we’re about to see? The essence of horror is the unexpected. Finding the expected is about as scary as looking at leftovers in the fridge.

There’s a great moment early in Ring Two. Rachel and Aidan are driving through a forest and are followed and then attacked by a horde of deer. It’s the lone sequence in this sequel that feels different and exciting. It’s somewhat crazy, somewhat marvelous, and very weird. Too bad Ring Two relapses from there on into a turgid horror flick.

The Ring was a smart, tense, expertly crafted film that rose beyond genre conventions. Ring Two is nothing but genre conventions and repeatedly goes back to the well to drub up scares that aren’t there anymore (unless you’re the prepubescent girls that sat behind me). Watts is still in fine form and there are some visually striking moments. However, Ring Two is bereft of excitement and scares and has become just another tired, languished sequel. When I walk out of a horror moving saying, “I guess the best thing about that film was either Sissy Spaceck’s crazy cameo or deer,” then you are in a world of bad. Ring Two is meek, dumb, and boring. Let this one go straight to video.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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