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RINGS

Producer: Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes
Director: F. Javier Gutierrez
Writer: David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman
Stars: Matila Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D'Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan, Jill Jane Clements, Chuck Willis, Patrick Walker and Zach Roerig
Studio: Paramount Pictures

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The makers of “Rings,” yet another of Hollywood’s long-gestating sequels, had an unenviable task: updating a horror franchise based on the premise of a cursed video tape that dooms those unlucky enough to watch it to die horribly in a exactly a week, unless they pass a copy on to some other unsuspecting watcher who will take on the curse in their place. Japanese director Hideo Nakata struck gold with the idea in 1998’s “Ringu,” and Gore Verbinski found success with his typically inferior English-language remake “The Ring” (2002), which in turn spawned its own Nakata-helmed sequel, “The Ring Two” (2005).

Now, twelve years later, VHS tapes and VCRs have gone the way of the dodo and even their successors, DVDs and Blu-rays, are falling out of favor, but that hasn’t stopped a new director—F. Javier Gutierrez—and writers David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman to try their hand at reviving the property. They adopt what was probably the only plausible tack in bringing the premise up-to-date—tracking the new “outbreak” to a guy interested in “vintage” stuff. In constructing a narrative around this notion, however, they fail miserably.

The responsible party is a university biology professor, Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki), who comes upon a copy of the dreaded tape in a VCR he buys at a flea market—once owned by a fellow we see in a prologue meeting his demise on an airline flight that naturally ends in disaster—and makes the mistake of watching it. Believing that it can reveal truths about the existence of the soul and the afterlife, he enlists some unsuspecting students in what amounts to a pyramid scheme, inducing them to watch the tape and then pass it on.

How this process could possibly achieve Gabriel’s intended goal is never explained, but that’s simply tossed aside to focus on one of his students, Holt (Alex Roe), who’s among the test subjects. Happily—or not—Holt’s girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz) intervenes, and before long she’s watched the tape to save the boy she loves. But there’s a twist (also unexplained): she sees more creepy images on the tape than others have—clues that lead her and Holt to the sleepy town of Sacrament Valley. Their goal is to discover how the tape originated and how to end its progressive reign of terror. That will involve them with a couple of the nearly-deserted burg’s few remaining residents: the close-mouthed owner of the local bed-and-breakfast (Jill Jane Clements) with the forbidding name of Styx, and Burke (poor Vincent D’Onofrio, stuck again playing a supporting role in a piece of genre junk), the blind guy who guards the town’s cemetery.

What ensues is narrative chaos of almost unfathomable proportions, involving—as far as one can make out—child abuse, hidden skeletons, symbols that are for some reason in Braille, reincarnation and that old standby revenge, to list only a few of the elements. Periodically the spooky black-and-white footage from the VHS tape of the original “Ring” movies is revisited, with additions; unfortunately, its strobe-lighty effects have lost much of their punch, and the new material—shots of floods, burning flesh, swarms of insects and snakes, among other things—doesn’t raise any goose bumps. An attempt at a closing twist is designed to push the concept fully into the digital age, but while it paves the way for a sequel that will probably never come, it pretty much makes mush of the resolution that’s preceded it.

Gutierrez probably never had a shot at generating any suspense or shocks from this grab-bag of inane horror tropes, but he, cinematographer Sharone Meir and editors Steve Mirkovich and Jeremiah O’Driscoll don’t even seem to have tried, adopting a lethargic, sleep-inducing pace accentuated by painfully murky visuals. Even Matthew Margeson’s score sounds undernourished. Predictably, the acting suffers from the same defects. Except for D’Onofrio, who chews whatever scenery is on hand with relish, the actors appear to be tired—or perhaps are merely suffering from the same fog of confusion the movie induces in the audience.

It’s customary to say of a horror movie that had it been done up with more imagination, it might have worked. In this case, however, the very notion of resurrecting “The Ring” was so wrong-headed, given the fact that time has so definitively passed the premise by, that it’s difficult to imagine it could ever have resulted in something even passable. It’s hard to understand what prompted Paramount to back such a foolhardy venture; it can only speak to the studio’s desperation after so many of its big-budget ventures have tanked and its last el cheapo horror franchise, the lucrative “Paranormal Activity” series, stumbled to a dead end. Whatever the cause, this redoubled “Ring” is no better than one you might find in a Cracker Jack box.

ASSASSIN’S CREED

Producer: Jean-Julien Baronnet, Gerard Guillemot, Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley, Michael Fassbender, Conor McCaughan and Arnon Milchan
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writer: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Ariane Labed, Callum Turner, Essie Davis, Denis Menochet
Studio: 20th Century Fox

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If there’s anything worse than dumb schlock, it’s pretentious schlock. “Assassin’s Creed,” based on an apparently popular series of video games, purports to say something about the importance of free will against enforced conformity—as “A Clockwork Orange” so memorably did. But like so many pop culture pieces of similar type—“V for Vendetta” is a perfect example—it dresses up the message in an orgy of empty action, violence and distinctly unspecial visual effects. The symbol of freedom it repeatedly references is a soaring eagle, but the movie itself is a dead duck.

The picture immediately raises the question: what possessed a fine actor like Michael Fassbender to agree not only to star in it but to serve as one of its producers? Perhaps his reason had to do with his bank account and dreams of a lucrative franchise, but more likely it was simply a matter of friendship. Director Justin Kurzel had cast him—along with Marion Cotillard, who also co-stars with Fassbender here—in last year’s well-received “Macbeth,” and both might have felt a debt to him. If so, the result proves once again that in making career choices, friendship should have its limits.

In any event, Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a death-row inmate who is “reborn” immediately after his execution in the laboratory of the Abstergo Corporation headed by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophia (Cotillard). Callum, it is soon revealed, is a descendant of a fifteenth-century Spaniard named Aguilar de Nerha, who was a member of a group called the Assassins, which had for centuries been the sworn opponents of the Knights Templar, representing freedom of will over the Templars’ ideal of bringing peace to the world through total order. The Templar program at the time is embodied in the Spanish Inquisition and its leader Torquemada (Javier Gutierrez), and what they are seeking is an orb called the Apple of Eden, representing man’s fall from grace, which contains the DNA of disobedience that can be used to control, or more properly eliminate, man’s impetus to violence.

In 1492, it’s revealed, the Apple is in the possession of the Sultan of Granada, the last Moslem enclave in the Iberian peninsula, and Torquemada’s men have captured his son to use as a pawn to force his father to turn the artifact over to them. Aguilar springs into action along with his confederate Maria (Ariane Labed) to prevent the exchange.

So what has contemporary Callum to do with all this? Well, it seems that by connecting him to a massive device called the Animus, Sophia can merge him with Aguilar, and get him to re-enact his ancestor’s actions, down to the revelation of where the long-dead Assassin hid the Apple five centuries ago. The question is whether Callum will fall in with this scheme or overcome his hatred of his father (Brendan Gleeeson), an Assassin who killed his wife, and join the other Assassins imprisoned at Abstergo to save human freedom yet again.

The goofiness of all this should be apparent, even before the last-minute addition of a plot element involving the tomb of Christopher Columbus that takes the script, credited—if that’s the appropriate word—to no fewer than three writers, deep into Dan Brown territory. But from the filmmakers’ perspective all that’s important is that the oddball narrative allows for the insertion of prolonged action sequences—chases, martial-arts fights, swordplay, and leaps from astronomical heights—that are supposed to be exciting but fall flat, partially because they’re all shot in the drab tones characteristic of Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography but also because they’re constantly intercut by editor Christopher Tellesfsen with modern-day inserts of Callum replaying Aguilar’s moves while in the Animus’ metal tentacles. Even a big scene set at a fiery auto-de-fe that doesn’t go quite as Torquemada expected generates no sparks of excitement.

The cast aren’t aided by the humorlessness of the screenplay, which treats the hokum with a degree of seriousness that makes it all the more ludicrous. Fassbender is a dour, dull hero in both temporal spheres, while Cotillard and Irons are boringly impassive throughout. Nobody else fares well either, especially Charlotte Rampling, another distinguished actor, who pops up briefly as the Templars’ head modern honcho. Throughout Kurzel treats the ridiculous material with a dogged earnestness he didn’t feel compelled to lavish on his Shakespeare, and whatever grandeur might have existed in Andy Nicholson’s production design or Sammy Sheldon Differ’s costumes is pretty much lost in the images, which are murky even in 2D format (one can only imagine they’ll be even darker and more impenetrable in 3D). Jed Kurzel’s score is blowsy and bombastic.

What encourages studios to think that period adventure movies are the perfect Christmas releases, anyway? Universal bombed a few years back with “47 Ronin,” and now Fox is poised to do likewise with this silly misfire. Maybe the suits believe that “Assassin’s Creed” might benefit from overflow audiences from sold-out showings of “Rogue One.” You can almost hear them muttering: Help it, Obi-wan, you’re its only hope.