As Usual 

More of the same in The Ring Two, Imaginary Heroes.

There is a law of diminishing returns with sequels, alas. The idea behind a sequel is potentially noble: If the first film was successful, then the things that made it successful are worth revisiting with new situations, challenges, characters, and ideas. But since the motive is usually financial, the return of beloved or captivating characters is more often than not a mere rehash or restirring of the original rather than a worthy continuation. For every second Godfather, Star Trek, Spider-man, or Alien there is a Jaws 2, Bridget Jones 2, or Grease 2. The Ring Two, which had the potential for an identity of its own, is unfortunately merely a reworking of the first. There are some new twists but nothing that the original Ring didn't do better.

In the first Ring, Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is an ambitious newswoman for a big Seattle paper, trying to juggle her career with being a good single mom. When her creepy 10-year old-son Aidan (David Dorfman) is traumatized by the mysterious death of his best friend/cousin, Rachel's investigation takes her to a strange videotape that, after watching it, kills you within seven days. (The corpses that are produced by the killings are among the ickiest things I've ever seen on film.) So, seven days pass, and along the way she discovers that the tape is the curse of a murdered young girl named Samara and that her crazy parents had something to do with it. I will not spoil the end for those un-Ringed readers out there, but it is worth noting that Rachel and Aidan, though they both view the tape, survive to make the sequel. The Ring is a classy, suspenseful, and effective thriller based on the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu. Not everything makes sense in The Ring -- Rachel's and Aidan's survival chief among them. But the style and real chills the film provides make up for the narrative kinks.

In The Ring Two, Rachel has learned to be a better mom and has moved herself and son to a sleepy Oregon village where a cat in a tree is a big news story and the nightmarish urban sprawl of the previous film is a safe many miles away. But it's not long before our plucky newsie catches wind of a strange teen death (just like before!), and the curse, as they say, is back on. But Samara (Kelly Stables) has a new mission: resurrect herself in the form of Aidan while he sleeps. Rachel, ever the investigator, swiftly hunts down the clues that will get Samara's spirit out of the ever creepier Aidan. But the means by which to do so may kill Aidan in the process. What's a mom to do?

I sure did like that first Ring. It was spooky, visually arresting, had the excellent Brian Cox, and was even a little romantic. Great attention was paid to details like color and pacing and symbolism, and the performances were better than what you find in this genre. And, unlike most horror heroines, Watts' Rachel was kind of hard to take -- abrasive and pushy. Personality! These same virtues (sans Cox) are all on display in The Ring Two, but, with few exceptions, they are mere variations and not elaborations or progressions from the first. This is still, basically, the story of a woman who races against time to save her son from a ghost in a videotape.

One noteworthy bright spot: In a twist on the first film, it turns out that long-dead Samara was adopted and that her young birth mother had, like the adoptive one, tried to drown her. Twenty or so years later, Rachel must visit Samara's birth mother in the nut house, and she is played by none other than Academy Award winner Sissy Spacek! In a sequel that for the most part lacks distinction, this is a touch of class and terror the film desperately needs: Spacek cut her teeth on Carrie and knows how to turn the CRAZY on when asked.

The Ring Two is scary but not nearly as tautly drawn as its predecessor. And while a third Ring has the potential to flesh out this story further, I hope the makers think of something new to do before they start filming. -- Bo List

Imaginary Heroes begins promisingly enough. We see Olympic-bound swimming prodigy Matt Travis (Kip Pardue) swimming laps at a meet, his coach (Jeff Daniels) barking encouragement from poolside. In a voiceover narration, another young man, who turns out to be Matt's brother Tim (Emile Hirsch), explains, with sufficient awe, that Matt is better at swimming than anyone is at anything else. Then Tim reveals something only he seems to know: Matt hates swimming.

The prologue ends with Matt taking his life and leaving behind a family to sort things out: His coach is also his dad, who descends into a stupor, insisting on setting a place at the dinner table for his lost son. His sister, Penny (ex-Dawson's Creeker Michelle Williams), returns from college, seemingly nonchalant about the situation. The only ones really dealing with it are Tim and the mother, Sandy (Sigourney Weaver), who seem to share a bond unique in their family.

Imaginary Heroes is the kind of modest indie (or "indie" since, let's be honest, most of the time when people invoke that word in relation to the movies they have no idea where the money trail actually leads) that's supposed to be superior to Hollywood movies because it's more real, because it portrays the rhythms and emotions of everyday life. There are plenty of times when that cliché holds true, and there are moments in Imaginary Heroes when it does, especially in the interactions of Weaver and Hirsch.

But all too often Imaginary Heroes just evokes other middling indies instead, even in the casting: As the clear-eyed mother to a teenage son, Weaver evokes her own performance in Tadpole, while male lead Hirsch earlier starred in the similar The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Williams seems to have wandered over from the set of quintessential understated indie The Station Agent, especially since her part here is barely written.

Imaginary Heroes also suggests a sleepier (and less entertaining) version of that Hollywood apotheosis of sick-soul-of-suburbia movies, American Beauty, right down to the mysterious next-door neighbors and the spectacle of upstanding parents ditching their jobs and smoking dope. Set in the suburbs of Nowhere, Inparticular, where adults drown their sorrows in booze and pills while their kids combat their boredom with the same tools, Imaginary Heroes pulls back the facade to reveal exactly what these kinds of movies always reveal: that life in those upper-middle-class nuclear families is not as tidy as it appears. Stop the presses.

Weaver and Hirsch infuse their characters with a core of truth that works, but the relationship gets lost amid a crowded orbit of less believable (and less interesting) supporting characters and an over-weighted narrative arc that meanders in unpredictable yet familiar ways, piling on one big-subject twist after another. If suicide and the aftermath of familial grief and reckoning weren't enough to carry a movie so small, writer and first-time director Dan Harris adds drugs, abuse, infidelity, homosexuality, disease, long-held family secrets, and probably a few other non-starters I've already forgotten about. It's like Harris doesn't know which road to take so he takes them all and almost wastes a couple of strong characters (and performances) that deserve a better movie.

-- Chris Herrington

A tale of censorship and sex, in that order, the documentary Inside Deep Throat carries more than a whiff of Hollywood self-righteousness. In chronicling government attempts to suppress the 1972 porn-feature-turned-cause-celebre, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (along with producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) seem to think they're offering up a cautionary tale.

You can tell this by the way the film ends with a comment from Memphis prosecutor Larry Parrish, who put Deep Throat actor Harry Reems on trial when the film started making its way around the country. Parrish muses that the climate might be better now to take on porn and obscenity cases, and then he laments that the Justice Department is too busy dealing with terrorism to do it.

This seems meant to be an aha! moment in the film, proof that the right-wing loonies are coming to take our freedoms away. But Parrish's terrorism comment is pretty wry, and he comes off fairly well, a decent, well-intentioned guy whether you agree with him or not.

But even if Inside Deep Throat falters in its attempt to look forward, it's a fairly engaging look back, one that covers its chosen ground thoroughly and with a loopy zeal that mirrors the tone of its subject -- a tossed-off giggle of a porno movie that is, by some accounts, the most profitable film ever made, even if very little of that money got into the hands of the people (stars Reems and Linda Lovelace, writer-director Gerard Damiano) who created it.

Inside Deep Throat conveys more than a little nostalgia for the supposed golden age of porn, when the medium briefly emerged as a form composed of stories on real film shown in real theaters to a non-raincoat crowd -- first Central Park socialites, then Hollywood stars, then Middle America. Some attention is paid to anti-porn feminists, but the film seems to side with Alan Dershowitz's highly arguable assertion that feminists were the most oppressive censors of all. Instead, the film's head and heart are with Norman Mailer, who expresses regret that, instead of emerging into a new art form, porn devolved into a mediocre commodity, a lament familiar from fictional account Boogie Nights.

Some argue (and it's hard to refute) that the story of a woman who can only get sexual satisfaction from performing oral sex on a man is a male fantasy. But some pro-porn feminists interviewed here contend that Deep Throat was significant for making a woman's sexual fulfillment the topic of a film for the first time. That argument might be more of a stretch, but it's bolstered by material from the film's initial obscenity trial in New York, where the judge had never heard of a clitoris and the prosecutor argued, "The movie says that it's perfectly normal to have a clitoral orgasm and that is wrong."

Regardless of where you come down on Deep Throat specifically or porn generally, there's no denying that the cheap, little mob-funded blow-job movie is a key bit of film and cultural history -- such a colossal media event that it became a subject for Johnny Carson and Bob Hope jokes, an opening salvo in a culture war that still rages, essential background on the fall of a president, and a pathway toward the mainstreaming of porn (and maybe even oral sex itself). It's a terrible movie, a claim no one in this documentary refutes, but there's no denying it's an

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