(Author's note: Spoilers will abound. Given that the movie under consideration is an oftentimes word-for-word updating of a 37-year-old work, I hope I'll be forgiven for them.)
As remakes of beloved genre classics go, I suppose there's little point in being bothered by the new Carrie. Director Kimberly Peirce's outing, after all, is easy to sit through, smartly staged, generally well-acted, and, in most regards, incredibly faithful to Brian De Palma's 1976 original (which was, itself, reasonably faithful to Stephen King's debut novel of 1974). The CGI effects are pretty weak, and the movie isn't even slightly scary, and considering that nearly all sentient beings know what happens to poor Carrie White at the prom - with the movie's entire advertising campaign based on post-prom imagery - there's almost nothing in the way of storyline surprise, but whatever. It's fine.
Yet I can't be alone in thinking that, arriving as it does in our current culture of aggressive anti-bullying programs and horrific school shootings, a tremendous opportunity has been lost with Peirce's Carrie. In theory, the tough-minded director of Boys Don't Cry and Stop-Loss would seem a perfect fit for King's ultimate Revenge of the Nerd tale - someone who could truly get inside the skin of her crushingly shy protagonist and make you both empathize with the abused teen's plight and recoil from the monstrous extremes of her retribution. But while empathy is present, albeit in obvious and synthetic ways, what isn't is any true horror in this horror story. We're goaded into cheering Carrie's eventual, telekinetic retaliation against her mother and all the mean girls (and boys) at her school, but unlike in De Palma's precursor, at no point does Carrie herself become a figure to be feared or reviled. Whether due to timidity on the parts of Peirce and co-authors Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and (original Carrie screenwriter) Lawrence D. Cohen, or just the typical Hollywood-ization of fundamentally discomforting material, this Carrie proves depressingly gutless. Most of the good guys are spared, all of the bad guys are killed, and nothing in the movie, not a single thing, scratches at your insides the way De Palma's picture did - and, even seeing it again 37 years later, continues to do.
There was hope, in the early minutes, that things wouldn't end up this way. Following a chilling home-birth scene in which Julianne Moore's religious zealot Margaret White holds a pair of oversize scissors centimeters away from her newborn's eyes, the narrative begins to trace the exact outline of De Palma's film, starting with the scene of Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) screwing up her gym team's volleyball game. There is, though, a crucial difference between De Palma's sequence and Peirce's in that the students are now playing water volleyball, and for a moment, my stomach clenched at the thought of Carrie's impending humiliation: Sweet Jesus, is she going to have her period in the pool?! Thankfully (or not), she doesn't, and the movie does indeed find the debilitatingly sheltered girl subsequently menstruating for the first time in the locker-room showers while being pelted with tampons and her classmates' cruel shrieks of "Plug it up!" ... and, in a nasty and brilliant touch, while queen bitch Chris Hargensen (a superb Portia Doubleday) records the event on her phone. (This latter activity allows the 2013 Chris to emerge as even more vicious, and psychotically stupid, than the one Nancy Allen memorably played in 1976, especially when Doubelday's character posts her filmed triumph on YouTube.)
Excepting, however, one terrifically disturbing scene in which Margaret secretly tears away at her flesh while enduring a "pleasant" conversation with a neighbor, nothing else in the movie delivers any real bite, or even any real dramatic tension: not Carrie's gradual discovery and harnessing of her telekinetic gifts (although I did appreciate that the understandably computer-illiterate girl still gleaned her information from actual books); not the apologetic prom-night plans initiated by the guilt-ridden Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) and beau Tommy Ross (the touching Ansel Elgort); not the pig's-blood sadism of Chris and surly boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell). Not even, I'm sorry to say, Moore and Moretz, both of whom are admirable in their roles, and neither of whom is truly inspired. Moore gives an honest approximation of Margaret's barely buried hysteria but doesn't quite suggest the lunatic will behind it; unfair though it may be to compare Moore's portrayal with Piper Laurie's, I would've liked to have seen even one moment from Moore as nightmarishly deranged as the one that found Laurie smiling beatifically while genuflecting with a butcher's knife. As for Moretz, it would certainly be unfair to expect this gifted 16-year-old to approach the greatness of Sissy Spacek, who was 26 at the time of the original Carrie's filming. Yet while Moretz never appears to slip out of character, you never quite buy her as the character, either. She hides behind an unflattering hairdo and looks at her shoes when she walks, but even at her most browbeaten and bullied, Moretz's Carrie always seems to be one mere kick-ass costume away from handling herself just fine.
With so little anxiousness for this Carrie's well-being, and such minimal threat coming from her adversaries, the film's Prom from Hell sequence almost can't help but be disappointing, and it is. (Matters aren't helped by the lackluster visual effects, with the CGI blood that rains on Carrie - four times over, in slow motion - looking all but Photoshopped onto her skull.) But what was truly disheartening about this protracted sequence - and about Carrie in general - was how nakedly it was designed to not offend, and to not mess with the (financially considered) expectations of the movie's teenage demographic. In the De Palma film, no one except Sue, Chris, Billy, and Carrie herself emerge from the burning high school; even Betty Buckley's kindly gym teacher, the movie's most grounded character, was unfairly sliced in half. In Peirce's version, only the student body's cruelest figures appear to be executed, with everyone else, including that gym teacher, mercifully spared. Given how wonderful Judy Greer is in the role here, I'll admit I was kind of relieved, but still: Does Hollywood, for maybe perfectly legitimate reason, now presume that teen sensibilities are so delicate that they can only handle the on-screen murder of characters who "deserve" it? Peirce's Carrie is a strange piece of work, and, for all the wrong reasons, a strangely unsettling one - a fantasy about a bullied student's insane revenge in which no one gets harmed beyond the bullies themselves. That may be the story teens want these days, but I'm not sure it's the one they need.
THE FIFTH ESTATE
Benedict Cumberbatch has a screen charisma that's practically inseparable from creepiness, and despite the film's professional presentation, the actor's singular, sickly/hypnotic quality is about the only thing of true interest in The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon's and screenwriter Josh Singer's account of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's rise to media celebrity and political disrepute. It's hardly a bad film; there are expertly crafted montages showing Cumberbatch, as Assange, mastering his skills as an information-amassing threat to global security, the pacing is generally swift, and excellent actors such as Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Dan Stevens, and David Thewlis keep popping up to lend texture to mostly dimensionless roles. But Condon's and Singer's visualized motif of the Internet as a vast office space either left empty or populated by dozens of grinning Assanges grows more labored and tiresome as it's repeated (which is far too often), and the narrative is stale; I enjoyed the movie a whole lot more when it was called The Social Network, which had the added benefit of delivering points of view beyond Eduardo Saveirin's. (Most of Condon's film is told through the emotional lens of Daniel Brühl's initially trusting, eventually disillusioned hacker Daniel Domnscheit-Berg, the former Assange employee whose Inside WikiLeaks is one of two books employed for the adaptation.) It's all moderately engaging but also mostly dull, and really only comes to life when Cumberbatch is doing his kinda silky, kinda icky Benedict Cumberbatch thing, doing his best to seduce both co-stars and audience members through dints of sheer magnetism, confidence, and talent. Star Trek Into Darkness is in the past, and we still have to wait a bit for 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, and (God, let it hurry up) the next series installment of Sherlock, so for now, I guess, The Fifth Estate will have to do.
Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger attempt to break out of the ultimate maximum-security prison in the new action thriller Escape Plan, and somewhat amazingly, it took more than 60 minutes for me to start formulating one for myself. By the movie's second hour (yep, there are a full two of 'em here), I was bored silly by the relentless beatings and chases and the sight of Jim Caviezel's perverse warden pursing his lips while wiping lint off his suit jacket, and, to be honest, I was also kind of exhausted by the continued difficulty in trying to determine what the hell Stallone and Schwarzenegger were saying. (Vocally, Schwarzenegger has always been amusingly affected, but Stallone's diction has now gotten so lazy that even sentences of more than four words, or words of more than two syllables, seem taxing to him.) Still, for all of the groaning I did at the trite and formulaic ridiculousness of Escape Plan's latter half - with every '80s genre cliché firmly in place and "Boom" being the rather underwhelming send-off before Sly's and Ah-nold's chief nemesis met his maker - I'd be lying if I didn't say that the first half was a helluva lot of fun.
Mikael Håfström's energetic, inventive direction keeps the proceedings moving at a speedy clip, and he delivers at least two shots that are truly masterful: one of the ant-farm-like complex of glass-enclosed cells that Stallone first finds himself in, and one of the secret, exterior location of this enclosed complex, a plot twist so unexpected and ballsy that it nearly caused me to gasp. Beyond our leading he-men (who, despite their wrestling matches with the English language, are clearly having a ball here), we're allowed to spend time alongside the welcome Vinnie Jones, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Sam Neill, and alongside the über-welcome Amy Ryan, with her magical ability for making everything she's in better than it would've been without her. And beyond the expected bad jokes, there are more good ones here than you might anticipate ... even if I'm not 100-percent certain that they're all intentional ones. I loved it, for instance, when Sly put a single coin into a pay phone and connected with someone on the other line. (Maybe the coin was a 50-cent piece?) But nothing for me, in terms of Escape Plan's questionable laughs, topped the moment in which Ryan asked why political aid wasn't coming Stallone's way, and D'Onofrio, in all seriousness, said, "It's the federal government. You know how they work." Or ... you know ... don't.