Review: ‘Carrie’ (2013 – never bully a latent telekinetic)

Director Kimberly Peirce’s thriller about a bullied young woman who pushes back… hard.

When high school senior Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) experiences her first period in the gym class shower at school, the other girls make fun of the young woman’s fear and ridicule her. The sheltering by her mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) has left Carrie unprepared for a harsh world, constantly being pelted with the fanatical teachings of a God-fearing woman who judges everything through the lens of a Bible. When Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) guiltily convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom to make up for her part in the showers, disgraced queen bee Chris (Portia Doubleday) and her abusive boyfriend Billy (Alex Russell) take it upon themselves to “teach Carrie a lesson” – just before the running and screaming and dying begins.

While many scenes and lines appear virtually identical to the 1976 version, the skew of this remake is different. Unlike De Palma’s templated monster movie, Peirce’s dramatic thriller casts Carrie as a bullied victim pushed too far, and the deserving who earn her wrath are made to feel the brunt of it. While Sue Snell was the central character in 1976, the title character takes center stage with Chloë Moretz not only stepping up to Sissy Spacek’s performance but exceeding it, enhanced in no small way by Julianne Moore’s performance as Carrie’s mother. While the special effects are certainly a step up from the 1970s, the exemplary cast of this new film and a noticeably tighter script turn this Carrie into a misunderstood martyr instead of an irredeemable monster.

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Review: ‘Carrie’ (1976 – to the devil’s daughter with false modesty)

Director Brian De Palma’s creature feature about a shy young woman who was born a monster.

When high school senior Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) experiences her first period in the gym class shower at school, the other girls make fun of the young woman’s fear and ridicule her. The sheltering by her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) has left Carrie unprepared for a harsh world, constantly being pelted with the fanatical teachings of a God-fearing woman who judges everything through the lens of a Bible. When Sue Snell (Amy Irving) guiltily convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom to make up for her part in the showers, disgraced queen bee Chris (Nancy Allen) and her abusive boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) take it upon themselves to “teach Carrie a lesson” – just before the running and screaming and dying begins.

This 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel Carrie is often touted as director Brian De Palma’s best film. For its time, Carrie was a forerunner to the slasher genre of the 1980s that gave birth to Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger. De Palma paints Carrie White as a serial killer waiting to happen, almost justifying her own mother’s admission that she should have killed herself while pregnant with her daughter. Sissy Spacek’s performance is easily a standout in the cast rivaled only by Piper Laurie, but the entire cast seems eerily aware that they are in a horror film masquerading as a dark fairy tale – and it works. Even the music sounds like the soundtrack to a dream, offset by nightmarish tones that sound suspiciously like the theme to Psycho.

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Review: ‘Prisoners’ (figuratively and literally)

The only thing worse than losing control is being manipulated into losing it.

Sharing a Thanksgiving dinner between families, blue-collar handyman Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) realizes that he and his neighbor’s daughters haven’t been seen for a while following dinner. When a hasty search turns up nothing, their older teen siblings mention a dilapidated RV parked just down the street that the children had started to play on; the RV is also gone. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has reportedly never failed to recover a missing person, is tasked with finding the little girls. When the RV and driver fail to turn up any clues, Keller tracks the driver down to begin his own investigation, but the truth is not so black and white – and far worse than he could have imagined.

At first glance, the film’s trailer underwhelms the subject matter; is this really the story of a family man who becomes a vigilante, beating his own redemption out of a man who the police have already absolved? Prisoners starts off simply enough but slowly escalates into a worst-case scenario where every shadow is jumped at and foregone conclusions seem justified. The film’s pace is an endurance test; in the same way as the characters, viewers are made to feel like plenty is happening but nothing is being resolved. Although the audience is given a peek into the solution a little earlier than the heroes, everyone gets to share in the dread of the final revelations.

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Review: ‘Gravity’ (Sandra Bullock and the Early Oscar Buzz)

The closest you can get to going into space – and why you should feel very happy about that.

The words “Living in space is impossible” fade from the screen as a spectacular view of the Earth appears. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is hastily upgrading the Hubble telescope outside of a space shuttle while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zips around testing a rocket pack. Faster than you can Stanley Kubrick, a disasterous cloud of high-speed debris destroys the telescope, spacecraft and everything else in its path. With communications satellites included among the casualties of the event, Ryan finds herself adrift with no means of propulsion, running out of oxygen, and totally alone… and that’s just the first ten minutes of Gravity.

This isn’t Star Wars, Firefly, Star Trek, or any number of space operas where it’s easy to live in space thanks to the “whatever” device. Everything you have in outer space is, as Yoda said, only what you take with you; in the case of a catastrophe, it’s also whatever you can find and get to. While primarily a tale of survival in this harsh environment (see Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 for details), this is also the story of courage in the face of adversity, not just finding the means but also the WILL to survive – even when it would be far simpler to just close your eyes, fall asleep and be done. While a few moments have been sensationalized to achieve this effect, director Alfonso Cuarón pulls off what may be the most spectacular and most accurate portrayal of how and why things work and fail in space – not to mention why NASA could really use a bigger budget.

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Review: ‘Dracula 3D’ (Dario Argento’s “Plan 9 from Rented Space”)

Dario Argento has his way with Dracula. No, not literally… but close enough.

Our story opens with an ample young woman luring a less-than-faithful husband into debauchery, just the kind of late-1800s sin that attracts the likes of Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) to swoop in for the kill. Cut to: Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde doing his best Keanu Reeves impression), newly arrived by train into the terrified village that Dracula lords over – just before he goes off to the castle and discovers what the Count really is. Cut to: Mina Harker (Marta Gastini), newly arrived by train and expecting to meet her husband but only finding her friend Lucy (Asia Argento, the director’s daughter) waiting to be washed thoroughly; she had been with Dracula earlier, after all. Cut to: Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer, doing his best Rutger Hauer impression) who mysteriously arrives just before the third act and begins eliminating bloodsuckers, working his way back to Dracula, babe.

Where to begin? The film is nothing if not a low-budget spoof of better Dracula films, over-acted and gratuitous except for the occasional glimmer of true horror – a secret meeting in the village where The Count makes a rare personal appearance is a good example. It’s played for absurdity in a Adam West “Batman” kind of way. For every cheesy transformation we get a cool one; for every eye-rolling moment we get a genuine bit of dread. There is a sense of being played with, as if the viewer isn’t meant to know whether the next scene will farce or spectacle. Intentional or not, the final cut is perfect for a living room full of inebriated hecklers to have their way with it.

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Review: ‘World War Z’ (all of the zombies, none of the blood)

You know what the difference is between zombies in World War Z and “The Walking Dead?” Everything.

Beginning like any other day in Philadelphia, ex-UN worker Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) finds himself on the run with his family. The cause: an outbreak transmitted through a bite that turns a human into a rabid, frenzying carrier intent on infecting anyone and everyone it can. A fleet of ships in the Atlantic serves as a base of operation as US cities and more all over the globe are falling to the epidemic, but a handful of specialists think a cure could be had if they could find “patient zero.” With the safety of his family hanging in the balance, Gerry reluctantly accompanies a team across the globe in an effort to discover the cause and a cure, but is it already too late?

Putting the worst parts of 28 Days Later and Contagion into a blender would be a good start to describe what unfolds onscreen, but the most baffling part is the lack of actual blood. The zombie-like affliction seems to have one purpose: infect everyone, but then what? These things don’t eat so much as they infect and move on, but at the speeds they move – like cockroaches scattering when a light comes on – they can’t possibly last very long. To quote Bladerunner, “A candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” and if you suddenly turned into a sprinting, climbing infection machine running full tilt for hours on end, how long before your heart exploded? The science for the effect is pure fiction here, which hurts the overall production since the plot is driven by investigators trying to make sense out of all of it. It’s an action-thriller zombie film purged of blood, gore, and most of the drama, and yet it remains surprisingly watchable as an edge-of-your-seat, will-they-or-won’t-they-make-it summer popcorn flick.

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Review: ‘The Wolverine’ (aka Wolverine 2: the Apology)

While the original idea was to give individual X-men their own story between ensemble films, the stories have been too convoluted to really work (and that’s just from two Wolverine flicks).

Hidden in the Great White North, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is taking a break from humanity following the events at the end of X-men 3. Haunted by the memory of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and everything else he’s done in his too-long life, Logan can’t seem to stay out of trouble, especially when idiots provoke his wrath. Enter Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young swordswoman from Japan who has been seeking “the Wolverine” on behalf of a soldier named Yashida (Ken Yamamura) he once saved at Nagasaki. Now a tech industry giant on his death bed, the old soldier offers Logan an unthinkable option – to become mortal and die like an ordinary human – but Yashida’s premature death triggers a power struggle threatening to not only destroy the soldier’s legacy but the life of his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). What’s a good man to do?

As a near immortal due to his mutant healing factor, it seems to be fun for screenwriters to have Wolverine present for all sorts of historical events – hey, it worked for Forrest Gump – so why not the dropping of an atomic bomb? Like the ill-fated X-Men Origins: Wolverine, everyone wants something from Logan because he’s got all the good stuff (even if he doesn’t think so). While the idea drives plot, our hero also spends more time reacting than acting even when his every instinct tells him to avoid the situation altogether. Does he listen? Of course not; otherwise we wouldn’t have a story, pretty girl in danger be damned. To quote Loki’s critique on Marvel’s Thor, “Are you ever NOT going to fall for that?” Thankfully it’s still better than the last Wolverine sorta-solo outing, so there’s that.

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