Friday, October 24, 2014

Carrie (2013)

Stephen King's Carrie inspired one successful film, so why not a remake? That's probably the only thought anyone put into tonight's monumental mediocrity. Carrie (2013) is wretchedly uninspired, cowering abjectly in the original's shadow.

Recycled synopsis: Outcast teen Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) suffers bullying from classmates and her mother's (Julianne Moore) religious fanaticism. But Carrie suffers from a less common affliction: she possesses telekinetic powers, which manifest themselves at inopportune times. Classmate Sue (Gabriella Wilde) feels guilty for teasing Carrie and convinces her boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) to invite Carrie to the prom. Carrie finally stands up to her mom and brush off the bullies. But her nemesis Chris (Portia Doubleday) plans a nasty prom, with catastrophic consequences.

Assembly line remakes like Carrie are the ultimate cynical exercise. Rarely outright terrible, they add nothing besides new stars and superficial cultural updates (Nancy Allen didn't have a smartphone!). Everything from Scream to Glee has spoofed Carrie, submerging the terror in parody and imitation. To transcend familiarity, director Kimberly Peirce must add auteur flair or a fresh interpretation. Instead she slavishly restages King's set pieces, adding little but artless computer effects and explicit death scenes.

But then Carrie is remarkably graceless. Even Pauline Kael never accused Brian De Palma of subtlety, but his Carrie is Cat People next to this junk. It's not enough for Margaret to be batty, she must mutilate herself with sewing needles. Chris can't be a mere alpha bitch, so she uploads Carrie's freakout on Youtube. And Peirce replays the bucket sploosh three times! Too bad Carrie lacks a personality, cowering fearfully with occasional expressions of bafflement. Sissy Spacek evinced human vulnerability beneath her psychic trauma; Chloe Grace Moretz's Carrie does things because the script says so.

Moretz, usually an appealing actress, rarely transcends one-note timidity. She's decent in scenes with Carrie breaking out of her shell, but her confrontations with Mom and prom freakout flop. Julianne Moore is stupendously awful: her bleary-eyed ham-boning makes Margaret less fanatical than hung over. The other teens are pretty ciphers with talent to match. Playing a friendly teacher, Judy Greer's exasperated perkiness provides Carrie's lone bright spot. When it's Cheryl Tunt's job to provide sanity, your movie isn't working.

Carrie isn't bad enough to be insulting; it's just a waste of time. If you're going to restage the original sans style and invention, why bother remaking Carrie at all?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Groggy on Moviepilot: The Charge of the Light Brigade, Redux

Groggy, if you look before you, you'll see neither audience nor page views. The usefulness of such an article eludes me!
Groggy revisits an old favorite, yet again, with his new Moviepilot article on The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Admittedly, I've tackled this topic several times before. Then again, Balaclava's 160th anniversary is only two days away! What better way to celebrate?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Carrie (1976)

Brian De Palma scored his breakthrough with Carrie (1976), a flashy adaptation of Stephen King's novel. This supernatural study of adolescent angst makes a compelling horror show, even with De Palma's habitual excess.

Outcast teen Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) suffers bullying from classmates and her mother's (Piper Laurie) religious fanaticism. But Carrie suffers from a less common affliction: she possesses telekinetic powers, which manifest themselves at inopportune times. Classmate Sue (Amy Irving) feels guilty for teasing Carrie and convinces her boyfriend (William Katt) to invite Carrie to the prom. Carrie finally stands up to her mom and brush off the bullies. But her nemesis Chris (Nancy Allen) plans a nasty prom, resulting in catastrophic consequences.

Carrie is really a teen drama in a slasher movie's skin. Carrie discovers her powers during her first period, making telekinesis a parable for puberty. Carrie's emotionally abused: students shower her with tampons, an English teacher (Sydney Lassick) mocks her and the Principal (Stefan Gierasch) can't even remember her name. Mom locks Carrie in a prayer closet, equating her period with sin and accusing Carrie of being a witch. Kindness by Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) and Sue only makes things worse, with queen bee Chris ruthlessly restoring the teen pecking order.

De Palma and writer Lawrence D. Cohen mix their coming-of-age story with payback catharsis. Every scenario's played at fever pitch, from the inhuman bullies to Piper Laurie's mad dog mama. Kindness is offset by cruel irony: Miss Collins is so convinced Sue's plotting something that she misses Chris's scheming. Carrie's slow maturation rouses our sympathy, and her humiliation is heartbreaking - at least, until she slaughters dozens of classmates. Many teens are trapped in situations where they can't hit back. Carrie provides a satisfying revenge fantasy.

This high-toned excess matches De Palma perfectly. Besides obligatory Hitchcock homages (the Psycho musical stings, Rebecca's burning house), De Palma presents excellent set pieces. The prom sequence is excruciatingly tense, De Palma voiding all sound except for a clanking bucket. And Carrie's psychic rampage is well worth the build-up. Just as often though, De Palma's overwrought and tasteless, from the soft-core shower scene to a character quivering sexually as knives impale them. Most regrettably, Carrie closes with a gratuitous "gotcha!" scare that ruins a poignant ending.

Sissy Spacek does great work with a near-impossible role. She sensitively navigates Carrie's development from meek innocent to assertive teen, then shifts into bewildered rage. Spacek never loses our sympathy even when becoming a mass murderer. Amy Irving and William Katt play sympathetic foils. Nancy Allen is credibly nasty, but John Travolta is singularly bland. Piper Laurie's scenery chewing is too broad to buy, though her murderous breakdown is suitably chilling.

Coming a year after Jaws, Carrie helped codify modern horror tropes. If its tone and staging seem hysterical, it suits the material. How could a supernatural puberty parable be subtle? From its game cast to the iconic set pieces, Carrie is a winner.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

If...

Lindsay Anderson started as a critic, co-founded the Free Cinema Movement and debuted with This Sporting Life (1963). That film's Expressionist touches soon morphed to outright surrealism. If... (1968) is the first of three movies featuring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, each stranger than the last. Anderson treats Britain's ruling class as something not to be condemned, but dynamited.

Set in an English public school, If... focuses on Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), a sixth form student dissatisfied with campus life. The faculty seems remote and indifferent, obsessed with tradition over teaching and allowing upperclassmen (the "Whips") to tyrannize students. Mick and two friends (Richard Warwick and David Wood) confronts the Whips through petty rebellion, receiving a violent response. Now Mick decides on violence, recruiting his friends and lover (Christine Noonan) to strike back.

Made at the apex of '60s activism, If... is strange by any standards. The title evokes Rudyard Kipling, and Anderson pointedly rebukes schoolyard tales like Tom Brown's Schooldays. The Headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) sympathizes with Mick, which only makes him a target: he must be eliminated to "heighten the contradictions." There's a pompous priest (Geoffrey Chater) who fondles his charges and a wimpy Housemaster (Arthur Lowe) who gives the Whips free rein. Anderson contrasts scriptural readings and Christian hymns with ritualized brutality: the Establishment embodies violence, control and depravity.

Scenarists David Sherwin and John Howlett craft Mick into an Everyman rebel. He plasters his dorm with revolutionary images and muses about social decay, "brittle black bodies peeling into ash." He's singled out not for infractions but his general attitude. He earns the Whips' wrath refusing to "lick your frigid fingers for the rest of my life." Mick's not explicitly political, but every word and grimace breathes hatred of the Establishment - and unlike his kitchen sink predecessors, he takes action. He's Jimmy Porter reborn as Eldridge Cleaver.
Anderson's off-kilter direction makes Richard Lester look staid. Miroslav's photography switches between color and black-and-white, the latter reflecting idealized school rituals and character fantasies (Mick's wild sex with the Girl, a homoerotic gymnastics scene). Anderson folds in allegory imagery: a student watches bacteria multiplying under a microscope as Mick's flogging commences. If... grows more unreal, from the elaborate war games to someone wearing a suit of armor! We think Mick and friends murder someone, until they turn up unharmed a scene later. What's real and what's feverish fantasy?

If... fits snugly amongst The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Ruling Class, ridiculing Britain's establishment as stupid and anachronistic at best, murderous at worst. Anderson goes much further, however, than ridicule. The movie ends in homicidal fantasy, as Mick and his cohorts massacre grandees with machine guns and mortars. Today it plays in excruciatingly bad taste, with lines like "one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place" especially uncomfortable. Yet it undeniably captures the zeitgeist of 1968, with turmoil raging from Chicago to Paris and Saigon.

Malcolm McDowell immediately establishes his unique persona: penetrating intelligence and mischevious charm, which mask resentment bordering on psychosis. It's a small step to A Clockwork Orange, though Mick's more likeable than Alex. Anderson gives choice bits to character actors. Arthur Lowe's (The Ruling Class) beetle-browed bumptiousness is always welcome; Graham Crowden amuses as a crack-brained history teacher. Peter Jeffrey (Becket) scores as the exasperated Headmaster. Christine Noonan is fetching though her role's mainly decorative.

Anderson and McDowell revisited Mick Travis in O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982), films that are even weirder than his debut. But If...'s wild, unrepentant anarchism still stands apart. It's undeniably a relic of its era: what film today would celebrate students massacring teachers? But Anderson's oddball artistry remains undeniable.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Theatre of Blood

Theatre of Blood (1973) is a unique Shakespearean slasher movie. Vincent Price considered this his favorite role, infusing his classical stage training into a typically ghoulish villain. Theatre's winning conceit carries it through grisly killings and morbid humor, even if it eventually wears thin.

Several London theater critics wind up dead, murdered in gruesome ways. Police are baffled, but Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) recognizes a pattern: one man drowned in wine a la Richard III, another beheaded in bed like Cymbeline, a victim stabbed on the Ides of March. The murders are perpetrated by Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a Shakespearean ham actor who tried suicide after critics refused him Actor of the Year. Yet Lionheart survived, and with his daughter (Diana Rigg) and various vagrants, seeks poetic revenge on his tormentors.

Theatre of Blood provides an amazing cast. Ian Hendry (The Hill) is our protagonist, by virtue of having a conscience. Queuing up for gruesome demises are Harry Andrews (The Charge of the Light Brigade), Coral Browne (The Ruling Class), Jack Hawkins (The Cruel Sea), Michael Hordern (Where Eagles Dare), Arthur Lowe (This Sporting Life), Robert Morley (The African Queen) and Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets). Add Diana Rigg as Lionheart's daughter, Diana Dors as Hawkins' wife and Milo O'Shea's cop on bench support. This roster would be impressive for a Roadshow epic; for a modest horror flick, it's astonishing.

But it's Vincent Price's show all the way. Price was never better utilized: he devours scenery, reciting the Bard's speeches while sporting an Afro wig or feeding victims poodle pie. Not even Olivier, surely, got to recite Hamlet's "To be" soliloquy, Marc Antony's eulogy and Richard III's opening speech in the same film! Price's glee quickly infects the audience: he's clearly having fun, and viewers can't help going along. Effortlessly convincing as a crack-brained ham, he's creepy and funny in equal measure.

Theatre of Blood benefits from its cast and Anthony Greville-Bell's sharp script. Douglas Hickox enjoys staging the creative murders, though considering death by hair curlers Shakespeare-inspired is a stretch! There's a memorably weird sequence where Lionheart and Devlin fence with uncapped sabers, sparring while bouncing on trampolines. The sheer variety of set pieces keeps Theatre engaging, though not everything works.

But Hickox's uninspired direction ultimately lets Theatre down. Oftentimes it seems too heavily skewed towards comedy, granting the deaths little weight. The critics are shallow caricatures, and many death scenes fizzle; Hawkins' denouement is particularly weak. A firmer directorial hand could have better balanced horror and comedy, or given it more dramatic urgency. Plant tongue too firmly in cheek and the audience grows wary.

But Theatre of Blood's shortcomings don't compromise a fun picture. There's enough kitschy gore and morbid humor to please any horror fan. And who can resist Vincent Price in all-out ham mode?