Saturday, October 18, 2014

Carrie (2013)

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Alex Russell, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Let's just get it out of the way now: Yes, Chloe Moretz is too pretty to play Carrie White, the role originated by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 Brian DePalma film. It's a statement you've heard and read a lot from everyone leading up to release of a remake most would consider pointless anyway. But whether or not it's actually pointless is up to the filmmaker remaking it, and sometimes that's not even true as they're often just following the marching orders of the studio. While we'll never know for sure, that seems to be what happened with director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss), who's as good a choice as any to make this work. And there are some moments when it almost does, in spite of all the obstacles put in front of her.

The question of whether Carrie has to have a certain look in order for Stephen King's story play believably on screen is a good one since the character's supposed to be an outcast on every level. While Spacek would never be considered "ugly" by anyone's standards, she did have an unconventional appearance that made her stand out from the pack, allowing the narrative of a shy, creepy misfit and social outcast to take flight in a way it wouldn't if another, more conventional "movie star" were cast. It's a case where looks matter. The same description even applies (to a lesser degree) to Angela Bettis in 2002 TV remake. Because the last thing Moretz can be described as is "unconventional," she's already at a deficit before the cameras start rolling. No one's denying her talent and despite being miscast she does a commendable job under thankless circumstances. Unfortunately, she just has to work harder to do it.

Shy outcast Carrie White (Moretz) is tormented by her classmates at Ewen High School, while at home she's emotionally bullied by her borderline psychotic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), whose religious fanaticism prevents her daughter from leading the life of a normal teen. But at school Carrie finds a confidante and mentor in gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), who seems determined to punish the offenders, most notably popular ringleader Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday). Also feeling sympathy is classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) whose guilt over joining in the teasing leads her to urge boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom. Needless to say the invitation doesn't go over well with mother Margaret, whose daughter is now just starting to realize her telekinetic powers. And that means trouble for everyone.

What's most bothersome about this reimagining is how it almost seems to draw attention to the miscasting by overcompensating, both with Peirce's direction of the actress and some of the goofy creative choices early on. Exaggerated mannerisms and costuming choices are used to accentuate the fact Carrie is a weirdo since that's really the only viable option. She mumbles, she slumps, she walks with her arms folded. All of this screamed acting with a capital "A" to me and altogether doesn't seem like the wisest route to take, but perhaps predestined considering the casting.

Moore's take on Margaret is campy to say the least, chomping on every scene in a performance that feels like an audition reel for Mommie Dearest. The only good thing is that it's clear early on the tonal direction they were going with this and the performance works as that. Whether it's the direction they should have gone with the material is another argument altogether, but unless memory fails, the original didn't feel quite this over-the-top and silly in its first half. Carrie's discovery of her "powers" also isn't handled as well, making the original seem like a telekinesis documentary in comparison. The presentation seems off, as if the screenwriters saw one too many episodes of Heroes, as opposed to attempting to organically incorporate it into the story.            

A web video on a smartphone and some texting represents the script's stabs at contemporizing King's first novel, but given how much of a timely, hot-button topic school and cyber-bullying has become, I expected a little more. But maybe it's for the best that they didn't at the risk of it feeling like just another teen horror movie, which it kind of already does. But the scenes involving Carrie's abuse at school are some of the strongest, especially that infamous shower scene with her cluelessly experiencing her first period as classmates ridicule her. One would guess this is primarily what earned the film its "R" rating, although you can't help but think the end product still strangely feels like a "PG-13."

The two strongest performances unsurprisingly come from Judy Greer and Ansel Elgort. As Miss Desjardin, Greer is asked to do some pretty ridiculous things for a gym teacher and yet she's completely believable doing every single one of them. She's an actress who can just slide into any role and do anything so it's not a shock, but when her character hits and curses at students, I actually believed an administrator wouldn't even think of firing her. It's one of many instances of her impressively covering up the script's flaws.

Elgort shows signs of the talent he'd later emerge as in The Fault in Our Stars with a similar but not identical performance. He exudes a laid-back confidence and likability as Tommy, going a long way to transcend material that wants to paint him as a one-dimensional high school jock. He and Sue going out of their way to help Carrie just might the most compelling sub-plot, if only because there's legitimate doubt as to their intentions the entire time. While Gabriella Wilde comes off as a blank slate as Sue, what Portia Doubleday does with Chris is great, as the character is less a school bully this time around than a full-fledged sociopath. It's a wise decision that only enhances our sympathy for Carrie and has you anticipating the moment when Chris get hers.

When Moretz transforms from ugly duckling into beautiful swan for prom it weirdly feels like the equivalent of Rachael Leigh Cook removing her glasses in She's All That, to the point that I half-expected Sixpence None the Richer to start playing. Nonetheless, this is the point where Moretz's performance really comes alive, as she's freed to play a more realistic teen instead of sulking as a weirdo. With the exception of maybe a little too much CGI, Peirce nails the big bloodbath of a finale, which was high on the list of things she absolutely had to get right.

There were plenty of stumbles along the way, but the staging of the famous ending is an exciting recreation, even making a couple of minor changes to the action in that gym that seem creatively defensible. What isn't is the final image, which reminded me of what Tim Burton did in his disastrous Planet of the Apes remake: Take an iconic closing shot and unnecessarily tweak it while winking at the audience. This isn't as bad an offender, but you have to wonder why they made it a point to change one of the few things that should have remained untouched. And are all horror remakes now required to close with a hard rock song, regardless of whether it fits?   

Since it clearly isn't strong horror, you have to wonder if Peirce had abandoned all genre trappings in favor of a coldly realistic dramatic tragedy, this would have turned out better. Sure, it would have alienated horror audiences, but that's a demographic you could argue is dwindling in theater presence anyway. There's little doubt that approach would have made for a better film, but I'm not sure it would have been as fun to watch.  This latest King interpretation certainly doesn't rank amongst his worst, but it's a missed opportunity, eventually finds its footing in time to deliver a gripping third act. But by then, the damage is already done.There's no problem in remaking Carrie, but if they're not going to change anything besides the cast, it's perplexing just how inferior this turned out with all the talent involved.

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