Tag Archives: Brian DePalma

Prom Queen/Scream Queen – The 2013 version of ‘Carrie’

9 Jul

Carrie

When is a remake not a remake? Well, maybe when the film it’s a “remake” of was itself based on an earlier book or play. And so it is with Kimberley Pierce’s Carrie. Both Pierce’s film, released last year, and Brian DePalma’s hit movie of 1974 are based on Stephen King’s novel, published back in the days when his books still clocked in at under 1,400 pages a pop. The DePalma version was an enormous success, earning Oscar nominations for both Sissy Spacek (in the title role) and Piper Laurie as her psycho-Christian mother, and still enjoys an enormous cult following to this day, referenced in everything from Family Guy to 2013’s GBF.

Since 1974 there have been three other major attempts to adapt the novel. A 1988 musical, which debuted in Stratford-Upon-Avon before transferring to Broadway, was a notorious flop, while The Rage: Carrie 2 wasn’t so much a sequel as a lame rip-off dressed as a sequel (complete with Amy Irving cameo).

"I was in the original, you know. That's why this isn't a remake."

“I was in the original, you know. That’s why this isn’t a remake.”

There was also a 2002 TV movie that is now on Netflix, but which it would appear no-one has ever seen.

With such forgettable remakes, re-imaginings and reworkings in the interim, this latest incarnation of the novel was only ever likely to be compared with DePalma’s movie, and therefore had a hell of a lot to live up to. The teaser trailer was promising: An ominous aerial shot of the burning high school, Julianne Moore as the mother, Kick Ass star Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie. There was no reason to believe the new film couldn’t at least make an honourable attempt at seizing DePalma’s crown.

Sadly – or, perhaps, unsurprisingly – that crown stays exactly where it is, for while it has its moments, the 2013 Carrie just isn’t up to scratch. One of the main problems with this new version is just how little it differs from the 1974 one. Looking on Wikipedia, I see that screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (not to be confused with The Stuff’s Larry Cohen) is credited on both films, and indeed, my partner (something of a DePalma version fan) was able to predict whole chunks of dialogue in the new version, despite it being the first time he’d ever seen it.

All the classics are there (“Plug it up”, “Creepy Carrie! Creepy Carrie!”, “First the blood, then the boys!”, “I can see your dirty pillows!”), so that if the 2013 version feels like anything at all, it’s the kind of DC/AC, Jon Bovi, Whole Lotta Led tribute act you might see playing in a regional leisure centre.

Although I thought the Blu-Ray's "Chant-Along-A-Carrie" option was entirely unnecessary.

Although I thought the Blu-Ray’s “Chant-Along-A-Carrie” option was entirely unnecessary.

That said, there are some successful attempts to bring the story up to date. The device of having the sadistic schoolgirls film Carrie’s traumatic first period on a mobile phone felt utterly authentic, and in keeping with the adolescent brutality found in both DePalma’s film and the original novel. There were some nice additional character touches, including the transformation of Carrie’s English teacher from a tubby, taunting bully into a sleazy douchebag who teases Carrie to impress one of her cruel classmates.

The almost 40-year leap forward in technology pays dividends too, with Carrie’s telekinetic powers moving way beyond props trembling at the end of a fishing wire, or bits of furniture elevating on unseen hydraulics. The prom scene is, it must be said, pretty spectacular, and would – like its 1974 predecessor – have offered an amazing sense of righteous catharsis… if only we gave a shit.

You see, the main problem with Carrie Mk II (I’m ignoring other versions) is that everything before the prom scene is a rushed job, sucking all the emotion right out of it. The film relies far too heavily on a working knowledge of DePalma’s version, and seems determined to leach some of that movie’s poignancy and heartache without bothering to do any of the heavy lifting itself. So, rather than exploring the dynamic between mother and daughter in any depth, we have a breezy skip through a few arguments, and a pretty lifeless scene in which Carrie causes everything in the room to jump two feet off the ground.

Like this. But without any sense of drama whatsoever.

Like this. But without any tension, suspense or spectacle.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Julianne Moore who – on the strength of highly-strung performances in movies such as Magnolia and Boogie Nights – I’d expected to give a barnstorming turn as Margaret White. Maybe she didn’t want her performance to tip over into pantomime, or she was conscious of aping Laurie, and decided to play it in a much lower key. Either way, her character here is subdued to the point of being catatonic, and the scenes between her and Moretz’s Carrie lack emotional punch.

You could argue that DePalma lucked out when he landed Spacek, whose otherworldly look of innocence was perfect for the role, but this is more than just an issue of casting. There’s just no sense of drama. One of the things that made the 1974 Carrie stand out from its mid-70s contemporaries, such as The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was its profound sadness. This wasn’t the horror film as thriller, it was the horror film as heartbreaking tragedy. In Carrie Mk II, that emotional resonance is sorely lacking. Instead, it’s as if the film is saying to us, “You remember how sad this scene was in the Sissy Spacek movie? Well… Pretend it’s like that, and in a few minutes we’ll give you the prom scene, but with CGI.”

"You can stick your 1970s split screen up your arse. I've got FLYING SCENERY."

“You can stick your 1970s split screen up your arse. I’ve got FLYING SCENERY.”

The saddest thing about this Carrie is the feeling of wasted opportunity you’ll have as the credits roll. A brief scene, prior to the moment when it all kicks off, between a bashful Carrie and her doomed Prom King Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) gives some hint of the film that could have been. The chemistry between the pair is genuinely endearing, and their first dance nowhere near as dizzying (or vomit-inducing) as DePalma’s 360° merry-go-round. It also helps that Elgort looks much more baby-faced (he’s still only 20) and convincingly teen-aged than lion-maned 25-year-old William Katt in the original. If the preceding 50 minutes had been anywhere near as good, we could have had a modern cult classic on our hands.

Remakes, or re-adaptations, or whatever we want to call them, don’t have to be bad. I think I’ve said, elsewhere on this blog, that there are plenty of great movies to prove this, from The Wizard of Oz to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. However, as a general rule of thumb this only works if the original film was far from a classic. Take on a movie as well-loved, both critically and cultishly, as DePalma’s Carrie, and you’ll have a very tough, if not impossible job in front of you.

Gangster Squad: Trilbies, Tommy Guns and Tall Tales

11 Jan

Gangster Squad 1

(Warning: Some spoilers ahead)

Some crime films based on true stories aim for historical accuracy, basing their plots and dialogue on police interviews, court transcripts, and the accounts of those involved, while exploring moral ambiguity, the many shades of grey between good and bad.

Gangster Squad is not that kind of movie.

It’s clear, however, from the offset that Gangster Squad doesn’t really care much for history, subtlety or moral ambiguity. First of all there’s that title, which is like something a twelve-year-old would have come up with.

That said, so is this.

That said, so is this.

Within the first few minutes Los Angeles cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is punching, shooting and headbutting his way through a brothel owned by Chicago-born mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) to rescue a young damsel in distress. After this, he’s called upon by LA police chief Bill Parker (Tom Waits wearing a Nick Nolte mask) to form a top secret unit to go after Cohen and his business interests. In other words, a Gangster Squad!

He assembles a team of maverick cops, including Ryan Gosling as a man hellbent on stealing every straight man and lesbian in the audience’s girlfriend, two vaguely anachronistic minorities (The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie and World Trade Center’s Michael Peña), a techno-boffin (Giovanni Ribisi… of course) and a man who’s basically Wyatt Earp (Robert Patrick). So far, so reasonably believable – stranger things have happened – but if you know anything about the real-life Mickey Cohen, you’ll know that much of this film is about as historically accurate as the last reel of Inglourious Basterds. Or The Matrix.

In its cavalier attitude toward history and real-life characters and its more or less black and white take on who are the goodies and who are the baddies, Gangster Squad reminded me of Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. Actually, scratch that.

Gangster Squad is practically a beat-for-beat remake of The Untouchables.

City living in fear of a hot-headed gangster, played by a veteran actor known for his ability to transform himself for each and every role?

Check.

Check.

Idealistic cop with pregnant wife called upon to form an elite task force to take down the mob?

Check.

Check.

Grizzled veteran lawmaker who can show the young pups how it’s done?

Check.

Check.

Inexperienced Latino rookie who the grizzled veteran lawmaker takes under his wing?

Check.

Check.

Geeky boffin who is a little out of place surrounded by all this square-jawed, cleft-chinned testosterone in trilbies, but who saves the day with his superior know-how?

Check.

Check.

I could quite literally go on. And on. As such, it’s impossible to write or even think about Gangster Squad without referring to The Untouchables, and of course Gangster Squad comes up short.

For one thing, it isn’t directed by DePalma. Now, I’m not one to slavishly bow down to the genius of Brian DePalma – the man hasn’t made a good movie in almost 20 years – but with The Untouchables he was on fire. The Battleship Potemkin inspired shootout at the station is a masterclass in action and suspense, and the death of Sean Connery’s Malone is a real fist-in-mouth heart-breaker of a scene.

Seriously... Some kids bawled over 'Watership Down'. For me, it was this. Every. Single. Time.

Seriously… Some kids bawled over ‘Watership Down’. For me, it was this. Every. Single. Time.

More than that, Gangster Squad’s script isn’t by David Mamet. Mamet was The Untouchables‘ real coup, taking what could have been a lame rehash of a half-forgotten 1960s TV show and gracing it with brash and ballsy dialogue to die for. For instance, in Gangster Squad we have Penn’s Mickey Cohen demanding that his enemies be killed with, “I want them dead! I want their wives dead! I want their kids dead! And their dogs, and cats, and all their pets!” Meanwhile, over in The Untouchables, De Niro’s Al Capone bellows, “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burnt to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and piss on his ashes!” Nobody has ever scaled the poetic heights of trash talk like Mamet, and Gangster Squad could really have done with some of that.

I was about 10 years old when I first saw The Untouchables, and instantly it became one of my favourite all-time movies. Gangster Squad’s writer and director, Ruben Fleischer and Will Beall, are – I believe – around the same age as me, perhaps a little older, so I’m guessing The Untouchables meant a lot to them too. Perhaps if they had been a little less indebted to that inspiration and tried a little harder to steer the movie away from such out-and-out “homage” these comparisons wouldn’t have been so inevitable, and Gangster Squad could have stood a little better on its own two feet.

Having said all that, it’s still a whole lot of fun. A car-chase-cum-gunfight-cum-dynamite-flinging-contest is real edge-of-your-seat stuff, and the cast is great, from stoic, Eastern-Island-statue-with-a-pistol Josh Brolin to a scenery-chewing and battle-scarred Sean Penn. It’s a real shame some of the supporting characters, especially Mackie and Peña, aren’t given more screen time, as this makes their characters seem all the more like token gestures to a modern audience.

"Sergeants Wong and Patel have been assigned to another case."

“Sergeants Wong and Patel have been assigned to another case.”

Still, all these are actually minor quibbles. Complaining that Gangster Squad is like The Untouchables feels a little like complaining that the Jaguar XKR looks like an Aston Martin, as if this was a bad thing. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I like knowing that the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and that by the end of the movie the good guys will have vanquished the bad guys. Don’t get me wrong, I love moral complexity as much as the next man, but far too many films and TV shows these days mistake moral complexity for a warped and mealy-mouthed relativism, so it’s refreshing to have a film that trades, for once, in moral certainties.

Plus, Ryan Gosling is pretty hot.

My score for this movie? 7.5/10

Gangster Squad is in cinemas now.