FRESH POUR: Carrie (2013) / 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Carrie / dir. Kimberly Pierce / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

CarrieBrian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie was the first major adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and it’s easy to see how King’s works became such a fixture for adaptation since; this and Kubrick’s The Shining are some of the best horror movies of that decade. Carrie – the story of a young, bullied girl who finds revenge through her newfound telekinetic powers – has been remade several times, but the latest by Kimberly Pierce is the first time it’s come back to the big screen since the De Palma original. I’ll admit, I had high hopes going in; I was looking forward to seeing Pierce, whose Boys Don’t Cry certainly made me cry, tackle the material. Prominent women directors are far too rare, and this subject seemed tailor-made for a director skilled at exploring adolescence and sexual identity. Unfortunately, despite its own efforts, Carrie falls flat on its face.

This time around, adolescent creeper wunderkind Chloe Moretz plays Carrie, which is admittedly an inspired move – she’s proven herself in these kinds of roles, and she has a vulnerability to her that makes her believable as the wallflower. Julianne Moore plays her mother, Margaret, and it’s a film-defining performance; she’s truly amazing in this, and her scenes are the best (as she demonstrates just enough lucidity to make her crazier moments convincing). The biggest problem with this cast, however, is that Moretz and Moore are surrounded by the blandest, made-for-CW pretty-boy cast I’ve seen since Niccol’s The Host; everyone else is impossibly pretty and hopelessly wooden, making scenes featuring exclusively them tedious and tiresome.

Long story short, if you’ve seen the ’76 Carrie before, this movie treads all of the same ground. Plot points are virtually identical, so you won’t see anything you haven’t seen before, and Pierce’s visual style is disappointingly safe, nothing nearly matching De Palma’s inventive camerawork. The one major updating they do to Carrie’s remake is the social media element; in today’s high schools, cyberbullying is a real and dangerous phenomenon, so it’s refreshing to see that reflected and acknowledged in the film. It doesn’t go far enough, though. Carrie, being a sheltered girl with no Internet access and presumably no cell phone, doesn’t have to deal with a lot of the fallout from her bullies’ Youtube videos of her. One of the insidious things about cyberbullying is that the teasing follows you home – without that element, it’s just one more thing she has to hear about in school, and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.

Some elements of the drama remain interesting; Carrie’s mother gets some interesting scenes as she interacts with other people in the town, showing just how dangerous and hidden her true madness is. The secondary lead, Sue – a popular girl who regrets her initial teasing of Carrie – is correctly called out by mean-girl Chris as making her philanthropy all about her; there’s a spiteful, patronizing undercurrent to her guilt about what she did to Carrie that lends a shade of grey to at least one bubblegum character. Sue never seems like she’s truly sorry about what she did to Carrie, and only backpedals into remorse when she thinks people will reward her for being so selfless. The move to push her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom comes with the implication she doesn’t feel threatened by Carrie; it’s like giving a homeless person a hamburger and feeling good about yourself. That move isn’t charity; it’s a transaction where the good you receive is emotional currency. This aspect of her character is remarkably subtle, shown only in a few fleeting glances at the prom dress she doesn’t get to wear, but the character is betrayed by not really giving her enough screentime to justify her transformation into the audience surrogate.

There’s also Carrie herself. Moretz sometimes seems like a blank slate, given that the wallflower nature of the character gives her little to do in her own scenes, but she manages to inject Carrie with a wide eyed sense of longing. Her transformation from freak to pretty girl feels natural, especially once the balance of power shifts in her household (coinciding with her mastery of her telekinetic powers). The infamous prom scene finally gives us some Grand Guignol thrills, but they’re mostly toothless, rubbery CG that does little to thrill and scare despite Moretz’s gleeful control over her revenge. All in all, she does the best with the material she’s given, but it all just seems like a rote restaging of things we’ve seen before, with little to differentiate it from its source material – we’ve even see “Chloe Moretz dealing with mean girls in a high school” just a month ago in Kick-Ass 2.

In short, despite Moretz and Moore giving it their all, Kimberly Pierce’s too-safe direction and the uninspired nature of the rest of the cast (except perhaps Judy Greer’s few moments as a sympathetic gym teacher) make this adaptation pretty lifeless. Ah well, there’s still the De Palma classic.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Drinking Rules for Carrie:
1) Drink every time a laptop or cell phone is used
2) Drink whenever someone gets bopped in the head
3) Drink anytime you see knives or blades
Finish Your Drink When:
Margaret White (Julianne Moore) says, “I can see your dirty pillows.”

12 Years a Slave / dir. Steve McQueen / Fox Searchlight Pictures

12 Years a SlaveSteve McQueen is definitely one of the most challenging filmmakers working now – his star is rising after his considerable talents were discovered in his films Hunger and Shame, and now the West-Indian/British filmmaker is tackling the white whale (no pun intended) of the American slave trade with 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup. Played with wide-eyed determination and desperation by an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon is a free man who is tricked by a couple of young shysters into losing his free papers and becoming a slave, where he remains for more than a decade under the mastery of two different plantation owners – the benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and emasculated, tyrannical Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Along the way, the horrors of slavery take their toll on his soul, as he experiences things beyond the grasp of human cruelty.

Slavery is always a tough subject to tackle, and one that is often considered pretentious at this point – after all, how many Roots and Color Purples do we need before we recognize that slavery is bad? However, when a film exhibits as much artistry and intensity as 12 Years a Slave, I can’t help but forgive it. There’s just as much Days of Heaven as there is Roots; McQueen’s incredible direction (assisted by the beautiful colors and compositions of Sean Bobbitt) provides a warm, amber color to plantation life that sharply contrasts the gritty trappings of slavery. The cotton fields and sugarcane crops look absolutely gorgeous, but people are still being whipped to harvest them; this juxtaposition of aesthetic beauty and moral cruelty is part of the back-and-forth the movie puts you through. There’s a great texture to each shot of the film, from the glowing embers of a burning letter to the tightening strings of a violin – each element comes together to breathe life into the film’s setting. Shots linger with incredible tension, as in one scene involving Solomon desperately trying to keep himself breathing at the end of a rope while help slowly comes.

Though Ejiofor impresses as Solomon, the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Fassbender is wild-eyed as the slave owner emasculated by his shrewish, controlling wife (Sarah Paulson), Cumberbatch is warm and paternal as the slightly-more-compassionate Ford, and Pauls Dano and Giamatti have a particular flair for playing despicable characters that they display here. Even the smaller parts are filled with great character actors, like Garret Dillahunt and Alfre Woodard, who sell John Ridley’s stately, lyrical dialogue. Of particular note is Lupita Nyong’o as Epps’ favorite slave Patsey, who is constantly used as a prop by both Epps (who loves her in his own sick, rapist way) and Northup (who treats her as a kindred spirit, even when she wants him to just strangle her and end her life). Nyong’o injects a great deal of raw intensity and emotion to her role that’s captivating, and I hope I can see a lot more of her in the future. The only weak spot is Brad Pitt; he’s not bad, just not great, and his character is only necessary to move events in the plot along – necessitating some ham-fisted scenes that feel somewhat out of place. Music-wise, Hans Zimmer’s score is effective, but beware of a lot of self-plagiarizing from Inception.

Much like his prior films, McQueen has a wonderful ability to strip his characters of their humanity and put it to the test – while Fassbender in Shame fails, it is fascinating to see Solomon attempt to hold on despite all the bleakness the director throws at him. The film never pretends that he has it harder than other slaves; in fact, much of his torture deals with how his intellect and literacy quickly puts him in favor with his masters, to the chagrin of the other slaves. Unlike these poor folk, Solomon has a home to go back to, and the possibility of someone riding in on a horse to take him there. All Patsey can do, however, is lay down in the dirt, just waiting for her next whipping or raping. These moments of pathos wonderfully undercut even the most cathartic points of the film; even when he lucks out and remains alive, what Solomon has seen can never be undone.

From the performances, to the cinematography, to the direction, 12 Years a Slave is an incredible work, and one of the best films of the year. Forget that you already know that slavery is bad; it’s not the film’s job to teach you that. Just see it.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for 12 Years a Slave:
1) Drink whenever someone calls Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) anything other than his real name
2) Drink for extended landscape shots
3) Drink any time you see shots of people lined up in a group
Finish Your Drink When:
Solomon says, “Please forgive my appearance, but I have had difficult times the past several years.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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