Friday 31 October 2014


Friday 31 October 2014
★★ (out of five)

Based on the 2010 novel by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), HORNS squanders a cool premise and manages to turn a supernatural black-comedy whodunit into a lacklustre, over-serious bore. The set-up's rather good, with twentysomething Ignatius "Ig" Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) dealing with the aftermath of his girlfriend Merrin's (Juno Temple) murder in a small logging town where everyone believes he killed her, and only avoided jail thanks to a high-priced lawyer.

Then things take an unusual turn when Ig wakes up to discover horns protruding from his forehead, that give him the ability to compel people into sharing their deepest, darkest secrets in his presence. A useful super-power once Ig decides to investigate Merrin's murder and catch the person who really killed her...

Unfortunately, HORNS just doesn't manage to sustain itself after this promising start. There's moderate entertainment in the scattering of scenes where ordinary folk can't resist acting on negative impulses around Ig, but PIRANHA 3D director Alexandre Aja sucks all the fun and vitality from this idea. At 120-minutes, it's also far too long and drags in the middle to a frustrating level, while Radcliffe's performance is committed but monotonous (chiefly notable for an excellent American accent), and characters didn't behave logically enough for me to buy into anything.

Like so many stories in this genre, there are only a handful of notable suspects, so the reveal of the killer's identity didn't feel like a surprise worthy of the prolonged wait. If HORNS had been 40-minutes shorter and funnier, it may have worked better for me.

★★★ (out of five)

1976's CARRIE is a classic horror and it left an indelible impression on me as a teen. A lot of that was due to Brian De Palm's staging of the telekinetic smackdown Carrie White unleashes at the Prom, but I also thought Sissy Spacek was absorbingly freakish in the lead role, and it was imbued with a sick feeling of dread and simmering anger.

Unlike many people, I don't mind remakes (provided they bring something new to the table for a new generation), and for the most part Kimberly Peirce's CARRIE succeeds.

We all know Stephen King's story by now, right? High school pariah Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) is tormented by her classmates, particularly after they witness her shrieking meltdown after getting her first period in the gym's shower. Things change when Carrie starts developing the power of telekinesis (a symbol of her sexual awakening), but the newfound control this allows her to exert over her life takes a nightmarish twist when a Prom Night prank (involving a bucket of pig's blood), provokes a drenched and mortified Carrie into taking vengeance on the townsfolk.

As with any remake, one's tuned into noticing all the difference—which includes both weaknesses and improvements. Where CARRIE 2013 perhaps suffers most is by casting Moretz—who's actually fine in the role, but hard to accept as an unpopular outsider. No matter how much she hunches her shoulders and hugs herself while walking, she's clearly an attractive young woman, so it's a little ridiculous to imagine this Carrie would be so overlooked by the boys.

Still, it's a relatively minor issue, because in all other regards Moretz is great, and I particularly loved her twitchy body-language during Carrie's night of fiery destruction—all bug-eyed stares and raised, crooked arms. A blood-soaked Carrie White in a beautiful gown is an iconic image of modern horror, and I was pleased this remake managed to craft a similarly unforgettable image. This Carrie even levitates over electrified water and blood, which is damned creepy and cool.

Julianne Moore's also great as Margaret White, the religious zealot mother of Carrie, whom we first meet in a flashback contemplating whether or not to stab her newborn naughtier with a pair of scissors. She's a quieter, introverted version of the ranting weirdo from De Palma's classic, but all the better for it. Margaret has an actual relationship with her child here, that goes beyond just being an unhinged Bible-thumping mom-from-hell.

The core story doesn't change a great deal (it's so simple, it would be unwise to mess with it too much), but there are a few new characters that help give the remake a little more depth. The fact CARRIE '13 is a modernisation also means Carrie's bullying is compounded by the existence of the internet, which allows her vicitimisation to go viral on social media. I left school before kids had smartphones, and have always found tabloid stories of cyber-bullying particularly distressing.

The one aspect of the remake I take issue with is how fast Carrie's paranormal talents arise and develop, because she's blowing light bulbs and levitating books far too quickly. CARRIE '76 was more restrained about her powers, which made the impact of the Prom Night violence even more shocking and thrilling. CARRIE '13 still delivers a lot of enjoyable violence and excitement in its final third, but the novelty of the telekinesis had worn off slightly… and also, if truth be told, I don't think the remake managed to make Carrie enough of a piteous victim for her savage revenge to feel appropriate if harsh.

Ultimately, CARRIE '13 was a much better movie than I was expecting. I'd place it in the 'good remake' pile, with the usual caveats. To its credit, it was quite faithful to the Stephen King source material without being too much of a dull retread, didn't take things to a ludicrous extreme, managed to keep the violence graphic and shocking at times (even the use of slow-motion worked well during some of the FINAL DESTINATION-y kills), and developed a few relationships into more interesting areas.

★½ (out of five)

Young Adult novel adaptations are a plague on teen cinema right now, as each one adheres to stock formulas and come ready-made for a multi-film saga. I hated TWILIGHT for many reasons, but its popularising of this subgenre is its greatest evil. It's not that I'm against films built around strong female characters, often fighting for individuality and peace, but their stories are so incredibly weak and interchangeable—as whatever imagination is present is poured entirely into the setup.

DIVERGENT takes place in another near-future dystopia, years after a war that's resulted in Chicago becoming the sole refuge for human survivors. For some reason, society's decided that everyone must be split into one of five factions—perhaps because author Veronica Roth really loved the Sorting Hat scene in HARRY POTTER. The factions are Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful) and Abnegation (the selfless). Our heroine is Beatruce Prior (Shailene Woodley), who's born into the Abnegation faction, which is totally boring, and secretly longs to belong to the Dauntless clan—who seem to spend all their time running around, jumping off moving trains, and practicing parkour. They're huge dicks, basically.

Beatrice's wish is granted during her coming-of-age aptitude test to decide which faction she'll be assigned to for the rest of her life, as the test deems she's Divergent (i.e. she has a mix of three skill areas, which is incredibly rare). I have no idea why this should be rare, but for some reason future humans can't possible show bravery, selflessness, honesty, peacefulness and intelligence all at the same time. Therefore, Beatrice upsets her parents by declaring she's a Dauntless and heads off to spend time with the train-jumping idiots—led by Eric (Jai Courtney), who resembles a German punk from 1981, and love-interest trainer Four (Theo James).

The bulk of this film, which clocks in at an unreasonable 139 minutes, consists of Beatrice (of Tris as she renames herself) simply being trained as a member of the Dauntless crew. For awhile, you'd be forgiven for thinking the objective is to win the annual Hunger Games, but this film doesn't have much of a goal. And it's no fun to watch Tris go through her training after the first ten minutes, as it just becomes an interminable bore. The romantic subplot also doesn't really get going until the last third, by which time you'll be climbing the walls waiting for something dramatic and interesting to happen.

The film seems to know it's boring, so occasionally there are sequences where Tris is given mind-altering drugs that puts her into a crazier, dream-world version of a training arena—so the film's director, Neil Burger, can use different lens filters and throw in some CGI crows.

It's not as horrendous as THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, but the concept's not as interesting as THE HOST, and it lacks the dramatic focus of THE HUNGER GAMES. Shailene Woodley's a fine young actress, but I'd rather not see her stuck making these films—which also soaked up too much of Kristen Stewart's time. Alas, the sequel's due March 2015 and they're planning to split the last novel into two films (a shameless money-grabbing tactic, as none of these novels require that treatment).

★★½ (out of five)

Considering the risible nature of Paul W.S Anderson's oeuvre, POMPEII actually ranks very high. It's the floater of cinematic turds, one might say; a dumb-yet-diverting hodgepodge of styles, ideas, themes and sequences this fanboy director collected in his mental scrapbook, ready to splurge into your eyeballs with $80m-worth of 3D. It has the narrative framework of GLADIATOR, bolted to a TITANIC-style doomed romance, drizzled with television's SPARTACUS: BLOOD & SAND, and delivered like the world's longest video game cut-scene.

A tribe of Celtic horseman are slain by evil Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), and a boy survivor sold into slavery. 17 years later, the boy's become a ripped gladiator called Milo (Kit Harington), who's bought by a slave owner and taken to Pompeii. There, he falls in love with comely noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of the city ruler Severus (Jared Harris), who's hosting some gladiatorial games on the eve of Mount Vesuvius's infamous eruption. And who should be attending the games as a VIP, looking to invest money in the city of Pompeii, but now-Senator Corvus.

Anderson's movies reveal very little about anything—certainly nothing historically accurate—beyond whatever Anderson's been geeking-out about just lately. It's almost comical how many moments owe a debt to something from another source, as originality's very low on the agenda. As a director, he's a geek allowed to indulge his own interests and passions, by simply mirroring them. The reason POMPEII is the least objectionable of Anderson's films is actually quite simple: this time, he keeps everything relatively grounded and copies the broad strokes of better movies well enough to mean you're kept in a state of unchallenged entertainment. It's familiar and comforting, while only really existing to show the milieu of Roman times through a three-dimensional lens. In that respect, POMPEII is really just a showreel.

You'll come out of POMPEII giggling at the memory of the dumb moments and choices—like Sutherland opting to put a speech impediment in his English accent, or making Milo a "horse whisperer" to endear him to his beloved. He's muscular and his likes animals? Swoon. To be fair, I did enjoy Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's performance as champion gladiator Atticus, whose relationship with Milo goes from enemy to friend, despite the fact it's a copy of Djimon Hounsou's role in GLADIATOR and holds no real surprises. The climactic action sequences of the volcano spewing fireballs and building collapsing also looked good, and given added pep with the use of 3D—which, more than most directors, Anderson uses like it's a fairground attraction. What else can one say? It's not exactly high art and the script's a magpie's nest, but it's fast-paced, the action's comprehensible (not always a given these days), the effects are good, and I'm told it gets the thumbs-up from vulcanologists.

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