REVIEW ROUND-UP: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), Carrie (2013), Ender’s Game (2013)

Cal catches up on some 2013 “stinkers.” First, is that a chainsaw I hear? 

It’s hard to deny the importance or excellence of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which has gone down in history as one of the most unforgettable horror films. With its raw disposition and 16mm photography, it remains a chilling film four decades on, which makes it all the more disappointing that none of its sequels or spinoffs have come close to equalling its unique brand of terror. Even Hooper’s own sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is held in low regard, and the less said about the 2003 remake or its 2006 prequel, the better. And now into this overcrowded arena steps 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D, which ignores all the other nonsense that has occurred since 1974 to emerge as a direct sequel to Hooper’s movie. Directed by John Luessenhop (Takers), it’s a movie which aspires to restart the series without another remake, rendering all the gore in glorious 3D this time. Unfortunately, the resulting picture is just one more awful Chainsaw feature, showing yet again that Hooper’s classic is untouchable.

After the events of the original movie, the local community are hungry for vengeance, descending upon the Sawyer Farmhouse with loaded guns and Molotov cocktails, burning the property to the ground and seemingly killing everyone inside. A baby survives the slaughter, and is placed into the care of a redneck couple. 40 years later, the baby has grown into twenty-year-old Heather (Alexandra Daddario), who learns of her true family heritage when she inherits her late grandmother’s estate. She hits the road with pals Ryan (Trey Songz), Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sánchez) to claim the place, collecting a hitchhiker (Shaun Sipos) during their travels. Arriving in the town of Newt, the group are given the keys to a lavish mansion, but it doesn’t take long for Leatherface (Dan Yeager) to be unleashed from his prison in the basement. Suffice it to say, Leatherface does not appreciate the intrusion, and sets out to slaughter Heather and her companions.

To establish itself as a direct sequel to Hooper’s original film, Texas Chainsaw 3D actually begins with clips from its predecessor (converted to 3D for good measure) before continuing right where the story left off. But then the picture suddenly jumps to 2013, even though it retains characters who’ve only aged about twenty years over the past four decades. Heather should in fact be a forty-year-old woman, while the cops involved in the incident (not to mention the mayor) should be retired and dead. As for Leatherface, he should be at least sixty-five or seventy-years-old and barely able to carry a chainsaw, let alone chase his victims. Perhaps this story might have worked if it was set in the 1990s, but instead it’s set in 2013 for no compelling reason, with police officers using their iPhones to do Skype calls while wandering through dangerous territory. And apparently Heather and her friends are the only young folks without iPhones, as they don’t try to call for help while being stalked by Leatherface. How convenient.

Texas Chainsaw 3D is bone-headed beyond all belief, bouncing between the preposterous and the outright retarded. Heather and Leatherface eventually find out about their family connection, and suddenly befriend each other due to tenuous blood ties, even though Leatherface slaughtered all of Heather’s mates and should be committed to a mental asylum. Even a law-abiding cop is willing to let Leatherface return to his dungeon where he can kill again. By the time Heather begins enabling her cousin, all sense of rationality and logic has dried up. The entire subplot regarding the police is awful, and the screenplay involves some of the most laughably idiotic police behaviour in recent memory. Worse, all of the Leatherface showdowns are moronic, particularly a detour into a carnival during which the crowd seem very casual despite Leatherface running through them holding a roaring death machine, rampaging towards Heather. Texas Chainsaw 3D wants to replicate the terror of the 1974 movie with its string of pursuits and showdowns, but the rampant stupidity is astonishing, providing a hurdle that’s impossible to overcome.

Admittedly, there is some entertainment to be had throughout the picture’s second act, as the pace picks up and folks start getting slaughtered in gory ways. There’s plenty of running and hiding going on, and Luessenhop delivers a great deal of graphic violence as one would expect from a Texas Chainsaw movie (although, curiously, no nudity). Even the twangy photograph sound effect from the 1974 picture makes a comeback. The gore effects are reasonably effective, and the movie looks polished enough, with 3D photography used to enhance the experience. At least it was filmed and planned in three dimensions, but there’s absolutely no convincing reason to watch this dreck with the glasses on. Unfortunately, the acting across the board is pretty poor as well. Daddario is a very standard-order horror heroine, while most everyone else is flat.

Texas Chainsaw 3D could be called a disappointment, but it’s on the same wavelength as the other stinkers which have followed the original classic since its 1974 release, so having raised hopes in the first place would be foolish. The dialogue is awful and the plot contortions are monumentally idiotic, not to mention the filmmakers make the ill-advised decision to turn the nefarious Leatherface into a misunderstood anti-hero who just hunts down bad men. Seriously? It’s unclear exactly what those behind Texas Chainsaw 3D were thinking while assembling this turkey, but it’s clear that concepts like logic and quality were ignored. It’s not scary or terrifying, and the only pulse-quickening moments are cheap jump-scares that make no impact. Just stick with the original.

Following in the shadow of the Evil Dead update, 2013’s Carrie is neither as terrible as one might have anticipated, nor as brilliant as it had the potential to be. This is not the first time that Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name has been adapted for the screen, as Brian De Palma produced a cinematic treatment in 1976 and there was a TV movie in 2002, hence this new iteration was a golden opportunity to produce a fresh realisation of the source book. Alas, this Carrie plays it safe, rehashing De Palma’s movie with contemporary digital effects and only a few minor changes here and there. Nevertheless, it’s a credit to those involved that it still works to some extent, even if it’s not as memorable as the original feature which spawned it.

An awkward eighteen-year-old girl, Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) is an outcast at her high school, struggling to fit in with the other girls as she’s mercilessly bullied by popular snob Chris (Portia Doubleday). Carrie’s home life isn’t much better, as her deranged fundamentalist mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) perceives her daughter as pure evil. With the school’s prom approaching, Chris’ former friend Sue (Gabriella Wilde) begins to regret bullying Carrie and hopes to make amends by urging her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take her to prom and give her a memorable night. Although Carrie is suspicious of Tommy’s motives, she agrees to his invitation. However, Chris, who’s banned from prom by gym teacher Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer) as punishment for her behaviour towards Carrie, begins plotting to ruin Carrie’s night with her boyfriend (Alex Russell), unaware that the meek girl has recently discovered that she has telekinetic abilities.

At the helm of this Carrie is Kimberly Peirce, who also directed the outstanding Boys Don’t Cry in 1999. Given her pedigree, Peirce was an inspired choice for this endeavour. After all, while King’s novel and De Palma’s original movie remain solid pieces of work, Peirce had the potential to bring something new to the table since she’s a female, and would be able to provide a more authentic feminist interpretation of the story’s proceedings and thematic undercurrents. But alas, aside from a few creative instances of symbolism, Peirce does not take full advantage of the opportunity, instead predominantly rehashing what’s already been done. Nevertheless, Peirce and the writers do a decent enough job of modernising the story. The current atmosphere of bullying is captured here, with teens now able to use their mobile devices to capture acts of humiliation on video and share them with the world. Likewise, Carrie is able to research her powers on the Internet. These little inclusions are nice, hence it’s a shame that the filmmakers seem too afraid to majorly deviate from the template already set by King and De Palma.

Carrie feels fundamentally PG-13 across its first two acts, but all hell breaks loose for the climax, when Peirce is given the opportunity to realise Carrie’s gory rampage using contemporary special effects and the freedom of an R-rating. Although the climactic mayhem is pretty enjoyable and there’s a certain satisfaction inherent in seeing the bullies get their comeuppance, it’s pitched at the wrong tone. See, whereas Sissie Spacek’s Carrie was in a trance-like shock while feeling out her powers during the climax of the 1976 film, in this remake Moretz is seen honing her telekinetic skills before her killing spree. Thus, as she walks around striking Magneto-like poses, the gory extended set-pieces comes across as calculated and evil, as she sets out to murder people and has time to ponder her actions before she does it. There’s not much emotional resonance here as a result, and there’s no real sense of tragedy, reducing the finale to a special effects demo reel. And even then, there are missteps. For instance, the moment in which Carrie is doused in pig’s blood is replaced from different angles three or four times for no real reason. And a lot of the bloodletting is achieved via glossy CGI that’s at times unbearably artificial. Practical effects would be far more suitable for this type of production, especially in the wake of the all-practical Evil Dead remake.

Amusingly, while most American films try to pass off thirty-year-old actors as teenagers, Moretz is a fifteen-year-old playing eighteen, and she’s actually believable. However, while the actress acquits herself admirably in the role, she’s miscast due to other reasons. See, Moretz is just too naturally beautiful and charismatic to embody the role of Carrie. One supposes she’s meant to be a new interpretation of the role, but according to the script, the staging, the story, her dialogue and everyone else’s dialogue, she’s apparently still the same pathetic, vulnerable Carrie from the 1976 film, which is completely dissonant to Moretz’s on-screen performance. The script says she’s a weakling, but she’s clearly capable. And while the movie says she’s freakish and a prime target for bullying, she’s every bit as good-looking as the girls who bully her. This is another example of why further updating the story would’ve been beneficial.

Fortunately, the rest of the supporting cast fare better. Moore is genuinely frightening as Carrie’s unhinged mum, delivering a completely unflattering performance for which she commits to the material with complete abandon. Also in the cast is a very appealing Wilde as Sue, while Greer is genuine and sympathetic as the well-meaning gym teacher. Other members of the cast hit their marks effectively, most notably Doubleday who’s convincing as the hugely spiteful Chris. (Intriguingly, the publication house that first printed Carrie was Doubleday.)

2013’s Carrie is not terrible by any stretch, as its handsomely slick presentation helps to keep it afloat and there are a number of scenes which genuinely work. Although the script is inconsistent and in need of a thorough polish, the build-up to Carrie’s rampage is consistently interesting, and there are sufficient moments of terror throughout to prevent the film from being a total bust. Nevertheless, it is flawed in ways difficult to overlook, which is disappointing considering Peirce’s involvement.

Although the 1985 novel Ender’s Game is a highly celebrated work of science fiction literature, its author Orson Scott Card is a genuinely awful person, with his controversial opinions leading many to detest the man, regardless of his achievements. Hence, the long-awaited Ender’s Game motion picture arrives after decades of development with a tremendous pall of negativity hanging over it, with talks of a boycott in the fear that box office dollars will wind up in Card’s back pocket. It’s a legitimate concern, and it’s understandable that some might baulk from giving money to Card due to his personal life, but Ender’s Game is an exceedingly average picture even without this burden on its shoulders, and it’s not worth seeing anyway. It’s a handsomely-designed and ambitious film, but it’s also dramatically flaccid in the hands of director Gavin Hood, whose storytelling is utterly uninvolving and cold to the touch. It wants to be a Spielbergian sci-fi extravaganza, but lacks the spirit and chutzpah to achieve lift-off.

In the future, Earth is invaded by a fleet of otherworldly creatures, resulting in millions of human casualties and leaving the planet shaken. Decades on, all signs point to another invasion, leading to the formation of Battle School, where promising young children are sent to sharpen their skills in the hope of becoming mankind’s saviour. Overseeing the school is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who sees tremendous potential in young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), an outcast with a special tactical gift that puts him ahead of his competitive fellow students. Graff is convinced that Ender is the proverbial chosen one, but Ender has trouble fitting in, only eventually finding a kindred spirit in the cunning Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld).

Hood might have helmed the acclaimed foreign film Tsotsi, but his American track record is truly shocking, with the drab Rendition and the unredeemable X-Men Origins: Wolverine under his belt. Ender’s Game again shows that Hood has a lot to learn. While the picture features all the requisite eye candy, it’s a leaden experience on the whole. It takes a true visionary director to adapt a visionary novel to its full potential, like Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic treatment of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hood’s Ender’s Game plays out like a flashy sci-fi film for young adults, rather than an adaptation of a groundbreaking novel. It feels too mainstream, and the screenplay even attempts to make connections to today’s youth culture, with Ender playing games on a tablet computer and emailing his family (why not just call them “messages”?).

Ender’s Game eventually takes a whole other direction once the climactic “twist” is introduced, but this segment of the picture doesn’t entirely work. There are major logistical issues facing this conclusion, and the twist doesn’t feel as weighty as it should. It should be a significant, mind-blowing moment that brings you to the edge of your seat, but instead it’s a resounding flaccid reveal. Moreover, the story loses all sense of momentum and purpose from this point onward, and it feels like the writers don’t quite know where to take things next. It’s a fault inherent in the source material, granted, but it doesn’t make this glaring issue anymore forgivable. Fans of the book may also dislike some aspects of the book-to-screen translation, most significantly in the fact that Ender is a tween here as opposed to the six-year-old from the novel. Furthermore, the film seems to take place over a few weeks or months, whereas Card’s novel took place over a number of years. Perhaps most bothersome, though, is that Ender’s family are given a reduced place in the narrative. Indeed, while his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) has a few scenes to shine, Ender’s other family members are only given a couple lines of dialogue each.

Credit where credit is due, however, Ender’s Game does spring to life in isolated moments. Hood gets particularly good mileage out of the training sequences, which are wholly engaging. A zero-gravity battle room hosts many of the picture’s standout set-pieces, especially a magnificent scene in which Ender is given the chance to test his leadership skills and smarts. The special effects are note-worthy across the board, with lavish production design helping to sell the expanse and luxury of this futuristic story. The acting is also predominantly solid across the board. Butterfield is a good actor, and for the most part he acquits himself well as Ender. However, while he’s an amiable presence, he unfortunately falls short with the finish line in sight. At the end, he’s asked to achieve the type of acting that even Oscar winners would baulk at… And, suffice it to say, Butterfield may be good, but nobody is that good, which is likely one of the main reasons why the ending doesn’t carry the significance or weight that it should. Meanwhile, Ford is reliably solid, with his usual gruffness serving him well as Colonel Graff. The remainder of the cast is decent, too, with Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis and Breslin all making their mark.

Ender’s Game is an interesting failed experiment, but it’s still a failure nevertheless, a real letdown considering how long the project has been gestating. The movie hedges its bets on sequels, but its woeful box office performance and lack of public interest has essentially spelt death to that plan, rendering this an unsatisfying standalone effort which needed a defter touch. Hood’s film is not a visionary masterpiece, but instead a run-of-the-mill sci-fi blockbuster that tries to keep itself palatable enough to attract interest from broad audiences. Hood tries to grapple with all of the fascinating themes of the book, but it ultimately feels like a rote piece of work that does lip service to Card’s intents.




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