Review: LET ME IN

It's always a shaky proposition remaking a film that was considered by many to be an instant classic upon its release, but that's exactly the task director Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) decided to undertake with his latest film, LET ME IN, which isn't so much a remake of the Swedish film as a re-adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel (and his subsequent screenplay adaptation) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.  Reeves' new film stands wholly on its own, though as a consequence of its being adapted so closely from the same source material there are many similarities in dialogue, certain sequences, and even mood.  This isn't to diminish the American film in any way in regard to the original, and I'm simply making mention of the inevitable comparisons many will make (over and over again) between the two films.  I don't really think that's fair to Reeves, or to his actors, or to anyone involved in LET ME IN, which is on its own a superbly crafted film that, though it may tell a tale some may be familiar with, will nonetheless be many viewers' first exposure to all the film(s) and novel have to offer.

The film tells the story of Owen, a bullied kid who lives at home with his mother, who recently separated from his father.  They live in an apartment complex in New Mexico, and he spends a lot of time on his own, either in his room, or on the playground in the courtyard, sitting in the snow imagining his revenge on his tormentor at school, who derisively calls him "little girl."  He spies a girl moving into the complex one night from his window, and things move from there, with them gradually growing closer despite Abby's insistence that they "can't be friends."  Owen undoubtedly finds Abby a bit odd - she smells funny, never wears any shoes, and solves his Rubick's Cube in a day - but he seems to be inexplicably drawn to her as well.  Later in the film, we learn a lot more about Abby, and a little more about Owen as well, especially in his relationship to what Abby is and his need to be protected.

What struck me most as I watched the film almost three weeks ago in Toronto was the overall tonal shift Reeves made in transporting the film's setting from Sweden to New Mexico.  The cinematography is certainly more stylized, with a much darker lighting set-up than I expected, and that leads to the film feeling much more sinister in its implications.  Toward the end of the film, the relationship between Abby and Owen is much heavier than the one shared in the original by Oskar and Eli.  This has to a lot to do with some added nastiness about the actual nature of killing people and drinking their blood than we've seen before.  In a particularly memorable change in sequence, Abby's reveal to Owen features a full-on attack scene that poses questions about what exactly constitutes a monster, and the morals faced when you learn someone you are close with may be something entirely different than what you imagined.

But the surprises don't end with the simple additions of gorier scenes and different kills, although one such sequence does have a rather fantastic camera maneuver in it as we are stuck in a car that is crashing over a snow-filled bank off the road.  The film also offers some fantastic performances by its young cast members, who are full-fledged actors, and not mere "child actors."  Chloe Moretz once again proves she is every bit as amazing as she has been hyped to be, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is no slouch either.  As Abby and Owen, they are every bit the onscreen pair as Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson were in Tomas Alfredson's film.  There is certainly something sweet and endearing going on that is conveyed even through the very thick, sad atmosphere brought to the film by their adult counterparts.  They are the perfect balance between knowing adulthood and ignorant youth, and perfectly show us a couple of children who are, literally and figuratively, old before their time.  I haven't even gone into the performances by Richard Curtis and Elias Koteas at all, and they were fantastic as usual.

The film drew me in with its similarities and by the end it left me in the same sense of wonder and suspense I had when I finished LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, which I will make no secret of being my absolute favorite film of 2008.  This is no small feat, and it's one that Matt Reeves pulls off by being unwaveringly faithful to the source material while still taking stylistic risks that American audiences may not necessarily be prepared for, and which serve to form additional layers of depth to a film many people already enjoyed in its first adaptation.  Think of it like a companion piece about the same people and with the same themes and tones, but with slightly different viewpoints.  It really is quite fun and interesting in its own right.

I also want to single out the score by composer extraordinaire Michael Giacchino, that demonstrates a very nimble approach to scoring a film of this nature, which could come off as a very, very heavy-handed experience.  Instead, he toys with creepy choirs while never going full-blown "HEY!  THIS IS SCARY!!!" style, and he never rubs anything in for too long or keeps a theme going far past the time the music should have died down.  Like his amazing overture at the end of CLOVERFIELD - notable because it was the only score in the film, over the end credits - he has given us a series of compositions that perfectly evoke mood and theme while never intruding upon the space the film needs to properly breathe.

Of course, I could go on and on about the many, many similarities between LET ME IN and its inspiration, but that's not what I want to do.  You can surely find that out there on any number of straight-up review and fan sites, and most of them will probably tell you it's not as good as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and not to bother.  But I just can't do that.  LET ME IN is its own thing, and it doesn't deserve to be diminished in a climate that produces untold hours of absolute dreck every single week.  To say that something isn't as good as something that is near-perfect is to say absolutely nothing about it.  But to perhaps show how it made me think and react, which I hope to have done here, is to encourage others to give it a chance.  It may make a believer out of you that all remakes aren't necessarily bad.  After all, there were how many versions of the Dracula story in the past century?  And at least a dozen of them are more than worthwhile.  Regardless of all that, LET ME IN remains the tender, horrific and very poignant vampire film that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is, and that means that it's totally unlike any other film to come out of the current vampire craze.


TIFF 2010 - Midnight Madness, first three selections

Toronto is a very user-friendly major city.  The entertainment district encompasses a large section of downtown, but most everything is easily walkable.  From the Southernmost point in which there are hotels in the area, the furthest theatre takes maybe 45 minutes by foot.  It's really quite convenient for a film festival.  There are tons of films playing - somewhere around 300 - and most look like they would be worth my time if I had it to spare.  The most anticipated portion of the festival's programming before I got here - the always promising Midnight Madness selections at Ryerson Theatre - have held up to my expectations.  Today is Monday, and I've only seen three, but they have so far been fantastic and completely unique in many ways in the world of genre filmmaking.

Friday night saw the world premiere of James Gunn's SUPER, an absurdist, ultraviolent, completely irresponsible real-world superhero film starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page.  The film plays a lot with convention, including the responsibility a hero has to not kill the people he's constantly beating to a bloody pulp, but throws it out the window for sheer insanity.  The third act's super dark tone doesn't quite work with the lighter absurdity that comes before it, but it does help the audience swallow all of the bludgeoning with a wrench that happens earlier in the film, as well as the uncomfortable eroticism of being, essentially, raped by Ellen Page, after one of the filthiest, dirtiest lines of dialogue I've ever heard in a film.  Anyone who knows Gunn's work with Troma, or his previous film, SLITHER, has an inkling of what to expect, but this is one difficult flick to take stock of, even by his gratuitous standards.

Saturday night's BUNRAKU, by first time filmmaker Guy Moshe, is a completely unique, wholly original experience that I swear to you is completely unlike anything you've ever seen before.  Imagine a pop-up book filtered through Hollywood noir and Hong Kong action filmmaking, and you have a bit of something to work with.  SIN CITY through the eyes of Yuen Woo Ping, but with the cinematography of DICK TRACY.  In a world where guns are outlawed, all disputes must be settled with fists, and there's lots of dispute settlin'.  This will be an interesting film to follow through to a release, because it defies categorization.  There are moments of such amazing choreography and stuntwork that it's mind-blowing, but then you remember that it's a highly stylized and streamlined narrative that features some really challenging moments of suspension of disbelief.  Wonderful film.

The third night's selection saw Midnight Madness get creepy, with Brad Anderson's (THE MACHINIST, TRANSSIBERIAN) new film, VANISHING ON 7TH STREET.  The premise is classic TWILIGHT ZONE set-up, with a darkness spreading and the majority of a city's citizens disappearing with only their clothing crumpled on the ground where they stood.  Shadows play an integral role in the terror of the film, organic entities that are attempting to grab up the remaining living souls, who have all wound up together in a neighborhood bar being kept lit by a back-up generator.  Hayden Christensen, who I've given plenty of crap for his acting on a lot of occasions, turns in a pretty strong performance, rediscovering the promising chops he showed back before he was cast as young Darth Vader.  Thandie Newton's character is a bit one-note, and John Leguizamo's conspiracy-theorist movie theater projectionist is a standout, but he's given too small a role.  Honestly, this is one creepy film that, much like Anderson's SESSION 9, utilizes its dark atmosphere to stunning effect.  A possible sleeper if it's released wide in the U.S.

The next few nights have some promising fare - John Carpenter's THE WARD and James Wan's INSIDIOUS bring the creepy some more before things get shaken up with RED NIGHTS and THE BUTCHER, THE CHEF, AND THE SWORDSMAN, which I will sadly miss.  In any case, MM is really a highlight of the festival for genre fans, as well as anyone looking for something truly outside the box.  I haven't written the last of my thoughts on these films here.  Look for more in the future.