Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Vampire Movie that DOESN'T Suck

Somehow by now I thought I'd be done with 2010's films. 2010 still manages to sneak in however, most notably in films that don't even make their way to wide release until 2011 but count towards 2010 due solely to extremely limited runs that qualify those titles for the big award shows. This is not one of those movies. In fact, it's probably my most surprising 2010 film success story. Here in Boston, the Coolidge Corner Theater is one of our smaller, independent theaters that often focuses on the art house films. On weekends, the theater hosts its Coolidge After Midnite series, which comprise of cult and horror films shown at midnight to a small crowd of dedicated viewers. This past weekend, the film was Let Me In, the American remake of popular Swedish film and novel Låt den rätte komma in, which translates to Let the Right One In. Hollywood has gotten a bit remake-crazy lately, with both this and the upcoming Girl with the Dragon Tattoo quickly converted from worldwide popular Swedish films into Americanized versions to market directly to a local audience. Since I'd yet to sit down and watch the original Swedish edition, I was hesitant to take in the remake. But since Let Me In had gotten good reviews and since I wasn't in a hurry to see the original anyway, I figured "why not" and so "Southland Dan" and I trekked to the Coolidge to give this unseen film a shot.

Moretz auditioning for the "creepiest kid alive" award
The story of Let Me In focuses on young Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a smallish loner constantly bullied by others at his school and suffering from an aversion to swimming. His favorite past-times include visits to the local arcade and spying on his neighbors through his telescope. His parents are getting divorced, and he doesn't feel much connection to either his emotionally-disturbed mother or his absent father. He doesn't have a friend in the world until the day an odd girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) moves into the apartment next door.

Uh... yeah... you don't have problems at all
The story gets a little bit into a few side characters, but for the most part the film focuses on the two juvenile leads. Moretz of course is familiar to anyone who remotely heard of the controversy surrounding her foul-mouthed superhero Hit-Girl in 2010's Kick Ass. Here she gives an outstanding performance as Abby, the child vampire. Abby is lonely from several lifetimes worth of moving around, stuck in an apartment while the man who cares for her goes out at night to hunt for fresh blood. Moretz's creepy-yet-fragile performance is even better than that of Hit-Girl, proving that she's no one-hit wonder. While Abby has no peers, Owen is alone while surrounded by them. Smit-McPhee wasn't as heralded in his role as Viggo Mortensen's son in The Road, but that role paved a path to a very impressive performance here. The victim of bullying, divorcing parents and now vampire necro-voodoo, Owen has to be a type of victimized everyman, and Smit-McPhee does a great job playing the straight man to the what would be otherwise unbelievable. Other good performances come from Richard Jenkins as a man who has been taking care of Abby for years, and Elias Koteas as a police officer following the bodies left in Abby's wake.

Awww, did you start the cranberry-crushing party without me?
As for the themes present in this tale, Let Me In brings up topics not necessarily seen in mainstream Hollywood films. Bullying is a major topic these days, especially with all the new legislation being passed by the government banning it in schools, which makes seeing the odd duck Owen bullied by other boys at school feel so real as we see it on the screen. In fact, the film asks a great question by exploring why the other boys pick on Owen at all, and really makes sense when you see it happen. The themes of alienation and loneliness play out well through the two child leads, and the idea of parental divorce is actually one of the best displayed themes in the film. Owen lives with his mother and she appears in several scenes, but from the get-go we never really get a good look at her, as she's seen either out of focus or from behind. In the film doing so, we get Owen's feelings of disassociation from her by never REALLY seeing her at all.

No, he's a police officer... NOT a child molester. He gets that all the time
It's a shame when a good film like this has problems, so it's a relief when those problems translate to the mere cosmetic. Special effects were surprisingly uninspired when you consider this film was done by Matt Reeves, the director who made Cloverfield. Though sparsely used, effects of Abby jumping and running unlike a normal human look far too much like the herky-jerky motions the monsters from Japanese horror films like The Ring or Ju-on. The film also has a severe lack of interesting secondary characters, as it would have benefited from a bit more perspective. Still, that's no major flaw, and may be more due to the basis of the screenplay on the source material than anything else. When the characters are played by interesting actors like Smit-McPhee, Moretz and Jenkins, that can easily be enough.

It's okay! We've got Kick-Ass on DVD!
According to Dan, who had seen the original Swedish film, the story has a few differences but otherwise was almost identical to the first. From what I could tell in my viewing of the original's first twenty minutes, Reeves decided that he couldn't really change the setting beyond relocating Sweden to rural New Mexico. Even the apartment complex Owen and Abby live in is remarkably similar to the original. It's honestly kind of sad that despite the film and story's quality, there was next to nothing that Reeves added to make the film his own. Still, it IS an amazing film to behold; the retelling suffering a few awkward translation moments but overall not feeling like an ersatz release for the heck of it. Excellent acting, a well paced story and significantly few flaws propels Let Me In to #8 on 2010's Best Film list, a feat I really hadn't expected it to achieve. It's the best of both worlds: a modern day take on a classic vampire horror story. Definitely worth seeing.

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