It's extremely difficult for me to examine writer/director Matt Reeves' latest film, Let Me In, on its own merits and not through the lens of its Swedish source, the near perfect, Let The Right One In.
Ideally, remakes would be limited to flawed films or reinterpretations of good or great films that were made in decades past (as opposed to just two years ago) so Reeves was already courting my contempt. At best, his motivation might be pure respect mixed with hubris -- nothing about Cloverfield, as much as I liked it, indicated Reeves could top the Swedish original and, in fact, most of the people that might have a shot at it are dead -- and at worst, it might be opportunism; an easy layup. Interpret a great foreign film for American audiences too obtuse to be bothered to watch films in other languages and realize what they missed.
What made the Swedish original one of the best films of 2008 was its mastery of tone, atmosphere and its narrative elegance. Hell, the idea behind vampirism that makes it creepy and ultimately enigmatic is the sense of isolation. The act of living beyond the laws of nature and the humans by which one was once bound make vampires the ultimate outcasts -- and what better than an unfamiliar language, culture and landscape to reinforce that sense of isolation? Let the Right One In nailed that in spades, placing it firmly alongside the giants of the genre: Murnau's Nosferatu and Dreyer's Vampyr.
Where Let Me In suffers most is in its familiarity. Not just of the story, but the setting. Transplanting the story from the snow blown sterility of Sweden to the western familiarity of Los Alamos, New Mexico; casting familiar faces (albeit very talented ones) and transposing the culture of 1980's Sweden -- where for all the music and mores of its identity only the Rubik's Cube and school bullies seemed universal -- strips away the alien veneer. Instead, Let Me In is rendered in the close comforts of Ronald Regan speeches on television, Blue Oyster Cult blasting through the radio, and the solidly American need to give subtlety and nuance a B-12 shot.
But, despite this, Matt Reeves has remade a great film into a quite good one, more out of respect, I believe, than opportunism, though it still lacks any real reason to exist.
Taking a more typical approach, Let Me In opens in the middle of the story as The Father (Richard Jenkins) lay in a hospital bed, his face horribly burned by acid poured by his own hand. A detective (Elias Koteas) is interrogating him, concerning a series of cult-like murders for which he is responsible. Getting no answers, he leaves but quickly returns when an alarm goes off, to find that the man has apparently thrown himself from the tenth-story window.
Jump back two weeks where we meet Owen (Cody Smit-McPhee), a lonely, put upon 12-year-old. Bullied by his classmates while being smothered by his overprotective mother, Owen takes to fantasizing about stabbing his tormenters. He also spies on his neighbors through his telescope and it isn't long before he notices some new ones, a young girl and an old man, who move into the apartment next door.
Soon enough, Owen meets Abby (Chloe Moretz), an also lonely 12-year-old (though he has no idea how lonely), who almost immediately informs him they can't be friends. However, Abby has an affection for puzzles and Owen's nifty Rubik's Cube quickly thaws the ice.
Abby's got some strange habits. She's never out in the day and rarely wears shoes even though the ground is frozen. She has a knack for coming in through the window but won't do so until she's invited. Apparently, Owen never read Salem's Lot.
As the two draw closer to each other, and Abby's protector becomes more unreliable in procuring her meals, Owen finds the object of his virgin amour is in fact a vampire ("I'm 12 ... but I've been 12 for a very long time") whose affection for him may or may not be a façade. Is Abby a soulless pantomime or monster clinging to her last vestiges of humanity?
That idea was one of the creepier ones in the original, among a few that Reeves glosses over, dilutes, or omits entirely. Where Let the Right One In pared down the source novel by John Ajvide to its essentials (the novel was a bit of disappointment in that it revealed too much), creating a haunting ambiguity -- and that rare thing, a film adaptation that is superior to the book -- Let Me In prunes away the incertitude from that film. It is simpler, safer, and ultimately sacrifices its mysterious elegance in lieu of something more obvious.
Reeves aim to create "his" version of the original results in changes that are mostly cosmetic, be it the slight rearrangement of the story's structure or the changes (and again slight) in the events. One such scene finds The Father's final attempt at murder on Abby's behalf transposed from a creepy, darkened gym locker-room to a more familiar, masked killer in the backseat of the car, jack-in-the-box gag (set to Blue Oyster Cult's "I'm Burning for You"). It makes for a pretty cool extended take, shot from the inside of an out of control car -- and an obvious hat-tip to a similar shot in Alfonso Cuarón's great Children of Men -- but it also loses the precarious tension and The Father's disappointment in failing Abby yet again and putting her in danger.
Reeves direction is actually very good at establishing a dark tone, but his script doesn't really bring anything substantively new, instead subtracting, mostly in terms of mystery and elegance, but also with some of the more difficult narrative threads of the original (threads that Americans might find very uncomfortable). While Reeves has shot a lovely looking film --indeed one of its strong points and a total 180 from the hand-held frenzy of Cloverfield -- he dumps subtly and tension in the process, specifically making Abby look like a more stereotypical vampire at times, a bad decision the first film wisely avoided and which only added to its unique otherness.
Where Reeves gets it all right is in the casting (and in keeping Abby's origins a mystery, much like Eli in the original, or for that matter the beast in Cloverfield). While the addition of familiar faces is itself another problem for me, at least he picked some stellar actors.
Cody Smit-McPhee turns in a wonderful performance and makes good on the promise of his turn as Boy in The Road. He captures a preternatural intensity that is somewhat of an improvement on Kåre Hedebrant's unaffected turn in the original.
Chloe Moretz is also fine in her portrayal of Abby, though for some reason Lina Leandersson's darker look seems more in keeping with the character. However, Moretz's features actually play to one element of the film that Reeves never literally acknowledges; that she is not a girl.
In an alternate universe, Elias Koteas is what Robert De Niro would be if he never achieved self-parody. His quiet, smoldering turn as the detective is at once intense and subtle.
The great Richard Jenkins is underutilized but makes the most of just a few scenes, though knowing his true torment is not possible with what the script gives him. When Reeves said that he wanted to make something completely different I had hoped maybe The Father's motivations would be a part of that difference. Here, again, his script avoids most everything resembling uncomfortable.
I know it sounds like I really didn't like Let Me In when I actually did. If I hadn't seen and loved the original so much I'm sure I'd be more impressed with Reeves work here, but there it is. It is a very well made film (that kicks the shit out of anything in Stephanie Meyer's vapid imagination) and it's also a clear case of swinging for the fences.
But those fences are so mountainously high.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Oliver Stone gets a lot of heat for being some kind of uber-liberal, pro-communist conspiracy theorist and, while some of that may be understandable, what his political detractors seem to overlook is that the evenhandedness which Stone applies to figures like Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro also carries over to right-wing luminaries like Richard Nixon and George Bush. He doesn't vilify them in the respective films Nixon and W. While I have no that doubt he doesn't agree with what they stood for, it's obvious he finds them fascinating and it's easy to see that he admires them; even likes them.
Imagine that: Treating divisive political figures with respect even when you might be diametrically opposed to what they stand for. Stone really doesn't earn his rep for being a polemicist.
So Stone isn't revisiting the same turf of his 1987 film Wall Street out of some timely need to comment on the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps --though that is a backdrop -- just as the impetus for the original wasn't the insider trading scandals of the '80s. His father was a stockbroker, and he was in the business himself for a while. He respects these people, so if you go in looking for Stone to scratch your anti-capitalist itch you'll be disappointed. Money Never Sleeps is barely about money. It's a character drama and a morality play.
Six years after Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from prison, for what turns out to be more than charges of insider trading, we meet Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a seriously on-the-fast-track proprietary trader for the firm Keller and Zabel, who has risen under the tutelage of his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella).
Jake is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend -- and Gekko's daughter -- Winnie (the radiant Carey Mulligan) when his firm is laid low due some shady market manipulations by Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Zabel is forced to sell the company to James at a pittance and the next morning throws himself in front of a train.
Meanwhile, Gordon Gekko is out promoting his book ("Is Greed Good?") and Jake shows up to meet his future father-in-law. Winnie and Gekko have long been estranged and Jake wants Gekko's help in avenging Zabel against Bretton James. They come to an agreement where Gekko will help Jake unearth James' dirty laundry, if Jake will help Gekko try and mend the rift with his daughter.
There's more to it, of course, as the script by Allen Loeb and Stephen Schiff contains more than a couple of twists and turns, but part of the attraction of Money Never Sleeps lies in the easy way in which it weaves its multi-layered tale, while Stone elicits an appropriate sense of gravity on the proceedings. It's refreshing, really, to see Stone dial back some of his noted excesses and tell a tale that's at once complicated (though never overly so) and yet conventional. The closest thing to a media pop culture reference is the cameo by Charlie Sheen, gamely reprising his role as Bud Fox, showing up to the party with two dates.
Stone has dialed back the excess (no hyper-cut scenes utilizing everything from three different film formats to pinhole cameras -- just kidding) but that doesn't mean it's a visually chaste affair, as the vibrant and lovely (indeed it's been a long time since New York was this gorgeously photographed) cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (he's worked for Ang Lee and Pedro Almodóvar, what else do you need to know?) literally hypnotizes while Stone gets positively dexterous with the camera, providing some visually exciting sequences that don't overpower the tone of the story in the least.
The original songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno are pleasant enough, though I would have just as well preferred Fear of Music be used instead. That's really not a criticism, I just love that album.
But the heart of the film is in the performances by LaBeouf, Douglas and Mulligan (though Brolin and Langella are typically excellent). LaBeouf has haters, though I have no idea why --Transformers 2 and Indy IV couldn't have helped -- because he has screen presence to burn and enough of it to hold up against Michael Douglas reprising the role that won him an Oscar.
Carey Mulligan is the 21st Century's Audrey Hepburn and she is wonderful as Winnie Gekko. Mulligan's imbued with a sort of angelic glow and her chemistry with LaBeouf goes a long way to pulling you into their relationship. One scene with Mulligan on the steps of The Met was a great interplay between her and Douglas, who proves why he is forgotten Hollywood royalty. The man is still magnetic.
It's a little too conventional at times, and the ending feels contrived, but Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was a sort of blindside to my expectations (I didn't think it needed to be made, a theme this week, seemingly), and in that regard, blew them out of the water -- in a very good way.
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