Friday, February 25, 2011

Let Me In (2010) Remake Done Right

Maybe...maybe remakes have gotten taken a few too many blows to the head.

Maybe some of us, especially those of us who study film or have discerning film tastes have been too harsh on remakes. After all, not all remakes have been eye-rolling groaners. I mean, sure, once you've seen the original French Martyrs, the resulting facepalm upon hearing news of an American remake is perfectly natural. But look at 2004's remake of Dawn of the Dead. That was good. That was very good. And, hey, 2008's remake of The Crazies was also really quite good.

I think a lot of us don't want the original experience of a film - especially a beloved classic or a visceral, gut-punching breakthrough - to be diluted or, worse yet, dumbed down. We fear the home-cooked recipe will be processed to death.

2010's Let Me In, a remake of 2008's Swedish original, Låt den rätte komma in (aka Let The Right One In) is really another adaptation of Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel of the same name. Writer/director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) carefully crafted an equally beautiful film that even with some significant changes, doesn't dumb down the first film's unique outlook. The changes from the first film are pretty noticeable, but they work, and that's what counts.

The story is pretty much the same: in early-80's New Mexico, troubled and bullied Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives a bleak and constantly frightened existence with his mother (Carla Buono, whose face we never see) at an apartment complex. Mysterious new neighbor Abby (Chloë Moretz of Kick-Ass) moves in with what appears to be her father (Richard Jenkins). The two loners become friends, despite Abby's strange behavior and the scary voices coming from her apartment. The "father" sets out at night to attack local young men and drain them of their blood for Abby, but age - and possibly a lack of motivation - is catching up with him. He becomes sloppy, and in one case, fatally careless when he's involved in an accident and is forced to disfigure himself with acid. A police detective (Elias Koteas) begins putting the pieces together of this strange case after the "father" throws himself out of a hospital window.

Meanwhile, Owen and Abby's relationship grows in parallel with the increasing brutality of the bullies' attacks on Owen. Owen, on advice from Abby, finally stands up to the bullies, splitting the leader's ear with a pole during a skating session on a nearby lake. At that point, a jogger that Abby had fed on turns up in the same lake, adding more pieces for the detective. When Owen tries to make a blood pact with Abby, she reverts to vampire form and runs away, attacking another neighbor in the complex before being chased off. Much like in the first film, this woman survives long enough to turn into a vampire herself before the morning sun hits her in the hospital and she bursts into flame.

The detective finally figures it out and pursues Abby in her apartment, but makes the cardinal error of waking up a sleeping vampire. After feeding, Abby tells Owen she has to leave, sending him into a deep sadness - his first true love is a vampire and has now run away. Those are some deep issues, kid.

The climax is similar to the original, enough that you know what's about to happen if you've seen the first, yet you're still glued to it to see how it will be done. It's very much the same, and it's done well. The ending shot is also very much the same, but none of the sweetness is lost.

Yeah, it's a remake. Yeah, it's got a lot of the same elements and some things have been altered. Doesn't make this a bad film. In fact, this movie is very good. That same atmosphere, the haunting nighttime of winter in New Mexico, the old trappings of the 1980's, the slow and deliberate way Owen and Abby's scenes unfold - it's all there, and done quite well in Reeve's hands. One of the biggest changes - a revelation about Eli in the first film - isn't present with Abby in this one. That was a big element in the Swedish version, but its absence here doesn't take a single thing away. I won't spoil what it is here, but once you've seen both movies, you'll know.

Smit-McPhee and Moretz are absolutely fantastic in their lead roles. Each exudes a serious vulnerability that is vital to the story. Their chemistry is perfect: they are two innocents at heart (even though one has to guzzle blood to survive). Reeves has crafted a movie here, not just churned one out. It looks good, it's haunting, it's heartbreaking, and as remakes go, it's right there at the top of ones done right.

So, until next time, my fellow survivors, see Let Me In. Until you get your mitts on it, though, here's the nice little trailer:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) More To The Story

A couple years ago, a little low-budget movie about a couple harassed by an unseen evil shot into the public consciousness, spreading virally, like that video of a cat playing keyboards. It was Paranormal Activity (my review is right here) and although fans and bloggers alike would be split on liking it, no one can deny the publicity machine that surrounded it.

Before the movie is barely born unto the world, a sequel is announced. I tell you, they're announcing sequels sooner and sooner these days. The success of the first film warranted a second, which, of course, is a tried and true Hollywood formula. Paranormal Activity 2 was released in 2010, this time with a different writing team (Michael R. Perry, Christopher B. Landon, and Tom Pabst) and a different director (Tod Williams), as original writer and director Oren Peli fell back into producer duties. While Paranormal Activity had its super-happy-crazy hype machine, the sequel had what seemed to me a lot less shouting. Sure, it had its share of viral videos and weird websites - in fact, the trailers and interactive website were downright creepy. But I either didn't feel or was subconsciously resistant to the hype surrounding the sequel.

Now, before there's a collective "aw, man, sequels" groan, let me say out of the gate that I found Paranormal Activity 2 to be quite interesting, holding my attention for the entire film. It's the same formula as the first movie: normal family, weird happenings, cameras documents, weirder happenings, get-out-of-the-house-NOW finale. Sometimes you just go with what worked before. What I found most interesting was how it intertwined with the story of the first movie.

The story begins with the arrival of baby Hunter (William and Jackson Prieto) into the Rey family, consisting of papa Daniel (Brian Boland), his daughter from a previous marriage Ali (Molly Ephraim), and his second wife Kristi (Sprague Grayden). We discover very quickly that Kristi is the sister of Katie, one of the stars of the first movie - and those who have seen it suddenly realize the time frame is very important. Reprising their roles as Katie and Micah are Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, appearing at various points throughout the story. As you soon find out - and this is no spoiler - Paranormal Activity 2 is essentially a prequel. Sort of.

After some small incidents, followed by a ransacked house in which only a necklace belonging to Kristi was stolen, the Reys install cameras throughout their home. We're privy to their life with a growing child in what is, by all accounts, a normal, happy existence. But like Katie in the first movie, Kristi is deeply affected by the strange happenings: voices, footsteps, pots falling off their hooks, Ali relating a feeling like the place may be haunted. In fact, Ali thinks it's "cool" at first, but deeper research into ghosts and demons quash her enthusiasm reeeeal quick-like.

The strange occurrences get wilder and more malignant until Kristi is at the center of a particularly violent episode. Finally wanting to do something about it, Daniel takes matters into his own hands with the help of the nanny he fired earlier (Vivis Cortez), someone who seems to know a little about keeping bad spirits away. I'm not going to get into the climax, denouement, and snap ending of the movie. Don't want to spoil it, although through logic, you may already have guessed the outcome. Still, there are story elements that add some spice to it, and for that, it made me want to keep watching.

I can safely say I thought Paranormal Activity 2 was pretty good. I know that notion will be at odds with some, but hey, variety's the spice of life. The use of deep ambient tones as a score was effective, and I believed Ephraim and Grayden's performances were especially good and quite believable. Like I said, I rather enjoyed the intertwining of the stories.

That said, I didn't come away from the movie feeling like I watched something special. It was entertainment, and that's it. That's fine, believe me. But for me, it didn't affect me like some films can. The ending was abrupt, which kept with the formula, but I did utter out loud, "oh, I guess that's it." Don't ask me what could have made it meatier. I've had pizzas that didn't satisfy me, but I couldn't tell you how to make them better. I'm just happy that I didn't waste my time, and that I can relate my opinion that I thought this movie was pretty good. I'm actually OK with Paranormal Activity 3 being made.

Now just make sure you've installed cameras, my friends...never know what they'll capture...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Monsters (2010) Is There Beauty In The Beast?

If there's anything I love in the realm of film, it's when filmmakers use every single cent of a tiny budget and make something look like a few million bucks.

Enter 2010's Monsters, written and directed by Gareth Edwards. I knew it was low-budget, but that phrase doesn't scare me away. You can have low-budget that's really bad, but then you have low-budget where it looks like the people involved really went out and tried to make something special. Whether they did or not doesn't really matter, actually. The passion and creativity are there, and that's what important...and maybe leads to bigger and better things.

The story is your basic road story with twists appropriate for the genre. Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, a real-life couple at the time, play world-weary photographer Andrew Kaulder and Samantha Wynden, daughter of Kaulder's boss, a magazine magnate. Kaulder is tasked with getting Samantha out of Mexico after a disaster destroys her hotel. Oh, and the disaster? A very large, spider-octopus-lookin' thing that could easily have been a star in an H. P. Lovecraft story.

Seems that six years before the movie begins, a probe was sent into space. It crashed back to Earth carrying something...well, many somethings...that grew into these destructive creatures. The new residents of our world are contained in an "infection zone," right about at the border of Mexico and the United States. And, before you start reading political undertones into the movie, Gareth Edwards has stated that there were no such undertones - it's simply where the story is set. So get any political mumbo-jumbo out of your head right away. Some of us watch movies to be entertained, not comb through them for liberal/conservative "secret agendas." Simmer down.

Now, Samantha's dad hired Andrew to get her out of there, but complications arise. Ferries to and from the coast are shutting down due to the creatures' migration patterns. Tickets cost $5000 apiece. Andrew loses Samantha's passport. The only way home is straight through the infected zone.

The film chronicles their journey from the heart of Mexico back home to the United States, and the perils in between. They have several run-ins with the creatures, including one that kills or chases off their armed escort. On their own, and bonding closer and closer along the way, they reach the US of A, only to find the border wall is wide-open, and towns in Texas are being evacuated. They hole up in a gas station and come to terms with their personal lives: Samantha is engaged to someone she doesn't love, and Andrew has a son at home that he loves, but isn't allowed to be his father.

The gas station sequence is really something I enjoyed. Two creatures arrive and after a tense moment, the main characters watch - mesmerized and brimming with emotion - as the two enormous "monsters" communicate and gently caress each other, biological electricity flashing through their bodies in the night. It's a well-done scene, meant to be beautiful, and I imagine I would have the same reaction if I saw something like that at night near my corner gas station. Lucky me, I usually get to see the oblivious schlub picking his nose while he pumps mid-grade.

Monsters is very low-key. It's narrative is slow and deliberate, not meant for shocks and thrills. The "monster" scenes are meant to be tense, but it's never jump-out-of-your-seat stuff. The acting is natural, never forced - Andrew and Samantha come across as real, average people. Everyone else is pretty much an extra...seriously. They used people who were right there to play there.

I wouldn't call Monsters scary, but I'd call it a damn fine effort in making a low-budget, good-looking film.

Oh, and pay close attention to the very beginning and the very end of the movie. Neat little storytelling device there...

Until next time, fellow survivors, pray our own "border walls" hold - the undead are getting pretty relentless...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Roots of Personal Horror: Fears As A Kid (Part I)

Everyone has their own story. We're as different as our own fingerprints. And among those personal differences, we have differences that fall under various umbrellas, including that of social experience. And with those unique experiences come unique fears, depending on where and how one grew up.

The boat that is this particular blog entry set sail early last week. I teach library media in an urban school, which is a far cry from the rural Midwestern town in which I was educated. With the widely varied experiences I've had in my life, I have had little problem adapting to environments unlike the ones closest to me. In fact, I cherish the chance at the challenge or the adventure.

During an eight-grade class, one of the young men handed in his worksheet dealing with Black History Month. One of the names I had the kids research was the brave Medgar Evers. As is well-known, Evers was murdered in 1963 by cowards that were part of the Ku Klux Klan. This student and I fell into a great conversation about Evers, and during the course of the talk, he asked me what the KKK was, as he'd never heard of them. I described them as an "evil, racist gang that hated...actually feared anyone different from them." The young man's expression turned wistful and he admitted to me that he was just chased the week before by a gang that "tried to jump [me]." I told him I was glad he got away, and he continued on about the experience. "They wanted me to join their gang because I'm fast," he said. "But they couldn't catch up to me. " He described how they flanked him, how they ordered each other to "take him down," and how his cousins who are actually in the gang protected him by telling the others to lay off.

"That has to be scary," I told him. "I'm really glad they didn't get their hands on you." He smiled - as many of these children do when an adult expresses genuine care for them - and told me something hopeful, "They want me in their gang, but I won't ever join a gang. They'll keep coming after me, but I won't do it." I patted him on his back and said, "Good. But just be careful, got it?"

I thought about that conversation. I thought about how different his childhood is from what mine was. Yeah, we can't all have the same things or be the same way - nor should we as being unique is what is so interesting - but I couldn't help but think about how wide apart our fears were.

When I was in eighth grade, my biggest world fears centered around the Cold War. On a personal level, however, there were no gangs, per se. Not much "hard knock life" in the small town of Cadillac, Michigan, at least not compared to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Worlds apart. Sure there were the "Jock vs. Burnout Fights" that happened every other day, and the worst that would happen would be someone might have brought a small knife to the rumble. People had rough lives, but I only knew my own life.

I can only imagine the fear that my students live with daily. Torn-apart families, drugs, gangs, and at the center of it all, violence. Violence to each other, from their parents, from others in their community. I wish they could have their childhoods, lives without the real-life fears, but I know it's just that: real life.

Doesn't stop me from wishing though.