PICKS OF THE WEEK
Let Me In (B)
U.S.; Matt Reeves, 2010, Anchor Bay
Matt Reeves' American remake of the widely praised Swedish kid-vampire movie Let the Right One In -- its title now shortened to Let Me In -- is not a bad movie, as modern vampire movies go. It's not unintelligent, crass or hokey. Nor is it a big fancy expensive gory-glossy-teen-romance like Twilight, or a mindless travesty like Vampires Suck. Let Me In's delicate portrayal of childhood angst, its more sensitive tale of an outsider romance between two alienated 12-year-olds -- culled by Reeves from the original film made in 2008 by novelist-screenwriter John Ajvide Lindquist and director Tomas Alfredson -- has been cited for its moody lyricism and its respect for its audience's intelligence, and praised by many critics as a good, maybe great, genre piece.
Truth to tell, I found Let Me In somewhat unpleasant, unscary, slightly pretentious and relatively unmoving -- good at times, but not perfect.
My reaction surprised me because -- though I haven't yet seen the Alfredson-Ajvide-Lindquist original -- I'd been looking forward to both. I'm predisposed toward my Swedish cinema ancestors, and fully supportive of their famous propensity for gloom and suffering, appreciative of their coups of mood, landscape, intense acting, milieu and deep drama. (Ingmar Bergman, Victor Sjostrom and Jan Troell are three of my all-time favorite filmmakers). And I was even partial to Matt Reeves' previous movie, the brilliantly gimmicky false-home-video "let it run" horror show Cloverfield.
But something about Let Me In alienated me almost from its first scenes, including the grisly nocturnal hospital episode that kicks things off. In it, a burned, blood-caked man (Richard Jenkins) -- shown in grim, chilly shots that resemble cinema verite for ghouls -- is brought into a room and later joined by a cute, determined little girl, maybe his daughter, named Abby (Chloe Moretz) who wreaks havoc and disappears. A taciturn policeman (Elias Koteas) arrives, investigates, begins to suspect a satanic cult behind this and other recent murders. Maybe he's right. But the images of that flayed, burned, dying man and the runaway little girl hang over the movie from then on.
We are in another time and place -- in Los Alamos, N.M. (bomb-testing territory) in 1983, in the depths of winter and of the Reagan era. Flashbacks show us our other main identification figure, besides little Abby: an incongruously doll-like 12-year-old boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who lives with a drunken mother (Cara Buono) and peers at his neighbors in an apartment complex (Abby is one) with a 'scope through his darkened window, like the young voyeur in Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love from The Decalogue, or like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.
He's a bit of a creep, but the movie doesn't play him that way, drawing him instead as a victim in search of affection and human love. And a victim he certainly seems -- at least initially. Owen is being tormented by bullies at school. His new neighbor, Abby, we soon learn, is a vampire. And the burned man was not her father, but her familiar, a creature charged with finding Abby blood snacks and blood feasts.
"We can't be friends," Abby tells Owen, near a jungle gym. But of course they do become friends, headed toward maybe more. And, of course, Owen's sadistic tormentors are in trouble. The arena of menace and carnage for them all is a huge indoor swimming pool, next to a dark room of metal lockers, where Owen is attacked and where revenge brews.
It sounds eerie, and it looks eerie too. Greig Fraser's (Bright Angel) cinematography and the Michael Giacchino (Up) score plunge us into twisted-up edgy melancholy. The attacking bullies (led by Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak) are nasty little shits. Koteas' snoopy cop bristles with threat. The very air seems cold and dead, heavy with dread, and Jenkins looks like man grown tired of hell, but stuck in his contract. There are some very, very effective moments and scenes in Let Me In -- never more so than during the moments when the youngsters are huddled together, hiding, in darkness, alone against the world.
Here's the trouble with the story. It wants to make us feel for these outsider kids. But it's sadistic and self-pitying in a way I found off-putting, steeped in a trash-strewn gloom that uneasily mixes real-life sadness, viciousness and deadly supernatural fantasy. The kids are attractive, but they show little empathy or feeling, except for each other.
Let Me In is probably being seen as the anti-Twilight, which, in a way, it is. But I liked the film vampire legend better when the vampires were genuinely evil and deeply frightening -- as they were in Murnau's Nosferatu, Dreyer's Vampyr, the Tod Browning-Bela Lugosi Dracula, and in the Christopher Lee Hammer Horror shows, or even among the scuzzy bloodsucking rebels of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark -- than more recently, when the vampires began to clean up the cobwebs, dust off their capes and become more romantic or sympathetic figures, as with Frank Langella's Count, or Gary Oldham's for Francis Coppola (the best of this approach) or the hunks of Twilight. (Let Me In, by the way, revives the Hammer brand.)
The best argument for redoing good foreign films here is that at least you're starting with good material. Let Me In has good stuff in it, good ideas, a good mood, a good source. Good blood, I guess. And if my reaction to it seems perverse or even skittish, remember that I grew up in a small Midwestern village with only about 1,114 people. Stephen King wasn't around, Twilight wasn't around. I don't think we had any vampires. (Extras: commentary by Matt Reeves; deleted scenes; trailers.)
Army of Crime (A-)
France: Robert Guediguian, 2010, Kino Lorber
Army of Crime is one of those movies that take history -- in this case, the saga of the French Resistance in World War II -- and make it come blisteringly alive. The film also shines a light on a great contemporary French filmmaker who, apart from festivals and art-houses, has been somewhat ignored and neglected here in the U.S.: Robert Guediguian.
Guediguian is the man who made the marvelous romantic comedy-drama Marius and Jeanette, and other warm, humane, funny-sad leftist ensemble films, often about the contemporary French lower middle class, often set in Guediguian's hometown, Marseille. Here, he trains his camera, and brings part of his vibrant acting repertory company, to a story set in Paris in the World War II past, a subject relentlessly grim and full of pain and terror.
Guediguian's mostly real-life tale follows the bloody and overmatched battle against the Nazi occupiers of a group of 22 French Resistance fighters composed mostly of immigrants and outsiders: Armenians, French and Polish Jews, Hungarians, anti-Franco Spaniards, and many others -- people outside the mainstream of French society, but willing to risk death or the camps to try to save it, and each other, it was a group that was actually dubbed the "Army of Crime" by the Nazis.
It's an exciting story, and a tragic one. (We know most of these Resistance fighters will be rounded up and sent to their deaths from Guediguian's very first scene.) But it's not dark and downbeat in the way of, say, Army of Shadows, by the Jewish ex-Resistance fighter and supreme noir filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville.
Cheerless, downbeat and full of dread, Army of Shadows presented a gallery of seemingly doomed fighters in the grip of a nightmarish inhumanity that seemed to have swallowed up the world. Army of Crime suggests that the normal world, and normal emotions and loves, still exist both outside and inside Vichy France, but that they are under battering assault -- and that though most of the Resistance men and women we see here may never know that sweet or buoyant life again, the world Guediguian paints elsewhere, some of them might.
Guediguian's gift for creating humanity and life permeates his film, gives it a grim humor and a romantic charge. The focus of the movie's ensemble is the Armenian Resistance leader Missak Manouchian -- played by Simon Abkarian, with the uncommonly beautiful non-Guediguian regular, Virginie Ledoyen, as his wife Melinee. And we follow Missak through one violent or dangerous scene after another, though internal resistance battles with dogmatic superiors (the Resistance had a considerable Communist presence, something the leftist Guediguian doesn't gloss over), the group's assaults on the Nazi soldiers and officers, and the (largely unintentional) betrayals and roundups by Vichy police such as the dogged Inspector Pujol (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
As a portrait of political warfare, Army of Crime seems to me more powerful and moving than Olivier Assayas' often excellent Carlos, and not just because the Resistance fighters were mostly good guys and Carlos a bad one. By showing men like Missak, who didn't fight and kill out of predisposition or temperament (as Carlos seemingly did), but out of genuine idealism, the movie steeps us in the dramatic contradictions, and deep tragedy, of war. The imminence of death constantly cues the drama here, and Guediguian presents the horror of daily life under the Nazis with both sensitivity and with the appalled gaze of a man of peace and optimism gazing at a (past) world of war, blood and terror. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: interviews with Guediguian and Ledoyen.)
U.S.: Tony Goldwyn, 2010 (20th Century Fox)
Movies about travesties of justice always boil my blood -- and I felt a lot of the old simmer and rage while watching Conviction.
Tony Goldwyn's real-life crime and courtroom saga is about the unjust incarceration (for murder) of a reckless working-class guy named Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), who was suspected of killing a lady friend, got framed for the murder by a vindictive cop, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), a bully who didn't like his manner, and got him sent up for life -- but whose determined, loving, indefatigable sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) refused to give up on him.
Instead, Betty Anne studied law, became a lawyer, dug up every record, re-interviewed the witnesses, and finally after nearly two decades, and after her own family and marriage fell apart, connected with Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and Peter Neufeld's Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to clear wrongly incarcerated, even condemned, prisoners.
The movie should make you happy on several levels. It shows us, believably, that love counts, that the little guy can beat back even the most stubborn abuses of power, and that no matter how huge the task and long the odds, the heart and brain may find a way.
Swank plays Betty Anne with just the right mix of guts, slightly pain-in-the-ass grit and raw devotion -- and though I hesitate to say it so semi-schmaltzily, she creates a character here both achingly real and a real role model. Swank has probably gotten her quota of Oscars for a while. But Rockwell, who gets both the good and bad sides of Kenny -- he makes us like him, makes us understand why Betty Anne loves him, but also shows why he can be dangerous -- is worth the prize talk he's generated.
Elsewhere, Melissa Leo (a powerhouse in Frozen River) is a chillingly blank-eyed Officer Taylor, and Minnie Driver is the best, toughest, warmest gal-pal Betty Anne, or this movie, could have. The smaller roles are equally high caliber -- like Gallagher as the sharp-eyed Scheck, or Juliette Lewis in one of her sleazy-sexy roles as a bad witness. And the movie has that actor-friendly, perfectly staged Sidney Lumet feel I'm sure Conviction director Goldwyn wanted. (Extras: conversation with Tony Goldwyn and Betty Anne Waters.)
The Naked Kiss (B)
U.S.: Samuel Fuller, 1964, Criterion
This Sam Fuller movie begins with one of the great shocker low-budget opening scenes: a beautiful bald prostitute (played by Constance Towers) beating the crap out of her procurer, losing her wig, pulling out the cash he owes her, and dumping the rest on his whimpering chest. Fuller, freed of any strictures of big-studio propriety, shoves this scene in our faces: At one point hooker Kelly aims her purse at the camera, and batters us movie voyeurs as well as her ex-pimp.
But The Naked Kiss is also a romance (of sorts) and a woman's picture (of a particularly dark and mordant kind). And soon we see Kelly in a typical '50s-early '60s American small town or city, called Grantville, trying to escape the dark past of that first violent scene by becoming a nurse's aid: a natural care-giver, specializing in adorable children, who sing sentimental songs. Kelly, meanwhile, is crazy for Fuller's favorite composer, Beethoven, and especially "The Moonlight Sonata." And can she escape the past? Maybe not. The only movie playing in Grantville's cinema is Fuller's own previous Constance Towers picture, Shock Corridor.
Kelly's nemesis seems to be a salty cop named Griff (played growlingly by Anthony Eisley, of TV's Hawaiian Eye), who beds her right off the incoming bus, pays $20, and then directs her to the nearest brothel in the next town (a bordello run by film noir regular Virginia Grey). Her salvation seems to be the strangely gentle playboy/philanthropist/Lothario (and Griff's Korean War buddy) Grant (Michael Dante), who, like Kelly, loves Beethoven and Lord Byron. And something else.
Full of Fullerian sock and sensation, The Naked Kiss -- which, like Fuller's 1963 Shock Corridor, was cheaply but artfully art-directed by Eugene Lourie (Renoir's The Rules of the Game) and gorgeously shot in black-and-white by Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter) -- is also rife with a bizarre tenderness, a tough romanticism, and something part of the way between schmaltz and weltschmerz.
Just as, according to Kelly, the "naked kiss" is the kiss of a pervert (and a guaranteed '60s marquee draw), this movie has a little bit of Baudelaire peeking up though the Fannie Hurstisms. It's Fuller's most Sirkian film, just as Shockproof (co-written by Sam) was Sirk's most Fullerian.
The Naked Kiss is also a fine showcase for Constance Towers, an underrated leading lady who worked for John Ford (in The Horse Soldiers and Sergeant Rutledge) as well as Fuller, but whom Hitchcock somehow just missed. She'll never be forgotten for that opening scene, though. Among bald prostitute movie leading ladies, Constance Towers is the queen. (Extras: new interview with Constance Towers; 1967 and 1987 French television interviews with Sam Fuller; trailer; booklet with Robert Polito essay, excerpt on prostitutes and "The Naked Kiss' from Fuller's autobiography A Third Face; and illustrations by the great cartoonist and comic artist Daniel Clowes.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Never Let Me Go (C+)
U.K.; Mark Romanek, 2010, 20th Century Fox
This adaptation of an austere, melancholy science fiction novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (who wrote the book from which Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala made the splendid Remains of the Day) gives us a world where test tube babies are bred to become organ donors for the terminally ill. Icy premise, awful world. In scenes well-written by Alex Garland, well-directed by Mark Romanek (who made the 1985 sleeper Static), and very well-acted by all, we follow three of the donors-to-be -- big-hearted Kathy (Carey Mulligan), her howling great love Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and her sexy overcompetitive friend, and Tommy's seducer, Ruth (Keira Knightley) -- through lively but troubling school years (Charlotte Rampling is their cool headmistress), with broken hearts haunted by a cassette with Helen Monheit singing, pleading "Never Let Me Go," to a mournful adulthood, full of recurring, cloudy ocean-side beach scenes where a somber sky is spread above abandoned sands, and waves lap, lap the shore. (Extras: featurette; Mark Romanek photos; trailers.
U.S.: Buzz Kulik, 1969, Olive
Jim Brown, Gene Hackman and Ben Carruthers (the star of Cassavetes' Shadows) are three convicts who are part of a riot and takeover (and secret breakout tunnel plot) at the real-life Arizona State Prison -- whose warden and many actual prisoners appear as supporting players or extras. It always seems as if should be better than it is -- the writer is James Poe of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? -- but the movie stays grim and relentless and second-rate to the end. Brown holds his own acting with Hackman, which is saying something.