Underseen Movie: ‘Let Me In’ – A Better Than Expected Remake

Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?

Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.

The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.

I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.

As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.

McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.

Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.

“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?

As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.

If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.

Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Cloverfield’ Lives Up to the Hype

Cloverfield

The fact that “Cloverfield” is any good is something of a miracle. This movie was released in January, a month where Hollywood tends to dump all their crappy movies because they have no idea of where else to put them. Plus, this is a movie which could have easily collapsed under the height of anticipation and expectation which preceded it with its brilliant marketing strategy. We all saw the brilliant teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty being thrown down into the middle of Manhattan. We didn’t see the title for the film until months later, and we couldn’t stop thinking about it. This trailer was analyzed like it was the equivalent of the Zapruder film which captured the Kennedy assassination, but now the movie is finally here and has gotten 2008 off to a strong start.

“Cloverfield” takes place in the city of New York which has seen its fair share of destruction on and off the big screen. It starts off with some color bars on the screen and there is a message stating the footage we are about to see is from the area “formerly known as Central Park.” Those are ominous words indeed, and it leaves us in a state of suspended tension as we already know something very bad is going to happen. We first meet Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) as he is filming the apartment of the woman he just slept with, Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman). We see them hanging out in Coney Island throughout, but the movie then jumps ahead to a month or so later when Rob is about to leave New York for a new job in Japan. It turns out Beth and Rob never really hung out with each other again after the great day they had, and the time they had together is always on their minds. But just as they try to sort out their personal issues, the earth shakes beneath them and, of course, all hell breaks loose.

The movie does take its time getting started which is not a bad thing as it takes time to establish the main players and their backgrounds. The script doesn’t flesh them out completely, but they are fleshed out enough to where you do care about them. The big surprise party thrown for Rob is filled with people who look like, at the very least, got a callback for one or more of the shows on the CW network. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers add more ordinary people into this party who did not have the perfect body or such Noxzema clear faces, but anyway.

What makes this monster film particularly effective is how it is told from the ground view. We are there with the people as they experience this disaster firsthand, and the characters are not just simple clichés who look and feel like they belong in a typical watered-down sitcom. This is what drove me nuts about Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla.” Like Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” it is not caught up with the military as they make decisions on how to destroy this enormous beast. It is more concerned with people like you and me and how we might struggle to survive in this situation. The adrenaline keeps running high as Rob and a few others make their way through the decimated city to get to Beth who is trapped in her high-rise apartment.

Another key factor is that “Cloverfield” doesn’t show us the monster right away, and this as a result makes the thought of the monster becomes more terrifying than anything else. We do get to see the monster eventually, but not in its entirety until the latter half. I would love to describe the monster to you, but I’d rather you discover it for yourself as I really don’t want to spoil the surprise. Nothing will compare to the first time you watch this movie.

The movie is also dominated by the shaky cam work which threatens to become an overused method of filmmaking these days. For those of you who have serious motion sickness problems, don’t sit too close to the screen. As for myself, I actually dealt with it just fine. I was starting to think I might have reached my limit with shaky camerawork after watching “The Kingdom,” and it fails in comparison to the brilliant camerawork accomplished in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” But here, it’s fine and it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

“Cloverfield” is not exactly brilliant filmmaking, but it does get the job done and with no real music score might I add. We don’t get to hear a score until the end credits where Michael Giaachiano composed a piece of music which serves a tribute of sorts to the monster movies of the past. Credit, however, should go to director Matt Reeves who directs his first movie here since “The Pallbearer” which was made back in 1996. He keeps the action grounded enough to where we have no problem following the characters even if their situation is not entirely probable. Anyway, we go into a movie like this to have a good time, not to think too hard about everything going on.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Caps Off a Truly Great Trilogy

War for the Planet of the Apes poster

The summer 2017 movie season hasn’t necessarily been a bad one, but so far it has been overrun by franchise fatigue. Did we really need another “Transformers” sequel? Was the wait for the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” really worth it? Can’t Pixar do more than just give us another sequel to “Cars?” Some franchises have seriously overstayed their welcome to where it feels like we need to take a LONG break from sequels of any kind, except of course for the next ones coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But now we have “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third in the rebooted “Apes” franchise which is not only the best one to date, but also one of the best movies of 2017. Unlike other sequels which essentially repeat the same story to nauseating effect, “War” is not out to give us a replica of everything which happened before. From the start, we see how far the apes have evolved, and we also see the humans going through a state of de-evolution as well. In this war, it won’t matter who wins because nothing will ever be the same for anybody.

Taking place two years after the events of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “War” finds the conflict between the apes and the humans getting bloodier and bloodier. Both sides have taken heavy casualties, and the humans have resorted to recruiting apes to betray their own in a desperate effort to gain the upper hand in an escalating conflict. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has now reached a mythic status on the planet as a strong leader, and he now speaks as well as any human. When the movie starts, he has just survived another battle which leaves many dead in its wake, but instead of killing the remaining human soldiers, he sends them back to their base with a message to their leader, leave us alone. At this point, Caesar merely wants to protect his fellow apes and everything which is rightfully theirs.

But after being reunited with his loving family, Caesar suffers an unimaginable tragedy perpetrated by a military unit led by the ruthless Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and he heads out on a mission of revenge which, to quote a Klingon proverb, will be best served cold. Joined by several of his closest friends which include the wise and benevolent Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar comes not just to understand the world around him, but also about himself and of how he may be the maker of his own fate.

Whereas “Rise” dealt with evolution and how humans may not be a superior race of beings, and “Dawn” observed how humans and apes can be their own worst enemies, “War” focuses on the themes of vengeance and hate and what they do to the soul. Caesar’s quest for revenge is completely understandable, but his friends worry about what his hate for the Colonel is doing to his inner self. Caesar finds his strength from within and is as wise as he is strong, but we can see his soul is being corrupted on this mission as he is determined to exterminate his enemy with extreme prejudice.

The cost of revenge is a common theme in many stories, but “War” treats it with a great deal of intelligence. Caesar is constantly haunted by visions of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose treacherous actions led Caesar to drop him to his death in “Dawn.” Maurice, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of these “Apes” movies, reminds Caesar of how Koba never got past his hate for humans to see the need for peace. But while Caesar convinces himself his motives are far purer than Koba’s, he comes to realize he is no different from Koba as his need to exact revenge takes precedence over everything else which holds great meaning in his life. The question is, can Caesar pull out of this moral nosedive before it’s late, or will he sink into an abyss of hatred which will rob him of all he stands for?

Not enough can be said about Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, and his work should have netted him at least one Oscar by now. We have seen Caesar go from being a frightened young ape into a hardened warrior, and Serkis has made every emotional beat count for something deep and true. While the visual effects help to illustrate how he has paid a price for the war being fought, it is Serkis who gives these effects soul and meaning as he plumbs the depths of Caesar to give us a character who is wonderfully complex and haunted by past deeds which cannot be simply washed away.

Woody Harrelson once again reminds us how he can play just about any role given to him these days with his portrayal of Colonel McCullough. His performance draws a bit from Marlon Brando’s in “Apocalypse Now” as, like Colonel Kurtz, McCullough has become a rogue soldier as his need to wipe out the apes and save the humans comes from a place of pain and delusion instead of from a higher military authority. Part of me expected to McCullough to be the usual military antagonist movies of this kind typically employ, but Harrelson gives this character much more dimension than you might be anticipating, and he matches Serkis scene for scene as their characters come to discover how alike they really are.

In addition, Serkis and Harrelson get strong support from Karin Konoval who makes Maurice far wiser than CGI can ever convey, Steve Zahn whose character of “Bad Ape” is kind of the equivalent to “Harry Potter’s” Dobby, and Amiah Miller is a scene-stealer as the mute war orphan who comes to be known as Nova.

Matt Reeves, who directed “Dawn,” returns to helm “War” and tops what he gave us before. The third movie in a franchise usually falls back on a well-trod formula, but he instead advances the plight of the apes to another level which furthers their evolution, and of the humans’ furious attempts to eradicate them which reveals their failings and a tremendous lack of understanding about where we all came from. And while the visual effects are tremendous in how they make the apes look ever so real, they are not the point. Reeves’ focus is more on character and performance more than ever before, and it is those things which make “War” especially epic. A lot of summer blockbusters are geared towards wowing us with special effects to where the human element is lost, but Reeves and company have the special effects serving the movie and its characters in a wonderfully effective way. On top of all this, “War” is well-served by one of Michael Giacchino’s best film scores to date.

The “Apes” reboot trilogy now joins the company of great cinematic trilogies such as Episodes IV, V and VI of “Star Wars,” the Jason Bourne trilogy, and “The Lord of the Rings” among others. It’s so pleasing to see filmmakers give us the kind of summer blockbuster many don’t always expect to see, one filled with great performances and intelligence as well as characters who are very interesting and whom you want to root for. Many blockbusters are the equivalent of a fast food meal which you may have enjoyed eating but which does not leave much of an aftertaste, but this is epic filmmaking which you can’t help but be emotionally drawn into. In a summer movie season which has been lacking to say the least, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a real winner.

I also have to say “War” kept reminded of a Talking Heads song called “(Nothing But) Flowers.” As apes and humans traverse a landscape dominated by trees, rocks and lakes to where you can’t remember the last time you saw a building, the following lyric kept playing in my head:

“If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is an Infinitely Worthy Sequel

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie poster

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds? Our souls? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages, put its own kind in cages.”

-Augustus Hill

“Oz”

This quote from one of my favorite, and most unsettling, television shows of the 1990’s kept reverberating through my mind as I watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the surprisingly well-received “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Animals do operate by their own set of rules and are not governed by the same ones we follow on a regular basis. But what if animals evolved to where they could cage us? Would they really be any different from us? Every creature on this planet yearns for independence from others, but what cost are we all willing to pay for it? This is one of the many questions this movie asks its viewers, and it’s particularly noteworthy to see in a summer movie with a very large budget.

“Dawn” takes place ten years after the events of “Rise,” and the world has changed in a highly dramatic fashion. Much of human civilization has been wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus which Gen-Sys created in the hopes of curing Alzheimer’s disease, and the apes are now the dominant species on Earth. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes, and we see them in their natural habitat working to survive in a hostile world and educating their young. It’s been a very long time since any of them have seen a human, but this changes when they run into Carver (Kirk Acevedo), an ape hating human who makes the mistake of shooting one of them.

From there, we come to see there are still many human beings who have not succumbed to the virus, and among them is Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who is determined to reach out to the apes in a peaceful manner. The humans are running low on power and need to gain access to a hydroelectric dam which is in the apes’ territory. Of course, this requires a lot of trust between the different species for this to happen, and neither one is prepared to make it easy for the other.

With Serkis returning as Caesar, all eyes are on him as he was brilliant in “Rise,” and he knocks it out of the park once again in “Dawn.” Time has hardened Caesar and his trust in humans has almost completely disappeared, and his days are spent protecting his fellow apes and keeping them in line. Yes, all the apes you see here are CGI-created, but the great thing about actors like Serkis is, after a while, they make you forget about how you’re looking at a visual effect. Serkis invests Caesar with such a raw emotional power to where you can’t help but feel for him when things go horribly wrong. Even when Caesar speaks, and it was a shock to hear him say “no” in the previous film, Serkis makes the character’s struggles all the more palpable to where you root for him to ease the divisions between humans and apes.

But what makes “Dawn” especially effective is, like the best science fiction stories, it reflects the struggles of the world today. The conflicts between the humans and apes could easily be compared to those between Israel and Palestine, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor and perhaps even between Star Wars and Star Trek fans (let’s not leave anyone out here). Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and “Let Me In”) mines this material for all the emotional depth it has, and none of the characters, human or otherwise, can be boiled down to a one-dimensional cliché. If they can just get past their perceived differences, the world can become a peaceful place for them to live in.

Also, “Dawn” gets at the unavoidable truth of how the greatest threat to a group doesn’t come from its enemy, but instead from within. Caesar’s second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), can’t get himself to make peace with all the cruel animal testing he was forced to endure before the virus laid waste to the planet. And on the human side, you have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the remaining human survivors who is determined to protect them no matter what. There will always be change and there will always be resistance to change, and Koba and Dreyfus represent the greatest threat to any change which can occur. If they could see that their differences are only skin deep, then maybe there would be a chance but, as Peter Gabriel said, fear is the mother of violence.

Now a lot of people have said the human element in “Dawn” is lacking, but I’m not sure about that. Granted, the CGI creation of the apes is amazing to look at and the actors who inhabit them deserve more recognition than they will probably get when awards season comes around, but “Dawn” has a good human cast as well. Jason Clarke, so good in “Zero Dark Thirty,” proves to be a human worth rooting for as Malcolm, a man who has shared about the same number of loses as Caesar has. Keri Russell, who is currently kicking ass on “The Americans,” reminds us of how lovely she can be playing such a tough woman devoted to her loves in her life as well as in science and facts. Oldman, who can be prone to overacting in movies like this, is fun to watch here as he gives us a character who is not quite a bad guy but not necessarily a good one either. It’s also great to see Kirk Acevedo, so great as Alvarez on the HBO series “Oz,” here as Carver, a former water worker who has trouble getting past his fear and misunderstanding of apes.

The rebooting of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was not exactly met with open arms, and this was especially the case after we witnessed Tim Burton’s incredibly disappointing remake. But ever since “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this franchise has proven to be one to look forward to. Our expectations for it remain in check, and things get even better this time around with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Even if this movie ends on a note of despair over what could have been, there is still an inkling of hope as we look into Caesar’s eyes. For once, we get the feeling all of humanity might actually learn from its mistake, and maybe the apes can too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *