LONDON: Never let me in

Posted by · 6:35 pm · October 14th, 2010

In a year that has seen me give over more of my time than is strictly sensible to covering the Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Edinburgh programmes, there’s something oddly disconcerting about attending a festival in my home city.

Admittedly, the atmosphere is dampened by the fact that many of the London Film Festival’s biggest drawcards this year are films I already caught at, well, Cannes, Venice and Berlin — I feel rather as if I’ve betrayed the fest that’s been my cinephile lifeline for five years. More than that, however, when your thoughts between screenings are peppered with grocery lists, doctor’s appointments and other everyday intrusions, it’s hard to feel you’re at a festival at all.

Yet a festival the LFF most proudly is, and a large one at that, incorporating over 170 new(ish) features, plus formidable retrospective and short-film sidebars. The advantage of having got a head start with many of the most anticipated gala screenings (“Black Swan,” “Another Year” and the like) is that I’ve been afforded time this year to seek more buried treasure.

The past two weeks of advance press screenings (a godsend for London residents, an irritation for others) have already turned up a few such gems, as well as allowing me to fill in a few gaps I left in Cannes, in particular. I will cover them in due course as they pop up in the festival programme — those of you who follow me on The Twitter may already have noticed a string of (very) short-form festival reviews.

So after “Never Let Me Go” formally opened proceedings last night — with a lavish afterparty that I regret to say I didn’t wheedle my way into this time — today marked the first full day of public festival activity. Less so for yours truly: having already seen the day’s big offerings, I opted instead for a non-festival screening of Chinese Oscar submission “Aftershock.” (More on that in tomorrow’s Oscar Talk.) I also managed to avoid the festival’s keynote address by director Ken Loach this evening, only for the Twitter grapevine to later inform me that it was a genuinely stirring speech. Them’s the breaks.

Following on from “Never Let Me Go” (***), which I addressed to some degree in today’s Long Shot column, today’s major UK premiere was Matt Reeves’s “Let Me In” (**). With both films essentially yesterday’s news for our US readers, I shan’t dwell too long on them, but I’m afraid to say that neither one left me particularly surprised at its tepid Stateside reception.

What does surprise me, however, are the waves of critical and blogosphere enthusiasm for “Let Me In,” a proficient, over-cautious and infrequently inspired cover version of Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 arthouse horror hit — a film, I should say, that I like a great deal, but hardly hold sacred. The new writer-director fiddles slightly (and not ineffectively) with the structure of the opening, but as the film progresses, it hews ever closer to both the narrative and visual template of the original: a mark of respect, some might say, but more akin to a gawky kid brother who demonstrates admiration for his elder sibling by imitating their every action. Reeves doesn’t just copy scenes wholesale, but gingerly italicizes them with crude digital effects and Michael Giacchino’s smothering score. The material is too strong not to remain essentially compelling, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is a thoughtfully arrhythmic presence in the lead, but any sense of discovery — or alarm — is sacrificed to inside-the-lines coloring.

“Never Let Me Go,” meanwhile, takes a similarly hat-in-hand approach to widely beloved source material, but makes some judicious tucks and fillets in the adaptation that, in its best moments, keep the narrative hovering in uncertainty even for devotees of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel. Cutting immediately to the chase with its sci-fi premise (thanks to some tight exposition from an unusually but effectively crisp Sally Hawkins) where Ishiguro teased it out for longer, the film prioritizes its emotional investigation over its ethical one, but skimps on the finer connecting tissue in the relationship between its three protagonists. That has understandably led many to write the film off as cold, but I found something curiously moving in its chilly guardedness, abetted by a pair of naturally vulnerable and empathetic performers in Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. A shame, then, that this intelligent but over-scented film resorts to instructive voiceover and Rachel Portman’s keening score in its closing stages to make sure we know how very sad a clone’s life is.

Of the day’s other UK premieres, I already reviewed “Silent Souls” and “Chongqing Blues” out of Venice and Cannes respectively, but we were at least served one world premiere in the shape of British artist Gillian Wearing’s feature debut “Self Made” (***). The latest in a long line of 2010 releases fudging the boundaries between documentary and narrative filmmaking, Wearing’s film — likely to find a more natural home on UK television screens soon enough — taps into reality TV modes of psychology and performance by recruiting members of the public to star in a series of semi-improvised short films adapted from their own experiences.

Wearing’s chosen subjects are linked by their working-class backgrounds and emotional inarticulacy, and there’s a queasy thrill in seeing some of them unwittingly expose key character failings and insecurities via an intensive series of therapeutic drama workshops and their eventual meta-performances. The director is clearly more taken with some of them than others, giving the film a lopsided, unfinished quality, and some of the exercises chosen are thuddingly obvious — a modern-dress “King Lear” extract for a teenaged girl with paternal-neglect issues falling particularly flat. But while some of my colleagues have dismissed “Self Made” as exploitative and self-regarding — “Big Brother” going for the Turner Prize, if you will — there’s a palpable sense of discovery and endangerment here that justifies the hit-and-miss experiment.

Tomorrow: I get my first look at Oscar hopeful “Conviction,” while John Sayles’s “Amigo,” hit Sundance doc “Waste Land” and Will-Ferrell-gets-serious vehicle “Everything Must Go” will all come under scrutiny.

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

→ 28 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

28 responses so far

  • 1 10-14-2010 at 7:59 pm

    Marshall1 said...

    Aftershock……so far it’s getting pretty tepid reviews too. This year chinese and hong kong movies are pretty disappointing for me. People should check out KJ: trailer
    It’s a documentary about the piano prodigy, a great character study.

  • 2 10-14-2010 at 8:00 pm

    Marshall1 said...

    It’s out on DVD now I think.

  • 3 10-14-2010 at 8:48 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    Guy, did you ever talk about what you thought of “The Social Network”?

  • 4 10-14-2010 at 9:15 pm

    Chris said...

    Oh my fudging christ I JUST got the title. Genius.

  • 5 10-15-2010 at 12:05 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Marshall: Which film are you referring to? Self Made?

    Nicolas: Not on the site. But since we’ll likely be talking about the film all season long, I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually. I did tweet about it, if that helps. ;)

  • 6 10-15-2010 at 1:33 am

    Kat said...

    Guy, do you take *cheeky* screening requests? I’m guessing that your schedule is probably already tightly packed with films you really want to see, but if you have an opening I’d really love to read your review of Womb. It sounds topically similar to Never Let Me Go but with a more confronting storyline. A woman (Eva Green) clones and gives birth to her deceased lover and then raises him as her own. I read that it screened at TIFF, but I haven’t found many reviews online. A couple that did made reference to Jonathan Glazer’s film Birth.

  • 7 10-15-2010 at 4:20 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kat: You’ll be happy to know that there’s a press screening of Womb bright and early Monday morning, and I’ll do my best to make it.

  • 8 10-15-2010 at 4:53 am

    JJ1 said...

    I know Kris & Guy didn’t dig, but I found Let Me In to be quite excellent, actually. I went in with hesitations (from Kris’ reaction), but came out puzzled because I found it to be beautifully-realized, respectful to most of the orignal, and incredibly moving. Kodi Smit-McPhee sold it for me.

    My friend who saw it with me (and also thought the orignal was great), liked Let Me In even more than me; finding several components which improved the film from the original.

    I don’t know. The reviews speak for themselves. It didn’t strike a chord with American audiences, and plenty of people share Guy/Kris’ opinion, but I think it was mostly the victim of poor marketing.

  • 9 10-15-2010 at 6:01 am

    Pete said...

    Every so often I get reminded why I never cared for Lodge’s writing. It’s so much pretty elitist sounding nonsense. And it’s good that I am able to catch those few instances when I actually it to be true, otherwise I’d be mislead.

    Let Me In’s reception was anything but tepid. In fact, considering the overall disdain for all things readapted, you could say Let Me In was one of the critical triumphs of the year.

    Sure, the audiences shragged it off but then the remake did better than the original, which was an arhouse hit but not a crossover sensation.
    It’s not for a lack of audience’s respect that the film didn’t become a hit, Guy. Sometimes a non-Japanese non-single word horror film can only do so well. Just ask Wes Craven.

    And maybe, just maybe, if you saw Let Me In first, you would have liked it a heck of a lot more. I am not saying that it’s better or worse than the original. I just think that had the storyline been new to you, you would have found it more involving.

  • 10 10-15-2010 at 6:26 am

    Joe said...

    I’m not really sure what Pete’s trying to say. Maybe it’s because he lost me at “elitist sounding nonsense”.
    I guess he’s pointing out the question, though: doesn’t it matter in which order you see the original and the remake? Conversely, if I were to see “Let Me In” before “LTROI”, would the original then be the inferior? I’m curious, because this is how I felt about “The Departed”, which I saw after “Infernal Affairs”.

  • 11 10-15-2010 at 6:35 am

    bunbun said...

    The score in Let Me In was overpowering to the point of being outright annoying. Nothing takes me out of the film experience more than a poor music score. The film – overall – pales if compared to the original. There was beauty in the Swedish film that apparently doesn’t translate into English.

  • 12 10-15-2010 at 7:01 am

    Pete said...

    Joe, what I was trying to say, is that Guy’s opinion that “Let Me In” was tepidly received has less to do with reality and more to do with his own tastes.

    Just because that something was underseen doesn’t mean it was mean it wasn’t liked. A bigger marketing campaign would have served the film well, I think.

    In any case, it is you, Joe who is being confusing:
    “Conversely, if I were to see “Let Me In” before “LTROI”, would the original then be the inferior? I’m curious, because this is how I felt about “The Departed”, which I saw after “Infernal Affairs”.”

    How can you feel that way (i.e. the original being inferior) if you saw “The Departed” (the remake) after “Infernal Affairs” (the original)?

  • 13 10-15-2010 at 7:25 am

    Joe said...

    Pete, that’s what I mean: would I feel differently about “The Departed” if I saw it first? I didn’t know if that was what you were trying to say about “Let Me In”. You seemed to be implying that Guy didn’t like “Let Me In”, simply because he saw the original first.

  • 14 10-15-2010 at 7:42 am

    Pete said...

    Ah, I see. That makes sense now. Actually, my main point was really only limited to his take on why “Let Me In” was not a box office hit. (I was actually trying to make a broader point about relying too much on personal impressions but that was pretty much it).

    The second part of my post, was independantly inspired by the following:

    “Reeves doesn’t just copy scenes wholesale, but gingerly italicizes them with crude digital effects and Michael Giacchino’s smothering score. The material is too strong not to remain essentially compelling, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is a thoughtfully arrhythmic presence in the lead, but any sense of discovery — or alarm — is sacrificed to inside-the-lines coloring.”

    I actually don’t doubt that Guy’s opinion on “Let Me In” is fully formed (regardless on whether it is actually correct). However, when I read about the copying, and, especiallym the sense of discovery, I coulnd’t help but wonder, how much of that lost sense of disovery was due to Guy already knowing the plot and so I ventured a guess that maybe he would if liked it more if the story was new to him.

    It could very well be that I am wrong and the issues he has with the film, would have cropped up even during a fresh watching. If nothing else, a response to this question would have told me more about why he didn’t like the remake.

  • 15 10-15-2010 at 10:21 am

    Silencio said...

    “intelligent but over-scented film”

    very aptly said.

  • 16 10-15-2010 at 10:29 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Pete: Sorry my writing vexes you — we all have some critical voices we connect with more strongly than others. The “tepid Stateside reception” I refer to is that of the public — I clearly mention the critical enthusiasm for the film in the piece, so I’m not sure what you’re on about.

    As for the question of how much more I would have liked the film had it not been a remake, it’s a moot point — the fact is, the film is a remake and therefore needs to play with the expectations that come with that. Yes, the story was not new to me, but neither — for the most part — was the way Reeves chose to tell it. There’s a difference.

  • 17 10-15-2010 at 11:07 am

    red_wine said...

    I agree that a question like “if you had seen this before the original” is a senseless one. There WAS an original and this IS a remake. You can’t alter that. The movie has to be judged as a re-interpretation because original it is clearly not. And anyone who makes a remake knows that comparisons to the original will be forthcoming, you have to afterall justify the very need for a remake.

  • 18 10-15-2010 at 11:30 am

    JJ1 said...

    If I had never known that Let Me In was a remake (which, of course I do), I still would have found it excellent in all facets (except some sketchy visual effects).

    It’s true, you can’t alter the fact that a movie remake is a movie remake. But why should one watch the origin movie just because one exists? Whether one loves or hates the remake, is it only on principle that we should ‘have’ to watch or compare to the original.

    I don’t know how many movies I’ve watched and liked or didn’t and haven’t realized if it was a remake or not, and nor do I care. If I enjoyed it for what it is, then great. If I didn’t … next movie, please.

  • 19 10-15-2010 at 11:34 am

    JJ1 said...

    My point being, I don’t think you should ‘have’ to make comparisons to exalt or tear down any given remake.

  • 20 10-15-2010 at 11:46 am

    Pete said...

    “As for the question of how much more I would have liked the film had it not been a remake, it’s a moot point — the fact is, the film is a remake and therefore needs to play with the expectations that come with that.”

    Guy, you are CLEARLY missing the point. Try to follow what I’m saying here. My question has nothing to do with expectations that come with it being a remake (in fact, I don’t even know what that means – too subjective) and everything to do with knowing or not knowing the plot.

    Stay with me for a moment. There are certain types of films that draw MOST of their power from unpredictability and while they may still be great films second or tenth time around, they will never match the same feeling one has while watching them for the first time (Before Sunset comes to mind as an obvious example of that).

    Here’s an idiotproof explanation of what I said above: Asking if someone’s INITIAL impression of the remake would have changed has the person NOT seen the original is a valid point because, in some cases, seeing the original is movie spoilage. How much of an effect this has on the films varies of course, with storydriven films being the being the most affected.

    And as for the point above, I repeat, that based on what I abserved the audience reaction to “Let Me In” was NOT tepid. It is a victim of a poor exposure and not lukewarm word of mouth.

  • 21 10-15-2010 at 11:56 am

    Pete said...

    Red_wine, the problem with your logic is that it’s built on incorrect assumptions. You simply didn’t think enough before your wrote your response.

    Remakes aren’t made for the people who had seen the original films. Those people, though they are likely to make up a decent percentage of critics, aren’t likely to make up as sizeable a percentage of the audience. This is even more true of foreign language remakes, which are made for one reason only – to get to the people who didn’t see the original because of the language barrier. It’s the nonseeers that are the primary audience and those people by and large are unconcerned (or don’t even know) whether something is a remake. That makes perfect financial sense.

    Realize, that if you had seen the original version of a foreign language remake than you an in the minority. So asking if you had had a different reaction had you not seen the original (which is WAY DIFFERENT from merely knowing it exists) is a very good way of gauging the absolute quality of the film.

    Again, I am talking about the absolute (that is tosay non-relative and non-spoiled) quality here.

  • 22 10-15-2010 at 1:38 pm

    Ben M. said...

    I haven’t seen the original, but on its own I feel Let Me In is one of the best 2010 films I’ve seen along with The Secret In Their Eyes, Toy Story 3, Another Year, and The Ghost Writer.

    My one big complaint was the CGI was poor in some of the set-piece sequences, and that really took away from scenes that were otherwise masterly directed. I’m not shocked that the film didn’t make a ton of money since it is less commercial than most horror films and the marketing was pretty poor. But I feel it deserved its good reviews (maybe even was a little underrated with critics) and will develop a cult following on DVD.

    As for Never Let Me Go, I guess I liked it enough and the score, cinematography, and acting are solid, but it is certainly not one of the standout films of the year. Though if it had done a little better I could’ve seen it becoming a significant awards player because it seems to me like a film that AMPAS might really like.

  • 23 10-15-2010 at 3:52 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Pete: Not that that I don’t appreciate the patronising recap, but I answered your query about knowing or not knowing the plot with my point about storytelling method. You’re clearly feeling bullish about this, and I’m glad the film has such devoted defenders, but this discussion isn’t productive.

  • 24 10-15-2010 at 6:29 pm

    Kat said...

    Guy, thanks for your response up-thread. I’m looking forward to reading more of your Festival reports.

  • 25 10-19-2010 at 4:56 pm

    Roger said...

    Having waited a year for the LFF i was a bit upset that no major premiere was held here this year. I’m very pleased witht the program even though i’ll not be able tosee much more than a handfull of sessions. Only managed to get sreenings today and i saw Meek’s Cutoff and It’s kind of a funny story. I did enjoy the intimacy of Meek’s Cutoff though it wasn’t what i was waiting for, but i was very surprised by Ryan’s film… Did you ever saw or posted your thoughts on “it’s kind of a funny story”? the director came in the end for a Q&A and he seemed quite out of his territory in some questions but i think he did a great job, intentionally or not. The movie is quite sadly refreshing.

  • 26 10-19-2010 at 6:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Roger: Yes, I reviewed “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” here.

  • 27 4-18-2011 at 1:50 pm

    Jill said...

    In regards to LMI, I heard of LTROI before the remake but I never got around to watch it. When LMI came out and my reception was indifference. It was very different movie from other vampire/thrillers but I found it dull. The only inspiring acting was that of Kodi McPhee.

    Just recently I decided to get a copy of LTROI and I must say that I was blown away. While LMI was a well-made film, and Reeves does have talent behind the camera, I can’t help but wonder what waste of $20 million dollars it was. Let’s just say his re-imagining failed to separate it from the original film; besides reading the novel in which LTROI was based on, Reeves had an ample opportunity to keep is word, but he didn’t. Instead, we have a remake that did marginally well in the BO, and when compared to the BO money LTROI gained, it’s a sad comparison.

    Even after doing more research on the conception of LMI, I really can’t fully acknowledge it. It’s there for people to enjoy, but I can’t help feel sickened when people say it’s a revelation or “The Best of . . . ”

    I know I’m in the minority who saw LMI first and greatly prefers LTROI. So no, as someone who saw LMI first, I do not think it is a masterpiece – not even close. That belongs to LTROI, deservingly so.

  • 28 4-18-2011 at 2:03 pm

    Jill said...

    And I have so many typos it’s embarrassing.