Sunday, December 7, 2008

Saturday Night Double Feature: "Let the Right One In" & "Synecdoche, New York" - REVIEW(s)

Vampire films are not the easiest sub-genre of horror to do well. First off, there's the cliched, campy ideal of the "Dracula" vampire, who lives in a lavish castle, and lives with his undead wives, and speaks in a thick accent that often borders on self-parody. Then, most recently, there's Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series (and film), which in all its efforts to do something new with vampire lore (eyes that grow darker the longer they wait before their next "feed"), amounts to little more than a sloppy teen romance. Just when it seemed like there was nothing left to do with vampire stories, along comes this little Swedish film. Doing for vampires what "28 Days Later" did for zombie stories (grouding them in a grittier, more realistic setting), "Let the Right One In" is a bleak triumph of a movie, even if it's not quite the masterpiece it's been touted as. From the beginning, we're given the feeling that something's not quite right. The opening credits, which are mostly silent, consist solely of plain white text, and snow gently falling against a black sky. The longer it stretches on, the more unnerving it becomes, until you're on the edge of your seat, just waiting for someone to yell "BOO!" That moment never happens, which is a good thing, because it allows the story to segue into its eerie opening moments, when two new residents arrive at an apartment complex on a dark and snowy night. From there, we're introduced to Oskar, a 12 year old boy who keeps to himself and is often the victim of bullying at school. Though he owns a small knife and fantasizes about getting back at the bullies, he never has the courage to respond in an actual situation. Soon, however, he meets Eli, a mysterious girl who has moved in next door, and is, well...different (she doesn't know when her birthday is, she can't feel cold, etc...). As this odd couple relationship begins to develop, the movie finds its sweet-spot, and becomes something unique. The best aspect of the relationship is that, unlike "Twilight", it isn't gooey, but instead restrained, and is also balanced with some good old fashioned vampire violence. Even in its bloody moments, though, "Let the Right One In", manages to be effective in presenting its violence in a mostly non-stylized way, and also one that relies more on sound than on sight. An early killing that we see involves someone being hung upside down, and then cut at the neck so that the blood flows down into a bottle. Most modern horror movies would go crazy with a scene like this, and show all the gorey detail, right down to the knife cutting the flesh, but "Let the Right One In" doesn't. Instead, we see this whole scene from the back, so that we only know what's happening by some visual cues (ie: person takes out a knife and moves toward the victim) and brilliantly disturbing sound effects. Because very little of the violence is shoved in the audience's face, it becomes more frightening. The only problem with the violence, of course, occurs when it becomes too clear what's happening, even if it does result in an inventive spin on vampire lore (throw out the garlic, and buy cats. Lots and lots of cats). This scene of more direct violence not only lacks that ooky mystery of previous incidents, but also brings in some rather cartoony looking visual effects, which can border on being unintentionally funny. An additional problem is the subplot involving the bullies who torment Oskar. Though they're obviously jerks, we are hardly given a sense that they're truly cruel until very late in the game, vhich makes the thought of their demise not as satisfying as it should be. Even so, performances are good all around, especially from the two young leads. Directing is also quite strong, and is amplified by the cinematography, which, though bleak, never becomes dull or repetitive; it actually heightens the suspense, even when the story begins to drag a bit in the middle. For all the little flaws it posseses, "Let the Right One In" is still very much worth your money, even if you're not a fan of vampire movies (or horror movies in general); it is a refreshing and unique experience that, despite its frosty setting, definately won't leave you cold.

Grade: B+

Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay(#2), Best Cinematography(#3), Best Makeup(#2), Best Original Score(#4), Best Foreign Language Film - Sweden(#1 WINNER)

By taking a look at most of what's out in theaters or sitting on the shelves at Blockbuster, you might be led to think that, in spite of multiple ways of telling them, there are no completely original stories left. This assumption, however, is wrong; you just have to look hard enough for the answer. That answer, as it turns out, is "Synecdoche, New York" (pronounced: si-nek-duh-kee), the directorial debut from "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" writer Charlie Kaufman. Despite its modest budget, "Synecdoche" is more ambitious, more exhilarating, and, dare I say it, more epic, than most of Hollywood's big budget blockbusters. Darkly funny, beautifully poignant, and undeniably bizzare, "Synecdoche" is a love letter to originality that manages to succeed on multiple levels, for a dazzling, albeit headscratching, experience. Just make sure you're alert, or else you'll be totally lost in its maze of a plot. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is middle aged, mildly successful, in failing health, and terribly unsatisfied with his life. His relationships with his wife Adele (bitch du jour Catherine Keener) and daughter are crumbling, and he is plagued by a sense of complete failure, even when his most recent play is a hit. As time progresses, he is named a winner of a MacArthur grant, and decides to put the money to use as part of his greatest creation: a theater piece that sums up life, built inside of a rundown warehouse. As the show slowly (we're talking years) comes together and becomes increasingly intricate, Caden also develops romantic relationships with one of his actresses (Michelle Williams), and later, his box-office-worker-turned-assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton, who turns in the strongest performance out of the stellar supporting cast). The more time passes, the more surreal the story becomes, and it's a spellbinding one. With daft eccentricity (Hazel buying a house that is literally on fire) and quick humor (Caden's encounters with his uppity therapist, played by Hope Davis), "Synecdoche, New York" presents us with a wildly original tale of love, loss, success, failure, and the power of imagination. Led by a delightful script and strong performances, "Synecdoche" is the perfect movie for anyone who appreciates what happens when studios actually let original ideas make it to the big screen intact.

Grade: B+

Nominations: Best Picture(#5), Best Director - Charlie Kaufman(#5), Best Actor - Philip Seymour Hoffman(#2), Best Supporting Actress - Samantha Morton(#2), Best Original Screenplay(#1 WINNER), Best Original Song - Little Person(#1 WINNER), Best Makeup(#1 WINNER)

Number of 2008 Films Seen: 44

Top 10 of the Year:
1. The Dark Knight
2. Australia
4. In Bruges
5. Synecdoche, New York
6. Let the Right One In
7. Burn After Reading
8. The Fall
9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
10. I've Loved You So Long

Best Of the Rest:
The Duchess
Rachel Getting Married
Tropic Thunder

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