By Mike Wilmington

MW on DVDs: Let Me In, Alice in Wonderland, Conviction, and Never Let Me Go


Let Me In (Three Stars)

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 often for its moody lyricism, its respect for its audience‘s intelligence, and praised by many critics as a good, maybe great, genre piece.

I can see justification for some of the nearly universal praise the movie has gotten. But, truth to tell, I also found Let Me In somewhat unpleasant, unscary, slightly pretentious and relatively unmoving — good at times, but not perfect, or near-perfect.

Let me out. Perhaps I’m wrong. 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 (not the emergency room, it seemed, where he obviously would have been taken) 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, New Mexico (bomb-testing territory) in 1983, in the depths of winter and of the Reagan era. (We soon see the President himself, greatly communicating, on good and evil, on TV.) Flashbacks show us our other main identification figure, besides little Abby: an incongruously doll-like little 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, an only child of a neglectful alcoholic mother, is being tormented by bullies at school, who obsessively razz and assault him. His new neighbor, Abby, we soon learn, is a vampire. (No surprises there.) 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.


But this movie’s romance and tenderness did nothing for me, and they should have. (Twilight,“ I hasten to say, does nothing, or less than nothing, for me either.) I liked these kids sometimes, but they seemed weirdly disconnected from their states, their beings. When Abby turns vampire, she’s a bit like the demon-possessed swivel-headed Regan in The Exorcist, a fiend with mad eyes and a gorgon’s voice, who’ll rip you apart. I liked being shocked by The Exorcist. I didn’t like it in Let Me In.


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. When Owen bashes his lead attacker with a pole on a school outing, and cuts his face open, it’s strangely callous, even though it also prefigures the carnage we know is probably to come. And I never felt much real suspense. Even the driven cop (even played by Koteas) didn’t seem much of a threat.

Let Me In, in a way, 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.)


In a way, Let Me In (and maybe Let the Right One In before it) represents the ultimate example of a sympathetic vampire: an attractive, loving, vulnerable-looking little girl whose vamp talents may save a little boy from his tormentors. But doesn’t this sympathy and half-happy romance throw our emotions off kilter? Let Me In might have been better, more powerful, if it had had a really shocking ending, if Owen had recoiled from Abby, and she had been forced to kill and eat him, and wept over the bloody chunks.


The best argument for remaking good foreign films here is that at least you‘re starting with good material. Even if I didn’t like it as much as others, 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.



Alice in Wonderland (60th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD Combo Special Edition) (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson, 1951 (Walt Disney)

Of all the many adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s enchanting yet oddly disturbing children’s story — the Don Quixote of fairytales — this Walt Disney feature cartoon is one of the most sheerly likable. The animators bestow a voluptuous color on the John Tenniel-derived images. The songs (“I’m Late,“ “The Unbirthday Song”) are lively, pe-Shermanesque. The boisterous cast of Wonderlanders includes Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Jerry Colonna (“Greetings gate! Let‘s palpitate”), Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, and, as Alice, pert little Kathryn Beaumont — who is also featured on this DVD’s extras.

Mysteriously, Disney himself apparently didn’t like this movie much, though he’d adapted Alice before, in a series of live action/animation shorts back in the ‘20s, B. M. (Before Mickey). As a child, I found Carroll straight up both a mesmerizing and eerie experience, when I read him at seven or so. Except for the terrifying Cheshire Cat, the Disney version doesn’t have the weird intensity that makes the book not just a child’s, but an adult classic. Maybe that’s what worried Walt. ‘Shrooms, anyone?

Extras: Color TV Walt Disney intro; Guide to Wonderland; Games; Deleted Cheshire Cat song, “I’m Odd.”


Conviction (Three Stars)

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.“ (This whole review, by the way, is potentially SPOILER ALERT, but you probably know the story anyway, and if you don’t, knowing it won’t really hurt the movie much. But, if you want, quit reading here. See the picture anyway.)

Tony Goldwyn’s real-life crime and courtroom saga, which is a very good job all around, 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. It was still a chore, because, as in many cases like this, the police and the prosecutors don’t like to admit mistakes.

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. I just hope he’s nominated in the lead actor Oscar category, which is winnable for him, and not supporting actor, a seemingly more probable slot, but a game-plan that’s not really fair to most of the other supporting candidates — then forced to compete against this movie’s lead male role, against something so deep and rich, and, as any actor will tell you, the best acting part this movie has to offer.

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.

Back in 1999, Goldwyn made a moving family drama called A Walk on the Moon, set in 1969 in the Catskills, and back-dropped by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and Woodstock. Goldwyn’s very talented screenwriter then was Pamela Gray, and she also wrote Conviction, which has some of the same qualities, the same laser eye on part-dysfunctional but loving families, the same sure structure, the same kind of meaty roles. I’m sure all the actors were glad that her name, and her words, were on the page. Thanks to Gray and all of them, and thanks above all to Betty-Anne Waters, this is a bio-drama full of feeling, strength and the right sense of justice.

Except for one thing.

SPOILER ALERT (seriously, this time).

Roger Ebert brings up something important in his review, that had puzzled me, and that may actually be a notable script flaw. In the final pre-credits notes, we learn what happened to the main characters, but not what happened to Kenny. According to Roger, Betty Anne’s brother died in an accident a half-year or so after being released from jail, while going over a high wall on the way to his mother’s house.

When I read this, I was stunned. Why in the world wasn’t this information in the movie? Was it cut out of the script, or the film? Was it nixed by some exec with a rulebook and a happy-ending fetish? It’s hard for me to believe that Goldwyn and Gray would have wanted that scene, or even just at mention in the crawl, deleted — or that Rockwell and Swank would want it gone either.

Doesn’t anybody in power realize what a potentially great sequence they threw away (Kenny saying goodbye, and then Kenny taking the leap, falling, dying), what an unforgettable piece of real-life drama and irony they just ignored? The ending right now in Conviction is a piece of more conventional uplift. The real-life ending (if that’s it) just rips your heart out, tears your guts open — besides reinforcing and driving home as strongly as possible the movie’s core theme of injustice, and of how it can ruin lives, and why it’s so necessary to fight it every chance you get.

By the way, Peter Neufeld, of Neufeld and Scheck, and the Innocence Project, is an old college friend of mine, and a fellow movie buff; I once tried to get him a spot on the UW Memorial Union Film Committee, with Joe McBride, Gerry and Danny Peary and the rest of us. Now, I’d just like to thank him and his partner Barry for the incredibly good jobs they keep doing. And thanks too to all the people who made Conviction, for the good work they did here as well, in this picture, in this heartfelt story. They really meant it; we can tell.


Extras: Conversation with Tony Goldwyn and Betty Anne Waters.



Never Let Me Go (Two and Half Stars)

U.K.; Mark Romanek, 2010 (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 over-competitive 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.


I confess I am one of those viewers who finds this very well-made movie somewhat unaffecting and even alienating because nobody makes a break for it — because we never even seem to hear a false rumor of revolt, but instead watch these sympathetic people walk placidly, inexorably, toward what’s called “completion.” Is it a Holocaust analogue? Is it programmed cloning? Is it the worst example of the secret psychic chains of the old British class system? Is it some warped desire not to be accused of excessive melodrama by upper-class British literary critics? Is it incomplete writing?


Whatever, it inhibits empathy. For me, at least. And as someone who would have liked very much to donate a kidney to his dying mother, I find health care nightmares devastating.

Extras: Featurette; Mark Romanek photos; Trailers.

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Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
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Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
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NOTA 71,300 138
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Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
Dolphin Tale 2 16.6 (4,540) NEW 16.6
Guardians of the Galaxy 7.9 (2,550) -23% 305.8
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The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4