One of the joys of TIFF is the element of surprise, when an actor, director or film catches you off-guard. Two such surprises — a serious performance by Will Ferrell, and a worthy Americanized version of "Let the Right One In" — certainly qualify.
A few days ago, Chris Cooper said to me that the industry often pigeonholes actors into doing the same sort of performance and film over and over and over, and though he won an Oscar for 2002’s “Adaptation” he has never been offered anything remotely like that part again.
Indeed, back in 2006, a film entitled “Stranger Than Fiction” here at TIFF displayed an entirely different side to Will Ferrell. He impressed more than a few film critics (myself included) with his dramatic acting chops. And his recent performance as President George W. Bush on HBO made it clear that when he puts his mind to it, he is a gifted actor capable of doing great work.
Now Ferrell has done it again, in a film not as good as “Stranger Than Fiction,” though his performance may be better, darker, and more complex. In his new film film, “Everything Must Go,” directed by Dan Rush, Ferrell gives a strong performance as an alcoholic, fired from his job, kicked out of his home by his wife, and left with only his possessions scattered on his front lawn. The entire premise of the film is how he deals with this, how he comes to recognize that his life is not over and he has the strength to carry on. I daresey this is his best work onscreen … period – and a role that goes against the grain of just about everything he has done.
His character could be a dislikable sort, and he goes straight in that direction, capturing the anger of a man who has allowed, through drink and foolish acts, his life to spiral out of control. It’s self-loathing portrayed at its best – a character who knows deep down he knows he is his own worst enemy, but lacks the courage to do anything about it. Yet there is something so inherently likable within Ferrell that it is impossible to dislike the character. We see him do some very stupid things, we see him at his very worst, but we also know what he is going through and what he is up against. He's not a bad guy, not at all — he's just in a bad way.
Unfortunately, the film itself suffers from being rather one-note. Once his character is established and the other characters are introduced, it all becomes a tad redundant — despite strong performances not only from Ferrell but from Rebecca Hall, who brings a lovely, winsome presence to the film as a pregnant neighbor, having just moved in, getting a rather shocking introduction to Ferrell. He hits the nail right on the head when he tells her she could be looking at her future, but she sees something more in him, and will not let his defeatist attitude get to her. In the moment of the darkest despair of his life, betrayed by someone he truly admired and trusted, he manages to find hope and go on.
Based on a short story "Why Don't You Dance?" by Raymond Chandler, director-writer Rush says he knew upon his first reading the story that this would be his first feature. And knowing he needed a strong actor for the part of Nick, who is in virtually every scene in the film, he thought of no one else but Ferrell. He believed that Ferrell's likability would allow the audience to care about the character. He was right.
The American remake of the brilliant 2007 Danish horror film “Let the Right One In” is “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, who gave us “Cloverfield.” With strong buzz floating around this picture, many in the audience before the film screened were openly wondering if the director of the remake could match the original. Suffice to say it does, though I can’t say I agree with some critics who think it’s actually better. Certainly more money was spent, and the production values are stronger, but that first picture had a stark and cold horror that this – though it is certainly scary – does not have.
Almost a shot-for-shot duplication, the picture is an unsettling, chilling tale of a young American boy and the 12- (more or less, she says) year-old vampire girl he befriends when she moves into his apartment complex. He is struggling with the nasty divorce of his parents, seeking to belong in a school where he is the target of a relentless bully and loolking for something to happen in his life that might interest him. The girl, Abby, tells him from the beginning, "we can't be friends," yet their friendship nonetheless evolves, slowly, as a trust builds between the two. We see glimpses into each of their lives. In their own very different ways, each is an outsider. She, for her need for human blood, he because he is different than the other kids, and targeted by a particular group of boys who openly despise him.
When her protector dies, she is forced to reveal more and more of herself to the boy, who though initially horrified but still understands Abby is the girl underneath it all and cannot help what she is any more than his mother can help what she is. As a police detective — nicely portrayed by Elias Koteas — gets closer and closer to discovering Abby's secret, the boy learns just how far he will go to protect his friend.
As for the vampire attacks, they’re quite startling, as Abby suddenly moves with extraordinary speed, leaping around like a vicious lynx attacking her prey. And there is no shortage of blood. Yet this is also a film about an evolving friendship, and a deep love between two children.
My one big quibble: In the original, there were no glowing eyes, no changes to the girl throughout the film, which I admired. Sadly, Reeves has chosen to allow Abby's features to become more and more monster-like as she feeds, which to me lessened the impact of the horror. How much more terrifying would it be to see that sweet-faced girl feasting on blood, than the green-eyed beast he gives us?
It’s a huge risk, of course, when a film is placed on the shoulders of actors so young, and that must weigh on the director’s mind during the filming. However when the child actors are as strong as they are in this film, Reeves could have had no worries. Initially, when I heard “The Road’s” Kodi Smit-McPhee was going to portray the boy, I was concerned – I thought he was forced and immature alongside Viggo Mortensen. Yet he has grown as an actor, and grounds this film with a fine and strong piece of acting, with his soulful liquid eyes and his feelings for Abby worn on his sleeve.
As Abby, young Chloe Grace Mortez, is otherworldly. Her wise eyes seem ancient, and yet there is a childlike quality to her: "I like puzzles," she tells her friend, not realizing, (or perhaps knowing) he is trying to solve the puzzle that is Abby. She knows what she is, she knows she could kill the boy in a heartbeat, but does not because — despite her belief she cannot have a friend — she knows he is hers.
Reeves more than pulled this off – he gave us a film that will do very well at the box office and provide audiences with some genuine thrills. But hopefully, that won’t cause audiences to forget the original, a chilling exercise in terror with a young girls' face that still haunts the landscape of my mind.