Blu-ray Review: Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

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Whether they love or loathe the wildly successful Twilight franchise, I pity viewers that are so narrow-minded that instead of the inability to see the forest for the trees, they’re unable to separate the immensely talented actress Kristen Stewart from her one-dimensional role as Bella Swan in Stephanie Meyer’s series.

Likewise because Twilight’s success is so overwhelming that it can cause tunnel vision, it’s worth reminding viewers that Stewart’s career was well in existence B.B. (Before Bella). Namely, in the course of twenty plus films released in a little more than a decade, we’ve witnessed the onscreen evolution of one of this generation’s most promising young stars.

And fittingly since it is such a fan-driven phenomenon, the actress revealed in this month's Vogue that her ultimate goal with Twilight is just to make the Meyer’s loyal fan-base happy from one adaptation to the next.

Therefore, ultimately it’s in her non-vampire related material that we get a stronger sense of the young woman’s range as a performer and commitment to seeking out incredibly diverse projects that challenge and fascinate Stewart.

For in spite of the immediate red flags that go up whenever we read about another stripper or hooker role in the world of independent film given the potential for clich├ęs and exploitation, Stewart’s daring gamble to portray a teenage runaway turned stripper pays off in director Jake Scott’s flawed, unusual yet mostly effective chamber piece, Welcome to the Rileys.

Working from an admittedly sudsy yet well-intentioned screenplay penned by Inventing the Abbotts scribe Ken Hixon, Rileys is as tough and tender as the man who embodies its main character Doug Riley in the form of Sopranos star James Gandolfini who -- like Stewart -- knows a thing or two about having been typecast by a franchise hit.

Although it’s been eight years since the tragic death of their teenage daughter, Doug and his wife Lois (Frozen River and The Fighter Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) remain numb in their grief. However, whereas Doug tries to keep up appearances by bluffing his way through weekly poker games and carrying on a ritual affair with a local waitress who enjoys their uncomplicated arrangement, it seems that the emotionally stagnant, agoraphobic Lois has folded on the outside world altogether.

Yet when another abrupt offscreen tragedy forces a startled Doug to come face-to-face with couple's lot in life, he embarks on both a literal and existential journey after a standard work trip to New Orleans turns into a second chance to set things right.

And even though he doesn’t delude himself for a second, knowing from the moment he meets the Stewart’s down-on-her-luck Florida runaway turned stripper Mallory that aside from a slight resemblance she isn’t anything like his deceased daughter, instinctively as a parent who lost a child, Doug can’t turn his back on a child without a parent.

So what begins as a tentative, awkward relationship between the two strangers that Doug likens to a business deal by paying her a ridiculous sum of money to stay at her rundown place instead of a hotel soon grows into a strong bond that gives Doug a renewed sense of purpose.

Thus, almost as an afterthought once he's already started to turn Mallory's place into a new home, Doug phones his wife and tells her he isn’t coming back, unintentionally lighting the fuse that gives Lois the emotional explosion that she needs to... do something.

However, her reaction takes the form of a dubious act that takes our sense of suspension of disbelief and pushes it just a little too far. After only a few mini-obstacles, somehow Lois not only manages to overcome what had previously been a crippling case of agoraphobia so severe that she couldn’t fetch the newspaper at the edge of her driveway but amazingly she also finds the strength to drive all the way to New Orleans while magically going off her medication at the same time.

Melissa Leo handles her character's transformation into a plucky Pollyanna with humor and feminine grace and overall it's a decidedly refreshing alternative to the staggering amount of doom and gloom Lars von Trier style woman-scorned nervous breakdowns we see in independent cinema.

Nonetheless, despite trusting that the filmmakers' motives are pure, it's hard to ignore that in this case with such an abrupt change, the old "toss out your prescriptions and pick yourself up by your bootstraps" concept is handled a little too breezily, ultimately coming across as slightly condescending and insensitive to individuals that are truly overcome with grief.

Yet even though we don’t really buy the coincidences and contrivances that comprise Plunkett and Macleane director Jake Scott’s sophomore movie as though it were just another entry into the indie film world of grief-a-palooza (that can be divided into subgenres of deceased children, spouses etc.), we’re nonetheless willing to appreciate Rileys as a sort of rough-around-the-edges humanistic fairy tale.

In fact given the admittedly emotionally manipulative plotline, without the grit, Rileys could have actually been in danger of evolving into a Hallmark Hall of Fame style two-hankie presentation.

But despite a few far-too-obvious instances of visual symbolism, the technical craftsmanship of Jake Scott (son of Ridley and nephew of Tony) is superb and helps hide some of the shortcomings in the script, which is likewise evidenced in an impressive Blu-ray transfer from Sony.

However, it’s a character-driven piece overall and one that would’ve been just too much to believe without its pitch perfect casting. With this in mind, Rileys is augmented by the dynamic portrayals of its damaged trio-- first and foremost by James Gandolfini who seemingly carries the film along before the ensemble begins to harmonize. And indeed the true heart and soul of the picture is unveiled once and for all once Gandolfini crosses paths with the fiery Stewart who proves once again that she’s come a long way since before and after she played Bella.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: Let Me In (2010)

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While filmmaker Tomas Alfredson’s astronomically popular and critically acclaimed adaptation of Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In remained in my Netflix queue collecting cyber dust, I avoided spoiler laden coverage and conversations about the 2008 cult phenomenon until the fanboy buzz died down. Seeking the blissful absence of hyperbole, I wanted the timing to be right before I could objectively approach Let the Right One In.

However the chatter turned out to be as immortal as the vamps in the Swedish source material once Cloverfield director Matt Reeves announced his own controversial plans to adapt Lindqvist’s novel.

And to dispute the charge that he was just going to simply remake the foreign film that was (then) not even a year old with an English language vocal track instead of the original Swedish one, Reeves countered that he was going back to the text to create an entirely new translation.

Rightfully assuming that the obsession with the original One would cloud most viewers’ version of Reeves’s film whether it was among fans in the comic book store or critics in print, I resisted the now-stronger-than-ever temptation to push play on Alfredson’s Right One via my Netflix connected Roku player.

Since it wasn't after all the right time to haphazardly Let the Right One In or threaten my reaction to both, I opted to view Reeves’ Let Me In without a single frame in my head for comparison.

Following an obligatory intense opening sequence that serves less like a formulaic framing device and more to clue us in on keeping our antennae up since all is not what it seems, Let Me In reveals itself to be a surprisingly understated, intimate and quiet work of character-driven suspense.

Having responded to Lindqvist’s novel in a deeply personal way by acknowledging that it reminded him of his childhood (all horror elements aside), Reeves's straightforward, matter-of-fact handling of events ranging from schoolyard bullying to a vampire attack flies in the face of traditional over-the-top gimmicky horror techniques.

For in stark contrast to gore for gore sake or making viewers jump in their seat as many times as possible, Let Me In is almost accidentally scary like a coming-of-age docudrama that just so happens to involve the undead.

Likewise, the supernatural backdrop adds a visceral layer to the pain and awkwardness of adolescence. And the fact that the emotional maturation of young boys is so seldom explored onscreen makes Let Me In both incredibly poignant and potent.

Once the extended flashback begins after the startling opening sequence of the film set in 1983, we're introduced to the lonely, mercilessly bullied twelve year old Owen (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee), whom we discover fends mostly for himself while his self-involved parents fight with one another over the phone during their messy divorce.

Sneaking money out of his mom's purse to buy his favorite candy as sort of a daily ritualized reward for surviving the escalating abuse of sadistic bullies at school, Owen's regular routine is altered one evening when his eye catches sight of a new arrival to his New Mexico apartment complex who appears to be about his age.

Ironically, from the very moment that Abby tells Owen (Kick-Ass scene-stealer Chloe Grace Moretz) that they can't be friends, we sense that an intense bond has already begun, which only grows stronger as she encourages him to stand up for himself by hitting the bullies back harder than he dares and he introduces her to games he enjoys.

However, there's only so much about the young girl and the man who appears to be her father (Richard Jenkins) that Owen's able to see by spying on his neighbors in some stark shot compositions that call to mind Rear Window and The Decalogue.

Although Abby skirts around the increasingly obvious reality of her nature despite dropping Owen a few hints, the viewer has both the benefit and the curse of knowing much more about the bodies that have been dropping like flies in and around their complex.

And it's about this time that events take a far more desperate turn in the third act as Owen comes visually face-to-face with the truth he's barely only begun to intellectualize regarding Abby.

Fittingly, this realization of the truth and the way Owen processes what's going on similarly makes or breaks the movie for viewers as well since, like Owen we're pushed into unspeakably dark territory so much so that it risks the empathy we'd previously had for at least one main character.

Nonetheless and right in the nick of time, this work of existential terror is bolstered by the humanity on display in the extremely believable turns by the talented cast members who tackle their difficult roles as damaged people forced to deal with the tragic lot they've been given in life as opposed to the one-dimensional terrifying or super-sexy cool vamp stereotypes we usually see in the supernatural genre.

Thus, overall the melancholic movie has much more in common with the cruel, twisted fates faced by characters in Never Let Me Go than the hot-and-bothered love triangle in Twilight.

A visually arresting, deeply somber work that's given a first-rate high definition transfer with an astounding theatrical quality audio track, Reeves's Let Me In is a strikingly effective work of horror as metaphor with this moody coming-of-age saga that proves that no gimmick is scarier than a straightforward treatment of a supernatural tale.

And although I can't offer you a Swedish to English translation or evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both adaptations side-by-side, having seen Reeves's version as a standalone work, I can say that Me is quite an impressive piece of cinema in its own right, fanboy in-fighting aside.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.