Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Review)

Fortean Times 270

Though director Jalmari Helander may assert that his intention with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale was to realise on celluloid the “real and original Finnish Santa Claus”, one suspects that he might have gone slightly over the top. Yes, Finland is reportedly a rather melancholy country, but it’s doubtful that even its most maudlin imaginings could conjure up a beast as fearsome as the Chris Kringle depicted here; a horned, unfathomable horror of Lovecraftian proportions served by an army of feral, naked elves with nought but murder on their feverish brains. Such nightmarish imagery, however, doesn’t detract from this strange little movie being an imaginative festive flight of fancy.

The plot sees an American drilling company unearth a monstrous secret 500 metres below a quiet rural town in northern Finland. This piques both the curiosity and concern of a Santa-suspicious young boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila), whose fears are realised when his father (Jorma Tommila) discovers something unusual in his wolf trap…

It’s a clever premise, if not entirely original; transforming Father Christmas from an obese pensioner dolling out presents to something much darker has been adopted by several slasher films (Silent Night Deadly Night, most famously), as well as a booze-soaked Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.

However, where Rare Exports rather creatively deviates from this well-trodden path is in making its Saint Nick a more mythical, folklorish creation reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth’s child-scoffing Pale Man. However, one wishes sometimes that this more fantastical horror element was pursued further; said beast is barely glimpsed during the course of the film, and one is left wanting more. Perhaps this is for the best, allowing viewers to let their imaginations to do their worst in conjuring up the true physical form of this timeless aberr­ation while allowing the film to focus on the relationship between Pietari and his father, which affects and yet never drifts into saccharine, the real-life father-son pair sharing natural chemistry as well as bringing an excellent mix of subtlety and wry humour to their respective roles.

And it is in this humour that the film distinguishes itself most from its festive cinematic counterparts – deliciously dark to the point of nihilism and yet retaining an endearing streak of naive sincerity; one can applaud Helander’s desire to create a 1980s-style fantasy-horror accessible to both children and adults, even if its tone is undermined slightly by the worryingly frequent parade of full-frontal male nudity and the apparent naïve ignorance everyone has of the unfortunate implicat­ions of an elderly, naked bearded man constantly creeping hungrily towards a young boy.

The film drags occasionally – a few shocks, scares or set-pieces would have spiced things up a bit – but Rare Exports is certainly a likeable film, with an entertaining premise, warm characterisation and a terrific sense of humour. Though never boring, it does ultim­ately feel somewhat incomplete, perhaps in need of some more Joe Dante-esque menace. As such, it remains more than anything a coal-black curiosity, which one can’t help but feel could have made more of its premise.

3/5

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Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island (Review)

Fortean Times 270

Based on a Japanese graphic novel, this largely forgettable effort fails to rise as successfully from its manga origins as do its titular bloodsuckers from their mossy graves. The standard-issue plot sees spunky student Akira pursue a mysterious woman to an uncharted Japanese island in search of his missing brother – who he finds is busy massacring the local undead population. The cast is as typically Japanese as the plot, populated by the standard portly perverts, bat-wielding pseudo-greasers and shy, bespectacled young men with pudding-bowl haircuts who presumably roam the Nipponese landscape en masse. The acting is passable, if mannered, while the effects are predom­inantly titter-inducing. Ultimately, this is a flabby, overlong dollop of nonsense, whose relatively accomplished direct­ion is undermined by a complete lack of scares.

2/5

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The American (Review)

TheShiznit November 2010 (not entirely happy with this, but got an incredible – and admittedly somehwat justified – comment reprinted verbatim below:

Couldnt be arsed with reading the whole review to be honest, fine if I want a media/film studies dissertation with scrabble-winning purple prose but I could care less whether “Bonacelli’s paternal padre is enjoyable if peripheral, whilst Thekla Reuten is similarly good as a fashionista assassinette.”

I could care less myself. God bless you, “Goatboy”)

Imagine The International, In Bruges and A Single Man were all ushered haphazardly into an experimental teleportation device. Following a few flashes of light and screams of terror, a single unearthly being shuffles out of the mist-drenched doorway – ungodly appendages perambulating wildly – combining the respective qualities of each of its components and begging Geena Davis for death. This strange beast of Eldritch lore is The American, George Clooney’s latest slow-burning thriller whose soulful charm affects but lapses ultimately into – admittedly engrossing – self-indulgence.

The ultra-lean, low-fat, cholesterol-free plot sees Clooney’s contract killer flee to Italy after a snowbound run-in with some gun-toting Nordic thugs. There – in between shady late-night café visits, hanging out with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and copulating with cheerful prossies – he prepares for his latest assignment with all the expected glumness of a man approaching that “one last job.”

Yes, there is something paradoxically both unpredictable and inevitable about The American. On the one hand, the film seems bound inescapably to a foregone confusion which one can easily ascertain from the above synopsis. Clooney’s character – whose name we never conclusively discover – is predictably enigmatic, as befitting all self-hating mercenaries. Spending the majority of his solitary Mediterranean jaunt sadly shuffling around cobbled alleys and staring meaningfully into middle-distance, it’s all too apt that he quickly falls for Violante Placido’s kindly hooker.

Though proceedings always interest, they sink too often into a deluge of melodramatic tropes, and come the film’s overwrought ending one can practically feel – and simultaneously resent – director Anton Corbijn cynically manipulating one’s heartstrings like some demented puppet-master.

Nonetheless, Clooney delivers an undeniably engaging performance as the titular gun-for-hire; spending the majority of the film in sullen silence, his wide puppy-dog eyes, staring wistfully from under his heavy brow, emote more than words ever could, even if one occasionally suspects that shots of him gallivanting around the Italian countryside serve more as holiday snaps for Gorgeous George than purposefully-shot scenes for a movie. The fact that he makes an intensely unpredictable, impenetrable cipher of a character – who would just as soon pop a cap in one’s ass than share a glass of port with you – is a testament to his lofty acting chops.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Looking oddly like a combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Labour PM Harold Wilson, Bonacelli’s paternal padre is enjoyable if peripheral, whilst Thekla Reuten is similarly good as a fashionista assassinette. However, it is Placido’s sympathetic portrayal of Clooney’s love interest that lingers, effortlessly communicating charm, intelligence and mystery even though, in hindsight, it may help that a large portion of her performance is delivered in the buff.

This is a film, though, whose charm lies not only in its naturalistic performances but also its stunning visuals. Martin Ruhe’s outstanding cinematography and Corbijn’s relaxed direction allow the audience the opportunity to take in their continental surroundings, whether it be the labyrinthine network of Vespa-traversed lanes of Castel del Monte or the sun-soaked countryside where the characters seem so fond of holding ad hoc picnics/target practice. The result is an almost hypnotically immersive experience which stays with the viewer long after the credits roll.

However, some may (perhaps justifiably) find its incessant brooding self-indulgent; like a sulky teen following a breakup, The American spends an inordinate amount of its running time spent in silent, inaccessible contemplation to a sometimes infuriatingly glacial pace. The odd unexpected jolt of brutal, visceral action may spice up proceedings, however this is predominantly a mood piece more interested in mounting atmosphere than delivering on it, leading ultimately to a largely predictable denouement.

But, despite the odd nagging sensation that the film thinks itself smarter than it actually is, the film consistently engrosses, managing a largely dialogue-free narrative with impressive assurance and succeeding in making its cold-blooded protagonist not only watchable, but also surprisingly personable.

Like a good Italian meal, then, The American is rich in flavour and generously-portioned, albeit ever so slightly overcooked.

3/5

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Let Me In (Review)

Fortean Times 269

For the uninitiated, the impeccably-titled Swedish vampire romp Låt den rätte komma in (“Let The Right One In”) was released in 2008 to the delight of both horror aficionados and those conceited sloanes who animalistically gratify themselves on every single foreign title which garners the recognition of the Western press. The English-language remake, then, struck fear into the hearts of many – would John Ajvide Lindqvist’s lonely child protagonist become a backwards baseball cap-wearing cretin who high-fives vampire cheerleaders whilst performing a nosegrind at the half-pipe? Thankfully (or not, depending on the state of your mental health) this is not the case, as Let Me In is a remake of the highest quality, even if this means it sticking particularly closely to its predecessor.

The story – set in snow-smothered New Mexico, 1983 – revolves around troubled 12-year-old, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose social schedule is dominated by bouts of schoolyard bullying, brooding over his parents’ divorce and practicing threatening his tormenters at knifepoint in the mirror like a pint-sized Travis Bickle. That is until he befriends elusive new neighbour, Abby (Chloë Moretz), a barefooted vampire sprog cursed with a bloodlust sated nightly by her faux-father/amateur serial killer (Richard Jenkins), whose resultant trail of carnage soon attracts the attention of a local police detective (Elias Koteas).

Perhaps the film’s chief blight is the fact that those familiar with its Scandinavian forerunner will struggle to shake the innate feeling of déjà vu which surrounds Let Me In, the supposed ‘Americanisation’ amounting to little more than a language switch and proceedings being draped in the moralistic trappings of 1980s Reaganite America. The result is hardly in the league of Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (spits on floor), but one can’t help shaking a vague, woozy feeling of pointlessness. 

Granted, there are some minor changes – director Matthew Reeves both streamlines and invigorates by omitting some peripheral characters and reshuffling certain scenes, even if making the film’s opening an event which happens an hour into the running time slightly undermines the film’s steady escalation of dread. Additionally, the film’s standout set-piece – a backseat POV shot of an especially animated car accident – is impressive but ultimately little more than window dressing.

However, those coming to this film unencumbered by any knowledge of the original will likely be impressed. Doing away with the preening, zeitgeist-hogging bloodsuckers of late, Let Me In provides a subtle, sincere child’s-eye view of the wonderful word of vampirism, working as both a conventional horror movie (the claret runs satisfyingly freely in the film’s occasional spasms of violence) and a decidedly unconventional picture of childhood friendship culminating in a gloriously deplorable denouement.

Likewise, the film is very much carried by its invariably excellent cast, particularly the two young leads. Smit-McPhee excels in capturing the lonely, strange nuances of an unhappy childhood, with Moretz – unrecognisable sans purple wig and potty mouth – also delivering a note-perfect performance as a girl who’s “been twelve for a really long time,” imbuing her character with both world-weariness and a feral danger. Able support is provided by both Elias Koteas (seemingly providing his best Robert Duvall impression) and Richard Jenkins, who presumably finds minding a preteen Nosferatu easier than frizzy-haired morons Will Ferrell and John C Reilly.

In sum, Let Me In is a remake matches the original in almost every way but never strives to surpass it, and in this respect disappoints. That said, newcomers will no doubt be entranced by its jet black depiction of fear, friendship and fangs and thus the film comes highly recommended – it may lack the sucker-punch originality of its predecessor, but retains both its trademark heart and gall.

4/5

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Dream Home (Review)

Fortean Times 269

An offal-festooned excursion into the exorbitant world of Hong Kong’s overpriced property market may not sound like the most engaging cinematic subject matter; however, Dream Home is a surprisingly entertaining curiosity, albeit one which leaves you feeling sorely in need of a cleansing bath after watching.

The fatuous plot sees Josie Ho’s bedraggled corporate toiler work several menial jobs to fulfil her childhood dream of owning an apartment overlooking the region’s famous Victoria Harbour. Creeping property prices ensure that her dream home remains forever out of reach, so she grabs a hammer and starts in on some Oldboy-esque ultraviolent negotiation (giving us the sumptuous tagline “they wouldn’t slash the price, so she slashed them up!”).

Yes, the film’s content is ‘adult’ enough to potentially drive even the most liberal of viewers to a frothy-mouthed puritanical rampage worthy of Mary Whitehouse herself; roadside fellatio, jugular-jousting bongs and suffocation induced by a diabolic combination of a hoover and plastic bag are just some of the arrestingly unpleasant spectacles on offer in this depraved parade of insanity; and yet despite this threatening to alienate any non-deviant audience members, proceedings remain consistently watchable.

This can mostly be attributed to Ho’s sympathetic performance, convincing as both a shy, overworked young woman struggling to look after her ailing father and raise the funds for the titular resid­ence and a cold-blooded maniac with a line in disembowelment and casual phallus lopping. None­theless, the film’s pacing suffers at times due to a haphazard chronological structure jarringly jumping between different time periods, and occasionally side trips into irrelevance, such as the extended sequence focusing on a trio of coke-fuelled sex pests.

Dream Home
is a highly original slice of ludicrously lurid Asian cinema with a clever premise and impressive SFX, but those who don’t appreciate lengthy sequences involving miscarriages or garrottings should avoid.

3/5

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Last Night (Review)

Fortean Times 269

What would you do if you found out that the world was to end in six hours? That’s the question underpinning Canadian dir­ector Don McKellar’s 1998 feature debut, an intimate examination of how different people spend their final few hours which impresses in its heartfelt sincerity, warm humour and excellent performances.

It’s a distinctly Altmanesque affair, especially in its impressive ensemble cast, with Sandra Oh and David Cronenberg (in one of his sadly rare acting roles) standing out in particular. McKellar, who also stars, may not be the greatest actor in the world – stumbling around Toronto bleary-eyed and muttering – however his emotionally wounded architect certainly endears.

The intertwining fates of the characters are well plotted, effectively capitalising on the strong premise and delivering a largely convincing portrayal of humanity at the brink of Arma­geddon. Lean, novel and touching in spite of obviously limited production values, Last Night is an excellent way to wile away your last 95 minutes.

4/5

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The Life and Death of Charlie St Cloud (Review)

Fortean Times 268

There is something hideously amiss with Charlie St Cloud. No, it’s not the fact that waxen-faced supersprog Zac Efron is trying his hand at conventional melodrama. Nor is it that, seemingly for the first time in recent memory, Ray Liotta is playing something other than a sleazy cop or mobster. No, Charlie St Cloud’s chief blight is a woefully – frequently hilariously – misjudged tone which ensures that the film seems unable to decide whether it’s a maudlin character study of a young man unable to get over the death of a sibling or an atypically obnoxious Efron vehicle replete with forced smiles and teen hi-jinks.

The plot, based on Ben Sherwood’s best-selling novel The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, sees Efron’s titular character – a predictably smug, popular and talented young high school graduate with a bright future ahead of him – caught in a horrific car accident, from which he is resuscitated but in which his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan) is killed. Jump-cut to five years later, and Efron is a deadbeat groundsman tending the local graveyard and – honouring a promise made while his brother was still alive – meeting daily with his sibling’s spirit to play baseball. However, when a token love interest (Amanda Crew) pops up, St Cloud must make a choice as to which of these two worlds he belongs in.

Sadly, the film routinely wastes every potentially interesting notion it raises; Charlie St Cloud is a traumatised young man who – whether gifted with extraordinary powers allowing him to converse with those on the other side or driven out of his mind with grief – is struggling to cope with loss and move on with his life, which he has wasted as decisively as the film wastes its half-decent premise.

Predictably, so as to appeal to Efron’s fanbase, a frazzled, distraught outsider is turned into a charmingly quirky brooder, Efron’s spunky heartthrob portrayal arrestingly at odds with both his character’s behaviour and tragic history. Indeed, the Hollywood gloss practically smothers the entire movie – the St Cloud crowd are an insufferably conceited band of WASPS, Efron’s supposedly broken home is as blue-collar as Middle America can tolerate (i.e., hardly at all) and proceedings are permanently accompanied by a ridiculously booming soundtrack, gushing fervently over every minute plot development with all the suitability of a clown at a funeral.

Quite simply, the film’s tone jars spectacularly, culminating with two of the most jaw-droppingly absurd sequences of the year; if watching Efron and his dead brother’s ghost gaily wakeboard together isn’t surreal enough then the scene in which Crew skips seductively through a graveyard before inviting Efron to engage in tombstone-surrounded coitus is enough to drive one to madness. This is compounded by a bafflingly ill-advised comic turn from Augustus Prew, whose squarking cockney antics resemble some demented hybrid of Russell Brand and The Mighty Boosh’s Naboo.

The plot itself, meanwhile, quickly descends into overwrought, dewy-eyed phooey and hokum. Though director Burr Steers (best known for either directing 17 Again or for being shot by Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction) may laud the film’s ambiguity regarding whether St Cloud has indeed been granted supernatural powers or is genuinely deranged, this is dispelled all too quickly and replaced with half-baked philosophy seemingly reheated from M Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Speaking of Shyamalan, the less said about the film’s absurd third act “twist” – actually little more than a kink, as it can easily be guessed from reading the synopsis alone – or the innumerable plot holes it creates the better.

That leaves the performances, which are generally uneven. Efron tries his hardest, working his little cotton socks off in a vain effort to prove to the world his acting prowess; however, he remains bereft of the ability to accurately emote his character’s grief, blubbery puppy-dog eyes staring corpse-like into middle distance to little effect. Efron’s pretty looks certainly get in the way here, as though he seems comfortable portraying the showboating jock of the first 10 minutes, playing an actual human being is beyond his range. Crew, by contrast, is certainly likeable and does her best with an underwritten character whose name might as well be “Ms. Plot D. Vice”, whilst Ray Liotta delivers a nice – albeit hammy – blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance as the paramedic who saves Charlie’s life.

Ultimately, then, Charlie St Cloud is a trifling piece of soft-filter nonsense, which – though admittedly bathed in luscious cinematography and boasting interesting ideas – is let down by a myriad of competing tones and fatally undermined by a parade of gaping plot holes. More like The Sixth Nonsense (groan).

1/5

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