Friday, December 28, 2012

Rare Exports, My 2012 Holiday Movie

I was comforted, a little, when I learned this week that Netflix had a legitimate "outage" on Christmas Eve and that the problem wasn't on my end. This explains why I couldn't watch my intended Holiday movie in time for my planned review. I'm less pleased that Netflix decided to blame this interruption on Amazon, a bit of news about which you should all read for yourselves, then come back here and share your opinions with me.

I was very grateful to DJ for his excellent Xmas review of The Lion in Winter, an entry which I hope you enjoyed as well. Now, I want to share the post that would've gone up, but for this silly internet outage:

Sometimes, it's best to go in knowing nothing. Certain pictures have managed to meet or exceed expectations with a decent amount of spoilage, but the best surprises come when you really have no damn idea what's coming. As I researched my 2012 Holiday review, 2010's foreign Rare Exports was mentioned by several sites.

The upshot of my impression was: Finnish horror film wherein a demonic Santa Claus wreaks havoc on a group of reindeer herders. The general positivity and unlikely premise made this an easy choice, and I'm glad to say RE matched its rep. It was a fine, controlled little horror/fantasy film.

We begin the film in English (with no subtitles), where an English businessman talks to an excavation foreman. The foreman talks about the unusual stuff they're finding inside a mountain and the knowing exec on the other side of the table assures him that they're after something unique, valuable, and dangerous. The boss then gives the team leader a sign to hang up in the office, a sign with new workplace rules like "No Spitting" and "No Cursing." Only one man in that office thinks its a joke.

Next, we're with two local boys who have snuck onto the business's property. From here on, the dialogue is in Finnish, with English subtitles. They spot stacks of explosives and overhear some unusual digging plans before heading back through the hole they made in the businessman's gigantic fence. The youngest child, Pietani, knows it's only a few days until Christmas, so he's worried about Santa Claus. The older boy, Juuso, calls his younger friend a fool and tells him that Santa isn't real.

All of this setup is fine, but the next segments of the movie really convey the tone and character of Rare Exports. We see the simple life that Pietani lives with only the company of his father, a butcher and reindeer hunter. As with so many families who work off the land, Rauno (the dad) is a hard man - caring inside, but abrasive and tough on the outside.

Poor Rauno doesn't even notice that his boy has grown incredibly superstitious about Christmas, and has researched all the old myths that make Santa Claus seem like Batman. In fact, he doesn't even notice that his kid is actively worried that he's being watched. He either dismisses everything his little boy says, or he simply refuses to respond to him. Gradually, the days tick down to Christmas...

And then we finally get to the big day - a tension used beautifully by RE, and the annual reindeer hunt. This, of course, is when everything really goes ape.

Jalmari Helander directed a short film which was very well received and became the basis for this full-length feature. Rather than stretch his idea out until it drags, Helander packs a lot into Rare Export's brisk 84 minutes. If anything, I wanted to see where else the director and crew could go with this material...

Part of why the picture is so effective is that it grounds itself firmly into the attitudes of fairy tales. The child who does something naughty but has a good heart, none of the adults listening to him, the greedy developer who's unprepared for what he's hunting down... I happen to be a fan of fairy tales, so I see a strong appeal in using this old Pagan material, and the way that the world/nature can be glamourous, as well as cruel.

Anyway, the origins of Santa Claus are with their country, so who would know how to retell or subvert the story better than the Finnish? The snow-laden landscape, full of barren trees, certainly contributes to fairy tale atmosphere.

RE has a very deliberate pace at the start, and then it suddenly has a lot of things resolve - and change - quickly. This feels like a flaw, but it's seldom a complaint for me, as more movies should take time to develop their characters and their tone. And instead of seeming sloppy or unbelievable for leaping into the final 20 minutes, Exports seems inventive and unconventional. I think it's nearly impossible not to like this picture.

Helander created an unqualified success here. The picture is funny, spooky, and smart. It has vivid characters you invest in, and unusual-but-distinct tone, and is beautifully shot and acted. For a good time, call me; if you'd rather not, then rent Rare Exports. It's available on Netflix Streaming as of this month, and it's also on Amazon Instant.

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