By Christopher Bell | The Playlist December 2, 2010 at 10:45AM
We're sorry our list is so late this year, but we've had a lot on our plates. Hopefully you understand our extremely busy nature. At the risk of sounding too showboat, it should be noted that we behaved very well for most, if not all of 2010. For what it's worth, we're only asking for one thing; maybe you can find it in your heart to reward us on such short notice.
What we want this year is a good, playful Christmas film that doesn't take itself too seriously, pleases audiences of every age, has charm, and isn't a dispensable bore. It may sound a bit demanding, but to be frank, you fucking owe us after "The Nutcracker in 3D."
Your most recent attempt at yuletide cinema, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (under the guise of Jalmari Helander), has not gone unnoticed but still leaves a lot to be desired. Sort of a bizarre experiment but mostly a misfire, the picture takes place in a small mountain town located in Finland, one that specializes in exporting reindeer. Things go awry when some English-speaking caricatures decide to do some mysterious excavating, discovering a frozen Santa Claus buried deep within the mountain. Spying on this unearthing are two boys, including our hero, young Pietari (newcomer Onni Tommila). His curiosity leads him to do painstaking research on the origin of old St. Nick, delving head first into age old books detailing in myths. Where he got them in this tiny locale is beside the point, as what he learns is foul: The jolly "Coca-Cola Santa" is fake, and the real one (encased in ice just a few miles away) is a devilish fiend, spanking naughty kids to their death. Unfortunately no one believes this young boy's story until it is too late: children are kidnapped (nobody else seems to notice, either), an elf (eschewing the little person fashion in favor of dirty old bum appearance) causes trouble with the locals, and Santa is this close to being thawed and slapping every child’s bottom into oblivion.
The different approach to yourself is appreciated; it's rare that this story of you is recognized and it's refreshing because of that. However, there is an inevitable bit of silliness to the entire plot, one that rarely gets acknowledged and is consequentially the downfall of the film. When the movie begins, the excavators speak of their find in the office and the tone is amusing. Chock full of b-level acting and bombastic music along with silly lines, the scene promises an enjoyable "Starship Troopers" type of comedy, a self-aware humor that is too scarcely used in cinema. Exterior scenes are gorgeous, and the snowy bleak landscape is oddly reminiscent of "Let the Right One In" (Tommila, also looks like Kodi Smit-McPhee from the previously mentioned movie's sister film). Things seem to be lookin’ good, Mr. Claus, although it’s certainly not one for the entire family, it feels unique and holds a great possibility of being good fun.
All this early promise is for naught, and before you can even attempt to take that first sip of watered down eggnog that Aunt Shanice can never make right, the film settles into its horror/thriller mold that it at first opted to mock. Instead of being purposely hokey with its seriousness, or even accidentally so, it settles for bland genre conventions. It could be forgiven if the story was at all, you know, creepy, but genuine unnerving moments are too few and far between, and even those cut away before delivering a legitimate jump. In lieu of these it focuses on tiresome exposition-only dialogue scenes, which wouldn't be so offensive if they didn't follow clichés with such blatant dedication. For example, Pietari discovers his friend missing and a creepy life-size doll in his place. He alerts the adults, to which they reply "He is probably out chasing women." Never mind that the kid is 12, or that the freakish mannequin in place came out of nowhere, or that - no shit - Pietari is right. The acting in these kind of scenes isn't believable enough, and it's too apparent that they're merely in existence to steer the plot in a certain direction. To bring back the earlier point, it's these kind of scenes which would really benefit from the self-knowing humor that Helander employs much too sparingly.
After a climactic "battle" in which everything seems lit by a Gameboy SP, its final moments opt for a weird, unwarranted Jean-Pierre Jeunet-esque ending, though it deserves credit for sticking with the overall scatter shot tone. One of the biggest questions remains: who is this movie for? It already alienates a certain audience because of its aesthetic and story, but it's not scary enough to attract the horror crowds and it's not funny or weird enough to attract cult devotees. All that aside, 'Rare Exports' functions as only two things, either "not as abysmal as Nutcracker 3D" or "just another forgettable holiday film."
Santa, what we're really looking for is some depth or charm. Movies like the French-drama "A Christmas Tale" and the raunchily-amusing "Bad Santa" were welcome additions to the honestly small set of staple holiday movies. For the most part they avoided gimmicks; when they were unavoidable they either used human complexity or creatively lewd humor to give a fresh spin on things. "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" attempts to try something interesting but gives up much too early and ends up being a severe waste of time. Sorry for being so harsh, but enough is enough. [D]