One of my favorite things about world cinema is that the filmmakers seem more willing to take risks, which is exactly how a movie like “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” gets made. Though it’s only a Christmas film in the vaguest sense of the phrase, the holiday genre could do with more original ideas like this. Set in present day Finland where a team of archaeologists have just unearthed the evil Santa Claus of local lore who eats the children that have been naughty, the movie follows a young boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his reindeer-herding father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) as they inadvertently capture Santa in a wolf trap and hold him for ransom. But when the rest of the village children go missing and Santa’s little helpers begin wreaking havoc in town, Pietari and Rauno discover that there’s more to their prisoner than meets the eye.
But before you start thinking that “Rare Exports” is just another Christmas-themed horror movie like “Silent Night” (even if it seems to be heading in that direction early on), the film is actually more like a strange collaboration between Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg – a dark but whimsical father-son story about one child’s fascination with the Santa Claus myth and his attempt to earn the respect of his dad. Although it takes a while to get going for a movie that’s only 82 minutes long, director Jalmari Helander does a good job of holding the audience’s interest by slowly revealing pieces of the mystery until the film eventually shifts into adventure mode in the final act. “Rare Exports” probably could have done a lot more on a bigger budget, but that would have only taken away from its unique charm.
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DC Comics may be lagging behind its rivals at Marvel when it comes to their live-action movie ventures, but they’ve still utilized their stable of superheroes pretty well with Warner Bros.’ ongoing series of direct-to-DVD animated films. Lately, the studio has been digging into their back catalog to produce some of the label’s fan favorite storylines, and when it comes to the Caped Crusader, there’s no story more revered than Frank Miller’s 1987 miniseries, “Batman: Year One.” Though it actually focuses more James Gordon’s move to Gotham and his fight against police corruption, the tale also tracks Bruce Wayne’s early days as the masked vigilante Batman.
Those who aren’t familiar with Miller’s comic will notice several similarities between “Year One” and Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films — particularly “Batman Begins,” which drew a lot of inspiration from the miniseries. Unfortunately, for as groundbreaking and influential as Miller’s story was during its initial release, it feels too fractured in animated form. The movie is also shockingly short at only 64 minutes, and though the animation is excellent, the voice acting leaves much to be desired. Ben McKenzie is horribly miscast as Wayne/Batman, and while Bryan Cranston was a great choice for Gordon, his line readings are also a little wooden. As a result, “Year One” isn’t as entertaining as it should be, but Batman fans will still enjoy the mostly faithful adaptation.
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Kevin Smith’s first foray into the horror genre has been a long time in the making, but after finally watching “Red State” (which could have been titled “Why You Shouldn’t Troll for Sex on the Internet”), it’s easy to see why he had so much trouble securing financing in the first place. And no, it’s not because the film is especially violent or controversial – it’s just not very good. The whole thing is a half-baked idea at best, filled with characters so inconsequential that they don’t even deserve to be given names. Though the film starts out with a fairly promising setup – three teenagers are lured to the small town of Cooper’s Dell with the promise of sex, only to become the latest victims of a crazy religious cult – it quickly abandons the horror angle and devolves into a more generic action-thriller.
The fact that Smith promoted “Red State” as a horror movie may reek of false advertising to some, but it’s hardly the only sting of disappointment that you’ll experience from the film. The unpredictable detour that takes place at the end of the first act isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s very poorly executed, due in large part to the paper-thin story. There’s just not a whole lot to the movie apart from the initial setup, an unnecessarily long sermon delivered by Michael Parks’ zealous cult leader, and an even longer climactic shootout that might have seemed ridiculous if the film hadn’t already lost all credibility. The only saving grace is John Goodman as an ATF agent assigned to bring down the cult, but that’s mostly because he gets all the good lines. If there’s one thing to be grateful for, it’s that the movie clocks in at a brisk 88 minutes, because there aren’t many other reasons why you’d want to subject yourself to “Red State” beyond sheer curiosity.
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Hype isn’t an easy thing to manage, and in some cases, it can even prove to be downright deflating. That’s the biggest issue at the center of Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut, “Submarine,” which fails to live up to the impossibly high acclaim that it earned on the festival circuit. Based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne, the film tells the story of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), an eccentric teenager who becomes smitten with feisty pyromaniac Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) and sets his mind on losing his virginity to her. But while his new love life is going just swell, Oliver’s parents have hit a rough patch in their marriage, and when he discovers that his mother (Sally Hawkins) has been fraternizing with her ex-boyfriend (Paddy Considine), a new age mystic who happens to lives next door, Oliver takes it upon himself to intervene.
A quirky coming of age tale that skews more towards drama than comedy, “Submarine” falls somewhere between the whimsy of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre and the dry cynicism of a Noah Baumbach film. That’s not to say that the movie is particularly dark or somber, but the comic moments aren’t nearly as prevalent as some would lead you to believe. What the film does do well, however, is deliver an incredibly realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager in love, thanks largely to the likeable performances of Roberts and Paige. The adult actors are also really good in their respective roles, although Considine’s character lacks the depth that he had in the novel. That’s partly because writer/director Ayoade has cut out some of the book’s less important subplots, and while that makes the movie a lot more focused as a result, it comes at the cost of a few of the story’s bigger payoffs. It’s a solid debut by Ayoade regardless, who thrives from the freedom of being able to experiment with a variety of styles, but for a movie as buzzed about as this, “Submarine” really could have been better.
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Not every cool idea is necessarily a great idea, and that’s never more apparent than in director Guy Moshe’s genre mash-up, “Bunraku.” Set during a post-nuclear future where guns have been banned but swords, knives and pretty much anything else with a sharp edge is still fair game, the film takes place in a neon-drenched city controlled by a warrior named Nicola (Ron Perlman) and his gang of killers. When two drifters (Josh Hartnett and Japanese pop star Gackt) arrive in town with their own reasons for wanting to take down the tyrannical crime boss, they serendipitously cross paths at a local bar and decide to team up to increase their chances. But before they can get their shot at Nicola, the warriors must first face off against all nine of his elite assassins.
The first thing you’ll notice about “Bunraku” is that it has a very distinct visual style that falls somewhere between the graphic novel aesthetic of “Sin City” and a children’s pop-up book; not all that surprising considering the film’s title is a reference to a form of Japanese puppet theater. The action sequences are also fun to watch and benefit from the film’s unique look, but unfortunately, they never amount to more than a series of flashy distractions to hide the fact that there isn’t much of a story. And when Moshe does try to slow things down in order to develop his characters, he’s forced to rely on some dreadful dialogue that not even reliable actors like Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd and Demi Moore can improve. The best you could say about “Bunraku” is that it would make for an entertaining late night movie when nothing else is on TV, because this self-serving piece of fanboy drivel is not even close to being as good as it pretends to be.