Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) snuck onto a restricted mountain where so-called seismic researchers, some Americans, were assigned to excavate something mysterious deep within the ice. The two boys overheard that what was embedded inside was going to redefine the world’s notion of Santa Claus and Christmas. When Pietari got home, he began to research about Old St. Nick and his origins. It turned out that the legendary figure was far from nice and jolly. According to the books, every Christmas, he kidnapped naughty kids, put them in a cauldron, and ate them. Pietari was determined not to get taken. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” brimmed with scintillating originality, enough to inject kids with increasing unease and force the adults to watch with fascination. It was fun to watch Pietari run around and put pieces together because there was something innocent and bold about him. Since he wasn’t taken seriously by adults and fellow children, he felt he had something to prove. His determination and thirst for adventure was similar to the beloved kids from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” But like the aforementioned flicks, the film worked as a family drama. Pietari and his dad (Jorma Tommila) lived by themselves where interaction with others required a vehicle due to distance and safety issues. There was a moving scene during Christmas Eve when the two sat on the table and ate gingerbread cookies. Nothing else was prepared. The absence of the key woman in their lives was palpable. Even though it wasn’t fully discussed, we were able to infer that Pietari and his dad were still mourning from the death of his mother and wife, respectively. The son asked his dad whether it would make a difference to him whether he, too, would “disappear” and if he had been good this year. The father deflected the questions with a loud command of sending his son to bed. Sometimes it’s easier to circumvent the truth. On Christmas day, Pietari found that the bait for the wolf trap his father had set the day before was gone. Instead of finding a wolf in the pit, there was a skinny man with a beard. The film played with our expectations some more and threw around very strange red herrings like a kid opening presents with delirium. Our lack of knowledge involving the origins of Santa Claus in their part of the world served as a wonderful, magical, creepy source of tension. The man that the father and son found was critically injured and seemingly unable to understand language. He only responded, with extreme alarm, when Pietari was around. Pietari thought it was Santa Claus and he just had to tell his friends given what he knew. But none of them were to be found. Toward the end of the film, CGI was used profusely, but it was utilized to enhance the experience. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was unafraid to tackle darker material yet it was quite satirical. Its brazenness and creativity in putting our little protagonist in the face of danger without coming off as exploitative was admirable.
You, the Living (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Roy Andersson, “Du levande” or “You, the Living” painted an inspired picture of how the tragic moments in our lives were almost always counter-balanced with small and often unexpected comedic events. What I loved about this film was it felt as though anything could happen. Characters even broke out in song. Despite the ordinariness of the individuals at first glance, highlighted by the nondescript rooms and the dominance of the color gray in every frame, there was magic in each of their circumstances. Some scenes were solely played for laughs such as the Arabian barber and the businessman who was far from being in a great mood. Some were incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to watch. For instance, the couple who were having sex but only one was really into it. Others were downright pointless like a man cleaning glass windows. However, quite a handful were fascinating. I loved the couple in which the woman complained about everything wrong in her life while the man tried to endure her interminable tirades. At first glance, I thought she was just a spoiled woman who desperately needed a hobby (and perhaps a better sex life). But as the film went on, I actually grew to like her. It turned out that she was aware of her actions, that she may at times come off as selfish, and she knew that she was loved by those around her. The one that moved me most was the psychiatrist who spoke directly to the camera (and to us) and confessed that after twenty-seven years of practice, turning a mean person into a happy one was an impossible task. The only way to really “cure” them or to mask their unhappiness was to give them drugs. In the doctors own words, “the stronger, the better.” I thought it was an honest moment and ultimately a stronger message that lingers in the mind than the popular belief that all people in the medical field find it so rewarding to help people. Finally, there was Anna (Jessika Lundberg), a regular fan girl, who fell in love with Micke (Eric Bäckman), a boy who played in a band. Personally, the highest point of the film was when she recalled a dream she had about their wedding day. Throughout the scene of Anna looking beautiful in her wedding dress and Micke looking handsome in his rock star ensemble, I had a silly smile on my face. On top of that, there was a neat imagery in which their apartment moved like a train and, from their window, we could see strangers clamoring to offer their congratulations and best wishes. I wished the scene did not have to come to an end. It made me want to believe in romance all over again. “Du levande” was successful at embodying an unconventional stream of consciousness with images that crackle and pop with originality and earnestness. It may have been on another language but the emotions it conveyed overcame such boundaries.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
Blood Simple (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Blood Simple,” directed by Joel Coen and written by the Coen brothers, is my definition of a great film. From start to finish, I was absolutely blown away because of its ability to take a genre on its head and create something truly original, or at least a breath of fresh air. Labeling this picture as a thriller may not do it justice because it contained darkly comedic scenes, horrific montages, and touching moments. To be released in 1984 and still remain that great to this day is an achievement that most pictures do not quite accomplish.
Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator named Loren (M. Emmet Walsh) to observe his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) having an affair with Ray (John Getz), a man who works in Marty’s bar. Driven to extreme jealousy and heartbreak, Marty eventually orders Loren to kill the new couple for $10,000. Little did Marty know that Loren is a calculating, risk-avoidant man and that he has a plan on his own to get the money without killing Abby and Ray. A series of strange coincidences and assumptions are added to the seemingly simple equation which eventually makes a stylish film that is able to bring up moral questions, as well as what a person is willing to do to get away with something–whether that something is to benefit one’s self or others.
First of all, I have to commend all of the four leads because I felt like they each brought something special to the table. Each of their character was multi-layered in his or her way to the point where I did not know how they would react to certain situations when certain variables were changed. Each of them was intelligent, capable of good and evil, and has a good sense on how to survive when faced with certain challenges. This being a thriller film, I knew that not all of them would survive by the end. But the interesting part was trying to figure out who would outsmart who; it was kind of like watching sharks battle it out in order to ultimately be on the top of the food chain. I must also give recognition to the Coen brothers, especially Joel, for giving the audiences one memorable scene after another. While the conversations were smart, Joel Coen was able to use colors and sound to maximize the effect of certain scenes. In most thrillers of today, the soundtrack could get so distracting that it tends to take away the power of simply observing a character move in silence. Like a good novel, the use of foreshadowing was implemented in just about the right moments so when we actually get to the crucial scene, we are swept off our feet without feeling cheated. Lastly, I mention the genre-defying tone of the movie. There were some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout but there were also some that left me cowering in a corner and wondering what I would have done if I was placed in the same position. The last thirty minutes or so were post-noir (arguably my favorite subgrenre) in its core and I relished every second of it because it was so well done.
I wish I had seen this film sooner. When I saw “Fargo,” I thought the Coen brothers would not be able to top it even if “No Country for Old Men” came quite close. However, having seen “Blood Simple,” I think it is possibly my favorite of the movies by them so far. I’ve seen a great number of fascinating motion pictures but I think this one deserves to be at least in my top twenty. The dripping ironies were just too impressive to resist (pun intended).
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie provided me bucketloads of nostalgia because I used to watch the cartoons when I was younger. Starring and written by Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Raymond Stantz) and Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), “Ghostbusters” is really fun to watch because of its originality and bona fide sense of humor. The film also stars Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddmore (an eventual Ghostbuster), Sigourney Weaver as their first client and Rick Moranis as Weaver’s mousy neighbor. I was impressed that each of them had something to contribute to the comedy as well as moving the story forward. I usually don’t like special and visual effects in comedies because the filmmakers get too carried away and neglect the humor, but I enjoyed those elements here because all of it was within the picture’s universe. Although the movie does embrace its campiness, it’s not completely ludicrious. In fact, since the Ghostbusters are part of the Psychology department, I was happy that the script managed to use the psychological terms and ideas in a meaningful way such as the idea of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. I also liked the fact that it had time to respectfully reference (or parody?) to “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Although the humor is much more consistent in the first half, the second half is where it manages to show its intelligence such as the fusing of ideas from gods of various cultures and Christianity’s armageddon. Without the actors providing a little something extra (such as Murray’s hilarious sarcasm), this would’ve been a typical comedic spookfest. The special and visual effects may have been dated but it still managed to entertain me from start to finish because the film is so alive with ideas and anecdotes with universal appeal.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of movie that is frustrating to watch because its ambition got in the way of true emotional resonance. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who one day decides to make an epic life-size play about his whole life. He makes that decision because he wants to know how his life turns out the way it is, to understand why his relationship with the people he loves most simply did not work. There are four women in his life that have impacted him greatly: Samantha Morton, a box-office worker, Hope Davis, a shrink, Michelle Williams, a stage actress, and Catherine Keener, Caden’s wife. The first thirty minutes of this picture is very engaging: I felt how alienated Caden was because he doesn’t feel appreciated by his family and the people he works with. That frustration (and maybe even a bit of rage) begins to manifest physically and he starts to think more negatively about himself to the point where he ends up believing that he’s dying. The point where I started to get confused was when the movie decided to jump forward in time multiple times. I began to lose track of who Caden can still connect with, his motivations, and where he’s ultimately going to end up. On top of that initial confusion, Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director, kept adding elements of existentialism and sequences that might have or might not have happened. The movie got way into itself to the point where I couldn’t relate at all. I’ve read a plethora of critics’ reviews that this is a great film because of its ambition. To me, ambition can only get a movie so far. With ambition, a film must also be able to take its audiences to whether it decides to go no matter how ludicrous the destination. With this film, I felt left out of the loop and constantly wondered what was going on. Even though it’s not as accessible and relatable as I would’ve liked (especially for a movie that’s about life and death), I’m still giving this movie a mediocre rating because I did like some of the elements and issues it tried to tackle.