VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) – Violent Santa Claus Action Comedy as Ugly as a Christmas Sweater

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VIOLENT NIGHT (2022) lives up to its name.

It’s certainly violent. The killings in this Santa Claus action comedy… yes, you heard right. A Santa Claus action comedy… are over-the-top horror movie brutal and bloody. This one is not for the squeamish. Director Tommy Wirkola seems to use violence to get a reaction from his audience, hoping that the killings are so insanely gruesome the audience will laugh. It’s a gamble that only partially works.

And that’s because while VIOLENT NIGHT may be violent, it’s more vile than diverting. I didn’t really laugh all that much.

VIOLENT NIGHT stars David Harbour as Santa Claus, and in this movie, Mr. Claus is more comfortable drinking hard liquor than eggnog, and that’s because he’s depressed, fed up with the world’s children who he laments are all selfish, thankless brats, who are never thankful and only want the next best thing. They open their presents and two seconds later are already bored with them, wanting something else. This might be an interesting point, but the movie isn’t interested in developing it. Plus, methinks Santa in his drunken state may have forgotten that there are plenty of children in poverty in the world who don’t fit this description.

Again, VIOLENT NIGHT isn’t interested in any kind of social commentary, as it tries desperately to be a “fun” action comedy. Harbour as Santa Claus is fun at least, but even his wisecracking tough guy Santa shtick gets tired long before the movie comes to a close. Still, it’s an inspired bit of casting. Harbour is known these days as Sheriff Jim Hopper on the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016-2024), and he is indeed excellent on the show. He’s been in lot of movies as well, and these days he’s a fun actor to watch. I enjoyed watching him here as the heroic action hero Santa Claus, even if the rest of the movie was pretty gosh darn awful.

And that’s because the plot of this one involves one of the most unlikable set of characters you can think of. We are invited inside the rich Connecticut home of a wealthy American family, who are as dysfunctional as they are affluent. None of these characters interested me in the least. The one person who seems not to be on Santa’s naughty list is young Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) who still believes in Santa Claus, and her one wish is that her mom and dad could get back together. Gag!

Anyway, a gang of ex-military types led by a leader who goes by the name of Scrooge (John Leguizamo) commandeer the estate and take everyone hostage, as they plan to steal all the money in the vault below the home and eventually kill all their hostages. Of course, Santa Claus also happens to be in the house at the time, and because Trudy reaches out to him, he vows to save her. Before you can say “ho, ho, ho,”… actually you may be saying “ho hum” long before that!…Santa springs into action and the fight to the death is on.

This one might have been fun if it could have figured out what kind of movie it really wanted to be. On the surface, it’s DIE HARD (1988) meets HOME ALONE (1990) meets THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974). Leguizamo looks like he walked off the set of DIE HARD 20, and he and Harbour’s Santa square off throughout, with Santa filling in for Bruce Willis’ John McClane. HOME ALONE is referenced throughout, and at one point Trudy sets up booby traps for her pursuers, in a sequence which tries to pay homage to the iconic John Hughes movies. It’s one of the more violent and ridiculous sequences in the film. And Santa laments throughout the movie that dang it, no one believes anymore!

Blah, blah, blah.

All of this could have been fun had it been handled better. The screenplay by Pat Casey and Josh Miller creates some of the worst characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. The Lightstone family are as disinteresting as they are wealthy, and they are described as one of the richest families in the nation. So, there you go. Some of the characters are played for laughs, and others we are supposed to take seriously. They are all unwatchable. And the movie is built around these folks? Not a wise choice.

David Harbour’s Santa Claus is enjoyable for about half the movie, but he’s a one-note character, and he grows dull long before this one ends. Even his one-liners aren’t funny.

Other than Harbour, John Leguizamo gives the best performance in the movie, as the lead meanie, Scrooge. He plays things straight throughout, so at least we know where he is coming from. Leguizamo’s performance stands out because it’s too good for this movie. The rest of the film can’t figure out what the heck it is, but Leguizamo is on point from start to finish. He’s one guy you don’t want to mess with. This is the second straight movie where Leguizamo has played a character without a real name. His code name is Scrooge here, and just a couple of weeks ago he starred in THE MENU (2022) as a character known only as the Movie Star.

Director Tommy Wirkola lays the violence on thick, which would have worked better for me if the story and the characters had caught my attention, but they did not. Midway through this one, I was bored. Wirkola, known for his DEAD SNOW zombie movies, also fared better with his fairy tale actioner HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013).

And alternate takes on Santa Claus have been done before and done better. In fact, just a couple of years ago, Mel Gibson… yeah, I know he’s on most folks’ naughty list… starred in a movie called FAT MAN (2020) that was very similar thematically to VIOLENT NIGHT, as Gibson played a disgruntled Santa who supplements his dwindling Christmas business by freelancing for the U.S. government, and who then finds himself taking on a hitman hired to kill him by a child angry over receiving coal in his stocking. Both films are dark action comedies. But FAT MAN was much more subdued and was consistently moody and dark, and as such its subtle humor worked, and Gibson was actually really really good in the lead role.

VIOLENT NIGHT isn’t focused at all. Its humor is in your face and as a result not very funny. It has some of the worst written characters I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time. And its over the top violence only takes it so far. Even veteran actors David Harbour and John Leguizamo, in spite of their best efforts, can’t save this one.

VIOLENT NIGHT wants to be an adult version of HOME ALONE but ends up being a juvenile version of DIE HARD.

I can’t recommend this one. It’s as ugly as those Christmas sweaters you have collecting dust in your closets.

I give it one star.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) – Drama About Murder Suspect With Asperger’s Only Mildly Entertaining

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the night clerk

Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020).

While THE NIGHT CLERK (2020), a tale about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who becomes the suspect in a murder case, is being billed as a crime/drama/mystery, the emphasis here really is on drama.

The crime, a murder which occurs right at the beginning of the movie, surprisingly never becomes a driving force here, and it’s not much of a mystery.

What it is though is a vehicle to showcase the talents of actor Tye Sheridan, who does a really nice job in the lead role as Bart, the young man with Asperger’s. Sheridan is an up an coming actor who has starred in READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and played Cyclops in the two most recent X-MEN movies, but his work here in THE NIGHT CLERK is better than what he was allowed to do in those movies.

Bart (Tye Sheridan) works the night shift at the front desk of his local hotel. In an effort to learn more about people and how to interact with them, since that is something Bart struggles with because of Asperger’s, he secretly records the activities and conversations of the hotel guests in their rooms. He does this by setting up cameras in the rooms and watching from his laptop. While this is voyeuristic and creepy to the rest of us, Bart doesn’t mean any harm by this, and he innocently watches people to practice conversing with them.

But one night, he witnesses a murder in one of the rooms, and rather than call the police, he runs into the room where later one of his co-workers finds him sitting by the dead body of the murdered woman.  Police Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) questions Bart, and because there are holes in his story about his whereabouts, Espada considers Bart a person of interest in the case.

Bart lives at home with his mother Ethel (Helen Hunt) who does her best to support her son although it is difficult since her husband and Bart’s father has passed away. As Detective Espada continues to poke and prod Bart in search of answers, things become more complicated when Bart befriends another hotel guest, Andrea (Ana de Armas) a beautiful young woman with problems of her own. Bart finds himself immediately attracted to Andrea, and as he tries to get to know her better, the murder plot thickens.

Well, it doesn’t thicken that much, which is the biggest problem with THE NIGHT CLERK. If it were a stew, it’d be darned watery, that’s for sure! And that’s because the murder takes a back seat to Bart’s story and his crush on Andrea, and the mystery itself is pretty obvious. You’ll know from the get-go exactly where this one is going, in terms of who is out to get who.

The screenplay by Michael Cristofer, who also directed, works much better as a character study than as a crime drama. Bart’s character is well-written, and his observations on life as seen through his eyes are intriguing. For example, when he talks to Andrea about love, and speaks of how being in love is not really an emotion but an addiction, he’s spot-on. As is the script. When Bart struggles to be sociable, it’s refreshingly honest.

Tye Sheridan delivers a topnotch performance as Bart. He effortlessly captures what it’s like to live with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s the best I’ve seen Sheridan on screen yet.

Ana de Armas is really good as Andrea, even though her character is stuck in the lame murder mystery plot that never really gets off the ground because it’s so obvious. Her best scenes are when Andrea interacts with Bart, and they share some tender moments together.

I like Ana de Armas a lot, and she’s making movies left and right these days, which is fine by me, because she’s fascinating to watch. She was just in SERGIO (2020) which I reviewed a few weeks back. She was amazing in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She was also in KNIVES OUT (2019) and she is slated to star alongside Daniel Craig in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

Helen Hunt is solid as Bart’s mom Ethel, although it’s a small role and she ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot. The same sadly can be said for John Leguizamo as Detective Espada. He actually has some of the best scenes in the movie, but he disappears for long stretches when the film becomes more about Bart and Andrea and less about the murder investigation. And towards the end, when you expect that things will be heating up, they simply don’t. So while Leguizamo is good, he’s not in this one enough to really make much of a difference, in the way, for example, he did with his fine supporting work in THE INFILTRATOR (2016) in which he starred with Bryan Cranston.

There are some plot holes as well. For example, Bart is suspected early on of the murder, and it comes to light that he’s been recording guests in their rooms, yet he doesn’t lose his job! He’s not even given a warning of any kind. I thought this was weird. Also, he’s a suspect at first because Espada wrongly believes Bart never left the hotel, which he did, and he had a very memorable verbal exchange with a clerk at a store. This clerk would no doubt remember Bart. Yet, we never see Espada following up this part of the story, which had me scratching my head why we saw the exchange in the first place if not to establish an alibi for Bart.

The ending is also edited strangely. It’s set up to make the audience think one thing, while something else is really happening. The problem is in terms of Bart’s character, it doesn’t make much sense for him to do what he did the way he did. He could have simply dealt with Espada directly. In other words, it comes off as a forced contrivance.

THE NIGHT CLERK works best as a character study of Bart Bromley, a young man with Asperger’s, who as a suspect in a murder case, falls for a mysterious young woman Andrea, who’s also a guest at the hotel where he works. It’s not much of a crime drama or a murder mystery, as the criminal elements are downplayed, and the mystery is way too obvious to matter all that much.

At the end of the day, THE NIGHT CLERK is a mild drama with some solid acting performances by the principal players. It’s watchable, but it certainly would have benefitted from a tighter script with more emphasis on the murder melodrama.

An Alfred Hitchcock thriller this one ain’t!

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