REVIEW: “Violent Night” (2022)

“Violent Night” is dumb beyond measure, deliriously hyper-violent, and a glaring clone of countless other movies (just with a Christmas time setting). But here’s the thing, this holiday action-comedy is proud to be all of those things. In fact, it’s exactly what director Tommy Wirkola and the screenwriting duo of Pat Casey and Josh Miller are going for. Their firm devotion to their vision is certainly commendable. It’s also what makes the film wear out its welcome well before its numbingly goofy (and proudly blood-soaked) final act.

David Harbour plays Santa Claus, donning the classic red suit and white beard but with a far from festive snarl. We first meet him on Christmas Eve chugging beer at a pub in Bristol, England. Disenchanted with the greed and overall lack of Christmas spirit in the world, the not-so-jolly elf lets out his frustrations to his makeshift drinking buddies before hopping on his sleigh, upchucking all over the bartender (a drunk barfing – there’s a new one), and flying off to continue his deliveries.

Meanwhile in Greenwich, Connecticut, an estranged couple, Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell) and his wife Linda (Alexis Louder), are taking their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) to the excessively lavish Lightstone estate, the home of Jason’s crude and obscenely wealthy mother, Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) who’s hosting a Christmas Eve party for her family. Between the staff, the security detail, and the team of caterers, it’s far from a cozy affair. But that’s hardly a concern for the garish and self-consumed Gertrude.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Already at the party is Alva (Edi Patterson), Gertrude’s shallow, boozy daughter; Morgan (Cam Gigandet), Alva’s husband and a low-rent action movie star; and Bert, Alva’s obnoxious son from her first marriage and a wannabe social media influencer. They all come together for a night of upper-crust indulgence, fake affection, and family posturing.

But just as the money-grubbing Lightstones are set to begin their festivities, the caterers pull out automatic weapons and start mowing down Gertrude’s staff and security detail. Leading the assault is “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo), a holiday-hating mercenary who fires more dopey Christmas one-liners than bullets (a gag the movie never seems to grow tired of). Scrooge and his team aren’t just their to crash the party. No, he’s there for the $3 million in cash that Gertrude has locked up in a state-of-the-art vault.

What the goons didn’t count on was Santa Claus who stops at the Lightstone compound to leave a present for Trudy (she’s on his nice list). But after he encounters one of the mercs, Saint Nick finds himself forced into action. From there this “Die Hard” knock-off pretty much plays just as you would expect, with Santa as the John McClane character, Scrooge playing a poor-man’s Hans Gruber, and several heavily armed henchmen – some trying to open the vault while others try to track down the poison pill that threatens to derail their heist.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The film shamelessly rips off several other movies, but in the case of “Die Hard”, it’s too much to even be considered an homage. But thanks to its Christmas setting, “Violent Night” is able to have some fun all its own. And that’s fairly entertaining for a while. Unfortunately for me, the film reached a point where I needed more than a hard-R spin on a Christmas movie. But Wirkola and company are relentless, milking their gimmick dry and then still pressing on for another 30 minutes or so.

One bit I did enjoy was its tip of the hat the “Home Alone”. We get about a ten-minute sequence that I won’t spoil, but it sees Trudy going full-blown Kevin McAllister but with much more gruesome results. And despite the lazily conceived potty-mouthed Santa bit, Harbour is (to no surprise) really good in his role. There’s not much depth or nuance in the character (despite the writers trying to manufacture some), but Harbour’s natural personality makes his Santa semi-interesting.

“Violent Night” desperately wants to be a new holiday cult classic, but it’s hardly something that’ll leave a lasting impression. Ultimately it is aggressively what it is. It tries to add some emotional layers by throwing in a couple of sudsy scenes along the way. But in reality, the movie mostly seems interested in pushing its R rating, and it loses itself in that relentless pursuit. It’ll be a blast for some. But for those who burn out on its gimmick, I can see it being an endurance test. “Violent Night” is out now in theaters.


REVIEW: “Vesper” (2022)

Science-fiction fans who have been starving for something new, look no further. The directing duo of Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper have melded sci-fi with dystopian dark fantasy to give us “Vesper”. Don’t let its small indie status fool you. “Vesper” is a transporting experience and a masterclass on immersive world-building, showing that you don’t need the deep pockets of a major studio to create an absorbing setting.

Filmed in Lithuania, Buožytė and Samper vividly portray a dank and harsh planet Earth. They show us a tragically ravaged world, yet it’s one of spellbinding beauty. It’s much like the actual story itself which is somber-toned and melancholy yet warm-hearted and (in its own eventual way) hopeful. This creative balance is one of several things that set “Vesper” apart. And while its overall concept isn’t particularly new, the film carves its own identity by freshening up familiar ideas and shrewdly utilizing one of science-fiction’s biggest strengths – its ability to show us ourselves and our world from a number of enlightening perspectives.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

In the world of “Vesper”, humanity tried and failed to dodge an impending ecological disaster by investing heavily in genetics. But as a result genetically engineered viruses and organisms escaped containment and wiped out most plant-based foods, animals, and a large portion of the human population. In this New Dark Age, those with power and status live in enclosed cities called Citadels. All those on the outside struggle to survive, dependent on seeds engineered and sold by the Citadels for food. It’s a social structure doomed by its very nature.

Outside the safety of the Citadels is a treacherous land filled with eerie mutated plant life and animated flora. Predatory plants with piercing tendrils or noxious gases pose a constant threat while others pulsate with a near fluorescent glow and react like an adoring pet to human touch. Such a complicated ecosystem may sound overwhelming, but not for 13-year-old Vesper (a very good Raffiella Chapman). Keen, resourceful, and with a knack for biohacking, Vesper has not only adapted to her surroundings, but she’s studied it and used what she has learned to engineer her own biological creations.

Vesper dreams of one day working in the labs of the nearest Citadel. But the reality of her situation offers no real hope. She lives in an old wood shack with her paralyzed and bed-ridden father Darius (Richard Blake). His brain is linked to a drone that he uses to communicate with Vesper and follow her when she goes out for supplies. Her mother left them a year earlier, joining a nomadic group of creepy scavengers called Pilgrims. So it’s left to Vesper to run the house, provide food, and take care of her father.

After their house is robbed, Vesper seeks help from her uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan), a smart but ruthless leader of a small nearby town. Jonas is a cold and callous man who excuses his actions in the name of survival. Take his ghastly agreement with the closest Citadel. He trades bags of children’s blood for seeds. The Citadel’s scientists then use the blood to create synthetic humans called Jugs who are designed to do the work of laborers. “Jugs are designed to be loyal”, one character says. “It wouldn’t be so easy with humans.” Again, a social structure doomed to failure.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Vesper and Darius’ lives change dramatically after a Citadel glider crashes in the forest. Vesper discovers an injured woman named Camellia (Rosie McEwen) near the wreckage and nurses her back to health. The presence of a Citadel citizen excites Vesper but concerns Darius. And things only get worse once Jonas gets wind of the crash. The story takes some darker turns in its second half, especially as it digs deeper into the best and worst of humanity.

Despite their film’s overall bleakness, Buožytė and Samper don’t leave us without hope. Nothing in their world is certain, but they give us a reason to believe in Vesper, and they show a glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Chapman’s earnest and determined performance is key. But none of it works without the rich, captivating world which is brought to life through a remarkable mixture of digital and practical effects. It feels real and organic, yet full of mystery. Even more, it adds a harrowing layer to Vesper’s journey and ours as well. “Vesper” is now available on VOD.


REVIEW: “Valley of the Dead” (2022)

Zombie movies come in all shapes and sizes. To further prove that glaringly obvious point, just look at the Spanish film “Valley of the Dead” which recently premiered on Netflix. Now while its name may sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill zombie horror title, a first glance of the movie teases something quite different. It starts off resembling like a heavy war movie. Shortly after it starts to play like a comedy. But ultimately things get serious when the dead come alive and begin feasting on the living.

“The Valley of the Dead” is co-directed by Javier Ruiz Caldera and Alberto del Toro. It’s an adaptation of the novel “Noche de difuntos del 38” by Manuel Martín Ferreras. It premiered at 2020 Sitges Film Festival but had its official release delayed until this year due to COVID-19. Now Netflix imports it to their platform, adding to their already large collection of international features.

While this may be a hard film to read initially, it quickly begins to reveal its identity. It’s a zombie flick for certain. But it’s also very much a war movie, a survival thriller, at times a black comedy, and a sharp critique of human division and how we cling so tightly to our differences. When it’s all put together it may not be the most innovative or groundbreaking concoction. But there’s enough action, cool period production design, and good character work to make this a pretty entertaining stew.

The story is set in 1938 and unfolds during the Spanish Civil War. It opens with a Nazi convoy pulling up to a wedding party in a small Italian village and brutally gunning them all down. A Nazi officer puts on a gas mask and then tosses a canister among the dead bodies. A blue gas pours out engulfing the deceased and then the camera cuts. And just like that you have a good example of who is ultimately behind what we are about to experience.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

From there we’re introduced to Captain Jan Lozano (Miki Esparbé), a perpetual troublemaker who finds himself on the brink of being executed for the third time (this time for head-butting a judge who happened to be the cousin of Francisco Franco). Just as the firing squad is about to shoot, Jan’s high-ranking uncle stops the execution. He has convinced his superiors to spare his nephew’s life. But in return, Jan will have to carry out a suicide mission. One that will take him across no man’s land to the other side of the Sierra.

Jan is assigned a 17-year-old driver named Private Decruz (Manel Llunell) and the two head out into the wild. Their first obstacle comes while checking out a downed fighter plane. The pair are surprised and taken captive by a squad of enemy rebels. But before the adversaries can sort out their predicament, they have their first encounter with the undead. Yep, it turns out the battlefield is littered with flesh-eating zombies. And if they want to survive, the Nationalists and the Republicans will have to put aside their politics and work together…if possible.

It’s not hard to see where things go from there. It becomes a story of ‘who makes it till the end’ as the band of survivors fight battles from within and without just to stay alive. There are some fun action sequences as well as some entertaining encounters between characters. There are pinches of black comedy which keep things light early on. But later, the critique of war and politics along with the divisions they cause is addressed in a number of interesting ways. For much of the film, the greatest threat to the group’s survival lies within them, not the undead.

While “Valley of the Dead” takes a few ambitious swings, ultimately it follows a pretty familiar path. You won’t have any problems figuring out how things play out. There’s actually more mystery in guessing who makes it out than how they do. Still, the period wartime setting, the variety of character types, and some genuinely fun zombie action makes for a movie with a little more to offer than you might think. “Valley of the Dead” is streaming now on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Vikram Vedha” (2022)

It goes without saying that a quality screenplay is vital to any good movie. And it’s especially true in the crowded sphere of crime thrillers. Just look at some of the genre’s very best films. They’re all marked by truly great screenplays. I wouldn’t dare put “Vikram Vedha” up there with the likes of “Chinatown”, “Mean Streets”, or “No Country for Old Men”. But it’s a prime example of a movie elevated and driven by an exceptional screenplay.

“Vikram Vedha” is written and directed by the husband and wife filmmaking duo Pushkar–Gayathri. The movie is a Hindi-language remake of the couple’s own 2017 Tamil feature of the same name. Fans of the genre will have no trouble recognizing the many marks of a classic crime thriller: shady cops, mob bosses, dirty-dealings, and double-crosses. It’s part mystery, part action flick, part neo-noir, even a bit of a police procedural.

Clearly those are a lot of different ingredients. But Pushkar–Gayathri’s screenplay wrangles and weaves them together in a twisty, intelligent, and thoroughly compelling feature. I haven’t seen the 2017 original so there was no temptation to compare. Instead, it was a treat to go in blind and have a fresh experience with the story. Sure I was excited by the handful of exhilarating action scenes, the pulsating Sam C.S. score, and cinematographer P. S. Vinod’s dynamic camera. But it always came back to the screenplay, and its clever story structure, crisp pacing, and rich dialogue. It all makes the nearly 160-minute running time fly by.

On screen, the story is led by two remarkably strong performances. Saif Ali Khan brings a steely grit to Vikram, a dedicated cop and member of a special task force aimed at taking down organized crime. Hrithik Roshan, oozing charisma, plays Vedha, a notorious gangster who Vikram’s team has made their priority. The problem is Vedha has vanished, forced underground and completely off their radar.

We learn early on that Vikram’s hands aren’t entirely clean. During a raid on one of Vedha’s hideouts, he guns down an unarmed henchman. But rather than reporting it, Vikram plants a gun and makes up a story to avoid an inquiry. “To clean filth, someone has to get their hands dirty,” he reasons to his boss and best friend Abbas (Satyadeep Mishra).

Then things take a turn. When intelligence reports a siting of Vedha, Vikram and his team begin setting up a plan to apprehend him. But they’re stunned when their most wanted target nonchalantly strolls into the police station and surrenders. Why would he come out of hiding? Why would he turn himself in? He won’t say a word until Vikram comes to interrogate him. Suddenly Vedha is ready to talk. “Shall I tell you a story sir?” he asks with a devious grin.

This begins a brilliantly written and well-acted chess match between Vikram and Vedha that plays out for the rest of film. Chunks of the story are told through flashbacks which Pushkar–Gayathri nicely utilize to fill in key details. We learn that Vedha has had a hand in sixteen murders and worked for a powerful heroin smuggler named Parshuram Pandey (Govind Pandey). But we also see another side of Vedha – one that shows his love for his little brother, Shatak (Rohit Saraf) and his efforts to keep Shatak out of the criminal lifestyle. This interesting complexity makes Vedha as much of a mystery to us as he is the Vikram.

Of course a showdown is all but inevitable, yet Pushkar–Gayathri’s keen plotting ensure the journey there is full of unexpected twists and turns. Several good supporting characters add layers to the narrative, including Vikram’s lawyer wife Priya (a really good Radhika Apte), Vedha’s arch-rival Babloo (Sharib Hashmi), and Shatak’s childhood friend Chanda (Yogita Bihani). And of course there are the bursts of action, full of stylish flourishes and driven by two Bollywood stars with wattage to spare. Put it all together and it’s hard not to be swept away by this rousing combination of savvy storytelling and popcorn spectacle. “Vikram Vedha” is now showing in select theaters.


REVIEW: “Vikram” (2022)

The Tamil action blockbuster “Vikram” has made its way to US streaming (Hulu) giving American audiences the chance to see their highest grossing film of the year. Written and directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj, this is the second film in his shared universe of action thrillers. It’s a movie loaded with ambition, and the craft is undeniable. But it takes some time getting into it. That’s because there are layers upon layers of plot mixed with a seemingly never-ending buildup. But once it gets its footing and all of the story threads start coming together, there’s a reasonably good crime thriller to be found.

Tops among the film’s many characters is Amar (Fahadh Faasil), the leader of an off-the-grid special unit called Black Squad. They’re an elite group who are brought in to solve crimes through methods not readily available to the more law-abiding police. Whenever they’re given a mission, Black Squad stealthily enters and melds into a city or community, connects with the locals for information, tracks down their targets, and brings them to justice by any means necessary.

In this specific case, Black Squad is called in to hunt down a masked killer who has been targeting and brutally slaying cops. Among his victims was a police inspector named Prabhanjan (Kalidas Jayaram). But what made his murder stand out from the others was that the masked man also killed Prabhanjan’s adopted father, Karnan (Kamal Haasan) who has no connection to the police department. Amar and his team latch onto this inconsistency in the killer’s pattern and make it the centerpiece of their investigation.

Through a heavy dose of flashbacks we begin learning more about Prabhanjan and especially Karnan, who becomes a raging alcoholic after his son was killed. As the mystery unfolds, Karnan’s story takes some unexpected turns. Meanwhile separate links to police corruption emerge. And a notorious drug lord Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), the leader of the violent Vetti Vagaiyara gang, becomes a key player and one the main antagonists for the rest of the movie.

Layers continue to be peeled back like onions, and even more characters are introduced as the mystery at the heart of story gets less and less murkier. While the first half will test your endurance, the second half finally gets to a decent enough payoff – one that both (kinda) finishes this story while teases an inevitable sequel. And of course we get the style-heavy action scenes that offer a healthy dose of fight sequences and shootouts. They range from tense yet wildly fun to utterly preposterous.

Yet despite its more attractive pieces, “Vikram” never quite comes together as a whole. That’s because too much of its hefty 174-minute running time is spent weaving together a story that’s more complicated than it needs to be. We spend too much time waiting for the movie to kick into gear and deliver the big action beats we know are coming. These are nagging issues that the film’s star power and impressive style can’t quite make up for. “Vikram” is now streaming on Hulu.


REVIEW: “Vengeance” (2022)

(CHECK OUT my full review in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Culture clash comedies can be hit-or-miss, but writer, director and star B.J. Novak gives us a good one with his new film “Vengeance”. What makes this surprisingly rich and textured movie stand out is its blend of influences. It’s a black comedy. It’s a murder mystery. Parts of it has a Western flavor while other parts feel like a neo-noir. It has a can’t-miss satirical bite and offers some timely commentary on the Red State/Blue State divide that’s not-so-silently ripping our country apart. The movie isn’t overtly political. Instead, it’s interested in how we as Americans burrow into our own groups and are quick to judge anyone who doesn’t fit within them.

Novak (“The Office”) plays Ben Manalowitz, a newly hired writer for The New Yorker and an aspiring podcaster. We first meet him at a Brooklyn rooftop party where he and his equally flakey buddy (John Mayer) tout their skewed views on monogamy while questioning what constitutes a “meaningful relationship”. To these guys, hook-up culture allows them to satisfy their self-absorbed needs without putting in the effort of viewing people as more than fixtures. They’re a rather insufferable pair who seem to revel in their big city smugness yet are oblivious when it comes to the shallowness and real-world detachment in their worldview.

You would think that writing for The New Yorker would make a guy like Ben happy. But his complacency is only outdone by his ambition. He’s enamored with the idea of having something profound to say and a podcast would give him that platform. He has the support of his friend and producer Eloise (Issa Rae) who runs a podcast company. But he needs a theme and a story that people want to follow. He finds one in the most unexpected of places.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Ben gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a stranger named Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook). He’s the older brother of a young woman named Abilene (played briefly in recordings by Lio Tipton). Turns out Ben and Abby hooked up a couple of times when she visited New York. While he didn’t bother to get her last name, she went back home to West Texas telling her family they were a couple. A heartbroken Ty informs Ben that Abby is dead from an alleged opioid overdose. In one of the more far-fetched bits, Ben is guilted into flying to Texas for Abby’s funeral despite not knowing her nearly as well as the family believes.

When Ben arrives he’s picked Ty, a well-meaning yokel who firmly believes his sister was murdered. “She never touched so much as an Advil,” he attests. Of course he doesn’t have any evidence nor has he taken his suspicions to the local authorities. But he’s determined that Ben join him after the funeral to help “avenge” her death. Now to Ben, Abilene is just a name in his phone; nothing more than a wannabe singer who overdosed in a Texas oilfield. But she’s also a potential story and she could be Ben’s much desired ticket to fame.

So with as much faux compassion and sincerity as he can muster, Ben convinces Ty and the rest of grieving family that he’ll get to the bottom of what happened to Abilene. What he’s really doing is shaping his podcast by recording conversations with family members and other locals and sending them to Eloise in New York. But (of course) the more he gets to know Abilene’s family and gets acquainted with dusty rural living, the more he begins questioning his own motivations.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

“Vengeance” is full of laugh-out-loud exchanges as Ben makes his best efforts to fit in. Whether Novak is poking fun at small-town Southern quirks or picking away at his own character’s big city sensibilities, the movie finds a lot to laugh at from both cultural camps. That said, it’s clearly country-fried Texas that takes most of the ribbing. It doesn’t reach the point of full mockery, but the movie does have its share of broad Southern characterizations. But many of them are genuinely funny, and the movie never lets Ben and his city-boy condescension off the hook.

While comedy runs throughout “Vengeance”, the second half sees Novak veering away from formula and carving out a few trails of his own. He takes many of the stereotypes he leans on early and shatters them, using the pieces to pose some compelling questions. But it’s the character twists that surprise the most. Holbrook’s Ty is a fascinating character – a striking balance of hayseed caricature and clear-eyed revelation. But the most intriguing character comes from a scene-stealing Ashton Kutcher. He plays record producer/small town philosopher Quinten Sellers. He has the look of a snake-oil selling goof. But once he begins speaking, you can’t turn away.

While I’m still not sure if I fully buy the final ten minutes, I do buy B.J. Novak as a feature filmmaker. “Vengeance” is a movie made with confidence and even the few bits that don’t entirely work show a willingness to bend the rules and take some big swings. Overall, “Vengeance” is a film that entertains us, engages us, and indicts us all at the same time. It’s hard not to be impressed with Novak who turns his nerd-out-of-water comedy into something weightier and with more punch. “Vengeance” opens in theaters today (July 29th).