Review of “Violent Night”

Getting older is the enemy of feeling the Christmas Spirit. Children usually don’t have the pressure of making a living, paying bills, dealing with political arguments and seeing the general collapse of what makes the holidays magical. The forced consumerism of getting “everyone” a gift, any gift, means we spend too much time in traffic, in crowded stores and in line, buying junk for family and friends they neither want nor need. Instead of buying me a gift, I would rather my acquaintances drop money in a Salvation Army red kettle or take a Make a Wish tag from a Christmas tree or donate to Toys for Tots or their local food bank and help people that need it. I want for nothing I can’t get myself. All the pressure to buy stuff this time of year simply sucks the joy out of Christmas. Perhaps that why the idea of a Santa Claus kicking the asses of bad guys on his naughty list sounds so appealing in the new film “Violent Night.”

Santa Claus (David Harbour) is disillusioned with the materialism of Christmas and the lack of holiday spirit he feels around the world. Drinking heavily at bars along his route, Santa stops at the home of Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), a wealthy and powerful businessperson hosting her annual family Christmas eve gathering. The event is an opportunity for her grown children to suck up to their mother trying to position themselves to take over the company. Daughter Alva Steele-Lightstone (Edi Patterson) and her actor husband Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet), along with Alva’s son from her first marriage Bertrude “Bert” Lightstone (Alexander Elliot), a wannabe social media influencer, are on hand jockeying for a future position of power in the company, along with Morgan hoping his mother-in-law will finance an action movie he would star in. Also present is Gertrude’s son Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda Matthew (Alexis Louder) and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Trudy is a hardcore Santa believer. Alva has always considered Linda a gold digger despite any evidence. After a tense cocktail hour, a group of mercenaries, that posed as the catering company for the evening, reveal themselves, led by Jimmy “Scrooge” Martinez (John Lequizamo). Killing all of Gertrude’s security staff, Scrooge announces his plan to steal $300 million Lightstone has diverted from a government contract and keeps in a high security vault in the basement. All the shooting scares off Santa’s reindeer on the roof, leaving him with only his magical sack of gifts. Santa is able to defeat a couple of Scrooge’s goons and grabs one of their radios, hoping to contact the police. Jason has given Trudy an old walkie-talkie he says communicates with Santa. Santa hears Trudy’s pleas for help and is determined to make it a very un-Merry Christmas for Scrooge and all his henchmen.

Perhaps I’m just cynical enough for “Violent Night” to work for me. Harbour’s disillusioned Santa, drinking in a British pub, complaining about the ingratitude of most children, how their faces only light up with joy for a second or two after opening a gift and then crave yet another one, spoke to my own personal loss of Christmas cheer. There’s an overall lack of compassion, of caring, of charity that makes Christmas a lesser holiday for me than it was in my youth. It is supposed to be a time of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the ultimate gift to the world, yet there’s very little Christ in Christmas anymore. I’m as much to blame for that as everyone else. Yet, despite the violence, gore and foul language throughout “Violent Night,” there’s a tiny spark for renewal of Christmas love and hope.

David Harbour is terrific as Santa. He’s not a supernatural action hero. This Santa is as fallible and mortal as the rest of us. He admits he doesn’t understand how all the Christmas magic works, including his bottomless sack of gifts, and he’d rather avoid fighting if possible, but he will throw hands and use anything within his reach as a weapon to beat the bad guys and save Trudy.

Harbour’s Santa is an everyman; tired of dealing with the lack of respect and thanks he gets from children all over the world. The cookies are nice, better if homemade, and he’d prefer a beer or whiskey to milk, but all his time away has strained his relationship with Mrs. Claus. The Santa Claus of “Violent Night” is more like an Average Joe than a magical elf. He’s overworked, under appreciated and thinking he might need to hang up the red suit. The performance, and script from Pat Casey and Josh Miller, makes this possibly the most relatable Santa Claus in film history.

Santa’s backstory is hinted at in a flashback and brief explanation. If there’s a sequel, perhaps we’ll dive more deeply into the pre-Santa history of the character. That could have been a very interesting sequence had it been more fully explored. Maybe the movie’s nearly two-hour runtime meant there wasn’t room for an in depth look at the Jolly Fat Man’s history.

Alexis Louder, who is in the criminally underseen “Copshop,” delivers another great performance as Linda, a woman that wants nothing to do with her estranged husband’s toxic family. While Louder isn’t given that much to do in the film, when she’s on screen, she’s impossible to ignore. Louder overwhelms her co-stars in her believability and her strength. I wish she had been featured more instead of the obnoxious characters of Alva, Morgan and Bert, but I suppose the film makers chose to emphasize the greedy and needy side of the family as opposed to the more grounded and likable side. I hope Louder gets more featured roles as she’s a great actress.

“Violent Night” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references. There are numerous shootings, beatings and stabbings throughout the film. A candy cane and an icicle are used as stabbing implements. A star-shaped ornament in stabbed in someone’s eye. Another character falls out a window and is impaled on a large decorative icicle. A sledgehammer is used to kill several characters. A magical killing leaves behind a bloody torso. Characters are also killed using a snowblower. The sexual references are quick and used more as threats. Foul language is common throughout.

“Violent Night” won’t replace “Christmas Vacation” (also starring Beverly D’Angelo) nor “It’s a Wonderful Life” as most people’s favorite holiday movie. But it might provide an antidote to anyone feeling a bit of holiday overload and needing an anti-feel-good film that still provides a tiny bit of hope in the end.

“Violent Night” gets four out of five stars.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Suburbicon”

Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is an average kid living in an average house in the average neighborhood of Suburbicon. His father Gardner (Matt Damon) works in insurance. His mother Rose (Julianne Moore) is in a wheelchair after an automobile accident. His Aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore) is visiting overnight when two men, Ira and Louis (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) enter the home, tie everyone up and kill Rose with an overdose of chloroform. It seems Gardner owes the men money and hasn’t paid it back yet so the murder of Rose was a warning. Aunt Margaret moves into the Lodge home to help Gardner raise Nicky. Officer Hightower (Jack Conley) tells Gardner to come down to the station and look at a lineup based on his description of the robbers. Margaret brings Nicky to the station because he doesn’t want to stay at the house alone. While Ira and Louis are in the lineup neither Gardner nor Margaret tells police who they are. Nicky is confused and wonders what his father and aunt are up to. Meanwhile, the Mayers family has moved into Suburbicon and caused quite a stir with the neighbors as they are black and this is 1959. The Mayers house backs up to the Lodge house and Nicky and Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), a boy about Nicky’s age, have become friends. Crowds gather at the Mayers house, making noise, banging drums and yelling at the family inside to move as they don’t want their kind in Suburbicon.

Whenever Joel and Ethan Coen are involved in the making of a movie I get excited. “Suburbicon” is a script the brothers wrote back in 1986 but it has only now been turned into a film by frequent Coen Brothers collaborator George Clooney. Clooney, along with writer Grant Heslov, added some story elements and Clooney directed. Perhaps George and Grant should have left the script alone because “Suburbicon” feels like a two different stories that have been forcefully fused together against their will.

The trailer for “Suburbicon” makes the movie look like a madcap crime caper and parts of the film have that tone; however, much of what is suggested in the trailer misrepresents what happens in the film with clever editing suggesting one thing is in reaction to another when the events are unrelated. Anyone walking into the movie expecting a somewhat more violent version of “Raising Arizona” is going to be disappointed. “Suburbicon” is far darker than the trailer suggests.

It is also uneven with a subplot about the community trying to force a black family to leave feeling very shoehorned into the film. It is a ham-fisted attempt by Clooney to make us see that what is the focus of public anger usually isn’t the real problem. While everyone in the neighborhood believes the black family is bringing in an unsavory element, the nice white family across the way is being terrorized by thugs because of the actions of the father. It screams hypocrisy and intolerance in a very clumsy way. Clooney has proven he is a very good movie director so it puzzles me why this effort is so uneven. I would like to know more about the creative process to put this film together because large parts of it are really good. That’s not to say the sections involving the black family isn’t good; but it just feels like it’s from a different movie.

It’s a shame the film is a bit of a mess since Matt Damon is so good as the morally corrupted Gardner Lodge. Lodge is a man that thinks he’s far smarter than he actually is; however, he quickly shows he’s quite dumb by not paying off the loan shark. Perhaps that is part of a larger plan; but even so, it spectacularly blows up in his face. Lodge is pushed further and further into bad decisions as the story progresses and is always trying to solve problems caused by other efforts to solve problems. Damon plays Lodge constantly seething with anger and on the verge of exploding. Like a good person of the period, he stuffs his rage down deep in his soul and tries to keep it bottled up. Should it be released well, people might talk and think poorly of him down at the lodge or church. Damon is infuriating as Lodge since most of his issues could be solved with one call to the police; but we know he’ll never make that call as he is a coward looking to avoid as much trouble as possible. Damon gives Lodge a boyish charm that gives him at least one redeeming quality, keeping the audience from hating him totally.

Julianne Moore is both Rose and Margaret but since the former is killed early in the film I’ll be talking mostly about her performance as the latter. Moore is stunningly creepy as the surrogate mother and wife. There is a streak of cruelty that runs through the character that turns what could have been a throwaway role into something meaningful and dangerous. Margaret is clearly mentally ill and is teetering on the edge of a breakdown throughout the film. Moore is masterful at portraying damaged characters and this one is clearly broken from almost the first time we see her.

The performances are somewhat hampered by a plot that moves at a leisurely pace. It takes too long to introduce the meat of the story after the misdirection of the black family’s arrival in town and the full story of what’s going on is never fully explained. We know Lodge owes money to the thugs but we don’t know what he got the money for. Are the thugs small time players or are they more heavily connected? Are Gardner and Margaret involved prior to the events in the film or only after? Gardner was driving the night of the car accident that put Rose in the wheelchair but did he do it on purpose to try and collect on her life insurance? There are a great many loose threads dangling by the end of the film with no satisfactory answers for any of them.

“Suburbicon” is rated R for some sexuality, language and violence. There is poisoning, strangling, stabbing and other violence shown with some of it being very bloody. There is a riot that breaks out at the Mayers’ home with windows shattered and fires set. The sexuality is limited to a scene where Nicky walks in on Gardner and Margaret having a mildly kinky scene. Foul language is scattered.

There’s a really good movie embedded in “Suburbicon” that could have been the dark and violent domestic drama that the Coen’s made famous in “Fargo” and “Blood Simple.” Sadly, the addition of a needless subplot about racism and a languid pace put “Suburbicon” on the lower end of “Best Coen Brothers’ Movies” scale. Great performances from Matt Damon and Julianne Moore almost are wasted. It isn’t the best movie but it does have its redeeming qualities. If you have the patience check it out.

“Suburbicon” gets three stars out of five.

This week, there’s a rare Wednesday opening for a sequel and the arrival of the next Marvel flick. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

A Bad Mom’s Christmas—

Thor: Ragnarok—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast where ever you download your podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.