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Vengeance Review | B.J. Novak Goes from the Fire Guy to the Podcast Guy in Brilliant Directorial Debut

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Original films do live on! With Nope topping the box office charts last week with a $44 million domestic debut — the highest for an original film since Peele’s last film, Us — it’s proof that original films do have a home in the age of blockbusters and tentpole films galore. Now, B.J. Novak, who my generation may know as Ryan from The Office as a result of all of the rewatches that we did when the series was on Netflix, makes his directorial debut with Vengeance, a unique mystery-comedy film with a millennial twist that puts Novak’s brilliant mind and writing at the forefront.

Ben is a writer for The New York — em, sorry — The New Yorker magazine but longs to be more than just a writer; though Issa Rae — who plays his podcast editor — suggests he speak more from the heart than his brain. Ben wants to be a voice, and what better way to do that than starting what all white men in New York City have: A podcast? After all, Ben has lucked into a situation with the “Holy Grail” of podcasts: A dead white girl.

(L to R) Clint Obenchain as Crawl, B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz, and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in VENGEANCE, directed and written by B.J. Novak, released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret/Focus Features

After one of his (presumably) many hookups, Ben receives “the worst phone call you’re gonna get in your life” from the brother of a former hookup — Abilene (Lio Tipton) — who was found dead. Her brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), gets Ben to travel to a rural Texas town for Abilene’s funeral where Ben is roped into giving a speech at the funeral that only Michael Scott could make more cringey as he has to scramble to come up with a moving speech (luckily, his natural knack for writing bails him out). But the trip doesn’t stop there, as Ty also convinces Ben to go full Pattinson Batman and seek vengeance with him and believes Abilene was murdered; thus kicking off the film’s adventure as Ben chronicles this journey through his voice memos app for a true crime podcast series.

If you’ve ever read B.J. Novak’s collection of short stories, One More Thing, you’ll know that Novak is somewhat of a philosopher himself. That carries over to his character in Vengeance, Ben. Opening at a New York City house party, Ben, who’s the “our conversation should be a podcast” guy, and his friend are sharing lines like “people like cookie dough because it’s unfinished; it can be anything,” while scouting out a part full of “infinite possibilities.” You’d probably just ignore a guy like Ben at a bar, but when the film is centered around him, you’ve got no choice but to go along with him.

(L to R) Isabella Amara as Paris Shaw, Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw, Louanne Stephens as Granny Carole, and Eli Abrams Bickel as El Stupido in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

But for as obnoxious as Novak’s character may seem on the surface, it’s a character that suits Novak as well as the plaid button-downs that he wears in the middle of West Texas. Ben really is the exemplification of a northerner that sticks out like a sour thumb anywhere south of the east coast (trust me, I spent my freshman year of college down south). He’s not looking for Chinese food like Pesci and Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, opting for WiFi passwords instead. Like your average millennial, Ben isn’t going to get his hands dirty. As he tells Ty, he doesn’t usually opt for vengeance when someone he knows dies. Fair enough, but that means he uses the second-most powerful tool in 2022: A podcast. The best way I can describe it is that Novak has written himself a character that perfectly combines the charming neuroticism of a Woody Allen-written character and the spirit of a millennial.

While Novak is great in the lead, a special shoutout is deserved for scene-stealer Ashton Kutcher, who plays Quentin Sellers, a record producer in West Texas. And while he seems cool as a cucumber and like a guy who just goes with the flow on the surface, he delivers some of the film’s best dialogue opposite of Novak and his final monologue will send chills down your spine. He’s the one who brings the film’s motifs full circle, and while the choice made with his character in the third act wouldn’t have been my first choice, you have to respect the choice coming from Novak.

(L to R) Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in VENGEANCE, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

Boyd Holbrook plays ‘Abilene’s brother, Ty. This is a far cry from Holbrook’s villainous turn in Logan, but this heightened burlesque portrait of a stereotypical American is the target of many (simple, yet effective jokes). On most occasions, Ty and his whole family (and perhaps all of West Texas for that matter) are painted to be bigoted, ignorant, racists. Whether it be the time when Ty says that Ben looks like a character from Schindler’s List or the racial profiling that he does when accusing someone of Abeliene’s murder, there are lines in the film that’ll make you cringe in 2022. Sure, many of Vengeance”s jokes can be boiled down to the Texans being painted as gun-loving racists, but sometimes simple is effective and it’s best not to overwrite these jokes.

Writer/director B.J. Novak on the set of VENGEANCE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features

Above all else, Vengeance is a movie about audience expectations. Not everything is what it seems, and Ben discovers this as he continues getting deeper into the weeds on this assignment. Vengeance begs the question of the motives of people like Ben: Is he really trying to help the family of a woman he went out with, or is this for his own good? Because at the end of the day, do we, the audience, really care about the victim and the collateral damage it causes to a family? It’s a fascinating question that bleeds into our current age where true crime series are all of the rage and where everyone has a take on social media.

A potential misconception about Vengeance is that it’s a murder-comedy in the vein of Knives Out. Like the expectations just talked about, it’s important to recognize that Vengeance is a comedy that really dips its toes into various genres. Maybe Novak’s writing style or humor takes a bit of time to adjust to, so I would recommend reading even a small portion of Novak’s collection of short stories; it’ll help get your understanding of the writing and comedy of Vengeance far better than I can. Even still, Novak is a brilliant writer and could have a promising future ahead as a filmmaker. 1970s Woody Allen has his fingerprints all over Vengeance, a stellar, or dare I say, fire, directorial debut from the “fire guy” himself, B.J. Novak.


Focus Features will release Vengeance on July 29.

FILM RATING

Andrew is an entertainment journalist and film "critic" who has written for the likes of Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, Film Focus Online, /Film and The Hollywood Handle among others. Leader of the Kaitlyn Dever Fanclub.

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‘Violent Night’ Review | A Violent Delight & Bloody Christmas Caper!

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HO HO HOLY HUMBUG!! Violent Night is an instant Christmas Classic packed with Festive Fun and Christmas Carnage! Tommy Wirkola blends gnarly bloody action with laughs and a magical story about believing. David Harbour Sleighs! as Santa Claus. 

From 87North, the bare-knuckle producers of Nobody, John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Bullet Train and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw comes a coal-dark holiday action-comedy that says you should always bet on red. When a team of mercenaries breaks into a wealthy family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone inside hostage, the team isn’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus (David Harbour, Black Widow, Stranger Things series) is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint!

(from left) David Harbour and John Leguizamo on the set of Violent Night.

Review

Santa Claus Has Had Enough of Christmas

This Holiday Season, Santa Claus is coming to town in this ultra-violent sugar cookie-coated tale from writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller whilst directed by Tommy Wirkola who infuses his gore-soaked humour into this familiar holiday tradition that’s full of festive fun, ferocious fights, action-set pieces involving Christmas ornaments, Ice-skates, and a Nutcracker. “Violent Night” is sure to be a Christmas Crowd pleaser that’ll ultimately make you think twice about candy canes and the Christmas tree star whilst also being a fantastic homage to the seasonal genre classics like “Home Alone” and “Die Hard”.

“Violent Night” introduces David Harbour as Santa Claus, a cynic washing away and drowning his frustrations with booze on Christmas Eve, he’s feeling burned out by a world with too much greed and too little Christmas spirit, and he’s ultimately disgusted with the world’s consumerism. Harbour perfectly slips into the jolly red suit and into the role of this cranky, brutal, and savage version of Santa Claus, making it look effortless as he goes from a despairing drunk to a bloodthirsty warrior on the battlefront truly capturing some of the best Seasons Beatings with gruesome and inventive kills. However, Harbour also provides some of the film’s endearing, heartfelt moments when he magically goes down the chimney, eating decorative cookies, and interacting with Trudy played by Leah Brady definitely thawed out this jolly man’s heart.

David Harbour as Santa in Violent Night, directed by Tommy Wirkola. © 2022 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Snow Way Out

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Lightstone residence. The Lightstone family, are an affluent and dysfunctional bunch gathering for Christmas at the countryside mansion of Gertrude Lightstone played by Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise). It’s a lavish estate that has been funded by the profitable family business. Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda(Alexis Louder), and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) travel to the family and are joined by Jason’s alcoholic sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her new boyfriend and wannabe-action-star Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet), and Alva’s influencer son Bert (Alexander Elliot).

However, Just as Santa arrives there to deliver gifts — and takes a break to sample some fine liquor along with his cookies — the criminal mastermind called “Mr Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) breaks in with his gang of minions, intending to steal $300 million from Gertrude’s vault. But the money appears to be missing, and the Lightstones are taken, hostage. John Leguizamo plays Scrooge, the leader of the mercenaries with skill and energy which is a perfect rival for Harbour’s Santa. Alongside his gang of mercenary minions aptly identified with Christmas codenames such as Candycane, Sugar Plum, Gingerbread, and Krampus provide some of the most hilarious and bloody moments.

(from left) Sugarplum (Stephanie Sy), Gertrude (Beverly DÕAngelo), Alva (Edi Patterson), Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet), Frosty (Can Aydin), Bert (Alexander Elliot), Linda (Alexis Louder), Peppermint (Rawleigh Clements-Willis), Scrooge (John Leguizamo) and Gingerbread (AndrŽ Eriksen) in Violent Night, directed by Tommy Wirkola.

Feliz Navi-Dead

“Violent Night” truly has its Season’s beatings as it’s jam-packed with ferocious fights and bloody deaths. The fights are incredibly well done, and the choreography and stunt of the action sequences are a work of art. Though at first, when the shooting begins, Santa doesn’t want to get involved. But once he recognizes Trudy’s involvement and realizes her goodness and innocence including her belief —which he dutifully looks up on a magical “Naughty and Nice” list—he determines that he must fight for her safety.

This movie is also rightly named “Violent Night” as it ultimately leaves pools of blood on the floor and blood spattered on the walls which in turn make the snow red. Throughout each action-set piece Santa batter’s the mercenaries with fists and heavy objects; stabs one with knives, sharpened candy canes and, well, anything with a point; and have their necks and body parts slashed or impaled on the likes of everything from axes and sharp Christmas ornaments to ice skates.

One sequence perfectly captures the essence and pays homage to “Home Alone”. it’s full of innocence, fun, and games as the traps that Trudy set are lethal.

© Universal Studios Violent Night, directed by Tommy Wirkola.

Final Thoughts

HO HO HO

“Violent Night” is ultimately a story about Santa saving Christmas yet again, however this time with an onslaught of grisly holiday surprises. The movie’s heart is the magic of christmas, and even Santa doesn’t fully understand it, we see that magical force at play several times as he magically evaporates and whisks up a number of chimney flues and that his sack has the ability to store an endless number of gifts that he can magically pull out just by reaching in. The film also incudes a sountrack of festive themes and a creative use of Christmas songs which will leave audiences crying with laughter. Writers Pat Casey, Josh Miller and director Tommy Wirkola blends such gnarly bloody action with laughs and a magical story about believing.

“Violent Night”  Ultimately achieves a perfect blending of genres and totally exceeds expectations, truly making it a wildly entertaining holiday horror caper. With it’s impressive body count, explosions, bloodshed, heart, and overall holiday cheer, “Violent Night” most definitely earns a spot on the Nice List! and If your able to see this in cinemas, do so as the experience on the big screen is epic. I intend to make this a part of my annual holiday movie watchlist from here on out.

“Violent Night” is now showing in Theatres!

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Poker Face Review | Russell Crowe’s Sophomore Directorial Effort Slumps

“Poker Face” is one of the most ridiculous movies of the year, anchored by a lousy performance by Russell Crowe.

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After the emotionally impactful The Water Diviner, one would’ve hoped that Russell Crowe’s latest directorial effort would be as reasonable, if not better, as that movie. But, unfortunately, his next film, Poker Face, falls relatively flat on its face from the moment it begins. 

Part of the reason the movie does not work is that it has no idea what it wants to say or what it’s truly about. Crowe also stars in the film as Jake Foley, a professional gambler recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He decides to host a high-stakes poker game with his childhood friends, Michael (Liam Hemsworth), Drew (RZA), Alex (Aden Young), and Paul (Steve Bastoni). However, a group of criminals plans to hijack Jake’s house and steal some of his most valuable art pieces, jeopardizing the group’s safety. 

But Jake has also poisoned all his friends to put them on the same level as his illness. What does this have to do with anything? Absolutely nothing, other than a bit where one of the criminals (Paul Tassone) accidentally touches a poisoned glass and starts to exhibit symptoms, putting him in a state of total panic. That bit is fun, especially when Jake tricks him into believing that he has an antidote but injects him with more poison! Tassone’s gonzo performance from beginning to end should be lauded as the one saving grace in Crowe’s film. 

Poker Face 2022

Because the rest of Poker Face is a bore, it feels peculiar that Jake would want to poison his best friends, even if his rationale is to make them believe they are dying so they could confess they’ve been taking advantage of their friend. It feels ridiculous. And you’ll be relieved that the film’s entirety is silly – especially its supporting performances from a decent cast who has no idea how to approach the material. Liam Hemsworth, in particular, is woefully miscast as one of Jake’s friends with alcohol addiction. Not even Elsa Pataky, who briefly appears as the dealer for Jake’s game, can save the film’s dismal performances. 

Aside from Tassone, no one gives a decent performance, even Crowe, which is weird considering that he would be the most passionate about delivering the material since it’s his film! But Crowe sleepwalks throughout the thing, even providing clichéd voiceover narration, talking about the game of Poker. Still, it’s revealed during the film’s ending that he was talking about his life, and from the great beyond…

Please, if you’re ever going to use voiceover narration in your film, make sure that the character narrating the film is either an outside presence or alive because the final “reveal” makes absolutely no sense. I won’t spoil it, I’ve already given too many things away, but it’ll either make your eye roll in utter disbelief or make you yell out, “WHAT?!?” 

That’s how I felt while watching Poker Face – its beginning goes on for way too long, its middle section makes no sense, and its end is a complete and utter joke. Crowe struck gold when he made The Water Diviner, but not even the multiple poker faces (ha) he makes throughout the film can save a movie aptly titled Poker Face. You’re better off rewatching Unhinged, which is by all accounts the best piece of media Russell Crowe has done since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

FILM RATING

Poker Face is now available to rent or buy on video on demand.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAZV5DxV3Gw&ab_channel=ScreenMediaFilms

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Blue’s Big City Adventure Review | No Way Home For Kiddies

“Blue’s Big City Adventure” is the perfect representation of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” for little kids.

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I had to watch Blue’s Big City Adventure solely based on the premise that it would reunite three generations of Blue’s Clues hosts in a film: Steve (Steve Burns), Joe (Donovan Patton), and Josh (Joshua Dela Cruz). Blue’s Clues was a massive part of my childhood, so when Steve showed up, looked at the camera (which points at us, the audience members watching the film), and said, “You grew!” it both felt amazingly personal and cathartic. Those who have never seen a single episode of Blue’s Clues may dismiss the movie, but audiences who grew up with the first generation of hosts, and are currently watching the show, may find it highly enjoyable. 

Now I’m not here to convince you that this movie is in any way sophisticated. It’s catered for [tiny] children, especially in how it presents its main clue. Josh goes to New York to audition for a Broadway musical with Rainbow Puppy (Brianna Bryan) but forgets his handy-dandy notebook, meaning he doesn’t know where the theater is. Mr. Salt (Nick Balaban) and Mrs. Pepper (Gisèle Rousseau) are now traveling to the Big Apple to give Josh the handy dandy notebook, with the aid of Steve (who is now a private eye detective) and Joe. Simple premise, with a complete non-suspension of disbelief, when you expect me to believe that Rainbow Puppy would pick Josh, who is fine and all, over Phillipa Soo (appearing in a cameo as one of the people auditioning for the role). 

Whatever, none of it makes much sense, and the clue is highly simplistic (and easy) to solve because, again, the film’s primary demographics will be toddlers. Still, Blue’s Big City Adventure maintains a certain level of charm throughout the movie that you can’t help but enjoy. Admittedly, it’s highly predictable: you can figure out the clue as quickly as 1,2,3, but I’d be lying if I said the movie did not make me emotional when I saw both Steve and Joe on the screen. It was as powerful of a moment as when Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire meet for the first time in Spider-Man: No Way Home

Of course, Steve and Joe have a legacy together in the series. It’s not the first time they meet on screen (Joe is Steve’s younger brother, after all), but it felt more real than anything I had seen in many family films this year when they partner up to find Josh. Why? Because their emotions in Blue’s Clues have always been the most genuine, compared to Josh, who cannot be as sympathetic and caring as the previous hosts for the life of him. It is, however, a shame that Steve and Joe aren’t in the movie as much as I would’ve hoped, with Josh taking most of the screen time. 

It’s also a shame that the film wastes the talents of BD Wong in a role that anybody else could’ve played. He portrays Rainbow Puppy’s manager, trying to convince her that maybe Josh isn’t the right fit. But Wong barely has anything to do in the film – he sits down and says “Wonderful!” with every passing audition. I get this is supposed to be a recurring joke, but it doesn’t add anything to his character, who could’ve been played by anyone else. However, I’ll admit that it is strange to see three of my childhood icons in the same film: Steve Burns, Donovan Patton, and BD Wong. 

I can’t necessarily trace back where my love of film truly began, but two foundational pieces of media glued my eyes on a television screen as a kid: Blue’s Clues and Slappy and the Stinkers. And I would even credit Slappy and the Stinkers (a highly mediocre film viewed in the eyes of adults, but through a kid’s lens, it is a mind-blowing feat) for causing me to seek out more movies on VHS tapes. I would watch that tape all the time whenever I would go to my grandparents’ house. When my grandfather passed, I was cleaning the basement and was supposed to throw away all of the tapes he had. So I kept Slappy and the Stinkers as a souvenir for being the film that pushed my love of cinema. 

And to see BD Wong in this film, alongside Patton and Burns, felt special. This is why I’m stating that it’s a shame he gets virtually nothing to do. He is one of the most versatile actors we have (please watch Slappy and the Stinkers for him and Jennifer Coolidge only), and to see him sit there and repeat the same sentence ad nauseam feels like the most significant waste of talent I’ve ever seen. I may exaggerate, but there’s a lot of emotional connection with Patton, Burns, and Wong, and to see them act second-fiddle to Josh doesn’t feel as emotionally invested as when Maguire and Garfield helped Holland’s Spider-Man in No Way Home

The No Way Home comparaisons will get tired, as I’m sure I’m not the only critic who will state the obvious, but Blue’s Big City Adventure does feel like No Way Home for infants. Of course, it doesn’t feature any violence and doesn’t have the same emotional weight as Jon Watts’ film, but it has pure nostalgia. Steve Burns went through the wringer after hosting Blue’s Clues, and it’s so great to see him on top form, enjoying himself alongside Patton and Dela Cruz. Because of this, and this only, the film is worth watching, but solely for the fans of Blue’s Clues, who grew up with Steve and Joe, showing them that you can do anything you want to do. 

FILM RATING

Blue’s Big City Adventure is now available to stream on Paramount+.

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