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Badass Santa

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VIOLENT NIGHT. I set out, it my usual, aimless, addle-pated way, to construct a themed column welcoming anew the season of Christmas and, of course, Christmas movies. We have before us Spirited, the Christmas Carol musical comedy directed by Sean Anders (one of the handful of credited writers and directors allowed to make mainstream comedies) and Violent Night, to which I'll get to soon enough. But then we — my wife, a thoroughly vetted friend and my confused Scrooge self, and I — sat down to watch the former. As soon as the first song started, probably fewer than five minutes in, we made the unanimous decision to discontinue our experiment in spite of the presence of Rose Byrne and, to a much lesser extent, Will Ferrell. It served as an unsurprising reminder that I have precious little patience for the musical format. It also suggested to me that, as with so many things, Christmas movies have become a socio-political barometer: Those of us who count ourselves cineastes and probably cynics (I'll let the reader interpolate or extrapolate those traits) are not particularly interested in spending time with the ever-growing, toothless, brainless confectionery body of Yuletide dreck. We would rather see Will Ferrell wail in mock-agony than sing, regardless of how genre-defying the insipid song might be.

This all made me wonder whether I love Christmas movies as much as I think I do — thought I did? This may be a crisis of faith brought on by the prickly clarity of prolonged sobriety. To test this hypothesis I played National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) while we trimmed the tree and my holiday spirit was restored. (I was also reminded that a colleague ruefully intoned that my Sept. 29 Confess Fletch column was Griswold erasure. I was appropriately chastened). I enjoy the atmosphere of a Christmas movie but would rather the narrative twist and distort the expectations of that atmosphere, at least a little. As in so many things, I find myself an acolyte of subgenre: I'll have my eggnog, but it had better be spiked with dark rum and brandy, if you would, innkeeper.

I've known about writer-director Tommy Wirkola enough to have seen more than Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), which I'm sure I judged harshly, if not unfairly, on its release. Despite my complaints about that outing, I can appreciate — at least from a distance — Wirkola's interest in genre, cinematic violence and production design as an important contributor to the look and feel of a movie. So Violent Night, about which I only knew the title and the image of David Harbour as a bloodied Santa Claus, seemed like it might be a good fit for both of us. And while it may not be assured a place in the Valhalla of Christmas movies, it vies for a position near the top of the second tier.

We learn, almost immediately, that Santa has just about had it with his job. Trying to eradicate his consciousness in a sleepy Bristol pub on Christmas eve, he bemoans the greed and commercialization that have subsumed the spirit of the season (whether a Hollywood movie is the appropriate forum for this sort of philosophizing is another conversation). He carries on, though, animated by his Viking spirit (this is sort of explained in context) as much as by his stalwart reindeer.

Meanwhile, the Lee Majors movie from the opening of Scrooged (1988) is playing out within the bedecked halls of Getrude Lightstone's (Beverly D'Angelo) heavily guarded manse. A vicious, venal titan of (unnamed) industry, Lightstone has gathered her family — by turns groveling, greedy and resentful — around her for the forced observation of the holiday. Scion Jason (Alex Hassell) finds himself distanced from his wife Linda (Alexis Louder), mostly due to the demands of his job working for his mother. The two of them still make their best effort to give daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) a warm and fuzzy family holiday. This is made even more difficult by Jason's vacuous, money hungry sister Alva (Edi Patterson, who makes any comedy instantly better), her beyond-vacant D-list actor husband Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet) and her fame-whore son Bertrude (Alexander Elliot). Everybody's intentions are further derailed by the arrival of Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo) and his heavily armed, ridiculously costumed and monikered Noël robbery team. Scrooge, having it on good intelligence that Gertrude has misappropriated $300 million, intends to make off with it and, ideally, kill the family while he's at it: He likes Christmas even less than he likes the Lightstones.

No one expects a half-drunk Santa to be trapped in the house, of course, much less for the bearded inebriate to channel his past-self, a war hammer wielding summoner of death. He does, though, much to the delight of all the sugar-plum children, myself included. R. 101M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre (707) 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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