The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Fish Tank


Fish Tank

Kierston Wareing has unquiet slumbers.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Sarah Bayes, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash, Joanna Horton, Grant Wild. Directed by Andrea Arnold

One of the more interesting debates in modern society is nature vs. nurture. How much impact does our environment play in our personality? Is it all genetically ingrained from the beginning without a whole lot of input from our surroundings – or does our personality completely depend on the where and when of our lives?

Mia Williams (Jarvis) lives in a really tough part of Essex, in government housing – an apartment complex with large full windows along the front wall, resembling a fish tank. She’s feisty, temperamental and doesn’t take crap from anybody. There are few things in her life that bring her any sort of satisfaction – hip hop dancing (which she does kind of badly and artlessly), her younger sister Tyler (Griffiths) and whatever small amounts of alcohol she can pilfer.

Her mother Joanne (Wareing) is a boozer and a bit of a slut and as unfit a mother as it is possible to be. She has brought into their home Connor (Fassbender), a handsome man who treats Mia with unexpected kindness, despite her initial misgivings and outright hostility.

He takes the family to the country and teaches Mia to fish without a pole. She begins to develop a little bit of closeness – maybe too much. She also becomes attached to a dying horse in the camp of a group of travelers – and to Billy (Treadaway), a younger member of the group who has become sweet on her.

In the meantime all her dreams, large and small, are slowly dying – and sometimes not so slowly. She seems caught in a web of frozen inertia, one from which her young life may never be extricated from.

Director Arnold caught the imagination of the British movie press with this movie, who have fallen all over themselves in praising it – not to mention the awards the movie has garnered. I have not warmed to it as much as others, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a quality piece of filmmaking.

Part of what makes this film worth seeing is the performance by Jarvis. She had no previous acting experience and was cast after a member of the production team (some say it was Arnold herself) observed her having an argument with her boyfriend in a train station (the one that’s used in the movie in fact). Her untrained status helps make the performance. It’s raw, emotional and without guile or artifice. Mia isn’t always the most lovable or makes the best decisions, but the portrayal is absolutely realistic. She isn’t perfect which is kind of what is attractive about her.

I will have to admit that the relationship between Connor and Mia made me a little bit uncomfortable. I realize that this type of thing goes on all the time and given the personalities involved even makes a certain amount of sense. Still, it’s a bit difficult to watch.

Wareing also does an excellent job as the mom, even though she looks far too young to be the mother of a teenager. There’s a very nice scene at the very end of the movie between her and her daughters that is quite natural and if I described it to you, it would smack of old Hollywood but it feels authentic here.

This is a very well-made movie. I appreciated the performances and the craft behind the camera. While the heavy English accents made it difficult for these Yank ears to always understand what was being said, nevertheless this is a worthwhile movie to check out. It isn’t pretty – and Mia can be frustrating in her behavior, just like any teen. Still in all, for those who want to see the grittier side of the UK this makes a very good starting point.

WHY RENT THIS: Jarvis gives a raw, unvarnished performance and the movie pulls no punches looking at the working poor of England.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times. The relationship between Connor and Mia is creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film was released without a rating, there is a severe amount of foul language, some sexuality including teen sex, alcohol and drug use, and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot chronologically, and the actors not given complete scripts so they were largely unaware of what was going to happen to their characters until the week of shooting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This is available in a Criterion Edition which includes three short films by Andrea Arnold (including the 2003 Oscar winner Wasp) and audition footage of juvenile actresses auditioning for the role of Mia.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on a $3M production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Priest