“The Night Before”

The Night Before

[Left to Right] Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen karaoke Run DMC.

When you have Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie high off their asses each encountering a vision of Christmas past, present, and future, it’s an R-rated wonderful life!

“The Night Before” stars the three actors as lifelong friends – Ethan, Isaac, and Chris. The trio have a Christmas Eve tradition of debauchery to keep Ethan cheerful (he lost his parents on Christmas Eve), but that’s coming to an end due to Chris’s rising fame and Isaac’s growing family. What better way to go down with a bang than crash a Gatsby-style Christmas party?

I know the plot sounds formulaic,but there’s a breath of fresh air brought into this worn out formula, due to the cast. Gordon-Levitt is a lovable hot mess who only celebrates Christmas his way, Rogen goes from straight man to drugged-out lunatic and goes on the craziest vision quest, and Mackie is torn between his ego and friends.

The three of them each learn something after a series of misadventures involving drunken Santa Clauses, frequent encounters with an eccentric pot dealer (a wonderful Michael Shannon), and a hipster girl who aspires to be a real-life Grinch (Ilana Glazer).

These encounters also add some brief emotional depth as the Grinch self-righteously lectures Chris on his selfish behavior and Shannon’s Mr. Greene helps the friends grow up through his magical weed.

Director Jonathan Levine previously directed Gordon-Levitt and Rogen in the highly underrated “50/50” and he once again brings the best comedic talents from both actors whilst restraining them. His direction also adds a mildly surreal and artistic flare with golden lighting present throughout.

It’s very hard to find a decent holiday movie these days, let alone a decent R-rated one that doesn’t get caught up in a mean-spirited tone, but “The Night Before” manages to balance vulgar humor well with a heartfelt holiday message.

Grade: A-

 

“Goodnight Mommy”

Goodnight MommyBeginning the psychological horror film “Goodnight Mommy” with a loving mother figure on television singing “Lullaby and Goodnight” launches it off to a very eerie first act. Between that, the cockroaches, and an improvised crossbow, we might have confused this for an Austrian sequel to “The Babadook!”

“Goodnight Mommy” follows twin brothers, Elias and Lukas in their isolated lakeside home. They’re each other’s only friends as they explore through caves, play Marco Polo, and have burping contests. After their mom returns home from plastic surgery and grows harsh and reclusive, they wonder, “Who the hell is this woman?!”

I was happy to find “Goodnight Mommy” in a theater near my house since it seemed impossible to find, and I loved how the beautiful and surreal imagery got under my skin at times (this film has the most unforgettable boxcutter scene). The first half hour is truly suspenseful and unnerving as we wonder why the mother is so cruel to Lukas and Elias, and why she is becomes abruptly abusive. Is it an imposter? Is it attributed to trauma from surgery?

SPOILER ALERT – DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE!

Once the 45-minute mark hits, the film transitions into a torture-based thriller and the suspense is swapped for disgust. It’s hard to root for kids who use dental floss and a magnifying glass as a means of interrogation. We also get a very funny (though out of place) scene involving Red Cross workers collecting donations from the boys.

A redeemable quality of the second act is we get the impression that Elias is the angel going along with the devilish Lukas’s plan for revenge. Elias is conflicted in torturing their “mom” while she and Lukas nearly battle for influence over him.

The final act of “Goodnight Mommy” becomes tragic and slightly predictable when we learn the main twist behind Lukas and the mother, but forgivable due to a wonderfully nightmarish closing shot of the family reunited.

I would recommend “Goodnight Mommy” to horror fans and David Lynch enthusiasts (a lot of “Eraserhead” vibes here), and while I’m disappointed in the second act, I know I’m going to re-watch it for more answers and analysis like I did with “Enemy” and “The Babadook”.

Grade: B (for now)

“Spectre” (plus a little side note on two other movies)

As much as I admired “Casino Royale” (2006) and “Skyfall” (2012) either altering the gun barrel sequence or saving it for the end, I was ecstatic to see “Spectre” begin with this sequence again. I knew right away I wasn’t in for an ambitious Bond film like the two previously mentioned, but a fun spectacle. And that’s okay, too!

“Spectre” follows Daniel Craig as Bond, who has gone rogue for the third time (he first went rogue in “Licence to Kill” (1989) and again in “Quantum of Solace” (2008)) to track down and kill a terrorist with a personal connection to him named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). It’s that simple, but much better than it sounds.

“Spectre” features some of the greatest action sequences in the history of the franchise that are some of the highlights in the movie. This includes a very impressive long take that follows Bond on a mission, a semi-meta car chase, and a frenetic fight scene between Bond and a silent assassin played by WWE’s Dave Bautista.

Don’t let me give the impression this is a mindless action tale like “Quantum of Solace” was, because it’s not. We get a lot of tie-ins to the previous Craig Bond movies that work well and some slick visual storytelling reminiscent of “Skyfall” (Sam Mendes returned to direct after all).

Perhaps the greatest scene is a very tense and shadowy introduction to Oberhauser, which might be the greatest villain introduction ever put on film. It uses darkness and silence for tension, and Waltz once again provides a wonderfully villainous performance.

Of course this movie isn’t perfect due to an annoyingly melodramatic theme song by Sam Smith, a rushed romance, and a subplot featuring commentary on surveillance, that doesn’t always mesh with the main story. But I was able to forgive these flaws since “Spectre” was a damn near-masterful generic Bond movie.

Grade: B+

Quick Note – I did see “Steve Jobs” and “Beasts of No Nation” over the last few weeks. Due to some delays and problems with my hand, I wasn’t able to get these reviews up in time, but I would definitely recommend both! “Steve Jobs” is another masterpiece for Danny Boyle, while “Beasts of No Nation” proves Cary Fukanaga is one of the most artistic rising directors in the industry. Both movies get an A+.