REVIEW: The Night Before

22 12 2015

If anyone is skeptical that our culture may be reaching a saturation of Christmas narratives, Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” ought to dispel that last shred of doubt. The film, co-written with Seth Rogen’s creative partners Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter, is a loving ode to just how much Americans love their holiday movies. The film pays homage to everything from “Home Alone” to “Elf” and even “Die Hard” during a crazy Christmas Eve shared by three old friends.

The Christmas movie appreciation leaks into the very fabric of the script, a half-baked attempt at making a stoner version of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” (And with a bit of “It’s A Wonderful Life” as a cherry on top, to boot.) Only, instead of following one character, “The Night Before” splinters into three separate narratives bundled together.

The film follows Seth Rogen’s soon-to-be new father Isaac, Anthony Mackie’s recently famed pro quarterback Chris and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hapless musician Ethan on what could be their last Yuletide celebration … and not just because each is lucky to survive the shenanigans. Each guy gets their hilarious moments with a very game supporting cast, especially Isaac’s unnaturally supportive expectant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), streetwise bandit Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), Ethan’s straight-shooting ex Diana (Lizzy Caplan) as well as Sarah, a character so Mindy Kaling-esque she had to be played by Mindy Kaling.

The film plays to the strengths of its ensemble so well that it becomes hard to spite the movie providing little more than the good time such a cast portends. “The Night Before” does not add up to more than the sum of its parts, mostly because the fragmented narrative never quite coheres by the end. It’s good for a laugh, but those hoping for a new adult holiday classic to play after the kids go to bed should probably just go for a repeat viewing of “Bad Santa.” B2halfstars

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REVIEW: Inside Out

20 06 2015

Pixar has long reigned as the champion of both intelligent, creative storytelling and emotionally potent filmmaking.  Something about their computer-rendered world always seems to strike a chord with the one we have experienced, mostly because the purest of hearts beat within the lines of their ingeniously designed characters.

Inside Out” may well be the most vivid realization of the animation powerhouse’s strengths.  Writer/director Pete Docter’s film marks their most innovative vision since 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” and their most heartstring tugging piece since 2009’s “Up.”  Every second of the film captures the complexity of the human experience, inspiring laughter, smiles, and tears.  Often times, I responded with all three reactions simultaneously.

In what may inspire the next generation of psychologists, Docter (along with fellow Pixar brain trust members Ronaldo Del Carmen and Josh Cooley – as well as Meg LaFauve) takes on the ambitious task of visualizing the mind.  And not like the opening credit sequence to “Fight Club” or anything, either.  They map out the logic, rationale, and functionality of just about every cognitive process in the brain, both conscious and subconscious.

Remarkably, the thought of “Inside Out” as some kind of cinematic adaptation of a neuroscience textbook never occurs for a second.  As it enlightens us, the film also entertains.  The premise starts off extremely straightforward: five personified emotions vie for control in the mind of a young girl, 11-year-old Riley.  These distinct characters take on additional vitality and vibrance through expert voice casting that draws on the established strengths of the performers.

Amy Poehler channels Leslie Knope into Joy.  Lewis Black brings his trademark tirades (minus the profanity) to Anger.  Bill Hader lends his motormouth to the ever-adapting whims of Fear.  Mindy Kaling adapts her defensive, often put out television alter ego into Disgust.  And Phyllis Smith selects the sad sack elements from her good-natured but sometimes mopey Phyllis from “The Office” and transfers them into Sadness.

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