Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Night Before, Spotlight, Room, Victoria Reviews

The Night Before
Dir. Jonathan Levine
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Who better to hit off the Christmas season than Seth Rogen and his writing/producing partner Evan Goldberg - a couple of Jewish stoners? Though Rogen didn't have a hand in writing or directing this time, The Night Before marks a reunion for 50/50 stars Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and director Jonathan Levine, and it still has that distinctive "Rogen" stamp on it. The story is like Superbad with sleigh bells; buddies Isaac (Rogen), Chris (Anthony Mackie), and Ethan (Levitt) go out every Christmas Eve for a night of drunken karaoke and misadventures on the anniversary of the death of Ethan's parents. But this year, now in their 30's, they want to make it their last hurrah, and they're going to go out with a bang at the mysterious annual Nutcracker Ball. The Night Before is more or less a series of semi-linked sketches with this overarching theme of maturing into adulthood and making the effort to hold onto friendships as one gets older. Rogen has returned to this coming-of-age theme again and again in his films, often times with much funnier results (Neighbors, This is the End, etc), but The Night Before should still satisfy his fans, such as myself, looking for cheap dick jokes and potty humor.

Much of the success of this film rests on the three leads having a good chemistry. I have no idea if they are friends in "real life," but if not, their on-screen rapport could have fooled me. Although Levitt and Rogen shared the screen in 50/50, Mackie fits right in and doesn't feel like the "third wheel." All of them have distinct personalities that bounce well off each other. Isaac is a totally unprepared father-to-be, and seeing as he spends the majority of the film high on copious amounts of drugs, both the humor and his character's "arc" stem from watching this wreck of a man stumble through life and somehow become a dad. Mackie plays a social media-whoring sports star grappling with newfound fame and the unfortunate habit of injecting steroids into his butt. And Ethan is the "unsuccessful" one - his dreams of being in a band are sidelined for playing a party elf, serving debutantes at exclusive galas.

Despite the fun and casual interplay between the characters, the thing that really brings my rating down for this one is that the laughs just don't come frequently enough, especially in comparison to This is the End or Neighbors. The film is filled with unnecessary name-dropping and pop culture cameos that will inevitably date the jokes down the road, and some sequences go on for way too long and the gags lose their momentum to milk each joke for all its worth (or as I call it: SNL syndrome). Most of the time the likability of the cast and dozens of comedy folks littered throughout (such as Nathan Fielder, Mindy Kaling, Tracy Morgan, and many more) make it a very watchable fun time, though it's highly unlikely The Night Before will be playing by firesides year after year.

Rating: C+

Dir. Thomas McCarthy
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In this age of online journalism, real issues are often times buried under sensationalism and celebrity-worship (when "What's Justin Bieber up to?" is your headline, you're doing something wrong). But every once in a while a well-researched and executed piece of "long-haul" journalism comes along and can change the world. One such story happened shortly before the Internet bubble in 2001, when a Boston Globe spotlight team of investigative journalists provided proof of a massive sexual abuse cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church that went all the way to the Vatican. Depicted by a cast of familiar faces (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams), Spotlight is a very "final season of The Wire"-esque dive into the nitty gritty of what goes into such a complicated, controversial, monumentally important story like this. Granted, because it's a definitive procedural drama, for me, I found parts of the film to be a slog. That's sort of the point - we're slogging it with the characters - but I only have so much patience. Spotlight is great at what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do doesn't necessarily cater to my personal movie-watching tastes.

Thomas McCarthy may very well be one of the few lucky (?) people to be nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie in the same year, because of his quite terrible Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler, which I recommend you watch just to awe at its stupidity. It's hard to believe it's the same director as Win Win and The Visitor. But I digress: Spotlight is a great film, especially if you're interested in journalism. To others, especially if you know most of the story already (being more or less a Boston local I may be more familiar with it), the film may seem tedious at points. Knocking on doors, answering phones, holding staff meetings: if you want something along the lines of an "intense" thriller, you won't get it here - it plays much closer to reality. But there's no denying that the actors involved did a great job - Mark Ruffalo's impassioned speech is sure to land a permanent spot in his "reel" - and McCarthy is totally forgiven for his shoe-related straight-to-Netflix disaster earlier this year.

Rating: B-

Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Watch Trailer (<-- This trailer is spoiler-city!)

Any time you tell a story from a young child's perspective, you run the risk of annoying the hell out of your audience. Room, both the film and the novel upon which it is based, centers around 5-year-old Jack's experience being held captive in a room with his mother, not knowing anything about the outside world save for the images from TV. Loosely based around the Fritzl case (which you should look up if you want to ruin your day), Room is fascinating in that it really gets into how we create worlds for ourselves based on what we know, and also brings attention to the importance of love in cognitive development. Although at times Jack's constant questioning and inability to process certain information can be a bit grating, it never feels inauthentic. Like the novel it's based on, Room is an emotional, intense, charming film that you may or may not need tissues for.

Brie Larson stars as Joy (or just 'Ma'), who was kidnapped seven years ago by Old Nick, as Jack and Ma call him. Old Nick brings just enough food and supplies to keep her and her son alive, using a security door with keypad to stop them from leaving. Similarly to how Roberto Benigni made everyone simultaneously laugh and cry in Life is Beautiful by entertaining his kid in a concentration camp, Brie Larson makes sure that Jack doesn't realize the nightmare they're living in - at least not until the film starts picking up - by playing makeshift games out of what little they have. Both Larson (who I predicted would be a "big name" in my review for Short Term 12... I'm still hoping) and her son played by Jacob Tremblay give amazing performances and maybe I'm a sucker for mother-son stories, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a bit choked up at parts. Room is fascinating from a bunch of different angles, though I have to say Abrahamson's style isn't very cinematic and I HATE Jack's voiceover narration (this trope is way too common in book adaptations). Despite this, the story and acting alone will likely make you want to call your mom.

Disclaimer: I finished reading the book minutes before seeing the film, so that may explain the relatively low rating. It's almost as if I'd already seen it, since Abrahamson's film sticks closely to the source material.

Rating: B

Dir. Sebastian Schipper
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WARNING: Do NOT read this review if you're totally avoiding spoilers for this film. The main narrative thrust of the movie isn't introduced until about midway through, and it's impossible to write a review without revealing it!

Birdman may have promoted itself as a "single shot" film, but Victoria puts its money where its mouth is and legitimately, with no "invisible edits" or tricky camera pans, tells its story in one fluid, mind-bogglingly intricate long take. This 138-minute German film was completed in three attempts, with most of the script being improvised off of a 12-page outline. This fact alone should make anyone interested in cinema production interested, but Victoria also turns out to be a really well-acted, beautiful, intense lovers-on-the-lam bank heist film. It takes a while to figure out what exactly is going on in the plot, but once it kicks into high gear, I was amazed at how they kept it up without [noticeably] flubbing anything.

The story follows a thrill-seeking young Spanish girl named Victoria, who meets a group of guys after a night at a club. She begins to fall for one of the mysterious strangers, but slowly as the night eggs on (just as I thought the narrative was going nowhere), we find out that these guys need a getaway driver for a bank heist, and she inadvertently accepts the task. It takes until probably halfway into the movie to find this out, but once there, all the mediocre "character development" established prior gives way to an intense journey into a dirty underground world of crime that I was totally wrapped up in. I really didn't see it coming, so if you read this review before seeing the film, I pity you.

That being said: this really is a gimmick movie. Without the "one take" aspect, Victoria would lose most of its appeal. The Bonnie and Clyde relationship that Victoria develops never really feels justified, and ultimately, her character doesn't feel very fleshed out, aside from a quick moment where we learn she failed to make it as a concert pianist. The run time feels stretched out as well, especially at the beginning of the film, where we're just "hanging out" with these fairly unlikable characters for what seems like hours (I get enough of that at Thanksgiving!) But at the end of the day, the story issues, for me anyway, are totally masked by the incredible camerawork.

This shoot must have been a logistical nightmare. Think of all the problems that could arise: the camera stops working, the actors mess up, a problem with locations, lighting issues, audio problems - the list goes on and on. It's interesting to note that it's the camera operator, not the director, that gets top billing in the end credits, and it's easy to see why. Victoria, if nothing else, is a fantastic technical achievement that you should definitely find the time to see!

Rating: B

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