The Night Before (2015)

fourstar

I should preface this review with the confession that Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie. Bill Murray worship not withstanding, I feel like Scrooged is typically considered a minor, non-traditional Christmas comedy at best, not a typical go-to for the genre. I’m saying this because I greatly enjoyed The Night Before, but it’s hard to tell if its irreverent, drug-fuelled take on Christmas tradition will win over any longterm audiences, since it very much mimics the alcohol-soaked magic & pessimism of Scrooged. The Night Before not only mimics Scrooged‘s cynical, modern-world take on A Christmas Carol, but expands its adaptation scope to include touches of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, and (duh) “The Night Before Christmas”. Its excessive aping of former Christmas tales approaches allusions the same way its characters ingest “every single drug in the whole world.” Scrooged was a cynical, surreal adaptation of a Christmas classic told through the lens of alcoholism & Reaganomics. The Night Before is a similar beast, but it’s much less picky about its controlled substances or its source material & its lens is obviously more of a social media-era millennial brand.

You might expect that a raunchy comedy featuring long stretches of a Jewish man sweating his way through an aggressive cocktail of cocaine & psilocybin mushrooms would have little care at all for Christmas tradition, but The Night Before is far from the tradition-breaking excess of this year’s Everly or Tangerine. At its heart, the film is a simple story about three friends learning how to reconcile the changes that come with growing up & what it means to be a family. The three buds in question are living out a chaotic holiday ritual in which they fuck, drug, and vandalize their way through Christmas Eve while most people are sleeping or preparing for the big day ahead. Fearing that they might be becoming “those kids who won’t stop trick or treating” they decide to have one last drug-fueled blast to put the tradition to rest. And because they’re adults with adult issues looming over them, this hallucinatory catharsis of an evening brings to the surface crippling anxieties about their families, their careers, and the difference between being a good friend & being an enabler.

I wasn’t entirely stoked about director Jonathan Levine’s other Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s buddy comedy 50/50, but I did respect it for aiming for a more melancholy, real-talk vibe than most of Rogen’s comedy vehicles. The Night Before is a pretty great compromise between 50/50‘s grim tone & Rogen’s more over-the-top Judd Apatow-style ensemble comedies. Much like a lot of comedies in Rogen’s past, The Night Before survives a lot on the strength of its extensive cast of great comedians: Tracy Morgan, Ilana Glazer, Jason Mantzoukas, Mindy Kaling, Lizzy Caplain, Nathan Fielder, and Jillian Bell, who is so much of a perfect romantic match for Seth Rogen that I’d love to see them repeat their chemistry for at least one more feature. There are a few celebrity cameos to boot, which I’ll try my best not to spoil here, except to say that the mystic weed dealer character made me quite giddy. What makes all this work as something more than just an empty comedic exercise is Jonathan Levine’s touch with the tender & the melancholy. The Night Before has some grotesquely cynical moments for sure, mostly in its obnoxious ad placement for Sony & Red Bull, but for the most part it does a great job of balancing its lavish fantasy-fulfillment partying with subdued moments of emotional fragility. The tough-as-nails front the three leads put on is a deception at best, as is the film’s own supposed hedonism. It’s truthfully an old softy at heart, a traditional Christmastime sap-fest concerned with the (literal) magic of the season & the importance of familial bonds. It just happens to be one that features a supernatural weed dealer & vigorous bathroom sex.

-Brandon Ledet

Tangerine (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

Not many Christmas films dare to take you down the nightmarish, sun-soaked rabbit hole of Los Angeles sex trade, but then again not many films behave like Tangerine at all. Set on a particularly busy, but far from well-behaved Christmas Eve, Tangerine is overflowing with the visual eccentricity & moral ambiguity you’d expect from an indie director making his breakout film on a handful of iPhone 5s (he has a name & it’s Sean Baker). However, what’s so great about the film is not necessarily the behind-the-camera showiness (although that stuff’s fun too). It’s the verisimilitude of its non-actress leads being let loose to run wild across the Los Angeles cityscape, dragging the audience by the hair through a violent, but hilarious whirlwind of drug abuse, sex trade, and tender exchanges of friendship & love in a world that’s been relentlessly unkind. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the skeezy fun of the film’s cracksmoke-fueled bathroom primping & puke-drenched cab rides that when the film slows down long enough to remind you of the cruel world its protagonists inhabit (a rare recess, that) the emotional toll is all the more affecting.

Our guides to this very specific version of a L.A.’s underbelly are a pair of trans sex workers named Alexandra & Sin-Dee. Alexandra is the audience surrogate. An aspiring singer with no interest in the intense flood of drama that drives the film, Alexandra is cool, collected, and often surprisingly wise, serving almost as a one-woman Greek chorus who’s there to comment on the goings on & offer support to her friend when needed. Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the living personification of drama. Released from a one-month prison stay on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee immediately launches into a revenge plot to destroy the woman she’s told her lover/former-pimp Chester has been cheating on her with while she was locked up. Once she finds the cisgender sex worker in question, Sin-Dee physically drags & beats on the unsuspecting adulteress until she can stage her intentionally climactic showdown at the film’s central meeting place, Donut Time. Joining them for the shouting match in the donut shop is Razmik, an Armenian cab driver/gentle john who lives at the fringes of their lives, but opens a gateway for the audience into another side of L.A. that Alexandra & Sin-Dee have no access to.

Even with the Donut Time blowup, the plot is unlikely to be what sticks in the viewer’s memory. Tangerine is a film most likely to be remembered for the story of its inexpensive production. For a feature filmed entirely on iPhones, it has a nice visual poetry to it, drawing an impressive potency out of images like graffiti murals, Christmas lights, automated car washes and, of course, donuts. Much like with this year’s pair of Patrick Brice films, Creep & The Overnight, Tangerine is an inspiring reminder of how much a determined filmmaker can accomplish with even the smallest pool of resources (all three films were produced by the Duplass Brothers, by the way).

The true-to-life (and riotously funny) performances from actresses Mya Taylor (Alexandra) & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) are also likely to eat up much of the conversation surrounding the film, and deservedly so. Taylor & Rodriguez are vibrant talents with a natural, but wildly mischievous authenticity to them that’s rarely seen outside of John Waters’ films. I don’t say that lightly. John Waters is my favorite living artist. If there’s one movie I’d love to talk to him about at this very moment it would be Tangerine & all the credit for that impulse goes to Taylor & Rodriguez. The fact that they’re debuting in such a wickedly transgressive & visually impressive revenge comedy is almost secondary. Almost.

-Brandon Ledet