The Night Before

November 20, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“50/50”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) and Kyle Hunter (debut) & Ariel Shaffir (debut) and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”)

As Christmas rolls around every year, three buddies – Isaac (Seth Rogen) Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Chris (Anthony Mackie) – convene to hit up different traditional Christmas things around New York City, like the Rockefeller Center tree, FAO Schwartz, et cetera. It’s a tradition they started 15 years ago to cheer up Ethan after the tragic loss of his parents to a car accident, but as they’ve grown older and acquired careers and families of their own, they mutually agree to shut the celebration down after one last drug-fueled blowout culminating in a mythical Jay Gatsby-level party known as The Nutcracka Ball.

Look, it’s not as if “The Night Before” is without laughs, but they are all centered on Rogen’s character, tripping balls throughout the night on a box of drugs given to him by his wife (Jillian Bell) as one last hurrah before their daughter is born. Gordon-Levitt’s Ethan is saddled with the maudlin story of a lonely man-child and a half-cooked relationship backstory with former long-term girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), and Anthony Mackie’s Chris – apparently a star NFL player! – spends the majority of the runtime doing things no person of his caliber of fame could or would do, like walking around NYC almost unnoticed and buying weed from a small-time drug dealer. Its Mackie’s story that draws into relief the biggest problem with the film: it just doesn’t go as far off the deep end into insanity as it should. Flashes of absurdity, like the ultimate resolution of Michael Shannon’s creepy pot merchant or the welcome, weird narration from Tracy Morgan, are nice touches that pepper a rushed, unfocused narrative.

Director Jonathan Levine, who expertly weaved comedy and drama together with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen in 2011’s excellent “50/50,” seems intent on turning in a mash-up of that film and “Pineapple Express,” and the result is about as messy and scattershot as you would expect from that description. Hilarious hallucinogenic freak outs are butted up against would-be poignant scenes of a young man dealing with his parents’ untimely death, only to be followed by another hilarious and inadvertent conversation about dick pics. But with the clashes of tone, a narrative that makes too little sense and has too few laughs to bail it out, “The Night Before” arrives under the tree as a big box of not enough of what anyone wants.

Warm Bodies

February 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“50/50”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (“50/50”)

Zombie movie purists beware. “Warm Bodies” will make your head explode.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Unique twists to the sometime tired genre are always welcomed. There are only so many underlying political issues George A. Romero can cover before things start to feel repetitious. So, when original zombie ideas like “Warm Bodies” rear their ugly heads, you can’t help but take a bite.

In the last decade, we’ve seen a masterpiece like “Shaun of the Dead” and solid comedies like “Zombieland” and “Fido.” These kinds of movies can be done and done very well. Unfortunately, “Warm Bodies” doesn’t rise past its quirky synopsis. It’s a zombie romantic comedy (zom rom com) at a loss for believable plot devices and consistent laughs.

The film follows a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult), a somewhat self-aware young zombie male who isn’t really feeling his new lifestyle now that the world has ended by way of zombie apocalypse. His emo-esque internal monologue conveys his desire to connect with people again and express himself. A zombie, however, isn’t much of a conversationalist.

Things begin to change for R when he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), a survivor who is ambushed by the undead during a mission to find medicine for the other humans living in a safe concrete compound. During the attack, R saves Julie and somehow persuades her through his moaning and grunting that she would be better off escaping with him instead of doing what any sane person would do and run away.

These are the kind of lazy plot holes that plague “Warm Bodies.” Although they allow the narrative to move forward, some of the script choices simply don’t make any sense. Why doesn’t Julie drive away in the car available to her at any point of the movie? Why can some zombies smell human flesh and others can’t? Why do some zombies run like the dickens and others move in slow-mo? “Warm Bodies” is bold in making up its own rules, but it should be labeled a cheater when it changes those same rules so the story can proceed.

The most shameful disregard for the screenplay comes with the fact that during R and Julie’s time together, R begins to change back into a human. Sure, that’s probably plausible in zombie world, but why do the other zombies who are unaffected by Julie in any way also begin to transform? Unless director/writer Jonathan Levine (“50/50”) is trying to make a point by saying that love, too, is infectious, it doesn’t add up.

While there are a few chuckle-worthy scenes between R and his best zombie friend M (Rob Corddry), “Warm Bodies” is more smart-alecky than it is smart. The combination of horror, romance and comedy might be less of an acquired taste than it was a few years ago, but this kind of fleshy meal just isn’t very appetizing without more substance. Brains, perhaps?

50-50

September 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
Directed by: Jonathon Levine (“The Wackness”)
Written by: Will Reiser (debut)

As soon as 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hears his doctor utter the word “cancer,” his ears begin to ring and his vision becomes blurry. For a few seconds, he becomes paralyzed, trapped under the weight of the revelation. From here, Adam begins his journey through the five stages of grief as he looks for acceptance, deals with treatment, seeks support, and tries to stay positive as his future becomes uncertain.

After Adam is diagnosed with cancer, he begins to deal with a lot of confusing emotions. His main source of support is his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), a fun-loving stoner who tries to get Adam to use his cancer to pick up girls. To help him deal with the life-altering news, Adam turns to Katherine McKay, an unseasoned psychiatry doctoral student, to help him cope with the emotional aspects of the disease. To make matters worse for Adam, his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) is invasive and determined to take care him, even as he rejects her motherly instinct.

After an unsuccessful foray in “Hesher,” Gordon-Levitt returns to his comfort zone in a well-acted role that calls for unassuming charm and some heavy dramatic moments. As wisecracking friend Kyle, Rogen’s performance is a little uneven. There’s a sense of trying too hard by being needlessly vulgar that surrounds Rogen’s performance, but he is able to come through with some genuine laughs as well as displaying good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt. The highlight of the cast is Kendrick. Her charm is on full display and her scenes with Gordon-Levitt are among the best of the film. Their chemistry is so strong, sweet, and convincing that she actually elevates his performance during their scenes together.

It goes without saying that making a comedy surrounding such a devastating disease is challenging. But the beauty of humor is that with the right attitude and manipulation, it can be found in even the darkest and most unexpected of places. Taking a subject like cancer and finding tasteful ways to laugh at the situation is the mark of something truly special, and perhaps even inspirational to those dealing with stress and anxiety. And while “50/50” does utilize some laughter at the expense of Adam’s illness, too much of the humor comes from Rogen’s crass and sexual dialogue. It’s almost as if Rogen wandered onto the set straight from an Apatow movie and everyone just went along with it.

The dramatic moments hit hard and resonate, none greater than when Adam finally breaks down and Gordon-Levitt lets out a primal scream that shakes you to your core. But the first half of the movie shoehorns comedy that doesn’t necessarily fit, almost as if the filmmakers felt the need to make the audience laugh to keep them from feeling too many negative emotions. Perhaps the biggest problem is not only that the jokes hit at an inconsistent rate, but it also often disrupts the tone of the film.

While “50/50” occasionally struggles to strike a balance between drama and comedy, the final act is simply stunning.  The events and emotions are so powerful that they will undoubtedly leave many audience members misty-eyed, which is a result of expert handling with heavy scenes. The humor might not connect consistently, but “50/50” is a minor triumph.

The Wackness

August 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (debut)

For a film that prides itself in its 90’s references, “The Wackness” has a lot more to offer audiences that just a look back to a music era featuring the Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls. Even though they’re high most of the time, the smartly-written characters are the most redeeming part of this independent surprise from director/writer Jonathan Levine.

In “The Wackness” (which is apparently slang for the opposite of dopeness), Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his first summer after graduating from high school trying to figure out what he is going to do for the rest of his life. Set in 1994 in New York City, Luke spends his time dealing dope from his ice cream cart and crushing on his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, who can always play some great offbeat characters; see most recently “Sexy Beast” and “You Kill Me”), who doesn’t approve of his infatuation with Stephanie, really can’t use the fact that Luke sells drugs to deter the relationship. The reason: Squires trades counseling sessions with Luke for weed. Their interesting relationship isn’t in jeopardy despite the weird set-up. Luke and Squires need each other. Squires needs him for his pot and Luke needs him because he seems to be the only one that listens to him since his parents have been preoccupied with financial problems.

This makes for a very bizarre coming-of-age tale as both men use one another to grow out of their somber personalities. Squires’s middle-age crisis begins as his wife (Famke Janssen) becomes more distant to him. He finds physical satisfaction to ease his pain when he meets fellow hippie Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, who reminds me of Lisa Bonet’s character in “High Fidelity”).

As a stoner movie, “The Wackness” is presented a bit differently than the upcoming “Pineapple Express” or others of the past like the “Harold & Kumar” series. This one is character-driven and considerate of the relationships it nurtures throughout the film. Although it might overplay the nostalgic angle at times (the Nintendo reference is funny and the music does transport you back to the early ’90s), “The Wackness” manages to sail smoothly with some fine performances by its cast and a novice director who actually comes in with a reasonable vision.

Jonathan Levine – The Wackness

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Interviews

As a teenager living in New York City in 1994, Jonathan Levine searched for a mantra that would encompass everything he was feeling as a recent high- school graduate living in a city that had just elected Rudy Giuliani as mayor.

During this time, NYC started to become a different place as Giuliani implemented zero-tolerance crackdowns across the city. Looking for a voice he could connect with, Levine says he turned to the hip-hop movement and found comfort in lyrics like, “Fuck the world, don’t ask me for shit” from Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album. Although he knew they weren’t necessarily written for him, he was a restless soul and rap music became his passage to confront his teenage angst.

Flash forward 14 years and director/writer Levine has taken his memories of 1994 and injected them into “The Wackness,” a film that revolves around Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an 18-year-old drug dealer who trades weed for therapy with his shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley).

Via phone, Levine spoke to me about music, movies, and video games.

When you start creating a playlist for this film, what music were you looking for?

There are so many wonderful songs from that era, so I thought, “Does this song have that nostalgic feel?” When you think about the song “Summertime” with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, it’s all about barbecues and playing basketball until the sun goes down.

As an 18-year-old kid, did any of Giuliani’s new regulations to clean up the city affect you personally?

I got beat up less, which was good. I can thank [Giuliani] for that. Well, in any city, there is a pulse and energy. If you start making it more palatable for tourism or the richer portion of the city, you’re going to lose a lot of what living in a city is all about — the great melting pot of America. Yeah, some volatile stuff is going to happen, but you can’t deny it. And when you do, you in some ways crush the spirit of that city.

So, he did more harm that good in your opinion?

He’s gone through many incarnations — from a police-state fascist to a very beloved figure. It’s interesting because they’re both very accurate. He handled September 11 beautifully, and he really was amazing in that time, but it’s just funny that people forget on September 10, everybody hated the guy.

You took me back during the scene where Luke is blowing into a Nintendo game cartridge to get it to work. Were there any other ’90s references that you wanted to use that didn’t make the cut?

There were definitely more movie posters. We didn’t get “Natural Born Killers,” but we did get “Forrest Gump.” The Nintendo was in there from the beginning.

Was it difficult to decide what game to use?

It was always [The Legend of] Zelda. First of all, my cinematographer liked it because it gleamed n’ shit. In my own pretentious head, the quest that Link is on is the same quest that Luke and Squires are on.

I didn’t see any plugs for “Pulp Fiction.”

You know, at Sundance Quentin Tarantino was there and came up to me the last night and was like, “Where was ‘Pulp Fiction?’” I explained to him that ‘Pulp Fiction’ didn’t come out in New York until October, and the movie is set in September ’94. He was cool with that.

Have there been any other music movements since ’94 that have affected you the same way?

Unfortunately not. That was a watershed moment in pop culture because of all the hip-hop stuff and Nirvana. It was a very vibrant time. Now, there is just so much access to music you can’t help but find really amazing stuff. But when someone makes a movie 10 years from now about 2008, I’ll probably be proven wrong.