Friday, December 11, 2015

A Journey Through Holiday Hell: "The Night Before" & "Krampus" Reviewed!

A Journey Through Holiday Hell
Hanukkah has already started. Christmas is right around the corner. Heck, Kwanzaa is right around the corner. Whether your ready or not, the holidays are upon us. This may sound sappy or rehearsed, but I love this time of year. Its the time of year for getting together with family, friends and loved ones. Its a time to really reflect on comfort and joy your relationships bring you. Its a time for good food and drink. Then after the dust settles in January, you take a look in the mirror and you say "Wow, I gained that much weight?!?" Or you look at your bank account in horror and think "Wow, I spent that much money!?!" And depending on how your family dynamic works, you may even think "Wow, I spent that much money, on those people?!?" This is a time of year that brings both the angel and the demon out of all of us.

This is the time of year that gives us the togetherness we all crave, while also giving us the craziness we need to endure. I don't think there were two better movies playing at the theater right now that capture the total definition of that first sentence in this paragraph. If you are like me, and like your holidays with a little bit of a kick, then you owe it to yourself to see both "The Night Before" and "Krampus" as soon as possible. If you have not already. While I could say that both films cover the same ground, they couldn't have gone in further directions, but that's fine by me.

"The Night Before" starts with a funeral before Christmas. It is the funeral of the parents of Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and after the ceremony he goes home. He finds his two best friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) at his doorstep. They plan to be there for Ethan, and since he doesn't have any family anymore, the trio make a tradition to always hang out with each other on Christmas. This tradition lasts fourteen years. When we meet Ethan again, he's a 33-year-old floater. He isn't doing much with his life. He had a girlfriend, but she's out of the picture. He doesn't have anything resembling a career. Its almost as if he clings to this one holiday every year where he and his friends really go wild. But this year is different, this year the tradition ends. Issac is married and is going to have a kid soon. Chris is making headway in his professional football career and his fame is going to keep him out New York City for awhile. The trio sees this as their Christmas together and they all plan to make the most of it.

Sounds like the Christmas version of "Superbad," doesn't it? Well, that's really not too far off. In every sense of the definition. Each of these men carries a secret, something the other two don't know. These secrets that each of these men have would and could change the entire dynamic of the their friendship. In fact, it kind of does. Each of these men is so caught up in their own baggage that they can't just stop and enjoy this last night of holiday mayhem together. At the climax of the movie, these friendships are tested and there comes a compromise; choose your baggage or choose your friends. This has happened lots in comedy before. In fact, they happen a lot in comedy revolving around Seth Rogen, so I really wasn't surprised by the direction the film was going. And we all know that everything is going to get tied up in a nice bow (pun totally intended) and finish with a happy ending.

But while "The Night Before" seems like a familiar ride, boy is it a fun ride.

Its true, I haven't laughed this hard in awhile. I enjoyed the characters that Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie play. They come off as real people and I think the audience can totally buy into their thick bond. The situations these guys find themselves in seem pretty routine for a Seth Rogen movie, but the laughs come fast and relentless and they never disappoint. I was wearing a goofy smile for this movie's entire run-time and I love how zany things got throughout the film.

While Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie are all good, the supporting cast is just as superb. Keep a special eye out for Micheal Shannon, who plays a drug-dealer...and an angel. Yes, its true but you have to see the movie to find out what that means. Its really funny to see Shannon in a goofier, less-serious role and I hope he considers more roles like this. There is also a great moment featuring James Franco, who maybe playing himself or somebody else named James. The film never specifies and one of those silly details that will keep you smiling. The movie also features great performances by Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Tracy Morgan, Mindy Kaling and Randall Park. And yes, Miley Cyrus shows up playing herself. Yes, she does. But its really not that bad, she's only in one small stretch of the film. I have to be honest, she's actually a tad bit charming here. Any movie that can make Miley Cyrus charming deserves a very big pat on the back.

This is typical Seth Rogen fair, and if that displeases you, I would warn you off of this one. I know there are several Rogen haters out there, and I happen to not be one of them. I like his style of comedy and I like how off-the-rails it gets. But I know its not for everyone. "The Night Before" is one crazy case of lunacy and it made me laugh a whole hell of a lot.

While "The Night Before" maybe a one spiked eggnog too many, "Krampus" is that huge swig of holiday whiskey all by yourself while your family fights in the other room. Its a movie that literally portrays the darker side of our holiday culture. That couldn't be anymore clearer than in the opening moments of the movie. We see a huge mob of people running into a shopping store, knocking employees down and stomping on them. This is everyone's worst Black Friday nightmare taken to the extreme, but that's the point. "Krampus" is all about how our holiday culture is slowly but surely swallowing us all whole. This is a movie  that shows us just how crazy it is when Black Friday deals start a week in advance. It almost feels like as a whole, we are loosing what makes Christmas so special as a holiday and also allowing families to loose the magic.

The magic feels like its been lost Max's (Emjay Anthony) family. His father Tom (Adam Scott) and mother Sarah (Toni Collette) don't seem very close anymore. Max doesn't feel the love from his older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) anymore. The traditions this family once had has been replaced by strained relationships and going-through-the-motions. Lots of Max's friends don't even believe in Santa anymore, but Max still holds onto the magic. Max is a boy who is trying hard to cling to his childhood while it still exists. 

So leave it to his asshole relatives to muck it up for him. Three days before Christmas, Max's Uncle Howard (David Koechner), Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), and his evil he-she cousins visit for the holidays. Think of the worst possible relatives you have and then times that by a billion and you have these people. From the moment they walk into Max's home, they are causing lots of trouble. It made pretty clear that each family is just tolerating the other until Christmas is over, and then everything will go back to normal again.

That night, after Max's cousins belittle him for believing in Santa, Max does something. What seems like something small in a sudden fit of rage turns out to be a horrible mistake. This mistake will affect Max and his entire family. And nothing can prepare them for the blizzard (literally a blizzard) of shit that is about bombard their peaceful neighborhood. But Max is about to figure why the magic of Christmas is so important.

I have read lots about the Krampus legend before seeing this movie. The general gist is that Krampus was an old European legend, which featured Krampus as sort of an Anti-Santa. If you were good, you got presents from Santa Claus. If you were bad, you got a visit from Krampus and he punished you in horrifying ways. Knowing this backstory is what really led to one of my biggest problems with the movie. Nothing about Krampus is really explained. Sure, Max's grandmother tells a story, but the story she tells is very vague. We never get a clear sense of why Krampus is attacking this particular neighborhood, just half-explanations. The first stretch of the film feels like a slasher movie featuring Krampus instead of an adaptation of the legend. It almost feels like you have to do a little bit of homework before going to see this, where I feel the movie should have explained in greater detail.

But make no mistake, this is a different kind of horror-comedy. It feels refreshing that this isn't just a mere CGI fest. The creature work on this movie was just superb. You will get a real "Gremlins" feel from it, and I love it. Not only do we get Krampus, but we get dark elves, killer ginger-bread men, possessed toys and other evil minions. They all feel real. They all feel like they could jump out and get you. There is nothing that feels particularly artificial about the creatures, which is what this movie really needed. The film also benefits from a great cast. I liked Emjay Anthony since I saw him in "Chef" last year. Conchata Ferrell was good on "Two and 1/2 Men." Allison Tolman was good on "Fargo." Adam Scott, Toni Collette and David Koechner are good period. They look like they had a fun time making this. I wouldn't say the movie is particularly scary, for the first half of the movie, its just having fun playing with this mythology. Even though it isn't effectively explained.

But that's the first half. And that leads to my next big problem with the movie. The first hour and twenty minutes of movie feels like a playful horror-comedy. Then right at the end, it turns into something else entirely. The movie goes full horror mode, it goes so far to this point that is increasingly upsetting. This isn't "boo" horror or fun horror either. It gets grim, it gets dark and it doesn't look like it will let up. I was bewildered to learn that "Krampus" was ultimately tonally confused. I wished that the movie would have made up its mind on being a horror-comedy or something that was truly scary, because playing at both ends of the field doesn't work. Especially when the movie chickens out on its bleak and somber ending and turns out more cheerful. Or does it? The movie goes back and forth on the happy ending and it just plain made my eyes hurt.

"Krampus" is a fun movie, even a good movie. But sometimes it haunts me when I feel like I came close to really loving a movie, but then that love gets away from me. I think "Krampus" would have worked best as a horror-comedy, as that was the best material in the whole movie. Then it kind of falls apart when it tries to get serious and horrifying. The cast tries to sell as best as they can, and I give director Michael Dougherty mad credit for giving this movie an 1980's vibe. But I think that potential may have got lost near that end, and that kind of broke my heart.

But if you are in need of getting into the holiday spirit in a manical way, then both of these movies are worth a look.

"THE NIGHT BEFORE" FINAL GRADE: A-

  "KRAMPUS" FINAL GRADE: B-

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