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Knight at the Movies: Neighbors; Stage Fright; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-05-07

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How many dick jokes can you get into one frat comedy? That's like asking how many clowns can you get in one clown car or how many crazed frat guys can you stuff into one phone booth. ( Anyone else remember phone booths? ) The latter analogy is particularly apt in reference to Nicholas Stoller's new movie Neighbors, the latest in a long line of frat-house comedies that desperately wants to be crowned the long lost grandson of Animal House—and chugs down in anticipation.

What seemed unspeakably crude in 1978 when John Belushi and his band of merry cohorts cavorted across movie screens, wreaking havoc and hilarity as they kicked off what would become a new genre would by now seem as tame and wholesome as a snack of graham crackers and milk. Raising the gross-out bar ( and the dick-joke quotient ) ever higher in the ensuing years has been the goal of these raunchy, often-witless and, at times, admittedly funny comedies. From Van Wilder to American Pie to Old School to Project X, we now find ourselves at such a debauched level that perhaps only a movie simply titled Dick Joke is left to be released. After the endless sight gags and penis references in Stoller's movie, that might not be a bad alternate title for Neighbors.

The plot revolves around Mac and Kelly, a once-hip couple ( Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne ) who are forced into being responsible adults by the arrival of their darling new baby. One day they spot a gay couple with a baby chatting with a realtor next door and assume they'll soon have clone versions of Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and their twins moving in. Alas, it's not to be and soon the couple is stunned to find a host of college kids instead, led by the anatomically impressive Teddy ( Zac Efron ). ( "He's like something designed by a gay guy in a laboratory," Rogan exclaims in genuine awe as he gazes at Teddy's stunning physique. ) Mac and Kelly, worried about noisy parties waking up their baby, take the bull by the horns and stop by, introducing themselves to "the kids" and confronting the issue head on. Teddy promises that the frat will behave but, of course, all promises go out the window and before you can say "Bluto Blutarsky," WWIII has ignited.

The gimmick here is that Mac and Kelly, as recent latent adolescents themselves, are still pining ( pretty heavily ) for the life of irresponsibility and hardcore partying they've just left behind. So as the movie's dick jokes pile up ( and they include visual ones, too ), the duo tries hangin' out with the frat dudes ( a la Old School ) in order to change their behavior. But that doesn't work and by the final bacchanal ( which is always the climax of these pictures ), Mac and Kelly will have resorted to a lot more outrageous stuff to get rid of their noxious neighbors.

Neighbors is schizophrenic in tone ( if ever a movie gave off mixed signals…. ) because of that gimmick that keeps the picture veering between being heartfelt and over the top gross and its basically one joke premise wears out its welcome long before the finale denouement. But the intermittent laughs, Rogan's sunny nature, Byrne's surprising comedic moments and a nicely shaded performance from Efron are all welcome. And, boy, that Zac—who is shirtless through much of the movie—is easy on the eyes and a nice distraction when the wilted comedy slumps ( and his best bud, played by perennial teenager Dave Franco, ain't so bad either ). Lisa Kudrow also has a fun cameo as the head of the college. As with all these dick jokes, uh, frat comedies, you either agree to partake in the beer pong of a plot before laying down your money or stay home—with the aforementioned graham crackers and milk.

Briefly noted: Stage Fright, which is available on VOD, is also more than a bit schizophrenic in tone. The film is a mixture of Todd Graf's Camp and the Friday the 13th film series, with musical-theater campgoers ( that look to be from grade school right through college ) being hacked apart by a demented, Phantom of the Opera-style serial killer. After a gory prologue that introduces Minnie Driver as a promising musical-theater star brutally slashed to death on her opening night and Meat Loaf as her pumped-up producer, the action moves forward 10 years. Driver's daughter and her son are now the cook and dishwasher in a musical-theater camp run by Meat Loaf, whose reputation has clearly hit the skids.

The arrival of the theater geeks who perform a delightful original song as they arrive at the camp sets expectations high but the subsequent action—which purports to be a quasi-Phantom of the Opera—quickly dissolves from promising parody into stale slasher movie. Stage Fright might have worked with less gore or more camp, but the two make for strange bedfellows, and both genres are pushed to the limits. The gore is really, really gory and the songs are really, really campy. ( A heartfelt ballad would have been nice. )

It doesn't help that the leading actress warbles in a thin soprano that is grating, to say the least. ( The reason for hiring her remains obscure until she finally appears in the camp's musical finale, complete with ample cleavage. ). Long before the killer is revealed, said Phantom's identity is pretty clear and, in the meantime, all the fun promised in that opening number grows fainter and fainter as the body count climbs. http://www.magnetreleasing.com/stagefright/

Film notes:

—The Chicago Film Critics Association ( of which I'm a member ) is hosting its second annual CFCA Film Festival from Friday, May 9-Thursday, May 15. The fest—which is being held at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.—is putting the spotlight on a slew of indie features and documentaries that have, naturally enough, been critical darlings on the film festival circuit. The 23 features and 14 shorts making their Chicago debuts during the fest include what appears to be a wide-ranging group—although I'm disappointed that I don't see a single film with queer themes or characters among them ( an oversight I'm sure the group will address in subsequent years ).

Yet even without any queer film offerings, there's still plenty of promising stuff in the lineup. A few of the titles that have piqued my interest: Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd in They Came Together; director and co-writer David Wain's parody of romantic comedies ( the opening-night screening which Wain will attend ); Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, a sequel to the Nazi zombie horror comedy Dead Snow ( with two actors from the film in attendance ); That Guy Dick Miller, with what looks to be a breezy documentary profile of perennial film character actor Dick Miller, the always fantastic Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd and Kelly Reilly in the Irish drama Calvary about a troubled priest; Mood Indigo, a romantic fantasy from French director Michel Gondry; Willow Creek, a found footage horror entry focused on the Bigfoot legend from director Bobcat Goldthwait ( who will be in attendance ); and the closing-night selection, Animals, a Chicago-based film about the hardscrabble lives of a criminally inclined young couple ( with writer-star David Dastmalchian and director Colin Schiffli on hand ). Complete fest schedule and advance tickets at http://chicagocriticsfilmfestival.com/

—Get out the disco glad rags for yourself and mom and prepare to sing "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes It All," etc., etc. along with Meryl and her co-stars when the Music Box presents a special screening of out director Phyllida Lloyd's 2008 musical comedy hit Mamma Mia! on Sunday, May 11, at 12 p.m. Celebrate Mother's Day with Mamma Mia! in this special screening event that will feature a fabu-lush '70s pre-show costume contest, an interactive audience guide and all those Abba tunes. A fancy boxed brunch ( complete with mimosa or Bloody Mary ) and preferred seating are available. My alter ego Dick O'Day will host. www.musicboxtheatre.com

—Three more faves from the 2013 LGBT film fest circuit are hitting DVD this week: the sexy and surprisingly thought provoking I'm a Porn Star ( from out actor-producer Charlie David, making his directorial debut ); the gay crime melodrama thriller Truth, which stars Sean Paul Lockhart ( former gay porn actor Brent Corrigan ) and Rob Moretti ( who also wrote and directed ); and out actor Doug Spearman's guilty pleasure Hot Guys with Guns, a very gay send-up of private-eye genre.

Tony nominations

announced

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder led this year's Tony nominations ( announced April 29 ) with 10, followed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which stars Neil Patrick Harris in the title role, according to The Wrap.

Best Play nominees include Act One, All the Way, Casa Valentina ( which Harvey Fierstein wrote ), Mothers and Sons, and Outside Mullingar. Best Musical nominees are After Midnight, Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder.

Nominees for Best Revival of a Play are The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Glass Menagerie, A Raisin in the Sun and Twelfth Night, while Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Les Miserables and Violet received Best Revival of a Musical nods.

Among the many actors nominated for Tonys are Harris, Bryan Cranston ( All the Way ), Audra McDonald ( Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill ), Cherry Jones ( The Glass Menagerie ), Tyne Daly ( Mothers and Sons ), Sutton Foster ( Violet ), Stephen Fry ( Twelfth Night ), Idina Menzel ( If/Then ), Anika Noni Rose ( A Raisin in the Sun ) and Kelli O'Hara ( The Bridges of Madison County ).

The nominees were revealed live by Lucy Liu and Jonathan Groff ( with host Hugh Jackman dropping by ), CBS News noted. The awards, which honor the best of this year's Broadway season, will be handed out June 8 in a ceremony that Jackman will host live on CBS.


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