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Column Fri May 09 2014
Chicago Critics Film Festival, Neighbors, Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Moms' Night Out & Godzilla: The Japanese Original
Chicago Critics Film Festival
Although I've already written about this at length, but I just wanted to remind those of you who only read this column every Friday. The Chicago Film Critics Association programmers (myself included) have put together a variety of tremendous films that cover every genre and type of filmmaking, all playing at the Music Box Theatre, May 9-15. The festival features 23 Chicago premieres and two shorts programs, totaling 14 shorts between them. And I couldn't be more excited and proud to a part of this year's event once again.
As we did last year, we've got some great guests doing post-screening Q&As, including directors David Wain (They Came Together), Bobcat Goldthwaite (Willow Creek), Jordan Vogt-Roberts (American Ham) and Collin Schiffli (Animals), as well as actors Dick Miller (That Guy Dick Miller and A Bucket of Blood double-bill), Martin Starr & Jocelyn DeBoer (Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead) and David Dastmalchian (Animals).
Check out the Chicago Critics Film Festival site for the complete schedule, and for advanced tickets sales. Hope to see you there. And there maybe one or two other films opening around Chicago this weekend...
One of the unexpectedly pleasant offshoots of the criticism often lobbed at Seth Rogen that he plays the same character in every movie is that, as he continues to release films, we've actually gotten to see this guy go from man-child to man-adult over the span of the nearly 10 years since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. In 2007's Knocked Up, Rogen was a man clearly ill-prepared for parenthood, but with his latest film, Neighbors, he plays Mac, a new parent trying harder than anyone I've seen on film in quite some time to balance the adult responsibilities of being a dad while still making time to have a little fun with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne).
You probably thought from all of the commercials for Neighbors that this was a film about a college fraternity moving into the house next door to this young couple with a newborn. That's just what happens in the film, but that's not really what it's about. This is a smart, shrewd movie about growing up, a lesson learned by Kelly and Mac, as well as a few of the young men living next door, but not all involved take to the lesson without resistance. Kelly and Mac are having a tough time adjusting their schedule and being on 24-hour on-call baby duty. Things are only made worse when the frat boys move in, despite all parties making a real effort to make it work.
The head of the fraternity, Teddy (Zac Efron, finally finding his funny after several failed attempts), makes it clear that all they have to do is ask if things get too loud and rowdy. But when this fails, Mac calls the cops (or maybe it's just "cop," since we only ever seen one in the form of the very funny Hannibal Buress), and Teddy considers this offense an act of war. A great deal of Neighbors is a combination of Kelly and Mac trying to appear cool by partying at the fraternity, and the two houses doing as much as they can to either disturb the other's sleep or destroy the other's house so they'll have to move.
Admittedly, the premise sounds childish. But there is something admirable about the level of adulthood this couple is trying to achieve. They want to appear cool to the kids next door, but more importantly, they want to live in a quiet home where they can raise their daughter without an army of swinging dicks next door. And perhaps the strangest thing about the whole film is that it wasn't written by Seth Rogen, who seems the likeliest candidate. Instead, the screenplay comes from the team of Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, with the great Nick Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek) directing.
Neighbors has a few not-so-secret weapons in the form of some of the supporting players, led by Dave Franco as Teddy's right-hand man Pete, who seems to get that college is both a time for fun and a time to grow up a little — a fact that is flying right over Teddy's perfect head. Franco is getting noticeably funnier with each new film, and I've grown to genuinely anticipate what he's got coming up next. (I know he's got at least a cameo in 22 Jump Street — can't wait!) There are also great appearances from the likes of Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and even a very funny turn by Lisa Kudrow as the school's dean.
The sheer volume of jokes that score is impressive, but what's even more worthy of your attention is how much heart there is at the core of this film. Most of the soul of the film rests with Byrne, who has someone managed to carve out solid a career built upon fantastic dramatic and comedic roles over the years. In Neighbors, she does a bit of both, as the pressures of raising a newborn combined with the stress of unruly dudes living next door cause her to lose control of her temper and emotions. Rogen is more of a "laughing or yelling" type of actor, but he's still effective and he delivers the film's best lines, especially the ones about how perfect Efron's body is.
I'm not sure how great the summer's comic book/giant monster & robots/evil queen/sci-fi/animation/talking apes movies are going to pan out, but I like the way the comedies are starting out, which means nothing, but it makes me happy. Neighbors has more going on than just partying and pranks, but if that were all it had, it would still be pretty damn funny. As it is, it's a film that isn't afraid to mix laughs with one or two genuine emotions between adults and best friends. I never guessed this movie would be a feel-good experience in classic sense, but it turns out that it is. There are also a ton of dick jokes. So now you know.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return
Frankly, I'm baffled by this one. With subpar animation, beyond generic songs (thank you, Bryan Adams), and a voice cast that should have known better (for the most part), I'm not sure how this Oz-set feature ever got greenlit in the first place. Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return tells the story of Dorothy Gale (voiced by "Glee's" Lea Michele) coming back to Oz almost as soon as she's recovered from her last, more famous trip. Of course, time moves differently in Oz, so for her friends the Scarecrow (Dan Aykoyd), the Lion (Jim Belushi) and the Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer), many months have gone by.
They call Dorothy back in a time of crisis. A new force of evil in the form of The Jester (Martin Short, who at least injects a little energy into the proceedings) has made himself known and kidnapped Glinda (Bernadette Peters), so Dorothy and her male harem make their way to the Emerald City once again, this time picking up a few new friends along the way, including Wiser the owl (Oliver Platt), Tugg the tugboat (Patrick Stewart), Marshall Mallow (Hugh Dancy) and China Princess (Megan Hilty), who bears more than a slight resemblance to China Doll from last year's Oz the Great and Powerful.
They sing awful, forgettable songs along the way and encounter mildly dangerous situations, but this film is so clearly aimed at young children that you can almost smell the bleach from all of the sanitizing. Sure, the Jester outright threatens to kill Dorothy and her pals, but you never really get the sense that he's got it in him. By the way, at times Jester puts on white makeup and looks a whole lot like Heath Ledger's Joker, which might be the only thing that freaks kids out, but I'm guessing adults will be more troubled by it.
The source material for Dorothy's Return isn't even officially based on the stories of L. Frank Baum, but rather on the writings of his great-grandson, Roger Stanton Baum, and I think we know how well continuations of beloved stories like those set in Oz always turn out, especially when they're done by a family member. Ugh! Co-directors Will Finn and Dan St. Pierre are both Disney art department veterans during the studios modern heyday from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. But Finn also directed two terrible animated features, The Road to El Dorado (for DreamWorks) and Home on the Range (for Disney), and sadly his streak continues with this film.
I know Dorothy's Return isn't aimed at grown folks like me, but the level of pandering to kids on display is frankly an embarrassment. Kids actually enjoy being challenged by anything they watch, and if you don't stimulate their minds in any way, they get restless fast; trust me. I've watched some of the great animated works of Disney and Pixar in audiences filled with kids, and if they're entranced by what's on screen, they sit there quiet and still, wide-eyed and hypnotized. But this latest cashing in on the Oz name has none of that, and the kids in my audience were bored to tears. I feel for you kids, I truly do. In all seriousness, your kids are probably more excited and will be more transfixed if you wait a week at take them to see that movie about giant monsters that trample Japan and San Francisco. Save your money, parents. Seriously.
Moms' Night Out
Speaking of suck-fests... I'll admit, I didn't do my research before going into the wacky comedy Moms' Night Out. Somewhere in the back of my head, I remember seeing a trailer about a group of moms handing over their kids to the dads and going out for a much-need girls' night, presumably filled with floppy wieners at a male strip club, brushes with the police, and other examples of sordid behavior that would be right at home in a racy, R-rated comedy.
Except no. Because when you do some actual digging on this film, you notice two important things. First off, this is a PG-rated movie. How is that even possible? That question is answer by point number two: Moms' Night Out is directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin, makers of the faith-based offering from a few years back, October Baby. So, yes, this new comedy is actually a Christian's version of a wild and crazy party film filled with terrible jokes, kooky characters and more life lessons about family and God than you can shake a heathen at. But the ultimate message of the film (if I'm reading it right) is that woman are really the only ones capable of taking care of kids because men (one of whom is played by Sean Astin, by the way) are just too irresponsible. How did this ever get made?
And the worst part about Moms' Night Out is that it's a sneaky son of a bitch. There's a little bit of church-going in the beginning, but I assumed that was strictly to introduce the preacher's wife character, Sondra (Patricia Heaton), a buttoned-down woman whom we discover later had a wild past that she taps into again for this night out. She actually seems to be encouraging her fellow lady friends to cut loose a little bit and enjoy their crazy night out — which includes a messed-up reservation at a nice restaurant, losing their car, and much commiserating about the pressure of being a mom and wife. The leader of this gaggle is Allyson (Sarah Drew, who is on "Grey's Anatomy," I hear, and that's all I need to know), married to Sean (Astin), and saddled with too many kids and not enough time. She's also feeling under-appreciated, but not in an R-rated, or even PG-13-rated, way.
The film is tolerable to begin with, but once the evening out commences, you might as well double up on the cyanide pills, because otherwise you are in for a long night at the movies. Drew seems to think that playing Allyson as a screechy, hysterical person who overreacts to every situation inappropriately is funny. It's not; it's annoying as hell. The men decide to have a little get-together of their own and someone loses their kids through a series of contrivances and worse-than-sitcom-like behavior. Moms' Night Out is the type of film that thinks that having bikers, tattoo artists and neglectful moms as part of its story somehow makes it edgy, when in fact everything is so safe and sanitized that it makes you want to vomit.
There's truly no part of this film I can point to as being interesting, entertaining or worthy of playing on any size screen. Yet on the big screen they will appear, taking up valuable real estate where a lesser-known indie might settle in for a week or two. Instead, we get this garbage, this runny crap that sends women back the stone age and men on their way back to the frat houses and man caves of a bygone era. Seriously, Adventures in Babysitting had more peril and balls than Moms' Night Out.
Godzilla: The Japanese Original
You don't need a history lesson from me about 60 years of Godzilla (or Gojira), especially now that we live in a world where the true and proper cut of the film, restoring about 40 minutes of the original Japanese cut, is widely available (as is the Hollywood-ized version with Raymond Burr inserts and abysmal English dubbing). Having recently watched a beautifully restored DCP print of the original film (likely the same restoration used in the current Criterion blu-ray), a few things popped out at me, especially since I had just seen the new Gareth Edward-directed film a couple days earlier. The 1954 version is being released in a limited release, and it's well worth a look since the new film could be considered a direct-line sequel to the original story.
The first thing you can't help but think about watching the 1954 film is that it had been less than 10 years since the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The aftermath of that 1945 event has its fingerprints all over Godzilla, and while it is not an overtly political work, it is also clearly a cautionary tale about testing H bombs in the Pacific and the dangers of anything using radioactive materials. This is hardly a news flash, but sometimes you forget how diretly the subject is addressed in the film, and it's clear why Hollywood thought it needed to cut so much of the film to pieces before releasing it the American public.
The true story of Godzilla is, of course, not the man in suit after all, but the great Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura (who also played the leader of the Seven Samurai, released in the same year), who plays an older scientist, who is convinced he knows how to control Godzilla without destroying it. He is the sole voice of saving the monster in the name of science, so of course he is shouted down by the military and pretty much everyone else.
I've never been a great collector or follower of the Godzilla sequels (although I've seen almost all of them), but I've maintained a great affection for the original film, which features minimal actual monster footage, one of the strangest first reveals of a monster I've ever seen, and an unnatural commitment to a dopey love story smack dab in the middle of all this chaos. I still can't help but be impressed by the detailed miniature work done for this movie; it's so perfect, you almost want to weep a little when Godzilla tramples it all.
Even by today's standards, director Ishirô Honda (who went on to direct dozens of future monster movies, including Godzilla sequels) put something together that holds up in certain regards. The black-and-white photography adds a bonus level of sinister to the proceedings. And this is one of the few Godzilla movies where the monster isn't looked at as a savior of the Japanese people (even in the new film, Godzilla is the essentially the hero). While there are elements of the misunderstood monster to Godzilla in the original, he's essentially a destructive force that needs putting down.
As a primer into the Godzilla and kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) cinema, there is pretty much nowhere else to start, and this restored print with everything from the original film put back in its proper place is a must see even for the seasoned Godzilla enthusiast. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.