NEIGHBORS: 4 STARS

There's an old saying that goes, "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family." True enough, but as Hollywood has taught us, you should add neighbours to the "cannot choose" list.

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne star in "Neighbors" as Mac and Kelly, aging hipsters and parents to newborn Stella. "Just because we have a house and a baby doesn't mean we're old people," says Mac.

Their quiet suburban life is uprooted when unruly frat boys led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco) move in next door. The frat has a storied history, laying claim to originating Toga Parties, Beer Pong and something called Boot and Rally.

"Make sure that if we're too noisy, call me," says Teddy on the eve of a big blowout. "Don't call the cops."

When a house party spirals out of control, the couple has to call the police, thereby violating the fragile "circle of trust" between the two households. With their bond broken, petty resentments trigger a Hatfield and McCoy-style feud between Teddy and Company and Mac and Kelly.

"Neighbors" could have simply been "Animal House" for a new generation but mixed in with the laughs -- and there are a lot of laughs -- is a character study of two people suffering from arrested development. Rogen and Byrne have great chemistry, and are a natural match, like a frat boys and bongs. Their story doesn't hinge on the war with the neighbours, however, as much as it does the way they battle against growing up. Their need to be thought of as young and cool while being responsible adults, is very funny and adds a nice subtext to what could have been simply a very silly comedy.      

But make no mistake. This is as raunchy and batty a farce as we'll see this year, but the reason we laugh so hard at the inane stuff is because there is something deeper at work. The frustration, irritation and exhaustion that goes along with being a new parent is amplified, giving the outrageous comedic characters some grounding. Characters like this are frequent in reel life but Byrne and Rogen bring them into real life.  

"Neighbors" is not so much a story as it is an idea played out in a series of wild gags, but good performances -- watching Rose Byrne, in her natural Aussie accent, out-cursing and outdoing Rogen with razor sharp comic timing is one of the film's big pleasures -- and some unexpected heart, make it a cut above the usual frat boy fare.

 


 

THE LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY'S RETURN: 2 STARS

"I smell flying monkeys!"

So says a character in "Legends of Oz," a new family film that adds a chapter to L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" series.

Where there are flying monkeys you can bet there'll also be a Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), the Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and a Lion (as played by James Belushi he's no longer cowardly and now suggests tearing his enemies "limb from limb.") and, of course, witch killer Dorothy (Lea Michele) and her little dog Toto. All make appearances but this time around they're up against a different foe-an evil Jester (Martin Short).  

The movie begins several Oz years after Dorothy vanquished the Wicked Witch of the West. In her time, however, only hours have passed. When she wakes in her bed in Kansas the tornado from the original story has just laid waste to her town, but before you can say "Well, howdy, Miss Gulch," the young girl is sucked up by a giant rainbow and transported to the world of Oz. "You guys," she says, "dragging me into a giant rainbow really scared me!"

Trouble is, things aren't so wonderful in Oz. The Emerald City is in turmoil at the hands of a power hungry Jester who is turning the citizenry into marionettes. Dorothy, with the help of new friends Wiser the Owl (Oliver Platt), Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy), China Princess (Megan Hilty) and Tugg the Tugboat (Patrick Stewart) must stop the Jester and rescue Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Lion before they are turned into puppets.

There are some good messages for kids in "The Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" about working together-as heard in the clumsily rhymed "out it all together until the job is done, it should be easy, it should be fun"-and the importance of friendship. It's just too bad they are wrapped up in a film so saccharine it would give the Wicked Witch of the West a sugar rush.

The flying monkeys are still kinda scary but the rest of the movie practically redefines the term "family friendly," and not in all the best ways. It plays it safe to a fault throughout, smoothing over any edge until there is not much left but some poppy tunes (by Bryan Adams among others) and a story that relies on the goodwill of characters created several generations ago.

"The Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" won't give Pixar a run for their money and might be best saved for a rainy day rental.  

 


 

UNDER THE SKIN: 3 ½ STARS

If there is one lesson to be learned from "Under the Skin," the new alien seductress from "Sexy Beast" director Jonathan Glazer, it is: Don't get in a car with strangers even if they look like Scarlett Johansson. She may play the Black Widow in the Avengers series, but here she is literally, the black widow.

The film begins with an homage to Stanley Kubrick, an austere sci-fi set-up that suggests an alien making their way to Earth. To Scotland to be exact. The nameless creature, who assumes Johansson's form, spends much of the time exerting her siren's call on unsuspecting men. She lures them into her van, then to her home, where they disappear into an inky goo, never to take another breath.

She's a newcomer on a mysterious mission, still figuring out human emotions, but in tune enough to use her sexuality to entrap unsuspecting men. After an encounter with a disabled man, she takes her first tentative steps toward humanity.  

Every now and again, a film comes along with little or no regard for the conventions of traditional storytelling. "Under the Skin" is one of those movies.

We learn next to nothing about Johansson's character or her mission. In a surreal sequence, we do learn what happens to her victims, but not why they are being harvested.

Glazier never takes the easy narrative way out. He leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusions about everything -- character and motivations included. He even clouds much of the dialogue in thick Scottish accents that are challenging unless you have Cullen Skink running in your veins. Add to that some strange inconsistencies -- how is it she knows how to drive like a New York taxi cab driver but has no working knowledge of her own naughty bits? -- and the story strays far into art house territory.  

It's a deliberately paced film that never met a pause -- I would say dramatic pause, but there is very little drama to be had here -- it didn't embrace.

At the centre of it all is Johansson in a deceptively demanding role. She appears to be doing very little, but conveys a heady blend of innocence and sexuality that brings this otherworldly creature to life. Think "The Man Who Fell to Earth's" Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) with red lipstick and more curves and you get the idea.

"Under the Skin" won't be for everybody. It deliberately challenges the audience, almost daring them to stay along for the ride, but those brave enough to take the journey will be rewarded with a story that takes a sly look at human identity filtered through the guise of an alien.

 


 

LOCKE: 3 STARS

In these days of maximalist moviemaking the new Tom Hardy film goes the opposite way, trimming the movie down to one claustrophobic setting and a single on screen actor. "Locke" is the first movie in recent memory that would probably work as well as a radio drama than it does a film.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) is a straight arrow construction foreman on a mission. "I will do what needs to be done," he says, "whether they love me or hate me."

The son of an absent father, he is determined to be at the birth of his child. In his car, he's battling traffic for the hour-and-a-half drive to London and the mother-to-be's hospital. Trouble is, the child is the result of a lonely one-night stand and he's a married man. Compounding his troubles is the timing of the birth. It is the eve of the biggest cement pour in European history, and he's chosen his duty as a new dad over his loyalty to the construction company he's worked at for nine years. Over the course of two hours and dozens of car phone conversations, his life disintegrates, but his resolve does not.

A review like this lends itself to many, many puns. "Locke" is a vehicle for Tom Hardy's bravura performance. He face is the engine of the film, his talent the driver.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the film.   

The entire film takes place in the front seat of Locke's car, in real time, as he drives the M1. We see through the windshield, into the backseat and the display screen of car phone and GPS. Most of all we see Hardy's face, which, even though obscured by a beard, still allows his charisma to ooze through. That's a good thing because it is the actor-not the character or the situation-that makes "Locke" interesting.

It's a character piece about a man who has learned what he doesn't want to be; who is determined to do the right thing, "to be solid," as he says. He's an admirable man who has made mistakes, and Hardy pulls the drama out of the phone calls with his wife, his kids and soon-to-be-ex-boss. The situations individually aren't that compelling, but placed side-by-side and filtered through Hardy, they become, if not exactly riveting-how riveting can extended conversations about cement pouring be?-at least engaging.

The set-up doesn't limit Hardy as much as it hinders the story from truly taking off, from evolving into something more meaningful than watching a man deal with some serious life problems while trying not to get a speeding ticket. There are heightened emotions throughout, but as high as Hardy soars, the film grounds him with a gimmicky idea that keeps him car bound.    

 


 

STAGE FRIGHT: 2 STARS

"Stage Fright" feels like a classic Canadian tax dodge film. From the imported lead actors propping up the unknown Canadian cast to the slightly vulgar tone, the movie feels like it might have earned a dentist or some other wealthy person a massive write down on lines 205 to 485 of this year's tax form, which, I suspect, is part of the joke.

Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) is the daughter of murdered opera singer Kylie (Minnie Driver), a diva who was killed on the opening night of her greatest triumph The Haunting of the Opera. The young girl was raised by her step-father Roger (Meat "Bat out of Hell" Loaf) and now works at his performing arts summer camp as a cook. She puts down the ladle when Roger decides to mount a new production of his ex-wife's big show at the camp.

She wins the lead role, but soon bodies start piling up-"The show must carry on," they sing after the death of one character-and she wonders if the show is cursed.

Like the bold musical reimagining of "The Vagina Monologues" they mention in the movie, "Stage Fright" is an audacious idea; a slasher musical. That it doesn't quite work as either an operetta or horror film doesn't take away from the brashness of the concept but it does beg unfavorable comparisons with other movies containing scares and songs. From "Phantom of the Paradise" to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Sweeney Todd," tunes and terror have frequently co-existed, but rarely has anyone tried to mix-and-match the down-and-dirty scares of movies like "Sleepaway Camp" with "Glee."  

This isn't new territory for director / writer Jerome Sable. His short film short film, a horror musical called "The Legend of Beaver Dam," debuted at Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival and won awards all over the world. Perhaps "Stage Fright" is an idea that might have worked better as a short film. That way he might have found a better balance between the music and the mayhem.

The opening, with Driver, is a grabber, but thirty tune-filled minutes pass before anything gory happens and even then the second kill isn't particularly gory or even interesting. I'm not sure that the bloodhounds will be interested in the songs, so the gruesome stuff has to be wild to get them onside. As it is "Stage Fright" feels like they tried to please both horror fans and musical aficionados. As it is, it falls somewhere in the murky middle.

The lyrics to the closing credit song has a couple of lines that musically question what the audience is still doing there, asks why they are watching the credits, and urges them not to pirate the movie. If the rest of the movie had been that clever in its presentation of the material "Stage Fright" might have delivered more on the promise of its premise.