It's hard not to like 'Love, Simon'

It's hard not to like 'Love, Simon'

(Updated 3/19/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

In this day and age, it's kind of daring to see a gay-themed movie that is NOT a daring gay-themed movie. "Love, Simon" is as conventional a rom-com as any of those 1990s-era smoochie fests starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan ("Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," "Joe Versus the Volcano"), only it centers on a homosexual teen boy falling in love with an anonymous classmate he meets on his school's social media network.

Until he started e-mailing back and forth with "Blue," Simon (Nick Robinson) thought he was the only dude in school who liked dudes. He is in his senior year of high school and has never come out to any of his friends or family. He's never really wanted to, because he knows it would change so much. Maybe too much. If he can just to get college, he keeps telling himself, there he will be his true self and still be able to keep his identity with his mom, dad and lifelong besties (in one of the film's only whimsical moments, he envisions a huge '80s video-style musical number in which his entire college dorm welcomes his "coming out").

Just before Christmas, Simon is outed by a snarky fellow classmate, Martin (Logan Miller), who had been blackmailing him. And Simon has no choice but to live with the ramifications. This means breaking the heart of the girl (Katherine Langford) he's known since kindergarten, who's always had a crush on him. This means seeing just how liberal his liberal mom and dad (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) really are. And this means coming back from winter break and everyone looking at him differently.

"Love, Simon" tries to catch a John Hughes vibe early on, and it doesn't quite achieve that. The film isn't funny enough or perceptive enough to pull off what Hughes did so effortlessly in his '80s teen comedy heyday. Simon isn't as idiosyncratic or fully drawn as Samantha Baker or Cameron Frye or Duckie. The film takes great steps to make him as "middle of the road" likable as it can.

And he is! You never want to see anything bad happen to the kid. And that's part of the appeal of "Love, Simon." It's like watching a Mitch and Cameron-centered episode of "Modern Family." On that show, you're fairly confident you'll never see an episode where Jay, Phil and Claire find Cam and Mitch beaten to a bloody pulp in the alley of a local dance club. Similarly, here, the film is set in an affluent Anytown, USA suburb with mostly nice people who need only minimal prodding to be brought into the 21st century. Even Simon's school appears to have just two bullies, and they are dealt with quickly and cleanly by the film's drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell, giving what will likely be the film's most underrated performance).

In the end, as the final credits roll, most audiences will realize they didn't laugh a lot during "Love, Simon." They didn't shed many tears (surprising, considering it was scripted by two of those ruthless onion cutters from NBC's "This Is Us") and they weren't imparted with any great wisdom. They just saw a nice boy-meets-boy story that didn't try too hard and didn't shake a finger back at the viewer or society every 10 or 15 minutes.

I really liked the film.

"Love, Simon" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and some teen partying.

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New 'Tomb Raider' offers limited treasure

New 'Tomb Raider' offers limited treasure

(Updated 3/18/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

It's a shame we can't mix and match movies, especially within franchises. The new "Tomb Raider" is a better film than either of the original two Lara Croft flicks that Angelina Jolie starred in during the early 2000s. But, man, I really wish Jolie starred in this new one. Jolie circa 2001, of course.

Now, I don't know how that would happen without a certain DeLorean or some kind of CGI movie magic. I never really had a problem with Jolie in the role. It was those two flicks that were bad. The problem with the new film is it's so grounded and so interested in delivering a believable heroine audiences can identify with that... it's really quite dull!

Say what you want about Jolie. But when she wants to, she really knows how to vamp it up on screen. By contrast, Alicia Vikander in the title role looks like the Teen Titans version of this character. She's an excellent actress. Heck, like Jolie, she's won an Oscar. But here she's trapped in an origin story that's not terribly interesting.

In the rebooted "Tomb Raider," directed by Roar Uthaug(!), Croft is 21 and working as a bike courier in London. Her father (Dominic West), an international business magnate with a secret side life unknown to his family, disappeared years earlier when Lara was barely a teen. To claim the family fortune, she has to have him declared officially dead... something she refuses to do. So, in the meantime, this Lara Croft can barely make rent, is late for her college classes and isn't even the best athlete at her local gym.

Ultimately, she decides to move forward with her life by solving the mystery of her dad's death. She and a guide (Daniel Wu) with a personal stake in finding Mr. Croft set off for the missing man's last-known destination: a mythical island called Yamatai in the South Pacific.

If I recall back to the Jolie films, they were criticized for being too loose and campy to the point where there was no sense of danger. Without skilled directors at the reins of those films, the fun always felt forced. Here, you wish director Roar Uthaug and all concerned would just cut loose. This is based on a video game after all. But it's about as much fun as standing behind your buddy who's playing the game and watching him or her do all of the fighting and cool action hijinks.

The film even feels at times like an apology for past misdeeds. Lara Croft, as initially conceived in the 1990s, was a hyper-sexualized female action heroine. At the time, there was not a large female demographic playing video games. So, to get guys to buy the product and live vicariously through a woman character, game designers had to make her big breasted and come-hither gorgeous.

Believe me, I am not body-shaming Vikander AT ALL. She has obviously worked out like a beast to get in shape for this role. The camera doesn't linger over her curves or cleavage, but instead her muscles and toned limbs. Progress? Yes. And with Vikander's Academy Award clout, I'm sure she had a say in the direction of the film. Which makes me wonder. Whenever the movie did start to stray into any sort of sexist territory during filming, was Vikander free to say to her director, "I am woman. Hear me, Roar!"


I guess it just comes down to this for me: I personally don't go to see a movie based on a video game and want dry realism. Vikander's Lara Croft looks fantastic... er, that is if she were the rock-climbing instructor at your local gym. But as a globe-trotting, larger-than-life, big-screen adventurer? Eh, not so much.

In the end, for sure, this is a launch-pad movie. The Powers That Be have made Croft younger and more accessible. Maybe this was the way to go. But like so many things Hollywood is producing these days - awards shows, sitcoms, DC superhero movies - where's the real fun?

"Tomb Raider" is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action and some language.

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This 'Wrinkle' has some flaws

This 'Wrinkle' has some flaws

(Updated 3/12/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

I should be leading off my review of "A Wrinkle in Time" like 90 percent of the other critics, noting the historical significance of Ava DuVernay being the first African-American woman to direct a live-action studio film with a budget of more than $100 million, touting the diverse cast and touching on the social messages of the film. There was one part of this film - a small nitpick to some, an extended annoyance to me - that grated on my nerves like you wouldn't believe.

OK, this may sound petty to some, but here goes. There's a kid in this flick, the little brother of the main protagonist, and his character's name is Charles Wallace Murry. Throughout, the boy gets into a lot of trouble and has to be saved by his big sister and others. That's all well and good. It's clear all concerned love this little boy. But throughout the film, every single character refers to him as... "Charles Wallace." And at about the one-hour mark it just became maddening!

Scene after scene, the boy would go lost or get abducted or become possessed by an evil intergalactic entity. The usual stuff. And each scene would almost always play out like this: Meg (a charming Storm Reid) would look around concerned and say softly, "Charles Wallace?" Then, she would be joined by her friend, Calvin (Levi Miller), in the beginnings of panic. "Charles Wallace?!" Followed by full-on hysterics. "CHARLES WALLACE?!?!" And that's not even counting the times characters just casually said the boy's first and middle name together.

I did appreciate the movie. But strangely, I found myself checking out of it every 15 minutes or so because, overall, it's a rather ponderous, slow affair. I'll give "A Wrinkle in Time" credit - for a Disney family film, it's pretty heady. At times, it plays like "Interstellar" crossed with a bit of "Mean Girls."

Reid indeed stars as the daughter of an astrophysicist, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), who disappeared four years earlier. Meg, C.W. (I won't call him by his name) and their scientist mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw... now THAT's a name to repeat throughout a film!) believe that Alex discovered the key to inter-dimensional travel and is somewhere out there in the cosmos trying to get back to them. The rest of the world pretty much thinks he was a crackpot, who left his family and staged his disappearance to cover his failures in the lab.

Meg and her brother are soon visited by three astral travelers named Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) who bend time and existence itself to help the kids search for their dad. As they do this, they all spout empowering advice to the Murry kids and cute-guy Calvin and tell them that they can be warriors for the universe the likes of which hasn't been seen since Einstein, Gandhi and Jesus.

Not kidding on that one!

They then leave them on a planet where Alex is that is run by the permeating evil of the universe itself, known as The It. C.W. becomes possessed, Meg has to get past her tween issues and we have to learn whether Dad left because he was a self-absorbed cad or if he really intended to come back to Earth but couldn't.

There is a narrative vagueness to "A Wrinkle in Time" that is more than a bit confounding. I didn't really get how Alex became an intergalactic traveler. Something about "love" being a frequency that opens up the inter-dimensional portals. I didn't really understand how Meg saving her brother and standing up to The It saves humanity down here on Earth.

Magic Oprah explains it all... er, sort of. But she deals heavily in the vague. And she seems to think that if she says all of her cryptic dialogue... so... very... slo-o-o-ow, we'll just accept it and move on with the movie.

In interviews, DuVernay said she hoped this film, based on Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 novel, would appeal not only to 11- and 12-year-olds, but to the 11- and 12-year-olds in all of us. Eh. Not so sure about that.

"A Wrinkle in Time" is rated PG for thematic elements and some peril.

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Will you fall prey to the 'Strangers' sequel?

Will you fall prey to the 'Strangers' sequel?

(Updated 3/12/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Looking back on the first "Strangers" movie, I was surprised to realize that 1) it was released 10 years ago, which totally doesn't seem possible; and 2) it's managed to linger in my mind off and on for this past decade. I'm pretty sure I gave the original a good review back in May 2008. I haven't revisited the flick since. But some of its scares have held their power.

Chiefly, I remember there was that one scene with Liv Tyler alone in an open kitchen. It's completely quiet in the house. She's smoking a cigarette and her back is turned to the rest of the house. In a doorway about 12 or so feet behind her just quietly appears The Man in the Mask, this franchise's version of Jason, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Ghostface, etc. And he just stands there... and stands there. And Liv goes about her business unaware. Then, after she turns slightly and the camera angle changes, it then goes back to the original angle and... he's gone! YIKES! Where is he?!

No, seriously. What happened after that? I really don't remember.

At any rate, the scene was one of the great scares I've shared with a movie theater audience. I remember the screams and the gasps, the writhing in the seats as the scene played out. Kudos to original director Bryan Bertino for a sublimely crafted sequence and for the good scares, thrills and spills that followed.

The sequel, "The Strangers: Prey at Night," is a more conventional stalker-slasher film. It's less elegant, to be sure. But it's still pretty dang tense. It features a really, REALLY lean 85-minute running time, and it's pretty much an hour-and-a-half version of one of those haunted houses that pop up around Halloween time each year - the kind run by local horror movie freaks who begin thinking about and planning what they're going to do to locals the following year starting... oh, Nov 1.

Actually, this is not a haunted house film. The setting is really what distinguishes the sequel. It's a remote mobile home park. A family has come to stay with some relatives, but when they get there they find it strangely deserted.

Making the poor travel decisions this time out are Christina Hendricks of "Mad Men" fame, Martin Henderson from "The Ring" (doesn't he ever learn?!) and Bailee Madison (giving one of the better teenager performances in a movie of this type). Back from the first film are the masked murderers Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and The Man in the Mask. All three are played by different actors, which doesn't really matter (actually I did miss the original Dollface's creepier monotone saying lines like "Is Tamara here?").

There's not a lot of plot to discuss. It's pretty much a "kill or be killed" chase flick with a lot of knife play and blood. So much blood. There is a swimming pool sequence that is really quite effective. And one death was particularly sad, but well-handled.

Look, if you're coming to see some artsy indie film about people thoughtfully discussing life, death, morality and mortality, you're going to be in the wrong theater. But if you're coming to see a movie where you'll spend half of it either screaming or wanting to scream "RUN!!! RUN YOU $#%&^@s TO THE NEAREST BEST WESTERN!!!" yeah, this will be your flick.

At the very least, you'll never listen to Air Supply the same way again... er, if you listen to Air Supply, that is.

"The Strangers: Prey at Night" is rated R for horror violence, language and terror throughout.

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You got your 'Death Wish' … uh, remake

You got your 'Death Wish' … uh, remake

(Updated 3/5/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Now, of course, the 2018 remake of "Death Wish" is about as ill-timed as you can get. Remember, this was originally supposed to be the 2017 remake of "Death Wish," as its original release date was back in November. Unofficially, though, it was postponed from then until now because of the shootings in Las Vegas. Unwilling to delay release a second time (and reprint all those posters), the studio of record has released this bullet-riddled, vigilante action romp in the wake of the Florida high school shootings. But that's the world we live in. In that world, there's probably no good time to release a flick in which Bruce Willis stars as a Chicago surgeon who takes up the gun (and other weapons of mass retribution) to exact vengeance on the thugs who murdered his wife (Elizabeth Shue) and left his teenage daughter (Camilla Morrone) in a coma.

Willis' Dr. Paul Kersey lives in a world of police ineptitude, polarizing talk radio and a Windy City in which reports of yet more murders of mostly young black men are as common as the nightly sports scores. It's this societal hopelessness coupled with his grief and inadequacy as a male protector that initially drives Kersey to become a hooded vigilante - one who comes to be both feared and admired as some of the darker cinematic takes on Batman.

For a bit, director Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan at least pay lip service to whether this mystery man is a hero to law-abiding victims or a menace to society. But that kind of moral complexity doesn't last long. The bulk of the film is CLEARLY on the side of Kersey and both sanctions and cheers on his righteous blood-shedding.

Remakes are tricky, dear readers. The best ones bring the story from its origins - often years, even decades ago - and find new twists to make the remake interesting and relevant to its current time period. The new "Death Wish," though, doesn't present a compelling case for its existence. It's certainly slicker and better-made than the 1974 film. But there's no leap forward here in terms of thought or purpose. This is one instance where it would have been interesting to re-cast the role with an African-American actor like Idris Elba or Jamie Foxx and explore the moral dilemmas a man would have killing for righteousness sake in his own community.

But with 60-something Willis, this feels less like a socio-political revenge tale of our time and more like a Liam Neeson action cheapie hand-me-down. Even Neeson seems to have moved past his "I'll kill to avenge my family" flicks in favor of "I'll kill to get off this really messed-up piece of mass transit."

I guess there is some progress made in that Kersey's daughter wasn't brutalized AND raped as she was in the '74 original. And this version, for better or worse, has more attempts at humor than the Charles Bronson version. But, doing my best to separate the remake from the current political climate to give it the fairest shot possible, it just never took off for me.

"Death Wish" is rated R for strong, bloody violence and language.

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R.I.P. David Ogden Stiers

R.I.P. David Ogden Stiers

(Updated 3/5/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

One celebrity death that did not make it into this year's Oscars "In Memoriam" segment was that of David Ogden Stiers, because the actor just passed away the day before at the age of 75. Stiers, is of course, best remembered as Major Charles Emerson Winchester on the late, great CBS dramedy "M*A*S*H."

I use the term "dramedy" with great accuracy to describe the years Stiers appeared on the show (1977-1983). The series started out as a sitcom based on the hit Robert Altman motion-picture comedy about surgeons trying to keep their sanity at a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Stiers, who had already established himself as a Broadway stage actor, was brought in to replace Larry Linville as the broad, butt of jokes Major Frank Burns. He was the last of three cast replacements (Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell being the others) that turned "M*A*S*H" from a broad comedy into a show that could balance laugh-out-loud hijinks and somber, wartime drama from week to week with amazing ease.

Stiers was often written as a pompous gasbag of a Harvard-educated surgeon, but the episodes I most remember him for are the dramatic ones where his arrogant, even cold exterior briefly melted away to reveal a man of deep feeling. One of those standout episodes was the one where the members of the 4077th answer letters from children back in the States. Winchester has answered a succession of notes from tykes with scorn, sending them audio recordings in which he criticizes their grammar and penmanship. Until he comes across one short note from a young girl who sends him a fall leaf from a park in Boston. Winchester's face changes ever so slightly, he mutters wistfully "Autumn in New England," and then writes her the touching reply (that we hear in voiceover): "Dear Virginia, it is with indescribable joy that I accept your gift. It is indeed a testimony to the beauty that exists in all creation, but perhaps nowhere more than in a young girl's heart."

But Stiers saved his most powerhouse performance for the final episode in which he had been mentoring a group of Korean musicians. Later in the show, he realizes to his horror that one of the dying wounded he is tending to is one of the musicians and learns that the others all perished. He goes back to his tent and smashes the classical music record that had been one of his few escapes during his time in Korea as he would never be able to hear those notes again and find solace.

Stiers went on to have one of the most accomplished post-"M*A*S*H" careers of any of those fine cast members. He could still play an absolute cad of a man as witnessed by his manipulative Congressman in the "North and South" mini-series of the mid-1980s. But he could also play kindly, stately - a real anchor to films as diverse as "The Accidental Tourist," "Doc Hollywood" and "Mighty Aphrodite." His distinctive voice earned him consistent work in animation, too, with his most famous roles being Cogsworth in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" and Dr. Jumba Jookiba in "Lilo and Stitch."

But TV remained his most popular medium. And he was a reliable guest actor over the years in more than a dozen series. I had two favorite non-Winchester roles. The first is in the sorely underrated "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Half a Life," in which he played a brilliant scientist on the verge of a career discovery who must submit to his planet's centuries-old suicide ritual at age 60. The second is one of the funniest-ever episodes of "Frasier" in which Stiers guest-starred as a man who is SO much like Frasier and Niles Crane that their blue-collar dad, Martin, starts to question if his late wife was cheating on him and is the real father of his two pompous sons.

It was perfect casting. Wouldn't Charles Winchester make total sense as Frasier Crane's dad? That was the secret of Stiers' success in film, TV and stage. Casting directors recognized his talent and actually knew what to do with it! That, too, was testimony to the beauty that exists at least sometimes in the creative arts.

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'Annihilation' destroys the notion that sci-fi is only for kids

'Annihilation' destroys the notion that sci-fi is only for kids

(Updated 2/26/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

It's looking more and more that, between saga films, good "Star Wars" actors don't go and make small, indie dramas that nobody sees. They go to Alex Garland and make really heady sci-fi flicks! A couple of years back, Sequel Trilogy actors Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson co-starred in "Ex Machina," which beat out "The Force Awakens" for the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year and left audiences head scratching like they were auditioning for a dandruff shampoo commercial.

Flash forward now to 2018, and Isaac teams with Queen/Senator Amidala herself, Natalie Portman, in the also trippy "Annihilation." I really got into this flick, folks. I was actually expecting more of an action-horror flick, and there ARE elements of both genres in this. But when I saw the flick was written and directed by Garland of "Ex Machina" fame, I knew I'd also have to put my thinking cap on. I'm so glad I brought it with me.

"Annihilation" stars Portman as Lena, a biologist whose husband, Kane (Isaac), was part of a super-secret group of volunteers who ventured into a mysterious and expanding area known as "The Shimmer." Kane was the only survivor, but his condition is such that he can't provide anyone in authority with any useful information. Another group has agreed to go in, and Lena lobbies hard to be a part of it.

The interesting thing about this group is they're all strong, educated women - a dynamic we don't normally get in films of this genre. They include: a psychiatrist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). They go in armed only with guns and their smarts. And, believe me, they will need both before it's all over.

"Annihilation" is a picture for grown-ups and serious-minded sci-fi fans, because... well, Garland starts with the premise that we're not idiots. He has no interest in dumbing down anything for mass consumption. He does a bit of time fracturing in the film, but I followed it as well as I did "Dunkirk." And he is really adept at delivering some dazzling big-screen visuals that linger in the mind long after you've made it home from the local cineplex.

Of the actors, Portman is strong and controlled. I've found her cold in a number of films in the past. But here, she's put in some raw situations and she really develops into a character the audience genuinely roots for. Leigh, meanwhile, anchors the film, and Thompson continues to impress. After playing really strong women in "Creed" and "Thor: Ragnarok" (her Valkyrie didn't get nearly enough reviewer and fan love), it's a real interesting choice to play a more shy character here.

Most of all, this movie just makes you think. Is that a turn-off for some? I hope not. I really want more movies like this one. You'll come out of it thinking about things like genetics and DNA and human anatomy and physiology. Don't take your 10-year-old to see this, trying to sell them on it having Poe Dameron and Padme. Chances are, Little Johnny or Cutie Sue is not going to "get it" - it's also a fairly hard R in spots - and the experience will just be marred as a result. This is an uncompromising fantasy purely for grown ups.

"Annihilation" is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.

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'Game Night' is on!

'Game Night' is on!

(Updated 2/23/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

A lot of times, comedies - even really good comedies - are only worth seeing once. Because once you know the jokes and have laughed at them... eh... what's the point of seeing the flick a second time? You can never really duplicate that initial experience where you didn't know all of the laugh lines and scene payoffs. Unfortunately, that's because a lot of comedies have thin plots. The storylines are there just to provide a framework for the yuks.

Some of my favorite comedies, though, are flicks I've seen a dozen times and stopped actively laughing at after maybe the second or third viewing. But I've kept coming back time and again because I love the stories and characters. Examples that leap to mind are some '80s faves like "Tootsie," "Fletch" and "Trading Places." Others include "Election" and "Little Miss Sunshine." All are funny movies. But they're enormously re-watchable because of their good storytelling.

I'm not saying "Game Night" is in the same league as any of those films. But what I do know is that now that I know all of the punchlines and payoffs, I'd still gladly pay to see it again. Why? Because it has a legitimately clever and involving story. It's also very well cast and acted. It's just a fun diversion during a time when, I think, audiences REALLY need to shut out the outside world and just go to a movie and have a good time.

"Game Night" fits that bill. It stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as Max and Annie, a young married couple who host weekly game nights at their homes with friends. The main circle includes husband-and-wife childhood sweethearts Kevin (Lamore Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Burbery); playboy Ryan (Billy Magnusson) and his succession of week-to-week girlfriends; and, when he is in town, Max's better-looking, more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler).

When Brooks blows back into town this time, he vows to host a game night his brother, sister-in-law and friends will never forget. He contracts with a local murder mystery company to stage his own kidnapping, leaving behind clues for the three teams to decipher as to where he is. The couple who finds him gets the keys to his vintage 1976 Corvette Stingray (Max's dream car). One problem. When the kidnappers break in, they're really there to take Brooks hostage and demand a very real ransom. Max and Co. watch the man violently taken from them with amusement and delight, then adopt wildly different strategies to try and find him. They soon realize this is a game for real, and Brooks has gotten in with some very bad people.

It's a great set-up for a movie, and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein and screenwriter Mark Perez stretch their concept to the max here. The film is actually an action-comedy with some surprisingly tense chase and fight sequences.

Bateman and McAdams are their usual reliable rom-com selves in the lead roles. But the standout is Jesse Plemons in perhaps the best singular comic performance since Tiffany Haddish in "Girls Trip." Plemons plays Gary, the recently divorced, next-door neighbor of Max and Annie who used to be invited to Game Nights when he was married. But it was really the wife everyone liked. Gary was always the creepy guy the other players put up with. And now that he's divorced, he's only gotten creepier and weirder.

One of my only real nitpicks with this film is that it has about one plot twist too many in its final act. The last third of the film has several "big reveals." And to a point, it's very clever and wonderfully manipulative... er, until all concerned take it just a step too far. At least for my tastes. But then you get into the old critics' quandary of "Would you rather have a film try too hard or too little?" "Game Night" is a bit like the game of Monopoly that often goes on too long. But while you're playing it - or it's playing you - it's so much fun!

"Game Night" is rated R for language, sexual references and some violence.

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Teddy's 10 most anticipated movies of 2018

(Updated 1/2/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Happy new year, dear readers! As we close the book on 2017, it's appropriate to look ahead to the next 12 months and all of the movies that will be hitting theaters. I can't recall a year in which so many sequels, prequels and remakes were headed to screens. Many are mentioned below among my Most Anticipated Movies of 2018. But several others failed to make the cut, like follow-ups to "Mamma Mia," "Maze Runner" and "Pacific Rim," and remakes and reboots of "Death Wish," "Tomb Raider," "Scarface" and more. It doesn't look to be the most... uh... original year. But there is some excitement to be had. Here goes:

1) "Solo: A Star Wars Story" (May 25) - Look, if they're going to keep making one new "Star Wars" movie a year, I'm sorry. Whatever it is... it's gonna be my most anticipated flick for that calendar year. Call me crazy, but I actually have high hopes for this one.

2) "Avengers: Infinity War" (May 4) - This is what all of the Marvel movies have been leading up to since "Iron Man" debuted in 2008. It's a two-parter, with the second one due in the summer of 2019. My only concern is, can they balance ALL of these great characters in one great big movie? Even the Guardians of the Galaxy are going to be players in this. Jeez, can you imagine the payroll for this thing?!

3) "Incredibles 2" (June 15) - Pixar really shouldn't have waited 14 years between films to bring this second installment to the screen. I mean, come on. In that time, there have been three friggin' "Cars" movies! I've always thought this was the animation studio's greatest sequel property, the one with the most story possibilities.

4) "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" (Nov. 16) - I really enjoyed the first "Fantastic Beasts," particularly the time period, setting and the casting. In this one, Jude Law is added to the cast as the young Albus Dumbledore. And Johnny Depp, who cameoed in the first film, is front and center as the titular baddie.

5) "Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom" (June 22) - I put this high on the high list for one big reason... Jeff Goldblum's return as Dr. Ian Malcolm! Of course, I said sort of the same thing about the "Independence Day" sequel a couple of years back. Still, I have hope.

6) "A Wrinkle in Time" (March 9) -- I love that director Ava DuVernay is following up "Selma" with this intriguing fantasy adventure about a trip through time to find a missing scientist. I love that a studio had faith she could make such a leap and gave her a nine-figure budget. And the cast looks fun and includes everyone from Chris Pine and Michael Pena to Reese Witherspoon and Oprah.

7) "Chappaquiddick" (April 6) - I'm actually surprised it took Hollywood this long to make a movie version of the infamous 1969 incident in which Ted Kennedy's (Jason Clarke) life and political career took a turn after his involvement in a fatal car accident that claimed the life of young campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). This is the kind of history I find fascinating!

8) "Black Panther" (Feb. 16) - The early teasers for this film were so cool. Much better than the more recent CGI-stuffed trailer that hulks up the action. I don't need to be sold spectacle and pyrotechnics. I've loved the Black Panther character ever since I started reading Marvel Comics as a little kid in the '70s.

9) "Ready Player One" (March 30) - OK, this looks stuffed with CGI effects, too. But, hey, it's Steven Spielberg. And he's returning to direct a sci-fi fantasy flick after getting all serious on us with prestige films like "Lincoln," "Bridge of Spies" and "The Post."

10) "Holmes and Watson" (Nov. 9) - It stars Will Ferrell as Holmes and good buddy John C. Reilly as Watson. Does it have my interest? Indubitably, my dear readers. Indubitably!

10 OTHERS (in alphabetical order): "Ant-Man and the Wasp," "Aquaman," "Crazy Rich Asians," "Deadpool 2," "Mary Poppins Returns," "Mission: Impossible 6," "Mulan" (live action), the all-female "Ocean's 8," "The Predator" and "Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It-Ralph 2."

Times writer Teddy Durgin releases first novel

Times writer Teddy Durgin releases first novel

- By Patrick Taylor -

Recently, East County Times writer Teddy Durgin, who many recognize for his film reviews, released his first novel. Titled “The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor,” this murder mystery is a fast-paced, action and humor packed tale that will keep you glued to the pages.

Set in Laurel in the summer of 1986, the story follows 16-year-olds Sam Eckert and his friends Chip and Buddy (think the geek crew from the seminal show “Freaks and Geeks”). With summer work at the mall beginning, it looks like all will be relatively dull until the school year began - until a car explosion kills Muffy McGregor, one of the more popular, attractive girls in their school.

From there Sam and Chip get roped into the world of private investigation with the help of a mall regular, Mr. Rabinowitz. Suspects pop up one after the other, with McGregor’s classmates, co-workers and lovers all under the watchful eyes of Sam and his crew.

Those who have consistently read Durgin’s reviews over the last few years won’t be surprised that the book is filled with pop culture references that capture the time period perfectly. Whether it be discussing the films that made 1986 stand out or paying tribute to cultural touchstones such as the M*A*S*H finale, Durgin perfectly captures what it was like to grow up in that era.

“The thing about throwing references in is that you try to make them true to the character, and you don’t want to overdo it,” said Durgin.

Of course, given Durgin’s love of film, it should come as no surprise that this book often has a very cinematic feel to it.

“The premise of the book started with a simple question - what if John Hughes had written a murder mystery? It kind of went from there,” said Durgin. “That’s what was part of the fun of writing it.”

In typical John Hughes fashion, the book features many of your high school archetypes - jocks, nerds, pom-pom shaking cheerleaders. It also features some of the truest dialogue between teenage boys that I’ve read in quite some time. Seeing as how the boys are 16, it should come as no surprise that the book is littered with swears and moments of characters speaking before they’ve thought about what they’re going to say. A particularly awkward exchange early on between Sam and his new boss, a former plus-sized model named Collette, ends with Sam asking if she has any copies of her old magazines lying around.

“Some of those conversations are actual conversations from my youth,” Durgin said. “Before I really started writing the book, I had a lot of funny lines and interchanges between characters so I knew where to put lines.”

But the best dialogue comes when Rabinowitz is in the picture. An elderly Jewish man who often wonders aloud why he didn’t choose another field of business over private investigating, Rabinowitz is often trying to keep Sam and Chip in line during the investigation. After all, you can’t be making noise gushing about Magnum P.I. while you’re breaking and entering looking for clues.

For Durgin, writing this book was something that has been on his mind for a while, with the characters bouncing around in his head for ages.

Last year, he took about three or four months to plot out what the story would be, figuring out what should happen in each chapter. Around September, he decided that he was going to start really writing and dedicated himself to a chapter per week for the next 16 weeks. The book was finished around President’s Day this year.

“It was the most fun I ever had writing,” said Durgin. “I love doing the film reviews for the Times and for other papers, but this was something I just had to do. I had started and stopped novels before, so it felt really good to get this done.”

For Durgin, setting the story in the summer of 1986 felt natural. Much like Sam Eckert, Durgin was born in 1970, and 15-going-on-16 in the summer of ‘86. The nostalgia for this time period drips from the pages, but it never comes off as forced or insincere. The dialogue, references and struggles seem very true to the time.

“This book will appeal to anyone who has a twinge of 80s nostalgia, anyone who has lived in Maryland and anyone who enjoys a good whodunnit,” said Durgin.

“The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor” is available now on Amazon and for Kindle, and it couldn’t have been released at a better time.

This book is the perfect companion for travel, beach days, lounging by the pool and more. It’s a quick, easy read, but one that will keep you interested and engaged. When I first picked up the book I had a plan to read half of it on a Saturday, half on Sunday. Instead I finished it in one go.

The payoff is absolutely wonderful, and one that I did not expect as I made my way through the book. This might be Durgin’s first mystery novel, but it reads as if he’s been crafting these types of tales his entire life.

With elements of John Hughes, Thomas Pynchon and the Coen Brothers (Durgin compared a particularly poignant scene to the highly underrated “Burn After Reading”), this story is a wonderful blend of mystery and humor that really brings suburban Maryland in the 1980s to life.

“If the East County Times readers have enjoyed reading me in the past, I think they’ll really enjoy this book,” said Durgin.

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