'Born in China' lives and dies with cuteness

'Born in China' lives and dies with cuteness

(Updated 4/22/17) 

- By Teddy Durgin -

How much you enjoy the new documentary, "Born in China," may depend on how much you are able to tolerate people around you crying out "Awwwwww!" every three or four minutes at the sight of an impossibly adorable panda cub, twin leopard cubs, a baby monkey and a newborn antelope peering into the camera. If you have a high threshold for such open-hearted preciousness, you'll love this film. If the very thought of that kind of movie-theater behavior makes every part of your lower extremities clench, avoid this safari.

"Born in China" is a beautifully photographed doc that does its G-rated job of getting parents and their kids to give a darn about nature for about 80 minutes. It might as well be set to a humming chorus of Elton John's "Circle of Life," because it's all about the birth-life death-rebirth cycle of God's creatures set across four seasons in a calendar year. Oh yes, there is a bit of death that your little ones should be prepared for. Disney has been making animal snuff films for decades starting with "Bambi" on through to "Finding Nemo." It's not the "Rogue One" of nature films. But there is one notable passing that gives the film some much-needed dramatic weight and substance in the end.

We follow four separate animal "families." One is a super-cute panda mom named Ya Ya and her newborn daughter, Mei Mei. Their story is the most innocuous. They basically just climb trees and eat bamboo all day, and Ya Ya fears her little one growing up. The second is a herd of "chiru," or antelopes, with babies learning to walk and run for the first time. They have to stick close to the herd with predatory wolves nearby.

The third family is Dawa, a spectacular snow leopard, and her two cubs who are threatened by a rival leopard and her three sons who want to claim Dawa's hunting grounds. Finally, we have Tau Tau, an adolescent monkey who is jealous of his newborn baby sister and seeks to rebel by running away from home (er, sort of) and join a rogue pack of monkeys the filmmakers nickname the "Lost Boys." They have no loyalty or family ties whatsoever.

The editing between the four storylines keeps the overall narrative flowing. Sure, the film falls into the usual nature doc rhythm of the calm narrator instructing the viewer to, "Observe these Chinese monkeys. They live only to play in the tall treetops of this exotic Far East jungle." Cue the foreboding music. "But there are predators in those treetops..."

Or, "Behold the beautiful chiru, known in other cultures as the antelope. See the first hesitant walk of the young. Delight as that walk turns into a prance, then a run." Cue the foreboding music. "They'd better run, for there are wolves watching, always watching for the young to stray from the herd..."

But, hey, this structure still works. Sure, I think they cheated on a few occasions to goose up the drama. The predatory hawk doesn't really seem to be that close to one vulnerable monkey near the end. But they got enough shots of the bird swooping through the trees in menacing fashion that they could intercut with the cute, lonesome primate looking concerned into camera to create doubt. It's kind of like on "Survivor" when one contestant says something like, "I'm voting that guy out at the next tribal council. He's a SNAKE!" Then cut to some asp or rattler slithering on a log that's supposedly nearby, but there's no way.

At any rate, the best part of these Disney documentaries is always the end credits when they show the human crew on location trying to get the best shots. My favorite moment is when the director looks into camera and whisper-screams with child-like glee, "We're tracking the snow leopard stalking a sheep RIGHT NOW! It doesn't get any better than this!" Hehe. I guess we're all predators and prey, huh?

"Born in China" is rated G.

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'Unforgettable?' Nah, it's pretty forgettable!

'Unforgettable?' Nah, it's pretty forgettable!

(Updated 4/22/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Of course, studios and directors shouldn't make films for the reviewing press. But they really should title their movies with me and my critical brethren in mind! Ladies and gents, I give you the generic thriller "Unforgettable." OK, would someone please, please explain to me why they named this completely disposable, "Basic Instinct" wannabe "Unforgettable?" It's almost COMPLETELY forgettable! And I am sure that line is gonna show up in many reviews, along with "Unremarkable," "Unwatchable," "Unforgivable" and so forth.

OK, the film is not unwatchably bad. Far from it. But why open yourself up to easy criticism, especially when you're not going to take any chances with your characters or story? The film centers around a successful editor named Julia (Rosario Dawson) getting engaged to the man of her dreams, a microbrewery owner named David (Geoff Stults) and moving in with him in his stately Southern California home. She's looking forward to a life of comfort, love and laughs after being previously married to a hateful, abusive man named Michael (Simon Kassianides).

But fate has put before her a most daunting challenge in the form of Tessa (Katherine Heigl), David's unhinged ex-wife who practically turns rooms to ice as she passes through them. Tessa doesn't like David moving on with a new woman in the house they once shared. So, she does what any jilted former spouse would do - steals Julia's cell phone, downloads all of her information, sets up a fake Facebook account, Facebook-friends Julia's violent ex and "sexts" him repeatedly as Julia. Oooh, Tessa also crank calls the poor woman; steals her engagement ring; and uses her and David's young daughter, Lily, in an emotional tug of war between houses - all the while checking her face in the mirror every few minutes for even the slightest wrinkle.

Actually, the first two-thirds of this film are fairly involving. Heigl is marvelous as the villain here. And the more we learn about Tessa's screwed-up past (domineering mother, an attempt to torch the family home as a teen, etc.), the more we come to both fear her and look forward to what crazed thing she does next to sweet, simple Julia.

But it's the last third of the film where "Unforgettable" loses it, turning the main characters into imbeciles who make bone headed decisions only at the service of the screenplay. In the last 20 or so minutes of this movie, every main character stops behaving as an individual and becomes a slasher movie cliché. And, for my money, the screenplay by Christina Hodson tries to humanize Tessa too much. Heigl was SO ready to vamp it up here and go full Sharon Stone, but the film pulls back and actually makes her character's mother (Cheryl Ladd, in a rather juicy cameo) the completely remorseless baddie. Rosario Dawson is appealing as always. But she's given little to do here other than play the victim. Stults, meanwhile, has the presence of a young Brad Pitt's stunt double.

The film is barely a step up from those cheap, sudsy Lifetime Thrillers of the Week that star the likes of Lisa Rinna and Tori Spelling. It doesn't quite know whether it wants to be a low-grade B movie like that or a trashy Skinemax flick with Hollywood stars in the leads or an actual serious effort a la "Fatal Attraction" (director Denise Di Novi is SO not the visual stylist as Adrian Lyne, who directed "Fatal Attaction" along with such other high grade smut as "Indecent Proposal" and "Unfaithful"). As a result, "Unforgettable" comes off as a real missed opportunity.

"Unforgettable" is rated R for violence, language, sexuality and brief partial nudity.

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It's the 'Fate' of this franchise to move forward... very fast

It's the 'Fate' of this franchise to move forward... very fast

(Updated 4/17/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

If any franchise deserved to go off the rails a bit and just have some fun, it's the "Fast and Furious." The last film in the series was forced to deal mid-production with the tragic death of star Paul Walker. It wasn't just that the young leading man passed away before filming was completed. It's the way he died. The star of the biggest car chase pics in film history perished in a fiery car crash due to the driver (Walker was a passenger) driving too fast. It was REALLY difficult to watch "Furious 7," and I still give credit to all concerned for crafting an ending that used every movie-making trick in the book - from body doubles to digital effects to previously filmed footage - to bring Walker's Brian O'Connor to a poignant, but ultimately hopeful end.

"The Fate of the Furious" does a nice job keeping both the actor and character "alive." But it doesn't dwell on both not being there anymore. The story and the characters, the cast and the crew, everyone has moved on and are ready to have fun again. So, rather than rein in the stunts, fights, explosions, car chases and crashes and go back to basics, all concerned basically said, "NAH! Let's go over the freakin' top! In fact, let's set a new top... and then go over that!"

There's some crazy stuff that happens in this sequel, folks! We're talking 1,000 cars in Midtown Manhattan getting hacked and put into self-driving mode! We're talking Vin Diesel, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and the rest having to outrun a nuclear submarine in souped-up muscle cars! We're talking Tyrese Gibson flooring a Lamborghini, speeding up a ramp and literally launching himself into interstellar orbit!

OK, that last bit didn't happen. But after "Fate," this franchise can only go into outer space to take it to the next level. I want the "Moonraker" of the "Fast and Furious" flicks!


This time around, Diesel's Dominic Toretto is forced to betray his girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez), friends and family and join an evil computer hacker named Cipher (series newcomer Charlize Theron), who is intent on creating global havoc with stolen nuclear codes and the ability to tap into any computer system in the world. Dom and the good people of the planet are hers to toy with as she wills.

How she gets Dom to become her outlaw lapdog is a plot point I'll leave to your discovery. Suffice it to say, the enigmatic government operative (Kurt Russell) sees fit to re-assemble Dom's old crew and also partner disgraced DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the former assassin who was the main baddie in the last film. Director F. Gary Gray wisely devotes a significant amount of screen time to the hilarious one-two (and many more) punch rivalry of The Rock and Statham. The two bicker throughout, periodically promising new and creative ways to maim each other.

At 136 minutes long, the film isn't quite as light on its feet as it could have been. But the two major set pieces of the film are gargantuan. The NYC sequence, in particular, may be my second favorite in the entire series behind the shear lunacy of Diesel and Walker, driving matching Dodge Chargers, while pulling a 2,000-lb. bank vault through the streets of Rio and obliterating everything in their path in "Fast Five." But here, seeing hundreds of hacked cars turn the Big Apple into a demolition derby is one of the most original action sequences I've seen in years.

I do understand die-hard "Fast and Furious" fans taking issue with Dom's crew making nice-nice with Statham's Deckard after he roasted their friend, Han, on the streets of Tokyo a couple of films back. But Shaw gets a sequence in this flick where he has to fight at least a couple dozen henchmen all the while juggling a... well, I'm not gonna spoil it here. But, oh baby, you gotta see it!

Nothing else left to say except gentlemen - and ladies - start your engines! And motor on out to see this marvelously fun flick.

"The Fate of the Furious" is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content and language.

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Forty years of Star Wars celebrated in Orlando

(Updated 4/17/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

This past Easter weekend saw "Star Wars" fans have a religious experience of their own at the big, four-day "Star Wars Celebration" in Orlando, Fla., where Lucasfilm and Disney celebrated 40 years of George Lucas' sprawling space saga. I didn't attend, but I watched way too many hours of it on the StarWars.com website via live webcams and am here to offer my expert analysis of everything that was revealed.

"Star Wars" is really the one thing I can label myself an "expert" on in this world, as the original 1977 film was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. And, yes, I was one of those who waited in the long prequel lines pre-Internet sales. And I've attended previous celebrations in Denver, Indianapolis, Florida and Anaheim.

The biggest reveal this time was the first teaser trailer for "The Last Jedi." That's the title for "Episode VIII" and the first direct sequel to 2015's mega-blockbuster, "The Force Awakens." It also promises our first real action and interaction with legendary hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). As the teaser (and the final scene of the last film) shows, Luke is not the brash, young Jedi he once was. He appears to be a somewhat defeated man who believes the Jedi must now end.

What did I think of the teaser? It's not as good as the now legendary one that debuted at 2015's Star Wars Celebration for "The Force Awakens" - the one that ended with the first appearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca together in 32 years with Han musing, "Chewie... we're home!" But it definitely does its job in continuing to whet fans' appetites for the further adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe, Luke and the other surviving Original Trilogy characters.

My favorite shot is the spectacular one of Rey lightsaber training on the side of that mountain. I also am intrigued by Crait, one of the new planets shown where a big battle between the First Order and the Resistance is to be mounted with those new Resistance ships (not too dissimilar from the pod racers of "Episode I") kicking up red dust as they skim the desolate landscape.

Writer-director Rian Johnson introduced only one of the new characters (a Resistance maintenance worker named Rose, played by the super-cute Kelly Marie Tran). Unfortunately, there was no mention of new characters being played by Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern. And very little was discussed about the late Carrie Fisher as General Leia, although producer Kathleen Kennedy did confirm she will NOT be appearing in "Episode IX" via digital trickery or previously filmed footage. So, this next film will be it for the former Princess.

The other big news to come out of Celebration was that this upcoming fourth season of the animated "Star Wars Rebels" on Disney XD will be its last. I like that producer Dave Filoni and all concerned are keeping the story concentrated and will deliver a beginning, middle and end to these characters that helped form the foundation of the Rebel Alliance seen in "Rogue One" and the Original Trilogy. "Rogue One" has several Easter egg references to "Rebels" sprinkled throughout, confirming that at least ace pilot Hera Syndulla (she was paged during one scene on Yavin IV, the Rebel base planet), cranky droid Chopper (who wheeled across screen twice on Yavin), and their ship The Ghost (seen throughout the climactic space battle) survive to the events of that film. A classy, emotional trailer for the fourth season was shown, alluding to a "Rogue One"-like tragic final stretch where there will be loss and sacrifice.

The rest of Celebration was all about nostalgia and honoring the legacy of George Lucas, who was in attendance on opening day, as was Harrison Ford (making his first-ever appearance at a "Star Wars" fan event). Other highlights included: composer John Williams conducting a live concert with the Orlando Philharmonic; Felicity Jones, Forrest Whitaker and other "Rogue One" cast members on hand to accept kudos for their excellent film in the franchise; a rare appearance by Hayden Christensen, who played the grown-up Anakin Skywalker in "Episodes II" and "III;" and tons of new merchandise and video-game reveals.

The Force is definitely still with "Star Wars"... and it's gonna be a long wait until "The Last Jedi" hits screens in December!

'Gifted' is a nice present

'Gifted' is a nice present

(Updated 4/10/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Movie reviewers sometimes have an interesting dilemma. Basically our task is to let readers know if a movie is good or not. Did I like it? How was the cast? The script? The direction? But more and more, even after a positive review, I get people asking me, "Yeah... but should I PAY to see it?" or "Is it worth going to the theater... or should I just wait for pay per view?"

"Gifted" represents one such dilemma. It's a good movie. It's a nice movie with solid performances, a tight script and professional direction. It's as sappy as a maple tree forest in Vermont. But anyone interested in seeing this flick should be able to glean that from the trailer and the TV commercials. But is it worth a cash outlay to see it at the cinema? Eh... you could wait a while.

That's not to say that you should only see spectacles like "Kong: Skull Island" or "Beauty and the Beast" that obviously cost well over $100 million to make on the big screen. A good character drama or a low-key comedy of manners can be every bit as pleasurable and fun as the latest CGI special-effects extravaganza... some even more so.

But watching "Gifted," I kept asking and wondering, "How does a movie like this get slated for 2,000-plus screens across North America? When bankrolling it, who made the decision to go for theatrical distribution as opposed to a Lifetime Movie of the Week?" Sure, the obvious difference is the lead actor himself, Chris Evans of the "Captain America" and "Avengers" movies over, say, a Luke Perry. But that's really about it.

Evans stars as Frank, a former philosophy professor turned Earthy-crunch beach boy-man who is raising his elementary school-age niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), on his own. He is trying his darnedest to give her the most normal life possible after an earlier family tragedy. Mary, though, turns out to be a math prodigy on the level of Will Hunting. Uncle Frank wants her to be a little girl as long as possible, with friends her own age. But Lindsay Duncan's upper-crust grandma wants to seize on the opportunity and whisk her off to a gifted-youngster school that costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.

The central dilemma is an interesting one, and director Marc Webb of "500 Days of Summer" and the Andrew Garfield "The Amazing Spider-Man" movie does a good job with the scenes of soul-searching and debate. The film will definitely engage your brain for decent stretches even as Webb and Co. ruthlessly go for the tear ducts early and often.

With regard to Frank, it helps that Mary has a ridiculously cute teacher named Bonnie (Jenny Slate), who will be an obvious consolation prize for the sad-eyed stud if he does lose Mary to academia eventually. Octavia Spencer is in this, too, as a supportive neighbor. Her presence can't help but bring "Hidden Figures" to mind for audiences.

Again, there is nothing overly wrong with "Gifted." I liked it and it held my interest throughout. And if this has been high on your list of must-sees this spring because of the buffed Chris Evans, or the fact you enjoy scenes of solving long division problems on the big screen, or whatever, you're not going to be disappointed. But you may find yourself digging for change in a week or so when you really, REALLY wanna see "The Fate of the Furious" on the big screen.

"Gifted" is rated PG-13 for thematic material, some suggestive content and language.

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'Going in Style' kicks it old school

'Going in Style' kicks it old school

(Updated 4/10/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Directing a studio motion picture is one of the most challenging endeavors in all of entertainment. As a student of film history, I'm always fascinated by those stories of filmmakers who were able to overcome enormous obstacles to get their story to screen. I am still fascinated that Robert Zemeckis filmed half of "Cast Away" with a well-fed, well-groomed Tom Hanks. He then went away for months, made a whole other movie ("What Lies Beneath") and came back and shot the rest of the scenes where Hanks' character is an emaciated plane crash survivor marooned on a deserted island. Then there's "Boyhood," which director Richard Linklater filmed over 12 years with the same cast! In all those years, in the back of Linklater's mind, he had to be thinking, "Jeez, what if Ethan Hawke gets into a car accident? What if Patricia Arquette goes down in a plane? What if the little boy I hired at 6 can't act at 18?!"

Zach Braff had a challenge in "Going In Style" (a remake of the 1979 hit comedy). Filmmaking is at least a two-year process. And when the three stars of your movie are either pushing 80 or well over the age of 80... hey, I don't mean to be anti-senior here. But when you are betting on life or death? Always take the Grim Reaper. He's undefeated.

If either Morgan Freeman (age 79), Michael Caine (just turned 84) or Alan Arkin (he'll be 83 later this month) had passed during the making of this film, well... you have no film! I mean, come on. Braff made most of this film during 2016 when celebs were dropping like flies. And not just oldies like Abe Vigoda, but George Michael, Prince and David Bowie. Braff must have been freakin' out anytime Caine, Freeman or Arkin was just a few minutes late to set. "Knock on his trailer door! HARDER!"

Fortunately, all three past Oscar winners were and are still highly capable actors who can deliver a moment on screen with just one look that most actors can't sell with two pages of dialogue. Just give them a halfway decent script, good lighting and a high-fiber diet and you're going to have a nice flick.

And that's just what "Going in Style" is - a nice flick. The film is playful and, at just 97 minutes, well-paced. Caine, Freeman and Arkin play former employees of an industrial conglomerate that is shifting production to Asia and dissolving its pension plan. Suddenly, the three are faced with living only off their social security and savings. Caine's Joe, having been witness to a bank robbery earlier in the film, gets the bright idea that he and his pals should knock over the same bank and get the money owed to them. They protest at first. But then realize they don't have enough money to even get pie at their favorite New York diner that they've been coming to for years. So they decide to go for it.

If I had one criticism of the film, it's that it tries to be a drama, a comedy and a heist picture all at the same time, and Braff and screenwriter Theodore Melfi of "Hidden Figures" aren't quite adept at the gear shifts and tonal changes that happen throughout. Joe is on the verge of losing his home, Freeman's Willie is suffering from renal failure and Arkin's Al is just running out the clock and wants no human connections other than his two buddies. Don't get me wrong. There are some funny bits, like when the three try to rob from a supermarket as a sort of trial run and botch it terribly. But we're always aware of their desperation.

The second half of the film, though, really comes alive and becomes a surprisingly clever and involving heist flick. I didn't laugh a lot while watching "Going in Style." I smiled a lot. You never know when a Sean Connery or a Gene Hackman will just decide to chuck it and say, "That! That was my last film!" And you never know when someone like a Carrie Fisher, who had a decade or more to still entertain, leaves us prematurely. The best you can hope for is that they - and their films - go in style.

"Going in Style" is rated PG-13 for drug content, language and suggestive material.

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'Boss Baby' does not get promoted to must-see status

'Boss Baby' does not get promoted to must-see status

(Updated 4/3/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

"Boss Baby" is so odd and nonsensical that I am not even sure I "got" everything. Did I retain consciousness throughout? I'm really not sure. And I don't have the benefit of a child going with me to these movies anymore, as my daughter is 12 years old now and, like, SO "above" anything that is animated and not Pixar.

Best I can tell, there is this company called BabyCorp that is churning out and processing human infants. If they get their pacifiers, diapers and respond to tickling, the babies get placed with families. If they don't react, they become... company management? It's all thanks to a secret baby formula that gives them the intelligence and snarky humor of a human adult. The promoted babies then get all of the trappings of a middle executive's job - i.e. a briefcase, tailored suit, a cubicle work station.

BabyCorp has a competitor in the form of PuppyCo, which has churned out a new breed of canine that threatens to overlap human babies in terms of cuteness. Dubbed The Forever Puppy, this new breed is designed to stay a cute puppy for its entire life span. Boss Baby (voice of Alec Baldwin) is sent to be the child of a young couple named Ted and Janice (voices of Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), who work in PuppyCo's marketing department. His assignment? Bring down PuppyCo!

OK, back when I was a kid, there were these children's show hucksters named Sid and Marty Kroft, who I swear got whacked out of their brains on psychedelic drugs and came up with several TV programs that ran in syndication for years. Shows like "Land of the Lost," "Electro-Woman and Dyna-Girl," "H.R. Puffnstuff," and more. They were just trippy, insanely strange shows built atop what must have been mountains of '70s-era cocaine.

"Boss Baby" is just as strange as those joints - just not as fun. There is a snark to the film that I didn't like, the premise is more than a bit of a stretch and not very well explained, and none of the celebrity voices stretch to the point where you don't recognize you're listening to Baldwin, Kimmel, Kudrow, etc. Actually, I did like Tobey Maguire voicing the film's narrator, the grown-up version of Ted and Janice's seven-year-old son, Tim (voice of Miles Bakshi). Maguire, one of my favorite actors, has been largely absent from big screen since "The Great Gatsby" update with Leo DiCaprio several years back. I don't know why Hollywood doesn't cast him anymore, but kudos to him for his two or three days work in the sound booth for this flick and subsequent paycheck.

Inexplicably, "Boss Baby" opened to a pretty huge box office this past weekend, even dethroning the live-action "Beauty and the Beast." The blanket marketing seems to have worked on this one. But, uh, talking, plotting, intelligent babies have been done before and done better, haven't they? Like the malevolent Stewie on "Family Guy" or Bruce Willis' infantile observationist in the "Look Who's Talking" flicks.

The corporate intrigue in the film is meant to appeal to adults. But if the actual premise underpinning the movie is not solid, the whole time grown-ups are just kind of squinting at the flick and giving it back a collective "Huh?!" throughout. Every once in a while, a really clever line or bit occurs that teases you with the promise that the flick will start to get better. I especially liked Boss Baby's withholding of reward sweets to motivate his baby minions, echoing his "Glengarry Glen Ross" tyrant in charging, "Cookies are for closers!" But it's all crumbs, I tell ya! There's just not enough here for me to recommend the flick other than as an afternoon matinee sitter for those with real small ones with nothing better to do.

"Boss Baby" is rated PG for some mild rude humor.

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'Ghost in the Shell' feels robotic

'Ghost in the Shell' feels robotic

(Updated 4/3/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

I've never been a fan of anime, dear readers. As a result, I really had no experience with "Ghost in the Shell" going into it. Oh, I'd heard of it before. I knew it was a comic (or, rather, "manga") and a 1990s-era animated film and a series of video games. Heck, probably half the instances I've referred to it in my lifetime, I've said "Ghost in the Machine" only to be slapped back my nerdiest of pals with: "That's the 1981 album by The Police, fool! This is called 'Ghost in the Shell! THE SHELL!"

People really take this franchise seriously, and there were some uber-fans sitting around me at my screening last week unknowingly giving me a crash course in the main story line as I eavesdropped on their conversations. Oh, how the geekspit flew! Most were putting a LOT of pressure on the film, using phrases like "They better not have Westernized it too much!" and "[Bleeping] Hollywood! Casting a white actress as Motoko! They couldn't have gotten Lucy Liu or Maggie Q or Rinko Kikuchi or that chick from 'Suicide Squad' who played Katana?!"

These were direct, impassioned quotes, friends. Afterwards, apparently, some of their worst fears had been realized. To its core fans, this version of "Ghost in the Shell" seemed to have lost the soul of what has made the franchise so appealing to them until this point. They liked the look of the film, but did NOT like the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead. And, yet, like all great abused fans, they still hoped the flick will make enough money to warrant a sequel... hopefully directed by someone who "gets it."

To this non-fan, what did I think of it? Eh... while it's not much of a movie, it's an exceptionally darn good trailer for "Blade Runner 2049" coming to theaters this October. No, really! I don't know if this has been a knock against this franchise in the past, but the 2017 "Ghost in the Shell" rips off the original "Blade Runner" to the point where you can just change the name of the evil corporation at its center to Tyrell and easily pass this off as a sideways sequel to the 1982 classic. There's a lot of "Robocop" and "The Matrix" in there, too.

Johansson indeed stars as Major (the name "Motoko" plays into the narrative late in the film). She is told that she's the first example of a human brain having been successfully placed into a fully synthetic body. After surgery, this replicant... er, character is trained to be a super soldier for the government (presumably the Japanese government) to hunt down terrorists and cyber thieves. Her latest target is the enigmatic Kuze (Michael Pitt), a ruthless hacker who is murdering the top scientists of the all powerful Hanka Corporation.

But the further Major investigates, the more she realizes Kuze is less an enemy of the state and more a rebel liberator who may hold the key to her recovering her full memory of who she was before being trained as a female Terminator. Lots of "Matrix"-style shootouts and fight scenes ensue amidst a future urban cityscape dominated by enormous hologram ads, 3-D billboards, and near-naked babes who can jump off the rooftops of skyscrapers and survive.

As a sci-fi fan, in general, the film did engage me for a decent chunk of its running time. But I didn't feel a thing for any of the characters. I also thought Johansson was the wrong choice for the lead, not because of the whole "White Vs. Asian" thing. But mostly because I've seen her in this kind of part SO many times before, from Black Widow in the Marvel movies to the 2014 mind-trip thriller "Lucy."

So, it's a strange final take on the flick. Choices were made to enhance its mainstream box office appeal. But I don't think there's enough in the flick to endear it to the general public. And the super die-hard fans of "Ghost in the Shell" are really going to be up in arms about some of the tweaks to the original concepts. There's really no country for hot android, butt-kicking chicks.

"Ghost in the Shell" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some suggestive content.

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Teddy's 10 most anticipated movies of 2017

(Updated 1/16/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

My "10 Most Anticipated Movies" is one of my favorite columns to write. But I totally acknowledge that it's a rather silly one. Most of the truly great flicks of each year aren't even thought of in January. If you look at my recent 10 Best Movies of 2016 list, for instance, I wasn't even aware of four of my top five at this time last year ("Hell or High Water," "La La Land," "20th Century Women" and "Hacksaw Ridge"). I knew about the "Pete's Dragon" remake, but had no idea it would be that well-made. And nobody had heard of "Moonlight."

Regardless, at this point in time, I think there is a lot to look forward to over the next 12 months, cinema-wise. Here we go (dates are subject to change):

1) "Star Wars: Episode VIII" - Of course this is my most anticipated movie of 2016. And in other news, water is wet (Dec. 15).

2) "Blade Runner 2049" - I'm in the minority among sci-fi fans in that I have always believed a sequel could actually TOP the original. To paraphrase Roy Batty, I've seen No. 2 films you people wouldn't believe! "Blade Runner" wasn't so great that a follow-up couldn't be every bit as compelling and franchise-expanding as such second movies as "The Empire Strikes Back," "Aliens," "Lethal Weapon 2," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," etc. (Oct. 6).

3) "Dunkirk" - The trailer for this epic World War II film from director Christopher Nolan had my pulse racing. And the more I read about it and the more footage I see, the more I'm convinced this has the chance to be something special (July 21).

4) "The Circle" - I'm intrigued by this one mainly because Tom Hanks gets to play a villain (an Internet billionaire with no regard for personal privacy). And I totally think he can do it! After all, the most formidable bad guys are often the ones who are the most likable (Hans Gruber, Rene Belloq, etc.) (April 28).

5) "Beauty and the Beast" - This could be a HUGE year for Emma Watson, who has a supporting role in "The Circle" and is top-lining here as Disney's iconic Belle in a live-action version of the 1991 animated classic. From the trailers, it sounds like she's cast quite the singing spell, too (March 17).

6) "The Greatest Showman on Earth" - Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum? Step right up (Dec. 25)!

7) "Murder on the Orient Express" - The pedigree of this remake is phenomenal. It's based on the classic Agatha Christie novel, Kenneth Brannagh is directing, Johnny Depp is starring as Hercule Poirot and the supporting cast includes everyone from Daisy Ridley to Judi Dench to Josh Gad. All aboard (Nov. 22)!

8) "Downsizing" - Anytime Alexander Payne writes and directs a new movie, it's an event for me. "Election" is one of my favorite films of all-time, and I greatly admired his other works like "About Schmidt," "Sideways" and "The Descendants." Here, Matt Damon plays a man who's literally been shrunk down to thumb size to live in a community built by other people who've had the same procedure. It sounds like Charlie Kaufman Land, but I'll definitely be visiting (Dec. 22).

9) "Baywatch" - Would I rather have a big-screen adaptation of "Downton Abbey" or this one? Uh... ahem... THIS ONE (May 26)!

10) "American Made" - Tom Cruise starring in a 1980s-era crime thriller. How could the author of "The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor" NOT be intrigued?! (Sept. 29)

Ten more that have potential (in no particular order): "Life," "Kong: Skull Island," "Wonder Woman," "Justice League," "The LEGO Batman Movie," "The Beguiled," "The Mummy," "The Dark Tower," "Darkest Hour" and "Free Fire."

And, finally, Sequels Galore: Between now and Dec. 31 - deep breath - the world's cineplexes will see "Cars 3," "Despicable Me 3," "Pitch Perfect 3," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," "John Wick: Chapter 2," "Paddington 2," "Trainspotting 2," "Thor: Ragnarok," "Spider-Man: Homecoming," "Alien: Covenant," "The Fate of the Furious," "The War for the Planet of the Apes," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," "Transformers: The Last Knight," "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Logan" (the third "Wolverine" standalone movie).

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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