'Happy Death Day' tries to birth a new slasher franchise

'Happy Death Day' tries to birth a new slasher franchise

(Updated 10/15/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Let's get one thing straight right away: "Happy Death Day" is NOT an original movie. It's basically "Groundhog Day" crossed with "Scream." It's also NOT a particularly good movie. The day that the lead character relives over and over again is not a particularly interesting one. It's full of annoying, mostly unlikable, one-note characters from every college campus movie ever made. The stuck-up sorority leader, the creepy roommate, the way-too-nice guy, the cheating professor, etc. And the horror elements lack the grisly edge of the Ghostface Killer's exploits from Wes Craven's classic series of flicks featuring Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox.

So, "Happy Death Day" is not original and it's not particularly good. But it IS highly watchable! I'm not recommending you pay movie-theater prices for it. But you could do worse calling this up on pay per view in a few months. It actually reminded me more of the classic "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Cause and Effect," in which the Enterprise crew was forced to relive the events of a single day that ended each time with the complete destruction of their ship due to a space-time anomaly. Each time they "die," the timeline repeats and everyone in it becomes just a wee bit more aware they are indeed caught in a time loop.

In "Happy Death Day," only the lead character is aware that the same day - which is both her birthday and the day she ends up brutally murdered at the end of it - keeps repeating. Her name is Tree, and she's played by Jessica Rothe. Each morning, Tree wakes up severely hungover in the dorm room of all-around good guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She then does the walk of shame across campus back to her sorority house where she is needled by leader Danielle (Rachel Matthews), then fawned over by roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). Eventually, night falls and a masked killer tracks Tree no matter where she goes or what she does and ends up stabbing her to death, running her over with a truck, burning her alive... whatever the fate. She then wakes back up in Carter's bed and the day begins again.

It's easy to get into the high concept of the piece and look for clues each time the day repeats. But on an emotional level, Tree is such an unlikable character for the most part that it's hard to care a lick about her. We care more about what new way she'll meet her end each time than if she'll finally close the time loop.

Then, very late in the flick, the script introduces an actual serial killer into the mix. And this twist takes a LOT of the wind out of what had been fun about the movie to that point - i.e., guessing which one of Tree's friends, sorority sisters or classmates is really the killer. It tries to have it both ways, ultimately by pulling off a climactic double reveal. But it is done in such a half-baked sort of way.

"Happy Death Day" also is a bit confused about ultimately what it wants to be. A slasher horror flick or a dark campus comedy? For sure, it's going for a "Scream" and "Final Destination" vibe, but the consistency just isn't there. For 10 or 15 minutes at a time, the film plays it completely straight. Then, it'll sneak in a couple of scenes of callous humor that seem to have come from a rewrite penned by someone who's seen too much "Mean Girls" or "Heathers."

But, like I wrote earlier, it is undeniably watchable. You really do want to stick around to the final reel to see if the day ends for Tree or if it keeps going on forever. You never really find out how or why Tree keeps repeating the same day. She never seems all that worthy of the cosmos giving her an entire repeatable day to live over and over so as to become a better, wiser person. Why her? Why now? Why... eh, who cares?

"Happy Death Day" is rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language and some drug material.

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'The Foreigner' feels at home in the revenge thriller genre

'The Foreigner' feels at home in the revenge thriller genre

(Updated 10/15/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

There are parental review sites on the web that literally count the number of curse words in each movie that is released. Well, in the case of "The Foreigner," I found myself counting... producers! Check out the credits for this flick, folks, on either the Internet Movie Database or when you watch it in the theater. "The Foreigner" has *drum roll* 29 producers! Seriously, over the end credits, instead of bloopers or outtakes or Easter egg extra scenes, they should have gotten all of these industry honchos together for a rousing rendition of "I Want to Be a Producer!"

Normally, when a film has this many cooks in the kitchen, it ends up being a mess. But, remarkably, "The Foreigner" is a pretty tight, little action thriller. It really helps that the hand on the director's wheel is Martin Campbell, who's helmed such solid flicks as "Casino Royale" and "The Mask of Zorro." Campbell usually does two things really well. First, he knows the appeal of bona fide movie stars and always keeps their characters' interests at the core of each picture. And second, he shoots action SO well. None of that jittery, jump-cut editing. Just wonderful big-screen lensing.

He had to be on his game here, because - let's face it - Jackie Chan is in his 60s now and really no longer able to pull off the amazing fight moves of his prime years. Here, Campbell uses Chan's age to ratchet up the tension. You feel genuinely concerned for his character, Quan, when he is forced to fight men half his age and younger. And the screenplay lightens some of the more unlikely escapes and physical triumphs of Quan with characters raging, "You let an old man do THAT to you?!"

The humor in those instances is welcome in an otherwise sober and serious actioner. The film opens with a terrorist bombing in London in which Quan's daughter is one of the innocent victims. To the surprise of many, it's not the work of ISIS, but a new rogue element of the IRA seeking to reignite tensions between England and Northern Ireland. Quan first goes to British Commander Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon) for answers. He has none from England's side of the investigation. So, he travels to Belfast and makes contact with Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). Liam professes to not have any names or clues either. But Quan knows Hennessy is former IRA. He senses that he knows more than he's leading on. And what Liam doesn't know is that Quan is a former military operative himself - one trained in weapons, explosives, fighting and more.

"The Foreigner" skews older and is as much interested in character and motivation as in fights and pyrotechnics. I don't even want to go too much into the whole Irish side of the film, because there are so many interlocking rivalries and grudges and old betrayals. It's like an Irish soap opera. In fact, there are times when Quan's meat-and-potatoes revenge story gets kind of lost as Campbell and Co. clearly love laying out the intricacies of new Ireland vs. old Ireland more.

The bad? Well, it's hard to get into a popular entertainment centered around terrorist attacks. Bloodied innocents, a double-decker bus bomb and a threat at a major airport all hit more close to home than ever before. So, if it's escapism you crave, new "Thor" and "Star Wars" are on the way. One other problem: the film spends an inordinate amount of time on a wooded property where the Irish government has sent Liam for his protection. Quan gets on the property and causes havoc for several days. Liam responds by sending four armed guards and then later just his paramilitary nephew. A hit team of two dozen trained Irish operatives sweeping the woods would've ended Quan's threat in a matter of minutes.

But then it would've also ended the movie. A lot of the really good stuff happens late in "The Foreigner," and it's worth sticking around for.

"The Foreigner" is rated R for violence, language and sexual situations.

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Durgin rides 'My Little Pony: The Movie'

Durgin rides 'My Little Pony: The Movie'

(Updated 10/9/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

OK, so I went to see "My Little Pony: The Movie" for a couple of reasons. One, it's my job. There was a check involved. And, two, I'd always heard about these so called "Bronies." What are they, you ask? Apparently, they are fans of the "My Little Pony" franchise who are outside the franchise's target demographic of little girls. Most are actually teenagers, who like the bright visuals, but also like to snicker at the unbridled innocence of the stories. But there are a sizable number of adult "Bronies" who just aren't afraid to acknowledge that they enjoy a series that is colorful and innocent.

To each their own. I certainly like things that are outside of my target demographic. For instance, I've watched "The Young and the Restless" off and on since it debuted in the 1970s when I would sit down each day at lunchtime with my grandma to watch "our stories." Actually, I think I may have now caught up with the target demo for that daytime drama. Eeek!

So, I put down no one. But I do put down this movie. It's not terrible... for what it is. But I am not sure there's enough here to warrant paying cinema prices for a full-length animated feature. There are songs and music sequences spread throughout that rather noticeably pad the running time. And those who aren't "Bronies" or little girls will just want the flick to "get on with it already!"

The 2-D animation is nice if you crave old-school cartoons on both the big and small screens. Pixar-quality this ain't. But there are indeed colors galore. And depending on the brightness of the projector bulb at wherever this is screening, your enjoyment of the piece will just be a study in bright pinks, blues, greens and yellows.

The story? The Mane 6 - Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Rarity - have to band together once against to defend Ponyville and Equestria from a dark force. The voice talent behind this flick is actually pretty impressive. No doubt at least some of them have daughters they want to impress. Or they just love large, ridiculously easy paychecks. At any rate, the villainous Storm King is voiced by Liev Schreiber of "Ray Donovan" and Broadway fame, and the grudge-bearing Tempest Shadow features the voice of Emily Blunt.

Meanwhile, former "Wicked" star Kristen Chenoweth stops by the recording booth as a showy sea pony named Princess Skystar, and former "Rent" star Taye Diggs has some nice moments as a con-artist cat named Capper. Probably the biggest draw for the little ones and for at least three or four XM satellite radio channels is Sia, belting out a tune titled "Rainbow."

The songs and messages about friendship are quite relentless throughout. But I did like one tune called "We Got This" purely as a pop affirmation. And I liked the joy the movie was giving the little ones around me even as I was fighting to stay conscious. I didn't see many "Bronies." Maybe they are more present at the evening showings so as not to appear as perverts or something. Again, to each their own. Live and let live. And if this were the 1980s, where this franchise really took flight, I'd end this review with "Be kind and rewind."

"My Little Pony" is rated PG for mild action.

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"Blade Runner 2049" runs as smoothly as an Old Ford

"Blade Runner 2049" runs as smoothly as an Old Ford

(Updated 10/9/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

I fancy myself an educated man, a refined man, a learned man. So, when I write these next words, I am drawing on the sophisticated private school education afforded me by family growing up, a Bachelor's-degree education at one of Maryland's finest universities and 25 years of professional journalism experience.

Holy Doo-Doo!!! "Blade Runner 2049" is freakin' GREAT!!!

Like phenomenally great. Like full-on, uncontrollable geek spasms great. THIS is how you do a sequel years and years and years after the last film came out, ladies and gents! This is the product of some supremely creative people realizing, "Uh, yeah, the first one was great. But, man, we can tell SO much more story!"

I'm absolutely giddy that one of the seminal motion pictures of my lifetime, 1982's "Blade Runner," has gotten a follow-up that can not only be mentioned in the same breath as the original, but you could legitimately make a case for the film being BETTER than the first movie!

I never thought I'd see a sequel to it. NEVER! A studio would never pump the necessary hundreds of millions of dollars into doing right a follow-up to a flick that bombed 35 years ago, but has since gone on to become a cult classic. But my hat is off to everyone involved with "2049." There seems to be no expense spared here, and there seems to have been no constraints placed on the filmmakers to "action it up," limit its running time, or adhere to today's instant gratification mass entertainment.

Director Denis Villeneuve has continued and built on the tone, feel and pace of "Blade Runner" to deliver a piece that feels like a true and believable continuation of the original story. And once again, he has added elements of mystery and film noir. It's essentially a detective story. And even when you think you're way ahead of the mystery and know the answers before Ryan Gosling's Agent "K" (the film's new main Blade Runner under the command of Robin Wright's icy, yet strangely caring police Lieutenant Joshi), the screenwriting team of Hampton Fancher and Michael Green save a couple of big revelations for the final act.

I don't want to talk too much about plot and story specifics because I stayed pretty spoiler-free going into this. I will say that it IS three decades after the events of the first film, the events of the first film are VERY important to this film and center on K stumbling upon a clue to a long-buried secret that some worked to carefully conceal and others have yearned to uncover. Yes, this DOES involve Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard from the original, and Ford is really quite good here in a supporting performance.

The film is like an open wound that the K character just can't stop scratching. The technology of the future is such that he is being observed at nearly all times. So there's tension in how much he will be able to uncover before forces much more powerful than he just swoop in and end his quest. The whole time, he is indeed on a quest not just for answers to this open cold case, but a quest for his own soul.

"Blade Runner 2049" is quite brutal in spots. But it's also quite sexy. K's "girlfriend," Joi (a perfectly cast Ana de Armas), is one of the most poignant and fascinating sci-fi characters I've seen. And she and K briefly engage in a futuristic love triangle that is kinky, beautiful and sad all at the same time.

Nitpicks? Well, the film does have a running time of nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes. So, repeat viewings will require a serious time commitment and hydration. But, wow, did all concerned show responsibility and daring here. Do I think "Blade Runner 2049" is better than the first movie? Oooh, I am not going to say that. But I am confident enough in its quality to close this review assuring you that it's not so much a sequel as it is an equal.

"Blade Runner 2049" is rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity and language.

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'American Made' flies on Cruise control

'American Made' flies on Cruise control

(Updated 10/2/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

You couldn't find a movie star better suited to a film titled "American Made" than Tom Cruise. Cruise is perhaps the biggest "American Made" motion picture actor of the past 35 years, having gone from playing the ultimate all-American boy next door ("Risky Business") to the ultimate all-American fighter pilot ("Top Gun") to the ultimate all-American secret agent (the "Mission: Impossible" films). But his best acting work has often been saved for those parts where shrewd filmmakers knew how to use that all-American image, dirty it up a bit and deliver stories about flawed men who come up well short of being the ultimate anything.

Oliver Stone was the first to do this in 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July," transforming Cruise from a wide-eyed, gung-ho American solider in Vietnam to a wounded, partially paralyzed, disenfranchised anti-war veteran. A decade later, Paul Thomas Anderson tapped into Cruise's horse-toothed, all American cockiness to cast him as a creepy, privately troubled motivational speaker for men with low self-esteem in "Magnolia." Both parts garnered Cruise Oscar nominations, and writer-director Doug Liman is looking to work some similar magic here in "American Made."

The film is based (loosely) on the true story of Barry Seal, a former airline pilot who the CIA busted in the 1970s for running a small smuggling operation via his commercial flights. Rather than cart him off to the ol' pokey, the government... well, they gave him a job! Directed by the enigmatic operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), Lloyd is given his own private aircraft company and is tasked with flying down to South America to take recon photos of the various countries and forces deemed to be anti-American. But soon, he is playing both sides of the middle, smuggling cocaine back to the states for Pablo Escobar and his cronies and even getting in good with a certain military officer named Manuel Noriega.

From there, the film takes several outlandish turns, unfolding with the pace and wink-wink, look-back wit of films like Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street" as "American Made" skips from 1978 to 1986 over the course of two hours and Lloyd brushes up against everyone from Escoboar and Noriega to Ronald Reagan, Ollie North and Bill Clinton. The film is tragedy presented as "Can you believe this really happened?!" farce, and Liman keeps a pretty good command of tone and pace throughout. You only briefly stop to think, every once in a while, "Hey, aren't there thousands of kids and adults getting strung out on the coke Lloyd is bringing into the United States?" Or, "Hey, aren't there tons of people getting shot up by the guns he's smuggling back to Central and South America?"

Cruise is the anchor Liman needed with this story and this style of storytelling. In truth, I think Matthew McConaughey would have killed in this role, because we've seen Cruise be the best of the best in so many movies before this and play so smart so often. Lloyd really had to have been one of those criminal idiots who never really stopped to think for very long, "How the hell am I EVER gonna get away with this for much longer?!" McConaughey could have really pulled that off AND sold the Southern aspects of Barry Lloyd, who was from Louisiana.

Nevertheless, Cruise is magnetic in the role. I do wish some of the supporting players had been given more screen time. Jesse Plemons as a small-town sheriff who looks the other way at Barry's dirty deals seems to have had much of his part left on the cutting room floor. Similarly, E. Roger Mitchell's intrepid Agent McCall never does develop into the Javert to Barry's Valjean. And Sarah Wright as Barry's wife and mother to his children has some great moments. But she also seems to disappear at key times, and we're never quite sure how 100 percent on-board she is with everything. Guys will watch throughout, muttering, "There's no way MY wife would..."

"American Made" is a slippery sucker of a movie. Ultimately, it's an entertaining kickoff to what I hope will be a solid movie fall!

"American Made" is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

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'Flatliners': Not quite dead on arrival... but definitely expired

'Flatliners': Not quite dead on arrival... but definitely expired

(Updated 10/2/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

I actually have no problem with Hollywood remaking old movies. None! Er, as long as they remake old movies that could have been good and just weren't. Yeah, Hollywood, leave cool flicks like "Poltergeist" and "Fright Night" and "Carrie" alone. Go and re-do something like... well... "Flatliners." That movie from 1990 could have been good. It had Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon in their beautiful primes. The concept was sound, and it had some good atmospherics. But the final product was just... meh... OK.

Flash forward 27 years later and now we have the "Flatliners" remake. And I'm sorry to report that it is also... meh... just OK. Once again, four good-looking medical students decide to experiment with near death experiences by purposefully stopping their hearts, measuring their brainwave activities post-mortem, then being revived a minute, two minutes or five minutes later depending on each student's level of risk-taking.

But, of course, each one also has a dark secret in his/her past. Years earlier, Courtney (Ellen Page) was looking down at her phone while driving, crashed her car and killed her little sister in the process. Also years earlier, Jamie (James Norton) got his girlfriend pregnant and then abandoned her at the abortion clinic, never to call again. Not so many years earlier, Marlo (Nina Dobrev) accidentally killed a patient while on duty and then falsified the autopsy report. And just a while back, Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) hated a school rival so much that she hacked into her social media account and distributed semi-naked photos of the girl to the entire student body.

When each of them is resuscitated, they are all better in a certain way. Courtney can play the piano like a pro and remember complex medical text and terminology. Jamie can make on-the-spot diagnoses like a doctor who's been practicing emergency medicine for decades. And Marlo and Sophia? Well, apparently they develop the sex drives of wild minx cats in heat. It's all good. Ooh, and all four get stalked by malevolent forces from "the Other Side" intent on making them pay for their misdeeds.

When the movie focuses on the characters, there are some really good moments here. When it goes all "Final Destination" in its second half, it's just a tedious, low-rent stalker flick. And then, it takes a ponderous turn late and goes all wishy-washy. By then, I just wanted it to be over... especially when the focus turned to one of the lesser of the five characters as the film stumbled to find some semblance of a climax.

My favorite character in the piece is Diego Luna's Ray, a medical student who doesn't believe in what the other four are doing. He's the smartest of all of them and decides to be the one to handle the resuscitations and not flatline. Luna does his usual scrawny Antonio Banderas thing and commits to "Flatliners" on a deeper level than the others. I always like it when you get a really smart character even when he or she is plopped down into a dumb movie. Also plopped down is an actor from the 1990 film in an extended cameo that could have been more. But that's ultimately the problem with this film and the original. Both could have been so much more.

"Flatliners" is rated PG-13 for violence and terror, sexual content, language, thematic material and some drug references.

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No embargo of 'LEGO Ninjago'

No embargo of 'LEGO Ninjago'

(Updated 9/25/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

My daughter, Maddie, is now 12. She's WAY out of the toy phase. But I will say she went through many different toy fixations in her younger years - Elmo, Barney, Barbie, Disney Princesses. Thank Caviezel, she was only into LEGOs for about a month or so! It might have been the most expensive 30-day period of my up-and down fatherhood. My God, they're overpriced... like monthly car payment overpriced! I think I'm still paying a couple of those brick sets off.

But I'll give the LEGO people credit. The TV programs and movies they have put out over the years have been pretty clever works. They seem to have a stable of writers who are eager and able to display great wit and know the basic mechanics of good storytelling.

So, I wasn't surprised to find myself enjoying "The LEGO Ninjago Movie." It's light on its feet and totally confident about what it is and what it isn't. What it is is a perfectly entertaining diversion for the kiddies with a script that knows how to get laughs from them - and from grown-ups, too - with character-based humor and a few clever references (John Carpenter's "They Live!") that only us oldies would get. What it isn't or doesn't do is try to top "The LEGO Movie" of a few years ago, which managed to work on an extra-dimensional level and deliver a depth of thought and feeling that made it appealing even for moviegoers who didn't have kids. That flick also was able to call on a full range of franchises from "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" to "Harry Potter" and DC Comics.

"The LEGO Ninjago Movie" doesn't have characters like Batman and Gandalf to call on. It's the story of Lloyd (voice of Dave Franco), a teenager living in Ninjago City who is burdened with being the son of the villainous Garmadon (voice of Justin Theroux), who attacks the city at regular intervals and is obsessed with one day being its one and only evil overlord.

But Garmadon is thwarted time and again by the Green Ninja and his fighting force of sub-ninjas, each of which with a definite specialty (the Fire Ninja, the Water Ninja, the Lightning Ninja and so forth). Little do Garmadon or the good, but dim people of Ninjago City know, but the Green Ninja is actually Lloyd himself who fights to get noticed by his dad and also make the family name respectable again one day when he can finally defeat him completely.

The movie draws heavily on the Dr. Evil-Scott Evil dynamic of the "Austin Powers" flicks. But it's a good and clever lift. Sure, I half-expected Garmadon to tell Lloyd (whose name he constantly mispronounces, doubling the "L's") to "zip it" in several spots, especially as Lloyd got increasingly whiny about his dad never spending time with him or teaching him to throw and catch a ball. But a lot of the father-and-son dynamic here pays off really well late in the film. Surprisingly, the climax is more about conflict resolution than delivering some big action spectacle.

Prior to that, there is spectacle galore and the animators really have some fun throughout. My favorite bits range from Garmadon tricking his weaponry out to fire actual sharks at his targets to a running gag involving the Ice Ninja preferring to remain stuck in the 1990s and not "going digital." Jackie Chan's Master Wu manages to spoof the stock character of the aging mentor with some funny bits involving his incomplete nuggets of wisdom and his penchant for using his master's flute to play goofy songs like "It's a Hard-Knock Life" when Lloyd doubts himself.

Good stuff! I was never bored, and neither was my 12-year-old who came with me and did NOT ask for LEGOs afterward. Of course, I can't make any promises if you're bringing a kid or kids under 10. If that's the case, abandon all hope ye who enter the cineplex.

"The Lego Ninjago Movie" is rated PG for mild action and rude humor.

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'Kingsman' sequel gives up the crown

'Kingsman' sequel gives up the crown

(Updated 9/25/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" is a disappointing sequel to the entertaining 2014 original flick. People are blasting the recent "mother!" for being mis-advertised as a home-invasion thriller. This movie has been almost completely mis-advertised. As promoted, it's supposed to be a team-up of the prim and proper secret agents of the Kingsmen of the U.K. and the buckin' bronco cowboy agents of the Statesmen of the U.S., right? That would have been a LOT of fun to watch. It would have and should have been a fast and funny culture clash actioner featuring Taron Egerton, Mark Strong and (remarkably) Colin Firth back from the first film partnered with the rootin' tootin' Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry. Their mission would have been to bring down a ruthtless drug kingpin (Julianne Moore), who has infected millions of users around the globe with a deadly virus and intends to ransom the antidote.

Would have, should have, could have!

The film never really becomes that. Tatum, after a great introductory sequence, is incapacitated within about 10 minutes of him showing up on screen and is literally put on ice for the entire rest of the flick! Jeff Bridges shows up for what amounts to a glorified cameo as the Statesmen's leader. He does that whole weird Foghorn Leghorn thing he's been doing with his voice for the last several years and never once even considers getting involved in saving the world. And Halle Berry, one of the world's most beautiful women? She's dressed in what looks like a Halloween nerd's costume and is relegated to a computer room for most of the film.

In their place, the Statesmen send out... Pedro Pascal to go on the mission with Egerton's Eggsy and Firth's Harry Hart. Uh... who? OK, yeah, I know he's on that show "Narcos" that about 60 people watch. But he ain't no Tatum, Bridges or Berry. If you can't get the big stars to sync up their schedules to appear in your movie, DON'T PUT THEM IN YOUR MOVIE!

And, I'm sorry, but just a lot of the humor this time around feels forced. There's a running gag involving Elton John being abducted by Moore's evil Poppy. And about five people in the theater I saw it in laughed at the scenes where he's forced to play songs for her, then given the virus, then oddly turned into a butt-kicking action hero. Sadly, I think most of those who paid to see this were under 30 and quite possibly hadn't heard of Elton John.

The movie also makes some really wrong-headed decisions. It saddles Eggsy with the princess he rescued in the first film. Was the relationship that strong that now the two are talking... marriage?! Also, one of the main villains this time is the very minor character of Charlie (Edward Holcroft) from the first film, who's given a mechanical "Terminator-like" arm to fight Eggsy - an arm that worked better... in the "Terminator" films! Perhaps the funniest part of "The Golden Circle" is how the sequel has to keep reminding us who Charlie is and that he was indeed in that first film.

There is also a weird subplot involving the U.S. President (Bruce Greenwood) callously doing nothing to save the dying masses from Poppy's virus because he wants to effectively declare victory in the War on Drugs after tens of millions have perished. It's a really dark and ugly plot point in a movie otherwise intended to be light and zippy.

It's actually astounding how many Oscar winners and nominees are wasted in this film: Bridges, Firth, Moore, Berry and Emily Watson. Instead, we get endless scenes with Moore unleashing mechanical dogs on those who fail or disappoint her... robot canines that seem lifted entirely from one of the "Transformers" movies and are never once scary.

Ugh. If you're gonna give your money to a disaster this weekend, donate to a hurricane or earthquake relief fund.

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" is rated R for violence, drug content, language and some sexual content.

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Aronofsky's latest film is a real 'mother!' to sit through

Aronofsky's latest film is a real 'mother!' to sit through

(Updated 9/18/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" is shaping up to be one of the early fall's most polarizing films. Critics and audience members are either loving it or hating it. Well, folks. I didn't just hate it. I despised it. I found it needlessly confusing, pretentious, shrill, self-important and one of the most miserable viewing experiences I've had in a movie theater.

Most viewers will go into this one not knowing exactly what it's about. Many viewers will come out that way, too. I realized fairly early on that I shouldn't take the movie literally. It's not really about a husband (Javier Bardem) with writer's block and his supportive, much younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who's trying to restore their large country home while he struggles to create again. One night, an elderly stranger (Ed Harris) shows up who claims to be a surgeon and mistakes the house for a bed and breakfast. The writer invites him to stay anyway, much to the young wife's discomfort. The next day, the old man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, and she immediately becomes a divisive figure in the house after the author says it's OK for her to stay.

The young wife just wants everything to be perfect for her hubby. But these strangers keep showing up and ruining everything. The author is amused by them. He says they need him, and he hopes they stoke his creativity. Then, the old couple's grown sons show up (played by Domhnall Gleeson and his real-life brother, Briain). And they immediately start squabbling over Daddy's will to the point where one kills the other.

So, OK, I went to Sunday school. I get jokes. Aronofsky is going for Bardem is God, Lawrence is either the Virgin Mother or Mother Earth, Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, and their boys are Cain and Abel. Uh... I guess he is. Who knows?!

From there, "mother!" really - and I mean REALLY - goes off the rails. I saw this flick by myself and I couldn't help but start muttering quietly, under my breath, "What the- ?!" And then it became "What the heck?" Then, "What the Hell?!" And in the last 15 minutes, for sure, "What the &%#*?!" I think at one point I even said aloud, "What in tarnation?!" I've never said those three words before in my life! Who says that? Yosemite Sam?

Will Christians get up in arms about this film? They shouldn't. It's too cartoonishly extreme to be taken seriously. And it's almost impossible to emotionally engage with it. On the one hand, it's easy to express amazement that he was able to get a major Hollywood studio - Paramount Pictures - to buy into his grand, dark vision here. But it's not so impressive when you realize his girlfriend in real life actually is Jennifer Lawrence, arguably the biggest female box office star in the world with whom Paramount would love to make more films helmed by more sane directors.

And while I rarely take Teddy's Takes into the realm of questioning artists on a personal level, it'd make me feel - oh, I don't know - oogy when I was forced to watch Lawrence get put through SUCH an emotional ringer. The camera is rarely more than a foot or two away from her anguished, tortured face throughout, and a good quarter of the film is just her wailing in tears, questioning her sanity and screaming in emotional and ultimately physical pain often in extreme close-up. She is eventually stomped, stripped and slut-shamed by an angry mob of her lover's "fans," all the while continuing to love... Him.

To that I say... Oh, brother!

"mother!" is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.

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A 20th anniversary salute to the movies of 1997

(Updated 9/18/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

This year marks a very special milestone for Yours Truly. It's the 20th anniversary of me being a paid film critic! I had reviewed for my college's newspaper from 1989 to 1992. But I wouldn't get an actual professional, paying gig for five years after. And those were some GREAT movie years I missed writing about - 1993 saw "Schinder's List" and "The Piano;" '94 was the year of "The Shawshank Redemption," "Pulp Fiction" and "Forrest Gump;" '95 had "The Usual Suspects," "Se7en," and "12 Monkeys;" etc.

I was chomping at the bit to get back into it. And when I did, it was during a truly great year for cinema as evidenced by the films celebrated below:

Teddy's 10 Favorites (in alphabetical order)
1) "Air Force One" - This marked the end of Harrison Ford's 1977 - 97 box office heyday - a stretch that saw him play Han Solo three times, Indiana Jones three times, and Jack Ryan twice, along with great performances in everything from "Blade Runner" to "Witness" to "The Fugitive."

2) "As Good as It Gets" - Female fan to Jack Nicholson's best selling writer: "How do you write women so well?" Nicholson's Melvin Udall: "I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability." God, I miss Jack on the big screen.

3) "Boogie Nights" - Can you imagine if this epic drama about the '70s porno industry had been the first collaboration of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis? Can you imagine the frightening amount of research and... uh... physical preparation DD-L would've put into playing Dirk Diggler?!

4) "The Full Monty" - With "Boogie Nights" and this, 1997 was strangely the year audiences sat through entire movies just for the promise of male nudity at the end.

5) "Good Will Hunting" - What I'm about to write is industry sacrilege. A part of me has always believed that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did NOT write the screenplay for this movie! I mean, this is one tight script, full of wonderful characters, heart wrenching drama and witty banter. To have a script this exquisite, this structurally perfect be your first effort? I don't like them apples.

6) "L.A. Confidential" - "Good Will Hunting" may have had the Best Screenplay of '97, but this flick had the year's best line. It wasn't even a line, just a perfectly placed name: "Rollo Tamasi."

7) "Men in Black" - At only 98 minutes, there's not a wasted second of screen time. One of the most fun movies you'll ever see.

8) "Titanic" - The quintessential blockbuster of the '90s. I can't imagine a movie better constructed to cross so many demographics. I mean, when a film appeals just as much to a 12-year-old girl as an 82-year-old man, you know you have something special.

9) "Washington Square" - This little-seen costume drama is special to me, because it was the first preview screening I attended after five long years away. As an added bonus, the movie was filmed in Baltimore, it was a Baltimore-based premiere AND the director was in attendance.

10) "The Wings of the Dove" - Before Tim Burton put his stink all over her, Helena Bonham Carter was one of our best actresses. She should've won the Oscar for this terrific adaptation of the Henry James novel.

Ten More Faves
"Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" - Probably the last ever film to be a modest box office success (just $53.8 million) to then become a huge hit on cable and home video and then get sequels that each made FOUR times what the original grossed.

"Batman and Robin" - Michael Nelson of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" said it best: "'Batman and Robin' isn't just the worst movie ever made. It's the worst THING ever made!"

"Chasing Amy" - Dwight Ewell's Hooper X is my favorite character in all of writer-director Kevin Smith's movies.

"In and Out" - You can have your Jack and Rose. For my money, the year's best on-screen kiss was Magnum P.I. planting one on Kevin Kline.

"Liar, Liar" - When Jim Carrey was comedy king.

"The Lost World: Jurassic Park" - Of the four "Jurassic Park" movies, this one had some of the best scenes (the T-Rex rampage in San Diego) and some of the worst (Goldblum's daughter using gymnastics to kick raptor butt?!).

"The Postman" - OK, if Matt and Ben didn't write "Good Will Hunting," then this flick is proof-positive Kevin Costner couldn't have directed "Dances With Wolves!"

"Private Parts" - I still can't believe how good this Howard Stern movie was!

"The Saint" - An underrated Val Kilmer thriller that's as good as any of the Pierce Brosnan 007 flicks of the time.

"Tomorrow Never Dies" - But this one was pretty darn good, too!

The Rest: "Amistad," "Contact," "Dante's Peak," "Face/Off," "The Fifth Element," "Jackie Brown," "Scream 2," "Starship Troopers," "Volcano," "Wag the Dog" and the "Star Wars" special editions.

'It' is a crowning achievement for King fans

'It' is a crowning achievement for King fans

(Updated 9/11/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

It's only because I have seen SO many scary movies over the course of my life that I will not be over-touting the new big screen version of "It" as one of cinema's scariest movies. It's really not. But, man, it's plenty unnerving without going for the crown. It spends the first hour trying to take seemingly mundane things like a balloon, a sewer grate, a wall painting and more and turning them into objects of extreme terror. And, of course, there's the sinister Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard), the physical manifestation of pure evil that the town of Derry, Maine, has to deal with every 27 years. Pennywise is the "It" of the film's title. He claims his victims, doesn't stick around long enough to even become local lore and then goes into a sort of demonic hibernation only to literally rear its ugly head a generation later.

It's a very Freddy Krueger-like threat. It only terrorizes children. And it's method of attack is often invading their minds first and making them see, do and feel things that adults can't or won't see. In fact, as the film goes on, the scariest elements of the film are the town's grown-ups... nearly all of whom are soulless, life-defeated monsters themselves who, when they're not boozing or pilling or falling asleep in front of their TVs, abuse their kids in ways physical, psychological and sexual. These adults have created a younger generation of bullies, victims, loners and outcasts. I'm sure there are some fine people in Derry. But the film has no interest in them.

If this all sounds rather hopeless and bleak, that's because... well... it is. This is a blunt-force trauma movie with little in the way of elegance or subtlety. But the craftsmanship on display by director Andy Muschietti, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and their team of set designers, location scouts and makeup artists is impressive. They have Stephen King's rich source material to draw on, and they take great glee in recreating some of the novel's signature fright sequences starting with little Georgie Denbrough's (Jackson Robert Scott) harrowing opening stalking and murder at the hands of the sewer dwelling Pennywise.

Narratively, Muschietti and his three screenwriters have taken two chances here, both of which pay off. First, they move the children's storyline from the late 1950s to November 1988 and then to the summer of 1989. It certainly plays off the same vibe Netflix's "Stranger Things" tapped into. But the novel was published in 1986, and the sensibilities of the story lend themselves to a couple of flicks that hit big in that era: "The Goonies" and "Stand by Me" (also based on a King story).

And second, this is indeed only half of the book. The "adult" side of the story (if you haven't read it or seen the 1990 TV mini series, I won't spoil it) is left entirely for a sequel. "It" would simply be too unwieldy for a single big-screen adaptation. There was real care taken here to get right what could be gotten right within a two-hour movie (actually the run time is 135 minutes).

There are seven young leads, with the standout being Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, the stuttering teen boy who is haunted by his little brother's disappearance and feels responsible. I also really liked Sophia Lillis as Beverly, a teenage girl who's horribly abused by her dad but maintains a good heart. She becomes part of Bill's band of "losers," a group of misfit kids picked on mercilessly by the town's bullies.

"It" labors at times to give each of the seven their own personal scare sequences. For a stretch, it feels like they are standing in line and taking a number to each get their big individual fright scene. But once the group starts to share their tales of being stalked by a killer clown, the film picks up narrative steam and becomes quite relentless in its final act.

And "It" is certainly good enough that I want to see that sequel. Oh yeah: "It" happens!

"It" is rated R for violence/horror, bloody images and language.

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Teddy's 10 most anticipated fall movies

(Updated 9/11/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

The fall and winter movie season is just starting. Soon, it'll be time for Oscar-bait dramas with A-list actors and actresses, small indie films coming out of nowhere to entertain and enthrall, and mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters that would rival any summer popcorn movie. I'm looking forward to it all. And, of course, the one I am most looking forward to is:

1) "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" - Every few months, people ask me what I think of all the director turmoil associated with the new "Star Wars" flicks. First, thank the movie gods both Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow are NOT going to be directing "Star Wars" movies! The former is apparently an unhinged man-child who couldn't have made a worse "Fantastic Four" flick, and the latter seemed like a bad choice for "Episode IX" from the start. Second, thank the movie gods Ron Howard is currently making a "Star Wars" film. I mean, come on - Ron Howard! Third, despite all the turmoil on "Rogue One," that was a great "Star Wars" flick! And, with the exception of a script rewrite, J.J. Abrams directed "The Force Awakens" with passion and professionalism, and there seems to have been NO turmoil with Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" (Dec. 15).

2) "Blade Runner 2049" - I thought there would never be a sequel to 1982's "Blade Runner." A part of me still can't believe this is happening (Oct. 6).

3) "Thor: Ragnarok" - "Ragnarok" still sounds like a word Scooby Doo would utter. But, hey, like the rest of humanity, I'm totally in the tank for all things Marvel at this point. Not sure about a chatty Hulk. But everything else looks cool (Nov. 3).

4) "Justice League" - I've wanted to see a Justice League movie since I was 10. Back then, we would have had Christopher Reeve, Lynda Carter and probably some really cool late '70s/early '80s stud to play the Caped Crusader. But I'll take Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and the rest if they can deliver (Nov. 17).

5) "The Greatest Showman" - This film has one of my favorite trailers of the year. Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, the man who invented a new form of live entertainment known as the circus (Dec. 27).

6) "Professor Marston & The Wonder Women" - OK, so this is a flick about the dude who created Wonder Woman and based some of her key character elements on his own fascination with bondage, while also taking inspiration from his and his wife's three-way affair with feminist Olive Byrne. Wow, just imagine if he had created Batman! (Oct. 13).

7) "Darkest Hour" - Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill, and the transformation is astonishing from the trailers. Either this is going to be a landmark in makeup and prosthetics... or we'll come to find out that Oldman just REALLY let himself go for the part. And I mean like catching-up-two-years-after-your-man-Durgin-won-the-lottery "letting himself go" (Nov. 22).

8) Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Movie - According to Daniel Day-Lewis, he's retiring with this film. There is very little known about the movie... not even an actual title! But it's directed and written by the auteur who gave us "There Will Be Blood" and "Magnolia." It's reportedly set in the fashion world of 1950s England and centers on a dressmaker named Charles James. But for all the secrecy, it could be about a Men's Wearhouse salesman named Chuck Jimmy, who's losing his mind in 1990s New Jersey (Dec. 27).

9) "Marshall" - Chadwick Boseman has played Jackie Robinson. Chadwick Boseman has played James Brown. And now Chadwick Boseman will play Thurgood Marshall. I have no joke here... other than a strange confession that I next want Chadwick Boseman to play Fred "Rerun" Berry (Oct. 13).

10) "The Disaster Artist" - I'm really quite stoked to see this movie about the making of "The Room," the 2003 cult classic that many consider to be the worst movie ever made. James Franco stars as Tommy Wiseau, the deeply weird actor-filmmaker who produced and starred in what's been called the "Citizen Kane" of bad movies (Dec. 1).

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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