'The Nut Job 2': A cashew grab if ever there was one
- By Teddy Durgin -
So, "The Nut Job 2" was NOT a movie about a man getting a reverse vasectomy. Who knew?! Well, I guess if I still had young children running around the house, I would have known. I've mentioned in this column at least a couple of times this past year that my little girl is no longer a "little girl." My daughter is 12, and she has no interest in animated movies anymore. In fact, she pointed out to me that she and I had seen the first "Nut Job" a few years back and it wasn't very good. Her exact words were: "They made a sequel to that thing?!"
Yes, they did, and the law of diminishing returns is on full display here. Subtitled "Nutty by Nature," this follow-up to the 2014 modest hit gets a few points for trying to be a bit more socially relevant than your usual big-screen cartoon fare. The talking animals of the first film band together in civil disobedience against the local Mayor's (voice of Bobby Moynihan) plan to bulldoze their beloved public park that they used to all squat and occupy... er, live, work and play. And when it's clear that their furry cuteness won't win over the heartless re-developers, one of the four-footers exclaims, "So much for peaceful protests!"
Will Arnett returns to voice squirrel leader, Surly, who learned the virtue of selflessness in the prior adventure. But he and the animals in his charge are now gluttonous and lazy, having taken up residence in the nut shop they saved in the first flick. Squirrel pal Andie (voice of Katherine Heigl) is the voice of reality, imploring the others to retain their essential "squirrel-ness." Through a series of circumstances and contrivances, all concerned find themselves fighting to save their former habitat from being turned into the gaudy "Liberty Land" amusement park.
This entails everything from sabotaging heavy equipment to accosting construction workers. Yeah, again, I have to hand it to the filmmakers for going the subversive route. "The Nut Job 2" uses a talking cartoon critter flick to attack corporate greed and stump for land preservation and wildlife appreciation. But it's so jam-packed with characters and overloaded with manic action and annoying music cues that it seems to have little faith in a message that "Zootopia" handled so much more patiently and cleverly.
The Surly character is a disaster, changing back and forth from being a noble-hearted friend to the cause to a selfish jerk out for his own interests. Meanwhile, a little bit of Jackie Chan as a rodent leader from the local burg's Chinatown districts goes a long, LONG way. Maya Rudolph provides an animated character's voice for the second time in three weeks, the first being "The Emoji Movie." What terrible penance is this poor woman doing?! Oh, and because the filmmakers don't believe the littlest ones can stay engaged for very long, they throw in some really dumb gags and even gross-out humor, with the low point being a dog vomiting up his kibble and then eating up his own puke.
Well, that's this sequel in a nutshell. If you have no one in your life below the age of 9, avoid it like someone with a peanut allergy avoids the Planters display at their local supermarket.
"The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature" is rated PG for action and some rude humor.
'Annabelle: Creation' conjures up some good scares
- By Teddy Durgin -
OK, I'm putting it out there now. If Pixar, Disney, and Hollywood insist on going ahead with a "Toy Story 4," it HAS to be a mash-up of that franchise... and the "Annabelle" movies! I'm tired of this creepy Annabelle doll terrorizing good people and surviving to the next movie where it will turn up in a display case somewhere or a yard sale or another child's playroom. Woody, Buzz and Jesse are sentient dolls, too. Turn them loose on this thing! Get those little green Army guys, too, and Bullseye and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. They're resourceful. They're scrappy. They have experience in this sort of thing. It could be the "Aliens" of "Toy Story" movies. This time it's... WAR!!!
But until that day, we have flicks like this prequel, "Annabelle: Creation," in which the titular toy runs wild. "Creation" is a darn scary entry in this series, folks. And it's really quite relentless once it gets past it's slow-burn first half. Seriously, for the last 45 minutes or so of this flick, it's one big scare sequence after another. I didn't like seeing this movie by myself.
Kind of a cross between "Annie" and "Child's Play," the film is set in the late 1950s and centers on a half-dozen orphans who have nowhere to go after the Catholic Church closes their orphanage. Drawing on its long history of protecting children from abuse and peril, the Church sends the six girls and the good-hearted Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) to pretty much the worst house they can find, owned by the obviously disturbed Samuel and Esther Mullin (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto). There are three bedrooms upstairs at the Mullins' house. One has four beds, which the two teen orphans and two youngest girls take. The second has bunk beds, which tweeners Linda (Lulu Wilson) and her polio-stricken best friend Janice (Talitha Bateman) take. The third bedroom? It has the malevolent spirit of the Mullins' long-dead daughter, Bee (Samara Lee), and is basically a portal to Hell.
To his credit, Samuel Mullin tells Janice and the others not to go into the room ever and that the door must stay locked. And had the girls obeyed, this would have been a nice movie about young orphans who learn reading, writing and arithmetic and Mr. and Mrs. Mullins learning to love and live life again. But Janice goes into the room one dark and stormy night. And, by the next morning, the Mullins' property values have pretty much plummeted.
I kid, because... this movie DID scare me pretty good. Creepy dolls, even creepier little girls, creaky floorboards, shadowy figures. It's all here, dear readers. Some good, old-school scares throughout for the most part. Director David F. Sandberg knows how to frame a shot so that the demon's target or its victim is always in the foreground, but there's just enough screen space over his/her shoulder to see something bad happening or about to happen in the not-too-distant background.
Sandberg uses every square inch of the Mullins' house to maximum effect, too. My favorite bit is where little Linda retreats into her room and to her top bunk, fearing an evil entity is out in the hallway. From under the covers, she hears creepy-fast footsteps run from the hallway, into the bedroom, and then we see from her perspective the bunk bed jiggle ever so slightly. And then... eek... total quiet. Whatever has entered the room... IS IN THE BOTTOM BUNK!!!
Fans of this series, which also includes the two "Conjuring" movies, will love some of the subtle and not-so-subtle connective tissue between the four total films. This includes an epilogue in "Creation" that takes the audience right to a key event in the first "Annabelle" movie released in 2014 (and set a number of years after this one). There's nothing left to say except... "Annabelle: Creation" delivers. It toys with its audience and has a marvelously cruel sense of play.
"Annabelle: Creation" is rated R for horror violence and terror.
'Detroit' shows Motown as no town to be in during the summer of '67
- By Teddy Durgin -
So, I saw "Detroit" the other night at my local movie theater. And, man... it was a RIOT!
OK, sorry, bad joke. But I need humor after seeing this one, folks. "Detroit" is director Kathryn Bigelow's harrowing, intense chronicle of the civil unrest that broke out in the Motor City during the summer of 1967. The film focuses on the notorious Algiers Motel incident in which three cops were drawn to the lodging from shots fired as a goof by one African American young man (Jason Mitchell). Eyewitness reports say it was a starter pistol he fired in jest. The officers claimed it was a sniper's rifle (that was never found). The city was already under martial law following an after-hours nightclub bust that went terribly wrong, and the cops led by a hot-headed racist named Krauss (Will Poulter) turned the Algiers into an even deeper nightmare.
Bigelow is known for being the first (and, to date, only) woman to win the Best Director Oscar for helming "The Hurt Locker." And she scored big again a few years later with "Zero Dark Thirty." But it's her more obscure credits that prepared her to do such a fantastic job here. For one, her film "Strange Days" has its cinematic DNA running throughout this. The film was a misfire at the box office 22 years ago. But that alternative-future drama climaxed with a riot touched off by a white police officer using excessive force on a black suspect and showed Bigelow to be an accomplished director of big-screen chaos.
A few years later, she would direct Andre Braugher's final episodes as Det. Frank Pembleton on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," in which a year-long saga involving Frank's fellow homicide detective, Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond), came to a head with the city of Baltimore erupting into chaos as a result of Kellerman's gunning down of a drug lord the previous spring. The two-parter she directed was "Homicide's" cinematic high point, resulting in Pembleton resigning from the police force, his partner Bayliss (Kyle Secor) shot and fighting for his life in the hospital, and Kellerman surrendering his badge in disgrace. Epic!
Bigelow picks stories in which characters are put through the ringer, and she has consistently taken her audiences into dark places that have very often left them changed once the end credits rolled. And her handling of actors is some of the best I've seen. Much of the cast of "Detroit" is under 30... and British! The revelation here is 24-year-old Poulter, who looks like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman from "Mad" magazine and Lucifer. Maybe an American actor would make Krauss too cartoonishly villainous. But while you're gonna hate Krauss, you won't be able to look away from him thanks to Poulter's acting and Bigelow's direction. An early scene where Krauss surveys the unrest and mutters that "we've let these people down," then he shoots one of "those people" in the back for stealing groceries, is one of the more chilling scenes I've seen in a theater.
Also impressive is John Boyega of "The Force Awakens," another Brit who hits it out of the park as a night watchman caught up in the violence. Boyega has a tough job essentially playing helpless throughout. Here, he proves he has the chops to take on roles that might have been offered to Denzel Washington 20 or 30 years ago. I am not under-selling his talent and appeal by evoking that name. The dude's a movie star. He has that rare ability to make you care about the things his characters care about on screen... and care about them intensely.
I do wish Bigelow would try her hand at any one of the franchises out there in need of a strong woman director, everything from Marvel to DC Comics to the "Fast and Furious" series. I'd love to see her cut loose now and have some fun. But, of course, if she keeps making important films like this, I won't start an uprising.
"Detroit" is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.
No more stories in this 'Dark Tower'
- By Teddy Durgin -
OK, I do realize that "The Dark Tower" is getting roundly panned by movie critics AND it has pissed off many fans of Stephen King's sprawling, eight-book series. But... uh... well... I actually kind of... liked it! And I liked it for two of the reasons it is getting slammed. One? It's a self-contained movie. It has a beginning, middle and end. Sure, you could do a sequel. Hell, they made "Speed 2: Cruise Control." There can ALWAYS be a sequel. But if there never is one, this one has closure. And two? It's 95 minutes long! My franchise-fatigued, 46-year-old behind was in and out of the theater in under two hours.
But I get it. The film condenses eight books - EIGHT! - into one flick that is an hour and a half long plus credits. It's definitely the Cliff's Notes version of this story. Characters that probably had a LOT more to do on the page are barely sketches here. And the world-building is done in quick, broad strokes. You're basically told, "There's another planet. There are portals between our world and that world. On the other planet is a dark tower. If it falls, that world and ours will be plunged into everlasting darkness. One troubled Earth boy named Jake (Tom Taylor) has the power to save it or topple it."
Yes, there's the Gunslinger (Idris Elba). He becomes Jake's protector when the boy stumbles upon one of the portals. And there's The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer whose real name is Walter. Together, they've been battling throughout the ages apparently. The Gunslinger wants revenge because The Man in Black killed his father and all the other Gunslingers with his dark magic. The Man in Black wants the boy, because he senses he's the only one with enough psychic power to destroy the tower.
There's really not much else to them in their movie forms other than that. But I took them as archetypes. The Gunslinger basically hits everything he shoots at no matter the distance or difficulty of angle. That and he loads his six-shooters in SUCH a freakin' quick and cool way. I honestly didn't need any more. I didn't need back story or long motivational speeches. Just point and shoot.
McConaughey is even cooler. The part needed someone who was a little otherworldly, a little crazy. And McConaughey has obviously been getting stranger and stranger ever since he dropped all that weight for "Dallas Buyers Club" and did that oddball chest-thumping thing in "The Wolf of Wall Street." Have you seen those car commercials he's in? In five years, this dude is gonna be giving Shia LaBeouf noogies in Bellevue. As The Man in Black, he has to be separate from everyone else mentally, even spiritually. When he strides into a scene, you never know what dark power he's going to unleash. The guy will just whisper a suggestion like "Stop breathing," and his prey falls to the ground dead. McConaughey is crazy cool here... with a heavy emphasis on the crazy. And, again, I didn't need any more.
I suppose I should be raging with the other reviewers and King fans that everything is wrapped up in a neat bow by the end. Again, I had no prior experience going into this flick with the books. But just the basic knowledge that I do have, the story probably would have been best dramatized as a multi-part series on HBO or Netflix.
But never fear: they keep rebooting Batman and Spider-Man and Oz. I'm sure "The Dark Tower" will eventually get its "proper" telling. Maybe it's my age. Maybe it's the fact that my job requires me to follow multiple franchises - yes, even my beloved "Star Wars" - over years and years. Or maybe it was because I was expecting to see about one-eighth of a complete story here. One and done? Hooray for behind-the-scenes chaos, for once!
"The Dark Tower" is rated PG-13 for thematic material and for gun violence and action.
Durgin has mixed emotions about 'The Emoji Movie'
- By Teddy Durgin -
"The Emoji Movie" might have worked and worked REALLY well... had it been one of those eight- or 10-minute short animated films that run just before the feature presentation. As it is, the filmmakers are called upon to sustain a level of social commentary, heady humor and Pixar-level creativity for an hour and a half, and they're just not up to the task. I'll give writer-director Anthony Leondis and his co-screenwriters Mike White and Eric Siegel credit. They're aiming high here. And by that, I mean they're trying to rip off legitimately great films like "Inside Out," "The LEGO Movie" and "Wreck-It Ralph" and not cash-grab tedium like "The Angry Birds Movie."
The film imagines a world inside of a teenage boy's cell phone called Textopolis. The emojis are all real sentient beings who are honored to be picked by the kid, Alex (voice of Jake T. Austin), whenever he texts or e-mails one of his pathetic classmates. Good God, their collective lives are empty! But ignorance is indeed bliss. The joke, of course, is the emojis can only behave according to their very limited personas and programming. So, the Heart Eyes emoji is in love with everything, the Hysterical Laughter emoji guffaws at everything, the Crying Face emoji weeps at everything, etc.
We meet our hero, Gene (voice of T.J. Miller), the son of the male and female "Meh" emojis (voiced by Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge). He's supposed to have perfected the "Meh... I don't care" face before being placed into Alex's emoji rotation. But Gene is an anomaly. He's the only yellow-head emoji who's able to express a wide range of emotions. Smiler (voiced by Maya Rudolph) is the original first emoji, and is therefore the head of Textopolis. Recognizing Gene as a potential threat, she giddily unleashes delete-bots to wipe him from the phone before Alex in the real world wipes the whole thing himself at a shopping-mall phone store. What follows is a journey across Alex's phone's wallpaper as he, a hacker app named Jailbreak (voice of Anna Faris) and the no-longer-popular Hi-5 emoji (voice of James Corden) seek to ride streams of music, break through a seemingly impenetrable firewall and find salvation by being uploaded to the Cloud.
The main problem with "The Emoji Movie" is how confused it is about what audience to appeal to. With its third-grade poop and burp humor and day-glo colors, it's main target here is very young kids. But in real life, most of the under-8's thankfully don't have cell phones yet and won't get a lot of the references. However, the film is not sharp enough to appeal to tweens and teens. If it was, there would have been a hidden file of babes in lingerie pics somewhere, a cache of streamed music with the explicit lyrics left in and more considering Alex's age and obvious tech savvy. Believe me, this is NOT a teenage boy's cell phone! And as for adults? They will appreciate bits like the ultra-dry comedian Steven Wright voicing the Daddy "Meh" and Patrick Stewart voicing the Poop emoji. But they're not going to last for all 86 minutes.
I did last, though, 'cause... it's my job, man. And I have to say I was surprised that the film was more of a near-miss than an outright disaster. I don't like the message that the cell phone is the be-all and end-all to teens being able to live happy and socially well adjusted in the real world. But I'm losing that battle off-screen with my 12-year-old right now and her iPhone. I know first-hand that...
Shoot! Gotta go. She's texting me right now...
"The Emoji Movie" is rated PG for rude humor.
Getting to the roots of 'Atomic Blonde'
- By Teddy Durgin -
"Atomic Blonde" is one of those movies that takes two steps forward and then one step back throughout. What I mean is, for every two things the movie does right, it then does something bone-headed or just altogether unsavory, and I'm left to struggle with whether to recommend it or not. In the end, this is a flick that I can only recommend to certain segments of the audience. If you like big-screen action that's brutal and R-rated, it'll definitely satisfy your blood lust. If you're a lover of all things '80s nostalgia, you'll get a great big dose of George Michael, punk fashion and the Berlin Wall coming down.
However, if you prefer your spy thrillers intelligent, this isn't the mission you should choose to accept. There doesn't seem to be a place in all of Germany that our lead secret agent walks into that doesn't know her right away. If you need a real rooting interest throughout, you're not going to get it here. The spies are glum and joyless. And if the sight of women being brutalized turns you off along with the bruised and bloody aftermath, you're just not going to have a good time.
It's not that this spy thriller is dumb. It's just that it has so many twists and turns, double and triple crosses, that I got to a point where I really didn't care how it was going to end. I was also able to overcome my lack of empathy for most of the characters by bathing in the movie's style and cinematic artistry. And I've come to accept that we live in a society that is at once politically correct, but one that also sees progress in the fact that women can now go toe to toe with men on screen and be every bit as brutal as they are. I can't imagine Bette Davis or Greta Garbo in this era of motion pictures. You might as well change the old Madonna "Vogue" song lyrics to "They had style... they had grace... Rita Hayworth... will kick your face!"
Charlize Theron (looking like a demented cross between Lara Croft and Kim Carnes) stars here as Lorraine, a British spy ordered to Germany in the days before the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. Her mission: retrieve a watch containing a data file of every spy the West has implanted in the former Soviet Union - a file her superiors warn could "lead to 40 more years of the Cold War" if not found. Her contact is fellow spy David Percival (James McAvoy), who's contact code named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) was responsible for stealing the data. But the watch has fallen onto the black market, and Lorraine and David have to navigate the intricacies of East and West Berlin at a time when a desperate Communist regime knows its days are numbered.
You really won't know who is friend or foe until the final scenes of the film. And that would have been cool had the flick been a bit more fun. But its brutality works against it in several spots. There are very few kills in this film that are clean and quick. To kill a man or a woman, he or she has to absorb an immense amount of physical punishment before the final coup de grace. Sometimes the audience is invited to laugh at the absurd amounts of pain a character has to endure before finally going toes. Other times, you just wince as five stomps to the head turn into 10.
Still, "Atomic Blonde" held my interest. And it contains one of the great action sequences of this decade, a long tracking shot - by some estimates 10 minutes - where Lorraine and Spyglass enter an empty apartment building and Lorraine does battle with a seven-member KGB sniper team that starts on the fourth floor, ends on the ground floor, then spills out onto the street and continues in a car chase. It's impressive considering Theron does her own stunts throughout, including falling down two flights of stairs. It's truly atomic and truly worth the price of admission alone.
"Atomic Blonde" is rated R for strong violence throughout, language and sexuality/nudity.
Christopher Nolan declares war on summer movies with 'Dunkirk'
- By Teddy Durgin -
Unless we're looking at some kind of "Red Dawn"-like scenario, I will never know war. I won't know what it's like to walk across a war-ravaged landscape unsure if there's a sniper's scope on me or if the enemy that wants to kill me is waiting just around the bend or if the ground underneath my feet is rigged with explosive devices. I only have the movies to put me in those scenarios. And "Dunkirk" does one of the better jobs I've seen - probably the best job since "Saving Private Ryan" - of giving audience members a "You are there!" perspective.
Christopher Nolan's film is urgent, gripping and altogether captivating. As the director of the film, he doesn't give you images that will play great on an iPhone or even your flat-screen TV at home. The man conceives sequences and moments that will only have the most impact in a movie theater. And as the film's screenwriter, he has come up with a fractured time narrative here that sets one storyline over the course of a week, a second over the course of a day and a third over the course of a single hour. And the three eventually converge in a climactic final act that will have you alternating between whispering "Oh wow!" and muttering "Oh [insert your favorite four-letter expletive]!"
Set in 1940, "Dunkirk" dramatizes Operation Dynamo in which the Nazis were able to back thousands of British and Allied troops up to the shallow sea in the small French beach town of Dunkirk. And rather than wage a gigantic ground battle, committing thousands of their own soldiers, the Germans rather sadistically held position on the edges of town and launched air raid after air raid to strafe and dive-bomb the trapped military. Britain, meanwhile, decided to hold its Navy back to guard against a larger scale assault. Because Dunkirk is only a relatively short distance from England across the Channel, hundreds of civilian boats were drafted to cross the water and rescue the stranded forces with only limited air cover.
The storyline that stretches over a week centers on the ground troops awaiting rescue, and we mostly follow a young British infantryman named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he survives numerous brushes with death. The storyline that stretches over a day centers on Dawson (Mark Rylance), who pilots his small pleasure boat with his son and a local teenage boy who has jumped aboard at the last moment, eager to see war. And the storyline that stretches over an hour follows two fighter pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as they engage in dogfights and constantly have to monitor their fuel supplies in the hopes they can provide some help to the troops who are sitting ducks on the ground.
The enemy? You never see a German face or hear a single German word. The enemy in this film is fear. When you hear the Nazi fighter planes approaching from the distant horizon, with the kind of nasty, shrill motors that sound like Darth Maul's light saber blades being ignited in Hell... man, is it unnerving! In this film, you'll get a sense of what it was like to be waiting on those piers with hundreds of other men with no cover as bullets and bombs rained down on you from above. You'll be plopped into the bowels of a torpedoed freighter, slowly sinking, with the water rising and dozens of screaming soldiers flailing all around you fumbling towards a single exit. You'll be in the cockpit of a fighter plane, your gauges busted, the smoking town of Dunkirk on the horizon, and tailing a Nazi bomber that must be stopped before it drops its deadly payload.
Look, I'm not going to dissuade you from beating the summer heat by thrilling to the adventures of Spider-Man or sharing some good laughs with the ladies of "Girl Trip." But if you are looking for great cinema, "Dunkirk" is the clear choice in theaters now. This is a special motion picture, folks.
Remarkably, "Dunkirk" is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
'Girls Trip' is worth the journey to the theater
- By Teddy Durgin -
"Girls Trip" is the funniest movie of its kind since "Bridesmaids." This is the flick "Rough Night" wanted to be and "Bad Moms" almost was. More than anything, it really shows what an appealing cast, working with a smart script and a good director, can do in a sub-genre of comedy that many feel has run dry. What is most impressive about the movie is the balance it achieves - the balance between filthy, R-rated smut humor and touchy-feely heartfelt female bonding. It helps that much of the raunchy content is really very funny... and the gooey sentimental stuff is mostly back-loaded and actually earned by that late point in the film.
The film follows four college friends now pushing 40. Regina Hall is Ryan, a best-selling author who's branded herself as "the woman who has it all." Queen Latifah is Sasha, a journalist who runs a celebrity gossip website a la TMZ. Jada Pinkett-Smith is Lisa, a divorced mother of two very cute kids. And Tiffany Haddish is the free-spirited Dina, the one who can always be counted on for yelling things like "Let's get this party started!!!"
But all of them are lying to each other and to themselves about some shortcoming(s) as they embark on a getaway weekend together in New Orleans, where Ryan is to deliver the keynote address at the annual, three-day Essence gathering to celebrate African-American women. Ryan's football star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter), has been cheating on her for years all the while she's been unable to get pregnant. Sasha's website isn't getting the hits it once did, and she's behind on all of her bills. Lisa hasn't been in a relationship for two years and has moved in with her mom. And Dina was just fired from her job.
There is some heavy stuff that each of the ladies are dealing with. But they deal with it by getting into some truly funny and raucous situations in the Big Easy. In the middle of the film, director Malcolm D. Lee and screenwriters Kenya Barris and Karen McCullah hit the audience with three almost breathlessly hilarious sequences in a row. I'll call them the Cooking Demonstration, the Absinthe Club Scene, and the Bar Fight... and I'll leave it at that. There is also a sequence in which Dina demonstrates something called "grapefruiting" that is one of the most graphic (and most funny) things I've seen the MPAA allow in a flick maybe ever. Seriously, you'll never be able to look at fresh fruit again the same way.
While all four leads are good in "Girls Trip" and you really get a sense that they've known each over for years and years, Haddish is the real standout. I wager that this movie will do for her what "Bridesmaids" did for Melissa McCarthy and what "The Hangover" did for Zach Galifianakis. More actors and actresses will become daring with citrus on the big screen after this flick.
My only nitpick is the film runs a bit long. It's actually 15 minutes longer than "Dunkirk!" But, in this case, the longer running time does ultimately help make the final resolutions feel not so rushed. With "Girls Trip," I expect a new comedy franchise has been born, and I look forward to trippin' with these girls again in a couple of years' time.
"Girls Trip" is rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity and drug material.
Latest summer sequel gives audience a lot to go 'Ape' over
- By Teddy Durgin -
I've found that how much some people like bleak, dour dystopian movies and TV shows such as the "The Walking Dead," "The Hunger Games" and the new "War for the Planet of the Apes" hinges on how much they actually like people... how happy they are with the current state of the world. The same holds true for big blockbuster movies where the Earth gets abused by aliens or natural disasters or Godzilla and King Kong. I'm always a touch unsure what I am "rooting" for when I watch these flicks. Humanity? We always seem to get thoroughly thrashed, and many of these flicks stack the deck against us by casting the human characters as greedy, self-absorbed, war mongers undeserving of the bounties of the planet. If Godzilla could talk, he'd surely scream "THIS is why you can't have nice things!" as he stomps on traffic and incinerates buildings. And it's always us people who are made to pay for tinkering with science, nature, the rule of law and the animals in our care.
"Hey, won't ya play? Another somebody done Kong wrong song?!"
So, it is with this new "Apes" trilogy, one of the most thoughtful, serious and well-made series of mass-entertainment flicks this century. There hasn't been any joy in these movies. And abandon all hope ye who enter the cineplex for this third and reportedly final flick. But if you go in with the right mindset, geared for an experience and not an entertainment, you're going to be treated to one of the summer's finest motion pictures.
Andy Serkis has been the one main constant through these three films, and he returns here to deliver yet another sterling motion-picture performance as Caesar, the leader of the ape rebellion. Some time has passed since "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," but Caesar is still affected by his battle of wills with Koba (Toby Kebbell) - a battle that ended with Caesar forced to kill his vengeful, anger-fueled rival. As this film opens, Caesar suffers an immense personal loss that tests all that is good and merciful in him. He sets out on a path of revenge, neglecting his responsibilities and ends up paying for that choice dearly, too.
His new adversary is The Colonel (an intense, quite scary Woody Harrelson), a human Army man who has been dealt a terrible loss also that has compelled him to declare even greater war on the apes... and on any humans who disagree with his beliefs.
The humans are observed solely through the eyes of the apes in this one, and we are forced to glean little nuggets of information about how far the world of man has fallen. We eventually learn that The Colonel doesn't represent the surviving military of the world, but a rogue element of it that has broken off and is waging the war "the way it should be fought." Which, of course, is... brutally. Soldiers under The Colonel write out slogans like "The only good ape is a dead ape" on their helmets and spray-paint things like "Ape-ocalypse Now!" on tunnel walls.
This is some pretty heady stuff in a time when it would be very easy for the filmmakers to coast and deliver just a straight-up, shoot-'em-up war flick. The title's actually a bit misleading. It's more like "Prison Break on the Planet of the Apes" and not "War." The battle footage is pretty much limited to the film's opening and closing passages.
But by the time the final bullets and rockets have been fired, you might be surprised at how much you'd like to see a fourth movie in this series. It's rare a set of films actually gets BETTER as it goes on! So, bring on another, I say. Bring on more social allegory! I want "Collusion on the Planet of the Apes!" I want "Repeal and Replace the Planet of the Apes!" I want...
Ahem. Just gimme more monkey.
"War for the Planet of the Apes" is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, thematic elements and disturbing images.
Teddy pays tribute to actor Martin Landau
- By Teddy Durgin -
In 1966, Gene Roddenberry picked him to play the role of Mr. Spock... and he turned it down! For five years, he made a living not as an actor... but as a newspaper cartoonist! He was James Dean's best friend! For two months, he dated... Marilyn Monroe! If you or I did just one of those things, THAT would be our claim to fame. Heck, I'm pretty sure there's been some guy out there who went on one date with Marilyn Monroe before she became famous, struck out, but he's been living off that peck on the cheek at the end of the night for decades. Decades, I tell ya!
But Martin Landau took those early brushes with greatness with a shrug and a "Yeah, that was me" attitude and then went on to an amazing acting career, full of great highs and even greater lows. The man hung in there in one of the world's toughest professions in one of the world's most unforgiving towns. His early Hollywood career was marked by an unforgettably sinister performance as the menacing henchman Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "North by Northwest" (1959), followed by performances in everything from "Cleopatra" (1963) to "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). He then conquered the TV medium, co-starring as a master of disguise on the original "Mission: Impossible" followed by the lead role as Commander Koenig in "Space: 1999."
But he burned a few too many bridges there in the late 1960s and early '70s, and his career flat-lined. How bad did it get? To pay the bills, he was forced to play the baddie in "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island," a 1981 TV movie that might be one of the worst two hours ever to air on network television.
It wasn't until 1988 when Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas plucked Landau out of Tinseltown obscurity to co-star in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" that people in the industry suddenly recognized and remembered, "Oh wow. Martin Landau is still alive... and he's STILL a great actor." Landau received an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn as Abe Karatz, the sad-sack business partner of visionary car maker Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) who remembers his mother telling him "don't catch other people's dreams" (she really meant "germs," but he mis-heard).
A year later, he was nominated again for Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," then finally won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for 1994's "Ed Wood." In that film, he gave one of the best cinematic performances of that decade as the elderly, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi, the once-famous "Dracula" actor pressed into service to star in a cheesy, low-budget flick by the demented title character. That performance, coupled with his role in "Tucker," worked on multiple levels as Landau had known fame and success, lost it, and fought tooth and nail to regain it again... to once again, "catch his dreams."
He never went away after those roles, working well into his 70s and 80s in such flicks as "Rounders," "Edtv," "The Majestic," and TV's "Without a Trace" and "Entourage." He was a character actor who made so many films and TV shows he appeared in better because of his performances. Heck, even on "Gilligan's Island," he didn't phone it in. I was 10 when that flick aired on NBC, and his mad scientist creeped me out. Landau passed away this past Saturday, July 15. He was 89.
'Baby Driver' kicks the summer into high gear
- By Teddy Durgin -
The concern going into the new car-chase caper "Baby Driver" was that I'd pretty much seen everything a movie could do with cool criminals and even cooler cars with the "Fast and the Furious" franchise. But that concern turned out to be completely unfounded, I'm happy to report. Call this flick "The Fast and the Hilarious," as it mixes in awesome automotive stunts and whip-smart comedy as well as any film you're likely to see in this genre. It's those Vin Diesel flicks if Quentin Tarantino had been allowed to do a pass on their final screenplays each time out. I've even read a few reviews that compare "Baby Driver" to "Point Break" crossed with "La La Land." And I can't argue with that mash-up analysis either, considering this is a flick fueled by a soundtrack that somehow works in everyone from the Beach Boys and Queen to Beck and Barry White.
The film stars Ansel Elgort as a young, hotshot getaway driver named Baby, who is beholden to local crime boss Doc, (Kevin Spacey). Doc compels Baby to take part in one last major heist before driving off into the sunset with his new girlfriend, Deborah (Lily James). The two lovers share the common dream of "heading west in a car we can't afford with a plan we don't have." But Baby is saddled with a rogue's crew of violent and unstable crooks, including the most unstable of them all, Jamie Foxx's Bats. And it all goes so deeply wrong.
There are any number of characters in this film - from Bats to Jon Hamm's perverse Buddy - who would make for great leads in another movie. And that's one of the film's great strengths. It has the action and pyrotechnics of a summer popcorn flick. But it also has an actual script with great dialogue and characters that name actors would rub each other out for to play.
And the part of the flick that is the gimmick - that had the greatest chance to come off as jive on screen - works just beautifully here. I'm talking about Baby being partially hearing impaired with a ringing in his ears that requires him to listen to music almost constantly, providing the film's running soundtrack. It's such a goofy concept that ends up working in so many cool ways.
For instance, there is a shootout sequence in "Baby Driver" where each blast of gunfire is in complete sync with the rhythm section of the song playing on the soundtrack. It's truly, madly, deeply goofy... and it's also one of the flat-out coolest things you'll see in a cinema this year!
Much credit has to go to director Edgar Wright, of course, who has been mashing up genres for years with flicks like "Shaun of the Dead" and "The World's End." He also wrote the screenplay here, and you can feel this is an unfiltered vision from the first minute to the last. Kudos to the studio and the Powers That Be who put the money up for this and then wisely got the hell out of his way. And more applause to Wright for assembling some top-notch technical talent. It's the pros back in the sound mixing booth and the editing room who should get an enormous amount of credit.
The only sad part for me is that in the build-up to who would be cast as the young Han Solo in the "Star Wars" movie now being filmed by Ron Howard, I was really pulling for Elgort to get the lead. I saw a bit of the young, cocky, but droll Harrison Ford in him in "The Fault In Our Stars." Don't get me wrong. I think Alden Ehrenreich is great and will be just fine. But when you see Elgort's Baby behind the wheel evading everyone and everything the road throws at him, I couldn't help but imagine him behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon dodging TIE fighters.
*Sigh.* But, again, that's if I ran Hollywood. If I did, I'd certainly give more work to Edgar Wright!
"Baby Driver" is rated R for violence and language.
'Spider-Man' finally comes home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
- By Teddy Durgin -
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" steps right in its first few moments and rarely steps wrong right through the very final post credits extra. Just within the first 15 minutes, we get an orchestral blast of some old, familiar theme music; a different perspective revisit to two previous Marvel movies that directly impact this film; and the introduction of a new villain played by an actor best known for playing one of the great heroes of the DC Comics movie franchise. The whole thing indeed feels like a "homecoming," with Spidey appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for the first time and Michael Keaton returning to the realm of big screen comic-book blockbusters.
It's almost a shame that this is the sixth "Spider-Man" movie in 15 years and the third reboot. Aware of the possibility of franchise fatigue, producer extraordinaire Kevin Feige and upstart director Jon Watts wisely forego the usual origin story and plop us right down into the Marvel timeline where it last left off in "Captain America: Civil War." High school sophomore Peter Parker (a great Tom Holland) has returned from his battle royale with the Avengers in Germany and has been awaiting Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr., in an extended cameo) call to go on more missions.
But Stark has been dealing with the aftermath of "Civil War," while continuing to enjoy his jet-set, billionaire playboy lifestyle. Peter, meanwhile, has had to return to the humdrum life of peer pressure, mid-term exams and summoning enough courage to ask his dream girl to his school's homecoming dance. When he can, he breaks away for a little Spider-Man street action and then goes on YouTube to see if anyone filmed his web-slinging exploits. For the most part, he's stopping carjackers and purse snatchers in his Queens neighborhood, not saving the world with Iron Man, Black Widow and Captain America.
Then one night, he stumbles upon a bank robbery in which the thieves seem to be wielding high-tech, possibly alien weaponry. Little does he know that a new super-villain, The Vulture (Keaton), is behind the heist and that there's a bigger game being played.
What I loved about "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is that it gives us a completely different and much smaller perspective on this alternate Earth timeline we've now been following since 2008's "Iron Man." This flick puts us on the ground level of a world where superheroes actually exist and threats - both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial - to our planet are frequent. We see how common people have processed all this and gone on with their lives. In particular, we see how kids have processed this. In schools, for instance, the events of "Avengers: Age of Ultron" are taught in history class. Juniors and seniors covet the Stark Industries internship and scholarship programs. And so forth.
Even the villain is actually a blue-collar man. Keaton's Adrian Toomes is a former construction foreman whose company was one of the ones assigned to clear the debris from New York City after the first "Avengers" movie. But the effort became federalized so the government and contractor Stark Industries could swoop in and scoop up all of that alien technology lying around. So he and his men were out of jobs with mortgages to pay and families to feed. Wisely, the film doesn't devolve into some ham-fisted "War Against the 1 Percent" social commentary. But it does add texture to the villains and provides a bit of gray area to a Marvel universe often criticized for being too black and white.
"Homecoming" has its flaws. Watts and the film's six screenwriters go out of their way NOT to make Peter/Spidey a killer either by intention or by accident. And that sort of betrays the world the MCU has set up to this point, where human collateral damage is practically a daily possibility with superheroes fighting super baddies. But the movie is such a fresh take on the genre that it's easy to forgive what few bumps there are. Marvel and Disney continue to have me in their web!
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and suggestive comments.
Teddy's 10 most anticipated movies of 2017
- 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
- 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.