'Paddington 2' is loaded (with charm) for bear

'Paddington 2' is loaded (with charm) for bear

(Updated 1/12/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

As was the case with the first "Paddington" movie, the United Kingdom released "Paddington 2" late in the calendar year "across the pond" to qualify for BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscars) award consideration. In the United States, though, both "Paddington" and "Paddington 2" received January releases  - way too early for awards consideration the following years. And that's a shame, because both flicks legitimately feature award-caliber art directon, visual effects and even writing. Heck, the BAFTA nominations came out last week and "Paddington 2" was touted in several major categories including Best British Film and Hugh Grant for Best Supporting Actor.

Grant plays the sequel's villain here and he is indeed splendid. A once-famous and respected actor now reduced to dog food commercials and ribbon cutting ceremonies, his Phoenix Buchanan is a particularly demented and supremely narcissistic baddie - an actor who is no longer able to work well with others and dreams only of putting together enough money to stage one-man shows on London's West End, in which he would reprise all of the famous and infamous characters he's ever played on stage and screen.

He sees the opportunity to raise such funds in the form of an antique pop-up book that our title character (once again voiced by Ben Whishaw) has been working hard and saving up to buy for his beloved Aunt Sally (voice of Imelda Staunton) for her 100th birthday. When Buchanan steals the book and frames Paddington for the crime, it's up to the quirky Brown family - who took in the kindly bear during the events of the first "Paddington" movie - to clear their friend's name and catch the real thief.

"Paddington 2" maintains all of the considerable charm of the first film and throws in a hefty bit of whimsy, cheer and good fun. Things are dire for our dear Paddington. But even when he is sentenced to a decade in prison, his impeccable manners and unwavering belief in the goodness of others transforms the dark, Gothic jail and its inhabitants to the point where the prisoners become polite and kind to each other and the prison itself starts to look like something out of Bon Appetit and Betters Homes and Gardens magazines.

It's a nutty film, stuffed with British eccentrics and eccentric Brits. If you were in a "Harry Potter" film a decade ago, chances are there was an open-door policy to be cast in this flick. Such Hogwarts vets as Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton all play fairly prominent roles. Most of the original "Paddington" cast is back, too, including all four members of the Brown family.

My only criticism of "Paddington 2" is that it stuffs so much new and old into the storyline that some of my favorite returning characters don't get the same amount of love and attention this time around. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins are still great as Henry and Mary Brown, but their kids barely register in this one. Even a couple of the new additions, most notably Ben Miller's Colonel Lancaster (an initially shut-in neighbor of the Browns, who finds love with a corner newsstand lady), are nudged out of screen time as the film progresses.

But I'd rather have a movie try and do too much than too little. And "Paddington 2" is a feast for the eyes and the soul. From a really cool trek through modern-day London by way of a pop-up book's pop-up pages, to a great montage of Paddington's brief slapstick misadventures as a window cleaner, to the recurring cameo of the calypso band Tabago Crusoe as the movie's de facto Greek chorus, this is just a delight from opening titles to closing credits. It's that rare sequel that's an equal.

"Paddington 2" is rated PG for action and mild, rude humor.

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Stop the presses! 'The Post' is a good movie!

Stop the presses! 'The Post' is a good movie!

(Updated 1/12/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

We live in an age where, sadly, a lot of people believe that journalism is dead. They also say that malls are dead, religion is dead, chivalry is dead. But more often than not, it's journalism. It's my profession, so I hear it more than many of you, I'd imagine. And it's mostly in reaction to what has developed into a perfect storm of politics, entertainment and big business now intertwined with major media outlets (broadcast, print and otherwise) who together have massive financial stakes in keeping us divided.

Depending on the balance of power, a majority of TV, radio, online and newspaper outlets either seem to be in full defense mode of the establishment or in full offense mode as a de facto "resistance." In attacking each other, what often pervades is a "shoot first, aim later" mentality that frequently claims facts as the first casualty and keeps the people in a near-permanent state of crossfire.

It's tempting to say that "The Post" harkens back to and applauds a time when journalists were the avowed last line of defense between the power and the people. It does dramatize that pivotal moment in American history when the government tried to quash the New York Times and subsequently the Washington Post and any other media outlet from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) (without the knowledge of President Lyndon B. Johnson) to chronicle America's involvement in Vietnam from the 1940s to the then-present as a historical record. In the files, which were not meant to be seen by the public at the time, were details of how four White House administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) to varying degrees lied to Congress, the American people and the world in escalating what most in the know knew was an unwinnable war.

But the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a bit more incisive than that. The "good guys" don't always stroll through their scenes bathed in a golden Janusz Kaminski light. The film focuses on Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and their dilemma about whether to publish the Pentagon Papers when the Nixon administration legally bars the Times from doing so.

Graham and Bradlee are portrayed throughout a good part of the film as less worried about the legal fallout from going with such a series of front-page stories and more about what it will do to their social standing on the D.C. power circuit. Back then, Graham was long-time friends with McNamara and threw parties in which most of Washington's political elite came by the manor for bubbly, appetizers and evening pomposity. For his part, Bradlee had been close friends with John F. Kennedy and struggles with whether he would print such a sensational, scandalous series of stories if JFK were still in the Oval Office.

Indeed, rightly, Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer don't portray these two as larger-than-life crusaders from the get-go. Graham and Bradlee and their staff had to get past their own biases and allegiances to do what was right, what was destined, what was historic.

"The Post" weaves a complex web, and my only major criticism is I wish it wove it a bit clearer and better. There are a good three dozen major and minor (but still important) speaking roles in this film, and it takes a while for the viewer to sort through who's who. The film never provides any on-screen text when new "characters" are introduced to let us know who they are and why they're important in that moment and subsequent moments to come. Sure, many commoners will know Graham, Bradlee and McNamara going in. But if you aren't familiar with names like Ben Bagdikian, Fritz Beebe, Arthur Parsons and Meg Greenfield, their on-screen time is compromised by in-theater whispers of "Uh, who is that again?"

And that's a shame, because once I got a grasp of all involved (it took a good hour), I was fully invested in "The Post." The last 30 minutes or so, in particular, provide some of the most absorbing cinematic moments of this past year. You can argue that journalism is dead. But this journalism movie is very much alive and kicking.

"The Post" is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.

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Teddy's 10 best movies of 2017

(Updated 1/8/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Ah, another year, another round of great, good and very good movies. In truth, 2017 wasn't the best year for films. There were a lot of flicks that I liked, admired, appreciated and/or left the theater thinking, "Eh, that was OK." But the gems among them really showed. As per usual, I disqualify "Star Wars" movies from consideration because I am just too darn close to the subject matter. I acknowledge I can't be fully objective when it comes to the saga. At any rate, here are my picks for the top 10 films from this past year. Agree or disagree... but accept:

1) "Dunkirk" - One of the best war movies of my lifetime, and the year's most immersive cinematic experience. The fractured time narrative threw some audience members off. But repeat viewings show the genius and wisdom in director Christopher Nolan's decision to tell the land-air-sea story this way.

2) "Blade Runner 2049" - Yes, perhaps you do indeed have to be an absolute "Blade Runner" nerd like I am to fully appreciate this masterful, near three-hour sequel. But, hey, the world waited 35 years for a follow-up to the Ridley Scott sci-fi original. The fact that we were able to spend a few more minutes than necessary in this lurid, distinctive dystopia didn't bother me at all.

3) "Get Out" - Countless essays and editorials were written on the social, racial and political implications of this movie, its themes and storyline. And the film is certainly good enough to warrant such deeper discussions. But I still marvel at its efficiency; its spot-on casting; and its wonderful mix of scares, laughs, mysteries and reveals.

4) "Baby Driver" - The presence of Kevin Spacey now mars this great heist caper flick. But it shouldn't. "Baby Driver" is still a thrilling movie to just sit back, let it take the wheel and drive you to escape the real world for a couple of hours. I want a sequel!

5) "The Disaster Artist" - Gary Oldman will win the Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards. It's a lock. But James Franco deserves to be in the discussion for his uncanny portrayal of the highly eccentric schlock filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. And he directed, too!

6) "Thor: Ragnarok" - This was the most fun I had at any movie this past year. It had more laughs than most comedies. And it really was a prime example of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hitting on all cylinders. This year's "Avengers: Infinity War" looks heavy. How wonderful in this time of last Jedi and deathbed X-Men that we get a popcorn superhero movie that's alive with fun, wit and genuine wonder!

7) "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" - Wow, the Golden Globes sure showered this one with love! Indeed, a great flick. A challenging flick, for sure. But with the Globe wins and subsequent Oscar nominations, here's hoping for a bigger theatrical release.

8) "Wonder Woman" - Oh, hell yes! A DC Comics movie finally came to play. If only we could turn back time and take the rest of the overall franchise out of Zack Snyder's hands and turn out Batman, Superman and Justice League movies equally as fun, thrilling and emotional.

9) "Only the Brave" - I always reserve my No. 9 spot on each year's list for a movie that will likely not make any other reviewers' 10 Best list, but I loved nonetheless. This year, I give you this intense firefighter drama based on a true story that sucked me in early on and made me really like its characters, setting and situations.

10) "The Post" - Spielberg, Streep and Hanks made a really solid flick about history and journalism here that I thought kept the modern-day moralizing down... eh, maybe not to a minimum. But at least their film didn't choke on it. I found it thoroughly absorbing.

But no. 10 could just as easily have been (in alphabetical order): "Coco," "Darkest Hour," "Detroit," "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" or "Wonder."

Movies on other critics' 10 best lists I have yet to see: "I, Tonya," "Lady Bird" and "The Shape of Water."

Teddy's 10 worst movies of 2017

(Updated 1/8/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

Well, now that the Golden Globes have honored some TV shows you've never heard of and some movies you likely haven't seen, it's high time I unleashed my annual 10 Worst Movies of this past year list. Some of these really hurt me, dear readers. So, I have no problem hurting 'em right back! Here goes:

1) "mother!" - Truly two hours of my life I will never get back. I earned at least a month's worth of East County Times paychecks sitting through this pretentious, leaden bore. It physically affected me. I didn't want to see a movie in a theater for a couple of weeks after. I even hated the title's stupid punctuation. And I couldn't even muster a chuckle when I read a recent interview with writer-director Darren Aronofsky in which he said the whole experience left him so drained (and reportedly was the reason his relationship with lead actress Jennifer Lawrence ended) that he is now taking time off from film making to just binge-watch "Rick and Morty" and "Game of Thrones." I hope his power goes out.

2) "Leap!" - OK, I'm calling it. If a film has an exclamation point in its title, there's a good chance it's going to be dreck. There are always exceptions. "Airplane!" for example. But otherwise, you've been warned. I think this might have been the last film to get a release - and a botched one at that - by The Weinstein Cos. Good riddance!

3) "Pitch Perfect 3" - The fact that this dreadful sequel, which has about 30 minutes of story and 60-plus minutes of shrill karaoke, is making any money at all at the box office is actually quite depressing. Seriously, in the next couple of weeks, this thing's on pace to clear $100 million! Meanwhile, flicks like "I, Tonya" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri" struggle for screens at cineplexes nationwide.

4) "Rough Night" - Indeed, it was!

5) "Fifty Shades Darker" - This film is remarkable only in that it actually made kinky sex boring. Thank Caviezel, there's only one more of these on the way.

6) "The Bye Bye Man" - Audiences waved farewell to this stinker darn-near a year ago at this time.

7) "Transformers: The Last Knight" - Another big-screen franchise that SO needs to end! The only thing noteworthy about it was how much it made you miss... gulp... Shia LaBeouf! Folks, that should NEVER happen!

8) "CHiPs" - Erik Estrada was rolling over in his grave after this awful... oh, wait. He had a cameo in the film. Sorry!

9) "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" - Easily my most disappointing movie of 2017! I really enjoyed the first flick and thought there was so much potential here, especially from the early teasers and trailers. What the heck happened?! Almost nothing worked in this sequel, and I just really wish it had never been made.

10) "Unforgettable" - I certainly didn't forget it for this list. Muhaha!

But No. 10 could just as easily have been (in alphabetical order): "Free Fire," "Geostorm," "The House," "My Cousin Rachel" or "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter." Oh, please let it be!

Teddy's 10 most anticipated movies of 2018

(Updated 1/2/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Darkest Hour' sheds light on a pivotal moment in history

'Darkest Hour' sheds light on a pivotal moment in history

(Updated 1/2/18)

- By Teddy Durgin -

"Darkest Hour" is an interesting film to review. I really liked it. But the main reason I really liked it is because it served as such a good companion piece to another better film: Christopher Nolan's amazingly harrowing "Dunkirk" from earlier this year. If that film had one glaring flaw - and I seem to recall mentioning it in my original review - it's that it plopped its audience down into a major historical event without providing much context or background. Now, I knew what the significance of Dunkirk was to England, to World War II and to history itself because I'm a well-read man (not really). But if I didn't know my history, I probably wouldn't have appreciated the movie nearly as much.

"Darkest Hour" provides the context and background that is missing. It shows what's happening back on the homefront. It explains why those thousands and thousands of troops were trapped, left at the mercy of the Third Reich, seemingly abandoned by their country. It shows the reasons why a historic rescue had to be mounted by private yachtsmen and anyone with a boat and able to sail to that under-siege French beach. Most of all, it shows the early days of Winston Churchill's time as British Prime Minister and the course changes and decisions he made that would ultimately save our world from fascism and tyranny.

Gary Oldman plays Churchill. The performance is everything you've read and heard from reviewers who got to see the film earlier than I did. And the makeup job is seemless. This film WILL win Oscars in both the Lead Actor and Makeup categories, and deservedly so. It's one of those rare instances on screen where the acting and the look are so spot-on, you forget you are watching an actor you've seen many times before and just completely buy that this is the real historic figure, doing his real historic deeds.

Is the film a bit talky? Oh, more than a bit. This and "Dunkirk" could not be any more different in pace and style. This is a movie a la "Lincoln" where it shows a man under extreme pressure having to summon every bit of political savvy he can muster in order to do what he believes is right, all the while the weight of history weighs heavier and heavier on his shoulders. Oldman does it with a fascinating mix of bluster and self-satisfaction. He also exhibits some good humor, particularly in the film's quieter moments with his wife, Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott-Thomas).

Criticism? Basically, it's the same one I had with other films that feature outsized lead performances, whether it be "There Will Be Blood" and Daniel Day-Lewis or "Malcolm X" and Denzel Washington. So much emphasis is placed on the main "character" that no one else is really allowed to emerge and share in the spotlight. You could have made a whole movie just on the Churchills' marriage, Oldman and Scott-Thomas are that good together. Similarly, there is a potentially GREAT subplot involving Churchill's initially strenuous relationship with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) that had enough crackle to have also been a whole movie.

I felt a bit frustrated when the film would move away from these different pairings to give Oldman another scene where he gets to rise up and make a fiery declaration for two or three minutes. The best scene actually happens late in the film when Churchill decides to step out of his chauffeur-driven car in traffic, wander down into the London "underground," board a subway car and interact for the first time with " the people." It's a complete fabrication. It never happened. But as a "movie scene," it got Churchill out of the stuffy corridors of power and into a place where he and other people talked with each other and not at each other. It's a great scene allowed to go on for several minutes, with moments of humor, sadness, self-discovery and, ultimately, purpose.

Ultimately, my purpose will be to see "Darkest Hour" again someday... as a double bill with "Dunkirk."

"Darkest Hour" is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.

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'Father Figures': Durgin has no major daddy issues with this one

'Father Figures': Durgin has no major daddy issues with this one

(Updated 12/26/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

The new comedy "Father Figures" could almost be described as the new drama "Father Figures." In fact, probably the best way to describe it is as a comedy-drama or "dramedy." It's pretty evenly balanced, despite the trailer and commercials that make it look like a hilariously contrived romp featuring the star of "The Hangover" and the star of "Wedding Singers" as twin brothers on a quest to find their real biological daddy.

Watching it made me wonder what the original intent was. Did screenwriter Justin Malen sit down to write a broad, jokey comedy about a once-promiscuous young woman in the 1970s who slept with everyone from football great Terry Bradshaw to her local veterinarian and really doesn't know who the father of her twin sons is? Or was it a more serious movie he envisioned, centering on two directionless 30-something men looking for identity? Elements of both are in "Father Figures." It's an uneven movie that tries to blend scenes of Owen Wilson getting into a urinating contest with a child in a public men's room and Wilson and Ed Helms marveling over the giant size of a cat's testicles with moments like Helms angrily and tearfully realizing he's dedicated his whole life and life's work to a man who never actually existed.

Helms and Wilson play twins Peter and Kyle Reynolds, who find out on their mother's (Glenn Close) wedding day that the man they thought was their father (who died from cancer before they were born) was not their dad. Mom was apparently so promiscuous back in her Studio 54 days that dad could have been a car thief, a legendary Boston cop, a neighborhood vet, or (yes) the MVP of Super Bowl XIV. Needless to say, the two men are hoping for Bradshaw and his four NFL championship rings. But their quest takes them to all four dudes, with Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons doing predictably funny-creepy work as the dirtbag car thief and Christopher Walken removing all punctuation from his scripted lines to deliver a suitably weird performance as the shaky-handed pet doctor.

"Father Figures" is a likable film that is being released totally in the wrong time of the year. This feels more like a March or September kind of flick. It's raunchy in spots, but not uproarious. It's poignant in other places, but never a tear-jerker. It's actually a modest endeavor that is at its worst when it's trying to be too zany or wacky for easy scene pulls to go into the trailers and commercials, like Simmons getting hit with a Ferrari driven by Helms, or Bradshaw thoroughly grossing out Helms and Wilson with his detailed remembrances of he and their mother in bed.

The film shines brightest when Helms and Wilson are given side characters to play off of who are as playful as they are. Katt Williams is very memorable as a hitchhiker the two pick up, who they like but fear might be a killer. So they tie him up as they drive him from New York to New England, but he maintains his same kooky, good-natured sense of humor from the backseat as the two siblings bicker harder and harder. I also liked Katie Aselton as a woman Peter picks up in a hotel bar, has a one-night stand with, then later in the film learns could very well be his half-sister.

If you go to "Father Figures" not expecting too much, I think you'll have a good time. In fact, that's a good way to be with dads in general. We're all trying. Sometimes we lean more towards the dramatic than the comedic. Sometimes vice versa. But we're always trying. So is this movie, and I appreciated it.

"Father Figures" is rated R for language and sexual references throughout.

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A (hopefully) final number for the 'Pitch Perfect' franchise

A (hopefully) final number for the 'Pitch Perfect' franchise

(Updated 12/22/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

"Pitch Perfect 3" has a running time of 93 minutes. Without the musical numbers, the film is maybe 33 minutes. Combined, that hour and a half plus three feels like it's an hour longer than the 152 minutes "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" flickers across the screen. My God, what a bad movie! I was in a capella Hell.

Seriously, the songs in this movie have an absolute bludgeoning quality to them. There are so many of them, performed so often, edited with strobe-light ruthlessness and sung by a bunch of characters who look like they are caffeinated to an alarming degree, that I was actively rejecting every sound and image that assaulted my senses by the half-hour mark. I was like a baby in a high-chair refusing his Gerber strained peas, and no amount of "choo-choo" coaxing could make me open myself back up to it.

I gave a positive review to the first "Pitch Perfect." The songs were fun, there was some fine character work and Rebel Wilson emerged as a star from that flick. The second movie was bigger and mostly held serve. This one? It's a cash grab from the very concept stage, and a soulless one at that.

Ana Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp and various minor, one-note hangers-on return from the previous two films. These ladies are supposed to be so tight, so close. But two of them are marginalized as part of a recurring comic gag that's more cruel than funny. In another instance, two characters who've known each other for three films have a heart-to-heart talk - and one of them isn't quite sure of the other's name. But in the scenes before and after these, the characters preach "sisterhood" like it's a campaign slogan.

At any rate, Kendrick's Beca, Wilson's Amy (who's still called "Fat Amy") and the others are former members of the competitive Bellas a capella singing group. They sang in college together. Now, they're out in the "real world" with jobs like music producer, veterinary intern, street performer and food truck entrepreneur. They are followed around by the pathetic show commentators from the first two films, Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), who are filming a snide documentary about the Bellas fading into mediocrity.

When the Bellas are at their lowest point and missing each other and the former university limelight the most, Camp's Aubrey comes up with the idea of entering the group in a USO tour of American military bases in Europe (only those near gorgeous, four-star resorts, of course) and competing with three other bands to be the opening act for DJ Khaled. If you have no idea who DJ Khaled is and his importance to today's pop culture, this movie is NOT for you.

"Pitch Perfect 3" sets up this competition fairly well, pitting the Bellas most directly against a mean girls/all girls band named Evermoist. But then, the film completely abandons its premise at about the one hour mark, takes a severe left turn and becomes... a hostage drama! It seems Amy's criminal father (John Lithgow, embarrassing himself here playing an Aussie) finds out his daughter has a $180 million bank account (!) in the Cayman Islands she knew nothing about and he tries to bilk her. When she refuses, he kidnaps all of her friends except Beca and threatens to execute them (!) on his yacht if she doesn't cooperate. Even this leads to an impromptu musical number!

The film then turns Amy into some kind of "Matrix"-like action hero, capable of taking out a half-dozen huge henchmen at a time with some insane martial-arts skills. The whole thing culminates in an image you've already seen in the trailers: Amy and Beca running just ahead of a giant fireball, jumping off Lithgow's yacht, and into the water below (Amy face-plants on a rowboat... because... y'know overweight people and pratfalls). Never mind that at any time, the kidnapped Bellas were NEVER tied up, NEVER held at gunpoint and NEVER placed in a locked room. They literally could have jumped ship like Beca and Amy did and swam about 200 yards to shore at any time during their "ordeal."

What an awful movie. The music really needs to stop for this franchise.

"Pitch Perfect 3" is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language and some action.

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'Ferdinand' is fun for family audiences... and that's no bull

'Ferdinand' is fun for family audiences... and that's no bull

(Updated 12/18/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

At age 46, I can feel myself slipping just a bit away from the pop-culture mainstream, which is rightfully geared largely towards kids, teens and the millennial generation. So, it's surprising when a flick like "Ferdinand" comes around and I read different reviewers and columnists refer to the "beloved, timeless 1936 children's book" on which it is based. Written by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, "Ferdinand the Bull" has apparently enchanted young boys and girls since before World War II.

Uh, I'd never heard of it.

But then again, I was mostly into "Star Wars" comics, Mad Libs and Charlie Brown books when I was a youngster. I've even heard some people talk about how great the 1938 eight-minute, Oscar-winning animated short was. And, really, that's just people being elitists. Y'all haven't seen it.

I honestly had never heard the story of a young Spanish bull named Ferdinand (voiced here by pro-wrestling legend John Cena) who escapes a Spanish ranch at a very young age and is raised by Nina (Lily Day), the daughter of a flower farmer who treats the huge animal as a member of the family. Ferdinand grows up not to be a snarling beast in the ring looking to gore dudes - he's a pacifist. So when he inadvertently thrashes a small town's spring festival after encountering a random bee, he is cast out and sent back to the ranch from which he originally escaped. There, he is a misfit among the other bulls who all dream of being chosen to fight inside a Madrid arena against a bloodthirsty matador. Escape seems like his only option.

"Ferdinand" is a generally good-hearted and fun flick that also has some positive anti-bullying messages. The best thing going for the film is its endearing title character, and Cena does a surprisingly good job lending him not only a voice but a soul.

I wish the other characterizations were as strong or memorable. The film credits six different writers with the script, and it shows in spots. A chatty goat named Lupe is surprisingly annoying, considering the creature is voiced by "Saturday Night Live" standout Kate McKinnon. More could have also been done with the trio of hedgehogs performed by Gina Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias and Daveed Diggs. And, uh, Peyton Manning as a rival bull to Ferdinand... why... just why?

But where the writing comes up short or is just a bit pedestrian, director Carlos Saldanha - of "Rio" and "Ice Age" fame - certainly knows how to visually tell a story to the point where you and your littlest ones won't be bored. "Ferdinand" lacks the artistry of Pixar's current "Coco" and probably could have gone even further with its Spanish settings and traditions. Some may find the animation a bit hyperactive. But, without a child to see this with, it kept me conscious.

"Ferdinand" looks to melt cynical hearts more than anything. And there is just enough warming of the ventricles and aorta here for me to give this a mild recommend for families... after they see "The Last Jedi," of course.

"Ferdinand" is rated PG for some rude humor, action and thematic elements.

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'The Last Jedi' feels the Force

'The Last Jedi' feels the Force

(Updated 12/18/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" wore me out, dear readers. And it wasn't just because I saw it on opening night at the 9:30 p.m. screening with all of the crazies. "Episode VIII" is, by far, the most intense "Star Wars" film of the nine total features that have been made thus far. It's relentless. There's never a point in the film where any of the characters are truly safe. Even sleeping in one's bed, half a galaxy away, on a remote island on the most "unfindable" planet in the cosmos... a Sith Lord wannabe can still Force mind-meld with you and tempt you with all of the answers to your questions as the first steps on your possible journey to the Dark Side.

But that's just the mystical aspect of the film, which writer-director Rian Johnson nails. I love what he does with the Force in this film, the new powers he's able to assign those powerful enough to wield them. He goes back to the idea that the Force penetrates all life and binds everything together, no matter if it's a pile of rocks right in front of you or a distant battlefield many solar systems away. The Force has no limits, and that's what makes it beautiful and frightening.

But back to the relentless part. Our surviving heroes from the first film are driven from their base in "The Force Awakens" and pursued by "The First Order" literally for the entire movie in "The Last Jedi." The First Order, this time around, has a particular Nazis at Dunkirk- like viciousness. Rather than annihilate them in one blitzkrieg move, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) sadistically toy with the ragtag fleeing fleet, picking the ships off one-by-one, two-by-two and more as they run dangerously low on fuel. This sets into motion all sorts of power struggles within the Resistance involving hotshot squadron leader Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) teams up with a new friend, spunky Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to undertake a secret mission to hopefully save all of them.

"The Last Jedi" feels like a true "passing of the torch" movie. I'm not spoiling anything by writing that, believe me. It's not so much about death and survival, as maturity and evolution. Poe has to learn to be a responsible military leader. Rey has to learn to be a Jedi and try to avoid the temptations of the Dark Side. Finn has to stop running and fully believe in a cause this time. Along the way, they each have mentors. Poe's clashes with Leia and Holdo are some of the best moments of the movie. Luke, as Rey's reluctant teacher, shows her that the Force is bigger than any one single individual. Rose shows Finn the importance of sacrifice and heroism.

"The Last Jedi" is the first of the new "Star Wars" films to feel completely in the grip of a single filmmaker, and Johnson pushes the saga into often uncomfortable places some fans might not be ready to go into. Defeat is very much a real possibility on multiple occasions. And, yes, a number of name characters meet their end in this film. But he also recognizes the importance of broad humor in the "Star Wars" mythos. Some of my favorite bits in the film (and I'll be vague here) are Poe's "phone call" to Hux, Chewie trying to sit down and have a meal and BB-8 being mistaken for a... well, I won't spoil it.

I am a mix of emotions as I write this only hours after seeing "The Last Jedi." The saga will truly never be the same after this one. It was necessary to push the envelope, though, and I recognize that. There certainly were at least two big choices in this film that were made without any thought of future box office returns. As always, I do have ideas about where "Star Wars" is headed from here. And if the very final scene of "The Last Jedi" is any indication, the Force will be very much with us for generations to come.

"The Last Jedi" is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

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'Just Getting Started' is already finished

'Just Getting Started' is already finished

(Updated 12/11/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

If you told me I was going to go see a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo, I would be very excited... er, if it was 1995. But it's 2017. Yes, I still love all three stars and have seen them be effective in several films in recent years. They're not feeble by any means! But when they are in a movie as feeble as the new "Just Getting Started," the end result is just sad. It makes you realize how few scripts are being written with senior-age actors and actresses in mind. And, of those few, how many are really good?

I was actually surprised that this turned out to be such a stinker, considering it was directed and written by Ron Shelton. His list of credits include "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump" and the underrated "Dark Blue," not to mention such other keepers as "Blaze" and "Tin Cup." He's probably best when writing and/or directing straight-up sports films. Here, he tries to pull off a geriatric mob caper, with elements of screwball comedy. The end result is flat and leaves its stars totally exposed.

Freeman stars as Duke Diver, the much loved manager of an upscale Palm Springs resort. He has sort of crafted himself a legend's presence and reputation, which is threatened with the arrival of Jones' Leo. The ex-military charmer checks into the Villa Capri, and immediately the two aging bulls get competitive with each other. The main competition has to do with who will woo the also newly-arrived Suzie (Russo).

But we soon come to learn that Duke is in the Witness Protection Program for ratting out the mafia. When he is discovered, he forms an unlikely alliance with Leo to try and keep himself (and the hotel) safe from harm.

It's mob-lite, of course. It doesn't end with Morgan and Tommy Lee getting clubbed to death and buried in a rural cornfield. But one of the problems with the film is the comical, easy-breezy tone short circuiting what in real life would probably be a pretty scary scenario. It's almost as if the principals recognize this, and that's where the on-screen flailing begins. Because, again, two decades ago, Freeman, Jones and Russo could bring the dramatic urgency to a similarly themed and plotted flick. In 2017, though, the whole thing plays out like, "Aww, isn't it adorable those old coots are foiling those bumbling wise guys."

Freeman was much better with Michael Caine and Alan Arkin earlier in the year in the heist caper, "Going in Style." That film's script had more room in it for recognizable human emotions, and there was a good deal of fun to be had when the audience was finally let in on the old guys' elaborate scheme to knock over a bank. I still love that climactic moment when a little girl makes a fateful decision as an eyewitness that had the audience I saw it with cheer and applaud.

That film worked. It engaged you. There are no such moments in "Just Getting Started." There's a bit of fun early on when Freeman and Jones are vying with each other over poker, golf and Russo chasing. It was a touch sad, but still welcome, to see the late Glenne Headly in what was likely her final performance as a resort guest showing a cougar's sense of play (Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jane Seymour are also happy to be acting here).

But it's ultimately no fun watching seasoned veterans trying so hard to rescue a bad script. I'm really just getting started on bagging on this film. But I'll stop here out of respect for a cast and crew who have entertained me so often in the past. Sigh. At least this all probably paid a LOT better than Social Security.

"Just Getting Started" is rated PG-13 for language, suggestive material and brief violence.

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'The Disaster Artist' pulls victory from the jaws of defeat

'The Disaster Artist' pulls victory from the jaws of defeat

(Updated 12/11/17)

- By Teddy Durgin -

"The Disaster Artist" may be the best movie ever made about a bad movie. Actually, it may be the only such film. Er, OK, maybe "Ed Wood." But this is one of those "you gotta see it to believe it" kind of flicks that only some very powerful and persuasive Hollywood players could possibly have gotten made. It's kind of a minor miracle this movie even exists AND is actually so good!

In the early 2000s, Tommy Wiseau was a Hollywood dreamer with a weird accent, no muscles a la Schwarzenegger or Van Damme to make it as an odd-talking action star, and a look that probably only could have been right for one or two parts at the most (background vampire, for instance). But he had one thing most other Hollywood dreamers didn't have. Millions of dollars in the bank! How did he make his fortune? There's kind of Wiseau's version of his entrepreneurial excellence (a mix of retail and real estate) and then there are the legends and rumors that have developed over the years because of the lack of documentation about how he made his loot (everything from inheritance to drug dealing).

Basically, he put up $6 million of his own money (!) and made his own movie with himself as writer, director and star. And he was able to get it into some theaters for a two-week run because he heard that a theatrical release was required... for Oscar consideration! But his film, "The Room," was SO bad! So bad that one reviewer christened it "The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies," and that title has stuck ever since.

"The Disaster Artist" is the story of the making of that bad film. It's a passion project of James Franco's, who directs here and stars as Wiseau in an uncanny impersonation of a performance. You sort of have to know Tommy Wiseau to know how spot-on Franco is here. But it's not required. I mean, who really knew what Abe Lincoln sounded like, but the world totally believed Daniel Day-Lewis nailed the role five years ago, right?

Franco assembles an incredible array of actors and actresses here to add texture to a truly fun and even immersive motion picture. Everyone from buddy Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson and Zac Efron, to Alison Brie, Kate Upton and Jacki Weaver all come to play.

Yes, I've seen "The Room." It's one of those flicks that still gets shown from time to time in theaters a la "Rocky Horror Picture Show." You come in groups. You shout dialogue back at the screen, you munch popcorn and you have a grand old time laughing AT the film and not with it. Similar viewing parties have happened in home theaters ever since this thing hit disc.

But Franco finds a surprisingly deeper layer to tell this "making of" story. He isn't cruel to the original source film or to Wiseau. He makes his movie about the importance of dreams and the tenacity of those dreamers who don't have the talent, but still have the desire. There are tons of people who have come to Tinseltown over the decades who had LOADS more talent than Wiseau. But they lacked his heart, Franco argues with this film, and his drive. Franco clearly finds a kindred spirit in the kooky Wiseau, as evidenced by all of the odd turns he has taken during his vastly more accomplished career. I mean, can you think of any other Hollywood actor who after being nominated for an Academy Award then went and starred on... "General Hospital?!" Franco did!

And he cast his younger brother, Dave Franco, in the pivotal role of actor wannabe Greg Sestero, who gets cast in "The Room" in the hopes it will be his big break. But the infamy of the motion picture takes him down.

"The Disaster Artist" ends up being one of the best movies I've seen about movies. And it's really a must-see for anyone who loves those kinds of flicks, good or bad.

"The Disaster Artist" is rated R for language throughout and some nudity/sexuality.

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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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