Monthly Archives: September 2017

‘American Made’ Review: Tom Cruise is in peak form in this messy, but dynamic biopic

Whenever Tom Cruise shows up in a movie, it’s hard to see anyone other than Tom Cruise. And yet, one of the few true movie stars finds a way to adapt his own persona to so many different films. His most recent, American Made, is a hell of a joy ride mainly because of him. Playing Barry Seal, a drug smuggler who ends up working for a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) and Pablo Escobar, Cruise, sporting a Southern accent, is magnetic, a presence with gravity, one that drives the energy of each scene.

But director Doug Liman and crew pull more than just their weight. Shooting in extreme documentary style, and including recreations of tapes of Seal speaking directly to a camera, Liman emphasizes the reality of the story despite its crazy events. The editing echoes that tone and effect, zipping along as quick and sharp as Seal’s airplanes, bursting with bags of cocaine. And when the acting and scene composition are at their finest, American Made is deliciously dynamic, buzzing with tangible adrenaline. During those same moments, the film also proves to be a searing dissection of the political corruption taking place on both American soil and below the border. The trio of actors who portray the heads of the Medellín Cartel help create some hilarious yet subtly unnerving scenes, and Domhnall Gleeson shows why he’s one of the finest actors working today, matching Cruise’s intensity as a blunt personality foil.

There’s no denying that American Made is a great time at the movies, but it still struggles at points. Oftentimes, the film seems like a collection of moments more so than a unified story. It’s biographical, so it’s awarded the leniency that the genre permits, but even then, it becomes hard to see exactly where the film is going and what it wants to say in the larger picture, whether it be about Seal or the politics behind his operations. Thus, the pacing suffers in the first act as we bounce around from year to year and place to place without a goal firmly set. American Made ends up feeling as reckless as Seal is, and sometimes that’s a good thing, but it never necessarily seems like the point.

And can we stop casting married couples where the man is 20 years older than the woman? Even Tom Cruise is not entirely worth that practice.

Grade: 7.2/10


Featured image via Universal Pictures.

‘Gerald’s Game’ Review: Netflix’s Stephen King adaptation is as unsettling as ‘It’

What’s as scary as Pennywise the Dancing Clown snatching up children in the sewers? A husband (Bruce Greenwood) and a wife (Carla Gugino) on a short getaway trip to spice things up and, after the wife has been handcuffed to the bed, the husband dying from a heart attack, leaving the wife trapped with no one coming for days. Netflix’s Stephen King adaptation, Gerald’s Game, directed by Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil), could never be the sort of crowd-pleaser that It has turned out to be, but it is undoubtedly as gut twisting, expertly crafted and emotionally engaging.

Despite being set almost entirely in one room, Gerald’s Game turns out to be a deeply visual and physical film, one about a character who is as fleshed out, if not more so, than those of most typical feature length pictures. Flanagan mines the progression of fear brought on by the situation, utilizing careful framing to solidify the peril, dynamic editing and abrasive close-ups to evoke the hallucinatory panic and bluntly lengthy shots when drastic measures must be taken.

Yet, Flanagan needed the level of commitment that Gugino and Greenwood bring for the elements to gel. Greenwood is mesmerizingly intense and Gugino is particularly moving, channeling a quiet vulnerability to sell her character’s arc. Her desperation is pitch perfect, adaptive to what’s emotionally at stake in each moment and never over the top just for desperation’s sake.

Similarly to It, this film deals with parental sexual harassment. Thankfully, it never verges into the exploitive. While a few tropes present here are definitely tiresome, a majority of the work done to frame the character’s journey is sensitive but direct, fully aware of the stance it needs to consistently take but also willing to venture into uncomfortable territory to justly tackle certain aspects. Take a careful look at the camera work. It’s never intrusive or excessive, used simply to augment the character’s emotions and the story’s elements of tension.

Gerald’s Game is the type of horror movie we need more of — an interesting concept, a story and a character that feel organic within that conceit and some purely cinematic filmmaking to make us want to look away, but never be able to.

Grade: 7.8/10


Featured image via Netflix.

‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’ Review: Zany jokes can’t justify cultural appropriation, soulless plot

In The LEGO Ninjago Movie, whose title suggests Japanese history and culture, one of Jackie Chan’s first lines is “对不起,” the Chinese phrase for “sorry.” Though it’s presented as a cute exchange between an antiques dealer and a kid who wanders into his shop, this single line of dialogue can be read as an apology for the film’s quest to lump distinct Asian cultures into one vague, cinematic PF Chang’s, held together by performances that are literally yellow-face. But forget for a second that the film wants you to believe that Dave Franco is a ninja. Even if Japanese actors were approached to be in The LEGO Ninjago Movie, it’s easy to see why they would avoid this film like you would a rogue 2×4 LEGO brick on your carpet.

This film attempts to copy the aesthetic of The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, but captures none of the heart of those previous films. This film is predicated on the father-son dynamic of the warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his estranged son, the ninja Lloyd (Franco), but there’s no particular reason why we should care for their reunion. Garmadon doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, and Lloyd is doing fine without him. Sure, it’s cute when Garmadon teaches Lloyd how to play catch, but one feels more attachment to one’s bag of popcorn — the consumption of which, may be the only upside of watching this film.

Okay, maybe not the only upside, since this film has a few good jokes in it, though they’re not as funny as live-action Will Ferrell showing up in the third act, or Lego Batman roasting 50 years of cinematic Batmen. Yet, a character named Meowthra, some bonkers live-action montages and a Locke joke are wacky enough to keep adult audience members from sneaking into a neighboring screening of It — a film I’d rather take my hypothetical child to. Sure, Pennywise would traumatize Harry Jr., but at least he wouldn’t have to sit through yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing and a plot that gestures toward emotion without ever eliciting it.

Grade: 3.5/10


Featured image via Warner Bros.

When Harry Met Movies: First Impressions — Column

This site lists me as Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic, but a more accurate title might be Executive Film Noob For Life. The Social Network is a film that I should probably watch instead of writing this column, while Seven Samurai and Mulholland Drive are films that I should watch before doing either of those things. I know that Citizen Kane is THE CITIZEN KANE of all films past, present and forthcoming, but don’t ask me to tell you why. I think it’s because there’s a snow globe of particular symbolic weight, but that’s the best I can do. Neither can I tell you anything about Fellini, other than that they’ve got great lunch specials and killer marinara.

In a vain attempt at regaining credibility — admitting that I haven’t seen The Social Network makes such a task more or less insurmountable — I’ll assure you that I can speak somewhat intelligibly about the beginnings of the French New Wave and Claude Chabrol’s La Beau Serge, but that’s only because I saw it for the first time two weeks ago in a film class. The week before that, I discovered Singin’ in the Rain and last Thursday I watched my first Alfred Hitchcock film (Rope).

The gaps in my knowledge of film might be many, but within them lies some degree of excitement — watching things for the first time is always special, particularly if it’s one of those (many) movies I should have seen by now. While everyone else gets to grin slightly at the familiar, decades-old dance numbers of Gene Kelly, I get to watch them with a wide, dumb smile. Similarly, there’s nothing like discovering and delighting in the macabre of Hitchcock, or the perennial freshness of the French New Wave. It’s like that scene from Wonder Woman, when Diana tries ice cream for the first time and tells the vendor that he should be proud of himself (Gene, Alfred, Claude, you all can take a bow).

I bet you wish you could remember the exact moments leading up to that first spoonful of ice cream, the unique joy during it and the “You should be proud of yourself!” after. I bet you wish you could recall the initiating thrills of Star Wars; what it was like to fall for a jump scare in Jaws — I certainly wish I did. Therein lies the upside to the admittedly wide gaps in my film knowledge. I get to preserve the memory of a first viewing more fully, to etch in my mind, in vivid detail, what it was like to fill those gaps.

Of course, not every movie goes down like a gob of Cherry Garcia, but even then, simply leaving the theater is an occasion to remember. The overwhelming relief that flooded me at the end of Transformers: The Last Knight (it was a press screening, so don’t get mad at me for paying for a ticket) is something I won’t want to forget anytime soon, especially since I suffered through its relentless quest of disorientation with one of my best friends from high school — fitting, since our years of secondary education and that franchise can be described with more or less the same words. Most recently, I’ll never forget the mad dash a friend and I made for a consolatory cup of ice cream after mother!, the way we both knew what we wanted as soon as we left the theater, and how I stumbled over my words as I ordered.

I’ve begun ranking movies as I see them, and recording where I saw them. If applicable, I write down the people I saw them with. Movies are an essential part of my life, and I want to remember, if not capture, the feeling of watching them for the first time. I have a lot to catch up on, but that’s not something to be ashamed of since there’s so much joy to be had in filling those gaps. It’s a task whose enormity does not preclude its own infinite capacity to delight, horrify or inspire.

‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a weekly column from Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic Harrison Tunggal about movies that shape us and why we love them.


Featured image via MGM.

2018 Oscar Predictions

The Oscars are finally here. The competition truly started over a year ago in January 2017, when Call Me by Your NameGet Out and Mudbound premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. So to say that it’s been a long road to this day is an understatement (especially because the Academy felt like dragging it on even longer than usual by pushing back the broadcast into March).

One of the most exciting periods, though, is that roughly month and a half between Oscar nominations and the Oscar broadcast, as other areas of the awards season play out and hint — sometimes aggressively, sometimes incredibly ambiguously — at how Oscar night might go.

Tracking the awards season and predicting the Academy Awards is almost a science. But last year, when Moonlight stunned with a Best Picture win, that science proved more vulnerable than we had thought.

This year, it’s all up in the air. While precursors might suggest something, nothing is truly set in stone until a name or a film is called (and even then, we have to double check).

This year, predicting the nominations is a bit more complicated. We have to be smart and still know when there’s an obvious winner, but we also have to think far outside the box for categories that are even remotely fragile — especially Best Picture.

So, without further ado, here are our Oscar predictions for the 90th Academy Awards:

Best Motion Picture

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actress

Best Director

Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Animated Feature

Best Production Design

Best Cinematography

Best Costume Design

Best Film Editing

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Best Sound Mixing

Best Sound Editing

Best Visual Effects

Best Original Score

Best Foreign Language Film

Best Documentary Feature

Best Original Song

The Shorts


Featured image via Universal Pictures.

2018 Oscar Predictions: Best Picture

This has been the most difficult to predict Best Picture race in recent memory. On Oscar day, as many as five films could have a legitimate shot at winning. Those are: The Shape of WaterThree Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriGet OutDunkirk and Lady Bird.

To be upfront about it, I’m predicting Get Out. I came to my prediction two months ago for very specific reasons, and while nothing has made me completely confident in it, nothing has derailed my reasoning.

The obvious choice would The Shape of Water. It has 13 nominations. It’s going to win multiple awards. It’s going to win Best Director. It won the PGA award. That seems like it would be enough to overcome the lack of a SAG ensemble nomination.

But that’s what we said about La La Land last year, and The Shape of Water certainly has far less hype going into Oscar day than La La Land did.

The next obvious choice would be Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. It not only received a SAG ensemble nomination, but it won. It won the BAFTA award for Best Picture. It received PGA and DGA nominations. That seems like it would be enough to overcome the lack of a Best Director nomination.

But, when Ben Affleck was passed over for a Best Director nomination, he still won the DGA award and Argo still won the PGA award. And as we know from Hidden FiguresAmerican Hustle and The Help, a SAG ensemble win doesn’t mean a Best Picture win. Three Billboards also falls into a La La Land-esque situation in regard to backlash; there has been plenty of press intensely critiquing the film’s racial politics.

At first, Lady Bird seemed like the preferential ballot friendly film that could sneak its way to a win. But it needed something throughout the awards season, and it didn’t really get anything.

That’s what brings me to Get Out. The last two Best Picture winners have been at least partially unexpected. Most people were predicting The Revenant two years ago — and if not The Revenant, many were predicting The Big Short due to its PGA win — and most people were predicting La La Land last year. So I looked at where Spotlight and Moonlight succeeded, at places that may have hinted at their potential win. At first, it seems like Spotlight‘s indicator might have been the SAG ensemble win. But like I said before, Hidden FiguresAmerican Hustle and The Help all won that award without winning Best Picture. After further deduction, it came down, in my opinion, to the Best Original Screenplay WGA award (in addition to having some of the big prerequisites). Both Spotlight and Moonlight won that award, and then moved on to win their screenplay awards at the Oscars (Moonlight was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars). Get Out‘s WGA win could be bigger than most people think it is.

Why I say “could” is because Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was ineligible for the award. Had it been eligible and Get Out still won, things might be more clear. It wasn’t, though, so this angle is not entirely bullet proof.

But because I’m predicting Get Out in Best Original Screenplay, I believe that the film will also win Best Picture. In only five of the last 20 years has a film won Best Picture without winning a screenplay award and in each of those five years, the film that won Best Picture still had a Best Director nomination, with those directors winning three out of the five times. That suggests to me that if Martin McDonagh loses Best Original Screenplay, there is no chance that Three Billboards wins Best Picture without that Best Director nomination and without any of the guild wins that Argo had.

Some of the troubles Get Out runs into is its lack of below-the-line nominations, specifically a film editing nomination. Not since 1980 has a film won Best Picture without any below-the-line nominations. Get Out also only has four Oscar nominations, and a film hasn’t won Best Picture with that few in 84 years.

The reason why details like that don’t scare me this year is because each of the top five contenders will break or impact a stat/detail like that. Dunkirk doesn’t have any acting nominations or a screenplay nomination, and it’s been 85 years since a film won Best Picture in the same scenario. The Shape of Water, as said before, lacks a SAG ensemble nomination, and it’s been 22 years since a film won Best Picture in the same scenario. Lady Bird has five nominations, but it also lacks below-the-line nominations, and, as said before, it’s been 37 years since a film won Best Picture in the same scenario. As stated already, Three Billboards lacks a Best Director nomination, and before the Argo situation five years ago, a film hadn’t won Best Picture in the same scenario since 1989.

One of these stats is going to break or be impacted significantly. It’s just a matter of which one it’ll be. And because it is guaranteed that one will be broken/impacted, we also have to look at factors outside of stats, at the cultural feeling and the cultural moment. Black Panther released in February and the hype surrounding it occurred at the same time that Oscar voting did. The film features Daniel Kaluuya and engages in racism like Get Out does. And as Black Panther becomes its own cultural phenomenon, Get Out, a year after its release has solidified itself as a cultural landmark.

The helpful thing is, however, that Get Out, in fact, does have support from below-the-line branches.

Get Out received an American Cinema Editors nomination, a guild equivalent of the Best Film Editing category. So while it may not have received an Oscar nomination, there is support there. It also received nominations from the Art Directors Guild and the Costume Designers Guild (the contemporary category of each often doesn’t translate to Oscar nominations, but they are still evidence of support), and it won the Publicists Guild award (Public Relations is a branch of the Academy). There is support across the board. And with an acting nomination, a Best Director nomination, a SAG ensemble nomination and not only a screenplay nomination, but a potential screenplay win, Get Out is looking pretty good.

What’ll throw this angle off drastically is if Three Billboards wins Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, which is definitely possible. But if Get Out wins, look out for the final award of the night.

The Nominees
Lady Bird
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Get Out
The Shape of Water

The Post
Call Me by Your Name
Phantom Thread
Darkest Hour

Will win: Get Out
Could win: The Shape of Water
Should win: Get Out
Should’ve been nominated: Mudbound


Featured image via Universal Pictures.

2018 Oscar Predictions: Best Lead Actor

It seemed as though Gary Oldman was going to win Best Lead Actor for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour all the way back when the first photo of him in full makeup released. And as the film released at festivals, nearly every critic suggested that it was his time.

Then, Timothée Chalamet and Call Me by Your Name came. Chalamet picked up nearly every single critic group award. But as the industry awards started coming, the momentum shifted back to Oldman, with him winning the BAFTA award and the SAG award. And with him also winning the Critics’ Choice award and the Golden Globe, it’s difficult to choose anyone other than him.

Chalamet did win a Best Lead Actor award as recent as last night at the Indie Spirit awards. And it’s terribly sad that that might be where it stops for him. His performance is clearly the best of the bunch.

Oldman might’ve had a more serious contender had Christian Bale been nominated for Hostiles, as age bias couldn’t play a role there. Had Hostiles been acquired by a better distributor sooner, Bale would’ve put up a fight.

The Nominees
Gary Oldman — Darkest Hour
Daniel Day-Lewis — Phantom Thread
Timothée Chalamet — Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Kaluuya — Get Out
Denzel Washington — Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Will win: Gary Oldman — Darkest Hour
Could win: Timothée Chalamet — Call Me by Your Name
Should win: Timothée Chalamet — Call Me by Your Name
Should’ve been nominated: Christian Bale — Hostiles


Featured image via Focus Features.

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