Author Archives: Harrison Tunggal

When Harry Met Movies: The immortal words of Marty McFly — Column

Back to the Future is a film I adore, and I distinctly remember watching it as a senior in high school, laughing along to the jokes, feeling the mental sizzle as iconic lines burned themselves into my memory and wondering why I hadn’t seen it sooner. Unlike many of the films I love, Back to the Future wasn’t something I was brought up on as a child, but something a close friend of mine introduced me to.

We met in the summer between fourth and fifth grade, at a tennis camp which neither of us enjoyed nor attended voluntarily — my parents’ last ditch attempt to inspire some degree of athleticism worthy of three prior generations of swimming, running, tennis ball thrashing Tunggals. The only thing tennis camp inspired was a great deal of sweat and indignation, intensified because I forgot my water bottle on the first day. Andrew gave me one of his.

Seven years later, I was backstage with my band about to perform “Johnny B. Goode” at a school concert. Sure, I had a sunburst-red Les Paul hanging from my shoulder, but I wasn’t Jimmy Page as much as I was Lawrence from School of Rock, before he puts on sunglasses and a cape. The pre-cape Lawrences of the world hardly introduce their bands before an audience, and I sure as hell didn’t know what to say.

“Say, ‘This is an oldie. Well, it’s an oldie where I come from,’” Andrew suggested, sensing my nerves, as friends do after years of classes, choir rehearsals and debate conventions. “You know, like Back to the Future.” It was a reference I didn’t get yet, but I knew that movie was famous enough that it might break the ice for the audience. So I said it, eschewing both Jimmy Page and Lawrence for Marty McFly, and tore into that immortal B flat blues riff.

Some time after, I finally got around to watching Back to the Future. Some time after that, I watched its sequel, the one where franchise-villain Biff Tannen becomes the rich tyrant of Hill Valley. Some time later, Biff Tannen was elected President, and the February after that, Andrew texted me about how jealous he was that Milo Yiannopoulos was going to speak on my campus. To quote Marty McFly, that was heavy.

Back to the Future is Andrew’s favorite film trilogy — not the original Star Wars movies, not The Lord of the Rings, not Toy Story. So it boggles my mind how he, or anyone, could see Biff Tannen as the hero of the story, let alone a valid presidential candidate. The writers of the films certainly don’t, admitting that Biff, who owns a casino, poses in front of a portrait of himself and seizes political power, was based on Donald Trump.

In a video essay about the career of George Lucas, Alejandro Villarreal edits together clips of Lucas’ own interviews to create a retrospective on the Star Wars creator. Lucas says “I only hope that those who have seen Star Wars recognize the Emperor when they see him.” I know for a fact that Andrew has seen Star Wars. We made a fan film for a school project once.

Finding that a friend I’ve known for so long differs from myself on such a basic level is difficult to process, but what’s even more frustrating is how film as a medium seems to betray its own limitations. Films are messages and lessons conveyed through good stories, humor, thrills and tears. Films are empathy machines, as Roger Ebert says, allowing us to see the world from another perspective, filtered through a camera lens. But what if the machine doesn’t work on everybody? What if the message is lost in the machinations of a plot, a good belly laugh or a well-timed scare?

I don’t have any answers, but if there’s a film out there that does, I’m all ears.

‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a bi-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 Universal Pictures.

‘The Foreigner’ review: Jackie Chan is criminally underused in this passable political thriller

In The Foreigner, director Martin Campbell — savior of the James Bond franchise and the reason why Deadpool had a Green Lantern joke — dares to pose the question: “Why on earth would you make a Jackie Chan movie without Jackie Chan?”

Even though the marketing of The Foreigner suggests a Jackie Chan revenge-thriller, don’t go into the film expecting The Legend of Drunken Master by way of Taken. We see Chan’s Quan use his very particular set of skills, but not nearly as much as we’d like. For every minute of Quan kicking ass and taking names, we see eight minutes of Pierce Brosnan’s ex-IRA politician drink, demean and describe Quan as “the Chinaman,” when in fact we Chinamen prefer the term “Financiers Of This Let-Down.”

To be fair, Quan isn’t the film’s main character, doing very little to move the story forward. The film is about Brosnan’s character identifying the IRA bombers who killed Quan’s daughter. Quan pops in every now and then to hurry him along — blowing up bathrooms, beating up henchmen and generally prodding him whenever he feels slightly unmotivated. Quan is Gordon Ramsay, and Brosnan is the chef who gets called an “idiot sandwich.”

While The Foreigner makes the mistake of underusing its most bankable star, Chan proves that, at 63, he’s still film’s ultimate martial arts legend. Campbell doesn’t have to resort to quick cutting to obscure a stunt double during the film’s action scenes — we know that it’s Chan himself punching goons, bursting through windows and falling down stairs. To Campbell’s credit, he knows how to direct an action scene. The energy and pace of the film’s set pieces make The Foreigner entertaining, though only for a fraction of the film’s runtime.

Ultimately, while The Foreigner might please some, it isn’t necessarily worth seeking out, especially when The Legend of Drunken Master is on Netflix.

Grade: 6.0/10

 

Featured image via STX Entertainment.

When Harry Met Movies: Breaking Out the Nostalgia Goggles — Column

I remember going to see Ex Machina with my parents, and pointing to a standee in the movie theater lobby. It was Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle with a pack of velociraptors flanking him. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but it might have been something like this. I was excited, not just because I was about to see Oscar Isaac get his disco on, but because in a month, Jurassic World was going to take me back to Isla Nublar, a place where I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time cavorting about.

I am speaking figuratively, of course, but I’m sure toddler Harry would refute that statement. Donning my Alan Grant fedora — I never called it an “Indiana Jones hat” — I would spend untold, infinite hours on that island taming (plastic) dinosaurs, watching them fight and sometimes feeding them Batman and Han Solo.

If you couldn’t already tell, Jurassic Park has always had a special place in my heart. It’s one of the first movies I ever remember watching, as evidenced by the chewed-on, mostly destroyed cardboard sleeve that barely houses my VHS copy of it. Why my parents let their three year old watch a movie featuring Samuel L. Jackson’s severed arm, I’ll never know, but they’re awesome because of it.

Fast forward to November 25, 2014, and I was a senior in high school. I was in the midst of college applications, one of which was destined for the University of Chicago, where I was hoping to take Paul Sereno’s (more or less, Alan Grant in real life) paleontology class, go on a summer dig, discover some new and fantastic species of dinosaur and make all those hours spent in Isla Nublar worth something. But at the moment, none of that mattered, because I was trying to hide the fact that I was watching the Jurassic World teaser trailer in class. There it was, at 2:12, Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle next to freaking velociraptors. For a hot second, I was three again.

Actually watching Jurassic World was a different experience entirely — I wasn’t three years old with a too-big fedora on; I was a crotchety old man waving his fist in the air, smelling vaguely of prune juice, yelling at Colin Trevorrow to get off my lawn. The film didn’t resurrect dinosaurs as much as it did nostalgia for dinosaurs, and if anyone was going to buy into it, it would have been me.

And yet, the nostalgia goggles didn’t make the film’s characters seem any less two dimensional. Moreover, there’s an insidious cynicism that such nostalgia inspires, as if to say remember the good ol’ days? Great! Because it’s not going to get much better than that. Nostalgia makes progress impossible, setting standards so far back in time that the laws of physics and the fictionality of a time-hopping DeLorean make them impossible to achieve.

Yearning for glory days long past, rather than imagining ones still to come, makes Jurassic World seem like the guy that hangs out in the high school parking lot next to the football field, futilely trying to retain some tenuous grasp on a history that will never be repeated. And somewhat frustratingly, nothing sells quite like nostalgia — the current cinematic landscape thrives on it.

Of course, not every film that looks fondly on the past is doomed to mediocrity. It, steeped in 80’s culture, is proving to be one of the biggest critical and commercial hits of the year, and later this week, Blade Runner 2049 promises immaculate, mind-bending sci-fi. But it’s worth remembering that nostalgia also gave us the MAGA cap.

Nostalgia shouldn’t be something to eschew completely — I’ll always look back fondly on my childhood obsession with Jurassic Park, but I’m not going to bust out my Alan Grant hat, and start lassoing plastic dinosaurs. I’ll write about it instead.

‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a bi-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 Universal Pictures.

‘First They Killed My Father’ Review: Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian film is a haunting, emotional testament to historical trauma

In First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the Cambodian genocide, the sentence “A daughter of Cambodia remembers so others may never forget” appears on-screen — a perfect summation of the hauntingly emotional film. Though it is told from Ung’s perspective (played by Sareum Srey Moch), the Netflix film becomes the story of Cambodia as a whole, a recollective testament to an entire country’s trauma. The words aren’t etched on a stone monument, but a filmic one.

The film’s casting process was criticized for being exploitative, but whether or not Jolie’s exercise in improvisation was as innocent as she claims, the film deserves recognition as a true Cambodian production while many Hollywood films are marred by whitewashing and white savior tropes. Jolie wrote the script with Ung, and worked closely with acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh to ensure the film’s authenticity — First They is largely spoken in Khmer, and even the closing text is written in Khmer.

Nevertheless, the film doesn’t rely on its dialogue, preferring to convey the horrors of war through its own visual language. We aren’t told about the titular murder, but see it through Ung’s recurring nightmare, one of many dream sequences that communicate Ung’s interiority. This emphasis on visual storytelling comes at the expense of developing Ung as a character, but her seeming numbness makes sense in a world so rife with horrors.

First They Killed My Father also includes several overhead shots which underscore the notion that this film is about the entirety of Cambodia. In one such shot, dozens of makeshift campfires illuminate the families gathered around them, defying a seemingly invincible darkness.

Even though the film is often tough to watch, moments like these tastefully suggest that love and empathy always win the day. Later in the film, Ung stands before the withered shell of a captured Khmer Rouge soldier. She stares him down, neither condemning nor condoning his actions, but seeing him as someone’s father, a person capable of love but manipulated to hate. The film’s success lies in its belief in humanity’s capacity for goodness, putting the onus on the viewer to validate that belief.

Grade: 9/10

 

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.

How ‘It’ made a killing at the box office, laughed away initial expectations

We have an arm-severing, face-chomping, immortal demon-clown to thank for saving the box office. New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.’ It raked in a record-breaking $123.1 million — finalized numbers after $117.2 estimates. Like a red Derry-branded balloon floating skyward from an evil death-sewer, the box office rose from its historic slump. Considering that the film’s initial box office projections were in the $50 million range, It’s runaway success becomes all the more remarkable. But just how did It conquer the box office?

For starters, It didn’t have much to compete with. Since the other film opening this weekend was the critically-panned Home Again, the biggest threat to It was The Hitman’s Bodyguard. That film has been meekly holding up the box office since it opened three weeks ago, so the arrival of It injected some much-needed fresh energy into movie-goers. Additionally, there hadn’t been an event film arguably since Dunkirk in July, and even that juggernaut of a film didn’t have as broad of an appeal as It. Slim pickings at the marquee can create the right circumstances for an opening weekend triumph, but not necessarily one that generates $100 million. For those numbers, It needed the support of its target audience, and I’m not just talking about the demon-clown enthusiasts out there.

While that demographic is hopefully small, the appeal of It casts a wide net. Fans of the original 1990 miniseries likely came out in droves to see an updated version of the story that traumatized them 27 years ago. Then, there’s fans of the original novel, and in broader terms, Constant Readers — Stephen King’s own base of devotees, also known as the poor souls that sat through The Dark Tower. Of course, It attracted horror junkies in general, some of whom likely brought large groups of friends, as the genre entails, which accordingly gave the film’s box office numbers an extra boost. It also came hot off the heels of Stranger Things, and the film’s trailers released at around the same time that Stranger Things 2’s marketing campaign began. Both properties are 80’s-set horror stories featuring Finn Wolfhard, so fans of the hit Netflix show likely contributed to the massive opening weekend.

Ignoring the wide demographic that It appeals to, the film’s marketing was exemplary. Despite some lukewarm reactions to the first photo of Pennywise, a series of stellar trailers — creepy music and terrifying shots that tantalized without spoiling anything — ensured that It maintained a significant amount of hype. Per Variety, when footage for the film was displayed at CinemaCon last March, It started 235,000 new social media conversations, just slightly trailing behind the most talked about film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, which started 251,000 conversations. Even as It’s release date came nearer, the marketing maintained its successful streak — just watch this.

And then reviews dropped. Critics were largely favorable toward It — our own Levi Hill called it “the best Stephen King adaptation outside of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Of course, not all critically favorable films are box office hits — look no further than It Comes at Night — but still, critic responses undeniably play a part in determining financial success. Horror films too often rely on jump scares alone, so when one like It is praised for its craft and emotional resonance, cinephiles will show up for opening night.

It’s positive critical reception points to one simple fact about the film’s box office success: It is just damn good, and audiences will pay for damn good filmmaking. The script — credited to Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga — deftly balances scares and character development, while Andrés Muschietti’s direction brings those scares to life. The way he directs Bill Skarsgård, who is sublime as Pennywise, makes the character hilarious at times, but always frightening. Additionally, Chung-hoon Chung proves why he is one of today’s best cinematographers — his unnerving shots amplify the terror, and he can now add It to a filmography that already includes The Handmaiden and Oldboy. Of course, the ensemble cast includes a host of incredible child actors, all with terrific careers ahead of them.

It’s financial success fits within the box office narrative of late — audiences can still parse cinematic quality, and they will pay for it. The fact remains that Michael Bay still has a Hollywood career, but Transformers: The Last Knight underperformed in the global box office — even in China, whose market made the franchise’s previous entry a billion dollar movie. Similarly, the critically panned King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was an outright flop, making $146 million on a budget of $175 million.

In contrast, original films like Get Out, Dunkirk, The Big Sick, Baby Driver and Girls Trip are all box office successes, and while they’re not pulling in cash like Wonder Woman or any of this year’s Marvel films, all of these movies show that quality filmmaking pays off in spades — Get Out made $252 million on a $4.5 million budget, Dunkirk will end up with $500 million worldwide and Girls Trip broke $100 million domestically, which is a first for a Black-led, Black-written, Black-directed and Black-produced film. It’s massive opening weekend is the latest film that speaks to an obvious message — good movies will generally make good money. Whether or not Hollywood listens is up in the air.

Featured image via Warner Bros.

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