120 Days: Syria and The White Helmets

I’ve decided in response to the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, I am going to watch (and maybe write about) a movie by or about one of those seven places. Movies are among the easiest and most popular form of escape in our world, giving us the ability to transport ourselves to all sorts of places and, perhaps most importantly, into the perspective of another. While they only paint small visions of the world we live in, they expand what we think is possible and what we know of people.

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The first film in this series is The White Helmets, a 2016 documentary short about a group of people in Syria who run into bombings to save anyone possibly injured in the wreckage. The film has made news in recent days, because the heroes it features are no longer eligible to enter the country, not even to potentially receive the Oscar for which the film that features them has been nominated. I should also note that there are some who argue against the featured group, laying out all sorts of reasons why they are illegitimate, it doesn’t seem to be from any serious sources, but has certainly lowered the IMDB score of the film. It serves as a good reminder that all documentaries should be taken with a grain of salt though.

The film reminds me of the saying attributed to Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s a modern rendition of Hacksaw Ridge, with only their helmets and short training the heroes run into the danger zone, saving life after life.

The filmmakers, for their part, dive straight into the action, with more than one cameraperson knocked aside in the midst of chaos due to an explosion of some sort. They follow each of their subjects as they enter into war zones, responding on a moment’s notice—at the first sound of explosions. Each White Helmet shows extreme dedication to their cause, filled with part adrenaline, part duty. They frantically try to make sense of what has happened, running about trying to figure out what their response should be, yet there’s a normalcy to it all—this is what they do.

There’s no sense of triage here, they’re there to rescue anyone with any chance, moving forward with fiery, throwing all naysayers aside. This lack of fear and unbridled bravery has lead to them saving thousands of people—when it comes to saving human lives, sometimes all logic should be thrown aside.

There’s a moment where one of the people in the film states ”All lives are precious and valuable”, bringing to mind a saying that’s often uttered in strange defiance by that collection of trolls; if they had any integrity then perhaps their lives would look more similar to the quoted man whose life embodies everything spoken.

But our lives are so easily shaped by where we’re born, the circumstances in which we’re raised, and the opportunities we’re given. In the movie there’s a moment where they literally snatch life from death’s grip, miraculously pulling an infant out of the rubble. It’s in that moment that I could not help but think of what would become of that child’s life or any child living in those times. This child serves as a beacon of hope for those brave men risking their lives, and because of this, likely would be given everything he needs to make it in this world.

But what for the child whose parents are killed in the wreckage by bombs from the west? What of the children of the White Helmets whose parents are constantly at risk? What if they make that impossible choice to leave Syria, joining alongside the millions of others who have chosen to flee the danger that is insurmountably presented to them on the daily, and what if they find themselves rejected at the border as our policy has forced us to do?

The absolute obliteration of war and a world without hope causes people to make choices, to blame outside forces that were seemingly playing war games at their expense. Would it be any surprise to see these individuals choose religious extremism? It’s the only choice they have. This is where the executive order goes wrong, creating largely unwarranted fear in Americans, and letting broken individuals stew in their suffering with no path to redemption.

Rewatch: The Fifth Element

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One of my favorite genres of movies is what I like to call the Sunday Evening Flick. This is a movie that most of the time you don’t think about watching and you probably wouldn’t rave about it very often, but when that Sunday evening comes and you’re presented with various movie choices, this is the one you’re choosing. This can either be something that is playing on television or something that you’ve already bought just for this occasion. I pretty much only buy five dollar movies from Target on this principle alone, otherwise it’s not worth it. I would at times rather buy a Sunday Evening Flick than something that I think is a far superior film (which brings up the debate about which is the actual superior one…). I would rather watch George Clooney and Michelle Pfeifer in One Fine Day most Sunday evenings over Jeff Nichols’ 2007 drama Shotgun Stories though I think the latter is the far better film. It’s a genre (and yes I’m calling this a genre, though it is quite subjective) that defies logic often by pulling at some sort of bias in you–sappy love stories, cheesy comedy, nostalgia, etc…

The film presented in this month’s rewatch is not one that I would usually place into my Sunday Evening Flick category, but it shows just how fickle these things can be. I associate it with Sunday Evenings, because I would watch it on Sunday evenings. I never owned or rented this movie, but several times a year it would appear on some channel playing movies (I’m gonna guess TBS) and if it was on I would watch it. The combination of brightly colored costumes, sci-fi action, and Bruce Willis probably attracted me to it and I grew very fond of it even though I’m not quite sure I had actually seen it from start to finish in one sitting. I probably hadn’t seen it for at least five years and I always wondered whether it would make any sort of impact on my more sophisticated mind all these years later. Was I clouded by bright colors and Milla Jovovich running around in skimpy outfits or is this film actually good?

Let’s start off by saying that this movie is definitely not cool. I talked about how The Matrix retains some of its cool despite its outdated cyber-punk internet age in a previous post, but The Fifth Element does not have any of that despite being released just two years prior (1997). This was a strange time for those releases and The Fifth Element proceeded both The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace two of its genre and style compatriots. Element lines up more with Menace, though that is perhaps because Menace turned out so unintentionally campy, while Element brings on the full force camp. This movie is definitely not cool–it’s not trying to be.

I’m not sure if I liked or disliked most of the film. It’s knowingly goofy while showcasing parts that would typically be seen as “cool” action set pieces and sci-fi costuming. It doesn’t take itself seriously (I read someone compare it to Burton’s Batman and I think that is an apt comparison, though I don’t like that movie) and that allows you to distance yourself from the crazy things that are happening on the screen. It’s such a mish-mash of tone, but that doesn’t kill the film and that’s probably why I liked it as a kid (I was someone who would mix all the sodas from the soda fountain in what we called a “Suicide”).


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The performances here are mostly ridiculous from its fairly star-studded cast. Gary Oldman takes on the villain role, sporting a long black comb-over along with high collared suits and a soul patch. He’s the kind of villain that is quite silly in his maniacal ways without ever crossing over into full comic book parody. Ian Holm is a priest–one who has all of the answers–but never seems to be able to put everything together due to his sort of clumsy demeanor. And then there’s Chris Tucker doing Chris Tucker times a million all while dressed in futuristic women’s clothes. It’s hard to say whether his character: Ruby Rhod, an effeminate futuristic entertainment host, is progressive or archaic; unique or embarrassing. He’s somewhat funny–his radio narration of the final battle scenes are charming–but his high pitched ramblings grate. I think that he contributes to a more realized setting, showcasing celebrity life in the sci-fi future. He’s a sideshow that never becomes an interesting character, while still adding to the film.

Milla Jovovich of course stars at the titular Fifth Elementa supreme being who takes the form of a human woman. I remember her character being an epic representation of a dominant female character, from her ability to retain information to fighting off those trying to destroy the earth she was ingrained in me as an action hero. I thought I would love her character once again, but I was left sorely disappointed. For the most part she stumbles around speaking gibberish in a half confused state, while director Luc Besson seems to want to use her for her sensuality rather than her capabilities to dominate (I mean, she is literally the key to saving humanity). It’s disappointing because in my memory I had seen her as a Furiosa-type, but she doesn’t live up to this. I still think she is iconic (mostly due to her costuming and makeup) and she becomes more and more autonomous by the end of the film, redeeming herself and the human race.

The most grounded character and true hero of the film is Bruce Willis. He takes all the hyperbole and brings it back to reality. He’s a former military hero who is now barely getting by as a cab driver do to his brash personality. It’s a character we’ve seen Willis do time and time again, but it’s an essential role to the film. Willis is a charming tough guy and he steadies the movie while surrounded by cartoonish characters. It’s obvious that he will save the world and get the girl–who else is there to do it? But who else would you want to do it?

The plot is semi-convoluted with its ancient mythologies, villains and heroes whose motivations are never quite clear, and lots of pieces that seem to come together out of convenience rather than logic, but none of that really matters. All that needs to be known is that the world is about to be destroyed, this is the person who can save it, this is how they can save it, and that Bruce Willis will ultimately come to be the hero. This isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie where the pieces fit together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle–there’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter, but all of that stuff is the most gratuitous fun.

In the end I think we really have to go back to Phantom Menace. I wonder if it wasn’t a prequel if it would be a more fun experience like this film was for me. Both are frivolous forays into strange fantasy worlds where weird creatures interact with humans and people have strange powers. Element succeeds without the pressure to say much or to contribute to a larger world (it also uses practical effects and CGI better than Menace in my opinion). This brings up questions as to whether Menace would hold up, being erased from the rest of the Star Wars canon, and this is a question that one day I will come back to; for now I’m too busy reeling from the (excuse the cheesy saying, but it a movie like this makes you use awful sayings in complete sincerity, because the movie itself is awfully sincere in the most fun and cheesy way) rollicking good time I had watching The Fifth Element.

Rating: 3.5/5

Rewatch: (500) Days of Summer

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This is the third entry in what has so far been a monthly series of rewatching old movies and judging them comparitively against my first reactions and how they have grown into pieces of wider culture. So far the series has included High School Musical and The Matrix click here to find them.

This movie came out in 2009–the height of my personal Zooey Deschanel fandom. Deschanel had adored our hearts (but mostly mine) in the Will Ferrell Christmas classic Elf and I had tracked her career ever since. I had watched her in David Gordon Green’s neo-realism relationship drama All the Real Girls and paid particular attention to the McConaughey/Jessica Parker relationship drama Failure to Launch where she plays the rom-com best friend role. After 2009 her career soared as my affections waned–her unique voice grew tiresome with each subsequent She & Him album and then The New Girl appeared. The New Girl took Deschanel’s charms and pushed them to 11 in an absolute quirk-fest that SNL found they could mine for comedy. Likewise, (500) Days of Summer, while largely critically acclaimed, was criticized for being an overly quirky take on the romantic comedy. It throws in a lot of extra touches, for some elevating it to a clever film about romance–for others perhaps a grating annoyance. On a rewatch would Deschanel’s performance be akin to The New Girl or would I find the charm that adored my 13 year old heart?

More on Deschanel to come, but we must also talk about the way I adored this movie upon first watch. I saw it in theaters after anticipating it for quite a while and that year I believe I had it at number two on my best films of the year list, just ahead of Inglorious Basterds and just behind Up. I have watched it several times since then and it has always held up for me, but I feel as if critically it increasingly gets derided for breaking Deschanel into the mainstream in a way most people did not want. This time I intended to be extra critical of the film, trying to find faults in it that I may have glanced over in the past.

The film uses unique editing to showcase this relationship–one that it very intentionally states is trying to subvert the standard portrayal of romance in film. Its use of whimsy can either be taken as clever or as off-putting. People often grow tired of stories of hip, white, city-dwelling kids and their “troubles”. I certainly understand why this would be the case for some–even its pop cultural awareness can grow tiring if one doesn’t believe that the film stands apart from its references. But I do believe that it comes together to make something grander than cute editing tricks and references to The Graduate and The Smiths. Sure it’s a very specific tale of modern romance, but the film leaves itself open to interpretation–like a great work of art would–allowing room for debate and inviting viewers to feel different things about it depending on their own experience.

It opens with two introductions, interplaying the stories of our two protagonists, Summer and Tom, and sharing their two viewpoints on love bound to intertwine in this messy relationship that will soon total 500 days. Though the story is told very specifically through Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, the opening shots include photos of both characters’ childhoods. Both of their back stories matter as both will come together to form this complicated relationship that is about to unveil. And the film lets you know just how diametrically opposed these two are–essentially concluding that there is a duality of perspectives: true love is a fated thing or it doesn’t exist at all.

This is where I think the film speaks profoundly; in life this debate truly exists and I have wholeheartedly come down on both sides of it. I once believed that love was a destined thing, chasing after the “one”, and knowing that two people were especially bound to one another. I’ve also believed that there is no fate like love, people are only tied together by their own choice. The film plays off of this tension and depending on your beliefs you tend to root for one character over the other.

When I first watched it I was on Summer’s side and thought Tom to be near-laughable. I was shocked to hear the reactions of others as they saw her as a manipulative heart breaker. Since then I’ve bridled my pro-Summer stance, noticing how broken of a character she is while still somewhat siding with her beginning views on life.

What I find so brilliant about all of this is that the film never takes either character’s side. In fact, it smartly switches each character’s position on the love debate and when Summer and Tom meet for that final conversation, each tells the other that they were the ones who were right. And both characters were right to an extent, each needed to gain the perspective of the other to come out as a whole person ready to take on the commitment of love. Summer needed to understand that long-term relationships were possible, while Tom needed to learn that “just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” The film works as a mirror, one that reflects back to you your beliefs on love, constantly shifting as you yourself mature, but is always able to provide something insightful.


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Beyond this I do believe the film is really capable of showing the ups and downs of a relationship (though probably from a particularly male perspective). Director Marc Webb and screenwriting duo Scott Eric Neustadter and Michael H. Weber really do work together here to create something unique. It expresses those relationship beats wonderfully. The back to back IKEA scenes showing the desperate attempt to spark romance by recreating something that worked early on. The song and dance that comes after Tom and Summer sleep together for the first time. How Tom analyzes each and every moment leading up to their first kiss. The parallel descriptions of Summer’s attributes. And finally, the expectations vs. reality dual scene where Tom thinks he can get Summer back. These are all wonderfully rendered scenes that truly express what it is like to be in a relationship on par with just about any other movie I’ve seen.

There are parts of this movie that don’t work, but even at my most critical I cannot truly be bothered by them. The jump around nature of the film isn’t necessary, but does serve the story fairly well. The documentary interviews that randomly show up should probably be cut from the film. The scenes with the sister (played by a young Chloe Grace Moretz) are the most irksome of anything in the film, but they really are minimally used and don’t drag it down by any means.

That brings us back to Deschanel. She is definitely at her most Deschanel here, but it’s in a way that serves her character–the manic pixie dream girl that breaks a heart instead of mending it. She is the girl that the type like Tom will infatuate over, but proves that she is something more than someone to serve his story. Her wants and desires are expressed and when they don’t line up with his she is given the agency to go her own way (even if this does, unfortunately, take place off screen). Before New Girl took her quirks and amplified them, 500 used them to subvert the modern indie romance and ultimately made a pretty perfect film.

Rating: 5/5

Rewatch: The Matrix

thematrix I have distinct memories of being the only person in sixth grade who had not seen The Matrix–well actually there was one other girl if we’re being honest–point being this film enraptured everyone entering into the 2000s. I was a sixth grader in 2002 and not having seen the 1999 film was a minor crime and I surely felt it. I don’t remember when I first saw it, but I certainly did enjoy it as well as its sequel (I never saw the third film for whatever reason, I guess it didn’t come on TV at the right time.) Going into this rewatch I wondered if it would be outdated or cheesy; if the mind blowing special effects (which are still talked about whenever somebody does some sort of dodge) wouldn’t live up to our modern CGI or whatever.

I’ll come right out and say it, this film certainly holds up. The action sequences still deliver in ways that are exciting. Though I imagine it (along with Tarantino’s 2003 release Kill Bill) owes a lot to old martial arts films that I am just entirely unfamiliar with, the action here is still some of the most exciting stuff I’ve ever seen. From Trinity’s opening wall running scene to Neo’s bullet dodging lean (which I must point out that though this is the most famous action moment in the entire film, the way this move ends is with him ultimately getting shot. Nobody remembers that this was ineffective, while all the other parts of that scene are fantastic and actually work).

When Neo comes into his calling as “the one” and starts just wiping away bullet after bullet and defeats Agent Smith in slow motion, no lie I had chills. I think this is a testament that the rest of the movie also works, all effects aside. I’ve long been a proponent that action films must have a solid story or ten years into the future they can end up as outdated boring spectacle (looking at you Avatar). The Matrix dodges this problem in two ways, by using inventive imagery and by shoving its standard storytelling devices under layers and layers of post-apocalyptic plot.

I’m a sucker for movie worlds that feel fresh, I fell head over heels for Wreck it Ralph upon first viewing because its real life video game world was the stuff of my greatest childhood imaginings. The Matrix invented an exciting new world–one that wasn’t all that different from previous stories (the computers win story of The Terminator franchis + the chosen one in pretty much any movie), we’ll go into this more later, but the world is built upon both very established rules as well as a repeated aesthetic and this is what ultimately allows it to thrive.

When Neo first chooses the red pill Morpheus guides both him and us through a set of rules for the new world. Our eyes are unveiled, we find out that “the matrix” is a computer system that every human believes themselves to be a part of (also a thought experiment that now gets The Matrix into most Film and Philosophy programs), there is a loading zone where computer programmers can write code to teach them or give them things to take into the new world, they can download Kung Fu into their brains, etc… Even as I was watching it, knowing what was to come and mostly remembering each of the rules, Morpheus’ revelations are exciting.

The rules establishment is met by an aesthetic and a repetition of symbols that fully establish the whole thing. Repeated symbols draw us in and connect us quickly with subject matter. This is why religious liturgies and reality show production design (big leap there, I know) draw us in even when their content isn’t great. The Matrix has its phone booths which are entirely unnecessary to the plot (the way that they get transported back to consciousness in their ship is via telephone booth?!? They have some extremely special way of getting transported into the world, but the way they get out is entirely reliant on a working telephone booth! They could have used anything to get them back!) yet it entirely works because of the aesthetic it adds. Watching characters rush to the phone booth and disappear just before an agent attempts to crush the booth adds something tangible to the film.

Let’s not forget how the actual matrix itself looks either, its green lines of code running down sideways that certain people can read and see exactly what is happening. This is a brilliant image, forever ingrained into my memory as ‘the matrix’, akin to Star Wars‘ light sabers or Storm Trooper costumes (or the Darth Vader Mask or the X-Wing or anything from those films basically!), Terminator 2‘s shape-shifting T-1000, or Jurassic Park‘s ripples in the glass of water. Having creative imagery that viewers can remember, like a liturgy gets repeated, can turn a film into a classic.

The Matrix takes place two hundred years into the future, but its costuming very much feels like 1999. The Wachowskis do their best to create some futuristic world, but as is often the case with trying to create futuristic visions, their ideas get caught up with modern notions of cool. Here, this is very much caught up in a rising internet culture with Neo a part of an internet subculture that existed at the time. It’s strange to think that the internet was barely even a thing upon the film’s release or even better that the Wachowski’s chose a weakly internet hacker to become a sort of super hero. Its cyberpunk, techno loving self does feel very much like a 1999 sort of idea of the future. This was a year in which Britney Spears was huge, Eiffel 65’s “Blue” dominated the charts, and Limp Bizkit was a thing. I think for the most part you can ignore the film’s 1999-ness, unlike what I remember from the sequel which I believe features giant techno dance parties (this is how the world will end, not with a bang, but with a rave!). It’s not 2199 yet, but I somehow doubt future stylings will consist only of skintight leather and long black trench coats, but hey, I am coming from my very 2015 perspective.


dodge The storyline is mostly follows archetypes of those before it, in fact I distinctly remember my sophomore English teacher using The Matrix as an example to teach us what an archetype was (is The Matrix an archetype of archetypes!?!), telling us (and spoiling the ending for me) that it followed the Christ figure archetype. I think this is true and the rest of the movie’s oracles, AI computer enemies, betrayals from trusted figures, and finding redemption upon true belief aren’t really anything new, but then again most stories aren’t. The Wachowski’s put the whole thing under the veil of something exciting and it’s not like it straight up steals whole plot lines like Avatar did with Pocahontas.

On a different note, I was impressed by how much diversity the Wachowski’s place in the film. The Nebuchadnezzar crew features eight members, three of them black and two of them women. The oracle is also a black woman, making four of the film’s featured characters black; I challenge you to try to come up with another film that has that off the top of your head–it’s a rarity.

Even so, the film has not escaped criticism. Last year, Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve, came up with something that she called “Trinity Syndrome”. Essentially the idea was that female characters are being created that at first seem strong, but are still relegated to serving the main character’s (often a male) purposes. It’s interesting that she uses Trinity as the main example, but it makes a lot of sense. Trinity comes off strong right out the gate–she’s a mysterious character who exhibits flashes of action brilliance–running along walls and beating up unknowing policemen left and right. As the film progresses she loses her importance while retaining an aura of mystery, but then the Wachowski’s take her character and turn her into someone whose job is only to advance Neo (literally, the Oracle has prophesied that her life’s purpose is to fall in love with “the one”). The scene where she kisses Neo back to life is no doubt the worst part of the movie on so many levels, taking everything she has built into and turning her into a pretty lame love interest device. It’s so unnecessary, plus Keanu’s Neo is so (soooooooo) much less interesting than Carrie Ann-Moss’s Trinity. She really deserves better.

Overall, rewatching it and doing these rewatches is really to determine whether the films that were cultural touchstones in their time are any good. The Matrix is deserving to be in the cultural canon, referenced here and there, occasionally parodied, and remembered fondly. But now the question, is it any good?

Previously I had given the film five stars on my Letterboxd account, I don’t know if I would quite do that. It isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, not deserving of a spot at the top of the Sight and Sound list of best films. But I do think that within its genre (action/sci-fi) it is one of the best, and excels as a genre picture and a piece of cinema. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is a very good film. 4.5/5

Rewatch: High School Musical

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16 year olds were not the target audience of Disney’s smash hit High School Musical. We were out of range of Disney’s programming by this point–Even Stevens, Lizzie McGuire, and The Proud Family had ended; That’s So Raven and Kim Possible were coming to an end; those of us holding onto the Disney drama periods of our lives (and there were many) had to accept new programs like The Suite Life of Zach and Cody or the star making Wizards of Waverly Place (Selena!) and of course Hannah Montana.

Even the Disney Channel Original Movie selection had grown dim for us–looking at a list of films the only ones that stick out are 2004’s Stuck in the Suburbs (starring SNL’s Taran Killam!) and the third Zenon film, which I can’t be entirely sure I actually watched. I’m not sure there’s any evidence that Disney needed a hit, but to gain the attention of 16 year olds in 2006 would have taken something big. And that’s exactly what they did.

High School Musical doesn’t have the meaning for me that I’m sure it does for those in Jr. High or early High School when it came out; it was always a guilty pleasure of a watch. And I did certainly enjoy it, let’s make that clear, but I don’t think I would be writing this right now (or would I?) if it hadn’t absolutely blown up youth culture from 2006 to 2009. As 17 year olds we had a party to watch the premiere of the sequel, sure it was fairly ironic, and most people weren’t paying attention, but it was a thing.

So here we are 9 years later after the release, Efron has been everywhere and back as a star/troubled ex-child star, the same with Hudgens, and Tisdale is the only one who seems to have any spotlight left at all from the cast of young stars who ruled the world for three years. It was a Friday night and why not watch High School Musical? So we did, interested in how it would hold up aside from this strange nostalgia that sticks with me because of my strange interest in this franchise (perhaps the target audience was 12 year olds, but the problems being dealt with were those exactly like mine and this is why something actually stuck with me in this movie–more on this to come).


The Disney Channel (and its rival Teen Nick) is meant to be a soap opera-lite. It takes teenage situations (often adding magical realism to a strangely disproportionate amount of them) and makes them the most serious situations, filled with drama, and angst, while also being so capable of being solved and backed with light and bouncy music. They take place in teen worlds where teen problems are elevated to maximum levels and adults only serve as quirky side characters. High School Musical was never going to exist outside of these tropes and overall it really doesn’t. Adults only offer bad advice (Troy’s dad), set plots into motion (Mrs. Darvis), or are there just to let you know that these kids actually have parents (Gabriella’s mom, Troy’s mom). The whole thing is essentially a giant teenage soap opera set to song and dance.

Yet it all kind of works.

On the outset, the theme of the film is to break free from the clique that you feel you have to be a part of. This is the theme of roughly 90% of movies about high school and so it’s not that special. Each kid feels pressured to act a certain way and to fit in the realm of each clique (the highlighted cliques are: jocks, theater kids, math geeks, and skaters). Their school is filled with a rigid structure, so strict it’s laughable the lengths students go to in order to keep each type in it’s place–almost reaching a Big Brother like system filled with framing people and computer hacking. The stakes are high and dramatized, but it is a musical after all, where plot points are elevated into literal songs and dances of emotion. High School feels like the most intense period of your life when you’re in it, so why not play this to its highest level?

While, again, ostensibly for pre-teens, the themes throughout this and its two sequels (summer jobs, preparing for college) are for actual teenagers going through this stuff. Not gonna lie, when I saw High School Musical 2 I certainly felt something during the Troy and Gabriella break-up song, because that was that period of my life. I’ve talked to numerous others, perhaps too old for the film, that too express relating to its characters and themes. I wouldn’t be surprised if kids–now seniors in high school–find a lot of resonance in these movies now that they are actually dealing with the themes these nostalgic and beloved characters were going through when they first saw it at age 10.

But the question we are asking ourselves today is about how well it actually holds up now. As discussed above it does work on a certain level dramatically. It treats high school as a serious place, but it does essentially ignore every adult in the film (Troy’s dad is seriously the worst). We can’t ignore how cheesy and ridiculous some of its plot lines are, I mean, the film’s catalyst is a New Year’s Eve teen karaoke sing-off where Troy is catapulted into changing his whole lifestyle (as well as his school) by singing one song (watch out jocks, don’t let this happen to you!!!). The acting isn’t the greatest either and its funny because the whole film is about not being one-note in real life, while leaving so many of its characters bare (I’d forgotten how little Ryan Evans is in this film), but the tension it’s star faces is real and makes it worth watching.

As far as its musical chops go, it’s decent. The songs and productions are pretty light (I watched the sequel as well and think that coming off the success of the first one the production aspects get better, likely due to a bigger budget and having Disney’s complete trust). They aren’t as big as they could have been and are mostly duets sung on a stage with little to add. The times that they actually do go more Broadway, like “Get’cha Head in the Game” (which I didn’t like those years ago, but think is quite strong now) or “Stick to the Status Quo” are the film at its best both musically and emotionally.

“Get’cha Head in the Game” follows Troy’s inner monologue in the midst of basketball practice, showing the pressure he faces as his team’s leader as well as his new found love for drama and Gabriella. “Stick to the Status Quo” is mostly lead by minor characters who, while sitting in the cafeteria, start breaking out into confession about the ways in which they, like Troy, want to break free of the groups which hold them back (baking! dancing! cello playing!). These songs capture the complexity of this high school world, while incorporating catchy and showy musical numbers.

I don’t think the movie will attract adults or really is worthy of being in any sort of larger pantheon, but as a cultural phenomenon that captured a group of kids over the course of five years, it stands out, and is deserving of what it became. It’s the family friendly Grease of the 00’s and will live on as that film does today, occasionally appearing on your television Sunday nights and with you intentionally choosing not to change the channel.

3/5

Counting the Cost: The Theme of Sacrifice in the Films of 2014

If you’ve been following along, you may have seen the 12 or so best of 2014 lists I’ve made so far this year. Lists are fun and often easy ways to think about what popular culture has been consumed and at times can lead to deeper insight about what we enjoyed and why we enjoyed it. Sometimes various themes and trends can be noticed and in thinking about the movies I’ve seen this year one theme has appeared across a fairly wide margin of movies. I wanted to reflect on that theme here, though not necessarily to posit reasons as to why it might show up here and now–only time can tell I suppose–but to look into something that for some reason resonated amongst several films.

(Note: There may be minor spoilers for Selma, American Sniper, Interstellar, Calvary, Whiplash, and Two Days, One Night below)

The idea of sacrifice seems to have resonated this year. Of course the idea of living for something bigger than oneself is one that is oft-talked about. It’s something most people will cling to and is probably the most universally satisfying ethic; able to be translated across cultural, moral, and religious boundaries. The films this year cover this, but reflect on the sacrifice necessary to do what is right. To join in on the larger movement; fully committing oneself. There is a Biblical idea that talks of “counting the cost”–coming to terms with what having a belief and acting upon it may cost you. Cinematically filmmakers showed just what this might look like across all sorts of stories and genres.

selma

Selma and American Sniper, two films whose main characters’ ideologies are somewhat diametrically opposed, show their lead characters struggling with the cost of their commitments to their causes. Dr. King is the wise leader of the civil rights movement, having already made tremendous steps forward, and has the president’s ear when it comes to policy decisions, yet he finds himself conflicted in how much he can give to the movement he is spearheading. Director Ava DuVernay not only shows King in his glorious speeches, but also in back room conversations with his wife, who must suffer the brunt of his work. King’s choices not only may end his life (as they eventually do), but cause his family to struggle. The Kings know the pursuit of justice is never-ending and the cost of that decision haunts them even in the best of their moments.

American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle too weighs his family life with the duty he feels toward his country and his comrades. He chooses to risk his life for what he believes will protect his country. As he goes on tour after tour both his life and mental health are put at risk. When his wife reminds him of his manly duties to be there for his family, Kyle retorts that he is in fact doing them good by participating in something that will not only protect them, but others as well.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar features another man abandoning his family in order to save the greater population. The dystopian future doesn’t look good until Cooper discovers that there may be a way to save his family and the rest of humanity. Using skills that he is uniquely qualified for, he leaves his family (and Earth) behind to save the day. Nolan shows the toll this takes on Cooper in one of the year’s best scenes that will absolutely wreck you.


calvary-ocean-rocks

Is the calling to do something great worth the cost that it might entail? Heroism certainly extends beyond great acts of sacrifice, the day in and day out support of friends and family is beautiful and probably necessary. Is it then irresponsible for those who do great things to force their loved ones to take on the cost they have come to terms with? Should they avoid this altogether?

Whiplash‘s Andrew certainly believes this to be true as we see him getting into fights with his family about what true greatness means and even breaking up with a girl because he knows she’ll hold him back. He’s seen the lives his musical heroes have lead and knows that to achieve greatness you have to give up on certain things. While probably the least heroic and most unwise of all the characters mentioned thus far, Andrew recognizes the cost and gives up the parts of life that seem normal, but he knows will not lead him to where he is trying to go. In a way he has done the most responsible thing by not allowing his loved ones to experience the pain he knows he will cause them.

Yet this is altogether unsatisfying. I would more likely take a moment of unconditional love accompanied with a lifetime of pain, than to avoid it altogether. They say it’s better to have love and lost than to never have loved at all.

Father James of Calvary has experienced this. The movie opens up with the threat of death by an unknown parishioner. James’ duty is to love and guide people according to the calling he feels he has from God. Like Jesus though, he is rejected by his group of unfaithful church attendees who delight in making him uncomfortable and rejecting his silent pleas for righteousness. His own inner turmoil leads him to have to make a decision to continue pursuing these people, even at the cost of losing it all for nothing.

Finally, the Dardennes’ latest, Two Days, One Night lowers the personal stakes for protagonist Sandra, instead flipping this idea of cost onto her coworkers who must decide whether they want to keep her on the company payroll or to give up their bonus–1,000 Euros. As Sandra goes to each one, they must–in a moment–decide what to do. For some the cost is extraneous things, for others the cost would be insurmountable, causing themselves to go under. They must consider whether they consider her to be a friend and if she is, what then are they willing to give to her. They must consider their religious and ethical beliefs and if these override the desire or even need to hold onto money that is rightfully theirs. Eventually the tables are turned and Sandra too must make a decision about what is important to her and what she is willing to sacrifice.

Our jobs, goals, desires, relationships, and needs are a mishmash of priorities–usually all consisting of good things. When there is a call to something else, something greater, we must decide what it is that’s worth keeping and what is worth giving up. It’s a haunting question, one that puts to shame so many of our daily activities, but when the time comes it demands an answer.

Captain Phillips and Global Consequences

Tom Hanks

When I first heard that Captain Phillips was going to be made, it should be known that I was taking a class titled “Micro-Issues in Relief and Development” and had chosen Somalia to be my country of study. I was immediately interested in how they would make a film like this and utterly terrified at how the Somalis would be portrayed as the “villains” of the story. After having seen Captain Phillips (as well as its Danish counterpart A Hijacking) I can say that there are two great films that tackled this subject, excellent in their technique, and in the way that they address the entire story.

Captain Phillips opens with Tom Hanks, playing Rich Phillips, leaving his nice home in Virginia, preparing to head to Oman where he will deliver aid to Mombasa, Kenya. He and his wife have a discussion about how the world has changed, one that indirectly discusses globalization, how the world is smaller, closer. It is through this lens that I believe director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Bill Ray want you to see the film.

After Phillips departs, the film cuts to Somalia where we meet the other principle character, Abduwali Muse, a Somali man who is forced to select a crew to go and pirate by the local warlord. He selects his crew and they are on their way. This is not the only time that in the midst of telling the story of Phillips, the camera cuts away to the happenings of the Somalis. In fact everything that happens to Phillips and his crew seems to be paralleled by Muse and his. Both struggle to keep their men loyal to them. Both are held hostage at the same time. Both crews end up in over their head with what happens and both end up as pawns in a larger global game. Both view each other through binoculars at the same moment as the event that will change both their lives is about to happen. Greengrass doesn’t portray Phillips and Muse as the same, but shows us how their lives parallel. By establishing the Somali characters from the beginning it’s as if he is telling us that these people are important too. I saw that a foreign translation for this movie was “A Captain’s Tale”, this seemed to fit better, because it is not merely about one captain, but rather two.

I came out of the movie with this reading of the film, but as the end approaches (SPOILERS here though this actually happened and I am sure you can guess the ending) the audience around me grew restless, laughing scornfully whenever Muse mentioned how he loved America. When Phillips is rescued through snipers shooting the poverty stricken Somali men, one person began clapping. When the film went to black and the real-life updates were given, the people behind me were shocked that the captured Muse was only given 33 years in American prison.

Despite these reactions, I truly believe that Greengrass and company meant to give us a larger tale than good vs. evil; rather they meant to show us a story that tells of liberal economic policies, American influence, and how this affects our globalized world. The rest of this essay will discuss why this is so.

When the Somalis invade the boat in an intense sequence of events, eventually Muse is taken captive by the crew. The American crew takes Muse, holding him at gunpoint in order to get what they want. Though the Somalis are originally the violent ones, it is shown that in desperation anybody can act violently. Though they are acting in defense and in retribution, it shows how quickly the hopeless turn violent to fight for life. Later we find out that if the Somali crew gets home with nothing, their lives are too in danger. When each needs to survive, the capability for violence is increased.

The pirates’ main motivation is money. They are not trying to make a statement, they want to get as much money as they can. When offered thirty thousand dollars, one of them states “I want millions”. In light of global economics which teach of acting out in self-interest, does this not translate?

Muse states several times that he really has no other choice. He calls the work they are doing a tax, for the use of “their” waters. Phillips responds, refuting his answer, by saying that these are “international waters”. Both are right. Where Phillips comes from, in his world, the powers that be have decided that these are international. In Muse’s mind, these belong and always have belonged to his ancestors. Yet, in a twist of global “fairness” it now belongs to everyone. For local Somali fisherman this means that their fish, their livelihood, is taken from them. When Phillips tells Muse that he has other options besides fishing and piracy, Muse responds “maybe in America”.

This highlights two ironies that run throughout the film. The first is Muse’s constant speaking of America. He says that after he is done with pirating, he will go to America, relishing in his success. When the film ends we find out he will spend time there, in jail. The other irony is that Phillips’ ship is delivering supplies to give to hungry “Africans”. Instead of accomplishing his task, he is met face to face with the reality of global policy.

Of the four Somali pirates that we spend time with, Najee, is arguably the least redeemable character. The others at least seem nice at various points, but Najee is argumentative, aggressive, and violent. If there is any sense of justice to be had, it would be in his death. Yet, I believe that even Najee is made to be seen as a victim of his circumstances, as he delivers the most profound expression of the person in poverty. When the Navy Seals come in to take care of the situation and negotiation begins, he cries out exasperated, “they’re treating us like children!” This cry is an important one to take in. Najee is a man, born into poverty where there are often few choices to be made, told that the land he once fished is no longer his because of macroeconomic policies put into place by corrupt government heads, and dependent on white-skinned foreigners to bring relief; he takes advantage of an opportunity to do something for himself, bringing in money that will help he and his family (we assume). Even in this, with a gun in his hand, he gets no respect. The Navy Seals treat him like a child when he wants to be seen as someone with worth.

This leads me to my last point which is about the Navy intervention. It could be interpreted, as I recounted above, that the Navy comes in as the heroes here, saving the day from the pirates. They do come in and do their job with extreme precision. However, it is hardly an inspiring moment. For the most part the Navy is left faceless. We are never meant to care about them with any affection. In fact, when Phillips discovers that the Navy have entered into the picture he is terrified, knowing that they care more about a global image than any of the individual lives of the men on the boat.

The last couple of scenes reminded me of the end of another true story, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The death of Osama Bin Laden happens in a factual manner and the film closes with a close-up on Maya as she breaks down crying. It is ambiguous as to whether Maya is upset, joyous, or is just letting out all the tension that had built throughout the film. I see the same thing in Captain Phillips. When the plan is executed there is a sense of relief to all the tension that had built to this point. However, this relief is not completely satisfying. The bloody mess that was created does not leave the viewer appeased. It’s as if life calls for answers that are deeper and more complex than the solution shown here.

The last scene, which is likely the film’s most remarkable, shows Hanks getting medical attention as he tries to hold himself together emotionally, but slowly begins breaking down. The medical examiner asks him if the blood all over him has come from his head, all he can manage to say is “it’s not my blood, not my blood”. Through this powerful and emotional scene, it’s almost as if Greengrass is reminding us that Phillips wasn’t the one who was hurt in this situation, no, it was someone else, someone who we will forget about entirely.

Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Blue Like Jazz is all the latest rage around the world of art-loving Christians, not necessarily for its cinematic achievement or artistic prowess, but rather for the anomaly that it is when it comes to “Christian” art. Sprouting up here and there are thoughts, opinions, and angles on the film directed by Steve Taylor, based on the popular memoir by Donald Miller. Each discusses whether this film does the book justice, what it means for both “Christian” moviemaking and artmaking, and whether or not a secular audience can not only enjoy the film, but whether it will usher them into the spiritual realm like it is supposed to(?).

Sure there are many fimmakers out there who are Christians and are making movies, so this is not a completely new thing. In the last few years I have seen several films that explicitly touch on Christian subjects. Directors like Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) or Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The New World) have made movies deeply influenced by religious beliefs, while movies like Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, and Secret Sunshine all deal with living the Christian life (and yet are highly unseen by a Christian audience, but they sure do seem to find a lot of Christian metaphors in Braveheart or Gladiator). I think Blue Like Jazz differs from those films because they are either released from mainstream marketing or from independent distributors that critics ogle over, while Blue Like Jazz mostly finds itself being advertised within the “Christian” market (most notably for me: Relevant Magazine and during a Gungor concert). In this sense they have a lot more to do with past “Christian” films such as Fireproof or Facing the Giants.

In this regard is also where Blue Like Jazz differs and thus finds itself lost between two different markets (perhaps as a bridge…). Blue Like Jazz features language (7 s-words as PluggedIn will tell you), sensuality, and other things that aren’t as church-appropriate. It pushes the limit on what is allowed to be discussed at church, while having a level of quality and openness to allow critics and secular moviegoers to enjoy it. It stands in the middle between two very different worlds and invites both sides to come and meet, without so ever choosing a side.

It is for this reason that this an important film; the release of the film itself will do more for Christians and movies than anything actually in the movie could do. Having to do stand in the middle, may in fact prevent the film from reaching a level of greatness.

Blue Like Jazz follows Don Miller, a young Christian in Texas living a sheltered life within his Baptist church. When something shatters Don’s life and view of the church, he leaves town, headed West to liberal, wild, “free” Reed College in Portland, Or. There he learns to shut his mouth about any Christian upbringing and learns the Reed mantra of living “free” through wild parties, civil disobedience, and lectures based on radical ideologies.

The film really does this all very well. Marshall Allman plays Don very well and the supporting cast does a great job playing the eclectic characters he meets. Production-wise, the film is no Avatar, but for something that was saved by a Kickstarter campaign, there is certainly nothing to complain about. The thing that the film does the best is the humor, portraying some hilarious (and horrifying) images as well as great dialogue that satirizes the conservative church. One reason I loved Donald Miller’s work is for the humor that he brings to it, and the film certainly brings that part out.

The real problem with the film lies in the lack of struggle Don shows during his time at Reed. As Don leaves his life behind, he instantly rejects everything about his old life. The notion that Don would completely and instantly reject his sub-culture is believable and would have been interesting had there been more struggle and questioning shown. Instead, Don mocks religion and spends his time with beer filled, bike-fixing sessions. His anger at the church turns more into shame, rather than angry rants at God, and as a viewer, it wasn’t engaging.

The film’s conclusion even points to the fact that it isn’t about doubting, but about being ashamed, as Don gives a speech about “being ashamed of Jesus”, whilst asking for forgiveness of the church. It is here that being a bridge brings down the quality of the movie. By trying to teach young Christians you don’t have to be ashamed at the same time as asking forgiveness for all the sins of the church, it seems to want to throw a bone to both sides of the bridge, in a way that is less than subtle. The meditative approach of Miller’s work seems to get lost in the climax and resolution of the story arc, with the loose ends getting tied up a little too quickly, nicely, and conveniently.

It is a film worth checking out if you are interested in religion, are a Christian, or have read the book. If you are not, I still recommend it, because really there’s not many good films in theaters right now anyways. Blue Like Jazz will be remembered many years down the road, more for the impact that it will have, than for the content within the film. I look forward to what director Steve Taylor will do down the road and am always on the lookout for new things written by Donald Miller.

3/5

Rango

Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s latest collaboration takes place far away from the storming seas that the Black Pearl swayed on and finds itself in the deserts of an unknown location, likely somewhere in California or Arizona.

Depp plays Lars a lizard in this animated feature who creates plays with inanimate objects while in his cage as somebody’s pet. He longs for meaning, for some sort of tension to occur in his life outside of his plastic environment. His wish comes true when his cage is thrust from the vehicle he rides in (no backstory is given to his prior life) and he is forced to survive in the desert. A place, that technically, he is made for, but has yet to ever live in.

As the story continues, he eventually finds a town called Dirt, where he makes up a new identity for himself, a tough cowboy like figure named Rango. After a few accidental victories over the town’s bullies and a bird that haunts the town, he is thrust into the sheriff’s position; one that apparently is refilled often.

The town is in a water crisis and with the water supply running low, it is up to the sheriff to both protect the existing water supply and to look out for the people he rules over. Of course, he is not alone in this and in charge of the town is the mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty), who controls when the water is to be given out.

From here, the plot is fairly predictable. There is a corrupt leader, our hero tries to save the day but somehow fails and ends up revealing that he is not the hero he claimed to be, he is thus outcast while the town suffers at the hand of the corrupted leader, the hero realizes that within his true self he has the ability to save the day (and figures out the key to the whole problem) and returns to face his fears and the corruption that lords over the town eventually getting the girl in the end.

Its unoriginal plot structure wasn’t the most pathetic I’ve ever seen, but when you’re sitting in the theater trying to determine how much time is left based on what point the movie is at in the typical hero archetype, you know there is some sort of a problem.

Rango never really seemed to add up. Subtle parts that seemed like they would come back to mean big things thematically, never really appeared again. There are certain shots, characters, and interactions that would have lead down interesting paths had they been pursued, but evidently Verbinski wanted a more cookie-cutter like film. It seemed like it either wanted to go a lot deeper than it did and failed, or they had to cut scenes out for time/marketing purposes.

Depp is great as the voice of our false hero and the animation is fantastic. The filmmakers really attempted to go for something different animation and editing wise and  this was certainly successful, giving the film a more artsy edge to it than its other animated competitors. Just Rango himself looked amazing, and it is a wonder how they were able to make his eyes look like they did. If only they would have put more of that focus and originality on the plot, we could have had a pretty good film on our hands, instead it turns into a run-of-the-mill animated film that is not really worth recommending.

2.5/5

Of Gods and Men (2011)

Of Gods and Men is a movie about values, convictions, faith, tolerance, martyrdom, mission, community, brotherhood, outreach, it’s a movie about living, and it’s a movie about dying.

It takes place in Algeria in the mid-90’s, focusing on a group of French  Trappist monks who have taken a vow of poverty in order to reach out to a largely Muslim community. The monks fit in with those around them beautifully, providing free medical services, participating in the town’s market, and even attending children’s birthday parties. Their relationship with the community is one of the best interfaith portrayals of tolerance as both get along, helping and loving each other, while still maintaining their beliefs with conviction. The monks are never seen proselytizing, but always acknowledge whom they serve.

The people of the community’s lives are interrupted by a civil war in Algeria and their lives are threatened when a radical Muslim group begins causing chaos all around. This becomes especially personal to the friars when they hear (and we see) that the rebels have attacked and killed a group of Croatians who live in the country to provide aid. The scene in which monastery leader Christian hears of this news is one of the most saddening scenes I have seen in a while; the way his face drops is utterly heartbreaking.

From here, the monks must make a decision. The Algerian government suggests that they get army protection, something the monks are unwilling to do, because they do not believe in violence or in using a corrupt government for protection. Christian and the six other brothers residing in the monastery must make a decision… Should they stay in the monastery and risk their lives? Or should they flee, saving themselves and potentially helping out other communities elsewhere around the world. The town desperately needs what they provide and abandoning it in its time of need would be tragic. Should they give up on their calling in order to seek safety? They are a group of people who have already given up nearly everything for their beliefs, are they willing to give up absolutely everything? At the same time, they also question what laying down their lives would actually accomplish. Would it be for the sole purpose of the glory in martyrdom? In beautiful long shots these questions are asked.

The friar’s acts of mass and liturgy serve as the only background music to accompany the entire film and is almost like the canvas to which the entire film is painted on. Each song fits what is happening dramatically and allows for the monks to express their trials, doubts, and fears beautifully.

The entire situation gets even more complicated, when they are approached by the terrorists themselves and asked to provide medical aid to injured members. The monks face pressure from both sides of the war to help, but must follow their allegiance to their God above all. The scene where this situation is presented is one of the best in the film, I won’t spoil it, but I will say that Christian handles this terrifying predicament in a way I can imagine Jesus or the early Apostles handling it. It shows a wonderful, uncompromising way of dealing with your enemies that is so refreshing.

No matter what your experience with the Christian faith, there is still plenty to admire and enjoy with this movie. The passion exuded by the monks is awe-inspiring and the love that they show for their community is an example all should follow.

For those of the Christian faith, it is an absolute must see. It expresses all the love, the mission, and the struggle that is contained within the true Christian and shows how to put those desires into action. Though at times it is sad, it also remains uplifting and is an image people should share and watch for a long time to come.

5/5