Rewatch: The Fifth Element

FifthElement

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 I talked about how The Matrix retains some of its cool despite its outdated cyber-punk internet age in a previous post, but The Fifth Element does not have any of that despite being released just two years prior (1997).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”).


The_Fifth_Element_Bruce_Willis_Chris_Tucker

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

500-Days-Of-Summer

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.


500DoSTheSmiths

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

HighSchoolMusical

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