Saturday, January 2, 2010

An Oasis in the Desert, or, The Decade in Films That Didn't Make Me Groan

As I'm a person who likes to see portrayals of heroism and an Objectivist; unfortunately, the two are often placed at odds with each other in the current culture. So, on the start of a new decade, I thought some retrospective on the films of the past ten years might be beneficial. There was a lot to jeer at in the past ten years; getting to the "good stuff" is like wandering through the desert to reach an oasis. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step...just be wary of mirages...


The Desert of the Real:

•The "New" Heroism of Movie Soundtracks
G.I. Joe's end theme music was a rap song about "hooking up." The first Transformers ended with a depressing Linkin Park song about feeling guilty and worthless. The themes of the Spider-Man films are specifically about how we cannot wait on a hero, or being "selfish and wrong."

When I pressed myself to think of a good heroic piece of music from a soundtrack I thought of the "hero theme" from Dexter. It's the strains of music that usually don't get used until it's close to the season finale and he's getting ready to go save someone that (in his own warped way) he loves.
Anyway, I'm not going to focus this whole thing on music, but it struck me more as a symptom than a cause.

•"Heroism in a Bottle"
Another thing that comes to mind is the "heroism in a bottle" aspect of sports. Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Vince Young have all had what you could call a good year, winning lots of games and each with an interesting story behind them. But then, every single time, you hear one of them start in with this: "Aww shucks, we're paid to do a job so we went out and did our job, and hopefully we can keep doing our job. But seriously all praise goes to God for the job we've been doing."

•The Reality of Real-Life Heroes
And there have been a lot of legitimate real-life heroes. Without discounting that heroism, the problem with this is that there have been no heroes who've come along and really shown the world at large why some pretty major things are important. People still praise socialized health care, without looking more than a few weeks past what would happen once it's passed. We have national security standards that are so lax that recently in Detroit we've had a response to a terrorist attack fall apart at every level (fortunately all the way down to the terrorist himself).

We've entered a world where people who say "Death to America!" "Death to the West" "The Holocaust was a lie!" Terrorists are our misunderstood friends, and people who read Ayn Rand and oppose Obama on a level of policy are the real enemy. Fortunately, there were a few fresh drinks of water...


The Oasis
I live in a world where I see very little of my values reflected anywhere, and when I do, it's more often than not a mirage, an optical illusion of seeing things that aren't really there. But with reason and perseverance, there was some fresh water at the oasis of the last decade...

•300 (2006)
At this point it seems most people don't remember much about this movie besides the buff men in loincloths and the "THIS IS SPARTA!" catchphrase. But the book is probably the best single piece of work Frank Miller ever did, and the movie is on par with it. It's a pitch-perfect adaptation; perhaps a scenes weren't translated as best as they could've been from the source material, but, on the whole, the adaptation improved upon the original. Zack Snyder built an entire character out of two panels of art and one line of dialogue. The visuals were beautiful (though I hope that if Miller gets to direct again he doesn't continue to use the style from this and Sin City). All in all, it's a very inspiring story of reason and freedom vs. mysticism and tyranny.

•The Incredibles (2004)
Joe had a lot to say about this one. To be honest, I agree with most of it. It's not perfect, but it's the closest thing to a story from an Objectivist mindset I expect to see for a long time. Though, on that note, I'd also agree that Ratatouille was just as good if not maybe a little better. I guess I focused on this one because it came first, as well as it fits the title of this blog slightly better.

•The Dark Knight (2008)
Joe and I both had a lot to say about this one. But to sum up why I put it on this list: yeah, most of the moral dilemmas are lifeboat situations (including the literal one near the end). I probably wouldn't agree with many of the moral stances taken by different characters in the film. But at the end of the day, it's a film that doesn't insult your intelligence. I can say that, but I don't think most people will get how profound that actually is in American film in this day and age, so I'll explain.

A few months ago, my research for a planned article required watching some Japanese horror films. The comparison between the Japanese versions next to the American versions is like night and day. They spell so much out for you in the American version and don't treat you like you're smart enough to figure any of it out on your own. But having your intelligence respected in an American film, adapting a comic book superhero, while being faithful (but not slavish) to the source material, that's something very special.

•Rocky Balboa (2006)
This movie was just better than anyone expected it to be. It juggles a few too many supporting characters at times, but it still works. It does a good job of creating a situation that in many ways mirrors the first film, while still keeping it fresh and new. It's just a great film about what happens when you really fight for what matters to you.

Rambo (2008)
I think I've written more about this character here than just about anything else. And why not? He's very compelling, whether it's "the kid" from the book or the Stallone version. But in general, this film is just one of the greatest depictions of war I've ever seen. It's ugly, horrifyingly unglamorous; sometimes it's the only hope for justice and civilization, but if it fails in that respect it just leaves a path of wreckage in its wake. But, much like Rocky Balboa, what makes this film so great is the fact that Rambo actually grows as a person. He's spent years facing his demons, and, by the end of this film, you feel that he's truly ready to really move on with his life.

•Million Dollar Baby (2004)
This film is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted story of overcoming adversity and the strong friendships formed through a shared passion. If the Atlas Shrugged movie is ever actually made, this film is the reason I think Eastwood is the only person qualified to direct it.

There's a scene in the hospital where toward the end of the film. Maggie's family has come to get her to sign over power of attorney, and all of her new found money, over to them after she's left paralyzed. All of that and her forgiveness for every time they've ever wronged her is put on the line with a simple question "Did you see the fight?" Hard to deny the shades of Hank Reardon. But it's an amazing film that just draws you in and doesn't let go.

•Team America: World Police (2004) What I love most about this movie is that it spends the first 10 or so minutes playing into the liberal stereotypes of warmongering Republicans and the rest of the movie demolishing the liberal views. All around it's just a great piece of satire that takes on not only politics but the horrible films of Michael Bay. And, to be honest, I think the day when more people truly understand the "Dicks, Pussies and Assholes" speech will be a day when a lot of things change for the better.

•Saw IV (2007)
I've had a fair amount to say about this series. There are a few reasons this entry in particular stands out. In all the entries of the Saw franchise, all of the victims have committed crimes. There are problems, though. In the first two, many of the crimes seem to be small enough not to warrant Jigsaw's rehabilitation. In the third one, the whole set up is entirely subjective. In part five, all the crimes warrant their respective punishment but there is a bit too much lip service to altruism thrown in. But Saw IV found the perfect blend. All of the victims deserve what they're going to get, and, in all honesty, if they make it through their respective trap it seems that they will have truly earned their redemption. But what makes this entry so special is that the lead character's greatest weakness and character flaw is his altruism. It's what ultimately gets both himself and the people he cares about killed.

I know this entry is controversial, but you can't always choose where you're going to find inspiration. Again, what might seem a more "benevolent" choice" may turn out to be nothing but a mirage...

•Justice League: New Frontier (2008) This is probably the best of the DC animated films. By that I mean to differentiate the new "DC Animated" film line from the "Timmverse" of Batman TAS, Superman TAS, Justice Leage Unlimited, the Zeta Project and Batman Beyond. The other entries I've seen have each been good in their own right but something just seemed "off."

But New Frontier was a pitch perfect adaptation of the mini-series/graphic novel of the same name. It kept the original published timeline for these characters intact. This is in contradiction to the current post-Crisis/Zero Hour/Super Duper Ultimate Infinite Crisis DCU. In that set up, Batman and Superman have been operating for 10 years (at least that's what it said in 1994; I'm pretty sure they've been operating for 11 maybe even 13 years by the current time line.) But as such, it ties in all the characters to major events of the time. Space exploration, cold war tensions, atrocities in minor dictatorships are all seen through the filter of "what would happen if these major superheroes were all around when this happened?"

It's all very well done, with the exception of a bit of an obsession with McCarthyism. The other major flaw is the ending implies "JFK is in office now and that'll make everything better." I once saw an adaptation of Animal Farm that had a similar ending, suggesting that the Clintons would save the day, but neither really rang true either time.

•X-Men 2 (2003)
Out of this decade's batch of great Marvel movies, X-Men 2 seemed to be the only one that fit what I had in mind. Spider-man had the Ditko connection, but goes so far out of its way to play up the greatness of altruism I couldn't in good conscience put it on a list like this. Iron Man featured a brilliant business man and inventor as its hero, but a case could be made equally well for either side that he's heroic because of this or in spite of this. It loses points with me for trying to be all things to all people. Largely, the rest were all hit or miss. I enjoyed almost all of them on first viewing but later lost much of that appreciation (especially in the case of Daredevil). I did love Johnny Storm's character in Fantastic Four 2, but it really rubbed me the wrong way that he was supposed to be the bad one while the "good" Reed almost lead the group into homelessness. (There's a reason when I was doing a story with Joe I turned Reed into a villain, and to be honest a lot of other people do as well.)

But X-Men 2 it has several things going for it. The character relationships are complex and mature. The special effects are beautiful and believable. It handles a complex plot rather well, juggling lots of characters and their storylines and making it look easy. In general there's just nothing bad I can say about this film.


And that is my tour through the "desert of the real" that was the past ten years in cinema heroism. Let's hope that the next decade has a better oasis to mirage ratio...