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G.I. Joe: Retaliation ••

G.I._JOE_RetaliationStarring: Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Jonathan Prhttp://greg-smith.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/scott.jpgyce, Byung-hun Lee with Bruce Willis
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Rhett Reese
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes




(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Did you lose as many brain cells as I did?

No, only my self-respect for believing that Bruce Willis could make this movie worth seeing. This is a movie based upon the Hasbro toy line of the same name, and it is a sequel to 2009’s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. There is a better plot here than the first go-round. But it is a movie divided against itself as we’ll discuss later.

GI Joe: Retaliation is apparently aimed at Baby Boomers who grew up playing with the 6-inch action figures and watching the Saturday morning cartoon series. As it is rated “PG-13” it is appropriate for adults and older kids alike. Channing Tatum returns in the role he played in the prequel and is joined by Dwayne Johnson with a little help from Bruce Willis. So, it has the star power to attract an adult audience. However, the plot never rises above the quality of the Saturday morning cartoons.

To be fair, the movie isn’t intended for balding, over-educated, middle-aged geeks like us. The average 12 year-old boy might love it, assuming he’s into explosions, gunfire, and sword play. Here’s a brief synopsis of the opening act:

The Joes have just completed a successful mission in Pakistan but are unaware that the President of the U.S. (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by an evil imposter. This bad guy in the White House betrays the Joes by publicly renouncing them and then by bombing them into oblivion. Duke (Channing Tatum) is killed, leaving Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) as the only active Joes remaining. This trio vows to clear their good names and fix what has happened.

What follows is two movies in one. Which I suppose is necessary because the main plot doesn’t have enough weight to make it span two hours. The main plot follows Roadblock, Flint, and Lady Jaye as they return to the States and set up shop in an abandoned gym. They determine that there is an imposter in the White House and they need help to expose him. And there is only one man they can trust – the original GI Joe: General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis).

Meanwhile, Snake Eyes and Jinx are on a separate mission to track down and abduct the evil Storm Shadow. This “B” plot was mostly a lot of ridiculous ninja-style fighting. And when I say ridiculous, imagine two dozen ninjas suspended from a cliff by hand-gun shot grappling hooks all swinging around trying to kill our intrepid heroes with swords. The heroes are likewise swinging around on a zip cord between two mountains. In my mind I was wondering why the ninjas didn’t just slice the zip cord. Case closed. As it turns out, Storm Shadow isn’t as evil as you might think as he was framed by Zartan who is posing as the President.

Honestly, I felt I needed a score card to keep up with all the characters in this movie. A quarter of them were wearing masks or helmets so there was no way to tell who was talking at times. Although the writers did give Snake Eyes an out as he took a “vow of silence.”

Greg, I don’t think most 12 year-olds care about believability. They just want to see cool fight scenes on the sides of mountain cliffs. And the movie delivers in that respect. The main problem I had with G.I. Joe: Retaliation was the near total absence of character development at the beginning of the movie, and the same absence of character transformation at the end. We have a slew of one-dimensional characters who are certainly heroic, but their heroism is like one of those cheap chocolate Easter bunnies I just ate — completely hollow.

Scott, how can you on the one hand excuse believability because the movie appeals to 12-year-olds and then complain about one-dimensional characters on the other? You can have both good plot and characterization in a movie for youngsters, you know (witness our recent review of The Croods). Still, the heroes are very black-and-white. As such, Roadblock plays the classic reluctant leader. General Joe Colton plays the grizzled veteran. And Lady Jaye is the hot babe who kicks butt while wearing a sport bra and heels. And there ain’t gonna be a lot of depth in those roles.

I’m not saying I’m excusing it, just understanding it. And please don’t tell me that The Croods was believable! Come to think of it, most movies these days require a heroic effort on our part to suspend our disbelief. I guess I can forgive a lack of believability, but I can’t forgive a lame-arse hero story.

Now having said that, it’s possible we should cut G.I. Joe: Retaliation some slack for having such a feeble hero story because it’s part of a series. It’s often the case that a single installment of a series rarely contains the full hero journey. Notice that I said that it’s possible to cut some slack here. Personally, I’m not going to do any slack-cutting because it didn’t look like any effort was being made at all to craft a meaningful hero. Apparently nonstop action was the goal.

And it was achieved. The movie moves along at a good clip and Dwayne Johnson was good in the role. I’m going to give G.I. Joe Retaliation 2 Reels for being what it sets out to be – a shoot-em-up for pre-teens and fan-boys. But I can only give 1 Hero for the thinly-painted characters.

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-1

I went into the theater with low expectations, and those expectations were fully met. Even Bruce Willis couldn’t salvage G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I’m going to be very generous and give the movie 2 Reels if only because I can think of movies that are worse than this one. I’ll give the movie 2 Heroes because there is nothing more painful than agreeing with Greg on both ratings!

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-2

The Croods ••••

The_Croods_posterStarring: (the voice talents of) Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman
Director: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Screenplay: Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco, John Cleese
Animated/Action/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes


(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)

Scott, The Croods is a new animated feature from Dreamworks animation. They’re the crew who brought us all those Madagascar movies, and Shrek. I haven’t been impressed with much that they’ve done since Shrek, but The Croods is a rocking good time.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

The Croods didn’t disappoint. I was initially a little worried that this movie would be The Flintstones set in a darker universe. But it delivered meatier fare than anything Fred and Barney could.

We’re introduced to Grug Crood (Nicholas Cage) who is a classic Cro-Magnon. He’s big, burly and keeps his family safe by hiding them in a cave. Anything out of the ordinary is bad. Everything good is in the cave. The family only ventures out to forage for food. And when they do, it’s a team event with everyone in the family doing their part. But they must hurry back to the cave before the sun sets or become food for whatever roams the night. Grug’s teen-age daughter, Eep (Emma Stone) has a different idea about what is good. She loves the sun and the outdoors and anything new. She sneaks out one night and meets a young Homo-Sapien named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Guy is everything new. He wears boots, a belt, has mastered fire, and brings a tale of impending doom – the earth as they know it is collapsing!

It had better be collapsing! We can’t have a hero story in a stable, familiar world, now can we? Grug notices that Eep is missing and frantically searches for her. Meanwhile, Guy leaves Eep to venture to safer terrain. After Grug and his family find Eep, massive earthquakes destroy their cave, sending them fleeing toward a land that is a far cry from their bland rocky desert. This new world is a lush jungle teeming with color and all sorts of new peril. Greg, to me this shift in worlds was reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.

That’s an apt comparison. The first thing that occurred to me in this movie was how closely it matches Moxnes’ Deep Roles Model. In it Moxnes describes how archetypal characters are based on the family structure. There’s the Father, the Mother, the Crown Prince, the Princess, the Wise Man and the Hero. The Croods fit this model closely with father Grug, mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), brother Thunk (Clark Duke), daughter Eep, and grandmother Gran (Cloris Leachman) as the wise mentor. The boy Guy plays the Hero character. Usually in this model the Hero is transformed through the experience. But the main character who goes through transformation is Grug, the father. He starts out clinging to the old, safe ways. But he gradually learns that the old ways don’t work in a world full of strange plants and animals.

Glad you brought in Moxnes’ model, Greg. It fits like a glove here. This movie is interesting in that it starts out giving the impression that Eep is the hero. She leaves the safety of her cave to explore a forbidden world. But as you say, it’s Grug who must change his ways in response to a rapidly changing world. He can’t stop his daughter from growing up, and he can’t prevent earthquakes from transforming the landscape. I would say that Grug is the main hero and that the mentor is Guy, not the rather uninteresting Grandma character. It was Guy who encouraged new ways of thinking and who brought about Grug’s transformation.

That’s a good qualification, Scott. I really respected the Dreamworks animators for not coloring Eep in perfect female form. She’s a cute character, but unlike so many Disney princesses, not a classic beauty. She has very broad shoulders and thick legs. Her hair is a controlled cinnamon brillo pad. She has a sunny face and great enthusiasm. I’m reminded of Shrek (another Dreamworks film) and how the princess in that story turned into an ugly green ogre at the end of the story. The Disney model requires that good characters be (or become) beautiful. (Take for example, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast who transforms from an evil beast to a good, handsome prince). All too often, both in cinema and in life, we equate beauty with virtue. It’s good to see a film that takes the risk of making their virtuous characters look less than perfect.

Eep is definitely a non-traditional woman. She’s smarter and more intellectually curious than just about every character, and she runs circles around most of the men in this story. She’s even physically stronger than Guy. If there’s a sequel to The Croods, she’s the one character I’d want to learn more about.

Greg, the movie’s only flaw, if you could call it that, was the ending. The filmmakers here got greedy and tried to make the hero just a little too superhuman. I won’t give away the ending scene, but let’s just say that the screenplay writers underestimated the audience, who would have left the theater quite satisfied with all the growth and transformation that our hero underwent. But no, we’re presented with a truly unrealistic scene at the end that wrapped everything up in a far too-perfect bow.

I see your point. However, remember this is a children’s movie rated PG. One element that was especially endearing to me was the presence of “story” in the movie. Grug often tells stories and illustrates them on the walls of the cave. I just loved the idea that the earliest people were as much in love with telling a story as we are today.

You’re right. We had stories within the story. And those stories had to change for the main story to work. Overall, it’s a classic hero tale with all the essential elements in place. The animated cinematography was amazing, especially in the early egg-chasing scenes. There was clever humor — witness the Croods’ first reactions to fire with references to fire babies and fire-biting. While Grug emerges as the main hero, in a way the entire Croods family displays heroism in their combined efforts to survive their radically changing world. Like Shrek, The Croods has memorable characters and classic themes that appeal to people of all ages. I’m giving the movie 4 Reels out of 5, and the hero 4 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-4 Hero: superman-4

I was delightfully surprised. This is a very layered film: the merging ideas of early man with modern familial problems, the coming of age for a young girl, the feeling of loss for a father losing his daughter to a young man, the passing of brute strength in favor of intellect, and a man standing still while the world literally passes him by. I really can’t find any faults with the story except that it was a bit too saccharine so as to appeal to the sensibilities of young children. I’d like to give this 5 Reels, but the ending fell a bit flat so I can only give it 4. I was a bit confused about who the hero of the story was. The story starts focused on Eep as the element of change. Then switches to Guy, the young boy. And finally settled on Grug as the transformed hero. I prefer a more clear hero structure and so give only 3 Heroes out of 5 for The Croods
Movie: reel-4Hero: superman-3

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone •••

Incredible-Burt-Wonderstone-PosterStarring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde with Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin
Director: Don Scardino
Screenplay: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw a zany comedy with several highly acclaimed actors: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, and Alan Arkin. What did you think of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?

(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)

It was a delightful surprise. Fashioned after Will Ferrel movies like Blades of Glory and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Carell and friends take on the wonderful world of magic!

The real magic trick was that a movie like this seemed destined to be a dud, yet somehow provided solid entertainment.

Let’s recap: Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) play two magicians whose long-running Las Vegas act slowly becomes stale and unpopular. A rival magician, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) has stolen their audience and their thunder by performing extreme tricks involving bodily mutilation. The two men are fired, have a falling out, and go their separate ways. Burt is unable to find work and has clearly lost his passion for magic.

This is such a fun, funny, and wonderful story of falling from grace and redemption. Burt Wonderstone had lost the wonder of magic until he meets his (now aged) childhood idol, Rance Halloway (Arkin). Rance chides Burt for having no joy for the art of magic and helps him to reclaim it. This is a classic hero’s redemption story.

Yes it is, Greg. As much as this movie is over-the-top goofy, and as much as Steve Carell plays farce to the hilt, we still are witness to a traditional hero’s journey. Burt’s fall into the unfamiliar world of failure leads him to a love interest, Jane (Olivia Wilde); a mentor character Rance which you mention; and an opportunity for transformation.

Greg, what did you think of Anton’s role in this movie? Was this a buddy hero story or did Anton play more of a sidekick role?

Anton is Burt’s best friend from grade school. He was always the idea man and Burt was the front man. Anton was willing to take a back seat to Burt. While they were clearly buddies, I don’t think this was a buddy film. It was all about Burt’s realization that he had gotten too big for his own britches and had to change his ways. So, Anton is clearly a sidekick in a movie about Burt Wonderstone. What did you think of Olivia Wilde’s role in this movie? She’s a long-time favorite of mine from the TV show House and her appearance in other movies including the underrated In Time.

Olivia’s character of Jane served a purpose that is common in both the movies and in real life. What is that purpose? Women make men better. There I said it. You see it in the movies all the time, from Groundhog Day to nearly every romantic comedy where the male hero is a dufus and the woman sets him straight.

Jim Carrey as Steve Gray looks a lot like David Blaine or Chris Angel (and the stunts they perform in such cable shows as Mind Freak). Carrey is a master of physical comedy and he uses all of his talent here. I was happy that he didn’t go over the top. He seems to have tamed his mania and focused his gifts into a villain character that was a sharp contrast to Carell’s Wonderstone. Gray was sort of the grown-up bully that Wonderstone had to face as a child.

I was thinking the exact same thing about Carrey’s more subdued performance. We’ve seen physical comedians on the big screen tone down their act with great commercial success before. Steve Martin comes to mind.

I also appreciated how Anton’s hero story obeyed an important law of the hero journey: Heroes must use some aspect of their trials to redeem themselves. Anton travels overseas to a developing nation to perform magic to the starving masses — a silly gag that falls flat. But while there, Anton discovers a plant that acts as a sedative. Burt and Anton later use that plant to help transform their magic act.

That’s a great plot device. The writers were pretty economical in their writing – they really didn’t waste anything. I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected. And there was a lot more of the Hero’s Journey in it than I expected. I give The Incredible Burt Wonderstone 3 out of 5 Reels for an entertaining comedy experience and 3 out of 5 Heroes for a reasonably well-crafted hero.

Movie: reel-3 Hero: superman-3

Ditto, Greg. The movie was a fun romp, producing many chuckles and solid entertainment. It’s no academy award-winner, but it did the job. I also give it 3 Reels out of 5. The Hero journey was certainly present from start to finish. It was a bit hard to root for an arrogant bastard like Burt, but Jane and Rance did eventually tame the beast. Like you, I give the hero Burt 3 out of 5 Heroes.
Movie: reel-3 Hero: superman-3

Admission ••1/2

Admission_movie_posterStarring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenplay: Karen Kroner, Jean Hanff Korelitz
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: March 22, 2013



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I have to admit that I’ve looked forward to reviewing Admission

That’s quite an admission on your part, Scott.

We meet Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton University. Portia thinks she’s in a good long-term relationship, but she’s not. She thinks that a recruiting visit to the Quest School will be just an ordinary visit, but it’s not. There she meets the head of the school, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a former classmate of hers at Dartmouth College 17 years earlier.

The Quest School is not exactly what you would expect of a preparatory school. The kids are learning to run a farm as part of their residence. Pressman introduces her to Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) who is a genius and Pressman thinks is perfect for Princeton. Problem is, his transcript doesn’t reflect his abilities. But wait, there’s more. Jeremiah may just be the long lost son that Portia gave up for adoption 17 years ago.

Greg, is it my imagination or are Tina Fey movies on a steady decline? I’m a big fan of hers and have enjoyed her previous work, particularly in Mean Girls. But Admission is another example of a disappointing product put out by Fey. It’s not a particularly bad movie, but it’s not good either. It’s just there, going through the motions, devoid of any particularly surprising moments or laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a shame because I truly believe that Tina Fey has massive talent.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think Tina Fey can do no wrong. She’s always brilliant and can make me laugh to tears or want to reach out and hug her. Her films always have a point to make and this is one movie that I would think you’d identify with since you’re an educator at a major university.

Portia has to pick the most qualified students. And to get into Princeton you have to have a backstory that beats the band. It’s not enough to be smart and get great grades, but you have to have come from an underprivileged social class, participated in a ton of extra curriculars, and overcome some great obstacle.

There’s a scene that had me laughing out loud: Portia is pouring over applications and each student appears before her (in her imagination) and acts out their backstory. It’s hilarious to see the cheerleading Eskimo girl who overcame a bear attack (or some such thing). The movie really calls out how competitive and superficial the admissions process has become.

I think your secret crush on Tina Fey has revealed your bias, Greg. She is fun and appealing to watch, and you’re right, she plays such a likeable character here. But therein lies another problem I had with Admission. Although Tina Fey has great talent, she always seems to play the same character in every movie, and it’s the same character she played in 30 Rock. Fey invariably is cast as a quirky, insecure, loser-at-love who loveably navigates her way through social misunderstandings, awkward situations, and tumultuous relationships.

We see this limited range with a number of actors and I don’t mean to pick on Fey, because as I’ve said, I’m a big fan of hers. But if she’s going to play the same character repeatedly, the screenwriting and directing has to excel. This movie doesn’t flow particularly well and in fact has a made-for-TV-movie feel to it.

I feel wounded. You’re right, I have had a crush on Tina Fey since I saw her on the cover of a local Richmond magazine that praised her appointment to SNL’s writing staff. She’s a University of Virginia alum after all, Scott. She’s the girl next door who is amazingly talented and hilarious. In my humble opinion, Tina Fey is what you’d get if Dick Van Dyke married Mary Tyler Moore and had a daughter. Sigh…

Still I think you’re being a bit hard on her and the production staff of Admission. Portia has to make some hard decisions here and puts her reputation on the line to get her potential son into Princeton. It’s a very heroic move worthy of any movie.

I got what I expected from Admission which is more than I can say from many movies we’ve reviewed this year. It was a light, entertaining comedy with an enchanting cast and a nice little message to take home. I give Admission 3 out of 5 Reels.  Tina Fey does as you say, she delivered the same character we’ve seen in previous incarnations. Which is fine with me. She plays a smart, quirky and flawed, albeit strong woman. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie: reel-3 Heroes: superman-3

Admission is a somewhat pleasant foray into the personal life of a college admissions officer who stumbles through lost love, new love, and cross-generational turmoil. The movie will not win any awards, but if you’re a Tina Fey fanatic you will find this film satisfying. The hero story rises above the mediocrity of the movie. Portia does manage to grow, take chances, and rise to the occasion in a manner befitting a hero.  So while I award the movie a mere 2 Reels out of 5, I will agree with Greg that Portia deserves 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie: reel-2 Heroes: superman-3

A Good Day to Die Hard ••

A_Good_Day_to_Die_HardStarring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney
Director: John Moore
Screenplay: Skip Woods, Roderick Thorp
Action/Crime/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 98 mins

(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)

Scott, this week we review A Good Day To Die Hard, the fifth in the Die Hard franchise. And I’m sorry to say it is probably the worst in the series.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, this series is running on fumes. Die Hard should be renamed Die Already. But out of respect for the quality of the predecessors in this series, we’ll review this flic. The hero story is actually not as bad as the movie.

Well in this installment, Bruce Willis comes back as John McClane and he’s in search of his son who is always getting into trouble. This time Jack (the son, played by Jai Courtney) has gotten himself into a Russian prison and John has to get him out. One thing leads to another and they are running from bad guys who want to kidnap a Russian defector.

In any Die Hard movie, we need McClane to rescue loved ones from bad guys with eastern European accents. Here McClane learns that his son Jack is actually a CIA agent who is trying to rescue a Russian billionaire named Komarov from corrupt Russian officials. McClaine inadvertently foils his son’s plans and must spend the remainder of the movie trying to atone for his actions while also trying to mend the broken relationship he has with his son. Greg, what your take on the set-up of this story?

It’s a far-fetched plot, but we knew what we were getting in for when we paid for a Die Hard ticket. In other movies, McClane has the excuse that he’s a cop. So, he can do things like commandeer a civilian’s truck. But when he does it in Russia, he’s blatantly breaking the law (not to mention that he assaulted the driver when he did it). And there are other huge plot holes. Like the scene where Jack is in jail and the bad guys bomb a courtroom to bust the defector out – and Jack takes custody of the defector as if he knew what the bad guys had planned. Absorbing this takes more than simple suspension of disbelief.

We know that all heroes must move from the safe, familiar world into the dangerous, unfamiliar world. Because Die Hard is a repeating series, McClane now feels right at home in that not-so-unfamiliar world. That’s a problem; heroes shouldn’t be so comfortable when confronted with impossible life-threatening jams. His son Jack, however, is clearly out of his element and has to rely on dad. In this way we see McClane evolving from a Hero character into the role of Mentor in this series.

Scott, I think McClane is cast in the special world of CIA ops. There’s even a point in the movie where Jack chides his father: “You’re out of your depth, John.” What we observe is that Jack is a sort of screw up as a “burnable asset” to the CIA. He had a role to play and he’s missed the mark – he loses the defector to the bad guys and he gives up. This is where John comes in as the Mentor. John throws his son’s defeat in his face and tells him to “gather up his dolls and go home.” Then John helps Jack push through his defeat and create a plan to retrieve the defector. And this is where the movie goes from sublime to the ridiculous. The bad guys all run to Chernobyl where the father and son have to work together to fight a common foe.

Greg, as we’ve said many times, the villain has to be as strong a character as the hero. Unfortunately, these villains are all cardboard cut-out, Hollywood stereotypes of mean Russians. To be fair, this is not a villain-centered movie. It’s a passing-of-the-torch movie, a sort of family buddy-cop story. Bruce Willis is looking as grizzled and as geezerly as ever, and yet he still manages to fly through plate glass windows and plummet hundreds of feet onto concrete with hardly a scratch. After each scene we’re left wondering how someone so grandfatherly can avoid breaking a hip. Is Jai Courtney (as Jack) being groomed as the heir-apparent to Willis in this series? Only time will tell.

I think you’ve seen through their devious plot! There’s not a lot to this movie. Unlike the first installment, this is mindless explosions and stunt effects. I can’t recommend anyone take the time to watch A Good Day To Die Hard. I give it 2 out of 5 Reels and 1 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie: reel-2 Hero:superman-1

Greg, I agree with you that this movie was devoid of imagination and depth. Although we enjoy seeing Bruce Willis mugging for the camera while he faces (seemingly) imminent death, there is no suspense here at all. He knows that we know that he knows that the good guys will prevail. So like you, the movie earns 2 out of 5 Reels.

But I’m going to disagree with you about the hero story. There is a semi-interesting changing of the guard story here, with a hero evolving into a mentor and a young naive kid maturing into the hero who will take his dad’s place. The hero story isn’t a failure — it’s a solidly mediocre 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-3

Ok, Scott. Have it your way. I still say two bad heroes don’t add up to one good one. I’d much rather look at The Three Stooges than watch A Good Day to Die Hard again. Yuk Yuk Yuk!

The Call ••

Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Richard D’Ovidio
Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, after seeing the bad guy in this film, it looks like Halle Berry has gone from Monster’s Ball to Monster’s Call.

(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)

Yeah, we don’t get to see just how monsterly the villain is until the end, but he definitely is carved from the same mold as Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, without the indigestion.

Enough about the villain for now. Let’s start with the hero, a woman named Jordan played by Halle Berry. How good a hero do we have here? Was Halle a Berry, Berry good hero or not?

Let’s find out…

The Call is an unusual movie in that the hero spends most of her time at a console talking to a victim. We meet Jordan (Halle Barry), a 911 call center operator. She’s competent and has a relationship with one of the cops in her district. Things are going pretty well for her when she gets a 911 call from a frightened young girl. Someone is trying to break into her house. Jordan gives the girl good advice on hiding from the perpetrator when they are suddenly cut off. Jordan calls the girl back and the ringing phone gives the girl away and she is abducted. Two days later the girl’s body is discovered buried in a field. Jordan is mortified by this experience and blames herself for an error in judgment. She loses her confidence and is reassigned to train new operators.

Six months later, Jordan is training a new group of operators on the 911 floor. A teen-age girl calls into the center reporting that she’s been abducted and is trapped in the trunk of a car. The inexperienced call operator is unable to handle the emergency and hands the controls to Jordan. Shaky, Jordon takes the call and instructs the girl to kick out the tail lights and wave her arms so someone will see her. This is the beginning of a long and suspenseful chase with Jordan telling the girl, Casey, (Abigail Breslin) to keep calm and help is on the way.

Redemption is a huge part of many hero stories, and here Jordan has an opportunity to redeem herself. Can she handle a call that is so eerily similar to the one she botched six months earlier? This is a crucial part of the hero story. And she’s clearly on her own here, as the villain easily evades the police and makes mince-meat of passing motorists & gas station attendants in his way.

Not necessarily on her own. At the beginning of the story she is trying to create a relationship with her boyfriend Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut) and she gets moral support from her close friend Flora (Denise Dowse). But her boss, Maddy (Roma Maffia), acts as the opposition trying to tell her to stand down and go home. By the end of the story Jordan truly goes solo as she ventures out of the 911 call center and faces the villain alone.

And here is where a good hero story does not necessarily equate to a good movie. In the real world, a 911 operator would go home at the end of her shift, and she’d allow other more qualified people hunt down the villain. But the writers of this movie decided that this would leave us very unsatisfied. Apparently we need heroes to complete the journey, however far-fetched it seems. I won’t go into any details about what transpires, but let’s just say that if all 911 operators were like Jordan, we wouldn’t need any law enforcement agencies.

It definitely stretches the bounds of credibility. I think the movie tries to pay homage to the unsung heroes who man the 911 “Hives” all over the nation. And to a great degree it does this for the first 75% of the story. There is a strong desire among movie-goers to see the hero attain the Main Goal without assistance. However, compare this movie to Zero Dark Thirty where Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a desk-bound CIA analyst. In the end, it was the Navy Seals Team 6 who confronted the villain and the hero merely identified the body – which was perfectly satisfactory. It can be done, but the writers of The Call didn’t have the finesse to pull it off. And it’s a pity because I think that would have been a more satisfying ending and a greater tribute to the 911 operators/heroes.

Totally agree. It’s almost as if the writers were trying too hard to make the hero heroic and the villain villainous. We haven’t discussed the bad guy yet. A good hero story truly needs a top-notch villain, and I’m not sure this dude fits the bill. His despicability is over the top. Not only has he killed multiple girls, but we learn that he’s been sexual with his cancer-ridden sister. That’s not only gross, it’s unnecessary. And, as we alluded to earlier, the ending scenes are too reminiscent of both Psycho and Silence of the Lambs.

I have to agree with you. Like the shark (Bruce) in Jaws, this villain was more of a prop than an actual character. He was so clearly evil that there was no dimension to him. He wasn’t particularly clever or daring. He was just overwhelmingly despicable. He could have been played by any actor. They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and with a boring villain, Halle Barry as Jordan has little to play against.

Likewise, the damsel in distress (Casey) has little to do but cry and scream. We get a little insight into her personality early in the film where she’s at the mall and refuses to use foul language (despite egging-on by her BFF). But other than that, any young blonde girl could have played the role. It’s a very bland film indeed.

I wouldn’t call it bland. It was a mixed bag. Halle Berry deserves props for her performance and for making us care about her character. But I’m glad you brought up the girl in distress. The final act of the film is a mess, with both the girl and Jordan pursuing a course of vengeance whose only purpose was to allow them to use the killer’s favorite line on him. Those two characters were totally out of character and left me wanting to throw popcorn at the big screen. Except that I had already eaten all my popcorn.

Yeah, it turned a good heroic chase movie into an exploitation/revenge plot. A very bad turn.

Scott, I really wanted to like this movie. I felt a certain amount of suspense at the beginning but the writers couldn’t sustain it for the whole film. The last 25% turned into a bad copy of Silence of the Lambs and I lost all respect. So I give the movie itself 2 Reels out of 5. I liked Halle Barry’s portrayal of Jordan as a smart, sensitive 911 operator. She did a good job of exhibiting a range of emotions playing against nothing more than an array of computer monitors. I give Jordan just 3 out of 5 Heroes, though, because there just wasn’t enough of what we expect from movie heroes.

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-3

Ugh. I hate agreeing with you Greg, I just hate it. But I concur that the movie deserves no more than 2 Reels out of 5. The hero’s ridiculous, out-of-character act of revenge at the end moved her from 4 Heroes down to 2. So two 2’s for me. Which is a shame, because as you note, if the writers hadn’t gotten lazy and derivative, this movie could have been quite good.

Movie: reel-2Hero: superman-2


Oz The Great and Powerful •••

MV5BMjMyMzQ1ODM1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE2MTQxOQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Fantasy/Adventure, Rated: PG
Running Time: 130 mins


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
So Greg, what was your overall impression of Oz?

(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)
I thought Oz was a visually impressive movie with a weak story. It sets the stage for the classic Wizard of Oz story as we know it from the classic movie.

You’re right, it was visually stunning. The colors of Oz were dazzling and like all movies these days, the computer effects were extraordinary. The story itself wasn’t bad. But somehow all the good parts didn’t make an impressive whole.

I felt they took an overly long time setting the story up. Like the original, Oz The Great and Powerful starts out in black and white. But it seemed to take forever to get to the color portion. There is a lot they could have cut from that opening bit. Then, it took a long time (like half the film) before our Hero had a Main Goal to chase after. I was bored for the first half of the second act.

Yes, they copied the old formula.  A tornadic trip to Oz … segueing from black & white to color … the hero stumbling upon a group of unusual helpers … the hero being charged with the goal of killing a witch, etc. But the magic just wasn’t there.  A few dull scenes were painfully long.  And as you mentioned, the set-up at the beginning took an eternity to unfold.

This is a classic Hero’s Journey. The Ordinary World of Kansas gives way to the Special World of Oz.  Mila Kunis was great as the naive witch/sister spurned by the Wizard.  She is beautiful compared to the Wicked Witch. This emphasizes one of the problems with the Disney story-telling worlds. People who are beautiful are “good” and people who are ugly are “bad”. We see this transformation over and over again. Witness Beauty and the Beast.

Yes, the film contained most of the elements of the hero’s journey. At the end of the journey the hero was indeed transformed; he finds himself, and he finds love. I’m not sure that James Franco, playing the Wizard, was up to the challenge here.  The strongest actors were the three witches, particularly the two wicked witches played by Mila Kunas and Rachel Weisz.  The theme of all-is-not-as-it-seems pervades the film.  We see this theme most notably in the Wizard’s magic tricks, and in character introductions, e.g., the wicked witches appear good at first, and the good witch appears bad at first.  Greg, what’s your take on the Wizard and his goals here?

The Wizard didn’t seem to have much of a passion for anything. He seems content to wander around Oz learning the ins and outs of the world. He *is* interested in the treasure, but it isn’t clear that he’s keen to get back to Kansas – or anywhere for that matter. Also, there is a little china doll that really adds nothing to the story. In my mind, it looks like an opportunity for shameless merchandizing.

To me, the china girl was a necessary help to the hero but both she and the monkey, as sidekicks for the hero, were far more annoying than they were appealing. Unless of course small children are the intended audience here.  Oz came across as designed for 10-year-olds, which is unfortunate because I’m sure the filmmakers were hoping for broader appeal.

My main complaint was with the movie’s final resolution. It’s a familiar issue — I call it the Law of Convenient Powers, or LCP. We saw this problem in the Hobbit, too. The law states that, at the end of the movie, beings who previously had shown limited magical powers suddenly, out of nowhere, acquire extraordinary superpowers that get them out of the worst of jams.  How convenient that one of our heroes suddenly becomes so powerful at the end.  Where were those powers earlier when they were so desperately needed?

Right.  In the writing world we call this Deus ex Machina. Certain characters did sort of pull off stunts that we never saw in the earlier parts of the movie.

I know you didn’t think James Franco held his own in this film. But I preferred him over the producers’ first choice for Oz: Johnny Depp. Franco came off as ambitious with an edge, but still with a streak of goodness. Besides, Depp is over exposed in these sorts of roles. After playing the Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka, I have seen enough of him for a while. Let someone else take on the quirky roles for a change.

Maybe it wasn’t so much that Franco fell short, but that his character did. Let’s face it — The Wizard of Oz had Dorothy, played spectacularly by 16-year-old Judy Garland. Dorothy was an innocent and quite vulnerable. Franco played a conniving never-do-well. He just wasn’t as likeable.  At the end of the movie, after we know he’s been a womanizer his entire life, are we really expected to believe he’ll be faithful to his new love interest?

You’re right. The Wizard in this film was not a good guy in the beginning. He was a trickster, charlatan, and womanizer. In the end he was transformed into something more respectable.

On another note, we saw the movie in Flat-2D. I wasn’t disappointed. But there were several scenes that were overtly 3D out-of-screen experiences. Flying Baboons jumping, Bubbles Popping. For my money, the extra special effects are not worth it. There was not much in this film that I felt needed to be seen in 3D.

There was a spectacular waterfall scene that would have been great to see in 3D. Other than that, 3D would have added nothing of appreciable value. This movie also suffered from the fact that we know the ending. The first time I saw Wizard of Oz, I had no idea what would happen. A movie in which we know the ending (e.g., Titanic) has to be truly superb to make up for the lack of suspense.

It’s true, this is the origin story of the Wizard of Oz and as such we pretty much know how it has to end. I was disappointed that there was no mention of ruby slippers. (Dorothy Gale was given no age in the books). Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but Annie – Oz’s girlfriend in the opening – was to be engaged to a man named “John Gale” – which was Dorothy’s last name (possibly her uncle).

Good catch, Greg!

Overall, I enjoyed this movie, despite it’s slow pace. The CGI ending made up for a host of sins. I recommend seeing it in theaters for the spectacle, but I don’t think it’s a fitting prequel to the Baum stories. I give it 3 Reels out of 5. My biggest fear is that it sets the stage for a Wizard of Oz remake from Disney in coming years. I think if this is any indication, such a remake would be a disappointment. The hero was lackluster but still evolved into a better man. I give him 2 Heroes out of 5.
Movie: reel-3  Hero: superman-2

This movie was a mixed bag.  It provided a visual feast for the eyes.  The hero story was quite respectable, as the Wizard followed the classic pattern of being sent to a strange and dangerous world; meeting up with sidekicks, albeit annoying ones; finding a love interest; and using his skills to cleverly overcome evil.  But Oz failed to enchant me and one hero’s superpowers at the end rang false.  I also give it 3 Reels out of 5, and I give the Wizard 3 Heroes out of 5.
Movie: reel-3 Hero: superman-3