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Pain & Gain •••

Pain_&_Gain_Teaser_PosterStarring: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnseon
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes



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

Greg, we just saw Pain & Gain. Remarkably, the film is based on a true story. I’m sure you’ll agree that the characters in this movie are not exactly heroes.

Not at all. We meet Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who is a bodybuilder with a past. He gets a job helping the rich get fit. Lugo believes that letting yourself go is just unpatriotic. He determines that the only fair thing to do is to take the belongings of weakling and local Schlotsky’s owner Victor Krenshaw (Tony Shaloub).

Lugo and his two sidekicks, Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), kidnap Krenshaw and torture him into signing over all his assets to them. We witness criminal behavior at its dumbest level, as our trio of crooks make several inept, Three-Stooges-like attempts to kill Krenshaw. They fail and Krenshaw escapes, setting in motion a police investigation that soon leads to the trio’s undoing.

Scott, at first I thought director Michael Bay was setting up the three leads as anti-heroes, hitting back at the rich elite. But in fact, Lugo and his friends are just stupid. They have bought into the get-rich schemes of Asian telemarketer Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) who preaches that most people are “don’t-ers” and only the successful are “doers.” By the time we get to the halfway point we realize that our heroes are in fact villains and the rest of the movie is testament to both their stupidity and ruthlessness.

Yes, this is one of the very few movies that is clearly a villain story, not a hero story. Most movies with villains as lead characters attempt to portray those characters sympathetically, or at least endow those characters with enough heroic traits that we root for them to evade the authorities. I’m thinking of The Sting, Catch Me if You Can, and 3:10 to Yuma. But in Pain & Gain, the lead characters of Lugo, Adrian, and Paul are clearly depicted as ruthless thugs and we definitely want them captured, despite the fact that we’re entertained (somewhat) by their atrocities.

In fact, the further into the film we get the worse their sins. And we are reminded through freeze-frames that this is a true story, which makes it all the more repugnant. I was disgusted at the depths of their villainy and how their ineptitude and naivety drove them deeper and deeper into dark behavior.

I was mesmerized by this film. The only thing that kept me glued to the big screen was the promise that this was a true story. Otherwise I would have thought it was merely an attempt at gross humor. The villains were buffoonish, especially the character of Paul who was a born-again Christian but still has no trouble roasting body parts. I give the movie 3 out of 5 Reels for entertaining me with an otherwise unbelievable story. I can’t give them a Hero rating since these are clearly not Heroes, so I give them 3 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-3 Villain: darth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyidarth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyidarth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyi

As a villain story, the movie is effective in portraying all the elements of the hero story operating in reverse. If this were a traditional hero story, Victor Krenshaw would serve as a father figure to Lugo, but in this film the father is a jerk and has no influence on Lugo other than to incite him. And in a normal hero story, Johnny Wu’s recipe for success would make him a positive mentor, but here Wu’s advice is used for evil purposes rather than for good. The one man blocking Lugo’s main goal is the investigator, Ed DuBois (Ed Harris), whom we’d normally call a villain for opposing the lead character, but in this topsy-turvy movie DuBois is the hero.

So we have a movie that is a mirror-image of the classic hero’s journey. It’s well done. We even have a transformation, albeit in the wrong direction, as Lugo is transformed from a loser who is simply motivated by greed into a blood-thirsty monster. I give the villain a rating of 4 out of 5. The movie itself is Rock solid (pardon the pun). As viewers we can’t help but be fascinated, and disgusted, by the knowledge that it is a true story. Like you, Greg, I’d dismiss this film if it were fiction, but its factual basis makes it disturbingly unforgettable. I agree that Pain & Gain earns 3 Reels out of 5.

Movie: reel-3 Villain: darth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyidarth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyidarth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyidarth_vader_icon_256x256_by_geo_almighty-d33pmyi

The Matrix •••••

The_Matrix_PosterStarring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes



Periodically Scott and I review a classic movie that we feel embodies the Hero’s Journey and is a great viewing experience. Ths week we’re looking at The Matrix, the 1999 movie from the Wachowskis that put Bullet Time on the map.

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

Greg, after rewatching The Matrix this week, I’m struck by how beautifully it was filmed and choreographed. It was truly ahead of its time. And you’re right, the hero story is chock full of many classic elements that unfortunately most filmmakers today simply ignore.

We start off with a story prologue. This is something I warn my writers against. So often prologues are just a lot of backstory and are homework for the reader. In movies this usually comes in the form of a voice-over explaining where the hero comes from. This is a bad sign – it means that the screenwriter lacked the imagination to trickle the backstory into the body of the script. Happily, we don’t see that here.

In The Matrix, the prologue introduces the Special World by starting with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) on a mission. The police are sent up to capture her. But that is a big mistake because she has unusual abilities to fight and defy the laws of physics. She can run faster and jump farther than her counterparts. This is a great peek into where the hero will go and is a contrast to his Ordinary World. But it comes before we first meet our hero and starts with action, drawing us into the world of the Matrix.

The universe in which The Matrix is set is revealed to us slowly, and as viewers we’re immediately drawn to our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) upon first meeting him. We relate to Neo’s good nature and genuine confusion about the nature of reality, and we soon learn from Neo’s mentor, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), that Neo is The Chosen One who is fated to save the world.

The Matrix taps into several timeless mythological patterns: We have an oracle that sets in motion a great hero story and yet speaks in riddles. We have a man born not knowing his true identity and yet fated to be The One. This hero possesses hidden, untapped powers and has many people around him, friends and foes alike, who doubt his worthiness. Our hero’s own choices ultimately awaken his special powers and trigger his prophesized transformation.

We meet Neo at his desk. He’s a computer hacker and goes to a party where he meets Trinity who tells him that she knows what he’s been searching for – the truth about the Matrix. She can take him to Morpheus the man who can reveal the truth to him. Neo follows and Morpheus offers him a choice – take a blue pill and stay in his ordinary world, or take the red pill have the truth revealed. Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in a submarine with new friends: Trinity, Morpheus, Tank, Dozer, and others.

Scott, the movie follows the classic mythical Hero’s Journey. The hero experiences the “call to adventure” and “crossing the threshold” from the ordinary world into a special world. Neo learns that everything he knows is false. The world he has been living in is a dream and the real world is occupied by AI – Artificial Intelligence. Morpheus believes Neo is The One who can control the Matrix and fight the evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). But like any good hero, Neo doesn’t believe he is the chosen one and will need convincing. It’s up to his mentor, Morpheus, to teach him the rules of the special world.

Greg, I’m struck by how the filmmakers didn’t miss a beat in creating a character who is destined to be transformed in ways he cannot imagine. The key elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero are all in place. As you mention, there is the call to adventure, a mentor, a love interest in Trinity, characters who assist Neo, supernatural assistance from the oracle woman, and a compelling villain in Agent Smith.

Interestingly, I got the sense that Morpheus also plays a father figure to Neo. The relationship between Morpheus and Neo is crucially important, as Morpheus believes in Neo when Neo does not, and we are witness to them each being somewhat over-protective toward each other. The film also succeeds because we’re never quite sure ourselves, as viewers, whether Neo is the chosen one and how, if at all, he’ll transform himself.

You’re absolutely right. They held the revelation of Neo being The One until the very end. It was an effective reveal. We watch Neo go from being completely skeptical to gradually understanding what his limits and powers are in the Matrix. And we grow with him. This is the mark of a great story – the viewer becomes the hero and feels the successes and failures of the hero.

So, everyone in the audience has had the feeling of not belonging and can identify with Neo. And we’ve all had the experience of starting out weak as children and gradually growing into our adult strengths. Neo’s growth is a great allegory to the coming-of-age story.

Well said, Greg. We recently reviewed a current film, Oblivion, that was just as beautifully filmed as The Matrix but featured a hero character who was essentially an unchanging piece of cardboard. The makers of The Matrix first and foremost cared about their hero story and made the hero’s remarkable journey the centerpiece of the screenplay.

The Matrix’s astounding CGI fight scenes still dazzle to this day, and the staying power of this movie is so strong that even 14 years after its release General Electric is now running a new commercial featuring Agent Smith. The Matrix earns 5 Reels out of 5. The character of Neo and his unforgettable journey earn The Matrix‘s hero story 5 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-5 Hero: superman-5

The Wachowskis forced their actors to train hard and perform a lot of their own stunts to give the film as much reality as possible. You will rarely get the kind of realism from a film as you find in The Matrix.

The movie gets 5 Reels for outstanding acting, stunts, choreography, filming and even sound. And we have a classic mythic tale replete with archetypal mentors, helpers, shapeshifters, and shadows. I award 5 Heroes for an uncommon hero’s journey.

Movie: reel-5 Hero: superman-5

Oblivion ••

MV5BMTQwMDY0MTA4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzI3MDgxOQ@@._V1_SX214_Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes



Scott, we just saw Oblivion. I think the writers were Oblivious to what makes a good story.

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

What we have here is all-too familiar. A movie with so much potential but so little delivery on that potential.

Oblivion is Tom Cruise’s latest offering. He stars as Jack Harper, a tech on a futuristic Earth. The Earth has been been in a war with an alien race – the Scavengers. We won the battle, but the Earth was decimated. So, all human life has been transplanted on Saturn’s moon Titan. Meanwhile, Jack and his girlfriend are part of a mop-up crew that is responsible for siphoning off the Earth’s oceans and ridding the planet of remaining “Scavs.”

So far so good. But all is not what it seems. Jack discovers that a Scavs’ beacon has sent down a 60-year-old satellite containing several humans frozen in stasis. Only one of these humans, a woman, survives and triggers some older, hidden memories in Jack. We don’t want to reveal what happens next, but let’s just say that the arrival of this woman turns Jack’s world entirely upside-down, and he spends much of the movie diving for cover from weapons fired at him from futuristic drones.

And this is the beginning of the problem with Oblivion – we had to wait for half the movie before this important plot point. Getting there was interminable. We had to wade through Jack getting abducted and escaping with no particular effect on the plot.

The strange thing about this movie is that the CGI is flawless. Someone spent a lot of money on the production. But the script is a mess. I found myself asking how this movie ever got made. Morgan Freeman makes an appearance but cannot save this movie. It is long, boring and I didn’t care a whit about anyone in it.

I’m not quite as harsh in my assessment, but I do agree with you that the movie was long on impressive visual effects and short on character development. Filmmakers have got it in their heads that the only thing audiences want is stunning visuals, explosions, and chase scenes. It’s true, I enjoyed those elements and absolutely loved the futuristic technologies, especially Jack’s supremely cool little spaceship that zips around the atmosphere with the grace of an insect-like ballerina.

We recently reviewed an old classic, Groundhog Day, which owed its emotional punch to the striking transformation of the lead character. Many movies today — especially Tom Cruise movies — are designed to be pleasing to the eye but atrophying to the brain. Characters don’t develop, they just react to bullets. It’s discouraging in a movie like this because there is so much potential for the story to rise to the level of the CGI.

As a hero, Jack is pretty bland. His memory has been wiped which makes character development difficult. He is good at running around, shooting things up and doesn’t look bad in the shower. But since he comes from nowhere he has nowhere to go. He isn’t a bad guy, so he can’t get better. He’s just a man trapped in a situation and makes some decisions that seem heroic.

Scott and I have agreed not to give away more than the first act of a movie – no spoilers. So it is difficult to explain why I have such low regard for this movie. But suffice it to say that it employs several classic Science Fiction devices that simply don’t make any sense. On top of that, the usual markers that expose when the first act is over are missing here. This movie is just scene after scene of beautifully constructed CGI. And terribly constructed story elements.

I think we’ve made our point. It’s not a bad movie if you just want to turn your brain off and enjoy gorgeous people juxtaposed with dazzling computer effects. For that reason, I give Oblivion 2 Reels out of 5.

As Greg notes, our hero Jack Harper does look good and manages to act with virtue while navigating through the convoluted story. He’s also great at dodging weaponry, taking punches, and making out with sultry women. As viewers, we really needed more backstory about the kind of man he was before the war started. That would have given his character more depth, dimensionality, and room for growth. I give him 2 Heroes out of 5.

Reels: reel-2 Heroes: superman-2

Dull, dull, and more dull. This is the first in a summer full of Science Fiction movies. I hope the rest of the Summer goes better. I think it’s generous, but I also give this movie 2 Reels and 2 Heroes.

Reels: reel-2 Heroes: superman-2

Scary Movie 5 •


Starring: Ashley Tisdale, Simon Rex
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Screenplay: Pat Profit, David Zucker
Comedy, Rated PG-13
Running Time: 85 minutes



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

Greg, we just saw Scary Movie 5. I’m still trying to process all the gags, carnage, and mayhem.

Scott, this is the fifth in the series and the first not to follow the escapades of recurring characters Cindy Campbell and Brenda Meeks. It was penned by Pat Profit and Airplane! veteran David Zucker. It’s a parody of several films including Mama and Black Swan. When you have one of the Zucker brothers involved you can expect an extreme farce. I was mildly disappointed.

The word ‘disappointed’ doesn’t exactly describe my reaction. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s run down the plot — as if it really mattered in a movie like this.

We start out with a bizarre bedroom scene involving Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan, who play themselves in this movie. Sheen and Lohan are both haunted by an alien presence, who occupies Lohan’s body, forcing her to kill Sheen, whose three children then become missing. Later, Snoop Dogg and a friend discover the children in a Cabin in the Woods — yet another movie spoofed here. The three kids are then raised by Sheen’s brother Dan (Simon Rex) and his wife Jodie (Ashley Tisdale).

The movie then takes off parodying the heck out of Mama with paranormal activity such as the pool being overrun by automatic pool cleaners and pans falling from the kitchen ceiling. Meanwhile, Jodie is trying to get the lead in the local production of the ballet Black Swan. And that pretty much describes the whole film. From there it’s just one set up gag after another.

Greg, I really have mixed feelings about a movie like this. On the one hand, I appreciated the cleverness of the gags throughout. If you liked Airplane!, and you like parodies of scary movies, then this movie might be for you. I found myself chuckling here and there throughout most of the film.

But I also found myself looking at my watch several times, hoping the movie would end. It basically works in small chunks, the way that a Saturday Night Live skit does. But 90 minutes was hard to sit through.

I agree with you whole-heartedly. There were bits that were enjoyable, but usually they were the parts where Molly Shannon or Darrell Hammond from SNL provide cameos. And most of those bits were driven into the ground (like how everyone in the movie had a handi-cam and the Point of View was through the lens of either a handi-cam or security camera). And then there was the Cabin in the Woods scene where Jodie kept reading evil words and the Mormon Bible-thumpers upstairs turned into demons – over and over again. You’re right, the bits were fun – once. But 90 minutes of repeating bad gags was too much. This could have easily been a hilarious 30-minute short.

And therein lies the challenge of reviewing a movie like this. Like other gag-fests (e.g., Movie 43), it’s unfair to compare it to conventional movies that actually attempt to deliver a coherent story with legitimate characters. Let’s face it. The gags here are all that count and everything else serves as just an excuse to show the gags.

The filmmakers were clearly going for shock value. Sometimes seeing something shocking is funny, and sometimes it’s just plain dumb. Do we really need to see a baby’s head set on fire? Is it necessary to show Heather Locklear’s birthing fluids gush onto someone’s face? Or popsicles and toothbrushes shoved up people’s butts? Eww.

I have to disagree with you, somewhat. I think a good parody will stand up against a traditional movie. When I saw the first Airplane! movie I laughed for a week and went back for seconds. When David Zucker is attached to a film, I expect something special. I expect sharp, smart writing. But, as you say, Scary Movie 5 was just an excuse to see blood spew and body parts detach – much like actual horror movies, in fact. I laughed at a few places, but I can only give it 1 Reel out of 5. As for the heroes, they were absent – a mere shadow of the characters that were being parodied. I give Scary Movie 5 an unprecedented zero Heroes.

Movie: reel-1 Hero: Zero.

A good parody is hard to find these days. For me, the quintessential parody was 1999’s Galaxy Quest, a spoof of Star Trek that is every bit as good, if not better, than every Star Trek movie made.

Scary Movie 5 was no Galaxy Quest, and in fact it wasn’t even close. Scary Movie’s gags were fast and furious, and the cameo appearances of brand-name actors were somewhat amusing. But there wasn’t any meat on this bone. And I found myself gagging at the gags. Generously, I give this film 1 Reel out of 5. There were heroes (Dan and Jodie) but they were ridiculous heroes, and intentionally so. Ridiculous heroes get just 1 Hero out of 5.

Movie: reel-1 Hero: superman-1

42 •••½

42_film_posterStarring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford
Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes


Scott, this week we look at 42 – the Jackie Robinson story. I’m not a baseball fan, but this is a story that educated and entertained, somewhat.

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

It’s a story that’s hard not to like. The filmmakers here were trying to dramatize a pivotal moment in American history — the initial effort in 1947 to integrate Blacks into an exclusively White major league baseball culture.

The movie starts out with the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), making the decision to add a black player to the roster. He wants to win the National League pennant and believes that enlisting the best player from the black leagues will help him to do so. After combing through a long list, he selects Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).

We are then witness to the abuse Robinson takes as he encounters a baseball world that almost universally detests his very presence in the game. Not only do opposing teams taunt and berate him, but even some of his own teammates petition to remove him from the team. He receives threats from fans and citizens on the street. Branch Rickey counsels him to be “tough enough NOT to fight,” and so Robinson fights back using the only method that he could — not with his fists, but with his stellar performance on the baseball field.

Scott, this is where I think 42 fails to deliver. There were a lot of people telling us about Robinson’s trials, but not a lot of showing us. For example, at one point a player complains to Rickey that he received a death threat for playing on the same team with Robinson. Rickey responds by pulling out file after file of death threats that Robinson had received. But we never see Robinson dealing with these threats on his life and the lives of his family. The film is low on drama and high on explaining.

I’m not sure we saw the same movie, Greg. There are countless scenes where players, managers, fans, and even the press treat Robinson in a demeaning manner. Robinson can’t retaliate but we see his inner anguish. We see the pain on his wife’s face as she witnesses the cruelty. If the movie was low on drama, it’s because we know the ending — obviously, Robinson and Rickey succeed in integrating baseball.

That’s where we differ again. It’s true that we see examples of the racism that Robinson endures, but we can’t see any reaction because he’s been hamstrung by an agreement to be “tough enough NOT to fight.” There is one scene where Robinson seems to have lost all hope – and Rickey consoles him. Not to give too much away, but Rickey turns out to be the hero in this film. While Robinson is credited with breaking the color barrier in baseball, 42 shows us that without Rickey’s generosity, it never would have happened.

We see White assistance in other race films as well. Take, for example, 2009’s The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock. In it we have a subdued black athlete who rises to greatness through the kindness of a white benefactor. And to some degree, Lincoln and Django, Unchained deliver a similar message. 42 falls into the same trap. On the one hand it offers a black man who overcomes racism to become a great baseball player. While on the other hand, reminding us that it is only through the beneficence of a white man that it is possible.

Greg, huge societal change can’t happen in a social vacuum — there have to be helpers along the way, and while you are correct in pointing out movies where Whites occupy the position of helper to Blacks, this is because Whites hold the power and are thus in a unique position to help. Without a Branch Rickey, there can be no Jackie Robinson.

In fact, I was quite intrigued with Branch Rickey’s multiple roles in this movie. (As an aside, Harrison Ford turns in a masterful performance as Rickey and should be nominated for an Oscar.) Rickey serves as the catalyst for Robinson’s journey while also playing the role of mentor to Robinson. Moreover, we learn later that Rickey has his own wounds that need healing and is on his own unique journey of redemption. If this film accomplishes anything, it shows us a greater social context to Robinson’s remarkable accomplishments, a context that most people have been sadly unaware of for decades.

We agree on one thing, Harrison Ford delivers a great performance as Branch Rickey. I hardly recognized him. But I have the same problem here that I had with Ford’s performance in the 2011 film Cowboys and Aliens – he practically steals the show. When you have a supporting actor with that much charisma and talent, he can overshadow the supposed lead.

I’d also like to compare this movie to another baseball film I’ve seen recently. I’m not a baseball fan, so details of baseball elude me. That’s why I was very happy when I saw Moneyball in 2011. That was a film that delivered a dramatic tale where I sat on the edge of my seat wondering if the heroes were going to win or lose. In 42 I really didn’t have a sense of impending success or failure. We were just led through the events of 1947 in a nearly documentary-style presentation. It was dull and unrewarding.

For me, 42 was far from dull and packed deep emotional punch. Harrison Ford was outstanding and Chadwick Boseman more than held his own as Jackie Robinson. It brought a lump to my throat to see two of Robinson’s teammates, Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker, put their own well-being on the line to support Robinson during the worst of the abuse.

I’m giving this movie 4 Reels out of 5 for its memorable portrayal of a defining moment in American racial desegregation. The film’s two parallel heroes — Rickey and Robinson — were stirring and inspirational. I give them 4 Heroes out of 5 for their moving depiction of integrity in action.

Movie: reel-4 Hero: superman-4

As I see it, the name of the movie is 42, not “Robinson and Rickey.” While I was educated about the trials of blacks in the major leagues of 1947, I didn’t get as much of a sense of Jackie Robinson himself. I give the movie 3 out of 5 Reels for “telling” me about Robinson more than “showing” me. But you can’t find better heroes than Jackie Robinson, or even Branch Rickey. While the real-life men deserve full marks, the presentation in this film merits only 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Movie: reel-3 Hero: superman-4

Groundhog Day •••••

Groundhog_Day_(movie_poster)Year of Release: 1993

Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliot
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 101 minutes

In this special edition of Reel Heroes we go back 20 years to revisit one of our favorite heroes: Phil Conners from Groundhog Day.

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

Greg, this is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s no coincidence that it’s due to the strength of its hero character. For me, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is one of the most memorable movie heroes I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching on the big screen.

It is a great movie and a lot of fun. Phil Conners is Pittsburgh’s most egotistical weatherman. We meet him on Groundhog Days where he has a special assignment to Punxsutawney to report on Punxsutawney Phil – the groundhog who reveals whether winter will last another six weeks, or if Spring has sprung. Phil and his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) are snowed in when a blizzard hits the town. They have to stay the night, but when Phil wakes up the next morning he finds he’s stuck in a time loop – Groundhog Day is repeating. Every morning he wakes up and every morning it’s Groundhog Day again.

At first, Phil uses the repetition of the day to steal money and to manipulate women to sleep with him. Yet the one woman he grows to love, his producer Rita, won’t succumb to his advances. He grows depressed when he realizes that his methods will never allow him to achieve real intimacy with Rita. He becomes suicidal, believing he is stuck, alone forever, in a dull town on an endlessly cold winter day.

In the end, however, he resolves that if this is to be his only day, he is going to make it the best day he can. He learns everything there is to know about each person in town. He memorizes every recurring event and schedules himself to arrive at just the nick of time to catch a boy from falling from a tree, he replaces a flat tire, he even saves the mayor’s life by performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Greg, what every movie-maker should learn from this film is the importance of hero transformation. We see so many movies where the hero does great deeds but never shows any real change. Right before our eyes, Phil Connors evolves from a disgustingly self-absorbed jerk to an enlightened altruist. It’s fun to watch, but also very moving because many of us can relate to his feelings of emptiness and his futile attempts to remedy his situation. We are then witness to what one can do to turn one’s life around.

What really struck me about Phil is how he uses his situation to attempt to get Rita to go to bed with him. Every day he asks Rita out and learns something new about her. The more he learns about her, the more he seems like the perfect man for her – as if he is reading her mind. But at the end of every day, she sees through his plan and slaps his face. This is Phil’s lowest point. He realizes he can never have her and goes into a deep depression. He gives up his plan and goes about killing himself daily, only to wake up each morning on Groundhog Day again.

Rita plays a fascinating role here. She is not only his love interest, but his mentor, too. This is rare but it works very effectively, as Phil falls in love with Rita precisely because she holds the key to his transformation. Her wisdom, compassion, and optimism trigger his metamorphosis. Another fascinating character is the villain in the story. It turns out that Phil Connors is his own villain. He has to slay his own demons to complete his hero journey.

This movie is a very misleading comedy — it makes you laugh, but you can’t help but feel that the movie delivers a serious and powerful message about life, priorities, and the secret to finding true love.

It’s only after Phil completely gives up on attaining Rita that he begins refining himself. He focuses on becoming the best Phil he can be. He becomes selfless, doing everything he can to help the members of the community. Once Phil stops thinking about himself, he can give Rita the attention she deserves. And it’s this selfless quality that makes Phil a man Rita can love. She finally stays the night with him – a chaste night of slumber. And the spell is broken. Phil wakes up and it’s the day after. And he receives his wish: he has won Rita and he can get on with his life.

You can’t get a better story of redemption than this one. Phil’s actions take him from the most suicidal low possible to the highest of emotional heights. After just composing our tribute to Roger Ebert, it’s nice to know that Ebert placed this movie on his list of “Great Movies”. The film was also added to the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

You can hardly get higher praise than that. Groundhog Day is an example of how heroes set the standard for our ideal behavior. Phil had to start out immensely flawed in order to become someone we would recognize as iconicly good.

This is Bill Murray’s greatest role and finest performance in the movies. The movie employs a unique premise to teach us that whatever our flaws or circumstances, we can redeem ourselves. It’s one of the best movies, and best heroes, of the 1990s. And that’s why we place it in our Hero Hall of Fame.

A Tribute to Roger Ebert


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

Greg, as everyone knows, last week we lost a legendary movie critic. Roger Ebert passed away at age 70.

Yes. I was really surprised to hear it. I knew that he had been battling cancer for years, but I didn’t know it had returned. I remember watching Siskel & Ebert when I was a teen.

I watched Siskel & Ebert, too, back in the 1980s. They made a big impression on me. They forever changed the way I look at movies. Before, I viewed movies as merely a fun diversion, hardly worth any detailed scrutiny. But Siskel & Ebert treated the movie experience very seriously, as an art form to be examined and carefully critiqued.

Last year I reviewed 50 first run movies. I never read any reviews before writing my own. But I always read Roger Ebert’s review after I published mine. He was the gold standard for movie reviews. While I developed my own style, I learned a lot by reading Ebert.

Ebert clearly had two shining gifts. One gift was a razor sharp critical eye regarding what made a quality movie. He knew good acting, directing, and storytelling when he saw it. The second gift was his ability to articulate his insights with an exemplary command of the English language. I remember being mesmerized by his eloquence and intelligence.

It’s true, he was the first movie critic to be awarded the Pulitzer prize. One of my favorite Ebert moments was when he wrote a response to Rob Schneider. Schneider had taken umbrage at a negative review of one of his “Gigolo” movies written by a critic and took out a full-page ad blasting the review. Ebert devoted a whole column in response with the conclusion that “Your Movie Sucks” – which became the title of his book of bad movie reviews.

He certainly was fearless about communicating his feelings about a movie being disastrously bad. With each new movie release, the movie industry nervously awaited his thumbs up-or-down verdict. Careers were made or broken by Ebert’s edicts. He was far from good-looking yet had a curious charisma that attracted people and won him many admirers.

And his “At The Movies” format has influenced us as well. Our dialogue-style critique was inspired by the original Siskel & Ebert show. I’m going to miss Roger Ebert. I give him an honorary 5 Heroes.superman-5

I’ll miss him, too. He was like a friend you could turn to for terrific insights about your favorite movies. As smart as he was, he trusted his heart over his mind when evaluating movies, saying “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.” That tells me that as a movie critic, he certainly knew how heroes resonate with us all at a deep level. I also give him 5 honorary Heroes. superman-5

Olympus Has Fallen •••

MV5BMTkxNjIyNjE5OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTI3NzkxOQ@@._V1_SX214_Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt
Action/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes


Today we saw Olympus Has Fallen starring Gerrard Butler and Morgan Freeman. It’s an action/adventure movie from director Antoine Fuqua.

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

Going into this movie, I was really worried we would be seeing Movie Standards Have Fallen. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Olympus Has Fallen opens with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) prepping the First Family and his men to leave Camp David. The President (Aaron Eckhart), his wife (Ashley Judd) are piled into cars and they all head out into a Christmas snow storm toward a fund-raiser. They don’t get far when the President’s car collides with a fallen branch and is precariously balanced on the edge of a bridge.

The Secret Service agents all rush to the President’s aid. The First Lady is trapped in the car and Banning barely extricates the President before the car makes a fatal fall into the icy depths below.

We then fast-forward to 18-months later. Banning hasn’t recovered from the knowledge that he couldn’t save the First Lady and has been demoted to a lesser security position elsewhere in Washington.

One day a North Korean terrorist group storms the White House by air and on the ground. The President and several members of the cabinet are taken hostage in a bunker below ground. Responding to the attack, Banning finds himself alone in the White House, the only person in any position to save the President and prevent nuclear catastrophe.

Scott, this movie really had the potential to tank early and fast. But in a lot of ways it was like watching the original Die Hard movie, but with higher stakes and bigger and bolder special effects. Banning is the only man on the scene and has to save the day while dealing with incompetent and unsympathetic highers-up. And it also reminds me, in some ways, of Kevin Costner’s Secret Agent character from The Bodyguard who had to overcome nearly losing the President (Reagan in this case) to an assailant.

So combining those two older movies we now have Die Guard. It’s a winning formula. Part of its great appeal lies in our strong need to see heroes redeem themselves. The film does a wonderful job portraying Banning as highly competent and also quite caring, as he shares a close personal bond with the President and even befriends the President’s son Connor. And so when the First Lady dies, through no fault of Banning, we find ourselves rooting for Banning to mend his relationship with the President and regain his former stature.

I agree. Banning kicks ass and doesn’t bother to take names. He knows the White House inside and out and quickly determines the terrorist’s intent. Interestingly, the terrorists come from North Korea this time, not the Middle East. Which was a bit of a refreshing change, and quite topical as well.

If you like action, this new action hero won’t disappoint. But there’s not a lot of plot here, and quite a few plot holes. For example, a propeller-driven C-130 takes out two F-15 fighter jets.

But if you can overlook these flaws, you’ll have a nice roller-coaster ride.

Greg, let’s examine the Banning character. I’ve pointed out the redemption theme, which I like. But let’s go deeper. In my view, the Banning character suffers from the flaw of being too strong of a hero. What do I mean by that? For starters, he’s indestructible. No amount of serious injury slows him down. Could we at least see a limp? Second, there is no character who serves as his mentor to help him on his journey. Third, because he’s such a perfect specimen of a hero, even from the start, we don’t see much character transformation.

You’re right, Scott. This is what we in the writing world call a “Mary Sue.” He’s just so perfect that nothing bad happens to him. The writers are afraid to give him a vulnerability that the villain can exploit. All his problems seem to dissolve at the end of each scene so there’s nothing making his job difficult. Compare to John McClane from Die Hard who has to walk around on feet filled with glass. Also, McClane had the character flaw of being a “cowboy,” sort of a loner and wise guy. This weakness almost got him killed a couple of times in that movie.

While we’re talking about weak characterizations, the villain Kang (Rick Yune) really doesn’t have much villainy to do but beat up on the President’s cabinet, forcing secret codes from them. As we’ve said so many times before, a great hero needs a great villain. But we don’t see that here.

Good point. There aren’t many layers to this villain. I was craving for at least one maniacal laugh, or identifying mannerism, other than his North Koreanism. Too bland. The movie also had the usual cast of predictable stock characters. How many more times will Morgan Freeman play either God or the President? Does every army general have to be so stupid and pig-headed? One nice surprise was the character of Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), who played the Secretary of Defense. Her courage, and ability to take a good punch, were admirable.

I’m glad you mentioned her. So often women are played as hysterical non-characters. I think you can sum up her core belief by her wish that her epitaph read “she didn’t give up without a fight.”

Olympus Has Fallen is a good action-adventure with a somewhat flat hero character. I was entertained for a couple hours, but I won’t be rushing to see it again. So I’ll give it a solid 3 out of 5 Reels. Banning is a classic action hero, rugged and loyal. But I really can’t say that there was anything that stood out about him that made me want to *be* Mike Banning. So I give him a mere 2 out of 5 Heroes.

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I think you’re being a little hard on Mr. Banning. He’s a pretty good hero trapped in an impoverished screenplay. I love the line in the film that best describes him: He’s going to do the right thing and he’s the kind of guy who will “move mountains” to do it. His methods are sometimes over-the-top and he’s a bit too perfect. But the strong theme of redemption shines through, and we’re left feeling very satisfied seeing him and the Prez become best buds again at the end. I give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The film itself, as you say, is pretty good and thus earns 3 out of 5 Reels. To get to four Reels, it needed a stronger villain and a less predictable supporting cast. And I’ll be curious if there will be a sequel. At this time I’m not certain it’s quite deserving of one.
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