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After Earth •••

afterearthStarring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 100 Minutes

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Scott, we just saw After Earth. Based on a story by Will Smith, starring his son Jaden Smith, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, does it stack up to other Summer blockbusters?



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

It will probably get lost in the shuffle of other high-quality summer hits, but there’s one thing to keep in mind about Will Smith — if there’s a Will, there’s a way.


Our story begins with a voice over – Earth was ravaged by Man’s gluttony and we were forced to leave the planet. Humans settled on planet Nova Prime in a distant solar system. But all was not easy for the settlers. Aliens (the Ursas) came and attacked the humans. They could sense a nearby human by the smell of fear. But one man, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), found that he could “Ghost” – hide from the Ursas by controlling his fear. Once the fear was controlled, he was invisible to the Ursas.


Cypher and his teenage son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), decide to go on a father-son interstellar trip but their spaceship is disabled by an asteroid storm. The two of them are the only survivors after the ship crash-lands on a quarantined planet rife with danger. Cypher’s legs are broken and so their only chance for rescue is for Kitai to walk 100 kilometers on his own to retrieve the ship’s rescue beacon.


After Earth is an action/adventure movie almost completely in the hands of young Jaden Smith. We follow Kitai as he fights his way through the futuristic jungle filled with animals who have evolved into human-killing beasts. He gets advice from his mentor-father through a comm-link. Will Smith, as the writer, has really done his homework. He has created a classic coming-of-age story. Kitai is a young man tormented by the death of his sister at the hands (pincers?) of an Ursa when he was very young. The only thing that saved him was that he hid in a bubble and the Ursa could not detect him. He carries the grief and guilt of that event with him.


You’re right, Greg, one’s opinion of this film rests almost entirely on one’s opinion of Jaden Smith’s performance here. My feeling during the first half of the film was that this young actor was in over his head. But his performance got stronger as his character in the movie got stronger. Was that good acting on his part, or was it improved acting over time? He’s an awkward teen, much like my stepson who’s the same age, and in his character I felt that tense awkwardness trying to blossom into greatness.

Once again, in this movie we have the familiar theme of a neglectful father trying to make things right, and a son who wants desperately to prove himself worthy to his dad. These are very deep archetypes in storytelling, and they are used effectively and powerfully in this film.


I noticed Jaden’s challenged acting in the first half of the film as well. He fared much better in the latter half of the film where he was running away from or fighting off beasts. Less acting and more action, I would say.

The movie has several problems among them being the premise that Earth’s flora and fauna would evolve in a short 1,000 years to be oversized man-killers. There are several times in the film where Will Smith’s character nearly turns to the screen and delivers a plot point. “If you don’t retrieve the signal from the tail of the ship we both will die. Do you understand me? Now say it back to me.” I think you get the idea. There was no subtlety in this film at all.

In many ways, After Earth is more a metaphor for Will Smith’s relationship with his son. I felt as if this movie was a training ground for Jaden where he could learn to follow in his father’s footsteps if only he could learn that “fear is not real.”


And speaking of fear, the science of fear was portrayed incorrectly here. Will Smith proclaims that “fear is a choice”, but psychologists know that fear is an involuntary response. Millions of years of evolution have ensured that human beings will be automatically frightened when they encounter creatures like lions, tigers, and ‘Ursas’. It’s wired into us. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is the decision to act despite the fear.

But we can forgive that little inaccuracy because in the movies the laws of nature often take a vacation. For that reason, Greg, I can overlook the hyper-evolutionary changes on Earth that you mention. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the story works. Because we pretty much know the ending of the movie before we’re half-way through the film, we have to look at the execution of the story to determine whether it’s a movie worth seeing. For me, the execution was solid. Not brilliant, but it had most of the elements of an effective hero story.


Scott, they call it “Science” Fiction for a reason. But I mostly agree with you, we can give license to the writer in the name of story.

After Earth is a pretty simple hero’s journey told by a first-time screenwriter. It is predictable and in many ways trite. I saw the film in IMAX and the outdoor scenes were breathtaking. The scene where young Kitai flies over a waterfall was amazing. There were times where I literally sat on the edge of my seat. The futuristic gadgetry was not as inspiring. For a classic tale set in the distant future but told without subtlety, I give After Earth 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero story was well-structured and reminiscent of stories gone-by. Kitai, mentored by his father Cypher, grows from a fearful boy into a fearless young man. For a story with all the classic hero motifs, I give After Earth 4 of 5 Heroes.

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After Earth is indeed a simple story reminiscent of so many fables and fairytales in which an ugly duckling undergoes a metamorphosis into a regal swan. The simplicity of the story is both its strength and its weakness, as we witness the familiar tale of a young boy’s development into a man but in a setting of lush exotic novelty. I was entertained by After Earth and I recommend it for families with teens. Like you, I also give it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was impressive in this film. Kitai is mentored well by his heroic father, and he receives help on his journey from his deceased sister via flashbacks and from an unlikely source in the forest. We witness Kitai acquire a critically important missing piece to his personality, and the attainment of this missing quality punctuates the film’s climax. The movie earns 4 Heroes out of 5 from me as well.

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Star Trek Into Darkness ••••

StarTrekIntoDarkness_FinalUSPosterStarring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban
Director: J. J. Abrams
Screenplay: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Action/Adventure/Science Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes

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

Well Greg, we just boldly went where no two nerdy middle-aged reviewers have gone before — to see Star Trek Into Darkness.


That’s right Scott. It’s a bold new adventure for the rebooted franchise. Let’s see if it lives up to the hype.


The movie begins with the Enterprise saving the planet Nibiru from volcanic annihilation. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) rescues Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) from the volcano, but in doing so Kirk reveals the starship to the planet’s primitive inhabitants, thereby violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive non-interference policy. Soon after returning to Starfleet, a secret Section 31 installation is destroyed by a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who also attacks an emergency meeting at Starfleet Command, killing Admiral Pike.

Kirk is now on a mission of revenge. He has been given the Enterprise to chase after Harrison who has hidden on the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. The Enterprise is fitted with 72 special photon torpedoes that Kirk has been ordered to rain down upon Harrison killing him. However, Kirk has a crisis of conscience and decides to take Harrison alive and return him to Starfleet to stand trial.


Greg, this is a worthy successor to J. J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek, which I found to be a much-welcome rejuvenation of the sagging franchise. I have to admit that I was nervous about this next installment — could it possibly live up to the high standard Abrams set in 2009? The answer for me is “not quite” but it’s still a movie that is loads of fun. Here we have a story that smartly pays homage to the original Star Trek movie series while simultaneously carving out an original tale filled with action, adventure, and some surprises, too.

I was not as impressed as you were, Scott. The movie is a technical marvel. The graphics, CGI, all the special effects are just amazing. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto did an excellent job of playing Kirk and Spock – even reproducing the close relationship that predecessors Shatner and Nimoy brought to the roles originally.

However, the story left me wanting. Sure, there are a lot of nods to the humor and repartee that we had come to expect from the original series. But writers Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelhof mined the second Star Trek film (Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan) for the plot elements for this new film. I was mildly disappointed when it was revealed that the fugitive Harrison was, in fact, Khan Noonein Singh. Surely, they could have found a new villain to fight in this alternative Star Trek universe?


Greg, I’m fine with the resurrection of Khan as a villain borrowed from the older timeline, especially since this rebooted Khan bears little resemblance to the original Khan. However, having said that, I would agree with you that future Star Trek movies had better not continue to recycle old characters and old plotlines, even if those elements are only mildly derivative of previous Trek movies.

Let me tell you why I rate this movie so highly. In the 2009 Star Trek reboot, we witness a terrific hero transformation in the character of James T. Kirk. In that film he evolves from total loser to sensational heroic Captain. It was a classic hero story and it worked. In this current 2013 movie, both Kirk and Spock take center stage as heroes who become transformed in two ways: (1) as individuals who each gradually assumes the good qualities that the other has, and (2) as friends who develop a deep and unshakeable bond. I found this to be very moving.


Scott, I agree with you on that point. The characters in this movie were given a lot more to do and we really got a sense of who they are relative to each other. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like about Star Trek Into Darkness. All the players brought their A-game.

Still I think the writers and director J. J. Abrams went too far. They borrowed too much from the original. This is an all new franchise. There is an unnecessary cameo that does nothing to further the plot but pander to the fan-boys and possibly act as an in-movie advertisement for newcomers to the series to go back and watch the earlier movies. There is a reversal of roles in another key scene that I can only describe as ridiculous bordering on cute. And there are other annoyances that detracted from the seriousness of this reboot. Case in point is the cuddly character Keesner who follows Mr. Scott around. That creature could have been left out of the movie completely with no loss to the story. And why, oh why, does Uhura keep running from the bridge to sick bay and back again?

Another problem I had with the film is that it isn’t accessible to members of the audience who are not fans of the original series. There were scenes where Spock used the Vulcan Mind Meld and the FSNP (Famous Spock Neck Pinch) that went without explanation. I came across a great review by two Star Trek self-proclaimed “virgins” – their dialog was particularly telling as it exposed how the uninitiated had a hard time following the plot.


Dammit, Greg, you’re a reviewer, not a nit-picker. In every movie franchise, there are always a fews things that movie-makers assume the audience should know. Yes, Mr. Scott’s cuddly sidekick should be thrown out the nearest airlock, but this character is on-screen for only 20 or 30 seconds. Yes, the older Spock makes a brief appearance, but he serves as an important mentor figure for the younger Spock. Besides, old Spock is looking so Jurassic we should throw him a bone here.

My only issue with the movie was that its overall story arc was a bit fragmented, with one villain being the focus of attention, then a second villain, followed by a mission to save the ship, etc. I can forgive this imperfection because, overall, the conclusion of the film so very nicely calls back to the movie’s opening sequence, and lessons are learned that forever cement one of the most important friendships in science fiction history.


I enjoyed the development of the relationship between Kirk and Spock, but I wouldn’t call this story an homage to the earlier series. It’s more of a rip off. Still, I was entertained enough to see it twice, and try to unravel a couple of plot twists that eluded me the first time around. I give Star Trek Into Darkness 4 out of 5 Reels.

Happily, I enjoyed the portrayal of the characters I had come to love by these new actors. The interplay between Kirk and Spock as they solidified their friendship was touching. Quinto’s Spock is much more acerbic, which is a welcome coloring of the character. McCoy’s constant hand-wringing and folksy metaphors were well-placed. New player Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) was also a nice touch. For a great transformation of a friendship, I give the movie 5 out of 5 Heroes.

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Greg, despite differing here and there in our impressions of this movie, it looks like we’re giving the film the same rating. I also give Star Trek Into Darkness 4 Reels out of 5. It is exactly what people look for in a summer blockbuster — action, adventure, humor, heroes, villains, and an emotional rollercoaster ride that ultimately leaves us satisfied.

As you said, we witness our two heroes, Kirk and Spock, develop both as individual characters and as friends, despite vast cultural differences between them. I was torn between awarding them 4 or 5 Heroes but I think you’ve convinced me to give them 5 as well. The supporting cast was superb, and I’m curious how Kirk’s character will continue to grow without a central mentor character who bit the dust in this film. Overall, I loved this movie, but the jury is still out on J. J. Abrams’ rebooted universe until it shows me that it can deliver quality fare while also moving beyond the recycling of old elements from previous Star Trek releases.

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Epic ••½

Epic_(2013_film)_posterStarring the voice talents of: Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles
Director: Chris Wedge
Screenplay James Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom Astle, Matt Ember
Children/Animation/Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 102 minutes

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

Greg, we just saw Epic, the new computer animated fantasy-adventure film based on William Joyce’s book.


Indeed we did, and I’d say it was neither a good Epic nor a good fantasy. Let’s recap.


The movie begins with a young woman, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), visiting her eccentric father who lives and works deep in a remote forest. We learn that Mary Katherine (who prefers the initials MK) has a rocky relationship with her dad, whose obsession with finding a civilization of tiny creatures in the forest caused his marriage to fail and his family relationships to suffer. One day MK ventures into the forest and inadvertently stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), the tiny monarch of all life in the woodlands. Tara has been mortally wounded but lives long enough to shrink MK down to size and assign MK the task of bringing a magic pod to a showy glowworm named Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler).

MK is aided by brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson) who is one of the soldiers of the Leaf Brigade. He suffers from being too independent. He is unable to follow orders given by troop leader Ronin (Colin Farrell) and marches to his own drum. This makes Nod a bit untrustworthy. Also, along for the ride, are Mub and Grub (Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd), two slugs who offer comic relief. Together they must battle the forces of decay (the Boggans) who are constantly trying to kill off all living vegetation. Their goal is to prevent MK and friends from delivering the magic pod to Nim Galuu who will then use the pod to select a new queen and usher in another 100 years of bountiful forest living.


Well, Greg, based on what you said at the outset of this review, I’m almost afraid to say, without ducking for cover, that I thought this movie was good. Now keep in mind I make this positive assessment knowing that the film is intended for a young audience. I would say the target audience is roughly 5 to 12-year-olds. Is this a movie for adults? Probably not, but adults can certainly enjoy the absolutely stunning animations.

Scott, I’ll give you the visuals. Producers Blue Sky Studios (of Ice Age fame) did a great job of creating a spectacular forest and articulated characters of all sorts. If all you want is a pretty picture, then you won’t be disappointed by Epic. However, as you say, this is a film for youngsters and as such it glosses over some important story elements. For example, the story doesn’t explain what happened to MK’s mother or Nod’s father. But as adults we know that they have died. I am OK with glossing over these details for younger children. However, many scenes in this movie are very scary, dark and deal with death directly. Characters are killed off right before our eyes. Hiding off-screen parental death but showing on-screen death is an incongruity that I can’t reconcile.


Greg, this incongruity didn’t bother me, perhaps because I didn’t see much of one. Yes, the screenwriters omit the details of the death of MK’s mom and Nod’s dad. It’s a kids movie and we don’t need to get too nitty gritty there. And you’re right that many of the bad guys are pierced by flying arrows, but these deaths are shown antiseptically with no sign of pain or blood. (Strangely enough, the good guys never seem to die or get hurt, with the exception of Queen Tara). So I think it’s largely a non-issue. I stand by my opinion that the movie, overall, offers up an exemplary hero story.

Consider the character of MK, the film’s hero. She is strong, courageous female lead character who serves as a great role model to boys and girls alike. She displays nearly all of the characteristics of a great hero – courage, intelligence, resilience, selflessness, kindness, and inspiration. As you know, female heroes are rare in the movies and so I truly welcome this film’s portrayal of her as a heroic figure.


I’ll grant you that MK is a good hero, but I wish she were less of a damsel in distress. Most of the action scenes are stolen by the men doing the fighting and MK clutching the magic pod. Compare MK to Mirada from last year’s Brave. Mirada did the actual fighting in that film. MK by contrast appears to be the custodian of a magical pod – I’ll let you read the metaphor there.

I also had trouble with the basic premise of good and evil in this film. Apparently the forest is the battlefield of the constant struggle between the forces of decay and the forces of life. That is, the forces of decay (the Boggans) are constantly trying to kill off the forces of life (the Leaf People). Fairy tales and myth are stories that explain the world we live in – as metaphor. I could follow the life-giving characters in the story. But I didn’t recognize the Boggans as elements of decay. You can easily point to the forces of life (trees, grass, birds, insects) but I just don’t understand where a child might go into the forest and point to the forces of decay.


It seemed to me that the filmmakers were attempting to anthropomorphize the time-honored struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. And because we’re in a forest setting, this struggle is portrayed as the battle between those seeking to preserve lush green plantlife versus those seeking to destroy it. I’m not sure why, but I did buy into the fantasy.

I will concede to you that MK is portrayed, at times, as dependent on the Leaf Men for protection. But there are also plenty of scenes where she performs impressive physical feats to escape trouble, and let’s not forget the clever clue that she leaves her father which ultimately saves the world. MK rocks as a hero.

One of the delights of Epic is its large array of colorful supporting characters. There is the father, the love interest, the queen, the magic seer, the leader of the Leaf Men, and a bevy of sidekicks including a couple of lovable bi-optic slugs. There are also the villainous Boggans, led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his own nefarious sidekick. Most of these characters really grew on me — although I confess that the slugs wore out their welcome rather quickly.


We agree on that last point. The slugs were poor comic relief. I found myself wishing for the likes of Timone and Pumba from Disney’s The Lion King.

I was very disappointed in this film. It has been advertised for nearly a year at our local theater and I was expecting good things. I felt it was too violent and dark for younger viewers. I didn’t like the struggle between decay and life. I feel that Epic is the Fern Gully for a new generation – without the political overtones. I can only give it 2 Reels out of 5. While the hero characters are mythic (including a nice “atonement with the father“) I don’t think they were the focus of the film – the artistry seemed to be central here. I give Epic 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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Epic achieves its goal of providing 100 minutes of solid entertainment for children. It does so by serving up a classic and fun-filled hero story that features nearly all of the elements of the hero’s journey, such as the hero’s call to adventure, her entry into a dangerous new world, her search for something missing in her life, her encounter with helpers along the way plus a love interest, her recovery of what was missing, and her return to her original world.

These key hero elements, plus the remarkable animations, earn the film 3 Reels out of 5. (I would give it 4 Reels if I were a child). From my perspective, the outstanding story of a young woman setting out to develop a relationship with her father earns the movie 4 Heroes out of 5.

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The Hangover 3 ••

hangover3Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodman
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes

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Scott, I’m afraid I’m suffering from a hangover watching the third and final installment of The Hangover franchise.



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

But just knowing it’s the final installment makes the hangover a little less painful.


In The Hangover 3, our heroes Phil, Stu, and Doug (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha) have decided that quirky Wolfpack friend Alan (Zach Galifianakis) needs to check into a rehab clinic. The four take off for Arizona but they don’t get far before they are run off the road by a crew of Pig-masked ruffians who take them hostage.


The ruffians work for a drug lord named Marshall (John Goodman), who has been robbed of millions of dollars of gold by the master of disaster, Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). Blaming the Wolfpack, Marshall kidnaps Doug and threatens to kill him unless the remaining three men reclaim the gold and bring him Chow.


And we’re off. The original Hangover movie started out with the Wolfpack waking up from a collective hangover having lost the groom (Doug). They were then on a quest to find the him and figure out why there was a tiger, baby, and missing tooth. It was crazy, frenzied, and a lot of fun. This movie has none of that. It plods along from point A to point B with our heroes never in any real danger and never a moment of surprise.


As with most sequels, this film can’t measure up to the surprising entertainment value of the original movie, which derived much of its fun from the fact that we had several nerdy professionals who were in way over their heads. This formula really can’t be milked more than once.

I do give the filmmakers some credit for transforming the main hero of the story, Alan, from a mentally deranged individual to a somewhat healed and loveable character at the end. But as you pointed out, Greg, the adventures that our heroes face are not terribly interesting and Alan’s transformation rings false.


I’m at a loss to find anything interesting about the characters in this movie. There is no conflict whatsoever. The three leads all get along and Phil and Stu treat Alan like a kid brother rather than the pain in the neck that he is. I don’t think we’ve seen as dull an ensemble since The Big Wedding.

This could have been salvageable if Phil and Stu started out feeling animosity toward Alan. Then they would have someplace to go. They could find that Alan is a special person worthy of their love and affection. But I think that’s what happened in the first two movies. In The Hangover 3 a lot of emphasis was placed on Alan’s quirkiness – his operatic singing voice, his boylike innocence, and his affections for newcomer Melissa McCarthy.


Those are good suggestions, Greg, but I think the main problem is that this movie didn’t know what it wanted to be. Alan is introduced to us as a goofball lunatic who decapitates animals and wishes his mother dead at his father’s funeral. That suggests a dark comedic tone. But that’s not what the film ultimately delivers. There are elements of comedy, drama, and romance that don’t mix well together. The movie floundered and I was left not really caring how things would wrap up at the end.


This was a lackluster finale to a series that started out well but failed to deliver. It was better than some of the poorer offerings we’ve seen this year, but not by much. The Hangover 3 earns 2 Reels out of 5. The buddy element of the film really didn’t hold the rest of the movie together and none of the characters really grew much. I give them just 2 Heroes out of 5.

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The Hangover 3 didn’t quite plummet to the depths reached by the year’s most egregious cinematic failure, The Big Wedding. But it was a disappointing and lackluster effort nonetheless. There were a few mildly amusing moments in the film that earn it 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroes failed to move me on any level. Phil, Stu, and Doug were pretty much all interchangeable, and the villain Marshall woefully underutilized John Goodman’s talents. I give the film some credit for attempting to transform Alan, but it was a half-hearted and unconvincing effort. So like you, I give the hero characters in this movie just 2 Heroes out of 5.

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The Great Gatsby ••••

MV5BMTkxNTk1ODcxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDI1OTMzOQ@@._V1_SX214_Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 143 Minutes

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This week we took in The Great Gatsby. I guess the big question is – was it as good as the book?



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

Greg, I read the book decades ago and couldn’t remember much about it. So I went into Gatsby with fairly fresh eyes.


I actually read the book in anticipation of the movie and I was pleasantly surprised. The movie, like the book, is told in first person narrative from the point of view of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a newcomer to New York City. He is taking up stock brokerage as a profession after returning from the war. He calls upon his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who is married to Tom Buchanon (Joel Edgerton). It is clear from his visit that Tom is having an affair.


It turns out that Carraway lives next door to a wealthy bachelor named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who hosts a seemingly endless series of incredibly lavish parties to which anyone is invited. Carraway is intrigued by the mysterious Gatsby, about whom rumors have been flying. When Gatsby learns that Carraway is related to Daisy, he asks Carraway to arrange for her to meet Gatsby for tea.


Gatsby and Daisy enter into an affair that is the subject of the rest of the film. For those who’ve read the book, no further recap is necessary. And for those who have not, we won’t spoil it for you.

What separates this version of Gatsby from other attempts at a motion picture rendition of the story is the amazing visual effects. The presentation is so surreal and brilliant that it borders on cartoon. I saw the film in 3D and it was like the characters were cutouts against a diorama backdrop. But as the film became more involved, and the plot more complex, the cartoon-like nature of the film fell away to more subdued colors and harsher tones.


Yes, I noticed that change in tone, too. It was like The Wizard of Oz in reverse, with the universe changing from light, playful, and fluffy to dark and foreboding. The first half of the film delivers delicious style and pizazz. Never has vice been so beautiful. There is eye-popping opulence everywhere you look. Then things get serious in the second half, which is not unexpected given the set-up of the love triangle combined with some liver-busting alcohol consumption.


Gatsby is an interesting hero full of contradictions. He hides in the shadows, but has opulent parties. He is a self-made man, yet is never accepted by the rich and famous. The source of his wealth is hidden. He associates with the seedier side of New York’s nouveau riche. He engages in an adulterous affair, yet we find he is the most faithful of all the characters in the story.



You’re right, he’s a complex man. I’d call him a tragic hero in that he has good intentions and honorably makes a self-sacrifice at the end that he didn’t have to make. He is also man of great (and naive) hopefulness. And as befitting a tragic hero, he has plenty of flaws, not the least of which is his choice of business associations. I wasn’t sure whether to like him or not until the very end, when he performs a noble act of redemption.


The people around Gatsby are supposed to be the cream of high society. They look down on people who do not come from old (legitimate) money, but in the end are emotionally and morally bankrupt. Daisy in particular turns out to be the greatest disappointment. Gatsby both built everything for her and gives up everything for her and she ultimately disowns him.

This is the greatest reward for this version of Gatsby: the visuals draw us into the early part of the story. But it’s the unfolding of Gatsby’s demise that seals the deal. This is a great film drawn from a great American novel. There is little that was left out and the themes and symbolism are left intact.


Greg, I was impressed with the film’s lavish visuals, intriguing characters, and messages about the ability of wealth to corrupt and destroy human souls. Gatsby’s tragically heroic journey doesn’t quite fit Joseph Campbell’s model — we don’t witness crossovers into special worlds, nor are there mentor figures or father figures, unless you count the old man who gave him the phrase “old sport”. The movie glosses over his dealings with the mob, and this omission limits the dimensionality of his character. But Gatsby is nevertheless an effective character because we are fascinated by his self-destructive path, and we also admire his passion for Daisy, however misguided it may be.

I give the movie 4 Reels out of 5 for its outstanding cinematography and far-reaching social commentary. I give Gatsby just 3 Heroes out of 5 because the movie omits crucial details of his dark alter-ego, and his story just seemed to be lacking too many elements of the classic hero journey to earn a higher rating. With those added pieces his character would have enjoyed greater richness and depth.

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I’ve read criticisms that say the 3D rendering and visuals detracted from the story. I feel differently. I think writer/director Baz Luhrmann created as lavish a spectacle as Jay Gatsby’s own parties and effectively pulled back on the effects as the story deepened. This is a retelling of the original using the storytelling sensibilities of a modern time.

And still, the impact of the original story is intact. Gatsby, for me, is a truly tragic hero – as tragic as Romeo. While he doesn’t prefectly fit the mythic hero’s journey, this is a welcome diversion from the norm. For a well-told story cast in the leading of modern media, I give The Great Gatsby 4 out of 5 Reels. But unlike you, Scott, I felt Gatsby was a powerful hero, as strong as any in recent memory. He extols the virtue of true love and delivers a message of how a man with passion can build himself into anything he wants to, and how he can lose all of it when he succumbs to the darker side of those passions. I give Gatsby a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.
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Thelma & Louise •••••

Thelma_&_LouiseposterStarring: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Callie Khouri
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes

Year of Release: 1991

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

Greg, once again we go back in time, more than two decades ago, to visit a classic movie that has had considerable impact on both society and the movie industry.


Thelma & Louise – a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only in modern times and with women in the lead roles.


Exactly. At the start of the film we are introduced to two women who have been beaten down by the men in their lives. Their names are Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon). Louise suggests to Thelma that they go on a 2-day vacation. Terrified of her husband’s reaction to such a plan, Thelma avoids telling him and packs up and leaves with Louise. The two women drive Louise’s Ford Thunderbird convertible down a long country highway toward more of an adventure than they bargained for.


They stop for a night of drinking and dancing at a dive bar. A local man takes an interest in Thelma and feeds her beer and dances the night away. Unfortunately, he feels she owes him something and attempts to rape her in the parking lot. Louise intervenes and shoots the man. Now the women are on the run.


Greg, I hadn’t seen this movie in more than two decades. It’s aged well. Davis and Sarandon deliver memorable performances as they navigate from one dangerous, disrespectful male to another. We are witness to the contemptuous way they are treated by the men in power all around them. It’s an ugly sight and as viewers we can’t help but sympathize with them.

There are several nice subtle touches to drive home the film’s message of male oppression and how women have been affected by it. There is a sense of hopeless resignation everywhere during the first half of the film. Faces of random older women with defeat in their eyes are shown between scenes. Gradually this sense of desperation changes as Thelma (and to a less extent, Louise) become transformed over time.


This movie reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. In both movies we have heroes who are working outside the law. They are running from the authorities and they end up tragically.

The big difference in Thelma & Louise is that our heroes are on the run for reasons outside their control. They start out as victims, then they take control.

First there is the attempted rape against Thelma. Then the cowboy (Brad Pitt) steals their money. This is when they go on the attack. After being victimized by men, they take control. Thelma holds up a grocery store. Then, when a state trooper pulls them over, they lock him in his own trunk. When a trucker makes crude advances on them, they blow up his tanker truck.


It takes Thelma a little more time to seize control of her life than it does Louise. In a way, Louise serves as a mentor to Thelma. The overall story arc follows a nice progression. At first Thelma and Louise are trapped in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position with the abusive men around them. Gradually they begin to relish their roles as outcasts and masters of their own destinies, even when it becomes inevitable that the ultimate end to their flight is doom.

Slowly but surely, as the film progresses, we begin to see gender role reversals – men who earlier wore bravado on their sleeves are now reduced to sniveling, ineffectual wimps. We know the transformation is complete near the end when Thelma proclaims, “I don’t remember ever feeling this awake.” Her missing inner quality has been recovered.


There is at least one decent man in the movie. Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) recognizes that these are two woman trapped in circumstances that simply got away from them. He pleads with the FBI man to slow it all down because “it will all end with someone getting shot.” And in the end, the women are chased by dozens of Nevada’s finest only to end with our heroes running the car into the Grand Canyon.


I was glad there was at least one honorable male in the film. He can’t do nearly enough to save the two women, whom I see as great modern-day tragic heroes. I was also struck by the scene toward the end featuring a black bicyclist who blows smoke into cop’s car trunk. Clearly, this scene drives home the film’s larger message that it isn’t just women who are oppressed by white males, but many other groups as well.

I mentioned earlier that this movie has aged well. Its relevance is underscored by the fact that as we speak, grisly details in Cleveland are emerging about a man who kidnapped three young women and used them as sex slaves for years. Abusive male behavior continues to this day, and it has a permanent, scarring effect on women. We should all be ashamed that this occurs and we hope that more films like Thelma & Louise can bring this dark aspect of human nature into the light. That’s our only chance for remediation.


Thelma is the truly transformed hero in this story. She goes from being a timid housewife and victim to being a completely liberated woman in control of her world.

This is a classic yet tragic hero’s journey. And one of the few female buddy movies. Thelma & Louise gets my highest rating for a great film experience and also for a great pair of heroes. 5 Reels and 5 Heroes.

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I agree, Greg. Thelma & Louise is one of those rare films that simultaneously inspires while also portraying a sad sense of inevitable disaster. These two women make choices that, strangely, have us cheering yet have us questioning their good judgment at the same time. And it’s all very believable and powerful.

Some people have questioned the freeze-framed ending of their car caught in mid-air over the canyon. I applaud the choice — it has sparked great debates and has a potent symbolic meaning that I respect. So like you, I award the film 5 Reels and 5 Heroes.

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Mud •••••

Mud_posterStarring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes

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Scott, we just saw Mud. The new Matthew McConaughey movie.



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

Yes we did. And there was so much mud I needed a bath when I got home from the theater.


We meet young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who lives on the Mississippi River in Arkansas with his parents. They aren’t getting along and divorce is imminent. Ellis and friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) rise early one morning to boat out to an island where they have found a houseboat lodged in a tree – apparently left there after a recent flood. They plan to make a treehouse of it only to find that a mysterious man is living there – Mud.

The boys begin doing favors for Mud, such as bringing him food and delivering notes to his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is staying at a hotel in town. They discover that Mud is in trouble with the law and make the decision to help him reunite with Juniper and escape down the river.


Ellis is an idealist. He believes in true love and wants to help because he sees that Mud has the same beliefs. Ellis defends the honor of an older girl that he wants to date. He doesn’t understand why anyone would give up on true love. In Mud he finds a kindred spirit.

Greg, Mud is a terrific movie that showcases the heartache of growing up. We witness a teenage boy losing innocence but gaining wisdom. He starts out trusting everyone, and he gets burned, but he also gains understanding. We watch him learn painful life lessons, especially that love and family are precious and fragile.

The movie is rich in symbolism. The river serves as both a barrier and a symbol of flight from danger. Juniper, Mud’s girlfriend, has birds tattooed on her hand and wears a bird on her necklace. Mud’s boat is airborne, perched in a tree. Hiding on an island, he is separated from the world. Only after Mud lowers the boat into the water does he finally re-connect with the world, drawing close to Ellis, Juniper, and his father-figure, Tom (Sam Shepard).


I really enjoyed this film. We follow Ellis through the childhood drama and disillusionment of watching his parents break up. He wants to cling to the idea that with love anything is possible. And time and again he learns the harsh lesson that love just isn’t enough. And that not everyone shares his core belief that true love is the most important value.

Yes, and it’s Ellis’s transformation that makes this movie special. A few weeks ago we called After Earth a nice coming-of-age story, but Mud has so much more depth and nuance to its storyline. Although the character of Mud is not the central hero, we are drawn to him. There are plenty of snakes in this film, and they appear in both reptile and human form. At first we wonder if Mud himself is a snake in the mud or if he is someone who can somehow rise above the other snakes ready to pounce on him. We are initially appalled by his exploitation of Ellis’s kindly innocence. Mud eventually redeems himself by performing a courageous, selfless act.


I agree, Scott. Mud represents Ellis’s childlike beliefs extended into the future. Mud is what Ellis will become if he can’t temper his teenaged idealism. The big question is will Ellis be broken by the events in his life or will he cling to a core belief that will turn him into a victim.

Mud (the movie) is a very sensitive and thoughtful treatment of childhood love and heartache. But it’s not overly sentimental. The children in the story are strong and independent but still naive. I’m reminded of 1986’s Stand By Me. I felt that the story and direction were very strong and I give Mud 5 out of 5 Reels. We are also witness to a dual-hero story of a pair of characters who share the same belief in true love. Both heroes follow an arch and are transformed in the end. Not only do I award Mud 5 out of 5 Heroes, but I also nominate it for our Hall of Fame.

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I’m in agreement that Mud is one of the best films of the year. Matthew McConaughey turns in an outstanding performance as a man on the run, and young Tye Sheridan hits just the right notes in portraying the painful loss of youthful innocence.

This is an inspiring hero story, with Ellis passing through all of the stages of the hero’s journey. He encounters a father figure in Mud, a love interest who teaches him an aching lesson, and has a sidekick in Neckbone. Ellis’s naïve view of the world gets him into trouble but also endears him to everyone around him, and the friends he has cultivated eventually save his neck. By the movie’s end, Ellis has been transformed, possessing an adult understanding of both the joy and sadness of human relationships. It’s a beautifully crafted hero’s journey.

Greg, I’m with you in awarding Mud 5 Reels out of 5, and 5 Heroes out of 5. I second your nomination for this film entering our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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Iron Man 3 ••••

MV5BMjIzMzAzMjQyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzM2NjcyOQ@@._V1_SX214_Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, with Ben Kingsley
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes

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Scott, we just watched Iron Man 3 – the first Summer blockbuster of 2013. What did you think?



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

Greg, Iron Man isn’t my favorite superhero and so I went into the theater with low-ish expectations. I left surprised at the quality of this movie. Shall we recap?


There’s a new terrorist in town – it’s the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). He’s responsible for seemingly random bombings of great power across the United States. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is taking these bombings seriously because his bodyguard and good friend Happy Hogan was a victim. Stark lays down the gauntlet telling the Mandarin through the media that this time, it isn’t politics that motivates him – it’s revenge.


Stark underestimates the Mandarin, who lays waste to Stark’s home and nearly kills him, his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and an old girlfriend with a dangerous secret. Stark travels to Tennessee to examine a bomb site and soon learns that the Mandarin is using maimed U.S. war veterans to test Extremis, a new method of regenerating human limbs that turns people into molten-hot superhumans.

The Extremis procedure sometimes fails, causing some veterans to literally explode. These are the Mandarin’s so-called terrorist bombs, and after Pepper is captured by the Mandarin, Stark’s mission is to stop him and his legions of superhumans, and to bring Pepper to safety.


Stark is plagued by Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to his experiences in New York City (see The Avengers). This is his Missing Inner Quality: he lacks confidence in himself. And this sets up the real thrust of this film. While on one level it’s all about catching the Mandarin and stopping him, it’s really about Tony Stark competing with the Iron Man suit. The majority of the action in this film surrounds Tony Stark using his intellect and special gifts as an inventor to uncover the basis for the terror attacks.


Greg, you’ve identified the central reason why I truly enjoyed this film. Stark shows a vulnerability and a humility that we haven’t seen in previous installments of Iron Man. He confesses that Pepper Potts means everything to him, thus revealing a renewed set of priorities in his life. Happy’s severe injury is also a staggering blow. We see him reach out in kindness to a young hurting boy. And he has panic attacks.

Stark is a man who has been knocked down a few pegs, and quite frankly I enjoyed witnessing him throughout this movie redefine himself and create a somewhat new and softer personal identity. My issue with previous Iron Man movies was Tony Stark’s utter macho narcissism. It’s refreshing to see him in this film display the kind of vulnerability necessary for him to heal, to grow, and to transform himself.


The production values were amazing. I saw the film in 3D and it was mind blowing. The Iron Man costume in this film is deconstructed so that individual parts of the suit can fly across the room and attach to Stark’s body. It created some very cool effects and some excellent plot twists. Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin was simply brilliant. I bought in to his character completely. The terror propaganda was especially well constructed.


Hearing you say this makes me regret seeing it in 2D. But even in 2D, the film is a visual delight. Most of all, the hero story works to great effect. Our hero Stark is brought by the Mandarin into a special world fraught with danger. We have a sinister (and deceptive) villain, a love interest, helpful sidekicks, and an unlikely mentor in a 10-year-old boy named Harley whose advice (“You’re a mechanic – make something”) is exactly what allows Stark to defeat the Mandarin.


The film isn’t perfect. I was most offended by allusions to Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as mere figureheads to their terror organizations. I don’t think most Americans (and certainly most warfighters) saw them as just figureheads.

Also, the premise that human beings would become super-strong, regenerative, and explosive by inhaling a medication was more than I could believe. It seemed a plot device more suited for the X-Men than Iron Man.


I was willing to overlook these flaws, if you could call them that. After all, superhero movies take place in fantasy universes with their own peculiar set of physical laws. I rather liked the Extremis effects — human flesh became red-hot liquid steel and were more than an equal match to any of Stark’s suits.

But the important thing to me is the hero story, which was utterly satisfying and earned 4 Heroes out of 5. This Tony Stark has me interested in Iron Man again. The film itself was a visual delight and was able to combine humor with action in a very effective way. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

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Well I guess you have a better imagination than I do. Even in Science Fiction you have to acknowledge the existing science. I don’t see how inhaling any substance can make one’s hair fire-retardant. Still this was an exciting beginning to a summer destined to be filled with Science Fiction and Action films (is Summer coming earlier each year?). I give the film a rating of 4 out of 5 Reels. But I think this is the most perfect hero transformation I’ve seen in any of the Marvel films. I really liked the emphasis on Tony Stark, the man, as opposed to Iron Man, the suit. I give Tony a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.
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The Big Wedding‌ (0)

The_Big_Wedding_PosterStarring: Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl
Director: Justin Zackham
Screenplay: Justin Zackham
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes

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Scott, this week we were invited to The Big Wedding. It looks like someone got cake on their face.



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

Greg, it was a Big something. ‘Wedding’ is not the noun I would use. But I’ll save my thoughts for later. Let’s recap first.


Our story begins with Don (Robert De Niro) and Elle (Diane Keaton) Griffin who have been divorced for 10 years. Elle walks in on Don and Bebe (Susan Sarandon) who are fooling around and creates an awkward situation. Elle is visiting because her and Don’s son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is getting married. Alejandro is Don and Elle’s adoptive son from Columbia. The problem is, Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) is coming to the wedding and she’s a devout Catholic and believes divorce is a sin. So, Don and Elle have to pretend that they are married in an attempt to fool non-English-speaking Madonna.


There are additional attempts to inject awkwardness into the festivities, as when Don and Elle’s other son, a 30-year-old virgin named Jared (Topher Grace), meets his beautiful and horny Columbian step-sister-to-be (Ana Ayora). Don and Elle’s daughter Lyla (Katherine Heigl), arrives in sadness after having recently separated from her husband. She’s so upset that she vomits all over Don. To cap it all off, we have an alcoholic priest (Robin Williams) who doesn’t really act like a priest but who’s there to counsel everyone.


And we’re off… oh and not to mention that the in-laws are bigots and can’t stand the thought of beige grandchildren. This is a very convoluted story which is worthy of a Shakespearean comedy. However, the writing is not in the hands of the immortal bard, but rather Justin Zackham, who approaches the script with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer. We’ve seen all of these tropes in prime-time sitcoms.

But here, the writers throw political correctness to the wind. For example, Nuria (the Columbian sister) decides that she wants to go swimming so she strips down to her birthday suit in front of several onlookers. We’re led to believe that she is naive in the ways of the modern world and prone to throwing herself on men. Later, she surreptitiously gives Jared a hand job under the table at dinner. But she’s corrected by Jared’s mother who (in a single off-screen bathroom conversation) convinces her that women should be respected and turns the girl into an instant feminist.


Greg, I knew we were in trouble from the opening scene, when we’re witness to one veteran actor, who is nearly 70 years-old, interrupting two other 70-year-old actors about to perform a sex act in the kitchen. One buckles to the floor, hiding his erection, while the other two toss out jokes about body parts and intercourse. I guess we’re supposed to find this funny, but I was genuinely embarrassed for the actors involved, all of whom — until now — have had worthy careers.

This disastrous opening scene told me that the writing in this movie was going to be so weak that any laughs were designed to come from contrived situations, sophomoric behavior, and shock value. Apparently, none of the characters in this movie have anything but sex on their minds, and they also appear to be unable to censor any tasteless thoughts that pop into their heads.


Everyone in the story treats the mother (Madonna) like an idiot. She simply could not speak English. But they talk loudly and gesticulate in front of her. The main players were trying to hide Don’s relationship with Bebe by standing in front of a naked portrait of her. Or by rushing to remove pictures of her.

And (potential spoiler) Don has sex with Elle and proudly proclaims it “was the most pipe I’ve laid in 20 years.” Which begs the question, what has he been doing with Bebe for the last 20 years? The characters are embarrassing to themselves and to the stereotypes they portray.


The choices these characters make defy explanation, other than to serve as a set-up for the next sex joke. Don has to pretend to be married to Elle, and so of course that means Elle has to sleep in the same bed with Don instead of the obvious alternatives like, say, sleeping on the floor or in the chair. Their tryst is obviously preventable but that would thwart the movie’s apparent goal of showing an endless parade of unrealistic, sexually clumsy situations.

We’re also supposed to laugh when Madonna stares incredulously at one of Don’s sculptures of a woman pleasuring herself. Did I mention that these are 70-year-old actors, not middle-school kids?


By the end of the story everyone’s “problem” was resolved one way or the other – just as you knew it must. The answers to the questions are telescoped from the very beginning. This is not usually a problem. In these types of stories it’s not whether or not people get what they want, but HOW they get what they want. And in the case of The Big Wedding, everyone gets what they want in the most trivial and obvious ways possible.

The Big Wedding is a bore and simplistically structured. The laughs are a result of embarrassing situations, not clever dialogue. I give The Big Wedding 0 Reels out of 5 and 0 Heroes out of 5. And I think it deserves a nomination for the Reel Hero Hall of Shame for the worst movie we’ve seen so far this year.

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Greg, it was a mess, and these actors should fire their agents and do some soul-searching for having participated in this project. Yes, half of the actors involved are in professional decline, perhaps making them willing to take just about any acting job that comes their way. Being in this film only accelerates their decline. Robert De Niro, you’re better than this — please stay home and play golf rather than be part of a film that has absolutely no merit to it at all.

There was no hero story here. Just an ensemble cast that is largely interchangeable. One juvenile and buffoonish character could easily have substituted for any of the other juvenile and buffoonish characters. People in the real world don’t act like any of these people. Heck, people in most bad movies don’t act like them, either. So it’s a Big Mess. For that reason, I also nominate The Big Mess for the Hall of Shame, giving it as many Reels as there are good characters — zero — and as many Heroes as there are heroes in the movie — again zero.

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