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The World’s End ••••

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 10.00.15 PMStarring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman

Director: Edgar Wright

Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright

Comedy/Action/Sci-Fi, Rated: R

Running Time: 109 minutes

Release Date: August 23, 2013

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

Today we’re privileged to have a special guest reviewer join me and Greg in our review of The World’s End.


Welcome to Matt Langdon, founder of the Hero Construction Company and organizer of The Hero Round Table Conference, to be held in Flint, Michigan. This is the first interdisciplinary conference on heroism ever held. Welcome, Matt!


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Hi guys, thanks for having me. This is a meshing of two of my greatest interests – movies and heroism.

Turns out that Greg and I have similar meshings! Who wants to begin recapping the movie?


We are introduced to Gary King (Simon Pegg), a guy who was cool when he was in high school in the 80’s. He’s bestest buds with four other guys: Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Oliver (Martin Freeman). They attempted the Golden Mile pub crawl as young men. It’s an attempt to drink a beer at each of 12 taverns in their hometown of Newton Haven. But as kids they couldn’t complete it. Now, Gary’s facing 40 and wants to reclaim his former glory. He gathers his old friends together to attempt the Golden Mile one more time.


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A lot of care went into the setup of Gary and his friends. Gary King was the king of the town, as he often mentions during the movie, and he has a band of followers with surnames that reinforce that – Knightley, Prince, Page, and Chamberlain. The movie spends quite some time establishing the current lives of the five musketeers before launching them onto the legendary pub crawl.


The guys begin their pub crawl but find it impossible to re-live the old magic of their high school days.  Nothing is going right.  People don’t recognize them.  Andy doesn’t drink.  Samantha (Rosamund Pike), his old flame, wants nothing to do with him.  Then something completely unexpected jolts the old gang into a new and dangerous reality that serves as a catalyst for their hero journeys.  Frustrated at how bad the pub crawl is going, Gary picks a fight with a young man in a pub restroom, and to his shock the young man’s head is severed and blue ink spurts out.  It turns out that Newton Haven is infested with robot aliens from outer space.


And not just aliens, but they are carbon copies of most of the occupants of Newton Haven. And so begins our journey into what is a gleeful homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and films of that ilk.


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As the third movie of the Cornetto Trilogy, we knew to expect an homage with humour, heart, and a clear love for the genre. We got it. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright first made Shaun of the Dead, a zombie comedy, then followed it up with a buddy cop flick, Hot Fuzz. Their fans have been waiting for the third installment for some time. The trilogy gets its name from the subtle appearance of a Cornetto (a British ice cream) in each film.


I was caught completely by surprise by the blue-inked aliens. The film was muddling along and I was trying to figure out if anything could happen that would salvage the story. And it did. The World’s End turns out to be quite an entertaining jaunt. We haven’t seen this much silliness since the film ‘This is the End’, which was another farcical interpretation of the human race’s demise. The World’s End features clever, witty dialogue and some outstanding performances by a seasoned ensemble cast.


I agree, Scott. I was getting a bit antsy thinking this was going to be another Hangover 3 type movie. And I had seen the first two in the Cornetto Trilogy, so I was wondering when the big reveal would occur. For me it was a bit late in the film. But what came next more than made up for it. It was a race against time as Gary King continues to work his way from pub to pub despite being chased by characters from his past. And the interweaving of the love interest Sam was a clever wink to the side plots we often see in such horror films. I was pleasantly surprised.


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I liked it a lot. I am a fan of British humour, so there was plenty for me to enjoy. I worried a bit about the length of time it took to get into the story, but looking back, I think it was justified. Certainly there is a hero’s journey in play here. Gary begins the story as an aging man looking for a change – in particular he thinks the answer lies in his youth. His companions are all mostly satisfied in their lives, but the lure of Gary and youthful adventures was enough to get them to accept his call to adventure. As a big drinker, it’s no coincidence that Gary’s journey has 12 steps – the 12 pubs of the Golden Mile.


I agree that we have a solid hero story here, but I’m not sure how seriously we can take the hero journey in a film in which the hero seems more interested in drinking the next beer than in saving the world. If we treat this film as a goofball comedy, then it works just fine. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy how well the absurdity unfolds, thanks to strong screenplay writing, fine acting, and deft directing.

This is a story of redemption for Gary. The appearance of the aliens is exactly what Gary needs to emerge as a hero, as he evolves from total loser to a man who is able to take the lead in resolving the conflict at the end. As the least successful member of the musketeers, he is primed for greater change in his life than any of his friends. We then witness the change, and as in any good hero story, it is satisfying.


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I think this is a great example of a story being able to tell a hero’s journey without necessarily showing a lot of heroism. It’s hard to describe any heroic acts performed by the “king”, but his story of redemption is certainly complete. He changes and due to that the world has a new hero story to tell.


I agree with Scott, this was a really tight script. There wasn’t much that was just thrown in or wasted later. The jokes were quick and subtle as well as some that were just clubs over the head. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright really have the knack for concise and hilarious writing without becoming slapstick. You may have to see the film a couple times to really get all the in jokes.


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Certainly, the naming of each of the pubs is one of those subtle efforts. Each one describes what happens in that visit. There is also a lot of foreshadowing with comments like the five musketeers one.


Good observations, Matt. And Greg, you’re spot-on with your praise of Pegg and Frost’s exceptional chemistry. I was delightfully surprised by The World’s End. I don’t recall ever experiencing such a dramatic shift in my assessment of a film in mid-stream. I was about to write it off as a soft, dull attempt by 5 people to re-create the past, a sort of lame version of The Big Chill. But then sparks began flying and I was a giggling mess in the theater. I truly enjoyed the bold outrageousness of The World’s End and am happy to award it 4 Reels out of 5. The hero story was a bit less impressive to me; I give it 3 Heroes out of 5.

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I’m with you guys. A slow start and a rollicking finish. As we’ve seen in other comedies, the Hero’s Journey gets less attention in favor of gags and laughs. Still I enjoyed myself and I plan to see it again to catch some more of that slanted humor. I award 4 Reels for fun entertainment, but only 3 Heroes for a less solid hero treatment.

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I certainly enjoyed it, but I knew I would. I do think they could have added some heroism to the hero’s journey, but I’m still happy to give it a 4 out of 5 Heroes as it was constructed very well. I have to give it 4 out of 5 Reels, just like you guys. It was the third best Cornetto movie for me, but that might change after a few viewings.

I certainly appreciate you guys letting me invade your space. It’s good to actually be here rather than living vicariously each week.

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Matt, it was a great pleasure having you here. We appreciate your insights and we hope you can join us again in the future.

Kick-Ass 2 ••1/2

KA2-International-PosterStarring: Jim Carrey, Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Screenplay: Jeff Wadlow
Comedy/Action/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 2013
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scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Once again, Greg, we see ordinary people kicking some not-so-ordinary ass.


It’s time for round two of everyman superheroes.


Kick-Ass 2 begins three years after the first installment of the series.  Dave  (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a high school senior and has retired his superhero persona.  Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz) has grown into a freshman and is still Hit-Girl, although she is careful to conceal this identity from her guardian Marcus (Morris Chestnut).

When Marcus discovers that Mindy is still a superhero, he makes her promise to give it up and become a normal teen girl.  Inspired by other ordinary citizens becoming superheroes, Dave re-assumes his Kick-Ass identity and joins the “Justice Forever” team of superheroes.  Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) seeks to avenge his father’s death by vowing to destroy Kick-Ass.


And we’re off… 2010’s Kick-Ass was a story about how an ordinary guy had a positive effect on his community by becoming a superhero. It had a nice message: we’re already super – costume not needed. This year’s Kick-Ass 2 has a bit of a confused message. Mindy attempts to give up her Hit-Girl persona and become a typical high school teen. In fact, this thread of the story looks a lot like 2004’s Mean Girls. The popular girls adopt Mindy and just as quickly turn on her leaving Mindy to wonder who she really is.

Meanwhile, Dave (as Kick-Ass) joins a burgeoning group of superhero do-gooders led by Captain Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). The Cap’n gives the team their moral core and acts as a mentor. This team of masked misfits goes around town performing community service and busting up child pornography rings. Things are going pretty well until D’Amico decides to create his own group of super-villains from the ranks of the city’s worst criminals. That’s when the tides turn and being a superhero becomes a risky undertaking.


Earlier this summer, when reviewing Red 2,  I noted how difficult it is for a sequel to re-capture the charm of the original film.  Kick-Ass 2 is no exception.  The filmmakers know that we want to see the same characters recreate the former magic, but that’s a tall order when Aaron Taylor-Johnson, cast as Dave, is obviously far too old to play a high school student but must play one anyway if we are to have a sequel.

Kick-Ass 2 is a darker film than its predecessor, with even more stabbings, dismemberments, and decapitations than the original.  In addition, the emphasis has changed from Kick-Ass as the lead character to Mindy, who is caught in the moral dilemma of either honoring her commitment to Marcus or honoring her true self.  Mindy’s inner struggle is central to the movie, and an argument could be made that while this is a buddy-hero story, she may actually be the main hero here.


And therein lies the confused message. Mindy is struggling with her identity as a crime fighter versus teen girl. While Dave is … not struggling at all really. He goes through the hero’s journey and in the end it’s Mindy who has the revelation. There isn’t much interaction between the two heroes in this story and it is like two movies in one. A bit of a retread of Kick-Ass (the first) and Mean Girls (with attitude).

We don’t really get a good reason for Mindy’s conversion to the ordinary life. Marcus tells her to be a good girl and she says “Okay.” It’s not a convincing plot point. Dave has an uncharacteristically savage attack on his father (played good-naturedly by Garrett M. Brown) when he tells him “You haven’t amounted to anything. Nobody will notice when you’re gone.” It is an abrupt rebuke when all interactions between the two had been chummy up to that point. These unexpected character eruptions seem trite and contrived.


I agree, Greg.  This movie didn’t quite know what it wanted to be.  Kick-Ass 2 essentially has the same confused identity that Mindy has.  But having said that, there is one aspect of the film that I truly liked.  The strongest and most competent superhero is a woman, and the strongest and most competent super-villain is also a woman.  Female heroes and villains are a rare breed in Hollywood, and so I found this aspect of Kick-Ass 2 to be refreshing.

Also, I liked the way that Mindy becomes transformed as a character.  She grows to understand that she is in quite a bit of emotional pain, and we witness her becoming aware that as with any superhero, she needs to use that pain to do the right thing.  Kick-Ass himself has a far less dramatic transformation; he realizes that people need not don capes and masks to do good.  Ordinary citizens just need to make the right choice.  A good message, yes, but this is not as psychologically interesting as Mindy’s self-insight.


You make a good point, Scott. We haven’t seen such a great female hero since Disney’s Brave. I love the scene where Marcus is warning Mindy to be careful on her first date and she reminds him that she “knows how to kill a man with his own finger.” Awesome. And Olga Kurkulina (the Ukrainian female bodybuilder as Mother Russia) was a fierce villain, in contrast to her lame male counterparts.

I’m also impressed with your ability to extract those two messages from this film. It wasn’t as easy for me. There didn’t seem to be a central theme to this film and that left me confused and unsatisfied at the end. For a fun roller-coaster ride with a good bit of action and a decent female hero, I give 3 Reels. But for a confusing hero story I give only 2 Heroes to Kick-Ass 2.

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I’m surprised you gave the film as many as 3 Reels, Greg.  If I could give a film two-and-a-half Reels, I would, but since I can’t, I’ll be a curmudgeon and award Kick-Ass 2 a meager 2 Reels out of 5.  The film is a bit of a contradiction in that it is both sweet and endearing yet brutally violent.  It is also clear in its message that we should all do the right thing, yet murky in the way it takes us to that message.

As for the hero story, I was also disappointed by the film’s muddiness.  Chloë Grace Moretz is an utter delight in her role as Mindy, and we do witness her evolve nicely as a character.  But as you noted, Greg, we aren’t really sure who the main hero of the story is, and the hero journeys themselves were a bit muddled.  For that reason, I’ll be a miser and give the film only 2 Heroes out of 5.

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Jobs ••

Jobs_(film)Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Screenplay: Matt Whiteley
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 2013

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greg

This week we review a biopic that’s gotten a lot of hype recently:  Jobs


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

Reviewing this movie is a tough Jobs but somebody has to do it.


The movie opens with Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) at a 2001 Apple Town Hall meeting introducing the next, most insanely great thing: the iPod. Then we flash back to 1976 where Steve is a drop out at Reed College – or more like a drop in as he continues to take classes and trip on illicit drugs. Then we flash forward a few years and Steve is in trouble with his boss at Atari because he doesn’t bathe and insults his co-workers. But his boss gives him an impossible assignment which Steve gleefully accepts. He turns to his buddy Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) to help him out of the jam. Steve is paid $5000 for the job but he only gives Woz a paltry $350.


Jobs and Wozniak eventually build their first personal computer from scratch and name their new company Apple.  They hire several friends to help build the computers in the garage of Steve’s family home.  Jobs is desperate for someone with deep pockets to finance them, and he has trouble finding anyone willing to take the risk until one day Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) shows up.  Jobs and Woz then develop the Apple II computer and the company takes off from there.  But there are setbacks.  Jobs’ girlfriend gets pregnant unexpectedly and Steve wants nothing to do with the baby.  And when the company grows to the point where John Sculley (Matthew Modine) becomes CEO, Sculley forces Jobs out of Apple entirely.


Jobs is one Steve Jobs anecdote after another. Jobs suffers from the same problems as many biopics: cramming the whole of a person’s life into 120 minutes is impossible. Either they’re going to focus on one major event in the person’s life, or give one minute to every event in that person’s life. And so it goes with Jobs. The writer (Matt Whiteley) has decided to try and cover all the major events in Steve Jobs’ life from 1976 through 2001 – that’s 25 years or roughly 5 minutes a year. When you do that something is going to be left out.


Very true, Greg.  I have mixed feelings about Jobs.  On the one hand, I enjoyed watching a true underdog story.  And it was fun watching the evolution of personal computing unfolding right before our very eyes.  As a life-long user of Apple products, I was very interested in this saga and the behind-the-scenes look at foundation of the computer revolution.  Ashton Kutcher deserves praise for his portrayal of Steve Jobs — he gets the voice and even the strange monkey-like gait just right.

But here’s where I was left dissatisfied:  The movie portrays Steve Jobs as a jerk.  As you noted, Greg, he cheats Wozniak shamefully of money certainly owed to him.  And we see what a cad Jobs is when his girlfriend becomes pregnant.  Throughout the movie, we are witness to the many ways that Jobs treats people like objects and shows nothing but utter selfishness.  It’s very hard to root for a “hero” who behaves so wretchedly throughout 99% of the movie.


I agree, Kutcher’s Jobs starts out very self-centered and lacking empathy. The movie did smooth over some of those attributes after Jobs was dismissed from Apple and then asked to return years later. We see him waking Lisa (his now teen-aged daughter) while she sleeps in his mansion and he gives a subtle suggestion to (a young) Johnny Ive (Giles Matthey) when he says “here’s a stupid idea – what if we put the speakers inside the unit.” This is an attempt to show that the hero has learned from his experiences – a typical hero’s journey.

However, if you’re a computer geek like myself, these anecdotes are watered-down versions of the lore that swirls around Steve Jobs. Also, if you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs you know that a lot of the Jobs story is left untold in this movie (for example, the NeXT computer and Pixar are absent). And a lot of the detail of the events in the movie is lost. This movie is little more than a point-by-point accounting of the events of Steve Jobs’ life. Without a good set of high and low points to punctuate the story, Jobs is little more than a narrative documentary.


Yes, Steve Jobs becomes transformed by the end of the movie, and the film is telling us that Jobs’ dismissal from Apple made him a changed man.  But we aren’t privy to how the transformation happened.  Compare this hero transformation to what we witness in the movie Groundhog Day, where the hero Phil Connors is also a wretch but attracts sympathy when he is utterly defeated and humbled.  And then we are shown in detail how Connors develops a heart of gold.

The hero journey in Groundhog day is supremely satisfying because we see the transformation right before our eyes, with Connors’ love interest Rita playing a pivotal role in awaking his heart.  In Jobs, the transformation occurs only at the very end of the movie and it happens entirely off screen – an extremely poor decision on the part of the filmmakers.  How did Jobs finally become a nice guy?  Who knows?


I think the writer would have done better to focus on one element of Steve Jobs’ life. The pivotal moment that made Steve who he would become, rather than trying to tell the whole story. Part of the story had already been told back in 1999’s made-for-TV movie “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” In that case we follow young Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as they wrestle for domination over the windows desktop look-and-feel that we’ve all become familiar with.

Which brings me to another fateful missing piece in this movie: Steve Jobs was a thief. He never really had an original idea. A glaring omission from Jobs is the fact that Steve Jobs stole the Lisa/Macintosh windowing system from Xerox PARC. This is a pivotal moment in computing history and would become the basis for much case law surrounding innovation in high technology.


Overall, I enjoyed Jobs but clearly would have enjoyed it much more if it had shown us more details of his heroic transformation.  In addition, I felt somewhat disappointed that the film ended without showing us the full story — how did the iPod come about, and what was the genesis of the iPad, iPhone, and other familiar gadgets that we use today?  And how is it that Jobs had completely dark hair in 1996 and completely white hair in 2001?  Was the illness that eventually killed him to blame or was this a continuity error?

Jobs is a fairly well-crafted biopic that shows us the life of a highly flawed man whose selfishness was far greater than his innovative sense or his business acumen.  I had trouble rooting for this man to succeed and didn’t buy the film’s skimpy treatment of his transformation.  For this reason, I award Jobs 2 Reels out of 5, and a mere 2 Heroes out of 5 as well.

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I was as unimpressed as you were, Scott.  Except I would not call this a capably crafted story. It is flawed in many ways more than those we’ve already mentioned. Kutcher’s Jobs is just a calm version of Kutcher himself. The Hero’s Journey is evident but only if you look under the covers. Steve Jobs was a complex man, driven by inner forces that this movie gives only passing attention to. There are no surprises or insights here. Just a flat retelling of 25 years of an iconic man’s life. Steve Jobs deserved better.

For a lackluster, linear, flat presentation of one of America’s great technological leaders I give Jobs just 2 Reels out of 5. However, I was able to detect the faint arc of the Hero’s Journey so I award Jobs 3 Heroes out of 5.

PS: Written on a Macintosh.
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The Butler ••••1/2

The_Butler_posterStarring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Danny Strong, Wil Haygood
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 2013

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

Greg, there’s no mystery here.  The Butler did it.


All kidding aside, this looks like an Oscar contender – and so early in the season, too.


The Butler begins by introducing us to a young African-American boy named Cecil Gaines who, along with his family, is working on a cotton farm in the south in 1926.  The boy witnesses his mother being raped and his father being murdered by the White land-owner.  The murderer’s grandmother adopts Cecil and trains him to be a butler.  Later, as a teenager, Cecil leaves the farm and ventures into the city where he is hungry and homeless.  He is caught breaking into a store to steal food, and the kind servant who caught him decides to hire him.  This is the break Cecil needs to kick-start his adventure.


Cecil (Forest Whitaker) works hard and learns the ropes. When an opportunity comes to move to Washington, DC and serve at a luxury hotel, he takes it. Again, he works hard and distinguishes himself. He is noticed by the White House head of staff and is offered a chance to work on the President’s staff of servants. He is cast into a new world of service where he works hard and distinguishes himself.

At home, Cecil is married to a dutiful wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and has two strapping young boys. The elder, Louis (David Oyelowo) studies hard but looks down on his father’s occupation thinking he is an Uncle Tom. This is the beginning of a struggle between the two men as the butler has to work and live within the white structure and the son fights against Jim Crowe laws as he attends college in the South of the 1960s.


Greg, this is an impressive movie.  I thought the filmmakers did a stellar job of chronicling the lifespan of a man who not only lived through radical changes in American society, but also witnessed the U.S. government machinery that either helped or hindered the transformation.  Forest Whitaker deserves great kudos for a highly moving performance.  You can see both pain and his dignity in his every word and facial expression.  I can easily envision Whitaker being nominated for Best Actor here.


This is an epic story spanning 80 years and 11 presidencies. That’s no mean feat. Director Lee Daniels pulls double duty here as he shows not only the life of a black man who grew up in the South and learns to live in the white man’s world, but also parallels that story with Cecil’s son Louis who wants to change the unfair system of “separate but equal” and raise blacks to full equality. The two men clash as we watch Louis go through the phases of the Civil Rights struggle from non-violent sit-ins to the militant Black Panther party. It was not an easy task and Daniels nearly pulled it off.


I was fascinated by the trajectory of the father-son relationship.  There is a close bond to start, but their relations are strained when Louis adopts a more militant strategy in dealing with civil rights than does his father, who prefers to set an example quietly.  It was very rewarding to see how the two men’s positions converge.  Louis softens while his father gets tougher.  This duel transformation was portrayed powerfully and realistically.  Cecil finds his voice and re-connects with his son, and in this way we have a hero journey that thoroughly satisfies its audience.


If I have a criticism of The Butler it is that it was too light on the history. While many of the major events of the Civil Rights movement were depicted, they weren’t clearly explained. A case in point is the Freedom Riders. We’re told that Louis is a Freedom Rider but we aren’t told what that means. For younger viewers (and those of us who aren’t overly schooled in history) a line or two of dialog about the significance of that event would have been valuable.

Still, following two heroes on their separate tracks through the same period in time was a powerful device. First growing up with Cecil from the plantation to his role on the White House staff and then having him collide with the next generation of black men with a completely different way of thinking made for a sharp contrast that kept me entertained while I was also educated.



As long as we’re picking nits, I had a problem with some of the casting choices.  As I said, Forest Whitaker hits a grand slam home run with his performance, and David Oyelowo and David Banner, cast as his two sons, deliver the goods as well.  But they dropped the ball completely in their casting of the Presidents.  Robin Williams did not work at all as Dwight Eisenhower.  And Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman were poor choices for Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, respectively.

Rather than using these Hollywood elite, who were no doubt thrilled to be part of this project, it would have been wiser to cast more obscure actors who better resemble these presidents.  Casting Oprah as Cecil’s wife was also a curious choice.  She did a fine job in that role, but Oprah is so larger-than-life that it’s difficult to see her as anyone but Oprah.


I noticed that too – as well as the irony of liberal left-wing “Hanoi Jane” Fonda cast as Nancy Reagan. That was just funny.

I was very pleased that this film did not fall into the typical plot solution that other similar films have fallen into. In last May’s “42,” last year’s “The Help” and 2010’s “The Blind Side” black heroes are aided by benificent white altruists. But in The Butler we see black men raising themselves up by virtue of their own strength and courage.

For a good bit of epic storytelling that covers a lot of ground, despite missing some important historical detail, I give The Butler 5 out of 5 Reels. And for a surprise dual-hero story with both heroes finding common ground I award The Butler 5 Heroes.

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The Butler is a must-see movie that vividly portrays the heroic life of a butler who is both witness to, and a participant in, the Civil Rights movement in America.  There’s no doubt that this film will be nominated for Best Picture, and there’s a high likelihood of nominations for Best Director and Screenplay as well.  For me, The Butler fell just short of reaching the rarified air of 5 Reels, but it does earn a quite impressive 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey is compelling in its complexity.  We see a father-son relationship that evolves and results in a satisfying departure from the usual ‘atonement with the father’.  What actually transpires is an ‘atonement with the son’, which becomes a central part of Cecil’s transformation.  Our hero Cecil grows as an individual in ways that fascinate us, and we cannot help but admire his courage, intelligence, resilience, and honor as a man.  I happily award this film a full 5 Heroes out of 5.

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We’re the Millers •••

246976id1d_WTM_FinalRated_27x40_1Sheet.inddStarring: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Screenplay: Bob Fisher, Steve Faber
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: August 7, 2013

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

Greg, we’re the reviewers who will now review We’re the Millers.


Indeed we are. It’s the movie with the best penis and breast jokes this summer.


Figures THOSE are the jokes you’d notice!  Let’s recap.

We meet David Clark (Jason Sudeikis), a small-time drug-dealer who is single and imagines himself to be living a happy life. Living next door to him is a nerdy teenage boy Kenny (Will Poulter), and down the hall lives a professional stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston).  Outside his apartment building lurks a homeless, troubled teen girl named Casey (Emma Roberts).  One day, while trying to rescue Casey from muggers, David has $43,000 stolen from him. The problem is that he owes this money to his wealthy drug lord supplier, Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms).


Gurdlinger has a proposition for David: Travel to Mexico and pick up a “smidge” of marijuana from his connection down there. But David doesn’t think he can do it alone. He needs a cover. So he hires Rose, Casey, and Kenny to act as his “family” and be camouflage for the border guards. They no sooner arrive in Mexico and acquire a massive RV when they encounter a super white-bread family: the Fitzgeralds. Hilarity ensues when David learns that he just ripped off drug lord Pablo Chacon (Tomer Sisley) who is after him with a vengeance. Now the chase is on as David and “the Millers” evade questions from the Fitzgerald family while they evade detection from the drug lord.


Despite my reservations from watching the trailer for this film, I found We’re the Millers to be an enjoyable movie.  It’s no threat to win any Oscars, nor will it make any lists of the top-10 movies of the year.  But the movie has an undeniable charm and sweetness that carries the day.  The key to winning us over lies in the manner in which the characters are introduced to us.  Despite being a loser drug dealer, David courageously intervenes when Casey and Kenny are being roughed up by neighborhood hoodlums.  Once we see that all four main characters are decent, likeable human beings, we’re rooting for them to find love and good fortune on their hero journeys.


The joy of this movie, which is essentially a classic road trip, is watching the four main characters transforming and molding into their fictitious roles. David becomes the authoritarian father, Rose begins to take on characteristics of the doting mother, Casey plays out the role of the rebellious sister, and Kenny is the embodiment of the 1950s older brother. In the end they *are* a family, all for one and one for all.


Yes, you’ve put your finger on it exactly, Greg.  The new roles that our heroes are forced to play become the basis for very meaningful character transformations. For Kenny, the transformation is from innocence and naivety to wisdom and maturity. For David, it’s overcoming his stunted emotional growth to become a responsible family man.  For Rose, the transformation consists of finally learning how to achieve healthy intimacy.  For Casey, it’s acquiring a sense of belonging, love, and connection to other people.

Of course, We’re the Millers is a rather lightweight comedy and these hero journeys are telegraphed and sledgehammered.  There are few surprises, and early on we can discern how this movie has to wrap up if it is to deliver a satisfying ending.  The only question is how we will get there, and despite the fact that the movie meanders beyond the 90-minute mark (which should have been its maximum length), we’re left with fireworks at the end, both literally and emotionally.


I won’t be going on another trip with the Millers, which is to say I won’t be going back for a second viewing. But this was an enjoyable romp. I give We’re the Millers 3 out of 5 Reels for entertainment value. And, as you point out, each of our players had a minor hero’s journey worthy of 3 Heroes out of 5.

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We’re the Millers is a satisfying comedy that won’t win any accolades but can win the hearts of any audience willing to simply enjoy a simple tale about four strangers who evolve into a tight-knit family while braving many dangers.  Be warned, there is plenty of potty humor and even a grotesque crotch-shot that will either make you laugh or throw-up.  But this film has heart and some cornball charm.  I also give it 3 Reels.

The hero journey is a bit on the obvious side but still loyal to many of the tell-tale elements of the classic heroic path. Through adversity, our four main characters are able to find their true selves by attaining qualities that are missing and which prevent them from achieving their full potential.  Like you Greg, I also give We’re the Millers 3 Heroes out of 5.

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Elysium •••1/2

Elysium_PosterStarring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: R
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Date: Aug 9, 2013

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greg

Scott, Matt Damon is back with a new action/adventure movie: Elysium.


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

Yes, he’s back and he’s a born hero on a mission.  Or should I say ‘bourne’?


It’s 140 years in the future and Earth is barely habitable. The rich have a solution, though. The privileged have built a space station where they can live in luxury and free of disease. Elysium is a paradise for the few with the means to get there. But occasionally some illegally land on Elysium and, with faked citizenship credentials, jump into one of the healing chambers (which look alarmingly like tanning booths) and are 100% cured of all ills, including cancer.


Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, a blue-collar worker on Earth who leads a tough life but dreams of one day making it to Elysium.  In an accident at work, Max sustains a lethal dose of radiation and has only five days to live.  His sole chance of survival is to reach Elysium’s healing chambers.  He contacts a man named Spider (Wagner Moura) who will send Max to Elysium but only if Max hacks the codes of entry into Elysium from John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the corporate liaison to Elysium’s government.


Meanwhile, back on Elysium, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has worked out a deal with Carlyle: bring me the codes to reboot Elysium (and turn the control over to her) and he will get contracts to support Elysium for the next 200 years.

Max is injured in his attempt to extract the codes from Carlyle and turns to old friend Frey (Alice Braga) to fix him up. He befriends Frey’s young daughter who has cancer and decides that the three of them will go to Elysium to get fixed up. Now, all the players are in place and we’re off!


Greg, I liked this movie.  And what a nice change of pace, to be able to say that I really enjoyed a movie after a summer in which excellence in film-making was beginning to look like a lost art.  What exactly made Elysium so appealing?  For starters, the premise is interesting, if not original.  We are witness to socioeconomic stratification and elitism taken to a fascinating extreme.

We also have an exemplary hero journey with unusual depth.  Matt Damon plays a hero role reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragic hero.  As a young boy, Max is prophesied by a spiritual figure to make a special contribution to humanity.  Elysium resembles the story of Christ, too.  Max is a born hero, fated to suffer greatly at the hands of his oppressors, and destined to die to save the world.  It’s all very powerful.


I think Elysium was a well-constructed movie with a lackluster message. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp brought his experience from District 9 to build a universe with dexterous androids, nimble airships, and a beautiful space station. Upon this foundation he laid a story of class warfare (see The Purge) and really clumsily executes it. The message we’re supposed to take away is that if everyone who made it to Elysium (an allegory for the United States) were allowed to take advantage of the excesses there (health care) everyone would live happily ever after.

The people of Elysium are painted as narcissistic and oblivious to the problems of Earth. The leader Delacourt even wants to eliminate access to Elysium by anyone who is not already there. The parallels to the United States’ illegal immigration problem is clear. But what is not clear is the simplistic answers that Blomkamp offers. Apparently if you don a very powerful exoskeleton and download secret codes into the superpowers’ computers, everyone will get free health care. I didn’t follow the metaphor.


I just viewed the inclusion of exoskeletons as a means of evening up the technological playing field with Elysium’s ultra-strong Androids who protected Eylsium from the Earth’s masses.

If I had a criticism of Elysium, it is with the monolithic way that the film portrays the rich and the poor.  The rich are depicted as universally bad and the poor as universally good.  I believe the movie would have benefited from including at least one privileged character on Elysium who was sympathetic to the suffering on earth and who assists Matt Damon on his quest to free Earth from the oppression.

But overall, the characters are strong and memorable.  Jodie Foster’s icy cold performance strikes exactly the right diabolical notes, and Sharlto Copley as Kruger effectively displays a fearsome, pathological streak of cruelty.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of Frey and her daughter, who is also in desperate need of a healing chamber.  The dynamic of all these characters, along with some excellent directing, editing, and pacing, all made for a great movie experience.


I was confused by Jodie Foster in this movie. She’s a great actress and was strangely underutilized. And, they overdubbed her voice with some sort of semi-British accent. I like Jodie Foster’s voice so I don’t know why they felt the need to change it.

Matt Damon does a great job of playing a man who has a past and is just trying to get by. When he is unfairly treated and irradiated he turns into a man who is out to do whatever it takes to save himself. But when he decides to save a helpless little girl, he becomes a proper hero. As you point out the villains in the story are patently evil and give little for Damon to play against.

For a good, balanced set of visuals offset by a clumsily executed message I give Elysium a score of just 3 Reels out of 5. In order to get another Reel I would want to see more interaction between Damon and Foster and more complicated villains. I give Matt Damon 3 out of 5 Heroes for his portrayal of a man put in an impossible situation who ends up saving a planet. It’s a simplistic character but Damon plays it very well.

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I obviously enjoyed this movie more than you did, Greg.  Elysium provides the perfect boost to the end of the summer malaise that has gripped the movies of late.  We don’t just have excellent action and mind-blowing CGI effects.  We are also treated to a clever movie premise featuring memorable characters caught up in a compelling story.  I believe Elysium has earned 4 Reels out of 5.

And as noted earlier, Elysium’s strong hero journey led to our hero through all the classic stages.  There is a call to adventure, a missing quality that the hero must obtain, an appealing love interest, two formidable villains, help from unlikely sources, and a selfless choice that needs to be made at the end.  Max fulfills his destiny and shows all the traits of a great heroic figure.  For this reason I’m happy to say that the character of Max Da Costa earns 4 Heroes out of 5.

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2 Guns ••

Two_guns_posterStarring: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Screenplay: Blake Masters, Steven Grant
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: August 2, 2013

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

Well, Greg, we just saw not one, but 2 Guns.


Yes, it’s the summer doldrums of August. Let’s recap yet another Denzel Washington buddy cop movie.


2 Guns introduces us to two bad dudes, Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) and Stig Stigman (Mark Wahlberg), who are arrested at the Mexican border after meeting with a major drug lord named Papi (Edward James Olmos). During the interrogations, we learn that unbeknownst to Stigman, Trench is a DEA agent looking to acquire evidence to arrest Papi.  And soon after that, we learn that unbeknownst to Trench, Stigman is an undercover naval intelligence officer who is also looking to set up Papi.


The two want to steal Papi’s three million dollar stash which he deposited in a small Mexico bank. They blow all 32 self-deposit boxes in the bank only to uncover over 42 million dollars! It turns out Papi isn’t the only bad guy in town. No, the CIA has been blackmailing all the local drug runners – taking a nice 10% cut off the top with threats of raining Blackhawk nightmares down upon them if they don’t comply.

Meanwhile, Stig has turned the stash over to his dirty commanding officer in Navy intelligence. But the evil CIA brass wants his money back. And Papi has kidnapped Bobby’s girlfriend – holding her hostage until he returns the money to him. Now, the clock is ticking as unlikely hero-buddies Stig and Bobby do what has to be done to save the girl and resolve a Mexican standoff.


Greg, this movie started out with a promising premise.  Two buddy villains are each hiding their true law-enforcement identities from the other.  There is strong mutual dislike, and they even try to harm each other, but of course circumstances compel them to team up and become reluctant buddy heroes in order to defeat the villains.  This is all great set-up, but unfortunately the movie fails to evolve into anything special.

My sense is that this movie was rushed into production.  There are some memorable scenes and instances of solid writing here and there, but too often we encounter old formulae and silly cliches.  Apparently, the screenplay writers were just prone to bizarre mental lapses.  For example, in one scene Trench is on a military base and is trapped in a building surrounded by hundreds of military personnel intent on getting him.  It looks like there’s no possible way out.  But he has an idea.  He finds a naval officer’s uniform, puts it on, and walks right out undetected.  Scenes like this left me utterly exasperated.


Scott, the premise is that the Navy, CIA, and DEA are all descending on this small Mexican town, each looking to take advantage of the backwards drug lords. If you let that go and enjoy the film you will have a shot at a good time with 2 Guns. However, every time there is a confrontation between one of the bad guys and one of the heroes, the bad guy makes the decision to let our heroes go! It’s beyond comprehension and caused me to feel that there was no point to the film. It was just situation after pointless situation that was resolved by letting our heroes walk away to solve the main goal of the film: finding the money.


Yes, when the bad guys kept capturing our heroes, and then letting them go, it was a “Houston, we have a problem” kind of moment.  At the same time, 2 Guns has some positive things going for it.  Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg enjoy a nice chemistry together, and I found myself genuinely liking them and rooting for them to defeat Papi, who himself is a commendable villain.

But when all is said and done, 2 Guns is a run-of-the-mill action flic without a whole lot of depth or originality beyond its promising premise.  I award this movie 2 Reels out of 5.  In terms of heroes, I didn’t see much character growth and development, or mentoring, or many of the elements of the hero journey.  So I give the film 2 Heroes out of 5, too.

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This looks like another attempt to attract two audiences: older folks who appreciate Denzel Washington and younger folks who appreciate Mark Wahlberg. And in that sense it succeeds. (A similar attempt was last year’s Safe House with Ryan Reynolds and Denzel.) Both men are hunky and bring their own wit and charm to the screen. But there isn’t much for either man to do in this film. The buddy relationship is crudely written and individually they are cardboard cutouts of what you’d expect from an odd couple (see our review of The Heat for a female buddy cop movie). I’m with you, Scott. 2 Reels for entertaining us with chases and banter, and 2 Heroes for a typical buddy cop relationship.

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Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale_Station_posterStarring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler
Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2013


greg

Scott, in this special edition of Reel Heroes we comment on a different kind of film brought to us by writer/director Ryan Cooger and producers Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer.


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

Yes indeed.  Today we’re sharing our thoughts about a new film called Fruitvale Station, which doesn’t aim at all to be a summer blockbuster.  Instead, its goal is to share the details of the tragic story about a young man’s life and senseless death.


At Reel Heroes we rate movies on two scales: we award Reels for entertainment value and Heroes for the adherence to classic hero paradigms. Fruitvale Station breaks the mold of both scales. It doesn’t aim to entertain as much as inform. The lead character is not a classical hero. Instead, he is an everyman who has made a decision to change his life and is cut down before he can act on his choices. Rather than try and fit Fruitvale Station to our usual forms, we have elected to comment on the film and how it affected us, giving the film the attention and criticism it deserves.


Fruitvale Station begins by introducing us to a young man named Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who lives in Oakland, California.  Oscar is married to Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and has an adorable young daughter named Tatiana (Ariana Neal).  We learn many things about Oscar, including the fact that he has served time in prison, that he has cheated on his wife, and that he is about to lose his job for being chronically late.  But we also learn that he adores his wife and child, he has many friends, and he is a devoted son to his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer).


I felt hesitant approaching a review of this movie. I’m a middle-aged white suburbanite. I wasn’t sure that I could relate to a 22-year-old black man living in urban California. But that is what Fruitvale Station does best – it makes the story of Oscar Grant relatable. Director Cooger takes us step-by-step through Grant’s last day of life. We learn that he’s lost his job, his sister depends on him for financial assistance, his 4-year-old daughter adores him, and he dearly loves her, his girlfriend loves him and so does his mother. In short, we come to learn that Grant has all the things in his life that we all have in ours: he has people he loves and people who love him.


You’re right, Greg.  There’s no way that you and I can appreciate just how difficult it is to be a young black man in this country.  But this movie does its best to bring those challenges to life and, at times, shove them brutally right in our face.  The movie portrays Oscar as a man with a good heart who genuinely wants to improve his life, and a flashback scene to his earlier prison days truly underscores his personal growth and maturity since that time.  Michael B. Jordan does an outstanding job of giving Oscar’s life a sweet yet jarring reality.  And of course we’re appalled at the utter senselessness of Oscar’s death. We know the death is coming and it’s painful watching the scene unfold in tragic and tearful detail.


As entertainment, the movie falls flat. It proceeds from event to event, plodding along without the extreme high or low points that a normal drama would have. There were times when I felt bored. And there were times when I thought I knew what would come next. There’s a point in the film where Oscar is completely down. He’s broke, people around him need his financial help, and he turns to the one thing he has in abundance: weed. I expected him to solve his problems by skirting the law again. But when his buyer is late to the deal, Oscar reconsiders and dumps the whole package into the bay. This is the point where we realize Oscar has really taken stock of his life and made a decision to make a change.

I’m not much more aware of life in the shoes of young urban black men now than I was at the beginning of Fruitvale Station. But I am more keenly aware of how every man’s life has irreplaceable value. There are people who depend on each of us. There are people who care about us. Fruitvale Station reminds us that each and every one of us is capable of redemption and deserves respect.


Greg, I thought that Fruitvale Station did a good job of giving us an up-close and personal look at the life of a young man whose growing potential was snuffed out tragically.  If I had a problem with the film, it is based on my cynicism about its purpose.  Yes, we need to know about the life of Oscar Grant and how a white man ended it (and got away with it) through either sheer incompetence or brutal malice.  But most African-American shooting victims come at the hands of other African-Americans.  Surely there are many, many more Oscar Grants who die in a black-on-black crime and whose stories also need to be told.  And yet they won’t be told because black-on-black crime is not an issue that our country wants to confront as aggressively as white-on-black crime.

In my opinion, the stories of all innocent victims of gun deaths need to be told, regardless of the race of the victims or the perpetrators.  The story of Oscar Grant saddens me deeply, and I hope it does more than divide our already racially divided country even more.  My hope is that the movie can inspire positive, constructive changes so as to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.  If Fruitvale Station can help achieve that goal, then it is a film well worth watching.