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12 Years a Slave •••••

Adobe Photoshop PDFStarring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Biography/History/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2013



All kidding aside, Scott, 12 Years a Slave is extraordinary.

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

Totally agree, Gregger. Quite a powerful movie.

We’re introduced to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Negro living in Saratoga Springs, NY in the year 1841. While his wife and children are on a 3-week trip, he is invited by a pair of circus owners to travel with them to Washington D.C. and play violin in their orchestra. Solomon isn’t long in D.C. when one day he wakes up in a cellar with shackles on his hands and feet.

Solomon tries to explain to his captors that he is a free man from New York, but he learns the hard way that the more he speaks the truth of his identity, the more brutally he is beaten. He is taken by boat to the deep south where he must live the life of a slave. Some of his white slave owners are crueler than others. One particularly evil master nearly kills him, and he is sold to another who is just as bad. The entire movie portrays Solomon’s attempt to maintain his dignity as he seeks to restore his freedom under the most horrific of conditions.

Scott, this movie provides a vivid look at the inhumanity of slavery in the old South. It will draw comparisons to the Summer’s The Butler for a look into the lives of how Blacks have been treated in America. The most compelling thing about this film is that it is the story of how a free man is cast into slavery. We see Solomon in his ordinary world, a full citizen with all the rights and privileges of any other man in his town of Saratoga. And literally overnight he is stripped of his identity and cast into a world where revealing that you know how to read and write could mean your death. The stark contrast between these two worlds makes his story at once chilling and compelling.

12 Years a Slave is hard to watch but it must be watched. Our ability to learn from man’s inhumanity to man is very much dependent on our willingness to see and confront the very worst ways humans have treated each other. For that reason we must see movies about the holocaust, about genocide, about torture, about slavery. And then we must do everything in our power to ensure that these atrocities are never repeated.

There are dozens of scenes in 12 Years as a Slave that portray horrific suffering, and the suffering is physical, emotional, and spiritual. There are scenes of brutality that are too terrible to bear, but bear them we must. Are these scenes over the top? If they were not true, perhaps so. But their veracity justifies their need to be shown, to be disgusted by, and to be learned from.

The impact of this story is how we can walk in this man’s shoes – asking ourselves “What if this happened to me? What if one day I woke up in chains with no way of getting home?” The concept of it boggles the mind. This is the strength of director Steve McQueen’s and writer John Ridley’s storytelling. They have successfully drawn us into this man’s nightmare and made us feel his pain.

Solomon’s story represents a classic hero’s journey. We meet him in his ordinary world where he is a free man. Then something terrible happens and he is cast into the “special world” of slavery in the deep South. He is separated from friends and family and must face enemies and make allies in this new world. The rules here are different and he must learn to maneuver in this strange place and learn the rules or suffer the consequences. The consequences in this case are the lash of the whip or even death.

Greg, the casting in 12 Years a Slave is phenomenal. All the actors deserve kudos for their remarkable portrayals of toughness and strength, anguish and despair, hatred and love, heroism and villainy. Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular jolts us into the reality of enslavement and the tragic toll that enslavement takes on our mind, body, and spirit. Ejiofor most certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

We see and vicariously experience the pain and anguish of the slaves. We are shown various gradations of evil among the white slave owners, who range from heinously evil and vicious, to moderately cruel, to empathetic yet still condoning of the barbarous system. There are also nuanced differences among the slaves, from actively rebellious, to reluctantly submissive, to utterly defeated.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Solomon eventually returns home since the title is 12 Years a slave. When he does, he returns as the master of two worlds – the world of a free man and the world of a slave. We learn in the epilog that he goes on to fight against slavery as an abolitionist and member of the underground railroad. This is the fulfillment of his hero’s journey: coming home with the elixir – the knowledge of what it is to be enslaved and the resolve to see slavery ended.

12 Years a Slave is as powerful a movie as any we’ve seen this year. It’s a painfully honest look at what it was to be a slave in the Antebellum South. It’s one of those movies that we must watch so that we never forget and so that it can never happen again. I give 12 Years 5 out of 5 Reels and Solomon Northrup 5 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-5 Hero: superman-5

Gotta agree with you, Greg. 12 Years a Slave is a searing look at the worst form of human abomination, namely, the disgrace of brutal slavery. If you’re not in tears when you watch the relentless suffering, if your heart isn’t bursting when you witness the powerful final scene of the movie, then you have no human heart. This is one of the year’s best films and I nominate it for our REEL HEROES Hall of Fame. It most certainly deserves the full 5 Reels as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And as you so aptly point out, it portrays the hero’s journey most powerfully in its full form, earning it the full 5 Heroes as well.

Movie: reel-5 Hero: superman-5

Thor: The Dark World •••

MV5BMTQyNzAwOTUxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTE0OTc5OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Alan Taylor, James Gunn
Screenplay: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2013



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

Today we’re honored to have David Rendall of Freak Factor fame join us in reviewing Thor: The Dark World.  Welcome, David.


Thanks! I’m glad to have an opportunity to do a review with you guys. Reel Heroes is a great idea. I’ve always been teased for taking movies too seriously. It’s nice to meet other people who see that movies are more than just entertainment.

Yes, the seriousness of our reviews is quite a Thor subject with us!

Ouch! Let’s recap, shall we?  Who would like to summarize the first act?

We’re introduced to the Dark Elf Malekith – eons before the first humans were thought of. He’s out to destroy the universe because, well, he likes things dark. He has harnessed the power of a strange substance called Aether. But before he can get far, Bor, the grandfather of Thor, thwarts his attempts and hides the Aether where none will find it. The Dark Elf goes into hibernation awaiting the day he can exact his revenge on Bor.


After this, we are reintroduced to Jane, the scientist and Thor’s girlfriend from the original movie. She and her assistant, Darcy, are noticing some strange phenomena on earth and have started to investigate.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Loki, Thor’s brother, is being sentenced to life in prison for his misguided attempts to rule the universe. It seems like he has a lot in common with the Dark Elf.

At the same time, Thor is trying to restore balance to the nine worlds by defeating the enemies of peace.

Gentlemen, I found Thor: The Dark World to be mildly entertaining. The best phrase to describe it is that it’s a feast for the eyes but a famine for the brain. Let’s face it: Ender’s Game spoiled me. It proved that watching good science fiction films doesn’t require me to turn my brain off. The only mental challenge while watching Thor was keeping up with all the Thorrish jargon such as the aether, realms, Asgard, rainbow bridges, convergences, infinity gems, etc.

Dark World gives Thor a bit more to do than previous movies. Thor, being a god, has it all over most mere human heroes. He’s pretty much indestructible and has a powerful hammer that can do plenty-o-damage. However, we are exposed to a more sensitive side to Thor. He has a soft spot for the women in his world. In particular the mortal earthling Jane. Because he fears for her safety, and the safety of all humans, he can be manipulated by their impending doom.


And there’s a lot of focus on the other characters, as well, as they struggle with their roles as either heroes or villains. At one point, Loki’s mom challenges him to be honest about his mistakes. “A true king admits his faults.” We are left wondering if it is possible for him to redeem himself.

Thor’s father also wrestles with good and evil. In an argument with Thor, he pledges to sacrifice the lives of all of his people to defeat the Dark Elf, Malakith. Thor responds by asking “then how are you different from Malakith?” This challenges our self-centered bias that the use of power is honorable when done for a good cause (our cause) and that sacrifice is also honorable, even when it might be avoidable or unnecessary.

My view is that heroes are willing to sacrifice themselves in the service of others, but villains are all too ready to sacrifice others for the sake of themselves.

Great point, David. I also found the dialogue, at times, to be quite telling about the characters and where they stand. There is one great exchange between Loki and Thor during which Loki declares, “Sacrifice is not in my nature,” to which Thor replies, “Surrender is not in mine.”  These two values epitomize the true nature of villainy and heroism.

But overall there is minimal character development in this film. A female character dies about half-way through the movie and all the characters are quite somber. But it’s hard, as the audience, to muster up much emotion when we know virtually nothing about the woman. Most of the characters in Thor are rather one-dimensional embodiments of good or evil.

I don’t know Scott, that character mattered to Thor and that’s all that really matters. Showing that a major character (and one so close to Thor) can be killed sets the stakes pretty high. We know that almost anything can happen.

I hate to agree with Scott on anything, but I put my mind on autopilot during this film. There are sibling rivalries, atonements with the father, and even a bit of personal growth for Thor at the end. However, while all the elements of the Hero’s Journey are in place, it was very much a slash and hack fest.

Before we get too far along, I want to recognize the role of strong women in this film. Every female was either a warrior or a scientist. No weaklings here.


Good point, Greg. As the father of three daughters, I really appreciated that part of the movie. I mentioned something to that effect during the movie when Thor’s mom was battling the Dark Elf. The women didn’t fall into the traditional “princess” role. They were smart, resourceful and active participants in the story.

Additionally, there was a strong theme of love and hate in the movie. Most of the characters were acting from a personal motive to protect someone they loved or to attack someone they hated. It wasn’t always clear if they were fighting for peace in the universe or for the safety of their family, friends and community. I guess those aren’t mutually exclusive, but the personal seemed to be more meaningful than the universal.

I even found myself sympathizing with the pain experienced by one of the villains and sharing his desire for vengeance. But maybe I’m just a sucker.

David, why does it not surprise me that you empathized with the villains? You either have a heart of gold or you are a villain sympathizer!

One thing I liked about the movie is that it didn’t try to take itself too seriously. For instance, there is a scientist who works in his underwear and likes to hug everyone he meets.

Sounds like someone I know personally!


Scott, I agree. The movie wasn’t overly earnest. I didn’t get the feeling that they were trying too hard to make a point.

To answer your question, I think I tend to empathize with the villains because I know that negative actions often obscure our view of a person who is, or could be, good. There was a lot of pain and isolation and rejection in Loki’s past. I found it easy to see the root of his alienation.

Spoken like a man who truly does believe in embracing uniqueness by flaunting weakness!

And speaking of Loki, he reminded me of Data’s evil twin brother Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Pale skin, dark hair, evil snicker indicative of a defective emotion chip.

Scott, I believe everything reminds you of Star Trek. I enjoyed Thor: The Dark World insofar as it went. It was more of a summer popcorn movie than some of the more cerebral fare that we get in the Fall. I liked the hero’s journey and Thor delivered all that we expect from a Marvel movie: high stakes, big heroes, and a lot of on-screen action. I give Thor 3 out of 5 Reels for good action/adventure. Thor, the hero, did pretty well in this installation. We fleshed out a bit more of his personality and he performed in the classic, mythological style. I give him 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie: reel-3 Hero: superman-4

Thor: The Dark World was a spectacular visual fest that lacked substance. It was pretty to look at but entirely forgettable. I felt like I bit into a huge chunk of chocolate only to discover it was as hollow as Greg’s head.  For that reason, the movie can only muster 2 out of 5 Reels for me. The hero story was slightly more substantive, as it did adhere to the classic hero’s journey in several ways. However, I would hardly call it inspiring, as everyone just appeared to be going through the motions.  I’ll give it 3 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-3


First, let me say that I’m shocked by the hostility between the two of you! Not very heroic I give you both 1 out of 5 heroes. 🙂

Second, I’m an easy grader. I instantly get lost in almost any movie or television show. I don’t watch from the outside.

I’m also a sucker for hero movies and meaningful themes, and I have realistic (or low) expectations. Thor delivers on what it promises and I really enjoyed it. I give it 4 out of 5 reels.

As far as heroism, Thor seemed reluctant to be a hero at times. He also seemed to be putting his personal needs before those of others at different points in the movie. But when it really mattered, he fulfilled his role as a hero and used his power in the service of others. He was willing to sacrifice himself to save the universe. I give Thor: The Dark World 4 out of 5 heroes.

Movie: reel-4 Hero: superman-4

David, Scott and I want to thank you for visiting ReelHeroes.net and sharing your perspective on this week’s movie. Readers can learn more about David Rendall and his book “The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting Weakness” by visiting his web site http://www.drendall.com.

About Time ••••

About_Time_PosterStarring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Director: Richard Curtis
Screenplay: Richard Curtis
Genre, Rated: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2013


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

Greg, it’s about time we reviewed About Time.

And there’s no time like the present! Let’s recap.

We meet our hero, an Englishman named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who appears to be an ordinary, awkward 21-year-old until one day his father (Bill Nighy) tells him the big family secret: All the men in the family have the ability to go back in time. Tim decides to use this power to acquire the one thing that has always eluded him, namely, a girlfriend. He meets a wonderful American girl named Mary (Rachel McAdams), and after several time-travel trips (needed to erase his mistakes) he is able to win her heart.

Scott, this is a nice, warm love story in the same category as “Notting Hill” or “Love, Actually” (all by the same writer / director Richard Curtis). Tim meets Mary at a dinner party and successfully gets her number.  But then he decides to travel back in time to fix a play by his father’s playwright-friend Harry. When he does, he alters the events that lead up to meeting Mary. He then has to wait for Mary at a Kate Moss exhibit and when he does, he learns that she has a new boyfriend. So, he goes back in time and intercepts Mary before she meets the opposition. He then tries and tries again, working on his approach until he perfects it. She falls for him a second time.

I agree that About Time is the sweetest, most endearing love story of the year. It reminds me of a 2006 Sandra Bullock film called The Lake House in that it is a romantic tale that incorporates elements of time travel. About Time is a stronger movie than The Lake House largely due to the remarkable performance of Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the role of a sweet, humble, love-starved man to perfection.

We have a terrific ensemble performance here, with individually great actors forming a whole that exceeds its parts. Bill Nighy strikes just the right notes as the loveable, playful dad. Tim’s sister Lydia (Lydia Wilson) is wacky, dysfunctional, but equally loveable. We even want to give the demented uncle (Richard Cordery) a big bear hug. And of course Rachel McAdams steals our hearts with her warm portrayal of a woman who is one of the few souls worthy of Tim’s big heart. This movie exudes charm from start to finish.

I thought About Time reminded me of Groundhog Day – one of your favorite movies, Scott. In it Bill Murray trips through time repeating the day over and over again trying to win the heart of the beautiful Andie McDowell.

About Time is a wonderful hero’s journey. Tim starts out as an ordinary young man who wants to win the heart of a young lady. He’s given a special power from his mentor-dad. He then spends the summer trying to make it with a pretty girl, only to learn that even with time travel you cannot force someone to love you. Then he gets a new goal – to win the love of Mary. Things are going pretty well as he builds a relationship with his new love when something happens that turns his life upside down. He must then regroup and come up with a plan for making things right. He learns a life lesson that we can all take home. It’s a complete mythological story in a modern setting.

If I had to pick some nits, the rules of the time-travel superpower seem like rather arbitrary plot devices meant to manipulate our emotions. Also, About Time offers a confused message about how to live one’s life. As we’ve mentioned, there are scenes where Tim keeps repeating a day until he is able to produce just the right events to make a relationship with his future wife possible. The lesson appears to be that we should make strong efforts to impose our will on a situation rather than allow the events in our lives to unfold naturally.

Yet there’s another scene that suggests the opposite lesson. In this scene, natural circumstances lead Tim to encounter a woman named Charlotte whom he is trying to avoid. Even his time travel powers cannot prevent this encounter, although he tries using them anyway. It’s clear that Tim’s character needs to be tested by this encounter, and he passes the test, allowing him to transform as a character. This scene suggests that we should accept things that are either meant to happen or meant not to happen.

I think that time travel is a superpower that everyone wants because we all feel regret. How often have you gone home after a party and wished you had said something slightly more clever to your boss – or some other person you wanted to impress? Time travel gives our hero (and therefore ourselves) the ability to go back and try it again (and again) until we get it right.

And our hero Tim is a true virtuous hero as he doesn’t try to gain fame or fortune for himself. He just wants to win the heart of a pretty girl. And remember, the writer establishes early in the film that try as you might, even time travel cannot make someone love you. They have to have it in them to begin with. And so Tim is really just getting what is rightfully his.

I thoroughly enjoyed About Time from start to finish. The movie offers up a truly moving love story, not just between a man and a woman, but between a man and his father as well. There aren’t many movies that leave me near tears at the end, but About Time left me with a lump in my throat the size of Tim’s enormous heart. This film is the best love story in the movies in the past five years. I happily give About Time 4 Reels out of 5.

As you’ve noted, Greg, we have a wonderful hero transformation here, as Tim learns that you don’t have to repeat a day to improve upon it — you can simply allow it to unfold with all its flawed beauty permanently etched in time and with no need to change a thing. There is great mentoring, a stirring love, more than one great test of the hero’s character, and a gift to be given to future generations of Tim’s family. For this reason I award Tim 5 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-4Heroes: superman-5

I agree with you Scott. Like other movies by the same writer, About Time is a touching love story with a message we can all take home. I had the luck to see it twice and it got better the second time around. I give About Time 4 out of 5 Reels and 5 out of 5 Heroes for Tim.

Movie: reel-4Heroes: superman-5

Ender’s Game •••••

Ender's_game_cover_ISBN_0312932081Starring: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Gavin Hood, Orson Scott Card
Action/Adventure/Sci-FI, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: November 1, 2013


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

Greg, we seem to have reviewed a lot of movies this year with the word “end” in the title.

Ender’s Game is the film to end all films!  Let’s recap.

We meet a young teenage boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a cadet in training under the watchful eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis). Wiggin and others are training for what is described as an inevitable encounter with a race of alien beings called the Formics, who attacked Earth and nearly destroyed humans 50 years ago. Graff is impressed by the way Wiggin conducts himself both in training exercises and in his interactions with other cadets, especially the bullies.

Ender has a strong empathic sense that allows him to think like his enemy and use those thoughts against them. When he is inducted into the service for the final war on the Formics, he finds opposition in the form of Bonzo – a short but tough leader of the Salamander group. Bonzo wants to be rid of Ender as he has designs on being the commander to squash the Formics. But Ender uses negotiation skills to put Bonzo at ease.

Greg, Ender’s Game impressed me. I was kept on the edge of my seat for two solid hours while I watched a remarkable ensemble of great actors, both very old and very young, perform their craft with considerable skill and intensity. In Ender’s Game we witness the gripping journey of a gifted young boy who is shaped and mentored into battle-readiness by elders we both admire and revile.

This movie’s coming-of-age story is superior to any other I’ve seen. Asa Butterfield as Ender deserves great props, but so does everyone else involved in the making of this film, from screenplay writers to production designers to cinematographers. It is absolutely fascinating to watch Ender become transformed under the tutelage of Graff. Indeed, Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Graff is a joy to watch. Ford’s own transformation from action hero to mentor figure in the movies (see 42, for example) has been sealed to perfection.

I agree with you. The special effects in this film aren’t just for flash and show – they’re part of the story. The movie is based on the book of the same name by science fiction author Orson Scott Card. I’ve read the book and the movie is very true to the original. Unfortunately, things that took a chapter to expose in the novel sometimes get barely a sentence in the screenplay. For example, the fact that Ender has been bred from birth to be a tactical wizard and the ethical issues about using youngsters, some less than 13 years old are only touched upon. Still, there is a lot to think about with this film. The ethical issues it serves up are as relevant today as they were in 1985 when Card published the book.

Absolutely. In fact, the movie works on many levels. It works as a thriller by portraying a bevy of great characters all urgently preparing for imminent war against a formidable foe. It works at a cerebral level because it raises some profound questions about how best to face one’s enemies. Is conflict always unavoidable? Do you destroy your enemies or show understanding and compassion?

The film also works as an ethical examination of the role of children in wartime society. If an entire society’s existence is at stake, can children be exploited to the point of irreparable harm all in the service of saving the society? The movie also works as a textbook examination of leadership. How does leadership emerge? And what is the best way to develop successful leaders? We see these issues dealt with vividly and to great effect in Ender’s Game.

This movie could only be improved if it were longer. You heard me say it, I wanted more. The relationships with Ender’s sister and brother were not played up enough to give us insight into how these affected his psyche. Still, if you paid attention these elements were exposed later.

One of the themes I appreciated was the in-fighting that occurs among intellectuals. These are high-performing, high-IQ children. There is a scene early in the film where Graff singles out Ender as being the smartest kid in the room. Ender complains that Graff made the other kids hate him. Orson Scott Card (and screenwriter/director Gavin Hood) really understand the competition among not just young people, but full grown adults who are in intellectual competition.

Ender’s Game is pretty much everything you want to see in a movie. There is a skinny, boyish underdog of a hero who is thrown into a world fraught with danger, a world that will forever change him and everyone around him. There are mentors to admire and mentors to question. The villain is said to be vile and deserving of eradication, but we’re led to wonder if this is true. The hero encounters one growth opportunity after another and resolves these situations in sometimes surprising ways.

Ender’s Game is the complete package. It easily earns 5 Reels out of 5. The hero story couldn’t be more textbook, more moving, and more satisfying. Joseph Campbell himself couldn’t have concocted a more powerful journey with nearly all the hero stages revealed in full form. Ender Wiggins is one of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2013.  I have no problem awarding Ender a full 5 Heroes out of 5 as well.

Movie: reel-5 Heroes: superman-5

I agree Scott. Previous movies this year, especially Science Fiction films have played up the special effects and action in the films. Ender’s Game starts with some deep philosophical issues and layers on great visuals and action. Even Star Trek Into Darkness (which springs from an anthology TV series that dealt with the thorniest issues of its time) cannot touch the emotional and intellectual content of Ender’s Game.

I’m happy to award Ender’s Game 5 out of 5 Reels for a quality movie going experience. And Ender gets 5 out of 5 Heroes for an engaging and mythical hero story. I’m nominating Ender’s Game” for the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

Movie: reel-5 Heroes: superman-5

I concur. This is a Hall of Fame movie if there ever was one.