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X-Men: Days of Future Past ••••1/2

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterStarring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: May 23, 2014
Professor X/Magneto: Duo, P-N Moral, Pro (Divergent Buddy Heroes)
X-Men: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Episodic Heroes)
Trask: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Mastermind Untransformed Villain)


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Well, the days are past when we can see X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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

I predict that in the immediate future, we’ll review this movie. Let’s begin.

Our story begins in the not-too-distant future where robots with amazing morphing capabilities (Sentinels) are hunting the X-Men to extinction. Young Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is able to send messages into the past by mind-melding with another X-Man. She is visited by Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman) who want her to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973 where he must convince young Charles Xavier and Max Eisenhardt (Professor X and Magneto) to team up and change the dystopian future that awaits them if they cannot prevent mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the inventor of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

Wolverine goes back to 1973 and convinces a young, broken Xavier to stop Mystique from killing Trask. Wolverine enlists the aid of Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose super-speed enables them to free Magneto from a prison cell beneath the Pentagon in Washington. In Paris, where American and Vietnamese representatives are negotiating the end of the war, Mystique attempts to assassinate Trask but her plan is thwarted. Magneto decides that killing Mystique is the only way to foil her plan, complicating Wolverine and Xavier’s mission. When President Nixon approves the Sentinel program, all hell breaks loose as the X-Men try to stop Mystique while battling Trask, the Sentinels, and Magneto himself.

Scott, Marvel does it again. This is a story full of action, suspense, and thrills. Nobody creates a complete story the way Marvel studios does. There are at least a dozen stars, although the story centers around Wolverine and the young Charles and Magneto. There isn’t a wasted moment both in terms of the plot or in the on-screen action. This is a complete win in terms of both story and special effects.

There are plenty of heroes to choose from here. In the future, all of the remaining X-Men are battling to save their world. In the past, Charles is the one with the most transforming to undergo. And undergo it he does. We see him start out as a beaten man, taking drugs to make his legs work, which also dulls his mental powers. Wolverine is all action and no growth (which is the mold he filled in last year’s The Wolverine). And we look for growth in Max/Magneto but he falls into his old patterns and devolves into a villain again.

You nailed it, Greg. Marvel is on a roll this summer with yet another rich, dense, and ambitious story of super-heroism and super-villainy. Like Spider-Man 2, which we reviewed recently, X-Men: Days of Future Past has many characters, but not too many; it has a complicated plot, but not too complicated; and it conveys messages about life and virtue that resonate with us all. Almost without exception, the characters in this movie attract and maintain our interest. They show depth and nuance, and they behave in surprising ways. They also delight us with their quirky, memorable inner qualities and behavior.

We have an ensemble hero cast, with Wolverine and Professor Xavier serving as the main hero duo within the ensemble. In any good story, the hero undergoes a transformation, and as you note, Greg, Wolverine doesn’t change much in this movie. But Xavier is radically transformed. During the flashback to 1973, Xavier is a lost soul, bitter about the toll that the Vietnam War has taken on his school and also resentful about having to choose between the loss of his legs or the loss of his mental powers. With help from Wolverine, Xavier grows to see beyond his disability, deciding to sacrifice the use of his legs so that he can access his superior mental abilities which will help defeat Trask and the Sentinels.

There are villains a-plenty here as well. Mystique walks the line as she stalks Trask with murder on her mind. But she’s stopped at the last minute. We get to the end of the story and she appears to turn to the side of good, but it is a bit ambiguous where she goes from there.

We see the familiar “brother” pattern that we saw in Spider-Man 2 – two close friends start out with a common cause but are separated by ideology by the end of the story. Xavier and Magneto work together at first, but Magneto ultimately returns to his diabolical ways. He’s certain that the only way forward is a war between mutants and humans, and as a result, he becomes the opposition force in the end.  Then there’s the overlord villain in the form of Trask. This villain is bent on the destruction of anyone who doesn’t fit his idea of “pure” and will do whatever it takes to kill off every mutant. His lack of selflessness and caring make him the typical evil villain.

For me, the primary villain here is Trask. He’s an interesting villain in that his motives aren’t entirely evil. Trast genuinely wants to protect the world but he overestimates the threat that the mutants pose and cannot entertain the possibility of living in a world where mutants and non-mutants can co-exist. This is a common shortcoming of villains. They see divisions between people, and often exaggerate those divisions, whereas heroes seek cooperative unity between people.

One other note about Trask – he is a dwarf, which in a way is an unfortunate choice as it suggests that villainy and physical deviance are somehow connected. But it’s also not uncommon in fables and mythic tales for villains to be physically different from the norm. If nothing else, Marvel makes movies that resonate with ancient storytelling. The Sentinels are a formidable foe, showing an invincibility against the X-Men’s powers. Again, this movie invokes a common pattern in storytelling by showing us a main villain, Trask, who enlists the aid of a monolithic herd of henchmen, and in this case they are diabolical, technologically sophisticated instruments of evil.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at X-Men: Days of Future Past. The story was well-told (although a bit thin in places) and there weren’t too many plot holes. The special effects were seamless and abundant, but always in support of the story. The characters were rich and colorful – literally. I really can’t find fault with any aspect of the presentation and so I award the film 5 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes were many and varied. There were the war-weary heroes of the future and the innocent verging on naive heroes of the past. While Wolverine doesn’t grow much, it is Charles Xavier who overcomes his inner demons and shows us a transformation worth the price of admission. I give them all 4 out of 5 Heroes.

In classic Marvel fashion, the villains were as potent as the heroes. This gives our heroes something to work against. The powerful Trask and his high-tech Sentinels were an oppressive force to be reckoned with. And Magneto started out as an ally kept true to his wicked self and turned into the villain he needs to be for the X-Men universe to maintain some sense of conflict and tension. I give them 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Once again, Marvel constructs a movie that is deliciously meaty and doesn’t insult its audience’s intelligence at all. Anyone who enjoys superhero movies should thoroughly enjoy X-Men: Days of Future Past. Besides delighting us with great characters and a juicy plot, the movie gives us several thoughtful take-home messages, the main one focusing on the role of adversity in shaping our destiny and character. This wisdom is far from original but it is used effectively to help young Xavier transform himself. This film is a terrific two-hours spent in the theater, and I award it 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero duo of Wolverine and Xavier truly shines, as we not only witness the transformation of Xavier but also the transformation of their friendship. All of these characters are complex, including those of a couple of the X-Men (Magneto and Mystique) who defy simple categorization of good or evil. This ensemble is impressive and the duo within it shines. I’m happy to award them all 4 out of 5 Heroes.

You’re right on target about the villains, Greg. Trask, the Sentinels, Magneto, and Mystique are all either fully villainous or show streaks of villainy. Another oppositional force that Xavier must contend with is his own inner demons. The Marvel universe works so well on so many levels, including the interpersonal and intrapersonal levels. The villains here are all great fun and make us think, too, which is great praise for any movie. I give them 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Godzilla ••1/2

Godzilla_(2014)_posterStarring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2014

Ford: Single, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Lone Hero)

Mutos: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Villains)


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

Greg, after watching this movie, I’m beginning to believe that size matters.

And that thermonuclear devices are the cure to all ills. Let’s recap.

Godzilla opens with old film clips of nuclear bomb testing in the South Pacific Islands. These clips, however, show mysterious jagged spikes coming out of the ocean near the bomb blasts. We flash forward to 1999 in the Phillippines, where a gigantic fossil of an unknown creature is unearthed. Workers discover that an egg pod is missing. Meanwhile, in Japan, a nuclear reactor is being rocked by unnatural seismic activity. Plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) sends a team of workers led by his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) to investigate.

The reactor collapses but not before Joe escapes, but not so lucky was his wife. We flash forward again another fifteen years to present day where Naval explosives expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the now grown son of Joe and Sandra) has just returned from overseas duty. He’s no sooner home than he gets a call that his father has been arrested in Japan for attempting to gain access to the closed nuclear reactor site. Ford takes off for Japan to collect his demented father.

In Japan, Joe convinces Ford that there is something alive beneath the surface of the power plant. They stealth their way into the facility and find an enormous egg which has fed on the radiation of the spent nuclear power plant. It hatches, demolishes what is left of the power plant, and kills Joe Brody in process. Ford is made a believer that there are greater things on this planet than he at first thought and attempts to return home to his family.

Greg, Godzilla is one large beast of a movie. Going into the theater, you pretty much know who the star of the show is going to be. Of course it can’t be any of the humans who are fighting the monster or who are fleeing from it. The star has to be Godzilla himself. (Or is it herself?) I’m not sure of the gender, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter, to any audience, is whether Godzilla is the kick-ass monster we want and expect him (or her) to be.

This film succeeds wildly in producing not just one giant monster but three of them, one of whom is of course Godzilla. These creatures have awe-inspiring size and an astronomically high MQ (Menace Quotient). A couple of the beasts sport a facial look that is just a bit too reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. I’d say this similarity is more of a tribute to the timelessness of Alien than it is a criticism of Godzilla.

I think last year’s Pacific Rim foreshadowed Godzilla. That was a sleeper that featured giant reptiles that had to be vanquished by giant robots. But, unlike Godzilla, that movie focused on the characters in the story. The giant robots and giant lizards were just the backdrop to the ongoing human drama. Godzilla misses that mark completely. While we do have some human characters in this story, there is little drama between them. They seem to be merely tossed around by the actions of the monsters.

There is a problem with who is the hero of this film. On the one hand, the elder Brody, Joe, kicks off the film as the lead character. Then, after a prologue of sorts, younger Ford Brody joins his father in Japan. Then, at about the one-third mark, Joe dies and it is Ford who carries the rest of the film. But Ford doesn’t really have any goals to speak of. He at first just wants to get home to his family. Then he takes responsibility for a young Japanese boy who is separated from his parents. Then he is distracted by joining a military group to arm a bomb (he is an explosives expert after all). His motivations are all over the map and it makes the movie hard to follow.

I agree, Greg. The hero story is a bit of a disappointment. At the beginning, we get attached to Joe Brody, whose feisty, tragic edginess captures our attention and attracts our sympathy. But just as we’ve bonded with him, the poor man is fatally crunched by a monster and we’re seemingly left hero-less. Fortunately, Joe’s son Ford takes over the hero role, but Ford is less interesting as a character. Ford’s a bit plastic and a somewhat forgettable compared to his emotionally tortured father.

So we’re left with a movie that gets an A+ grade for it’s CGI effects of mammoth reptilian beasts destroying model trains and skyscrapers, but this occurs at the expense of a meaningful hero story. The decision to kill off Joe Brody so early in the movie is truly baffling, Greg. He was a good character and at the very least he could have buddied-up with his son to kill off the creatures. It’s a poor decision on the filmmakers’ part and it cost this movie a chance to be more than just a creature-fest.

Which leads us to review the villains in this story. Godzilla himself seems to be a savior as he dispatches the evil winged pair of monsters in the end. But at what cost? The city is destroyed with massive loss of life. The two pterodactyl-type monsters were clearly the bad guys as they killed everything in sight. But these monsters were just the obstacles to Ford’s heroic acts. He never really deals with them face-to-face. You might argue that this is a “man-vs-nature” story with Ford as the man and the winged MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) as nature. But it was dull from beginning to end with Ford running after the creatures and the creatures wreaking havoc wherever they went.

You’re right, the villains in this story turn out not to be Godzilla but the two MUTO beasts who really have no evil qualities unless you call a very healthy self-preservation instinct ‘evil’. These behemoths do wreak havoc on large human populations in their quest for food and reproductive success. One problem with the MUTOs is that we aren’t privy to the reasons behind their existence, nor do we every truly understand their relationship to each other or to Godzilla. They’re big and they’re bad, and the filmmakers have decided that that’s enough for us.

Scott, compared to other movies in this genre, Godzilla disappoints. For a longish, boring, CGI fest with no brains and pointless brawn I give this movie 2 out of 5 Reels. There is no clear hero and what we are offered is either a poor human meandering through the film or a questionable monster (Godzilla) who saves the day. I give these guys just 2 Heroes out of 5. And the flying MUTO are little more than beasts who want to reproduce and humanity is getting in the way. They get just 1 Villain out of 5.

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I enjoyed Godzilla a bit more than you did, Greg. Sure, it was two hours of pointless destruction, but this pointless destruction was a cinematic delight to behold. Never have there been more awe-inspiring creatures on the Big Screen. Yes, the story was thin and the hero was a disappointment, but these heavyweight reptiles held just enough interest to earn 3 Reels out of 5.

For a wafer-thin hero who was a snooze-fest to me, and for the boneheaded decision to kill off the one man who would have made a far more interesting hero, this movie deserves only 1 Hero out of 5.

The villains are the true star of the film, although you are correct that they are mere animals who lack the depth that a human villain would have. But I’m not going to penalize this movie for having a shallow villain any more than I would penalize Jaws for its simple-minded shark or Twister for its brainless tornado. These remarkable monsters, with their radiation fetish and fire-breathing capabilities, held my interest and deserve at least 3 Villains out of 5.

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Our Reel Heroes Book is an Amazon #1 Best Seller


Some good news — our new book, Reel Heroes: Volume 1, has just been released and is already a Best-Seller at Amazon.com. In the book, we describe the elements of the classic hero journey and describe why heroes are psychologically important to us all. Inside you’ll find:

* A new classification scheme identifying movie heroes as Lone Heroes, Duos, or Ensembles.

* A review of 75 movies released in 2013, showing you which movies excel in portraying the hero’s journey and which movies fall flat.

* Our choices for Best Movies and Worst Movies, along with the year’s amazon-bestsellerBest Movie Heroes.

* Our analysis of Five Great Truths about movie heroes.

Matt Langdon, the founder of The Hero Construction Company, introduces the book with a thoughtful Forward in which he discusses the link between movie heroes and the hero journey in classic myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell.

Reel Heroes: Volume 1 is now available for purchase at Amazon.com.

– – – – – – – – – –


“Bravo! Film analysis at its finest. Smith and Allison have done a masterful job in providing a challenging yet insightful critique that goes right to the heart of the hero’s journey in contemporary cinema.” – Jason Roy, The Hero Construction Company

“Smith and Allison offer a refreshingly robust analysis of heroes and heroic action, showing us what we should have known all along, namely, that the hero journey makes the movie. Their innovative work is a must-read for all fans of heroes in the movies.” – Dr. James Beggan, Professor of Sociology, University of Louisville

“Smith and Allison get to the heart of the matter, and show us that it is the heart that matters. They go beyond the CGI and the 3D and drag the enduring human values out into the light of day.” – Rick Hutchins, Author of The RH Factor

“You can get more from movies than just a couple hours of fun. You can also learn how to be a hero and how to help others become more heroic. Let Scott and Greg take you deeper into your favorite movies and show you hidden lessons in heroism that you might have missed. Their humorous and thoughtful writing style is almost as entertaining as a summer blockbuster and their book costs less than one trip to the theater.” – David Rendall, Author of The Freak Factor

“A must for movie buffs.” – Jesse Schultz, Author of Alfheim.

“I applaud Smith and Allison for continuing ‘the hero’s journey’ by giving all of us the opportunity to apply movie scenes to the our own personal journeys of being a hero for others!” – Mike Dilbeck, Founder of RESPONSE ABILITY Revolution

“An ingenious approach to understanding effective storytelling in movies and literature.” – Dr. Robert Giacalone, Professor of Business Ethics, University of Denver

“If you want to see movies that will stay with you long after you leave the multiplex, then taking advice from these two on ReelHeroes.net is a great start. If you want to get a sense for what’s important in a successful story, read this book.” – Matt Langdon, Founder of The Hero Construction Company

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Neighbors •••

Neighbors_(2013)_PosterStarring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Screenplay: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: May 9, 2014
Mac/Kelly: Duo, P-N-P Moral, Pro (Redeemed Buddy Heroes)
Teddy/Pete: Duo, N-P Moral, Ant (Redeemed Divergent Mastermind/Henchman Villains)


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Scott, we just saw Neighbors – is it time we mended some fences?

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

When it comes to legal battles with bad neighbors, the de-fence never rests. Let’s recap.

Mac Radner (Seth Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are thirty-somethings with a baby girl and a mortgage in suburbia. They are finding out just how hard it can be to be parents and still have a good time. Just as they’re figuring it all out, a fraternity moves in next door. They want to be cool so drop by for a visit with an offering of some weed – and an awkward request to “keep the noise down.” That night the Delts put on a wild party and wake them. Mac and Kelly walk over to tell their new neighbors to keep it down – when the president of the fraternity, Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) invites them in. The parental duo live it up and become best buds with the frat boys.

But all is not well when Mac and Kelly are kept awake nearly every night by the fraternity’s non-stop partying. Mac makes what he thinks is an anonymous call to the cops but the cops reveal Mac’s identity, putting him on the fraternity’s enemy list. The Delts use Mac’s car’s airbags against him in amusing ways, and they do other things to make the couple miserable. Finally, Mac and Kelly devise a plan to get the fraternity into legal trouble which will lead to its expulsion from the university, but of course the plan does not quite unfold as anticipated.

Scott, Neighbors had a great opportunity to be yet another sophomoric gross-out comedy by some of Hollywood’s comedy newcomers. But instead we were served up a surprising look at a different kind of coming-of-age story – growing out of the party age and into the responsibilities of parenting. I enjoyed this movie which employed the contrast between young and not-so-old to create a comedic tale of life at the beginning of adulthood.

Greg, you and I gleaned the same message from this movie. I have a theory about Seth Rogen. The roles and movies he chooses for himself reveal him to be the smartest man in Hollywood. In Neighbors he plays a 30-something new husband and father of a newborn baby. Rogen knows exactly what most educated 30-something men are feeling in this situation – they want the joys of domestication without losing their old debaucherous college lifestyle. In short, they want it all, and in this movie, Rogen’s character and his wife get it all. And then some.

Rogen’s genius here lies not only in portraying the dilemma of the post-adolescent young adult male, but also taking that dilemma to absurd and hilarious extremes. His jiggling 30-something body clashes with the six-packed fraternity brothers but Mac raises the ante anyway. He doesn’t “use” drugs, he gorges on them to the point of partaking in urination sword-play. Is it a dream come true or a nightmare come true? With a wink to the camera, Rogen tells us it’s both.

The heroes here are Mac and Kelly. In our book on movie heroes we identify Duos as a major hero category and Mac and Kelly fall into the Buddy sub-category. Unlike so many buddy stories Mac and Kelly are aligned in their goals. This is a powerful dynamic. They aren’t constantly bickering with each other. Instead, they are united against their more powerful foe. I read an article about Rogen where he talks about how he patterned this buddy pair on his own relationship with his wife. At her urging, he made the Radners a happily married couple. When it comes time to create a plan to fight against the frat boys, this commitment packs a big punch.

Every hero has a mission, and Mac and Kelly’s pre-mid-life crisis clouds their mission. Their domesticated personas want peace and quiet for them and for their baby, but deep down they want to party to just as hard as the fraternity next door. Do they defeat the enemy or make love to the enemy? In this movie they do both, and their confused identity leads to a zig-zagging hero story.

The primary villain is Teddy, head of the Delts next door, but the fraternity itself is the institutional structure that Mac and Kelly are aiming to destroy.  Sometimes villains are large organizational bodies with human representatives serving as the proxy. Mac and Kelly are also fighting their own personal issues – for example, their lack of full maturity gets in the way of their ability to fulfill their mission.

I think you’ve nailed it, Scott. Another type of hero we identify in our book is the Ensemble and the sub-category is that of the Fraternity. Here we see that same pattern but for the villain. The entire Delta Psi fraternity is the villain in this story. But that is a difficult story to write – “the two of use against all of them.” So all the attention is poured into Teddy as the leader of the frat.

In other villain patterns we’ve seen this year, the lead villain as the one who pulls the strings – letting some lesser character do the dirty work. But Teddy is very active in his antics against the Radners. And there is a full transformation for Teddy as well. By the end of the film he realizes that he has to grow beyond his college-age hijinks and become a full adult with goals and responsibilities. It is a nice villain mini-journey.

On the surface, Neighbors is a silly, juvenile movie that is packed with raunchy gags and absurd plot devices. But lurking below the slimy surface is a movie that offers a potent sociological commentary about the challenges young adults face when they form a young family before they are ready to shed their youthful party-animal urges. I enjoyed Neighbors far more than I had any right to, for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Rogen’s 2013 movie This is the End. Both films made my inner-13-year-old boy giggle while making my outer-middle-aged man nod in understanding. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The two heroes in this film were sent on a journey that most mature adults could handle with little difficulty, but Mac and Kelly’s lack of maturity — their missing inner quality — led them to commit one massive mistake after another. Eventually, they “got it”, although it’s a bit unclear how truly transformed they are by the film’s end. I award them 3 Heroes out of 5.

As you point out, Greg, the main villain Teddy is perhaps the one person in this movie who transforms the most. We learn that he isn’t a terrible person, just a terribly misguided person. He receives some mentoring from his “villainous” sidekick Pete (Dave Franco) which enables him to outgrow his basest animal house instincts. It’s not a very deep villain story but it’s a fairly effective one. I award the villains in this movie 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Neighbors is a fun look back at both college life and life as a new parent. I felt at home with all the characters in this movie as either representatives of my own experiences or people I have known. I was entertained more than I expected and so happily award 3 out of 5 Reels to this film.

The Radners were nice, likable people with a bit of growing to do. Their transformation couldn’t come soon enough for me as I never trusted their baby monitor to perform between houses. The initial challenges they experienced as newly-minted parents (never finding a quiet time for lovemaking) gave way to a thorough enjoyment of child-rearing. I also give them 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The Ensemble/Fraternity villains represented by leader Teddy was just enough of a challenge for our heroes. In any story the opposition needs to be at least as strong as the hero – and preferably a bit stronger. I enjoyed the transformation for Teddy which gave him the second Villain’s Journey this summer. I’ll join you in giving Teddy 3 out of 5 Villains.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ••••1/2

The_Amazing_Spiderman_2_posterStarring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx
Director: Marc Webb
Screenplay: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 142 minutes
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Spider-Man/Peter: Single, P-P, Pro (Untransformed Episodic Hero)
Electro/Max: Single, P-N Moral, Ant (Fallen Lone Villain)
Green Goblin/Harry: Single, P-N Moral, Ant (Fallen Lone Villain)


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

Greg, it looks like Marvel Comics has just spun another web of super-heroism and super-villainy.

My spider senses are tingling! Let’s recap.

We begin with a flashback to when scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) was murdered but not before he was able to download a complex message for safekeeping. In the present, his son Peter (Andrew Garfield) is crime-fighting superhero Spider-Man, who saves the life of OsCorp employee Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). Meanwhile, OsCorp CEO Norman Osborne (Chris Cooper) is dying from a heritable illness and gives his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) key information that may prevent Harry from also perishing.

Max is obsessed with Spider-Man. At work he is tasked with fixing an electrical connection and accidentally falls into a vat of genetically altered electric eels. He is transformed into the super villain Electro. Meanwhile, when Norman Osborne dies, Peter visits old pal Harry and they rekindle their friendship. However, Peter’s relationship with the beautiful Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is on the rocks as Peter cannot reconcile a promise he made to her father on his death bed – a promise to keep Gwen safe by not seeing her.

Greg, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an ambitious work of art, a three-pronged story of heroism endowed with two heavy-weight villains. I say “three-pronged” because our hero has three missions in this film – to restore his father’s good name, to resolve his conflict with his girlfriend Gwen, and to defeat the supervillain Electro. These goals are intertwined and some might say that they somewhat over-complicate the movie. In any good superhero film, vanquishing the villain is the primary mission and this film is no exception, even with the two other main storylines taking place.

In most superhero stories, the superhero rarely shows much character transformation, remaining as solidly virtuous as a character can get from start to finish. One could argue that this shortcoming, if you could call it that, occurs in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, although we do witness Peter Parker learn a lesson or two about the perils of falling in love, possibly with the wrong woman.

You have really isolated the strength of this film. It includes the origin story of two villains in the Spider-Man universe as well as the love story between Peter and Gwen. But, as if that weren’t enough, it also includes a classic Brother Story. Peter and Harry are old friends separated by time, money, and a dark past (Richard Parker’s disappearance). So I see your three-pronged story and raise it one: battle-of-the-brothers.

This is an interesting pattern we see both in mythology and in popular fiction. We meet Peter and Harry who are friends at the beginning of the film. They reconnect after years of separation. Harry has a problem that he believes only Peter can solve. But Peter is unable (possibly unwilling) to help. This prompts Harry to take extreme risks that cause him to evolve into the Green Goblin – Spider-Man’s arch enemy. We also see this in the Superman/Lex Luthor origin story. It also plays out in the X-Men universe where we see Professor Xavier and Magneto start out as comrades only to end up on the opposite end of a conflict. It’s a great story dynamic that goes as far back as Cain and Abel.

Very cool observations, Greg. The two villain stories in this movie are as detailed and well developed as you will ever see on the big screen. We are privy to two classic personality defects that typically give rise to villainy, and those defects are selfishness and an inability to see the larger picture. The trait of selfishness is seen in Harry’s overwhelming preoccupation with saving his own skin at whatever the cost, without concern for others or for the risks involved. Max Dillon as Electro has the similar problem of being driven only by his own desperate need for love and approval, and when this need isn’t met he selfishly resorts to violence toward others.

The two villain stories also demonstrate the fine line that exists between heroism and villainy. Both Max Dillon and Harry Osborne first show promise and more than a hint of goodness in their characters. Their bond with Peter Parker suggests not just an awareness of right from wrong but a respect for it as well. Both Dillon and Parker suffer setbacks, as all heroes and villains do on their journeys. What tilts them toward evil is their choice to avoid taking responsibility for their problems and instead finding convenient targets for their anger. Peter Parker is the person closest to them, so he is the convenient target, a scenario that is not unlike the real world where people often hurt those whom they love the most.

As a hero, Peter Parker as Spider-Man starts out pretty strong. The opening scenes of the movie show a Spider-Man in control of his world and a Peter Parker who’s graduating from high school. He’s in love with his girlfriend Gwen and the world is at his feet. But it’s not long before he is faced with a conflict – that of finding out what happened to his father and mother who left him at the age of six with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Peter is tormented by this puzzle from his past and it causes him to go places he’s never gone before. This, I think, is Peter’s missing inner quality and he resolves it by the movie’s ending.

Yes, exactly right, you’ve identified the main factor that separates heroes from villains. Heroes have the ability to see beyond their suffering, to find a larger purpose for it that transcends themselves. In contrast, villains are consumed by their suffering, cannot see beyond it, and project their anguish onto others in the form of evil. Hero transcendence is seen in the Batman franchise, where Bruce Wayne channels his pain and anger toward eliminating evil. Peter Parker’s losses also fuel his drive to conquer evil, and we see how difficult a task this is when Parker buries himself in his misery toward the end of this movie. However, as heroes must do, Parker summons the strength and moral courage to overcome his anguish to fight evil once again.

Scott, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a great kick-off to the summer blockbusters. It has everything you could want in a popcorn movie. It has great heroes, great villains, romance, and some wonderful supporting characters (who doesn’t love Sally Field as Aunt May). I give it 5 out of 5 Reels.

Peter Parker and Spider-Man have unfinished business in this film both in terms of the sins of his father and the promise he made to Gwen’s father to keep her safe. This creates a tension in the character that is played to the hilt and finally resolved for us in the end – albeit tragically. The “sins of the father” pattern is also a common theme in hero/villain stories. I give Peter and Spidey 5 Heroes out of 5.

Our duo villains underwent a complete transformation. We saw the full backstory for Electro which is so rare in any movie. We also were given the origin story for Spider-Man’s arch enemy The Green Goblin. Both had reason to feel anger toward Spider-Man and that anger turns them toward evil instead of good. However, I’m still reluctant to give them full scores. Electro was still a cartoonish villain – even though we got his full Villain’s Journey. Harry’s journey was incomplete in my mind. I’d like to see Harry invested in something more than just getting even with Spider-Man. I’m giving them just 4 out of 5 Villains.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t an amazing movie but it is ambitious, stylish, and densely populated with memorable characters. There’s a lot going on in this movie, perhaps too much, but none of it lacks fascination and appeal. This film features a great hero, a strong and anguished love story, and a pair of richly detailed villain stories. I enjoyed this movie very much and award it 4 Reels out of 5.

Peter Parker’s heroic journey lacks a notable transformative component but the character still packs a substantial punch with the challenges he faces and the ways in which he handles those challenges. The connection between our hero and the villains he encounters is shown in vivid and effective detail. I give Parker 4 Heroes out of 5.

This movie’s villain pairing is revealed to us in full form and in fascinating detail. We are witness to the genesis of evil, at least in the Marvel universe, and what we see is consistent with current psychological research on the origins of crime and aggression. Villains either fail to transform, or as you note, Greg, they undergo a perverse transformation toward heightened self-aggrandizement and narcissistic empire-building. For an up-close look at the birth and development of villainy, I award this movie 5 Villains out of 5.

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The Other Woman ••

The_Other_Woman_(2014_film)_posterStarring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Screenplay: Melissa Stack
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: April 25, 2014
Carly/Kate/Amber: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Sorority Heroes)
Mark: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)


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Scott, it’s time to review The Other Woman.

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

Just another review about another man’s other woman. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to high-powered attorney Carly (Cameron Diaz) who has found the perfect man. Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is an entrepreneur and drop dead sexy. Carly is so excited about Mark that she has “cleared the bench” and dates no one else. Eight weeks into the relationship Mark cancels a date with Carly because the toilets at his house have overflowed. Carly is not pleased and sends Mark home. Later that night, she regrets her anger and shows up on Mark’s front door dressed as a sexy female plumber only to be greeted by Mark’s wife Kate (Leslie Mann).

Needless to say, Carly is devastated by Mark’s deceit. But her visit to Mark’s home arouses suspicion in Kate, who stops by Carly’s office and discovers that Mark has been cheating on her. Carly and Kate form an alliance and follow Mark to Florida where they discover that he has a third lover, a buxom blonde named Amber (Kate Upton). The three women conspire to make Mark’s life miserable, and in so doing they discover that Mark has some dark financial secrets which they can use against him.

Scott, in our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1 we categorize heroes into three groupings: Lone Heroes, Duos, and Ensembles. This is an Ensemble hero story. We break Ensembles into The Family, Military & Police, and Fraternity. This movie falls into the last category, only it is more of a Sorority. And on top of that, it’s a revenge plot. These women are out for blood.

It’s not a complex story. The majority of the rest of the movie is scene after scene of making Mark look bad. And he plays right into the women’s plans to make him suffer. Meanwhile, Kate (the wife) is teetering on the verge of forgiving him as he is making their little company grow. But ultimately you know how it has to end, with Mark looking like a big bad schmuck.

Greg, are you ready for another food analogy? Watching The Other Woman is like sitting down for a meal and being served popcorn followed by salt water taffy for dessert. It’s a disappointment, but this assumes you’re expecting a big meal. Most people who go to see The Other Woman are probably only expecting a light snack at best, but even with this expectation this film provides only mediocre fare.

A good romantic comedy, such as last year’s About Time, has some depth to it or at least a take-home message we can chew on for a while. The Other Woman delivers only light, puffy jiffy pop. The nicest thing I can say about the movie is that the lead characters are likeable people who are pleasing for men like me to look at. There are no laugh-out-loud moments, only a few smiles here and there. The Other Woman isn’t a complete waste of time but it is one of the more forgettable movies I’ve seen.

I thought the writers took pains to make Cameron Diaz’s character look more heroic than villainous. Since she is The Other Woman in this story, she could be played up like a home wrecker. The writers wisely painted Mark and Kate King as a couple without children. Adding kids to the mix would definitely have complicated things and made Carly a villain. The other thing they did was to have Carly exclaim (at least twice) “I’m not a mistress! I didn’t know he was married.” This tries to remind the audience that she was an unwitting accomplice in the adultery.

Kate King is played in some very odd ways. In one scene she is portrayed as the frumpy housewife where she literally goes to the bathroom in front of her husband as he brushes his teeth. Later, she is portrayed as the brains of the couple’s business as she describes her latest internet idea to one of Mark’s collaborators. However, in every other scene she is played as ditzy and naive. I found her character to be whatever the writers needed her to be whenever it was convenient.

Finally we have young Amber. As you’ve pointed out, Ms. Kate Upton is in this film for visual appeal only. While she doesn’t embarrass herself on-screen, she is no actor. It takes skill to play the dumb blonde and Ms. Upton isn’t up to the challenge. There are several shots of her in bikinis running in slow motion on the beach. So, the men in the audience have something to look at while the real actors in the show carry out the plot.

The hero story is a shallow pond, only going about ankle-deep into the classic hero journey. As you’ve noted, Greg, this movie features an ensemble of heroes who are certainly thrown into a dark, unfamiliar world, just as mythologist Joseph Campbell would expect to see in a hero story. But there aren’t really any other elements of the hero journey that are worth mentioning. To the movie’s credit, Kate does undergo a transformation of confidence, becoming an independent woman both personally and professionally.

The less said about Kate Upton’s acting, the better. In fact, her character, Amber, has such a limited and impoverished role that you could argue persuasively that this is a buddy hero movie featuring Kate and Carly. Amber would then be a rather minor sidekick or ally to the hero duo.

That’s an apt observation, Scott. The villain in this story is about as two-dimensional as they come. Mark King is a womanizer and a liar and has no redeeming qualities. We feel no sympathy for him and that makes the bullying and revenge on him seem valid. In the end, the women find that he not only cheated on his wife, but set her up as the patsy in a confidence scheme. That leads to a confrontation scene that seemingly justifies his complete humiliation. It’s pretty trite stuff.

You took the words right out of my mouth, Greg. The villain, Mark, is a scumbag with no redeeming qualities, making it easy for us to root for our heroes while they torment him and vanquish him. The women give him drugs that make his hair fall out, and we see large strands of hair being extracted, but strangely enough Mark always has a full head of hair in every scene. There’s not much density in the villain story here, certainly not enough for someone like me, who has a food fetish, to sink my teeth into.

The Other Woman is a light comedy that tries nothing new and is a vehicle for its leads to play together on-screen. The girlfriend dynamic between Diaz and Mann is entertaining and they let young Upton play along. The two leads do a good job and deliver decent performances so I give The Other Woman 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this story aren’t very strong. Diaz’s character is a lawyer, but we don’t see much lawyering going on here. Mann’s wife character is clueless and a victim for most of the film and we don’t much care about her. And Upton is only there for looks. I give them just 2 Heroes out of 5.

And the villain is a cardboard cutout of everything women hate in men. He gets only 1 Villain out of 5 from me.

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The Other Woman is a throwaway movie, in that it follows an overused formula of  the betrayal of love and typical act of vengeance. Movies that rely on such a common storyline cannot stand out unless they truly excel in other areas, but this film can make no such claim. If you are a Cameron Diaz fanatic, then this movie will appeal to you; otherwise, I recommend staying away. Like you, Greg, I award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero duo was unremarkable and followed the familiar path of two people disliking each other at first and then growing to be best buddies. Leslie Mann’s character has some annoying verbal mannerisms that almost made me feel empathy for the villain Mark. Cameron Diaz remains a terrific actress and plays a very smart, likeable character here. Because they break no new ground, I can only award this duo (or trio if you like) 2 Heroes out of 5.

The villain Mark is entirely forgettable. Greg, you are generous by endowing him with 2 dimensions when it is hard to discern any. This movie is an example of a story in which the villain is a mere prop, and the entire film hinges on the success or failure of the rest of the cast and story. So for a lightweight villain, I agree that he only deserves one puny Villain out of 5.

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Heaven Is For Real ••

HeavenisforrealtheaterposterStarring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Randall Wallace
Screenplay: Randall Wallace, Chris Parker
Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: April 16, 2014
Burpo: Single, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Board: System, P-N Moral, Ant (Organization Fallen Villain)


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Scott, I’m in seventh heaven over this week’s film.

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

Heaven can wait, Greg. Let’s get on with the review.

Our story opens on Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) who is working odd jobs trying to make enough income to take care of his family. His income as the pastor to a small flock in Imperial, Nebraska is not covering their expenses. He lives a simple life filled with softball games, friends, and his family consisting of his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and two small children including four-year-old Colton (Connor Corum). Things are going pretty well when something dreadful happens. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare.

Colton has a ruptured appendix and has emergency surgery performed on him. He survives, but it was a close call. Maybe a bit too close. In the weeks and months that follow the surgery, Colton begins revealing memories of visiting heaven while he was unconscious. At first, Todd has trouble coming to grips with these recollections, and then when word gets out the entire congregation becomes stirred up.

The young man who plays Colton is just adorable as the four-year-old who reflects the innocence of youth. There is a scene where Colton is visiting a sick man in the hospital and Colton sees a child suffering from chemotherapy treatments. He walks over to the child and holds her hand and reassures her that nobody’s going to hurt her.

Scott, this movie is based upon the real events documented in the book by the same name. The subtitle of the book is A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. The fact, however, is that this is the story of Todd Burpo’s experiences and trials after revealing his son’s visions to the world. This makes Burpo the hero of the story. Greg Kinnear does a good job of making Burpo look like an everyman with the world on his shoulders.

Greg, I enjoyed the concept of this movie, as I’m fascinated by near-death occurrences and all the common experiences that people worldwide have shared when they’ve come close to dying or have died and come back. I read the book and found it to be a powerful account of a young boy’s claim that he visited heaven. I say ‘powerful’ because if you believe the father’s account, there are three compelling pieces of evidence supporting the boy’s story: (1) the boy’s knowledge of his unborn sister, (2) the boy’s knowledge of the grandfather he never met, and (3) the boy’s confirmation of the image of Jesus as portrayed by a Lithuanian girl who also had a near-death experience.

But the movie-makers decided that this story alone wasn’t powerful enough to carry the movie.  So they decided to make the father the hero and to manufacture a good deal of anguish in the poor man. He’s depicted as a hothead who kicks furniture and who struggles with the idea that his son has met Jesus. None of this happens in the book, and for good reason – it’s a silly notion for the father, a Christian pastor, to disbelieve his son’s story that heaven exists. The movie also fabricates a terrible crisis in the church over the veracity and meaning of the boy’s story. These embellishments rang false for me.

I didn’t read the book and you’ve pretty much summed up my problems with the story. It wasn’t about the boy, it was about the father. This tack follows a typical Christian pattern wherein the hero of the story (Pastor Burpo) reveals his belief in miracles and the faithful (despite their beliefs) reject him. This creates a martyr of the pastor and he must face ridicule and the wrath of his followers. But through his own faith and tenacity he convinces the un-faithful to follow and believe. It is a story that seems familiar to me from reading the Bible.

There really are no villains in this story, but there are oppositional forces that our hero, Todd, encounters. There is a woman on the church board who wants to replace Todd. There is a psychotherapist who preaches a scientific explanation to Todd when he instead needs spiritual guidance. There are also his own inner demons and difficult circumstances, including dire family finances and numerous personal health setbacks.

Again, many of the struggles that Todd faces do not appear in the book, which wisely centers on the sheer power of Colton’s story rather than on reactions to the story. So we have a movie that tells a powerful story of a visit to heaven but strangely focuses on everyone getting wigged out by the story.

I’d have to differ with you there, Scott. The congregation of Burpo’s church are the villains. Or should I say “opposition”. There is no evil intent here. But they create the hardship that Burpo must work against. Truly, if there were no oppositional force in the movie, there would be little story.

I think we’ve seen this story before. Do you remember the classic film Oh, God? In that film John Denver plays a man who talks to God and the entire world including family and friends turn against him. It’s only his faith that sees him through the challenge.

There are a couple of classic Christian film tropes in store for the viewer. Burpo makes a trip to a college professor who is an expert in out of body experiences. She is a non-believer and has recently lost her husband to cancer and is bitter and hates God for it. We saw this same character played to the extreme in God’s Not Dead.

Heaven is For Real is an unconventional movie that puts all its emotional eggs in a single spiritual basket, namely, the “afterlife” experience of a young boy that seems to defy belief. The movie makes the unfortunate decision to showcase the father’s turbulent journey rather than the child’s, and the result is a film that doesn’t ring true to me. There are good performances by the entire cast, and as you note, Greg, Connor Corum is adorable as the young Colton. But I cannot give this movie more than 2 Reels out of 5.

Greg Kinnear does a fine job in his role as Todd, but the hero journey lacks both heft and believability. I found Todd to be one of the least spiritual people I’ve seen in the movies, and yet he is a Christian pastor. Toward the end, he and his wife finally see the light, but why it takes 90 minutes to see such a bright light is beyond me. I can only give Todd 2 Heroes out of 5.

While I wouldn’t call any of the characters villains per se, there were oppositional forces that force Todd to squirm, to suffer, and to change. One could argue that this movie is a nice story of a family that prevails over serious financial, health, and spiritual setbacks. Still, some of these obstacles, such as the congregation that freaks out, seem forced and fabricated. For that reason, I can only give this film 2 Villains out of 5.

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Scott, you pretty much read my mind. Heaven is for Real is a movie that preaches to the choir. If you’re a believer you’ll believe. If you’re a doubting Thomas, you won’t be convinced. I give the film 2 out of 5 Reels.

The hero is a simple confection of a good man in a difficult situation. Other films have dealt with this topic in a more convincing fashion with a more humble and sympathetic hero. I give Burpo just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the congregation as the villains were predictable and flat. They rate just 2 Villains out of 5. Heaven is for Real won’t get many revisits.

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