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St. Vincent ••••1/2

St_Vincent_posterStarring: Bill MurrayMelissa McCarthyNaomi Watts
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Theodore Melfi
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: October 24, 2014

Vincent & Oliver: Duo, P-PP Moral/Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)

Vincent: Single, N-P Moral, Ant (Misunderstood Lone Villain)


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

Greg, we just saw a movie about saints, who seem to be very similar to heroes.

I had the same thought. Let’s see how Bill Murray rates against St. Teresa.

We meet a 68-year-old man named Vincent (Bill Murray). Vincent lives alone with his cat, steals apples, and consorts with hookers, racetracks, bars, and loan sharks who want him to pay up. One day, Vincent discovers that a woman named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) have moved in next door.

Vincent is down to his last dollar so he makes a deal with Maggie to watch Oliver after school while she eeks out a living as a single mom. Vincent takes little interest in 10-year-old Oliver until he comes home with a bloody nose. Then, Vincent decides to take it upon himself to teach Oliver not only to fight, but what it means to be a man – a role that Oliver’s pacifist father has neglected to take on himself.

Greg, St. Vincent surprised me. It surprised me with its sweetness and wisdom in the same way that Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day did more than two decades ago. You could say that the movie follows the classic sinner-to-saint hero story, but that would be an oversimplification. Like St. Augustine, Vincent is a womanizer and who steals apples. But unlike St. Augustine, Vincent is a complex mix of good and bad his entire life. He was a war hero forty years earlier and now tenderly cares for his wife who suffers from dementia. Yet he is also a jerk all that time, too.

We see plenty of Vincent’s dark side. Dishonesty rules his life, and he is surly. But behind the surliness beats a heart of gold. This heart remains hidden until it springs to life thanks to the influence of his new neighbor, the precocious Oliver played brilliantly by Jaeden Lieberher. It’s not unusual for movies to show us the wisdom of children. St. Vincent is special because the mentoring is bi-directional, and it has heartfelt believability. Vincent and Oliver show each other how to grow up.

I agree, Scott. Vincent is the classic villain-turned-hero.  The movie starts out showing us how foul he can be. He seems villainous with his callous disregard for anyone but himself. Even when he agrees to take on the task of babysitting Oliver, it’s not for Oliver’s sake. It’s to take advantage of mom Maggie’s situation – and to pay his gambling debts. He lacks the heroic qualities of caring and selflessness – or as Zimbardo would call it – altruism.

When he visits an old lady in a nursing home – we expect it to be just another scam he’s running. But he is returning her laundry and taking her dirty clothes. He’s actually doing her laundry. Later we see him sitting with her by the dock and we realize this is his wife who suffers from Alzheimers disease. And we realize he isn’t uncaring at all. He gives all his money so that his wife can have the best care. And suddenly Vincent the villain becomes Vincent the saint.

Well, he’s not recognized as a saint by anyone until Oliver comes along and sees a side to him that no one else sees (with the exception of the staff at the Alzheimer’s facility). Even Oliver is disgusted with Vincent until the boy discovers some discarded photos of Vincent’s military service. Oliver is mentored by his teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), who instructs Oliver about the definition of a saint as a person who sacrifices to better the lives of others. Greg, this is a moving story about hero formation, hero mentoring, and hero recognition.

So St. Vincent takes us on a journey of discovery in which two unlikely buddy heroes help each other become better people. I believe this film is Bill Murray’s best work since Groundhog Day and could almost unfathomably garner him an Oscar nomination. His portrayal of Vincent is not easy to pull off but Murray does it with understated charisma and compassion. We’re so transfixed by his character that the ending credits show him lying on a recliner with a hose running — and no one in our theater dared to leave even though we see him doing nothing but squirt water on his feet.

There are a few villains in the story, but not many. The racetrack bookie (played by Terrence Howard) threatens to rough Vincent up. The loan officer at the bank has little sympathy for Vincent. They’re all pretty light fare compared to the uncaring head of the nursing home. And Oliver has villains of his own to face down. The schoolyard bully that prompts Vincent to teach Oliver his one fighting maneuver eventually turns into Oliver’s best friend. But the villains are all in the background while Vincent is the main attraction.

I enjoyed St. Vincent very much. I think Bill Murray has found his rhythm as an actor. Melissa McCarthy also delivered a heartwarming performance of the mother who’s just trying to get by – but is a little overwhelmed. There were a lot of comedians in this drama. I’ve heard it said that comedians make the best dramatic actors because they have a deeper understanding of timing. I’d say that St. Vincent definitely demonstrated just that. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Vincent himself undergoes not so much a transformation in this film, but more of a realization. That is, it is the audience to whom Vincent’s heroism is revealed. He appears villainous at the beginning, but as we get to know him, we see that he has all the qualities of a saint – and all the qualities of a hero, too. There just doesn’t seem to be that much difference. I give Vincent 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Sadly, there are no strong villains in this film. But that’s okay because Vincent appears villainous enough for the majority of the film. I give the villains in St. Vincent just 2 out of 5 Villains.

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St. Vincent is one of the year’s best movies. Bill Murray is at his best when he plays characters with wide moral range. Murray has always been a little mischievous boy inside a man’s body, and as he’s gotten older this incongruency deepens his complex persona. St. Vincent packs a powerful emotional punch toward the end — I found myself shedding a tear or two while Vincent’s heroism is being honored by Oliver and others. For a poignant story of an unlikely pairing of people who save each other, I’m giving St. Vincent a full 5 Reels out of 5.

This is a buddy hero story that follows the usual pattern of two individuals who start out disliking each other but develop an unshakable bond. As you mention, Greg, the character of Vincent grows in his recognition of his life’s accomplishments, but he also develops a softened heart for Maggie, Oliver, and others. Oliver’s growth follows the usual coming-of-age storyline, and he ends up mentoring Vincent, his mother, and his entire school about the definition and complexity of sainthood. I give these two memorable heroes a rating of 4 out of 5.

The villains are an interesting assortment in St. Vincent. Most conspicuously, the kid who first bullies Oliver at school, a boy named Ocinski (Dario Barosso), undergoes a transformation toward goodness and virtue. One could say that St. Vincent is a movie that sends a message about bullies being redeemable, as Vincent could also be considered a redeemed bully. It’s both rare and satisfying to see villains undergo a transformation toward redemptive goodness. For that reason, I’ll give the villains here a solid score of 3 Villains out of 5.

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The Judge •••1/2

The_Judge_2014_film_posterStarring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: October 10, 2014

Hank & the Judge: Duo, P-PP Moral/Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)

The Judge: Single, N-P Moral/Emotional, Ant (Enlightened Lone Villain)


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Scott, it looks like we’re about to judge the merits of The Judge.

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

All rise, the court is now in session. Greg, you may begin the opening argument.

We meet Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) who is a highly-paid Chicago lawyer – the kind who defends guilty people who have a lot of money. He’s doing pretty well in this capacity when he gets a phone call – his mother has died and now he must return home to Indiana to bury his mother and support his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) who runs a used car dealership and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) who is an autistic savant with a penchant for 8mm film. He must also face his father: Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). The problem is, the Judge doesn’t think much of his son Hank, so the two have a frosty reunion.

Hank and the Judge have a long embattled history, and so there are tense moments between the two men during the few days that Hank is in Indiana. Just before leaving to return home to Chicago, Hank notices that the right-front bumper of the Judge’s car is dented. Thinking nothing of it, Hank goes to the airport but then receives an alarming message from his brother: The Judge has been accused of killing a man in a hit-and-run crime and the victim’s blood has been found on the Judge’s car. Hank returns and becomes his dad’s legal counsel, and juicy revelations abound during the legal proceedings.

The Judge is a by-the-numbers Hollywood drama. We meet our hero (Hank) in his ordinary world when “something happens” (his mother dies) he transitions into his special world (his dad’s accident) where he has a problem to solve (saving his father) and learns a lesson (love people as they are). There’s an old girlfriend to rekindle a relationship with. There’s a mildly retarded brother to ask the naive questions. There’s the nemesis in the form of a prosecuting attorney who is out for blood. With few exceptions, there are no surprises.

There may be no surprises, Greg, but The Judge offers a workmanlike buddy story about two men who start out despising each other, mostly because they don’t know each other. Naturally, the story requires them to spend time together, allowing them to see each other’s humanity and depth. The healing of father-son rifts is a common theme in the movies. If Hollywood is right, there aren’t too many of us men out there who like our fathers. But movies like this give us hope of atonement.

The story is all quite formulaic, but for me The Judge works on the strength of the performances of two heavyweight actors of our time, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. These two mega-talents are a treat to watch. There is emotional chemistry and interactive sizzle in every one of their scenes together. Downey, Jr., in particular, dives into every one of his movie roles with a relentless intensity. His Type A personality serves him very well here in his role as a brilliant, workaholic attorney. Duvall’s performance is more subdued but he has us riveted to his every word. Not many star-studded pairings work in the movies, but this one, for me, is a grand slam.

Hank is a flawed hero. He is egotistical and has a hidden internal pain: he has an unknown history with his father. It’s clear that the two men have an unspoken anger that is exposed only bit-by-bit through the story. It’s this mystery that makes the story interesting. As Hank tries to defend his father, we see him slowly grow closer to Judge and we begin to understand why the Judge is so hard on Hank. The growth that Hank undergoes as he comes to grips with his past is what makes this a memorable movie.

You’re right, Greg. In any good buddy hero story, we should see each buddy become transformed. Hank grows in his appreciation for his father, not just at a personal level but also at a professional level. We see the softening of Hank’s heart along with an awakening of his larger call in life to follow in his dad’s footsteps by serving as a Judge himself. As for the Judge, we catch his transformation in mid-stream. The Judge has been battling a life-threatening cancer that has heightened his sensitivity to his legacy. There is a humbling here, wrought by age and disease, that is touching to watch.

The villains in The Judge are interesting and varied. Hank’s opponent in the courtroom is prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who isn’t a bad man but he is a skilled professional intent on bringing down the Judge. Another oppositional force is the town’s law enforcement personnel that pressures, interrogates, and arrests the Judge. Again, they aren’t so much villainous as they are providing the impetus for Hank and the Judge to grow closer together. Also, Greg, you alluded to Hank’s inner demons that he must overcome to grow and prevail in this movie. One could say that The Judge has the themes of both Men versus Men and Men versus Selves.

I think you’re right, Dickham is the obvious villain character. He has been beaten by Hank in the courtroom and he wants to win this case to get back at Hank. The Judge isn’t quite a villain, but he is an oppositional character. He doesn’t want Hank’s help and nearly gets the chair because he didn’t allow Hank to lead the case. This makes the Judge an oppositional character – he is getting in the way of Hank’s main goal – to free his father.

The supporting characters in this film are so classic that a parody of Oscar winning film trailers could have been made from The Judge. There’s the older brother, naive mentally challenged younger brother, old flame from high school, and adorable daughter. There’s some decent backstory there but it all comes from the same palette of movies gone by.

The Judge takes us on a journey of healing between a father and a son. The story may be formulaic but we grow to like and admire these characters, even with their many flaws. Moreover, the superb performances in this film carry the day and remind us why Robert Downey, Jr., is the highest paid Hollywood actor today. His counterpart, Robert Duvall, does more than hold his own against the dynamic Downey, Jr. Duvall exudes a quiet strength and depth of wisdom, delivering exactly what his role requires. The Judge is a fine film well worth watching. I’m happy to award it 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes, Hank and the Judge, are a terrific pairing that traverse their way from embittered enemies to admiration and even love. Their chemistry together has ample snap, crackle, and pop. Most importantly, Hank and the Judge undergo two personal transformations that involve a growing humility, compassion, and understanding. The performances here are dynamic and memorable. I give these two heroes 4 Heroes out of 5.

The villains are not terribly important in this film other than to serve as the mechanism for our two buddy heroes to work and grow together. I’m not disappointed with the villain characters in this movie, but I also won’t walk away from this film with any improved understanding or appreciation for these characters. They do what they do and that’s all this film requires of them. Consequently, I can only give a villain rating of 2 out of 5 here.

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The Judge is a nice film which offers no new territory to traverse. It’s a classic story of atonement with the father. On the plus side everyone in the cast delivered a good performance and I left the theater feeling that I got my money’s worth. Still, I don’t see it winning any awards. I give The Judge 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero is cut from a familiar cloth and played well by Robert Downey, Jr. He starts out as a pretty lousy human being with little to endear himself to us. But as we learn more about him and the reasons he left his home town we begin to realize that there is more to the story than we were at first given. I give Hank 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I have to agree with you, Scott, on the villains. There aren’t a lot of oppositional characters. For the most part, the Judge himself is the biggest oppositional character as he tries to handle his own case and gets in Hank’s way. While he was superbly played by Robert Duvall, I can only give him 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Toy Story •••••

Toy_StoryStarring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Director: John Lasseter
Screenplay: John Lasseter & Pete Docter
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: G
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1995


As part of a special series, we will be reviewing the first 5 movies released by Pixar studios. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming mini-book on the heroes of Pixar!

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

Greg, it’s time we review Toy Story, one of the groundbreaking animated films of the 1990s.

It’s one of those animations that appeals to both adults and children. Let’s recap:

We meet a small pullstring cowboy doll named Woody (Tom Hanks), who belongs to a small boy named Andy (John Morris). Woody is one of many toys owned by Andy, and all the toys act like inanimate objects when humans are present but spring to life when humans are absent. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, but a birthday gift to Andy contains a new toy that becomes Andy’s new favorite: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), an astronaut action figure.

Woody is filled with jealousy as Andy begins to favor Buzz over him. Woody attempts to push Buzz behind a dresser and accidentally pushes him out the window. The other toys turn on Woody blaming him for Buzz’s demise. Meanwhile, Andy’s mom takes him to Planet Pizza and Andy takes Woody along for the ride. Buzz jumps into the moving car. When the car stops for gas, the two toys get out and have an argument – but the car leaves them at the gas station. Woody and Buzz jump into a Pizza Planet delivery truck. Now their goal is to find Andy and return home before the sun rises – because tomorrow Andy is moving to a new house.

Greg, Toy Story’s arrival on the Big Screen in 1995 marked a revolution in computer-animated feature films. I remember at the time being enthralled by the exquisite realism and detailing of the visuals. And the movie also manages to tell a great hero story that carries meaning for audiences of all ages. No wonder Toy Story was inducted into the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

In our first Reel Heroes book, we describe “buddy heroes” as a common type of social unit of movie hero. Woody and Buzz are buddy heroes because their relationship follows the typical buddy arc: they first dislike each other, then go on a journey together, and eventually grow into friends. A great strength of this film is that Woody and Buzz are each missing different inner qualities and thus undergo separate personal transformations. Woody is wracked with jealousy and must learn humility along with the need to place the good of the greater community ahead of his own selfish interests. Buzz is ignorant of his true status as a toy and must learn to accept his authentic identity.

Pixar tells a story like no one else. They have a deep understanding of the importance of the hero in a narrative. Woody suffers from jealousy. He feels like he is getting nudged out of his rightful place as Andy’s favorite toy. So, when a new, flashy, Buzz Lightyear shows up, Woody wonders how he, as an ordinary cowboy toy, can compare. But in Woody we see a strong sense of loyalty to his boy. Woody recognizes his importance as a quality toy in Andy’s life and acts as the leader of all the lesser toys. He constantly strives to make sure Andy is happy. Woody has the rare qualities of giving and selflessness.

Buzz on the other hand is full of himself. He doesn’t recognize that his role is to be Andy’s toy – to make sure that Andy is happy. Buzz is constantly worried about returning to Star Command and talks boastfully of his importance to the universe in defense of the evil Emperor Zurg. It’s not until the two toys are stranded that they create an alliance. It is their joint goal to return to Andy that ultimately turns this into a buddy film.

Buzz has a revelation that he is in fact merely a child’s toy when he sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear action figure on television. He goes into a deep depression as he finally understands that he is not the actual Buzz Lightyear. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that the ultimate purpose in his life is to make Andy happy by being a great toy. Woody even confesses to Buzz that he admires Buzz’s flashing lights and futuristic sounds. This bonding moment is the “convergence” that you and I look for, Scott, when we review the buddy story.

Toy Story may be an animated adventure but it’s densely packed with many elements of the hero journey. Included among these elements are a few villainous forces that attempt to thwart Woody and Buzz from achieving their aims. Chief among the villains is the rather disturbing neighbor boy Sid. We’ve all known kids like Sid; he’s nasty and physically mutilates toys for no reason other than because he can. Sid’s plan to blow-up Buzz is necessary to provide Woody with an opportunity for redemption.

Also appearing to get in the way of Woody’s rescue of Buzz is the collection of misfit toys that Sid has created in macabre fashion. I’m guessing that these disturbing toys are writer Joss Whedon’s handiwork. Toy Story wisely reveals these toys to be Woody’s allies instead of foes. Ironically, Woody’s toy friends in Andy’s bedroom are outraged at Woody’s mistreatment of Buzz, and they inadvertently foil Woody’s rescue plans, too. Even Buzz himself, disconsolate about his true identity, hampers Woody’s efforts. In all, it’s a fun yet complicated set of oppositional forces that Woody faces.

What’s interesting about Sid as a villain is that he is transformed in the end. Woody and the mutilated toys come to life in an effort to scare Sid straight. And they are apparently successful. In all the villains we’ve analyzed in the past year, Scott, I don’t think we’ve seen one example of a villain who gave up his villainous ways. This is a great example of how heroes transform those around them.

I’m glad you brought up the support characters, Scott. Andy’s toys are all clean and well taken care of. Sid’s, on the other hand are in various states of disrepair. And, as you point out, we think Sid’s toys are going to be evil because they are ugly. But it turns out that they are benevolent and willing to help Woody in his plan to save Buzz. While none of Sid’s toys takes on a personality (as each of Andy’s toys does), as a group they are helpers in Woody’s plan to save Buzz – and to divert Sid in his evil ways.

Another thing I want to point out is the divergence from the hero’s journey that we are accustomed to. In Toy Story there is a climax which is resolved by saving Buzz from Sid’s demonic attempt to blow him up. Once that climax is resolved, we would expect the story to slide into the resolution phase. But instead, there is a new conflict as Andy and his mother are driving off to Andy’s new home. Woody makes it to the car and is about to leave with Andy when he realizes that Buzz is stuck in the fence. Woody then gives up his chance to return to Andy’s ordinary world and goes back to lend assistance to Buzz. This then results in a new climactic event as Woody and Buzz chase Andy’s car across town to find Andy. It’s a thrilling chase scene and delivers a dual climax at the end of the story.

Toy Story comes as close to representing the perfect animated movie as one can get. At the level of story, the plot is sweet and simple, yet deceptively rich in incorporating all the elements of a good hero story. At the level of writing, the screenplay is impeccably crafted with witty dialogue sure to appeal to people of all ages. At the level of animation, Pixar’s revolutionary CGI effects are both superb and timeless. In terms of characters, we’re introduced to unforgettable characters who move us and teach us something important about the human condition. The rating here is a no-brainer: 5 full Reels out of 5.  And I nominate this film to occupy a worthy space in our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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You’re so right, Scott. Toy Story is very well-crafted. The technology that created the movie creates a complete and believable world. The voice acting is delightful and engaging. The storytelling is intelligent and comical. And the hero’s journey is complete. While the film is aimed at children, the writers don’t condescend. I agree, 5 Reels out of 5. I second your nomination to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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Woody and Buzz are classic, unforgettable buddy heroes. I can’t tell you how impressive it is that a children’s film can so effortlessly portray the evolution of an unlikely friendship along with the development of two individually separate hero journeys. This is textbook stuff here and done to near perfection. Again, I happily assign this duo 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

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They are definitely Buddy Heroes, alright. They start out as adversaries and end up as good friends. However, I see them as starting out on different paths and then joining up to have the same goal by the end of the story: that of making Andy happy by being great toys. Woody and Buzz each go through their own transformation. Woody gets over his jealousy and Buzz realizes his place in Andy’s world. It’s a wonderful hero’s journey and I award Woody and Buzz 5 out of 5 Heroes.

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The villain Sid is an effective foe for Woody and Buzz to contend with, but I can’t use the same superlatives to describe Sid’s development as a character. Yes, you are correct, Greg, that there are hints to Sid’s redemption at the end, but we don’t learn much about Sid’s backstory nor much else about the darkness of his nature. His character exists merely to provide roadblocks for our heroes, and that’s certainly sufficient for this movie. In all, I award 3 Villains out of 5 here.

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I liked Sid more than you did, Scott. I felt he offered a great contrast to good-kid Andy. Sid was evil and calculating. And, if left unchecked, would probably have gone on from mangling innocent toys to insects and animals. I was impressed with the “Villain’s Journey” in this story. And while I have to agree with you that there wasn’t any backstory to Sid that explains his vicious actions, I still give Sid 4 out of 5 Villains.

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And now let’s rate the supporting cast. This includes the other toys in Andy’s room, Andy himself, and Sid’s misfit toys. These characters, especially Andy’s toys, are all marvelously constructed. They are distinct, quirky, funny, charming, loving, and loyal. We get to know them and cherish them the way Andy must love and cherish them. Interestingly, as you note, Greg, Sid’s toys are a monolithic bunch but that’s okay — they serve their purpose. Conspicuously absent is a mentor figure for Woody, but his pangs of conscience serve this role and inform his choices throughout the story. It’s a very strong supporting cast and I award the Supporting Cast 4 Casts out of 5.

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I have to agree, Scott. The supporting cast of Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, T-Rex, and the others, were given a distinct set of personalities. They did a great job of playing up Woody and Buzz’s characters. Interestingly, Sid’s toys could not speak. That tended to give them less dimension than Andy’s toys. I noticed a number of missing archetypes in Toy Story including the gatekeeper, the herald, and as you mentioned, the mentor. I wasn’t as impressed with these characters as you were, I give them just 3 out of 5 for Supporting Cast.

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Gone Girl •••••

Gone_Girl_PosterStarring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 149 minutes
Release Date: October 3, 2014

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

Amy Dunne: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Deceptive Lone Villain)


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I just went to see Gone Girl. I guess that makes me a Went Boy.

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

And when you went, you made quite a mess. Let’s turn our attention to this interesting Ben Affleck-flick. Go ahead and recap, Went Boy.

We’re introduced to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) – an unemployed author married to the woman of his dreams – Amy (Rosamund Pike). He comes home to find his wife has gone missing. And all the clues point to Nick as the culprit. Local Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) is tracking Nick’s activity and is building a case against him. There’s blood on the kitchen floor and on the walls. There’s Amy’s insurance policy that was doubled in recent days. There’s the nosey neighbor who claims Amy said the marriage was on the rocks – and Amy was pregnant. But without a corpse, there cannot be a murder. Then, Boney finds a diary where Amy lays out a story of a marriage gone bad and a husband she fears.

As public opinion turns against Nick, he senses his imminent arrest. Wisely, he seeks the legal counsel of Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who attempts to rehabilitate his public image. A big setback occurs when Nick’s adulterous affair with a college girl half his age is revealed. But wait, a bigger reveal is that Amy isn’t dead after all. We learn that Amy is a psychopath who has orchestrated what appears to be the perfect frame and set-up of Nick. Amy’s plan is dealt a huge blow when she is robbed of all her cash and must turn to an old boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris) for refuge.

Scott, this is a great story. We’re pulled in by the story of the perfect relationship. Then the relationship sours. We are lulled into the sense that Nick is the typical terrible husband. That he just might be capable of murder after all. And just when we, like everyone else in the movie, believe he is guilty – we learn that Amy isn’t dead. In fact, she’s setting Nick up for her own murder.

This premise is easily as frightening as Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction. Nick has scorned Amy and now she uses every intimate detail she knows about Nick to implicate him in a terrible crime. It’s anyone’s worst nightmare – that all the secrets you share with the person closest to you can be used against you in the court of public opinion.

The greatest element of this story is the turnabout of the villains. The first half of the movie sets Nick up as a dreadful man (and to a certain degree it’s a deserved reputation). Then at the halfway point, the tables are turned and Nick becomes the victim to Amy’s villain.

You got that right, Greg. Gone Girl is a dark movie. It’s dark in showcasing the worst of humanity and also dark in the way that darkness conceals things. There are hidden agendas of varying degrees throughout the movie, and they keep us guessing and re-guessing. This film is a chess game on steroids, with chess pieces moving methodically along the board in surprising and sinister ways. I’ve never been a big fan of Ben Affleck’s acting ability, but here he is a master of exuding mixed signals, rendering us uncertain of his culpability and character.

Nearly all of this film’s darkness emanates from the story’s main malevolent character, Amazing Amy herself. For me, Amy is the most memorable female character in the movies since Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2011. Amy is sexy, smart, confident, and accomplished. We cannot even imagine her attaining the level of diabolical evil that she reaches. But reach it she does. We’re left aghast and appalled while admiring her stunning, disturbing intelligence.

Ben Affleck as the hero of the story is severely flawed. He is childish, a philanderer, and actually not that bright. We’re given a tale of him as villain first and when the tables turn he is the victim. The story follows him center stage from beginning to end. It’s his conversion from the controlling husband to the one controlled that we are witnessing. He’s different from any other hero we’ve studied thus far. He is transformed, but this time, not for the better.

Amy is likewise a complex villain. At the start of the film she is painted as the dutiful wife who does whatever her husband wants to do. But at the halfway point we come to realize that she’s the one who is controlling Nick. She becomes the villain. And again, unlike any villain we’ve studied so far, she is more capable, more cunning, and more powerful than the hero of the story. She is the ultimate villain.

Nick is not your typical hero. He’s not a terrible man but he’s not a good man, either. He goes through hell in this movie yet we hardly see signs of change or growth in his character. He becomes wiser but appears not to use his wisdom to better himself or the world around him. I think this is the point of the movie. We learn that dark people do dark things, and if they’re smart enough, they’ll get away with murder, literally. We need heroes to stop them but in Gone Girl the heroes are neither smart enough nor virtuous enough to rid the world of its darkness.

I do believe that Rosamund Pike is outstanding in her role as Amy and deserves Academy Award consideration for her performance here. There is a multi-dimensionality to her acting, ranging from demure sweetness to true psychopathological rage. I agree with you, Greg, that she is the ultimate villain, making everyone around her look foolish as they try to keep up with her true motives or her next move. Amy is a force unto herself, literally; there are no henchmen or henchwomen to aid her. She is a true lone villain, perhaps the most formidable force of evil that we’ve seen this year at the movies.

Gone Girl clocks in at two and a half hours – and none of it was wasted. I was getting a little bored by the time we got to the midpoint where the tables are turned. Then I was riveted. This is a completely engrossing tale told spectacularly well by all members of the cast and crew. I give Gone Girl 5 out of 5 Reels.

Nick is a flawed hero as we have discussed. He’s not altogether bright nor altogether virtuous. He lets women mold him into whatever they want him to be (his mother, other girlfriends, then Amy). We really don’t have much sympathy for him as a victim. At the end of the movie he has a way out, but he isn’t strong enough to take it. This is a complex protagonist that is difficult to score on our usual scale. I give Nick a 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Amy is the most manipulative, spiteful, vengeful, cunning and controlling villain we’ve ever seen. If there were a Villain’s Hall of Fame, I’d nominate her for it. Her “unreliable first person” narration first paints her as the victim, but in the end we realize she’s the one in control. I give Amy 5 Villains out of 5.

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Gone Girl is one of the year’s best movies with it’s stylish portrayal of love, treachery, and murderous revenge. This film drags us through the muck of human relationships and the nadir of human conduct. I enjoyed this movie despite the fact that afterward I was left feeling alarmed and ashamed of the human race. At film’s end, there are hints of a sequel, which I would dread seeing with great anticipation. While not a perfect movie by any means, it is engrossing enough to merit a full 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero Nick is confident, handsome, and charismatic, but he’s not terribly admirable. He blunders his way through the movie without evolving or learning from the disastrous choices he’s made (and continues making). The fact that at the end he remains married to Amy is a horrifying testimony to his lack of heroism. That he even survives his arrogance and foolishness is a miracle — or perhaps it is grist for a sequel. The near absence of heroism in this movie is unfortunate but probably necessary to drive home the film’s bleak message about humanity. Generously, I award the rather hapless Nick 3 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Greg, Amy is a force to be reckoned with, one of Hollywood’s most formidable and memorable villains we’ve seen in years. I believe her level of malevolence rivals that of Hannibal Lecter. I hope none of our readers take this the wrong way, but I’d enjoy seeing her tear up additional flesh in future sequels. Because of her magnetism, her backstory, and her ability to surprise us with one chilling act of evil after another, I’ll also award her 5 Villains out of 5.

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The Equalizer •••1/2

The_Equalizer_posterStarring: Denzel WashingtonMarton CsokasChloë Grace Moretz
Director:Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay:Richard Wenk
Action/Crime/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: September 26, 2014

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

Teddy: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Henchman Villain)


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

Greg, after seeing The Equalizer, I want to stay on Denzel Washington’s good side.

I thought he was going to balance my stereo system. I was wrong. Let’s recap…

We meet Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), a retired special forces agent who works at a large Home-Mart hardware store in Boston. Robert enjoys helping people, such as his buddy Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), who aspires to become a security officer at the store, and a young woman named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) who sits in the same coffee shop that Robert frequents in the middle of the night. Teri is a prostitute working for the Russian mob, and one night Robert sees Teri’s pimp abuse her.

That’s when Robert decides to equalize the odds. He strides into the office of the head mob bad guy and lays down $9800 to buy Teri’s freedom. The head guy not only refuses Robert’s offer, but tells him he can have Teri only after he’s “used her up.” That’s when Robert locks the door behind him, starts his stopwatch, and begins to lay some serious hurt on the bad guys.

Greg, The Equalizer is one of Denzel Washington’s best movies in recent years. It’s far from being a perfect film, but it does feature a powerful hero archetype. The archetype is that of a gentle older man who appears harmless but turns into an unstoppable killing machine when provoked. Notable examples of this archetype include Mr. Myagi in The Karate Kid and Bruce Willis’ Frank Moses character in Red.

As an audience, we apparently love highly moral heroes who have supremely powerful abilities and who have the wisdom to hide those abilities from just about everyone — except very, very bad men who deserve to get their butts kicked. Denzel plays this role to the hilt. We can’t help but love the man who looks out for others and who only uses his immense talents when someone he cares about is in grave danger.

Denzel does this well. We like McCall because he is altruistic: he gives his time and experience to younger people to help them better themselves. As such, he plays a mentor role as well as the hero. McCall also has a deep inner pain as a man who lost his only true love – his wife. He made a promise to her not to indulge in his super-spy ways. But when evil is done to an innocent, as McCall would say, he makes an exception.

We also like McCall because he has a few social tics that make him relatable. He’s focused on finishing the 100 books his wife started reading but died before she could complete them. Also, he is a bit obsessive compulsive: timing his every activity, laying out his dinnerware just so, and at the mob’s office, aligning a row of glass skull ornaments on the bad guy’s desk. These quirks make our super hero more human, more sympathetic.

And since we’re talking about the villains, the mob guys are typical bad guys. Tattooed, rotten teeth, wife-beater-wearing thugs. But when word of McCall’s dispatching of the thugs reaches the head Russian mobster (Pushkin), he sends a more interesting villain. He sends Teddy – and we don’t mean Teddy Bear.

The Equalizer gives us a villain whose level of evil matches the level of good in our hero. Teddy (Marton Csokas) is a true sociopath who ruthlessly hunts down our hero Robert McCall. Teddy is handsome, smart, charming, and relentless. We can’t help but admire his tenacity and brutal efficiency. Greg, this movie needed a villain we could revile and it delivered.

Once again, we have an evil mastermind (Pushkin) who lurks behind the scenes and sends his henchmen to do his dirty work. This hierarchical structure to villains appears to be common in the movies. I do have a few criticisms of the choices made by director Antoine Fuqua, including the degree of senseless violence shown by Teddy toward his victims. We don’t need to see as many blood-splattering blows to the face as this film shows. Decades ago, Alfred Hitchcock showed us that when it comes to violence, less is more.

Scott, Teddy is the villain we’ve been looking for all year. His demeanor is calm and collected in presentation. But when he wants to send a message, he is savage. And the bigger the message, demeanor he gets. We’re also given a backstory to this villain. McCall has done his research and learns that Teddy was a troubled child taken in by a virtuous man. But the young Teddy couldn’t fathom the generosity he was shown. So, rather than accept his new reality, he killed his benefactor before he could disappoint him. That’s a really cold story.

Overall, I liked this movie but found it pretty uncomplicated. And in places, it was completely impossible to believe (McCall apparently has the faculties to destroy an entire oil tanker). I was entertained from beginning to end, but there were no surprises. I give The Equalizer just 3 out of 5 Reels.

McCall is a great hero and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him (there is a planned sequel). He embodies all the great elements of the hero including altruism, intelligence, and mastery. And, in an interesting turn, he never fires a weapon. However, he lacks a transformation that would give him a nice story arc. Still, he is a catalyst for change in the people he helps. I give McCall 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The majority of the bad guys in this film are typical stereotypes: Russian mafia hit men and cops gone bad. But Teddy really saves this story from being a run-of-the-mill action flick. He is everything his heroic counterpart is, but lacks any empathy. This makes him a villain worth fighting against. I give Teddy 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Greg, I like The Equalizer a bit more than you did. Perhaps it’s my admiration for Denzel Washington, who wields his talents here in impressive fashion. Perhaps it’s the type of hero he portrays, the older gentleman whose hands are lethal weapons, whose wits are unmatched, and whose morals are in all the right places. The Equalizer is a very good film well worth seeing if you enjoy a classic battle between good and evil. Director Antoine Fuqua makes some poor decisions here and there, but overall this movie provides great entertainment. I happily give this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

The character of Robert McCall is one of my favorite hero types and most certainly is thrown into a different world where he must triumph over a formidable villain. But it’s not the strongest hero story for a few reasons. While Robert must kill the bad guys to accomplish his mission, does he really need to use corkscrews and power drills? Like Teddy the villain, Robert’s level of violence seems a bit over-the-top. Second, there is no classic hero transformation here. Robert is a benevolent bad-ass when the movie starts and he remains one by the movie’s conclusion. As much as I love Denzel, I can only give a hero rating of 3 out of 5 here.

I agree with you, Greg, that Teddy is a terrific villain. The scene you mention in which Robert converses with Teddy in the restaurant is a fabulous piece of work; the scene is tense, taught, and meaningful for our understanding of what’s going on with these two powerful characters. All the bad guys and henchmen were fun to watch and had my full attention at all times. There is a fascinating backstory to Teddy that helps us understand his horrific disregard for human life. Like you, Greg, I give Teddy and his associates a meritorious 4 out of 5 Villains.

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