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Unbroken •••1/2

Unbroken_posterStarring: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Biography/Drama/Sport, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

Zamperini: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

The Bird: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Minion Villain)


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Scott, it’s time to end our Christmas break and review Unbroken.

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

Indeed. Let’s take a look at this film adaptation of the best-selling novel by Laura Hillenbrand.

It’s World War II and young Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the bombardier of a B-24. He hits his target, but his ship is damaged and barely makes it’s way back to base. This reminds him of his childhood growing up in the Bronx. He was constantly picked on by the other boys because of his Italian heritage. He was always getting into fights and engaging in underage drinking. His brother takes notice and sets him straight. It’s his brother who teaches him “if you can take it, you can make it.” This is a lesson he’ll use all through life.

While on a mission in the South Pacific theater, Zamperini’s plane crashes into the ocean. He and two other men, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), survive and remain afloat in a raft for many weeks, barely surviving. Mac dies, but Louis and Phil are captured by the Japanese military who torture and imprison them on a small island. Louis is eventually transferred to a POW camp near Tokyo, where he is brutalized by one particular camp officer nicknamed ‘The Bird’ (Takamasa Ishihara).

Unbroken is a longish look at the survival of a man through the trials of torture and abuse in World War II. I thought in many ways it was a technically fine film, but I don’t expect it to win any awards. One thought that kept going through my mind while watching Zamperini live through his lost-at-sea adventure, then his torture, and then his POW experiences was – how was his experience any different than any other POW’s? What made him the subject of a book and movie where he was called “Unbroken?” Weren’t all POWs in some way unbroken?

Unbroken is an inspiring and heart-wrenching look at an extraordinary tale of survival. Director Angelina Jolie does a commendable job of capturing (most of) Zamperini’s heroic journey while also remaining true to Hillenbrand’s book. Zamperini was not the only survivor of the Japanese POW camps but his story is unique and powerful in three ways: (1) his celebrity status as an Olympic track star; (2) his ordeal on the raft for 47 days prior to imprisonment; and (3) his unfortunate experience with ‘The Bird’, who singled out Zamperini for especially brutal treatment.

The performances here are all first-rate, although none are exemplary. This story lacks greatness because Jolie omitted what is arguably the most important part of Zamperini’s ordeal: His shattered post-war psyche. Hillenbrand’s book tells us that Louis suffered from severe PTSD that left him, well, broken. The darkest part of Zamperini’s life wasn’t in the POW camps; it was the alcoholic depression of his post-war life. For Unbroken to reach it’s full storytelling power, we need to see this nadir and how Louis overcomes it. It’s unfortunate that we were deprived of this resolution because we know that redemption is arguably the most central part of any hero story.

I agree with you that the story needed something more to earn the title Unbroken. And if the redemption portion of the story that you mention had been told, I might have been more interested. The scenes with Zamperini and friends in the life raft seemed to go on forever. Likewise, his tours in the different encampments seemed to drag on without storytelling purpose. If the intent was to give us all a sense of the pain Zamperini endured, then Jolie succeeded. I was bored several times during the movie.

The main villain in this story is “The Bird” – a Japanese sergeant who ran the camps. We get the sense that he was an underachiever. It seems his parents were aristocrats and that “The Bird” did not live up the their, or the Japanese army’s expectations. This made him perhaps more cruel to the prisoners. And even more cruel to Zamperini who was famous as an Olympic athlete. “The Bird” was indeed a sadist and spared no opportunity to make Zamperini miserable.

I agree, Greg, that Jolie gives us an extraordinary survival story without the all-important hero transformation that any good hero story needs to achieve maximum impact. In some ways, the film is similar to two 2013 films, Gravity and 12 Years As A Slave, which both described remarkable survival tales but also omitted the aftermath of the survival. The aftermath is essential in showcasing the hero’s changed state, which ultimately transforms us all.

Attention all movie-makers: Please do not deprive your audience of the aftermath of the hero’s survival story. As an audience, we need it to maximize our satisfaction, and as a movie-maker, you need it to maximize your revenue — not to mention your Oscar nominations.

You’re right, Greg, that Japan is the institutional villain of the story, and “The Bird” is the face of Japan in the movie. We grow to despise The Bird as he senselessly beats Zamperini to a pulp again and again. He is pure evil and has no redeeming qualities other than a pretty face whose boyish qualities belie the sadism taking place.

Angelina Jolie shows she has directorial chops in her adaptation of Unbroken. While I thought it was long at 140 minutes and did drag in places, I was glad that I had seen the film. Unbroken reminds us of the sacrifices and commitment of the Greatest Generation to overcome evil. This is a fine addition to a spate of WWII movies this year (including Fury and The Imitation Game). I give Unbroken 3 out of 5 Reels.

Zamperini as the hero of the story undergoes an early transformation from a fractious child to a determined adult. Through the mentorship of his older brother, he grows into a man who can withstand the worst that the world can throw at him. However, this early transformation is not where the story lies. As you point out, Scott, it is overcoming the damage done to him that is the true Unbroken nature of Zamperini. I give this version of him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

“The Bird” is clearly an evil character who shames and humiliates Zamperini and the other POWs. As the face of the institutional villain he was not very well-drawn. I wish there had been more insight into his character, rather than just his vicious acts. I give “The Bird” just 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Unbroken is a well-made film that moves us with a harrowing tale of survival, perseverance, resilience, and courage. Angelina Jolie shows us that she can direct movies with the best of them, but she makes a critical error by denying us the redemptive core of Zamperini’s story. I love Zamperini’s tale, despite the movie not quite living up to the lofty heights of the book. For this reason, I’ll award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is remarkable in every aspect, although it is unfortunate that Jolie chose not to show us Zamperini’s psychological recovery from the trauma of the war. This film needlessly shortchanges his heroism, and thus I can only award his movie character 3 out of 5 Heroes here.

The institutional villain is capably portrayed by a number of fine Japanese actors, with Takamasa Ishihara delivering an especially standout performance as the deceptively boyish face of evil. We aren’t given much back-story about The Bird, other than a throwaway line or two, and so I can only grant this evil camp officer 3 Villains out of 5.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ••••

The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_ArmiesStarring:  Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh,  Philippa Boyens,  Peter Jackson,  Guillermo del Toro
Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Date: December 17, 2014

Baggins: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Sauren: Single, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Villain)

Orcs: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Military Villain)


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

Greg, it looks like we finally made it to the final installment of The Hobbit.

It looks like we’ll finally break the habit of watching The Hobbit.

The film opens with the tiny hamlet of Laketown being devastated by Smaug, the oversized, fire-breathing dragon. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is helping many of the towns’ citizens evacuate the ravaged city, and meanwhile Bard (Luke Evans) climbs a tower and manages to slay the smug Smaug using the black arrow. Bard leads the townspeople to safe refuge at the ruins of Dale, not too far from Mount Gundabad.

Meanwhile back at the mountain, King Thorin is affected with the dragon’s fever and will not give up any of his gold. Meanwhile, the Orcs are planning an all-out assault on the mountain. Meanwhile, Gandalf is being rescued from a far-away place by the queen of the elves. There’s a lot going on in this final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

Greg, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a worthy conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy (which wasn’t a trilogy). We’ve been dazzled by the CGI virtuoso of modern movies before, but this film somehow manages to exceed the highest standards set in previous filmmaking. Seeing the Battle of the Five Armies in 3D did enrich the experience; I was blown away by the magnificent realism of every scene, especially scenes involving hand-to-hand combat. It seemed like I could discern every speck of dust and drop of blood. It’s a truly an astonishing and mesmerizing experience.

More important, of course, is the story. As you mention, there is no shortage of characters here, nor is there a shortage of armies. Five is a lot of armies. Yet I didn’t feel lost or overwhelmed. What I did feel was fragmented. By that I mean that the decision to break up the Hobbit into pieces, and then to deliver each piece a year apart, leaves me unsatisfied from the standpoint of coherent storytelling. This film gives us the final third of a single story, and it felt limited in that way because it is limited. I did enjoy Five Armies but the piecemeal delivery of the storyline has been less than fulfilling.

You’re right about the high quality of this movie. The images were filmed with stereo 5K cameras at 48 frames per second. That technology provides a level of crispness that was heretofore impossible for film. The result is an image that resembles live action. At first I found it distracting. But soon I was drawn into the story and the realism enhanced what I was watching. It was a revolutionary experience.

We have quite a collection of heroes in this story. The main hero is Bilbo Baggins. He undergoes a transformation from a quiet Hobbit happy to live in the shire to a true adventurer. We like our heroes to transform and Bilbo covers the gamut. The dwarf king, Thorin, is especially interesting as he traverses the range of heroism to villain back to hero again. King Thorin is on a quest to reclaim his lost kingdom and treasure. But once he regains his gold, he gets dragon fever and becomes obsessively greedy, not willing to share a coin even with those who helped him. But once Bilbo gives him a good talking to, he returns to being a noble king, willing to share the wealth with those who are deserving. We like to call this kind of hero the “round tripper” as they go from heroic, to villainous, and then return as a redeemed hero.

No question there are plenty of heroes and villains to discuss here. I enjoyed witnessing Bilbo grow in his courage with the help of Gandalf as his mentor. His transformation is underscored by his return trip home to Bag End. Nearly all of his belongings have been auctioned off in an estate sale, signalling the shedding of his old self and the celebration of his new persona. As befitting a classic epic tale, there are other heroes, of course. But Bilbo deservedly takes center stage here.

This film features a formidable array of villainous characters, too. Foremost are the Orcs, who embody a pure, relentless evil. The other intelligent races that populate this movie have a richness and diversity within them, but not the Orcs. They are all interchangeably evil. One scene near the end of this film truly disappointed me. It was the Fatal Attraction demise of the head Orc, who appears to be dead underwater until his eyes pop open and he bursts up to fight one last fight before being vanquished (again). When, oh when, is this gimmick going to be put to bed for good?

I enjoyed The Hobbit but found that three films really milked the story. The action was often slow and lumbering. The final fight scene was pretty impressive. Again, the technology was at the fore delivering amazing effects. However, I was disappointed that, yet again, the giant eagles flew in to save the day. I give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies 4 out of 5 Reels.

Bilbo and King Thorin make for great mythical heroes. Bilbo starts out as naive and grows into a courageous and moral hero. King Thorin starts out as a great leader then falls into the depths of villainy when he is overcome by dragon fever. But he is redeemed in the end. This is a great example of the redemptive hero. I give them 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The Orcs and Sauron are clearly pure evil villains. We don’t get much insight into why they’re so bad. Although with the introduction of Sauron we see that the Orcs and their leader Bolg create a hierarchy of evil. I give the Orcs 3 out of 5 Villains.

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From a technical standpoint, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is an outrageously successful film. Never before has CGI realism achieved such a majestic level of excellence. The story itself was the final third of a novel that was not intended to be partitioned into three units, and so I was left with a sense of incompleteness. Still, there is much to celebrate about richness of the Tolkien universe and the heroism of the characters, especially Bilbo Baggins. I’m therefore happy to award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

I will grant you that Bilbo follows the classic hero’s journey, but this film only shows us the final leg of the journey. Consequently, I didn’t see him change or evolve much in this particular movie. I agree with you, Greg, that Thorin is a round tripper hero who moves from hero to villain and then back to hero again. We saw this earlier this year in Maleficent. But what triggers these changes in Thorin? Dragon sickness is apparently the answer. But why don’t the other dwarves catch this disease? And how do a few words from Bilbo snap him out of it? Earlier speeches from others didn’t do the trick. So I’m going to curmudgeonly give this movie 3 Heroes out of 5.

The villains were monolithically evil and not terribly interesting. One could say that Thorin’s dragon sickness was a “Man versus Nature” villain, but that’s a stretch. There are interesting glimpses of villainy among the Laketown residents, elves, and dwarves. These character types were fun to watch and added depth to a fragment of the story that truly needed some depth. Overall, I’ll give a rating here of 4 Villains out of 5.

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The Theory of Everything ••1/2

Theory_of_EverythingStarring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior
Director: James Marsh
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten, Jane Hawking
Biography/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: November 26, 2014

Stephen & Jane Hawking: Duo, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Romantic Dievergent Heroes)

ALS: System, N-N, Ant (Disease Villain)


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I thought that The Theory of Everything would take forever to tell.

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

Nothing to worry about, Greg. More than anything, it was a theory of something. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1963. He’s a gangly young man and socially awkward. He goes to a mixer where he meets young Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). She’s studying the arts. The two seem to have nothing in common. But when they go to the fall gala, Stephen starts talking about the stars. Jane quotes poetry back to him. The two quickly fall in love.

But all is not well with Stephen. He has a clumsy gait and grabs awkwardly at flatware, pens, and chalk. One day he falls flat on his face on a walkway and is sent to a doctor who diagnoses him with ALS, a deadly neurodegenerative disease. Although Stephen is given only two years to live, Jane marries him and the two make the most of the time they have together. Jane volunteers to sing in her church choir and strikes up a friendship with the choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Soon Jonathan helps out with Stephen and Jane’s children. But trouble is brewing in the family.

Scott, this movie is problematic as it’s not clear who the hero is. It looks like Stephen Hawking may be the lead character because its all about his genius and his battle with ALS. But then they quickly bring in Jane and strangely, the story seems to focus on her. Hawking become a bit of a prop, scooting around in his wheelchair. We get to see him at the chalkboard here or there, or in a lecture. But after the point where Hawking is confined to a wheelchair, this becomes Jane’s story.

In our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1 we break hero patterns down by the number of characters who are in the lead of the story: the lone hero, the duo, and the ensemble. And I think I have to land on this being a duo story, even though Hawking seems to fade into the background in the second half. Further, we break the duo down into the Hero/Sidekick, the Buddy Heroes, and the Divergent Heroes. And I think that last one is where Theory falls. This is the story of how two people came together and ultimately fell apart.

I agree that Stephen and Jane are divergent heroes who travel much of the journey together but then go their separate ways. This movie tells a poignant love story of great triumph over significant obstacles – for both characters, not just for Stephen. It also tells a story about the collapse of a family and the loss of love. The film boldly portrays Stephen in a less than positive light in that he shows less loyalty to Jane than she shows him. We’re presented with a realistic view of human resilience and human weakness.

While I was impressed with the heartwarming story and with the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, I was a bit underwhelmed with the movie as a whole. The film ventures perilously close to Hallmark-made-for-TV territory. Moreover, we’re not given any more than a fleeting glimpse of the scientific breakthroughs that Hawking is known for. I felt a bit cheated by the constant stream of puns about time that apparently (according to this movie) is the foundation of Hawking’s genius. A lot of smart professors in the movie clap and shake his hand, and that’s about the only indication of his greatness.

I think you’ve really struck the nail on the head. This was a love story. I was surprised that the teen-aged ticket taker said that she had seen this movie and it made her cry. Clearly, this movie was more aimed at an audience more interested in the relationship than the story of a man’s genius. And since the title is The Theory of Everything I think we’re right to feel a bit cheated that we didn’t get any insights into Hawking’s genius, or at least his thinking process.

If there’s a villain in this story it’s ALS. This is the thing that is stealing Stephen’s physical self. It’s also the thing that promised to be done with him in two years. By some miracle, he lived and continues to live well into his seventies. And this is the diabolical turn this villain takes. At the beginning of the story we meet two young and idealistic people who are in love. Jane essentially signs up for a two-year stint. But it is the ongoing and debilitating disease that ultimately destroys their relationship. And this is truly heartbreaking.

The Theory of Everything is a commendable story of two people whose love and loyalty carry them through decades of adversity, but alas, not forever. The movie is interesting in its focus on one of the greatest minds of our generation but there is a lack of depth here that left me wanting more. On the strength of the performances of Redmayne and Jones, I can award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The two divergent heroes travel a remarkable journey, and I was moved and impressed by these characters’ strength, loyalty, and resilience. The couple does receive help along the way, and ironically two sources of help (Jonathan and Elaine) end up being the source of the couple’s demise. Our two heroes travel a remarkable journey and hence I give them 4 Heroes out of 5.

As you point out, Greg, the villain here is a horrid, destructive force of nature that doctors have labeled ALS. As villains go, this disease is formidable even if it isn’t quite as interesting as, say, a human villain might be. As such, I will award ALS a rating of 2 Villains out of 5.

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The Theory of Everything doesn’t deliver on the promise of its title. I kept comparing this movie with a similar story A Beautiful Mind. There are strong parallels. John Nash was a brilliant mathematician plagued by schizophrenia and was helped and supported by his wife. But Mind succeeded where Theory did not because it focused on the struggle of the hero overcoming his obstacles. Theory got divided between the struggle with the disease and the loss of the relationship. The goals of the movie were divided and that splits our attention. I give Theory just 2 out of 5 Reels.

This is a divergent hero story but unlike other such heroes we’ve reviewed, the focus starts on one hero and the shifts to the other. The first half of the movie is really about Stephen and the second half is about Jane. It’s a weak approach and leaves us wanting more. I give this pair 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally the villain is ALS (or time itself) and is not given much screen time. We watch Stephen lose more and more physical ability, but we really don’t see much about the disease or how he overcomes it. What we do see is how Jane is increasingly overwhelmed having to take care of not just their three children, but Hawking as well. I give ALS 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Birdman ••••

Birdman_posterStarring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárrit,  Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: November 14, 2014

Riggan: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Riggan: Single, P-PP Emotional, Ant (Self Villain)


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

Well, Greg, Michael Keaton once played Batman. Now he plays Birdman.

It’s uncanny the parallels between reality and fantasy in this surreal depiction. Let’s recap.

In the opening scene, we meet an aging actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is levitating in a room while practicing meditation. Riggan once starred in the movies as a superhero named Birdman but he has since fallen on hard times. He is now trying to resurrect his career by writing and starring in his own Broadway play called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan uses his telekinesis abilities to arrange for a light fixture to fall on the play’s co-star who is doing poorly during rehearsals. Riggan and the play’s producer (Zach Galifianakis) are now desperate for a name-brand actor to step in and attract an audience.

Enter Mike (Edward Norton), boyfriend to another actor in the play, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who suggests he take the role. Mike is just off another project and needs a job. Riggan is desperate and can use Mike’s popularity to boost the attendance. Mike wastes no time changing his lines and giving directorial suggestions – not to mention hitting on Riggan’s just-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Riggan has a lot on his plate trying to get through the first rehearsal when Mike succumbs to an outburst because Riggan switched his vodka for water. After all, Mike wants everything on stage to be real, and if his character is drunk, so should he be.

Greg, I’ll come right out and say it: Birdman is one of the year’s best films. The movie is probably not for everyone; it is odd, edgy, and stylish. Birdman pulls us into the tortured life of our hero Riggan Thomson, grabs us, and never lets go. Director Gonzalez Inarritu’s use of continuous, seamless transitions between scenes is partly responsible for the relentless power of this movie. But mostly we’re riveted because of the Pulp-Fictionesque intensity of the characters and their dialogue.

Birdman’s themes are dripping with irony. Thomson is well-accomplished yet haunted by an inner-emptiness. On Thomson’s mirror is a placard that reads, “A thing is a thing, not what people say about the thing.” Yet Riggan is obsessed with what fans and critics think of him and he is most known for the Birdman role that hid his true identity. He saves a note that he received many years earlier from a fan who admired his honesty, yet Riggan wears a toupee and acts for a living. The enigmatic subtitle of this film (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) hints at the value of self-oblivion, but we’re left unsure. This is a movie of such depth that it begs to be seen twice.

Scott, Birdman is the type of movie that makes you feel stupid for watching it. There are so many references to the Broadway scene, hidden meanings (like the sign you mentioned), and inward winks to itself that I couldn’t really follow what was going on. It was so sly and self-aware that it left me dangling trying to understand what the film-makers were trying to say. Everything was some sort of mystical symbol for something else. Riggan obviously didn’t have the ability to levitate or move things with his mind, but there it was. Was it symbolic of something? I don’t know. And was he able to fly? There were several scenes where it looked like he could – or at least believed that he could.

And then there’s the Birdman character itself that is constantly inside Riggan’s head. He’s there to expose the doubts that Riggan has about himself. Then later, the Birdman appears to Riggan. The Birdman keeps reminding Riggan that he should have done that Birdman 4 sequel. This is fine with me, I can follow the symbolism of the Birdman being the voice of doubt for Riggan. But what does it mean when, at the end of the film, Riggan seems free of the voice, but when he looks in the mirror, he sees Birdman taking a shit on the toilet? Is this some sort of high-brow-low-brow commentary? I don’t know. It’s beyond my capabilities to understand.

I think you’re right, Greg, that this movie is a tough nut to crack, but it leaves enough clues to draw me in, make me think, and inspire me. There are similarities between this movie and Toni Morrison’s classic novel, Song of Solomon. We are thrown into a quasi-magical world and encounter the theme of flight as a means of escape. We witness the self-inflicted forces that drag us down and keep us there until circumstances and self-insight liberate us. Both Song of Solomon and Birdman conclude with a seemingly supernatural flight of redemption that signals either hope or doom, depending on how one interprets the ambiguity of the final act.

The villain structure appears to fall under the category of Man versus Self. As you mention, Greg, Riggan is haunted by the voice of his alter-ego Birdman and tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to rise above the dark commands of the voice. Earlier in our review of Whiplash we observed the villain to be a dark mentor figure, and one could say that Riggan’s inner Birdman voice serves as a dark mentor. In this way we have within the same character both a heroic persona and a villainous mentor character.

I think it’s more than just a tough nut to crack, I think it’s purposely cynical both about the audience and the Hollywood system that will nominate it for an Oscar. This is a very slickly produced story that tries so hard to have meaning that the meaning is lost. Which is exactly what is going on in Riggan’s life. He desperately wants the respect of the theater but is still seen as Birdman despite his best efforts.

This is a film that was made for the Hollywood elite to show how much the film-makers understand the inner psyche and problems of Hollywood – how actors are stuck in their roles. But the film is filled with so much introspection that the rest of us are merely along for the ride. In my opinion the purpose of a movie is to entertain the audience, not to share a wink and a nod with your peers. I have no doubt the academy will nominate and possibly even award an Oscar for this film. But for the rest of us, it begs the question: What is this about?

Our hero is a man caught between two worlds. We have his daughter who is telling him that what he really wants to be relevant. But the problem is that none of us is relevant. But then she goes to the extreme and tells him that to be relevant he has to appear on YouTube or Twitter. In other words, get with the times. At the other extreme he’s faced with the movie critic who has vowed to kill his play with the swipe of her pen because he’s not a legitimate actor, just a celebrity. And “we don’t want your kind in our town.”

If there is a physical villain here, it might be Mike. He’s constantly getting in Riggan’s way. Riggan wants to make a play with meaning and Mike keeps telling him to amp-up the reality. I agree with you that Riggan is at war with himself. In the end, he tries to destroy himself, only to create a spectacle that raises him to higher heights. That makes him a redemptive hero.

Birdman is a complex and gripping piece of cinematic art. It is exhilarating, thoughtful, and complex. We are treated to intelligent character exchanges and nimble camera direction. Most notable about Birdman are the extraordinary performances from the cast. Keaton and Norton deserve Oscar nods for their portrayal of two men attempting to overcome powerfully neurotic, loveless lives. These are men who dive into the acting profession because it is a reprieve from the facade of reality. The themes of authenticity and flight to freedom sustain our attention and encourage a second visit to the theater. For me, it’s a no-brainer awarding this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The character of Riggan Thomson is one of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2014. With the death of Robin Williams earlier this year, we are reminded of how actors use their craft to mask their inner demons. For me, Greg, Birdman doesn’t wink at us as much as it winces in pain at us. Riggan’s journey rings true to me and his flight of triumph at the end suggests a successful end to his heroic journey. Again, I give the highest rating of 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

The Birdman villain residing with Riggan is the semi-human face of one’s anchors and limitations. We’re not given much backstory about the origins of Riggan’s inner demons, but we do know that the our hero is burdened by a ruthless absence of self-worth and self-validation. The dark self-mentor figure residing within Riggan lacks the depth of Riggan himself and thus only earns a respectable 3 Villains out of 5.

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For me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to follow. It was life-imitating-art-imitating-life in a tight spiral. I wanted to like this film but it just seemed so interested in being clever that I never got a chance to appreciate it. The camera work was great. It appeared to be shot on one unending reel. So, well-done. But if you want me to enjoy myself at the movies, you need to think about me when you make your work. To paraphrase that great philosopher Peter Griffin, Birdman insists upon itself. I give it just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Riggan is a tortured hero who is wrestling with real existential demons. He’s tormented about his past, and about how he’s forever tied to decisions he made as a younger man. While the past is gone, no one will let him move on. And as he looks to the future he realizes that the number of days ahead of him are much fewer than the days past. If ever he’s going to do something with his life, now is the time. This is a hero I can appreciate. Riggan gets 5 out of 5 Heroes.

If Riggan is at war with himself then the Birdman inside his head is the manifestation of his inner villain. Birdman torments Riggan mercilessly to the point of insanity. I have to admit I don’t know how to rate such a villain. I’ve already rated the hero a full 5, can I rate his mirror image any less? I don’t think so. I award Birdman 5 out of 5 Villains.

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Whiplash ••••

Whiplash_posterStarring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Drama/Music, Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: October 15, 2014

Neiman: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Fletcher: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)


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Scott, I thought Whiplash was a movie about car accidents.

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

Well, there is a bad car accident in this movie. But the story is about much more. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a freshman music student who wants nothing more than to be one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. He is practicing in the halls of Shaffer Conservatory when the imposing music director Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) walks in. He is the conductor of the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble. Fletcher auditions Neiman and allows him in as an alternate drummer. Fletcher drives all his students with both physical and emotional abuse. It isn’t long before Fletcher starts abusing Neiman by throwing chairs and slapping him.

Neiman is obsessed with being the best drummer of all-time. He practices until his fingers bleed onto his drumset. He breaks up with his girlfriend so that he can spend every waking moment fulfilling his dream. Fletcher creates a ruthlessly competitive atmosphere to bring out the best in his players, and Neiman knows he cannot miss a beat if he wants to keep his job on the band. One day when Neiman gets into a bad car accident on the way to a competition, he chooses to arrive at the competition battered and bloody rather than lose his spot. He attacks Fletcher after Fletcher dismisses him, and is expelled from Shaffer. But the two men later cross musical paths one last time.

Whiplash is a battle of wills between a young man who wants to be the best jazz drummer no matter what the cost to him personally, and a man who wants to train the best jazz musician no matter the cost to those he teaches. And this is the difference between a hero and a villain. According to Joseph Campbell (mythologist and author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces) a hero is someone who will do anything he can to get what he wants at his own expense whereas a villain is someone who will do anything he can to get what he wants at someone else’s expense. This sets up our young Neiman as the hero and Fletcher as his villain.

The movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of this. And in some ways I thought it rushed certain plot points. There is a wonderful scene with Neiman and his father (Paul Reiser) at dinner with his uncle and community-college cousins. They’re having a battle of opinions over whether it would be better to live a long happy life or a short and spectacular one. Neiman points out that Charlie Parker was the best jazz musician of all time. The uncle throws in that he lived to be only 35 years old. But Neiman is unrelenting, firing back that while it may be true that Parker lived a short life, he impacted everyone as they are still talking about him around the dining room table.

Whiplash surprised me. It’s a low-budget movie without a huge star in it, and yet it is very effective in capturing the most important steps – and missteps – in life. Whiplash pits two men against each other. One is an underdog, an up-and-coming college kid who will do anything to become the best at his craft. The other is an older, established teacher who will do anything to remain at the top of his profession. You would think that the teacher is the helpful mentor figure here, but you would be (mostly) wrong. These are two characters destined to collide. The kid’s triumph over his evil mentor is the crux of the hero story, and it is both fun and disturbing to watch.

Although I enjoyed this movie, I’m left somewhat confused by its message. Maybe ambiguity about ambition is the point of the movie. On the one hand, Fletcher’s teaching methods inflict emotional damage on his students. On the other hand, we learn that his methods ultimately turn Niemen into the best jazz drummer Fletcher’s ever seen. I’m reminded of Tiger Woods, whose father Earl ruthlessly drilled greatness into Tiger but at great personal cost. Is the movie telling us that this is the only roadmap to greatness? I hope not.

I think you’ve misplaced the role of Fletcher. He is a mentor – but a dark mentor, villainous in his approach. He recognizes talent in the young Neiman and while Neiman is trying to impress his mentor, the mentor refuses to acknowledge any talent the young man may have. Fletcher believes that only by challenging the student will the greatness arise. In the end, Neiman is humiliated by Fletcher and Neiman is ready to quit. But at the last minute he turns around and takes control – not just rising to the challenge Fletcher has laid down – but overpowering him with his intense drumming. Finally, the master has found the student he has been seeking and the student has found the teacher he deserves.

I think this movie is telling us that one can achieve greatness only at huge personal expense. And it is left to each of us to decide if the price of greatness is worth it. As Neiman points out in his dinner-time argument, if greatness were easy, everyone would do it. It’s pretty clear that the moral of the story is that if you want to be great, you have to give it 100% of everything you have. Nobody achieves greatness giving their best 90%.

J. K. Simmons does an absolutely wonderful job portraying the villainous Fletcher. His performance may even be Oscar-worthy. I think you’re right, Greg, that Fletcher is an anti-mentor. Just as we have anti-heroes (e.g., Nightcrawler), we also have anti-mentors who send heroes down dark paths that can lead to ruin. It’s then up to the hero to overcome the dark mentor. In Whiplash, Neiman’s dad plays the good mentor role whose unconditional love is there to counteract Fletcher’s bad mentoring influence. I don’t think we’ve seen dueling mentors at all in the movies this year, and Whiplash shows this battle in full force.

I think this is also dueling father figures, Scott. At the end of the film, Neiman is humiliated and goes running to his father for solace. At the moment he is about to surrender and fall into his father’s arms (going back to the safe and comfortable) he turns instead and fights back against the conflict-ridden father image that Fletcher offers. You’re right, Simmons’ performance is spot-on. It is forceful without being over the top.

This also reminds me of the coming-of-age stories of a teen who has to beat his father at sports to emerge as an independent adult. Also, this is reminiscent of the samurai movies where the student must endure torture from the master in order to discover the hidden kung-fu master within. Paul Moxnes has a family-oriented hero structure that includes the good mentor and the evil mentor or wizard. Fletcher is offering Neiman the road to greatness, but it is a dark path.

Whiplash is a fascinating coming-of-age tale with a dark edge to it. This movie had my full attention for nearly two hours and I give it credit for emotionally moving me and offering surprises at the end. The performances are rock solid and there are also some damn good musical performances throughout. I’m more than happy to award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey follows the classic pattern and throws in a few welcome surprises. Neiman is cast into a dark, dangerous world and doesn’t realize how much he’s in over his head. Fletcher’s mentoring seems destined to hurl Neiman toward destruction, but with love and encouragement from his good mentor, our hero musters up the strength and courage to outwit his evil foe. There is a love interest, a father figure, dueling mentors, and more. I see no missteps here at all, only outstanding performances from the entire cast. I’m giving our hero 5 Heroes out of 5.

As we’ve noted, the villain character is an anti-mentor whose cruel, self-aggrandizing methods come at the expense of our hero. I’m thrilled that Whiplash shows us a rarely-seen brand of villainy. This film teaches us to be wary of how we choose our mentors; not all of them look out for our best interests. Fletcher is a lying, cold-blooded, abuser who doesn’t quite get his full comeuppance at the end but is nevertheless defeated. I’m giving him 5 Villains out of 5.

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Whiplash had very little that left me wanting. I thought the love interest was sort of thrown in with little development, so I didn’t really feel a sense of loss when Neiman dumps his girlfriend. Also, the father/son/uncle/cousins story was not fully developed – but it was enough to show a contrast between the thinking of someone who wants to be excellent versus the rest of us, content to do “just fine.” But these had to be given less time so that the contest between dark mentor and rising star could be investigated to its fullest extent. I give Whiplash 4 out of 5 Reels.

I agree with you, Scott, that Neiman represents the classic hero coming of age story. In the classic tradition of “when the student is ready, the master will appear,” Fletcher and Neiman come together at a time when each is seeking the other. And Neiman makes the transformation from neophyte to master in 120 minutes. I give Neiman 5 Heroes out of 5.

And what a wonderful gem of a villain/mentor we have in Fletcher. He is driven not to be the best, but to find someone he can mold into the best. We get a sense that he is living vicariously through his students, perhaps having given up on his own greatness hoping to live it out through others. This is not a simply evil character, but a textured and even tortured soul. I give Fletcher 5 out of 5 Villains.

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