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American Sniper •••••

American_Sniper_posterStarring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall, Chris Kyle
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

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

Iraquis: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it looks like we get to review a real American hero.


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

Yes, sir. He’s a heroic American Sniper.


We’re introduced to a young Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) who wants nothing more than to be a cowboy. But he’s hampered by the fact that real cowboys exist only in the past. Instead he’s a rodeo cowboy riding bucking broncs and steers. One day he watches the bombing of an American embassy on TV and he signs up for the Navy. It’s not enough to just join the military, he wants to be the best and toughest, so he signs up for the Navy Seals.


Kyle undergoes rigorous Seal training and meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar. They fall in love and get married, but then Kyle is sent on his first tour of duty in Iraq. While sniping at the enemy, Kyle earns a reputation as the best and deadliest shooter in the armed forces. He earns the nickname “The Legend”. When he returns stateside, Taya notices that he is emotionally distant and shows worsening signs of PTSD.


Scott, American Sniper is the true-life story of the deadliest sniper in American military history. Director Clint Eastwood uses all his experience to create an accurate recreation of what it is like to be a modern American warfighter. We are witness to the extreme conditions that our service men and women have to endure to keep America safe. In one scene, we see the kind of dedication Kyle has to his profession. After a full day of maneuvers, Kyle’s commander climbs to the top of a building where Kyle has been sniping and proclaims that it stinks. And stink it does because Kyle hadn’t moved from the spot all that day and had relieved himself right there.


Greg, American Sniper is one of the most emotionally powerful movies of 2014. The movie holds no punches in depicting the horrors of war in graphic and stunning detail. Some viewers might believe that this movie glorifies American honor, valor, and patriotism. Perhaps it does. But the true take-home message of this film is that war exacts a horrible toll on all participants and that there is no winning, only degrees of losing — and everyone loses in a horrid, senseless way.

Bradley Cooper deserves kudos for his remarkable portrayal of a man who is assigned the task of killing people with his sniper rifle. And no one does it better. The hero story here is a fascinating one in that Kyle undergoes at least three transformations. The first is a transformation from a raw, unskilled recruit to a master of sniping. He must sacrifice plenty to get there — his freedom, his family, and his emotional well-being. We then witness Kyle’s second transformtion — his acquisition of PTSD. Then, in a final transformation, we watch him recover from this disorder. The hero’s journey is packed and powerful.


You’re right, Cooper makes a complete transformation into Kyle. Kyle represents all that is good in heroes. He is the best at what he does. He is protective of everyone – his family, his men, and his country. He has a strong moral code. He risks everything to be the protector. There’s a scene early in the film that explains why Kyle is so protective. He gets in a fight defending his brother from a bully. At dinner that night his father explains that there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheep can’t protect themselves, the wolves prey on the sheep, and the sheepdogs protect the sheep. And he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that in his house he was raising sheepdogs. Rarely do we get to see the seeds of heroism as it is portrayed here.


You’re exactly right, Greg. This film gives us insight into the origins of Kyle’s brand of heroism. We see his dad’s influence on the development of his moral code, which is strong on loyalty, country, family, and saving others who need help. We see how the terrorist attack of 9/11 helped shape his patriotic zeal and how sniping was his perfect calling. We see how adapts to the role of “Legend” with natural ease yet remains uncomfortable with any idolatry directed his way.

The villains in this story are primarily the Al Qaeda fighters who are shooting and bombing American troops. But another villain is the disease of PTSD that Kyle must also fight and overcome. The enemy fighters are undeveloped characters who are less interesting in this movie than the PTSD, which emotionally cripples Kyle and other soldiers.


Kyle has a compulsion to return to Iraq over and over again to fight the terrorists. He is obsessed with protecting his flock. Eastwood puts a face on the villainy in Iraq. One such face is “The Butcher” who is a lieutenant to al-Zarqawi – a leading insurgent in Iraq. We see The Butcher maim and kill helpless women and children. There is also a Syrian sniper they call “Mustafa” who kills one of Kyle’s friends. Kyle is determined to kill Mustafa. It takes him four tours to do it and he risks the lives of all the men in his command when he does it.

You’re right about PTSD as another faceless villain in this film, Scott. We see its effect on Kyle. When Kyle returns home he visits a Veteran’s Administration hospital where the doctor recognizes Kyle’s disorder and recommends he talk to some of the other soldiers who have come back from the war. Kyle finds that he can help them recover from their disabilities through the discipline of target shooting. In helping others, Kyle finds a way to continue protecting his military brothers. In giving this protection, he finds his way back into civilian life – and he heals his PTSD.


American Sniper is one of the best films of 2014, showing us with searing intensity the story of a man who becomes the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. This film graphically exposes us to the vicious, blood-splattering realities of war. At times the extreme violence was nearly too much for me to bear. But it was necessary to tell not just Kyle’s story but the story of thousands of our veterans who have bravely faced such conditions. For a gripping and compelling story, I award this movie 5 Reels out of 5.

Kyle’s hero story is a complex one in its portrayal of his transformation into a legendary marksman, and also his transformation from an emotionally traumatized veteran to a recovered healthy civilian. Like all good heroes, Kyle receives assistance along the way both within the military and beyond it. His wife Taya and his children are instrumental in helping him adapt to normal life back home. Kyle’s hero story merits 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The villainy in American Sniper is less well-developed than the storytelling and the development of the heroic characters. We aren’t given any details about the origins of the enemy army or their motivations. We do witness the slow progression of PTSD in Kyle but there we aren’t privy to the details of the disorder’s onset, progression, or treatment. This film only paints its villains with minimal brushstrokes and so I can only award the villains a rating of 3 out of 5.

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American Sniper is not just a great story about a real American hero, but one of the best-made movies we’ve seen this year. Clint Eastwood spends just the right amount of time in Kyle’s backstory so that we understand where he comes from. Then he propels us with Kyle into the special world of being a sniper in Iraq. Kyle’s first kill is a small child and we see both the necessity of the act, and the conflict it creates within him. It’s a crucial moment in the film and Eastwood captures it skillfully. It’s just one of a dozen such well-crafted moments. I give American Sniper 5 out of 5 Reels.

Bradley Cooper is unrecognizable as he completely transforms himself by gaining muscle mass and taking on the mannerisms and vocalisms of Kyle. We truly see Chris Kyle on the screen, not Cooper. We’re taken on the complete arc of the hero’s journey in this movie. We start out with Kyle as a boy being instilled with the heroic values of protecting those weaker than himself. We watch as he becomes a good, then great sniper. And we witness his descent into obsession and affliction with PTSD. Finally, we see him overcome his PTSD and go on to help others. I give Chris Kyle 5 out of 5 Heroes.

There are several villains in this movie. The main villain is the Iraqi bad guys who Kyle is fighting against. We don’t see much of them and I get the sense that director Clint Eastwood assumes we know this villain and it needs no introduction. Still, he gives us a sense of the terrorists by showing us The Butcher and Mustafa who are the face of villainy in American Sniper. We don’t get much of the villain’s journey – but that’s not what this movie was about. For Kyle to be the hero, it’s sufficient to have the mindless evil of terrorism. We’re given even less information about the PTSD villain. We see some of its effects on Kyle, but PTSD is not what this movie was about. I can only give 3 out of 5 Villains for the bad guys in American Sniper.

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Best Villains of 2014

We just got through reviewing the Best Heroes of 2014, Scott. Now let’s pick the Best Villains of 2014.


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

The phrase “best villains” sounds like an oxymoron, but it is actually a paradoxical truth: The better the villain, the more we love to hate him or her.


I picked my villains for how insidious they could be, or how they transformed from one state to another in the film.

Greg’s Top 10 Villains:

10: Time (Interstellar, Imitation Game, The Fault In Our Stars)
9: Disease (Cancer in The Fault In Our Stars & ALS in The Theory of Everything)
8: Koba (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)
7: The Bird (Unbroken)
6: Walter Keane (Big Eyes)
5: Madame Mallory (The Hundred Foot Journey)
4: Racism/George Wallace (Selma)
3: Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)
2: Terence Fletcher (Whiplash)
1: Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler)


For me, a villain’s strength lies in the character’s backstory and depth of development. I love a villain to the extent that we gain an understanding of the origins of his or her villainy. Also, the more complex and realistic the character, the better.

Scott’s Top 10 Villains:

10: Madame Mallory (The Hundred Foot Journey)
9: Trask and the Sentinels (X-Men: Days of Future Past)
8: Alexander Pierce and Brock Rumlow (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
7: Teddy (The Equalizer)
6: Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler)
5: Koba (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)
4: Max Dillon and Harry Osborne (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)
3: Maleficent (Maleficent)
2: Terence Fletcher (Whiplash)
1: Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)


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It looks like we have some villains in common. Let’s review each of our top five villains, starting with my #5 pick – Madame Mallory from The Hundred Foot Journey. When an Indian family moves in across from her French restaurant and opens their own restaurant, she is appalled. The newcomers have invaded her space and have interfered with her goal of raising her 4-star restaurant to 5-stars. She starts to sabotage the new restaurant by buying out all their ingredients at the local farmer’s market. The tit-for-tat battle increases until one of her chefs attempts to burn the Indian restaurant down and injures their young chef. This is when Madame Mallory realizes that she has gone too far and has a change of heart. She takes in the young chef and teaches him the ways of fine French cuisine and becomes his mentor. I loved this “redemptive villain” and felt we got a nice look at her backstory as well as a look into her inner self.


Madame Mallory was my 10th most favorite movie villain in 2014. What I loved about her character was her transformation from villain to hero. The reasons for her original villainy are clearly spelled out; she feels threatened by the new upstart Indian restaurant that has opened across the street. But gradually she reveals her human side and is won over by the good nature of the Indian family. This change of heart struck me as both realistic and inspiring.

My #5 choice was Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Koba portrays a character that exudes tragic realism. He is an ape who has been abused and tortured by the humans. Koba has lost the ability to trust and carries around a great deal of anger and a need for revenge. As a result, he cannot fathom Caesar’s open-mindedness about striking up a positive relationship with a group that once physically and emotionally scarred his fellow apes. Koba’s character struck a chord with me, as his experience illustrates a central reason why there is so much inter-group conflict in our world today.


I rated Koba as my #8 villain of 2014. As you point out, we get some of the reasons for Koba’s hostility towards humans. Eventually, his hatred turns him against Caesar and he attempts to murder him and sets fire to the village – blaming the humans. We see in Koba very real and human actions and I enjoyed his descent into villainy, treachery, and betrayal.


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My #4 pick is the institutional racism from the movie Selma. Sometimes it’s hard to portray an idea as a character in a movie. To deal with this, Selma uses Alabama Governor George Wallace as the face of racism. Wallace refuses to intervene in anything that happens in his state that interferes with Blacks getting the right to vote. Not only that, but he won’t reign in the sheriff of Selma, Jim Clark, who uses his posse of men to beat and even kill innocent Blacks. Racism is a blind and mindless villain which Selma shined a bright light on.


The racist hatred of Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover is certainly vile, but it didn’t make my top-10 list. For me, the movie Selma was more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s heroic and courageous fight against those racist institutional barriers than it was about those barriers themselves. Still, I understand your inclusion of this important and tragic phenomenon in American history (and, sadly, in America today as well).

My #4 pick was a pair of villains in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Max Dillon and Harry Osborne. This villain pairing impressed me because the filmmakers went out of their way to show us the genesis of their evil. Dillon and Osborne both turned to villainy because they were adversely affected by some traumatic event. They didn’t start out evil; they allowed their pain to skew their moral judgment and determine their life purpose. In this way they are similar to Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I don’t mean to imply that trauma always leads to villainy — consider the story of Batman, who as a child witnessed his parents’ murder. Somehow, heroes use pain to better themselves and the world, whereas villains use pain to avenge the world.


That’s a good observation. I agree that these characters (and most characters in the Marvel universe) are given better backstories. I didn’t vote these guys in because I felt we had seen this story before in dozens of other superhero movies. There were other villains this year who more capably caught my imagination.


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Among them was my #3 pick, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. She starts out the film looking very much like the victim of a murder. Her diary entries all point to her husband Nick as a controlling, narcissistic, and unfaithful husband. Just when you’re ready to mentally convict Nick, it’s revealed that Amy is alive and well and is framing Nick from afar. It’s such a shock, and so skillfully delivered we’re blown away. We’re then led through Amy’s vindictive plot step-by-step until she kills an ex-boyfriend and claims he kidnapped and raped her. Amy returns home to Nick and reveals that she’s pregnant with his child (through sperm she froze) and has roped him into a life with her. Amy Dunne is a cold and calculating villain that was as frightening as any since Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.


Amy Dunne from Gone Girl was my #1 movie villain of the year. 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 in the movies in 2014. I consider her to be Hollywood’s most memorable villain we’ve seen in years. Her level of malevolence rivals that of Hannibal Lecter. She tops my list because of her magnetism, her backstory, and her ability to surprise us with one chilling act of evil after another.

My #3 pick is the character Maleficent from the movie of the same name. The film is a prequel to Sleeping Beauty and it injects some surprising complexity to the so-called evil queen in that classic fairy tale. We see how Maleficent starts out as quite a benevolent presence in the forest and only turns toward darkness when she is betrayed and disfigured by an evil man. We also are treated to Maleficent’s restoration to her true good self by the transformative power of love. This theme of love having the ability to change people is also present in movies such as Interstellar. Maleficent is a round tripper protagonist, having undergone an evolution from hero to villain then back to hero again.


I so heartily agree with you – except that I categorize Maleficent as a hero, not a villain. She starts out good, is betrayed and through this hurt falls into villainy. Then, through the love of a child, she turns good again. We aren’t treated to this kind of hero’s journey (or is it a villain’s journey) often. I would have included her in my Villain’s list, too – but she was my #3 hero of 2014.


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My #2 pick is Terrence Fletcher from Whiplash. Young Andrew Neiman is a first-year music student at Shaffer Conservatory when he meets Fletcher. Fletcher is the conductor of the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble. All Neiman wants is to be the greatest jazz drummer of all time. So when Fletcher invites him to take second seat drum, he jumps at the chance. But it isn’t long before we realize that Fletcher is an extreme perfectionist. He screams at the students when they make the smallest mistake. He hurls a chair at Neiman’s head when he is out of rhythm and slaps him around. By the end of the story, Neiman is demoralized and ready to quit. But he goes back on-stage and drums his heart out – effectively forcing Fletcher to accept him as his drummer. Fletcher is the first villain/mentor I have ever seen, and is a character that will live in my mind for a long, long time.


Terrence Fletcher from Whiplash is my #2 pick, also. Fletcher is an anti-mentor, the type of character who send heroes down dark paths that can lead to ruin. It’s then up to the hero to overcome the dark mentor. Fletcher is a true scumbag and his cruel, self-aggrandizing methods come at the expense of our hero. 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.


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Finally we come to my #1 pick: Louis Bloom of Nightcrawler. Louis starts out as a naive low-level thief of hubcaps and manhole covers. When he stumbles upon a film crew taping late-night accidents, he realizes that he is capable of delivering the same content. Louis then enlists the aid of sidekick intern Rick to work the night. Louis realizes he has to eliminate the competition so cuts the brake line of the van of his nearest foe. Finally, he stages a shooting and films his sidekick getting murdered. Louis Bloom has a chilling villain’s journey where he starts out amoral and falls deeper and deeper into depravity. Since he’s the main character of the story, I would normally call him the hero. But since he’s a villain, I categorize Louis Bloom as the anti-hero.


Louis Bloom of Nightcrawler didn’t make my top 5 list of villains but there’s no doubting the fact that he is Evil with a capital E. Bloom is a classic sociopath who lacks a conscience and has no empathy, remorse, or moral core. He uses people and hurts others to obtain his goals. Nightcrawler is a movie about villainy and how it blossoms. The film shows us how villainy is allowed to prosper when we allow it to prosper, when we condone it, when we cooperate with it, and when we place money ahead of basic principles of decency. I considered including Bloom in my top-5 but we are never told how he become such a scumbag, and without any backstory I just couldn’t include him in my list.


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That brings us to the end of another year of movies, heroes, and villains. Tune in throughout 2015 as we continue to review movies and their heroes. We will keep looking at the villains in the movies, and we will start looking at the supporting characters beside them as well. If you haven’t already, check out our Best Movies of 2014 and the Best Heroes of 2014.


Best Heroes of 2014

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

Greg, we’ve reviewed the Best Movies of 2014. Now it’s time to review the Best Heroes of the year, too.


We saw some great heroes this year, Scott. Let’s jump in


To evaluate this year’s movie heroes, I examined the features of the classic hero journey, especially whether the hero transforms as a result of encounters with allies, mentors, father figures, villains, and love interests.  Here’s my top 10 heroes list:

Scott’s Top 10 Heroes

10: Maleficent (Maleficent)
9: Chris Kyle (American Sniper)
8: Katniss (The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part I)
7: Mason (Boyhood)
6: Vincent and Oliver (St. Vincent)
5: Riggan (Birdman)
4: Cooper (Interstellar)
3: Hazel (The Fault in Our Stars)
2: Triss (Divergent)
1: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma)


I also looked to the hero’s journey for guidance as well as transformation – not necessarily for the hero, but transformation in those around the hero.

Greg’s Top 10 Heroes

10: Riggan (Birdman)
9: Cooper (Interstellar)
8: Katniss (The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part I)
7: Neiman (Whiplash)
6: Triss (Divergent)
5: Hazel (The Fault in Our Stars)
4: Bilbo (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
3: Maleficent (Maleficent)
2: Alan Turing (The Imitation Game)
1: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma)


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You’ve generated a good list, Greg — almost as good as mine! Let’s begin with my #5 choice, Riggan, who is the hero of Birdman. One of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2014, Riggan is an actor who uses his craft to mask his inner demons. He is obsessed with restoring a heroic image that is forever lost, and he must learn to “fly” in a different direction — literally. Riggan’s transformative growth rings true to me and his inspiring flight at the end suggests a magical, triumphant conclusion to his epic journey.


Riggan only made the #10 spot on my list. I liked watching Riggan work through his issues and struggle with being an absent father. He was successfully painted as a tortured man, constantly arguing with his inner Birdman. However, I was troubled with his final resolution to his problems. He shoots himself in the “beak.” I have to wonder if he was trying to kill himself and failed – and that somehow led to his revelation? I’d have to watch the film again to decide. Ultimately, he was at peace with who he was, and that’s a heroic transformation.

My #5 pick was Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars. she starts out in this film as being reclusive and afraid to love others. She meets a young man, Gus, who pulls her out of her shell and gets her to live life while she has it. Tragically, Gus dies, leaving Hazel to feel lost without her soulmate. But finally, she realizes that her time with Gus was worth a lifetime of love and emerges full of life and love.


Hazel is my #3 choice, Greg. I enjoy watching her character become transformed from the influence of Augustus and also of Anne Frank, whose recorded voice in Amsterdam opens Hazel’s heart. The hero journey evokes painful emotions but somehow manages to be uplifting, too. Hazel is an unforgettable hero, and Gus is her unforgettable mentor, lover, friend, and symbol of life and hope. The hero and her friends, allies, and companions are all fully present and are quite moving.


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My #4 choice is Cooper from Interstellar. When it comes to hero storytelling, you can’t do much better than this film. Cooper follows the classic hero journey almost to the letter. He is sent out into space (the unfamiliar world) and he is enlisted with the task of saving all of humanity. All heroes are missing some quality, and in Cooper’s case he is missing an understanding of what binds the universe together. The answer is not unlike what Dorothy discovers in The Wizard of Oz — the answer is love, home, and gravity.


I picked Cooper as my #9 hero of the year. Cooper has all the qualities you mention, Scott. He has a deep and abiding love for his daughter. So much so that he risks never seeing her again to save her life. Then, when all seems lost, he returns to her through time and space to send her a message that will either save humanity, or doom it to failure. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one that any father can relate to.

My #4 pick was Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit trilogy. I have to admit that I cheated a bit on this one, as I was rating Bilbo based on his transformation from the beginning of the trilogy, through the end. He starts out as shy, repressed, even fearful of the great beyond. He goes on his journey and takes on the characteristics of the mentor characters he meets. He returns to the shire a confident, strong master of the two worlds. It’s a great Hero’s Journey that people return to again and again.


Bilbo didn’t make my top-10 list for the reason you mention, Greg. I will grant you that Bilbo’s story, in its entirety, follows the classic hero’s journey, but this film only shows us the final leg of that journey. Consequently, I didn’t see him change or evolve much in this particular movie. But there’s no doubt that his character, as a whole, undergoes dramatic growth and is one of the greatest heroes in all of literature.


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We already talked about your #3 pick, Scott. So let’s look at my #3 – Maleficent. This was a great story of a character who has traditionally been a villain in the Disney universe. Maleficent is given a full backstory here. She starts out innocent and good – the queen of the fairies. And then is betrayed by the man she loves. She turns evil and casts a spell on the baby princess – but over time learns to love her. She then returns to goodness at the end of the story when she saves the princess. It’s a great “round trip” for our hero, one of the first such stories we’ve reviewed.


Maleficent was my #10 choice. As you point out, her heroic journey follows some non-traditional twists and turns, and underscores the idea that there exists a fine line between heroism and villainy. You and I have had many long discussions about that blurry line and Maleficent shows us that often the same person can occupy the role of both hero and of villain.


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Next we turn to my #2 choice, Triss from Divergent. Shailene Woodley is outstanding in her role as Triss, a young woman on a voyage of self-discovery. I found Triss to have far more depth and nuance than Katniss showed in the first two installments of The Hunger Games. Triss spends this movie trying to reconcile others’ expectations of her with her own quest for self-knowledge and self-growth. Divergent has everything one would want in a hero journey here. Triss attracts allies among the Dauntless and is mentored by both her mother and a colleague named Four, who also serves as a love interest. Challenges both physical and intellectual in nature are met and resolved in sometimes surprising ways. The hero journey here is packed to delicious satisfaction.


I liked Triss, too, Scott. Unfortunately I thought her character was a bit of a copy of Katniss, and so she didn’t rise to my top 5. Also, she was a bit too reliant on the men in her life. I did like her transformation from uncertain young girl to a fully realized hero by the end of the story. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her in the coming years.

My #2 slot is occupied by Alan Turing from The Imitation Game. I had some trouble reconciling the events in the movie with actual history. But that doesn’t change my opinion of Turing and his accomplishment. Breaking the Enigma code was quite possibly the event that won the war for the Allies. The whole world owes a debt to Turing that can never be repaid. Turing is a tragic hero because he ultimately takes his own life when the country he saved turns on him for his homosexual lifestyle. It’s a compelling story that I won’t soon forget.


Turing didn’t crack my top 10 but I agree that his hero story is a stirring one. The man has many demons to overcome and makes many enemies. Does his character become transformed the way a good hero should? Perhaps not. Ironically, his refusal to change may be the key to his heroism. Maybe this is a tale about a British society that refuses to transform as much as it is a tale about a hero who shouldn’t need to.


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My #1 hero is Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma This film is a powerful portrayal of King’s methods (based on those of Gandhi) of bringing about peaceful social change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in terrific detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move an entire society. The hero story is unique in that it’s less about a hero changing than it is about a hero helping everyone around him change. King guided an entire nation toward moral and spiritual maturity.


We’re in full agreement, here Scott. The thing that impressed me most about King is what he risked. That is something that separates ordinary people from heroes. Martin Luther King, Jr. risked everything to create a more equal status for Blacks in a White-ruled America. He risked his relationship with his wife, time with his children, his standing in the Black community, and even his own life. Selma shows us not only his strength and determination, but also his fears, concerns, and weaknesses. This reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a person like so many of us. And it was his inability to stand by and watch that made him a hero. And so can we all be heroes.


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Well, Scott, that brings us to the end of 2014’s best heroes. I’m looking forward to presenting our findings on what makes a great hero in our upcoming book Reel Heroes: Volume 2: The Villains where we’ll also look at what makes a great villain.


Stay tuned for our list of the Best Villains in the movies in 2014!

 

Best Movies of 2014

Scott, it’s time to look back at the best movies we saw in 2014.


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

There was much to admire in the movie industry in 2014. Let’s compare our individual top 10 lists.


For me, I listed my favorite films by how badly I wanted to see them again. I also ranked them based on how much I was entertained. Here’s my list:

Greg’s Top 10

10: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
9: The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay: Part 1
8: The Fault in Our Stars
7: Maleficent
6: Jersey Boys
5: Interstellar
4: Gone Girl
3: Nightcrawler
2: Whiplash
1: Selma


I based my list on the depth of the story and the quality of the filmmaking. Also factored in, of course, was the juiciness of the heroes and villains in the movie. Here’s my list:

Scott’s Top 10

10: Boyhood
9: The Fault in our Stars
8: American Sniper
7: The Imitation Game
6: Unbroken
5: Whiplash
4: St. Vincent
3: Gone Girl
2: Selma
1: Birdman


That’s a great list. I see a few there that were just outside my top 10. It would take too long to go into detail on all 20, so let’s just compare notes on each of our top 5.


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You selected Whiplash as your #5 pick, which was my #2. I was captivated by the intensity of J.K. Simmons’ performance as the perfectionist villain/mentor. It was a complex film all about the strength of the commitment of the lead (Miles Teller) to stand up to the unrelenting bullying of his teacher. I was totally sucked in and would definitely see this film again.


Whiplash is a fascinating coming-of-age tale with a dark edge to it. A beastly mentor figure attempts to hurl our hero toward destruction, but with love and encouragement from his good mentor, our hero musters up the strength and courage to outwit his evil foe.

Let’s now turn to your #5 pick, Interstellar. This movie didn’t crack my top 10 list but as a science fiction buff I enjoyed it immensely, Greg. Interstellar made me think, not just feel. We are treated to fabulous CGI effects, but more importantly we are compelled to ponder deeply about our place in the universe and what lengths we would go to save our planet. The integration of love and gravity as the glue that binds us all together is an inspiring take-home message.


It’s true, Scott, this movie was a technical marvel. And it held itself up to high scientific standards. It was made with the best understanding we have today of what interstellar travel would look like. Plus, it was mind-bending in the ways of time distortion and time travel. But for me the clincher was the bond between father and daughter. As the father of two girls, that hit home for me more than anything else. And that’s why Interstellar was in my top 5.


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Appearing at #4 on my list is Gone Girl. This was a surprising film, especially if you went in without having read the novel. It starts out looking very much like something out of the tabloids where the husband is a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. Then at the halfway point, we learn that it was the controlling wife who was framing her husband for her own death. The movie takes a sharp turn and the villain and victim are reversed. That made for a thrilling roller coaster ride.


Gone Girl is #3 on my list of Best Movies of 2014. This film is a stylish portrayal of love, treachery, and murderous revenge. It 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. The film also features 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.

Our next movie is St. Vincent, which occupies #4 on my top-10 list. This film 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. It’s a poignant tale of an unlikely pairing of people who save each other. St. Vincent is also a great buddy hero story, with young Oliver mentoring Vincent, his mother, and his entire school about the definition and complexity of sainthood.


I liked St. Vincent, too, but not as much as you did. Bill Murray starts out looking like a slob and ne’er do well. But in the end we peel away the onion skin to reveal a sweet core. As much as I liked this film, I didn’t think I’d get anything more from a second look, so it didn’t make my top-10.


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At the number 3 spot on my list is Nightcrawler which fascinated me (much more so than it did you, I think). We’re introduced to naive yet unsavory Louis Bloom who wants to get into the video news business. We follow him as he becomes more and more corrupt, staging events so that they become newsworthy – even the death of his partner. It was a wicked anti-hero story that was crafted so well that I want to see it again to watch Louis’s descent into villainy and to see how it was accomplished.


Greg, I was just as fascinated as you were by Nightcrawler. The film was impeccably made but I could not bear to honor a movie that shows us two relentless hours of the devil in human form at work on the streets of Los Angeles. I was disturbed by the main character — notice that I cannot call him a hero — and his wanton disregard for human life. It was disheartening that no heroic character in the film could even come close to combating him. Our main character is pure evil running roughshod over everyone in his path. Like a cancer, he just grows and grows in his size and power, and he is shown flourishing in the end. The absence of any hero story here motivated me to omit this film from my top 10 list.


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Our next movie is Selma, which I ranked as the #2 movie of the year while you gave it top billing. Never have I seen a better demonstration of the need, rationale, and effectiveness of nonviolent demonstration. It could be an ideal instruction manual for those wanting to emulate King’s (and Gandhi’s) model of bringing about peaceful sociocultural change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in fabulous detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move mountains.


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Yes, Scott, all that is true. But the reason I gave Selma my #1 spot is because it echoes the problems we still see today. We still have voter obstruction through the imposition of unbalanced voter identification requirements. And we still see the brutal beating and killing of people of color by police – without due process of the perpetrators of that violence. Selma reminds us of the battles that have been won and the battles we have yet to fight.

And that brings us to your #1 pick for the year: Birdman. It didn’t make my list of the ten best because I really didn’t want to see it again. It was a skillfully made movie with a lot of subtext and art. But it was a very huge wink to itself and the Hollywood community. It was incredibly self-indulgent and I felt that it wasn’t made for me, the average movie viewer, but made for the Hollywood elite. It wasn’t even released to the general public until the new year so that “everyman” could see it. Despite its technical achievement, I felt alienated and I won’t be going back for seconds.


Greg, my number 1 choice, Birdman, reminded me so much of one of my favorite novels, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. This film 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 (for me) encourage a second visit to the theater.


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So there you have it. Our top 10 lists overlap somewhat but there are some key differences, too. Overall, I would give the movies of 2014 a rating of 3 and a half Reels out of 5. The quality of films started out poorly but finished fairly strong. I believe 2013 was a slightly better year in the movies; I’d give 2013 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5. You can read our reviews of the films of 2013 in our first book: Reel Heroes: Volume 1.


Scott, I think your summation matches the industry assessment as well. The 2013 domestic box office receipts tipped the scales at $10.9 billion. Whereas the 2014 income figures are around $9.8 billion. While we had a crop of good films this year, many of them didn’t arrive until Oscar season. The 2014 crowd of summer popcorn films had less staying power than in 2013, as well.

We’ll be collecting our reviews of 2014 (plus our insights into what makes a great hero and villain) in our upcoming book Reel Heroes: Volume 2: The Villains (due out in March). Until then, follow us as we review the movies of 2015 which will focus not only on heroes and villains, but also on supporting characters. And look for our review of the Best Heroes of 2014 and Best Villains of 2014.

Big Eyes •••1/2

Big_Eyes_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

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

Walter Keane: Single, N-NN Moral, Ant (Irredeemable Deceptive Lone Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, I thought we were going to see a movie about Big Guys?


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

No, Greg. This movie is about popular paintings of oversized ocular cavities. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to divorcee and single mother Margaret (Amy Adams) who draws caricatures for a dollar on the boardwalk. It isn’t long before fellow painter and realtor Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) takes an interest in Margaret’s work. She paints waifs with mournful, oversized eyes. Walter and Margaret soon marry and Walter starts selling his own paintings and hers in a local jazz club. Through a misunderstanding, Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings as his own (they are signed “Keane” after all).


Gradually, Margaret’s paintings gain a following. The following soon turns into a phenomenon, and the Keanes’ acquire fame and fortune. All this time, Walter has Margaret believing that it’s in their best financial interest for everyone to continue believing that Walter is the talented creator of the big eyes paintings. Margaret knows the deception is morally wrong but it is not until she reads some religious literature that she realizes what she must do. When Margaret comes clean, the world at first disbelieves her, requiring that she take Walter to court for the truth to be revealed


Scott, Big Eyes is a nice, quiet, engaging look at the artist behind a marketing genius. While the main character is Margaret Keane, it’s her evil husband Walter who makes things happen. Undeniably, Margaret is a rare talent. But it isn’t until she meets Walter that her art makes an impact on society. Walter is a liar and a cheat. He tries to pass off some French painter’s street paintings as his own – and then does the same with Margaret’s work. At first Margaret sees Walter as a savior, but as the movie moves along, Walter relegates Margaret to the attic where she hides her work not only from the public, but her own daughter. Margaret begins to take on the appearance of a sweatshop slave with no friends and few acquaintances.


Big Eyes was eye-opening is its portrayal of the subjugation of women prior to the feminist movement of the 1960s. Our hero Margaret finds her life and career constrained by a society that empowers White men at the expense of women. In some ways, I see parallels to Selma, another fine movie that we’ve seen and reviewed this year. Both these movies focus on how a hero goes about achieving justice. Margaret must break down barriers, both societal and personal, that are denying her proper recognition for her work.

The hero story in Big Eyes emerges quite nicely. Margaret starts out lacking self-confidence and thus allows herself to be mistreated and taken advantage of by her morally bankrupt husband Walter. She begins to derive strength and chutzpah from her best friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) and from her teenage daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur). These mentoring figures, along with a pair of evangelicals who arrive at her doorstep at the right time, help Margaret find the courage to stand up for herself. My only quibble is that the movie never shows us the aftermath of Margaret’s final courtroom redemption.


I found Big Eyes a very paint-by-numbers biopic. While you’re right that there is a transformation for our hero, Margaret, it comes from a very strange place – and occurs late in the film. I found it odd that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the catalyst for Margaret’s decision to finally divorce her husband and petition the courts for her share of their fortune. They are known for their belief that women should be subservient to their husbands, so it was an ironic turn.

The villain in this film is clearly Walter Keane and he undergoes an interesting transformation himself. While he always comes off as a sort of used-car-salesman-type, he seems genuinely caring for Margaret at first. It isn’t until his marketing talents bring in millions for the couple that he becomes evil. At one point he threatens Margaret with her life and even attempts to burn her house down. This convinces Margaret that she has to leave the relationship and moves to Hawaii.


At first I thought Walter might be the type of transforming villain who starts out as mildly evil but then grows increasingly evil as time goes on. We’ve seen this type of evil transformation in an earlier movie from 2014 called Nightcrawler. But the scene in which we discover that Walter has faked his paintings of Parisian streets changed my mind about Walter. It turns out he was a scumbag from the start, but we just didn’t know it. Certainly Margaret didn’t know it until far too late.

Walter is simply a lone villain with sociopathic tendencies who exploited his wife to achieve his own selfish aims. Perhaps he can be categorized as somewhat of a mysterious villain in that we don’t know the extent of his evil ways until the latter half of the film. We don’t gain much of an understanding of why Walter is such a lousy schmuck but then this movie isn’t about him as much as it is a story of Margaret’s transformation from doormat to courageous hero.


Big Eyes is an entertaining movie about an artistic phenomenon of the 1960s. While Amy Adams does a fine job in the role of Margaret Keane, I thought Christoph Waltz really stole the show with his rich interpretation of Walter Keane. This is where art imitates life as it was Walter who overshadowed Margaret in real life. I enjoyed myself in this film, but I don’t think I’d get much more from it on a second viewing. I give Big Eyes just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Margaret Keane is a quiet hero with not a lot of backbone. We see her transform from an acquiescent, obedient wife to a woman of her own. I was happy to see her overcome her insecurities and realize her self-worth. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Walter Keane was the more interesting character in my mind. He was colorful, extraverted, and entrepreneurial. There was a lot to admire about his accomplishments. But he gained his wealth and status at the expense of Margaret’s talents. He was talentless and built himself up on Margaret’s skills. I liked the emergence of Walter’s behavior from somewhat shady to downright evil so I give him 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Big Eyes is an interesting examination of how easily women could lose their identities and their dignity in the era of male chauvinism and gender inequality. It is also a fine story of a woman’s ability to muster up the moral and physical courage to confront male evil and defeat it. This movie is entertaining and features great performances from all involved, particularly Amy Adams. I award this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

As I’ve noted, the hero story is capably constructed as it features Margaret’s transformation from a frightened and exploited sweatshop worker to a fierce social and legal champion of her own rights. The hero journey is not portrayed to the fullest extent yet still merits 4 Heroes out of 5.

The villain Walter Keane is quite a selfish bastard who gets his comeuppance in a final courtroom scene that reveals him to be laughably inept. I enjoyed watching Walter rise in his evil ways and then fall and shatter like Humpty Dumpty. Still, we aren’t told much about what made Walter such a douchebag and so I must limit my rating of his villainy to 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Selma •••••

Selma_posterStarring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Paul Webb
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: January 9, 2015

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

Racism: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Institutional Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, we just saw another movie about the Civil Rights movement.


Selma was both educational and entertaining. Let’s recap:


Selma opens with Martin Luther King, Jr., (David Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He realizes that a lot work remains to be done in achieving racial equality in America. The most pressing issue for him is to abolish restrictions to Black voting in the South. In the 100 years since the Civil War, White-run communities have erected barriers to Black voter registration. King meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to ask for help, but Johnson tells him that the war on poverty is his top priority.


Meanwhile, we’re transported to Birmingham, Alabama where the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed, killing 4 young girls. This is the catalyst that brings Martin Luther King, Jr. to Alabama to begin a movement to change voting laws that prevent Blacks from registering to vote. King understands that voting is the path to true equality because the leaders who look the other way when racist events occur don’t fear being voted out of office.

King meets opposition from the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who has already been working on grassroots measures to increase voting rights. King explains to the SNCC leaders that they need a strategy that is non-violent and forces the White leaders to expose their violent nature, thus providing a news-worthy event that wins uninvolved Whites all over the nation to their cause.


Greg, Selma should be required viewing for all schoolchildren. For that matter, all adults need to see Selma, even those adults who know their Civil Rights Movement history. You and I know from doing years of improvisational work that it is always more powerful to show rather than to tell. It isn’t enough to know that Blacks were once deterred from voting. We need to be shown how, and that’s what Selma does so well. We see the discriminatory practice and its consequences in vivid, horrid detail.

Selma’s greatest strength, in my view, is the way in which it portrays the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We see time and again how King operates at a higher moral plane than everyone else around him. He knows what is right and he knows how to utilize the power of nonviolent demonstration to achieve his noble ends. King is the ultimate mentor figure, and Selma is less of a hero story than it is a story about how a heroic mentor wields his influence. King serves as a mentor figure to his friends in the Civil Rights Movement and also as mentor to President Johnson himself. King himself doesn’t change but he helps others transform to a higher level of moral understanding.


Selma is, indeed, instructive on so many levels. Unlike other movies about Blacks rising up to take their place as equals in society, Selma does not need the benevolent White person to make that change happen. When we look at such movies as The Blind Side, or last year’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson story), we see that Blacks make their advances thanks to the help of a White benefactor. Selma paints the clear picture that King was a true leader and tactical wizard that made the Civil Rights movement work.

Scott, you and I have noted several times over the last couple of years that there are some heroes who don’t transform but who transform those around them. As you pointed out, King is just such a hero. I call him a Catalytic Hero because he is the catalyst for change in his followers and in society as a whole.

One thing we do see in King, vividly, is his awareness of the constant danger he is in. We watch him become fearful of what will happen to him and his followers if they make a misstep. At one point he is on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with hundreds of followers marching behind him. The Alabama State Troopers part their blockade for him and the marchers to pass. He takes to his knees and prays for guidance. He makes the decision not to cross the bridge because he fears another disastrous beating as previously occurred. He is increasingly aware of the risks he is taking and their impending consequences.


You’re right, Greg, that this is one movie about Black progress in society that doesn’t involve a White person precipitating the change. President Johnson is portrayed as the White man who is approached for help and for political reasons is reluctant to offer such help. I’m reminded of that great 2012 film Lincoln in which a President moves the nation slowly toward legal interracial equality. In contrast to Lincoln, which casts President Lincoln in a positive light, Selma is less kind toward Johnson, who is seen as unnecessarily slow and plodding in leading the nation toward equality.

The villains in this story are longstanding institutional barriers such as the Jim Crow laws that took advantage of legal loopholes to ensure racial injustice. The two most prominent faces of racial prejudice in Selma are the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Tim Roth). President Johnson is also seen as an obstructionist and oppositional character but over time we witness Johnson grow morally and courageously toward Martin Luther King’s view of the world. Like nearly all villainous characters, Hoover and Wallace do not budge from their evil ways.


You’ve covered the villains pretty well here, Scott. We also see that King is facing down his own imperfections. The FBI sends a tape to his wife Coretta Scott King with the sounds of a man and woman in the throes of passion. The voice on the tape threatens to expose King as an adulterer. Coretta confronts King who has to admit his infidelity, but she stays with him. This reminds us that our heroes aren’t always perfect. It also points out that Coretta is a heroic character too, as she is the glue that holds King together.

I would like to point out that this film in no way speeds along in its storytelling. It is thoughtful and deliberate. There are many silences in this film. But they are suspenseful. I never felt that the film was lagging. It is a classic example of how negative space is an integral part of the overall picture. Another thing I want to praise Selma for is its excellent telling of a true-life event. So often biopic films want to tell everything that happens in the hero’s life. Here, we see that the writers focused on one specific event. In telling this one chapter in King’s life we are exposed to a number of King’s abilities: humanity, tactics, leadership, negotiation, not to mention his hopes and dreams and inner turmoil. This is a rich story well told.


Selma is one of the year’s best films. In no other movie have I seen a better demonstration of the mechanics and effectiveness of nonviolent demonstration. It could be an ideal instruction manual for those wanting to emulate King’s (and Gandhi’s) model of bringing about peaceful sociocultural change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in terrific detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move mountains. For it’s depiction of a pivotal moment in U.S. history, this movie earns 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is unique in that it’s less about a hero changing than it is about a hero helping everyone around him change. You call him a catalytic hero, Greg, and that term is as fine as any to describe a mentor. Mentors help other people become heroes. King helped Johnson do the right thing, and in fact he helped an entire nation grow up morally and spiritually. King also possessed all eight of The Great Eight attributes of heroes. This powerful heroic mentor story earns 5 Heroes out of 5.

The institutional villainy here is well told, and we are led to despise the faces of racial prejudice and discrimination in the form of George Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover. None of these villainous forces are well-developed but they needn’t be in this movie. Selma is more about the heroic efforts to overcome the evil of racial hate than it is about the hate itself. So I will give the villains here 3 Villains out of 5.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Selma is how it echoes the challenges of race relations in America today. We are still seeing voter identification laws passed which limit the ability of the poor and impoverished to cast their votes. We are still wrestling with police violence against people of color – and how the current institutions protect these actions. Selma shows us that a lot has been won in efforts to afford equality to all, but it also reminds us that we still have more work to do. I give Selma 5 out of 5 Reels.

King leads by example and changes the people around him and people all across the nation. We are witness to his strength and force of character. We are also shown that our heroes are not always perfect. Often, Scott, you and I look for a transformation in the hero, but the transformation King induces in others is second to none. I give Martin Luther King, Jr. 5 out of 5 Heroes.

In our study of villains over the last year we’ve seen a lot of “mastermind” villains – villains who keep safe in the shadows and have others do their dirty work for them. We definitely see that here. George Wallace as the governor of Alabama has the power to reign in the police and to force the registrars to accept Black applications for voter registration, but he chooses not to. He wants to uphold the institution of racial supremacy. We’re witness to the mindless anger and hatred of the crowds in Selma, Alabama. It’s a difficult image to watch because it was real. I give the mastermind and institutional villains 4 out of 5 Villains.

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The Imitation Game •••1/2

The_Imitation_Game_posterStarring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenplay: Andrew Hodges, Graham Moore
Biography/Drama/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

Turing: Single, P-P Mental, Pro (Untransformed Lone Hero)

Nazis: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

We just watched another World War II flick, Greg. This one is quite educational.


Benedict Cumberbatch does a good imitation of Alan Turing. Let’s recap:


We meet young Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician, logician, and cryptologist. Turing is a socially awkward man who is fascinated with communication codes. He is applying for a position in the British military to help the Allied forces crack the coding system used by Nazi Germany. Turing is placed in charge of a small group of other brilliant minds who are assigned the task of deciphering the Nazi’s “Enigma” codes.


Things are not that easy for Turing. The commanding officer expects the code breakers to decipher messages in 24 hours. But the cipher codes change each day. Turing believes that he must build a machine that will determine the Enigma settings automatically. This effectively breaks the Enigma code permanently.

But Turing needs help. He creates a math puzzle that is published in the British newspapers to attract mathematically inclined minds. One of the contestants turns out to be a bright young woman named Joan Clark (Keira Knightley). Turing hires her, but she isn’t allowed to work with the other men – because she’s a woman. So Turing surreptitiously feeds her secret documents so she can help with the code breaking. And now the race is on to crack Enigma before the Germans overtake Great Britain.


The Imitation Game is one of the better movies of 2014. Like A Beautiful Mind and The Theory of Everything, this movie tells the story of a male genius scientist who is socially challenged and requires the help of a healthy, stable woman for his genius to be realized. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific in this role and deserves Oscar consideration.

The hero story here is constructed with care. Turing is sent into an unfamiliar world in which his vast creativity is put to the ultimate test. His abrasive honesty wins him few friends and attracts several enemies within the British military and intelligence unit. His only ally is his woman friend Joan whom we think is a love interest until Turing’s homosexuality is revealed. Joan proves to be a loyal friend and mentor whose steadfast companionship, not to mention her own genius, proves essential for Turing to triumph.


You’re right that the story is constructed with care, Scott. Sadly, it bears little resemblance to the historical facts. Certain elements are true to life: Nazis, Germany, Britain, Enigma, Joan Clark, Turing, were all there at the same time. But the competition between Turing and the lead general, Commander Denniston, (Charles Dance) was fabricated. Turing’s abrasive (borderline Asperger’s) personality was exaggerated. The objections of the military to creating a machine to crack the code was a complete fiction. Apparently the truth of history wasn’t enough to make a compelling story.

What was true was Turing’s homosexuality and his doomed relationship with Joan. This is where the tragedy of The Imitation Game hits home. After having literally saved the world from the Nazi onslaught, Turing is discovered in 1950 to be gay and is subjected to chemical castration (or face imprisonment). Turing was unable to live under those conditions and ultimately committed suicide. It wasn’t until 2013 that Queen Elizabeth pardoned him. Unlike the other movies you mention, Scott, this one doesn’t have such a happy ending for our hero.


You’ve pointed out the irony within the tragedy of this story. The very society that Turing saves ends up turning against him. Turing defeats the Nazis but he cannot defeat the English society that is intolerant of his sexual orientation. There aren’t many hero stories in which the hero saves the people who kill him. It’s truly a sad, embarrassing, and appalling treatment of a man who should have been revered.


That’s another of my beefs with this movie, Scott. They had to concoct a villain for Turing to fight against. So they created the “Representative” villain in the form of the Commander Denniston. He represents all the conventional thinking in the military and in British society at large. The unseen enemy is the oncoming German army. The writers also create an enemy in the form of time itself. Since the Enigma code is changed daily, the code breakers have to decipher the messages before midnight each night. So, we get a nice countdown to 12:00 every day which creates a nice sense of tension.


Overall, The Imitation Game is two hours well spent, all the historical inaccuracies notwithstanding. Alan Turing is known as the Father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence, and this film gives us some insight into the challenges he faced in developing one of the world’s first computers. Turing’s heroism may have done more to defeat the Nazis than that of any other single individual. This movie tells a great story and features outstanding performances from the entire cast. As a result, I’m happy to award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Turing’s hero story is a stirring one. The man has many demons to overcome and makes many enemies. Does his character become transformed the way a good hero should? Perhaps not. Ironically, his refusal to change may be the key to his heroism. Maybe this is a tale about a British society that refuses to transform as much as it is a tale about a hero who shouldn’t need to. I give Turing’s heroism 4 Heroes out of 5.

Turing is surrounded by villains, including his own people whom he saves. The villains here are two institutions: (1) the Nazis with which Britain is at war, and (2) the antiquated moral codes of the English society that ultimately slay Turing. The manufactured human obstacles within the British military are throwaway characters who are caricatures or tropes of typical obstructionist characters in police and military movies. I’ll be generous and give this entire diverse array of villains a rating of 3 Villains out of 5.

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Scott, I’m a computer scientist and Turing is one of my personal heroes. He laid the foundation for formal computing theory (the Turing Machine). I am thrilled that a movie that celebrates his genius was given a proper Hollywood treatment and didn’t shy away from Turing’s homosexuality. However, I can’t reconcile the historical inaccuracies that pepper this film. It’s a complete fiction that merely borrows the essence of the truth. I would normally agree with your score of 4 Reels, but I’m knocking one off because I think the true story would have made an equally viable movie. I give The Imitation Game just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Turing is a tragic hero in that he saves the world from the Nazi scourge, only to be destroyed by the very people he saved. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a wonderful performance and I agree that he should be nominated for an Oscar. There isn’t much transformation here. There is a scene where Joan Clark lectures Turing on playing nice with his fellow mathematicians. After which Turing appears to make friends by sharing apples with his co-workers. But he overcomes obstacles that allow him to rise to the level of a true hero. I give this presentation of Turing 4 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, the villains here are pretty generic. Nazis are a pretty safe bet as a villain in any story. And Denniston gives Turing a ripping hard time. I can’t summon more than 2 out of 5 Villains for this film.

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