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Brooklyn •••

Brooklyn_FilmPosterStarring: Saoirse RonanEmory CohenDomhnall Gleeson
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick HornbyColm Tóibín
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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

Don’t know why, but I expected a leprechaun or two to be in this next movie.

I thought a tree grew in it. Regardless, let’s recap…

We meet a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in Ireland with her mother and older sister named Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis works in a shop run by Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), a cruel and insensitive town gossip. Wanting a better life for Eilis, Rose arranges for her sister to travel to America where she will work in a department store in Brooklyn.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn her benefactor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), enrolls her in an accounting class and finds shelter for her in an Irish boarding home. Eilis is wracked with homesickness. That is until she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen). Tony is an Italian lad with a fondness for Irish lasses. He introduces her to the better things in Brooklyn.

Greg, Brooklyn is a sweet movie about an insecure young woman who is cast from her familiar home into a new world 4,000 miles away. We watch her struggle with shyness, self-confidence, and homesickness. She has such a good heart that we worry that she’ll fall into the wrong crowd or fall for the wrong man. But she manages to steer her life in a positive direction, even meeting and falling in love with a young man who to our surprise is good for her.

Just as she’s hitting her stride, she’s called home to help out her mom. In most hero stories, returning home is the endpoint of the journey, but in this case returning home becomes a stern test for our young hero. She starts to fall for an Irish young man and is gradually pulled into the possibility of remaining in Ireland rather than returning to her life in New York. Only an encounter with a bitter nemesis awakens her to the reality of her true calling to be with her new young man in Brooklyn. It’s an effective hero’s journey about a woman coming of age. I enjoyed it.

Scott, I think I hated this movie for all the reasons you liked it. At every turn when you thought something might go wrong for our hero, it didn’t. She breaks down in tears at work because she’s homesick – so she might get fired: she doesn’t. She sits across from two gossipy girls in the boarding home – so they might be catty and treat her badly: they become best friends. She meets a boy who makes love to her – she might get caught, thrown out of her boarding home, or get pregnant: she doesn’t. She goes home to Ireland and pretends she isn’t married – so she might get caught and disgraced: she doesn’t. Every time we think the story might take an interesting turn – it simply doesn’t. This movie plays it safe from beginning to end and I was bored to tears.

You could call it playing it safe, Greg, or you could call it a refreshing change of pace from the same old predictable storylines of Hollywood movies. Yes, the young man she meets would have been an abusive jerk in most other movies. How nice that he turns out unexpectedly to be good for her! Yes, the Catholic priest who helps her could have been a perverted creep who ends up steering her in the wrong direction, but how nice that we have a movie in which a priest is actually a kind, decent person. When is the last time that happened in the movies?

Our hero Eilis has plenty of challenges and setbacks with which to grapple. She gets dreadfully ill on the voyage to America and must adapt to countless unfamiliar situations and odd norms in the new land. She struggles with shyness and terrible homesickness. Her sister’s death certainly set her back, as did her mother’s expectation to come home and stay home longer than she would have preferred. There is also the temptation to cheat on her husband which, for the most part, she manages to resist. Refreshingly, none of these story elements follow the traditional script from the big movie studios. I applaud this film’s willingness to risk deviating from established Hollywood norms.

If being facile is bucking the Hollywood norm, I’ll take the Hollywood norm, thank you very much. Eilis is what we in the writing world call a “Mary Sue” (a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting – Wikipedia). Things just don’t go wrong for her. The only real conflict in this story is when she has to choose between an Irish man (Jim Farell played by Domhnall Gleeson) and Tony back in America. When she gets caught in her lie we think there might be a bit of conflict. But no. She simply admits her error and returns home to Tony and the story ends. No consequences at all. She doesn’t even face her Irish lover. She leaves a lousy note. There’s no conflict, no tension, and so no catharsis.

This story follows the Hero’s Journey in only the most superficial of ways. The hero starts out in her ordinary world (Ireland) and travels to a special world (America) where she should meet enemies, allies and is tested. But where are the enemies in this story? There are none. She has allies a-plenty. And her trials are … learning to spin spaghetti on a spoon and wearing a bathing suit on Coney Island.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a beautifully shot movie with outstanding performances from young actors Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen (and isn’t Domhnall Gleeson everywhere these days?). But it is so sanitized in its portrayal of Irish/Italian relations that it reminds me of a Disney movie with Eilis as a Disney princess. This movie is little more than Oscar bait. And the Academy has taken this bait hook, line, and sinker.

Her primary enemy is herself. The Self as a villain figure occupies a prominent place in our model of villainy outlined in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains. In 2015 we encountered the Self as a villain in movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. In this current movie, Brooklyn, Eilis battles her shyness, lack of self-confidence, and naiveté about the world. Heroes who struggle with deficiencies in their personal life do not let these deficits define them; they find ways to overcome their shortcomings and triumph in the end. It’s enjoyable to watch Eilis’s transformation unfold. She’s very much a delicate flower that must grow through some stormy weather conditions to emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever.

The supporting characters are pillars of strength in this movie. Tony and his family are a colorful lot, especially Tony’s eight-year-old brother Freddie (James DiGiacomo) who added some delightful comic relief to the film. Eilis is helped on her journey by a number of helpful older figures, such as Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), her landlady (Mrs. Keough played by Julie Walters), and her supervisor at work (Miss Fortini played by Jessica Paré). Back in Ireland there are a pair of dark mentors she must overcome, including her mother and Miss Kelly, whose provincial nastiness awakens Eilise to her essential calling to resume her transformed life in America.

If you want this to be a story of Eilis versus herself, she would have to fail due to her inner problems. We saw this to the extreme in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Davis was a character with true inner demons that threatened to not only upend his dreams,, but ultimately resulted in his destruction. We don’t see that in Brooklyn. All of Eilis’s flaws are mere inconveniences which were overcome in the simplest ways. I can’t agree that this is a woman-vs-self story. It’s just a villain-less coming of age story – and quite dull as a result.

I’m glad you mentioned the little tyke Freddie. Here was a character who hinted at the fact that Italians and Irish didn’t get along in 1950s Brooklyn. But his racism is laughed off by the rest of the family. And the strange thing is that he apparently learned this racism from his older brothers. It’s often the case that a child is placed in a script to say the things adults don’t dare say. This may be a new character type for our list, Scott – the (innocent or naive) child as the outer voice of the inner thoughts of adults.

Brooklyn offers a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young woman who is thrown into a dangerous new world where she is compelled to grow in several meaningful ways. This film refreshingly defies stereotypes about people and about situations, surprising us with a delightful tale of heroic transformation. It also occurs to me that this film owes its success to the fact that relatively unknown actors populate the screen. These fresh talented faces added realism and texture to a movie that transfixes us with authentic images and ambience from a bygone era in America. I’m more than happy to award Brooklyn 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey can be characterized as Woman versus Self, as our hero Eilis must overcome her timidity and naivete to succeed in transitioning from Ireland to America. Moreover, in what amounts to a second hero’s journey, her return to Ireland presents her temptations to undo all the growth she achieved in America. Her character development is revealed in her ability to defy these temptations. If I have a criticism of this journey, it is that her character should be far more sensible than to spend every waking hour in Ireland with Jim Ferrell. This temptation seems forced and not in keeping with her normally rational nature. One final note — it is nice to see, at the film’s conclusion, Eilis serving as a mentor to another young girl making the voyage to America. We saw this mentee to mentor transformation in the film Joy earlier this year. Overall, Eilis’s hero’s journey merits 4 Heroes out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the supporting team of players are superb. Their colorful, quirky, and memorable presence in the film serve as an effective foil to Eilis’s rather staid and understated character. I am especially happy that this movie steers clear of traditional Hollywood stereotypes of evil priests and abusive boyfriends. Elise is helped along her journey by a trio of wonderful mentors and she deftly sidesteps a pair of dark mentors. Overall, all these characters earn 4 cast rating points out of 5.

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I’m wondering if we saw the same movie? Brooklyn is a safe bet. It portrays 1950s Brooklyn through the lens of a 1950s sensibility. Our hero, Eilis, is never in any danger because she’s constantly surrounded by supportive mentors. What some might call a breath of fresh air I call a passive delivery of a non-story. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I give Brooklyn just 2 Reels out of 5.

Eilis is a terribly uninteresting character who grows from a naive young woman to a worldly young woman. Not through any challenges she had, but by careful hand-holding of several good mentors. She has a nice temptation when she returns to Ireland, which was interesting. But it was unraveled in the most uninteresting way. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was an autobiography where the writer couldn’t reveal her darker inner self. The bit where Eilis becomes the mentor to a young passenger on her way back to America is a nice touch, but was virtually telescoped from the beginning. I give Eilis just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The secondary characters in this story were such stereotypes as to be cardboard cutouts verging on caricatures. There’s the kindly Irish priest, the shrewish neighborhood gossip, the boy next door, and the best girlfriends. Not a single character stands out as someone I might remember the next day. I literally had to look up all the character’s names on the Internet because none of them left a lasting impression (except the impetuous tyke Freddy – the most memorable character in the movie). I give these secondary characters just 1 Cast point out of 5.

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Creed ••••

Creed_posterStarring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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Apollo… Adonis… and … Rocky? Is this a Greek Tragedy?

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

Sophocles is not listed as the screenplay writer. So this must be Creed, the latest installment of the 40-year-old Rocky franchise. Let’s recap.

We meet young Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan). He’s the love child of the late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. While he’s been raised in a wealthy home and has a nice cushy job in a securities firm, he’s always wanted to prove himself to be as good a boxer as his father. He travels to Philadelphia in search of the former great boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him to fight in the ring.

Rocky declines to train Adonis, forcing the young boxer to scrounge around for others to train him in their spare time. Adonis stays in touch with Rocky and eventually convinces him to be his trainer. Meanwhile, world boxing champion Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) from England discovers that Adonis is Apollo Creed’s son and becomes eager to fight Adonis for the championship. The remainder of the movie shows us how both Adonis and Rocky must overcome big obstacles to meet their challenges.

Scott, Creed had the potential to be a seriously bad movie. While the original Rocky movie is a classic, the sequels have left most viewers wanting. In fact, it is quite the cultural joke that the Rocky sequels would go on without end, with the quality getting ever worse. (Consider this image from Airplane 2). But Creed is a fresh story that draws upon the best of the original Rocky franchise had to offer. There are certain elements that are the same: a washed up mentor, a young earnest up-and-coming fighter, a beautiful girl, and a seemingly invincible opponent. Creed is as good as the original.

Greg, I have to admit, Creed caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting a movie with emotional and narrative depth to it, but that’s what Creed delivers. As with many aging superstar actors from the 1970s, Sylvester Stallone has graduated from action hero to mentor figure. Yet in this film, Rocky Balboa is far more than mere mentor. He is a heroic figure in his own right, an equal buddy hero to young Adonis Creed who aspires to become the next Rocky.

Yes, Rocky is still a fighter, but now he fights a deadly disease instead of fighting adversaries. This movie handles Rocky’s illness with great sensitivity and grace. Rocky wants no part of a cure that didn’t help his wife Adrian, and Adonis wants no part of Rocky giving up on life. As befitting a good buddy hero story, the two men help each other undergo the transformations necessary to achieve their goals. The result is a surprisingly moving story about characters we grow to care about deeply.

It’s interesting that you call this a buddy hero story, Scott. Because it has many of the elements of the buddy hero story (two characters who start out disliking each other who come together in a unified purpose). However, Rocky is clearly a mentor character to Adonis. I’m reminded of The Karate Kid. Mr. Miagi did not want to mentor young Daniel-San. It was Miagi who had the “Refusal of the Call” – refusing to mentor Daniel. Similarly, it is Rocky who initially refuses to mentor young Adonis. I’m wondering if this is a new heroic duo – the Hero/Mentor pair. That would make the mentor (in this case) equal to the hero in the story – not a secondary character.

Exactly. You’ve described this hybrid perfectly. Usually mentors occupy secondary roles but in Creed we have a mentor who is thrown into his own personal hero’s journey, receives as much screen-time as his mentee, and benefits from the assistance of the mentee. The mentor’s story and the mentee’s story are intertwined and bounce off each other in interesting and surprising ways.

Greg, I’m noticing a pattern among the supporting characters in movies about sports heroes. In both this film and in My All-American, the hero receives aid from three different sources. Each of these three helpers assists the hero in transforming in a different way. First, there is the childhood mentor who gets our hero’s life off to a good start. In Creed it is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who rescues Adonis from foster care. She is no doubt a hero to Adonis, giving him the love and direction he so desperately needs to succeed in life.

Second, there is the current-day trainer who enables the hero to acquire the physical skills necessary to achieve his heroic goal. Rocky Balboa assumes this role in Creed. Third, the hero meets a woman who provides the love and emotional encouragement that he needs to triumph. All three of these allies are instrumental in helping the hero transform mentally, physically, and emotionally.

That’s a good observation. I think we could do a series on sports heroes and how they parallel other heroes journeys.

Creed is a surprisingly good heroic journey that just happens to be a sports movie. There is a lot to admire here. The roots of this movie reach back to the original Rocky films to launch a new hero in Adonis. We get strong performances from the two leads and a story that is emotionally satisfying. I did find the relationship between Adonis and Bianca a bit forced. It wasn’t necessary for the story – not nearly so much as Adrian was to Rocky. I give Creed 4 out of 5 Reels.

I’m perplexed as to whether this is a buddy hero story or if Adonis is the hero supported by Rocky as mentor. If it is a hybrid, as you call it, then I’d have to rate the duo rather than Adonis alone as hero. Certainly Adonis overcomes his missing inner quality of feeling like Apollo Creed’s mistake. He comes into his own by the end of the movie. And Rocky successfully passes the torch to the younger generation. And there’s the added benefit that Rocky has honored Apollo’s memory by training his son. I give the pair 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting players were less impressive than the leads. There were an assortment of boxers for Adonis to spar with. They were not very interesting. The villain was not as clearly defined as in other films. There were two boxers Adonis had to beat to overcome his feelings of inadequacy. But they weren’t really villains – just obstacles. The villain here, more than anything, was Adonis’s own inner turmoil. The girlfriend Bianca was a typical romantic interest. Adonis’s mother isn’t in it much. Overall, it was a pretty bland backdrop of supporting characters that I can only give 3 out of 5 Cast points to.

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Creed also surprised me by giving us an intelligent story about two men whose lives intersect and who both benefit greatly from the intersection. Adonis Creed is looking to establish his identity and needs Rocky Balboa to achieve this goal. Rocky himself is a man teetering on the edge of geezerdom and needs Adonis to give him purpose and a reason to fight a deadly illness. This story had no business captivating me and moving me to tears, but it did exactly that. I’m happy to award Creed 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story follows the classic buddy-hero pattern but also has obvious elements of the hero-mentor pattern as well. I view it as a hero-mentor story on steroids. Our two protagonists transform in meaningful ways and they rely on each other to acquire personal qualities necessary for these transformations. The dual hero’s journeys here take some surprising turns and are both satisfying and robust. I have to award our duo 5 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are effective but also a bit uneven in this film. Ricky Conlan provides just the right amount of menace in and out of the boxing ring. But none of the remaining secondary characters stand out in any memorable way. Perhaps this is because Creed is first and foremost a story that zeroes in on the interdependent lives of two men, Adonis and Rocky. I give the supporting characters 3 rating points out of 5.

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Joy ••••

JoyfilmposterStarring: Jennifer LawrenceRobert De NiroBradley Cooper
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. RussellAnnie Mumolo
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2015


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

Greg, I get the feeling that Joy will be a joy to review.

I enJoyed myself at this movie. Let’s recap:

We meet a woman in her late twenties named Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence). Joy is a divorced single mom who somehow finds herself taking care of everyone:  her kids, her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), her neurotic mom who lives upstairs (Virginia Madsen), and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who lives in the basement. Then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) moves in with her and begins sharing the basement with her ex. Joy is an aspiring inventor but all her time is spent working for an airline and taking care of her many dysfunctional family members.

Rudy starts dating a widow named Trudy who is well-to-do. Trudy invites Rudy and his family (including Joy and her overachieving sister Peggy) for a trip on her boat. When Joy drops her wine glass it shatters and she feels compelled to clean it up. Doing so, she gets her hands chapped and cut wringing out the mop. When she gets home she dreams up an idea for a mop you never have to touch with your hands and can be thrown in the washing machine. She prototypes the device and pitches it to Rudy and Trudy. They reluctantly agree to invest in her invention and Joy begins an odyssey that will determine her future and the future of her family.

Greg, Joy is yet another movie featuring a strong female hero. But our hero Joy doesn’t start out that way. At the beginning of the film, Joy is mentally beaten down by her family, who expect much from her but think little of her. She has sacrificed so much for her parents, her ex-husband, and her children, that she has lost herself in the process. Joy is too kind and selfless for her own good.

The good news is that deep inside, Joy understands her own worth and does not give up on her dream to become an inventor. Rather than quit and allow others to define who she is, Joy summons the courage to resurrect her dream to invent things and to become an entrepreneur. Doing so requires great strength and courage from Joy, who has acquired these qualities from her grandmother and mentor Mimi. Joy’s self-confidence and sense of worth lay dormant for a while but eventually these qualities are allowed to blossom.

What’s wonderful about this film is that we are shown that when the mentor dies, the student can still thrive. In short, the mentoring does not stop. Joy has internalized her grandmother’s advice. This film drives home the life-changing importance of loving support and wisdom passed down to children from elderly family members.

Joy was an enchanting and heartwarming story about persistence and perseverance. Joy starts out as someone lost in her own family. Everyone depends on her, she gives unselfishly to those she loves, and they respond by holding up a mirror to her that only reflects her failures. She reemerges when she is so beaten down that the only thing that remains is a childhood memory of things she created and left in a shoebox. That spirit of creativity is the kindling that turn into a fire that drives Joy to put everything she has into a final push to create something that will define her.

Joy is a wonderful example of the hero’s journey. She starts out submerged and filled with a deep hurt inflicted by the separation of her parents during her childhood. When she realizes that her life won’t change unless she makes a change, she passes into the special world of being an inventor. She has to grow as a person and resolve her inner feeling of a lack confidence.

There’s a scene that I love in Joy that reminds me of what we often see in these heroic transformations. Joy is at her lowest point. She’s been cheated by her suppliers, beaten down by her family, and even sabotaged by her sister. She then changes her clothes. She dons the attire of a warrior – trading in her peasant blouse and cotton pants for black leather and slacks. She even bobs her hair. She is ready for battle and she makes a final transition into the world of tough negotiators. The change of garb is a clear marker that the hero is going into battle.

Greg, you’ve made a nice observation about the transformed physical appearance symbolizing, and signifying, the inner heroic transformation. I recently watched the movie Brooklyn in which the female hero’s clothing, hair, makeup, and gait all serve as important indicators of transformative change. It’s the equivalent of Clark Kent finding the nearest phone booth to switch into his Superman costume.

Another nice element to the film Joy is the effective use of the supporting cast in making Joy’s heroic transformation possible. Several of the characters are seemingly supportive of Joy’s dream. Witness the initial backing of Rudy, Trudy, and QVC founder Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). When things don’t go swimmingly right away, all of these folks are quick to remove their support and even belittle Joy in a way that makes us want to strangle them. I was relieved to see that Neil’s character has enough depth and complexity to give Joy a second chance, which of course results in the achievement of her dream. All these secondary characters are used to great effect in providing our hero with obstacles and opportunities for resilience.

Scott, we’ve mined the Moxney’s paradigm more than once in these reviews. This is the mythical structure that models relationships after the family. And in Joy’s case, it is a literal mapping. She is dealing with her estranged parents, her estranged husband, her estranged sister, and her mentor grandmother Mimi. However, here, all the estranged characters represent a dysfunctional family and so the Moxney’s structure fails. It’s Joy who is at the top of the hierarchy and pulls the rest of her family up as they attempt to drag her down.

We also see an interesting villain structure here. Her older sister consistently attempts to belittle and sabotage Joy’s successes. As if that weren’t enough, her suppliers believe she’s an ignorant and naive woman and work to steal her ideas. And behind them is their Texan dealmaker – the puppetmaster (or as we like to call him, the Mastermind).

I’d also like to mention Joy’s adorable children. Frankly, they don’t have a big role here. They often serve as a reminder of Joy’s own childhood. This is especially true when Joy is at her lowest point and yells at her daughter not to dream too big – just as she was taught when she was a child. However, she is buoyed more than once by her grandmother Mimi who always had confidence in her.

Joy is a wonderful and inspiring story about a remarkable woman who puts her remarkableness on hold while she sacrifices for many other members of her family. When her entrepreneurial dream is eventually realized we are moved by her successes and frustrated by her setbacks. Joy’s perseverance is finally rewarded but not without significant delays and hardship. This film is a terrific portrayal of a modern woman’s hero’s journey and it easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Joy has all of the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes. She is smart, strong, charismatic, kind, caring, inspiring, resilient, and reliable. Her journey is tortured yet profoundly satisfying in the end. I was struck by the sea of humanity standing in the way of her dreams as well as by the people who came through for her to help her achieve her goals. Joy is transformed from a human doormat into a soaring business force to be reckoned with. I give her complex character and breakthrough journey a score of 5 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters represent a wonderful blend of good, bad, and quirky individuals. At times we want to wring their necks and at other moments we cheer them on. The grandmother Mimi plays a pivotal role in assisting Joy with her transformation, as does her ex-husband Tony. Joy’s father and especially her sister prove to be formidable villains to overcome, but Joy manages to outmaneuver them. The entire cast shines in Joy and I’m happy to award them all 5 rating points out of 5.

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Joy is the semi-biographical story of a woman’s journey from a child of great potential, to an underachieving adult, to an accomplished millionaire. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a wonderful performance that is Oscar-worthy. She shows us just how loyal and devoted she is to her family – so much so that she loses herself. Then she shows us that Joy can recover her inner child only to have her hopes dashed again and again. This is a movie with as much heart as It’s a Wonderful Life. I could see it again and again. The only problem I had with this story is that it is narrated by grandma Mimi and … she’s dead, Jim. I give Joy 4 out of 5 Reels.

As we’ve mentioned this is a complete hero’s journey. Joy crosses the threshold from her ordinary world of service to everyone around her, into the world of entrepreneurship. She’s fully committed to this journey. She falls to her deepest depths only to regroup and emerge as a warrior. Finally, in the epilog, we learn that she goes on to be a mentor to other women. I give Joy 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is a very mixed bag of nuts. There are no families more dysfunctional in Hollywood films than Joy’s. We’ve already talked about the obstacles her father, mother, and sister provide. Not to mention the many men who take her for a fool. But we also saw some characters we haven’t talked about much this year. Like the “best friend” – person who is not a family member but gives support and solace. And I don’t even know what archetype the plumber in this story is. (He’s from Jamaica and Joy’s reclusive mother begins an inexplicable romance with him). This group definitely left me feeling frustrated and I was just watching. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Joy! I give them all 5 out of 5 Cast points.

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The Revenant •••••

The_Revenant_2015_film_posterStarring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu
Adventure/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 156 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2015


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Scott, I feel penitent for having not yet reviewed The Revenant.

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

Let’s reverse that and do a rave review of Revenant.

We’re introduced to Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who are part of an American squad that is hunting for pelts in the northern wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase in 1823. The group is ambushed by a group of Arikara Indians who are looking for the chief’s abducted daughter. The squad escapes downriver with some of the hides. Just when it looks like they might make their way home, Glass is mauled nearly to death by a grizzly bear. The captain of the squad decides they will carry Glass back to the fort. This decision doesn’t sit well with veteran trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who wants to put Glass out of his misery and push on.

The leader of the expedition, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), cannot bring himself to kill Glass. He asks for volunteers to stay with Glass while the remaining survivors attempt the long dangerous trek to the outpost. Fitzgerald is among those who volunteer, along with Hawk and a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter). When alone with Glass, Fitzgerald tries to smother the gravely wounded man but is interrupted by Hawk, who is then killed by Fitzgerald. Glass witnesses the murder and is then left for dead by Fitzgerald and Bridger. The rest of the story focuses on Glass’s ability to survive his horrific injuries and avenge his son’s death.

Scott, The Revenant was a very big movie – and not just because we had to sit in the front row of the theater. It’s a long story that takes its time in the telling. And I wasn’t bored a second. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu tells this story with wide shots of virgin forests and snow covered mountains. It was beautiful movie. And Inarritu keeps the pace up with action and motion. It’s a big task as the main character, Glass, is mute through much of the first half of the movie. It’s a credit to DiCaprio that he was able to deliver a compelling performance under those conditions.

Greg, The Revenant is why I love movies. Each week I go to the theater with the faint hope that my socks will be knocked off, and Revenant has done just that. This film is a sweeping, majestic, tour de force. The Revenant would probably be worth watching on the basis of its scenery alone. We’re treated to magnificent panoramic views of Montana and the Dakotas. Director Iñárritu has taken great pains to ensure that we will never forget the look and feel of this film.

But Revenant offers far more than visually stunning fare. The movie has a rare depth to its storytelling, and it packs razor-sharp emotional punch. One rarely sees a film made like this anymore. We aren’t spoon-fed the story by an outside narrator, a movie gimmick that is common these days and doesn’t allow viewers to do any creative interpretive work in filling in gaps. This movie, The Revenant, has long stretches of heart-wrenching silence that force us to pay attention to characters and to situations that both enthrall and repel us. For this reason and many others, The Revenant is easily one of the top three films of the year in 2015.

DiCaprio plays the kind of man that was necessary to tame the wilderness, and is largely absent today. Glass and the men in his squad are tough. There’s just no better way to describe them. Glass survives a grizzly mauling. He self-cauterizes a hole in his trachea. Glass’s men surrender themselves to the truth that they must walk to their fort. And that means walking across the mountain range.

We recently reviewed A Walk In The Woods where people walked the Appalachian trail. These people planned it like it was a vacation. They stopped in local towns for coffee and donuts. The men in The Revenant shouldered the burden of their loads as a matter of fact. That spirit stands in stark contrast to the comforts we have become accustomed to in modern life.

You got that right. The hero story here is fascinating and relies on us to do some detective work to determine whether Hugh Glass is a man worth rooting for. We aren’t given much backstory about him and then suddenly he’s grievously injured. Is he the kind of guy we want to heal? Yes, we feel sorry for him when his son is killed, but the key scene that reveals his moral core occurs when Glass saves the abducted daughter while she is being raped. Now we realize that Glass is a hero, not an anti-hero.

All the classic elements of the hero’s journey are shown in full-force in The Revenant. Glass is thrust into one special world after another by the Arikara attack, the bear mauling, and the murder of his son. He receives help by a lone Pawnee who feeds him, tends his wounds, and protects him from a blizzard. He is mentored from afar by words of encouragement drifting through his mind. They are from his deceased wife, who remains his inspiration during the darkest of times. Glass is physically transformed by the mauling and through his healing, and he is emotionally transformed by the courage and grit he must acquire in the face of imminent death.

There are a number of secondary characters worthy of note. The first of course is the villain, Fitzgerald. This is a self-centered, self-serving man who twists the events to his best advantage. What is wonderful about this film, is that we get to know himthrough his discussions with his young protege, Bridger. We learn that Fitzgerald was nearly scalped and left for dead. This gives us a clue as to why he might be a “take what you can while you can” sort of guy.

Fitzgerald also plays a dark mentor to the young Bridger. He tricks Bridger into believing that Hawk (whom Fitzgerald has murdered) has fled and that Indians are coming. Bridger is naive and flees with Fitzgerald, leaving Glass to die. Fitzgerald then begins to indoctrinate young Bridger into his dark world of “taking care of yourself first.” When Fitzgerald and Bridger return to the fort, Fitzgerald hungrily takes his reward, but Bridger leave the money on the table – showing he retained his humanity.

Bridger is a character they could devote an entire movie to and I’d pay to see it. This kid is a kind, loyal soul who resists the dark side. Fitzgerald is one bad dude who has no conscience and must be dealt with if I am to walk out of the theater liking this movie. The Native Americans are portrayed as vicious but then we are also witness to all the injustices directed at them that caused the viciousness. They are not villains but they are certainly a danger to Glass, who manages to win them over by saving the Arikara woman.

All these characters play their roles to perfection. Tom Hardy deserves kudos for playing a character who is a completely rotten, ruthless son of a bitch. Many of the Native American cast members are terrific and breathtakingly realistic in their roles. The lone Pawnee is a terribly tragic figure who earns our admiration for helping Glass but is murdered ruthlessly by the French. Hawk and Captain Henry earn their stripes, too, in this film. Everything and everyone falls into place perfectly and the result is pure cinematic magic.

The Revenant is a masterful piece of moviemaking not to be missed. Every element of this movie was given the best each artist had to bring. DiCaprio’s Glass shows us just how hard it was to survive in the 1820s. The shots of the wilderness are simply breathtaking. The battles between the white men and the Indians are gruesome and riveting. There are three stories to follow here: the hunters, the Indians and the French trappers. The director feeds us the stories of all three and weaves them into a tale that held me in rapt attention. I give The Revenant 5 out of 5 Reels.

Glass is an historical hero. He is driven first by his love for his son, then by revenge for his son’s death. He is as tough as any super hero. We see him go through a number of changes – from hunter, to father, to survivor, to a hunter of men, and finally he resolves as a man capable of forgiveness. This is a complicated man and worthy of 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is superb in stepping up to the challenge of reflecting DiCaprio’s Glass. Hardy’s Fitzgerald is not only evil, but fully believes everything he does is right. That’s the most compelling type of villain. Young Bridger is the emerging hero. He is just learning the ropes of the special world and so is at the beginning of his own hero’s journey. The Captain is an honorable leader who must weigh the decisions that mean life and death. And the rest of the men are equally tough as Glass – supporting the fact that it takes a special kind of man to survive the wilderness. I give them 5 out of 5 Cast points.

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The Revenant is easily one of the best movies of the year. The film is a feast for the eyes and a marvelous example of movie-making at its finest. Although clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the time flew by. My bladder suffered almost as much as Hugh Glass did as a result of his bear mauling. All the elements of good storytelling came together to perfection with this film, and when you combine a great tale with astounding visuals, you’ve got a movie for the ages. There’s no question that The Revenant earns a full 5 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey grabs us and grips us tightly for 160 beautiful minutes. Hugh Glass marches through all the painful and triumphant stages of the hero’s journey and emerges a physically and emotionally transformed individual. I asked one of my students about this movie and he said it was “tough”. Watching Glass lose his son and so much of his blood was indeed tough. The hero’s wounds run deep in this movie, but all those emotional and physical wounds are somehow healed, but not without considerable learning, suffering, and growing. We, the audience, are privileged to watch the process unfold. No doubt about it, Glass earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The cast, as we’ve noted, was superb. We’ve pretty much said it all — the entire ensemble rose to the occasion and helped produce a movie and a hero’s story that I’ll never forget. Need I even bother to say that the cast deserves the full 5 rating points out of 5?

Greg, I nominate The Revenant to be placed in the rarified air of our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. Do you concur?

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Absolutely. It’s rare to find a film that is better than The Revenant. It certainly deserves the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

My All American •••

My_All_American_UpdatedStarring: Aaron EckhartFinn WittrockRobin Tunney
Director: Angelo Pizzo
Screenplay: Angelo PizzoJim Dent
Biography/Drama/Sport, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: November 13, 2015


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

Greg, are you ready for some football?

Only if it’s All-American football – let’s recap…

We meet a young high school student named Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who has a passion for playing football and a father (Michael Reilly Burke) who helps train him. While playing for his high school team, Freddie befriends the quarterback Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell). Freddie is the star player on his team, but his relatively small size means that most big-time colleges are uninterested in recruiting him. Freddie and his dad become discouraged.

But Freddie captures the attention of University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart). Royal recognizes that Freddie isn’t the biggest kid, but he has the biggest heart and offers him a spot on the team. Soon, it’s clear that things aren’t going well for the Longhorns and Royal needs to make a change. The seniors aren’t following the new plan, but youngsters Freddie and James Street (Juston Street) get the new plays and they are moved up to first string.

As Freddie nears the end of his junior year he has trouble with his leg. He reports to the doctor and finds that he has bone cancer. This is a devastating blow but it doesn’t dampen his commitment to his team.

Greg, I admit to being a sentimental fool. Movies like this bring me to tears, even when I feel completely manipulated by the filmmakers. Everyone knows the basic plotline of these maudlin tearjerkers. We meet a wonderful person, an individual who is so virtuous and so wholesome that he really doesn’t exist in the real world. I don’t care that this movie portrays our hero as too perfect. Freddie Steinmark embodies our society’s most treasured attributes, and that makes him a hero worth rooting for. Naturally, when he dies, it crushes us.

This hero story taps into a deeply held archetype we have for the hero who dies before his time. Billy Joel sang, “Only the Good Die Young” for a reason. There’s a poignancy to a tragic early death that moves us at the deepest of levels. The poignancy is only magnified here by the perfect person that Freddie is portrayed to be. The hero transformation is physical and emotional; Freddie trains his heart out to become a great football player. Later, he is compelled by the worst of circumstances to acquire grit and courage.

Screenwriter and Director Angelo Pizzo is no stranger to such heroic sports stories. He also penned historic sports films Rudy and Hoosiers. What is interesting in all three stories is the importance of the “runt of the litter.” They all feature a young person who is smaller than his teammates, but makes up for it with heart.

As a story, My All American breaks the traditional mold. This is pretty much a story of a young man who has everything going his way. There isn’t much conflict until well into the third act when Freddie is diagnosed with bone cancer. He stands up to it as he did with all his other obstacles. While he ultimately succumbs to his illness, he faces it with bravery. There’s not much of a transformation here. He was a strong hero at the start, and he finished the same way. Usually, such a hero transforms others. But there is no catalytic effect in American. This is just a story of someone who died the way he lived – full on.

Scott, I’m constantly amazed by the power of sport in American society. There is something heroic in becoming the very best one can be. And if the sports hero has to overcome uneven odds to succeed, all the better. But there is an imbalance in this hero worship. We pay our sports heroes more than our teachers, first responders, and warfighters. Somehow watching someone be better than we can be is more rewarding than actually being better than we can be. It’s a curious phenomenon.

You’re right, Greg. Since ancient times societies have tended to worship their warriors, and in this film the sport of football is seen as a symbolic (or not so symbolic) form of warfare. I find it ironic that this movie, which glorifies Freddie’s ability to lay waste to his opponents, comes out just before another movie (Concussion) offers a stern indictment of the sporting act of laying waste to others. Our culture is changing. I suspect that the Freddie Steinmarks of the football world will not be worshipped much longer.

But let’s turn to the secondary characters in My All-American. As you point out, the villain of the story is not a person but is in fact cancer, the one thing that precipitates Freddie’s demise. We’ve seen cancer as a villain before in The Fault in Our Stars. Freddie is benefited by numerous mentors including his dad, his high school coach, and Daryl Royal, coach of the University of Texas. As befitting a hero, Freddie also has a loyal love interest who assists him emotionally. These are all central elements in the classic hero’s journey.

My All American won’t be winning any Oscars, but it is still a fine film of how someone can rise to be the best that they can be. There’s not a lot of drama here. We’re witness to Freddie’s growth as a spunky football kid to a spunky football adult. Even at his worst, Freddie doesn’t falter. It’s a bit of a monotone and so I can only award My All American 3 out of 5 Reels.

Freddie Steinmark started out small but grew to hero status by his commitment. While we look see no transformation in the hero or those close to him, Freddie embodies the things we value in our heroes. He was fearless in the face of danger, devoted to those he loved and who loved him, and had a strong moral compass. As a movie critic, he’s not the hero I was looking for, but he exemplifies all the things we value in our heroes. I give Freddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters in this film are cardboard cutouts of stereotypical supporting types. All the other football players were sort of minions who just played along. The coaches were tough guys who followed the leader. The mom and dad were the epitome of the 1950s parents. It’s all pretty dull and I can only muster 2 out of 5 Cast points for them.

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You’ve described this movie to a tee, Gregger. My All-American tells the story of a tragic early death and milks it as effectively as any movie possibly can. The film taps into a powerful archetype about the heart-wrenching loss of vast human potential. Our emotions are shamelessly manipulated by the filmmakers but we’re so in love with the hero of the story that we don’t even care. We just enjoy the ride. My All-American is good wholesome fun and a fine story well worth watching. I give the movie 3 Reels out of 5, also.

Our hero Freddie is a remarkable kid with so many terrific qualities that we celebrate every one of his successes. He’s an underdog that we’re all drawn to and root for with great relish. Freddie traverses the hero’s journey with stylish flair and dexterity until he meets the only obstacle that he cannot overcome — cancer. His heroic gift to the world is accomplished posthumously; to this day he remains an inspiration to everyone at the University of Texas. I give Freddie 4 Heroes out of 5.

I enjoyed the secondary characters a bit more than you did, Greg. Aaron Eckhart does a stellar job in his role as Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach. As a mentor, Royal strikes just the right balance between toughness and kindness. I do agree that some members of Freddie’s support team are not terribly memorable, but they play their roles in solid workmanlike manner. I’m okay giving the supporting characters a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Spectre ••

Spectre_posterStarring: Daniel CraigChristoph WaltzLéa Seydoux
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: John LoganNeal Purvis
Action/Adventure/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 148 minutes
Release Date: November 6, 2015


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Is there a ghost of a chance we’ll review Spectre, Scott?

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

If the spirit is willing, Greg.  Let’s recap.

In the opening scene, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is chasing after some bad guys. After a thrilling chase, Bond finds a ring with an octopus on it. When Bond returns to London, the new ‘M’ (Ralph Fiennes) reports that ‘C’ (Andrew Scott) is shutting down MI6 and the double-0 program. So, Bond travels to Rome and has sex with the widow of the man he just killed, and she whispers sweet nothings about Spectre into his ear.

Bond then secretly infiltrates a SPECTRE meeting, where he encounters the leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). When Bond is recognized, he escapes and is pursued by a SPECTRE assassin. Bond soon realizes that the octopus symbol is showing up at terrorist attacks all over the world. He convinces Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to help him seek out Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who has crucial information needed to dismantle SPECTRE.

Scott, Skyfall was the culmination of a trilogy of excellent films which laid the backstory of James Bond. Spectre is a lumbering, undirected, nearly random series of action-events that has only the barest semblance of a plot. Needless to say, I thought this film was lacking. Just the second scene where Bond seduces the wife of a man he just killed lacked any intelligence. The woman is in mourning for her husband and a total stranger breaks into her home so the first thing she thinks to do is undress and share herself with him. It makes no sense.

Spectre is indeed disappointing, Greg. I’m a fan of the Jame Bond franchise but it’s pretty clear that this series is overdue for an overhaul. The same tired old formula doesn’t work any longer, especially since other movie franchises have appeared on the scene that meet or surpass the standards set by previous Bond films. I’m thinking of the Mission Impossible series and the Jason Bourne franchise, for example.

Spectre isn’t a bad movie; Daniel Craig is terrific, in fact. It’s just “same old, same old.” I often judge a movie by how much it sticks with me the day or two after viewing it. After watching Spectre on Sunday, I couldn’t tell you anything about the movie on Monday. To write this review, I had to rely on Wikipedia’s summary of the film’s plot. The two hours I spent in the theater were highly forgettable.

Well that brings up the question of whether Bond is a great hero. In Skyfall we get a deep look at what makes Bond tick, and why ‘M’ invested in him. He was an orphan and ripe for molding into an agent. Bond needed a mother image and MI6 in general and ‘M’ in particular gave him a home. That movie really gave us a hero’s journey. This one, however, is an episode in the series. As we’ve mentioned before, episodic heroes can be really boring. They lack a missing inner quality that gives the character an arc.

And I think that’s one reason Spectre falls flat. It’s just a roller coaster ride. We aren’t interested in seeing Bond become a better man. We’re supposed to be drawn in by the mystery of Spectre and how he’ll solve it. But it’s the same tired plot we’ve seen all year. The overarching organization is in danger and it’s up to Bond to solve the mystery and prove the value in the 00-program. We saw this in Avengers and Mission Impossible this year. It’s a tired plotline and it didn’t help Spectre.

This movie’s disappointment can also be traced to its clichéd supporting characters. Bond’s women are uninteresting and sadly rely on Bond to save them. In addition, as you point out, Greg, the women lack emotional believability. In any James Bond film, the villain should occupy a pivotal role. Alas, what we have here is a villain who is utterly lacking in charisma.

It turns out that Oberhauser is a sad and inferior re-tread of past Bond villains. For example, on not one but two occasions Oberhauser could have easily killed Bond and thus ensured the success of his evil plan. Instead, our villain devolves into a stereotype or caricature of villains in this genre by, in the words of Austin Powers, “placing him [Bond] in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.”

So true. The ‘good guys’ are the new ‘M’ who represents a sort of mastermind character. He’s the one giving Bond his “henchman” orders (many of which Bond ignores). And there’s ‘Q’ who is a youngster in this incarnation who gives Bond few toys this time around. And then there’s Moneypenny who is Bond’s “inside man”. Devoted and brilliant. It’s a nice little crowd of supporters.

There’s not much else worth saying. Let’s hope they get it right next time. I can only recommend Spectre for the most diehard James Bond fans, or for fans of the very talented Daniel Craig. There’s not a speck of the spectacular in Spectre. I can only award this film a measly 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is by-the-numbers plain and ordinary. There are some fun parts but by and large there’s nothing original to be seen here. James Bond films aren’t supposed to follow the classic hero’s journey and Spectre is no exception in this regard. I give Bond a rating of 2 Heroes out of 5.

As for the supporting characters, there isn’t a whole lot to say other than they are as unmemorable as the rest of the film. The villain put me to sleep and most of the rest of the characters left no real impression. Again, I give this group 2 rating points out of 5.

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The only Spectre here is the ghost of Bonds gone by. The story is pretty dull and is merely a patchwork of set up situations. There’s hardly any plot and the finale is forced such that we get the origin story of Bond’s nemesis. I’ve heard that Daniel Craig is not returning as Bond. In my humble opinion he should have quit with Skyfall. I also give Spectre just 2 out of 5 Reels.

As a main character, Bond is the classic episodic hero. He doesn’t have a missing inner quality to overcome. So, there’s no arc to the character. He’s going to be the same character in each episode. For me, that makes Bond a dull boy. Still he’s the rugged, independent, competent, super spy we all expect him to be. So I give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Sadly, this is really the origin story of Bond’s super nemesis. I say sadly because we get more of an insight into the pain that created the villain. As you’ve often pointed out, Scott, the difference between the villain and hero origin story is how the villain deals with pain. Heroes overcome their hurt and villains succumb to them. The other characters are pretty forgettable so I won’t rate them this time around. For that reason I give 3 points out of 5 to the villain.

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Burnt •••

Burnt_Poster_UpdatedStarring:Bradley CooperSienna MillerDaniel Brühl
Director:John Wells
Screenplay:Steven KnightMichael Kalesniko
Comedy, Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Date: October 30, 2015


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

Greg, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

We’ve been burnt by Hollywood before. Let’s see how Burnt stacks up…

We meet a thirty-something man named Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), who was a chef at one of the best restaurants in Paris a few years earlier. Adam’s drug and alcohol addiction, along with his anger management issues, caused him to self-destruct. He also brought down the Parisian restaurant and sullied the careers of several of his chef colleagues, too. Adam exiled himself to New Orleans where he punished himself by shucking one million oysters. Now he is in London and ready to redeem his image by obtaining the highly coveted third Michelin star.

Adam approaches his ol (but no longer) friend Tony (Daniel Brühl) and tells him he’s going to take over the restaurant. Adam gathers “the usual suspects” – old friends from his days as a young chef: Michel, Max, and a young up-and-coming chef Helene – who really doesn’t like him that much. And for good measure, the drug dealers Adam left high and dry come circling around looking for the money Adam owes them. Finally, Adam has pissed off an old friend (Reece) who is top chef at a local restaurant and vows to put him out of business. And we’re off…

Greg, I’m no chef, and in fact I’m a danger to myself and others in the kitchen. But I know a good story when I see one, and Burnt delivers up a flavorful story about a man seeking redemption. The most satisfying part of the plotline is that his atonement plan does not unfold the way he anticipates, which evokes plenty of pain and resistance but also a much greater payoff in the end.

Bradley Cooper is cast perfectly for this role. His character has just enough madness and relentless mania to be an intimidating force and dysfunctional leader in the kitchen. Yet he also has just enough intelligence and sensitivity to avoid being too far gone and beyond hope once things go horribly awry. It’s a nice balancing act that Cooper plays to perfection. His hero’s journey is complex, volatile, and an uncomfortable joy to watch.

I also enjoyed Burnt. My daughter is in the fine dining business and Cooper as Adam plays a part reminiscent of people I’ve met. He’s dedicated, passionate, demanding, and a little mad. Adam is brash and arrogant – so much so that he entices a food critic (Uma Thurman) to try is food. Her review is enough to get him promoted to top chef. It’s a brazen move and as an audience we are immediately won over.

Adam pushes his staff to the brink of exhaustion. Every night, the staff get together and cook a meal for themselves. Adam never takes part – he feels the need to distance himself from the rest of the staff – both a professional and a personal distance. By the end of the film, though, he has a complete turn of face and realizes that his staff are not his employees – but his family. And in a touching moment sits to break bread with them.

Yes, exactly Greg. Adam Jones’ missing qualities include a much-needed dose of humility and an ability to play as a team and be part of a family. These deficits set the stage for his transformation. By missing these qualities, he ends up alienating himself from the very people who are needed for him to accomplish his mission.

His low point – when he believes he has failed to acquire the highly coveted third star – is the point at which his transformation takes place. As is often the case in hero stories, only when the hero’s ego has been deconstructed is he or she open to change. We see this rock bottom point in countless hero stories, and it is always so very satisfying to see the hero change and grow in response to this desperate situation.

The rest of the cast is a bit mundane. There is no real mentor in the story, except perhaps Adam’s teacher – Jean Luc – who died while Adam was touring the world in a self-absorbed mission to eat a million oysters. This is a rare “dead” mentor who advises from the grave. Helene, is sadly, the typical romantic interest. Michel plays the old friend who happens to be gay and is secretly in love with Adam – which makes for an interesting bit of a love triangle. But this is Adam’s story and the supporting cast are less memorable artifices designed to showcase Cooper in another manic performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Burnt serves up some delicious fare with its rich, tasty hero story peppered with several interesting allies and garnished (or should I say tarnished?) with a not-so-surprising villainous figure. Bradley Cooper once again proves himself to be one of the hottest, if not the hottest, male leading actor in Hollywood. His intelligent freneticism grabs and holds our attention, and we are emotionally moved by his hero’s journey. The only weakness in the movie was that it dragged on a bit too long and may have been a tad too predictable. I’ll award Burnt 3 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey is top-notch and enjoys a richness not seen in most stories of redemption. Adam Jones is a complicated and tragic figure, and he has already has changed by the time we meet him early in the story. Little does he know that significantly more change awaits him and is necessary for him to complete his journey. Good call, Greg, on identifying Jean Luc as the “mentor from afar” whom we never meet but is referenced repeatedly. We’ve seen this in previous movies this past year including A Walk in the Woods and The Martian. I give our hero Adam here a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

I enjoyed the supporting characters very much. Adam has not one but two love interests, one female and one male. They play important roles in helping, hurting, and distracting Adam while he’s on his journey. There is also a rival chef who helps him recover from a “slip”. His entire team of chefs in the kitchen are important characters, too, as is the restaurant’s maître d’. I can easily award this group of supporting people a rating of 4 out of 5.

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Well, Scott, I think Burnt was especially made just for your brand of food-based metaphors. I agree that Bradley Cooper delivers in this film. He brings a manic focus to the character that in other hands would look cartoonish. I enjoyed this film, but I think it was a bit too formulaic and predictable for my tastes. I appreciated the catharsis of Adam’s rebirth, but I found the film largely forgettable. I can only mustard [sic] 3 out of 5 Reels.

Adam is a wonderful hero and his arc is gratifying. He starts out self-absorbed but filled with passion. He tries to woo the young female chef, but she isn’t taken in by his charm. It isn’t until he believes he has hit rock bottom that he learns a bit of humility and empathy for others. I give him 4 out of 5 Heroes.

I felt the supporting cast was serviceable but not engaging. Everyone seemed to fall into the background, overshadowed by Cooper’s fiery presence. Even the woman from his past was only present to solve his financial problems in the end. It’s all a little too simplistic for me. I give them all just 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Krampus •1/2

Krampus_posterStarring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner
Director: Michael Dougherty
Screenplay: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty
Comedy/Horror/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: December 4, 2015


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

Well, Greg, someone’s coming to town. And it’s not who you think.

They’ve put a kramp(us) in our style. Let’s recap…

We meet a somewhat typical American family living in the burbs: Tom (Adam Scott), Sarah (Toni Collette), and their kids Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony). Sarah’s sister’s family arrives and we are witness to plenty of tension and family dysfunction. Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) is particularly difficult and reviled by most of the family. Max is ridiculed for wanting to follow family traditions, including the task of writing a letter to Santa. But Max writes the letter anyway.

Things continue to go sour in the household and Max tears up the letter and throws it into the night with a wish for a better family. Grandma “Omi” warns that Santa’s alter ego, the Krampus, will descend on families who don’t get along at Christmastime. Soon thereafter, all the power goes out in the neighborhood and daughter Beth decides she needs to brave the storm to see her boyfriend. She’s not gone long when a strange beast descends upon her and she hides under a car. Then, a strange toy explodes and Beth is no more.

Greg, Krampus is a strange movie that suffers from not knowing what it wants to be. If it is trying to be a horror movie, it fails because the premise, the characters, and the so-called scary scenes are neither realistic nor scary. If it is trying to be a comedy, it fails because the attempts at humor or satire fall flat. Krampus lacks a rudder and a compass. It drifts along, finding a way to fill two hours without producing a single memorable moment.

The primary hero of the story is probably poor Max, who deserves a better family and a better fate. One could argue that the family unit is the hero, with the entire family ensemble being terrorized by Krampus and his gang of misfit minions. Debating whether the hero is Max or his family is pointless, as no one in this movie really grows in any way. They just try to survive one Krampus attack after another. Perhaps at the end they’ve been humbled and will now treat each other better. Perhaps. By the end of the movie, frankly, we don’t really care.

Harsh words, Scott. I think Krampus seeks the same audience as 1984’s Gremlins. This is a dark Christmas comedy. It borrows heavily from horror concepts like the hidden villain and gross-out visuals. It could very well become a cult classic. Like many horror films, the characters are picked off one by one and the people who are the least likable are the most likely to be done in. While I do think you’re a bit hard on Krampus, Scott, I have to agree that it lacks a sensible direction.

It’s pretty clear to me Max is the hero of this story. It’s very much told from his point of view. He is the one who made the Christmas wish that he wanted a better family. And at the end of the story he gets his wish. It’s just that the family lives in fear of being demolished by the Krampus if they don’t behave. I’m reminded of the great Billy Mumy episode of The Twilight Zone called “It’s a Good Life” where everyone feared the little boy and behaved perfectly for fear of being wished into the corn field. Krampus works on that level and so it’s the family who are transformed, even though Max is the protagonist. It’s a less cathartic ending, but it makes sense given the concept.

The supporting characters are right out of the stock-character section of your local K-Mart. Grandma Omi plays the role of the exotic and mysterious prophet whom no one listens to until it is too late. Max’s cousins are garden variety bullies. Aunt Dorothy is such an abomination that no one would ever invite her over to their house, yet this family does just that. This movie is populated by caricatures, not characters.

Krampus himself should be interesting, or at least is potentially interesting, but this movie manages to portray Krampus as the dullest villain we’ve seen in the movies this year. We aren’t given any information about Krampus, his origins, or his mindset. Krampus just wants to torment the family and pick them off, one by one. Even his henchmen are uninteresting dolls who are supposed to be either scary or funny or some weird combination of the two. All I know is that I kept looking at my watch, waiting for this film to end.

Scott, I’m reminded of the hero/villain structure we presented in our book Reel Heroes & Villains. Max’s extended family represent an ensemble cast headed by Max’s parents. The Krampus is the evil mastermind and his followers are the henchmen – doing the dirty work.

I agree with you that we’ve seen all of these characters before. This movie was much more a cartoon or even a situation comedy rather than a Hollywood feature. Every character was straight out of the Hollywood trope handbook. Some of the actors were even well-known TV personalities from sitcoms gone by. There are no memorable characters here. Everyone just played the stereotype they were dealt.

Krampus is a forgettable film about Santa’s nasty doppleganger who is as evil as Santa is good. This is a gimmick film, with the gimmick being the anti-Santa. All the terrorizing that Krampus does to that unfortunate family is by-the-numbers and far from interesting. So we’re left with a gimmick, and not a good one at that. I can’t think of a reason to give Pus Cramp more than one single pathetic Reel out of 5.

There’s not much of a hero’s story to speak of, unless watching a family be terrorized by a dull anti-Santa constitutes a story. You’re right, Greg, that Max’s hurt feelings may now and forever be holding the family hostage each Christmas. Does this represent a hero’s transformation?  I don’t think so. As mentioned before, the family has certainly been humbled and it may now give Grandma the respect she deserves. But that’s hardly a transformation worth watching. Again I give a rating of 1 out of 5 in the hero category.

The supporting characters were flimsy stereotypes and as forgettable as last week’s meat loaf. Not a single character is the least bit memorable, unless you count one of the cars that broke down in the road. I do remember that car, as it had the good sense to check out of the movie early on.  No surprise here that I award this cast 1 cast rating point out of 5.

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Well, Scott, some of us like meatloaf. Krampus is not as imaginative or enjoyable as Gremlins, but I think it hits its mark. It was released in time for Christmas but I it may find a home as a Halloween treat as well. I don’t see much need to see this film again, but I liked it more than you did as I laughed at the many ways the director and writers found to kill off family members with Christmas joy. I give Krampus 2 out of 5 Reels.

The hero’s journey is muddied by the fact that it is Max who is the protagonist, but it is the extended family who learn the lessons. We’ve identified this pattern as the “catalytic” hero. In this case, Max is the catalyst for imparting a transformation in others. The problem is that it is the evil Krampus’s temper that teaches a lesson, not Max’s heroism. So, this is a pretty weak hero’s journey, after all. I give Max just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

As we both noted, the secondary characters are mere cookie-cutter shadows of trite Hollywood favorites. Although, I thought Grandma “Omi” was memorable – and Krista Stadler delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in an otherwise unremarkable film. I give the supporting cast just 2 Cast points out of 5.

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