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Best Films of 2015

Scott, it’s that time of year again: time to review our picks for the best films of 2015.

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

Without further ado — and without going into exactly what a “doo” is — let’s get right to it.

My top 10 were films that took me out of my comfort zone and transported me to a different place. A dangerous place that I could live in for 2 hours from the safety of my theater seat.

10. Steve Jobs
9. Inside Out
8. Creed
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
5. Straight Outta Compton
4. Bridge of Spies
3. Room
2. The Revenant
1. The Martian

Here are my top movies in 2015. These were finely-crafted movies featuring memorable characters who took big risks and forever changed themselves or the world.

10. Spotlight
9. Creed
8. Steve Jobs
7. Joy
6. Woman in Gold
5. Inside Out
4. The Martian
3. Room
2. Bridge of Spies
1. The Revenant


It looks like we have several movies in common, Scott. Let’s get right to it and talk about our top five. My number 5 pick was Straight Outta Compton. It’s a biopic about the founders of the rap group NWA. I was uncertain about this film going in because I personally have so little in common with the lead characters. But I was pulled into their world and came to understand the amazing challenges the three leads had to overcome to get “outta the hood.” It’s a great three-way buddy hero story as well as a great rags to riches story.

Greg, Straight Outta Compton didn’t make my top 10 list, but I did enjoy its story about a group of underdogs overcoming the institution of racism. This film is also about human relations – how those relations form, how they evolve, how they unravel, and how we clean up the mess. Compton makes you think about the ways that human beings treat each other, in the good sense but mostly in the destructive sense. This film was well-made and quite interesting.

My number 5 pick was Inside Out, a movie that especially grabbed my attention because it portrays the conflicting psychological makeup of the average human being. We are presented with five conflicting emotional states that compete with long-term memories, imaginary friends, dream states, trains of thought, and executive functioning. The visual depictions of all these mental processes are innovative and amusing. Moreover, the resolution of Riley’s internal conflict is deeply moving and reveals some fundamental truths about how we deal with life’s ups and downs.

I also liked Inside Out, but not as much as you did. It got high marks from me for excellent storytelling. I was very concerned that a story about emotions would be very fluffy and abstract. But writer/director Pete Docter really hammered out a story worthy of Pixar. I laughed, and I cried. But mostly I sat in admiration of a story that clearly reached adults as readily as it reached children.


My number 4 pick was Bridge of Spies. You can hardly go wrong with the best director of the century (Steven Spielberg) and America’s favorite leading man (Tom Hanks). Bridge is a period piece that reminds us of how things haven’t really changed much. Americans of the 1960s feared the Russians with an irrational paranoia so great that they forgot the meaning of the Constitution. The film echoed a similar paranoia of Muslims today. Everything about this movie was excellent. Even the extras put in stellar performances.

Bridge of Spies was my number 2 pick. This movie shines in every way that a movie can shine. First and foremost, Donovan is a hero with moral courage. His character taps into an important hero archetype that describes a man who does the right thing even when it is very unpopular. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical.

My number 4 movie in 2015 was The Martian. This film offers an extraordinary hero story, perhaps the best I’ve seen on the big screen in several years. The movie itself is almost as strong as the hero’s journey; it explodes off the screen, seizing our attention and lifting our hearts for the entire 2 hours and 21 minutes. We have the complete package here: a riveting screenplay, a terrific cast, astounding CGI effects, and a gritty hero worthy of our greatest admiration.

Yes, The Martian was my favorite film of the year. I was transfixed by three separate but intertwined plotlines. We had Watney’s fight to stay alive on the inhospitable planet Mars. And the crew’s journey back to Earth after having left their comrade behind. And finally, the story of the team on Earth at Mission Control trying to find a way to bring Watney home and not lose the entire space agency in the process. It was a thrilling ride from beginning to end.


That brings us to a film we both rated number 3 in our lists: Room. This was an atypical hero’s journey. The “ordinary world” for young Jack is a 10×10 shed where he’s lived his entire life. His only exposure to the outside world is what he’s seen on television. Then, when he’s thrust into the ‘real’ world, he is overwhelmed the the hugeness of it. Brie Larson plays the mother and really has to carry the whole of the first half of the film herself. She does a splendid job and convinces me that she’s been an abductee for seven years. It’s a brilliant movie.

As you mention, Greg, Room is also my 3rd favorite movie of 2015. Brie Larson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young woman who must overcome horrific circumstances to survive, and if that weren’t enough, she must help her young son overcome those same horrific circumstances. I was riveted by their dual journeys and deeply felt their every triumph and every setback. One could argue that the movie represents a wonderful metaphor for how we all must break out of our prisons, help others along the way, and overcome our personal demons. This movie grabbed me in many ways and deserves all the accolades it receives.


That brings us to The Revenant, which you ranked as #2 and I rated as the top movie of the year 2015. This film is a sweeping, majestic, tour de force, 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. 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.


I have to agree. There is a certain similarity between The Revenant and The Martian. Both lead characters are in an unforgiving landscape trying to survive. But in The Revenant the hero is out for revenge. Ultimately it becomes a showdown between the hero and the villain. I rated The Revenant slightly behind The Martian because the latter was a more complicated film – both technically and in terms of plot. But I still think The Revenant was one of the finest movies of the year.

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 2015 a rating of 3 and a half Reels out of 5. The quality of films started out poorly but finished fairly strong. You may recall that I gave the movies of 2013 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5. Last year also received a rating of 3 and a half Reels. You can read our reviews of the films of 2013 in our first book: Reel Heroes: Volume 1, and our reviews of the movies in 2014 in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains.

I think we actually had a better crop of movies this year than last. As you point out, we got a lot of really good films at the end of the year. There were some excellent offerings over the summer, too. If I had to score 2015 I think I’d give it 4 Reels out of 5. We had a bonus with reboots of Mad Max and Star Wars, not to mention the final installment of The Hunger Games franchise. I’m looking forward to what is coming in 2016 including the next Star Trek film. I’m also looking forward to reviewing 2016’s heroes and our next project – the Mentor. See you at the movies, Scott!

Deadpool •••1/2

Deadpool_posterStarring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller
Director: Tim Miller
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Adventure/Comedy/Action/, Rated: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: February 12, 2016


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

Greg, I’d say that we’ve encountered a new breed of superhero.

Deadpool is not your father’s X-Man. Let’s recap:

We meet Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a young man who makes a living scaring away males from stalking teenage girls. Wilson falls in love with a woman named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and even proposes marriage to her. Soon afterward, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

He’s approached by a mysterious man who offers to cure his cancer and in return he’ll be better, stronger, faster (sorry, wrong hero story) than before. Then he, in return, will perform mercenary acts. It turns out that to transform into this super soldier, he must undergo immense torture to cause his body to mutate. The mutation takes place, but it leaves his skin mottled in a sort of ugliness that his friend describes as “an avocado having sex with a much older avocado.” However, he has acquired regenerative powers that make him immortal. Now, he’s on a mission to find the man who did this to him and have him reverse the effects.

Greg, Ryan Reynolds has finally hit his stride. Yes, he’s appeared in many movies, some quite forgettable, but here he finds his groove and delivers the goods big-time. As Deadpool, Reynold plays a grim, goofy superhero whose grimness makes you wince and whose goofiness makes you smile. The movie combines darkness with irreverence, and crassness with nobility. Reynolds is electric; he has somehow channeled the spirit of Jim Carrey in Cable Guy. Only Deadpool is a much better movie than Cable Guy.

This film follows a fairly standard hero’s journey. Wade Wilson is a somewhat unsavory character whose only hope to survive cancer is to undergo a terrible physical transformation. As befitting the superhero genre, his physical changes are accompanied by psychological changes. He not only wants to avenge his disfigurement, he also wants to prevent Francis Freeman (Ed Skrein) from harming others in the future — not a bad transformation for a guy who was a loser at the story’s outset. Wade gets help along the way from two X-Men, defeats the villain, and reconciles with his fiancée. Along the way we are treated to witty dialogue laced with clever vulgarities that made my inner (or not so inner) 12-year-old boy very happy.

And that is my gripe with this film. It’s pretty much Spider-Man on steroids. Where Peter Parker is a wise-cracking youth, Wade Wilson is a foul-mouthed adult. There were a LOT of 4th wall breaks and inside jokes (“Which Professor X? Stewart or McAvoy?”). There were several asides to the audience about how the film was low-budget. Frankly, I got tired of it. If you remove all the glibness, it’s just a standard superhero origin story – but rated R.

Deadpool is very much an anti-hero. He’s not a very nice guy. He kills with impunity and with little regard for passersby. I can’t say that I agree with you about his transformation. He was a pretty decent guy at the beginning – terrorizing men who stalk women. But he grew into the kind of superhero who, when offered the chance to be a true hero, blows the head off his victim. I’m reminded of the anti-superheros from 2009’s Watchmen. There was a movie where all the superheroes were Deadpools.

I agree that he treads a fine line between heroism and anti-heroism. In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we argue that if the lead character ends up a good person, then he or she is a hero, not an anti-hero. Because the film ends with Deadpool defeating the much more evil character, Francis Freeman, I’d call Deadpool a hero. Having said that, I do wish he had paid that cabbie the cab fare owed to him. That would have been a nice heroic touch.

This movie lacks a good mentor figure for our hero. An unfortunate oversight or deliberate omission? It could be argued that Deadpool’s leanings toward occasional darkness stem from the absence of an older parent-like figure who could have steered him in a more positive direction. Deadpool does receive help from his pal Weasel (T.J. Miller) and his two X-men comrades, but he’s pretty much on his own in terms of receiving sage guidance. Perhaps it could be argued that Francis was Deadpool’s dark mentor during his “training” to become a superhero.

I am pretty sure Deadpool falls easily into the anti-hero role. As you point out, the anti-hero is defined by the fact that he falls on the negative edge of the transformation. While Wade is not a boy scout at the beginning of the film, his disregard for the villain’s life at the end is enough for me to consider him a bad guy. Let’s recall that the villain didn’t actually kill anyone in the story. He was just really sadistic. His death was not justified.

I might argue that the two X-Men (Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead) are mentor figures. They represent the “path of good” that Deadpool continually rejects. Colossus even tries to get Deadpool to spare the villain with the plea that “You don’t have to be a hero all the time. It only takes 4 or 5 moments to be a hero.” But Deadpool kills the slob anyway. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a hero or anti-hero who ignores the advice of his mentor.

Deadpool is an extremely clever departure from the typical Marvel comic superhero formula. The movie offers a witty, visually playful, and imaginative look at the origin story of our hero Deadpool. Ryan Reynolds surprised me with an electric performance reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s best work in physical and verbal comedy. Yes, this film is unnecessarily crass and vulgar, but it won me over with its charm and struck all the right irreverent notes for me. I award Deadpool 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey contained some elements of a superhero story and some elements of a super-villain story. Deadpool’s relentless drive to seek vengeance is typically characteristic of villainy, yet on more than one occasion he does show a soft spot in his heart, and he does defeat the bad guy in the end, making him heroic. Superheroes rarely undergo transformations, and Deadpool’s growth and development in this film is subtle yet real. I give our pock-marked avocado hero a rating of 3 out of 5.

As I’ve noted, Deadpool lacks a clear mentor figure. Greg, it’s possible that Colossus had mentor-like qualities, but certainly not Teen Warhead. Deadpool’s arch nemesis, Francis, resembles a dark mentor whom Deadpool overcomes and eventually overwhelms. Marvel knows the hero formula better than any movie production team in the world, and I suspect they deliberately deprived Deadpool of mentoring if only to demonstrate that our most virtuous heroes need elders to achieve greatness. This mentor vacuum means that I can only give this film a mentor rating of 2 out of 5.

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I can’t share your enthusiasm for this film, Scott. Deadpool is just an anti-superhero. Everything that PG-13 superheros do, Deadpool does the opposite. For example, he gets shot in the ass. No Marvel superhero ever got shot in the ass. So, now we have it. Deadpool is basically Wolverine without the morality. This is just a contrarian movie. I had fun with it for about 45 minutes. But then it just got ridiculous. The plot is hardly better than Reynold’s own Green Lantern film from 2011. I give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

I don’t think Deadpool has any redeeming qualities. He does have a “save the cat” moment or two which may endear us to him. But overall, the rationale is that Wade Wilson was dealt a bad hand of cards and now he has earned the right to be on a rampage. Basically, Deadpool does everything the opposite of an X-Man. I have to disagree with you Scott. Deadpool is clearly an anti-hero with few redeeming qualities by the end of the film. I give him just 2 Heroes out of 5.

But we agree that there are few mentors in this film, if any. You called Francis a dark mentor – but i see him as a traditional villain. He’s just mean for mean’s sake. And vengeance is Wade Wilson’s goal. I will stick with my earlier assessment that the two X-Men in the fim act as mentors. But just barely. I give them 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Hail, Caesar! •1/2

Hail,_Caesar!_Teaser_posterStarring: Josh Brolin,  George Clooney,  Alden Ehrenreich
Director: Ethan Coen,  Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen,  Joel Coen
Comedy/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 5, 2016


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All hail the conquering movie review. It’s time to review Hail, Caesar.

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

Hail, Caesar is a hell of a Caesar. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is a big-time movie producer at fictional Capital Pictures in 1951. He’s a busy guy with several pictures in the works. His first stop is a back-alley photographer’s studio where his pin-up star Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) is being photographed in compromising positions. Before the cops arrive, he feeds Gloria a cover story that explains why she’s there. This is just the beginning of Eddie’s day and it isn’t even light out yet.

The studio is currently filming an elaborate production called Hail, Caesar, starring the famous Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Two extras in the film kidnap Whitlock and take him to a group of communists who want to take down Capital Pictures. Meanwhile, western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is being groomed as a more traditional dramatic actor by famous director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who realizes it’s a lost cause.

Scott, Hail, Caesar is a veiled look at 1950’s movie making. The titular film within a film Hail, Caesar closely resembles Ben Hur making Clooney a faux Charleton Heston. There’s a subplot where DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is an unmarried pregnant swimming star actress – an allusion to Esther Williams. The western kid, Hobie Doyle, is Roy Rogers and Channing Tatum tap dances a gay frolic in a nod to Gene Kelly.

This all would have been a fun romp if only the whole thing made sense. For the most part, this is a movie about Mannix running from problem to problem with what should be witty situations. But there is never a punch line. Tatum’s character is rowed out to sea by the Communist writers and boards a Soviet submarine. It has no bearing on the plot and is supposed to be some sort of joke about the blacklisting of artists in the 1950’s and 60’s. I found the whole thing both bizarre and confusing.

I agree, Greg. The Coen brothers badly miscalculated here. I’m trying to figure out their rationale for producing this movie. Did they want to show us how bad the acting was back in the 1950s? Did they want to remind us of that era’s values regarding women, religion, and communism? Did they want to show us that movies once featured tap-dancing sailors, singing cowboys, and huge synchronized swimming ensembles?

There’s very little of value in this movie. It wasn’t entertaining to watch George Clooney pretend to be a bad actor. There’s a reason why today’s movies aren’t about tap-dancing sailors or swimming starlets — these scenes are no longer interesting to modern audiences. Most problematic is the fact that there is no hero story to be found in Hail, Caesar. Baird Whitlock starts out a fool and remains one. Eddie Mannix is a movie studio problem solver at the outset, and he remains one. Hobie Doyle is a simpleton from start to finish. This movie is a strange collection of scenes that add up to nothing.

The hero is Eddie Mannix. He has all manner of challenges with the screwball crew of actors he has to wrangle. But as far as a transformation, it’s hard to gauge what he’s working on. One of his challenges is the opportunity to go to work for a defense contractor as a manager. The lifestyle would be easier and the money better, but Mannix loves the job he’s doing. Ultimately, he chooses to stay with the movie company, despite the toll it takes on him physically and his family life. I don’t know if this is a transformation, as he pretty much ends up where he started. But at least he’s resolved an issue of internal turmoil.

The supporting characters, as I said, are a variety of nut cases. But they are all cut from the same cloth. As actors they are self-centered and oblivious to the workings of the world around them. As such, they make for a sort of hydra-character – multiple heads but one body. That is, they are all one supporting character which is the trouble child. I will make one exception to that. The western kid, Hobie Doyle, turns out to be a very sharp tack in the bunch. When Whitlock is abducted, it’s Doyle who knows how to deal with the bad guys and gives advice to Mannix. He’s not quite a mentor, but it is at least a confidante.

Greg, forgive me if I launch into the ratings for this movie right away. The less said about Hail, Caesar, the better. The film is an odd mix of vignettes about the movie industry from a bygone era, and it’s a mix that offers neither a coherent message nor any entertainment value. The Coen brothers usually deliver the goods, and so I’m scratching my head wondering what they missed or what I missed. Based on what I saw, this movie disappoints on the level of storytelling, character development, and the hero’s journey. I’m sorry to give Hail, Caesar one single Reel out of 5.

There is no hero’s journey, and so let’s assign the movie 1 Hero out of 5 and then go right to the rating of the mentors in the story. Oh wait — there is no story, and so there are no mentors. I suppose it could be argued that Mannix is a mentor figure, as he counsels people here and there, and he even tells Baird Whitlock to get his act together at the very end. He should have told the Coen brothers to get their act together. We never see any lasting fruits of Mannix’s mentoring labors, if you can call them that. Mannix the much maligned mentor merits a metric of 1 Mentor out of 5.

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That’s alright Scott. Hail, Caesar is a confusing mass of conflicting impulses (that’s for all you Star Trek fans out there). There is very little plot and what little there is not coherent. Over the last five years we’ve been viewing movies we’ve seen a pattern of movie releases.

May through September are the summer blockbusters. October is for scary movies. November and December are the doldrums except for arthouse films that are in limited release to qualify for the Oscars. January films are the Oscar hopefuls that were released at the end of December to just qualify for nomination. Then there’s February, March, and April. These are the dregs of the film schedule and Hail, Caesar falls nicely into that range. I award it 2 out of 5 Reels since I appreciated the craft necessary to reflect back on the golden age of filmmaking, if I didn’t enjoy the story.

Eddie Mannix is an interesting guy with a number of challenges and a constant set of inner conflicts. When we rate a hero we look for a problem to solve and a transformation. Mannix has an inner problem – whether to take a cushy job. But he doesn’t have much of a transformation. While he comes to peace with the life he’s chosen, he’s very much the same fellow at the end as at the beginning. I give him 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And this year we’re rating mentor characters. The role of the mentor is to guide the hero in his quest. Aside from the one time he asks Hobie Doyle for advice, Mannix is mentorless. He’s very much an island unto himself. He enjoys the chaos that the studio imposes on his life and ultimately he chooses that life. But he does it largely alone and so the mentor character is quite absent, and the story suffers for it. I give Hail, Caesar 0 out of 5 Mentors.

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Room •••••

Room_PosterStarring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, Emma Donoghue
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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

Greg, do you have room in your schedule?

I’d like a room with a view. A viewing of our latest movie Room to be precise. Let’s recap:

The opening scenes of this movie occur inside a small room where a young mother named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are living. We aren’t sure how or why they are living in such an odd small space until it becomes apparent that they are being held captive by a man named Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped Joy seven years ago and fathered her child (through rape). The “room” is actually a shed in Nick’s backyard.

One day the power goes out and Joy and Jack nearly freeze to death. That’s when Joy realizes that she needs a plan to help Jack escape. She begins to teach him of the outside world, a thing he’s never seen. Then she coaches him on how to be sick, even how to act dead. Nick falls for the rouse and takes Jack out of the shed to bury him. But Jack escapes. And that is when his real journey begins.

Greg, Room is the perfect name for this movie. It refers, of course, to the location of the trapped mother and son, but it also refers to room for growth and the spaces we need to become what we’re meant to become as human beings. Joy and Jack turn out to be buddy heroes who need each other to escape their physical prison and then later their psychological prisons. I enjoyed this movie’s ability to take us from small scary spaces to large scary places.

Scott, this is not your usual hero’s journey. Often, the hero’s ordinary world is exposed to the viewer in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Then, an “inciting incident” happens that takes the hero to an unusual place. Room starts in the unusual place (which is the only place Jack has ever known). We spend half the film there, getting to know what it is like to be trapped for seven years.

The inciting incident comes at the halfway mark when Jack escapes into our ordinary world – but his special world of “the outside.” But he is so overwhelmed by the openness and vastness of the world that he is hardly able to talk. Jack befriends a police officer who gently coaxes information from him so that they can rescue his mother.

The film’s unusual presentation of the hero’s journey is one of many elements that captivated me. For Jack, the room is his ordinary world. For Joy, it is the unfamiliar world. So our two heroes start out in different worlds, yet ironically they’re in the same room. The movie must end with them both safely ensconced in the same world. That’s a highly unusual journey for two people to travel, and so no wonder it is rife with tension, pain, and suffering for both of them.

We often talk about good heroes needing to transform themselves, and there can be no transformation while trapped in the room. So our heroes must escape, and after they accomplish this feat, the doctor who examines Jack makes the point that Jack is “plastic” — a term pointing toward his malleability being greater than his mom’s. Indeed, Jack’s ability to cope in his new world is less problematic than Joy’s return to her original world. It doesn’t help that her original world can be cruel. Joy’s father behaves badly and journalists ask her insensitive questions. Perhaps Jack derives his resilience from his long hair, which turns out to hold the hero’s secret power, much like the ring’s power to aid Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

The supporting characters around Jack are mostly seen through the haze of the young boy’s inexperience. Besides his mother, the only person Jack sees in the room is “Old Nick” – the kidnapper/rapist. And then only through the slats of a wardrobe Jack hides in when Nick visits from time to time.

Once outside, Jack meets a police officer who acts as his mentor in the new world. Later, he meets doctors and nurses who, I believe, are shot in such a way that we never see their faces. Next Jack meets his grandparents. As Scott mentioned, the grandfather (William H. Macy) can’t accept Jack. The grandmother expects her daughter, Joy, to be the same little girl she lost seven years ago. These aren’t strong characters – which is fine – as we need to focus on Jack and his struggle to make sense of a world far more immense than anything he ever imagined.

Yes, exactly, Greg. Once again, we encounter supporting characters who are either instrumental in helping our heroes accomplish their goal or who hinder the heroes. You’re right that the woman cop helps nurture Jack and guide him to safety. Her mentorship is pivotal, occurring during the crucial initiation of his journey. But Jack’s lifelong mentor is his mother Joy, who teaches him about the world of the “room” and then helps him unlearn those lessons in order to adapt to the world beyond the room. Joy therefore plays a dual role in this story; she is both a hero and a mentor figure.

A wonderful coda to the story occurs when the heroes return to the room at the film’s end. In any good hero tale, the hero returns home but sees home in an entirely new way. Joy takes Jack back to the room and he can’t believe how much smaller it seems. Isn’t that the way all of us see our old homes and neighborhoods? Even Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz realized that home is now much bigger than her original geographic conception of home. Like any good hero, Jack now realizes that home is not what he remembers it to be, that he can never return home, and that he is forever changed by his new experience of home.

Room is a welcome disruption to the classic hero’s journey. While we spend a long time in the Room, it’s all put to good use. We learn what it’s like to live in a world that is only 100 square feet and the only reality is what you see on TV. I’ve seen Brie Larson in other films, but she really commanded the screen in Room. Young Jacob Tremblay also deserves praise for a performance that even seasoned veterans would have found challenging. For two actors to hold us in rapt attention for 60 minutes with nothing but a shed to work in is an achievement. I give Room 5 out of 5 Reels.

It’s unclear if this is a buddy film or some sort of hybrid. We start out with Joy as the main character taking care of her child. In the initial scenes, she is driving the story. But soon we learn it is a symbiotic relationship where Jack sustains Joy’s sanity as much as Joy sustains Jack. So it moves into buddy territory. When Jack and Joy are released into the world, the symbiosis continues. But when Joy has a breakdown, it’s Jack who becomes the lead character – sustaining Joy. It’s not clean, but nothing about Joy and Jack’s life is clean. I give the symbiotic duo 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the supporting characters aren’t much in this story. Old Nick, the villain, is barely in it and is dispatched at the halfway mark. Then, the villain becomes Joy and Jack’s inner pain and reemergence into reality. Joy’s mother doesn’t have much to do but bake cookies and her new husband is there only to be a swell guy. As I said before, these secondary characters are downplayed to give Jack and Joy the limelight. I give them only 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Room is one of the year’s best movies. Brie Larson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young woman who must overcome horrific circumstances to survive, and if that weren’t enough, she must help her young son overcome those same horrific circumstances. I was riveted by their dual journeys and deeply felt their every triumph and every setback. One could argue that the movie represents a wonderful metaphor for how we all must break out of our prisons, help others along the way, and overcome our personal demons. This movie grabbed me in many ways and deserves the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As you aptly point out, Greg, this film takes the conventional hero’s journey and turns it on its head in a unique and masterful way. Our two heroes start out in different worlds but end up in the same, beautiful world together. They are forever transformed by their journeys and truly needed each other to triumph on their individual missions. This story captures the hero’s journey in clever and satisfying ways. I give Joy and Jack a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters play pivotal roles in assisting or blocking our heroes from their development as characters. The most important secondary characters are the woman cop who intuitively reads Jack’s cryptic verbal and nonverbal cues during his escape, and Joy’s family members whose dysfunctional qualities make you wonder why Joy didn’t run away from home sooner than she did. Joy and Jack are clearly the stars of this movie, relegating the supporting cast to minor status. These team of players gets a respectable 3 cast rating points out of 5.

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Spotlight ••••

Spotlight_(film)_posterStarring: Mark Ruffalo,  Michael Keaton,  Rachel McAdams
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Josh Singer,  Tom McCarthy
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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Scott, it’s time to shine a little light on our latest review.

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

I pray that we get this review right, Greg. Let’s recap.

It’s the year 2001 in Boston and the Boston Globe has a new editor. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has just read an article about how the Boston Archbishop Cardinal Law was accused of protecting a priest who was sexually abusing children. He directs Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) to take his crack investigative team, Spotlight, and dig deeper and see how far the accusations go.

One member of the Spotlight team, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), is assigned the task of interviewing Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney who represents a number of victims of priest molestations. Garabedian leaks information to Rezendes that the extent of the abuse scandal is far greater than it appears. The team shows resourcefulness in uncovering the names of 87 priests whose crimes were covered up by the church.

Scott, Spotlight is a great story of team problem solving. At first the Spotlight team believes they are trying to uncover a coverup of a single priest gone bad, they soon discover there are as many as 87 pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese. As Robertson and his team work to learn as much as they can, they are thwarted at every turn by Bostonians who don’t want the secret out. It seems everyone wants to believe they live in a good town, and to let the truth out would make Boston look very bad. It’s Nationalism at the city level.

Spotlight is a movie cut from the same cloth as The Big Short. Both these movies expose the corruptive elements of our society and how leadership (if you can call it that) often turns a blind eye to malfeasance. For me, Spotlight works better than Big Short. In Spotlight, we enjoy nice continuity in following one team of heroes throughout the story whereas Big Short presents a scattered approach that is dissatisfying. We discuss the team as an important unit of heroic protagonist in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Spotlight showcases the workings of a heroic team in wonderful detail.

The heroes in this story are what we call catalyst heroes. They don’t transform themselves as a result of their journey (which is typical of the hero’s journey). Instead, catalyst heroes transform society. We’ve encountered catalytic heroes in other movies we’ve reviewed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. These Boston Globe journalists truly do shake things up in the Catholic Church, right some terrible wrongs, and better society as a result.

One could also argue that these heroes occupy a category of heroes called protectors. These are heroes who look out for the underdog. They help and protect the weak, the disadvantaged, and those who cannot protect themselves. So we have a team of catalytic protector heroes who do what needs to be done to correct injustices, protect others, and reform a corrupt system. In a sense, they are a team of superheroes.

You’re right, Scott. I call such movies “cause” films because they expose some cause the filmmakers think the public should know about. Often they resemble documentaries because the cause becomes more important than the story.

Spotlight overcomes this problem to a very large degree because it focuses on the people in the story. Not only the victims, but on the reporters and how the revelations affect them personally. You mention that the main characters don’t transform. But I did see a transformation in Robby Robertson. The pedophile story had been brought to his attention years earlier but he buried it in the Metro section of the paper. He overcame his guilt and shame to lead his team to a compelling story and discovery of a nationwide conspiracy within the church to hide widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic church.

When I look for mentors, I look for a character who gives guidance and support to the heroes. Marty Baron, the new editor of the Boston Globe, performs this role. He lays down the “call to adventure” when he challenges Robby Robertson and his team to investigate Cardinal Law. Robertson first “refuses the call” – because nobody challenges the church. But Baron persists and pushes the Spotlight team to dig ever deeper.

Good call about Marty Baron, Greg. This movie drives home the important point that it often takes exotic outsiders to effect change in people and in organizations. Baron is a Jew in a city dominated by Catholics. He’s also new in town, having moved to Boston from Florida. He couldn’t be more different from the status quo, and as such he brings fresh perspectives that challenge standard practices. The hero’s journey in classic mythology is rife with examples of exotic creatures from far away lands who magically appear before the hero to help him or her resolve whatever conflict the hero faces. Yoda from Star Wars is a striking modern example.

Baron represents the mentor who arrives on the scene, unsought by the Spotlight team and perhaps even unwelcome. Yet his impact is unmistakable and positive, as they grow to discover. Another type of mentor is the one who is actively sought out by the hero. During their investigation, the team seeks the guidance of a researcher in Baltimore who enlightens the team about the huge extent of the problem. Again, it is an outsider who helps the heroic team accomplish its mission.

One last point. As we’ve seen in other movies, Greg, heroes must often overcome the influence of dark mentors. There is an older male character named Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle) who represents the church and whose job is to fix problems for the church such as this one. He counsels Robby, or rather tries to counsel Robby, to ignore the problem because the city needs the church, etc. Robby will not drop the case and the dark mentoring attempt fails.

Spotlight is a surprisingly good “cause” movie – mainly because it focuses on the impact the story has on the principle characters. I was also impressed that such a star-studded ensemble cast shared the “spotlight” so well. Although, the personal lives of each character got little attention, so characterization was a bit thin. But I was entertained while I was educated, which is the goal of such a cause film, afterall. I give Spotlight 4 out of 5 Reels.

The main character in this story is Robby Robertson and he has a mild transformation. But it is the city of Boston that undergoes the transformation due to the efforts of the ensemble cast. This makes them a sort of “catalytic” team hero which I give 3 Heroes to.

The secondary characters also take on mentorship roles. There’s the dark mentor Conley that Scott mentioned. As well as the newcomer Marty Baron who can see things with eyes. Their mentorship isn’t as profound as it might have been. I give them just 3 out of 5 Cast Points.

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I think you pretty much nailed it, Greg. Spotlight shines a light on the dark workings of a religious organization that participated in a shameful cover-up of countless unspeakable crimes. This film is effective in portraying how a team of journalists finds its moral core so that it can shed light on a church that has lost its moral core. The acting, the pacing, and the storytelling are all exemplary. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The team of heroes at the Boston Globe are fun to watch as they unravel the mystery confronting them. They bring about transformative change to their community and to the Catholic church, and they deliver justice to hundreds of victims whose tragic stories never saw the light of day. Watching these heroes do their heroic work was gratifying. I give them 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast was strong and provided exactly what our team of heroes needed to do their job (or to make their heroic job harder). The work here is more than perfunctory but not quite exemplary. A rating of 3 out of 5 cast points seems reasonable here.

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The Finest Hours ••

The_Finest_Hours_posterStarring: Chris Pine,  Casey Affleck,  Ben Foster
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Scott Silver,  Paul Tamasy
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: January 29, 2016


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

Well Greg, are you ready to write one of your finest reviews?

Yes, but the time spent watching this film was not quite The Finest Hours I’ve spent. Let’s recap…

We meet young Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a crewman in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Bernie is shy around women but meets a young lady named Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who is far from shy. She proposes marriage to Bernie on the same night that a big snowstorm slams into the New England coast.

Webber’s incompetent exec sends him and three others over the “bar” to track down an oil freighter which has split in two. Webber apparently has a history with this bar. In a previous rescue mission, Webber went by-the-book and turned back, leaving a small fishing boat to its demise. The town’s people, and Webber, haven’t forgotten. So, when Webber is faced with the same problem, he goes beyond what is wise and pushes through the treacherous waters and embarks on what will be the Coast Guard’s greatest small-vessel rescue of all time.

The Finest Hours reminds me of a football team that, on paper, should win the league championship – but doesn’t. The film has all its ducks in a row, such as a terrific true story, a fine cast, and wonderful visual effects of the angry sea tossing people and ships with reckless abandon. On paper, everything appears great, but somehow the whole ends up being less than the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem, I must confess, lies in my expectations for modern movies to dazzle me with unique storytelling, saucy dialogue, and surprise endings. The Finest Hours has none of these things. This movie is old-school to an astonishing degree. Perhaps if you go into the theater expecting a 1950s treatment of the story, you’ll walk away a satisfied customer. My modern movie-watching sensibilities, however, were not impressed by heroes shouting, “Not on my watchandEither we’re all going to live or we’re all going to die”

Don’t get me wrong. If you enjoy true accounts of daring selflessness, this movie is for you. The CGI effects of the waves barreling through oil tankers and ravaging coast guard boats are spectacular. Just be ready to encounter simple characters cut from a bygone era.

I had the same impressions, Scott. Finest seems cut from the cloth of the 1950s sensibilities. It’s certainly not the finest hours I’ve spent in the theater. It’s acceptable that the film be set in the 1950s, but the dialog surely should be more modern.

There are two sets of heroes in this film. There’s our young hero Webber captaining his small rescue boat. And there is the reluctant hero Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) in the engine room of the S.S. Pendleton. Sybert doesn’t want to lead. He is more at home below decks, tending to the engines. But the hotheads on deck want to jump ship in the lifeboats. Sybert saves them all by launching an empty lifeboat which is instantly dashed to pieces along the side of the ship. It’s Sybert who comes up with a plan for grounding the Pendelton that ultimately saves the 32 men. He had to lead or they would all have been doomed.

The mentors in this film are hard to find. Webber is motivated to follow the rules at all times. The Coast Guard regulations as taught to him by his teachers are his mentor. Ultimately, as with any mentee, Bernie leaves his mentor behind when it is clear that he won’t be able to save the men of the Pendleton. Webber’s teachers are the “unseen mentors” in his head who tell him what is right and wrong.

There are also the fishermen who routinely fish the waters of Cape Cod. Like them, Bernie respects the law of the sea. There are things such men know and respect. These unwritten rules also govern Bernie.

Our two parallel heroes, Webber and Sybert, are both men who end up doing the right thing despite being under immense pressure from others to go the easy and cowardly route. They show strength, selflessness, and resilience — three of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes. We mention over and over again in our reviews that good heroes undergo a transformation during their hero journeys. In Webber’s case, he grows in his recognition that sometimes rules are not meant to be followed but need to be broken if lives are to be saved.

You’re right, Greg, that there are no clear mentors in this film who help our heroes on their journeys. Perhaps that’s another reason why this movie didn’t quite work for me. As you note, implicitly present are former Coast Guard instructors who prepared Webber for emergencies such as this one. We’re given no backstory about Sybert to infer any mentoring influence on him. Sybert is a loner who is more into transforming others by the example he sets than he is into transforming himself.

One could also argue that Webber’s commander — the man who foolishly sent our hero on a suicide mission — is what our latest book on heroes calls a dark mentor figure. Miriam tries to stand her ground against this inept leader, and Webber would have defied the leader in a heartbeat if he thought that doing so would save people’s lives. We’ve seen a number of movies where heroes must overcome dark mentors. Whiplash in 2014 comes to mind.

The Finest Hours was a throwback to the 1950s, both in terms of story and execution. Current leading man-candy Chris Pine gives a fine performance in an otherwise unforgettable film. While it’s not quite A Perfect Storm, it seems that it wants to be. I give this film just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes do pretty well. Webber overcomes his naivete and his need to lean on the rules when things get tough. He learns that the rules are guidelines and when the time comes to act, we must use our best judgement. His parallel hero, Seybert, must step up to the plate. He is the only man on ship who has the knowledge to save his crewmates and he steps up to the challenge. Both men are courageous as they face their fears and act rather than turn tail and hide. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to score an unseen mentor. Both men rely on their experience and knowledge to save the day. (Although there is the one midshipman who pushes Seybert to step up to the challenge.)  I don’t think it would have helped the film any if we had a flashback to Webber’s school days. But a physical person to advise either man would have made for a better mentor. I give the unseen mentor just 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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The Finest Hours is a movie full of terrific pieces that strangely add up to mediocrity. The film’s characters suffer from an acute case of over-simplicity, and many of the film’s details fall flat or just don’t ring true. For example, the terrible blizzard is shown to leave only a dusting of snow on the roads, and somehow people are able to speak softly to each other, and even sing songs, in the midst of hurricane-strength winds. Ultimately, The Finest Hours lacks the heft it deserved. I enjoyed this movie the way you might enjoy a twinkie when what you really desire is a juicy steak. I award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

Like the rest of the film, the two heroes of the story are old-school and deliver hackneyed phrases that my grandparents might have enjoyed hearing in the era of Humphrey Bogart. Another weakness is that our heroes don’t evolve in any significant way during the course of the movie, although it could be argued that Webber grew in his awareness of the necessity of defying rules when necessary. I do give our heroes credit for their resourcefulness in saving lives. I give them 3 Heroes out of 5.

The absence of positive mentor figures in this movie may explain the absence of much positive growth and change in our heroes. I suspect there is a strong correlation in storytelling between hero transformation and hero mentorship. There is a dark mentor for our hero Webber to overcome, and on board the oil tanker Sybert must also overcome strong dark pressures to do the wrong thing. Among other things, this movie did need more overt positive mentor figures from which our heroes can grow as people. The absence of mentoring in this movie means that I must slap it with a mentor rating of 1 out of 5.

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The Big Short ••1/2

The_Big_Short_teaser_posterStarring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: December 23, 2015


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I thought this was a movie about oversized boxers.

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

It’s less about underwear than about underhanded dealings. Let’s recap.

It’s 2005 and  hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) predicts the housing market will collapse. He creates a credit default swap where he bets against the housing market. Nobody believes him and so his clients try to pull out of the fund. Meanwhile…

Hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers that stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is also involved in the credit default swap market. Baum wants more information before he barrels into these unprecedented investment waters, and he is shocked to learn that the housing market is about to burst. He and others are shown how they attempt to capitalize on the impending housing bubble. Meanwhile…

Recent college graduates Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) find a prospectus by Vennett. They call upon their buddy Ben Rikert (Brad Pitt) to help them get into the deal. They go to a Los Vegas convention where a mortgage security forum is taking place. With Ben’s help they make their deals. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Greg, I suppose I should be very interested in what The Big Short is telling us about greed and corruption in corporate America. After all, this movie spares no detail in illuminating the many ways that Americans like me were bamboozled by a bunch of white-collar scumbags who invented ways to make money at the expense of their country and every decent person around them. These fat-cats in suits were, in effect, organized criminals and thugs, preying on the innocent, selling their souls to the devil, and laughing all the way to the bank.

I do care about all that because, after all, it is a true story and this entire mess happened  only a few years ago. And I am very unhappy about it. I am not, however, a big fan of The Big Short. This movie did portray all this ugliness, and did it well, but it did so in the form of little vignettes about fat cats causing the mess and fat cats trying to gain financially  from the mess. The nitty gritty specifics of the shady dealings didn’t hold my interest and were, in fact, tedious.

I have to agree, although to a lesser extent. This was a documentary in a Hollywood wrapper. There were moments when the filmmakers wanted to explain something difficult so they tried to “dumb it down” by having it presented by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a roulette table. It wasn’t effective. Instead it was just confusing.

I don’t blame the “heroes” in this story for capitalizing by betting against the market. They were smart enough to see the bad debts coming due. What the film tries to do, and does it fairly well, is to show us just how intricate and corrupt the financial system is. Even the Standard and Poor’s ratings executives were afraid to downgrade the CDOs for fear of pissing off the big banks. Everyone was either covering their ass, or trying to profit from the bubble.

Exactly. This movie features a lot of players in the mortgage feeding frenzy, including main characters who appear to be neither heroes nor villains but just people out to make a buck. I didn’t have any feelings for the majority of the players. For example, are we supposed to feel badly for Michael Burry that his foresight about the housing bubble, and his scheme to make money from this foresight, was going unrewarded?

The closest thing to a hero in this movie would be Mark Baum, who starts out as a bitter, brooding man solely motivated by profit like everyone else in this film. Yet as the horror of the mortgage mess unfolds, Baum slowly transforms into a man who recaptures his humanity. Also, Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert, shows some empathic concern for others when he schools a couple of young upstarts about the increased mortality rate associated with bad economic data. So there are two characters at least, Baum and Rickert, who are chasing a buck like everyone else but who at least pause for a moment to consider the human cost of this financial disaster.

Yeah, this was a pretty tedious story. The filmmakers tried to give Baum a transformation by sharing with us his tragic loss. His brother had committed suicide and when he had a chance to help him, he just offered him money. Baum is idealistic and realizes that he can’t fix the world and ultimately forgives himself. It’s all a bit clumsy and pretty uninteresting.

Scott, The Big Short is what I call a “cause” film. It isn’t about the story, it’s about telling the world about some “cause” important to the filmmakers. As such, the cause becomes the hero of the story and the elements of good storytelling are left behind. Especially in this film, there are no heroes – only a tragedy that needs to be exposed. Frankly, such causes should be left to documentaries.

You’re right, Greg. The Big Short is short on plot, short on character development, and short on heroes. It explains the 2008 financial crisis in far more detail than anyone cares to hear. The film did drive home the point that our elected officials and private corporations are not to be trusted to look out for our best interest — but wait, hasn’t that always been obvious? The one thing I did learn was never order seafood stew when dining at a restaurant. You’ll have to see this movie to understand this fishy metaphor. Overall, I felt shortchanged by The Big Short. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

There is no hero story, unless you walk away believing that all these money-chasers somehow learned their lesson about unbridled greed. I doubt that they did. Perhaps their transformation resided in their newfound lesson in how to milk the system in sneakier ways, or how not to get caught when exploiting others. I’m not sure. Yes, Mark Baum finds some semblance of his humanity, but his awakening hardly qualifies as a hero’s journey. I award these heroes (ahem) 1 Hero out of 5.

The supporting characters do a commendable job of pursuing their greedy lifestyles and trying to find the best way to make a buck. It was a bit jarring seeing Steve Carell in a non-comedic role and he somehow pulled it off with skill and alacrity. I wonder if the villain in this story is time itself. Everything is about timing the market, getting in on the deal on time, the timing of the housing bubble, the time that investors give a broker to earn a profit, etc. Overall, the players in this movie did their jobs fairly well and so I can see giving them 3 cast rating points out of 5.

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The Big Short comes up short in making me care about anyone in this film. However, I did walk away better informed about the 2007 housing market collapse. As such, this “cause” film delivered on its goals. I give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

The lead characters were not the heroes of the story – the market collapse was. And that rates only 1 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast was stellar. We’ve seen big-star-casts before that deliver a disappointment, but The Big Short does a great job of integrating all these talents. I think the villain in this movie is the big banks and government. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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