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Miracles From Heaven ••1/2

Miracles_from_Heaven_posterStarring: Jennifer Garner,  Kylie Rogers,  Martin Henderson
Director: Patricia Riggen
Screenplay: Christy Beam,  Randy Brown
Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: March 16, 2016


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

Greg, we just saw a movie that begs the question, Do you believe in miracles?

It also begs the question, Who does God love more? Let’s recap:

We meet the Beam family: Christy (Jennifer Garner) and Kevin (Martin Henderson), along with their three children Abbie (Brighton Sharbino), Adelynn (Courtney Fansler), and Anna (Kylie Rogers). They’re all happy and doing great until one day Anna throws up for no reason. Soon we learn that she’s constantly sick and in pain. The Beams go from one doctor to another without getting any answers.

Finally they find someone who can advise them: Dr. Nurko. He explains that the signals from Anna’s brain don’t fully make their way to her digestive system. So she’s basically paralyzed from the stomach through her small and large intestines. She has to subsist on a liquid diet and lots of pain meds. The prognosis looks grim but he offers some small hope.

Miracles From Heaven is a Christian-based movie that follows the usual formula of the genre. We meet a hero of faith who is happy, but then something bad happens that ruins the happiness and jeopardizes the faith. In the end, God comes through with a needed miracle and both happiness and faith are restored. With a title like Miracles From Heaven, we know from the get-go what is going to happen. What we don’t know are the details, and any movie that gives away its punchline had better get those details right.

This movie pretty much gets the details right, and so the enjoyability of the movie hinges on one’s taste for the genre. The details that are effective begin with our two heroes, Christy and Anna. Jennifer Garner plays a distraught mother with agonizing effectiveness, and Anna exudes a tender sweetness even when she’s in pain. The hopelessness of Anna’s medical condition is heart wrenching to bear, and the maudlinism is dragged out a bit too long for my tastes. But the promised miracle delivers just the right punch.

There are several problems with this movie. The first is that the climax is delivered in the trailer. We know what is going to happen: The little girl gets sick, the doctors can’t help her, she falls from a tree onto her head, and she is cured. We aren’t ever in the situation where we fear for the little girl’s life – so it’s just a matter of waiting for the events to unfold.

There are a number of troubling scenes in this film. Not the least of which is a scene where Anna is in the hospital with a little girl dying from leukemia. The girl asks Anna if she fears death and she admits that she does, but she gets strength from her faith. Anna gives the girl her own cross and that is that. Until the end of the film when it is revealed that the girl is the daughter of the Boston Globe’s reporter Ben Wexler and she died after three weeks. So, apparently, if you’re a Christian girl and pray, God cures you. But if you’re a Jewish girl and don’t, God lets you die. It’s a troubling message.

This is the sort of question that such movies gloss over. On the one hand, God is glorified for curing blonde haired, blue eyed little girls. But gets no blame when other little girls die for no good reason. This is exacerbated by the fact that the pastor gives a sermon on how if things are not going well in your life, maybe you need to search your soul to see if you’re sinning. So, a couple parishioners approach Christie and ask her to reflect on her life and her husband’s. Or perhaps, Anna herself is the cause of her own illness. It’s an appalling question that the pastor shrugs off later. But it is the sort of themes that we see in Christian Inspirational movies.

I think this movie pretty much discredits any notion that people get sick because God is punishing them. The three parishioners who make this argument are shown to be cruel simpletons. The pastor’s unfortunate wording allows for misinterpretation. Sure, if we’re unhappy with a situation (like divorce or being thrown in jail) we need to look at our part — what role did we play in causing it? The situation facing our heroes was illness, so the question isn’t “what did I do to cause it” but rather “have I drifted away from God?” If a Christian drifts away like Christy Beam does, there will be misery and struggle.

So nothing the pastor says is wrong, but his wording allows for misuse of God and religion. I didn’t view his sermon as problematic because I don’t have the warped mindset of the three parishioners who twisted the message. It’s unfortunate that the makers of this film included this muddied and confusing message. I wonder if they deliberately made the pastor’s wording ambiguous to appeal to a wide swath of people — those who misuse religion as well as those who don’t. Who knows.

But let’s not lose sight of the hero’s journey here. It’s a pretty good one, regardless of whether you see the story through the lens of an atheist or a believer. The hero of the story is either the entire Beam family or it is the mother Christy — or it could even be the duo of mother and child. Regardless, the hero or heroes of this story venture into a dangerous unfamiliar world of sickness and dying. They get help along the way — a physician, a church friend, a receptionist, an airline employee, and even a server in a restaurant. It’s a community of helpers, each offering a hand in a different way.

The two primary mentors are the pastor who offers spiritual guidance, and the Boston physician who offers medical expertise. Going into the movie, I was anticipating that God Himself might serve as a mentor figure. There are scenes of our heroes praying for guidance from the Divine Mentor, and one could argue that God gave our heroes invaluable help in the form of friends and fire departments, not to mention the serendipitous accident that solves our hero’s problems.

Fair enough. But we also see Christy falling deeper and deeper into a loss of faith in God. She’s at the bottom of her well of despair when Anna falls from a tree and bangs her head – leaving her unconscious. Now, Christy and her friends and family come together and pray harder than they ever have. And when Anna is cured of her illness, Christy regains her faith. This shows that when good things happen, God is worthy of praise and thanks. But bad things are cause for abandoning God. It’s a bad message – and contrary to what the film is trying to show. So, the film lacks an internal consistency.

But you bring up another criticism I have of this film. Who is the lead character? I say it’s the mother. And we’re on a journey with her through a loss of faith and reclaiming it. The child is merely the prop that causes Christy to fall into the abyss of faithlessness. But the classic hero’s journey is lost here. While we see the ordinary world of Christy’s idyllic life with her happy family and children, she is cast into a special world of pain and anguish when her child falls ill. But it’s not through her overcoming of some missing inner quality that she attains her goal of curing her child. It’s a literal deus-ex-machina moment where Anna is cured by a miracle. The hero has no catharsis – she simply succeeds by dumb luck.

What is dumb luck to you is divine intervention to others. Our hero’s prayers were answered. Whether you believe in God or prayer or not, answers did arrive. The magic here is no different from the magic of Bilbo Baggins’ ring in The Hobbit or the wizardry at work in countless other films such as Big, Maleficent, and Groundhog Day. Heroes often want a particular outcome, and they do what it takes to invoke the miracle needed for it to happen.

The real issue here isn’t whether God exists or not, or whether God is fair to everyone, or anything having to do with religion. The central issue for us is whether we have a valid, complete, and effective hero’s journey. I see a pretty decent hero narrative here, one that is far from perfect but the elements are all in place — a journey to a perilous world, social helpers, a villainous entity, missing inner qualities in the hero, and success at the end. We don’t really see the heroes bestowing a boon to the world at the end, unless of course this movie is the Beams’ way of sharing their faith with others.

There’s yet another scene where young Anna is in such terrible pain that she wishes to die. Poor Christy is dumbstruck not knowing how to console her child. It’s a heartbreaking moment that any parent can sympathize with. Then, Anna poses a question that the movie glosses over. She asks, “Why should I stay here where I am in pain when I could go to heaven and be pain free and happy with God?” This is a deep philosophical question. If heaven is so wonderful, why should we endure the pain and suffering of life on Earth? Indeed, for this child there seemed to be no hope. And for her young friend the same. But instead of dealing with this question, it was solved by having her father and sisters burst into the room to make her feel better. It was a missed opportunity to deal with a real religious question.

The movie ends with a scene where Anna explains that while she was unconscious she saw God and he told her she’d be alright. It harkens back to the other movie by the same producers: Heaven is for Real. This scene is dropped into the end of the film with little attachment to any other scene. Near death experiences are significant events that are worthy of study and may hold deeper philosophical and religious consequences. In the other film, it was the central point of the story. Here, it’s merely an afterthought. This is another missed opportunity.

Fair enough. Let’s get to the ratings. Miracles From Heaven is a moving tale of pain and tested faith. It shows us the despair of facing an incurable disease, the stress of financial ruin from medical costs, and the emptiness of lost faith in God. That this tale is a true story is utterly remarkable. Anna’s recovery is indeed a miracle, unexplained by science and exactly what this family needed to heal spiritually and physically. Although Miracles From Heaven moved me, it did drag in places and portrayed religious belief in an overly simplistic and sometimes confusing way. Still, the movie earns 3 Reels out of 5.

Our hero or heroes really went through the wringer here, undergoing a terrible ordeal that wracked them emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. The hero’s journey contained many of the elements that we look for in good hero narratives. Greg, you raise the point whether our hero was transformed. I don’t know how one could not be transformed from the hell the family went through. Anna certainly acquired resilience and wisdom, and the mother undergoes a loss of faith followed by a powerful reaffirmation of it. Something tells me she’ll never question God again in her life. The heroes here merit 4 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, the mentoring is solid, with a preacher providing spiritual goodies and the famous doctor dispensing his compassionate care with great acumen. I’d still like to argue that the Beam family turned to God Himself for some serious mentoring, and they got from Him what they asked for. Perhaps not when and how they asked for it, but that kind of mysterious divine mentoring is a hallmark feature of Christianity. The collection of mentors here get a more than solid rating of 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Jennifer Garner is excellent in her role as the mother who will do anything to save her child. And young Kylie Rogers as Anna delivers a performance that brought tears to my eyes. Nobody wants to watch another person suffer, but to watch a child suffer excruciating pain for 90 minutes is truly unbearable. Miracles from Heaven is not the worst Christian Inspirational movie I’ve ever seen (that award goes to last year’s Kirk Cameron Saves Christmas). But it is loaded with all the tropes and simplistic storytelling that is common in the genre. I can only give Miracles 2 Reels out of 5.

Christy as the hero of the story leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve seen stories of people who have lost all hope and turn to God for support. Last year’s flawed Unbreakable is a good example. We love to see people come from the bottom of their emotional well and rise up to overcome their lacking faith. Here, Christy loses her faith and it is only restored when her daughter is cured by a miracle. It’s a bad message. People of faith, the ones who truly have faith, keep it through the worst of times and maintain it even after a great tragedy. It’s what buoys them and carries them. In that sense, the father was a better representative of a heroic journey. I can only give Christy 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the movie has two mentors of interest. The pastor is a good man who is leading his flock. He’s there when Christy suffers a crisis of faith. It’s a common character (we see it also in Soul Surfer). But he’s not very active in guiding Christy. The second mentor is Dr Nurko. He reminded me of Patch Adams – a jocular and caring man who was guiding Christy and Anna through the special world of this uncommon disease. Usually you want to see the mentor counsel the hero so that they can manage the special world – and then the hero goes on alone as a master of that world. But Dr. Nurko has no advice for Christy when medicine has done all it can – and it is not enough. He sends Anna home to die. He’s a nice man, but not a great mentor. I can only give him and the pastor 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ••••

Whiskey_Tango_Foxtrot_posterStarring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenplay: Robert Carlock, Kim Barker
Comedy/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2016


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I think we just experienced a new WTF moment, Scott.

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

The main WTF for me was: What’s Tina Fey doing in a serious movie? Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Let’s recap.

We meet single white female television reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey). Her highers-up decide that they need more coverage in Afghanistan and they’ve gathered all the single childless reporters together to see who will volunteer for three months overseas. Kim has little else going on so she volunteers. Upon arriving in Afghanistan she discovers that the air stinks and so does life for a woman in the fundamentally Muslim land. But she befriends an Australian reporter Tanya Vanderpool (Margot Robbie) who assures that while she was a ‘4’ back in America, she’s a definite ‘10’ in Afghanistan.

Kim also befriends the lecherous Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), a Scottish freelance journalist. Assisting Kim as her guide in Afghanistan is Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott), who navigates the dangerous terrain, cautions her where appropriate, and serves as her translator. Kim cultivates a working relationship with US Marine commander General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), whose war-weary men know they are fighting a lost cause. At first, Kim plans only a short stint in the country, but her stay in Afghanistan turns out to be much longer and more perilous than she imagined.

WTF would be a fun movie, if only it weren’t so true to life. War in general and Afghanistan in particular is no laughing matter. Still, Fey pulls us in with her “uncertain girl” routine. She’s played this role before on her sitcom 30 Rock and other films. She has an everywoman appeal that disarms us and makes us at ease with whatever situation she is in. Unlike her other film this year in Sisters, WTF Is thoughtful, funny, and entertaining. I would definitely go back for more.

Every once in awhile, a movie catches me by surprise. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is exactly that movie. How does a comedic actor like Tina Fey manage to master a role that offers biting social commentary? This film treats us to a bevy of meaty performances and some surprising lessons for our heroes and their companions. Our hero, Kim Baker, must grow up fast, adapt quickly, think well on her feet, and develop some serious toughness. The transformations that Baker undergoes are mental, emotional, and spiritual, and they are transformations utterly necessary for her survival.

The supporting characters here are wonderful, beginning with her rival reporter Tanya who is vulgar, flippant, and damaged from her experiences in war-torn Afghanistan. Also damaged are the soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way knowing that what they’re doing is entirely senseless. The guide Fahim offers stoic wisdom, and the Marine General’s bravado belies his sense of hopelessness. We watch our hero Baker pursue her mission and remain sane in an environment where sanity isn’t an option. This movie is a powerful story of survival, truth-seeking, and personal revelation.

Baker starts out the film very unaccustomed to her surroundings. She goes to pay for a cab and the desert winds blow away all her cash. She loses her head covering, offending everyone nearby. Her “handler” Fahim has to guide her through the uncertain world she’s entered. She quickly gains the respect of the troops she’s embedded with as she jumps out of the jeep during a firefight and films them blowing up a pickup truck. While she is green, she certainly is not lacking courage.

I’ll say. The mentoring she receives is pivotal for her success. Tanya is like a big sister to her, dispensing personal and professional advice that Baker badly needs to hear. Fahim is a geo-political mentor, if there is such a thing, in that he guides Baker through the desert and through foreign norms and customs. The General and Iain play more low-key roles in advising our hero, offering only minimal guidance here and there. In the end, Baker grows into her own person who makes bold moves and key decisions to save Iain from possible death. Baker is a hero who receives help that allows her to evolve into a wise sage herself by the movie’s end. That’s what we look for in any good hero narrative.

WTF Is a fun war movie in the way that M*A*S*H was a fun movie. Tina Fey brings her sharp comic timing to bear and delivers a story of a woman hero who goes from just getting by to commanding a network cable news room. It stacks up well against such movies as Walk And Joy. I give Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 4 out of 5 Reels.

Kim Baker is a great hero who demonstrates both the strength that is necessary to be an embedded reporter, as well as a woman in a world where women are considered less than human. Baker enters an unfamiliar and hostile world as naive, but soon learns to master it. Ultimately, she takes those lessons back to the familiar world and rises to the top. I give Kim Baker 4 out of 5 Heroes.

While we see a number of mentors in this story, none of them are particularly strong. Tanya is a bit of a dark mentor, showing Baker how to use her status as an American woman to her benefit. General Hollanek is less of a mentor and more of a father figure whom she must either atone with or bend to her way of thinking. Fahim works as a low-level guide through Afghanistan, but offers little in the way of emotional guidance. I give these characters just 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot represents a breakthrough movie in the career of Tina Fey, establishing her as a legitimate dramatic talent. This movie reveals the tragedy of unnecessary war and the damage that all wars, whether necessary or not, inflict on both the guilty and the innocent. Our hero navigates through this broken world, suffers some scarring, but emerges intact and ready to make the world better. I give this surprisingly powerful film 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Baker follows the classic hero’s journey: she ventures into a dangerous world, learns from various allies, develops qualities that she needs to grow and succeed, falls in love, battles a nemesis or two, returns to the familiar world, and begins to make a difference there in ways that would have been impossible without the journey. The story packs some punch. I give Baker 4 Heroes out of 5.

Because the mentors in this film all hail from the dark world of violence and oppression, they are tinged with darkness themselves. These damaged mentors mean well and their guidance assists Baker in her transformation, but at the same time Baker must rise above them to become the hero that we crave in this story. Not one mentor, alone, is sufficient, but their combined effect is useful and transformative for our hero. I award this group of guides 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Eddie The Eagle ••••

Eddie_the_Eagle_posterStarring: Taron Egerton,  Hugh Jackman,  Tom Costello Jr.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Screenplay: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton
Biography/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 26, 2016


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Scott, it’s time to take off on another movie.

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

Greg, I’m ready for Eddie. Let’s do this.

It’s 1988 and we’re introduced to Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) – an awkward man who has grown from a child wanting nothing more than to participate on the British Olympic Team. He has overcome a disability that kept him from running and playing with other children. Now, in his early twenties, Eddie has become an above-average skier with the British team. But they decide they simply don’t want him – he’s not British enough. Not letting anything deter him, he sets his sites on ski jumping. Since Britain hasn’t launched a ski jumping team since the 1920s, the requirements for qualifying are still very low – just a 70-meter jump. He relocates to Germany and self-trains, but nearly kills himself. That’s when he attracts the attention of drunken snow-groomer Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman).

We learn that Bronson was once an American ski jumping star who squandered his talent and under-achieved. Eddie asks Bronson to coach him but Bronson declines, observing that Eddie lacks the experience and talent necessary to become a world-class ski jumper. Eventually, Bronson is won over by Eddie’s tenacity and work ethic. Bronson begins to train Eddie, who edges closer to his goal of competing in the Calgary Winter Games.

Scott, Eddie the Eagle Is a classic sports success movie with the added bonus that it is based on a true story. We meet the underdog athlete who desires to be the best in his field. In this case, the underdog has already overcome a physical challenge, so we admire his tenacity. But then he raises the stakes on himself to compete in one of the toughest of winter sports.

We’ve seen this kind of pluck in other stories – like The Karate Kid and Creed. In these stories, the hero character is not ready for the challenge of their selected sport. They have to train hard to overcome their underdog status and realize their goal. What’s interesting about Eddie, and the thing I like most, is that Eddie doesn’t play to win – he plays to be the best he can be.

There’s a touching scene where Eddie is riding the elevator to the top of the highest jump and he’s talking with the world record holder, Matti “The Flying Finn” Nykänen. Nykänen says they are alike in that they aren’t competing against each other, but against themselves – to make their personal best. This message is what makes Eddie the Eagle stand alone among sports hero movies.

Yes, this movie is the prototypical underdog story that showcases a lovable guy who doesn’t let any of his many disadvantages deter him from pursuing his dream. Eddie is sweet and innocent, yet also fearless and determined. It is this fearlessness and unwavering resolve that help Eddie attract a primary mentor figure that he needs to accomplish his dream of competing in the Olympics. Bronson is that mentor.

Speaking of which, this movie has more layers of mentoring than I’ve ever seen in a movie. Eddie’s parents are his first mentors, with his mom being the positive nurturer who encourages his dream and his dad serving as a dark, discouraging mentor who belittles the dream. Next, Eddie befriends a woman at the ski jump facility who gives him basic tips about where to go and whom to see on his quest to gain experience. Then there is Bronson, the main mentor, who has his own mentor, whom we’ll call The Grand Mentor. Eddie is also discouraged from competing by rival skiers and coaches, and he is counseled to abandon his dream by his own country’s Olympic committee. And before his final jump, Eddie gets advice from Matti Nykänen. I can’t recall a hero who has to navigate through so many good and bad elders, advisors, and mentors.

You’re right, Scott, In the classic hero’s journey the hero is approached by a mentor who lays down the call to adventure. Almost invariably, the hero refuses the call before ultimately going on his adventure.However here, (and with the other films I mentioned) we see a mentor character who is approached by the hero who asks for help. It is the mentor who initially refuses the call to adventure. I wonder if this is typical of just sports movies, or if there are examples in other genres as well. I think this makes Bronson a Reluctant Mentor.

As with other mentors we’ve reviewed this year, Bronson is a former hero turned mentor. But Bronson is a fallen hero as he was kicked off the ski team due to his drinking, womanizing, and generally bad attitude. Throughout the movie we get glimpses of Bronson’s old coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken). Both Eddie and Bronson look to Sharp as an example of good coaching. In the end Sharp gives Bronson his blessing, making Bronson a kind of Redeemed Mentor.

All these layers of mentoring are fascinating. One thing we learn is that while a mentor is given great respect, a grand mentor is revered like a god. When Warren Sharp enters the room, he attracts a kind of solemn silence usually reserved for royalty. If a mentor is like a hero to our hero, then a grand mentor is the hero to the hero’s hero — a multigenerational multiplicative effect that we just don’t see much of in storytelling. I liked it.

One more thing to add about our hero, Eddie: He definitely transforms, as any good hero must if we are to care about him. You could argue that with all these mentors, he should transform, right? But let’s not forget all the dark mentoring in Eddie’s way. This is a hero who believes in himself and clings to his dream no matter what kind of feedback he is given. It’s a great lesson for us all. And he transform in terms of courage, resilience, and physical ability.

Eddie the Eagle Is a surprisingly fun sports drama with a message we don’t often see. I enjoyed watching Eddie grow from a handicapped child to his own champion. We got some wonderful performances from both Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman. (BTW: How does Hugh Jackman, a big star, end up in these little films?). It’s a period piece that took us back to the eighties in style. I happily reward Eddie the Eagle 4 out of 5 Reels.

Eddie stacks up as a great hero. He’s likable due to his unrelenting enthusiasm, as well as his ability to overcome obstacles. He is a dreamer and idealist. There’s a lot to like about Eddie. In fact, he is such a great guy, that his transformation is a little lackluster. He starts out great and ends up great, too. While he does undergo a physical transformation (one of the five types we mention in our book Reel Heroes and Villains), the internal transformation is lacking. Still, I give Eddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Scott, you point out correctly that there are mentors a-plenty in this movie. Although I think identifying the parents as mentors is a bit of a stretch. Generally, you look to mentors who give advice and gifts. While his mother is encouraging, she doesn’t give him advice that will help him be a great ski jumper. She’s more of an ally than a classic mentor. Bronson is interesting for the redeemed mentor character – overcoming his deficiencies as a hero by contributing to the advancement of a new hero. And I award bonus points for introducing us to the Grand Mentor character in Warren Sharp as well. I’m happy to award a full 5 Mentors out of 5.

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You’ve nailed these ratings, Greg. This is a movie that’s almost impossible to dislike, unless you’re a total misanthrope. Eddie teaches us to embrace our dreams and pursue them, no matter what the cost and no matter who, or how many, oppose us. What better message is there about how we should all live our lives? I, too, give Eddie the Eagle 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey follows the classic pattern and gives us a hero who is willing and able to transform himself from a crippled child to a Olympic ski jumper. Eddie not only transforms himself, his story inspires us all to transform ourselves. Best of all, this movie allows us to sink our teeth into a multi-layered mentor cake. It seems that every secondary character is a mentor of some sort, and our main mentor Bronson even experiences “an atonement with the father” — a reconciliation that is usually reserved only for the main hero. Like you, Greg, I also award Eddie 4 solid Heroes out of 5.

With more mentors than you can shake a stick at, how can one not award the maximum rating of 5 Mentors out of 5? This gaggle of mentors is a fascinating and variegated collection that illuminates the importance of social support in the hero’s journey. In developing our model of mentoring in the movies this year, we’ll be referring to Eddie the Eagle quite a bit. And deservedly so.

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Best Heroes of 2015


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

Greg, we’ve reviewed the Best Movies of 2015.  Now it’s time to review the Best Heroes of the year, too.

I can’t wait to see what you’ve picked. Let’s get started…

I evaluated this year’s movie heroes by how memorable they were, how much they grew and transformed as characters, and how much they transformed others. Here’s my top 10 heroes list:

10. Freddie Steinmark in My All-American
9. Adam Jones in Burnt
8. Hugh Glass in The Revenant
7. Joy in Inside Out
6. Rey and Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
5. Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa in Creed
4. Joy Mangano in Joy
3. Mark Watney in The Martian
2. Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold
1. Joy in Room

It looks like you were enjoying a lot of “Joy” in 2015. Like you, I was motivated by the transformation of the hero in the story. But also, we were shown a number of heroes who were survivors. Here are my top 10 heroes:

10. Eggsy in Kingsman
9. Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold
8. Adonis in Creed
7. Hugh Glass in The Revenant
6. Joy in Inside Out
5. Rey in Star Wars
4. Joy Mangano in Joy
3. Mark Watney in The Martian
2. James Donovan in Bridge of Spies
1. Joy in Room


You’re right about all the Joy in this year’s best heroes. This tells me that women played a more prominent role in shining as heroes in the movies, Greg. My Number 5 choice in 2015 was the hero-mentor pairing of Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa in the film Creed. This film and the actors in it should have garnered an Academy Award or two. We have an underdog hero in Adonis, who wants Rocky to train him but Rocky resists. It’s a reluctant mentor story that contains many of the same elements as the classic hero’s journey. The movie, and this hero-mentor duo, are a joy to watch (pardon the pun).

True enough, Scott. However, I thought this was more Adonis’ movie with Rocky playing the secondary role as mentor. Surely, it was Adonis who underwent the greater transformation. Regardless of how you see it, Creed was a great hero’s journey. And the mentor story gave it a one-two punch.

My number 5 pick was Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This reboot of the fan favorite franchise put a woman in the role of the emerging hero. After the first three Star Wars films had barely a single woman in them, it was good to see a not just a prominent female, but also to see such a great mythic hero. Rey starts out an orphan on the dusty planet of Jaku and rises to be the heir to the Force. It’s a great hero’s journey and told in the classic style.

Greg, the best thing about this latest edition of Star Wars was this great hero pairing. Rey and Finn, are outstanding characters whom we grow to love and enjoy rooting for soon after meeting them. Both these characters are cut from that familiar Star Wars heroic cloth — they come from humble origins and are oblivious to their special pedigree. As these characters are tested, they begin to slowly transform into the greatness that was always there beneath the surface.


My Number 4 pick is Joy Mangano in the movie Joy. 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.

Joy and Rey as well as other heroes in my top 5 represent the survivor hero that was strongly represented this year. Joy was defeated. She had lost everything. The evil Texas businessman had stolen her product and tied her patent up in court. Then she did something so many heroes do – she changed her appearance. There’s this great scene where Joy dons black jeans and a leather jacket. And looking in the mirror, she bobs her hair. She makes the transformation from housewife to serious businesswoman. This is a common event for heroes – the transformation is marked by a change of attire and appearance. Joy was a joy to watch.


My number 3 pick was Mark Watney from the superb The Martian. Watney is another survivor hero. He draws upon all his scientific knowledge to eek out a meager existence on the desolate landscape of Mars. It’s a great story and a powerful lesson to pay attention in class. But seriously, there are secondary heroes aplenty in this movie with the ground crew trying to find a solution to rescue Watney and his team in the spaceship above weighing the cost of turning back for him. What a wild ride.

Watney was my Number 3 pick as well. Watney travels the full hero’s journey, and in every phase of the journey we witness a richness and depth that is rarely seen in the movies. As with Joy Mangano (see above), Watney displays all eight characteristics in the Great Eight traits of heroes. He becomes transformed from ordinary astronaut to an exceptionally innovative, pioneering colonist who rises to the challenge of surviving where no human has any right to survive. It’s a rich and utterly fulfilling journey of a hero.


My Number 2 pick was Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold. These are two divergent heroes who enjoy a great chemistry. They each undergo a transformation albeit in different ways. Their most significant transformation is helping bring about much needed ethnic tolerance in Austria. By contesting the Austrians’ decisions to retain the painting, and then by finally winning a long, highly publicized arbitration battle, Maria and Schoenberg forced the Austrians to finally “own” their part in the atrocities of WW2.

I was touched by how Maria’s mission invoked a transformation in Schoenberg. He started as a mildly ambitious lawyer with little interest in his Jewish heritage. But tranformed into a staunch defender of his culture. It was a wonderful story of hero-mentorship.

My number 2 pick James Donovan in Bridge of Spies. Donovan didn’t have a clear mentor in his story. He was guided by his strong belief in the Constitution. There’s a great scene where an FBI man says “There is no rule book here,” and Donovan replies: “There is a rule book. We call it the Constitution.” He stands up for a man who is clearly an enemy to the United States because it is our deeply held belief that every man is innocent until proven guilty. And he puts up with hatred and vitriol to the point of being shot at. It’s a great story of a man standing his ground for what he believes is right.

Donovan was an extraordinary hero. The fact that he undergoes two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s mission isn’t enough for him. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second. Donovan didn’t make my list of best heroes because he doesn’t really transform at all in the story. Still, his double-heroic journey is noteworthy.


My Number 1 hero of the year was the character of Joy in the highly acclaimed movie Room. Her character follows a very unconventional hero’s path by beginning in the dangerous special world and moving into the safe familiar world. Except that the safe familiar world is toxic for her and reminds her of all the reasons she wanted to escape from it in the first place. Her journey is heartwrenching and is made possible, in part, by the strength and resilience shown by her young son.

I also picked Joy from Room. She fits in with my survivor hero pattern for 2015. Joy had to use all her cunning to defeat the villain “Old Nick.” She taught her son how to fake his own death. And once she was out of the “Room” she had to mentor her son in the wide-open world. It’s a fantastic story of survival.

Well, Scott. That rounds out our top ten heroes for 2015. It was a good year for heroes. I was pleased with the number of women and minorities we saw this year. Although the Oscars didn’t reflect that at all. I’m looking forward to what 2016 holds for us.

While Hollywood is incorporating more gender and racial diversity into its heroes, the industry still isn’t acknowledging them at Oscar time. Look for more women and people of color to take home some serious hardware next year.

We hope you enjoy our current 2016 reviews at Reel Heroes. And if you get a chance, check out our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains.



Race •••1/2

Race_2016_film_posterStarring: Stephan James,  Jason Sudeikis,  Eli Goree
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel,  Anna Waterhouse
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2016


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Hey, I’ll race you to the end of this review, Scott.

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

Let’s take our time and do it right. This film deserves it.  Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Jesse Owens (Stephan James). He’s rushing to the bus stop to take him to Ohio State University where he will be on the track and field team. His mother has made him a new jacket. He leaves his father with two dollars. He stops at the beauty shop where his girlfriend works. He kisses his two-year-old daughter goodbye. And then he’s on his way to the world of higher education, low wages, and collegiate athletics.

Jesse arrives at Ohio State University where he meets the track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder is a good coach but hasn’t had much luck fielding a successful team yet. He sees Jessie running some practice heats and is blown away by Owens’ speed. Snyder tells Jessie that with hard work an Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Berlin games is within reach. Meanwhile Jessie meets another woman Ruth (Shanice Banton) who seduces him after reminding him that it’s best to love the one you’re with.

Race is a movie title with a double meaning. Not only are we witness to the emergence of perhaps the finest athlete who ever lived. But also an examination of one of the most significant events in race relations in world history. Jesse Owens was under great pressure to boycott the 1936 Olympic games because Hitler and the Nazi party were victimizing Jews and people of color. At the same time, he had the opportunity to show that Hitler’s racist ideology was false. This film builds to that moment and plays it to its fullest. Race is a very satisfying depiction of the events that made Jesse Owens a hero.

Greg, I’d say not just very satisfying but extremely so. Race is far from perfect — it’s a bit bloated, with several scenes needing to have been left on the cutting room floor. Still, the movie is an effective biopic about one of the greatest athletes in American history. Owens exposed Germany’s brutal regime of hypocrisy, racism, and hate. His journey was gritty, complex, and courageous.

In many ways, this film is reminiscent of the 2013 film 42 which told the story of Jackie Robinson. Just as Robinson needed help from Branch Rickey, Jesse Owens needed help from Larry Snyder. Greg, I know that nothing drives you crazy more than seeing a movie about a Black man who needs help from a White man. But the historical context of Race and 42 positioned Blacks in a state of powerlessness over the rampant institution of bigotry all around them. Our heroes needed a hand from someone with the power to give it to them.

It’s true, Scott. I would like to see more stories of Black empowerment without a side dish of White altruism. However, in the case of Race I was happy to see that Snyder wasn’t working out of White guilt or charity. Rather, he simply wanted to acquire the best athletes he could find. As Owens himself states in the film – Snyder only saw fast or slow. And there is a poignant scene in the film where Snyder tries to convince Owens that race doesn’t matter. And Owens shouts back: “You’re White Larry!” A reminder both to Snyder and the audience that it’s easy to be colorblind when you don’t have to live with the effects of racism every day.

Owens stacks up very well on the Hero scale. When we first meet Owens, we’re witness to his strength of character when he slips his father money as he leaves. He is good to his daughter and his girlfriend. He wears the ridiculous jacket his mother made for him. And he demonstrates that he is a superior athlete, although rough around the edges. He won’t look Snyder in the eye. He won’t stand up to the white men who hassle him in the locker room. And he keeps very much to himself. So he has room to grow.

Snyder walks a fine line here between being the co-hero of this story in addition to being the mentor to our main hero in Jesse Owens. While we do sense bits and pieces of Snyder’s own hero’s journey, he is first and foremost a mentor figure to Owens. The most impressive quality of his heroism resides in the fact that he walks the walk as much as he talks the talk. Snyder has been world-class runner himself and has made many of the sacrifices that Owens has made — minus the huge racial burden, of course.

There is is also a very telling scene in the locker room involving the Black members of the track team being confronted by the bullying White members of the Ohio State football team. The White bullies assert their White privilege, demanding that the track athletes leave the locker room. Snyder steps in to remind Owens and his teammates that to succeed they must ignore all distractions. The football players and coach are screaming in the ear of Snyder, who blocks out their racial rants completely to make his point to the tracksters. It’s show-not-tell — the most powerful way to mentor people.

A good mentor gives advice and gifts so that the hero can survive in the special world. As you already mentioned, Scott, Snyder gives advice. But when Owens is missing practices due to his after hours part-time job, Snyder swings a cushy job where Owens basically collects a paycheck without having to work. This allows Owens to focus on his athletics.

As we’ve noticed in other films (like last year’s Creed), there is a Mentor’s Journey. It usually focuses on a character who is a former hero. Having completing his Hero’s Journey, the former hero now takes what he’s learned and delivers it to an up-and-coming hero. Snyder is a “willing” mentor in that he looks to support the hero. In movies such as Creed and even The Karate Kid the mentor must be convinced to aid the hero. But Snyder is actively seeking young mentees.

Race is an entertaining and informative portrayal of the life of Jesse Owens, one of America’s greatest athletes of the 20th century. Stephan James delivers a terrific performance as Owens, and Jason Sudeikis does more than hold his own playing Owens’ track coach. This movie accurately exposes America’s racist and intolerant Jim Crow laws, and it also depicts the even greater horrors of Nazi Germany’s growing implementation of its Final Solution. I enjoyed seeing this slice of American history and heroism. This film deserves 4 Reels out of 5.

Jesse Owens follows the hero’s journey to the letter. He enters a dangerous world and encounters innocuous villains on the track and nefarious ones outside the track. He is mentored by Snyder and is loved by a woman (or two). One could argue that he undergoes two different transformations. He is humbled in his mishandling of his romantic life, and he gains self-confidence and maturity in his great handling of his athletic life. Owens also upgrades his mission in midstream — he competes in the Olympics, not just to excel personally, but also to puncture Hitler’s prized Aryan race. Owens deserves 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentor of the story, Larry Snyder, is a terrific character whose own hero’s journey is told in a much more skeletal way than that of Jesse Owens. Snyder is the coach and ally that Owens needs to triumph on his journey. In a very large sense, Owens helps Snyder transform as much or more than Owens himself transforms. Thanks to Owens, Snyder gains stature as a coaching force in the world of track and field. I give Snyder 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Race is a good movie worthy of a better time slot than the February doldrums of the Hollywood release schedule, although just in time for Black History Month. The period costumes, especially the recreation of the Berlin Olympics, were spot on. I felt transported back in time. As with many biopics, sometimes the story seemed hemmed-in by the actual events. But overall, it was an entertaining movie, if not exceptional. I give Race 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jesse Owens is a true historical hero. He was the best athlete of his time. This movie did a good job of depicting the struggles Jesse had to overcome to race at the top of his game. The apex of his challenges comes when he wrestles with the decision to boycott the Olympics in solidarity with the NAACP. Instead he chooses to represent not only America, but Black Americans and brings home four gold medals. I did think that his transformation from an inexperienced, though talented, runner into an Olympian was delivered a bit too easily. So, I am awarding this presentation of Jesse Owens 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Larry Snyder, as played by Jason Sudeikis, is a classic sports mentor. He was once a great athletic hero who must channel his experience and knowledge into an up-and-coming new hero. I liked Sudeikis in this role. He’s better known for his comedic roles, but he played this dramatic character very well. Snyder comes off a little too stereotypical of sports coaches. I prefer a bit more backstory and imperfection to my mentors. So I give Snyder 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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