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The Imitation Game •••1/2

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Theory of Everything ••1/2

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interstellar ••••1/2

Interstellar_film_posterStarring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: R
Running Time: 169 minutes
Release Date: November 7, 2014

Cooper: Single, P-PP Emotional/Spiritual, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Time: System, N-N, Ant (Time Villain)


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

Greg, it’s just as I thought — Matthew McConaughey is a space cadet.

This could have been called 2001: The Year We Make Contact. Let’s recap:

We meet a man named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who lives on earth in the not too distant future. The Earth at this point is a dying planet. Dust storms and blight are ravaging a dwindling human population that relies on a weakening agrarian economy. Cooper has a teenage son and a 10-year-old daughter named Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), whose bedroom is the scene of odd occurrences. Books fall off her shelves and dust arranges itself in strange patterns. Cooper figures out that the dust contains coordinates to a location nearby. When he and Murphy drive there, they discover a huge, secret NASA base.

Because the Earth is dying, the only way out is towards the stars. By some miracle a wormhole has emerged near Saturn (why so far away?) and NASA has sent 12 men and women out to find planets on the other side of the wormhole (near other stars) that could sustain the survivors of Earth. But there is a “Plan B” – they’ve in vitro-fertilized enough eggs to start a new colony of humans on a habitable planet in the event that it takes too long to find a safe world. Take too long, you say? Well, because of the relativistic effects of space travel and flying near black holes and through wormholes, what seems like a few years to our heroes could be a century back on Earth. So, NASA has asked Cooper (a former astronaut) to man the final mission and find the habitable planet. But, he will have to leave behind his young daughter. Will he return in time to save her? Or will he be marooned in space leaving behind the last of his kind?

Interstellar is a complex, ambitious, space epic. It’s a long movie, covering almost three hours, and its topic and detailed story are so complex that if it were a television show it could be a long-running mini-series. As a movie, it could have easily been carved into a trilogy. But the decision was made to condense this sweeping arc into a single 170-minute long film. The result is a movie that is breathtaking in scope but a bit too densely packed to give its grand cosmological theme the room it needed to breathe.

Still, I was impressed. Interstellar is no lightweight escapist science fiction story. There is a lot to sink our teeth into here, and some of it is pretty heavy emotional material. The earth is in its death throes, the close bonds between fathers and daughters are being shattered, and heroic astronauts are dying in space while trying to save humanity from extinction. We learn that John Lennon was prescient when he sang “love is the answer” more than 40 years ago, as love is interwoven with physics during the film’s many attempts to explain the workings of the universe.

When you look at Interstellar you cannot help but compare it to classic science fiction movies gone by. It has the trippy look and feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it is far more coherent than Kubrick’s masterpiece. And, like Contact, the relationships and bonds between father and daughter are at the core of this story.

And that is what I really walked away with in Interstellar. As any good story should be, this is a story about relationships. The physics and high technology were amply evident (who cannot love robots with the personalities of Marines?). But this is very much a story about people. We see how a planet reacts when the food supply runs out. We see how people grow to fear science they cannot understand. There’s a wonderful scene where a teacher replaces textbooks with government-issue books explaining that the Apollo missions were faked as a way to bankrupt the Russians. And there’s a quote about sending Cooper’s older son to college to study farming because “the world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.”

As hero stories go, you can’t do much better than Interstellar. Cooper follows the classic hero journey almost to the letter. He is sent out into space (the unfamiliar world) and he is charged with saving the world. All heroes are missing some quality, and in Cooper’s case he is missing an understanding of what binds the universe together. The answer is not unlike what Dorothy discovers in The Wizard of Oz — the answer is love, home, and gravity.

Ironically, Cooper mentors himself, or more specifically (using wormhole time-travel magic) Cooper’s older self serves as the mentor to his younger self. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and an older version of Murphy also assist Cooper on his journey. At the end, Cooper is a transformed individual, having gained an understanding of his place in the universe. Overall, it’s a textbook hero story.

I think you’re giving short-shrift to the message here. While Cooper already understands how to love – he has an undying love for his daughter. But he doesn’t see love as a binding force in the universe – as much as we see time or the three dimensions. He has an argument with co-astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway) who wants to let her heart be her guide. She posits that finding her lost love (one of the astronauts who went before them) is just as valid as calculating orbits and fuel ratios.

And this is the lesson that our hero ultimately learns. It is his love for his daughter that finally drives him to make a connection with her in the past. He manipulates time and space to send her a message that will save her and what is left of humanity. In the end, the lesson learned is that love binds the universe just  as much as any other dimension. That’s pretty heady stuff for a geek movie.

If you want to look for villains, we see a different take on villainy here. Professor Brand makes the decision for all mankind that trying to escape Earth and transplant the existing humans on another planet is fruitless. He has decided that Plan B is the ultimate solution. So, he’s lied to his daughter as well as everyone else on the mission. Plan A was never the goal. This villainy is different from most that we’ve seen. This is the villainy of a lack of hope. The Professor gave up hope for all of mankind and reasoned that the only hope was to start over.

One of the castaway astronauts was Dr. Mann (Matt Damon in a surprise appearance). He knew about Plan B. But the planet he found was not appropriate for human colonization. He purposely sent back a glowing report so that someone would come and rescue him. He has the villainous attribute of self-centeredness. This is also the point where the movie talks about preservation of the species and preservation of the individual. The conclusion is that the species can never overcome the selfish aspects of self-preservation.

There is a good reason why Interstellar is a November release rather than a summer popcorn release. This movie makes us think, not just feel. We are treated to fabulous CGI effects, of course, but more importantly we are compelled to ponder deeply about our place in the universe and what lengths we would go to save our planet. The integration of love and gravity as the glue that binds us all together is an inspiring take-home message. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

As I noted, the hero story would make Joseph Campbell proud. Most of the central elements of the hero’s journey from classic myth and legend shine through in their fullest form. Cooper possesses just about all eight of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes: he is strong, smart, resilient, charismatic, reliable, caring, selfless, and inspirational. There is even a reverse form of “atonement of the father”.  I give him 5 Heroes out of 5.

The villainy in this movie is difficult to categorize, and you’re correct, Greg, that it defies convention in some ways. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann are possible villains, yes, but Cooper’s main opponent is Nature. He is in a constant race against time and other laws of physics. Interstellar is not a movie about a hero defeating a villain. It’s about a hero solving problems of the heart and problems of nature. For this reason, my villain rating is a mere 2 out of 5.

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I agree, Scott. Interstellar was clearly released in November as an Oscar contender. It has high-caliber stars (McConaughey, Hathaway, Caine, Damon, Chastain) and high-value CGI. But that wasn’t enough for Gravity last year. We’ll have to see what Meryl Streep is up to this year. Still, I was totally engrossed for the full 170 minutes. And I am the target demographic for this movie (Baby Boomer Geeks). I give Interstellar 5 out of 5 Reels.

McConaughey really delivered in this film (although there were a few truck driving scenes that seemed to echo his recent “Lincoln” commercials). As a hero Cooper has everything we look for. He is so selfless that he gives up a lifetime with his daughter to save the human race. That’s a lot of self sacrifice. I give Cooper 5 out of 5 Heroes.

And I hate to agree with you three times in a row, Scott, but it’s true: Time is the villain in this story. It is warped and twisted in ways like no other villain we have studied this year. Still, you need a human character to have an argument with, or  to be betrayed by. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann weren’t the strongest of villains, but they exposed two different parts of the villain’s psyche (lack of hope and self-preservation) that we haven’t seen before. I give them 3 out of 5 Villains.

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St. Vincent ••••1/2

St_Vincent_posterStarring: Bill MurrayMelissa McCarthyNaomi Watts
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Theodore Melfi
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: October 24, 2014

Vincent & Oliver: Duo, P-PP Moral/Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)

Vincent: Single, N-P Moral, Ant (Misunderstood Lone Villain)


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

Greg, we just saw a movie about saints, who seem to be very similar to heroes.

I had the same thought. Let’s see how Bill Murray rates against St. Teresa.

We meet a 68-year-old man named Vincent (Bill Murray). Vincent lives alone with his cat, steals apples, and consorts with hookers, racetracks, bars, and loan sharks who want him to pay up. One day, Vincent discovers that a woman named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) have moved in next door.

Vincent is down to his last dollar so he makes a deal with Maggie to watch Oliver after school while she eeks out a living as a single mom. Vincent takes little interest in 10-year-old Oliver until he comes home with a bloody nose. Then, Vincent decides to take it upon himself to teach Oliver not only to fight, but what it means to be a man – a role that Oliver’s pacifist father has neglected to take on himself.

Greg, St. Vincent surprised me. It surprised me with its sweetness and wisdom in the same way that Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day did more than two decades ago. You could say that the movie follows the classic sinner-to-saint hero story, but that would be an oversimplification. Like St. Augustine, Vincent is a womanizer and who steals apples. But unlike St. Augustine, Vincent is a complex mix of good and bad his entire life. He was a war hero forty years earlier and now tenderly cares for his wife who suffers from dementia. Yet he is also a jerk all that time, too.

We see plenty of Vincent’s dark side. Dishonesty rules his life, and he is surly. But behind the surliness beats a heart of gold. This heart remains hidden until it springs to life thanks to the influence of his new neighbor, the precocious Oliver played brilliantly by Jaeden Lieberher. It’s not unusual for movies to show us the wisdom of children. St. Vincent is special because the mentoring is bi-directional, and it has heartfelt believability. Vincent and Oliver show each other how to grow up.

I agree, Scott. Vincent is the classic villain-turned-hero.  The movie starts out showing us how foul he can be. He seems villainous with his callous disregard for anyone but himself. Even when he agrees to take on the task of babysitting Oliver, it’s not for Oliver’s sake. It’s to take advantage of mom Maggie’s situation – and to pay his gambling debts. He lacks the heroic qualities of caring and selflessness – or as Zimbardo would call it – altruism.

When he visits an old lady in a nursing home – we expect it to be just another scam he’s running. But he is returning her laundry and taking her dirty clothes. He’s actually doing her laundry. Later we see him sitting with her by the dock and we realize this is his wife who suffers from Alzheimers disease. And we realize he isn’t uncaring at all. He gives all his money so that his wife can have the best care. And suddenly Vincent the villain becomes Vincent the saint.

Well, he’s not recognized as a saint by anyone until Oliver comes along and sees a side to him that no one else sees (with the exception of the staff at the Alzheimer’s facility). Even Oliver is disgusted with Vincent until the boy discovers some discarded photos of Vincent’s military service. Oliver is mentored by his teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), who instructs Oliver about the definition of a saint as a person who sacrifices to better the lives of others. Greg, this is a moving story about hero formation, hero mentoring, and hero recognition.

So St. Vincent takes us on a journey of discovery in which two unlikely buddy heroes help each other become better people. I believe this film is Bill Murray’s best work since Groundhog Day and could almost unfathomably garner him an Oscar nomination. His portrayal of Vincent is not easy to pull off but Murray does it with understated charisma and compassion. We’re so transfixed by his character that the ending credits show him lying on a recliner with a hose running — and no one in our theater dared to leave even though we see him doing nothing but squirt water on his feet.

There are a few villains in the story, but not many. The racetrack bookie (played by Terrence Howard) threatens to rough Vincent up. The loan officer at the bank has little sympathy for Vincent. They’re all pretty light fare compared to the uncaring head of the nursing home. And Oliver has villains of his own to face down. The schoolyard bully that prompts Vincent to teach Oliver his one fighting maneuver eventually turns into Oliver’s best friend. But the villains are all in the background while Vincent is the main attraction.

I enjoyed St. Vincent very much. I think Bill Murray has found his rhythm as an actor. Melissa McCarthy also delivered a heartwarming performance of the mother who’s just trying to get by – but is a little overwhelmed. There were a lot of comedians in this drama. I’ve heard it said that comedians make the best dramatic actors because they have a deeper understanding of timing. I’d say that St. Vincent definitely demonstrated just that. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Vincent himself undergoes not so much a transformation in this film, but more of a realization. That is, it is the audience to whom Vincent’s heroism is revealed. He appears villainous at the beginning, but as we get to know him, we see that he has all the qualities of a saint – and all the qualities of a hero, too. There just doesn’t seem to be that much difference. I give Vincent 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Sadly, there are no strong villains in this film. But that’s okay because Vincent appears villainous enough for the majority of the film. I give the villains in St. Vincent just 2 out of 5 Villains.

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St. Vincent is one of the year’s best movies. Bill Murray is at his best when he plays characters with wide moral range. Murray has always been a little mischievous boy inside a man’s body, and as he’s gotten older this incongruency deepens his complex persona. St. Vincent packs a powerful emotional punch toward the end — I found myself shedding a tear or two while Vincent’s heroism is being honored by Oliver and others. For a poignant story of an unlikely pairing of people who save each other, I’m giving St. Vincent a full 5 Reels out of 5.

This is a buddy hero story that follows the usual pattern of two individuals who start out disliking each other but develop an unshakable bond. As you mention, Greg, the character of Vincent grows in his recognition of his life’s accomplishments, but he also develops a softened heart for Maggie, Oliver, and others. Oliver’s growth follows the usual coming-of-age storyline, and he ends up mentoring Vincent, his mother, and his entire school about the definition and complexity of sainthood. I give these two memorable heroes a rating of 4 out of 5.

The villains are an interesting assortment in St. Vincent. Most conspicuously, the kid who first bullies Oliver at school, a boy named Ocinski (Dario Barosso), undergoes a transformation toward goodness and virtue. One could say that St. Vincent is a movie that sends a message about bullies being redeemable, as Vincent could also be considered a redeemed bully. It’s both rare and satisfying to see villains undergo a transformation toward redemptive goodness. For that reason, I’ll give the villains here a solid score of 3 Villains out of 5.

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The Judge •••1/2

The_Judge_2014_film_posterStarring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: October 10, 2014

Hank & the Judge: Duo, P-PP Moral/Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)

The Judge: Single, N-P Moral/Emotional, Ant (Enlightened Lone Villain)


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Scott, it looks like we’re about to judge the merits of The Judge.

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

All rise, the court is now in session. Greg, you may begin the opening argument.

We meet Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) who is a highly-paid Chicago lawyer – the kind who defends guilty people who have a lot of money. He’s doing pretty well in this capacity when he gets a phone call – his mother has died and now he must return home to Indiana to bury his mother and support his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) who runs a used car dealership and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) who is an autistic savant with a penchant for 8mm film. He must also face his father: Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). The problem is, the Judge doesn’t think much of his son Hank, so the two have a frosty reunion.

Hank and the Judge have a long embattled history, and so there are tense moments between the two men during the few days that Hank is in Indiana. Just before leaving to return home to Chicago, Hank notices that the right-front bumper of the Judge’s car is dented. Thinking nothing of it, Hank goes to the airport but then receives an alarming message from his brother: The Judge has been accused of killing a man in a hit-and-run crime and the victim’s blood has been found on the Judge’s car. Hank returns and becomes his dad’s legal counsel, and juicy revelations abound during the legal proceedings.

The Judge is a by-the-numbers Hollywood drama. We meet our hero (Hank) in his ordinary world when “something happens” (his mother dies) he transitions into his special world (his dad’s accident) where he has a problem to solve (saving his father) and learns a lesson (love people as they are). There’s an old girlfriend to rekindle a relationship with. There’s a mildly retarded brother to ask the naive questions. There’s the nemesis in the form of a prosecuting attorney who is out for blood. With few exceptions, there are no surprises.

There may be no surprises, Greg, but The Judge offers a workmanlike buddy story about two men who start out despising each other, mostly because they don’t know each other. Naturally, the story requires them to spend time together, allowing them to see each other’s humanity and depth. The healing of father-son rifts is a common theme in the movies. If Hollywood is right, there aren’t too many of us men out there who like our fathers. But movies like this give us hope of atonement.

The story is all quite formulaic, but for me The Judge works on the strength of the performances of two heavyweight actors of our time, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. These two mega-talents are a treat to watch. There is emotional chemistry and interactive sizzle in every one of their scenes together. Downey, Jr., in particular, dives into every one of his movie roles with a relentless intensity. His Type A personality serves him very well here in his role as a brilliant, workaholic attorney. Duvall’s performance is more subdued but he has us riveted to his every word. Not many star-studded pairings work in the movies, but this one, for me, is a grand slam.

Hank is a flawed hero. He is egotistical and has a hidden internal pain: he has an unknown history with his father. It’s clear that the two men have an unspoken anger that is exposed only bit-by-bit through the story. It’s this mystery that makes the story interesting. As Hank tries to defend his father, we see him slowly grow closer to Judge and we begin to understand why the Judge is so hard on Hank. The growth that Hank undergoes as he comes to grips with his past is what makes this a memorable movie.

You’re right, Greg. In any good buddy hero story, we should see each buddy become transformed. Hank grows in his appreciation for his father, not just at a personal level but also at a professional level. We see the softening of Hank’s heart along with an awakening of his larger call in life to follow in his dad’s footsteps by serving as a Judge himself. As for the Judge, we catch his transformation in mid-stream. The Judge has been battling a life-threatening cancer that has heightened his sensitivity to his legacy. There is a humbling here, wrought by age and disease, that is touching to watch.

The villains in The Judge are interesting and varied. Hank’s opponent in the courtroom is prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who isn’t a bad man but he is a skilled professional intent on bringing down the Judge. Another oppositional force is the town’s law enforcement personnel that pressures, interrogates, and arrests the Judge. Again, they aren’t so much villainous as they are providing the impetus for Hank and the Judge to grow closer together. Also, Greg, you alluded to Hank’s inner demons that he must overcome to grow and prevail in this movie. One could say that The Judge has the themes of both Men versus Men and Men versus Selves.

I think you’re right, Dickham is the obvious villain character. He has been beaten by Hank in the courtroom and he wants to win this case to get back at Hank. The Judge isn’t quite a villain, but he is an oppositional character. He doesn’t want Hank’s help and nearly gets the chair because he didn’t allow Hank to lead the case. This makes the Judge an oppositional character – he is getting in the way of Hank’s main goal – to free his father.

The supporting characters in this film are so classic that a parody of Oscar winning film trailers could have been made from The Judge. There’s the older brother, naive mentally challenged younger brother, old flame from high school, and adorable daughter. There’s some decent backstory there but it all comes from the same palette of movies gone by.

The Judge takes us on a journey of healing between a father and a son. The story may be formulaic but we grow to like and admire these characters, even with their many flaws. Moreover, the superb performances in this film carry the day and remind us why Robert Downey, Jr., is the highest paid Hollywood actor today. His counterpart, Robert Duvall, does more than hold his own against the dynamic Downey, Jr. Duvall exudes a quiet strength and depth of wisdom, delivering exactly what his role requires. The Judge is a fine film well worth watching. I’m happy to award it 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes, Hank and the Judge, are a terrific pairing that traverse their way from embittered enemies to admiration and even love. Their chemistry together has ample snap, crackle, and pop. Most importantly, Hank and the Judge undergo two personal transformations that involve a growing humility, compassion, and understanding. The performances here are dynamic and memorable. I give these two heroes 4 Heroes out of 5.

The villains are not terribly important in this film other than to serve as the mechanism for our two buddy heroes to work and grow together. I’m not disappointed with the villain characters in this movie, but I also won’t walk away from this film with any improved understanding or appreciation for these characters. They do what they do and that’s all this film requires of them. Consequently, I can only give a villain rating of 2 out of 5 here.

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The Judge is a nice film which offers no new territory to traverse. It’s a classic story of atonement with the father. On the plus side everyone in the cast delivered a good performance and I left the theater feeling that I got my money’s worth. Still, I don’t see it winning any awards. I give The Judge 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero is cut from a familiar cloth and played well by Robert Downey, Jr. He starts out as a pretty lousy human being with little to endear himself to us. But as we learn more about him and the reasons he left his home town we begin to realize that there is more to the story than we were at first given. I give Hank 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I have to agree with you, Scott, on the villains. There aren’t a lot of oppositional characters. For the most part, the Judge himself is the biggest oppositional character as he tries to handle his own case and gets in Hank’s way. While he was superbly played by Robert Duvall, I can only give him 3 out of 5 Villains.

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The Giver ••

The_Giver_posterStarring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenplay: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide
Drama/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: August 15, 2014

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

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


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Scott, it’s time for us to give our review of The Giver.

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

Unfortunately, The Giver was a taker of two hours of my time. Let’s recap.

In The Giver we’re introduced to young Jonah (Brenton Thwaites) on the eve of his “Ceremony of Growth” where he and all the other 18-year-olds will be assigned their jobs. One by one Jonah’s peers receive jobs like caregiver or fighter pilot, but Jonah is left to the last. He is told he is going to be the Receiver. This is a role selected once a generation. As the Receiver he will be given all the knowledge of previous generations. In Jonah’s “community” they have eliminated all emotion and memory of the past – even the idea of color. It is the job of the Receiver to advise the elders based on the inherited knowledge. This knowledge is passed on to Jonah by a man known only as the Giver (Jeff Bridges).

Jonah begins to receive some of the community’s early memories from the Giver, and these images are difficult and sometimes painful to deal with. One of the emotions that he experiences for the first time is the feeling of love. Eager to share this new emotion, Jonah begins to warm up to one of the girls in the community whose name is Fiona (Odeya Rush). Illegally, he takes her on a mock sled ride and then encourages her to skip taking her daily injection designed to deny her emotional experience. Eventually, Jonah and the Giver decide that it is best for the community to break through the barrier of “Elsewhere” to restore the entire community’s memories.

The Giver is YA dystopian fiction. And when I say “YA” I don’t mean “Young Adult,” I mean “Yet Another.” It starts out as so many of today’s young adult stories do – a young person in a dreary future where they are being categorized and put into a social class that is selected for them by adults. We saw it in Harry Potter (the sorting hat), The Hunger Games (districts 1-12), and in this year’s Divergent (which has an opening scene almost identical to The Giver’s). The Giver may actually lay claim to this pattern as it is based on a book that is 20 years old. But it is quite the YA trope now.

The story starts out in black and white. As Jonah starts to gain an awareness of how things truly are, the color starts to come into focus – both in his mind and on-screen. It’s a nice effect, but we’ve seen it before in movies like Pleasantville.

The main goal for Jonah is to escape from the community and cross the barrier of Elsewhere which will somehow magically restore everyone’s memories. This device is really hard to swallow as there are no explanations for how this happens. The Giver merely says it is so and it becomes part of the physics of that universe. I found it hard to accept and it made the ending seem contrived.

Greg, what a shame that this movie arrives on the heels of so many other films with a similar premise, theme, and moral message. Even if The Giver is based on a book that preceded all the other films, it still comes across as derivative. To make matters worse, this film does an inferior job of addressing those same themes compared to what we’ve seen over and over again in works such Hunger Games, Divergent, and others. When you and I saw the opening selection ceremony, we looked at each other in the theater and said, ‘Not again!’ at the exact same time. How unfortunate. Perhaps YA stands for ‘Yawn Again.’

The Giver does feature a decent hero’s journey. I’m trying not to hold it against poor Jonah that we’ve seen his story many times in the past couple of years in other films. After all, it’s a classic tale of a young person who has a limited view of the universe but then grows in his understanding to the point of realizing that his universe must be overthrown in order for justice, truth, beauty, and the American way to prevail. The Giver himself is the obvious mentor to Jonah, and Fiona is his obvious love interest. Jonah’s hero journey is so common and predictable that the key to its success is for the filmmakers to portray it in an uncommon and/or exemplary way. Alas, the filmmakers did not succeed in achieving those goals.

I got a lot of confused messages from this story. At one point we learn that babies who are not fully conformant (by way of weight, intelligence, or social development) are put to death by unthinking doctors. So I thought this was some sort of hidden message about the evils of abortion. But then, the villain character (the lead elder played by Meryl Streep) makes a speech about how people cannot be given the right to choose, because they make bad choices. Which is an argument against choice. So I was very lost as to what the point of this film was. I give The Giver just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Jonah is a common hero and plods along the hero’s journey with no surprises. The characters in the story are all going through the paces without thinking about what they are doing. Jonah sees this and decides to make a change. He wants to give people back their autonomy. It’s a noble mission. I give Jonah 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain here was the lead elder who wanted to maintain the status quo. She liked the world without color, variety, or the messiness of love, hate, and above all, choice. She wasn’t played as an evil overlord, but more as a obstructionist – motivated by the fear of returning to things that had lead the world astray. It wasn’t a profound role and I wasn’t inspired one way or the other. I give the elder just 2 Villains out of 5.

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The Giver breaks no new ground in its presentation of a future world in which people have been robbed of their emotions and their freedom of choice. We understand that such a sterile and totalitarian universe will prevent war and we also get the fact that sometimes peace comes at too high a price. Star Trek dealt with these themes in the 1960s and other more modern treatments are scattered throughout the sci-fi canon. We do get a very nice performance from Jeff Bridges, but as in the case with last year’s RIPD, Bridges is a great actor trapped inside a mediocre movie. I award The Giver a mere 2 Reels out of 5.

As I noted above, the hero’s journey is hardly new and can only succeed by adding some new element or twist, or by being exceptionally noteworthy. Jonah is a capable hero and shows great growth as a character, but we’ve been down this road too many times to be subjected to a routine treatment of his type of journey. I can only give poor Jonah a mere 2 Heroes out of 5.

The great shock of The Giver is the appearance of Meryl Streep, who is terribly underutilized as the Cruella DeGiver character here. Why Streep took on this part is a complete mystery to me. Her vast talents are as well-hidden as the clouded land of “Elsewhere” in the movie. There is little to learn about villainy from her evil character, and her role exists only for the purpose of being a vapid obstacle for Jonah and the Giver to conquer. Cruella gets a mere 2 Villains out of 5.

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Lucy ••

Lucy_(2014_film)_posterStarring:  Scarlett JohanssonMorgan FreemanMin-sik Choi

Director: Luc Besson

Screenplay: Luc Besson

Science-Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: R

Running Time: 89 minutes

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Lucy: Single, P-PP Mental, Pro (Classic Long Hero)

Choi: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Mastermind Villain)


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

Greg, as a kid I probably watched every episode of I Love Lucy.

Well, there wasn’t much to love about Lucy – I thought it was Loucy.

Ouch! Let’s recap. We meet a young woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), who unknowingly delivers a briefcase containing large quantities of a dangerous drug to a Korean mob boss (Min-sik Choi). The drug is CPH4, a powerful hyperactive stimulant. Lucy and three other people have bags of CPH4 surgically implanted into their abdomens. Forced into drug muledom, they are flown to several major European cities.

Lucy is held captive in a Taipei cell and beaten and kicked which causes the bag of CPH4 to rupture. She receives a mega-dose of the drug which then starts to open her mind. Meanwhile, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is in Paris lecturing on the potential of the human brain. He proffers that humans use only 10% of their brain. If we used 20% then we’d have the ability to do amazing things – things he can’t even imagine. Lucy uses her newly found powers to escape her cell and is now on a quest to find the man who performed the awful operation on her and exact her revenge.

Lucy is a preposterous yet fun look at what would happen if a human being could maximize her cerebral potential. The movie features a curious mix of scientifically accurate facts about the brain with scientifically spurious fluff. As a psychologist, I probably should have been offended by the movie’s bogus premise that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity. But truth be told, almost every movie we see requires some suspension of disbelief. I just turned off my 10% (sic) and enjoyed the ride.

Despite frequent lapses in veracity, this movie is slick and competently pieced together. Dramatically, we have an interesting hero story featuring Lucy who undergoes about as great of a dramatic a transformation as a hero can possibly endure. It’s fascinating to see CPH4 mutate Lucy’s mind and body in unimaginable ways. Unfortunately, witnessing her hero transformation is not the most satisfying adventure to witness because, after all, Lucy doesn’t voluntarily choose to change. The changes are biologically driven.

Wow. You are so incredibly generous to this complete waste of film. I don’t have your superhuman knowledge of the inner workings of the brain and yet I was completely offended by the techno-babble spewing from Morgan Freeman’s mouth.

The whole movie was one amazing tele-something super capability after another. Lucy is locked in a cell? At 20% of brain power she has amazing strength and knows kung-fu. Lucy needs to speak Chinese? At 40% she learns a language in under an hour. Lucy needs to talk to the Professor? At 60% she controls all functions of the entire internet and can flash lights on and off from across the globe. This was one implausable event after another. Whenever she needed something to get out of a jam, another 10% of brain power conjures the solution. I can’t even call this movie science fiction as there was absolutely no science involved.

Other than that it was fine.

I’m also deeply disturbed by what this film thinks a super-smart female looks like. When Scarlett Johansson wants to appear intelligent she stares blankly ahead and twitches her head from side to side. I guess that’s her idea of what smart people do. She loses all emotion and kills people for the slightest indiscretion – like not knowing how to speak English. She is completely motivated by revenge. Her elevated IQ doesn’t give her any insight into the heart of mankind – only the ability to kill efficiently. There is no internal character scrutiny here – it is all mindless mayhem at the will of a beautiful black widow [pun intended].

For some reason I was able to overlook all the silliness you mention, Greg. I enjoyed witnessing Lucy’s powers evolve over time, not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. For a while, I felt like I was watching the origin story of a great female superhero. Like many superheroes, she is accidentally exposed to a strange chemical which gifts her with special abilities. Unlike you, Greg, I didn’t see her misuse her powers; I only saw her using her abilities to survive. At the film’s end, she gives humanity the gift of her vast knowledge, a fitting end to any hero’s journey.

Sadly, there is plenty of contrived tension featuring bad guys who are closing in on Lucy when it’s obvious that she has the power to squelch them effortlessly. One of my complaints – and I do seem to have a bunch of them – is that the villains are ruthless but not terribly well fleshed out. We’ve seen this too many times: Shallow villains with a foreign look and a foreign accent are a dime a dozen in Hollywood.

I have to disagree with you again, Scott. At least the villain in this story gets his hands dirty. In other villain patterns we see the “boss” or “mastermind” sitting at the top of the food chain giving orders while henchmen do the dirty work. Mr. Jang has no problem carving, shooting, or slashing anything that gets in his way. You’re right, the villains were way over the top – quite in line with the absurdity of an all-powerful hero.

Lucy aims high in its ambition to create an intelligent movie with action-adventure thrills. Instead, we get a mindless stream of psychobabble and half-science that even Morgan Freeman with his velvety gift for explanation can’t deliver. This is a bad retread of the same premise from 2011’s Limitless (featuring the beautiful Bradley Cooper) which at least knew its “limits.” I give Lucy a mere 1 out of 5 Reels.

The hero is such a blank in every way. Scarlett Johansson gives Lucy no real personality and certainly no heart. The smarter she gets, the less human she becomes. I’d like to think we don’t need to fear the superintelligent. This movie delivers a message to young girls that becoming super smart makes you scary to men. But on the bright side, it also means you can become a badass. I give Lucy just 1 Hero out of 5.

Unlike you, I found something to like in the villains in this story. True, they are pure evil with little to ingratiate themselves to the audience. But the main guy at least has the decency to carry out his own acts of barbarism. I give him 2 out of 5 Villains.

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If you’re willing to turn a high percentage of your brain off for 90 minutes, Lucy is a fun look at what might happen if human beings were able to fulfill their maximum cognitive potential. There are missteps in the making of this film but Lucy manages to make us ponder where the human race is headed evolutionarily. Lucy won’t win any awards but takes us on an entertaining, multi-continent adventurous ride. I’ll generously award Lucy 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s story is problematic in that Lucy’s journey isn’t one that any one of us is likely to face. She doesn’t naturally overcome any missing quality to prevail, and her ability to overcome obstacles is derived from a biological accident. Still, we do find ourselves pulling for her and she does give back to humanity in a big way at the end. I’ll give Lucy 2 Heroes out of 5.

The villains aren’t anything special here and merely exist to get in Lucy into trouble and then scramble to thwart her later. Greg, you’re right that the main villain actually gets his hands dirty for a change. Alas, this departure from the norm doesn’t make him any more interesting than other razor-thin villains we’ve seen this year, and so the best I can do is award Lucy’s foes a mere 2 Villains out of 5.

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Deliver Us From Evil •••

Deliver_Us_from_Evil_(2014_film)_posterStarring:  Eric BanaÉdgar RamírezOlivia Munn
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Scott DerricksonPaul Harris Boardman
Crime/Horror/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: July 2, 2014

Sarchie & Mendoza: Duo, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)

Satan: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Mastermind Villain)


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Scott, I was afraid I’d want to be delivered from this film. But it wasn’t bad.

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

There were some bad odors, Greg. Straight from the bowels of hell. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Bronx Police Officer Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his partner Butler (Joel McHale). The duo are investigating a strange event at the zoo. A woman has thrown her child into the moat surrounding the lion’s pit. A strange hooded man (Sean Harris) is painting the walls of the pit when Sarchie gives chase. The man escapes but not before he sicks the lions on Sarchie.

Sarchie escapes harm and discovers that the hooded man, named Santini, was painting over the same kind of cryptic Latin writing that was found at another crime scene. Sarchie meets an unconventional Catholic priest named Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) who has spent years hunting down violent demonic spirits at work in the city. Skeptical at first, Sarchie ultimately becomes convinced, and he teams with Mendoza in hunting down and expelling the malevolent spirit that has taken over Santini’s body.

Scott, I’m not a fan of horror movies. I find they use cheap tricks to pull you in and then throw things into your face (in 3D, quite literally). They are all about shock value and appeal to the basic fears we all tuck away inside our reptilian brain. I just don’t find that entertaining.

But Deliver Us From Evil really had me in its grip right from the beginning. It is based on Sarchie’s actual experiences on the streets of New York City which makes it all the more compelling. Unlike last year’s The Conjuring, Deliver Us is a smart and compelling story that makes the unbeliever think twice about dismissing the demonic world.

I agree, Greg, that Deliver Us From Evil is a more effective horror movie than last year’s The Conjuring. There are several things working in its favor, and chief among them are stellar performances by Bana and Ramirez, an unlikely pairing with great chemistry. Their terrific acting delivers us from boredom, which is the worst kind of evil for us movie critics.

This film also scores high on the creep-o-meter scale. Yes, there are the usual assortment of cheap frights and false scares, but there are enough meaty, gruesome chills and thrills to keep us in terrific suspense. Deliver Us From Evil knows how to yank our chain in all the right ways.

Oh yeah, like the corpse that was found behind a wall that had been sitting there for two weeks. It was all full of gruesome flies and maggots – perfectly hideous.

I compare all horror movies to the classic The Exorcist and the two films shared many features in common. There was the little girl that was stalked by evil demons. There was the unlikely priest who specialized in demonic possession. An evil demon that just couldn’t leave people alone. And a great exorcism in the end.

Eric Bana performed well as the NYC cop with a Jersey accent. He starts out as a skeptic and is slowly turned into believer. He’s a tortured soul with a deep secret that will be his undoing as the demon can use it against him. He’s a good hero character as he lives to protect and serve not just the people of New York, but also his little family. While he has a partner in the form of police officer Butler, this is more of a Hero and Sidekick affair rather than a buddy cop film. In fact, Mendoza (the priest) works out as the Mentor, leading Sarchie around the special world of demons and possession. Ultimately, though, it looks like Mendoza graduates from his Mentor role into one of the buddy.

You’ve put your finger on a very complex social relationship between Sarchie and Mendoza, one that almost defies categorization. There are elements of mentorship, buddy heroism, and side-kickery here. In the end, they are two men with equal status who have complementary strengths — Sarchie is the law enforcement expert while Mendoza has the PhD in demonology. In this movie, Sarchie assumes more of the primary hero role, and he in fact is the one who undergoes the greatest transformation on his journey here.

The villains in Deliver Us From Evil are an interesting assortment of hellish henchmen of Satan, or of one of Satan’s main operatives. In other reviews of movies released in 2014, we’ve discussed a common pattern of villainy that features a central mastermind villain who outsources his evil tasks to underlings who do all the dirty work. This film appears to follow that same pattern, as poor Santino and two other characters are compelled by devilish forces to perform horrific acts. There isn’t a lot of depth to the villains in this movie, nor is there much backstory. Still, they are effective in their own bloodthirsty way.

I liked that the demon in this film is not always an unseen evil. Santino’s possession gives us something to focus on as the villain in the story. But as you point out, there isn’t much depth here. I don’t think they ever even named the demon – only that it came from Iraq.

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. It had more characterization than other films of the genre and the acting was pretty good. I can happily give it 3 out of 5 Reels for keeping me interested and a little grossed out without stepping over the line that makes most horror films look ridiculous.

The hero is nicely molded here. He’s a good cop and a good father who is stretched to his limits. He has a dark backstory and a strong desire to do right. He overcomes his past transgressions and is redeemed in the end. A very nice hero’s journey that I can give 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain is pretty nasty and performs as the typical mastermind/puppeteer that we see in most films these days. We don’t get much detail about why the demons exist or what their goals are – they’re just evil. This is a pretty unidimensional evil and I award just 2 Villains out of 5 for the possessed Santini.

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Deliver Us From Evil delivers exactly what you’d expect — a scary, creepy story of demonic possession that derives much of its appeal from the claim that it is based on a true story. There’s not a lot of new ground broken here, but I was captivated by the outstanding performances of our two unlikely buddy heroes and by the strong “ick” factor in several scenes involving various gooey bodily fluids. Like you, Greg, I believe that this film deserves 3 solid Reels out of 5.

The complex relationship between our two heroes is fun to watch, as each brings different strengths to the game and grow in their interdependence. With help from Mendoza, Sarchie’s heroic transformation unfolds before our eyes and is absolutely necessary for him to crack the case. The heroes are a commendable pairing, thus producing a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5.

As you point out, Greg, the villain here isn’t developed terribly well or with much depth, but then again we neither expect nor want a movie that delves into Satan’s childhood woes that led to his evil lifestyle. All we really crave is for Satan to behaviorally manifest his bad-ass ways, which this movie allows him to do with gory flair. A rating of 2 Villains out of 5 seems about right here.

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Edge of Tomorrow •••1/2

Edge_of_Tomorrow_PosterStarring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Director: Doug Liman
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth
Action/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: June 6, 2014

Cage: Single, N-P Moral, Pro (Enlightened Lone Hero)

Mimics: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Nature Pure Evil Villains)


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

Greg, I would say ‘let’s review this movie’ but I’m pretty sure we’ve done it already.

It’s deja-vu all over again. Let’s recap Tom Cruise’s new film Edge of Tomorrow.

We meet Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), the spokesperson for the United Defense Forces, a combined military force that is attempting to repel an extraterrestrial invasion by a species known as the Mimics. Cage is sent to General Brigham’s office and is surprised when Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to participate as a soldier in a wide scale invasion of Mimic-occupied France. When Cage resists and attempts to blackmail Brigham, the General has him arrested and sent to an English base as a private about to be deployed to France.

Cage is outfitted with a mechanical exoskeleton and lifts off in a heli-transport with his new troop of soldiers bound for a D-Day sort of invasion. They crash land and are met with overwhelming forces – as if the Mimic enemy knew they were coming. Cage is all thumbs with his new gear and is quickly killed in combat.

He then immediately wakes up back at the base where he was shanghaied and relives the experience of meeting the soldiers, flying into battle, crashing, and getting killed. On his third incarnation, he meets up with Rita (Emily Blunt) – a soldier who is well-known as the fiercest of the Army’s warriors. He relates his experiences to her and she tells him to find her when he wakes up.

When he wakes up at the beginning of his day again, he seeks out Rita and relates his experiences to her. Much to his surprise, she believes him. She relates that she herself had been infected with the ability to “reset the day” but had lost it.  Rita tells him that he must go into training to help them find the “Omega” alien who, once killed, will destroy the enemy and save the Earth.

Greg, I have a confession to make. I’m a sucker for time travel movies, especially ones that are smartly made and contain all the elements of a good hero story. One of my criticisms of previous Tom Cruise movies has been that his characters rarely show any change or growth. Because Edge of Tomorrow is one of those repeating time-loop movies, much like Groundhog Day, William Cage absolutely must change in order to break the temporal cycle. So we’re given a satisfying story of personal growth that redeems not only the character but saves the world as well.

Cage starts out a coward and a fool. We don’t like him very much, and when we learn that he is squeamish it doesn’t seem likely he can survive countless blood-soaked battles with the Mimics. Dire circumstances, however, gradually transform Cage into an invincible warrior. What we have is a dark Groundhog Day on steroids, a film that works on many different levels, including the all-important emotional level.

Scott, I’m glad you mentioned Groundhog Day because that is the criticism I have of Edge of Tomorrow. It takes the central idea of Bill Murray’s film and applies it to war. Since Groundhog Day is such a well-known film, the filmmakers must offer something above and beyond what we already know must happen. We already know that the hero will recycle through his life experiences and learn and relearn lessons until he becomes proficient. Edge does offer one new thread which is the ability for the hero to lose the gift of time travel. However, once this fact is mentioned in the story, you know there has to come a point in the film where the hero must lose the power. It made Edge rather predictable.

I’ll agree with you on Cage’s growth in this film. He starts out as a wimp and a coward and when he finds himself in the predicament of reliving his life over again daily. We see him become a better man. He comes to care for his platoon-mates and falls in love with Rita, the beautiful war veteran. By the end of the film we are treated to a redefined man, one we hardly recognize.

Another difference between this film and Groundhog Day centers on what has to happen for the hero to escape from the time loop. Bill Murray’s character has to become a good man, but Tom Cruise’s character must do more than just change his nature; he must also destroy the Omega. In both Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, a woman is the central instrument of the man’s change. I think it’s no coincidence that the woman’s name is Rita in both movies.

The villains in Edge of Tomorrow — the Mimics — are somewhat novel in both their appearance and in their behavioral characteristics. The creatures are a strange spider-reptile hybrid that moves at hyper-speed. They also have the ability to use time travel to anticipate their enemy’s next moves. The Mimics are also disappointing in some ways, and I’ll let you, Greg, describe why this is the case.

Thanks, Scott. Apparently the Mimics suffer the same malady that aliens from across time and space suffer from – that of being controlled by a singular, central mind. When Cage destroys the “Omega” beast, all the “Alpha” and “Drone” aliens also stop working. This is a tired plot device that we’ve seen in such movies as Independence Day, Divergent, RoboCop, and Transcendence, just to name a few.

Edge of Tomorrow recycles a few old ideas but offers two rock-solid hours of fun and adventure. Tom Cruise turns in one of his best performances in years here, and for a refreshing change he plays a character who evolves throughout the course of the film. Because the movie is very well done and because I love sci-fi stories that utilize time travel effectively, I’m happy to award Edge of Tomorrow 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story in this film is appealing on several levels. Cage embarks on a dangerous journey in an unfamiliar world, and to achieve his mission he must undergo a transformation that is satisfying to watch. We’re treated to several key features of the hero’s journey, such as Cage’s encounter with Rita, a remarkably strong female character who plays a mentoring role in helping Cage discover his missing inner quality. Rita is the key to Cage’s redemption and also steals his heart. In my view William Cage is a worthy hero who deserves a rating of 4 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Greg, the two formidable forces that Cage must overcome are the Mimics and his own weakness of character. There are also a few other oppositional characters who get in Cage’s way, such as General Brigham and Sergeant Farrell. Pardon the pun, but the Mimics unfortunately do mimic prior sci-fi extra-terrestrials. But the good news is that the Mimics also have a unique look and intriguing time-shifting abilities. Overall, the villainous components of this movie are used to great effect, leading me to conclude that Edge of Tomorrow deserves a strong rating of 4 Villains out of 5.

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I really hate to say this, but I didn’t have the same impression of this movie as you did, Scott. The graphics and battle scenes are definitely worth the price of admission. But Edge of Tomorrow borrowed so many plot devices from other movies that I can only give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Cage as the hero undergoes a good transformation which is gradual and believable (in the context of the sci/fi elements). But we’ve seen this done before exceedingly well in Groundhog Day. One redeeming element that I found in Edge of Tomorrow was Emily Blunt as a completely believable female warrior. We don’t see that everyday. Still, I can only give Tom Cruise’s character 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, we’re so far apart on the villains here. The Mimics are such a retread from other movies and have so little to offer other than being evil, mindless, bad guys that I can’t give them such a lofty score as you did. I’ll grant you that there are other oppositional forces in play, but in my mind, it’s the Mimics who are the main villains and they simply don’t measure up to other fine villains we’ve seen this year (witness The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past). I give the Mimics just 1 Villain out of 5.

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Million Dollar Arm •••

Million_Dollar_Arm_posterStarring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2014

JB Bernstein: Single, N-P Moral, Pro (Transformed Enlightened Lone Hero)

JB Bernstein: Single, N-P Moral, Ant (Transformed Self Villain)


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

Greg, strangely enough, it looks like Disney has made a movie about the arms race.

No, it’s a new baseball movie about finding new talent in India. Let’s recap

We meet JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a sports agent who is struggling to attract clients and is on the brink of financial collapse. He concocts an idea to create a reality show that promises to reap fame and fortune. The idea involves going to India to recruit cricket players with the raw skills to become professional baseball pitchers in the United States. J.B. obtains financial backing from businessman Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), who gives J.B.’s agency only one year to complete the task.

In India JB discovers things don’t work as they do in the US. He has to grease the skids with backdoor deals. He meets an enterprising young man in Amit (Pitobash) who loves baseball and offers to work for JB for free. JB scours the countryside looking for players but finds only two: Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal). Ironically, neither boy is a cricket fan.

JB brings the boys home to America and convinces the USC pitching coach to train them. JB is focused on the deal and neglects to give the boys the attention they need. Tenant and neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell) urges him to be more sympathetic to the two boys who are far from home and only aim to please.

Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm is a pleasant Disney tale that delivers two different underdog stories within the same movie. The underdogs are JB, a struggling sports agent, and two Indian baseball prospects who are not given much chance to succeed at the game. All these underdogs prevail, of course, and they do so in a predictable way. Yet somehow the movie charms us with the sweetness and innocence of several key characters.

Greg, this movie works because Disney has spent almost a century perfecting the formula for tugging on audience’s heartstrings. The two Indian baseball prospects are wonderful young men. Yes, they are naive and jittery, but they wear their generous, innocent hearts on their sleeves. JB is a darker character, self-absorbed to a fault, but lurking behind his careless egocentricity we see hints of inherent goodness. The job of the movie is to develop that goodness into its fullness, which it accomplishes nicely.

I agree, Scott. I’m not a baseball fan, so sports movies occasionally leave me in the dust (witness last spring’s Draft Day). But this isn’t so much a story about sports as it is about overcoming our weaknesses.  The young men in the story are honest and eager to please. They see this as an opportunity and also an obligation to reflect positively upon their families back home.

JB is both a hero and a villain in this story. He is the character who is most transformed by the events in the film. But it is his inner demons – those of greed and ambition – that get in the way of seeing the good in people. And it is this missing inner quality that threatens to doom him to failure in his task. Happily, through the intervention of a good woman and the good nature of the young men, JB overcomes his focus on the business of the game and is reminded of what makes baseball fun.

You’re right, Greg. JB doesn’t need an outside villain, as he is his own worst enemy here. JB is mentored by two people in this story. Besides the woman you mention, early in the movie JB’s contact person in India, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), plants the seeds of JB’s transformation. Vivek tells JB that the two Indian boys represent more than just a great business opportunity; they are first and foremost an important “responsibility.” This wisdom reminds me of Stan Lee’s oft-quoted line, With great power comes great responsibility. It certainly applies to JB, who at first wields his power in selfish and reckless ways before he learns that people come before profit.

I think Million Dollar Arm doesn’t quite hit a home run with its easy-to-digest sports story. It is predictable and unsurprising in many ways. But it has an honesty and good naturedness that makes it an enjoyable movie to watch. I give the film 3 out of 5 Reels.

JB is definitely a man fighting himself in this story. I was happy to see his slow transformation from all-business jerk to understanding jerk. JB gets 3 out of 5 Heroes from me.

There isn’t much of a villain story for us to take home. JB is his own enemy and as such doesn’t have much to overcome. I give him just 2 Villains out of 5.

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We’re on the same page, Greg. Million Dollar Arm is formulaic to a fault yet somehow manages to succeed as a worthwhile film due to its charming cast and fulfilling take-home message. There isn’t much new ground covered here, but I enjoyed Million Dollar Arm and recommend it for people who are in the mood for a feel-good movie. Like you, Greg, I award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is interesting and follows the conventional path of sending our hero JB to India, an unfamiliar place where he is a fish out of water. Several key allies assist him on his mission, and while in India he encounters resistance and also cultivates a love interest. Ironically, she is a woman he Skypes as she lives in America. She ultimately helps JB discover his missing inner quality, which is his sense of humanity. Again, it’s a bit formulaic for a woman to help a man reform himself, but Million Dollar Arm does it in an appealing way. JB deserves 3 solid Heroes out of 5.

The villain, if there is one, is JB himself, or at least it is the dark side of JB’s character. We learn in this movie that heroes find ways to overcome their dark sides, whereas villains are either blind to these sides or cannot summon the conscience to overcome the darkness. Greed is a powerful human force and has destroyed many people, and is thus a worthy adversary here. For this reason I’m willing to award the “villain” 3 out of 5 Villains.

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