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Worst Films of 2013

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

Greg, in an earlier post, we identified the best movies of 2013. That was a lot of fun and left us with a good taste in our mouths.


And now it’s time to pick the worst movies of 2013 – while they left a bad taste in our mouths it can be just as much fun to review them, too.


Below is my list of the worst of the worst, the baddest of the bad, in 2013. I chose these stinkers based on how much I rolled my eyes and looked at my watch while viewing them in the theater. They all told dumb stories, or they took a good story and made it bad through poor execution.  Here’s my list:

Scott’s Worst 10
10 – The Hangover 3
9 – The Family
8 – Closed Circuit
7 – The Counselor
6 – RIPD
5 – Getaway
4 – Machete Kills
3 – Grown Ups 2
2 – Scary Movie 5
1 – The Big Wedding


I see some familiar titles there, Scott.  Here’s how I ranked the films I warned friends away from in 2013 based on a number of factors but mostly how ripped-off I felt by bad dialog, bad acting or just a lack of any direction. Let’s get started!

Greg’s Worst 10
10 – Getaway
9 – The Counselor
8 – The Hangover 3
7 – The Conjuring
6 – Grown Ups 2
5 – Machete Kills
4 – This Is The End
3 – Scary Movie 5
2 – Movie 43
1 – The Big Wedding


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Getaway_PosterMy choice of the year’s 5th-worst movie is Getaway.  This movie definitely made me want to “get away” from the theater as fast as possible. The movie was just a 90-minute excuse to film cars going fast and crashing into things. I suppose a bored 8-year-old child might have found the endless series of car crashes to be entertaining. During those long car-wrecking scenes I found myself yearning for the characters to engage in dialogue, but I regretted that yearning as soon as I got a whiff of that atrocious dialogue. When the characters spoke, I began to yearn for the car crashes to return. Greg, there are some movies that just shouldn’t ever be made. Getaway is near the top of that list.


You’re right, Scott. Getaway was surprisingly bad. In my review from last summer I think I said “Getaway is … derivative of a genre of movie that should have no derivative.” The only thing that kept me from rating it lower (than the #10 spot) was a decent performance by Selena Gomez. At a time when Miley Cyrus is twerking all over the Internet it was good to see a Disney kid do well.

Machete_KillsI ranked Machete Kills as my #5 worst film of the year. I nearly gave it a pass simply because it was supposed to be bad. But it was the worst bad film I’ve seen in a long time. I much preferred 1997’s Austin Powers movie which was over the top with it’s nod towards 1960s Bond films. The action was just blood and gore for the sake of blood and gore. I don’t see any need to visit the theater for the sequel: Machete Kills: In Outer Space.


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Greg, Machete Kills killed, all right. It killed my desire to ever see another movie made by Robert Rodriguez. I ranked Machete Kills as my 4th worst movie of the year. I do have to give Machete Kills some credit — it seemed to invent new ways for a movie to be bad. The pointlessness of the entire production was off the scale. Yes, I know the movie was trying to wink at itself and at its audience, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried to take the film seriously. But if I’m going to pay good money to see a movie, shouldn’t I expect the filmmakers to at least try to create something worth seeing?


MV5BMTQxODE3NjM1Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzkzNjc4OA@@._V1_SX214_If you thought Machete Kills was bad, I thought my #4 pick, This is the End, was even worse. It was the story of Hollywood’s young elite in the end-of-days. This pointless diversion had major young stars performing a variety of ridiculous stunts including a “cum-off” between James Franco and Danny McBride. It was crude for the purposes of being crude and it was successful at that. So much so that I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater. I hope to never see this film again.

Alas, This is the End was one of the movies we disagreed about this past year, Greg. I actually thought behind all the debauchery and lunacy, the movie showed some amusing creativity. Plus, the film was a decent buddy hero story in which the two heroes must change their ways in order to be saved from destruction. This is the End won’t win any awards for excellence but it had its good solid moments, in my opinion.

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Grown_Ups_2_PosterMy 3rd worst movie of the year was Grown Ups 2. This movie re-defines what it is to be a terrible movie. If the screenplay writers had simply vomited on the pages, they would have produced a better movie than the one they wrote on those pages. You know how they say that given enough time, monkeys could produce Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Well, the makers of Grown Ups 2 must have recruited some of the dumbest, most tasteless monkeys they could find and then given those monkeys one nanosecond to produce something. Adam Sandler’s career definitely hit a new low with this film, and I’m still bitter and resentful about the IQ points that I lost by watching Grown Ups 2.


I didn’t hate this movie as much as you did (it was my #6) but I did hate it pretty well. The thing that really gets my goat is that this drek of a film is doing great in DVD sales. I guess we weren’t the target audience for Grown Ups 2.

MV5BMTc5OTIxMjQ4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTAyNDcyOQ@@._V1._SX95_SY140_My #3 pick for the worst film of 2013 was Scary Movie 5. This was the latest in the series and drew from the popularity of such films as Mama, Cabin in the Woods and Black Swan. I would have made this my #1 pick except that it gets a point or two for being written by one of the Zucker Brothers (of Airplane! fame) and was clearly designed to be so bad it was good. Well it was neither bad enough nor good enough to be watched even once. Even for Charlie Sheen, this was a low point.


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Greg, I couldn’t have said it any better. I picked Scary Movie 5 as my 2nd worst movie of the year. Earlier you said that This is the End is a sorry excuse for Hollywood’s elite to engage in self-congratulatory drek. Well, this is an apt description of Scary Movie 5. What were these stars thinking when they agreed to work on a project that features tooth brushes being shoved in people’s butts and amniotic fluid splashing on people’s faces? Maybe some people find this funny but what I see is a desperate attempt to produce shock value, which by itself is never, ever funny.


MV5BMTg4NzQ3NDM1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjEzMjM3OA@@._V1_SX214_Which reminds me of my #2 pick – Movie 43 which was about as low as any movie has ever been. It featured big stars doing grotesque jokes. Witness Hugh Jackman as a dashing young man with testicles on his chin. And Halle Berry wearing a ridiculously large prosthetic pair of breasts. And a man defecating all over his girlfriend in an act of lovemaking. And these are just the images I can share in print. It has been said the the Farrelly Brothers took years to get all these stars together in one film. The fact is that they coerced their stars into the roles using tricks of the trade. I’m surprised Movie 43 didn’t make your “bottom 10” list.


Well, if it’s any consolation, Movie 43 did make my bottom 43, Greg. But you’re right, it easily could have made my list of the 10 worst film failures this year. I’m not sure what the filmmakers were thinking when they produced Movie 43 — in fact, that’s the problem: They weren’t thinking at all. All those absurd little skits couldn’t possibly add up to a good overall movie. In this case, the whole was far, far less than the sum of the parts.

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MV5BMTcwODUwMjg2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTc2NzkxOA@@._V1_SX214_My Worst Movie of the year, Greg, is the same as yours — The Big Wedding. What a celluloid catastrophe this film turned out to be. Somehow, writer and director Justin Zackham thought that it would be funny to totally embarrass some of Hollywood’s best veteran actors by making them speak and act like immature, sex-crazed teenagers. I was cringing and wincing at every scene. For me, The Big Wedding was the Titanic of movies this year — it was Big all right. A Big Mess, A Big Flop, and A Big Embarrassment. The less said about this film, the better.


We agree on one thing, after all, Scott. The Big Wedding was about as bad as a movie can get without trying. It had everything going for it: a big cast (Robert De Niro,  Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Katherine Heigl, and Topher Grace), it had a previous success (based on the foreign film Mon frère se marie) and Writer/Director Justin Zackham (The Bucket List). But when that mix of talent was blended together we got the most shockingly bad xenophobic movie I’ve ever seen. The Colombian mother-in-law was treated as an idiot, her naive daughter was treated as a sex kitten, and the audience was treated as unwelcome guests as the actors tried their least and phoned in this incredible clunker. The reason this is my worst film of the year is because of the huge chasm between the high-quality of its stars and the low-quality of its story. What a disgrace.


Well, those were the worst movies of the year, Greg. It’s interesting how 2013 could produce so many excellent movies, yet so many bad ones, too.


You’re right, Scott. I’m just glad I didn’t have to suffer through them alone. Thanks for a great year of films and Reel Heroes!

Best Heroes of 2013

Well Scott, we’ve reviewed the best movies and worst movies of the year 2013. Let’s look at our favorite heroes from 2013.


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

Yes, this will be fun. Examining the hero story within the movie is one of our primary goals here at Reel Heroes.


I picked my heroes based on how transformed they were or by how much they transformed those around them. Here are my top ten heroes for 2013:

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Greg’s Top Heroes

10 – Tim (About Time)
9 – Ellis (Mud)
8 – Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
7 – Dr. Ryan Stone (Gravity)
6 – Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)
5 – Walter Mitty (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
4 – Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
3 – James Hunt & Nikki Lauda (Rush)
2 – Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club)
1 – Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey (42)


I used the same criteria in evaluating the heroes, too, Greg. In addition, I looked at the presence or absence of other features of the classic hero journey, such as whether the hero acquires allies, mentors, father figures, villains, and love interests.  Here’s my top ten heroes list:

Scott’s Top Heroes

10 – Liesel (The Book Thief)
9 – Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club)
8 – Philomena (Philomena)
7 – James Hunt & Nikki Lauda (Rush)
6 – Tim (About Time)
5 – Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey (42)
4 – Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave)
3 – Ellis (Mud)
2 – Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
1 – Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)


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Ben-Stiller-in-a-still-fr-014Well it looks like we have some common views here and there. Let’s start off looking at my #5 pick. I loved Walter Mitty in Ben Stein’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He starts out very timid and introverted. He’s too shy to ask a girl out. And rather than voyaging out and doing something with his life he spends all his time day dreaming about what he could do. But after his hero’s quest in search of the missing negative, he is transformed. He’s confident, outgoing, and he’s done more in a few days than most people have done in a lifetime. It’s a great hero’s journey, one that I’m going to watch again.


Walter Mitty didn’t make my top-ten list, but he is a worthy inclusion. I enjoyed watching his transformation from meek dullard to bold adventurer. The story is a simple yet powerful tale of self-discovery and self-realization, which is essential in any good hero story.

42My #5 pick was Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in the movie 42. These two heroes don’t quite fit the buddy-hero mold; perhaps 42 is best described as a mentor-mentee hero story. Rickey sets in motion a plan to revolutionize major league baseball by introducing Robinson as the first African-American player in 1947. This past year Harrison Ford has established his versatility as an actor who can play an outstanding mentor to the main hero, who in this case is Robinson himself. In 42 we see Robinson endure great suffering and humiliation, and he must also show tremendous restraint if he is to break the racial barrier. Rickey and Robinson work together to overcome this barrier and in doing so they make a fabulous hero duo.


Scott, this was a flawed film, but a great story of transformation. And that is why Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were my #1 pick for greatest heroes of 2013. For the reasons you mentioned, Robinson is a great heroic figure. He had to take the humiliation of the racist crowds and his racist teammates. But he could never show his anger. Rickey risked his entire franchise to break the color barrier. Between them, Robinson and Rickey transformed all of baseball forever. That is a huge accomplishment. American sports would never be the same. Baseball documentarian Ken Burns addressed it this way: “If you are a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and you’re a racist, what do you do? … You can quit baseball altogether, you can change teams, or you can change.” And in the end the fans chose to change. I don’t think any of the heroes on either of our lists had the sweeping impact that Robinson and Rickey had on American culture. And that’s why they gained my #1 spot.

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whitaker_the_butlerMy #4 pick was Cecil Gaines from Lee Daniel’s The Butler. This is another true-life hero brought to the silver screen. Cecil was brought up from nothing, a sharecropper’s son who worked hard and grew to be the head butler in the White House. He attended to the most important people in the nation and the world during his tenure. And he had a lasting impact on the White House staff as he single-handedly changed the pay structure there. I also enjoyed the dual-buddy role played by his son who grew up to be a civil rights leader. Ultimately Cecil was transformed from a  quiet servant to an activist himself. It was a great story of transformation.


Cecil Gaines as The Butler is my #2 pick, Greg, and for all the reasons you mention. He not only evolved nicely as a hero in this story, he also witnessed — and played a small part in — the enormous transformation of the American culture. This vast societal transformation is also seen in the type of U.S. President he served under, from conservatives such as Eisenhower and Nixon to our current African-American President Barack Obama. There is also a nice atonement with the son, a clever spin on the usual father atonement seen in the classic hero journey.

chiwetel-ejiofor-as-solomon-northup-in-12-YEARS-A-SLAVEMy #4 choice is Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. As I’ve noted elsewhere, 2013 is the Year of the African-American male hero, and Northup joins Jackie Robinson and Cecil Gaines as a powerful hero who must summon all his personal resources to triumph over horrific adversity. Northup’s ordeal as a slave is emotionally wrenching to watch in 12 Years a Slave. The brutality he endured and the resilience he needed are portrayed both painfully and magnificently in this film. In the end, as with any great hero, Northup drew from his agonizing experiences to better society. This hero story is gripping, compelling, and unforgettable, Greg.


Scott, I can see why you picked Solomon Northrup. He was a model of courage and tenacity. But when I scored him on either being transformed or transforming others, he just didn’t measure up to some of the other heroes of 2013. 12 Years a Slave is a must-see movie. But Northrup was very much the same man at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, albeit robbed of more than just the 12 years he suffered.

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exclusive-poster-for-rush-featuring-chris-hemsworth-and-daniel-br-hl-142242-a-1375865830-470-75My #3 pick was James Hunt & Nikki Lauda from Ron Howard’s Rush. At the beginning of this film Hunt and Lauda are vicious rivals in formula one racing. In part due to Hunt’s brashness, Lauda is maimed in a racing accident. Strangely, it was this near-death experience that brings the two men together. Hunt comes to respect Lauda’s meticulous nature and Lauda comes to envy Hunt’s devil-may-care attitude toward life. I thoroughly enjoyed this buddy story.


Hunt and Lauda were my #7 pick, and I agree that their evolving relationship was fascinating to witness. What impressed me was how their friendship and mutual respect grew out of an initially strong disliking for each other. I would have assigned a higher rank to these two heroes if they had transformed society in a meaningful way, but as auto racers they were hardly in any position to accomplish that feat.

mud-still04My #3 choice of a young boy named Ellis in the highly underrated film Mud. This is a movie that shows us the pain of adolescence, a topic to which most of us can relate. Like any young kid, Ellis is initially naive and trusting. He sees the world in black and white terms, and he seems hardly prepared for the volatile world around him. The movie depicts the manner in which Ellis copes with his parents’ break-up, his girlfriend’s betrayal, and Mud’s complex and contradictory behavior. Ellis undergoes vast emotional growth and becomes a man right before our eyes.


Ellis was my #9 pick and also one of my favorite characters from 2013. Mud was a great story of young love and a boy transforming into a man. In Mud Ellis finds a possible future and learns that unquestioning love can be taken too far. It’s a hard lesson but in the end we see Ellis attains a maturity that eludes his older counterpart. It’s a great story and Ellis is a great hero.

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Golden_Globes_Nominations.JPEG-0a7b9_t607My #2 pick was Ron Woodroof from Dallas Buyer’s Club. Ron starts out as a redneck rodeo cowboy who was as tough as nails. He was also as homophobic as they come. When he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS he is cast into a world of people who are shunned by society not only for their disease but for who they love. Woodroof’s transformation from an insensitive and ignorant man to a man who openly weeps when his homosexual business partner dies is touching and memorable.


Totally agree, Greg. Woodroof is my #9 pick. His transformation is as dramatic as they come. I enjoyed watching his motives shift in this movie. Woodroof started out completely self-absorbed and self-serving, and he’s also as greedy as they come. But over time, we see subtle shifts toward compassion that add up to a gigantic shift at the end. It’s a great hero story for sure.

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Ender_WigginThis leaves us with my Number 1 hero of the year — Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game.  I guess you could say that I’m a sucker for coming of age stories. For all the reasons I loved the story of Ellis in Mud, I also love the terrific personal growth story of Ender Wiggin. What sets Ender apart from other heroes we’ve seen this year is his exponential growth in so many different facets of his young life. Ender grows intellectually, physically, socially, militarily, and emotionally. Once again, Harrison Ford plays a mentor, but here he’s a misguided mentor who molds and shapes Ender in ways that are both admirable and catastrophic. In the end, we see Ender surpass his mentor in wisdom — isn’t this the ultimate transformation in any hero?


You make a compelling case, Scott. I scored Ender only #6 on my list – but mainly because I thought other heroes had greater transformation. We both really liked Ender’s Game in our “Best Of” list (I scored it #1 and you #2). I also overlooked how he impacted both the society of his homeworld and that of the aliens. He truly transformed both worlds. Ender is one of cinema’s great heroes of 2013.

Well, Scott, 2013 is now a distant memory. I’ve enjoyed sitting in the theater with you and across from you at Sedona Taphouse afterwards. It was a good year for movies – especially the last two months. I’m looking forward to another year of analyzing Reel Heroes.


Me, too, Greg. It’s been a fun ride working with you to study the hero journeys in the movies in 2013. We’ve been privileged to encounter some truly unforgettable heroes as well as some truly forgettable ones. We hope that we’ve shed some light on the difference.

It’s been a pleasure sparring with you about the movies and the heroes in them. We often agree but it’s been fun to disagree, too. Now it’s onward and upward to Reel Heroes in 2014.

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Best Films of 2013

Scott, it’s 2014 and time to reflect on the best movies we saw in 2013.


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

Indeed, Greg. Although there were a lot of stinkers in 2013, there were also many quality movies deserving of recognition.


For me, I listed my favorite films by how badly I wanted to see them again. There were a lot of great films this year. Picking just 10 that I wanted to see again was a tough call.  Here’s my list:

Greg’s Top 10
10 – Mud
9 – Hunger Games: Catching Fire
8 – Star Trek Into Darkness
7 – About Time
6 – Saving Mr. Banks
5 – Rush
4 – Gravity
3 – Walter Mitty
2 – 12 Years A Slave
1 – Ender’s Game


I generated my list based on the quality of the story and how memorable the characters were.  Another big factor, of course, was the worthiness of the hero. Here is my top ten list:

Scott’s Top 10
10 – Gravity
9 – Nebraska
8 – Philomena
7 – Rush
6 – The Book Thief
5 – Mud
4 – The Butler
3 – 42
2 – Ender’s Game
1 – 12 Years a Slave


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Rush_movie_posterIt looks like we have some movies in common. Let’s do a deeper dive into each of our top five lists. My #5 pick was Rush which you listed as your #7.

I loved Rush. It was what makes a great movie. It’s a the buddy story of two men in competition to be the best Formula One racers in the world. Nikki Lauda is the straight-laced, methodical racer. James Hunt is the party animal and sex-crazed undisciplined seat-of-the-pants driver. They start out as bitter rivals and in the end have an enduring friendship. It’s the stuff mythic heroes are made of and that story makes me want to go back for a second helping.


I enjoyed Rush, too, Greg. I’d like to see director Ron Howard get some recognition for his meticulously accurate portrayal of this great racing rivalry.

Mud_posterMy #5 pick was Mud, which was a poignant story of a young boy wrestles with the trials of growing up in the modern world. I’m glad you included Mud in your top 10 list, too, Greg. I was impressed by how Mud shows us that a kid can have the best of intentions and yet still get hurt by adult strangers, by parents, and by fickle romantic interests. Emerging from the pain is real and meaningful personal growth in our hero, Ellis. The movie does an outstanding job chronicling the hurts, the setbacks, and yes, the triumphs of this young man.


Mud was a great story and was one of the few we admitted to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. I was particularly taken with Ellis’s idolizing of Mud. Ellis was in search of a hero and Mud came along at a time when Ellis was in search of someone to look up to. Ultimately such heroes must take a fall and that leaves the young man to go on alone. It was a bittersweet story and one worthy of a second look.

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MV5BNjE5MzYwMzYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk4MTk0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_My #4 pick was Gravity. This is the story of Dr. Ryan Stone, a female astronaut portrayed by Sandra Bullock in a nearly stand-alone appearance. Stone goes from a space novice to space veteran in one sitting. This is a strong story of growth and overcoming impossible odds. Aside from the hero’s journey was the technical accuracy and stunning graphics of the film. I don’t think I’ve seen such meticulous film-making since 2001: A Space Odyssey. I definitely want to enjoy this film again.


Gravity didn’t make my top 5 but was in my top 10, Greg. This may be Bullock’s best work to date, and you’re right, she really had to carry the movie single-handedly. The CGI effects were astounding and helped make a strong storyline truly come to life.

The_Butler_posterMy #4 movie of the year was The Butler. This movie details the heroic life Cecil Gaines, who is both witness to, and a participant in, the Civil Rights movement in America.  We see the life of a man who not only lived through radical changes in American society, but also witnessed the U.S. government machinery that either helped or hindered the transformation.  You can see both pain and dignity in Cecil’s every word and facial expression. I believe that 2013 was the year of the African-American heroic journey, with films like The Butler, 42, and 12 Years a Slave all documenting remarkable stories of courage and resilience in African-American men.


The Butler was a great film but didn’t make my top 10 because of some of the casting. It seemed like a who’s who of liberal Hollywood with Robin Williams and Jane Fonda playing characters they had no business playing. Plus there was a lack of historical elaboration that made it hard to follow without some research. It is one of many great stories depicting Black American struggle this year, but not one of my favorites.

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The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterMy #3 pick for 2013 is a complete diversion from the historical films we’ve been discussing. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller’s Christmas offering with the story of a timid man (Mitty) who spends more time day dreaming than actually doing anything. He wants to gain the affections of a pretty woman. But he has lost an important image for Life magazine and so he embarks on a worldwide trek in search of the missing negative. I loved this film’s imagery and cleverness. It was colorful and epic in it’s scope. I definitely need to see it again.


I also enjoyed Walter Mitty, although the movie didn’t make my top 10 list.  It’s omission on my list is due more to the abundance of quality movies in 2013 than it is a reflection of any major problems I had with the film. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a sweet, simple story that may be the feel-good movie of the year.

42_film_posterMy #3 pick is the movie 42, which captures on film one of the greatest defining moments in American racial desegregation – the introduction of an African-American man in major league baseball. The film’s two parallel heroes — Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson — were stirring and inspirational. Rickey serves as the catalyst for Robinson’s journey while also playing the role of mentor to Robinson. If this film accomplishes anything, it shows us a greater social context to Robinson’s remarkable accomplishments. For me, 42 packed deep emotional punch. I had to reach for the Kleenex when I saw two of Robinson’s teammates, Pee Wee Reese and Dixie Walker, put their own well-being on the line to support Robinson during the worst of the abuse that Robinson endured. 42 is a true triumph of filmmaking.

 


Scott, 42 is a great story and didn’t make my top 10 list. While I enjoyed the story I didn’t feel there was anything that beckoned me back to the theater to see more. It’s a great hero’s journey but once was enough.

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My #2 pick was 12 Years a Slave. This is the story of Solomon Northrup who was a free Negro living in the North in 1841. He was abducted and sold as a slave in the South. It’s a terrifying story of a man who lost everything and worked to acclimate himself to his new situation but never gave up hope of making his way back home. The story and the filmmaking were so well-constructed and so full of events that I want a second chance to take it all in.


MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_Greg, you have good taste — I chose 12 Years a Slave as my Number 1 Movie of the Year. This film is a searing look at the worst form of human abomination, namely, the disgrace of slavery. If you’re not in tears when you watch the relentless suffering, if your heart isn’t bursting when you witness the powerful final scene of the movie, then you have no human heart. The scenes of brutality are too terrible to bear, but bear them we must. Our hero Solomon must summon every resource to survive — his brains, his brawn, his spirit, his resilience, and his heart. 12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart but it is a story that must be told, and in this case it is told extraordinarily well. In my opinion, the movie deserves to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

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Ender's_Game_posterThat brings us to my #1 pick of 2013 – Ender’s Game. This is the motion picture recreation of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel from 1985. The outer-space acrobatics in this book were not reproducible on-screen before now. The imagery and special effects were outstanding. But most of all, it was a faithful reimagining of the source material. Ender Wiggin is a gifted youngster and his talents are exploited by his mentors to political ends that he ultimately comes to question. It’s a story that is both timeless and timely and one that I could watch again and again.


Greg, I loved Ender’s Game. It is my #2 pick this year.  Ender’s Game is the gripping story of a gifted young boy who is shaped and mentored into battle-readiness by elders we both admire and revile. This movie’s coming-of-age story is superior to any other I’ve seen. Everyone involved in the making of this film deserves great props, from screenplay writers to production designers to cinematographers. It’s fascinating to watch Ender overcome obstacles to become transformed as a character. Ender’s Game is a film for people who like to leave the theater pondering intellectual and ethical issues. How should we treat our enemies? What exactly is good leadership? Should any society use children to fight wars? Ender’s Game reminded me why I love going to the movies.


Scott, it’s been a great year for great storytelling. Thanks for joining me in reviewing these wonderful works. I’m looking forward to another year of reviewing the best and worst of 2014 with you.


I agree, Gregger. I believe 2013 was a banner year for the movie industry. Let’s hope it continues into 2014.

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Nebraska •••••

Nebraska_PosterStarring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Bob Nelson
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: December 6, 2013

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

Greg, what’s this? Another movie about Lincoln?


Nope. It’s Bruce Dern and a million dollar prize. Let’s Recap.


Nebraska begins with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) walking along a highway in Billings, Montana. Woody has just received notification in the mail that he has won a $1 million sweepstakes prize and must travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings. His son, David (Will Forte) finds Woody and tries to convince him that the sweepstakes is a scam. Woody refuses to believe him and will do everything in his power to get to Lincoln, even if it means walking the entire distance of 700 miles.


But David takes pity on his alcoholic dad and agrees to drive him to Nebraska. They stop along the way in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne where they meet a bunch of Woody’s old friends and family. Hawthorne hasn’t changed much since Woody left it 30 years ago. Everyone treats Woody pretty much as they did when he lived there – dismissively. Things are going pretty well when Woody lets slip that he’s won a million dollars. That’s when the tides change and people’s true feelings come out.


Greg, Nebraska is a moving story about a son’s journey of discovery with his aging father.  This movie is, simply, a story about a man’s love for his father and how that love is tested. It is tested by the father’s alcoholism, the father’s growing dementia, and some secrets about the father’s past. Through it all, we see how love prevails.

The son David undergoes a subtle but important transformation in this story. At first, he indulges the father’s get-rich fantasy as simply a way of keeping the peace. But as the story unfolds, the son develops a growing awareness of the deeper significance of his father’s dream. This revelation about the journey becomes a breakthrough that does more than just bring about the son’s own personal transformation. It also leads to a deepened and more meaningful relationship with his father.


You’re right, Scott. David has always seen his father as a flawed man and it seems he never really connected with his dad. He believes that Woody was not a very good father. But by travelling back to Woody’s boyhood home, he begins to realize that Woody had a difficult childhood and was, perhaps, more well-adjusted than he at first thought.

This is a textured movie. We’re witness to sibling rivalry between the two brothers David and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). David’s mother Kate (June Squibb) thinks Woody is senile and should be put in a home. She constantly complains that Woody is no help around the house. And the portrait director Alexander Payne paints of small town America is brought home with the silent viewing of football games or sitting on the roadside watching cars go by. It was a very familiar picture for me.


There is so much to like about this film. Many good choices were made by director Alexander Payne. For starters, the decision to film Nebraska in black and white enables the movie to capture the bleakness of the wintry landscape of the upper midwest. It also underscores the simplicity and transparency of the people that David and Woody meet. The cinematography in Nebraska is stark, cold, sweeping, and as big and as desolate as the prairie land itself.

Casting Will Forte as David was also a stroke of genius. Forte is highly effective in portraying the sweet innocence of David as well as the sadness and love that David has for his father. It’s a love that is simple on the surface but we discover that it is also a love riddled with sad complexities. Bruce Dern is brilliant in his role as Woody, a man who is both endearing and pitiful at the same time. Your description of the film and its characters as “textured” is right on the money, Greg.


Woody’s constant return to walking the highways reminded me of The Odyssey. He kept moving from place to place. Each time he landed there were more monsters to fight.

I thought Nebraska was a wonderful story told in the simplest terms about simple people. I enjoyed getting to know Woody step-by-step in his journey. For a good bit of storytelling without being saccharine or patronizing, I give Nebraska 5 out of 5 Reels. This is not a classic hero’s journey. David seemed to be more transformed than did Woody. I award the pair of them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

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Woody may have been unable to change given his growing dementia, but he did play a significant role in bringing about his son David’s transformation. David turns out to be one of the most likeable characters in the movies in the year 2013. The hero journey to Nebraska allows him to grow in ways he never could have anticipated. There is a newfound wisdom and compassion for his father that only this journey could reveal. I agree that his character earns 4 Heroes out of 5.

The movie itself is a terrific artistic achievement in the way it was filmed, directed, and executed by everyone involved. The look and feel of Nebraska is unlike anything we’ve seen in the movies this year. I was going to give it 4 out of 5 Reels, but Greg, you’ve helped convince me that it deserves the entire 5 Reels.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ••••1/2

The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterStarring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenplay: Steve Conrad and James Thurber
Adventure/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2013

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The secret’s out, it’s time to review The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.


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

It’s a little known secret that Walter Mitty uses the deodorant Secret. Let’s recap.


Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a daydreamer. He’s also the Negative Asset Manager at Life Magazine. He’s attracted to the new girl at Life, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) but he can never get the nerve to talk to her. He’s tried to send her a “wink” on eHarmony’s web site, but his profile is so bare (because he’s never done anything or gone anywhere noteworthy) that he doesn’t have the credits to do so.  He imagines introducing himself in person in a dozen different ways: as a mountain climber, as an action hero, or as a dog rescuer. But he can never work up the nerve to just be himself.


One day everyone at Life Magazine is informed that the hard-copy version of the magazine is being eliminated and that there will be layoffs now that Life is going totally electronic. Mitty is charged with identifying the last cover photo of the physical magazine, and it is a photo mailed to him by the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The only problem is that this photo is missing among all the photos sent by O’Connell. To keep his job, Mitty must find that photo.


And so begins the odyssey of Walter Mitty, chasing after Sean in all manner of locations. Scott, this was a wonderful film with heart and meaning. I loved the exotic locations and flights of fancy that Walter indulges in. It’s the story of Walter finding himself as well as finding the missing negative. And of course, he does it all with the inspiration of a pretty girl.


I enjoyed this movie, too, Greg. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a sweet and simple story about a man who makes a decision to live a non-boring life. You might say that Walter Mitty is a man who chooses to cast himself on a hero’s journey, which is not the usual route to heroism. Typically, heroes are summoned on a journey by outside forces, often against their will.

Walter Mitty, however, is one of those men who one day realizes that his personal life is going no where and that the only way to move forward, as a person, is to leave the safe confines of his dull life and begin to experience adventure away from home. The man whom Mitty contacts at eHarmony is instrumental in awakening Mitty and driving home the need for Mitty to change his life.


That was a nice touch: the unseen voice on the other end of the phone that kept calling him to check on his progress. We often look for a mentor character in these hero’s journeys and there isn’t a clear one here. But the combination of the eHarmony customer service rep and Walter’s desire to impress Cheryl as well as Sean’s unspoken beckoning to go on the adventure add up to a mentor’s call to adventure.

The movie is based on a short story by James Thurber which is only 2 pages long. Ben Stiller has taken the idea of Walter Mitty and filled it with such substance. Mitty is timid, but we like him. We’ve all had moments of fancy where we imagine performing heroic deeds or imagined a much wittier retort minutes later. Stiller’s Mitty realizes that to get what he wants out of life he has to step up his game. He has to take chances. And he has to become more than he is. The ability to create a character that everyone can identify with is at the heart of good storytelling and Ben Stiller hit a home run with Walter Mitty.


If I had a problem with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it is that the story is a bit too simple and too predictable. Whether we’ve read the short story on which the movie is based, or not, we know exactly what must happen. Walter must go out and have a great adventure. The adventure he has isn’t exactly mind-blowing, at least by current movie standards, but it’s a far cry from Walter’s normal humdrum existence. One unfortunate fact is that the movie’s best visuals are given away in the trailer.

Still, the story of Walter Mitty is a pleasant undertaking to which we can all relate. Who among us doesn’t want to break free of our fears and from the stagnant routine of our limited lives? And who doesn’t want to travel to exotic places? The story ultimately reveals a Great Truth of life – contained within our so-called humdrum lives is great meaning and the potential for great love, assuming we can open our eyes and summon the courage to find it, of course.


I saw it differently, Scott. I didn’t find the story too predictable or even too simple. It’s in the same class as Forest Gump. It’s the story of an ordinary man who goes on a quest to find himself. It’s true that we know Mitty is going to grow through his travels, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that he finds Sean or the missing negative. And even if he doesn’t find the negative, it’s the journey that is the reward.

I found The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to be a thoughtful and sensitive treatment of the time-honored short story. Ben Stiller does an excellent job of both acting in and directing this film. I identified with Mitty and felt uplifted as he grew in his character. I give the movie 5 out of 5 Reels for a high-quality movie-going experience. Walter Mitty is the classic hero starting out simple and cast into a special world where he must either grow or fail. And grow he does. I give Walter Mitty 5 out of 5 heroes for a character that we will want to see again and again.

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I enjoyed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty but wasn’t as enchanted with it as you were, Greg. Still, the movie has much to commend it, and I was particularly impressed with the film’s ending, which was emotionally satisfying and delivered exactly what the movie needed to leave its audience happy. Walter Mitty is a simple story with great appeal and rewarding integrity, too. I’m happy to award it 4 Reels out of 5. As you note, Greg, the hero story is a classic journey of self-growth in which Mitty must acquire exactly what his character is missing in order to achieve his goal. I award the excellent character of Walter Mitty 4 out of 5 Heroes.

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Saving Mr. Banks ••••

MV5BMTc0MTQ3NzE4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzA4NDM5OQ@@._V1_SX214_Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Annie Rose Buckley
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenplay: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Biography/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 2013

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Well Scott, it’s time to review Saving Mr. Banks.


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

BBC Films is really banking on this movie to succeed, Greg. Let’s recap.


This is a story told as two timelines alternating back and forth. In the past we meet little Ginty Goff (Annie Rose Buckley) who is about 8 years old and lives in the backwater of Australia. Her dad is Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) and is a bank manager who has trouble keeping a job because of his drinking.


In the present, which is 1961, we meet Mrs. P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the famous Mary Poppins series of books. Mrs. Travers is in a spot of financial trouble, but she is being courted by none other than Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks), who wants to buy the rights to make a Mary Poppins movie. Mrs. Travers, however, is very, very picky about how such a movie is to be made. Much of Saving Mr. Banks centers on the conflict between Mrs. Travers and the DIsney movie-making staff.


The movie alternates between the two time periods. We watch as Mr. Goff falls deeper and deeper into alcoholism while Ginty (the young P. L. Travers) tries to understand. Goff is a dreamer and treats his two daughters like princesses. Little Ginty adores her daddy and wants to be just like him, letting her imagination run wild and making up fantastic stories.


Greg, Saving Mr. Banks is a thoroughly enjoyable look at the backstory of one of the great musicals in film history. I must confess to being completely ignorant of P. L. Travers, her childhood, or her inner demons that gave rise to the amazing character of Mary Poppins. I was also totally unaware of her issues with Walt Disney and her resistance to his attempt to wrest the rights from Travers to create the classic Mary Poppins movie. So the telling of this backstory, in the form of Saving Mr. Banks, is all quite fascinating.


It also dealt honestly with the legendary Walt Disney. Banks showed Disney as a strong willed businessman. It showed how he could be manipulative and even showed him smoking. Considering that this was a Disney film, I was pleased with the candid look behind the scenes of the Walt Disney machine.


Me, too, Greg. Although Disney is portrayed as a less than perfect person, he is shown to be instrumental in assisting Mrs. Travers along her hero’s journey. In fact, Walt Disney plays the role of Mrs. Travers’ mentor. One could say that Disney slowly becomes the amateur psychologist who helps Mrs. Travers unravel the emotional issues she faces while resisting so many of the Disney staff’s suggestions for bringing the character of Mary Poppins to life.  Just as Mr. Banks is the one who needs saving in the movie Mary Poppins, we learn that Mrs. Travers needs saving in this film.

And speaking of the Disney staff, they are a terrific ensemble of talented actors who truly made me believe they were the creative inspiration behind the magic of Mary Poppins. Their persistence in the face of adversity was somewhat heroic itself. Paul Giamatti deserves kudos for the role he plays in quietly earning the respect and confidence of Mrs. Travers. The entire cast in Saving Mr. Banks deserves great credit here.


The final scene touched me deeply. Disney opens up to Travers and makes a final plea to gain the rights to the film. This scene reveals as much about Disney’s past as it does Travers’. Both Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson deliver wonderful performances. I was completely drawn in. I felt we were witness to a great hero’s journey coming to fruition. Disney helps Travers transform. For a wonderful telling of a true tale of creation I give Saving Mr. Banks 4 out of 5 Reels. And for a great hero’s journey for Mrs. Travers 4 out of 5 Heroes.

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Greg, it looks like December of 2013 is shaping up to be one of the greatest months in movie history. Saving Mr. Banks is a terrific film that is almost as entertaining to watch as Mary Poppins itself. Tom Hanks once again proves why he may be the greatest male actor of our age, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers also turns in an Oscar-worthy performance. I thoroughly enjoyed this gem of a movie and am happy to also award it 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey is very effective although sometimes it is uncomfortable to watch. Mrs. Travers is obviously a woman who is in pain and hiding a dark secret, but there is one pivotal moment in the movie when she becomes transformed — it occurs when she hears the rehearsal for one particular song in the movie. This song triggers memories of her father as a good man, and more than coincidentally, it also marks the transformative “saving” of Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. Like you, Greg, I also award Travers a very impressive 4 Heroes out of 5.

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American Hustle ••••

MV5BNjkxMTc0MDc4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODUyNTI1MDE@._V1_SX214_Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Drama/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 138 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 2013

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

Greg, as a social dancer, I’m glad there’s finally a movie called American Hustle.


Well get out your polyester suit and wide lapels because we’re heading back to the 1970’s and the ABSCAM debacle.


The film begins with the pithy words, “Some of these events may have happened”. We meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small time con-artist who dabbles in selling fraudulent loans and fraudulent paintings. He partners up with the beautiful Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), whose British aristocratic accent helps the crime business boom. But trouble is brewing. One problem is Irving’s loose-cannon-of-a-wife Rosylin (Jennifer Lawrence), who is raising Irving’s young son.


Enter ambitious young FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper). He catches Sydney in the act of taking a bribe and negotiates a deal with Irving: Help him catch 4 perpetrators of white collar crime and they can go free. Irving realizes the jig is up and agrees to Richie’s terms. Richie then sets his sites on the mayor of Atlantic City, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and realizes he’s just nipped the tip of the political iceberg.


Greg, American Hustle is a fascinating story about unsavory people and how they unravel. There is so much self-destructive behavior on display in the movie that I don’t even know where to begin, except to say that the movie shows in vivid detail all the many reasons behind the rise and fall of heroes and villains. There is greed, of course, but along with greed there is pride, arrogance, dishonesty, and an insatiable hunger for power and control.

The opening scene is very telling. Irving is a man approaching middle age and he is going bald.  We see him putting together the most elaborate comb-over in the history of comb-overs. There is ruse and deception throughout the movie, and we see how very little it takes to reveal all the lies for what they are – cheap ways to avoid reality and truth, and a means of getting what one wants despite being so ill-deserving.


Nearly everyone in this movie is out to “get one over” on someone. Irving and Sydney are trying to get one over on their marks. Richie is trying to get one over on Irving, Sydney, and Mayor Polito. He is out to make a name for himself in the FBI and rise up the ranks. Polito is actually a pretty good guy, trying to reinvigorate Atlantic City. He gets caught up in his own zeal and crosses the line from honest politician to fingers-in-the-wrong-pie politician.

Since there are no good guys in this film, it’s hard to say who the heroes are. Clearly the lead characters are Richie, Irving, Sydney and the mayor. Each has a strong goal. Irving and Sydney want to get out of their predicament. Richie wants a big bust – the bigger the better. The mayor wants to improve New Jersey for political points. But no one seems to have a higher purpose than their own personal gain.


I’d say Irving is the main hero of the story, as we watch all his plans and schemes unravel time and again. Yet Irving is nothing if not a resourceful and adaptive criminal whose street smarts and coolness under pressure serve him well during the many weird jams he finds himself in. Does Irving grow as a character? This issue is debatable but an argument can be made that Irving’s close brushes with disaster do eventually humble him and motivate him to change.

A running gag throughout the movie is a long joke about ice-fishing, told by Richie’s boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.). Thorsen never gets the chance to finish the joke because Richie keeps interrupting the joke to interject his own ending and his own interpretation of the meaning of the joke.  As befitting a man who always seems a step behind everyone else in the movie, Richie’s insistent interpretations to the joke are never correct, and in the end he pays for his arrogance. This is a major theme of American Hustle — arrogance comes with a big fat price.


Good analysis, Scott. But I fear there were scant few likable characters in this film. I’m not a fan of the 70s. It was a time of low culture and high egos. And that is evident on the screen. The fashion and me-first sensibilities are all there. Director / Writer David O. Russell captured the essence of the 70s well.

American Hustle is a character-rich examination of the greed and avarice of 1970s politics and organized crime. It reminds me in some ways of a modern The Sting. Were it not for the fact that it was based on the ABSCAM crackdown much of it would seem impossible. What was shocking was the paltry sums of money that people in high places took to look the other way or break the law. I give American Hustle 4 out of 5 Reels. I had trouble identifying with or otherwise rooting for any of the characters in this film and can only give 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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Once again it pains me to agree with your ratings, Greg. American Hustle is a fun yet disturbing look at a blend of American greed, misplaced ambition, and political chicanery. I give great kudos to all the actors in this ensemble, especially the two main female characters Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom it can be argued steal the show. The deceptive nature of their beauty pretty much sums up what this film is about. Four out of 5 Reels is a worthy rating for this movie. And I agree that the hero story is a bit cloudy and convoluted, although I do give Irving credit for appearing to discover his heart and soul. Three out of 5 Heroes sound just about right.

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Grudge Match ••

Grudge_Match_PosterStarring: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kim Basinger
Director: Peter Segal
Screenplay: Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman
Comdy/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2013

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Scott, I’m holding a grudge against you for making me see this week’s movie.


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

With heavyweights like Stallone and De Niro starring in this movie, it must be a spacious 2-car grudge.


We’re introduced to Henry “Razer” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) who was a middle-heavyweight boxer 30 years ago. He beat out Billy “The Kid” McDennen (Robert De Niro) and retired before they could have a rematch. McDennen went on to be a minor success as a bar owner and used car salesman. Sharp, on the other hand, returned to work in the shipyard.


Sharp has money problems and is offered a nice salary to help develop a video game featuring his likeness. The Kid shows up during Sharp’s work on this project, and the old rivalry heats up when the two men get in a fight. The altercation goes viral on youtube, prompting a promoter, Dante (Kevin Hart), to offer them big bucks if they finally fight in a rematch.


But wait, there’s more. The rivalry between the men goes deeper than boxing. It turns out Razer’s old girlfriend and one true love cheated on him. Sally (Kim Basinger) fears for his safety and tries to talk him out of the fight.

Scott, this is another in a series of movies by older actors about people in their retirement years making a comeback. We saw this over the summer in Red 2 and to a similar degree in Escape Plan not to mention the Expendables franchise. It’s becoming a hackneyed plot device where someone goes back to their old profession years after they should have quit. This time the profession is boxing. And the action is a bit unbelievable.


Yes, there’s no doubt that 2013 is the year that the movie industry tried to lure aging baby boomers into the theaters by offering up Stallone and Arnold in Escape Plan and now Stallone and De Niro in Grudge Match. And these movies do have some appealing nostalgic charm to them. Stallone’s understated acting is effective, and De Niro’s contrasting effervescence shines through, too.

I agree with you that it’s a bit far-fetched for us to believe that 70-year-olds can participate in — and survive — violent and extended fight scenes involved blood, swelling, and a tremendous fist-pounding. But the filmmakers here are banking on the fact that all of us aging geezers will suspend disbelief, fall into a state of blissful denial, and bask in the warm reminiscent glow of earlier Rocky and Raging Bull movies.


The two men are enemies and you know how this has to end. It has all the classic sports-hero montages (working out with little success building to successfully hitting the bags). There are nods to the Rocky films (we’ve seen the trailers where Stallone goes to hit a side of beef and his trainer (Alan Arkin) stops him). By the way, there are very few funny moments in this film, but Alan Arkin made me laugh out loud. That’s one guy who never gets old.


Yes, Arkin lands several comedic punches, more so than does Kevin Hart, but I acknowledge that I may be generationally biased here. As hero journeys go, these are rival heroes similar to what we’ve seen in Rush. Not to give away too much, but it seems pretty clear what has to happen over the course of the movie for us to walk out of the theater feeling good about two bitter enemies.

I hate to say this, but Stallone and De Niro should take a page from the careers of Harrison Ford and John Goodman, both of whom have learned that supporting roles rather than leading roles are the way to go as one enters the late-career stage. It must be hard for actors with big egos to come to terms with the idea that your age precludes you from carrying an entire movie like you used to be able to do. I think Bruce Willis is also learning this lesson.


You’ve hit the nail on the head, Scott. Grudge Match delivers no surprise punches. Everything works out the way you expect and if you’re a fan of either actor you’ll be happy with what is up on the screen. Kim Basinger looks good at any age. Stallone’s body is one that any man would be proud of. And Robert De Niro, well, he has guts going shirtless in this film.

But compared to many of the fine films we saw in 2013, I can’t in good conscience give Grudge Match more that 2 Reels out of 5. It was a fun romp, if fantastic. The hero story was also lackluster for a rating of 2 Heroes out of 5. There was some growth and some healing, but it was all in slow motion and pretty predictable from the start.

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Totally agree, Greg. I’m giving Grudge Match 2 Reels and 2 Heroes for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. This isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s a semi-enjoyable and mindless two-hour diversion, and I recommend it for anyone who is a big fan of any of the four major players in this flic, i.e., Stallone, De Niro, Arkin, and Hart. And I must add that it was also fun seeing Kim Basinger do a nice job as the love interest caught in the middle of the rivalry.

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The Wolf of Wall Street ••1/2

MV5BMjIxMjgxNTk0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjIyOTg2MDE@._V1_SX214_Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay:  Terence Winter
Biography/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 180 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2013

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

Greg, looks like we have an encounter with the big, bad wolf. Hope he doesn’t eat Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.


The Wolf of Wall Street is based on true events – it makes me pine for the 90s.


The Wolf of Wall Street opens with young Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starting a new job as a stockbroker at an established Wall Street firm. His boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) asks him to lunch and tells him that the key to success is to encourage investors to make more and riskier investments. Hanna also tells Belfort that successful brokers drink, drug, and womanize to great excess. Black Monday causes Belfort to lose his job, but his aggressive salesmanship soon earns him a small fortune selling penny stocks.


Belfort doesn’t take long to realize that penny stocks are flying under the radar of the SEC and he starts his own company “Stratton Oakmont.” He hires his marijuana-selling buddies and soon they are making millions of dollars. That’s when Forbes magazine interviews Belfort labeling him “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The article also attracts the attention of the FBI and Belfort begins his descent.


Greg, this movie is all about bloated excess, and we see it in full force on two different levels. On one level there is, of course, the lavish excess shown by Belfort and his staff at Stratton Oakmont. They partake in prodigious bouts of drinking, drugging, and womanizing. The overindulgence of physical pleasure and the trappings of living a corrupt, greedy life are clearly on full display here.

There is also bloated excess in the filming of this movie. Martin Scorsese needed to be reigned in here, big-time. There are far too many scenes of Belfort and Azoff (Jonah Hill) reveling in their inebriation, their toxic injections, their boorish behavior, their prostitutes, and their abuse of women in general. How many times do we need to see frenzied, infantile men snorting cocaine, popping quaaludes, and having random sex? The Wolf of Wall Street is basically Animal House on steroids, an endless orgy of excess in both the characters’ actions and the filmmakers’ ego-feeding editing choices.


I agree with you to a point, Scott. The film clocks in at just 3 hours which was an hour more than the film needed. But Scorsese is a genius and nobody edits Scorsese. I thought it was necessary to show just how over-the-top these young men had gone. They believed they were above the law and above morality. But, yeah, a few of those scenes could easily have been cut.

I thought this was sort of the opposite side of The Great Gatsby (also played by Leonardo Dicaprio). In Gatsby we have a leading man who worked hard to create a lavish lifestyle so that he’d be worthy of the woman of his desire. He apparently has no other woman in his life.

Belfort, on the other hand, creates wealth for the sake of having as much sex and drugs as he wants. His money isn’t there to make him worthy of anything other than living as extreme a lifestyle as he possibly can.


I just didn’t understand the point of this movie, Greg. There are no heroes here, just a couple of jerks who get rich by cheating people. They are neither tragic heroes nor sympathetic figures. They’re merely losers and villains whom we hope will get their comeuppance. Does the story teach us something about the downfall of humanity? I suppose it can serve as a cautionary tale, but like you said, lopping an hour off the three hour running time would have helped make this bloatation much more palatable.

One positive observation I’d like to make is that this movie features an extraordinary performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. This role showcases his impressive range as an actor, thanks to the volatility of the character he plays. I wouldn’t have thought that DiCaprio was capable to handling the character of Belfort, who is a complex and broken man hell-bent on harming others to benefit himself. As much as I disliked this movie, I believe DiCaprio deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.


Scott, you’re right when you say there are no heroes here, at least not in the classic sense. But I think Wolf is in the same category as other films we have reviewed this year – that of the anti-hero. We see this same pattern in American Hustle where none of the players has any moral character. We also saw this in Pain & Gain where main characters were hoodlums.

I think we like to see the decadent side of life. In the case of American Hustle we see an FBI agent who is overcome by his desire to be a great agent. In Pain we see three men who want to take another man’s wealth. And in Wolf we see Belfort who rises to the top and gains everything only to lose it to his greed. I think all three of these stories are cautionary tales and align pretty well with mythological stories that want to teach us a lesson: be successful, but keep your head.


At least we see the lead character in American Hustle show compassion and attempt to make a change in his life. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the villainous lead characters are villainous to the bitter end.  I’m afraid the wolves in this movie were just not worth watching, especially not for three hours. I do admire Scorsese’s movie-making style, and DiCaprio delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career.  For those reasons I’m willing to generously award Wolf 2 Reels out of 5. There is no hero story at all, no transformation, no positive mentoring, no sign of the classic hero journey.  Just a steady downward spiral for our villains. For that reason, I can only give this movie 1 Hero out of 5.

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I agree that The Wolf of Wall Street is a masterfully created film. Martin Scorsese delivers and wrings the most from his actors. This is clearly the story of rise and fall of a giant. I did see an arc here. Bermont starts out innocent, is corrupted by an anti-mentor in the form of his boss (played by Matthew McConaughey). You and I have been talking about reviewing villains in 2014 and I think this is the origin story of a true villain. Our “hero” loses his caring and selflessness and becomes corrupt. Then we watch him fall from the highest of heights to the lowest of lows. It’s a skillfully produced story and one I’m willing to give it 3 Reels out of 5 (I would have gone to 4 if it had come in under 2 hours).

I think we’re going to have to give considerable thought to anti-hero stories in 2014. We’ve seen a few this year and there is a clear pattern. Belfort, in my mind, qualifies as an anti-hero. He doesn’t fit our usual expectations of heroes in the classic sense so it is difficult to give him a hero rating. But since he can be held up as a cautionary tale, I’m going to give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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47 Ronin ••

47Ronin2012PosterStarring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki
Director: Carl Rinsch
Screenplay: Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2013

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Scott, I’d like to welcome our guest for today, Jay Markiewicz from Inner Competitor. He’s going to review 47 Ronin with us.


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

Welcome, Jay!


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(Jay Markiewicz, Founder of Inner Competitor)

Hey guys, how exciting to be a guest reviewer  I watched the movie with family, and have plenty of notes from my 10 and 15 year olds.


Ahh, us geezers welcome some youthful input. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Kai (Keanu Reeves) who is a half breed and an outcast. Kai saves the life of one of the samurai but this is unacceptable as a samurai cannot rely on the help of the untouchable.


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We also see here that one of the main characters, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is curious about Kai – noticing blood on his hands from the battle where he saved the Samurai’s life.  The Samurai receives credit for the battle, though Oishi may know differently.


The Emperor comes to the village of Ako and the leader of Ako must put on a good show. But a witch casts a spell on Lord Asano who attacks one of the Emperor’s men – Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). This is a great offense as attacking a guest loses face. The Emperor demands Asano commit suicide as atonement. Once their lord is dead, the 47 samurai of Ako become leaderless Ronin and are banished from Ako forever. The Ronin hide from Kira for a full year to give him a false sense of security. Then, Oishi calls the group together to take back their city from Lord Kira. And we’re off…


So what did you guys think of 47 Ronin? Personally, I have mixed feelings. The story is compelling, based on actual legend. The visuals are impressive, and Keanu Reeves does a nice job handling a difficult part. 47 Ronin tells a nice story about a set of outcasts who must redeem themselves. It’s a classic mythic tale reminiscent of many Cinderella and ugly duckling stories.

But 47 Ronin makes the mistake of telling the story and depicting many fight scenes at the expense of much-needed character development. We never really get to know any of these characters, and the end result is that it was difficult for me to care about them.


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I love action adventure, mystical magic, and movies based on lore.  But am with you Scott, there were many parts of the movie that had so much potential, then sort of left me slightly disappointed.  Not sure what happened in the making of the film, as it felt like portions of the film missed the mark – from the potential of Lord Kira’s chosen warrior (lots of intrigue and mystery) to a love plot that almost felt distracting.  I have to say what saved the movie for me was the character of Oishi….more on him later.


I agree with you, Jay. What struck me most was how unnecessary the Keanu Reeves character was. To add on to what Scott said, if you removed Keanu all of the few elements he brought to the story could easily have been given to Oishi and it would have been a much better story.

In terms of hero development, the Keanu character doesn’t grow at all. But Oishi goes through many transformations. He starts out as a shamed samurai. Then becomes a drunkard. Then returns to full glory as a warrior. If you want a hero’s journey, as Jay points out, that’s the guy to follow.


I’d say that Reeves’ character, Kai, adds the element of the underdog to the mix. He’s the outcast, the half-breed, the Mr. Spock, the man who is never truly accepted. This type of character is common to countless hero stories and amplifies our rooting for Kai and the Ronin. But you’re right, Greg; the basic plot of the movie can exist without Kai.  Perhaps Reeves was pulled into the mix to attract a wider fan base to the theaters.

As I’ve said, I was disappointed with the flimsy cardboard characters in 47 Ronin.  My disenchantment may stem from the fact that we’ve seen so many movies lately that had very strong character development. I’m talking about films such as Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, Philomena, The Book Thief, and American Hustle. All these movies devote time to establishing a character’s history and personality. But in 47 Ronin, the only clue to a character’s personality is his or her label, and there were myriad labels: samurai, ronin, lord, shogun, witch, and half-breed. These labels don’t substitute for good characterization.


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Both of you make great points about Kai as necessary or not in the movie.  I did see Kai’s significance in helping create more clarity around the hierarchy system, and also provide a way for the viewer to see signs of early compassion in Oishi.  Then again, that could have been accomplished without Kai’s character, giving the spotlight to Oishi.

Honor and the system of rules were significant theme’s in the development of the characters (what little there was, Scott).  The inner conflict that Oishi dealt with around Honor, Rules, and Hierarchy gave a lot of credit to him as what I consider to be the Story’s Hero.


I think you’ve nailed it, Jay. Another thing that left me wanting was the special effects and fight choreography in this film. After the effects and fighting in such films as 1999’s The Matrix and 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it’s hard to look at 47 Ronin with any appreciation. The effects were sloppy and looked like children’s animation. The fight scenes were so choppy that sometimes it was hard to tell who was fighting whom. It’s been more than a decade since those earlier films, 47 Ronin should have at least tried to keep up.


Now that you mention it, Greg, fifteen years after its release The Matrix continues to be the standard in the movie industry. 47 Ronin’s CGI effects did disappoint a bit. Overall, I found 47 Ronin to be a mildly pleasant diversion but was let down by the uni-dimensionality of the characters. The characters were so plastic that I felt like I was watching a Saturday morning cartoon. For this reason, I award this film a mere 2 Reels out of 5. The hero story is this movie’s strong suit. The journey of the Ronin featured many of the classic elements that one likes to see in a strong mythic tale. I give Kai, Oishi, and these Ronin a solid 3 Heroes out of 5.

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Scott, I couldn’t agree more. I did a little reading after watching 47 Ronin and the original Japanese legend is compelling. It’s been said that to understand Japan is to understand the legend of the 47. The honor system of the bushido is intricate and instills a great sense of awe. But this film doesn’t do justice to the legend so I give it 2 Reels out of 5. But the Oishi character was the one to watch in this film. I really felt his pain and final redemption as we followed him on his hero’s journey. I give Oishi and the 47 Ronin 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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What fun, guys.  I think what is telling right now is how I’m still conflicted over what I felt about the film.  When leaving a movie that really rocks, you just know it.  The fact that I’m still trying to figure out how to rate this movie is telling….too many times there were scenes when I wanted more (Like the mishandling of the character – mystical Lord Kira’s warrior)…..I give the movie 3 out of 5 Reels.  Not sure though about the Hero’s rating, as I’m still a little miffed that Kai can be considered a Hero, Scott.  Oishi is the man, and I give him 4 Heroes out of 5 for restoring his, and the Ronin he led, Honor.

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Thanks, Jay, for joining us today to review 47 Ronin. If you are an athlete and want to improve your game by overcoming your inner rival, check out Jay’s company The Inner Competitor (http://innercompetitor.com).