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Greg, we’ve reviewed the Best Movies of 2015. Now it’s time to review the Best Heroes of the year, too.
I can’t wait to see what you’ve picked. Let’s get started…
I evaluated this year’s movie heroes by how memorable they were, how much they grew and transformed as characters, and how much they transformed others. Here’s my top 10 heroes list:
10. Freddie Steinmark in My All-American
9. Adam Jones in Burnt
8. Hugh Glass in The Revenant
7. Joy in Inside Out
6. Rey and Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
5. Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa in Creed
4. Joy Mangano in Joy
3. Mark Watney in The Martian
2. Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold
1. Joy in Room
It looks like you were enjoying a lot of “Joy” in 2015. Like you, I was motivated by the transformation of the hero in the story. But also, we were shown a number of heroes who were survivors. Here are my top 10 heroes:
10. Eggsy in Kingsman
9. Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold
8. Adonis in Creed
7. Hugh Glass in The Revenant
6. Joy in Inside Out
5. Rey in Star Wars
4. Joy Mangano in Joy
3. Mark Watney in The Martian
2. James Donovan in Bridge of Spies
1. Joy in Room
You’re right about all the Joy in this year’s best heroes. This tells me that women played a more prominent role in shining as heroes in the movies, Greg. My Number 5 choice in 2015 was the hero-mentor pairing of Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa in the film Creed. This film and the actors in it should have garnered an Academy Award or two. We have an underdog hero in Adonis, who wants Rocky to train him but Rocky resists. It’s a reluctant mentor story that contains many of the same elements as the classic hero’s journey. The movie, and this hero-mentor duo, are a joy to watch (pardon the pun).
True enough, Scott. However, I thought this was more Adonis’ movie with Rocky playing the secondary role as mentor. Surely, it was Adonis who underwent the greater transformation. Regardless of how you see it, Creed was a great hero’s journey. And the mentor story gave it a one-two punch.
My number 5 pick was Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This reboot of the fan favorite franchise put a woman in the role of the emerging hero. After the first three Star Wars films had barely a single woman in them, it was good to see a not just a prominent female, but also to see such a great mythic hero. Rey starts out an orphan on the dusty planet of Jaku and rises to be the heir to the Force. It’s a great hero’s journey and told in the classic style.
Greg, the best thing about this latest edition of Star Wars was this great hero pairing. Rey and Finn, are outstanding characters whom we grow to love and enjoy rooting for soon after meeting them. Both these characters are cut from that familiar Star Wars heroic cloth — they come from humble origins and are oblivious to their special pedigree. As these characters are tested, they begin to slowly transform into the greatness that was always there beneath the surface.
My Number 4 pick is Joy Mangano in the movie Joy. Joy has all of the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes. She is smart, strong, charismatic, kind, caring, inspiring, resilient, and reliable. Her journey is tortured yet profoundly satisfying in the end. I was struck by the sea of humanity standing in the way of her dreams as well as by the people who came through for her to help her achieve her goals. Joy is transformed from a human doormat into a soaring business force to be reckoned with.
Joy and Rey as well as other heroes in my top 5 represent the survivor hero that was strongly represented this year. Joy was defeated. She had lost everything. The evil Texas businessman had stolen her product and tied her patent up in court. Then she did something so many heroes do – she changed her appearance. There’s this great scene where Joy dons black jeans and a leather jacket. And looking in the mirror, she bobs her hair. She makes the transformation from housewife to serious businesswoman. This is a common event for heroes – the transformation is marked by a change of attire and appearance. Joy was a joy to watch.
My number 3 pick was Mark Watney from the superb The Martian. Watney is another survivor hero. He draws upon all his scientific knowledge to eek out a meager existence on the desolate landscape of Mars. It’s a great story and a powerful lesson to pay attention in class. But seriously, there are secondary heroes aplenty in this movie with the ground crew trying to find a solution to rescue Watney and his team in the spaceship above weighing the cost of turning back for him. What a wild ride.
Watney was my Number 3 pick as well. Watney travels the full hero’s journey, and in every phase of the journey we witness a richness and depth that is rarely seen in the movies. As with Joy Mangano (see above), Watney displays all eight characteristics in the Great Eight traits of heroes. He becomes transformed from ordinary astronaut to an exceptionally innovative, pioneering colonist who rises to the challenge of surviving where no human has any right to survive. It’s a rich and utterly fulfilling journey of a hero.
My Number 2 pick was Maria and Schoenberg in Woman in Gold. These are two divergent heroes who enjoy a great chemistry. They each undergo a transformation albeit in different ways. Their most significant transformation is helping bring about much needed ethnic tolerance in Austria. By contesting the Austrians’ decisions to retain the painting, and then by finally winning a long, highly publicized arbitration battle, Maria and Schoenberg forced the Austrians to finally “own” their part in the atrocities of WW2.
I was touched by how Maria’s mission invoked a transformation in Schoenberg. He started as a mildly ambitious lawyer with little interest in his Jewish heritage. But tranformed into a staunch defender of his culture. It was a wonderful story of hero-mentorship.
My number 2 pick James Donovan in Bridge of Spies. Donovan didn’t have a clear mentor in his story. He was guided by his strong belief in the Constitution. There’s a great scene where an FBI man says “There is no rule book here,” and Donovan replies: “There is a rule book. We call it the Constitution.” He stands up for a man who is clearly an enemy to the United States because it is our deeply held belief that every man is innocent until proven guilty. And he puts up with hatred and vitriol to the point of being shot at. It’s a great story of a man standing his ground for what he believes is right.
Donovan was an extraordinary hero. The fact that he undergoes two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s mission isn’t enough for him. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second. Donovan didn’t make my list of best heroes because he doesn’t really transform at all in the story. Still, his double-heroic journey is noteworthy.
My Number 1 hero of the year was the character of Joy in the highly acclaimed movie Room. Her character follows a very unconventional hero’s path by beginning in the dangerous special world and moving into the safe familiar world. Except that the safe familiar world is toxic for her and reminds her of all the reasons she wanted to escape from it in the first place. Her journey is heartwrenching and is made possible, in part, by the strength and resilience shown by her young son.
I also picked Joy from Room. She fits in with my survivor hero pattern for 2015. Joy had to use all her cunning to defeat the villain “Old Nick.” She taught her son how to fake his own death. And once she was out of the “Room” she had to mentor her son in the wide-open world. It’s a fantastic story of survival.
Well, Scott. That rounds out our top ten heroes for 2015. It was a good year for heroes. I was pleased with the number of women and minorities we saw this year. Although the Oscars didn’t reflect that at all. I’m looking forward to what 2016 holds for us.
While Hollywood is incorporating more gender and racial diversity into its heroes, the industry still isn’t acknowledging them at Oscar time. Look for more women and people of color to take home some serious hardware next year.
We hope you enjoy our current 2016 reviews at Reel Heroes. And if you get a chance, check out our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains.
Scott, it’s that time of year again: time to review our picks for the best films of 2015.
Without further ado — and without going into exactly what a “doo” is — let’s get right to it.
My top 10 were films that took me out of my comfort zone and transported me to a different place. A dangerous place that I could live in for 2 hours from the safety of my theater seat.
Here are my top movies in 2015. These were finely-crafted movies featuring memorable characters who took big risks and forever changed themselves or the world.
It looks like we have several movies in common, Scott. Let’s get right to it and talk about our top five. My number 5 pick was Straight Outta Compton. It’s a biopic about the founders of the rap group NWA. I was uncertain about this film going in because I personally have so little in common with the lead characters. But I was pulled into their world and came to understand the amazing challenges the three leads had to overcome to get “outta the hood.” It’s a great three-way buddy hero story as well as a great rags to riches story.
Greg, Straight Outta Compton didn’t make my top 10 list, but I did enjoy its story about a group of underdogs overcoming the institution of racism. This film is also about human relations – how those relations form, how they evolve, how they unravel, and how we clean up the mess. Compton makes you think about the ways that human beings treat each other, in the good sense but mostly in the destructive sense. This film was well-made and quite interesting.
My number 5 pick was Inside Out, a movie that especially grabbed my attention because it portrays the conflicting psychological makeup of the average human being. We are presented with five conflicting emotional states that compete with long-term memories, imaginary friends, dream states, trains of thought, and executive functioning. The visual depictions of all these mental processes are innovative and amusing. Moreover, the resolution of Riley’s internal conflict is deeply moving and reveals some fundamental truths about how we deal with life’s ups and downs.
I also liked Inside Out, but not as much as you did. It got high marks from me for excellent storytelling. I was very concerned that a story about emotions would be very fluffy and abstract. But writer/director Pete Docter really hammered out a story worthy of Pixar. I laughed, and I cried. But mostly I sat in admiration of a story that clearly reached adults as readily as it reached children.
My number 4 pick was Bridge of Spies. You can hardly go wrong with the best director of the century (Steven Spielberg) and America’s favorite leading man (Tom Hanks). Bridge is a period piece that reminds us of how things haven’t really changed much. Americans of the 1960s feared the Russians with an irrational paranoia so great that they forgot the meaning of the Constitution. The film echoed a similar paranoia of Muslims today. Everything about this movie was excellent. Even the extras put in stellar performances.
Bridge of Spies was my number 2 pick. This movie shines in every way that a movie can shine. First and foremost, Donovan is a hero with moral courage. His character taps into an important hero archetype that describes a man who does the right thing even when it is very unpopular. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical.
My number 4 movie in 2015 was The Martian. This film offers an extraordinary hero story, perhaps the best I’ve seen on the big screen in several years. The movie itself is almost as strong as the hero’s journey; it explodes off the screen, seizing our attention and lifting our hearts for the entire 2 hours and 21 minutes. We have the complete package here: a riveting screenplay, a terrific cast, astounding CGI effects, and a gritty hero worthy of our greatest admiration.
Yes, The Martian was my favorite film of the year. I was transfixed by three separate but intertwined plotlines. We had Watney’s fight to stay alive on the inhospitable planet Mars. And the crew’s journey back to Earth after having left their comrade behind. And finally, the story of the team on Earth at Mission Control trying to find a way to bring Watney home and not lose the entire space agency in the process. It was a thrilling ride from beginning to end.
That brings us to a film we both rated number 3 in our lists: Room. This was an atypical hero’s journey. The “ordinary world” for young Jack is a 10×10 shed where he’s lived his entire life. His only exposure to the outside world is what he’s seen on television. Then, when he’s thrust into the ‘real’ world, he is overwhelmed the the hugeness of it. Brie Larson plays the mother and really has to carry the whole of the first half of the film herself. She does a splendid job and convinces me that she’s been an abductee for seven years. It’s a brilliant movie.
As you mention, Greg, Room is also my 3rd favorite movie of 2015. Brie Larson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young woman who must overcome horrific circumstances to survive, and if that weren’t enough, she must help her young son overcome those same horrific circumstances. I was riveted by their dual journeys and deeply felt their every triumph and every setback. One could argue that the movie represents a wonderful metaphor for how we all must break out of our prisons, help others along the way, and overcome our personal demons. This movie grabbed me in many ways and deserves all the accolades it receives.
That brings us to The Revenant, which you ranked as #2 and I rated as the top movie of the year 2015. This film is a sweeping, majestic, tour de force, a feast for the eyes and a marvelous example of movie-making at its finest. Although clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the time flew by. All the elements of good storytelling came together to perfection with this film, and when you combine a great tale with astounding visuals, you’ve got a movie for the ages.
I have to agree. There is a certain similarity between The Revenant and The Martian. Both lead characters are in an unforgiving landscape trying to survive. But in The Revenant the hero is out for revenge. Ultimately it becomes a showdown between the hero and the villain. I rated The Revenant slightly behind The Martian because the latter was a more complicated film – both technically and in terms of plot. But I still think The Revenant was one of the finest movies of the year.
So there you have it. Our top 10 lists overlap somewhat but there are some key differences, too. Overall, I would give the movies of 2015 a rating of 3 and a half Reels out of 5. The quality of films started out poorly but finished fairly strong. You may recall that I gave the movies of 2013 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5. Last year also received a rating of 3 and a half Reels. You can read our reviews of the films of 2013 in our first book: Reel Heroes: Volume 1, and our reviews of the movies in 2014 in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains.
I think we actually had a better crop of movies this year than last. As you point out, we got a lot of really good films at the end of the year. There were some excellent offerings over the summer, too. If I had to score 2015 I think I’d give it 4 Reels out of 5. We had a bonus with reboots of Mad Max and Star Wars, not to mention the final installment of The Hunger Games franchise. I’m looking forward to what is coming in 2016 including the next Star Trek film. I’m also looking forward to reviewing 2016’s heroes and our next project – the Mentor. See you at the movies, Scott!
Greg, do you have room in your schedule?
I’d like a room with a view. A viewing of our latest movie Room to be precise. Let’s recap:
The opening scenes of this movie occur inside a small room where a young mother named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are living. We aren’t sure how or why they are living in such an odd small space until it becomes apparent that they are being held captive by a man named Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped Joy seven years ago and fathered her child (through rape). The “room” is actually a shed in Nick’s backyard.
One day the power goes out and Joy and Jack nearly freeze to death. That’s when Joy realizes that she needs a plan to help Jack escape. She begins to teach him of the outside world, a thing he’s never seen. Then she coaches him on how to be sick, even how to act dead. Nick falls for the rouse and takes Jack out of the shed to bury him. But Jack escapes. And that is when his real journey begins.
Greg, Room is the perfect name for this movie. It refers, of course, to the location of the trapped mother and son, but it also refers to room for growth and the spaces we need to become what we’re meant to become as human beings. Joy and Jack turn out to be buddy heroes who need each other to escape their physical prison and then later their psychological prisons. I enjoyed this movie’s ability to take us from small scary spaces to large scary places.
Scott, this is not your usual hero’s journey. Often, the hero’s ordinary world is exposed to the viewer in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Then, an “inciting incident” happens that takes the hero to an unusual place. Room starts in the unusual place (which is the only place Jack has ever known). We spend half the film there, getting to know what it is like to be trapped for seven years.
The inciting incident comes at the halfway mark when Jack escapes into our ordinary world – but his special world of “the outside.” But he is so overwhelmed by the openness and vastness of the world that he is hardly able to talk. Jack befriends a police officer who gently coaxes information from him so that they can rescue his mother.
The film’s unusual presentation of the hero’s journey is one of many elements that captivated me. For Jack, the room is his ordinary world. For Joy, it is the unfamiliar world. So our two heroes start out in different worlds, yet ironically they’re in the same room. The movie must end with them both safely ensconced in the same world. That’s a highly unusual journey for two people to travel, and so no wonder it is rife with tension, pain, and suffering for both of them.
We often talk about good heroes needing to transform themselves, and there can be no transformation while trapped in the room. So our heroes must escape, and after they accomplish this feat, the doctor who examines Jack makes the point that Jack is “plastic” — a term pointing toward his malleability being greater than his mom’s. Indeed, Jack’s ability to cope in his new world is less problematic than Joy’s return to her original world. It doesn’t help that her original world can be cruel. Joy’s father behaves badly and journalists ask her insensitive questions. Perhaps Jack derives his resilience from his long hair, which turns out to hold the hero’s secret power, much like the ring’s power to aid Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.
The supporting characters around Jack are mostly seen through the haze of the young boy’s inexperience. Besides his mother, the only person Jack sees in the room is “Old Nick” – the kidnapper/rapist. And then only through the slats of a wardrobe Jack hides in when Nick visits from time to time.
Once outside, Jack meets a police officer who acts as his mentor in the new world. Later, he meets doctors and nurses who, I believe, are shot in such a way that we never see their faces. Next Jack meets his grandparents. As Scott mentioned, the grandfather (William H. Macy) can’t accept Jack. The grandmother expects her daughter, Joy, to be the same little girl she lost seven years ago. These aren’t strong characters – which is fine – as we need to focus on Jack and his struggle to make sense of a world far more immense than anything he ever imagined.
Yes, exactly, Greg. Once again, we encounter supporting characters who are either instrumental in helping our heroes accomplish their goal or who hinder the heroes. You’re right that the woman cop helps nurture Jack and guide him to safety. Her mentorship is pivotal, occurring during the crucial initiation of his journey. But Jack’s lifelong mentor is his mother Joy, who teaches him about the world of the “room” and then helps him unlearn those lessons in order to adapt to the world beyond the room. Joy therefore plays a dual role in this story; she is both a hero and a mentor figure.
A wonderful coda to the story occurs when the heroes return to the room at the film’s end. In any good hero tale, the hero returns home but sees home in an entirely new way. Joy takes Jack back to the room and he can’t believe how much smaller it seems. Isn’t that the way all of us see our old homes and neighborhoods? Even Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz realized that home is now much bigger than her original geographic conception of home. Like any good hero, Jack now realizes that home is not what he remembers it to be, that he can never return home, and that he is forever changed by his new experience of home.
Room is a welcome disruption to the classic hero’s journey. While we spend a long time in the Room, it’s all put to good use. We learn what it’s like to live in a world that is only 100 square feet and the only reality is what you see on TV. I’ve seen Brie Larson in other films, but she really commanded the screen in Room. Young Jacob Tremblay also deserves praise for a performance that even seasoned veterans would have found challenging. For two actors to hold us in rapt attention for 60 minutes with nothing but a shed to work in is an achievement. I give Room 5 out of 5 Reels.
It’s unclear if this is a buddy film or some sort of hybrid. We start out with Joy as the main character taking care of her child. In the initial scenes, she is driving the story. But soon we learn it is a symbiotic relationship where Jack sustains Joy’s sanity as much as Joy sustains Jack. So it moves into buddy territory. When Jack and Joy are released into the world, the symbiosis continues. But when Joy has a breakdown, it’s Jack who becomes the lead character – sustaining Joy. It’s not clean, but nothing about Joy and Jack’s life is clean. I give the symbiotic duo 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Finally, the supporting characters aren’t much in this story. Old Nick, the villain, is barely in it and is dispatched at the halfway mark. Then, the villain becomes Joy and Jack’s inner pain and reemergence into reality. Joy’s mother doesn’t have much to do but bake cookies and her new husband is there only to be a swell guy. As I said before, these secondary characters are downplayed to give Jack and Joy the limelight. I give them only 2 out of 5 Cast points.
Room is one of the year’s best movies. Brie Larson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young woman who must overcome horrific circumstances to survive, and if that weren’t enough, she must help her young son overcome those same horrific circumstances. I was riveted by their dual journeys and deeply felt their every triumph and every setback. One could argue that the movie represents a wonderful metaphor for how we all must break out of our prisons, help others along the way, and overcome our personal demons. This movie grabbed me in many ways and deserves the full 5 Reels out of 5.
As you aptly point out, Greg, this film takes the conventional hero’s journey and turns it on its head in a unique and masterful way. Our two heroes start out in different worlds but end up in the same, beautiful world together. They are forever transformed by their journeys and truly needed each other to triumph on their individual missions. This story captures the hero’s journey in clever and satisfying ways. I give Joy and Jack a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters play pivotal roles in assisting or blocking our heroes from their development as characters. The most important secondary characters are the woman cop who intuitively reads Jack’s cryptic verbal and nonverbal cues during his escape, and Joy’s family members whose dysfunctional qualities make you wonder why Joy didn’t run away from home sooner than she did. Joy and Jack are clearly the stars of this movie, relegating the supporting cast to minor status. These team of players gets a respectable 3 cast rating points out of 5.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Scott, it’s time to shine a little light on our latest review.
I pray that we get this review right, Greg. Let’s recap.
It’s the year 2001 in Boston and the Boston Globe has a new editor. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has just read an article about how the Boston Archbishop Cardinal Law was accused of protecting a priest who was sexually abusing children. He directs Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) to take his crack investigative team, Spotlight, and dig deeper and see how far the accusations go.
One member of the Spotlight team, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), is assigned the task of interviewing Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney who represents a number of victims of priest molestations. Garabedian leaks information to Rezendes that the extent of the abuse scandal is far greater than it appears. The team shows resourcefulness in uncovering the names of 87 priests whose crimes were covered up by the church.
Scott, Spotlight is a great story of team problem solving. At first the Spotlight team believes they are trying to uncover a coverup of a single priest gone bad, they soon discover there are as many as 87 pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese. As Robertson and his team work to learn as much as they can, they are thwarted at every turn by Bostonians who don’t want the secret out. It seems everyone wants to believe they live in a good town, and to let the truth out would make Boston look very bad. It’s Nationalism at the city level.
Spotlight is a movie cut from the same cloth as The Big Short. Both these movies expose the corruptive elements of our society and how leadership (if you can call it that) often turns a blind eye to malfeasance. For me, Spotlight works better than Big Short. In Spotlight, we enjoy nice continuity in following one team of heroes throughout the story whereas Big Short presents a scattered approach that is dissatisfying. We discuss the team as an important unit of heroic protagonist in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Spotlight showcases the workings of a heroic team in wonderful detail.
The heroes in this story are what we call catalyst heroes. They don’t transform themselves as a result of their journey (which is typical of the hero’s journey). Instead, catalyst heroes transform society. We’ve encountered catalytic heroes in other movies we’ve reviewed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. These Boston Globe journalists truly do shake things up in the Catholic Church, right some terrible wrongs, and better society as a result.
One could also argue that these heroes occupy a category of heroes called protectors. These are heroes who look out for the underdog. They help and protect the weak, the disadvantaged, and those who cannot protect themselves. So we have a team of catalytic protector heroes who do what needs to be done to correct injustices, protect others, and reform a corrupt system. In a sense, they are a team of superheroes.
You’re right, Scott. I call such movies “cause” films because they expose some cause the filmmakers think the public should know about. Often they resemble documentaries because the cause becomes more important than the story.
Spotlight overcomes this problem to a very large degree because it focuses on the people in the story. Not only the victims, but on the reporters and how the revelations affect them personally. You mention that the main characters don’t transform. But I did see a transformation in Robby Robertson. The pedophile story had been brought to his attention years earlier but he buried it in the Metro section of the paper. He overcame his guilt and shame to lead his team to a compelling story and discovery of a nationwide conspiracy within the church to hide widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic church.
When I look for mentors, I look for a character who gives guidance and support to the heroes. Marty Baron, the new editor of the Boston Globe, performs this role. He lays down the “call to adventure” when he challenges Robby Robertson and his team to investigate Cardinal Law. Robertson first “refuses the call” – because nobody challenges the church. But Baron persists and pushes the Spotlight team to dig ever deeper.
Good call about Marty Baron, Greg. This movie drives home the important point that it often takes exotic outsiders to effect change in people and in organizations. Baron is a Jew in a city dominated by Catholics. He’s also new in town, having moved to Boston from Florida. He couldn’t be more different from the status quo, and as such he brings fresh perspectives that challenge standard practices. The hero’s journey in classic mythology is rife with examples of exotic creatures from far away lands who magically appear before the hero to help him or her resolve whatever conflict the hero faces. Yoda from Star Wars is a striking modern example.
Baron represents the mentor who arrives on the scene, unsought by the Spotlight team and perhaps even unwelcome. Yet his impact is unmistakable and positive, as they grow to discover. Another type of mentor is the one who is actively sought out by the hero. During their investigation, the team seeks the guidance of a researcher in Baltimore who enlightens the team about the huge extent of the problem. Again, it is an outsider who helps the heroic team accomplish its mission.
One last point. As we’ve seen in other movies, Greg, heroes must often overcome the influence of dark mentors. There is an older male character named Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle) who represents the church and whose job is to fix problems for the church such as this one. He counsels Robby, or rather tries to counsel Robby, to ignore the problem because the city needs the church, etc. Robby will not drop the case and the dark mentoring attempt fails.
Spotlight is a surprisingly good “cause” movie – mainly because it focuses on the impact the story has on the principle characters. I was also impressed that such a star-studded ensemble cast shared the “spotlight” so well. Although, the personal lives of each character got little attention, so characterization was a bit thin. But I was entertained while I was educated, which is the goal of such a cause film, afterall. I give Spotlight 4 out of 5 Reels.
The main character in this story is Robby Robertson and he has a mild transformation. But it is the city of Boston that undergoes the transformation due to the efforts of the ensemble cast. This makes them a sort of “catalytic” team hero which I give 3 Heroes to.
The secondary characters also take on mentorship roles. There’s the dark mentor Conley that Scott mentioned. As well as the newcomer Marty Baron who can see things with eyes. Their mentorship isn’t as profound as it might have been. I give them just 3 out of 5 Cast Points.
I think you pretty much nailed it, Greg. Spotlight shines a light on the dark workings of a religious organization that participated in a shameful cover-up of countless unspeakable crimes. This film is effective in portraying how a team of journalists finds its moral core so that it can shed light on a church that has lost its moral core. The acting, the pacing, and the storytelling are all exemplary. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.
The team of heroes at the Boston Globe are fun to watch as they unravel the mystery confronting them. They bring about transformative change to their community and to the Catholic church, and they deliver justice to hundreds of victims whose tragic stories never saw the light of day. Watching these heroes do their heroic work was gratifying. I give them 4 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting cast was strong and provided exactly what our team of heroes needed to do their job (or to make their heroic job harder). The work here is more than perfunctory but not quite exemplary. A rating of 3 out of 5 cast points seems reasonable here.
I thought this was a movie about oversized boxers.
It’s less about underwear than about underhanded dealings. Let’s recap.
It’s 2005 and hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) predicts the housing market will collapse. He creates a credit default swap where he bets against the housing market. Nobody believes him and so his clients try to pull out of the fund. Meanwhile…
Hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers that stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is also involved in the credit default swap market. Baum wants more information before he barrels into these unprecedented investment waters, and he is shocked to learn that the housing market is about to burst. He and others are shown how they attempt to capitalize on the impending housing bubble. Meanwhile…
Recent college graduates Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) find a prospectus by Vennett. They call upon their buddy Ben Rikert (Brad Pitt) to help them get into the deal. They go to a Los Vegas convention where a mortgage security forum is taking place. With Ben’s help they make their deals. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
Greg, I suppose I should be very interested in what The Big Short is telling us about greed and corruption in corporate America. After all, this movie spares no detail in illuminating the many ways that Americans like me were bamboozled by a bunch of white-collar scumbags who invented ways to make money at the expense of their country and every decent person around them. These fat-cats in suits were, in effect, organized criminals and thugs, preying on the innocent, selling their souls to the devil, and laughing all the way to the bank.
I do care about all that because, after all, it is a true story and this entire mess happened only a few years ago. And I am very unhappy about it. I am not, however, a big fan of The Big Short. This movie did portray all this ugliness, and did it well, but it did so in the form of little vignettes about fat cats causing the mess and fat cats trying to gain financially from the mess. The nitty gritty specifics of the shady dealings didn’t hold my interest and were, in fact, tedious.
I have to agree, although to a lesser extent. This was a documentary in a Hollywood wrapper. There were moments when the filmmakers wanted to explain something difficult so they tried to “dumb it down” by having it presented by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a roulette table. It wasn’t effective. Instead it was just confusing.
I don’t blame the “heroes” in this story for capitalizing by betting against the market. They were smart enough to see the bad debts coming due. What the film tries to do, and does it fairly well, is to show us just how intricate and corrupt the financial system is. Even the Standard and Poor’s ratings executives were afraid to downgrade the CDOs for fear of pissing off the big banks. Everyone was either covering their ass, or trying to profit from the bubble.
Exactly. This movie features a lot of players in the mortgage feeding frenzy, including main characters who appear to be neither heroes nor villains but just people out to make a buck. I didn’t have any feelings for the majority of the players. For example, are we supposed to feel badly for Michael Burry that his foresight about the housing bubble, and his scheme to make money from this foresight, was going unrewarded?
The closest thing to a hero in this movie would be Mark Baum, who starts out as a bitter, brooding man solely motivated by profit like everyone else in this film. Yet as the horror of the mortgage mess unfolds, Baum slowly transforms into a man who recaptures his humanity. Also, Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert, shows some empathic concern for others when he schools a couple of young upstarts about the increased mortality rate associated with bad economic data. So there are two characters at least, Baum and Rickert, who are chasing a buck like everyone else but who at least pause for a moment to consider the human cost of this financial disaster.
Yeah, this was a pretty tedious story. The filmmakers tried to give Baum a transformation by sharing with us his tragic loss. His brother had committed suicide and when he had a chance to help him, he just offered him money. Baum is idealistic and realizes that he can’t fix the world and ultimately forgives himself. It’s all a bit clumsy and pretty uninteresting.
Scott, The Big Short is what I call a “cause” film. It isn’t about the story, it’s about telling the world about some “cause” important to the filmmakers. As such, the cause becomes the hero of the story and the elements of good storytelling are left behind. Especially in this film, there are no heroes – only a tragedy that needs to be exposed. Frankly, such causes should be left to documentaries.
You’re right, Greg. The Big Short is short on plot, short on character development, and short on heroes. It explains the 2008 financial crisis in far more detail than anyone cares to hear. The film did drive home the point that our elected officials and private corporations are not to be trusted to look out for our best interest — but wait, hasn’t that always been obvious? The one thing I did learn was never order seafood stew when dining at a restaurant. You’ll have to see this movie to understand this fishy metaphor. Overall, I felt shortchanged by The Big Short. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.
There is no hero story, unless you walk away believing that all these money-chasers somehow learned their lesson about unbridled greed. I doubt that they did. Perhaps their transformation resided in their newfound lesson in how to milk the system in sneakier ways, or how not to get caught when exploiting others. I’m not sure. Yes, Mark Baum finds some semblance of his humanity, but his awakening hardly qualifies as a hero’s journey. I award these heroes (ahem) 1 Hero out of 5.
The supporting characters do a commendable job of pursuing their greedy lifestyles and trying to find the best way to make a buck. It was a bit jarring seeing Steve Carell in a non-comedic role and he somehow pulled it off with skill and alacrity. I wonder if the villain in this story is time itself. Everything is about timing the market, getting in on the deal on time, the timing of the housing bubble, the time that investors give a broker to earn a profit, etc. Overall, the players in this movie did their jobs fairly well and so I can see giving them 3 cast rating points out of 5.
The Big Short comes up short in making me care about anyone in this film. However, I did walk away better informed about the 2007 housing market collapse. As such, this “cause” film delivered on its goals. I give it 3 out of 5 Reels.
The lead characters were not the heroes of the story – the market collapse was. And that rates only 1 out of 5 Heroes.
The supporting cast was stellar. We’ve seen big-star-casts before that deliver a disappointment, but The Big Short does a great job of integrating all these talents. I think the villain in this movie is the big banks and government. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick Hornby, Colm Tóibín
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Don’t know why, but I expected a leprechaun or two to be in this next movie.
I thought a tree grew in it. Regardless, let’s recap…
We meet a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in Ireland with her mother and older sister named Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis works in a shop run by Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), a cruel and insensitive town gossip. Wanting a better life for Eilis, Rose arranges for her sister to travel to America where she will work in a department store in Brooklyn.
Upon arriving in Brooklyn her benefactor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), enrolls her in an accounting class and finds shelter for her in an Irish boarding home. Eilis is wracked with homesickness. That is until she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen). Tony is an Italian lad with a fondness for Irish lasses. He introduces her to the better things in Brooklyn.
Greg, Brooklyn is a sweet movie about an insecure young woman who is cast from her familiar home into a new world 4,000 miles away. We watch her struggle with shyness, self-confidence, and homesickness. She has such a good heart that we worry that she’ll fall into the wrong crowd or fall for the wrong man. But she manages to steer her life in a positive direction, even meeting and falling in love with a young man who to our surprise is good for her.
Just as she’s hitting her stride, she’s called home to help out her mom. In most hero stories, returning home is the endpoint of the journey, but in this case returning home becomes a stern test for our young hero. She starts to fall for an Irish young man and is gradually pulled into the possibility of remaining in Ireland rather than returning to her life in New York. Only an encounter with a bitter nemesis awakens her to the reality of her true calling to be with her new young man in Brooklyn. It’s an effective hero’s journey about a woman coming of age. I enjoyed it.
Scott, I think I hated this movie for all the reasons you liked it. At every turn when you thought something might go wrong for our hero, it didn’t. She breaks down in tears at work because she’s homesick – so she might get fired: she doesn’t. She sits across from two gossipy girls in the boarding home – so they might be catty and treat her badly: they become best friends. She meets a boy who makes love to her – she might get caught, thrown out of her boarding home, or get pregnant: she doesn’t. She goes home to Ireland and pretends she isn’t married – so she might get caught and disgraced: she doesn’t. Every time we think the story might take an interesting turn – it simply doesn’t. This movie plays it safe from beginning to end and I was bored to tears.
You could call it playing it safe, Greg, or you could call it a refreshing change of pace from the same old predictable storylines of Hollywood movies. Yes, the young man she meets would have been an abusive jerk in most other movies. How nice that he turns out unexpectedly to be good for her! Yes, the Catholic priest who helps her could have been a perverted creep who ends up steering her in the wrong direction, but how nice that we have a movie in which a priest is actually a kind, decent person. When is the last time that happened in the movies?
Our hero Eilis has plenty of challenges and setbacks with which to grapple. She gets dreadfully ill on the voyage to America and must adapt to countless unfamiliar situations and odd norms in the new land. She struggles with shyness and terrible homesickness. Her sister’s death certainly set her back, as did her mother’s expectation to come home and stay home longer than she would have preferred. There is also the temptation to cheat on her husband which, for the most part, she manages to resist. Refreshingly, none of these story elements follow the traditional script from the big movie studios. I applaud this film’s willingness to risk deviating from established Hollywood norms.
If being facile is bucking the Hollywood norm, I’ll take the Hollywood norm, thank you very much. Eilis is what we in the writing world call a “Mary Sue” (a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting – Wikipedia). Things just don’t go wrong for her. The only real conflict in this story is when she has to choose between an Irish man (Jim Farell played by Domhnall Gleeson) and Tony back in America. When she gets caught in her lie we think there might be a bit of conflict. But no. She simply admits her error and returns home to Tony and the story ends. No consequences at all. She doesn’t even face her Irish lover. She leaves a lousy note. There’s no conflict, no tension, and so no catharsis.
This story follows the Hero’s Journey in only the most superficial of ways. The hero starts out in her ordinary world (Ireland) and travels to a special world (America) where she should meet enemies, allies and is tested. But where are the enemies in this story? There are none. She has allies a-plenty. And her trials are … learning to spin spaghetti on a spoon and wearing a bathing suit on Coney Island.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a beautifully shot movie with outstanding performances from young actors Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen (and isn’t Domhnall Gleeson everywhere these days?). But it is so sanitized in its portrayal of Irish/Italian relations that it reminds me of a Disney movie with Eilis as a Disney princess. This movie is little more than Oscar bait. And the Academy has taken this bait hook, line, and sinker.
Her primary enemy is herself. The Self as a villain figure occupies a prominent place in our model of villainy outlined in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains. In 2015 we encountered the Self as a villain in movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. In this current movie, Brooklyn, Eilis battles her shyness, lack of self-confidence, and naiveté about the world. Heroes who struggle with deficiencies in their personal life do not let these deficits define them; they find ways to overcome their shortcomings and triumph in the end. It’s enjoyable to watch Eilis’s transformation unfold. She’s very much a delicate flower that must grow through some stormy weather conditions to emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever.
The supporting characters are pillars of strength in this movie. Tony and his family are a colorful lot, especially Tony’s eight-year-old brother Freddie (James DiGiacomo) who added some delightful comic relief to the film. Eilis is helped on her journey by a number of helpful older figures, such as Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), her landlady (Mrs. Keough played by Julie Walters), and her supervisor at work (Miss Fortini played by Jessica Paré). Back in Ireland there are a pair of dark mentors she must overcome, including her mother and Miss Kelly, whose provincial nastiness awakens Eilise to her essential calling to resume her transformed life in America.
If you want this to be a story of Eilis versus herself, she would have to fail due to her inner problems. We saw this to the extreme in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Davis was a character with true inner demons that threatened to not only upend his dreams,, but ultimately resulted in his destruction. We don’t see that in Brooklyn. All of Eilis’s flaws are mere inconveniences which were overcome in the simplest ways. I can’t agree that this is a woman-vs-self story. It’s just a villain-less coming of age story – and quite dull as a result.
I’m glad you mentioned the little tyke Freddie. Here was a character who hinted at the fact that Italians and Irish didn’t get along in 1950s Brooklyn. But his racism is laughed off by the rest of the family. And the strange thing is that he apparently learned this racism from his older brothers. It’s often the case that a child is placed in a script to say the things adults don’t dare say. This may be a new character type for our list, Scott – the (innocent or naive) child as the outer voice of the inner thoughts of adults.
Brooklyn offers a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young woman who is thrown into a dangerous new world where she is compelled to grow in several meaningful ways. This film refreshingly defies stereotypes about people and about situations, surprising us with a delightful tale of heroic transformation. It also occurs to me that this film owes its success to the fact that relatively unknown actors populate the screen. These fresh talented faces added realism and texture to a movie that transfixes us with authentic images and ambience from a bygone era in America. I’m more than happy to award Brooklyn 4 Reels out of 5.
The hero’s journey can be characterized as Woman versus Self, as our hero Eilis must overcome her timidity and naivete to succeed in transitioning from Ireland to America. Moreover, in what amounts to a second hero’s journey, her return to Ireland presents her temptations to undo all the growth she achieved in America. Her character development is revealed in her ability to defy these temptations. If I have a criticism of this journey, it is that her character should be far more sensible than to spend every waking hour in Ireland with Jim Ferrell. This temptation seems forced and not in keeping with her normally rational nature. One final note — it is nice to see, at the film’s conclusion, Eilis serving as a mentor to another young girl making the voyage to America. We saw this mentee to mentor transformation in the film Joy earlier this year. Overall, Eilis’s hero’s journey merits 4 Heroes out of 5.
As I’ve noted, the supporting team of players are superb. Their colorful, quirky, and memorable presence in the film serve as an effective foil to Eilis’s rather staid and understated character. I am especially happy that this movie steers clear of traditional Hollywood stereotypes of evil priests and abusive boyfriends. Elise is helped along her journey by a trio of wonderful mentors and she deftly sidesteps a pair of dark mentors. Overall, all these characters earn 4 cast rating points out of 5.
I’m wondering if we saw the same movie? Brooklyn is a safe bet. It portrays 1950s Brooklyn through the lens of a 1950s sensibility. Our hero, Eilis, is never in any danger because she’s constantly surrounded by supportive mentors. What some might call a breath of fresh air I call a passive delivery of a non-story. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I give Brooklyn just 2 Reels out of 5.
Eilis is a terribly uninteresting character who grows from a naive young woman to a worldly young woman. Not through any challenges she had, but by careful hand-holding of several good mentors. She has a nice temptation when she returns to Ireland, which was interesting. But it was unraveled in the most uninteresting way. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was an autobiography where the writer couldn’t reveal her darker inner self. The bit where Eilis becomes the mentor to a young passenger on her way back to America is a nice touch, but was virtually telescoped from the beginning. I give Eilis just 2 Heroes out of 5.
The secondary characters in this story were such stereotypes as to be cardboard cutouts verging on caricatures. There’s the kindly Irish priest, the shrewish neighborhood gossip, the boy next door, and the best girlfriends. Not a single character stands out as someone I might remember the next day. I literally had to look up all the character’s names on the Internet because none of them left a lasting impression (except the impetuous tyke Freddy – the most memorable character in the movie). I give these secondary characters just 1 Cast point out of 5.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Apollo… Adonis… and … Rocky? Is this a Greek Tragedy?
Sophocles is not listed as the screenplay writer. So this must be Creed, the latest installment of the 40-year-old Rocky franchise. Let’s recap.
We meet young Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan). He’s the love child of the late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. While he’s been raised in a wealthy home and has a nice cushy job in a securities firm, he’s always wanted to prove himself to be as good a boxer as his father. He travels to Philadelphia in search of the former great boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him to fight in the ring.
Rocky declines to train Adonis, forcing the young boxer to scrounge around for others to train him in their spare time. Adonis stays in touch with Rocky and eventually convinces him to be his trainer. Meanwhile, world boxing champion Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) from England discovers that Adonis is Apollo Creed’s son and becomes eager to fight Adonis for the championship. The remainder of the movie shows us how both Adonis and Rocky must overcome big obstacles to meet their challenges.
Scott, Creed had the potential to be a seriously bad movie. While the original Rocky movie is a classic, the sequels have left most viewers wanting. In fact, it is quite the cultural joke that the Rocky sequels would go on without end, with the quality getting ever worse. (Consider this image from Airplane 2). But Creed is a fresh story that draws upon the best of the original Rocky franchise had to offer. There are certain elements that are the same: a washed up mentor, a young earnest up-and-coming fighter, a beautiful girl, and a seemingly invincible opponent. Creed is as good as the original.
Greg, I have to admit, Creed caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting a movie with emotional and narrative depth to it, but that’s what Creed delivers. As with many aging superstar actors from the 1970s, Sylvester Stallone has graduated from action hero to mentor figure. Yet in this film, Rocky Balboa is far more than mere mentor. He is a heroic figure in his own right, an equal buddy hero to young Adonis Creed who aspires to become the next Rocky.
Yes, Rocky is still a fighter, but now he fights a deadly disease instead of fighting adversaries. This movie handles Rocky’s illness with great sensitivity and grace. Rocky wants no part of a cure that didn’t help his wife Adrian, and Adonis wants no part of Rocky giving up on life. As befitting a good buddy hero story, the two men help each other undergo the transformations necessary to achieve their goals. The result is a surprisingly moving story about characters we grow to care about deeply.
It’s interesting that you call this a buddy hero story, Scott. Because it has many of the elements of the buddy hero story (two characters who start out disliking each other who come together in a unified purpose). However, Rocky is clearly a mentor character to Adonis. I’m reminded of The Karate Kid. Mr. Miagi did not want to mentor young Daniel-San. It was Miagi who had the “Refusal of the Call” – refusing to mentor Daniel. Similarly, it is Rocky who initially refuses to mentor young Adonis. I’m wondering if this is a new heroic duo – the Hero/Mentor pair. That would make the mentor (in this case) equal to the hero in the story – not a secondary character.
Exactly. You’ve described this hybrid perfectly. Usually mentors occupy secondary roles but in Creed we have a mentor who is thrown into his own personal hero’s journey, receives as much screen-time as his mentee, and benefits from the assistance of the mentee. The mentor’s story and the mentee’s story are intertwined and bounce off each other in interesting and surprising ways.
Greg, I’m noticing a pattern among the supporting characters in movies about sports heroes. In both this film and in My All-American, the hero receives aid from three different sources. Each of these three helpers assists the hero in transforming in a different way. First, there is the childhood mentor who gets our hero’s life off to a good start. In Creed it is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who rescues Adonis from foster care. She is no doubt a hero to Adonis, giving him the love and direction he so desperately needs to succeed in life.
Second, there is the current-day trainer who enables the hero to acquire the physical skills necessary to achieve his heroic goal. Rocky Balboa assumes this role in Creed. Third, the hero meets a woman who provides the love and emotional encouragement that he needs to triumph. All three of these allies are instrumental in helping the hero transform mentally, physically, and emotionally.
That’s a good observation. I think we could do a series on sports heroes and how they parallel other heroes journeys.
Creed is a surprisingly good heroic journey that just happens to be a sports movie. There is a lot to admire here. The roots of this movie reach back to the original Rocky films to launch a new hero in Adonis. We get strong performances from the two leads and a story that is emotionally satisfying. I did find the relationship between Adonis and Bianca a bit forced. It wasn’t necessary for the story – not nearly so much as Adrian was to Rocky. I give Creed 4 out of 5 Reels.
I’m perplexed as to whether this is a buddy hero story or if Adonis is the hero supported by Rocky as mentor. If it is a hybrid, as you call it, then I’d have to rate the duo rather than Adonis alone as hero. Certainly Adonis overcomes his missing inner quality of feeling like Apollo Creed’s mistake. He comes into his own by the end of the movie. And Rocky successfully passes the torch to the younger generation. And there’s the added benefit that Rocky has honored Apollo’s memory by training his son. I give the pair 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The supporting players were less impressive than the leads. There were an assortment of boxers for Adonis to spar with. They were not very interesting. The villain was not as clearly defined as in other films. There were two boxers Adonis had to beat to overcome his feelings of inadequacy. But they weren’t really villains – just obstacles. The villain here, more than anything, was Adonis’s own inner turmoil. The girlfriend Bianca was a typical romantic interest. Adonis’s mother isn’t in it much. Overall, it was a pretty bland backdrop of supporting characters that I can only give 3 out of 5 Cast points to.
Creed also surprised me by giving us an intelligent story about two men whose lives intersect and who both benefit greatly from the intersection. Adonis Creed is looking to establish his identity and needs Rocky Balboa to achieve this goal. Rocky himself is a man teetering on the edge of geezerdom and needs Adonis to give him purpose and a reason to fight a deadly illness. This story had no business captivating me and moving me to tears, but it did exactly that. I’m happy to award Creed 4 Reels out of 5.
The hero story follows the classic buddy-hero pattern but also has obvious elements of the hero-mentor pattern as well. I view it as a hero-mentor story on steroids. Our two protagonists transform in meaningful ways and they rely on each other to acquire personal qualities necessary for these transformations. The dual hero’s journeys here take some surprising turns and are both satisfying and robust. I have to award our duo 5 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters are effective but also a bit uneven in this film. Ricky Conlan provides just the right amount of menace in and out of the boxing ring. But none of the remaining secondary characters stand out in any memorable way. Perhaps this is because Creed is first and foremost a story that zeroes in on the interdependent lives of two men, Adonis and Rocky. I give the supporting characters 3 rating points out of 5.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2015
Greg, I get the feeling that Joy will be a joy to review.
We meet a woman in her late twenties named Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence). Joy is a divorced single mom who somehow finds herself taking care of everyone: her kids, her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), her neurotic mom who lives upstairs (Virginia Madsen), and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who lives in the basement. Then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) moves in with her and begins sharing the basement with her ex. Joy is an aspiring inventor but all her time is spent working for an airline and taking care of her many dysfunctional family members.
Rudy starts dating a widow named Trudy who is well-to-do. Trudy invites Rudy and his family (including Joy and her overachieving sister Peggy) for a trip on her boat. When Joy drops her wine glass it shatters and she feels compelled to clean it up. Doing so, she gets her hands chapped and cut wringing out the mop. When she gets home she dreams up an idea for a mop you never have to touch with your hands and can be thrown in the washing machine. She prototypes the device and pitches it to Rudy and Trudy. They reluctantly agree to invest in her invention and Joy begins an odyssey that will determine her future and the future of her family.
Greg, Joy is yet another movie featuring a strong female hero. But our hero Joy doesn’t start out that way. At the beginning of the film, Joy is mentally beaten down by her family, who expect much from her but think little of her. She has sacrificed so much for her parents, her ex-husband, and her children, that she has lost herself in the process. Joy is too kind and selfless for her own good.
The good news is that deep inside, Joy understands her own worth and does not give up on her dream to become an inventor. Rather than quit and allow others to define who she is, Joy summons the courage to resurrect her dream to invent things and to become an entrepreneur. Doing so requires great strength and courage from Joy, who has acquired these qualities from her grandmother and mentor Mimi. Joy’s self-confidence and sense of worth lay dormant for a while but eventually these qualities are allowed to blossom.
What’s wonderful about this film is that we are shown that when the mentor dies, the student can still thrive. In short, the mentoring does not stop. Joy has internalized her grandmother’s advice. This film drives home the life-changing importance of loving support and wisdom passed down to children from elderly family members.
Joy was an enchanting and heartwarming story about persistence and perseverance. Joy starts out as someone lost in her own family. Everyone depends on her, she gives unselfishly to those she loves, and they respond by holding up a mirror to her that only reflects her failures. She reemerges when she is so beaten down that the only thing that remains is a childhood memory of things she created and left in a shoebox. That spirit of creativity is the kindling that turn into a fire that drives Joy to put everything she has into a final push to create something that will define her.
Joy is a wonderful example of the hero’s journey. She starts out submerged and filled with a deep hurt inflicted by the separation of her parents during her childhood. When she realizes that her life won’t change unless she makes a change, she passes into the special world of being an inventor. She has to grow as a person and resolve her inner feeling of a lack confidence.
There’s a scene that I love in Joy that reminds me of what we often see in these heroic transformations. Joy is at her lowest point. She’s been cheated by her suppliers, beaten down by her family, and even sabotaged by her sister. She then changes her clothes. She dons the attire of a warrior – trading in her peasant blouse and cotton pants for black leather and slacks. She even bobs her hair. She is ready for battle and she makes a final transition into the world of tough negotiators. The change of garb is a clear marker that the hero is going into battle.
Greg, you’ve made a nice observation about the transformed physical appearance symbolizing, and signifying, the inner heroic transformation. I recently watched the movie Brooklyn in which the female hero’s clothing, hair, makeup, and gait all serve as important indicators of transformative change. It’s the equivalent of Clark Kent finding the nearest phone booth to switch into his Superman costume.
Another nice element to the film Joy is the effective use of the supporting cast in making Joy’s heroic transformation possible. Several of the characters are seemingly supportive of Joy’s dream. Witness the initial backing of Rudy, Trudy, and QVC founder Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). When things don’t go swimmingly right away, all of these folks are quick to remove their support and even belittle Joy in a way that makes us want to strangle them. I was relieved to see that Neil’s character has enough depth and complexity to give Joy a second chance, which of course results in the achievement of her dream. All these secondary characters are used to great effect in providing our hero with obstacles and opportunities for resilience.
Scott, we’ve mined the Moxney’s paradigm more than once in these reviews. This is the mythical structure that models relationships after the family. And in Joy’s case, it is a literal mapping. She is dealing with her estranged parents, her estranged husband, her estranged sister, and her mentor grandmother Mimi. However, here, all the estranged characters represent a dysfunctional family and so the Moxney’s structure fails. It’s Joy who is at the top of the hierarchy and pulls the rest of her family up as they attempt to drag her down.
We also see an interesting villain structure here. Her older sister consistently attempts to belittle and sabotage Joy’s successes. As if that weren’t enough, her suppliers believe she’s an ignorant and naive woman and work to steal her ideas. And behind them is their Texan dealmaker – the puppetmaster (or as we like to call him, the Mastermind).
I’d also like to mention Joy’s adorable children. Frankly, they don’t have a big role here. They often serve as a reminder of Joy’s own childhood. This is especially true when Joy is at her lowest point and yells at her daughter not to dream too big – just as she was taught when she was a child. However, she is buoyed more than once by her grandmother Mimi who always had confidence in her.
Joy is a wonderful and inspiring story about a remarkable woman who puts her remarkableness on hold while she sacrifices for many other members of her family. When her entrepreneurial dream is eventually realized we are moved by her successes and frustrated by her setbacks. Joy’s perseverance is finally rewarded but not without significant delays and hardship. This film is a terrific portrayal of a modern woman’s hero’s journey and it easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.
Our hero Joy has all of the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes. She is smart, strong, charismatic, kind, caring, inspiring, resilient, and reliable. Her journey is tortured yet profoundly satisfying in the end. I was struck by the sea of humanity standing in the way of her dreams as well as by the people who came through for her to help her achieve her goals. Joy is transformed from a human doormat into a soaring business force to be reckoned with. I give her complex character and breakthrough journey a score of 5 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters represent a wonderful blend of good, bad, and quirky individuals. At times we want to wring their necks and at other moments we cheer them on. The grandmother Mimi plays a pivotal role in assisting Joy with her transformation, as does her ex-husband Tony. Joy’s father and especially her sister prove to be formidable villains to overcome, but Joy manages to outmaneuver them. The entire cast shines in Joy and I’m happy to award them all 5 rating points out of 5.
Joy is the semi-biographical story of a woman’s journey from a child of great potential, to an underachieving adult, to an accomplished millionaire. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a wonderful performance that is Oscar-worthy. She shows us just how loyal and devoted she is to her family – so much so that she loses herself. Then she shows us that Joy can recover her inner child only to have her hopes dashed again and again. This is a movie with as much heart as It’s a Wonderful Life. I could see it again and again. The only problem I had with this story is that it is narrated by grandma Mimi and … she’s dead, Jim. I give Joy 4 out of 5 Reels.
As we’ve mentioned this is a complete hero’s journey. Joy crosses the threshold from her ordinary world of service to everyone around her, into the world of entrepreneurship. She’s fully committed to this journey. She falls to her deepest depths only to regroup and emerge as a warrior. Finally, in the epilog, we learn that she goes on to be a mentor to other women. I give Joy 5 out of 5 Heroes.
The supporting cast is a very mixed bag of nuts. There are no families more dysfunctional in Hollywood films than Joy’s. We’ve already talked about the obstacles her father, mother, and sister provide. Not to mention the many men who take her for a fool. But we also saw some characters we haven’t talked about much this year. Like the “best friend” – person who is not a family member but gives support and solace. And I don’t even know what archetype the plumber in this story is. (He’s from Jamaica and Joy’s reclusive mother begins an inexplicable romance with him). This group definitely left me feeling frustrated and I was just watching. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Joy! I give them all 5 out of 5 Cast points.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro González Iñárritu
Adventure/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 156 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2015
Scott, I feel penitent for having not yet reviewed The Revenant.
Let’s reverse that and do a rave review of Revenant.
We’re introduced to Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who are part of an American squad that is hunting for pelts in the northern wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase in 1823. The group is ambushed by a group of Arikara Indians who are looking for the chief’s abducted daughter. The squad escapes downriver with some of the hides. Just when it looks like they might make their way home, Glass is mauled nearly to death by a grizzly bear. The captain of the squad decides they will carry Glass back to the fort. This decision doesn’t sit well with veteran trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who wants to put Glass out of his misery and push on.
The leader of the expedition, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), cannot bring himself to kill Glass. He asks for volunteers to stay with Glass while the remaining survivors attempt the long dangerous trek to the outpost. Fitzgerald is among those who volunteer, along with Hawk and a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter). When alone with Glass, Fitzgerald tries to smother the gravely wounded man but is interrupted by Hawk, who is then killed by Fitzgerald. Glass witnesses the murder and is then left for dead by Fitzgerald and Bridger. The rest of the story focuses on Glass’s ability to survive his horrific injuries and avenge his son’s death.
Scott, The Revenant was a very big movie – and not just because we had to sit in the front row of the theater. It’s a long story that takes its time in the telling. And I wasn’t bored a second. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu tells this story with wide shots of virgin forests and snow covered mountains. It was beautiful movie. And Inarritu keeps the pace up with action and motion. It’s a big task as the main character, Glass, is mute through much of the first half of the movie. It’s a credit to DiCaprio that he was able to deliver a compelling performance under those conditions.
Greg, The Revenant is why I love movies. Each week I go to the theater with the faint hope that my socks will be knocked off, and Revenant has done just that. This film is a sweeping, majestic, tour de force. The Revenant would probably be worth watching on the basis of its scenery alone. We’re treated to magnificent panoramic views of Montana and the Dakotas. Director Iñárritu has taken great pains to ensure that we will never forget the look and feel of this film.
But Revenant offers far more than visually stunning fare. The movie has a rare depth to its storytelling, and it packs razor-sharp emotional punch. One rarely sees a film made like this anymore. We aren’t spoon-fed the story by an outside narrator, a movie gimmick that is common these days and doesn’t allow viewers to do any creative interpretive work in filling in gaps. This movie, The Revenant, has long stretches of heart-wrenching silence that force us to pay attention to characters and to situations that both enthrall and repel us. For this reason and many others, The Revenant is easily one of the top three films of the year in 2015.
DiCaprio plays the kind of man that was necessary to tame the wilderness, and is largely absent today. Glass and the men in his squad are tough. There’s just no better way to describe them. Glass survives a grizzly mauling. He self-cauterizes a hole in his trachea. Glass’s men surrender themselves to the truth that they must walk to their fort. And that means walking across the mountain range.
We recently reviewed A Walk In The Woods where people walked the Appalachian trail. These people planned it like it was a vacation. They stopped in local towns for coffee and donuts. The men in The Revenant shouldered the burden of their loads as a matter of fact. That spirit stands in stark contrast to the comforts we have become accustomed to in modern life.
You got that right. The hero story here is fascinating and relies on us to do some detective work to determine whether Hugh Glass is a man worth rooting for. We aren’t given much backstory about him and then suddenly he’s grievously injured. Is he the kind of guy we want to heal? Yes, we feel sorry for him when his son is killed, but the key scene that reveals his moral core occurs when Glass saves the abducted daughter while she is being raped. Now we realize that Glass is a hero, not an anti-hero.
All the classic elements of the hero’s journey are shown in full-force in The Revenant. Glass is thrust into one special world after another by the Arikara attack, the bear mauling, and the murder of his son. He receives help by a lone Pawnee who feeds him, tends his wounds, and protects him from a blizzard. He is mentored from afar by words of encouragement drifting through his mind. They are from his deceased wife, who remains his inspiration during the darkest of times. Glass is physically transformed by the mauling and through his healing, and he is emotionally transformed by the courage and grit he must acquire in the face of imminent death.
There are a number of secondary characters worthy of note. The first of course is the villain, Fitzgerald. This is a self-centered, self-serving man who twists the events to his best advantage. What is wonderful about this film, is that we get to know himthrough his discussions with his young protege, Bridger. We learn that Fitzgerald was nearly scalped and left for dead. This gives us a clue as to why he might be a “take what you can while you can” sort of guy.
Fitzgerald also plays a dark mentor to the young Bridger. He tricks Bridger into believing that Hawk (whom Fitzgerald has murdered) has fled and that Indians are coming. Bridger is naive and flees with Fitzgerald, leaving Glass to die. Fitzgerald then begins to indoctrinate young Bridger into his dark world of “taking care of yourself first.” When Fitzgerald and Bridger return to the fort, Fitzgerald hungrily takes his reward, but Bridger leave the money on the table – showing he retained his humanity.
Bridger is a character they could devote an entire movie to and I’d pay to see it. This kid is a kind, loyal soul who resists the dark side. Fitzgerald is one bad dude who has no conscience and must be dealt with if I am to walk out of the theater liking this movie. The Native Americans are portrayed as vicious but then we are also witness to all the injustices directed at them that caused the viciousness. They are not villains but they are certainly a danger to Glass, who manages to win them over by saving the Arikara woman.
All these characters play their roles to perfection. Tom Hardy deserves kudos for playing a character who is a completely rotten, ruthless son of a bitch. Many of the Native American cast members are terrific and breathtakingly realistic in their roles. The lone Pawnee is a terribly tragic figure who earns our admiration for helping Glass but is murdered ruthlessly by the French. Hawk and Captain Henry earn their stripes, too, in this film. Everything and everyone falls into place perfectly and the result is pure cinematic magic.
The Revenant is a masterful piece of moviemaking not to be missed. Every element of this movie was given the best each artist had to bring. DiCaprio’s Glass shows us just how hard it was to survive in the 1820s. The shots of the wilderness are simply breathtaking. The battles between the white men and the Indians are gruesome and riveting. There are three stories to follow here: the hunters, the Indians and the French trappers. The director feeds us the stories of all three and weaves them into a tale that held me in rapt attention. I give The Revenant 5 out of 5 Reels.
Glass is an historical hero. He is driven first by his love for his son, then by revenge for his son’s death. He is as tough as any super hero. We see him go through a number of changes – from hunter, to father, to survivor, to a hunter of men, and finally he resolves as a man capable of forgiveness. This is a complicated man and worthy of 5 out of 5 Heroes.
The supporting cast is superb in stepping up to the challenge of reflecting DiCaprio’s Glass. Hardy’s Fitzgerald is not only evil, but fully believes everything he does is right. That’s the most compelling type of villain. Young Bridger is the emerging hero. He is just learning the ropes of the special world and so is at the beginning of his own hero’s journey. The Captain is an honorable leader who must weigh the decisions that mean life and death. And the rest of the men are equally tough as Glass – supporting the fact that it takes a special kind of man to survive the wilderness. I give them 5 out of 5 Cast points.
The Revenant is easily one of the best movies of the year. The film is a feast for the eyes and a marvelous example of movie-making at its finest. Although clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the time flew by. My bladder suffered almost as much as Hugh Glass did as a result of his bear mauling. All the elements of good storytelling came together to perfection with this film, and when you combine a great tale with astounding visuals, you’ve got a movie for the ages. There’s no question that The Revenant earns a full 5 Reels out of 5.
As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey grabs us and grips us tightly for 160 beautiful minutes. Hugh Glass marches through all the painful and triumphant stages of the hero’s journey and emerges a physically and emotionally transformed individual. I asked one of my students about this movie and he said it was “tough”. Watching Glass lose his son and so much of his blood was indeed tough. The hero’s wounds run deep in this movie, but all those emotional and physical wounds are somehow healed, but not without considerable learning, suffering, and growing. We, the audience, are privileged to watch the process unfold. No doubt about it, Glass earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.
The cast, as we’ve noted, was superb. We’ve pretty much said it all — the entire ensemble rose to the occasion and helped produce a movie and a hero’s story that I’ll never forget. Need I even bother to say that the cast deserves the full 5 rating points out of 5?
Greg, I nominate The Revenant to be placed in the rarified air of our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. Do you concur?
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Finn Wittrock, Robin Tunney
Director: Angelo Pizzo
Screenplay: Angelo Pizzo, Jim Dent
Biography/Drama/Sport, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Greg, are you ready for some football?
Only if it’s All-American football – let’s recap…
We meet a young high school student named Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who has a passion for playing football and a father (Michael Reilly Burke) who helps train him. While playing for his high school team, Freddie befriends the quarterback Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell). Freddie is the star player on his team, but his relatively small size means that most big-time colleges are uninterested in recruiting him. Freddie and his dad become discouraged.
But Freddie captures the attention of University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart). Royal recognizes that Freddie isn’t the biggest kid, but he has the biggest heart and offers him a spot on the team. Soon, it’s clear that things aren’t going well for the Longhorns and Royal needs to make a change. The seniors aren’t following the new plan, but youngsters Freddie and James Street (Juston Street) get the new plays and they are moved up to first string.
As Freddie nears the end of his junior year he has trouble with his leg. He reports to the doctor and finds that he has bone cancer. This is a devastating blow but it doesn’t dampen his commitment to his team.
Greg, I admit to being a sentimental fool. Movies like this bring me to tears, even when I feel completely manipulated by the filmmakers. Everyone knows the basic plotline of these maudlin tearjerkers. We meet a wonderful person, an individual who is so virtuous and so wholesome that he really doesn’t exist in the real world. I don’t care that this movie portrays our hero as too perfect. Freddie Steinmark embodies our society’s most treasured attributes, and that makes him a hero worth rooting for. Naturally, when he dies, it crushes us.
This hero story taps into a deeply held archetype we have for the hero who dies before his time. Billy Joel sang, “Only the Good Die Young” for a reason. There’s a poignancy to a tragic early death that moves us at the deepest of levels. The poignancy is only magnified here by the perfect person that Freddie is portrayed to be. The hero transformation is physical and emotional; Freddie trains his heart out to become a great football player. Later, he is compelled by the worst of circumstances to acquire grit and courage.
Screenwriter and Director Angelo Pizzo is no stranger to such heroic sports stories. He also penned historic sports films Rudy and Hoosiers. What is interesting in all three stories is the importance of the “runt of the litter.” They all feature a young person who is smaller than his teammates, but makes up for it with heart.
As a story, My All American breaks the traditional mold. This is pretty much a story of a young man who has everything going his way. There isn’t much conflict until well into the third act when Freddie is diagnosed with bone cancer. He stands up to it as he did with all his other obstacles. While he ultimately succumbs to his illness, he faces it with bravery. There’s not much of a transformation here. He was a strong hero at the start, and he finished the same way. Usually, such a hero transforms others. But there is no catalytic effect in American. This is just a story of someone who died the way he lived – full on.
Scott, I’m constantly amazed by the power of sport in American society. There is something heroic in becoming the very best one can be. And if the sports hero has to overcome uneven odds to succeed, all the better. But there is an imbalance in this hero worship. We pay our sports heroes more than our teachers, first responders, and warfighters. Somehow watching someone be better than we can be is more rewarding than actually being better than we can be. It’s a curious phenomenon.
You’re right, Greg. Since ancient times societies have tended to worship their warriors, and in this film the sport of football is seen as a symbolic (or not so symbolic) form of warfare. I find it ironic that this movie, which glorifies Freddie’s ability to lay waste to his opponents, comes out just before another movie (Concussion) offers a stern indictment of the sporting act of laying waste to others. Our culture is changing. I suspect that the Freddie Steinmarks of the football world will not be worshipped much longer.
But let’s turn to the secondary characters in My All-American. As you point out, the villain of the story is not a person but is in fact cancer, the one thing that precipitates Freddie’s demise. We’ve seen cancer as a villain before in The Fault in Our Stars. Freddie is benefited by numerous mentors including his dad, his high school coach, and Daryl Royal, coach of the University of Texas. As befitting a hero, Freddie also has a loyal love interest who assists him emotionally. These are all central elements in the classic hero’s journey.
My All American won’t be winning any Oscars, but it is still a fine film of how someone can rise to be the best that they can be. There’s not a lot of drama here. We’re witness to Freddie’s growth as a spunky football kid to a spunky football adult. Even at his worst, Freddie doesn’t falter. It’s a bit of a monotone and so I can only award My All American 3 out of 5 Reels.
Freddie Steinmark started out small but grew to hero status by his commitment. While we look see no transformation in the hero or those close to him, Freddie embodies the things we value in our heroes. He was fearless in the face of danger, devoted to those he loved and who loved him, and had a strong moral compass. As a movie critic, he’s not the hero I was looking for, but he exemplifies all the things we value in our heroes. I give Freddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The secondary characters in this film are cardboard cutouts of stereotypical supporting types. All the other football players were sort of minions who just played along. The coaches were tough guys who followed the leader. The mom and dad were the epitome of the 1950s parents. It’s all pretty dull and I can only muster 2 out of 5 Cast points for them.
You’ve described this movie to a tee, Gregger. My All-American tells the story of a tragic early death and milks it as effectively as any movie possibly can. The film taps into a powerful archetype about the heart-wrenching loss of vast human potential. Our emotions are shamelessly manipulated by the filmmakers but we’re so in love with the hero of the story that we don’t even care. We just enjoy the ride. My All-American is good wholesome fun and a fine story well worth watching. I give the movie 3 Reels out of 5, also.
Our hero Freddie is a remarkable kid with so many terrific qualities that we celebrate every one of his successes. He’s an underdog that we’re all drawn to and root for with great relish. Freddie traverses the hero’s journey with stylish flair and dexterity until he meets the only obstacle that he cannot overcome — cancer. His heroic gift to the world is accomplished posthumously; to this day he remains an inspiration to everyone at the University of Texas. I give Freddie 4 Heroes out of 5.
I enjoyed the secondary characters a bit more than you did, Greg. Aaron Eckhart does a stellar job in his role as Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach. As a mentor, Royal strikes just the right balance between toughness and kindness. I do agree that some members of Freddie’s support team are not terribly memorable, but they play their roles in solid workmanlike manner. I’m okay giving the supporting characters a rating of 3 out of 5.