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American Sniper •••••

American_Sniper_posterStarring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall, Chris Kyle
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

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

Iraquis: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)


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Scott, it looks like we get to review a real American hero.

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

Yes, sir. He’s a heroic American Sniper.

We’re introduced to a young Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) who wants nothing more than to be a cowboy. But he’s hampered by the fact that real cowboys exist only in the past. Instead he’s a rodeo cowboy riding bucking broncs and steers. One day he watches the bombing of an American embassy on TV and he signs up for the Navy. It’s not enough to just join the military, he wants to be the best and toughest, so he signs up for the Navy Seals.

Kyle undergoes rigorous Seal training and meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar. They fall in love and get married, but then Kyle is sent on his first tour of duty in Iraq. While sniping at the enemy, Kyle earns a reputation as the best and deadliest shooter in the armed forces. He earns the nickname “The Legend”. When he returns stateside, Taya notices that he is emotionally distant and shows worsening signs of PTSD.

Scott, American Sniper is the true-life story of the deadliest sniper in American military history. Director Clint Eastwood uses all his experience to create an accurate recreation of what it is like to be a modern American warfighter. We are witness to the extreme conditions that our service men and women have to endure to keep America safe. In one scene, we see the kind of dedication Kyle has to his profession. After a full day of maneuvers, Kyle’s commander climbs to the top of a building where Kyle has been sniping and proclaims that it stinks. And stink it does because Kyle hadn’t moved from the spot all that day and had relieved himself right there.

Greg, American Sniper is one of the most emotionally powerful movies of 2014. The movie holds no punches in depicting the horrors of war in graphic and stunning detail. Some viewers might believe that this movie glorifies American honor, valor, and patriotism. Perhaps it does. But the true take-home message of this film is that war exacts a horrible toll on all participants and that there is no winning, only degrees of losing — and everyone loses in a horrid, senseless way.

Bradley Cooper deserves kudos for his remarkable portrayal of a man who is assigned the task of killing people with his sniper rifle. And no one does it better. The hero story here is a fascinating one in that Kyle undergoes at least three transformations. The first is a transformation from a raw, unskilled recruit to a master of sniping. He must sacrifice plenty to get there — his freedom, his family, and his emotional well-being. We then witness Kyle’s second transformtion — his acquisition of PTSD. Then, in a final transformation, we watch him recover from this disorder. The hero’s journey is packed and powerful.

You’re right, Cooper makes a complete transformation into Kyle. Kyle represents all that is good in heroes. He is the best at what he does. He is protective of everyone – his family, his men, and his country. He has a strong moral code. He risks everything to be the protector. There’s a scene early in the film that explains why Kyle is so protective. He gets in a fight defending his brother from a bully. At dinner that night his father explains that there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheep can’t protect themselves, the wolves prey on the sheep, and the sheepdogs protect the sheep. And he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that in his house he was raising sheepdogs. Rarely do we get to see the seeds of heroism as it is portrayed here.

You’re exactly right, Greg. This film gives us insight into the origins of Kyle’s brand of heroism. We see his dad’s influence on the development of his moral code, which is strong on loyalty, country, family, and saving others who need help. We see how the terrorist attack of 9/11 helped shape his patriotic zeal and how sniping was his perfect calling. We see how adapts to the role of “Legend” with natural ease yet remains uncomfortable with any idolatry directed his way.

The villains in this story are primarily the Al Qaeda fighters who are shooting and bombing American troops. But another villain is the disease of PTSD that Kyle must also fight and overcome. The enemy fighters are undeveloped characters who are less interesting in this movie than the PTSD, which emotionally cripples Kyle and other soldiers.

Kyle has a compulsion to return to Iraq over and over again to fight the terrorists. He is obsessed with protecting his flock. Eastwood puts a face on the villainy in Iraq. One such face is “The Butcher” who is a lieutenant to al-Zarqawi – a leading insurgent in Iraq. We see The Butcher maim and kill helpless women and children. There is also a Syrian sniper they call “Mustafa” who kills one of Kyle’s friends. Kyle is determined to kill Mustafa. It takes him four tours to do it and he risks the lives of all the men in his command when he does it.

You’re right about PTSD as another faceless villain in this film, Scott. We see its effect on Kyle. When Kyle returns home he visits a Veteran’s Administration hospital where the doctor recognizes Kyle’s disorder and recommends he talk to some of the other soldiers who have come back from the war. Kyle finds that he can help them recover from their disabilities through the discipline of target shooting. In helping others, Kyle finds a way to continue protecting his military brothers. In giving this protection, he finds his way back into civilian life – and he heals his PTSD.

American Sniper is one of the best films of 2014, showing us with searing intensity the story of a man who becomes the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. This film graphically exposes us to the vicious, blood-splattering realities of war. At times the extreme violence was nearly too much for me to bear. But it was necessary to tell not just Kyle’s story but the story of thousands of our veterans who have bravely faced such conditions. For a gripping and compelling story, I award this movie 5 Reels out of 5.

Kyle’s hero story is a complex one in its portrayal of his transformation into a legendary marksman, and also his transformation from an emotionally traumatized veteran to a recovered healthy civilian. Like all good heroes, Kyle receives assistance along the way both within the military and beyond it. His wife Taya and his children are instrumental in helping him adapt to normal life back home. Kyle’s hero story merits 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The villainy in American Sniper is less well-developed than the storytelling and the development of the heroic characters. We aren’t given any details about the origins of the enemy army or their motivations. We do witness the slow progression of PTSD in Kyle but there we aren’t privy to the details of the disorder’s onset, progression, or treatment. This film only paints its villains with minimal brushstrokes and so I can only award the villains a rating of 3 out of 5.

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American Sniper is not just a great story about a real American hero, but one of the best-made movies we’ve seen this year. Clint Eastwood spends just the right amount of time in Kyle’s backstory so that we understand where he comes from. Then he propels us with Kyle into the special world of being a sniper in Iraq. Kyle’s first kill is a small child and we see both the necessity of the act, and the conflict it creates within him. It’s a crucial moment in the film and Eastwood captures it skillfully. It’s just one of a dozen such well-crafted moments. I give American Sniper 5 out of 5 Reels.

Bradley Cooper is unrecognizable as he completely transforms himself by gaining muscle mass and taking on the mannerisms and vocalisms of Kyle. We truly see Chris Kyle on the screen, not Cooper. We’re taken on the complete arc of the hero’s journey in this movie. We start out with Kyle as a boy being instilled with the heroic values of protecting those weaker than himself. We watch as he becomes a good, then great sniper. And we witness his descent into obsession and affliction with PTSD. Finally, we see him overcome his PTSD and go on to help others. I give Chris Kyle 5 out of 5 Heroes.

There are several villains in this movie. The main villain is the Iraqi bad guys who Kyle is fighting against. We don’t see much of them and I get the sense that director Clint Eastwood assumes we know this villain and it needs no introduction. Still, he gives us a sense of the terrorists by showing us The Butcher and Mustafa who are the face of villainy in American Sniper. We don’t get much of the villain’s journey – but that’s not what this movie was about. For Kyle to be the hero, it’s sufficient to have the mindless evil of terrorism. We’re given even less information about the PTSD villain. We see some of its effects on Kyle, but PTSD is not what this movie was about. I can only give 3 out of 5 Villains for the bad guys in American Sniper.

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Big Eyes •••1/2

Big_Eyes_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

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

Walter Keane: Single, N-NN Moral, Ant (Irredeemable Deceptive Lone Villain)


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Scott, I thought we were going to see a movie about Big Guys?

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

No, Greg. This movie is about popular paintings of oversized ocular cavities. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to divorcee and single mother Margaret (Amy Adams) who draws caricatures for a dollar on the boardwalk. It isn’t long before fellow painter and realtor Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) takes an interest in Margaret’s work. She paints waifs with mournful, oversized eyes. Walter and Margaret soon marry and Walter starts selling his own paintings and hers in a local jazz club. Through a misunderstanding, Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings as his own (they are signed “Keane” after all).

Gradually, Margaret’s paintings gain a following. The following soon turns into a phenomenon, and the Keanes’ acquire fame and fortune. All this time, Walter has Margaret believing that it’s in their best financial interest for everyone to continue believing that Walter is the talented creator of the big eyes paintings. Margaret knows the deception is morally wrong but it is not until she reads some religious literature that she realizes what she must do. When Margaret comes clean, the world at first disbelieves her, requiring that she take Walter to court for the truth to be revealed

Scott, Big Eyes is a nice, quiet, engaging look at the artist behind a marketing genius. While the main character is Margaret Keane, it’s her evil husband Walter who makes things happen. Undeniably, Margaret is a rare talent. But it isn’t until she meets Walter that her art makes an impact on society. Walter is a liar and a cheat. He tries to pass off some French painter’s street paintings as his own – and then does the same with Margaret’s work. At first Margaret sees Walter as a savior, but as the movie moves along, Walter relegates Margaret to the attic where she hides her work not only from the public, but her own daughter. Margaret begins to take on the appearance of a sweatshop slave with no friends and few acquaintances.

Big Eyes was eye-opening is its portrayal of the subjugation of women prior to the feminist movement of the 1960s. Our hero Margaret finds her life and career constrained by a society that empowers White men at the expense of women. In some ways, I see parallels to Selma, another fine movie that we’ve seen and reviewed this year. Both these movies focus on how a hero goes about achieving justice. Margaret must break down barriers, both societal and personal, that are denying her proper recognition for her work.

The hero story in Big Eyes emerges quite nicely. Margaret starts out lacking self-confidence and thus allows herself to be mistreated and taken advantage of by her morally bankrupt husband Walter. She begins to derive strength and chutzpah from her best friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) and from her teenage daughter Jane (Madeleine Arthur). These mentoring figures, along with a pair of evangelicals who arrive at her doorstep at the right time, help Margaret find the courage to stand up for herself. My only quibble is that the movie never shows us the aftermath of Margaret’s final courtroom redemption.

I found Big Eyes a very paint-by-numbers biopic. While you’re right that there is a transformation for our hero, Margaret, it comes from a very strange place – and occurs late in the film. I found it odd that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the catalyst for Margaret’s decision to finally divorce her husband and petition the courts for her share of their fortune. They are known for their belief that women should be subservient to their husbands, so it was an ironic turn.

The villain in this film is clearly Walter Keane and he undergoes an interesting transformation himself. While he always comes off as a sort of used-car-salesman-type, he seems genuinely caring for Margaret at first. It isn’t until his marketing talents bring in millions for the couple that he becomes evil. At one point he threatens Margaret with her life and even attempts to burn her house down. This convinces Margaret that she has to leave the relationship and moves to Hawaii.

At first I thought Walter might be the type of transforming villain who starts out as mildly evil but then grows increasingly evil as time goes on. We’ve seen this type of evil transformation in an earlier movie from 2014 called Nightcrawler. But the scene in which we discover that Walter has faked his paintings of Parisian streets changed my mind about Walter. It turns out he was a scumbag from the start, but we just didn’t know it. Certainly Margaret didn’t know it until far too late.

Walter is simply a lone villain with sociopathic tendencies who exploited his wife to achieve his own selfish aims. Perhaps he can be categorized as somewhat of a mysterious villain in that we don’t know the extent of his evil ways until the latter half of the film. We don’t gain much of an understanding of why Walter is such a lousy schmuck but then this movie isn’t about him as much as it is a story of Margaret’s transformation from doormat to courageous hero.

Big Eyes is an entertaining movie about an artistic phenomenon of the 1960s. While Amy Adams does a fine job in the role of Margaret Keane, I thought Christoph Waltz really stole the show with his rich interpretation of Walter Keane. This is where art imitates life as it was Walter who overshadowed Margaret in real life. I enjoyed myself in this film, but I don’t think I’d get much more from it on a second viewing. I give Big Eyes just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Margaret Keane is a quiet hero with not a lot of backbone. We see her transform from an acquiescent, obedient wife to a woman of her own. I was happy to see her overcome her insecurities and realize her self-worth. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Walter Keane was the more interesting character in my mind. He was colorful, extraverted, and entrepreneurial. There was a lot to admire about his accomplishments. But he gained his wealth and status at the expense of Margaret’s talents. He was talentless and built himself up on Margaret’s skills. I liked the emergence of Walter’s behavior from somewhat shady to downright evil so I give him 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Big Eyes is an interesting examination of how easily women could lose their identities and their dignity in the era of male chauvinism and gender inequality. It is also a fine story of a woman’s ability to muster up the moral and physical courage to confront male evil and defeat it. This movie is entertaining and features great performances from all involved, particularly Amy Adams. I award this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

As I’ve noted, the hero story is capably constructed as it features Margaret’s transformation from a frightened and exploited sweatshop worker to a fierce social and legal champion of her own rights. The hero journey is not portrayed to the fullest extent yet still merits 4 Heroes out of 5.

The villain Walter Keane is quite a selfish bastard who gets his comeuppance in a final courtroom scene that reveals him to be laughably inept. I enjoyed watching Walter rise in his evil ways and then fall and shatter like Humpty Dumpty. Still, we aren’t told much about what made Walter such a douchebag and so I must limit my rating of his villainy to 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Selma •••••

Selma_posterStarring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Paul Webb
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: January 9, 2015

King: Single, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Lone Hero)

Racism: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Institutional Villain)


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

Greg, we just saw another movie about the Civil Rights movement.

Selma was both educational and entertaining. Let’s recap:

Selma opens with Martin Luther King, Jr., (David Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He realizes that a lot work remains to be done in achieving racial equality in America. The most pressing issue for him is to abolish restrictions to Black voting in the South. In the 100 years since the Civil War, White-run communities have erected barriers to Black voter registration. King meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to ask for help, but Johnson tells him that the war on poverty is his top priority.

Meanwhile, we’re transported to Birmingham, Alabama where the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed, killing 4 young girls. This is the catalyst that brings Martin Luther King, Jr. to Alabama to begin a movement to change voting laws that prevent Blacks from registering to vote. King understands that voting is the path to true equality because the leaders who look the other way when racist events occur don’t fear being voted out of office.

King meets opposition from the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who has already been working on grassroots measures to increase voting rights. King explains to the SNCC leaders that they need a strategy that is non-violent and forces the White leaders to expose their violent nature, thus providing a news-worthy event that wins uninvolved Whites all over the nation to their cause.

Greg, Selma should be required viewing for all schoolchildren. For that matter, all adults need to see Selma, even those adults who know their Civil Rights Movement history. You and I know from doing years of improvisational work that it is always more powerful to show rather than to tell. It isn’t enough to know that Blacks were once deterred from voting. We need to be shown how, and that’s what Selma does so well. We see the discriminatory practice and its consequences in vivid, horrid detail.

Selma’s greatest strength, in my view, is the way in which it portrays the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We see time and again how King operates at a higher moral plane than everyone else around him. He knows what is right and he knows how to utilize the power of nonviolent demonstration to achieve his noble ends. King is the ultimate mentor figure, and Selma is less of a hero story than it is a story about how a heroic mentor wields his influence. King serves as a mentor figure to his friends in the Civil Rights Movement and also as mentor to President Johnson himself. King himself doesn’t change but he helps others transform to a higher level of moral understanding.

Selma is, indeed, instructive on so many levels. Unlike other movies about Blacks rising up to take their place as equals in society, Selma does not need the benevolent White person to make that change happen. When we look at such movies as The Blind Side, or last year’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson story), we see that Blacks make their advances thanks to the help of a White benefactor. Selma paints the clear picture that King was a true leader and tactical wizard that made the Civil Rights movement work.

Scott, you and I have noted several times over the last couple of years that there are some heroes who don’t transform but who transform those around them. As you pointed out, King is just such a hero. I call him a Catalytic Hero because he is the catalyst for change in his followers and in society as a whole.

One thing we do see in King, vividly, is his awareness of the constant danger he is in. We watch him become fearful of what will happen to him and his followers if they make a misstep. At one point he is on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with hundreds of followers marching behind him. The Alabama State Troopers part their blockade for him and the marchers to pass. He takes to his knees and prays for guidance. He makes the decision not to cross the bridge because he fears another disastrous beating as previously occurred. He is increasingly aware of the risks he is taking and their impending consequences.

You’re right, Greg, that this is one movie about Black progress in society that doesn’t involve a White person precipitating the change. President Johnson is portrayed as the White man who is approached for help and for political reasons is reluctant to offer such help. I’m reminded of that great 2012 film Lincoln in which a President moves the nation slowly toward legal interracial equality. In contrast to Lincoln, which casts President Lincoln in a positive light, Selma is less kind toward Johnson, who is seen as unnecessarily slow and plodding in leading the nation toward equality.

The villains in this story are longstanding institutional barriers such as the Jim Crow laws that took advantage of legal loopholes to ensure racial injustice. The two most prominent faces of racial prejudice in Selma are the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Tim Roth). President Johnson is also seen as an obstructionist and oppositional character but over time we witness Johnson grow morally and courageously toward Martin Luther King’s view of the world. Like nearly all villainous characters, Hoover and Wallace do not budge from their evil ways.

You’ve covered the villains pretty well here, Scott. We also see that King is facing down his own imperfections. The FBI sends a tape to his wife Coretta Scott King with the sounds of a man and woman in the throes of passion. The voice on the tape threatens to expose King as an adulterer. Coretta confronts King who has to admit his infidelity, but she stays with him. This reminds us that our heroes aren’t always perfect. It also points out that Coretta is a heroic character too, as she is the glue that holds King together.

I would like to point out that this film in no way speeds along in its storytelling. It is thoughtful and deliberate. There are many silences in this film. But they are suspenseful. I never felt that the film was lagging. It is a classic example of how negative space is an integral part of the overall picture. Another thing I want to praise Selma for is its excellent telling of a true-life event. So often biopic films want to tell everything that happens in the hero’s life. Here, we see that the writers focused on one specific event. In telling this one chapter in King’s life we are exposed to a number of King’s abilities: humanity, tactics, leadership, negotiation, not to mention his hopes and dreams and inner turmoil. This is a rich story well told.

Selma is one of the year’s best films. In no other movie have I seen a better demonstration of the mechanics and effectiveness of nonviolent demonstration. It could be an ideal instruction manual for those wanting to emulate King’s (and Gandhi’s) model of bringing about peaceful sociocultural change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in terrific detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move mountains. For it’s depiction of a pivotal moment in U.S. history, this movie earns 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is unique in that it’s less about a hero changing than it is about a hero helping everyone around him change. You call him a catalytic hero, Greg, and that term is as fine as any to describe a mentor. Mentors help other people become heroes. King helped Johnson do the right thing, and in fact he helped an entire nation grow up morally and spiritually. King also possessed all eight of The Great Eight attributes of heroes. This powerful heroic mentor story earns 5 Heroes out of 5.

The institutional villainy here is well told, and we are led to despise the faces of racial prejudice and discrimination in the form of George Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover. None of these villainous forces are well-developed but they needn’t be in this movie. Selma is more about the heroic efforts to overcome the evil of racial hate than it is about the hate itself. So I will give the villains here 3 Villains out of 5.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Selma is how it echoes the challenges of race relations in America today. We are still seeing voter identification laws passed which limit the ability of the poor and impoverished to cast their votes. We are still wrestling with police violence against people of color – and how the current institutions protect these actions. Selma shows us that a lot has been won in efforts to afford equality to all, but it also reminds us that we still have more work to do. I give Selma 5 out of 5 Reels.

King leads by example and changes the people around him and people all across the nation. We are witness to his strength and force of character. We are also shown that our heroes are not always perfect. Often, Scott, you and I look for a transformation in the hero, but the transformation King induces in others is second to none. I give Martin Luther King, Jr. 5 out of 5 Heroes.

In our study of villains over the last year we’ve seen a lot of “mastermind” villains – villains who keep safe in the shadows and have others do their dirty work for them. We definitely see that here. George Wallace as the governor of Alabama has the power to reign in the police and to force the registrars to accept Black applications for voter registration, but he chooses not to. He wants to uphold the institution of racial supremacy. We’re witness to the mindless anger and hatred of the crowds in Selma, Alabama. It’s a difficult image to watch because it was real. I give the mastermind and institutional villains 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Unbroken •••1/2

Unbroken_posterStarring: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Biography/Drama/Sport, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

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

The Bird: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Minion Villain)


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Scott, it’s time to end our Christmas break and review Unbroken.

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

Indeed. Let’s take a look at this film adaptation of the best-selling novel by Laura Hillenbrand.

It’s World War II and young Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the bombardier of a B-24. He hits his target, but his ship is damaged and barely makes it’s way back to base. This reminds him of his childhood growing up in the Bronx. He was constantly picked on by the other boys because of his Italian heritage. He was always getting into fights and engaging in underage drinking. His brother takes notice and sets him straight. It’s his brother who teaches him “if you can take it, you can make it.” This is a lesson he’ll use all through life.

While on a mission in the South Pacific theater, Zamperini’s plane crashes into the ocean. He and two other men, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), survive and remain afloat in a raft for many weeks, barely surviving. Mac dies, but Louis and Phil are captured by the Japanese military who torture and imprison them on a small island. Louis is eventually transferred to a POW camp near Tokyo, where he is brutalized by one particular camp officer nicknamed ‘The Bird’ (Takamasa Ishihara).

Unbroken is a longish look at the survival of a man through the trials of torture and abuse in World War II. I thought in many ways it was a technically fine film, but I don’t expect it to win any awards. One thought that kept going through my mind while watching Zamperini live through his lost-at-sea adventure, then his torture, and then his POW experiences was – how was his experience any different than any other POW’s? What made him the subject of a book and movie where he was called “Unbroken?” Weren’t all POWs in some way unbroken?

Unbroken is an inspiring and heart-wrenching look at an extraordinary tale of survival. Director Angelina Jolie does a commendable job of capturing (most of) Zamperini’s heroic journey while also remaining true to Hillenbrand’s book. Zamperini was not the only survivor of the Japanese POW camps but his story is unique and powerful in three ways: (1) his celebrity status as an Olympic track star; (2) his ordeal on the raft for 47 days prior to imprisonment; and (3) his unfortunate experience with ‘The Bird’, who singled out Zamperini for especially brutal treatment.

The performances here are all first-rate, although none are exemplary. This story lacks greatness because Jolie omitted what is arguably the most important part of Zamperini’s ordeal: His shattered post-war psyche. Hillenbrand’s book tells us that Louis suffered from severe PTSD that left him, well, broken. The darkest part of Zamperini’s life wasn’t in the POW camps; it was the alcoholic depression of his post-war life. For Unbroken to reach it’s full storytelling power, we need to see this nadir and how Louis overcomes it. It’s unfortunate that we were deprived of this resolution because we know that redemption is arguably the most central part of any hero story.

I agree with you that the story needed something more to earn the title Unbroken. And if the redemption portion of the story that you mention had been told, I might have been more interested. The scenes with Zamperini and friends in the life raft seemed to go on forever. Likewise, his tours in the different encampments seemed to drag on without storytelling purpose. If the intent was to give us all a sense of the pain Zamperini endured, then Jolie succeeded. I was bored several times during the movie.

The main villain in this story is “The Bird” – a Japanese sergeant who ran the camps. We get the sense that he was an underachiever. It seems his parents were aristocrats and that “The Bird” did not live up the their, or the Japanese army’s expectations. This made him perhaps more cruel to the prisoners. And even more cruel to Zamperini who was famous as an Olympic athlete. “The Bird” was indeed a sadist and spared no opportunity to make Zamperini miserable.

I agree, Greg, that Jolie gives us an extraordinary survival story without the all-important hero transformation that any good hero story needs to achieve maximum impact. In some ways, the film is similar to two 2013 films, Gravity and 12 Years As A Slave, which both described remarkable survival tales but also omitted the aftermath of the survival. The aftermath is essential in showcasing the hero’s changed state, which ultimately transforms us all.

Attention all movie-makers: Please do not deprive your audience of the aftermath of the hero’s survival story. As an audience, we need it to maximize our satisfaction, and as a movie-maker, you need it to maximize your revenue — not to mention your Oscar nominations.

You’re right, Greg, that Japan is the institutional villain of the story, and “The Bird” is the face of Japan in the movie. We grow to despise The Bird as he senselessly beats Zamperini to a pulp again and again. He is pure evil and has no redeeming qualities other than a pretty face whose boyish qualities belie the sadism taking place.

Angelina Jolie shows she has directorial chops in her adaptation of Unbroken. While I thought it was long at 140 minutes and did drag in places, I was glad that I had seen the film. Unbroken reminds us of the sacrifices and commitment of the Greatest Generation to overcome evil. This is a fine addition to a spate of WWII movies this year (including Fury and The Imitation Game). I give Unbroken 3 out of 5 Reels.

Zamperini as the hero of the story undergoes an early transformation from a fractious child to a determined adult. Through the mentorship of his older brother, he grows into a man who can withstand the worst that the world can throw at him. However, this early transformation is not where the story lies. As you point out, Scott, it is overcoming the damage done to him that is the true Unbroken nature of Zamperini. I give this version of him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

“The Bird” is clearly an evil character who shames and humiliates Zamperini and the other POWs. As the face of the institutional villain he was not very well-drawn. I wish there had been more insight into his character, rather than just his vicious acts. I give “The Bird” just 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Unbroken is a well-made film that moves us with a harrowing tale of survival, perseverance, resilience, and courage. Angelina Jolie shows us that she can direct movies with the best of them, but she makes a critical error by denying us the redemptive core of Zamperini’s story. I love Zamperini’s tale, despite the movie not quite living up to the lofty heights of the book. For this reason, I’ll award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is remarkable in every aspect, although it is unfortunate that Jolie chose not to show us Zamperini’s psychological recovery from the trauma of the war. This film needlessly shortchanges his heroism, and thus I can only award his movie character 3 out of 5 Heroes here.

The institutional villain is capably portrayed by a number of fine Japanese actors, with Takamasa Ishihara delivering an especially standout performance as the deceptively boyish face of evil. We aren’t given much back-story about The Bird, other than a throwaway line or two, and so I can only grant this evil camp officer 3 Villains out of 5.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ••••

The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_ArmiesStarring:  Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh,  Philippa Boyens,  Peter Jackson,  Guillermo del Toro
Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Date: December 17, 2014

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

Sauren: Single, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Villain)

Orcs: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Military Villain)


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

Greg, it looks like we finally made it to the final installment of The Hobbit.

It looks like we’ll finally break the habit of watching The Hobbit.

The film opens with the tiny hamlet of Laketown being devastated by Smaug, the oversized, fire-breathing dragon. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is helping many of the towns’ citizens evacuate the ravaged city, and meanwhile Bard (Luke Evans) climbs a tower and manages to slay the smug Smaug using the black arrow. Bard leads the townspeople to safe refuge at the ruins of Dale, not too far from Mount Gundabad.

Meanwhile back at the mountain, King Thorin is affected with the dragon’s fever and will not give up any of his gold. Meanwhile, the Orcs are planning an all-out assault on the mountain. Meanwhile, Gandalf is being rescued from a far-away place by the queen of the elves. There’s a lot going on in this final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

Greg, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a worthy conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy (which wasn’t a trilogy). We’ve been dazzled by the CGI virtuoso of modern movies before, but this film somehow manages to exceed the highest standards set in previous filmmaking. Seeing the Battle of the Five Armies in 3D did enrich the experience; I was blown away by the magnificent realism of every scene, especially scenes involving hand-to-hand combat. It seemed like I could discern every speck of dust and drop of blood. It’s a truly an astonishing and mesmerizing experience.

More important, of course, is the story. As you mention, there is no shortage of characters here, nor is there a shortage of armies. Five is a lot of armies. Yet I didn’t feel lost or overwhelmed. What I did feel was fragmented. By that I mean that the decision to break up the Hobbit into pieces, and then to deliver each piece a year apart, leaves me unsatisfied from the standpoint of coherent storytelling. This film gives us the final third of a single story, and it felt limited in that way because it is limited. I did enjoy Five Armies but the piecemeal delivery of the storyline has been less than fulfilling.

You’re right about the high quality of this movie. The images were filmed with stereo 5K cameras at 48 frames per second. That technology provides a level of crispness that was heretofore impossible for film. The result is an image that resembles live action. At first I found it distracting. But soon I was drawn into the story and the realism enhanced what I was watching. It was a revolutionary experience.

We have quite a collection of heroes in this story. The main hero is Bilbo Baggins. He undergoes a transformation from a quiet Hobbit happy to live in the shire to a true adventurer. We like our heroes to transform and Bilbo covers the gamut. The dwarf king, Thorin, is especially interesting as he traverses the range of heroism to villain back to hero again. King Thorin is on a quest to reclaim his lost kingdom and treasure. But once he regains his gold, he gets dragon fever and becomes obsessively greedy, not willing to share a coin even with those who helped him. But once Bilbo gives him a good talking to, he returns to being a noble king, willing to share the wealth with those who are deserving. We like to call this kind of hero the “round tripper” as they go from heroic, to villainous, and then return as a redeemed hero.

No question there are plenty of heroes and villains to discuss here. I enjoyed witnessing Bilbo grow in his courage with the help of Gandalf as his mentor. His transformation is underscored by his return trip home to Bag End. Nearly all of his belongings have been auctioned off in an estate sale, signalling the shedding of his old self and the celebration of his new persona. As befitting a classic epic tale, there are other heroes, of course. But Bilbo deservedly takes center stage here.

This film features a formidable array of villainous characters, too. Foremost are the Orcs, who embody a pure, relentless evil. The other intelligent races that populate this movie have a richness and diversity within them, but not the Orcs. They are all interchangeably evil. One scene near the end of this film truly disappointed me. It was the Fatal Attraction demise of the head Orc, who appears to be dead underwater until his eyes pop open and he bursts up to fight one last fight before being vanquished (again). When, oh when, is this gimmick going to be put to bed for good?

I enjoyed The Hobbit but found that three films really milked the story. The action was often slow and lumbering. The final fight scene was pretty impressive. Again, the technology was at the fore delivering amazing effects. However, I was disappointed that, yet again, the giant eagles flew in to save the day. I give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies 4 out of 5 Reels.

Bilbo and King Thorin make for great mythical heroes. Bilbo starts out as naive and grows into a courageous and moral hero. King Thorin starts out as a great leader then falls into the depths of villainy when he is overcome by dragon fever. But he is redeemed in the end. This is a great example of the redemptive hero. I give them 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The Orcs and Sauron are clearly pure evil villains. We don’t get much insight into why they’re so bad. Although with the introduction of Sauron we see that the Orcs and their leader Bolg create a hierarchy of evil. I give the Orcs 3 out of 5 Villains.

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From a technical standpoint, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is an outrageously successful film. Never before has CGI realism achieved such a majestic level of excellence. The story itself was the final third of a novel that was not intended to be partitioned into three units, and so I was left with a sense of incompleteness. Still, there is much to celebrate about richness of the Tolkien universe and the heroism of the characters, especially Bilbo Baggins. I’m therefore happy to award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

I will grant you that Bilbo follows the classic hero’s journey, but this film only shows us the final leg of the journey. Consequently, I didn’t see him change or evolve much in this particular movie. I agree with you, Greg, that Thorin is a round tripper hero who moves from hero to villain and then back to hero again. We saw this earlier this year in Maleficent. But what triggers these changes in Thorin? Dragon sickness is apparently the answer. But why don’t the other dwarves catch this disease? And how do a few words from Bilbo snap him out of it? Earlier speeches from others didn’t do the trick. So I’m going to curmudgeonly give this movie 3 Heroes out of 5.

The villains were monolithically evil and not terribly interesting. One could say that Thorin’s dragon sickness was a “Man versus Nature” villain, but that’s a stretch. There are interesting glimpses of villainy among the Laketown residents, elves, and dwarves. These character types were fun to watch and added depth to a fragment of the story that truly needed some depth. Overall, I’ll give a rating here of 4 Villains out of 5.

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The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part 1 ••••

MockingjayPart1Poster3Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins
Science Fiction/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2014

Katniss: Single, P-PP Emotional/Mental, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

The Capitol: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)


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I was hungry for another dose of Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games.

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

I was hungry for bread and found me some Peeta. But enough games. Let’s recap.

When we last saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), she was being carried away in a hovercraft to District 13. She wakes up in a hospital room and we learn that she’s been there for a couple months. Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman)  is trying to convince President Coin (Julianne Moore) that Katniss is the key to the new revolution. That she is the Mockingjay. Coin is unconvinced. After some failed attempts to get Katniss to look heroic, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) suggests they send her into the field and get her gut reactions. They do and in the process they get footage of Katniss destroying Capitol bombers and making a rousing speech.

A rebel demolition team is sent to the Capitol to destroy a dam, which is the Capitol’s sole source of electricity. Meanwhile, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being held hostage by the central government and is also being used as a mouthpiece for propaganda. At the end of one of Peeta’s speeches, he blurts out a warning that District 13 is about to be attacked. His warning saves many lives, but also endangers his own life. Katniss convinces the president to send a rescue team into the Capitol to get Peeta. But the reunion between the two star-crossed lovers does not turn out as expected.

Scott, I was pretty disappointed in this prelude to the final episode in the Hunger Games series. It represents only half the last novel and moves really slowly. It’s as if the writers and director were trying to fill up space to make the film stretch out to 120 minutes. Still, it was true to the source material. The special effects and acting were very good. But there wasn’t much of a story. It was all a set up for the final movie, due out in November of 2015.

Actually, Greg, unlike you, I enjoyed Mockingjay – Part 1 more than I did the first two Hunger Games movies. For a change, there were no hunger games situations involving kids hunting each other. Instead, we are presented with an intriguing psychological battle between President Snow and Panem’s rebels. We are shown techniques that governments use to win the hearts and minds of the masses. It’s a fascinating chess game, orchestrated by Plutarch on one side and Snow on the other.

Best of all, we finally see Katniss Everdeen undergo a personal transformation. My main complaint about the first two installments of Hunger Games has been the absence of growth in the character of Katniss. She’s been a heroic figure from the very outset of the first movie, when she takes her sister’s place as a participant in the games. But in Mockingjay – Part 1 we finally see Katniss develop into something new — a leader. She transcends her role as the brave, selfless, resourceful warrior. By the end of this film she has evolved into an admired leader and statesman, er, statesperson. It’s a welcome change to see Katniss ascend to a new, higher level of development.

We’ve disagreed on this before – I’ve always thought Katniss was a great hero. But yes, she definitely grows into a new role in this latest chapter. Like a classic hero, she is given the call to adventure but she refuses the call. She doesn’t want to be the Mockingjay. But once she realizes Peeta is alive and captive in the Capitol, she takes up the mantel of the hero and becomes the Mockingjay so that she can save Peeta.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland)  is exposed to be a villainous lout who rose to his position of power by poisoning his opponents. He represents the classic “mastermind” villain – one who controls others and rarely gets his hands duty. Like a puppet master, he coerces Peeta to record propaganda that tells the people of the districts that Katniss was the evildoer and that they should not follow her.

On the one hand, you could say that the villain here is a dull and simple mastermind. But in a sense, this movie tells a villain story like no other. Peeta, one of the main heroic figures in the first two movies, has now evolved into an oppositional character. Yes, it is true that Peeta’s been brainwashed, but his call for Panem to cease hostilities conflicts with Katniss’s plans to reform this dystopian, dysfunctional Capitol government. So you could argue that this film gives us a glimpse of a Stockholm-syndrome-like process of villain development.

I was glad to get another episode of The Hunger Games and another dose of a great female hero. We’re really getting quite a few of them now (witness Divergent and Lucy). While I was disappointed that I’ll have to wait another year before the final chapter will be played out, I liked this movie enough to give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Katniss grows more in this film than in previous films. The filmmakers are not dressing our hero in flowing gowns and showing off her “attributes.” She’s dressed in battle gear. She’s a tough, strong leader. I love seeing this growth not only in Katniss, but in the types of female role models that are emerging for our young women. I give Katniss 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The villains are not as pronounced in this segment as they were in previous ones. We’re given a little more information about President Snow and his backstory. We are definitely treated to a look inside Snow’s mind and how he manipulates not only physically, but also psychologically. I’m hoping we’ll see more of that development in the final installment. I give President Snow 3 out of 5 Villains.

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For me, Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is arguably the strongest of the three Hunger Games movies. The film has less action but is more psychologically compelling in its portrayal of social movements, leadership development, and brainwashing techniques. Our hero Katniss has stepped up significantly to become much more than a young woman who can survive a deadly game. She is now a heroic leader of the Panem people. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

As mentioned, this is the strongest hero story of the three Hunger Games movies. Katniss is thrown into the world of political leadership and, as such, she is required to grow in an unfamiliar world that stretches her personally. She is not only transformed as a person, but she also transforms an entire society. I award her 5 Heroes out of 5.

President Snow is a fairly formulaic mastermind villain, but Peeta’s surprising role as an oppositional force to Katniss’s leadership turns out to be the main focus of the film. Without Peeta’s brainwashed adversarial presence and without his murderous attack on Katniss, this movie would earn a rating of 1 Villain out of 5. But Peeta’s unique oppositional role bumps my rating up to 3 Villains out of 5.

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Toy Story •••••

Toy_StoryStarring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Director: John Lasseter
Screenplay: John Lasseter & Pete Docter
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: G
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1995


As part of a special series, we will be reviewing the first 5 movies released by Pixar studios. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming mini-book on the heroes of Pixar!

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

Greg, it’s time we review Toy Story, one of the groundbreaking animated films of the 1990s.

It’s one of those animations that appeals to both adults and children. Let’s recap:

We meet a small pullstring cowboy doll named Woody (Tom Hanks), who belongs to a small boy named Andy (John Morris). Woody is one of many toys owned by Andy, and all the toys act like inanimate objects when humans are present but spring to life when humans are absent. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, but a birthday gift to Andy contains a new toy that becomes Andy’s new favorite: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), an astronaut action figure.

Woody is filled with jealousy as Andy begins to favor Buzz over him. Woody attempts to push Buzz behind a dresser and accidentally pushes him out the window. The other toys turn on Woody blaming him for Buzz’s demise. Meanwhile, Andy’s mom takes him to Planet Pizza and Andy takes Woody along for the ride. Buzz jumps into the moving car. When the car stops for gas, the two toys get out and have an argument – but the car leaves them at the gas station. Woody and Buzz jump into a Pizza Planet delivery truck. Now their goal is to find Andy and return home before the sun rises – because tomorrow Andy is moving to a new house.

Greg, Toy Story’s arrival on the Big Screen in 1995 marked a revolution in computer-animated feature films. I remember at the time being enthralled by the exquisite realism and detailing of the visuals. And the movie also manages to tell a great hero story that carries meaning for audiences of all ages. No wonder Toy Story was inducted into the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

In our first Reel Heroes book, we describe “buddy heroes” as a common type of social unit of movie hero. Woody and Buzz are buddy heroes because their relationship follows the typical buddy arc: they first dislike each other, then go on a journey together, and eventually grow into friends. A great strength of this film is that Woody and Buzz are each missing different inner qualities and thus undergo separate personal transformations. Woody is wracked with jealousy and must learn humility along with the need to place the good of the greater community ahead of his own selfish interests. Buzz is ignorant of his true status as a toy and must learn to accept his authentic identity.

Pixar tells a story like no one else. They have a deep understanding of the importance of the hero in a narrative. Woody suffers from jealousy. He feels like he is getting nudged out of his rightful place as Andy’s favorite toy. So, when a new, flashy, Buzz Lightyear shows up, Woody wonders how he, as an ordinary cowboy toy, can compare. But in Woody we see a strong sense of loyalty to his boy. Woody recognizes his importance as a quality toy in Andy’s life and acts as the leader of all the lesser toys. He constantly strives to make sure Andy is happy. Woody has the rare qualities of giving and selflessness.

Buzz on the other hand is full of himself. He doesn’t recognize that his role is to be Andy’s toy – to make sure that Andy is happy. Buzz is constantly worried about returning to Star Command and talks boastfully of his importance to the universe in defense of the evil Emperor Zurg. It’s not until the two toys are stranded that they create an alliance. It is their joint goal to return to Andy that ultimately turns this into a buddy film.

Buzz has a revelation that he is in fact merely a child’s toy when he sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear action figure on television. He goes into a deep depression as he finally understands that he is not the actual Buzz Lightyear. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that the ultimate purpose in his life is to make Andy happy by being a great toy. Woody even confesses to Buzz that he admires Buzz’s flashing lights and futuristic sounds. This bonding moment is the “convergence” that you and I look for, Scott, when we review the buddy story.

Toy Story may be an animated adventure but it’s densely packed with many elements of the hero journey. Included among these elements are a few villainous forces that attempt to thwart Woody and Buzz from achieving their aims. Chief among the villains is the rather disturbing neighbor boy Sid. We’ve all known kids like Sid; he’s nasty and physically mutilates toys for no reason other than because he can. Sid’s plan to blow-up Buzz is necessary to provide Woody with an opportunity for redemption.

Also appearing to get in the way of Woody’s rescue of Buzz is the collection of misfit toys that Sid has created in macabre fashion. I’m guessing that these disturbing toys are writer Joss Whedon’s handiwork. Toy Story wisely reveals these toys to be Woody’s allies instead of foes. Ironically, Woody’s toy friends in Andy’s bedroom are outraged at Woody’s mistreatment of Buzz, and they inadvertently foil Woody’s rescue plans, too. Even Buzz himself, disconsolate about his true identity, hampers Woody’s efforts. In all, it’s a fun yet complicated set of oppositional forces that Woody faces.

What’s interesting about Sid as a villain is that he is transformed in the end. Woody and the mutilated toys come to life in an effort to scare Sid straight. And they are apparently successful. In all the villains we’ve analyzed in the past year, Scott, I don’t think we’ve seen one example of a villain who gave up his villainous ways. This is a great example of how heroes transform those around them.

I’m glad you brought up the support characters, Scott. Andy’s toys are all clean and well taken care of. Sid’s, on the other hand are in various states of disrepair. And, as you point out, we think Sid’s toys are going to be evil because they are ugly. But it turns out that they are benevolent and willing to help Woody in his plan to save Buzz. While none of Sid’s toys takes on a personality (as each of Andy’s toys does), as a group they are helpers in Woody’s plan to save Buzz – and to divert Sid in his evil ways.

Another thing I want to point out is the divergence from the hero’s journey that we are accustomed to. In Toy Story there is a climax which is resolved by saving Buzz from Sid’s demonic attempt to blow him up. Once that climax is resolved, we would expect the story to slide into the resolution phase. But instead, there is a new conflict as Andy and his mother are driving off to Andy’s new home. Woody makes it to the car and is about to leave with Andy when he realizes that Buzz is stuck in the fence. Woody then gives up his chance to return to Andy’s ordinary world and goes back to lend assistance to Buzz. This then results in a new climactic event as Woody and Buzz chase Andy’s car across town to find Andy. It’s a thrilling chase scene and delivers a dual climax at the end of the story.

Toy Story comes as close to representing the perfect animated movie as one can get. At the level of story, the plot is sweet and simple, yet deceptively rich in incorporating all the elements of a good hero story. At the level of writing, the screenplay is impeccably crafted with witty dialogue sure to appeal to people of all ages. At the level of animation, Pixar’s revolutionary CGI effects are both superb and timeless. In terms of characters, we’re introduced to unforgettable characters who move us and teach us something important about the human condition. The rating here is a no-brainer: 5 full Reels out of 5.  And I nominate this film to occupy a worthy space in our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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You’re so right, Scott. Toy Story is very well-crafted. The technology that created the movie creates a complete and believable world. The voice acting is delightful and engaging. The storytelling is intelligent and comical. And the hero’s journey is complete. While the film is aimed at children, the writers don’t condescend. I agree, 5 Reels out of 5. I second your nomination to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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Woody and Buzz are classic, unforgettable buddy heroes. I can’t tell you how impressive it is that a children’s film can so effortlessly portray the evolution of an unlikely friendship along with the development of two individually separate hero journeys. This is textbook stuff here and done to near perfection. Again, I happily assign this duo 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

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They are definitely Buddy Heroes, alright. They start out as adversaries and end up as good friends. However, I see them as starting out on different paths and then joining up to have the same goal by the end of the story: that of making Andy happy by being great toys. Woody and Buzz each go through their own transformation. Woody gets over his jealousy and Buzz realizes his place in Andy’s world. It’s a wonderful hero’s journey and I award Woody and Buzz 5 out of 5 Heroes.

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The villain Sid is an effective foe for Woody and Buzz to contend with, but I can’t use the same superlatives to describe Sid’s development as a character. Yes, you are correct, Greg, that there are hints to Sid’s redemption at the end, but we don’t learn much about Sid’s backstory nor much else about the darkness of his nature. His character exists merely to provide roadblocks for our heroes, and that’s certainly sufficient for this movie. In all, I award 3 Villains out of 5 here.

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I liked Sid more than you did, Scott. I felt he offered a great contrast to good-kid Andy. Sid was evil and calculating. And, if left unchecked, would probably have gone on from mangling innocent toys to insects and animals. I was impressed with the “Villain’s Journey” in this story. And while I have to agree with you that there wasn’t any backstory to Sid that explains his vicious actions, I still give Sid 4 out of 5 Villains.

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And now let’s rate the supporting cast. This includes the other toys in Andy’s room, Andy himself, and Sid’s misfit toys. These characters, especially Andy’s toys, are all marvelously constructed. They are distinct, quirky, funny, charming, loving, and loyal. We get to know them and cherish them the way Andy must love and cherish them. Interestingly, as you note, Greg, Sid’s toys are a monolithic bunch but that’s okay — they serve their purpose. Conspicuously absent is a mentor figure for Woody, but his pangs of conscience serve this role and inform his choices throughout the story. It’s a very strong supporting cast and I award the Supporting Cast 4 Casts out of 5.

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I have to agree, Scott. The supporting cast of Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, T-Rex, and the others, were given a distinct set of personalities. They did a great job of playing up Woody and Buzz’s characters. Interestingly, Sid’s toys could not speak. That tended to give them less dimension than Andy’s toys. I noticed a number of missing archetypes in Toy Story including the gatekeeper, the herald, and as you mentioned, the mentor. I wasn’t as impressed with these characters as you were, I give them just 3 out of 5 for Supporting Cast.

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No Good Deed •••

No_Good_Deed_2014_movie_posterStarring: Taraji P. HensonIdris ElbaLeslie Bibb
Director: Sam Miller
Screenplay: Aimee Lagos
Crime/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 84 minutes
Release Date: September 12, 2014

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

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


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

Greg, we just saw a movie about a no-good dude.

And if no good deed goes unpunished, then indeed, we were punished for watching.

Let’s recap. Inmate Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is being transported back to prison from his parole hearing, where he was denied parole. He is serving time for brutally killing several people. During his return trip to prison, Evans manages to shoot the driver and a guard. He then escapes successfully to Atlanta. There he meets up with his former fiance and confronts her about her new lover. After killing her, we see him driving his car in a rainstorm. His car crashes into a tree, and he seeks refuge at the door of a nearby home owned by Terri Henson (Taraji P. Henson) and her baby.

Colin is charismatic and smiles his way into the home and out of the rain by feigning the need to call for a tow truck. When Terri’s best friend Meg (Leslie Bibb) arrives, Colin has some fast thinking to do. But Meg is not convinced of Colin’s good intentions and confronts him. Meanwhile, Terri realizes that Colin is not so harmless and he begins to chase her through the house. Now it’s a battle of wits as Terri must find a way to call for help before Colin can accomplish his dastardly plan.

Greg, No Good Deed is a by-the-numbers story of survival at the hands of a vicious killer. This story has been told countless times before, but what distinguishes No Good Deed is that it features a strong African-American female hero who must use both her wits and her strength of character to extricate herself from danger. Taraji Henson does a nice job portraying the role of Terri, and a number of her Great Eight characteristics of heroes truly shine through. She is strong, smart, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring.

The first 15 minutes of the movie led me to believe that the villain, Colin Evans, was going to be the hero (or anti-hero) of the story. We, the audience, are provided with more of his backstory than that of Terri. But soon the movie wisely shifts to Terri as the movie’s main focus, and we become impressed with her selfless devotion to placing the safety of her two children before her own. As I said, this isn’t a great movie by any means, but it does manage to pull us into the drama and leave us wondering how Terri is going to survive.

I have to agree with you, Scott – this is a good movie with a strong female lead. The other thing that distinguishes this movie from others is that Terri fears for her life and the lives of her children, only to discover that Colin’s goal has nothing to do with Terri. There’s a point in the film (that is shared in the trailer) where Colin chastises Terri by saying, ‘I would have thought with all those brains you got, you woulda figured out what game we’re playing.’ It isn’t the standard game of cat and mouse.

Terri is a good hero – she is smarter than the average damsel in distress. And she stands up to her captor. She doesn’t just run screaming through the house (although there is a bit of that). She *is* smart and she makes plans to escape.

Colin makes for a good villain, too. He’s every bit as smart and determined as our hero. And that is critical for a good villain story. We are given a good deal of his backstory so we know where his anger comes from. Although, he is set up as a “malignant narcissist” by the parole board – we don’t get any insight into what created such a person. So I can give points for setting up our villain – and I have to take one away for embedding the fact that Colin is … crazy.

I enjoyed Colin as a villain more than I thought I would. During his parole hearing at the beginning of the movie, I felt for him and believed him to be genuinely repentant. He has those kind eyes and shows a kind of enigmatic intelligence. But when the bodies started piling up, I was sadly forced to abandon the idea that he is simply misunderstood. I like the fact that his character has a curious appeal even when we know he’s a psychopathic murderer.

Another virtue of this movie is witnessing the palpable chemistry between Terri and Colin. Her courage in standing up to him is borderline foolhardy but serves her and her children quite well. One unfortunate negative is the number of times that Terri skewers him, crushes his head, shoots him, and maims him, while he does his best Ever-Ready battery impression by still ticking. We also get the standard Fatal Attraction miracle revival of the seemingly dead villain. One day I hope the movies finally put this hackneyed gimmick to bed for good.

Yeah, I noticed that too. I liked this movie, but the twist at the end didn’t warrant a higher rating. It’s a classic thriller with some upgrades. I give No Good Deed 3 out of 5 Reels.

Terri is a good hero but still not above average. What I appreciated about her was that she wasn’t a typical damsel in distress. She was smart and strong. But I can only give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Colin is painted better than the average villain. He has all the great qualities of the hero plus a diabolical tendency toward “malignant narcissism”. But he can only garner 3 out of 5 Villains.

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No Good Deed is a fairly well constructed thriller that gives us a strong woman character who delights us with her brains, her inner strength, and her selflessness. This movie features good tension, good pacing, and good acting. No Good Deed is far from great but it provided 90 minutes of solid entertainment. Like you, Greg, I give this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero Terri is inspiring to watch. She embodies many of the signature characteristics of a hero, but her Joseph-Campbell-like hero journey is stunted. There is no mentor figure, for example; she’s left entirely to her own devices. I’m not convinced that she transforms in any significant way, either. So we’re left with a pretty good hero but not a great one, at least not in the classic sense.  I’m with you, Greg, that she merits 3 Heroes out of 5.

The villain Colin is a major focus of this movie. He’s a complex man with a motive for his mayhem. No Good Deed does a good job of portraying the villain’s story with greater depth than we see in most movies. His fatal flaw lies in his underestimation of our hero Terri. Colin’s intelligence, deceptiveness, magnetism, and complexity make him formidable villain with considerable texture, in my opinion. I’m awarding him 4 Villains out of 5.

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Boyhood ••••

Boyhood_filmStarring: Ellar ColtranePatricia ArquetteEthan Hawke
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 165 minutes
Release Date: August 15, 2014

Mason: P-PP Emotional/Physical, Pro (Classic Lone Heroes)

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


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

Greg, we just saw a summer film that is about as different from any other summer movie as we’ve ever seen.

Boyhood was made over 12 years with all the same actors. Let’s recap…

The year is 2002 and we meet the Evans family. The head of the family is the mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who has an 8-year-old daughter Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and a 6-year-old son named Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). The movie shows us Olivia’s tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Olivia decides to do something about her low-paying job. She moves the family to Houston, Texas, where she will pursue a degree in psychology. This move will jumpstart her career and allow her to better provide for her family.

Boyhood follows young Mason from age 6 to 18 in twelve vignettes depicting his life as he grows from boyhood to young manhood. This is not a conventional story. There is no “aha moment” where Mason makes the transition from boy to man. There is no “main goal” for Mason to attempt to acquire. This is the deliberate telling of a young man’s life as a series of moments in time.

Strangely, Boyhood is a sort of period piece as it chronicles what it is like to be a boy in each of the 12 years the movie was filmed. We’re shown the elements of Mason’s life that were important at that time. For example, Mason graduates from watching Dragonball-Z to playing Gameboy to playing with a Playstation. Normally a filmmaker would have to dig around in the archives of some movie production house for these time-sensitive relics. But for director Richard Linklater, he was simply documenting what was happening at the time he was filming a particular chapter in Mason’s life.

Greg, this is a movie that requires patience. There aren’t many fascinating moments in this film, and in fact most of the scenes in this movie are depictions of simple moments and mundane details. But that’s one of the main points of Boyhood. A person’ life is an accumulation of many such moments, and they matter. We learn that everyday moments may seem trivial but they may later carry great significance. These simple life snippets pave the way from boyhood to adulthood.

For example, there is one telling scene in which Mason at age 13 is hanging out with a friend and a few older boys at a construction site. The older boys are full of bravado about women and drugs, and they taunt and dare Mason and his friend to partake in their debauchery. The tension in the scene is magnified by them all taking turns violently tossing a blade saw onto a wood plank. Experiences like this are a right of passage for all young men as they test their mettle against their own fears and society’s constraints. This is Boyhood at its finest.

It’s hard to say there are any real villains in this story. Although Mason’s mother has a tendency to pick drunk, abusive men for husbands. Mason’s stepfathers start out nice enough but fall into the “a**hole” zone pretty quickly.

I have to say that as a one-off movie this is a pretty neat novelty act. Getting a group of actors to regroup year after year to perform scenes together is a logistical marvel. But as a complete story, it leaves something to be desired. Boyhood has its place in cinema history, but its message that life is a series of moments took a long time (nearly 3 hours) to tell. Watching the young man transform from a boy to a man was entertaining, yet I can’t help but get a feeling of watching home movies rather than a coherent story.

As a family hero ensemble, several themes emerge that are central to their journey. One theme is the importance of redemption in family life. The father, Mason, Sr., is mostly a ne’er-do-well with an almost debilitating immaturity problem. As the years go by, we are surprised by his growing sense of responsibility as a father and later as a husband to his next wife. Similarly, Olivia takes charge of her life and assumes a responsible position as a college professor. Throughout the movie every adult figure seems to be imploring Mason, Jr., to become more responsible, but of course we witness him learning responsibility the hard way, like all of us do, through a series of mistakes. Boyhood excels in showing us how redemption and responsibility unfold across the human lifespan.

Alcoholism is a primary villain in this story. The jerks in this story are afflicted with this addiction and behave atrociously toward our family of heroes. One scene in particular is difficult to watch, as it involves Professor Bill (Marco Perella) behaving abusively while in a drunken rage toward everyone at the dinner table. While we see redemption in many forms in this movie, we never get the sense that anyone overcomes alcoholism. This is a sad lesson of the movie albeit not an unrealistic one.

I enjoyed Boyhood but I won’t be rushing back to the theater to see it again. It was long and for me held little message. It’s an unusual story as it doesn’t follow the usual pattern. Which is a refreshing change of pace. Still, I think it is the novelty of this approach to storytelling that is the appeal, and not the story itself. I give Boyhood 4 out of 5 Reels.

Mason ends up surprisingly well-adjusted after living a life with a variety of fathers and homes. He’s a bit of a zen buddhist in his attitudes toward life. Despite all the advice to be responsible, he is in fact among the most responsible people in the movie. He settles on photography as a passion and has little interest in his scholastic assignments – yet he goes to college to study art. He’s very much an ordinary young man by the end of the story. His arc is a long one and comes to a nice completion point. I give Mason 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The villains in the story are of the type we might encounter every day. As Scott points out, the men in the story give Mason little guidance and a lot of reasons to become a problem child. Still Mason overcomes these villains. Unlike most of the villains we see in the movies, these villains are not complicated puppeteers. And they’re not intrinsically bad. We get some background to them and we see where their villainy comes from. I give them 4 out of 5 Villains.

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Boyhood is a remarkable cinematic achievement for the way it patiently portrays a family’s dramatic story unfold over the course of a dozen years. There are no cheap thrills, fancy CGI effects, or scintillating costuming here. There are only real emotions, real family crises, real tears, and moving moments of redemption. We see not just a boy grow up but an entire family blossom, leading me to wonder why this movie isn’t called Family or Familyhood. I admired this film greatly and give it 4 Reels out of 5.

The heroes were an impressive group of people who took punches, rolled with them, grew nicely, and became better people as the result of their heartaches. There is plenty of growth, mentoring, loving, crying, mending, and healing. In short, Boyhood has just about every aspect of the hero’s journey, and each aspect is depicted with searing realism. I believe these heroes deserve 5 Heroes out of 5.

There are a few detestable people that our heroes must navigate through on their journey, and the worst of the characters are afflicted with alcoholism. Boyhood’s depiction of alcoholism is a by-the-numbers stereotype of the disease and offered an incomplete view of its progression. The addiction and its effect on the men in Olivia’s life could have been better fleshed out, and as a result I limit my rating here to 3 Villains out of 5.

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The Hundred Foot Journey •••

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterStarring: Helen MirrenOm PuriManish Dayal
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenplay:  Steven Knight
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: August 8, 2014

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

Madam Mallory: Single, N-P Moral, Ant (Enlightened Lone Anti-Villain)


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

Greg, I do believe that a hundred feet would emit a terrible odor.

Not if it was at the Maison Mumbai where wonderful spices are used. Let’s recap…

The Hundred-Foot Journey begins in Mumbai, India, where a family restaurant is burned to the ground by political protesters. The mother of the family is killed, and the father, known only as Papa (Om Puri), flees with his children to Europe. The family car breaks down near a charming French village, and Papa sees it as an omen that they should open their new Indian restaurant in that town. As fate would have it, the perfect building for their new restaurant is located directly across the street from an excellent French eatery owned by a proud, tough woman named Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).

It turns out that Papa’s young son Hassan(Manish Dayal) is a natural chef and learned to use spices at his mother’s feet. Papa and Hassan go to the local food market to buy ingredients for their opening night when they learn that Madame Mallory has bought up all their goods. And now the war is on. Meanwhile, Hassan has taken an interest in Madame Mallory’s sues chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). She hesitantly shares the secrets of French cuisine with Hassan who takes to learning these details like a duck to water. And now the stage is set with a competition for the tastebuds of the town and a budding romance.

Greg, The Hundred-Foot Journey is the perfect movie for people who are obsessed with food. Yes, there are two key relationships that unfold in the story, but they unfold around food, for food, and because of food. I will admit, of course, that this movie is far more than a food movie. Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey have joined forces to produce a moral tale about ethnic differences and how they can inflame hostilities but also how these hostilities can be overcome.

The Hundred-Foot Journey isn’t a great movie. Events unfold in a slightly too predictable way, and things wrap up just a tad too nicely at the end. Madame Mallory’s sudden change of heart about her Indian rivals also stretches the bounds of believability. But having said all that, this is a film well worth watching. The performances are all first-rate, and we’re introduced to characters we grow to care about.


You summed it up pretty well, Scott. I had some problems placing this movie in time. The village the story is set in looks like it fell out of the 1940s. It’s not until Hassan makes the big time and moves to Paris that we get the sense that we’re in modern times.

The movie’s message seems to be that bad things happen when cultures clash, but good things happen when we learn to appreciate our common bonds – especially, in this case, a love of food.

The hero of the story is young Hassan who starts out naive and grows to become more adult and worldly. And he plays the part well. He is naive not only in the ways of fine dining, but also in the ways of love. He innocently plays on the affections of the young lady and gains insights into becoming the chef in Madame Mallory’s kitchen.

Madame Mallory is both the villain and the mentor in this story. She starts out as an adversary to both Papa and Hassan. After her main cook sets the Maison Mumbai to fire, she has a change of heart and realizes that she has taken things too far. It’s a different villain pattern than we’ve seen so far this year – that of the villain turned mentor.

You’re exactly right, and that’s probably why the good Madame’s character defies believability. I suppose I should shed my cynicism and just accept her huge change of heart in the middle of the movie. Although unlikely, this transformation from evil to good is something we all dream about seeing in difficult people. If we keep our focus on the true hero of story, Hassan, we recognize in him a nice coming-of-age tale of a young man who grows personally, professionally, and romantically. Hassan is a bit too perfect of a character, showing virtue and competence at every turn, but he does grow as an individual as he’s thrown into the fire, so to speak.

As you point out, Greg, the villains do shift around during the course of the story. At first, Madame Mallory is the villain, but then the obstacles our heroes face begin to shift. Standing in Hassan’s way is the cutthroat competition of the restaurant business. We learn that the grooming of a top chef requires more blood, sweat, and tears than the U.S. Navy Seal training program. So we first have a “Man vs. Man” theme (or should I say “Man vs. Woman”) that evolves into a “Man vs. Nature” villainesque structure.

I enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey but I won’t be sending back for seconds. It was a sweet, albeit a bit slow, story. You’re right, Scott, it was a bit predictable. But I found it satisfied me rather than coming off as trite. The performances were delightful and I liked everyone in the story. I can recommend this movie, especially to my foodie friends. I give The Hundred-Foot Journey 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero of the story is a bit of a Mary-Sue. Nothing he does is evil. Mostly he acts out of naivete more than animus. In that sense, he lacks dimension and I can only give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain, Madame Mallory, is more dimensional than the hero. She displays pride, envy, even racism. She plots to destroy her competition. But ultimately, she comes to realize that she is a better person than she has been and has a change of heart. This is a nice villain’s journey. It’s one of the few characters who we have reviewed over the last year that starts out as a villain and turns into some sort of hero. I give her 3 out of 5 Villains.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey is a fine meal that is memorable for its color and its texture, but alas, you’ll discover that it is a light supper or heavy snack only. I recommend this film for anyone who loves the process of preparing fine food, or who adores French countryside scenery, or who relishes sappy endings to stories about inter-family conflict. Like you, Greg, I award this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

Out of an ensemble hero cast, we see Hassan emerge as the main hero who represents the best of humanity. He is the catalyst for peace between the two families and then boldly pursues a challenging career as a top French chef. It’s a fairly strong hero’s journey, as we see Hassan navigate his way through cultural barriers, encounter a love interest, and receive mentoring from an unlikely source. I’ll give Hassan 4 out of 5 Heroes here.

Madame Mallory proves to be an interesting and touching villain-turned-hero, even if I found her transformation to stretch the bounds of credibility. After her change of heart, there are plenty of social, cultural, and personal obstacles standing in Hassan’s way of success. This film’s villain structure is complex and shows us that humans are usually their own worst enemies. I’ll agree with you, Greg, that the villains here deserve a rating of 3 out of 5.

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