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Black Panther •••••

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: February 16, 2018


It looks like Marvel is putting out a Pink Panther sequel.

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

Shirley you jest, Greg. This panther is fiercer and greater in every way. Let’s recap.

It’s 1992 in Oakland and the king of the hidden futuristic city of Wakanda is hunting the thief who stole vials of vibranium – a powerful metal from outer space. The thief is the king’s brother who is summarily executed leaving behind a young son. In the present-day Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), son of the king, is challenged for the throne and must defend his right by hand-to-hand combat. Once T’Challa succeeds, he goes to South Korea in search of Klaue (Andy Serkis) – an arms trader who has stolen Wakandan artifacts and must be brought to justice.

Meanwhile N’Jobu’s (Sterling K. Brown) son, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has plans to use Wakanda’s riches, including vibranium, to liberate Africans worldwide from their oppressors. After Klaue attempts to sell the artifacts to CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), Killmonger arrives to kill Klaue. He then brings Klaue’s body to Wakanda where Killmonger announces his true claim to the throne. T’Challa accepts the challenge and the two men engage in hand-to-hand combat, with a surprising final outcome.

Scott, origin stories can be boring. Usually, we get a movie where the first half of the film is taken up with the hero getting their new powers (“hey, I just got bitten by a spider”), learns to use them (“I’m going to need a suit and web slingers”), and by the midpoint has become the hero they were meant to be. The second half is the chasing down and vanquishing of the villain. So, you often get two weak half-movies for the price of one. Not much fun.

Black Panther is different. Our hero starts out as a fully formed hero. But his father dies, leaving a vacuum in the land of Wakanda that can only be filled by ritual battle. Our hero steps up to the challenge and becomes king. But there’s a catch, one of T’Challa’s detractors forces his hand and now the search is on for the notorious Klaue.

Another difference with this film is the wealth of characters. This can be a problem in a 2-hour flick because often there is no time for the secondary characters to develop any depth. But Black Panther skillfully manages this by creating scenes that allow all the characters to participate. As much as this is T’Challa’s story, it is also the story of his family and faithful followers.

You’re right about Black Panther deviating from the origin story norm. From the opening credits, this film is a story about home — finding it, discovering its hidden powers, using those powers to better the world, and seeing home at ever more deeper levels. There are so many great elements of storytelling here. We are treated to reflections on the importance of family, the important linkage to one’s ancestors, the tragedy of colonialism, and the searing legacy of enslavement. It’s a rich narrative about fathers, masculinity, and the sins of the father that the son tries to correct.

I urge readers to check out my colleague Patrice Rankine’s erudite analysis of Black Panther in which he connects the film’s thematic highlights to biblical imagery and classic mythology. Both the hero and the villain of the story have a royal past, and each holds claim to the throne. While the hero is worthy of the status of hero, the villain is morally complex and leaves us pondering the worthiness of his agenda. The best villains in cinema have some redeeming qualities that leave us questioning their villainy and pondering whether they are redeemable. Regarding our hero, Rankine points out that near the film’s end T’Challa addresses the United Nations with a new accent reflecting his transformation into Africa’s international icon. As a result of his journey, T’Challa is forever changed and ready to lead his people toward collective enlightenment.

Black Panther is an artistic marvel (if you will pardon the pun). Everything about it exudes quality – the acting, the costumes, the dialog, world building, backstories, characterizations. This was not a haphazard affair as so many superhero movies have been (see my recent opinion of Thor: Ragnarok). I rarely rate a film above 4 Reels, reserving the highest rating for films that could not have been better made. Surely Black Panther is as good as it gets. I give it 5 Reels out of 5.

As a hero, T’Challa has it all. He starts out feeling entitled, learns that his father was not perfect, falls from grace, and must rise up (with the help of family and friends) to become the hero he is meant to be. It takes the entirety of the film for this transformation to occur. And it is well worth the wait. I give T’Challa 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Black Panther has a wealth of archetypes to choose from. There’s the KING FATHER in T’Challa’s father, the QUEEN MOTHER, the BRATTY SISTER. This is a very strong family hierarchy as laid out by Moxnes. Meanwhile, the RETURNING SON wants to take back the throne. The MENTOR advisor lays down his life for T’Challa. As I said before, it is a credit to the writers that everyone gets plenty of screen time and are well-developed, strong characters. I give them all 5 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

You’ve summed it up well, Gregger. Black Panther takes superhero storytelling to a bold, new level of complexity and wonder. Every great hero story is about home. Here we see a hero transforming himself and his people as a result of finding his home and discovering the full potential of himself and his home. There is so much of substance in this film regarding family, ancestry, women, masculinity, and redemption, that we can only scratch the surface here. Suffice to say this movie earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

T’Challa’s journey is fascinating as it unfolds in ways he never could anticipate. This is the hallmark of good heroic storytelling, as heroes can only transform themselves by encountering unexpected and unsought turbulence, villains, allies, and mentors. Black Panther gifts us with a unique origin story of a superhero from whom we will hear plenty in the coming years. I award him 4 Hero points out of 5.

You’ve mentioned the depth of the archetypal images invoked in this film. There are kings with hidden identities, entire kingdoms themselves with hidden identities, Moxnes’ “deep family roles” involving fathers, uncles, sons, and lovers. There’s even a villain who is not entirely bad and whose intentions leave us pondering the nature of leadership and how to bring about social justice. This film is a treasure trove of archetypes that easily deserve 5 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


Coco •••••

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Screenplay: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2017



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

Finally, Greg, a movie about hot chocolate.

No, Scott. It’s the story of a Mexican boy, his great-grandmother, and the love of music. Let’s recap:

We meet 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with a multi-generational family in Mexico. We learn that Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) to pursue a career in music. As a result, the family has banned all music and even the mention of music. It turns out that Miguel loves music, especially that of the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Miguel figures out that he is the great-great-grandson of de la Cruz and on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) young Miguel decides to steal the late Ernesto’s guitar and play in the talent show. But when he does, he is transported to the Land of the Dead where the skeletons of passed relatives try to gain entrance to Earth on this one day to visit their living relatives.

Miguel befriends Hector (Gael García Bernal), a ne’er-do-well spirit who wants to visit his daughter one last time before she forgets him – causing him to disappear forever. Together, the two try to get the late Ernesto’s blessing so that Miguel can return to Earth and play the guitar. But they must hurry, because if they don’t succeed before sunrise, Miguel turns into a skeleton and will be trapped forever in the Land of the Dead.

Greg, Coco is a true delight and gives us one of the most emotionally satisfying movies of 2017. We don’t get much better hero stories than this one, and curiously it is a hero’s journey turned sideways. Usually, it is the hero who is missing some important quality, but in this film everyone except our hero has a missing quality, namely, an appreciation for music. It turns out that music is the key that unlocks the secret of Miguel’s great-great grandfather’s true identity. More importantly, it is music that brings Coco to life and jogs her memory about her true love: Hector.

Our hero Miguel turns out to be a change-agent hero inasmuch as everyone in his family lacks an appreciation for music and it is up to Miguel to instill in them a respect for musicianship as a career choice. This is not to say that Miguel is a hero without a flaw at the beginning of his journey. He lacks a clear understanding of his true family tree, and of the true evil nature of de la Cruz. The hero’s journey is always a search for one’s true special identity. Coco is no exception to this rule in its focus on Miguel’s quest to understand his place in his very tangled family tree.

I was prepared to dislike this movie because I don’t see how you can have skeletons at Christmas. I’m no fan of Nightmare before Christmas with all of its macabre overtones. Skeletons are creepy. Skeletons are scary. But after watching Coco skeletons became family. They were warm and loving and characters I wanted to be around. Pixar is relentless in the creation of stories that hit the viewer at their emotional core. And Coco is a resounding success in that regard.

And it is a success in every other way as well. The animation in this film is so exact that I forgot that I was watching an animation. That is to say, when I compare this to the CGI in Justice League, the pixels vanished. Every image was smooth and vibrant. The facial expressions were real and expressive. The characters emoted with energy and authenticity. I never wanted to look away. Coco is a rare delight.

You’re right, Greg. The computer animation was off-the-charts extraordinary. Just when you think Pixar’s design team can’t possibly up the ante any further, they produce something as magnificent as Coco. There are two scenes that show a stunning panoramic view of the Land of the Dead. The level of detail here is jaw-dropping, adding the kind of production value to the film that are on par with the spectacular mountain scenes in The Revenant. A generation ago, it would be unimaginable for a cartoon to rival images from real life in power, scope, and impact. But Coco delivers.

There are transformations a-plenty in this film. Miguel changes from hiding his talent to brandishing it with pride. De la Cruz falls from a hero on a pedestal to an evil villain. Hector is redeemed as a lost father to a cherished great-grandfather. And all of Miguel’s family transform from music haters to music lovers. It’s a wonderful change for practically the entire cast. As you mention, it is Miguel who is the catalyst for these changes. It’s his heart and drive that makes the change possible.

Coco is yet another triumph for Pixar and is perhaps the most emotionally fulfilling movie of the year. This film is proof that it is possible to shed a tear during a cartoon movie. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be deeply moved by Coco springing to life at the conclusion of this story. Besides great storytelling, Coco features some of the most remarkable CGI cartoon imagery the movie world has ever seen. This cinematic achievement earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Miguel’s hero’s journey is a bit unconventional but still contains all the classic elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth. Our hero is separated from his familiar world, receives help from friends, escapes from the proverbial belly of the whale, and acquires insight into his true identity. He also forever changes his family, too. I give our hero 5 Hero points out of 5. And because he transforms personally and also transforms others as well, I might as well award him 5 transformative Deltas out of 5, also.

Movie: Transformations:   Heroes:

Coco is a delight for adults and children alike. Filled with complex characters who each have a distinct desire, this film has a plot that drives forward from beginning to end. It avoids being macabre even though the majority of the action takes place in the netherworld. I give Coco 5 out of 5 Reels.

Miguel is a wonderful hero filled with ambition, hope, and naivete. We all want him to succeed in becoming the musician we know he can be. And his love of music both captivates and infects those around him making Miguel a catalytic hero. He helps to transform all his family and save his father from a fate worse than death. I give Miguel 5 out of 5 Heroes and Coco 5 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Dunkirk •••••

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2017


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

Greg, we just witnessed a brilliant cinematic depiction of war heroism at its finest.

Dunkirk is an amazing achievement for Christopher Nolan. Let’s recap.

We meet a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who narrowly escapes with his life while being shot at by German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. Tommy flees to the beach where thousands of British and French soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. He meets another soldier named Gibson who apparently has buried a friend on the beach. The two men encounter a wounded man and carry him to an evacuation ship. Meanwhile back in Britain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) take their private boat through the English channel to help with the evacuation.

We’re treated to four points of view (POV): young soldier Tommy trying to escape, Mr. Dawson coming to the rescue, flying ace Farrier (Tom Hardy) guarding the shore, and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) supervising the evacuation. It’s a great structure that tells one of the lesser-known stories of WWII, at least for Americans.

You’re right, Greg. I was woefully ignorant of the story behind this heroic evacuation. Apparently Hitler made a huge mistake by not aggressively attacking the evacuees, and we can all be grateful for his blunder.

Dunkirk is an extremely well-crafted film. It skillfully weaves together three stories about different characters whose lives converge at the end. This is a war movie and so there is plenty of death, but director Christopher Nolan wisely chooses not to make gore the star of this film. The star is valor, and it is on full display from minute-one until the closing credits. Nolan also makes great use of the “less is more” principle in filmmaking. There are long and excruciatingly tense scenes with little or no dialogue. The fear is palpable. But so is the heroic drive in these characters to act in spite of the fear.

LIke many of our readers, I’ve seen a lot of war movies. But I’ve never watched a movie that made me feel the emotion of desperation that Dunkirk evokes. I never understood just how personal the war was. Britons of all ages felt that their way of life and their very lives were at stake.

There are different levels of heroism in this film. There’s the heroism of the young men just trying to survive long enough to get on a boat. Then there’s the heroism of the commander overseeing the evacuation, then volunteering to stay behind to oversee the evacuation of the French. And we see the heroism of civilians going to sea to rescue the soldiers. And finally, the heroism of a pilot who lets his tanks run dry protecting the men trying to get away. He martyrs himself in the service of others.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is only on partial display here, but in no way does this limitation detract from this film’s excellence. Campbell discusses the low-point, the nadir of the hero’s journey, as the “belly of the whale” – the point in the journey when all appears to be lost for the hero and death seems imminent. Dunkirk is a film that shows in vivid detail what the belly of the whale is like for the hero, and it is hell indeed. This is the epicenter of the hero’s transformation – either the hero musters up the courage and grit to thwart death, or the hero succumbs.

Dunkirk shows us both these polar opposite outcomes. Young George is one of our heroes who dies in the process of saving British soldiers. In no way is he any less of a hero for dying; in fact, by making this ultimate sacrifice he solidifies his heroism to an extreme, thus illustrating that heroes need not complete the Campbellian journey to secure their status of hero. Tommy, our main hero, does survive the whale’s belly. Will he become as “shell-shocked” as the soldier that Mr. Dawson rescued at sea? We don’t know. But the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD is a tragic one that sadly afflicts millions of people.

One of the things that this movie (and another the comes to mind, Warhorse) exemplifies is that not every compelling story is a Hero’s Journey. Surely each of these POV characters is heroic. But the story structure doesn’t follow the classic rise and fall we’ve come to expect from our movies. There are elements of the Hero’s Journey (Tommy returning to the ordinary world of England, eg). But the transformation of the hero or those around him is not necessary for a compelling story. This is one of those rare occasions where the enormity of the event is enough to move the viewer into an emotional state that makes the event memorable.


Dunkirk is a superb film that brilliantly captures the agonizing unacceptability of war. Yet it does so in a tasteful and aesthetically dexterous way. Christopher Nolan deserves Oscar consideration for weaving together three disparate stories of stellar heroism. I daresay that Dunkirk is one of the best films of 2017, showcasing the best of human virtue and valor. I have been torn between awarding 4 versus 5 Reels, but after some consideration, I’m going with the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

The heroism, as we’ve said, is unparalleled and hyper-inspirational. I was struck by the heroism of civilians who took action when it was not required of them as it was of the soldiers. Ordinary people like Mr. Dawson who step up to do the right thing are especially admirable and elevating. Most of the heroism on display here occurs during a tiny sliver of the hero’s journey, the belly of the whale, and this is indeed where the heroic rubber meets the road. Director Christopher Nolan deserves huge kudos for portraying the whale’s belly in riveting, exemplary fashion. The heroism here merits the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

Regarding transformation, we are witness to instantaneous transformations “in the moment” of severe crisis, as when heroes must respond immediately to U-boat bombs pummeling ships and bullets piercing a boat’s hull. These spontaneous transformative heroic acts are marvelous to behold. Much less marvelous is the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD that we witness from Mr. Dawson’s first evacuee. We can’t overlook the unsavory aftermath of an especially punishing hero’s journey. Overall, I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Few films have displayed heroism as well as Dunkirk. The story is told with amazing technical acuity. I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk before entering the theater, but it is forever etched in my mind. The very purpose of storytelling is to share our values and history with each other – to deliver the messages of our past to those of the future. Dunkirk does this with surprising power. I give it a full 5 out of 5 Reels.

Heroism comes in many forms. We’re witness to heroism in great sacrifice (as in the case of the Spitfire pilot) down to small acts of kindness (as when the young man lies to the shell-shocked soldier as to the death of young George.) I give 5 out of 5 Heroes to Dunkirk.

I don’t think this movie was about transformation as much as it was about sacrifice. We do see some transformations – but they are incidental to the story. Everyone in the movie was already giving all they had to give. I would say that they all had already undergone their transformations to get to the point of desperation they experienced on the shores of Dunkirk. While I award only 3 out of 5 Deltas, it in no way diminishes the power of Nolan’s work.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Hidden Figures •••••

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017


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We’re introduced to three African American women stranded on the road in 1960’s Virginia. They are “computers” – women who perform computations for NASA’s space program. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) performs computations for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an engineer in the wind tunnels for the Mercury. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor for the other computing women, all of whom are Black.

Goble has been reassigned to work on the trajectories for the upcoming manned-flights of the Mercury program. She is dismissed by the other mathematicians because she is a woman, and a Black woman at that. Among her many challenges is the fact that the restrooms in the facility are segregated. And the only “colored” rest room for women is across the campus. She frequently has to run a half mile to use the ladies’ room – taking her work with her.

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

Meanwhile, Mary diagnoses a problem in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, inspiring her to pursue an engineering degree. She convinces a judge to grant her permission to attend night classes at an all-white school. Dorothy learns that a huge new IBM computer will replace her co-workers. She sneaks into the computer room and successfully operates the machine. At the library she is scolded for visiting the whites-only section on computer programming. She teaches herself Fortran and is promoted to supervise the programming department, arranging for her women co-workers to be transferred there.

There aren’t many movies featuring women in technology, let alone women of color. Most of our images of engineers and scientists are of young men (see The Social Network). What is marvelous about this film is that it features three such women. They not only have to face gender stereotypes, but also battle racial divides.

The common trope in films dealing with race is that there is a white benefactor who lifts the African American up to where they belong. We see this in such films as The Blind Side, 42, and Race. But in Hidden Figures we’re witness to women who deal with their stereotyped roles head on and fend for themselves. It’s a refreshing change.

I was moved to tears watching Mary stand before a judge and plead her case to be allowed into an all-white community college. I know people who have had to fight for what they have earned. But they deal with a level playing field. Mary has the deck stacked against her. She not only has to change the mind of the white judge who blocks her way into school, but that of her militant husband who believes that violence is the only answer. Hidden Figures delivers three powerful examples of women overcoming prejudice on their own terms.

You’re absolutely right, Greg. Hidden Figures shows the shattering of two barriers, gender and race, in the early 1960s. I had never heard this true story of these three remarkable women, and I’m ashamed of either myself, or the system in which I was raised that suppressed this story, or both. These three heroes won my heart and earned my deepest respect. Like Jackie Robinson in 42, they knew that breaking barriers required them to take the high road when encountering inevitable prejudice and pushback. Their lives and careers were complex, difficult, way-paving and inspiring to say the least.

There may not have been any overt White helpers per se, but one cannot overlook the open-mindedness of people who assisted or supported these women’s efforts. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) deserves kudos in his supervisory role, helping Katherine Goble adjust to her new position and even taking a sledgehammer to the “whites only” restroom sign. The judge who bends an existing exclusionary rule also helps Mary get the education she seeks. There almost have to be people in the majority race who step up to do the right thing in the service of our heroes. Having said that, I agree that this film more than most others we’ve seen emphasizes the independent nature of our heroes’ quest to break their barriers.

We see some good mentoring and leadership in Dorothy’s character. She recognizes that the world is changing and that computing machines are the next big thing. So she learns the FORTRAN computing language and teaches it to her staff. So, when the machine finally work, and the management is looking for programmers, Dorothy is ready with 30 women trained to go.

I liked Hidden Figures very much. I often look for the ‘seams’ in a movie where the structure shows through. But I was so engrossed in the story that the seams fell away. We have three different and connected hero’s journeys – and each got ample screen time. The movie is inspirational to women and people of color, but it also shines a bright light on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Women and minorities are often left behind in the STEM world, and I think Hidden Figures will inspire a new generation of engineers. I give Hidden Figures 5 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, we often look for transformation in our heroes, but sometimes the heroes transform others instead. Katherine showed that she could do a job as well as any white man. In so doing she changed the culture of NASA to be more inclusive. Dorothy broke barriers by becoming the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. And Mary changed the educational system to allow blacks into their community college. In each case the transformation was on society as a whole, rather than in the heroes. I give these three women 5 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to find good mentors, and Hidden FIgures is no different. Each of these women had to forge onward using their own skills and intelligence. But they did it essentially alone. When you’re the first to arrive in the “special world” there often isn’t someone there to act as a mentor. We did witness some good mentoring in Dorothy and her team of ‘computers.’ So I can only muster 2 Mentor points.

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All your praise directed at Hidden Figures is right on the mark, Greg. These brave, remarkable women did what society’s best heroes do, namely, set out on a journey that will bring them pain and resistance from others, defying social conventions that need defying. This movie deserves strong consideration for Best Picture in 2016. I also give it 5 Reels out of 5.

As with other way-pavers and barrier-breakers, these Hidden Figures are both transformed and transforming. We talk about heroes being both the source and the target of transformation in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. These women grow in their courage and resilience, and they have no doubt (and will no doubt) inspire generations of historically oppressed individuals to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

There is mentoring going on in this movie but as we’ve pointed out, this film emphasizes the fierce independence of these women. Yes, they got help of course, but their success derived mostly from their own innate talent and indomitable spirit. I’ll award 3 mentor points out of 5 for the subtle ways that our Hidden Figures received little nudges of help behind the scenes.

Movie: reel-5 Mentors: mentor3 Heroes: h-logo-5

Hell or High Water •••••

hell_or_high_water_film_posterStarring: Dale Dickey,  Ben Foster,  Chris Pine
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2016


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

Greg, is it true that someone told us to go to Hell?

Only if Hell is a town in West Texas. Let’s recap:

We meet the Howard brothers, a pair of modern-day cowboys who have taken to robbing banks in west Texas. Toby (Chris Pine) is the younger brother, and Tanner (Ben Foster) is the older brother who has recently been released from prison. On their tail is a pair of Texas Rangers who want to put an end to the brothers’ crime spree. The head Ranger is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is nearing retirement, and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who somehow tolerates Hamilton’s racist banter.

The brothers have a scheme to rob the Midland Bank of enough cash to pay off the debts of their mother’s reverse-mortgaged ranch. The brothers are following Toby’s plan, but Tanner is a loose cannon and strays from the plan. This leaves enough clues for Hamilton and Parker to predict their next heist. It’s a game of cat and mouse as the Rangers close in on the brothers in a tight spiral.

Greg, I’ll just come right out and say it. Hell or High Water is one of the best movies of 2016. How refreshing it is for a film released in August to boast a rich and nuanced screenplay coupled with memorable and multidimensional characters. This movie held me in rapture, from the opening scene to the closing scene. The film opens with a bank robbery but in the background stands a church with three prominent crosses on the wall, foreshadowing the later deaths of three of this film’s main characters. In the concluding scene, Hamilton moves away from the camera while the camera hits the dirt, suggesting that he is, in fact, the third casualty.

This movie compels you to see things and to see people at a deeper level, a human level. The four main characters have an unusual strength and depth to them, a multi-dimensionality that I haven’t seen in the movies in years. Jeff Bridges didn’t just portray a Texas Ranger; he was that Ranger. It’s Oscar time for him, for sure. Every character inhabiting this film came alive on the big screen, made me laugh, made me cry, or repulsed me. The film is a true gem, a throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking when character development mattered.

Part of the pleasure of this story is that it’s a mystery. The mystery is: why are these cowboys robbing these banks? We’re fed clues incrementally, just as the Texas Rangers discover them. So, despite the fact that we’re following the brothers closely, we don’t know the reasons why until nearly the third act.

This is a great anti-villain story cut from the same cloth as Bonnie and Clyde and The Sting. The lead characters are villainous as they are on the moral high ground. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we talk about anti-heroes. They take on the characteristics of villains but are the characters we are rooting for. Contrariwise, the Texas Rangers are anti-villains. That is, they are the good guys in the story, but are the antagonists for the leads.

It’s a great structure. But what makes this film work, more than anything else, is the depth of the characters portrayed. I had to do a double-take because I thought this might have been a Coen Brothers or Weinstein film (both producers of great character-based films). But no, this one was penned by veteran television writer Taylor Sheridan (Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy). I was blown away by the combination of action, suspense, and great character detail.

You’re so right, Greg. The hero’s journeys are nontraditional, with the Howards voluntarily moving into the dangerous unfamiliar world while pulling the Rangers in with them. Tanner performs the ultimate (anti-) heroic act of sacrificing himself for the success of the mission, and Alberto does the ultimate heroic act of sacrificing himself, albeit involuntarily, for the success of the Rangers’ mission. We have parallel anti-hero and hero stories with no real transformation, only adaptation to circumstances — which can be considered a type of transformative adjustment heroes need for success.

The mentoring is equally rich and unconventional. Older brother Tanner takes the physical lead role in being badass and anti-heroic, but it is his younger brother Toby who masterminds the entire caper. Among the Rangers, it is Marcus who mentors Alberto in the dress code and in doing detective work, but in the end it is Alberto’s quiet dignity that exerts a great emotional impact on Marcus. Toby also plays an important mentoring role with his older son — or, rather, an anti-mentoring role, as Toby cautions his son not to be like him.

While the Rangers serve as anti-villain characters, it’s also pretty clear that the biggest villain in this story is the institution of banking. In our most recent book we discuss how institutions can take on villainous roles. Usually these institutions are societal scourges such as racism or sexism. In this film the villainous institution is clearly the financial industry that conspires to squeeze every cent out of society’s most innocent and vulnerable people. In doing their noble anti-villainous work, the Rangers encounter obstacles in the form of popular disdain for the banks that are being robbed. The robbers, in effect, take on folk-hero status. So the villain in this story, the banking industry, ends up hindering the anti-villains’ ability to carry out their mission while having a slightly facilitative effect for the anti-hero brothers. In all it’s a fascinating triad of anti-heroes, anti-villains, and institutional villain.

Hell or High Water is a cleverly draw tail of modern-day anti-heroes. Everything in this film is excellent: the acting, the cinematography, the story, even the scenery. Often in the movies I’m distracted by the execution of the “seams” of the standard plot points. But Hell kept me in suspense with it’s unspoken mystery of why these brothers were robbing banks. I can’t imagine anything that would have made this film better. I give it 5 out of 5 Reels and I expect an Oscar nomination for the film.

The brothers are classic anti-heroes in that they are making morally wrong choices, but still we see them as heroes because they are subverting the evil banking institution. They are chased by the virtuous (if albeit cantankerous) Rangers as anti-villains, trying to thwart the brothers’ goal of robbing the bank. In the end Tanner martyrs himself, which is a selfless act, but kills Ranger Parker in the process, cementing his anti-hero status. I give this hero structure 5 out of 5 Heroes.

We’re witness to some fine mentoring by the venerable Ranger Hamilton upon the younger Ranger Parker. Although Hamilton insults Parker, he lets us know that it’s a friendly way of acknowledging and (in a strange way) respecting their differences. We also see cross-mentoring between brothers Toby and Tanner. Tanner advises Toby in the ways of bank robbing while Toby shares his intelligence and values with Tanner. It’s wonderful mentoring throughout which I award 5 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Ditto, ditto, ditto, Greg. By hell or high water, this movie had better garner some Academy Award nominations. This film is a true cinematic achievement and boasts the complete package — a meaty script, memorable characters, marvelous acting, a socially relevant message, and a surprising twist or two in the closing act. Jeff Bridges is especially brilliant; I’ll never forget his complex emotional reaction after his successful sniping of his prey. I have no hesitation in awarding the film the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

Our four main characters represent the finest combination of heroes and anti-heroes we’ve seen in the movies in several years. As you’ve noted, Greg, each pairing has its own unique dynamic of power, influence, and communication. The Howard brothers have a lifetime of chemistry to draw from, and the Rangers are in the process of developing theirs. In the end, there is an unshakeable bond within each pairing, and it’s a true tragedy that only one of the four walks away the rubble of this tragic story. For giving us fabulous characters with moral complexity whom we can really sink our analytic teeth into, this ensemble easily merits a rating of 5 Heroes out of 5.

We’ve talked at length about the complex and nuanced mentoring that goes on within each buddy hero and anti-hero pairing. We’re also treated to a rare episode of anti-mentoring going on between Toby and his son. The father-son relationship is actually the catalytic epicenter of the entire robbery spree. As with everything else in this film, the mentoring is exceptionally interesting and warrants a rating of the full 5 Mentors out of 5.

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Room •••••

Room_PosterStarring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, Emma Donoghue
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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

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.

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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.

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The Revenant •••••

The_Revenant_2015_film_posterStarring: 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


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Scott, I feel penitent for having not yet reviewed The Revenant.

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

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.

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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?

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Absolutely. It’s rare to find a film that is better than The Revenant. It certainly deserves the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

Bridge of Spies •••••

Bridge_of_Spies_posterStarring: Tom HanksMark RylanceAlan Alda
Director:Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:Matt CharmanEthan Coen
Birgrapy/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141  mins
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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Like a bridge over troubled waters, there are spies like us.

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

Indeed. This is a movie about walls and bridges. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to James Donovan (Tom Hanks) a tax lawyer in 1957. He’s been recruited to defend a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel. Donovan takes this very seriously – he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, after all. However, nobody around him thinks the spy deserves a trial – they’ve already convicted him in their minds. Donovan is also getting the evil eye from everyone in town, even to the point of death threats and shooting out his windows.

As expected, Donovan loses the case and Abel is convicted. However, Donovan succeeds in sparing Abel from the death penalty. He does this by persuading the judge that, hypothetically, keeping Abel alive allows for the possibility that a future hostage exchange could take place should the Soviets ever capture an American spy. As it turns out, Donovan is prescient.

Scott, you’d expect a movie by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks would be excellent, and Bridge of Spies doesn’t disappoint. Every character in this film is acted out with a sort of precision that you don’t see every day. The spy, Abel, is a cool character. He seems worn out, but meticulous in his behavior and attention to his spy craft. Hanks delivers a very Jimmy Stewart sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” performance. He is truly cinema’s leading, leading man. From both a technical and storytelling point of view, there are no flaws with this film.

Absolutely right, Gregger. 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. Because he defends a suspect who is universally hated, Donovan receives menacing glares on the subway. His home is the target of gunfire, and his family pressures him to rethink his decision. Despite the risks and the danger, Donovan does what needs to be done.

Bridge of Spies features two separate hero’s journeys. The first journey is the unpopular legal defense of the Soviet spy. The second journey takes place later in East Germany after Donovan is assigned the task of negotiating the release of American soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As in the initial journey, Donovan once again takes on the unpopular fight. Under pressure from the CIA to focus only on Powers, Donovan insists on making sure that a 25-year-old American hostage is also released during the prisoner exchange. Once again, our hero does the right thing regardless of the cost to himself.

I’m glad you mentioned the double-hero’s-journey, Scott. While it did keep true to the events of the time, it slowed the movie down. There were two ordinary worlds, and two special worlds to become acclimated to. I can’t think of a fix (and I would never argue with the master, Spielberg). Still the characterizations and suspense pull this film along to it’s thrilling conclusion.

The supporting characters were superb. Of course we already mentioned Rudolf Abel, played exceedingly low-key by Mark Rylance. (My favorite line is when Donovan asks Abel: “Aren’t you worried?” and he replies, “Would it help?”). This is a combination anti-hero and villain character. Certainly not a villain as he is not trying to prevent Donovan from doing his job, but he’s a bad guy; a particularly easy-going bad guy. As such, he’s not so much even an anti-hero as much as a prop – he’s Donovan’s main goal (to give Abel a fair trial).

But it is the system represented by Judge Byers who is the villain in the first half of the film. Byers wants to get the trial over with and sentence Abel to death as soon as possible. He’s already passed his judgement. Donovan even says out loud that his role in this case is to prove that America does not have kangaroo courts. It is Byers who is attempting to thwart Donovan’s main goal. When the jury passes down a guilty verdict, Byers is in the position to sentence Abel to death. But Donovan convinces Byers that Abel may be a bargaining chip in the event an American spy is captured by the Russians. So, while Donovan loses the battle, he wins the war.

The fact that we have two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s journey isn’t enough for him. He’s a person who has no doubt been on many hero journeys, with Bridge of Spies giving us a glimpse of only two of them. 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.

I agree that the supporting cast more than holds its own in this film. Abel is a likeable Soviet villain, and some of the Americans are less than likeable in their dogmatic views and behaviors. You could argue that we have both institutional heroes and institutional villains, with Donovan serving as the face of the “West” and several characters serving as the various faces of the Soviet eastern bloc. These characters include Abel and several of the politicians that Donovan negotiates with to win the release of the two hostages.

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful work of art created by two masters of their craft. Spielberg directs this film in a way that shows off both the heroism of Donovan, and also the corrupt natures of the Soviet and American governments, alike. Hanks delivers again as the most likable guy in Hollywood. Together, the two paint a picture of a man of courage – or as Able calls him – “the standing man.” I can’t think of anything that could have made this film better. I award Bridge of Spies 5 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Hanks is great as the confident yet modest insurance lawyer called to the adventure of defending a villain. Donovan steps up to the challenge and delivers. He has no mentor in his journey, but he draws upon the values laid down by the Constitution. Just as the hero of the western lives by the code of the West, Donovan lives by the ideals set down by the founding fathers. There is also no “missing inner quality” to overcome. While Donovan is modest about his abilities, he is not unconfident. As you point out, Scott, it took two events in Donovan’s life to expose the depth of his character. In the epilog to the film, we’re informed that he also negotiated the release of 1,163 Bay of Pigs prisoners. It’s clear from this film that the heroic element of Donovan is the fact that he not only stands on his principles, but also goes above and beyond what is required. I’d like to give Donovan full honors, but his story lacks certain elements of the hero’s journey. So, I award Donovan 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is excellent. Spielberg suffers no fools, and every supporting character in this story delivers. We’ve already talked about the villainous judge, and the quiet spy. But there was also the (apparently) naive pilot shot down over Russia (Francis Gary Powers), the supportive but worried wife and children, the corrupt CIA officials, the corrupt and devious KGB officials, the youthful college student, and the young people shot down while trying to jump the Berlin wall. All of these characters represent some element of the story, nothing is wasted. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.

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I agree, Greg, that Bridge of Spies is a winner. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical. Having grown up in Los Angeles where I listened to Francis Gary Powers broadcast traffic conditions from his helicopter, I knew his story. But what I didn’t know was the backstory involving the heroic James Donovan working behind the scenes to do the right thing, over and over again, at great risk to himself. I also award this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The dual hero journey is deftly linked and reinforces Donovan’s intelligence, character, and integrity. Like you, Greg, I note the absence of a transformation and a mentor figure who is there to help him transform. In a sense, Donovan is a superhero who is supremely virtuous from start to finish. It’s not a bad hero’s journey, just not the classic journey as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll give Donovan’s heroism 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters, as you point out, are excellent and deserve credit for either assisting Donovan on his journey or for throwing obstacles in his way. I particularly enjoyed Mark Rylance’s wry humor and overall performance as the captured spy who had no chance of acquittal. Overall, these supporting characters deserve a rating of 4 out of 5.

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The Martian •••••

The_Martian_film_posterStarring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Drew Goddard, Andy Weir
Genre, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Date: October 2, 2015


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I feel like Jan Brady: “Martian, Martian, MARTIAN!”


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

Only one Martian, Greg. Not a bunch. And he’s My Favorite Martian. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Matt Watney (Matt Damon) who is on an away mission to Mars with his 7 fellow astronauts. They are all gathering dirt and samples when a storm starts a-brewin’. So they rush back to the ship as the storm starts getting rough. So rough, in fact that a satellite dish goes flying and hits our boy. The rest of the team make it to the rocket and they reluctantly take off without him, thinking he’s dead.

Turns out that Watney survived the mishap and is now stranded on the red planet. He calculates that he has about a year’s worth of food supplies but must somehow survive three years until the next manned mission to Mars arrives. Being a botanist, Watney uses his skills to begin planting crops inside his habitat shelter. Meanwhile NASA scientists discover from photographs of the planet that Watney is alive, and they begin communicating with him. Soon they hatch a daring effort to rescue Watney before he starves to death.

Scott, The Martian is another in a series of smart, scientifically accurate, science fiction movies (following 2013’s Gravity and last year’s Interstellar). The Martian puts you right in the action. You immediately care about Watney’s situation and you root for him to succeed. When everything goes south on him we all feel his anguish. If you notice that I’m talking a lot about feelings in this review, it’s for good reason. The science isn’t only what’s showcased here, it’s the emotions of Watney on Mars, and his compatriots on the spaceship above, and his peers at Mission Control back on Earth. I was struck by how the screenwriter (Drew Goddard ) and director (Ridley Scott) kept three different storylines running at once. That makes for a fantastic story.

The Martian is 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.

The only element of the hero’s journey that is missing is a “mentor” figure. My thinking is that there are “implied” mentors — all the teachers and trainers who taught him skills in science and survival. The end of the movie, showing him become that teacher to others, drives home that point. We saw that kind of implied mentor in A Walk in the Woods, where Robert Redford’s character reveals the influence of Henry David Thoreau.

Scott, what you’re describing could be “The Mentor’s Journey.” We’ve seen this in other stories. The last role for the hero is to become a mentor; to share his lessons learned with new and upcoming heroes. In The Hunger Games Haymitch is just such a mentor. He was once a tribute for the Hunger Games and he survived by killing off all the other tributes. As such, he became a hero figure. Now, in his twilight days, he passes on what he has learned to newer tributes. His final destination as a hero is to become a mentor.

I felt there were a lot of heroes in this story. Of course there’s Watney on Mars. But there are other lesser heroes. There is the director of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) who has three underlings who act as henchmen (Henderson, Ng, and Moontrose). While he manages the operation, it’s the other three who do the dirty work. We also see a turncoat in Henderson. He defies Sanders and informs the crew. This may be a new secondary character – the Unreliable Henchman. Up on spaceship Ares, there is a crew of followers lead by Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). They are also following the Mastermind/Henchman pattern.

I’d also like to draw your attention to two characters who represent a new kind of secondary character for us – the Ingenious Youngster. In one case we have a young woman, Mindy Park, who spots Watney on the satellite photos. In the next, is the young orbital mechanics scientist Purnell (Donald Glover) who figures out how to get Watney home. Both of these underlings are far down in the hero hierarchy, but without them, the story ends sadly.

You’re right, Greg, in pointing out the importance of the young kid character who unexpectedly saves the day by solving a problem that his (or her) elders cannot. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, it was Wesley Crusher who bailed out the Enterprise on more than one occasion. Here it is Purnell, a neophyte astrophysicist whose computations allow for the possibility for the crew to perform a slingshot maneuver around the sun to expedite a return trip to Mars to save Watney.

This whiz-kid character stands in direct contrast to the archetypal Wise Old Man or Woman character who usually serves as the mentor. How interesting that heroes can get help from all different types of sources, some expected and others unexpected. I suspect that villains can receive assistance from a similar range of characters, although The Martian is not the right movie to test this hypothesis. There is no human villain in the story; the villain is nature itself, specifically, the inhospitable natural conditions endemic to Mars.

Which brings up an interesting question in this story – who is the villain for the secondary characters? It would seem it is time. NASA is running out of time before their window of opportunity closes. The astronauts aboard spaceship Ares are also fighting against the time it takes to turn around and go back after Watney. Also, the director of NASA plays a bit of the villain too, as he weighs the expense of losing one man on Mars, versus an entire crew in a rescue attempt. In his mind, better to lose one man than a whole ship and its crew. Perhaps budgets and finance are a villain for him?

The Martian is a great story told exceedingly well. The three plotlines dovetail nicely to give us what some have called Apollo 13 on steroids. The science in this movie has won praises from all corners. The special effects made me believe I was on Mars. But more than that, the tension in this movie is unrelenting. I couldn’t look away for a second for fear I’d miss something important. I give The Martian 5 out of 5 Reels.

There are heroes a-plenty in this movie. Watney, of course, is the main character and is the hero of his plotline. But the other two plotlines have heroic characters at all levels of the story. Even in China we meet two scientists who risk their reputations and status to help rescue Watney. As for Watney, he is the ultimate hero. He’s physically capable and the most competent man on the planet. He uses all his knowledge and experience to survive in the harshest of environments. He gets a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the enormous cast of secondary characters is just overwhelming. We see two sets of Mastermind/Henchman hierarchies. Everyone from the top down is working at their peak to get Watney home. The cast is diverse in every way. We even found a new supporting character in the young geniuses. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 cast points.

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Greg, nothing displeases me more than agreeing with you, but I have to concur with you across the board. The Martian is a near-flawless movie that deserves both critical acclaim and box office success. I hope this film gets recognized with numerous nominations at Oscar time. It’s both a no-brainer and a pleasure to award the full 5 Reels out of 5 to The Martian.

The hero story is textbook. 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. Watney shows all eight characteristics in the Great Eight traits of heroes: He is smart, strong, inspiring, reliable, resilient, caring, selfless, and charismatic. 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. Clearly, Watney earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

And as you mention, Greg, the secondary characters possess a similar richness and depth, and they do exactly what secondary characters should do in any great movie. They complement the hero, assist him, wrong him at times (albeit unintentionally), and enjoy their own mini-journeys of discovery, despair, and triumph. This impressive cadre of supporting characters no doubt earn a rating of 5 out of 5.

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I don’t think films get much better than this. I’d like to nominate The Martian for the coveted Reel Heroes Hall of  Fame. What do you say?

The Hall of Fame is rarified air, Gregger. But I have to agree with you. This movie is a remarkable gem, and so I second your nomination. It’s Hall of Fame material for sure.

Inside Out •••••

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterStarring: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Screenplay: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Animation/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: June 19, 2015


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

Well, Greg, it’s time to review the heroes in Pixar’s latest release, Inside Out.

I’m turned inside out with anticipation. Let’s recap.

We meet Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl whose family is moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. We also meet various components of Riley’s internal emotional state. There is Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

We’re shown around the landscape that is her brain. There are the core islands of family, friends, goofiness, and her favorite pastime – hockey. Each memory is a tiny orb that is colored by whatever emotion Riley was feeling when the memory happens. Joy is the predominant emotion and basically runs the show. But Sadness wants to take over when Riley is having trouble in her new situation. Riley misses her friends and house back in Minnesota.

So, Sadness gets into all the memories and starts to color them blue. Joy wants Riley’s memories to be happy so she attempts to stop Sadness and they are both whisked away from “head” quarters into Riley’s memory storage bank leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to fend for themselves and color all of Riley’s memories. Now it’s up to Joy to return the core memories to Riley’s frontal cortex and restore Riley’s happy feelings.

Greg, Pixar has done it again. This film studio’s ability to craft wonderful and moving hero stories that appeal to audiences of all ages is unmatched in the movie industry. With Inside Out, Pixar has especially grabbed my attention because it portrays the conflicting psychological makeup of the average human being. As a psychologist, I believe that Pixar’s rendition of people’s psyche rings true. 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. Inside Out tells a simple story about average people encountering a common situation. Yet the simplicity of the movie’s premise belies its intelligent handling of the way we struggle to resolve our human pain and difficulty.

As a military brat who moved on average every 18 months, I empathized with Riley’s emotions over moving away from a home she loved. Writer and director Peter Docter didn’t miss a beat. The story moves along at a rapid pace and exposes a lot of the inner workings of our minds. The conflict between the different emotions was hilarious not only for the excellent voice acting, but also because it was so relatable for anyone who was eleven years old at some time.

I was struck by the diversity of the ensemble cast featuring different emotional elements bouncing off each other in a manner reminiscent of John Hughes’ Breakfast Club. Yet the hero story focuses on Riley as a lone hero engaged in an inner war with herself. Imbedded within this lone hero journey is a buddy hero story involving Joy and Sadness. As with most buddy duos, Joy and Sadness do not get along at first. Soon they realize that they need each other and forge an unshakable bond that is essential for Riley to grow in her maturity. In total, we have a complex hero story with at least three layers, and Pixar masterfully manages to weave these layers together into a beautiful, coherent whole.

I agree Scott. One thing I noticed about this ensemble is that there is a clear leader. Joy is not quite the protagonist, but she is the mastermind of this group. We also get a glimpse into the minds of other characters. They also had the same five-emotional ensemble, but different emotions would be the leader.

There is a wonderful cast of supporting players. There’s Bing Bong – the part cat, part elephant, part cotton candy imaginary friend who cries hard candies. And the cleaning crew who dispose of unused memories. We meet the guards of the unconscious who aren’t too bright. And there was a wonderful use of the “Reality Distortion Lens” (an homage to Steve Jobs) by the minions who managed Riley’s dreams.

Inside Out is one of the year’s best films. We are treated to a unique and clever glimpse into the inner workings of the human psyche, bolstered by an entertaining dialogue, creative visuals, and an intelligent view of how human growth occurs. I laughed, I cried, and I heartily recommend that this movie be nominated to our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I award Inside Out a rating of 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was a complex tale of a child’s lone journey represented by her internal mental turmoil, particularly her two primary emotions of Joy and Sadness in battle (and in ultimate union) with each other. I’ve never seen a more psychologically rich and interesting hero’s journey. Our primary emotional hero mastermind, Joy, receives crucial mentoring from Bing Bong and her parents. There is a rewarding transformation in Riley, made possible by inner-struggle, perseverance, and assistance from others. So many of the elements of the classic hero’s journey are represented well here. Again, my rating is a full 5 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, you captured the strength of the supporting cast very effectively. All the characters are impeccably drawn and know their place within the structure of the story. Riley’s family, her emotional elements, and the other minor characters all produce a movie experience that dazzles and shines in every possible way. I award the cast a full 5 out of 5 rating points.

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As much as I hate the phrase, Inside Out is an instant classic. At Agile Writers the first step in writing a novel is defining the demographic the story is aimed at. Pixar obviously aims its movies at children, but creates a tapestry rich enough to engage viewers of all ages. That’s no mean feat. Inside Out hits it mark on so many levels. This is a story of a young girl ripped away from an ideal life and how she handles it. But it’s also a coming of age story. We watch her internal world crumble as she leaves behind childish things and takes a big step towards adulthood. I give Inside Out 5 out of 5 Reels.

When Pixar announced this project a few years back, I was skeptical. The idea that you could tell a story about something as amorphous as emotions is fraught with peril. But Pete Docter pulled it off. By limiting the scope to 5 primary emotions, with one of them as the leader, Docter reigned in what could have been an overwhelming project. Joy is wonderful as the leader of this ensemble. Aside from being ever-optimistic, she’s also a leader. It’s wonderful to see a hero for young women who takes charge (and isn’t labeled as ‘bossy’). I give Joy and her troupe 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting players were so varied and entertaining as well. Although the parents play a small role in the film, they were loving and supportive. The mentor/sidekick character of Bing Bong helped Joy maneuver the special world of the brain’s memory system. The other secondary characters were more than mere walk-ons. They were clearly defined with specific roles in the functioning of Riley’s thoughts. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.

I second your nomination for this film to enter our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. It’s been a long time since we allowed a film in. And for good reason. A filmmaker has to really hit one out of the park to set itself above all the others. And Inside Out definitely cleared the fence of quality.

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