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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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Whiplash ••••

Whiplash_posterStarring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Drama/Music, Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: October 15, 2014

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

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


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Scott, I thought Whiplash was a movie about car accidents.

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

Well, there is a bad car accident in this movie. But the story is about much more. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a freshman music student who wants nothing more than to be one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. He is practicing in the halls of Shaffer Conservatory when the imposing music director Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) walks in. He is the conductor of the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble. Fletcher auditions Neiman and allows him in as an alternate drummer. Fletcher drives all his students with both physical and emotional abuse. It isn’t long before Fletcher starts abusing Neiman by throwing chairs and slapping him.

Neiman is obsessed with being the best drummer of all-time. He practices until his fingers bleed onto his drumset. He breaks up with his girlfriend so that he can spend every waking moment fulfilling his dream. Fletcher creates a ruthlessly competitive atmosphere to bring out the best in his players, and Neiman knows he cannot miss a beat if he wants to keep his job on the band. One day when Neiman gets into a bad car accident on the way to a competition, he chooses to arrive at the competition battered and bloody rather than lose his spot. He attacks Fletcher after Fletcher dismisses him, and is expelled from Shaffer. But the two men later cross musical paths one last time.

Whiplash is a battle of wills between a young man who wants to be the best jazz drummer no matter what the cost to him personally, and a man who wants to train the best jazz musician no matter the cost to those he teaches. And this is the difference between a hero and a villain. According to Joseph Campbell (mythologist and author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces) a hero is someone who will do anything he can to get what he wants at his own expense whereas a villain is someone who will do anything he can to get what he wants at someone else’s expense. This sets up our young Neiman as the hero and Fletcher as his villain.

The movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of this. And in some ways I thought it rushed certain plot points. There is a wonderful scene with Neiman and his father (Paul Reiser) at dinner with his uncle and community-college cousins. They’re having a battle of opinions over whether it would be better to live a long happy life or a short and spectacular one. Neiman points out that Charlie Parker was the best jazz musician of all time. The uncle throws in that he lived to be only 35 years old. But Neiman is unrelenting, firing back that while it may be true that Parker lived a short life, he impacted everyone as they are still talking about him around the dining room table.

Whiplash surprised me. It’s a low-budget movie without a huge star in it, and yet it is very effective in capturing the most important steps – and missteps – in life. Whiplash pits two men against each other. One is an underdog, an up-and-coming college kid who will do anything to become the best at his craft. The other is an older, established teacher who will do anything to remain at the top of his profession. You would think that the teacher is the helpful mentor figure here, but you would be (mostly) wrong. These are two characters destined to collide. The kid’s triumph over his evil mentor is the crux of the hero story, and it is both fun and disturbing to watch.

Although I enjoyed this movie, I’m left somewhat confused by its message. Maybe ambiguity about ambition is the point of the movie. On the one hand, Fletcher’s teaching methods inflict emotional damage on his students. On the other hand, we learn that his methods ultimately turn Niemen into the best jazz drummer Fletcher’s ever seen. I’m reminded of Tiger Woods, whose father Earl ruthlessly drilled greatness into Tiger but at great personal cost. Is the movie telling us that this is the only roadmap to greatness? I hope not.

I think you’ve misplaced the role of Fletcher. He is a mentor – but a dark mentor, villainous in his approach. He recognizes talent in the young Neiman and while Neiman is trying to impress his mentor, the mentor refuses to acknowledge any talent the young man may have. Fletcher believes that only by challenging the student will the greatness arise. In the end, Neiman is humiliated by Fletcher and Neiman is ready to quit. But at the last minute he turns around and takes control – not just rising to the challenge Fletcher has laid down – but overpowering him with his intense drumming. Finally, the master has found the student he has been seeking and the student has found the teacher he deserves.

I think this movie is telling us that one can achieve greatness only at huge personal expense. And it is left to each of us to decide if the price of greatness is worth it. As Neiman points out in his dinner-time argument, if greatness were easy, everyone would do it. It’s pretty clear that the moral of the story is that if you want to be great, you have to give it 100% of everything you have. Nobody achieves greatness giving their best 90%.

J. K. Simmons does an absolutely wonderful job portraying the villainous Fletcher. His performance may even be Oscar-worthy. I think you’re right, Greg, that Fletcher is an anti-mentor. Just as we have anti-heroes (e.g., Nightcrawler), we also have anti-mentors who send heroes down dark paths that can lead to ruin. It’s then up to the hero to overcome the dark mentor. In Whiplash, Neiman’s dad plays the good mentor role whose unconditional love is there to counteract Fletcher’s bad mentoring influence. I don’t think we’ve seen dueling mentors at all in the movies this year, and Whiplash shows this battle in full force.

I think this is also dueling father figures, Scott. At the end of the film, Neiman is humiliated and goes running to his father for solace. At the moment he is about to surrender and fall into his father’s arms (going back to the safe and comfortable) he turns instead and fights back against the conflict-ridden father image that Fletcher offers. You’re right, Simmons’ performance is spot-on. It is forceful without being over the top.

This also reminds me of the coming-of-age stories of a teen who has to beat his father at sports to emerge as an independent adult. Also, this is reminiscent of the samurai movies where the student must endure torture from the master in order to discover the hidden kung-fu master within. Paul Moxnes has a family-oriented hero structure that includes the good mentor and the evil mentor or wizard. Fletcher is offering Neiman the road to greatness, but it is a dark path.

Whiplash is a fascinating coming-of-age tale with a dark edge to it. This movie had my full attention for nearly two hours and I give it credit for emotionally moving me and offering surprises at the end. The performances are rock solid and there are also some damn good musical performances throughout. I’m more than happy to award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey follows the classic pattern and throws in a few welcome surprises. Neiman is cast into a dark, dangerous world and doesn’t realize how much he’s in over his head. Fletcher’s mentoring seems destined to hurl Neiman toward destruction, but with love and encouragement from his good mentor, our hero musters up the strength and courage to outwit his evil foe. There is a love interest, a father figure, dueling mentors, and more. I see no missteps here at all, only outstanding performances from the entire cast. I’m giving our hero 5 Heroes out of 5.

As we’ve noted, the villain character is an anti-mentor whose cruel, self-aggrandizing methods come at the expense of our hero. I’m thrilled that Whiplash shows us a rarely-seen brand of villainy. This film teaches us to be wary of how we choose our mentors; not all of them look out for our best interests. Fletcher is a lying, cold-blooded, abuser who doesn’t quite get his full comeuppance at the end but is nevertheless defeated. I’m giving him 5 Villains out of 5.

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Whiplash had very little that left me wanting. I thought the love interest was sort of thrown in with little development, so I didn’t really feel a sense of loss when Neiman dumps his girlfriend. Also, the father/son/uncle/cousins story was not fully developed – but it was enough to show a contrast between the thinking of someone who wants to be excellent versus the rest of us, content to do “just fine.” But these had to be given less time so that the contest between dark mentor and rising star could be investigated to its fullest extent. I give Whiplash 4 out of 5 Reels.

I agree with you, Scott, that Neiman represents the classic hero coming of age story. In the classic tradition of “when the student is ready, the master will appear,” Fletcher and Neiman come together at a time when each is seeking the other. And Neiman makes the transformation from neophyte to master in 120 minutes. I give Neiman 5 Heroes out of 5.

And what a wonderful gem of a villain/mentor we have in Fletcher. He is driven not to be the best, but to find someone he can mold into the best. We get a sense that he is living vicariously through his students, perhaps having given up on his own greatness hoping to live it out through others. This is not a simply evil character, but a textured and even tortured soul. I give Fletcher 5 out of 5 Villains.

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Gone Girl •••••

Gone_Girl_PosterStarring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 149 minutes
Release Date: October 3, 2014

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

Amy Dunne: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Deceptive Lone Villain)


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I just went to see Gone Girl. I guess that makes me a Went Boy.

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

And when you went, you made quite a mess. Let’s turn our attention to this interesting Ben Affleck-flick. Go ahead and recap, Went Boy.

We’re introduced to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) – an unemployed author married to the woman of his dreams – Amy (Rosamund Pike). He comes home to find his wife has gone missing. And all the clues point to Nick as the culprit. Local Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) is tracking Nick’s activity and is building a case against him. There’s blood on the kitchen floor and on the walls. There’s Amy’s insurance policy that was doubled in recent days. There’s the nosey neighbor who claims Amy said the marriage was on the rocks – and Amy was pregnant. But without a corpse, there cannot be a murder. Then, Boney finds a diary where Amy lays out a story of a marriage gone bad and a husband she fears.

As public opinion turns against Nick, he senses his imminent arrest. Wisely, he seeks the legal counsel of Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who attempts to rehabilitate his public image. A big setback occurs when Nick’s adulterous affair with a college girl half his age is revealed. But wait, a bigger reveal is that Amy isn’t dead after all. We learn that Amy is a psychopath who has orchestrated what appears to be the perfect frame and set-up of Nick. Amy’s plan is dealt a huge blow when she is robbed of all her cash and must turn to an old boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris) for refuge.

Scott, this is a great story. We’re pulled in by the story of the perfect relationship. Then the relationship sours. We are lulled into the sense that Nick is the typical terrible husband. That he just might be capable of murder after all. And just when we, like everyone else in the movie, believe he is guilty – we learn that Amy isn’t dead. In fact, she’s setting Nick up for her own murder.

This premise is easily as frightening as Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction. Nick has scorned Amy and now she uses every intimate detail she knows about Nick to implicate him in a terrible crime. It’s anyone’s worst nightmare – that all the secrets you share with the person closest to you can be used against you in the court of public opinion.

The greatest element of this story is the turnabout of the villains. The first half of the movie sets Nick up as a dreadful man (and to a certain degree it’s a deserved reputation). Then at the halfway point, the tables are turned and Nick becomes the victim to Amy’s villain.

You got that right, Greg. Gone Girl is a dark movie. It’s dark in showcasing the worst of humanity and also dark in the way that darkness conceals things. There are hidden agendas of varying degrees throughout the movie, and they keep us guessing and re-guessing. This film is a chess game on steroids, with chess pieces moving methodically along the board in surprising and sinister ways. I’ve never been a big fan of Ben Affleck’s acting ability, but here he is a master of exuding mixed signals, rendering us uncertain of his culpability and character.

Nearly all of this film’s darkness emanates from the story’s main malevolent character, Amazing Amy herself. For me, Amy is the most memorable female character in the movies since Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2011. Amy is sexy, smart, confident, and accomplished. We cannot even imagine her attaining the level of diabolical evil that she reaches. But reach it she does. We’re left aghast and appalled while admiring her stunning, disturbing intelligence.

Ben Affleck as the hero of the story is severely flawed. He is childish, a philanderer, and actually not that bright. We’re given a tale of him as villain first and when the tables turn he is the victim. The story follows him center stage from beginning to end. It’s his conversion from the controlling husband to the one controlled that we are witnessing. He’s different from any other hero we’ve studied thus far. He is transformed, but this time, not for the better.

Amy is likewise a complex villain. At the start of the film she is painted as the dutiful wife who does whatever her husband wants to do. But at the halfway point we come to realize that she’s the one who is controlling Nick. She becomes the villain. And again, unlike any villain we’ve studied so far, she is more capable, more cunning, and more powerful than the hero of the story. She is the ultimate villain.

Nick is not your typical hero. He’s not a terrible man but he’s not a good man, either. He goes through hell in this movie yet we hardly see signs of change or growth in his character. He becomes wiser but appears not to use his wisdom to better himself or the world around him. I think this is the point of the movie. We learn that dark people do dark things, and if they’re smart enough, they’ll get away with murder, literally. We need heroes to stop them but in Gone Girl the heroes are neither smart enough nor virtuous enough to rid the world of its darkness.

I do believe that Rosamund Pike is outstanding in her role as Amy and deserves Academy Award consideration for her performance here. There is a multi-dimensionality to her acting, ranging from demure sweetness to true psychopathological rage. I agree with you, Greg, that she is the ultimate villain, making everyone around her look foolish as they try to keep up with her true motives or her next move. Amy is a force unto herself, literally; there are no henchmen or henchwomen to aid her. She is a true lone villain, perhaps the most formidable force of evil that we’ve seen this year at the movies.

Gone Girl clocks in at two and a half hours – and none of it was wasted. I was getting a little bored by the time we got to the midpoint where the tables are turned. Then I was riveted. This is a completely engrossing tale told spectacularly well by all members of the cast and crew. I give Gone Girl 5 out of 5 Reels.

Nick is a flawed hero as we have discussed. He’s not altogether bright nor altogether virtuous. He lets women mold him into whatever they want him to be (his mother, other girlfriends, then Amy). We really don’t have much sympathy for him as a victim. At the end of the movie he has a way out, but he isn’t strong enough to take it. This is a complex protagonist that is difficult to score on our usual scale. I give Nick a 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Amy is the most manipulative, spiteful, vengeful, cunning and controlling villain we’ve ever seen. If there were a Villain’s Hall of Fame, I’d nominate her for it. Her “unreliable first person” narration first paints her as the victim, but in the end we realize she’s the one in control. I give Amy 5 Villains out of 5.

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Gone Girl is one of the year’s best movies with it’s stylish portrayal of love, treachery, and murderous revenge. This film drags us through the muck of human relationships and the nadir of human conduct. I enjoyed this movie despite the fact that afterward I was left feeling alarmed and ashamed of the human race. At film’s end, there are hints of a sequel, which I would dread seeing with great anticipation. While not a perfect movie by any means, it is engrossing enough to merit a full 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero Nick is confident, handsome, and charismatic, but he’s not terribly admirable. He blunders his way through the movie without evolving or learning from the disastrous choices he’s made (and continues making). The fact that at the end he remains married to Amy is a horrifying testimony to his lack of heroism. That he even survives his arrogance and foolishness is a miracle — or perhaps it is grist for a sequel. The near absence of heroism in this movie is unfortunate but probably necessary to drive home the film’s bleak message about humanity. Generously, I award the rather hapless Nick 3 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Greg, Amy is a force to be reckoned with, one of Hollywood’s most formidable and memorable villains we’ve seen in years. I believe her level of malevolence rivals that of Hannibal Lecter. I hope none of our readers take this the wrong way, but I’d enjoy seeing her tear up additional flesh in future sequels. Because of her magnetism, her backstory, and her ability to surprise us with one chilling act of evil after another, I’ll also award her 5 Villains out of 5.

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