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Epic ••½

Epic_(2013_film)_posterStarring the voice talents of: Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles
Director: Chris Wedge
Screenplay James Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom Astle, Matt Ember
Children/Animation/Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 102 minutes


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

Greg, we just saw Epic, the new computer animated fantasy-adventure film based on William Joyce’s book.

Indeed we did, and I’d say it was neither a good Epic nor a good fantasy. Let’s recap.

The movie begins with a young woman, Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), visiting her eccentric father who lives and works deep in a remote forest. We learn that Mary Katherine (who prefers the initials MK) has a rocky relationship with her dad, whose obsession with finding a civilization of tiny creatures in the forest caused his marriage to fail and his family relationships to suffer. One day MK ventures into the forest and inadvertently stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), the tiny monarch of all life in the woodlands. Tara has been mortally wounded but lives long enough to shrink MK down to size and assign MK the task of bringing a magic pod to a showy glowworm named Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler).

MK is aided by brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson) who is one of the soldiers of the Leaf Brigade. He suffers from being too independent. He is unable to follow orders given by troop leader Ronin (Colin Farrell) and marches to his own drum. This makes Nod a bit untrustworthy. Also, along for the ride, are Mub and Grub (Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd), two slugs who offer comic relief. Together they must battle the forces of decay (the Boggans) who are constantly trying to kill off all living vegetation. Their goal is to prevent MK and friends from delivering the magic pod to Nim Galuu who will then use the pod to select a new queen and usher in another 100 years of bountiful forest living.

Well, Greg, based on what you said at the outset of this review, I’m almost afraid to say, without ducking for cover, that I thought this movie was good. Now keep in mind I make this positive assessment knowing that the film is intended for a young audience. I would say the target audience is roughly 5 to 12-year-olds. Is this a movie for adults? Probably not, but adults can certainly enjoy the absolutely stunning animations.

Scott, I’ll give you the visuals. Producers Blue Sky Studios (of Ice Age fame) did a great job of creating a spectacular forest and articulated characters of all sorts. If all you want is a pretty picture, then you won’t be disappointed by Epic. However, as you say, this is a film for youngsters and as such it glosses over some important story elements. For example, the story doesn’t explain what happened to MK’s mother or Nod’s father. But as adults we know that they have died. I am OK with glossing over these details for younger children. However, many scenes in this movie are very scary, dark and deal with death directly. Characters are killed off right before our eyes. Hiding off-screen parental death but showing on-screen death is an incongruity that I can’t reconcile.

Greg, this incongruity didn’t bother me, perhaps because I didn’t see much of one. Yes, the screenwriters omit the details of the death of MK’s mom and Nod’s dad. It’s a kids movie and we don’t need to get too nitty gritty there. And you’re right that many of the bad guys are pierced by flying arrows, but these deaths are shown antiseptically with no sign of pain or blood. (Strangely enough, the good guys never seem to die or get hurt, with the exception of Queen Tara). So I think it’s largely a non-issue. I stand by my opinion that the movie, overall, offers up an exemplary hero story.

Consider the character of MK, the film’s hero. She is strong, courageous female lead character who serves as a great role model to boys and girls alike. She displays nearly all of the characteristics of a great hero – courage, intelligence, resilience, selflessness, kindness, and inspiration. As you know, female heroes are rare in the movies and so I truly welcome this film’s portrayal of her as a heroic figure.

I’ll grant you that MK is a good hero, but I wish she were less of a damsel in distress. Most of the action scenes are stolen by the men doing the fighting and MK clutching the magic pod. Compare MK to Mirada from last year’s Brave. Mirada did the actual fighting in that film. MK by contrast appears to be the custodian of a magical pod – I’ll let you read the metaphor there.

I also had trouble with the basic premise of good and evil in this film. Apparently the forest is the battlefield of the constant struggle between the forces of decay and the forces of life. That is, the forces of decay (the Boggans) are constantly trying to kill off the forces of life (the Leaf People). Fairy tales and myth are stories that explain the world we live in – as metaphor. I could follow the life-giving characters in the story. But I didn’t recognize the Boggans as elements of decay. You can easily point to the forces of life (trees, grass, birds, insects) but I just don’t understand where a child might go into the forest and point to the forces of decay.

It seemed to me that the filmmakers were attempting to anthropomorphize the time-honored struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. And because we’re in a forest setting, this struggle is portrayed as the battle between those seeking to preserve lush green plantlife versus those seeking to destroy it. I’m not sure why, but I did buy into the fantasy.

I will concede to you that MK is portrayed, at times, as dependent on the Leaf Men for protection. But there are also plenty of scenes where she performs impressive physical feats to escape trouble, and let’s not forget the clever clue that she leaves her father which ultimately saves the world. MK rocks as a hero.

One of the delights of Epic is its large array of colorful supporting characters. There is the father, the love interest, the queen, the magic seer, the leader of the Leaf Men, and a bevy of sidekicks including a couple of lovable bi-optic slugs. There are also the villainous Boggans, led by the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his own nefarious sidekick. Most of these characters really grew on me — although I confess that the slugs wore out their welcome rather quickly.

We agree on that last point. The slugs were poor comic relief. I found myself wishing for the likes of Timone and Pumba from Disney’s The Lion King.

I was very disappointed in this film. It has been advertised for nearly a year at our local theater and I was expecting good things. I felt it was too violent and dark for younger viewers. I didn’t like the struggle between decay and life. I feel that Epic is the Fern Gully for a new generation – without the political overtones. I can only give it 2 Reels out of 5. While the hero characters are mythic (including a nice “atonement with the father“) I don’t think they were the focus of the film – the artistry seemed to be central here. I give Epic 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie: reel-2 Heroes: superman-3

Epic achieves its goal of providing 100 minutes of solid entertainment for children. It does so by serving up a classic and fun-filled hero story that features nearly all of the elements of the hero’s journey, such as the hero’s call to adventure, her entry into a dangerous new world, her search for something missing in her life, her encounter with helpers along the way plus a love interest, her recovery of what was missing, and her return to her original world.

These key hero elements, plus the remarkable animations, earn the film 3 Reels out of 5. (I would give it 4 Reels if I were a child). From my perspective, the outstanding story of a young woman setting out to develop a relationship with her father earns the movie 4 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-3 Heroes: superman-4

G.I. Joe: Retaliation ••

G.I._JOE_RetaliationStarring: Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Jonathan Prhttp://greg-smith.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/scott.jpgyce, Byung-hun Lee with Bruce Willis
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Rhett Reese
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes




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

Greg, we just saw G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Did you lose as many brain cells as I did?

No, only my self-respect for believing that Bruce Willis could make this movie worth seeing. This is a movie based upon the Hasbro toy line of the same name, and it is a sequel to 2009’s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. There is a better plot here than the first go-round. But it is a movie divided against itself as we’ll discuss later.

GI Joe: Retaliation is apparently aimed at Baby Boomers who grew up playing with the 6-inch action figures and watching the Saturday morning cartoon series. As it is rated “PG-13” it is appropriate for adults and older kids alike. Channing Tatum returns in the role he played in the prequel and is joined by Dwayne Johnson with a little help from Bruce Willis. So, it has the star power to attract an adult audience. However, the plot never rises above the quality of the Saturday morning cartoons.

To be fair, the movie isn’t intended for balding, over-educated, middle-aged geeks like us. The average 12 year-old boy might love it, assuming he’s into explosions, gunfire, and sword play. Here’s a brief synopsis of the opening act:

The Joes have just completed a successful mission in Pakistan but are unaware that the President of the U.S. (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by an evil imposter. This bad guy in the White House betrays the Joes by publicly renouncing them and then by bombing them into oblivion. Duke (Channing Tatum) is killed, leaving Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) as the only active Joes remaining. This trio vows to clear their good names and fix what has happened.

What follows is two movies in one. Which I suppose is necessary because the main plot doesn’t have enough weight to make it span two hours. The main plot follows Roadblock, Flint, and Lady Jaye as they return to the States and set up shop in an abandoned gym. They determine that there is an imposter in the White House and they need help to expose him. And there is only one man they can trust – the original GI Joe: General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis).

Meanwhile, Snake Eyes and Jinx are on a separate mission to track down and abduct the evil Storm Shadow. This “B” plot was mostly a lot of ridiculous ninja-style fighting. And when I say ridiculous, imagine two dozen ninjas suspended from a cliff by hand-gun shot grappling hooks all swinging around trying to kill our intrepid heroes with swords. The heroes are likewise swinging around on a zip cord between two mountains. In my mind I was wondering why the ninjas didn’t just slice the zip cord. Case closed. As it turns out, Storm Shadow isn’t as evil as you might think as he was framed by Zartan who is posing as the President.

Honestly, I felt I needed a score card to keep up with all the characters in this movie. A quarter of them were wearing masks or helmets so there was no way to tell who was talking at times. Although the writers did give Snake Eyes an out as he took a “vow of silence.”

Greg, I don’t think most 12 year-olds care about believability. They just want to see cool fight scenes on the sides of mountain cliffs. And the movie delivers in that respect. The main problem I had with G.I. Joe: Retaliation was the near total absence of character development at the beginning of the movie, and the same absence of character transformation at the end. We have a slew of one-dimensional characters who are certainly heroic, but their heroism is like one of those cheap chocolate Easter bunnies I just ate — completely hollow.

Scott, how can you on the one hand excuse believability because the movie appeals to 12-year-olds and then complain about one-dimensional characters on the other? You can have both good plot and characterization in a movie for youngsters, you know (witness our recent review of The Croods). Still, the heroes are very black-and-white. As such, Roadblock plays the classic reluctant leader. General Joe Colton plays the grizzled veteran. And Lady Jaye is the hot babe who kicks butt while wearing a sport bra and heels. And there ain’t gonna be a lot of depth in those roles.

I’m not saying I’m excusing it, just understanding it. And please don’t tell me that The Croods was believable! Come to think of it, most movies these days require a heroic effort on our part to suspend our disbelief. I guess I can forgive a lack of believability, but I can’t forgive a lame-arse hero story.

Now having said that, it’s possible we should cut G.I. Joe: Retaliation some slack for having such a feeble hero story because it’s part of a series. It’s often the case that a single installment of a series rarely contains the full hero journey. Notice that I said that it’s possible to cut some slack here. Personally, I’m not going to do any slack-cutting because it didn’t look like any effort was being made at all to craft a meaningful hero. Apparently nonstop action was the goal.

And it was achieved. The movie moves along at a good clip and Dwayne Johnson was good in the role. I’m going to give G.I. Joe Retaliation 2 Reels for being what it sets out to be – a shoot-em-up for pre-teens and fan-boys. But I can only give 1 Hero for the thinly-painted characters.

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-1

I went into the theater with low expectations, and those expectations were fully met. Even Bruce Willis couldn’t salvage G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I’m going to be very generous and give the movie 2 Reels if only because I can think of movies that are worse than this one. I’ll give the movie 2 Heroes because there is nothing more painful than agreeing with Greg on both ratings!

Movie: reel-2 Hero: superman-2

The Croods ••••

The_Croods_posterStarring: (the voice talents of) Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman
Director: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Screenplay: Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco, John Cleese
Animated/Action/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes


(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)

Scott, The Croods is a new animated feature from Dreamworks animation. They’re the crew who brought us all those Madagascar movies, and Shrek. I haven’t been impressed with much that they’ve done since Shrek, but The Croods is a rocking good time.

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

The Croods didn’t disappoint. I was initially a little worried that this movie would be The Flintstones set in a darker universe. But it delivered meatier fare than anything Fred and Barney could.

We’re introduced to Grug Crood (Nicholas Cage) who is a classic Cro-Magnon. He’s big, burly and keeps his family safe by hiding them in a cave. Anything out of the ordinary is bad. Everything good is in the cave. The family only ventures out to forage for food. And when they do, it’s a team event with everyone in the family doing their part. But they must hurry back to the cave before the sun sets or become food for whatever roams the night. Grug’s teen-age daughter, Eep (Emma Stone) has a different idea about what is good. She loves the sun and the outdoors and anything new. She sneaks out one night and meets a young Homo-Sapien named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Guy is everything new. He wears boots, a belt, has mastered fire, and brings a tale of impending doom – the earth as they know it is collapsing!

It had better be collapsing! We can’t have a hero story in a stable, familiar world, now can we? Grug notices that Eep is missing and frantically searches for her. Meanwhile, Guy leaves Eep to venture to safer terrain. After Grug and his family find Eep, massive earthquakes destroy their cave, sending them fleeing toward a land that is a far cry from their bland rocky desert. This new world is a lush jungle teeming with color and all sorts of new peril. Greg, to me this shift in worlds was reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.

That’s an apt comparison. The first thing that occurred to me in this movie was how closely it matches Moxnes’ Deep Roles Model. In it Moxnes describes how archetypal characters are based on the family structure. There’s the Father, the Mother, the Crown Prince, the Princess, the Wise Man and the Hero. The Croods fit this model closely with father Grug, mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), brother Thunk (Clark Duke), daughter Eep, and grandmother Gran (Cloris Leachman) as the wise mentor. The boy Guy plays the Hero character. Usually in this model the Hero is transformed through the experience. But the main character who goes through transformation is Grug, the father. He starts out clinging to the old, safe ways. But he gradually learns that the old ways don’t work in a world full of strange plants and animals.

Glad you brought in Moxnes’ model, Greg. It fits like a glove here. This movie is interesting in that it starts out giving the impression that Eep is the hero. She leaves the safety of her cave to explore a forbidden world. But as you say, it’s Grug who must change his ways in response to a rapidly changing world. He can’t stop his daughter from growing up, and he can’t prevent earthquakes from transforming the landscape. I would say that Grug is the main hero and that the mentor is Guy, not the rather uninteresting Grandma character. It was Guy who encouraged new ways of thinking and who brought about Grug’s transformation.

That’s a good qualification, Scott. I really respected the Dreamworks animators for not coloring Eep in perfect female form. She’s a cute character, but unlike so many Disney princesses, not a classic beauty. She has very broad shoulders and thick legs. Her hair is a controlled cinnamon brillo pad. She has a sunny face and great enthusiasm. I’m reminded of Shrek (another Dreamworks film) and how the princess in that story turned into an ugly green ogre at the end of the story. The Disney model requires that good characters be (or become) beautiful. (Take for example, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast who transforms from an evil beast to a good, handsome prince). All too often, both in cinema and in life, we equate beauty with virtue. It’s good to see a film that takes the risk of making their virtuous characters look less than perfect.

Eep is definitely a non-traditional woman. She’s smarter and more intellectually curious than just about every character, and she runs circles around most of the men in this story. She’s even physically stronger than Guy. If there’s a sequel to The Croods, she’s the one character I’d want to learn more about.

Greg, the movie’s only flaw, if you could call it that, was the ending. The filmmakers here got greedy and tried to make the hero just a little too superhuman. I won’t give away the ending scene, but let’s just say that the screenplay writers underestimated the audience, who would have left the theater quite satisfied with all the growth and transformation that our hero underwent. But no, we’re presented with a truly unrealistic scene at the end that wrapped everything up in a far too-perfect bow.

I see your point. However, remember this is a children’s movie rated PG. One element that was especially endearing to me was the presence of “story” in the movie. Grug often tells stories and illustrates them on the walls of the cave. I just loved the idea that the earliest people were as much in love with telling a story as we are today.

You’re right. We had stories within the story. And those stories had to change for the main story to work. Overall, it’s a classic hero tale with all the essential elements in place. The animated cinematography was amazing, especially in the early egg-chasing scenes. There was clever humor — witness the Croods’ first reactions to fire with references to fire babies and fire-biting. While Grug emerges as the main hero, in a way the entire Croods family displays heroism in their combined efforts to survive their radically changing world. Like Shrek, The Croods has memorable characters and classic themes that appeal to people of all ages. I’m giving the movie 4 Reels out of 5, and the hero 4 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-4 Hero: superman-4

I was delightfully surprised. This is a very layered film: the merging ideas of early man with modern familial problems, the coming of age for a young girl, the feeling of loss for a father losing his daughter to a young man, the passing of brute strength in favor of intellect, and a man standing still while the world literally passes him by. I really can’t find any faults with the story except that it was a bit too saccharine so as to appeal to the sensibilities of young children. I’d like to give this 5 Reels, but the ending fell a bit flat so I can only give it 4. I was a bit confused about who the hero of the story was. The story starts focused on Eep as the element of change. Then switches to Guy, the young boy. And finally settled on Grug as the transformed hero. I prefer a more clear hero structure and so give only 3 Heroes out of 5 for The Croods
Movie: reel-4Hero: superman-3

Oz The Great and Powerful •••

MV5BMjMyMzQ1ODM1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE2MTQxOQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Fantasy/Adventure, Rated: PG
Running Time: 130 mins


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
So Greg, what was your overall impression of Oz?

(Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA)
I thought Oz was a visually impressive movie with a weak story. It sets the stage for the classic Wizard of Oz story as we know it from the classic movie.

You’re right, it was visually stunning. The colors of Oz were dazzling and like all movies these days, the computer effects were extraordinary. The story itself wasn’t bad. But somehow all the good parts didn’t make an impressive whole.

I felt they took an overly long time setting the story up. Like the original, Oz The Great and Powerful starts out in black and white. But it seemed to take forever to get to the color portion. There is a lot they could have cut from that opening bit. Then, it took a long time (like half the film) before our Hero had a Main Goal to chase after. I was bored for the first half of the second act.

Yes, they copied the old formula.  A tornadic trip to Oz … segueing from black & white to color … the hero stumbling upon a group of unusual helpers … the hero being charged with the goal of killing a witch, etc. But the magic just wasn’t there.  A few dull scenes were painfully long.  And as you mentioned, the set-up at the beginning took an eternity to unfold.

This is a classic Hero’s Journey. The Ordinary World of Kansas gives way to the Special World of Oz.  Mila Kunis was great as the naive witch/sister spurned by the Wizard.  She is beautiful compared to the Wicked Witch. This emphasizes one of the problems with the Disney story-telling worlds. People who are beautiful are “good” and people who are ugly are “bad”. We see this transformation over and over again. Witness Beauty and the Beast.

Yes, the film contained most of the elements of the hero’s journey. At the end of the journey the hero was indeed transformed; he finds himself, and he finds love. I’m not sure that James Franco, playing the Wizard, was up to the challenge here.  The strongest actors were the three witches, particularly the two wicked witches played by Mila Kunas and Rachel Weisz.  The theme of all-is-not-as-it-seems pervades the film.  We see this theme most notably in the Wizard’s magic tricks, and in character introductions, e.g., the wicked witches appear good at first, and the good witch appears bad at first.  Greg, what’s your take on the Wizard and his goals here?

The Wizard didn’t seem to have much of a passion for anything. He seems content to wander around Oz learning the ins and outs of the world. He *is* interested in the treasure, but it isn’t clear that he’s keen to get back to Kansas – or anywhere for that matter. Also, there is a little china doll that really adds nothing to the story. In my mind, it looks like an opportunity for shameless merchandizing.

To me, the china girl was a necessary help to the hero but both she and the monkey, as sidekicks for the hero, were far more annoying than they were appealing. Unless of course small children are the intended audience here.  Oz came across as designed for 10-year-olds, which is unfortunate because I’m sure the filmmakers were hoping for broader appeal.

My main complaint was with the movie’s final resolution. It’s a familiar issue — I call it the Law of Convenient Powers, or LCP. We saw this problem in the Hobbit, too. The law states that, at the end of the movie, beings who previously had shown limited magical powers suddenly, out of nowhere, acquire extraordinary superpowers that get them out of the worst of jams.  How convenient that one of our heroes suddenly becomes so powerful at the end.  Where were those powers earlier when they were so desperately needed?

Right.  In the writing world we call this Deus ex Machina. Certain characters did sort of pull off stunts that we never saw in the earlier parts of the movie.

I know you didn’t think James Franco held his own in this film. But I preferred him over the producers’ first choice for Oz: Johnny Depp. Franco came off as ambitious with an edge, but still with a streak of goodness. Besides, Depp is over exposed in these sorts of roles. After playing the Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka, I have seen enough of him for a while. Let someone else take on the quirky roles for a change.

Maybe it wasn’t so much that Franco fell short, but that his character did. Let’s face it — The Wizard of Oz had Dorothy, played spectacularly by 16-year-old Judy Garland. Dorothy was an innocent and quite vulnerable. Franco played a conniving never-do-well. He just wasn’t as likeable.  At the end of the movie, after we know he’s been a womanizer his entire life, are we really expected to believe he’ll be faithful to his new love interest?

You’re right. The Wizard in this film was not a good guy in the beginning. He was a trickster, charlatan, and womanizer. In the end he was transformed into something more respectable.

On another note, we saw the movie in Flat-2D. I wasn’t disappointed. But there were several scenes that were overtly 3D out-of-screen experiences. Flying Baboons jumping, Bubbles Popping. For my money, the extra special effects are not worth it. There was not much in this film that I felt needed to be seen in 3D.

There was a spectacular waterfall scene that would have been great to see in 3D. Other than that, 3D would have added nothing of appreciable value. This movie also suffered from the fact that we know the ending. The first time I saw Wizard of Oz, I had no idea what would happen. A movie in which we know the ending (e.g., Titanic) has to be truly superb to make up for the lack of suspense.

It’s true, this is the origin story of the Wizard of Oz and as such we pretty much know how it has to end. I was disappointed that there was no mention of ruby slippers. (Dorothy Gale was given no age in the books). Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but Annie – Oz’s girlfriend in the opening – was to be engaged to a man named “John Gale” – which was Dorothy’s last name (possibly her uncle).

Good catch, Greg!

Overall, I enjoyed this movie, despite it’s slow pace. The CGI ending made up for a host of sins. I recommend seeing it in theaters for the spectacle, but I don’t think it’s a fitting prequel to the Baum stories. I give it 3 Reels out of 5. My biggest fear is that it sets the stage for a Wizard of Oz remake from Disney in coming years. I think if this is any indication, such a remake would be a disappointment. The hero was lackluster but still evolved into a better man. I give him 2 Heroes out of 5.
Movie: reel-3  Hero: superman-2

This movie was a mixed bag.  It provided a visual feast for the eyes.  The hero story was quite respectable, as the Wizard followed the classic pattern of being sent to a strange and dangerous world; meeting up with sidekicks, albeit annoying ones; finding a love interest; and using his skills to cleverly overcome evil.  But Oz failed to enchant me and one hero’s superpowers at the end rang false.  I also give it 3 Reels out of 5, and I give the Wizard 3 Heroes out of 5.
Movie: reel-3 Hero: superman-3