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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.

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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Toy Story •••••

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Villains: villain-3

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

 Villains: villain-4

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

 Supporting Cast:cast-4

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

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12 Years a Slave •••••

Adobe Photoshop PDFStarring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Biography/History/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2013



All kidding aside, Scott, 12 Years a Slave is extraordinary.

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

Totally agree, Gregger. Quite a powerful movie.

We’re introduced to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Negro living in Saratoga Springs, NY in the year 1841. While his wife and children are on a 3-week trip, he is invited by a pair of circus owners to travel with them to Washington D.C. and play violin in their orchestra. Solomon isn’t long in D.C. when one day he wakes up in a cellar with shackles on his hands and feet.

Solomon tries to explain to his captors that he is a free man from New York, but he learns the hard way that the more he speaks the truth of his identity, the more brutally he is beaten. He is taken by boat to the deep south where he must live the life of a slave. Some of his white slave owners are crueler than others. One particularly evil master nearly kills him, and he is sold to another who is just as bad. The entire movie portrays Solomon’s attempt to maintain his dignity as he seeks to restore his freedom under the most horrific of conditions.

Scott, this movie provides a vivid look at the inhumanity of slavery in the old South. It will draw comparisons to the Summer’s The Butler for a look into the lives of how Blacks have been treated in America. The most compelling thing about this film is that it is the story of how a free man is cast into slavery. We see Solomon in his ordinary world, a full citizen with all the rights and privileges of any other man in his town of Saratoga. And literally overnight he is stripped of his identity and cast into a world where revealing that you know how to read and write could mean your death. The stark contrast between these two worlds makes his story at once chilling and compelling.

12 Years a Slave is hard to watch but it must be watched. Our ability to learn from man’s inhumanity to man is very much dependent on our willingness to see and confront the very worst ways humans have treated each other. For that reason we must see movies about the holocaust, about genocide, about torture, about slavery. And then we must do everything in our power to ensure that these atrocities are never repeated.

There are dozens of scenes in 12 Years as a Slave that portray horrific suffering, and the suffering is physical, emotional, and spiritual. There are scenes of brutality that are too terrible to bear, but bear them we must. Are these scenes over the top? If they were not true, perhaps so. But their veracity justifies their need to be shown, to be disgusted by, and to be learned from.

The impact of this story is how we can walk in this man’s shoes – asking ourselves “What if this happened to me? What if one day I woke up in chains with no way of getting home?” The concept of it boggles the mind. This is the strength of director Steve McQueen’s and writer John Ridley’s storytelling. They have successfully drawn us into this man’s nightmare and made us feel his pain.

Solomon’s story represents a classic hero’s journey. We meet him in his ordinary world where he is a free man. Then something terrible happens and he is cast into the “special world” of slavery in the deep South. He is separated from friends and family and must face enemies and make allies in this new world. The rules here are different and he must learn to maneuver in this strange place and learn the rules or suffer the consequences. The consequences in this case are the lash of the whip or even death.

Greg, the casting in 12 Years a Slave is phenomenal. All the actors deserve kudos for their remarkable portrayals of toughness and strength, anguish and despair, hatred and love, heroism and villainy. Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular jolts us into the reality of enslavement and the tragic toll that enslavement takes on our mind, body, and spirit. Ejiofor most certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

We see and vicariously experience the pain and anguish of the slaves. We are shown various gradations of evil among the white slave owners, who range from heinously evil and vicious, to moderately cruel, to empathetic yet still condoning of the barbarous system. There are also nuanced differences among the slaves, from actively rebellious, to reluctantly submissive, to utterly defeated.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Solomon eventually returns home since the title is 12 Years a slave. When he does, he returns as the master of two worlds – the world of a free man and the world of a slave. We learn in the epilog that he goes on to fight against slavery as an abolitionist and member of the underground railroad. This is the fulfillment of his hero’s journey: coming home with the elixir – the knowledge of what it is to be enslaved and the resolve to see slavery ended.

12 Years a Slave is as powerful a movie as any we’ve seen this year. It’s a painfully honest look at what it was to be a slave in the Antebellum South. It’s one of those movies that we must watch so that we never forget and so that it can never happen again. I give 12 Years 5 out of 5 Reels and Solomon Northrup 5 Heroes out of 5.

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Gotta agree with you, Greg. 12 Years a Slave is a searing look at the worst form of human abomination, namely, the disgrace of brutal slavery. If you’re not in tears when you watch the relentless suffering, if your heart isn’t bursting when you witness the powerful final scene of the movie, then you have no human heart. This is one of the year’s best films and I nominate it for our REEL HEROES Hall of Fame. It most certainly deserves the full 5 Reels as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And as you so aptly point out, it portrays the hero’s journey most powerfully in its full form, earning it the full 5 Heroes as well.

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Ender’s Game •••••

Ender's_game_cover_ISBN_0312932081Starring: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Gavin Hood, Orson Scott Card
Action/Adventure/Sci-FI, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: November 1, 2013


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

Greg, we seem to have reviewed a lot of movies this year with the word “end” in the title.

Ender’s Game is the film to end all films!  Let’s recap.

We meet a young teenage boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a cadet in training under the watchful eye of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis). Wiggin and others are training for what is described as an inevitable encounter with a race of alien beings called the Formics, who attacked Earth and nearly destroyed humans 50 years ago. Graff is impressed by the way Wiggin conducts himself both in training exercises and in his interactions with other cadets, especially the bullies.

Ender has a strong empathic sense that allows him to think like his enemy and use those thoughts against them. When he is inducted into the service for the final war on the Formics, he finds opposition in the form of Bonzo – a short but tough leader of the Salamander group. Bonzo wants to be rid of Ender as he has designs on being the commander to squash the Formics. But Ender uses negotiation skills to put Bonzo at ease.

Greg, Ender’s Game impressed me. I was kept on the edge of my seat for two solid hours while I watched a remarkable ensemble of great actors, both very old and very young, perform their craft with considerable skill and intensity. In Ender’s Game we witness the gripping journey of a gifted young boy who is shaped and mentored into battle-readiness by elders we both admire and revile.

This movie’s coming-of-age story is superior to any other I’ve seen. Asa Butterfield as Ender deserves great props, but so does everyone else involved in the making of this film, from screenplay writers to production designers to cinematographers. It is absolutely fascinating to watch Ender become transformed under the tutelage of Graff. Indeed, Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Graff is a joy to watch. Ford’s own transformation from action hero to mentor figure in the movies (see 42, for example) has been sealed to perfection.

I agree with you. The special effects in this film aren’t just for flash and show – they’re part of the story. The movie is based on the book of the same name by science fiction author Orson Scott Card. I’ve read the book and the movie is very true to the original. Unfortunately, things that took a chapter to expose in the novel sometimes get barely a sentence in the screenplay. For example, the fact that Ender has been bred from birth to be a tactical wizard and the ethical issues about using youngsters, some less than 13 years old are only touched upon. Still, there is a lot to think about with this film. The ethical issues it serves up are as relevant today as they were in 1985 when Card published the book.

Absolutely. In fact, the movie works on many levels. It works as a thriller by portraying a bevy of great characters all urgently preparing for imminent war against a formidable foe. It works at a cerebral level because it raises some profound questions about how best to face one’s enemies. Is conflict always unavoidable? Do you destroy your enemies or show understanding and compassion?

The film also works as an ethical examination of the role of children in wartime society. If an entire society’s existence is at stake, can children be exploited to the point of irreparable harm all in the service of saving the society? The movie also works as a textbook examination of leadership. How does leadership emerge? And what is the best way to develop successful leaders? We see these issues dealt with vividly and to great effect in Ender’s Game.

This movie could only be improved if it were longer. You heard me say it, I wanted more. The relationships with Ender’s sister and brother were not played up enough to give us insight into how these affected his psyche. Still, if you paid attention these elements were exposed later.

One of the themes I appreciated was the in-fighting that occurs among intellectuals. These are high-performing, high-IQ children. There is a scene early in the film where Graff singles out Ender as being the smartest kid in the room. Ender complains that Graff made the other kids hate him. Orson Scott Card (and screenwriter/director Gavin Hood) really understand the competition among not just young people, but full grown adults who are in intellectual competition.

Ender’s Game is pretty much everything you want to see in a movie. There is a skinny, boyish underdog of a hero who is thrown into a world fraught with danger, a world that will forever change him and everyone around him. There are mentors to admire and mentors to question. The villain is said to be vile and deserving of eradication, but we’re led to wonder if this is true. The hero encounters one growth opportunity after another and resolves these situations in sometimes surprising ways.

Ender’s Game is the complete package. It easily earns 5 Reels out of 5. The hero story couldn’t be more textbook, more moving, and more satisfying. Joseph Campbell himself couldn’t have concocted a more powerful journey with nearly all the hero stages revealed in full form. Ender Wiggins is one of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2013.  I have no problem awarding Ender a full 5 Heroes out of 5 as well.

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I agree Scott. Previous movies this year, especially Science Fiction films have played up the special effects and action in the films. Ender’s Game starts with some deep philosophical issues and layers on great visuals and action. Even Star Trek Into Darkness (which springs from an anthology TV series that dealt with the thorniest issues of its time) cannot touch the emotional and intellectual content of Ender’s Game.

I’m happy to award Ender’s Game 5 out of 5 Reels for a quality movie going experience. And Ender gets 5 out of 5 Heroes for an engaging and mythical hero story. I’m nominating Ender’s Game” for the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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I concur. This is a Hall of Fame movie if there ever was one.


Thelma & Louise •••••

Thelma_&_LouiseposterStarring: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Callie Khouri
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes

Year of Release: 1991


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

Greg, once again we go back in time, more than two decades ago, to visit a classic movie that has had considerable impact on both society and the movie industry.

Thelma & Louise – a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only in modern times and with women in the lead roles.

Exactly. At the start of the film we are introduced to two women who have been beaten down by the men in their lives. Their names are Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon). Louise suggests to Thelma that they go on a 2-day vacation. Terrified of her husband’s reaction to such a plan, Thelma avoids telling him and packs up and leaves with Louise. The two women drive Louise’s Ford Thunderbird convertible down a long country highway toward more of an adventure than they bargained for.

They stop for a night of drinking and dancing at a dive bar. A local man takes an interest in Thelma and feeds her beer and dances the night away. Unfortunately, he feels she owes him something and attempts to rape her in the parking lot. Louise intervenes and shoots the man. Now the women are on the run.

Greg, I hadn’t seen this movie in more than two decades. It’s aged well. Davis and Sarandon deliver memorable performances as they navigate from one dangerous, disrespectful male to another. We are witness to the contemptuous way they are treated by the men in power all around them. It’s an ugly sight and as viewers we can’t help but sympathize with them.

There are several nice subtle touches to drive home the film’s message of male oppression and how women have been affected by it. There is a sense of hopeless resignation everywhere during the first half of the film. Faces of random older women with defeat in their eyes are shown between scenes. Gradually this sense of desperation changes as Thelma (and to a less extent, Louise) become transformed over time.

This movie reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. In both movies we have heroes who are working outside the law. They are running from the authorities and they end up tragically.

The big difference in Thelma & Louise is that our heroes are on the run for reasons outside their control. They start out as victims, then they take control.

First there is the attempted rape against Thelma. Then the cowboy (Brad Pitt) steals their money. This is when they go on the attack. After being victimized by men, they take control. Thelma holds up a grocery store. Then, when a state trooper pulls them over, they lock him in his own trunk. When a trucker makes crude advances on them, they blow up his tanker truck.

It takes Thelma a little more time to seize control of her life than it does Louise. In a way, Louise serves as a mentor to Thelma. The overall story arc follows a nice progression. At first Thelma and Louise are trapped in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position with the abusive men around them. Gradually they begin to relish their roles as outcasts and masters of their own destinies, even when it becomes inevitable that the ultimate end to their flight is doom.

Slowly but surely, as the film progresses, we begin to see gender role reversals – men who earlier wore bravado on their sleeves are now reduced to sniveling, ineffectual wimps. We know the transformation is complete near the end when Thelma proclaims, “I don’t remember ever feeling this awake.” Her missing inner quality has been recovered.

There is at least one decent man in the movie. Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) recognizes that these are two woman trapped in circumstances that simply got away from them. He pleads with the FBI man to slow it all down because “it will all end with someone getting shot.” And in the end, the women are chased by dozens of Nevada’s finest only to end with our heroes running the car into the Grand Canyon.

I was glad there was at least one honorable male in the film. He can’t do nearly enough to save the two women, whom I see as great modern-day tragic heroes. I was also struck by the scene toward the end featuring a black bicyclist who blows smoke into cop’s car trunk. Clearly, this scene drives home the film’s larger message that it isn’t just women who are oppressed by white males, but many other groups as well.

I mentioned earlier that this movie has aged well. Its relevance is underscored by the fact that as we speak, grisly details in Cleveland are emerging about a man who kidnapped three young women and used them as sex slaves for years. Abusive male behavior continues to this day, and it has a permanent, scarring effect on women. We should all be ashamed that this occurs and we hope that more films like Thelma & Louise can bring this dark aspect of human nature into the light. That’s our only chance for remediation.

Thelma is the truly transformed hero in this story. She goes from being a timid housewife and victim to being a completely liberated woman in control of her world.

This is a classic yet tragic hero’s journey. And one of the few female buddy movies. Thelma & Louise gets my highest rating for a great film experience and also for a great pair of heroes. 5 Reels and 5 Heroes.

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I agree, Greg. Thelma & Louise is one of those rare films that simultaneously inspires while also portraying a sad sense of inevitable disaster. These two women make choices that, strangely, have us cheering yet have us questioning their good judgment at the same time. And it’s all very believable and powerful.

Some people have questioned the freeze-framed ending of their car caught in mid-air over the canyon. I applaud the choice — it has sparked great debates and has a potent symbolic meaning that I respect. So like you, I award the film 5 Reels and 5 Heroes.

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Mud •••••

Mud_posterStarring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes


Scott, we just saw Mud. The new Matthew McConaughey movie.

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

Yes we did. And there was so much mud I needed a bath when I got home from the theater.

We meet young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who lives on the Mississippi River in Arkansas with his parents. They aren’t getting along and divorce is imminent. Ellis and friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) rise early one morning to boat out to an island where they have found a houseboat lodged in a tree – apparently left there after a recent flood. They plan to make a treehouse of it only to find that a mysterious man is living there – Mud.

The boys begin doing favors for Mud, such as bringing him food and delivering notes to his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is staying at a hotel in town. They discover that Mud is in trouble with the law and make the decision to help him reunite with Juniper and escape down the river.

Ellis is an idealist. He believes in true love and wants to help because he sees that Mud has the same beliefs. Ellis defends the honor of an older girl that he wants to date. He doesn’t understand why anyone would give up on true love. In Mud he finds a kindred spirit.

Greg, Mud is a terrific movie that showcases the heartache of growing up. We witness a teenage boy losing innocence but gaining wisdom. He starts out trusting everyone, and he gets burned, but he also gains understanding. We watch him learn painful life lessons, especially that love and family are precious and fragile.

The movie is rich in symbolism. The river serves as both a barrier and a symbol of flight from danger. Juniper, Mud’s girlfriend, has birds tattooed on her hand and wears a bird on her necklace. Mud’s boat is airborne, perched in a tree. Hiding on an island, he is separated from the world. Only after Mud lowers the boat into the water does he finally re-connect with the world, drawing close to Ellis, Juniper, and his father-figure, Tom (Sam Shepard).

I really enjoyed this film. We follow Ellis through the childhood drama and disillusionment of watching his parents break up. He wants to cling to the idea that with love anything is possible. And time and again he learns the harsh lesson that love just isn’t enough. And that not everyone shares his core belief that true love is the most important value.

Yes, and it’s Ellis’s transformation that makes this movie special. A few weeks ago we called After Earth a nice coming-of-age story, but Mud has so much more depth and nuance to its storyline. Although the character of Mud is not the central hero, we are drawn to him. There are plenty of snakes in this film, and they appear in both reptile and human form. At first we wonder if Mud himself is a snake in the mud or if he is someone who can somehow rise above the other snakes ready to pounce on him. We are initially appalled by his exploitation of Ellis’s kindly innocence. Mud eventually redeems himself by performing a courageous, selfless act.

I agree, Scott. Mud represents Ellis’s childlike beliefs extended into the future. Mud is what Ellis will become if he can’t temper his teenaged idealism. The big question is will Ellis be broken by the events in his life or will he cling to a core belief that will turn him into a victim.

Mud (the movie) is a very sensitive and thoughtful treatment of childhood love and heartache. But it’s not overly sentimental. The children in the story are strong and independent but still naive. I’m reminded of 1986’s Stand By Me. I felt that the story and direction were very strong and I give Mud 5 out of 5 Reels. We are also witness to a dual-hero story of a pair of characters who share the same belief in true love. Both heroes follow an arch and are transformed in the end. Not only do I award Mud 5 out of 5 Heroes, but I also nominate it for our Hall of Fame.

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I’m in agreement that Mud is one of the best films of the year. Matthew McConaughey turns in an outstanding performance as a man on the run, and young Tye Sheridan hits just the right notes in portraying the painful loss of youthful innocence.

This is an inspiring hero story, with Ellis passing through all of the stages of the hero’s journey. He encounters a father figure in Mud, a love interest who teaches him an aching lesson, and has a sidekick in Neckbone. Ellis’s naïve view of the world gets him into trouble but also endears him to everyone around him, and the friends he has cultivated eventually save his neck. By the movie’s end, Ellis has been transformed, possessing an adult understanding of both the joy and sadness of human relationships. It’s a beautifully crafted hero’s journey.

Greg, I’m with you in awarding Mud 5 Reels out of 5, and 5 Heroes out of 5. I second your nomination for this film entering our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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The Matrix •••••

The_Matrix_PosterStarring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes



Periodically Scott and I review a classic movie that we feel embodies the Hero’s Journey and is a great viewing experience. Ths week we’re looking at The Matrix, the 1999 movie from the Wachowskis that put Bullet Time on the map.

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

Greg, after rewatching The Matrix this week, I’m struck by how beautifully it was filmed and choreographed. It was truly ahead of its time. And you’re right, the hero story is chock full of many classic elements that unfortunately most filmmakers today simply ignore.

We start off with a story prologue. This is something I warn my writers against. So often prologues are just a lot of backstory and are homework for the reader. In movies this usually comes in the form of a voice-over explaining where the hero comes from. This is a bad sign – it means that the screenwriter lacked the imagination to trickle the backstory into the body of the script. Happily, we don’t see that here.

In The Matrix, the prologue introduces the Special World by starting with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) on a mission. The police are sent up to capture her. But that is a big mistake because she has unusual abilities to fight and defy the laws of physics. She can run faster and jump farther than her counterparts. This is a great peek into where the hero will go and is a contrast to his Ordinary World. But it comes before we first meet our hero and starts with action, drawing us into the world of the Matrix.

The universe in which The Matrix is set is revealed to us slowly, and as viewers we’re immediately drawn to our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) upon first meeting him. We relate to Neo’s good nature and genuine confusion about the nature of reality, and we soon learn from Neo’s mentor, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), that Neo is The Chosen One who is fated to save the world.

The Matrix taps into several timeless mythological patterns: We have an oracle that sets in motion a great hero story and yet speaks in riddles. We have a man born not knowing his true identity and yet fated to be The One. This hero possesses hidden, untapped powers and has many people around him, friends and foes alike, who doubt his worthiness. Our hero’s own choices ultimately awaken his special powers and trigger his prophesized transformation.

We meet Neo at his desk. He’s a computer hacker and goes to a party where he meets Trinity who tells him that she knows what he’s been searching for – the truth about the Matrix. She can take him to Morpheus the man who can reveal the truth to him. Neo follows and Morpheus offers him a choice – take a blue pill and stay in his ordinary world, or take the red pill have the truth revealed. Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in a submarine with new friends: Trinity, Morpheus, Tank, Dozer, and others.

Scott, the movie follows the classic mythical Hero’s Journey. The hero experiences the “call to adventure” and “crossing the threshold” from the ordinary world into a special world. Neo learns that everything he knows is false. The world he has been living in is a dream and the real world is occupied by AI – Artificial Intelligence. Morpheus believes Neo is The One who can control the Matrix and fight the evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving). But like any good hero, Neo doesn’t believe he is the chosen one and will need convincing. It’s up to his mentor, Morpheus, to teach him the rules of the special world.

Greg, I’m struck by how the filmmakers didn’t miss a beat in creating a character who is destined to be transformed in ways he cannot imagine. The key elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero are all in place. As you mention, there is the call to adventure, a mentor, a love interest in Trinity, characters who assist Neo, supernatural assistance from the oracle woman, and a compelling villain in Agent Smith.

Interestingly, I got the sense that Morpheus also plays a father figure to Neo. The relationship between Morpheus and Neo is crucially important, as Morpheus believes in Neo when Neo does not, and we are witness to them each being somewhat over-protective toward each other. The film also succeeds because we’re never quite sure ourselves, as viewers, whether Neo is the chosen one and how, if at all, he’ll transform himself.

You’re absolutely right. They held the revelation of Neo being The One until the very end. It was an effective reveal. We watch Neo go from being completely skeptical to gradually understanding what his limits and powers are in the Matrix. And we grow with him. This is the mark of a great story – the viewer becomes the hero and feels the successes and failures of the hero.

So, everyone in the audience has had the feeling of not belonging and can identify with Neo. And we’ve all had the experience of starting out weak as children and gradually growing into our adult strengths. Neo’s growth is a great allegory to the coming-of-age story.

Well said, Greg. We recently reviewed a current film, Oblivion, that was just as beautifully filmed as The Matrix but featured a hero character who was essentially an unchanging piece of cardboard. The makers of The Matrix first and foremost cared about their hero story and made the hero’s remarkable journey the centerpiece of the screenplay.

The Matrix’s astounding CGI fight scenes still dazzle to this day, and the staying power of this movie is so strong that even 14 years after its release General Electric is now running a new commercial featuring Agent Smith. The Matrix earns 5 Reels out of 5. The character of Neo and his unforgettable journey earn The Matrix‘s hero story 5 Heroes out of 5.

Movie: reel-5 Hero: superman-5

The Wachowskis forced their actors to train hard and perform a lot of their own stunts to give the film as much reality as possible. You will rarely get the kind of realism from a film as you find in The Matrix.

The movie gets 5 Reels for outstanding acting, stunts, choreography, filming and even sound. And we have a classic mythic tale replete with archetypal mentors, helpers, shapeshifters, and shadows. I award 5 Heroes for an uncommon hero’s journey.

Movie: reel-5 Hero: superman-5

Groundhog Day •••••

Groundhog_Day_(movie_poster)Year of Release: 1993

Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliot
Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 101 minutes

In this special edition of Reel Heroes we go back 20 years to revisit one of our favorite heroes: Phil Conners from Groundhog Day.

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

Greg, this is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s no coincidence that it’s due to the strength of its hero character. For me, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is one of the most memorable movie heroes I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching on the big screen.

It is a great movie and a lot of fun. Phil Conners is Pittsburgh’s most egotistical weatherman. We meet him on Groundhog Days where he has a special assignment to Punxsutawney to report on Punxsutawney Phil – the groundhog who reveals whether winter will last another six weeks, or if Spring has sprung. Phil and his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) are snowed in when a blizzard hits the town. They have to stay the night, but when Phil wakes up the next morning he finds he’s stuck in a time loop – Groundhog Day is repeating. Every morning he wakes up and every morning it’s Groundhog Day again.

At first, Phil uses the repetition of the day to steal money and to manipulate women to sleep with him. Yet the one woman he grows to love, his producer Rita, won’t succumb to his advances. He grows depressed when he realizes that his methods will never allow him to achieve real intimacy with Rita. He becomes suicidal, believing he is stuck, alone forever, in a dull town on an endlessly cold winter day.

In the end, however, he resolves that if this is to be his only day, he is going to make it the best day he can. He learns everything there is to know about each person in town. He memorizes every recurring event and schedules himself to arrive at just the nick of time to catch a boy from falling from a tree, he replaces a flat tire, he even saves the mayor’s life by performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Greg, what every movie-maker should learn from this film is the importance of hero transformation. We see so many movies where the hero does great deeds but never shows any real change. Right before our eyes, Phil Connors evolves from a disgustingly self-absorbed jerk to an enlightened altruist. It’s fun to watch, but also very moving because many of us can relate to his feelings of emptiness and his futile attempts to remedy his situation. We are then witness to what one can do to turn one’s life around.

What really struck me about Phil is how he uses his situation to attempt to get Rita to go to bed with him. Every day he asks Rita out and learns something new about her. The more he learns about her, the more he seems like the perfect man for her – as if he is reading her mind. But at the end of every day, she sees through his plan and slaps his face. This is Phil’s lowest point. He realizes he can never have her and goes into a deep depression. He gives up his plan and goes about killing himself daily, only to wake up each morning on Groundhog Day again.

Rita plays a fascinating role here. She is not only his love interest, but his mentor, too. This is rare but it works very effectively, as Phil falls in love with Rita precisely because she holds the key to his transformation. Her wisdom, compassion, and optimism trigger his metamorphosis. Another fascinating character is the villain in the story. It turns out that Phil Connors is his own villain. He has to slay his own demons to complete his hero journey.

This movie is a very misleading comedy — it makes you laugh, but you can’t help but feel that the movie delivers a serious and powerful message about life, priorities, and the secret to finding true love.

It’s only after Phil completely gives up on attaining Rita that he begins refining himself. He focuses on becoming the best Phil he can be. He becomes selfless, doing everything he can to help the members of the community. Once Phil stops thinking about himself, he can give Rita the attention she deserves. And it’s this selfless quality that makes Phil a man Rita can love. She finally stays the night with him – a chaste night of slumber. And the spell is broken. Phil wakes up and it’s the day after. And he receives his wish: he has won Rita and he can get on with his life.

You can’t get a better story of redemption than this one. Phil’s actions take him from the most suicidal low possible to the highest of emotional heights. After just composing our tribute to Roger Ebert, it’s nice to know that Ebert placed this movie on his list of “Great Movies”. The film was also added to the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

You can hardly get higher praise than that. Groundhog Day is an example of how heroes set the standard for our ideal behavior. Phil had to start out immensely flawed in order to become someone we would recognize as iconicly good.

This is Bill Murray’s greatest role and finest performance in the movies. The movie employs a unique premise to teach us that whatever our flaws or circumstances, we can redeem ourselves. It’s one of the best movies, and best heroes, of the 1990s. And that’s why we place it in our Hero Hall of Fame.