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Race •••1/2

Race_2016_film_posterStarring: Stephan James,  Jason Sudeikis,  Eli Goree
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel,  Anna Waterhouse
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2016


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Hey, I’ll race you to the end of this review, Scott.

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

Let’s take our time and do it right. This film deserves it.  Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Jesse Owens (Stephan James). He’s rushing to the bus stop to take him to Ohio State University where he will be on the track and field team. His mother has made him a new jacket. He leaves his father with two dollars. He stops at the beauty shop where his girlfriend works. He kisses his two-year-old daughter goodbye. And then he’s on his way to the world of higher education, low wages, and collegiate athletics.

Jesse arrives at Ohio State University where he meets the track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder is a good coach but hasn’t had much luck fielding a successful team yet. He sees Jessie running some practice heats and is blown away by Owens’ speed. Snyder tells Jessie that with hard work an Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Berlin games is within reach. Meanwhile Jessie meets another woman Ruth (Shanice Banton) who seduces him after reminding him that it’s best to love the one you’re with.

Race is a movie title with a double meaning. Not only are we witness to the emergence of perhaps the finest athlete who ever lived. But also an examination of one of the most significant events in race relations in world history. Jesse Owens was under great pressure to boycott the 1936 Olympic games because Hitler and the Nazi party were victimizing Jews and people of color. At the same time, he had the opportunity to show that Hitler’s racist ideology was false. This film builds to that moment and plays it to its fullest. Race is a very satisfying depiction of the events that made Jesse Owens a hero.

Greg, I’d say not just very satisfying but extremely so. Race is far from perfect — it’s a bit bloated, with several scenes needing to have been left on the cutting room floor. Still, the movie is an effective biopic about one of the greatest athletes in American history. Owens exposed Germany’s brutal regime of hypocrisy, racism, and hate. His journey was gritty, complex, and courageous.

In many ways, this film is reminiscent of the 2013 film 42 which told the story of Jackie Robinson. Just as Robinson needed help from Branch Rickey, Jesse Owens needed help from Larry Snyder. Greg, I know that nothing drives you crazy more than seeing a movie about a Black man who needs help from a White man. But the historical context of Race and 42 positioned Blacks in a state of powerlessness over the rampant institution of bigotry all around them. Our heroes needed a hand from someone with the power to give it to them.

It’s true, Scott. I would like to see more stories of Black empowerment without a side dish of White altruism. However, in the case of Race I was happy to see that Snyder wasn’t working out of White guilt or charity. Rather, he simply wanted to acquire the best athletes he could find. As Owens himself states in the film – Snyder only saw fast or slow. And there is a poignant scene in the film where Snyder tries to convince Owens that race doesn’t matter. And Owens shouts back: “You’re White Larry!” A reminder both to Snyder and the audience that it’s easy to be colorblind when you don’t have to live with the effects of racism every day.

Owens stacks up very well on the Hero scale. When we first meet Owens, we’re witness to his strength of character when he slips his father money as he leaves. He is good to his daughter and his girlfriend. He wears the ridiculous jacket his mother made for him. And he demonstrates that he is a superior athlete, although rough around the edges. He won’t look Snyder in the eye. He won’t stand up to the white men who hassle him in the locker room. And he keeps very much to himself. So he has room to grow.

Snyder walks a fine line here between being the co-hero of this story in addition to being the mentor to our main hero in Jesse Owens. While we do sense bits and pieces of Snyder’s own hero’s journey, he is first and foremost a mentor figure to Owens. The most impressive quality of his heroism resides in the fact that he walks the walk as much as he talks the talk. Snyder has been world-class runner himself and has made many of the sacrifices that Owens has made — minus the huge racial burden, of course.

There is is also a very telling scene in the locker room involving the Black members of the track team being confronted by the bullying White members of the Ohio State football team. The White bullies assert their White privilege, demanding that the track athletes leave the locker room. Snyder steps in to remind Owens and his teammates that to succeed they must ignore all distractions. The football players and coach are screaming in the ear of Snyder, who blocks out their racial rants completely to make his point to the tracksters. It’s show-not-tell — the most powerful way to mentor people.

A good mentor gives advice and gifts so that the hero can survive in the special world. As you already mentioned, Scott, Snyder gives advice. But when Owens is missing practices due to his after hours part-time job, Snyder swings a cushy job where Owens basically collects a paycheck without having to work. This allows Owens to focus on his athletics.

As we’ve noticed in other films (like last year’s Creed), there is a Mentor’s Journey. It usually focuses on a character who is a former hero. Having completing his Hero’s Journey, the former hero now takes what he’s learned and delivers it to an up-and-coming hero. Snyder is a “willing” mentor in that he looks to support the hero. In movies such as Creed and even The Karate Kid the mentor must be convinced to aid the hero. But Snyder is actively seeking young mentees.

Race is an entertaining and informative portrayal of the life of Jesse Owens, one of America’s greatest athletes of the 20th century. Stephan James delivers a terrific performance as Owens, and Jason Sudeikis does more than hold his own playing Owens’ track coach. This movie accurately exposes America’s racist and intolerant Jim Crow laws, and it also depicts the even greater horrors of Nazi Germany’s growing implementation of its Final Solution. I enjoyed seeing this slice of American history and heroism. This film deserves 4 Reels out of 5.

Jesse Owens follows the hero’s journey to the letter. He enters a dangerous world and encounters innocuous villains on the track and nefarious ones outside the track. He is mentored by Snyder and is loved by a woman (or two). One could argue that he undergoes two different transformations. He is humbled in his mishandling of his romantic life, and he gains self-confidence and maturity in his great handling of his athletic life. Owens also upgrades his mission in midstream — he competes in the Olympics, not just to excel personally, but also to puncture Hitler’s prized Aryan race. Owens deserves 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentor of the story, Larry Snyder, is a terrific character whose own hero’s journey is told in a much more skeletal way than that of Jesse Owens. Snyder is the coach and ally that Owens needs to triumph on his journey. In a very large sense, Owens helps Snyder transform as much or more than Owens himself transforms. Thanks to Owens, Snyder gains stature as a coaching force in the world of track and field. I give Snyder 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Race is a good movie worthy of a better time slot than the February doldrums of the Hollywood release schedule, although just in time for Black History Month. The period costumes, especially the recreation of the Berlin Olympics, were spot on. I felt transported back in time. As with many biopics, sometimes the story seemed hemmed-in by the actual events. But overall, it was an entertaining movie, if not exceptional. I give Race 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jesse Owens is a true historical hero. He was the best athlete of his time. This movie did a good job of depicting the struggles Jesse had to overcome to race at the top of his game. The apex of his challenges comes when he wrestles with the decision to boycott the Olympics in solidarity with the NAACP. Instead he chooses to represent not only America, but Black Americans and brings home four gold medals. I did think that his transformation from an inexperienced, though talented, runner into an Olympian was delivered a bit too easily. So, I am awarding this presentation of Jesse Owens 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Larry Snyder, as played by Jason Sudeikis, is a classic sports mentor. He was once a great athletic hero who must channel his experience and knowledge into an up-and-coming new hero. I liked Sudeikis in this role. He’s better known for his comedic roles, but he played this dramatic character very well. Snyder comes off a little too stereotypical of sports coaches. I prefer a bit more backstory and imperfection to my mentors. So I give Snyder 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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Creed ••••

Creed_posterStarring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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Apollo… Adonis… and … Rocky? Is this a Greek Tragedy?

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

Sophocles is not listed as the screenplay writer. So this must be Creed, the latest installment of the 40-year-old Rocky franchise. Let’s recap.

We meet young Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan). He’s the love child of the late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. While he’s been raised in a wealthy home and has a nice cushy job in a securities firm, he’s always wanted to prove himself to be as good a boxer as his father. He travels to Philadelphia in search of the former great boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him to fight in the ring.

Rocky declines to train Adonis, forcing the young boxer to scrounge around for others to train him in their spare time. Adonis stays in touch with Rocky and eventually convinces him to be his trainer. Meanwhile, world boxing champion Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) from England discovers that Adonis is Apollo Creed’s son and becomes eager to fight Adonis for the championship. The remainder of the movie shows us how both Adonis and Rocky must overcome big obstacles to meet their challenges.

Scott, Creed had the potential to be a seriously bad movie. While the original Rocky movie is a classic, the sequels have left most viewers wanting. In fact, it is quite the cultural joke that the Rocky sequels would go on without end, with the quality getting ever worse. (Consider this image from Airplane 2). But Creed is a fresh story that draws upon the best of the original Rocky franchise had to offer. There are certain elements that are the same: a washed up mentor, a young earnest up-and-coming fighter, a beautiful girl, and a seemingly invincible opponent. Creed is as good as the original.

Greg, I have to admit, Creed caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting a movie with emotional and narrative depth to it, but that’s what Creed delivers. As with many aging superstar actors from the 1970s, Sylvester Stallone has graduated from action hero to mentor figure. Yet in this film, Rocky Balboa is far more than mere mentor. He is a heroic figure in his own right, an equal buddy hero to young Adonis Creed who aspires to become the next Rocky.

Yes, Rocky is still a fighter, but now he fights a deadly disease instead of fighting adversaries. This movie handles Rocky’s illness with great sensitivity and grace. Rocky wants no part of a cure that didn’t help his wife Adrian, and Adonis wants no part of Rocky giving up on life. As befitting a good buddy hero story, the two men help each other undergo the transformations necessary to achieve their goals. The result is a surprisingly moving story about characters we grow to care about deeply.

It’s interesting that you call this a buddy hero story, Scott. Because it has many of the elements of the buddy hero story (two characters who start out disliking each other who come together in a unified purpose). However, Rocky is clearly a mentor character to Adonis. I’m reminded of The Karate Kid. Mr. Miagi did not want to mentor young Daniel-San. It was Miagi who had the “Refusal of the Call” – refusing to mentor Daniel. Similarly, it is Rocky who initially refuses to mentor young Adonis. I’m wondering if this is a new heroic duo – the Hero/Mentor pair. That would make the mentor (in this case) equal to the hero in the story – not a secondary character.

Exactly. You’ve described this hybrid perfectly. Usually mentors occupy secondary roles but in Creed we have a mentor who is thrown into his own personal hero’s journey, receives as much screen-time as his mentee, and benefits from the assistance of the mentee. The mentor’s story and the mentee’s story are intertwined and bounce off each other in interesting and surprising ways.

Greg, I’m noticing a pattern among the supporting characters in movies about sports heroes. In both this film and in My All-American, the hero receives aid from three different sources. Each of these three helpers assists the hero in transforming in a different way. First, there is the childhood mentor who gets our hero’s life off to a good start. In Creed it is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who rescues Adonis from foster care. She is no doubt a hero to Adonis, giving him the love and direction he so desperately needs to succeed in life.

Second, there is the current-day trainer who enables the hero to acquire the physical skills necessary to achieve his heroic goal. Rocky Balboa assumes this role in Creed. Third, the hero meets a woman who provides the love and emotional encouragement that he needs to triumph. All three of these allies are instrumental in helping the hero transform mentally, physically, and emotionally.

That’s a good observation. I think we could do a series on sports heroes and how they parallel other heroes journeys.

Creed is a surprisingly good heroic journey that just happens to be a sports movie. There is a lot to admire here. The roots of this movie reach back to the original Rocky films to launch a new hero in Adonis. We get strong performances from the two leads and a story that is emotionally satisfying. I did find the relationship between Adonis and Bianca a bit forced. It wasn’t necessary for the story – not nearly so much as Adrian was to Rocky. I give Creed 4 out of 5 Reels.

I’m perplexed as to whether this is a buddy hero story or if Adonis is the hero supported by Rocky as mentor. If it is a hybrid, as you call it, then I’d have to rate the duo rather than Adonis alone as hero. Certainly Adonis overcomes his missing inner quality of feeling like Apollo Creed’s mistake. He comes into his own by the end of the movie. And Rocky successfully passes the torch to the younger generation. And there’s the added benefit that Rocky has honored Apollo’s memory by training his son. I give the pair 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting players were less impressive than the leads. There were an assortment of boxers for Adonis to spar with. They were not very interesting. The villain was not as clearly defined as in other films. There were two boxers Adonis had to beat to overcome his feelings of inadequacy. But they weren’t really villains – just obstacles. The villain here, more than anything, was Adonis’s own inner turmoil. The girlfriend Bianca was a typical romantic interest. Adonis’s mother isn’t in it much. Overall, it was a pretty bland backdrop of supporting characters that I can only give 3 out of 5 Cast points to.

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Creed also surprised me by giving us an intelligent story about two men whose lives intersect and who both benefit greatly from the intersection. Adonis Creed is looking to establish his identity and needs Rocky Balboa to achieve this goal. Rocky himself is a man teetering on the edge of geezerdom and needs Adonis to give him purpose and a reason to fight a deadly illness. This story had no business captivating me and moving me to tears, but it did exactly that. I’m happy to award Creed 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story follows the classic buddy-hero pattern but also has obvious elements of the hero-mentor pattern as well. I view it as a hero-mentor story on steroids. Our two protagonists transform in meaningful ways and they rely on each other to acquire personal qualities necessary for these transformations. The dual hero’s journeys here take some surprising turns and are both satisfying and robust. I have to award our duo 5 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are effective but also a bit uneven in this film. Ricky Conlan provides just the right amount of menace in and out of the boxing ring. But none of the remaining secondary characters stand out in any memorable way. Perhaps this is because Creed is first and foremost a story that zeroes in on the interdependent lives of two men, Adonis and Rocky. I give the supporting characters 3 rating points out of 5.

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My All American •••

My_All_American_UpdatedStarring: Aaron EckhartFinn WittrockRobin Tunney
Director: Angelo Pizzo
Screenplay: Angelo PizzoJim Dent
Biography/Drama/Sport, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: November 13, 2015


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

Greg, are you ready for some football?

Only if it’s All-American football – let’s recap…

We meet a young high school student named Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who has a passion for playing football and a father (Michael Reilly Burke) who helps train him. While playing for his high school team, Freddie befriends the quarterback Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell). Freddie is the star player on his team, but his relatively small size means that most big-time colleges are uninterested in recruiting him. Freddie and his dad become discouraged.

But Freddie captures the attention of University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart). Royal recognizes that Freddie isn’t the biggest kid, but he has the biggest heart and offers him a spot on the team. Soon, it’s clear that things aren’t going well for the Longhorns and Royal needs to make a change. The seniors aren’t following the new plan, but youngsters Freddie and James Street (Juston Street) get the new plays and they are moved up to first string.

As Freddie nears the end of his junior year he has trouble with his leg. He reports to the doctor and finds that he has bone cancer. This is a devastating blow but it doesn’t dampen his commitment to his team.

Greg, I admit to being a sentimental fool. Movies like this bring me to tears, even when I feel completely manipulated by the filmmakers. Everyone knows the basic plotline of these maudlin tearjerkers. We meet a wonderful person, an individual who is so virtuous and so wholesome that he really doesn’t exist in the real world. I don’t care that this movie portrays our hero as too perfect. Freddie Steinmark embodies our society’s most treasured attributes, and that makes him a hero worth rooting for. Naturally, when he dies, it crushes us.

This hero story taps into a deeply held archetype we have for the hero who dies before his time. Billy Joel sang, “Only the Good Die Young” for a reason. There’s a poignancy to a tragic early death that moves us at the deepest of levels. The poignancy is only magnified here by the perfect person that Freddie is portrayed to be. The hero transformation is physical and emotional; Freddie trains his heart out to become a great football player. Later, he is compelled by the worst of circumstances to acquire grit and courage.

Screenwriter and Director Angelo Pizzo is no stranger to such heroic sports stories. He also penned historic sports films Rudy and Hoosiers. What is interesting in all three stories is the importance of the “runt of the litter.” They all feature a young person who is smaller than his teammates, but makes up for it with heart.

As a story, My All American breaks the traditional mold. This is pretty much a story of a young man who has everything going his way. There isn’t much conflict until well into the third act when Freddie is diagnosed with bone cancer. He stands up to it as he did with all his other obstacles. While he ultimately succumbs to his illness, he faces it with bravery. There’s not much of a transformation here. He was a strong hero at the start, and he finished the same way. Usually, such a hero transforms others. But there is no catalytic effect in American. This is just a story of someone who died the way he lived – full on.

Scott, I’m constantly amazed by the power of sport in American society. There is something heroic in becoming the very best one can be. And if the sports hero has to overcome uneven odds to succeed, all the better. But there is an imbalance in this hero worship. We pay our sports heroes more than our teachers, first responders, and warfighters. Somehow watching someone be better than we can be is more rewarding than actually being better than we can be. It’s a curious phenomenon.

You’re right, Greg. Since ancient times societies have tended to worship their warriors, and in this film the sport of football is seen as a symbolic (or not so symbolic) form of warfare. I find it ironic that this movie, which glorifies Freddie’s ability to lay waste to his opponents, comes out just before another movie (Concussion) offers a stern indictment of the sporting act of laying waste to others. Our culture is changing. I suspect that the Freddie Steinmarks of the football world will not be worshipped much longer.

But let’s turn to the secondary characters in My All-American. As you point out, the villain of the story is not a person but is in fact cancer, the one thing that precipitates Freddie’s demise. We’ve seen cancer as a villain before in The Fault in Our Stars. Freddie is benefited by numerous mentors including his dad, his high school coach, and Daryl Royal, coach of the University of Texas. As befitting a hero, Freddie also has a loyal love interest who assists him emotionally. These are all central elements in the classic hero’s journey.

My All American won’t be winning any Oscars, but it is still a fine film of how someone can rise to be the best that they can be. There’s not a lot of drama here. We’re witness to Freddie’s growth as a spunky football kid to a spunky football adult. Even at his worst, Freddie doesn’t falter. It’s a bit of a monotone and so I can only award My All American 3 out of 5 Reels.

Freddie Steinmark started out small but grew to hero status by his commitment. While we look see no transformation in the hero or those close to him, Freddie embodies the things we value in our heroes. He was fearless in the face of danger, devoted to those he loved and who loved him, and had a strong moral compass. As a movie critic, he’s not the hero I was looking for, but he exemplifies all the things we value in our heroes. I give Freddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters in this film are cardboard cutouts of stereotypical supporting types. All the other football players were sort of minions who just played along. The coaches were tough guys who followed the leader. The mom and dad were the epitome of the 1950s parents. It’s all pretty dull and I can only muster 2 out of 5 Cast points for them.

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You’ve described this movie to a tee, Gregger. My All-American tells the story of a tragic early death and milks it as effectively as any movie possibly can. The film taps into a powerful archetype about the heart-wrenching loss of vast human potential. Our emotions are shamelessly manipulated by the filmmakers but we’re so in love with the hero of the story that we don’t even care. We just enjoy the ride. My All-American is good wholesome fun and a fine story well worth watching. I give the movie 3 Reels out of 5, also.

Our hero Freddie is a remarkable kid with so many terrific qualities that we celebrate every one of his successes. He’s an underdog that we’re all drawn to and root for with great relish. Freddie traverses the hero’s journey with stylish flair and dexterity until he meets the only obstacle that he cannot overcome — cancer. His heroic gift to the world is accomplished posthumously; to this day he remains an inspiration to everyone at the University of Texas. I give Freddie 4 Heroes out of 5.

I enjoyed the secondary characters a bit more than you did, Greg. Aaron Eckhart does a stellar job in his role as Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach. As a mentor, Royal strikes just the right balance between toughness and kindness. I do agree that some members of Freddie’s support team are not terribly memorable, but they play their roles in solid workmanlike manner. I’m okay giving the supporting characters a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Unbroken •••1/2

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Million Dollar Arm •••

Million_Dollar_Arm_posterStarring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2014

JB Bernstein: Single, N-P Moral, Pro (Transformed Enlightened Lone Hero)

JB Bernstein: Single, N-P Moral, Ant (Transformed Self Villain)


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

Greg, strangely enough, it looks like Disney has made a movie about the arms race.

No, it’s a new baseball movie about finding new talent in India. Let’s recap

We meet JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a sports agent who is struggling to attract clients and is on the brink of financial collapse. He concocts an idea to create a reality show that promises to reap fame and fortune. The idea involves going to India to recruit cricket players with the raw skills to become professional baseball pitchers in the United States. J.B. obtains financial backing from businessman Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), who gives J.B.’s agency only one year to complete the task.

In India JB discovers things don’t work as they do in the US. He has to grease the skids with backdoor deals. He meets an enterprising young man in Amit (Pitobash) who loves baseball and offers to work for JB for free. JB scours the countryside looking for players but finds only two: Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal). Ironically, neither boy is a cricket fan.

JB brings the boys home to America and convinces the USC pitching coach to train them. JB is focused on the deal and neglects to give the boys the attention they need. Tenant and neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell) urges him to be more sympathetic to the two boys who are far from home and only aim to please.

Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm is a pleasant Disney tale that delivers two different underdog stories within the same movie. The underdogs are JB, a struggling sports agent, and two Indian baseball prospects who are not given much chance to succeed at the game. All these underdogs prevail, of course, and they do so in a predictable way. Yet somehow the movie charms us with the sweetness and innocence of several key characters.

Greg, this movie works because Disney has spent almost a century perfecting the formula for tugging on audience’s heartstrings. The two Indian baseball prospects are wonderful young men. Yes, they are naive and jittery, but they wear their generous, innocent hearts on their sleeves. JB is a darker character, self-absorbed to a fault, but lurking behind his careless egocentricity we see hints of inherent goodness. The job of the movie is to develop that goodness into its fullness, which it accomplishes nicely.

I agree, Scott. I’m not a baseball fan, so sports movies occasionally leave me in the dust (witness last spring’s Draft Day). But this isn’t so much a story about sports as it is about overcoming our weaknesses.  The young men in the story are honest and eager to please. They see this as an opportunity and also an obligation to reflect positively upon their families back home.

JB is both a hero and a villain in this story. He is the character who is most transformed by the events in the film. But it is his inner demons – those of greed and ambition – that get in the way of seeing the good in people. And it is this missing inner quality that threatens to doom him to failure in his task. Happily, through the intervention of a good woman and the good nature of the young men, JB overcomes his focus on the business of the game and is reminded of what makes baseball fun.

You’re right, Greg. JB doesn’t need an outside villain, as he is his own worst enemy here. JB is mentored by two people in this story. Besides the woman you mention, early in the movie JB’s contact person in India, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), plants the seeds of JB’s transformation. Vivek tells JB that the two Indian boys represent more than just a great business opportunity; they are first and foremost an important “responsibility.” This wisdom reminds me of Stan Lee’s oft-quoted line, With great power comes great responsibility. It certainly applies to JB, who at first wields his power in selfish and reckless ways before he learns that people come before profit.

I think Million Dollar Arm doesn’t quite hit a home run with its easy-to-digest sports story. It is predictable and unsurprising in many ways. But it has an honesty and good naturedness that makes it an enjoyable movie to watch. I give the film 3 out of 5 Reels.

JB is definitely a man fighting himself in this story. I was happy to see his slow transformation from all-business jerk to understanding jerk. JB gets 3 out of 5 Heroes from me.

There isn’t much of a villain story for us to take home. JB is his own enemy and as such doesn’t have much to overcome. I give him just 2 Villains out of 5.

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We’re on the same page, Greg. Million Dollar Arm is formulaic to a fault yet somehow manages to succeed as a worthwhile film due to its charming cast and fulfilling take-home message. There isn’t much new ground covered here, but I enjoyed Million Dollar Arm and recommend it for people who are in the mood for a feel-good movie. Like you, Greg, I award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is interesting and follows the conventional path of sending our hero JB to India, an unfamiliar place where he is a fish out of water. Several key allies assist him on his mission, and while in India he encounters resistance and also cultivates a love interest. Ironically, she is a woman he Skypes as she lives in America. She ultimately helps JB discover his missing inner quality, which is his sense of humanity. Again, it’s a bit formulaic for a woman to help a man reform himself, but Million Dollar Arm does it in an appealing way. JB deserves 3 solid Heroes out of 5.

The villain, if there is one, is JB himself, or at least it is the dark side of JB’s character. We learn in this movie that heroes find ways to overcome their dark sides, whereas villains are either blind to these sides or cannot summon the conscience to overcome the darkness. Greed is a powerful human force and has destroyed many people, and is thus a worthy adversary here. For this reason I’m willing to award the “villain” 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Draft Day ••1/2

Draft_Day_posterStarring:  Kevin Costner, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Garner
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay: Scott Rothman, Rajiv Joseph
Drama/Sport, Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: April 11, 2014
Weaver: Single, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Lone Hero)
Weaver: Single, P-P Moral, Ant (Untransformed Self Villain)


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

Greg, it feels a little cold in this room.

Well shut the door to stop the draft. It’s time to review Draft Day. Let’s recap.

It’s the day of the 2014 NFL draft, and Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) has the 7th pick in the first round. The Seattle Seahawks have the first pick and are expected to draft the highly heralded hotshot quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). Seattle’s general manager contacts Weaver and offers Cleveland it’s first round pick but the price is too high and Weaver declines. Soon Weaver’s boss, Browns’ owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) pressures Weaver to make a big “splash” with the draft pick, hinting that he’d welcome Callahan to the fold.

So Sonny calls the Seahawks back and takes the deal. He isn’t sure about the deal and sets his staff to investigate Callahan’s background. Meanwhile, Sonny’s girlfriend Ali Parker (Jennifer Garner) (who is also on the Browns staff as a lawyer) reveals that she is pregnant with his child. This being the biggest day of the football year, Sonny isn’t thrilled with the news. And now the stage is set as Sonny Weaver must decide if his first-round draft pick will be for his favorite player or for the hotshot quarterback with a shady past.

Greg, the best word I can generate to describe Draft Day is that it’s a pleasant movie to watch. The formula for a pretty decent movie is well in place — we have a genuinely good heroic leading man in Sonny Weaver, who faces a number of challenging circumstances beyond his control and struggles to cope with them. These circumstances include the recent death of his father; an owner who demands a splashy first-round pick; the quarterback who trashes his office; the head coach who wants more control over player personnel than he deserves; the mother and ex-wife who criticize him; and the girlfriend who wants to take their relationship to the next level.

All this makes for a good hero story, as we, the audience, are eager to see if Weaver can overcome these challenges. As with any good hero story, Weaver gets some support and assistance from key characters and does manage to rise to the occasion. As I said, Draft Day a pleasant movie — it features an interesting situation and these are characters we care about. Costner, moreover, is effective in his role. I can’t use a word more enthusiastic than ‘pleasant’ because no new ground is broken here and I doubt I’ll give this movie a second viewing.

I think you’ve summed it up pretty well. This movie was almost made-for-TV quality with its split-screen phone conversations and Lifetime subplot. Costner really phoned in his performance. I think I’ve been forever spoiled by 2011’s Moneyball. I’m not a sports fan, so Moneyball’s ability to pull me into the world of Major League Baseball and make me care about what happens in that world impressed me greatly. Draft Day looked like it wanted to be Moneyball for football and failed miserably. I was lost for the first thirty minutes because I don’t follow football (let alone the annual draft picks).

Costner’s Sonny Weaver was a terse, no-nonsense sort of man’s man. He is living in his father’s shadow who was the former coach of the Browns. This is Sonny’s first opportunity to shine as his own man. He has pressures from all around and manages them as best as he can – although he is prone to throwing laptops through the wall. As a hero, Sonny Weaver is no surprise, yet still no embarrassment either.

Greg, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the villains in this movie. There really aren’t any, and so that eliminates the ‘Man vs. Man’ villain-type that we discuss in our explanation of our villain ratings. This leaves us with the other two options — ‘Man vs. Self’ or ‘Man vs. Nature.”  Sonny Weaver faces daunting circumstances, and you could argue that these somewhat natural stressors serve as the “villainous” opposing forces in the movie. This suggests ‘Man vs. Nature.”

But Weaver’s challenges are also internal ones – can he overcome his past, can he focus his thoughts, can he will himself to think clearly and make the right call? These factors suggest a ‘Man vs. Self’ villain type. So we may have a hybrid operating here, with our hero struggling with both environmental and personal oppositional forces.

I can see your conflict here Scott. I think it’s because the villains are so poorly drawn. We do have a couple “oppositional” characters that are in the foreground then some lesser ones bringing up the rear.

I think the Brown’s owner Molina is playing the villain character in this film. He’s the one pressuring Sonny to go against his better judgement and risk it all to draft the hot-shot quarterback. Also, the head coach played by Denis Leary is in Sonny’s face demanding to be given the team he wants to play. These two characters are the faces of Sonny’s external challenges. The lesser villains here are the managers from the other teams who are making deals with Sonny and trying to get the better of him. Arguably, Sonny’s mother is an oppositional character as well as she attempts to distract him from the biggest day of his career with his dead father’s last wishes.

I don’t see Molina or the head coach as villains. They’re good men trying to do their jobs, and they have honest disagreements with Sonny. Plus, in the end, none of them are defeated the way villains are usually defeated at the end of a movie. The only things that are defeated are Sonny’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, suggesting that his major foe was himself.

The one unsavory person in the movie is the quarterback Bo Callahan. But even Callahan is just an immature college football player who is hardly the force of evil that we typically see in movie villains. The mother isn’t a villain; she’s merely one of many distractions. So I guess I’m leaning toward the “self” as the major oppositional force in this movie. Weaver is in the pressure cooker and is compelled to muster all his strength to steer his way through all the pressure.

This was a weak movie all around, Scott. You called it ‘pleasant’ but I’d call it bland. There was not much tension in the film and that is due largely to Costner’s understated delivery. I spent the first act just trying to understand the significance of Costner’s draft day dilemma. I give Draft Day a mere 2 out of 5 Reels.

Costner plays a “darned-good-guy” in this film, as he does in most of his films. He’s likable as Sonny Weaver but I never feel his pain or stress. I give him only 2 Heroes out of 5.

The villains in this story were difficult to see because everyone appears to be on the same team (pun intended). I give them just 2 Villains out of 5 as well.

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I enjoyed this movie more than you did, Greg, perhaps because I’m a big football fan, although you are correct in pointing out that Money Ball proved that a good sports film should appeal to a broad audience. Draft Day is good mindless fun and takes viewers on a roller coaster ride inside the sports world. The movie is a bit too formulaic but Costner’s pleasant (there’s that word again) demeanor and winning spirit carry us forward. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

There’s a decent hero story here, with Weaver thrown into a dark unfamiliar world without his father and with intense pressure from family and work. Weaver doesn’t so much change or transform himself as much as he is forced to dig deep to become the effective general manager that Molina hired him to be. Sometimes finding our true selves amidst the chaos of life is our greatest challenge. For a pleasing hero story, I award Weaver 3 out of 5 Heroes.

We couldn’t agree on the nature of the villains, but I don’t think that this is a weakness of the film. Instead, I see it more conceptually as a blurred line between challenges that heroes face because they are weak-minded versus challenges they face because circumstances make them appear weak. I come down on the side of viewing Weaver as conflicted and tormented, thus making this movie an example of ‘Man vs. Self.’ Overall, I’m willing to give these oppositional forces 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Grudge Match ••

Grudge_Match_PosterStarring: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kim Basinger
Director: Peter Segal
Screenplay: Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman
Comdy/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2013


Scott, I’m holding a grudge against you for making me see this week’s movie.

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

With heavyweights like Stallone and De Niro starring in this movie, it must be a spacious 2-car grudge.

We’re introduced to Henry “Razer” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) who was a middle-heavyweight boxer 30 years ago. He beat out Billy “The Kid” McDennen (Robert De Niro) and retired before they could have a rematch. McDennen went on to be a minor success as a bar owner and used car salesman. Sharp, on the other hand, returned to work in the shipyard.

Sharp has money problems and is offered a nice salary to help develop a video game featuring his likeness. The Kid shows up during Sharp’s work on this project, and the old rivalry heats up when the two men get in a fight. The altercation goes viral on youtube, prompting a promoter, Dante (Kevin Hart), to offer them big bucks if they finally fight in a rematch.

But wait, there’s more. The rivalry between the men goes deeper than boxing. It turns out Razer’s old girlfriend and one true love cheated on him. Sally (Kim Basinger) fears for his safety and tries to talk him out of the fight.

Scott, this is another in a series of movies by older actors about people in their retirement years making a comeback. We saw this over the summer in Red 2 and to a similar degree in Escape Plan not to mention the Expendables franchise. It’s becoming a hackneyed plot device where someone goes back to their old profession years after they should have quit. This time the profession is boxing. And the action is a bit unbelievable.

Yes, there’s no doubt that 2013 is the year that the movie industry tried to lure aging baby boomers into the theaters by offering up Stallone and Arnold in Escape Plan and now Stallone and De Niro in Grudge Match. And these movies do have some appealing nostalgic charm to them. Stallone’s understated acting is effective, and De Niro’s contrasting effervescence shines through, too.

I agree with you that it’s a bit far-fetched for us to believe that 70-year-olds can participate in — and survive — violent and extended fight scenes involved blood, swelling, and a tremendous fist-pounding. But the filmmakers here are banking on the fact that all of us aging geezers will suspend disbelief, fall into a state of blissful denial, and bask in the warm reminiscent glow of earlier Rocky and Raging Bull movies.

The two men are enemies and you know how this has to end. It has all the classic sports-hero montages (working out with little success building to successfully hitting the bags). There are nods to the Rocky films (we’ve seen the trailers where Stallone goes to hit a side of beef and his trainer (Alan Arkin) stops him). By the way, there are very few funny moments in this film, but Alan Arkin made me laugh out loud. That’s one guy who never gets old.

Yes, Arkin lands several comedic punches, more so than does Kevin Hart, but I acknowledge that I may be generationally biased here. As hero journeys go, these are rival heroes similar to what we’ve seen in Rush. Not to give away too much, but it seems pretty clear what has to happen over the course of the movie for us to walk out of the theater feeling good about two bitter enemies.

I hate to say this, but Stallone and De Niro should take a page from the careers of Harrison Ford and John Goodman, both of whom have learned that supporting roles rather than leading roles are the way to go as one enters the late-career stage. It must be hard for actors with big egos to come to terms with the idea that your age precludes you from carrying an entire movie like you used to be able to do. I think Bruce Willis is also learning this lesson.

You’ve hit the nail on the head, Scott. Grudge Match delivers no surprise punches. Everything works out the way you expect and if you’re a fan of either actor you’ll be happy with what is up on the screen. Kim Basinger looks good at any age. Stallone’s body is one that any man would be proud of. And Robert De Niro, well, he has guts going shirtless in this film.

But compared to many of the fine films we saw in 2013, I can’t in good conscience give Grudge Match more that 2 Reels out of 5. It was a fun romp, if fantastic. The hero story was also lackluster for a rating of 2 Heroes out of 5. There was some growth and some healing, but it was all in slow motion and pretty predictable from the start.

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Totally agree, Greg. I’m giving Grudge Match 2 Reels and 2 Heroes for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. This isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s a semi-enjoyable and mindless two-hour diversion, and I recommend it for anyone who is a big fan of any of the four major players in this flic, i.e., Stallone, De Niro, Arkin, and Hart. And I must add that it was also fun seeing Kim Basinger do a nice job as the love interest caught in the middle of the rivalry.

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