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The Wolverine ••1/2

The_Wolverine_posterUSStarring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Fila Fukushima
Director: Jeff Mangold
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Action/Adventure/Science Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2013


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

Time to review another movie, Greg. This time it’s The Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman, who is more ripped than my spoon-sized shredded wheat.

In the trailers, Yashida offers to make Logan “mor-tal” but I think he’s tall enough.

Groan!  Let’s recap.

The Wolverine begins with a flashback to Nagasaki during World War II, when the city is about to be hit by the A-bomb.  At that time Logan saves Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) from being burned by the radiation.  But now Yashida is dying of old age and sends his granddaughter’s friend, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring Logan back to Japan, presumably to say thanks and farewell.  On his deathbed, Yashida tells Logan that he wants Logan’s superpower of immortality, but Logan refuses to hand it over.  Just before Yashida dies, his doctor, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), injects Logan with a parasite that disables his instant-healing powers.

Yashida, a rich technologist, has left his vast fortune to his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) which makes her the target of assassins. Logan comes to her aid and not only saves her from the villains, but befriends her as well. Logan is now on a mission to protect Mariko until the will-reading which bestows all power of the Yashida company upon her.

Greg, I found The Wolverine to be a fairly good film that is only notch below its predecessor, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in quality.  Once again, Hugh Jackman strikes all the right notes in his performance as Wolverine.  No one looks more intimidating with and without those talons that spring from his knuckles.  And let’s face it — those massive creases in his furrowed brow are deeper than the grand canyon.  Jackman’s intensity is palpable.

For me, the movie succeeds in showcasing several of the strongest female characters we’ve seen in a movie this year.  The characters of Yukio, Mariko, and Viper are all outstanding.  Viper, in particular, is a powerful character and a terrifically effective villain.  The Wolverine also features one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year — a fight on top of a high-speed train traveling at 300 miles per hour.  It literally had me on the edge of my seat.

I thought the film started out really well. We were in Nagasaki, Japan during World War II where Logan is found in a “hot box” as a Japanese prisoner of war. When the air raid sirens go off, Yashida lets all the prisoners out of their barracks so they’d have a fighting chance. His peers commit suicide before the bomb falls. Yashida then attempts to let Logan out of his lead-lined pit, but Logan convinces the man to take shelter with him. The nuclear bomb explodes and it is Logan who shields Yashida from the blast. Logan’s powers of regeneration allow him to take the full force of the blast and survive. Yashida is forever in his debt.

This opening is exciting and sets up the rest of the story. It exemplifies Logan’s powers and establishes the two men’s connection. We get another scene of action when Logan saves Mariko from the assassins. The train battle you mentioned is thrilling and even has moments of humor. Watching Logan battle it out on top of a speeding bullet train was exciting. But that was about the end of the thrills for the next hour. And that’s where The Wolverine lost me.

The Wolverine pretty much kept my attention, Greg.  When he loses his powers, it’s akin to Superman being exposed to Kryptonite.  As the audience, we know that the hero must regain his lost powers to defeat the villain.  Not knowing how Logan was going to do this was enough to maintain my interest.  Then, when Wolverine recoups his superpowers, he encounters a force that threatens them again, and in a surprising way, too.

Having said all this, the film is not without its problems.  For one thing, some of the fight scenes, to me, were poorly filmed.  The camera was shaking so much it left me wondering what the camera operators were smoking that day.  Also, the ending of the movie was somewhat anti-climactic and fell a bit flat for me.  And in terms of the hero journey, Logan lacked encounters with a mentor and a father figure, which are two important elements of the path that heroes take.

Scott, the time between the train action and the final scenes where Logan fights a giant Adamantium robot was easily an hour long. Virtually nothing happens in that 60 minutes. There are flashbacks, and love scenes, and walking along the shore. But nothing of interest. All the time Logan spends as a weakling he is in hiding. There is no drama at all. I really felt like the director was padding out half the movie.

The plot made no sense at all. If Mariko didn’t want the company – all she had to do was turn it over to her father. There was an army of ninjas who appear from nowhere. There’s an old flame who is an expert with a bow (there was a lot of archery in this film). The villain Venom seemed to have variable potency with her poison. And the climax of the film (aside from the thrilling battle) made no logical sense at all. I really felt like the movie died after the first act and never recovered.

Sorry you didn’t like The Wolverine more, Greg.  Overall, I found it to be a worthy addition to the X-Men canon.  Logan is an effective hero character because he longs for peace of mind and for a chance to lead a normal life.  Yet he knows that he is a soldier who is called to right the world’s wrongs.   The tension between these two incompatible goals makes for an effective hero story.  The Wolverine isn’t a great film but it left me satisfied and entertained.  I give the movie 3 Reels out of 5, and 3 Heroes out of 5, too.

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I felt The Wolverine didn’t measure up to 2009’s X Men Origins: Wolverine. Hugh Jackman gave it his best and is convincing in the role. But the writing was terrible. There wasn’t much of a hero’s journey here. Logan starts out in one place and ends up in the same place. He hasn’t grown or changed a bit. I felt like I didn’t get my money’s worth as this was only half a movie. I give The Wolverine 2 Reels and 2 Heroes.

And I’ll never look at a fork the same way again.

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The Conjuring ••

Conjuring_posterStarring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Horror/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: July 19, 2013

reel-2 superman-1


Scott, we just got through watching The Conjuring. Which is an odd name since no one in the movie did any conjuring.

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

Let’s conjure up a review, shall we?

Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston) move into an old farm home in the woods of Rhode Island. They have 5 adorable daughters who like to play hide and seek. Things are going fine when one day while playing hide and seek with her youngest, Carolyn meets up with a spook. After that things start to get really weird. Laughter comes from the hidden basement. The clocks all stop at 3:07 AM. The pictures in the hallway fall from the wall. Carolyn is freaked out and goes to a lecture at the local college where she enlists the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), two self-proclaimed paranormal investigators.

Upon visiting the house, Lorraine, who has a special psychic connection to spirits, immediately senses a ghostly presence that has latched onto the entire family.  Ed and Lorraine research the home’s history and discover that the house once belonged to an accused witch, Bathsheba who sacrificed her week-old infant, climbed to the top of a tree in the backyard, cursed all those who would take her land, professed her love for Satan, then committed suicide. The remainder of the movie consists of Ed and Lorraine’s attempt to help the Perron family rid themselves of the curse and the demonic spirits inhabiting their home.

Scott, I compare all horror movies to The Exorcist, which is easily the scariest movie I have ever seen. The Conjuring was probably the least scary movie I have ever seen. Even last April’s Scary Movie V was more frightening than this movie. The Conjuring plays out more like a documentary than a horror film. It follows the events surrounding the Perron’s haunting step-by-step. And it introduces us to the Warrens by giving us a lot of backstory to prove to the audience that they were experts in their field. I think this movie would have done well to go that route: to present the facts as a documentary about a true event. That would have been far scarier.

On a 1 to 10 scale of scariness, I’d give The Conjuring a 6.  It wasn’t close to being the most chilling movie I’ve ever seen, but there were moments when I was definitely cringing and wincing.  As scary movies go, The Conjuring was fairly effective in producing the usual false alarms and underwear-soiling “gotcha” moments.

We’ve seen movies like The Conjuring many times before.  Poltergeist comes to mind as a classic in this genre.  In every scary movie of this type, the family inhabiting the haunted house seems to perform an odd set of behaviors that accentuates their vulnerability.  In The Conjuring, the Perron family plays this weird clapping game, a form of hide-n-seek that involves blindfolding a person who is then left to feel her way blindly around the house searching for others. This game sets up tension as we, the audience, can see what ghostly booby-trap the blindfolded person is headed toward.

Sadly for me, Scott, that scene you mentioned was in the trailer and I fully expected the event. Anticipation creates suspense and if that anticipation is ruined by a spoiler, there can be no suspense.

I also had trouble with the internal logic of this movie. Why was a police officer part of the Warren party? Why would a witch hang herself after a blood sacrifice? This was supposedly a survivor of the Salem witch trials – wouldn’t she want to stay alive to reap the benefits of her sacrifice? Why did the ghost-maid claim “she made me do this” when showing off her slit wrists? I really tried to suspend my disbelief but there is only so much I can ignore before the forces of logic intrude.

When I compare this movie to The Amityville Horror (another movie based on one of the Warren’s cases) I just don’t see the appeal. That movie at least made sense within its own universe. The Conjuring was a confusing mess.

What The Conjuring lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution.  For example, a staple of the horror genre is a creepy child’s doll.  The Conjuring features one of the more disturbing-looking dolls I’ve ever seen, a doll named Annabelle who malevolently torments everyone around her.  The old creeky house with its secret compartments makes for a perfect setting for a movie of this type.  Ed and Lorraine have a nice backstory that gives them credibility as spook-hunters. All the elements are aligned here for a classic scary movie.

If I had a problem with the film, it was with the supreme idiocy of the Perron family for staying in the house once the first signs of deep trouble were made clear.  Let’s face it — If an invisible entity was grabbing your foot in the middle of the night, repeatedly, wouldn’t you consider sleeping in a different bed, say, thousands of miles away?

Well, Scott, you appear to have enjoyed yourself in this movie. I think you’ll get a chance to enjoy more of the same. One plot device that was exposed is the Warren’s museum of paranormal objects. For some reason, they keep all the haunted objects from their adventures in a closet in their home. I foresee a sort of Night Gallery where each sequel explores the backstory of one of these objects. The number of sequels could be endless.

I, on the other hand, was supremely insulted by this film. It made no sense and did not keep me in suspense for a minute. I forgot this film before I made it to the car to drive home. I was never frightened and I didn’t feel the need to sleep with the lights on. In fact, I was bored most of the time. For a ridiculous plot and uninspiring bit of storytelling I give The Conjuring 1 Reel out of 5.  I wasn’t sure who the heroes in this film were. Nobody really seemed to learn a lesson or exhibit a sense of transformation. Still the Warrens did come to the aid of the witless family and help them despite personal danger. I give them 1 Hero out of 5.

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I liked The Conjuring more than you did, Greg, because I believe it nicely fulfilled its purpose of delivering a diabolically scary tale.  The Perron family displayed just the right dose of innocence and likeability, and Ed and Lorraine were the smart, moral heroes who helped rid the wholesome family of the curse.  I wasn’t bowled over by The Conjuring but it delivered enough frightening, sphincter-tightening moments to make me happy.

What we have here is a fairly well-crafted story of demonic possession that doesn’t cover any new ground but still managed to give me my money’s worth of jitters.  I give the film 3 Reels out of 5.  I agree with you, Greg, that the hero story played second-fiddle to the overarching goal of producing scary moments. For that reason, I generously award Ed and Lorraine 2 Heroes out of 5.

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Red 2 •••

RED_2_posterStarring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren
Director: Dean Parisot
Screenplay: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Action/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: July 19, 2013

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

Greg, we just took in Red 2.  Don’t know about you, but I plan on being extremely dangerous when I retire.

Me too, so long as I can hang out with the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones and Mary-Louise Parker. Let’s recap.

Red 2 begins with Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) shopping at Costco, where Frank’s old buddy Marvin (John Malkovich) shows up to warn them of danger.  Frank and Sarah then witness Marvin’s car explode. Frank is skeptical that Marvin is dead but delivers a eulogy at his funeral anyway.  Afterward, Frank is taken into custody for questioning but Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) shoots and kills his way into the facility to question Jack himself. Horton threatens to kill Sarah to get Frank to talk, but Frank escapes and discovers that he is wanted for his earlier involvement in a project called Nightshade.  He also learns that two formidable people have been contracted to kill him:  His old friend Victoria (Helen Mirren) and the top hit-man in the world, Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee).

It turns out the key to project Nightshade is a nutty professor who’s been locked up in MI-6 for the last 32 years. Dr. Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) has the secret to project Nightshade locked up in his crazy mind. Our crew springs Bailey and they are on a journey to find Nightshade before the Russians do.  Just as in the prequel, Red 2 is a globe-trotting romp from city to city looking for clues and getting into trouble. They are always just one step ahead of formidable Han Cho Bai, who appears to be a modern-day Cato (a la The Pink Panther Returns). He’s constantly attacking Frank and his merry band, but never quite gets the job done.

Greg, I really enjoyed this film’s predecessor, Red, which came out in 2010.  That movie was slick and stylish with a charming edginess to it.  This sequel tries very hard to recapture that magic but only partially succeeds.  In Red 2, we are treated to the same appealing cast of characters, and once again they extricate themselves from treacherous situations with great panache.  So what is missing?

For starters, the inescapable problem with all sequels, including this one, is that we’ve seen all this before and so the freshness is gone.  But more importantly, the relationship between Frank and Sarah no longer has that spark.  In Red, there was an endearing chemistry between them as they fell in love amidst the chaos.  In Red 2, there is chaos but not so much endearing chemistry.  In fact, much of the film consists of the other characters commenting on Frank and Sarah’s relationship difficulties.

Sarah suffers from what I call “Dr. Watson’s Syndrome.” She’s there to be the uninitiated. She wants to join in the adventure, but she’s naive. They give her a gun and she accidentally discharges it. In nearly every scene she asks questions like “Nightshade? What’s a Nightshade?” To which Frank or Marvin have to explain not only for her sake, but for the sake of the audience. This was pretty much Dr. Watson’s role in almost every Sherlock Holmes story.

Sarah complains that she wants to go with Frank on the adventure because she doesn’t want him kissing “dusky” spy women. No sooner are we on our way when Frank encounters old nemesis/girlfriend/Russian spy Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She doesn’t even bother to say hello before she locks jaws with Frank.

I do like the hero story in this movie.  You could argue that it’s an ensemble cast of heroes, but to me, Bruce Willis is the centerpiece of both Red 1 and Red 2.  Willis is the King of Cool.  The action centers around him, and for good reason.  Willis exudes charisma, and the trait of charisma is one of the Great Eight traits of a hero (the other traits being strength, intelligence, inspiration, kindness, selflessness, resilience, and reliability).

There are other Hollywood stars and celebrities who make their millions with their charisma.  Vin Diesel comes to mind.  So do Oprah Winfrey and Sandra Bullock.  These stars can practically turn a mediocre film into something well worth watching simply with their magnetic presence.  We saw that earlier this year with Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 6.  Willis has always had this gift and in Red 2 he is once again the smartest and most powerful person in the room.  He need not utter a word for everyone around him, in every scene he’s in, to know that he’s in control of the situation.

I enjoyed both Red and Red 2. In both films the director and writers are trying to show aging actors as aging spies and that they still have value, even when compared to their younger counterparts. A similar message was attempted in 2010’s The Debt (which also starred Helen Mirren). The Debt suffered tragically by trying to be too serious with its content. It concluded with a “thrilling” fight scene between 70-year-old Mirren and her villain 70-year old Jesper Christensen. It was the most ridiculous fight scene ever with two geriatrics in a (not intentionally) slow motion duel.

Red 2 makes no such mistake. All the fight scenes are fast and action-packed. Mirren’s character is portrayed as a crack shot, so there is no need for her to come to fisticuffs with other agents. All the players are superior to their younger peers thanks to their experience and smarts, not necessarily their brawn. Which is a message that the target baby-boomer audience can enjoy.

That’s a good point, Greg.  Hollywood is targeting aging boomers with movies that feature geezer stars from yesteryear.  I understand that Stallone and Schwarzenegger have left their nursing homes to film Escape Plan, coming out this Fall.  In Red 2, we have to suspend our disbelief that a young Jack Horton can “get his ass handed to him” by Frank Norton, who may be twice Horton’s age.  But as you note, the wisdom and experience of our elder-heroes more than compensate for their antiquity.

Red 2 is a stylishly made comedic action film that doesn’t quite strike the same magical chord that its predecessor does but is nevertheless an entertaining tale that is worth the price of admission, assuming you are fans of Bruce Willis and the other supporting stars.  The formula is becoming a bit strained and I’m hoping that Red 3, which is currently in production, can inject some new life and direction into the franchise.  I believe Red 2 earns 3 Reels out of 5.  The hero story is a bit flimsy but Willis’s charisma carries the day and enables the film to achieve 3 Heroes out of 5 as well.

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I appreciated how the women characters were treated in Red 2. There were no damsels in distress here. Even Parker’s character, naive as she was, stepped up and played her part. The aging stars and their spy counterparts were also treated with respect. There wasn’t a lot of complaining about aches and pains. And there also wasn’t a lot of falling from absurd heights, through panes of glass, only to walk away without a scratch. Such as it was, the action was believable and fairly “age appropriate.”

I agree with you, Scott; the prequel was better. Still I would only give Red three Reels if we were reviewing it today. Red 2 kept a good pace and mixed humor with a somewhat believable spy-plot. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.  The team-hero story was well-played, especially with so many luminaries on-screen at one time. All the players shared the screen equally and created an enjoyable ensemble. I give 3 out of 5 Heroes to the cast of Red 2.

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RIPD ••1/2

R.I.P.D._PosterStarring: Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Action/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: July 19, 2013


Scott, we’re reviewing RIPD, or as I like to call it “Men In Black 4”.

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

Yes, RIPD ripd-off not one, but two movies. More on that later.

Our story begins with Boston cop Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) feeling guilty over some contraband he has stolen from his last collar. He and partner Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon) kept some gold pieces of what looks like a larger artifact. Nick tells Bobby that he’s going to turn himself in and return the bootie. Bobby says he’s OK with that, but on their next bust, Bobby kills Nick during a shootout.

Nick finds himself in conditional heaven. He is told that Judgement Day will be kinder to him if he returns to earth in an altered human form to round up the undead who are trying to take over the world. Nick is partnered with another deceased lawman from the old west by the name of Roy (Jeff Bridges). Together they use the threat of Indian food (yes, you read that correctly) to reveal which undead are posing as humans.

RIPD is a CGI-fest with lots of strange-looking creatures. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the creatures got their bizarre looks. The majority of the film is Roy and Nick driving around town in an old Lincoln Continental retiring bad souls to the netherworld. In this way, it looks a lot like Men in Black. We have the veteran lawman Roy showing the ropes to the new guy Nick. The parallels are almost uncanny.

As you’ve said, Greg, RIPD is essentially Men in Black-lite, and once could also argue that it’s a derivative blending of MIB and the movie Ghost. RIPD even borrows characters from other movies. Most notably, Fat Bastard from Austin Powers makes a bizarre appearance, although in RIPD he dons sideburns and is called Fat Elvis.

Jeff Bridges is a delight playing a deceased old lawman from the wild west, but Ryan Reynolds is truly boring in his role as a modern cop. Men in Black worked because you had two compelling and charismatic characters played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In RIPD, Jeff Bridges delivers a rowdy, quirky performance as Roy, but Ryan Reynolds looks like he’s sleepwalking through the movie. Reynolds doesn’t say or do anything interesting, nor does he have any noteworthy quirks or mannerisms. He’s just “there”, going through the motions, and the film suffers as a result.

There is a love interest for Nick in the form of Julia (Stephanie Szostak). Nick tries to communicate with her, but he doesn’t look like himself. No, he looks like an elderly Asian man (played by veteran character actor James Hong). Which harkens back to when Patrick Swayze looked like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. And the rip-off doesn’t stop there. The main goal for our heroes is to thwart the building of a device (made of the gold pieces) which when complete will allow all the ghosts trapped in the afterlife to be returned to earth. Which is not much different than the point of Ghostbusters.

Even with all these similarities, I enjoyed RIPD. It wasn’t fresh, but Jeff Bridge’s performance is spot-on. I never saw Bridges on the screen. I only saw Roy. So for a fun summer chase movie with at least one good performance, I give RIPD 3 out of 5 Reels. The hero story is a bit thin with Ryan Reynolds pretty much looking like himself from every movie he’s ever been in. I give him 2 out of 5 heroes.

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RIPD is a formulaic retread of past movies but is also a fun romp as long as you’re willing to turn your brain off and enjoy some silly-looking monsters go on a rampage in Boston. I would say that Jeff Bridges’ performance alone is reason enough to see this movie, but that’s only true if you’re absolutely pining for a poor man’s version of Men in Black. I award RIPD 2 Reels out of 5.

This is a buddy hero story, and I suppose amidst all the lunacy of chasing the undead you can find some character growth and transformation. But there’s really little else about the heroic components of the film to commend it. Therefore, like you, Greg, I give the heroes 2 Heroes out of 5.

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It looks like we’re basically agreed that RIPD should Rest In Peace.

Pacific Rim ••••

MV5BMTY3MTI5NjQ4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTU1OTU0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro
Action/Adventure/Science Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Date: 7/12/2013



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

Greg, after watching Pacific Rim, it’s hard to believe that the word ‘pacific’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘peace-making’.

I was expecting another Transformers knock-off. But this was much, much more.

The movie begins with the city of San Francisco being decimated by a huge dinosaur-like monster that emerges from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Soon other monsters are attacking other populated coastal cities around the world. Apparently, the beasts, called Kaijus, come from a portal that connects to another universe. To combat these creatures, human beings create equally huge mechanical robots, called Jaegers, which are operated by pairs of humans in mental synchronicity with each other. For a while, the Jaegers hold their own against the Kaijus, but soon the Kaijus adapt and grow bigger and smarter, creating a shortage of both Jaegers and pilots capable of operating them. Our hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), is asked to come out of retirement to fight the beasts one more time.

He returns to an underground bunker where his old leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) commands all that is left of the once numerous Jaeger fleet: just four Jaegers left. Pentecost’s gal Friday is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) who wants to be a Jaeger pilot. Two bickering scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) are studying the Kaiju. The other Jaeger pilots are unsure of Becket as he is a known loose canon. The plan is to take a black-market Russian nuclear warhead and detonate it inside the portal, closing it forever.

Greg, Pacific Rim surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a movie that features monsters the size of the new World Trade Center fighting robots of equal size. But it was a remarkable visual spectacle. This is one of those movies that viewers must enjoy on the Big Screen. Yes, size matters. The CGI effects are simply astounding and if you wait to see this film on Netflix, you’re cheating yourself out of a unique sensory experience.

But the vast visuals are not the main reason I enjoyed this film. Yes, the staggering size of the Kaijus and Jaegers was breathtaking to behold, but the film’s appeal derives mostly from a solid screenplay and many strong characters. We care about the humans who populate this film, and their story outshines the robots and the monsters. And we have a true hero’s adventure with many entertaining peaks and valleys. I was impressed.

Scott, I grew up in the 70s and 80s on such TV shows as Ultraman, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, and Battle of the Planets (and later series like The Power Rangers). In each of these shows, a giant monster comes from out of nowhere to wreak havoc on planet Earth. Then, a group of humans band together to form a giant robot to destroy the monster – usually in 30 minutes or less. These shows (and movies such as Godzilla) are known in Japan as Tokusatsu or “special filming” shows. They usually portray superheroes and monsters by men wearing rubber suits. Pacific Rim takes Tokusatsu to an entirely new level.

As I mentioned earlier, I thought this would be just another Transformers knock off. But I was schooled. Pacific Rim did indeed do what the Transformers movies set out to do (create a dazzling robot movie) but it also gave us some classic hero elements as well.

That’s true, and how refreshing it is to see a summer popcorn blockbuster give us meatier fare than usual. Pacific Rim is much more than a mindless visual orgy. There is a fascinating psychological element to the film involving the psychic connection between Jaeger pilots that is necessary for those pilots to defeat the Kaijus. This reminded me of Star Trek’s Vulcan mind-meld involving Spock establishing a connection to another person’s mind – it is emotionally (and even physically) dangerous but the two minds become one, allowing for shared information and physical coordination. It’s very cool how this tool in Pacific Rim assists in the defeat of the villains in not one but two different ways.

Pacific Rim, for better or for worse, borrows heavily from other classic movies. The rivalry between Becket and veteran Jaeger pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) is very reminiscent of scenes from 1986’s Top Gun. And I’ve already mentioned how much the story matches just about any Godzilla film.

This in not necessarily a bad thing. Becket is the classic hero character. Mako plays a strong heroine role (although there is an embarrassing scene where Becket defends her honor. She’s a kick-ass warrior. She could have defended her own honor.) Kazinsky’s Hansen is cut from the same mold as “Ice Man” – a by the book fighter pilot. Pentecost is the leader-mentor. They all work well in this film which is the real gift of Pacific Rim. There is a real story behind all the special effects.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m quite a nerd and a proud one at that, and so I was thrilled to see that the heroes who save the day behind the scenes are the two scientists, played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. The performances of Day and Gorman were simply brilliant, especially that of Day, who blends genius with comic relief. His role is reminiscent of Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids, only he has more depth and more interesting quirkiness than Moranis.

And like you, Greg, I am impressed that the hero story here features a slew of supporting characters who augment the hero’s journey — the mentor, father figure, love-interest, best friend, bitter rival, and other assorted helpers. These characters add a richness and depth to a film that decided it wanted to be much more than a lightweight visual feast.

I really enjoyed seeing the old Tokusatsu shows get a royal treatment in Pacific Rim. I wasn’t expecting much but I got a lot for my $10 ticket. For a great story told with amazing special effects I give Pacific Rim 4 out of 5 Reels. And for decent storytelling and hero-building (but still a bit shallow for my tastes) I award 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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Pacific Rim is a film that won me over with its eye-popping visuals, memorable characters, and appealing story that maintained my interest from start to finish. It ranks with Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as the best summer blockbuster this year. I also award it 4 Reels out of 5. And as much as it pains me to say this, I agree with you that the hero story was solid but a tad thin, and for that I give the film 3 Heroes out of 5, too.

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Grown Ups 2 •

Grown_Ups_2_PosterStarring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock
Director: Dennis Dugan
Screenplay: Fred Wolf, Adam Sandler
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2013


Well, Scott, it’s time to review Grown Ups 2. [SPOILER ALERT- some important details of the movie are revealed]

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

Not sure there were any grown ups involved in the making of this movie, but let’s proceed. [That’s not the spoiler, but I could be wrong]

It’s summertime and the last day of school in Adam Sandler’s latest home movie. Sandler plays Lenny Feder, a man who has moved his family back to his Jersey hometown. And by some turn of logic, all his buddies have moved there with their families too. Apparently in the prequel, Feder made enough money in Hollywood to afford such a thing. Anyway the opening scene treats us to a preview of what is to come. A deer is loose in Feder’s house and when his wife Roxanne (Salma Hayek) screams, the deer whizzes all over him and runs away, waking the rest of the household.

The old gang from the first Grown Ups movie re-assembles — Lenny, Eric (Kevin James), Kurt (Chris Rock), and Marcus (David Spade). They discover that their kids are growing up faster than they realize. They attempt to re-live their teen years by jumping into a lake off a large cliff, but members of a college fraternity intercept them and humiliate them. The rest of the film involves our heroes, if you can call them that, dealing with each other’s issues, their kids’ issues, and the hostile frat boys.

This is just an excuse for Adam Sandler to have fun with his friends with the camera rolling. The truly sad thing is that he’ll probably make a tidy profit and there will be a sequel.

Sandler’s character plays the most well-adjusted of the troupe. His buddy Eric is a mama’s boy and is in dutch with his hot wife (Maria Bello) for watching soaps with mama (mama is played by the still adorable Georgia Engel). Kurt has figured out that he has infinite “Get Out of Jail” cards with his hot wife (Maya Rudolph) because he remembered their 20th anniversary and she forgot. And in an unfathomable twist, Marcus is the town’s lady’s man getting bootie from every single woman in town. His other quirk is that his nearly grown son has arrived and is a bruiser and hates his father.

Greg, this movie is somewhat painful to watch. There are a lot of talented people involved in the making of this film, but it’s talent all gone to waste. I know a lot of people will disagree, but Adam Sandler can be funny. And he can shine in serious roles, too (e.g., Spanglish). Chris Rock can rock, and many former Saturday Night Live luminaries who are bursting with talent make appearances here. But it’s all squandered in Grown Ups 2, a movie that took 2 hours from my life that I’ll never get back.

I enjoy bathroom humor as much as the next guy, but much of this potty humor isn’t very funny. This film is packed with jokes, but only about one out of eight jokes is funny. The other seven ranged from unfunny to painfully unfunny. And when the bad jokes aren’t flying, there are plenty of visual gags to offend us, most of them involving urine stains, projectile vomiting, and bulging male crotches. The film’s number one running gag, repeated so many times that I did indeed want to gag, involved people performing three bodily functions at once. Need I say more?

Oh, you mean the simultaneous burp-fart-sneeze? Hilarious.

Greg, you gave away the burp-fart-sneeze running gag, meaning that our readers now have absolutely no reason to see this movie. I withheld that crucial information but now the cat and its litter box is out of the bag.

Sorry. I’ll add a spoiler alert to the heading of the review.

The underlying theme of this movie is that our heroes are growing old. The college kids are young, energetic, nubile and on the warpath because they are of the misapprehension that the old guys trashed their fraternity house (what are these college kids doing in town anyway – it’s summer.) This is the thinnest of plots – present here to give the film its only sense of coherence.

Every scene was just a throw-away one-liner and the only passably funny scenes are already in the trailer. To his credit, Sandler continued the tradition of situation comedies: ugly fat men married to funny hot women. It’s a tradition that goes back to Jackie Gleason and “The Honeymooners.”

As you mentioned Scott, the list of SNL alum is long and luminous: Maya Rudolph, Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows, John Lovitz, Cheri Otari, and Andy Samberg as well as Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Buscemi.

Indeed. Grown Ups 2 is a vacuous movie that may be funny to 13-year-old boys but only if those boys have a truly lousy sense of humor. I considered giving this film zero Reels, which would condemn it to our Reel Heroes Hall of Shame, but then I remembered just how truly atrocious The Big Wedding was. At least Grown Ups 2 doesn’t take itself seriously. So I award Grown Ups 2 a big whopping single Reel. And a single Hero out of 5 as well.

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Agreed. It is only by comparison that this movie is not a complete failure. Sandler’s plot, such as it is, barely holds together and his comedy skills are evident albeit applied lazily. I also award 1 Reel and 1 Hero. And as a bonus, Scott, I award you one “Get Out of Jail Free” card so that you can skip the sequel.
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Greg, I’ll gladly take the card over the suicide pill I was going to take instead. Thank you.

Much Ado About Nothing ••••1/2

MuchAdoStarring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Joss Whedon based on William Shakespeare’s play
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes

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Scott, we just finished watching Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon’s Shakespearean side project.

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

I’ve always wondered what a “do” is. Now I know.

Whedon’s Much Ado is Shakespeare’s classic play performed in a modern setting – but still using the Bard’s own words. We’re introduced to Benedick (Alexis Denisof) who is back from war. He’s accompanied by friends Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Claudio is quite taken with young Hero (Jillian Morgese), a fair maiden. But there is trouble afoot. Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Amy Acker) apparently has had a relationship with Benedick in the past, and she is done with men.

While Claudio and Hero make plans to marry, the illegimate brother, Don John (Sean Maher), bitterly plots to sabotage the relationship by making it appear that Hero has cheated on Claudio. At the wedding ceremony, Claudio exposes Hero’s alleged infidelity to everyone, causing Hero to faint. Hero’s family decides to make it appear that she has died, and meanwhile the truth of Don John’s evil plot is exposed, causing Claudio great heartache.

Scott, I’m actually a newcomer to Shakespeare. My exposure so far has been 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You and Kenneth Brannaugh’s 1993 offering of Much Ado (as well as several tutorials I viewed on Netflix a few years ago). I found the story just wonderful, even if the Shakespearean English a bit difficult to decode. In Whedon’s version, a lot of the story is told both with words and with the actors’ portrayal of their characters. The modern setting and costumes helped to identify who the characters were and how they related to each other.

You’re right, Greg. Neither one of us is a Shakespearean scholar, but we do appreciate the timelessness of a good story. I admire Joss Whedon’s bold foray into new territory that is as different from Cabin in the Woods as a story can get. Whedon clearly demonstrates his versatility, as he pulls off a very stylish modern rendition of one of the Bard’s best comedies. This wasn’t easy to do, as we all know how beautiful yet dense Shakespearean English is. As you note, Whedon’s excellent casting helps us along nicely, as the characters convey meaning and nuance with terrific nonverbal cues and facial expressions.

Well, you know that in my eyes Joss Whedon can do no wrong. He was the creator of such great series as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the short-lived “Firefly.” Several of the members of his TV stable make appearances in Much Ado. We both enjoyed his great send-up of the horror genre in last year’s Cabin In The Woods. And of course he nailed the action/adventure genre with The Avengers. There seems nothing that Joss Whedon cannot do.

Much Ado About Nothing is filmed in black and white, an interesting artistic choice that I applaud. It gives the comedy an edginess that I believe is warranted by the dark streaks within an otherwise light love story. For modern audiences to appreciate this film, Whedon made two brilliant casting decisions in Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick. I may be going out on a limb here, but I strongly suspect that Acker and Denisof will garner Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. The set design was also outstanding; there is brilliant use of windows, stairways, landscaping, and lighting throughout the film.

Nathan FIllion also makes for great comic relief as Dogberry – the buffoonish security guard. From the hero perspective there is a lot to appreciate here. Benedick undergoes a transformation from the confirmed bachelor to offering to lay down his life to defend the honor of Beatrice’s cousin. Young Claudio and Hero are the young lovers. Don John is the villain. The classic hero structure is well in place. You could hardly expect less from Shakespeare.

I’m totally with you, Greg. Much Ado About Nothing is a gem of a movie that tugs at our heartstrings and cannot help but make us smile. The film has a touching energy to it thanks to sparkling performances by a talented young cast. Joss Whedon took a big chance here and it pays off handsomely. I give this film 4 Reels out of 5.

As you note, we have a nice ensemble of heroes who display great range of emotion and handle the challenge of Shakespearean English with style and dexterity. Their hero journeys aren’t in the same league as, say, Hamlet or King Lear, but nor are they meant to be. As they stand, I give this great group of young lovers 4 Heroes out of 5.

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I think I was more favorably impressed than you were, Scott. This is the most accessible Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen. It was wonderful to look at and to listen to. I give Joss Whedon’s latest project 5 out of 5 Reels. I also think that when it comes to classic heroic stories, Shakespeare wrote the book. I give Much Ado 5 out of 5 Heroes.

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The Lone Ranger •••

TheLoneRanger2013PosterStarring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot
Action/Adventure/Western, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 149 minutes



Scott, the latest incarnation of The Lone Ranger is in theaters. Is the legend of the Lone Ranger still relevant to today’s young people?

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

Hard to say until we get a look at the box office figures.

Pithy. The story opens with a youngster in 1933 meeting an old Tonto (Johnny Depp) who relates the post-civil-war story of the origin of the Lone Ranger. We’re introduced to a very straight-laced John Reid (Armie Hammer) who is a district attorney on a train bound for Colby, Texas. Outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fitchner) is on the same train and bound for the gallows for his crimes.

Another prisoner sitting next to Cavendish is Tonto, who watches as Cavendish escapes with help from an unknown accomplice hidden among the Rangers. Reid is then recruited by the Rangers to hunt down Cavendish but the Rangers are ambushed and seemingly all of them are killed. Tonto finds the bodies, discovers Reid has come back from the dead, and concludes that Reid is an immortal spirit who is destined to work with Tonto to seek justice.

Reid is the most reluctant of heroes. He refuses to use a gun and insists on bringing Cavendish and his cohorts in live to face justice. He wears the mask only as way to hide his identity and strike fear into the hearts of the men he is chasing down. Meanwhile, the railroad is coming to Colby and railroad honcho Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is trying to bring a new era to the West.

Scott, this was a very long movie that tried its darndest to bring all the elements of the classic Lone Ranger legend (created by Fran Striker for radio in 1933) to a modern audience. This was tried before in 1981 and failed miserably. This incarnation was a full treatment with lots of action and special effects. And a lead actor in Johnny Depp as Tonto. I was concerned that Depp would be too quirky for the role, but I was pleasantly surprised by the sensitive approach he took which was seasoned with a tinge of whimsy. In fact the whole film was a bit whimsical. I’m still trying to decide if I’m okay with this directorial choice.

Greg, I truly enjoyed the set-up of the movie, with an elderly Tonto relating the story to a young boy a half century later. From the get-go, we’re drawn in and placed on the edge of our seats, waiting in eager anticipation as Tonto’s story unfolds. The film’s opening scene, featuring a little boy losing a small helium balloon as it floats just out of his reach, is extremely prophetic of the key themes of lost dreams and unexpected flight into the unknown.

Overall, The Lone Ranger is a visually stunning film, with great attention to detail that deftly places you in the dusty, scorpion-filled old west. Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp are cast perfectly in the roles of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and the supporting cast of helpers, lovers, and villains is also outstanding. Your question about whether this film has appeal to younger audiences, who have had limited exposure to the western genre, is an excellent one. Only time will tell.

When I look at the current flock of heroes in the movies this summer, I see Kirk, Spock, Iron Man, Superman, (and soon) Wolverine. These are all products of technology or future worlds. Real flesh-and-blood heroes are hard to find in today’s pantheon. When I was a kid, I remember playing cowboys and indians. Some of my heroes were Bat Masterson, Wyatt Erp, The Rifleman, and the Lone Ranger. My “superhero” weapon of choice was a cap gun. With the coming of the atomic age and the space race heroes took on a more technological bent. In my later years I looked to the stars for my role models.

It’s refreshing to see heroism portrayed in less futuristic terms and with less reliance on high-tech gadgets and techno-babble. It’s also a joy to see a classic buddy-hero story that depicts Native-Americans so favorably and in stark contrast to the elder-Tonto’s role as a zoo-like specimen in 1933. The title of the film belies the equality of the contributions of the two men. Tonto takes as much, if not more, lead here than the Lone Ranger himself. In fact, speaking personally, if my life were in danger I’d rather have Tonto save me than the Lone Ranger, who comes across as more naïve and less clever than Tonto.

I agree with you there Scott. This film clocks in at two and a half hours, which was a little long for my tastes. But we’ve seen this with other origin stories (witness Man of Steel). The first half of the film is devoted to telling us the story of how the main character becomes a hero. Then the second half is filled with his first adventure. It just takes a while to tell both stories adequately.

Another problem I had with this telling was how long it took John Reid to fully accept his new role as the Lone Ranger. While he wears the mask from early in the story, he does it hesitatingly and even discards it at some point. It’s only after his adventure is nearly over that he willingly wears it as part of his new persona as a western crime fighter. I felt it took too long for this transformation to take place.

Greg, it’s weirding me out that we concur almost 100% here. The Lone Ranger is a visually impressive film that capably fleshes out the origin stories of both the Ranger and his sidekick Tonto. Although the action scenes are riveting, once again we have a movie that makes the mistake of assuming that more thrilling death-defying scenes are always better. I grew fatigued watching the Lone Ranger and Tonto cheat death over and over again. Earlier this summer, we reviewed the movie Mud, which proved that in good storytelling, less is often more.

For a rock-solid western story of heroism and developing mutual respect between two unlikely buddy heroes, I give The Lone Ranger 3 Reels out of 5. I came close to awarding this film a 4th Reel, but once again poor editing decisions led to an overly long film that exhausted me as much as it entertained me. The hero story is outstanding and contains all the elements we look for: A call to adventure, missing inner qualities that are filled, characters encountered who fill important roles, and a satisfying transformation. I give the Lone Ranger and Tonto 4 out of 5 Heroes.

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I agree again, Scott. I liked the device of “old Tonto” telling the story to a youngster so as to perpetuate the legend. I also liked the respect American Indians were dealt in this film. But I missed the things that made the original Clayton Moore Lone Ranger different from other western heroes: intelligence over force. TV’s Lone Ranger was much more interested in thinking his way out of a situation than in shooting his way out. While Armie Hammer’s Ranger never shot anyone in this film, he came across as a weak-minded pacifist.

I didn’t come close to giving this film anything more than 3 Reels. It was too long and, as you say, spent way too much time creating impossible situations. As a PG-13 film, this was clearly aimed at younger audiences. I’m OK with that because I’d like to see this venerable legend become a modern hero again. But it just lagged on too long. The Lone Ranger’s hero’s transformation took the entire film to accomplish and I would have preferred a stronger turn. I award him just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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