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The Counselor 1/2

MV5BMTc3ODk0MTY0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTU2MTEzMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Cormac McCarthy
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: October 25, 2013

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

Great Scott! Ridley has another movie out, this one is called The Counselor


And it appears he didn’t get much counseling on making an interesting movie.


The Counselor opens by showing our lead character, an attorney in El Paso, Texas (Michael Fassbender), in bed with his soon-to-be-fiance Laura (Penélope Cruz). The attorney, who is never named in the movie, is lured into participating in a lucrative drug deal by one of his clients named Reiner (Javier Bardem).


Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is fascinated with cheetahs – so much so that she has spots tattooed down her back. Reiner warns the counselor of the dangers of getting involved in drug trafficking but the counselor is not dissuaded. But things go horribly wrong when someone steals the drugs and it looks like the counselor is involved. What proceeds is a look into the dirty underworld of drug trafficking in South America.


Greg, this is one of those movies with some good pieces, but the good pieces never quite get around to forming a good whole. The good pieces include the casting. Brad Pitt, Fassbender, Diaz, and Bardem truly shine and execute their roles to near perfection. There is some excellent dialogue here and there, and Ridley Scott displays some clever and deft directing in several key scenes.

But all these commendable parts never coalesce into a good movie. Part of the problem is a heavy-handed script that perhaps tries too hard to be clever and stylish, at expense of some much-needed pacing. There is also the problem of the film being so dark and lacking in heroic direction that we’re left with a story that is bereft of much of anything redeeming or worth admiring.


Scott, I think you’re being too generous. This is a stylish movie – there is a lot of opulence. And a lot of talk about sex. But there isn’t much sex. In fact the sex talk is enough to make one blush. This film has a bad case of “talking heads.” There is scene after scene of people talking about what is going on in the film.

And there is a lot of very circular talk about morality. Which is strange because virtually no one in this film has any moral character at all. When you say the film is bereft of anything redeeming you’re not just talking about the characters in the film, but of the entire film-going experience. I get the feeling that this was someone’s idea of a good novel but lost something in translation when it was written as a screenplay instead.


Now that you mention it, Greg, all the ridiculous sex-talk was a strange distraction from the basic plot of the movie. I’m not a prude, and I enjoyed seeing Cameron Diaz as sexy and as sultry as ever. But one gets the feeling that Cormac McCarthy, the screenplay writer, is either a hypersexual or is not getting any at all. It would be an entirely different matter if the sexuality ended up playing some role in advancing the plot, or explaining a character’s motives, but it does not. And we’re left wondering why 10 to 15 minutes of film is devoted to this needless diversion.

I also think you are correct that the movie has far too many ‘talking head’ scenes, but a few of these scenes worked for me. It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since Pulp Fiction perfected the art of extended dialogue within a suspense film, and scores of movies have since tried to emulate Tarrantino’s masterpiece without success. I’m afraid that, overall, I have to agree with you that we can add The Counselor to that long list of movies that can’t even begin to touch the greatness of Pulp Fiction.


And to add insult to injury there are plot lines that are exposed and never completed along with a dozen characters who are introduced without explanation. A case in point is Ruth (Rosie Perez) who is a client of the counselor. Her son is in a Texas jail for high speed racing his motorcycle. The counselor springs the boy and ultimately he loses his life. There are a couple of people that we never meet until the end who give the counselor sage advice. We don’t know who these people are or why they’re important but somehow their meanderings on the state of existence is supposed to matter to us.

This has to be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It has some luminary stars which makes it very pretty to look at, but there is nothing of value to be gleaned from the dialog. All the characters (save one) is bad. Everyone is greedy. Nobody learns anything. I was bored to death through the whole experience. Ridley Scott had all the materials to make a great film, sadly he elected to use this terrible screenplay as the recipe. I give The Counselor zero out of 5 Reels and zero out of 5 Heroes and humbly nominate it for the Reel Heroes Hall of Shame.

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Au contraire, Greg, we’ve seen a lot worse than The Counselor this year. I do agree with you that The Counselor was a dank, dour movie lacking in any heroes, unless we go out on a limb and call the counselor himself a tragic hero. Greed and hubris sends him down an irredeemable path. Ultimately, this movie fails by making it impossible to like any of the characters, except for a relatively minor figure, as you mention. The people who populate this film are far too verbose and their occasionally clever chatter cannot compensate for the volume of unnecessary dialogue. I give The Counselor just 1 Reel out of 5 and 1 Hero out of 5.

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The Fifth Estate ••1/2

The_Fifth_Estate_posterStarring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Carice van Houten
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, David Leigh
Biography/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2013

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Just when I was getting used to the Fourth Estate, here comes The Fifth Estate


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

Let’s see if this movie was good or in estate of confusion.


We meet Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is recruiting Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) to help his organization leak information from whistleblowers. He needs Berg to verify the information that has been leaked about the Julius Baer Group, a Swiss investment bank. When the leaked information is posted on their website (Wikileaks.org) the bank comes under indictment for improper tax evasion strategies.


Suddenly Wikileaks begins receiving anonymously leaked information about the misdeeds of businesses and governments from all over the world. There are revelations about Sarah Palin, Scientology, and British politicians. Assange and Berg are making enemies, a fact that worries Berg but thrills Assange. Soon Berg writes a book about Wikileaks, which greatly upsets Assange. All hell breaks loose when Wikileaks experiences its greatest coup — a massive leak of incriminating American military videos, strategic information, and identities of informants involving the war in Afghanistan.


The Fifth Estate does for WikiLeaks what The Social Network did for Facebook, but not nearly as well. We’re given an inside look at what kind of mind creates a website that protects the person uploading the information – so long as that person is smart enough to redact his own name. In fact, a couple of African whistle blowers forgot that and were killed after exposing the leader of their country as a human rights violator. The information no sooner hits the streets and they are murdered in their car.

Julian Assange is painted as a near Autistic and a survivor of a right-wing political and religious cult. As a child he was beaten and forced to take psychological drugs. These factors are played to the hilt as we learn that he is a paranoid with delusions of grandeur.


Greg, The Fifth Estate covers some fascinating and controversial topics – freedom of speech, transparency of information, and privacy issues, to name a few.  The star of the movie is information itself. Unfortunately, information is boring to look at. About a third of this movie is devoted to showing people huddled over their laptops, peering at their computer screens. Sometimes they are typing messages to each other. Dull, dull, dull.

This doesn’t mean that the movie is a total waste. Far from it. Cumberbatch does an extraordinary job portraying Assange. We saw Cumberbatch play the role of Kahn quite capably in Star Trek Into Darkness and, interestingly enough, in The Fifth Estate he pretty much plays the same character. Like Kahn, Assange is a dark, damaged, loose cannon. Cumberbatch is absolutely brilliant in these complex roles.


Actually, Scott, that is one of my complaints about Cumberbatch. I was introduced to him as the newest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV recreation Sherlock. In it he portrays Holmes as a brilliant though near autistic personality. Not unlike Kahn or Assange. Cumberbatch’s next role needs to be something different. We get it Benedict – you can do intense. Now let’s see something more.

Another complaint I have is the game we’ve been playing since the summer was over: “Hero, Hero, who is the Hero?” We’re given two characters to root for here: Assange, who is the most flawed of heroes; and Berg, who starts out naive and ultimately becomes schooled in the ways of manipulation. Neither makes for a very good hero character and the movie suffers for it.


You’re right, Greg, and that’s why I wasn’t kidding when I said that information itself is the star of the movie. One of the film’s themes is that in the modern age, information has undergone a transformation, making Wikileaks controversies even possible. But if I were forced to identify a human hero in this story, it would be Daniel Berg.  At the beginning of The Fifth Estate, Berg is a fawning sycophant to Assange, and by the end he has found his voice and grown independent.

Overall, the main problem with the movie is its length. This story could have been told much more effectively as a one-hour documentary, or perhaps a one-hour made-for-TV program. Stretching events to two hours truly stretched my patience and attention span. I was literally nodding off in the theater, which is a shame because the performances here are all first-rate and the story itself raises social issues that need to be debated.


Because this is a retelling of actual events, I feel liberated to expose the ending. It’s the release of a quarter million cables by US Army Private Bradley Manning that asks the question if WikiLeaks goes too far. None of the cables were redacted making their release not only an embarrassment but potentially life threatening for many in the US State Department. WikiLeaks didn’t have the staff to fully tease the identities from the body of the text.

Ultimately, the film does what it appears to set out to do. And that is to show that a new way of getting information has evolved. Secrets can be released to the public in their original form with no way of revealing the source. WikiLeaks has ushered in a new era of complete transparency and even the highest of the high are exposed. (I loved the opening credits showing us a montage of the rise of information from cave paintings to the Gutenberg Press and the modern Internet.)

For dramatizing a complex topic and shedding light on a modern Pandora’s Box, I give The Fifth Estate 3 out of 5 Reels. But for a confusing hero’s journey (albeit well-acted by the leads) I award only 2 Heroes out of 5.

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The Fifth Estate proves that you cannot make a successful movie whose main scenes show people communicating with each other over computers. While it did not entertain me at all, The Fifth Estate did make me think deeply about information privacy and transparency. This movie is therefore only a partial success and for that reason I award the film a mere 2 Reels out of 5.  And for all the reasons Greg mentions, the film deserves 2 out of 5 on the Heroes scale as well.

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Escape Plan ••1/2

MV5BMTk3OTcxMTEyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDQ4MjQ2OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 50 Cent
Director: Mikael Håfström
Screenplay: Miles Chapman, Jason Keller, Miles Chapman
Action/Adventure/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2013

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

Greg, is this really a Sylvester Stallone movie? Could this be Rocky 47?


No, it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, he did promise he’d be back.


We meet Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) who makes a good living by pretending to be an inmate in maximum security prisons and then breaking out of them, thus exposing their weaknesses. Breslin is offered his toughest assignment yet — he is to be inserted into a top-secret prison, whereabouts unknown, into which the world’s worst formidable terrorists and criminals disappear. His two allies in his business (Amy Ryan and 50 Cent) are wary of this assignment but his business partner (Vincent D’Onofrio) encourages him to take it. Breslin accepts the job.


Breslin is no sooner in this new prison than he learns he is intended to stay. The extraction codes that he was given don’t work. And the man who is supposed to be the warden is not there. All seems lost when he befriends Rottmayer ( Arnold Schwarzenegger ) who is a bit of a kingpin among the inmates. Together, they begin a plot to escape the apparently inescapable prison comprised of the worst of the worst.


Greg, this is one of those movies with a terrible trailer that had me dreading the idea of seeing this film. If the goal of the trailer was to lower my expectations to such a degree that the movie had to be a pleasant surprise, well, the plan worked. I enjoyed Escape Plan. Yes, it was a bit of a silly, unrealistic prison escape movie, which I’ve seen a hundred times before, but it was also well-made.

It was almost as if the trailer’s function was to portray Stallone and Schwarzenegger as the near-caricatures that they are, has-beens who can barely utter a line without us wincing, and far too old to get away with any movie action more strenuous than rocking in a rocking chair. But I have to admit, the movie worked and Sly and Arnold performed just fine, thank you very much.


I was less impressed. This film was working on two levels. On one level it’s an unbelievable though enjoyable action film. On the other, it is attempting to lay out the dangers of our penal system.

The idea that Stallone is locked up in a prison that contains people too dangerous to be trusted to standard prisons and who are incarcerated without due process mimics  the Guantanamo Bay scenario. On top of that is the fact that this new prison is run by a contracted third party is reminiscent of recent problems with states who turn their prisons over to private corporations. These corporations have minimum occupancy requirements built into their contracts.

Escape Plan is definitely taking a swipe at these prison systems while entertaining us with some mindless action and one-liners. Whether they are successful or not I leave to the viewer.


For me, the movie works because Stallone as an actor has perfected the idea that, for him at least, less is more. He displays an appealing kind of minimalism in his delivery of lines that effectively portrays Breslin’s quiet confidence as a character. You could also call it a subtle charisma. We’re also witness to some very cool insights about how prison breakouts occur. Breslin’s job requires a certain genius that is fascinating to watch. The pacing of the movie is excellent; there were very few slow spots but not too much headache-inducing action, either.

Lately we’ve seen a lot of movies that are stories of survival – Gravity and Captain Phillips come to mind. And now we have Escape Plan, another movie that involves a hero escaping from horrible circumstances more than achieving anything that could be construed as heroic in the classic sense. A true hero story involves selfless action involving self-sacrifice. So I’m not convinced that these are genuine hero tales that we’ve been seeing lately.


Scott, therein lies another problem I have with this movie. Who are the heroes? Breslin is clearly an innocent victim, but he seeks help from inmates of this prison who are in for crimes that are never disclosed. Breslin has to befriend them to get assistance to get out. How heroic is it to spring evil-doers?

And, at the risk of spoiling a plot point, one of the inmates Breslin befriends is an unlikely hero. Breslin makes a deal with a muslim inmate Javed (Faran Tahir) who in turn makes a deal with the warren for time outside the prison so that he can make his prayers to Allah. In the end Javed makes escape possible for Breslin and Rottmayer. Usually we see muslims portrayed as evil terrorists with only selfish self-interest at heart. This is a pretty unusual turn for a muslim in an American film.


Escape Plan is indeed a good, entertaining, two-hour escape plan from reality. It’s a fun romp, made especially enjoyable by seeing that Stallone and Schwarzenegger still have something to offer even at the autumn of their careers. There are no Oscar winners here. Just a solid movie from start to finish. Escape Plan easily earns its 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is adequate but not nearly as strong as it could have been. Our hero Breslin does receive assistance and advice from several key characters, and there is a love interest, but I don’t seen much in the way of character transformation. I give Breslin a mere 2 Heroes out of 5.

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I was at first drawn to this Breslin character. Unlike other Sylvester Stallone characters, Breslin relies almost exclusively on his intellect, despite that fact that he is clearly physically capable. But in the end (as the trailers expose) there is plenty of gun violence that supports his actions. As an action / adventure this is passable fare. I wish that if Hollywood is going to make a political point that the producers would make a serious film to do so. Sugar-coating politically charged issues with easy-to-watch teasers smacks of propaganda. I give Escape Plan 2 out of 5 Reels for a typical action flick.

Breslin works out as a pretty good hero, obtaining most of the Great Eight qualities you talk about in your books, Scott. However this is a dual-hero film with Rottmayer acting as the buddy. It’s unclear by the end of the film where his alliances and motivations fall. I give the pair only 2 Heroes out of 5.

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Machete Kills •

Machete_KillsStarring: Danny Trejo, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Kyle Ward, Robert Rodriguez
Action/Crime/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: October 11, 2013

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Well I can’t say I was surprised that a movie called Machete Kills had a high body count.


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

And those bodies lost a lot of blood, too. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo), an Immigration and Customs Agent (ICE) who intercepts a military weapons shipment to the Mexican cartels. His agent friend Sartana (Jessica Alba) is killed in action and Machete blames himself. The local Texas sheriff comes upon the scene and accuses Machete, takes him back to the jail and hangs him. But Machete doesn’t die. While hanging from the rafters, the red phone rings and it’s the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen as Carlos Estevez) and he wants Machete for a secret mission.


President Rathcock (yes, you read that correctly) sends Machete to Mexico to kill a man named Mendez (Demian Bichir) who is threatening to destroy Washington DC with a missile attack. Machete has no problem finding Mendez but he discovers that Mendez has the missile launch trigger surgically attached to his heart. When his heart stops beating, the missile goes off. Machete has no choice but to bring Mendez alive back to the United States in hopes of finding the one surgeon who can dismantle the trigger device.


If this all sounds preposterous and a bit unfocused, it’s because it is. Machete Kills is among the most outrageous films of the year. Director Richard Rodriguez has fashioned this movie as a 1970s exploitation film with a sort of Mexican James Bond as the lead character. It is replete with bizarre evil characters for Machete to fight as well as quirky allies.

It is hard to know if the film is a parody of the Bond series or a serious attempt to create a true Mexican hero.  If it’s a parody, it should be funnier. If it’s an attempt to make a new hero, you’d think it would be rated PG-13 to appeal to a younger audience. As it is, Machete Kills falls into a gray void that is inexplicable.


Totally agree, Greg. As we were reviewing the details of the opening act of this movie, it almost sounded like Machete Kills is a normal, promising action-adventure movie. Unfortunately, it’s anything but that. This is a movie that knows it is outrageous and unrealistic but doesn’t know what to do with all the absurdity. Like you said, it’s not funny enough to be a spoof of a genre but it’s certainly not serious enough to be a legitimate thriller, either.  We’re left in limbo.

I wish the movie had tried to be a genuine adventure film — certainly the tools and resources are all in place. Danny Trejo is certainly up to the task, as are the other cast members with the notable exception of Carlos Estevez, whose silly presence is a reminder that we’re watching a movie that doesn’t matter because, well, it really isn’t even trying to matter.


The main villain in Machete Kills is a woman (Sofía Vergara as Desdemona) who is a self-proclaimed man eater. And that’s not figurative – she actually eats her male victims. She’s a man hater who runs a brothel. When she goes hunting for our hero, she dons a brazier that acts as a double-barrelled gatling gun. When she wants to blow up a vehicle, she straps on a … strap on that shoots rockets. Physics aside, it is hard to take such a villain seriously.

And while we’re on the subject of physics, the ways that Machete kills his victims range from absurd to just ridiculous. At one point, Machete reaches into a man’s stomach and pulls his innards out. If you think that is disgusting, he then throws the intestines into a helicopter’s rotating blades and the man is vertically disemboweled and sliced in the rotors. This is a film that spares no expense at being outright stupid – and yet still seems to take itself seriously.


Indeed, Machete Kills appears to have been made with the intent to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for most gruesome deaths by spinning blades. Many, many people are sliced and pureed to death, with the usual excessive blood splatter. Great efforts were made to show human dicing, even when unnecessary, as when a motorboat comes ashore at full speed and somehow spins around so that the blades of the motor tear apart the flesh of several movie extras. You may recall, Greg, that it was about this time that I was munching on my pepperoni pizza in the theater.

Greg, this was a movie that lost me about 30 minutes into the mayhem. There simply was no point because I knew I was watching a Saturday morning cartoon where anything can happen, and will happen, even when there’s no point to it happening. I realize that there is an audience for this type of film, but I can’t imagine that this audience is an aficionado of good movies with good stories.


This is a horrid, horrid movie. Rarely have we seen such purposeful drek. I think Machete Kills will find a cult following. The really odd thing to me is that it got made at all. The prequel Machete should have been enough. But now the next film Machete Kills Again, in Space is coming out. (By the way, there were several overt references to Star Wars and one wink at Star Trek the Next Generation that made no sense). We don’t need any of these films. For a bad idea well executed I give Machete Kills 1 Reel out of 5. Machete himself comes off as a good hero, even if he is a lampoon of Bond. I give him 2 out of 5 Heroes.

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Greg, I agree that Machete Kills was a bad idea, but it’s a stretch to say that it’s well executed. My attention and interest were executed, that’s for sure. You will not find me in the theater to watch the sequels in space, the purpose of which I’m sure is to show in full glory the splattering of blood in a zero-gravity environment.  Like you, I’ll very generously give this movie 1 bloody Reel out of 5, but just 1 splattered Hero out of 5.

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Captain Phillips ••••

MV5BMTQzNzExMDg3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODU1NzEzMDE@._V1_SX214_Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray, Richard Phillips, Stephan Talty
Biography, Crime, Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: October 11, 2013

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

Greg, after Castaway you’d think Tom Hanks would have had enough of movies involving mishaps in tropical waters.


In all seriousness, Hanks delivers the goods in Captain Phillips.


Let’s recap. Tom Hanks plays the role of Richard Phillips, the captain of an American tanker ship carrying goods off the coast of Africa. His ship is boarded by several Somali pirates, led by their captain named Muse (Barkhad Abdi).


Despite his best efforts, Phillips can’t keep the pirates off his ship. His crew hide below decks. The Somalis search for them but to no avail. The crew take Muse captive in exchange for Phillips. But Phillips makes a critical error and gets into the lifeboat with the Somali pirates. Now it’s a race against time as the pirates make way for the Somali coast while the Navy and their SEALS prepare to intercept.


Captain Phillips is based on a true story, and as such we pretty much know the ending of Phillips’ ordeal before the movie even begins. As such, this film faces the challenge of taking a predictable situation and somehow making it interesting to viewers. This isn’t easy, yet Captain Phillips succeeds on many levels. The movie works because of strong performances from the entire cast along with some tight, taut directing from Paul Greengrass.


It is pretty hair-raising to watch. Scott, by some measures Phillips is a hero, but by another not so much. In our analysis of hero stories we usually look for transformation – either in the main character or in those around him. In Captain Phillips there is no such transformation. Everyone ends up pretty much the way they started.

However, if we apply the “Great Eight Characteristics” of a hero as outlined in your book Heroes: What They Are and Why We Need Them, Tom Hank’s Captain Phillips does pretty well.


Yes, he does, Greg. Phillips is smart, as shown by the way he manipulates the pirates after they board his ship. He’s strong, obviously, to be able to survive such an ordeal. He’s selfless in his concerns for his crew over his own well-being. He’s also reliable, caring, and inspiring. That’s most of the Great Eight right there.

One of the best qualities of this movie is it’s attention to detail and it’s willingness to show scenes that most movies leave on the cutting room floor. For example, one of the most powerful scenes in the movie occurs, ironically, once all the dust has settled and Phillips has been rescued. Most movies end at that point and we assume a nice joyful recovery for our hero. But this movie dares to show us how Phillips is most definitely NOT okay after his harrowing experience. He’s a psychological mess as the navy personnel clean him up. This took guts to show and made me admire the makers of Captain Phillips even more.


Another thing that I thought was well-done is the presentation of the pirates themselves. They weren’t an organized group. There was dissention among them. One was a youngster – very inexperienced. Another didn’t have faith in Muse, constantly contradicting him at every turn. The scenes of the pirates inside the enclosed life boat offered a look into the desperation of the Somali people. These men had no choice but to come home with something they could ransom – or face death.


I agree, Greg. The portrayal of the pirates was handled very well. Yes, they are committing a terrible crime, but we also see the grim conditions in Somalia that can give rise to such desperate behavior. I also applaud the fact that the pirates have very distinctly different personalities. I’m reminded of Rambo movies from yesteryear where the bad guys are portrayed as a monolithic pestulence. Here we have real people making both good and bad choices that have life and death consequences. It’s riveting and powerful.

Captain Phillips is a highly effective movie that is deftly made and saturated in suspense. I give it 4 Reels out of 5. The hero story is done well, too. Phillips is faced with many, but not all, of the classic people, tests, and trials of the hero journey. Tom Hanks once again shows why he’s the greatest American actor of his generation. He steals the show yet manages to share the stage generously with a great ensemble of actors. I award his character 4 Heroes out of 5.

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I think we’re in agreement here, Scott. It is a powerful story and enjoyable to watch. We walk away with a sense of what the Somali pirates are up against in their daily lives and the lengths they must go to just to survive. We also get a look at what it takes to be a captain of a modern cargo vessel.

But I have to wonder if Phillips is truly heroic. He makes some bad decisions: like being outside the commonly travelled waters and getting into the lifeboat. But once he finds himself in a bad situation, he puts the safety of his crew first above all else. I give Captain Phillips 4 Reels out of 5 and 4 Heroes out of 5.

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Don Jon •••

Don_Jon_PosterStarring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johnasson, Julianne Moore
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Screenplay: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: September 27, 2013

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Scott, get ready for a modern Don Juan.


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

This movie may be a tear-jerker about lost love but you won’t see me break out a box of Kleenex.


Don Jon is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut and his first screenplay as well. We meet Jon (whose friends call him “The Don” because he’s a master of the pickup) at a local bar where he and his friends are rating women on a scale from one to ten. Jon has good luck with the ladies, nightly scoring with eights and above. One night, he spies Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) who is a perfect ten – a “dime.”  He is then in pursuit of this beauty, willing to give up his life of debauchery and even go to school to please his woman.


But one thing Don Jon is not willing to give up is his porn addiction. When Barbara discovers that he watches porn, she orders him to stop. But he can’t stop because he realizes that he prefers porn to actual sex. Jon is able to hide his habit from her, or so he thinks. Meanwhile, at school he meets an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore) who is definitely not his type — or so he thinks. There is some connection between the two and eventually Don Jon must make a decision between having his porn, having Barbara, or having Esther.


This is a clever and occasionally uncomfortable movie to watch. It deals with a man’s addiction to porography. And it gets a bit graphic. Jon tells us that he loves the detail he gets in his porn. Real women can’t compare because they all want to use the missionary position or refuse to give him oral sex.

Jon’s father is a classic Italian-American played by Tony Danza (still in good shape for a guy his age). He’s impressed with Jon’s new acquisition of Barbara. It’s one of the few things Jon’s father approves of. The scenes at Jon’s family house remind me of the opening scenes to 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. Jon’s mom just wants him to get married and give her some grand children while his younger sister is engrossed in her cell phone – texting away.


Don Jon Is a crude yet fascinating foray into the world of not just porn addiction but also sex addiction. We encounter a young man whose priorities center on the physical world, especially his car, apartment, girlfriends, sexual release, and building up his body. His life is as shallow and superficial as it gets, and the whole point of the movie is to portray how he becomes aware of this shallowness and is able to do something about it.

For me, this movie is all about growing and evolving from an adolescent mindset and lifestyle into adult maturity. Although Don Jon is truly entertaining, I confess to wincing at the horrific way in which Don Jon and his friends view women as objects to be conquered. It’s also painful to watch him fight his sex addiction without much success. His only hope is to discover a new and healthier worldview about romance, and it’s enjoyable to watch the transformation slowly unfold.


Scott, I think you’ve summed it up pretty well. I had a hard time with this film because it took nearly half of the 90-minute running time to get to the conflict – the point where Jon meets Esther. I was wondering what this film was about for that whole time. I enjoyed the many devices Gordon-Levitt used in his storytelling: the opening porn montage, the pickup montage, and a great stop-motion montage when his character goes on a porn binge.

However, the film never recovered from the slow pace and late introduction of Esther. I give Don Jon 3 out of 5 Reels. I liked Jon’s transformation but I found it a bit unbelievable so I give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

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Greg, I agree that the major plot-points in Don Jon unfold a bit too slowly. The film  spends too much time portraying the details of Jon’s sex addiction and too little time on the details of his transformation from a sex-crazed adolescent to a mature adult human male. Still, this is one of the few movies that I’ve seen that deal with what could be a porn addiction epidemic in our society. The movie’s take-home message about mature love, and how to acquire it, is both rare and commendable.

I’m also awarding Don Jon 3 Reels out of 5. The story of a man’s ability to conquer his addiction is well done and has many of the elements of the classic hero’s journey. Jon is thrown into an unfamiliar world, encounters help from two unlikely sources, has entanglements with at least two different father figures, and emerges forever changed. For this reason I’ll bump up my heroes rating to 4 out of 5.

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Gravity •••• 1/2

MV5BNjE5MzYwMzYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk4MTk0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Science Fiction, Drama, Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2013

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

Greg, after all those summer lightweight movies, it’s time for something heavy.


Gravity will definitely keep you in your seat.


Gravity certainly begins with a bang. Literally. Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are conducting routine repairs outside their orbiting space shuttle when they are told by mission command that a Russian space accident is sending high-speed shrapnel their way. The shrapnel destroys their shuttle, killing three of their crew, while Stone is detached from her line and is sent spinning in space, alone and running out of oxygen.


Kowalski retrieves Stone but with the shuttle in ruins they realize their only hope is to make their way to the orbiting International Space Station where a Soyuz spacecraft awaits as an escape pod. They estimate they have only 90 minutes before the orbiting debris field returns for another hack at them. The race is on as Kowalski tethers Stone to his jetpack and they traverse the emptiness of space for the ISS.

Scott, this was a visually stunning movie. I saw it in IMAX 3D and I could not have been more impressed. The movie makers understood the physics and silence of space and played it to full effect. The destruction scene where Stone spins off into space is just mesmerizing. The backdrop of the entire movie is a beautiful panorama of the Earth as seen from space. Gravity is a breathtaking visual feast from beginning to end.


I totally agree, Greg. Gravity is one of those well-crafted movies that grabs our attention and holds it easily for 90 minutes. The film is able to convey the wonder and awe of being a mere human in the vastness of space. There are many magnificent shots of the earth and its ethereal beauty, often reflected exquisitely on the astronauts’ facemasks.

The movie’s strength is its supreme simplicity. There are only two characters, and we come to know them and like them quite well. We should not underestimate Sandra Bullock’s stellar performance here. I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ work in Castaway in which he carries scene after scene, alone, frightened, and resourceful. Bullock strikes the right charismatic balance between portraying both terror and charm. I was impressed.


Sandra Bullock has a long history of choosing strong female roles. From 2000’s Miss Congeniality, to 2009’s The Blind Side and even this summer’s The Heat, Bullock looks for roles that play to her strengths and to the strength of her female lead character. Gravity is no exception.

Bullock’s Dr. Stone starts out very self-occupied. She isn’t at ease in space. We learn that she’s never gotten over the accidental death of her 4-year-old daughter. In many ways, Stone is just going through the paces of her life. She avoids contact with other people. But through this harrowing adventure she discovers her inner strength and comes to closure with her inner demons.


Exactly. As in any good movie, we witness a commendable character transformation in our hero. Stone develops a confidence and a resourcefulness that she lacks at the outset of the film. And we can be sure that she is forever changed by her experiences. Stone is a terrific female hero, a nice change of pace from the disproportionate number of male heroes in movies today.

I do have a few nitpicks. Although George Clooney did a fine job is his role, I wish that his character had been a woman. This would have allowed Stone to become transformed without the help of a man, as the last thing we need is a film telling us that women cannot be heroes without male assistance. My other quibbles center on Stone taking far too much time to save herself when her oxygen was running low, as well as a scene in which one member of the crew seemed to untether himself from a life-line unnecessarily. I can forgive these oversights because on the whole, Gravity is a quality movie experience.


Gravity is also one of the most visually appealing movies I’ve ever seen. The movie makers used new technology to film the weightless aspects of outer space without resorting to the “Vomit Comet.”  They did a great job of giving the impression that we are spinning around helplessly in zero-G.  I compare it to such films as 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1999’s The Matrix in terms of innovation. I fully expect Oscar nods for this film.

The Hero’s Journey is fully realized as well. Clooney as the veteran space walker plays the mentor to Bullock’s Stone. All the important plot points were hit at just the right times. Gravity clocks in at just 90 minutes but it felt like it went a lot faster. I was constantly on the edge of my seat worrying about what Stone was going to do next.

My limited knowledge of physics was not offended by this film. I did notice a couple of plot devices that were improbable (for example, one would find a trip from the Hubble Telescope to the International Space Station a bit more difficult than we see here). But that did not impact my enjoyment of the experience.

Gravity is a masterfully made movie that transported me from the safety of my theater seat to the treacherous void of space. I was captivated by the story and I felt every bit of the hero’s journey with Dr. Stone. For completely immersing me in a classic story of escape and even redemption, I give Gravity 5 out of 5 Reels.  Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of an ordinary person in the extraordinary situation of working her way home from a distant shore was heroic and personal. I give her 5 Heroes out of 5.

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I did enjoy Gravity and will most likely include it in my top-10 movie list for 2013, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it as classic film or a groundbreaking film.  Gravity is an excellent, suspenseful movie that will leave you rooting for and cheering for a hero who overcomes the odds, along with her inner demons, to survive a catastrophic space accident. I highly recommend this movie and happily award it 4 Reels out of 5. The hero story has most of the classic elements and earns top honors from me in the form of 5 Heroes out of 5.

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