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Divergent •••1/2

Divergent_film_posterStarring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor
Action/Adventure/Science-Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Triss: Single, P-PP Emotional/Physical, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Jeanine: Single, N-NN Moral, Ant (Hidden Irredemable Villain)
Eric: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)
Peter: Single, P-N Moral, Ant (Fallen Villain)


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It’s time for our weekly diversion and review Divergent.

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

It’s great that we can converge to review Divergent.

We’re introduced to 16-year-old Beatrice (Triss) Prior (Shailene Woodley) who lives in dystopian Chicago. In the future, all Chicagoans are divided into 5 factions: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (kind), Candor (honest), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave). Beatrice is a member of the Abnegation and she has come of age and must choose which faction she will live in for the rest of her life. She takes a simulation test which is supposed to tell her which faction she is most inclined to. The problem is, her test is inconclusive. This is unheard of. Everyone is supposed to be aligned with one faction or another. People who are not aligned are called “Divergent.” And Divergents are the most feared of people because they can think for themselves.

As a Divergent, Beatrice is in danger. The Erudite are attempting to gain control of the city and are intent on exterminating all Divergents. At the choosing ceremony, Beatrice opts to become a member of the Dauntless and must prove herself worthy of this warrior group in a series of grueling initiation tests. Her first step toward redefining herself is to assume the name ‘Triss’. She then must overcome a cruel bully leader of the Dauntless (Jai Courtney) and then must take steps to hide her Divergent status from the head Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who is on a ruthless quest to seize the leadership role from the Abnegation.

Scott, I had read the book this movie is based upon. It was over 480 pages in length and took me 11 hours to listen to the audiobook. I was concerned that the movie wouldn’t be able to do justice to the book. I was pleased that the movie was actually better than the book in many ways. The book spends about 75% of the story focused on the initiation of Triss into the Dauntless. The movie balanced the beginning, middle, and end.

Having said that, I found the story to be derivative of other stories we’ve seen on the big screen in recent years. The division of society into basic groupings was used in the Harry Potter series where the students were divided into four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin – each with its own personality. In The Hunger Games Katniss’ country of Panem was divided into 13 Districts – each with its own speciality. This division into  and belonging to a group is prevalent in Young Adult novels and movies.

Greg, I was impressed by Divergent. The movie manages to capture the most appealing elements of both Hunger Games and Enders Game. These two films, along with Divergent, feature a strong young hero who is thrust into a dark world run by corrupt elders. The young hero must pass arduous tests and harrowing simulations. The neophyte hero then encounters real hazards that require an abundance of guts, grit, and resourcefulness to overcome. Underdog stories such as these have a natural, universal allure.

Shailene Woodley is outstanding in her role as Triss, a young woman on a voyage of self-discovery. I found her character to have far more depth and nuance than Katniss in Hunger Games. Triss spends this movie trying to reconcile others’ expectations of her with her own quest for self-knowledge and self-growth. There is everything one would want in a hero journey here. Triss attracts allies among the Dauntless and is mentored by both her mother and Four (Theo James), who also serves as a love interest. Challenges both physical and intellectual in nature are met and resolved in sometimes surprising ways. The hero journey is packed to delicious satisfaction.

The world Triss lives in is more interesting to me. The five factions seem to represent the five divisions of society. The Abnegation serve the factionless (aka homeless). They are the politicians and public servants. The Amity represent the workers, Candor are the legal entity, Erudite are the academics and Dauntless represent the police and military.

Triss let me down as a hero. When compared to Katniss we find that she is constantly relying on the beneficence of others, namely her love interest Four. When she’s in trouble, he comes to her rescue. Katniss, on the other hand was constantly saving Peeta from his demise. While it’s true that Triss took initiative, she never really overcame her fears. On the contrary, her “special power” is that she is fearless already. I grant you that Triss is on a journey of self-discovery, but that is true of most young adult heroes. Triss offers nothing special in that regard.

Au contraire, Greg, I could be wrong but I believe that Triss saves Four’s life as many times as he saves her’s. There is one particular brilliant scene toward the end of the movie that stands out. Four has been brainwashed to attack and kill Triss, who ingeniously realizes that the only way to save them both is to point the gun at herself with Four’s finger on the trigger. She forces Four to look her in the face, when she knows he cannot fire the gun, and in this way she spares her own life while snapping him out of his hypnotic state. It’s a daring move and is quite possibly the most powerful scene in the movie.

There is great chemistry between Triss and Four, with far more sizzle than we see with Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. I’m not sure I can disagree with you about her journey of self-discovery being all-too common in movies about young adult heroes. With youth comes naivete and it could be argued that it’s a tiresome missing quality in youthful heroes. But this science fiction setting puts a unique and refreshing spin on this journey. I enjoyed it considerably.

There were a handful of villain characters in this movie, too. First was Eric (Jai Courtney) the drill sergeant of the Dauntless. He was intent on driving out any weakling initiate and he didn’t care if they died in the process. Another was Peter (Miles Teller), the over-zealous initiate who would do anything to rise to the top of rankings. Finally, there was Jeanine, the leader of the Erudite who was driven to take over the Dauntless and destroy the Abnegation.

I think we see three distinct types of villain here. Jeanine is very much the “invisible” villain we’ve seen in other films. She really doesn’t have much to do in the main flow of the movie, but is revealed in the end to be very corrupt. Like the villains we’ve seen in Non-Stop and Ride Along, she exposes her evil plot to the audience in the climax of the film. Eric represents the “clear and present” villain – one who is constantly in the face of the hero and the one the hero has to deal with. We saw this in 3 Days to Kill and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Finally, Peter represents the villain within the group. This is the arch rival in such films as last year’s Ender’s Game.

Good observation about the layerings of the villains, Greg. The head villain, Jeanine, is in some ways a strong character but in other ways she seems to disappoint. Her strength lies in her believability; Jeanine’s motives are not entirely evil although they are certainly grossly misguided. Her cold-heartedness is almost understandable given the rigidity of the system of which she is a product. It pains me to say that at the ripe old age of 38, Kate Winslet is cast to play a misguided elder of her society, a symbol of an archaic system that brainwashes and brutalizes its young.

Although I admire this aspect of Jeanine’s villainy, I was left disappointed with the one-dimensionality of her character. We are never told of her backstory, and in fact we know little about her other than she is willing to commit Abnegation genocide in order to raise her faction’s ruling power. Winslet does the best she can with her character but has little to work with. It seems this is the plight of the villain in most movies – they have the depth of cardboard and meander in the film’s periphery until it is time for the hero to topple them.

I found Divergent to be a nice diversion but lacked the coherence of the film it will be forever compared to: The Hunger Games. It was longish at 2 hours and 20 minutes – necessary to encompass the origin story and dispatching the villain. The screenwriters were challenged to pack everything in the book into the movie. However, they made some excellent choices in reducing the complexity of the book. I give Divergent 3 out of 5 Reels.

Triss was a good hero for her growth and depicting the angst of young adults trying to fit in both in society and within a social group. I thought she lacked the kind of independence I’d like to see in a young female hero. Even in the end of the movie she needed help from Four to climb onto her escape train. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I liked the multiple levels of villains in this story. While we have yet to see a fully formed complex villain character this year, I enjoyed watching Triss deal with Peter as a peer villain, Eric as the leader-villain, and Jeanine as the omnipresent invisible villain. I give them 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Divergent offers a fun and psychologically rich story about a young woman’s journey toward self-discovery and self-actualization. This movie sends us into a fascinating world that lumps its citizens into oversimplified categories that fulfill rigid social roles. Once again we have a story along the lines of the Hunger Games that questions a societal status quo that permits and encourages human suffering and injustices. I enjoyed Divergent and recommend it very much. I give it 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was outstanding for many of the reasons I’ve already stated. Triss starts out uncertain of her self-identity and is forced by circumstances to undergo a satisfying personal transformation. By the film’s end, she knows her place in the world and how she can engineer positive social change. In addition, her journey contains all the relevant stages of the mythic hero journey. I award Triss 5 Heroes out of 5.

Once again, the villains were a significant notch (or two) below the heroes in their depth and quality. They did fulfill the function of a good villain but didn’t particularly stir me with their personalities or backstories. A month from now, I probably won’t remember them at all. For this reason I’ll give them a mere 2 Villains out of 5.

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Non-Stop •••

NST_31_5_Promo_4C_4F.inddStarring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach
Action/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2014
Marks: Single, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Villains: Duo, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Hidden Divergent Villains)


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

Greg, it’s time to stop what we’re doing to review Non-Stop.

Scott, the action in this movie was non-stop. Let’s recap.

Air marshall Bill Marks’s (Liam Neeson) personal life is a mess. He’s recently divorced and his young daughter just passed away. Now he’s an alcoholic, angry at life and very agitated. He boards a flight from New York to London and finds himself sitting beside Jen Summers (Julianne Moore). When the plane is well over the Atlantic, Marks receives a threatening text message on his secure phone line.

The sender says that someone will die every 20 minutes until his demands are met. That’s when Marks goes into action. He consults another Air Marshall who tells Marks his fears are without merit. However Marks discovers the other marshall is carrying a suitcase full of cocaine. When Marks confronts him the two duke it out and Marks is forced to kill him, just at the 20 minute mark.

Greg, airline disaster movies were common in the 1960s and 70s, but we stopped seeing them after the groundbreaking and satirical Airplane! was released in 1980. Since that time, it’s been difficult to create an airline disaster movie with any originality or unintentional humor. I have to give Non-Stop credit for taking a risk with a movie storyline that shares much of the conventional build-up with those air-disaster movies of yesteryear.

Does this film work? I think it does to some extent. Liam Neeson does a nice job of capturing a tormented father dealing with many personal issues. His character Bill Marks is a classic hero in the sense that he is missing inner peace, self-confidence, and self-respect. The air disaster awaiting him serves as the vehicle of his redemption. This movie is far from perfect, but it did hit all the right notes in terms of following the mythic hero journey.

I have to agree, Scott. Non-Stop employs a classic device to make the movie captivating – the countdown timer. Every 20 minutes something has to happen. This creates tension and impending doom. I thought it was a little convenient that Marks killed his colleague just in time for the first countdown, but I was willing to let it slide for the sake of my willing suspension of disbelief.

As a hero Marks does pretty well. He is courageous and a leader when the time comes to act. And, as you point out, has some important personal demons that he has to overcome. He blames himself for not being around when his daughter was dying of cancer. Despite the fact that his job requires him to fly he is afraid of take-offs. And he drinks to excess which is probably not in his job description. I’m not sure that he overcomes any of these imperfections, but he does save the day and that makes him a hero.

Well, I think we can assume that Marks’s drinking was a symptom of his character deficits that his completed hero journey was able to remedy. The man is basically a mess, and just when it looks like everyone on board is about to lynch him, he confesses his sins to the angry mob in an impassioned speech that tugs on every passenger’s heartstrings. For me, this was perhaps the only unintentionally humorous scene in the movie, but his brutal honesty does win over the passengers and seems to spur him to take a slew of extraordinary actions that will save everyone’s lives.

One nagging question I had throughout much of the movie was why Marks didn’t trust the NYPD cop sooner. That oversight made Marks’s job tougher than it needed to be. It was also more than a little far-fetched that he happens to be in the right place at the right time to save the life of a little girl who happens to be the same age as his deceased daughter, who of course he couldn’t save. Still, despite a few imperfections here and there, I was impressed by Neeson’s performance and entertained by the story.

The villain in this story is pretty much invisible until the very end of the movie. This added a certain level of mystery to him and made him a bit ominous. However, when the villain is revealed, we find that he is an Iraq war veteran who is disillusioned with the purpose of the war. He wants to underscore the fact that America is still vulnerable to attack and so hijacked the plane.

I felt this was a lame excuse for a villain’s motivation. It was a political statement that should have stayed home. It comes from out of nowhere and has no basis in popular culture. The villain pulled off some pretty impressive feats (like creating a Swiss bank account in Marks’s name, bribing an Air Marshall with a massive amount of cocaine, and creating a bomb that eluded detection). I found the villain’s story to be clumsy and unbelievable.

I completely agree with your analysis, Greg. The villains could have been anyone on the plane and were impossible to guess. The backstory of the two (or three) villains did not unfold until the very end, and even then it was a villain origin story that stretched the bounds of believability. Their villainous motives were bizarre and unrealistic, in my opinion. Compared to our hero, Bill Marks, the villains in this movie were a big disappointment.

Non-Stop was a thrilling ride from beginning to the end. Some of the plot points were a bit hard to swallow, but if you hang on during some of the wider turns, you’ll enjoy yourself. I give Non-Stop 3 out of 5 Reels.

Liam Neeson plays a decent hero with lots of deficits who redeems himself in the end. I enjoyed watching Marks work out the mystery of the hidden villain. I give Marks 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain was hidden from us for most of the movie and that amped-up the mystery. But the final reveal was unbelievable and disappointing. I give him just 1 Villain out of 5.

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Non-Stop is an entertaining movie that is hardly groundbreaking but still manages to hold our interest with its likeable hero, suspenseful story, and act of redemption. Liam Neeson deserves credit for delivering a terrific performance and for making us feel his pain as well as his satisfying redemption at the end. Like you, Greg, I give this movie a solid 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was a strong one, in my opinion. Marks was as emotionally and spiritually beaten up as a man can be, and the dark, dangerous events on the plane allowed him to develop qualities that were the seeds of his transformation. In evolving as a person, he delivers a gift to the people around him by saving their lives. I give Marks 4 Heroes out of 5.

You’re absolutely right that this movie’s big weak spot was its ridiculous villains whose motives were so absurd that, in my opinion, the actors who played the villains could not even do their jobs well. Quite generously, I award these so-called villains 1 Villain out of 5.

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3 Days to Kill •••

MV5BMzM0MjE0Nzg1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA4ODE4MDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Starring: Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen
Director: McG
Screenplay: Adi Hasak, Luc Besson
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: February 21, 2014
Renner: Single, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Albino: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Henchman Villain)


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

Greg, good things come in threes. The musketeers, the little pigs, the stooges, etc.

It seemed like I had three hours to kill watching 3 Days to Kill.

We meet Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), a CIA assassin agent who is dying of cancer. He moves to Paris to spend his last few months near his ex-wife and teenage daughter, from whom he’s been estranged for five years. While in Paris, Renner is assigned the task of killing a man nicknamed “The Albino” (Tomas Lemarquis), who is plotting to unleash a smart bomb on the general public. Meanwhile, Renner discovers that his ex-wife and daughter want little to do with him.

To give Renner ample incentive to complete the job, Vivi, (Amber Heard) his diabolical boss lady, offers him an experimental serum that will cure him. It has strange side effects, however and leaves Renner incapacitated without warning. Back home, ex-wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) is going on a business trip and needs Renner to watch over daughter Zoe (Hailee Steinfeld) for three days. Hilarity ensues when the CIA hit man must juggle the duties of daily spy work with fatherly responsibilities.

Greg, we all try to find a balance between our work lives and our personal lives. This struggle is the main recurring theme of 3 Days to Kill, with the added twist that the hero of the story is a CIA assassin on assignment who is dying of cancer. Renner tries to reconnect with his daughter while hunting his villainous prey, and the movie tries to be a bit too cute by including scenes where he is literally on the phone parenting his child while dodging bullets.

A curious yet appealing element of this movie centers on the family of squatters who take over his apartment. They are quirky and culturally different, and the elder among them ends up sharing his wisdom with Renner. This is a nice nod to the classic mentor figure in hero tales, a figure who is typically deviant and mysterious.  Another mentor character is Renner’s ex-wife Christine, who also imparts wisdom to Ethan about life’s priorities. She helps Renner, a long-time assassin, transform himself into a loving, pacifistic family man.

The film does a pretty good job of balancing action and humor. Unfortunately for me some of the scenes were a bit far-fetched. At one point Renner is at a party with his daughter who wanders off with a boy. Then an all-out gun fight ensues and somehow she is never the wiser. And there are the scenes where the snitch is in the trunk and Zoe is in the front seat and seems not to notice the sounds of a man banging around in the back. It’s all a bit far-fetched. If this were a comedy it would be funny but it’s a thriller so it’s just eye-rolling material.

Renner is pretty good hero material. He’s dedicated to his work and is trying to mend a strong inner hurt (that of being estranged from his daughter and having little time to reconcile). He’s rugged and charismatic. Despite the fact that he has to lie about what he does, he’s an honest guy. And he’s as reliable as he can be given that people are always out to murder him, which causes him to be late for father-daughter appointments every so often. And he ultimately reconciles with his daughter so he resolves that missing inner quality. Renner’s not a complicated hero but he does fit the mold of what we look for in a good hero.

I agree, Greg. And Costner deserves credit for delivering an understated performance that allows us to forgive (mostly) the ill-attempt of the movie to balance silly humor with life-threatening bullies and bullets.

But what of the villains? These villains have hackneyed nicknames like the wolf and the albino. Another stereotypical character is Ethan’s beautiful and rather villainous CIA boss Vivi, who is just as ruthless as the story’s Russian villains. She coerces Ethan to work for her by threatening to withhold treatment for his cancer, leading us to wonder (and perhaps Ethan to wonder, too) who exactly are the good guys here? All three of these villains are oversimplified yawners who are constructed to look menacing and pose danger. But in the end they are uninteresting.

I agree Scott. Vivi struck me as a sort of anti-villain because she is working for the “good guys” but is just as corrupt as  the “bad guys.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a hero and a villain. As Joseph Campbell once said, “A hero will do anything to get what he wants, at his own expense. Whereas a villain will do anything to get what he wants, at someone else’s expense.” And by that definition Vivi falls squarely into the category of villain.

3 Days to Kill is a surprisingly entertaining movie about a dying man’s attempt to juggle his work life and his personal life. Kevin Costner delivers a solid, sympathetic performance as man who is out to redeem himself both professionally and personally. The film features a pretty well-crafted hero’s journey with our hero’s descent into a dark world of cancer and assassins, a recovery of our hero’s missing humanity, and several redemptive acts of triumph at the end. This movie will not win any awards but it is endearing in its own simple way. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.

As mentioned above, the hero journey is solid in its arc and with its inclusion of several key allies, love interests, mentors, and villains. I hereby award Renner 3 Heroes out of 5.

The villains were disappointing and dragged the film down. Had the villains been interesting or endowed with some kind of depth, 3 Days to Kill might have been a very good movie. But we’re given simple cartoon-like characters who are almost laughable in their stereotypical minimalism.  I generously award this film 2 Villains out of 5.

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Scott I think we’re pretty well-aligned here. Any father with a teen-aged daughter will feel the pull of work versus family that Renner has to deal with. Most of us don’t have to literally fight to get home at the end of the day so seeing Renner take fatherhood to the absurd extreme made for light entertainment. I also award 3 out of 5 Reels for an entertaining thriller wrapped in a family conundrum.

The hero here is pretty basic and as you point out Costner plays the role casually, and that works for him. We’re satisfied with the resolution as he reunites with Zoe. So I give Renner 3 out of 5 Heroes.

So often we measure our heroes by the quality of their villains. The villains here were mostly offscreen and were mere shadows of characters. The real villain here was Renner’s ties to his work, which many men feel. Vivi is the physical manifestation of that conflict. But she’s a typical femme-fatale that we’ve seen before. The villains don’t give Renner much to play against and so I give them just 2 Villains out of 5.

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