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The Duff •••

The_Duff_posterStarring: Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell
Director: Ari Sandel
Screenplay: Josh A. Cagan, Kody Keplinger
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: February 20, 2015


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

Greg, we just saw a movie that reminded me of 2004’s Mean Girls.

I thought this was going to be the life story of Hillary Duff. Let’s recap…

We meet high school student Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman), who is a bit of a nerd. Bianca has two best friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos), who are taller, prettier, and more popular than Bianca. One day Bianca’s next-door neighbor, Wesley (Robbie Amell), informs her that she is ‘The Duff” — the designated ugly fat friend. People tend to use the Duff to extract information about the more popular members of the group. At first, Bianca resists this labeling, but soon she discovers that Wesley is correct.

And so the fix is in as Bianca bargains with Wes to fix each other. Wes will “un-Duff” Bianca, and “Bee” will help Wes pass his classes so that he won’t be kicked off the football team. If this sounds familiar, it should because it’s the basic plot of “10 Things I Hate About You” or just about any John Hughes movie. In fact, the opening scenes reference “The Breakfast Club” by stating that once the world was simpler when people were just jocks, basket cases, etc… but now things are more complicated and we enter the world of the Duff.

Greg, given that the theater in which we saw The Duff was packed full of teenage girls, I’m surprised that I walked away with a positive opinion of the movie. This film won me over with its sweetness and wisdom in portraying a character that I can certainly identify with – a loveable nerd who doesn’t seem to fit in and must undergo a good deal of suffering before significant personal growth can occur. Bianca Piper wows us with her intelligence, sensitivity, and nerdy goofiness. Mae Whitman deserves great props for delivering a terrific performance.

This movie follows the classic pattern of a romantic comedy. We have a boy and a girl who start out hating each other. As soon as we see this set-up, we know that this hatred must turn into love by the end of the film. Robbie Armell does a fine job portraying not just any stupid jock, but a stupid jock with hints of potential. To win Bianca’s heart, Wesley must prove himself to be more than just a handsome muscle-bound fool. He takes a long while to remedy his Neanderthal ways, but he does achieve a sensitivity that wins over Bianca.

The villain in this film is the super popular Miranda (Bella Thorne) who has aspirations for her own reality-TV show. She has an overblown image of herself and a huge sense of entitlement. She waltzes into and out of a relationship with Wesley. This uncovers part of Wesley’s missing inner quality – his lack of self respect. Bianca’s mother is recently divorced and runs a support group for divorced women. She is also self-absorbed and spouts motivation-speak for her daughter when what Bianca really needs is a mother, not a coach.

While the film toutes the fact that there are many more types of people than “jocks, geeks, princesses, etc…,” I was able to detect only two types of people in the film: the princesses and the Duff. All the girls in the movie were Barbie-doll perfect, and Wesley bore an uncanny resemblance to Tom Cruise. There wasn’t a lot of diversity and for me it made the film seem two-dimensional.

True enough, Greg. The Duff is populated by beautiful people, with even the so-called ugly fat friends looking like supermodels. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood clings to the belief that no one will see a movie with people you might actually see in real life. The character of Miranda is a mastermind villain who presides over her collection of nameless minions who do her bidding. Every decent person but Wesley pretty much knows she’s pure evil, and we forgive him because we remember that he’s a high school dimwit.

The supporting cast is fairly strong here. Bianca’s love interest, Toby (Nick Eversman), does a nice job of appearing to be cute, decent, and charming until he reveals his true colors in a pivotal scene that sends Bianca running into Wesley’s arms. Bianca’s two sidekicks, Jess and Casey, are necessary for the plot but didn’t make much an impression on me. Ken Jeong deserves props for playing Mr. Arthur, a fun teacher who not only tolerates his students’ immaturity but matches it with his own brand of immaturity.

The Duff is a fun and thoughtful teenage romantic comedy that harkens back to the days of Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. I wasn’t bored and I was pleasantly entertained. However, there were no surprises, either. I give The Duff just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Mae Whitman plays her role perfectly – not too smart alecky and not too cute. We like young Bianca and and appreciate her for herself. Her transformation at the end does not give in to the Hollywood ideals of beauty. “Bee” is true to herself and still evolves into a strong female character. I give Bianca 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Bianca’s allies consisted of the hunky boy next door Wesley, the beautiful BFFs Jess and Casey, a nearly absent mother, and a mentor teacher. Her object of desire is the hipster Toby and her villain was Miranda – the queen bee (or bee-otch). Miranda is supported by a number of interchangeable minions. It was a pretty bland supporting cast which I award just 3 out of 5.

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I enjoyed The Duff for what it is: a movie for teens, about teens, and starring actors in their mid-20s who play teens. The movie is more than just a romantic comedy; it is also a commentary about the frightening dominance of social media in our lives. In one scene, after the entire student-body is forced to turn in their cell phones, a student snaps at Bianca, “I just thought of something funny and now no one will know about it.” What does this tell us about our dependency on the superficial? The Duff charmed me and I’m happy to award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is a typical romance story in that two people who hate each other are thrown into a situation in which their hatred is replaced by love. We’ve seen this formula countless times and it is reprised nicely here in this film. The two heroes are transformed in different ways and receive help from each other and from other friends, companions, and allies, including teachers. It’s a fine hero story but not a great one. I give these two romantic heroes 3 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, I agree with your assessment of the supporting cast. All the necessary pieces are there and while none of them stand out (with the possible exception of Mr. Arthur), they all fulfill their roles in advancing the plot. It’s interesting that Bianca’s mother is so utterly worthless as a mentor figure in this film. Are parents that useless to today’s youth? I hope not. Overall, the cast did it’s job but there’s nothing extraordinary here. I give them a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service •••1/2

Kingsman_The_Secret_Service_posterStarring:  Colin FirthTaron EgertonSamuel L. Jackson
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay:  Jane GoldmanMatthew Vaughn
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutees
Release Date: February 15, 2015


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Scott, it looks like we’re watching the latest Bond movie.

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

It does have the look and feel of Bond, Greg. But it’s Kingsman, a semi-serious spoof of Bond. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) whose father was a Kingsman (a member of the British Secret Service) trainee and was killed 17 years ago. Eggsy has been through the Army and is now living with his mom. Mom has an abusive boyfriend. Eggsy goes to the local tavern for a beer and steals the local bully’s car. When he’s thrown in jail, he calls the number on the back of his father’s medal to get a one-time help out of trouble.

Meanwhile, climate scientist James Arnold is kidnapped by eccentric billionaire Richard Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). A rescue attempt is foiled by Valentine’s sidekick Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) who kills people with her bladed prosthetic legs. Soon Valentine is meeting with world leaders, kidnapping many of them, and giving away billions of SIM cards, promising the entire world free cell phone service and free internet, forever. Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) has take Eggsy under his wing and has him competing with a group of other trainees to become the next Kingsman.

Scott, this was a strange little film. It’s clearly the origin story of a new Bond-esque hero, albeit a younger version. Eggsy is only 22 years old and is taking on the role of the elegant English spy. But what puzzles me is – who is the audience for this film? It feels a lot like a dystopian young adult film with the young star and the older mentor. But it has an R rating. And it’s deserved. There is a lot of foul language and talk of sex (even a bit of sex in the end, if you’ll excuse my pun). This isn’t a movie for teens. And it doesn’t appear to be a movie for the Bond-era grown ups either as the plot and wisecracks seem aimed at a younger crowd. That only leaves the Millennials. That’s a pretty small slice of the movie-going pie. Was this film aimed at them?

Greg, I think they cast a wide net by making a movie that appeals to an older Bond audience, a middle-aged female audience that swoons over Colin Firth, and a young crowd who is drawn to young, talented Taron Edgerton. Kingsman impressed me. This is a film that tries to be clever and succeeds. We have all the elements of great storytelling: a young underdog hero whom everyone underestimates, a strong mentor who sees the kid’s potential, a charismatic villain with plenty of firepower and henchmen behind him, and a screenplay that is both playful and witty.

I enjoyed myself but there was another curious scene that I couldn’t quite swallow. In most hero/mentor stories there is a point where the hero must go on alone. Often (as in the case of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) the mentor dies leaving the hero to use all the mentor has taught him to gain the main goal. Usually, that death comes at the hands of the villain after the mentor has done some heroic deed.

In this story, our mentor, Harry Hart, goes to a church in rural Kentucky looking for the villain. This is no ordinary church. The parishioners are the worst kind of haters, fashioned after the Westboro Baptists. They hate everyone and everything that does not meet their narrow definition of holy. The villain turns on an audio signal that causes everyone in the church to become extremely violent, including Harry. What follows is a protracted blood bath where Harry uses his super-spy-skills to kill everyone in the church.  Once Harry has killed everyone, he walks out into the parking lot where the villain finishes him off.

What is strange about this is that usually, in action/adventures, the “shootout” scene is between the hero and the villain’s henchmen. The henchmen often have their faces covered with helmets or ninja-masks and are usually in some foreign land. They are nameless, faceless evil doers – fully deserving of their fate.

What are the makers of Kingsman saying about rural America? Have we become the Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran of the new world order? Were the Westboro Baptists so evil that they were deserving of being maimed and murdered in their own church? It was an artistic choice that confused me.

The hero story here follows the classic pattern with our hero Eggsy being thrown into a dangerous, unfamiliar world and needing to acquire new skills and self-confidence to achieve his mission. Harry Hart is his capable mentor figure and, strangely, Eggsy’s love interest is a prize of a princess whom he does not “claim” until his mission is completed. The blatant sexuality of Bond films is the butt of many jokes in Kingsman — pardon the pun.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the role of a quirky, brilliant, lisping villain figure who is cleverly aware of the parallel between his plot to destroy the world and similar plots in myriad Bond films of yesteryear. I enjoyed Richard Valentine’s mastermind villainy. His evil sidekick is the menacing and dangerous Gazelle who slices and dices her victims using her razor-sharp legs with great acrobatic skill. This innovative evil pairing made this movie a cut above most action-spy movies.

Definitely. Usually we’d call this the Mastermind/Henchman villain pattern, but I got the impression that Gazelle was more of a sidekick than a simple henchman. Aside from Colin Firth’s mentor character, we also see a sort of Mastermind on the hero’s side with Michael Caine playing the role of “Arthur.” He directs all the action and Harry and Eggsy do all the work.

Also in the hero’s side of the aisle is a gaggle of twenty-somethings who are competing with Eggsy to get into the Kingsmen. This is a sort of ensemble cast. It resembles the ensemble pattern we’ve seen in dystopian YA stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent. There are the preppy/entitled upper crust types, the underprivileged types, and the disposable few. Of course, our hero stands out from the crowd as he resolves problems in ways unique to his station as the underdog character.

This movie’s supporting cast strikes just the balance in terms of quality and quantity. There are plenty of people supporting Eggsy besides his mentor Harry. There is his mother (Samantha Womack), his fellow cohorts in training to become Kingsmen, and his senior colleague Merlin (Mark Strong). I’ve already mentioned the excellent villain pairing, but also wreaking havoc in Eggsy’s life are the hoodlums from his old neighborhood, along with a senior mobster who has befriended his mother. The entire cast is eccentric and memorable.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a fun, albeit flawed and confusing movie. I liked the origin story of young Eggsy becoming a Kingsman and coming-of-age as a mature adult. I also liked the nods to the original Bond films. Kingsman brought back the things that made Ian Fleming’s Bond so much fun. However, I cannot reconcile the confusing demographics of this film. I give Kingsman 3 out of 5 Reels.

Eggsy as the hero is a by-the-numbers young adult hero. He starts out uncertain in himself and through the mentorship of an older more experienced Kingsman, becomes the man we know he can be. Eggsy overcomes not only the world-domineering villain, but also returns home to his ordinary world to conquer the bullies in his and his mother’s lives. I give Eggsy 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast was just about as perfect as you can hope for in any motion picture. If I have any criticism it is that there are too many supporting characters. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain is quirky with his Google-Glass spectacles and lisping speech impediment. But I never thought he was particularly menacing. His sidekick/henchman Gazelle was not only beautiful and deadly, but also cunning. However, the villain’s army was pretty much just a faceless mass of mindless idiots running into gunfire and getting mowed down.

On the hero’s side, we have the mastermind Arthur who runs the Kingsman and the mentor Harry Hart. Both played by veteran and skilled British actors. There’s the love interest female Kingsman who never really bares fruit as a love interest. And then there is the opposing Kingsman candidates who are pretty disposable themselves. And there is Eggsy’s mother. Finally, we have her abusive boyfriend and his posse of bullies – another mastermind and henchman for our hero to overcome.

All in all, that’s a pretty full deck when it comes to a supporting cast. I give the cast 4 out of 5.

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Kingsman is a fun movie that is crisp and clever in its writing, acting, and pacing. I didn’t find it confusing at all, Greg. The movie is British-made and so I’d call it delightfully “different” and a welcome change from cookie-cutter American-made films. Colin Firth fans will not be disappointed, and newcomer Taron Edgerton does a commendable job in a role that requires him to walk a fine line between drama and comedy. I was happily surprised by the quality of Kingsman and am happy to award it 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero story features most of the elements of the classic hero’s journey. The job of any mentor is to help the hero transform himself, and almost comically Harry Hart tells young Eggsy, “I’m here to transform you.” During the journey Eggsy encounters friends, enemies, father figures, and love interests. It doesn’t get much better than this. Eggsy deserves a fine rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters were a diverse bunch that fulfilled all their essential roles to near perfection. There is some depth to the characters that one doesn’t always see in throwaway action spy movies. Harry Hart’s likeable brilliance is matched by Richard Valentine’s devious charisma. We get to know these characters and either love them or love to hate them. That’s high praise for any movie. I give the cast a rating of 4 out of 5.

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