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Woman in Gold ••••

Woman_in_Gold_film_posterStarring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenplay: Alexi Kaye Campbell, E. Randol Schoenberg
Genre, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: April 10, 2015


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Scott, it time we looked at the Woman in Gold.

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

At first I thought we’d sea Bea Arthur and the Golden Girls here. Thank goodness we didn’t. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to elderly Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren). She’s an Austrian who was transplanted to the United States during the second world war. As a child living in Austria, she had a favorite aunt who had no children, so she doted on young Maria. The aunt’s husband commissioned a portrait of the woman which was gilded in gold leaf. Soon after, the Nazis invaded Austria and stole all the artwork from local families. Maria was sent to America to escape the Nazis and her parents were sent to the death camps. After the war, the painting ended up in the Austrian National Museum where it was known as “The Woman in Gold” and was cherished as a national treasure.

Now an old woman in America, Maria wants the painting to be returned to her family. The timing may be right because the Austrian government is finally beginning to own up to its past complicity with Hitler and the Nazi art thieves. Maria hires an attorney, Randol Shoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), to help her find the legal means to get the Woman in Gold. At first, Shoenberg is motivated by greed, as the painting is worth millions. His motives later change to seeking justice as he and Maria discover that the Austrians are willing to put up a fight to keep the painting in Austria.

Scott, Woman in Gold is an excellent divergent buddy film. Maria and Schoenberg come together to solve this specific problem, then split up once it is solved. We’re whisked back in time to watch young Maria playing with her aunt and we watch her grow up. Witnessing her leaving her parents behind was heartbreaking. And at the end of the film, watching Maria walk through her old house and reliving the days when she was young and carefree brought tears to my eyes.

There is no peer for Helen Mirren. She plays the adult Maria perfectly. She is defiant in the beginning, pulling the young Schoenberg into her world, and then grows weary as the court cases drag on and on. It’s a wonderful and powerful performance.

Ryan Reynolds did alright as well. Known mostly for his comic acting, this was a chance for Reynolds to stretch and play a more serious role. And he shows his character growing into a man who is motivated more by what is right, than by financial reward. And while he grows, he comes to realize the importance of family and history.

I agree, Greg. Woman in Gold is a moving portrayal of two divergent buddy heroes trying to achieve justice. Frankly, I don’t understand some of the criticisms that I’ve heard about this movie, specifically, that the film is slow and plodding in spots. My attention never strayed for a minute. I wanted the Austrians to relinquish that painting, dammit, and I was thrilled that Shoenberg found a way to restore the Woman in Gold to its rightful owner.

I also have to say that Ryan Reynolds surprised me with this performance. If you’ve read my previous reviews of his work, to say that I’ve been less than impressed with him as an actor is a severe understatement. Here, Reynolds is more than up for the task, suggesting to me that he makes a far better dramatic actor than comedic one. His character is forced to undergo a transformation early in the movie, as his relentless drive to deliver justice in this film depends on his ability to see the grave injustice that is going on. Maria’s transformation is more subtle but no less important.

When looking at the heroes in this film I look for where the transformations are occurring. As you point out, Scott. Schoenberg starts out apathetic and grows interested only when he thinks there’s money to be made. But Maria’s enthusiasm and desire for justice is infectious and it transforms him. He gives up everything to get the portrait back for Maria. Even after Maria grows weary of the chase, Schoenberg marches on.

I’m not sure what transformation you see in Maria, Scott. She starts out enthusiastic about getting her painting back, and then falls into despair. But she eventually rallies and supports Schoenberg. She ends up pretty much as she started out.

I’d say that Maria developed the courage to return to Austria and face a past that had traumatized her. At first she resisted making this trip. But heroes must face their fears to prevail and Maria certainly was compelled to face hers.

Regarding the supporting cast, we have an institutional villain in the form of the Austrian government. It’s not uncommon for characters to assume the role of the “face” of the institution, and sure enough we have the legal representatives of Austria who play that “face”. The characters are cold-hearted and dislikeable, but also not terribly memorable. They do their jobs but it’s clear that this is a story that is more about Maria and Schoenberg and their journey than it is about the men in Austrian suits.

Maria’s family members in the flashback scenes do a wonderful job of pulling our heartstrings. We can’t help but be moved by the horrid treatment of Maria’s family along with the countless other oppressed Jews.

There’s also Schoenberg’s wife who offers moral support – occasionally grudgingly. Schoenberg also has an oppositional figure in his boss at the legal firm. At first he’s able to convince his boss that pursuing the portrait has merit, but once there doesn’t appear to be a financial reward, he becomes a minor villain.

I thought Woman in Gold was a thoughtful and emotional look at the injustices and horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II Austria. It also points out that the Austrian government hadn’t learned from history as they continued to hold family treasures that had been wrongfully stolen from the Jews. I give Woman in Gold 4 out of 5 Reels.

Our divergent heroes of Maria and Schoenberg were reminiscent of last years Philomena. The veteran Mirren and comic Reynolds worked well together. We are witness to Mirren’s overcoming her missing inner quality of lack of courage. Schoenberg’s growth from disinterested bystander to fully committed hero was well-played. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

FInally, we have a good collection of secondary cast members. The Altmann family of the 1940s was very endearing. We are invested in their lives so much so that we feel the loss at the end of the film. The oppositional characters of the Austrian museum curator and government lawyer were mere shadows of characters. I give the cast 3 out of 5 cast points.

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Woman in Gold is one of the best movies of 2015. Helen Mirren turns in a memorable performance as the strong, proud surviving member of her nearly exterminated family. Ryan Reynolds proves equal to her in delivering a stellar performance as her lawyer whose creativity and tenacity save the day. Woman in Gold is poignant, historically accurate, and simply must be seen. I give this movie 4 out of 5 Reels.

Our two divergent heroes, Maria and Schoenberg, enjoy a great chemistry. They each undergo a transformation albeit in different ways. Perhaps the most significant transformation is that which our two heroes may have helped bring about in Austria. By contesting the Austrians’ decisions to retain the painting, and then by finally winning a long, highly publicized arbitration battle, I’d like to think that Maria and Schoenberg forced the Austrians to finally “own” their part in the atrocities of WW2. I give our two heroes a resounding 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast did it’s job but without much flair or fanfare. The secondary and tertiary characters were rock solid, and for that reason I can give them a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Furious 7 ••

Furious_7_posterStarring: Vin DieselPaul WalkerDwayne Johnson
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chris MorganGary Scott Thompson
Action/Crime/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: April 3, 2015


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Scott, it looks like the final installment in the Fast & Furious franchise.

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

With this series earning literally billions at the box office, I’m sure we’ll see plenty of spin-offs of this series. That makes some people furious. Let’s recap.

We’re reminded that in Furious 6 the gang conquered Owen Shaw. In Furious 7 Owen’s brother Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is out for revenge. He breaks into Hobbs’ (Dwayne Johnson) office and hospitalizes him. Shaw then turns his attention to Dom’s (Vin Diesel) crew and sends a bomb to his house. This alerts Dom to the fact that he and his “family” might be in danger. After a trip to Japan to claim Han’s body, Dom returns to LA and collides cars head-first with Shaw which causes Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to show up but Shaw gets away.

Mr. Nobody tells Dom he will help him stop Shaw if Dom’s crew can prevent terrorist Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) from obtaining God’s Eye, a computer program that can hack into any device and use face-recognition applications to find any person anywhere in the world. The rest of the movie consists of innumerable car chases and car stunts with the good guys (Dom and his peeps) prevailing over Jakande and his gang. Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) want to start a family and the film ends with Dom waxing nostalgia about all his previous adventures with Brian.

Scott, Furious 7 is supposed the be the last in the Fast and Furious series. With the untimely death of Paul Walker, the production and release of the film was delayed. The remaining scenes with Walker were completed with his brothers as stand ins. Additionally, Dwayne Johnson was not available for the film as he was filming Hercules. So, they recruited Kurt Russell to play the lead cop role.

Within its genre, this was a pretty good film. The stunts were expertly performed and looked real. However, the plot was merely a series of empty scenes holding together amazing feats of vehicular gymnastics. The continued theme that Dom doesn’t have friends, he has family was over abundantly clear. In our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1 we classified such films as ensemble heroes. The question I have is whether it is a family ensemble or a military ensemble.

I’d say that what we have is an unusual military-family hybrid, Greg. For me Furious 7 is an odd movie. As you point out, the film was cobbled together around the mostly unavailable Dwayne Johnson and the premature demise of Paul Walker. We’re left with a strange arrangement of screen time for Johnson’s character and a reduced role for Walker’s character. It comes across as odd but for the most part we, the audience, aren’t terribly affected by it. The important thing, after all, is the car explosions.

If you’re a fan of this franchise, the ending of Furious 7 will tug at your heartstrings. The filmmakers here give Walker a nice sendoff. Vin Diesel does a commendable job carrying this film; he’s clearly the leader of this ensemble cast. But as this is the seventh installment, it’s apparent that none of the characters in this film are destined to change or transform in any meaningful way. I suppose an argument can be made that Vin Diesel softens up at the end when he realizes that Brian is leaving the group, and that the group is forever transformed now without Brian. But these transformations (if they did happen) are not critical to the plot of the movie, and in fact the plot itself is not critical to the main goal of the film, which is to destroy as many moving vehicles as possible.

The supporting cast includes Kurt Russell as “Mr. Nobody” – a mastermind for the forces of good. He’s supported by a horde of nameless/faceless soldier-types. Jason Statham is the villain character who is supported by a horde of nameless/faceless minions who are trying to steal the “God’s Eye.” With so many people in the ensemble cast, there isn’t much room for any other characters to come to the fore.

You’re right, Greg. I believe there may have been four sets of ensembles — two good guy ensembles and two bad guys ones. Except for Dom’s group, we don’t get to know the members of the ensembles; they are each led by a memorable, dominant character but consist of a sea of rather forgettable underlings. In truth, the supporting cast in these Furious movies are the cars. Vehiculophiles will love this movie, although if you love cars I don’t know how you can handle the total annihilation of so many innocent gleaming machines.

Furious 7 is the epitome of the car chase movie. If you like car chases, you’ll love this film. It’s not much on plot, but it is high on action. The film suffers from the intermittent absence of two of the main stars. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I appreciate the quality of the work. I give Furious 7 2 out of 5 Reels.

The ensemble hero pattern is clear here. The group functions as a family with Dom in the father role. But it is also a military-like group with missions and gunplay. Despite the vacuous nature of the film, I liked this group. I give them 3 out of 5 Heroes.

There weren’t a lot of secondary characters here. The villain was a simple pure evil bad guy. We don’t know how he came to this vile place so he doesn’t have much dimension. Mr. Nobody is no better. He’s just a pure good guy with power from on high. Then there are minions on both sides. It’s not a complex group, so I give them just 1 out of 5 cast points.

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Greg, this type of movie is painful for me to watch. As you’ve intimated, the goal of the film is to provide audiences with as many fiery car chases and car stunts as possible. None of the stunts are believable and it gets tiresome watching people escape horrific falls and catastrophic collisions unharmed. The plot is so irrelevant that we barely notice the oddly small, almost cameo-like inclusion of The Rock and the diminished screen time of Paul Walker. I’ll give the film 2 Reels out of 5 only because Vin Diesel and Kurt Russell can be fun to watch.

There’s not much to say about the hero story. No one watches a Furious movie to sink their teeth into a good, juicy narrative structure. Audiences come to see chases, collisions, fireballs, and a high body count. The heads of the ensemble groups in this film all do a serviceable job in their roles and so I can give the heroic ensembles a rating as high as 2 Heroes out of 5.

There were plenty of supporting characters in this movie but except for the leaders of the ensemble groupings, these supporting characters are quite forgettable. The exception might be Hobbs (The Rock’s character) but Hobbs doesn’t hang around long enough to make much of an impact in this movie. I did admire the performances of Shaw and Mr. Nobody, and for that reason I’ll give a rating here of 2 out of 5.

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ••

Second_Best_posterStarring: Judi DenchMaggie SmithBill Nighy
Director: John Madden
Screenplay: Ol Parker
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: March 6, 2015


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

Greg, you and I never settle for second best. But in this case, we have no choice.

It’s true, this really was the Second-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie.

The movie opens with Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) in San Diego, where they are trying to obtain financing for a second Marigold Hotel. The financing company informs them that an anonymous inspector will visit the first Marigold Hotel to assess the viability of a second hotel. Back in India, two new guests arrive separately at the hotel; one is Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) and the other is Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig). Sonny believes that Chambers is the anonymous inspector and gives him the best available room.

Meanwhile, there are several subplots to follow: Evelyn is offered a job but is worried that at 79 she may not have what it takes. Douglass is in love with Evelyn. Sonny’s wedding to Sunaina is in jeopardy. Guy, the American, has taken interest in Sonny’s mother. Madge is deciding between two suitors. Norman inadvertently takes out a contract on his girlfriend, Carol. So, it’s mayhem at the old Exotic Marigold once again.

Greg, at the risk of being a heartless curmudgeon, I have to say that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (T2BEMH) is completely unnecessary. Admittedly, the first Marigold Hotel had a certain endearing sweetness that made it worth watching. This second installment bored me. The only nice thing I can say about the film is that it allowed me to catch up on some sleep.

Here’s the problem: Now that this movie is a “series”, it has the look and feel of The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. Sonny plays the role of Captain Stubing or Mr. Roarke, the proprietor of an exotic home base whose sole reason for existing is to bring lovers together through the fulfillment of some sort of fantasy. The whole premise is rather juvenile and I found it as vacuous and as unrealistic as the characters’ constant fawning over the aging Richard Gere’s supposed good looks.

I have to agree with you fully, Scott. One of the more charming elements of TBEMH (the first movie) was an introduction to India: the culture, the people, and the customs. This movie was strictly out for yucks. Your analogy to the Love Boat is quite apt, but dated. If I may offer this: T2BEMH is The Hangover for geriatrics.

If there is a hero in this story, it is Sonny. He starts out very brash and headstrong. He is jealous of his rich cousin (whom he thinks his fiance is attracted to). Sonny makes unwise business dealings and treats his guests badly as he fawns over the American. (If you’ve ever seen an episode of the British comedy Faulty Towers you’ll get the picture.) But through the love and mentoring of Muriel (Maggie Smith), Sonny becomes not only a better businessman, but a better man as well.

Well, Sonny is another problem for me. His inconsistency as a character defies believability. Never have I seen such a dumbass transform into a genius in just two hours. Seriously, the man does one stupid, immature thing after another for the first ¾ of the film, only to suddenly turn into a bright, charming, resourceful lad at the movie’s end. The narrator explains to us that Sonny may make mistakes but he always gets things right “when it matters”. I’m sorry, but it looked more to me like he always acts like a fool until the movie needs to wrap up, at which time he finally comes to his senses.

Bottom line is, the hero story lacks credibility to me. There are no real villains in the movie, although there is the rival love interest who causes a burning jealousy in Sonny. Another oppositional agent is the mysterious inspector who can potentially veto any plan to expand the hotel chain. Mostly what we have here is a hero amidst a larger ensemble cast of elderly characters who are trying to find themselves, or a lover, in an exotic location. All the actors do their job but none of them do it well enough to keep me awake.

Right, again, Scott. This is an ensemble cast and there is not much room for secondary characters. There’s the handsome and rich cousin who looks to take away Sonny’s bride. There’s the driver for miss Madge who has no lines to speak of. There’s Sonny’s mom who is just eye candy for Richard Gere. And that’s about it.

Another movie that comes to mind is Love, Actually. This is a number of barely interesting vignettes of stories tied together by the unifying theme of Sonny’s ineptitude. It just wasn’t enough to be interesting.

‘Nuff said, Greg. And good reference to Love, Actually. Let’s cut to the chase. T2BEMH has some of the charm and likeability of TBEMH but suffers from a fatal case of redundancy in the script and lack of credibility in the lead character. The film has its moments but cannot sustain any momentum and ultimately bores the audience with its Love Boat-like premise. This isn’t a bad movie but it is far from good. I’ll award it 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero of the story, Sonny, has not grown on me at all. In the first film, Sonny was an innocent kid whose naiveté was endearing. Now his childlike mannerisms annoy me and defy belief. His sudden transformation to maturity was not triggered by any pivotal moment or defining lesson; it came out of no where and seemed only to exist because the movie needed to end. I give our hero 1 Hero out of 5.

The supporting cast of aging all-star actors is fun to watch, despite the tepid script they were forced to work from. Everyone delivers a commendable performance, but no one truly stands out. Richard Gere’s perfect silver hair may be the star of the supporting cast, or at least the “silver lining” in an otherwise cloudy movie. Overall, I can see giving the cast a rating of 3 out of 5.

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This was a bad sequel of a nice little movie. It’s nice to see classic aging British movie stars put in a (potentially) final appearance on the big screen. But this movie was a snooze-fest. And I had to sit next the guy doing the snoozing. I award 2 out of 5 Reels.

I have to take issue with Sonny as the hero of the film. This was an ensemble film. Each pairing of characters had a little skit to perform, and Sonny and Muriel were no exception. In our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1 we identify a taxonomy of heroes and one of them is the ensemble. This takes on the shape of a family ensemble and a pretty boring one at that. I give them just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast, then, is the list of side characters like Sonny’s cousin, Sonny’s mom, and the limo driver. These were all very minor roles and not of interest. I give them 1 out of 5 cast points.

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Insurgent ••1/2

Insurgent_posterStarring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Theo James
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman
Adventure/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: March 20, 2015


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

Greg, I’ve got the urge to review Insurgent. It stars the talented and omnipresent Shailene Woodley.

Woodley reprises her role from in Divergent which I found slightly regurgitant. Let’s recap.

Amidst the rubble of the defeated Abnegation faction, Eric Coulter (Jai Courtney) finds a box containing symbols of all the factions. He brings the box to the leader of the Erudite faction, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). Jeanine learns that the box contains a message from the Founders and may hold the key to eliminating the Divergent problem. After discovering that only a Divergent can open the box, she orders all Divergents to be captured.

Triss (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are holed up in Amity (the nourishment faction of the walled-in world) when the Dauntless (under control of Jeanine and the Erudite) attack and attempt to capture all the divergents. Triss, Four and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) escape to the Factionless where we meet Four’s mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts). She has a plan to kill Jeanine (the leader of the Erudite). Meanwhile, Jeanine is mercilessly torturing all divergents by putting them through simulations (sim-trials) that will open the box. But the trials kill the divergents. Jeanine redoubles her effort looking for the one, single, 100% divergent who has what it takes to open the box and reveal the message from the elders who built the city.

Greg, as the second installment in the Divergent series, Insurgent delivers the goods in some ways but also misplaces those goods in some key areas. First, the good stuff: we have a terrific all-female hero-villain pairing in Triss and Jeanine. Shailene Woodley is excellent as Triss Prior, a kick-ass hero who embodies every one of the Great Eight attributes of heroes. Specifically, Triss is smart, strong, caring, reliable, resilient, charismatic, selfless, and inspirational.

Jeanine, moreover, possesses seven of the Evil Eight characteristics of villains. Jeanine is smart, resilient, violent, greedy, immoral, egotistical, and vengeful. I’m unsure whether she has the eighth characteristic, which is some form of grandiose or narcissistic personality disorder. But seven out of eight isn’t bad. Triss is joined by Four, portrayed admirably by Theo James, and the two enjoy a nice chemistry that reflects a blend of romantic and dramatic tension. I’ll get to the bad stuff later; first, let’s hear your opinion of this flick, Greg.

I didn’t enjoy this movie as much as you apparently did, Scott. This was the second chance the Divergent series had to present a strong female hero, and they missed the mark. Triss follows Four everywhere, never leads. When they leave the Amity, Four leads the way with the only gun. When Triss is losing a fight on the train with the Factionless, Four bails her out. Even in the tensest moment of the movie, when Triss needs access to the simulation room, it’s Four who works the controls to get her in, while Triss stands guard. The writers of this film have used Triss as a damsel in distress in her best moments, and a mere payload in its worst. I was truly, deeply disappointed in this film.

I think you’re overlooking several key scenes in which Triss extricates herself from dangerous situations using both her brawn and her wits. I’m not saying Four doesn’t help her out at times; he certainly does. But Triss is her own person, fiercely strong and independent. My main problem with Insurgent is its reliance on the tired, old, dystopian future formula. We’ve seen it in The Giver, all the Hunger Games films, Ender’s Game, plus Divergent and this film. To all screenplay writers out there: We get it. Adults are ruining the world and subjugating our youth. Please give us a new story, or at least tell this story in a different way.

The supporting cast in Insurgent is adequate for the task. Four is a solid love interest and sidekick to Triss. Jeanine is a formidable foe and delegates the dirty work nicely to her henchman Eric, played in great evil fashion by Jai Courtney. Caleb is a rather dull character, as are many of the others who support our heroes and villains. Everyone does a pretty capable job but there are no grand slam home runs hit here.

Scott, let me add on to the list of tired plot devices we saw in Insurgent: that of the division of society into factions. We see it here in Insurgent where there are 5 factions. In Harry Potter where the sorting hat divides the students into four houses. The Hunger Games and its 12 districts. The Giver and their 5 emotions. It’s as if Young Adult literature and movies have a list of requirements that must be met and “dystopian future” and “societal cliques” are at the top.

I think you covered the supporting cast pretty well, Scott. I’d like to add to the list the ineffectual leader (Johanna of Amity and Kang of Candor). As well as a wide variety of minions (the Factionless, the Amity, the Candor, the Dauntless) – characters who are essentially nameless and faceless followers of the hero or villain. Four was too strong a character and occasionally acted in the hero role. (There is a disturbing scene where Four kills a man in cold blood. It makes me cringe to think of him as heroic).

For me, Insurgent was an enjoyable way to spend two hours of my time. Shailene Woodley is a joy to watch, and Kate Winslet’s villainous Jeanine character was a bad-ass whom I loved to hate. I had some problems with this film, such as its reliance on a clichéd dystopian theme and the fact that for a supposed “Erudite”, Jeanine really isn’t all that bright a person. I also found the film’s ending to be unsatisfying and, in a way, quite baffling. I’ll be generous and award Insurgent 3 Reels out of 5.

I admired our hero Triss more than you did, Greg. Her journey pushed her to the limits and forced her to grow and evolve in meaningful ways. This truly is a journey of self-discovery, not just in the sense of discovering who she is, but in valuing and honoring who she is. Not only are Divergents viewed as the ultimate creation by the Founders, but Triss turns out to be the most Divergent of them all. This story catapults Triss from the basement of society to the penthouse. I award Triss 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is adequate, and perhaps that’s all that needs to be said. Caleb and Evelyn occupy much screen time but are largely forgettable characters. Eric was perhaps the strongest supporting character, showing plenty of charisma and spark in his role as a psychopathic henchman. Overall, I give the supporting cast a rating of 2 out of 5.

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I found Insurgent to be a boring movie with a near total lack of plot. Triss merely trips from one Faction to the next without any goals to motivate her. This is more an opportunity to explore Triss’s world, rather than tell a compelling story. I can give Insurgent only 2 Reels out of 5.

Triss is a complete disappointment as a hero. Her only saving grace comes in the final scene that was reminiscent of Captain Kirk battling himself in The Enemy Within – only with a cuter hero and better CGI. Until then, she is a victim, a payload to be delivered, and a damsel to be rescued. I can only muster 2 Heroes out of 5 for her.

The supporting cast was somewhat interesting. With so many Factions, there were leader characters a-plenty with followers galore. But alas, the interest stops there as all the leaders were bland and ineffectual and the followers were nameless/faceless minions. I have to agree that only 2 out of 5 cast points are appropriate.

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Focus ••

2015_Focus_film_posterStarring:Will SmithMargot RobbieRodrigo Santoro
Director:Glenn FicarraJohn Requa
Screenplay:Glenn FicarraJohn Requa
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: February 27, 2015


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Scott, it’s time to focus our attention on this week’s movie.

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

There are definitely “pros” and “cons” in Focus. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Nicky Spurgen (Will Smith) who is approached by a beautiful young woman, Jess Barnet (Margot Robbie), who entices him to her hotel room. They are just getting “friendly” when Jess’s boyfriend comes in and threatens to shoot Nicky. Nicky already knows this is a con-game and calls the two out. He leaves them with the advice to focus on their game. A few days later, Jess seeks out Nicky and asks him to teach her the finer points of the con.

Nicky takes Jess to New Orleans where the Super Bowl is being played. Jess undergoes training to become a better con artist and sees Nicky’’s entire huge operation geared toward conning tens of thousands of Super Bowl fans. Nicky and Jess appear to be forming a romantic relationship, but we also learn that Nicky’s father warned him about getting close to other con artists. At the Super Bowl, Nicky cons billionaire Liyuan Tse (BD Wong) and then aftward breaks up with Nicky. Three years later, in Buenos Aires, Nicky meets up with Jess again while trying to con race car driver Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

Scott, Focus reminds me of a movie from the 70s with James Coburn called “Harry In Your Pocket.”  Again, it’s the story of a seasoned con man teaching the tricks of the con to a younger and more beautiful student.  Focus actually feels like two movies in one – or maybe two episodes from a mini-series. Once we get past the part where they con the guy at the Super Bowl, we enter the second episode of the movie where we have nearly a whole new cast. The race car episode took a long time to set up and really dragged the movie down. It took at least half an hour to restart the second half of the film and I lost my interest.

I lost interest when I realized early in the movie that this was one of those stories in which the audience is constantly being set up to believe one thing, only to discover that something else is actually going on. Once you realize that nothing you see can be trusted, the movie quickly loses its appeal. It’s a tired formula we’ve seen many times since The Sting almost fifty years ago.

To be sure, Will Smith fans should enjoy Focus. Smith does an admirable job of fooling other people over and over again, including the beautiful Jess who is a lot more gullible and trusting than the scores of people whom she cons. The psychology of this movie doesn’t ring true for me. The hyper-elaborate set-up of Liyuan Tse is based on “priming” Tse to choose the most conspicuous man on the football field — an overly obvious choice that a man as smart as Tse would never, ever make. Because it makes for a cute story and so we’re supposed to swallow it.

When we analyze the hero structure of this movie, it’s clear that Nicky is an anti-hero. He makes his living on other people’s wealth. He’s a parasite. But, he is a nice looking and charming parasite, so we’re happy to follow him and even root for him to win. He’s also a beneficent mentor to Jess. And again, since he’s teaching her the dark art of manipulation and theft, he’s a dark mentor. We see glimmers of goodness in him as he clearly has an affection for Nicky that goes beyond appreciating her obvious good looks. He cares so much for her, in fact, that he ditches her at the Super Bowl because… well, “I’m bad news, baby.”

Yes, Nicky is bad and remains bad throughout the movie. There is no change or growth in his character, and so as an audience we aren’t inspired by him evolving into something good or repulsed by him devolving into something bad. He’s just a con man from start to finish. When Nicky got his comeuppance at the end, I didn’t have any emotional reaction at all because he’s basically a sleazy guy who got conned by another sleazy guy.

This is a movie about villains, which means that the oppositional characters can either be law enforcement or they can be other competing villains. In the case of Focus, all the oppositional characters are villains who are portrayed as more villainous than Nicky and Jess. I guess that means we should be rooting for Nicky and Jess to prevail in their get-rich schemes, but I just couldn’t generate any feeling of support for them. Jess tugged at my heartstrings a bit, but that’s probably because she is drop-dead gorgeous and probably deserved better than to hang out with Nicky and his gang of losers.

That’s a keen observation, Scott. We’ll have to add that to our anti-hero model. The rest of the cast are pretty bland fare. There’s the overweight guy who is Nicky’s henchman. He does Nicky’s dirty work when Nicky can’t be bothered. We call this the Mastermind/Henchman pattern. There’s his crew of pickpockets working the Super Bowl to make off with unsuspecting vacationer’s wallets. In Volume 2 of “Reel Heroes” we call these characters “minions.” They’re a sea of nameless, faceless characters who all work in unison to the anti-hero’s (or villain’s) goals.

I didn’t dislike Focus but I didn’t really enjoy it, either. It held my attention for the most part, thanks to the star power and charisma of Will Smith and the beauty of Margot Robbie. But there isn’t much substance to Focus, unless you count the trickery of one con after another as substance. True, some of the deceptions are momentarily interesting but this isn’t a movie with much heft to it. I can only award Focus 2 Reels out of 5.

As you’ve noted, Greg, the character of Nicky is an anti-hero who remains exactly the same character from start to finish. He doesn’t grow the way we want our heroes to grow in the movies, and in fact we can be sure that Nicky’s the type of guy who will forever be a criminal. Granted, he is smart, charismatic, and likeable, but he’s not someone I could root for, and his downfall at the film’s end didn’t move me emotionally one single bit. The hero story is pretty non-existent but because Smith is a talented actor with a powerful screen presence, I’ll be kind and give Nicky 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is deserving of some praise. I enjoyed watching the comic relief in the character of Farhad (Adrian Martinez), and I thought that B.D. Wong played a wonderfully manic gambling addict at the Super Bowl. The evil race car drivers were living stereotypes of macho, fuel-injected anger, but their unidimensionality was offset by Margot Robbie’s charm, intelligence, and pizzazz. The surprising appearance of Nicky’s frenetic dad at the end added an amusing wrinkle of depth to the cast as well. Overall, I’ll give the supporting cast a rating of 3 out of 5.

 Movie: reel-2 Anti-Hero: villain-2 Cast: cast-3

Wow, it looks like the Margot Robbie fan club is +1!

Focus wasn’t a terrible film, but it was decidedly slow in places. As you point out, Scott, it is difficult to root for the anti-hero when he is so corrupt. I look to other classic films like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for examples of how to create lovable anti-heroes. Although, in those films, I think the anti-heroes ended up dead. I also award 2 out of 5 Reels.

Nicky is a boring anti-hero. Because he doesn’t become a better person at the end of the film than at the beginning, there is a possibility of a sequel. Maybe next year we’ll get to see Refocus. I give Nicky just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is tired and lazy. While Jess is nice to look at, there are no surprises, no one stands out, and no new territory is exposed. I have to disagree with you here, Scott. I score just 1 out of 5 for the supporting cast.

 Movie: reel-2 Anti-Hero: villain-2 Cast: cast-1