Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy, Morris Chestnut
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Screenplay: Alan B. McElroy, Tyger Williams
Drama/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Greg, it’s a perfect time to review this next movie.
Yes, it’s Fatal Attraction for a new generation. Let’s recap.
Thirty-six-year-old Leah (Sanaa Lathan) and her boyfriend Dave (Morris Chestnut) are having relationship woes. She can feel her biological clock ticking away, and she wants to have a family. But Dave doesn’t. The issue is a dealbreaker for her, so she dumps him. Now Leah is back in the dating world, trying to get over Dave and move on with her life…
… when she meets Carter (Michael Ealy) – a very nice guy who brings flowers to her mother and Giants tickets to her father. He ingratiates himself to Leah, her family, and her best friends. But one night while getting gas, Carter get jealous when a man is admiring his car – which Carter mistook for unwelcome admiration of Leah. Carter beats the living tar out of the man. Leah tells him she never wants to see him again, but Carter begins stalking her. Leah appeals to the police but their hands are tied. Now it’s a game of cat and mouse as Carter advances, and Leah retreats.
Greg, by calling itself The Perfect Guy, this movie gives away its premise, namely, that some poor woman is going to fall for a guy who seems too good to be true — and is. So right off the bat, we know exactly what will happen, but we don’t know how it will happen. The strength of the movie lies in its execution: Are the characters interesting, do they have depth, do they grow or change in any significant way, does the hero captivate us, etc. In short, can this movie overcome its self-inflicted predictability?
Sadly, the answer to all these questions is “not so much”. To be sure, this is a movie that is hard to dislike, thanks in large part to the sweet girl-next-door appeal of our hero Leah, who has a good heart and rotten luck with men. Her first beau, Dave, isn’t a bad guy at all; he just isn’t ready for children. We can’t even blame Leah for falling for Carter, who does and says all the right things. Herein lies the appeal of the story. We’ve all been in Leah’s shoes. We know what a risk it is to meet complete strangers and begin dating them. We’ve all seen Fatal Attraction and in the back of our minds lurks the fearful possibility that we’re falling for a Glenn Close-like character.
The Perfect Guy reminds me of last year’s No Good Deed. In it, a woman helps a man who is on the run. He seems nice enough at first, but ultimately the movie turns into a long chase scene with the plucky damsel in distress ultimately doing in the bad guy. Here, Leah does everything she should do (including calling the police) but Carter keeps coming back. The movie ends with Leah killing Carter with a shotgun.
Leah is a pretty good hero. She’s smart and resourceful. She doesn’t fall into a lump and cry because she doesn’t like her situation. She changes her phone number. She calls the police. She asserts herself and gets a restraining order. She learns to shoot a gun. This is a take-charge woman who knows what she wants.
I agree, Greg, that Leah’s hero’s journey is fairly solid. At first she lacks the ability to take control of her life and survive the threat that Carter represents. With the help of her police mentor, Detective Hansen (Holt McCallany), she learns to become self-sufficient and gains self-confidence in the process. At the beginning of the movie, this is a woman who is vulnerable; by the movie’s end, this is a woman you don’t want to mess with. She also discovers an important truth: It isn’t easy to find and fall in love with the right person, and so when you do, it’s best not to let anything come between you and the well-being of that relationship.
The supporting characters are limited in size but quite strong. Carter was indeed a wonderful guy on the surface and would have fooled me, too. He’s an effective deceptive villain. Dave is a sweet friend and lover to Leah, a strong, silent type. Detective Hansen is a bit stereotypical as the police sergeant who is limited in what he can do to help Leah, but he emerges as an indispensable help to her. Leah’s two girlfriends are rather forgettable. But overall, as with the hero’s story, we have a solid herd of supporting characters.
I liked that they gave Carter a bit of backstory to explain his evil ways. You see, Carter was adopted. And he felt abandoned by the fact that his birth parents didn’t want him. This avoids the “pure evil” character that we warn about in our book “Reel Heroes & Villains.” You want your villain to have a pain that he succumbs to – as a way of explaining why the villain turned to evil.
The Perfect Guy isn’t the perfect movie. It isn’t the perfect horror. Nor is it the perfect thriller. But it is a good way to pass a couple hours in the dark. The one thing that left me wondering is a scene Leah has with her mother. She asks Mom how she knew Dad was the one. Mom replies that he was persistent – no matter how many times she said no, he still kept on trying. It’s a nice little story. But it, too, smacks of stalking. What’s the lesson then? I don’t think anyone can parse a lesson out of this film which is why I give it a middling score of 3 out of 5 Reels.
Leah is a decent hero. As you point out, Scott, she travels a nice arc from being vulnerable to being able to fend for herself. We don’t get much backstory for her, though. It is apparently enough that she is a mature woman of thirty-something and naturally wants children. We don’t see any negative traits to her, aside from throwing out a perfectly good man just because he isn’t ready to procreate. I give Leah just 3 out of 5 Heroes.
And our secondary characters are pretty much par for the course. I enjoyed Michael Ealy’s Carter character. He was likable and sinister at the same time. The other characters (Detective Hanson, Mom and Dad, the dueling BFFs) were hardly worth writing home about. Not to mention (we almost didn’t) the bland next door neighbor who you knew was going to die from the moment you see her on the screen. I was going to give them all just two cast points, but Ealy was great in this film. So I’ve incremented their score to 3 out of 5 Cast points.
I wouldn’t recommend The Perfect Guy to couples who are on their first date or two, or to people who love being surprised by a movie’s twists and turns. There are no twists and turns in The Perfect Guy. It’s perfectly predictable, but also perfectly innocuous and semi-appealing if you don’t mind turning your brain off and basking in seeing someone else have a worse love life than yours. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.
The hero’s journey is quite respectable in showing how Leah transforms from a naïve, dependent woman into a strong, independent force to be reckoned with. There is excellent mentoring from the police detective and friends and allies who assist Leah on her journey. None of this is academy award material, but it’s still a decent hero’s story. I give Leah 3 Heroes out of 5.
The three main supporting characters — Dave, Carter, and Hansen – do a fine job of helping or opposing Leah. I was shocked that the cat survived this movie, as I was 100% convinced that it would be boiled to death like the bunny in Fatal Attraction. For some reason, Leah never even connected the bland neighbor’s death to Carter, which I found to be an odd omission in the film. Overall, these characters earn 3 out of 5 cast points.
Starring:Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter
Screenplay:Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers
Action/Mystery/Science-Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: September 19, 2015
And I feel like I’ve been scorched at the box office. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to young Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who has recently been rescued from WCKD (pronounced “Wicked”) – an evil organization who trapped him in a deadly maze. They were lab rats with immunity to the Flare virus. He learns that the Earth has been “scorched” and zombies rule the night. He no sooner lands in the safety of the compound before he realizes this is a new trap. The leader of the compound Mr. Janson (Aidan Gillen) keeps Thomas and his friends locked away in a dormitory with other groups of kids. And each day a half dozen or so are lead away to a sanctuary. But is it so?
No, it can’t be so, because then the movie would only be about 10-minutes long. Thomas sneaks away from his group’s dormitory to see where exactly his fellow “Immunes” are being taken. To his horror, he discovers that everyone is being rendered unconscious, locked in a huge storage facility, hooked up to a tangle of tubes, and hung like meat in a meat locker. Thomas and his friends manage to escape the facility in search of the “Right Arm”, a resistance group that may help them escape the wicked WCKD.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is yet another Young Adult Dystopian Future movie. It at least has the distinction that it doesn’t divide the youngsters into factions or districts or whatever based upon their personality. But like so many other YADF stories, the adults have created a mess of the world and it is up to the youth to fix it.
Our hero in this story is Thomas who definitely seems a cut above the rest of the troupe. When others are frightened, he’s staunch. When others run, he stands strong. He’s smarter than the average teen and takes risks. He is loyal to his friends, perhaps to a fault. As a hero type, he does really well.
Greg, this genre of story and movie is wearing a bit thin. The dysto-popularity tells me that young people are extremely dissatisfied with the status quo and blame geezers like me for creating unfair, unjust societies.
I get that. What I don’t get is why these movies aren’t better quality movies. This Maze Runner film is about a bunch of kids who are constantly running from something. Sometimes they are running from zombies. Sometimes it’s the bad guys from WCKD. Maybe they were the actors trying to run from the set of their own bad movie.
The hero Thomas is substandard, in my opinion, because he shows no transformation. Normally, I might excuse the absence of transformation by pointing out that this is an episodic hero. After all, we know that the makers of movie franchises resist deviating from a successful formula so they maintain an unchanging hero. I suspect that the filmmakers here are just incapable of making a movie with meaningful character change. The focus seems to be on a very simplistic good versus evil story with zombies, cool CGI effects, and people running all the time from danger. It could have been so much more.
This was definitely a transitional movie. Like The Empire Strikes Back, it sets up the next film in the series rather than being a stand-alone story. Thomas is surrounded by a surprisingly balanced diverse group of friends. One of them drops dead after an encounter with a zombie. And after that they are pretty much interchangeable. Thomas and friends do encounter a couple of survivors of the scorch: Jorge and Brenda. Jorge is not Brenda’s father, but he cares for her as if she were his daughter.
But your point is well-taken, Scott. Just when you think you know the relationships in this movie, these new characters are introduced and we’re off on some tangent where Thomas and Brenda are swept up in a rave-club. There doesn’t appear to be any storytelling reason for this, other than to show how youngsters are trapped and shipped off to WCKD if they are immune to the Flare. It reminded me a bit of Disney’s Pinocchio and “Pleasure Island” where the boys drink liquer and smoke cigars – only to be turned into donkeys so they can work in the salt mines.
A lot of these dystopian future movies seem to have women play the role of the mastermind villain. In The Giver it was Meryl Streep’s character. In Divergent it was Kate Winslet’s character. Now, here in Maze Runner it is Patricia Clarkson’s character named Ava Paige. One could applaud filmmakers for showing greater gender egalitarianism, but as I psychologist I can’t resist speculating about the significance of a female mastermind engineering a horrible future. Why are women to blame for a society that exploits young people? Is this some sort of twisted Mother Complex?
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a passable sequel to last year’s The Maze Runner. It suffers the plight of many a sequel in that it is not as good as the original, and as it is the second of four planned films, it also suffers from being the middle child. Like this summer’s Insurgent, we follow the hero from location to location without much going on. I can’t see giving MR:TST more than 2 Reels out of 5.
The hero in this story has all the right ingredients – but one. He lacks a missing inner quality. He comes prefabricated with all the tools he needs to be a leader. Since there is nothing for him to overcome, he doesn’t transform and so is a dull character. I reserve a score of three for anything that is average. And as Thomas falls below average, I give him just 2 out of 5 Heroes.
Finally, the secondary characters in MR:TST are pretty interchangeable. There’s a moment when Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) appears to be a love interest. But then Thomas runs off with Brenda and neither relationship amounts to much. However, the character of Jorge was a pretty 3-D guy. He was an opportunist and pragmatist, but still had a soft spot for is young ward, Brenda. However, I still give the secondary characters just 2 out of 5 Cast points.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is another movie about the elders of the future abusing young people. This film isn’t terrible but it’s also not inspired in any way. One method I use to judge a movie is by how memorable it is two days after seeing it. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials didn’t even pass the 12-hour test. At most I can only award this film 2 Reels out of 5.
The hero story was formulaic and impoverished. Thomas isn’t a bad hero, but he cannot escape the blandness of the movie any more than he could escape WCKD. He doesn’t transform at all, and there aren’t good mentors or parent figures to help him. Perhaps this is because anyone with grey hair in this movie genre can’t be trusted. Thomas as a hero also eeks out a rating of 2 out of 5.
The supporting characters are a fairly decent complement to Thomas. Brenda and Jorge may be the most compelling figures in the movie, and I admit that I did admire their very cool hideout. Ava as the female mastermind isn’t as charismatic as her counterparts in this genre, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. The zombies were just plain silly and unnecessary. Generously I award this motley group 2 out of 5 cast points.
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Comedy/Horror, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Greg, it’s time to visit The Visit.
In which we’re reminded of something we’ve known since childhood: old people are scary. Let’s recap.
We meet a woman named Paula (Kathryn Hahn) and her two children, a 13-year-old son named Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and his older sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge). Becca is estranged from her parents, and consequently Tyler and Becca have never met their grandparents, who live far away in Pennsylvania.
Tyler and Becca’s grandparents have finally gotten in touch with Paula and have requested to have the grandchildren come stay with them for a week. Paula is unsure at first, but gives in to the request when the children point out that she’s not had a vacation since… forever. So the children get on a train and meet their grandparents for the first time.
Things are going pretty well. The children settle into their new abode and Grandpa comes into the bedroom and says that it’s best if they all go to bed at 9:30. After all, these folks are old and accustomed to an early bedtime. However, things get creepy when Becca hears strange noises. She opens the bedroom door only to see her grandmother walking aimlessly around downstairs and vomiting on the floor. The next day Grandpa explains Gramma has “Sundown Syndrome” which makes her kind of crazy after the sun goes down. And we’re off…
The Visit is the scary movie we’ve seen a million times before. There is the predictable set-up, where a family is happily excited about entering into a new situation. We encounter the scary entities (in this case the grandparents), and for some reason these scary entities decide to become scary gradually. There are plenty of false alarm scares. We have victims (in this case two kids) who don’t leave the house when anyone in their right minds, even kids, would leave in a heartbeat. We have a warning early in the story not to go somewhere (in this case, a basement). Yet somehow our victims go there anyway.
So there’s nothing original here. We even have the derivative use of a handheld cam, along with several absurd situations where our victims are holding the cam long after it makes any sense to do so. The absurdity is heightened by one of the victims taking a poopy diaper in the face. Yes, you read that correctly. No, this isn’t the Three Stooges, but Moe would have been proud to have delivered that poopy-diaper-facial.
You’re right about that Scott. The good thing about this movie is that the horror is played up for laughs. It’s not as smart as, say, 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods but it comes close. The movie seems to know that it’s a ridiculous horror movie so it has our heroes do crazy things. Tyler is a budding young rap star, or so he thinks. He’s obsessed with getting girls to like him so he makes up rap lyrics about how all the girls his age are a foot taller than him, etc…
Becca is a wanna-be movie director, so it makes sense that she’d want to videotape everything and gives her brother a camera too – so he can videotape everything. Each day ends with Becca reviewing and editing her self-shot videos into a documentary about her mother and grandparents.
This “found footage” approach has been used in horror films before. It was most notably used in The Blair Witch Project (1999) and in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008). Director M. Night Shyamalan spoofs the technique by having the actors do things no one in their right minds would do. Like pointing the camera behind them as they run. Or having the grandmother find a hidden camera, only to drop it in just the right place so the audience can witness her trying to open a door with a butcher’s knife. Since it looks like a spoof, we’re all happy to play along.
Speaking of Shyamalan, The Visit even features the typical Shyamalan surprise-ending, all predicated on the confluence of many unlikely events, namely, that the kids have never seen photos of their grandparents, that mom never sees the grandparents during their Skype chats, that visitors always come over when no one is home, etc. Now that I think about it, that poopy diaper to the face was the highlight of the movie.
There is no hero transformation in this movie that I could detect, with the possible exception that maybe the two kids are scarred for life and will need decades of therapy. For this movie to work, the two trapped kids have to experience something interesting, mystical, or transformative to escape their horrid situation. Alas, the resolution is not even remotely interesting. Shyamalan arranges for the girl to stab grandma and the boy to hit grandpa with the refrigerator door. It’s a pedestrian ending to a pedestrian movie.
I think we have this problem with extreme genre films, Scott. When you look at slapstick comedy (which The Visit comes close to) you realize that story is secondary to yucks. Likewise with horror movies. What’s important is the fright factor. People don’t go to these films to be uplifted or to learn something deep – they go for the feelings of laughter and fright.
And I’m OK with that. I think you overlook the fact that Tyler has always felt his dad left home because he froze during a tackle in a pee-wee football game. This has left him with guilt and germaphobia. Well, the diaper in the face fixed the germaphobia and the climactic scene where he saves his sister by tackling Grandpa shows his growth as well. It’s not fantastic growth, but I think it counts.
The secondary characters of the grandparents were interesting as they evolved from being kindly mentors into dark mentors and even “pure evil” villains in the end. The mother is in the prologue and epilogue and otherwise has no purpose in the film – other than to be oblivious to the danger she’s put her children into. And finally, the two mental hospital employees who check in on the kids are not really germane at all.
The Visit is not worth a visit to the theater, nor is it worth a visit to Netflix, unless of course you love seeing incontinent old people terrorizing young children. I found The Visit to be humorless, predictable, and uninteresting. The two child actors, however, did a very nice job with mundane material, and so kudos to Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge for making the most of their poopy situation. I give The Visit a grand total of 1 Reel out of 5.
I didn’t detect much of a hero’s journey here at all, although I will grant you that the two kids were thrown into a dangerous unfamiliar world. But that’s about the only element of the classic hero quest that I see here. There’s no mentor figure or transformation, although you’re right, Greg, that the dirty diaper was the answer to the boy’s fecal-phobia. I’ll be generous and award our buddy heroes 2 Heroes out of 5.
As you point out, Greg, there aren’t many secondary characters. The two deranged grandparents do a decent job of creeping us out, and the kids’ mom does a serviceable job in her role. The supporting characters get a whopping 2 rating points out of 5.
I found The Visit to be a light-hearted jab at the horror genre. Shyamalan did a good job of giving the audience exactly what it wanted: something simple with a predictable twist. He used his many talents to produce a comedic horror film without getting lost in his own mythos. It’s not a great horror film, and not a great comedy. I give it just 1 Reel out of 5.
The protagonists of the story comprise a type of buddy hero pair that we haven’t examined until now: that of siblings. They represent a pretty simplified view of siblings who love each other but also kind of get on each others nerves. We haven’t seen the likes of this since The Brady Bunch. Unlike you, Scott, I saw some transformation for our heroes. But I have to admit, it looked like it was thrown in at the last moment. I give them just 2 Heroes out of 5.
As for our secondary characters: the mother is a prop to start the whole thing off and to bring us home again at the end. She has no real purpose in the story otherwise. The two grandparents have in interesting trajectory that starts out benign and grows into sinister. I give them all just 2 out of 5 Cast points.
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Director: Ken Kwapis
Screenplay: Rick Kerb, Bill Holderman
Adventure/Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2015
This review should be pretty easy; quite a walk in the woods.
At Redford’s and Nolte’s age, it should have been called Walkers in the Woods. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), a retired writer in his 70s who hasn’t produced much in the last 10 years. He attends a funeral where he realizes that there are fewer days ahead than behind. After taking a walk along a part of the Appalachian Trail, he determines to walk the entire length of the trail – some 2,200 miles. He makes calls to his old buddies only to find that all of them think he is crazy.
All but one of them. Bill’s old friend Stephen (Nick Nolte) gives him a call, saying he’s interested. Bill hadn’t even considered inviting Stephen, who has always been a hard-drinking, womanizing wild-card. But Bill’s wife (Emma Thompson) insists that he go with someone, so Bill and Stephen set out on the trail. Soon they are deep into woods and up to their saggy, craggy necks in danger. Sort of.
Scott, A Walk in the Woods is sort of a geriatric version of Wild. We have a couple of unlikely men who are quite old to be going on a 2,200 mile hike. It’s a pretty low-key story with a few yucks and a bit of angst. There really isn’t a lot in this story to hate, nor to love. It’s very middle of the road. There’s a nice bit of excitement when a young hiker with a lot of energy arrives and tells the two everything they’re doing wrong. Played by Kristen Schaal, it’s a funny bit as she is wrong about half of what she says and incorrect about the rest.
This is a classic buddy story. Bryson is a very conservative, by-the-book sort of guy. Stephen is untidy to the extreme. He’s not just a messy person, but he lives his life without a concern for what comes next. He hasn’t planned for the future and he is aimless in his pursuits. This creates a tension between him and Bryson and comes to a climax when the two men come close to quitting the hike. Bryson blows up at Stephen and says he doesn’t want to end his life the way Stephen has lived his – by quitting when the going gets tough.
You’ve pretty much described it, Greg. A Walk in the Woods is a story about two old buddies who have nothing in common except a desire to prove they are still alive and relevant. People seem to gravitate to stories about heroes going on a daring physical adventure to escape reality or to prove a point. Greg, you mention the film Wild, and that’s a prime example. This movie is cut from the same cloth. I suspect this film is telling us that aging baby boomers still need to feel relevant.
A Walk in the Woods is the first buddy movie I’ve seen in a long, long time in which the two buddies don’t initially hate each other. That’s usually the pattern, with the story centering on the building of a friendship. In this movie, the only possible wedge between the men is an old $600 bet that has never been paid, but that bet is not a sticking point at all. There are lots of scenes with the two men bantering about the old days. The bickering you mention, Greg, seems a little too manufactured. I guess there can be no movie without some conflict, even if it’s a bit contrived.
There aren’t a lot of secondary characters. There are ancillary hikers walking by, or a cute waitress here or there. But aside from Schaal’s annoying know-it-all, we don’t get a lot of interaction with others. Nature makes a nice adversary for our heroes as they look at the 2,200 miles stretching ahead of them and realize that they’ve only travelled a quarter mile. It’s a simple story with minimum of conflict and interactions.
I didn’t like A Walk in the Woods as much as I enjoyed Wild. There was less of an inner conflict for our main character, Bryson than we had in Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl. In that film, Cheryl is dealing with the loss of her mother and a life not fully lived. Bryson, on the other hand, is an accomplished man. And we’re reminded of this by the contrast of his buddy Stephen. There’s just not a lot of inner conflict and the outer conflict is very haphazard. I give A Walk in the Woods just 2 out of 5 Reels.
As I mentioned, there’s not a lot of depth to the two characters we’re given here. If you’re going to present two men and Nature as the three characters in your story, you’re going to have to give me a lot of character development in the leads. We just don’t get that here. Also, when you have a weak villain, you have a weak hero. The Appalachian trail was portrayed as all too easy. So it didn’t bring out the worst or best in our heroes. I give Bryson and Stephen just 2 out of 5 Heroes.
And we’ve already discussed the fact that there were very few secondary characters. Schaal’s character was fun for a minute and was mercifully removed before she got to be too annoying. Nature as the villain was too kind. And the nameless faceless other hikers didn’t really add to the story. I give them just 2 out of 5 Cast points.
The hero story is not a bad one in that we have two old guys who still have important things to learn about themselves. I mention “relevance”, and that’s certainly a part of it, but there is also learning about nature, about pushing oneself to one’s limits, about facing and overcoming danger, and about acceptance. Both men do undergo a subtle but important transformation; they get exactly what they need from this hero’s journey.
The secondary characters are, as you say, barely worth mentioning. Emma Thompson, the wife, has absolutely no on-screen chemistry with Robert Redford. I can overlook this issue, as first and foremost this is a story about a pair of hiking geezers. The minor characters who appear here and there on the trail have the same depth and dimensionality as the two bears who attacked the men’s camp. The one mentor figure is the implied presence of the late, great naturalist John Muir, who Redford quotes as having said that sometimes you just have to go on a hike.
Overall, A Walk in the Woods is light fare. It’s the kind of movie that you can fully understand and appreciate with it playing in the background while you’re cooking dinner and have a conversation with a friend. That’s not exactly high praise. So my rating of 2 Reels out of 5 should come as no surprise.
As I’ve mentioned, there are subtle transformations in our two heroes as a result of their hike. These changes are not terribly profound, as they learn things like “the galaxy is vast”, “rocks take a long time to form and erode”, and “species of trees come and go”. Nothing terribly deep is to be found here. I give the heroes a rating of 2 out of 5. And because the two bears were the most interesting supporting characters, I give the overall support team a rating of 2 out of 5 as well.
Starring: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski
Director: Max Joseph
Screenplay: Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer
Drama/Music/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Well Scott, it looks like another movie about young men from the bad side of town making their way in the music industry.
Different guys, different music, different movie. But is it the basically the same story? Let’s find out.
We’re introduced to four young men living in the south side of the Los Angeles valley. Cole had dreams of setting the world on fire with his one track of Electronic Dance Music. He and his friends party it up each night to the point of unconsciousness. They make a few bucks a week encouraging young people to drop by the local club and buy drinks. Things are going pretty well when Cole meets James, an older and more experienced DJ.
James takes an interest in Cole and recognizes his potential as a DJ. Cole, on the other hand, takes an interest in James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Cole and his friends are lured into working for a real estate company that preys on homeowners caught in a foreclosure. Cole has some decisions to make about love, priorities, and career.
Scott, We Are Your Friends is a weak attempt to offer a complement to the outstanding Straight Outta Compton. WAYF has a meandering almost pointless plot that seemed to be knit together scenes from every Saturday Morning Special – ever. Boy wants career. Boy meets evil mentor. Boy falls in love with mentor’s girl. Best friend dies. Boy succeeds in career and integrate loss into show.
Zac Efron seems out of place in this movie. He does a great job of delivering despite a lackluster script. I enjoyed him in last year’s Neighbors where he was convincing as the head frat boy. Given the opportunity, Efron can make us believe he is… well pretty much as he is.
Greg, We Are Your Friends is a movie with a good heart but poor execution, as you note. The good heart is revealed in Cole’s pure motives to improve himself, to help those who were exploited by the real estate scheme, and to play a song whose main lyric is “there’s gotta be something better than this.” This movie guides us through the upward mobility of our hero Cole, who must recognize one mentoring as dark, and act on it, and another mentoring as beneficial, and act on that one, too.
Comparisons to Straight Outta Compton are inevitable, I suppose. It’s a little unfair to do so, as Compton is a (mostly) true story and has interesting cultural and institutional barriers for the group of heroes to overcome. We Are Your Friends is more about a lone hero who must wrestle with his conscience while developing his talent. There’s a different emphasis in the two movies, with really only music being the common denominator.
Cole has three friends and each represents a different stereotype of young men. There’s the leader, Mason, who lives for today and whose highest ambition is to find an apartment where they can all live together. Then there’s Ollie who wants to be an actor but can’t find a gig. And finally, there’s Squirrel who is the most naive of the four but sees things more clearly than the rest. Of course, he must die. Cole represents the “one who succeeds” as he realizes his dream despite betraying his mentor.
Good description of the fraternity hero ensemble, Greg. I enjoyed the battle of the dueling mentors. Cole is being guided by James, who is a positive mentor in terms of offering professional guidance. But Cole is also under the influence of Paige (Jon Bernthal), a man who has no qualms about finding a legal way to steal homes from financially struggling homeowners. Cole is transformed by both mentors; he listens to the good mentor but defies the dark one. Both mentors help shape Cole’s character in different ways and help him transform as a hero.
Also playing a pivotal role in the film is Sophie, who turns in a voluptuous performance. The romance between Cole and Sophie is telegraphed early when we see them get off to a bad start. Just for once, I’d like to see filmmakers dare to make a movie in which two lovers do not initially hate each other. If I saw this I think I’d fall out of my theater seat.
We Are Your Friends is a coming of age story for post-adolescents. It looks at four possible paths for young men including death due to overindulgence. I found that almost everything in the story was predicted from the beginning. Nothing in this movie surprised me. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the recent Straight Outta Compton which was a far superior film. WAYF was simplistic, formulaic, and uninspiring. The Electronic Dance Music that James and Cole were supposed to be experts in seemed just as simplistic. I found myself wondering if there are festivals where thousands of people stand in the hot sun and listen to “hot licks.” I give WAYF just 2 out of 5 Reels.
Cole is a pretty good hero, even if he is cut from familiar cloth. He starts out naive and inexperienced and through the support of an older mentor becomes the man we all know he can be. Zac Efron is too good for this role and I wonder if he needs a new agent. Still, Efron takes the role seriously and displays a range of emotions from immature to chagrined to mournful and finally redeemed. I give Cole 3 out of 5 Heroes.
The supporting characters are a good collection of archetypes. As I pointed out earlier, the three other young men in the fraternity ensemble represent alternative paths that Cole could have taken. The romantic interest was an inevitable distraction. The good mentor was troubled and we’re exposed to some of his backstory. The dark mentor on the other hand was less textured but offered a good contrast. I give this group 3 out of 5 Cast points.
We Are Your Friends is harmless entertainment about the rising career of a DJ. There is a lot of music in this movie that is not in my wheelhouse, but I could appreciate the art and the science of creating sounds that people can rock their bodies to. As I’ve mentioned, there is a lot of heart in this film, but also a lot of predictable fluff. I give We Are Your Friends a rating of 2 Reels out of 5.
The hero story has its charms and does feature our hero Cole undergoing a transformation of talent along with a transformation of moral conscience. Cole receives help along the way from James, Sophie, and his friends. His dark mentor Paige also teaches him how not to conduct oneself and prods Cole toward enlightenment. I can award Cole 3 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters are adequate for the task, but I wasn’t too fond of Cole’s group of friends. Cole seems too smart to tolerate their Neanderthal ways but I suppose the filmmakers wanted to inject some drama into Cole’s life for entertainment’s sake. The two mentors were interesting, and Sophie, besides having her obvious charms, played a key role in dividing Cole from his good mentor. This support group earns a rating of 3 out of 5.
Well, Greg. Other countries have had their ultra, whatever that is. Now it’s America’s turn.
I think it should have been called Apollo Ape – that’s an inside joke for those who have seen it! Let’s recap:
We meet a young man, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in a small town in West Virginia. Mike is a likeable pot-head who works at a convenience store. Despite having a number of quirks and phobias, he does have a cute girlfriend named Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). He wants to propose marriage to Phoebe but has trouble finding just the right time to do so.
Things are going along pretty well when one day a strange woman in dark glasses shows up at the convenience store where he works. She says some strange things to him and leaves. Soon, a couple of goons show up and try to kill him. He goes into overdrive and slashes one dude’s throat with a spoon and disarms the other one and kills him with his own gun. Where did Mike get these super-spy abilities?
American Ultra is a quirky yet entertaining tale that taps into a mythic archetype with universal appeal. The hero is a person who is unaware of his special heritage, his exceptional pedigree. He has a type of amnesia at the outset of the story, and the whole point of the narrative is to witness him undergo many trials to discover his true special nature. We see this in fables and fairy tales about a protagonist who is oblivious about his or her royal birthright, and the story is all about reclaiming that birthright. It’s a narrative structure that has great appeal.
We’re apparently drawn to stories in which appearances about the hero are deceiving. Especially stories where the hero seems, at least on the surface, to be a harmless, weak pushover. But once placed in danger, the hero is a remarkably skilled fighting machine. We’ve seen this type of character in Red and The Equalizer. We tend to revere heroes who mask their greatness.
I think of this story is more like The Bourne Identity in which Matt Damon has exactly the same experience. Except, in American Ultra, we’re given the unlikely hero of a stoner who can barely feed himself and his girlfriend, let alone kick someone’s ass.
While on the surface Mike seems to be an unlikely hero, he has some redeeming qualities. He’s very good to his girlfriend (who loves him for unseen reasons). He’s very honest. And he has some clever ideas for a graphic novel based on an ape who was part of the Apollo program – hence the reference to Apollo Ape earlier. Aside from being clueless, he’s a genuinely nice guy who suffers from anxiety attacks.
You’re right, Greg. And he’s certainly transformed into a different person by the end of this movie, and not just by virtue of discovering his identity but more importantly by his development of personal, professional, and romantic self-confidence. This is a man who learns how to achieve his goals, get the girl, and become a great person who will succeed in life. He’s a far cry from the sniveling dorky goofball whom we see at the film’s outset.
In two movies we’ve seen recently (Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation) we’ve encountered secondary heroic characters who provide comic relief. In American Ultra, we meet a dark jester character (Walton Goggins) — a villain with a creepy laugh who makes light of the carnage he wreaks, much like the Joker or the Riddler in Batman. Interestingly, once the dark jester is defeated, he confesses his admiration for Michael in a speech that tugs at our heartstrings. Are the filmmakers here telling us that anyone with a sense of humor can’t be all bad? Do we have a deep-seated need for funny people to show redemption?
And don’t forget the role Phoebe plays. She’s not just a romantic interest for our hero. She is a sort of mentor as well. (SPOILER) It turns out she’s Mike’s handler from the CIA. She gave up her life as an agent to stay with Mike and watch over him once the CIA was done with his special abilities. And, as a CIA agent, she, too has special ass-kicking powers, albeit not as refined as Mike’s.
The villain in this story is CIA manager Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). Yates is a fast-rising star at the CIA and is eager to make his mark. He has created his own army of operatives who have a much less subtle way of dealing with threats. Among the was the “Laugher” character you mentioned, Scott. But there are a team of minions who wreak havoc on Mike’s small town. This is the classic Mastermind/Henchman pattern we mention in our book Reel Heroes & Villains. Also, we’re shown a pattern we’ve seen this year: “minions” – characters who are a sort of nameless/faceless mass of character whose apparent role is to die strange and horrible deaths.
American Ultra is fun romp that provides just the right balance between serious drama and semi-farce. Jesse Eisenberg does a stellar job of striking all the right notes during both the grim and lighthearted moments. His character Mike transforms from a loveable loser to an unstoppable heroic force. There are no huge surprises in this film but it still exudes charm and provides good solid entertainment. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.
The hero transformation here is as striking as one will ever find in the movies. We have a story that captures all the elements of the mythic archetypal narrative of the sleeping beauty, the ugly duckling, the Cinderella who is destined to rise from the basement to the penthouse. Mike gets assistance from two important women in the story and must defeat a team of formidable villains. I award Mike 4 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters are rock solid, albeit the villains are stereotypical and uni-dimensional. Still, they include an interesting dark jester figure, and they do their job of endangering our hero’s life and making his transformation as difficult to achieve as possible. I award the supporting group a rating of 3 out of 5.
American Ultra is to Jason Bourne as Austin Powers is to Jame Bond. This is a fun and well-deployed film. It takes the stereotypes of the amnesiac protagonist and plays them the their ridiculous conclusions. While Mike was trained for subtle killing, he is pitted against a team of heavy-handed hoodlums. This contrast makes for great comedy as well as exciting action. I give American Ultra 4 out of 5 Reels.
As an unlikely hero, Mike Howell couldn’t have been better drawn. He’s a likable slob who is unreliable but loves his girlfriend. His transformation into a physically and mentally strong character gives all of us reason to feel good about ourselves. And isn’t that what heroes are for after all? I give Mike 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The secondary characters are a mix of strong women and weak men. Phoebe turns out to be loyal, honest, and competent. (And kudos to Kristen Stewart who has had bad luck to date. She delivers in this film). Her boss, Lasseter (Connie Britton) is brilliant and tough. These are two women who are not to be taken lightly. Lasseter’s second-in-command Petey (Tony Hale from Veep) is a limp-wristed comic relief character who is weak at first, but does the right thing in the end. The villain Yates is a cardboard cutout of the yuppie who is stuck on himself. His henchman Laugher is probably more interesting as he exposes the dark side of what Mike’s life could have been. I give this supporting cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.
Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Music/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Scott, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube produced their own biopic. Does it deserve it’s good rap?
I’m straight outta answers, Greg. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Eazy-E, a mule for the local drug dealer. He’s running drugs but he wants to move on to something a little more… sane. And a lot less dangerous. When his friend Dr. Dre proposes he invest some of his drug money in a rap album, he’s dubious. But between Dre and their mutual friend Ice Cube, they convince Eazy-E to bankroll the new group. Not only do they convince him to pony up the cash to produce the first single, but also convince him to rap on it.
The group decides on a name, NWA, and they turn out a hit single. During a live show, music agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) sees the group’s potential and approaches Eazy E, who hires him. Soon NWA has a record label, Priority Records, which produces NWA’s first album, Straight Outta Compton. It becomes a smash hit, and NWA is on its way to legendary fame.
Scott, I have never appreciated rap or hip-hop music. It never reached me. And after watching Straight Outta Compton I can see why. These young men were rapping about their inner city situation, something completely outside of my experience. They were living in a world surrounded by drugs and crime. And a police force that assumed their guilt just because they were black and hanging around on the streets. No wonder they created a hit single called “F* the Police.”
Unlike so many biopics we’ve seen, this one had a lot of heart. Even though I felt the drugs, sex, and crime were watered down for public display, I was drawn into the world of NWA and grew to appreciate the enormity of their accomplishment. They created a new genre of “Gangsta Rap” that continues to have an impact today.
You’re right, Greg. On the surface, Straight Outta Compton is a movie about a rap group. But it is so much more than that. This film is about human relations – how those relations form, how they evolve, how they unravel, and how we clean up the mess. Compton makes you think about the ways that human beings treat each other, in the good sense but mostly in the destructive sense.
For the most part, Straight Outta Compton focuses on the ability of a group of African-Americans to overcome the institution of racism. Yes, we know that the film cleaned up its portrayal of this hip-hop group, but there is still much more than a kernel of truth in Compton’s message about the dangers of a racist police force. The anger in the song lyrics seems extreme yet understandable.
These are flawed heroes. Eazy-E earns his money running drugs – a strictly illegal vocation. But he sees the drug business as a losing proposition. The dangers outweigh the return on investment. When Dr. Dre approaches to start a record label, he is dubious at first (a classic call to adventure and refusal of the call) but then jumps in with both feet. Dre is painted as a good kid who has dreams of setting the world on fire with his DJ mastery. There’s even a classic scene where Dre is told not to spin that hip-hop stuff and play the master list. But he breaks the boss’s rules and gets the crowd hopping to his mad licks. And Ice Cube has the lyrics. He’s the poet of the group. In a lot of ways, this is a classic rock and roll success story complete with the excess in alcohol, drugs, and sex. But these heroes also have to deal with the seedy underworld of crime as the people running the show are criminals.
In some ways, this movie tells the familiar tale of the rock’n roll group that can’t handle success and must disintegrate. There is a Beatle-esque sequence involving the group writing song lyrics that skewer Ice Cube for leaving the group, followed by the Cube returning the favor in his subsequent songs. We see redemption at the end when the guys patch things up.
The sleazy embezzling Heller character is interesting. He is a mix of the good mentor and the dark mentor. He helps NWA achieve superstardom but in the end Heller reveals himself to be a lying cheat. Another manager is later shown to be crooked and pays the price by having his office dismantled by a baseball bat. We’ve seen this sleaze in the music industry in last year’s Jersey Boys and Get On Up.
There aren’t a lot of secondary characters to review in this movie. There are a lot of minions – people who are hangers on, coasting on the coattails of NWA. There is also what we call a “System” in the police – who are cast as oppressors in this film. Usually there is a single character who might represent the face of the minions or the police, but this film does a disservice by making both a nameless, faceless mass.
Straight Outta Compton was not meant to appeal to an older, non-rappy guy like me. Yet I found myself strangely moved by the film. I found myself rooting for these underdog heroes and appreciating the systemic obstacles placed in their road to success. I’m referring, of course, to the systems of racism and power-abusing law enforcement. This film was well-made and quite interesting. I’m happy to award it 3 Reels out of 5.
Our NWA heroes are not choir boys but they nevertheless travel the classic hero’s journey that includes a departure into the unfamiliar world of celebrity status, help from mentors (both good and bad), encounters with lovers, and battles with villainous institutions. Eazy-E’s death in the end was poignant, too. I’ll give this group a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.
As you mention, Greg, there aren’t many supporting characters. Heller is a scumbag for cheating the group but he also helped them in some important ways. The appearance of Snoop Dogg and others is inconsequential. Because there isn’t much here, I can only award 2 Cast points out of 5.
Straight Outta Compton is another classic rock-n-roll story, except this time it has a happy ending – mostly. It isn’t surprising that you and I identified with these young men, despite the differences in our backgrounds. We admire people who start with nothing and rise to successful heights.
Not only that, but there are significant transformations here. Dre and Ice Cube grow from young hoodlums into mature adults who are leaders in their respective industries. Even Eazy-E comes to realize that he let money and fame cloud his judgement and he renews his friendship with Dre and Ice Cube, only to be struck down in his prime by AIDS. It is a story of mythic proportions, one that anyong can identify with. I give Straight Outta Compton 4 out of 5 Reels and 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The secondary characters are few and far between. The one character of interest is Heller and he plays both good and bad mentor. The mass of hangers-ons and evil police are hardly noteworthy. I give them 2 out of 5 Cast points.
Scott, don’t lose that number, it’s time to review Ricki and the Flash.
Ricki has some splainin to do. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), an aging rocker working bars and honky tonks and playing songs from the classic age of rock and roll – with an occasional diversion into Pink. She’s barely making ends meet between her gigs and clerking at the grocery store, when she gets a call from her ex-husband that their 20-something daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has attempted suicide.
Ricki scrapes up enough money to fly to Indianapolis to give her daughter Julie some emotional support. She’s too poor to stay at a hotel and so she stays with her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) who lives in a mansion with his current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Ricki must deal with Julie’s resentment toward her, and the awkwardness of her visit is compounded by the arrival of her other two children and Maureen herself.
Scott, there’s nothing really interesting about this story. Unless you are a fan of Meryl Streep. As usual, she gives a great performance. She reminds me of Bonnie Raitt from the 90’s. Frankly, I thought she sauntered through this role. It didn’t look like much of a stretch for her. On the other hand, Streep’s own daughter plays the role of Julie. Gummer does a passable job as the spoiled and distraught daughter.
Ricki brings a certain chaos to Pete’s life which is otherwise quite bland. And it looks as though that chaos is what attracted Pete to Ricki in the first place. The story goes through the usual paces with Ricki telling her daughter to skip therapy and take a spa day. There’s also a run-in with the new wife who held the family together in Ricki’s absence. And then there’s the bisexual son who is really gay but never told Ricki. It’s all very run of the mill without a lot of real conflict. Just situations where conflict might exist.
It’s a good story, Greg. The problem is that everything that happens is too predictable and too saccharine. Ricki starts out estranged from just about everyone — her band member Greg (Rick Springfield), her ex-husband, all her children. Because she’s not a bad person, we know that by the end of the story she’ll have bonded with everyone.
The question then becomes how does Ricki’s life change. What we find is that the transformation of all these relationships occurs in unsurprising ways. In-between all these predictable events we’re treated to a lot, and I do mean a lot, of Meryl Streep belting out 70s rock tunes. She does an amazing job, but what we really have here is a 45-minute movie with a 90-minute playing time.
As a hero, Ricki is very flawed. She is insensitive to her boyfriend – refusing to admit she “loves” him or that they are dating. She left her children to be a rock star – a goal that never materialized. She apparently spent little time with her kids as they grew up – letting another woman raise them. It’s only her relaxed lifestyle and clear affection for her children that redeems her to us. And it’s enough to allow us to sympathize with her and root for her to do well.
It’s interesting that we never see Ricki behave poorly as a wife to Pete or as a mother to her three children. We only see her as a sympathetic figure, a woman trying to atone for her past mistakes and who ends up doing a fine job with her redemption. It’s nice that everyone ends up forgiving her, accepting her, and loving her in the end, but this resolution seems unrealistic. And maybe that’s the point — we don’t ever see dysfunctional families doing a big group hug at the end, but we sure would like to.
The supporting cast does a workmanlike job in this film. Rick Springfield surprised me with his acting chops. Pete and the kids are pretty much stock characters who make our hero’s life difficult for a while, but they soften in the end, much like Ricki has softened. Perhaps ‘soft’ is the key term here — this movie is soft in many, not very flattering ways. Like you said, Greg, Streep shows off her vast talents here, but this film is nevertheless a light, fluffy, made-for-TV movie.
I liked the second wife in this movie – Maureen. She’s a strong woman who stepped into the hole that Ricki left. It’s an interesting dynamic between Maureen and Ricki. There’s a sense that Maureen successfully eased Ricki out of her children’s lives. Then, when Ricki returns to California, Maureen has a change of heart and invites Ricki to her son’s wedding. Or was it a change of heart? Was Maureen aware that Ricki wouldn’t have the funds to fly back? Regardless, it is her boyfriend Greg who sells his Stratocaster so that Ricki can attend the wedding.
And that raises a question for me about secondary heroes. Greg is a secondary character, but he is a sort of martyr. He gives up something of great value to him, so that the hero of the story can have something she wants. He’s an enabler of sorts – or in the lexicon of our book “Reel Heroes and Villains” – a catalyst for Ricki’s change.
Ricki and the Flash is a pleasant movie about an aging mom who was once a bad mother and is now given a chance to redeem herself. This theme is a common one in today’s movies — witness films such as 3 Days To Kill, Snitch, and A Good Day To Die Hard. The baby-boomer generation is apparently desperate to make amends to the younger generation for its self-indulgent ways. Ricki isn’t a bad movie but I won’t be giving it a second look. The film deserves about 2 Reels out of 5.
Our hero Ricki is on a journey of redemption. She has no mentors, really, and on her own she relies on kindness, loyalty, and patience to win the hearts of her grown children. Perhaps these are the missing qualities that Ricki needed to achieve her redemption, but we are given no insight into how she acquired them. The hero journey is thus a bit stunted. I award Ricki 2 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters are adequate but unmemorable. When I think back to this movie, all I’ll really remember is Streep’s excellent performance as Ricki and as a rock’n roll wanna-be star. Generously I’ll award the supporting characters 2 rating points out of 5.
Agreed on all counts, Scott. Ricki and the Flash is merely a vehicle for Streep’s daughter, Gummer, to have a bit of the spotlight. Perhaps art imitates life as Streep gives something back to her own daughter. We’ve seen this in other films like Will and Jaden Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and again in Beyond Earth (2013). Movie history is rife with nepotism. I give Ricki and the Flash just 2 out of 5 Reels.
The hero story is pretty simple. Ricki does go through a transformation in that she reconnects with her children. And she realizes that she loves her boyfriend Greg and has to accept him as her lover or lose him. She has been pushing people away her whole life and finally realizes she has to be less selfish. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.
The secondary characters are pretty boilerplate, two-dimensional cutouts. The husband is a bland businessman, the second wife is heartless, the kids are a selection of Lifetime tropes (depressed daughter, yuppie son, and gay son). The character I liked most was Greg the boyfriend because it is his sacrifice that tilts the scales and catalyzes Ricki into the transformation she needs. And he has a likable name. I give the supporting cast 2 out of 5 Cast points.