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Star Wars: The Force Awakens ••••

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterStarring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams,
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: December 18, 2015


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Well Scott, let’s review the movie that was 30 years in the making.

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

It was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who lives on the dusty planet of Jakka. She makes her living, such as it is, by scavenging parts from the deserted ships of the Empire. It’s been 30 years since the Rebellion defeated the Empire, which has been replaced by the First Order. Things are getting slim when she saves a small robot, BB-8, from being disassembled for parts. It’s not long before she encounters young Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper of the First Order. Together, they learn that BB-8 has a map to the legendary Luke Skywalker and needs to be returned to the Rebel base.

Soon after Rey and Finn team up, they are aggressively pursued by a squadron of First Order stormtroopers. As fate would have it, the pair make their escape in a discarded old ship called the Millennium Falcon. Rey and Finn encounter the original owners of the ship who, of course, are Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). We then get the backstory of how Luke Skywalker tried to rebuild the Jedi Order but was thwarted by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a former Jedi who fell into the dark side. Rey and Finn then spend the rest of the movie trying to deliver the map to the leaders of the resistance.

Scott, it’s deja vu all over again. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII)  is merely a repackaging of Episodes IV, V, and VI. Just as in A New Hope we meet a young person who befriends a droid with a message to be delivered to the Rebels. This young person is unaware that they can command the powers of The Force and and must help their new friends blow up a gigantic planet-killing weapon. While from a technical point of view SW:TFA is a stunning film to watch, it is all too familiar territory. JJ Abrams has done with Star Wars as he did with Star Trek – he’s just replaying the best hits of the originals. I was less than impressed.

The build-up for this film was enormous and expectations were beyond the stratosphere. As for the final product — how could we expect anything different? JJ Abrams plays it safe by recycling old ideas and characters, which he had to do to please a fan-base that would not tolerate much deviation from the mega-successful formula. At the same time, Abrams introduces several new characters who can carry the mantle for the next several installments of the franchise. With these new heroes, not everything is the same — just similar.

As it turns out, our two heroic newcomers, Rey and Finn, are outstanding characters whom we grow to love and enjoy rooting for soon after meeting them. Both these characters are cut from that familiar Star Wars heroic cloth — they come from humble origins and are oblivious to their special pedigree. As these characters are tested, they begin to slowly transform into the greatness that was always there beneath the surface. No movie franchise does a better job than Star Wars at developing characters with this sort of amnesia about their true identities. It’s done with great effectiveness in this installment of Star Wars.

Well, you’re right about that, Scott. Rey is in every way a classic hero. She starts out alone and yearning for her parents to return. By the end of the film she has found a new home and a new belonging. Her growth from a scavenger to a warrior is heartening. She befriends Finn who literally has no identity. He takes on the ramant of a Resistance fighter and grows into it. Like Rey, he is alone at the start of the film (despite being surrounded by a horde of look-alike Stormtroopers). But by the end he also has found a new home. I like these newcomers very much and I look forward to their journey forth in this new series.

The villains in this story are also familiar. Kylo Ren is pretty much a Darth Vader wannabe. He uses the Dark Side and reports to an all powerful master. This is the same Mastermind/Henchman pattern we saw in Episodes IV-VI.

Harrison Ford nearly steals the show as an aging Han Solo. He delivers a great performance of the swashbuckling hero we knew in the earlier films. And in a twist, it is Han who is the father of Kylo Ren – echoing the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker relationship. Carrie Fisher is all grown up and in charge as General Leia Organa. Her interactions with Ford are a bit stilted and “expositiony.” But, she is not the only woman in the galaxy, as was true of the last incarnation. Aside from Rey, we also have a Stormtrooper leader and several X-Wing fighters who are of the feminine persuasion. It’s a good crop of side characters.

Yes, there’s much to like about this incarnation of Star Wars. Our two new young heroes show some demographic diversity. How refreshing it is to see non-Whites and non-males dominate the heroic landscape. Yet the movie remains faithful to the classic elements of the hero’s journey. Rey and Finn both undergo transformations of the head, heart, and identity. They both have important mentor figures to guide them. Luke Skywalker, for example, is a mentor from afar whose legacy has been mythologized by the resistance. Rey has her own Yoda, a wonderfully wiseand exotic female alien named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).

The villains are a multi-layered version of the mastermind-henchman template that we discuss in our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Usually this template features a single evil mastermind who uses henchmen and minions to do his or her dirty work. In this movie, we see several layers of the villainous onion, starting with a horrid ‘Supreme Leader’ who really could benefit from a trip to Bath & Body Works. Beneath this Supreme Leader are several mid-managers of evil such as Kylo Ren, each of whom order their assigned Stormtroopers to carry out specific evil deeds.

I can’t emphasize enough this film’s use of the classic hero journey in mythology. George Lucas himself made much of his use of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythic symbols, images, and plot points. Here Abrams carries on the tradition. For example, some key scenes in this movie take place in the forest, which is always a symbol of the unknown, dangerous, and volatile forces lurking within our unconscious. There is also a strong family structure that characterizes the ensembles of both the heroes and the villains. These strong family roles run deep in fairy tales and legends throughout the ages. Finally, the theme of redemption courses through this film’s veins. Heroes like Finn set out to turn their wrongs into rights, and villains like Kylo Ren are given the opportunity, and fail — for now at least.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a technically exciting film with a familiar story arc. While it will win no awards for originality, it should win awards for special effects. It will certainly win awards at the box office for the records it will break. While I enjoyed myself, there is nothing that will entice me to keep coming back. I am tempted to award only three Reels, but that’s a score I use for the average film-going experience. SW:TFA is well above average, but lacks anything new. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this film are plenty. We’re reminded of the heroes gone by and introduced to new ones as well. Rey and Finn work well together as newcomers, but neither is naive. Each has street smarts from their own worlds. And they both grew in their roles. It was good to get caught up with Han, Chewie, and Leia. As with other aging heroes we see that the destination for the hero is to become a mentor. And the old guard did not disappoint. I give the heroes in this film 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters were also very good. Kylo Ren as the fallen hero-come-villain fits nicely into the “Villain’s Journey” that we outlined in our last book. He is subservient to a (nearly) hidden mastermind. BB8 as the dutiful and emotic sidekick played its role well – although I’m confused as to how everyone understood BB8’s beeps-and-boops, but no one understands R2D2 but C3PO (who also made a nice pair of cameos). I give the secondary characters 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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The Force Awakens definitely kept me awake and is a box office force to be reckoned with. But does it deliver the goods? Mostly yes, in a play-it-safe kind of way. Fans of Star Wars will be elated, while fans of outstanding movies will have more muted praise. JJ Abrams does his usual excellent job; he injects the Star Wars universe with new interesting heroes, technical marvels, and a lot of clever one-liners. But there isn’t a whole lot of new ground broken here. I’m with you, Greg, in awarding this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

The characters of Rey and Finn in this film are an impressive pair of buddy heroes. They follow the usual buddy-hero pattern of distrusting and disliking each other at first, but after learning they have the same goals they develop an unshakable bond. They also help each other transform and evolve into heroically courageous individuals. All the elements of the hero’s journey stand out in bold relief, and it is refreshing that the filmmakers dared to embrace diversity in their casting of this duo. I’m happy to award Rey and Finn a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The remaining characters all did their jobs in superb fashion. I agree with you, Greg, that Harrison Ford handled his geezerly role with both charm and alacrity. All the secondary heroes and villains were fun to root for and to despise. The treachery of Kylo Ren was somewhat routine and predictable, and the Star Wars robots, whom I’ve never been fond of at all, were grating to me. Still, the cast did a great job overall and so I also award them 4 out of 5 cast points.

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Bridge of Spies •••••

Bridge_of_Spies_posterStarring: Tom HanksMark RylanceAlan Alda
Director:Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:Matt CharmanEthan Coen
Birgrapy/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141  mins
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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Like a bridge over troubled waters, there are spies like us.

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

Indeed. This is a movie about walls and bridges. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to James Donovan (Tom Hanks) a tax lawyer in 1957. He’s been recruited to defend a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel. Donovan takes this very seriously – he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, after all. However, nobody around him thinks the spy deserves a trial – they’ve already convicted him in their minds. Donovan is also getting the evil eye from everyone in town, even to the point of death threats and shooting out his windows.

As expected, Donovan loses the case and Abel is convicted. However, Donovan succeeds in sparing Abel from the death penalty. He does this by persuading the judge that, hypothetically, keeping Abel alive allows for the possibility that a future hostage exchange could take place should the Soviets ever capture an American spy. As it turns out, Donovan is prescient.

Scott, you’d expect a movie by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks would be excellent, and Bridge of Spies doesn’t disappoint. Every character in this film is acted out with a sort of precision that you don’t see every day. The spy, Abel, is a cool character. He seems worn out, but meticulous in his behavior and attention to his spy craft. Hanks delivers a very Jimmy Stewart sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” performance. He is truly cinema’s leading, leading man. From both a technical and storytelling point of view, there are no flaws with this film.

Absolutely right, Gregger. This movie shines in every way that a movie can shine. First and foremost, Donovan is a hero with moral courage. His character taps into an important hero archetype that describes a man who does the right thing even when it is very unpopular. Because he defends a suspect who is universally hated, Donovan receives menacing glares on the subway. His home is the target of gunfire, and his family pressures him to rethink his decision. Despite the risks and the danger, Donovan does what needs to be done.

Bridge of Spies features two separate hero’s journeys. The first journey is the unpopular legal defense of the Soviet spy. The second journey takes place later in East Germany after Donovan is assigned the task of negotiating the release of American soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As in the initial journey, Donovan once again takes on the unpopular fight. Under pressure from the CIA to focus only on Powers, Donovan insists on making sure that a 25-year-old American hostage is also released during the prisoner exchange. Once again, our hero does the right thing regardless of the cost to himself.

I’m glad you mentioned the double-hero’s-journey, Scott. While it did keep true to the events of the time, it slowed the movie down. There were two ordinary worlds, and two special worlds to become acclimated to. I can’t think of a fix (and I would never argue with the master, Spielberg). Still the characterizations and suspense pull this film along to it’s thrilling conclusion.

The supporting characters were superb. Of course we already mentioned Rudolf Abel, played exceedingly low-key by Mark Rylance. (My favorite line is when Donovan asks Abel: “Aren’t you worried?” and he replies, “Would it help?”). This is a combination anti-hero and villain character. Certainly not a villain as he is not trying to prevent Donovan from doing his job, but he’s a bad guy; a particularly easy-going bad guy. As such, he’s not so much even an anti-hero as much as a prop – he’s Donovan’s main goal (to give Abel a fair trial).

But it is the system represented by Judge Byers who is the villain in the first half of the film. Byers wants to get the trial over with and sentence Abel to death as soon as possible. He’s already passed his judgement. Donovan even says out loud that his role in this case is to prove that America does not have kangaroo courts. It is Byers who is attempting to thwart Donovan’s main goal. When the jury passes down a guilty verdict, Byers is in the position to sentence Abel to death. But Donovan convinces Byers that Abel may be a bargaining chip in the event an American spy is captured by the Russians. So, while Donovan loses the battle, he wins the war.

The fact that we have two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s journey isn’t enough for him. He’s a person who has no doubt been on many hero journeys, with Bridge of Spies giving us a glimpse of only two of them. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second.

I agree that the supporting cast more than holds its own in this film. Abel is a likeable Soviet villain, and some of the Americans are less than likeable in their dogmatic views and behaviors. You could argue that we have both institutional heroes and institutional villains, with Donovan serving as the face of the “West” and several characters serving as the various faces of the Soviet eastern bloc. These characters include Abel and several of the politicians that Donovan negotiates with to win the release of the two hostages.

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful work of art created by two masters of their craft. Spielberg directs this film in a way that shows off both the heroism of Donovan, and also the corrupt natures of the Soviet and American governments, alike. Hanks delivers again as the most likable guy in Hollywood. Together, the two paint a picture of a man of courage – or as Able calls him – “the standing man.” I can’t think of anything that could have made this film better. I award Bridge of Spies 5 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Hanks is great as the confident yet modest insurance lawyer called to the adventure of defending a villain. Donovan steps up to the challenge and delivers. He has no mentor in his journey, but he draws upon the values laid down by the Constitution. Just as the hero of the western lives by the code of the West, Donovan lives by the ideals set down by the founding fathers. There is also no “missing inner quality” to overcome. While Donovan is modest about his abilities, he is not unconfident. As you point out, Scott, it took two events in Donovan’s life to expose the depth of his character. In the epilog to the film, we’re informed that he also negotiated the release of 1,163 Bay of Pigs prisoners. It’s clear from this film that the heroic element of Donovan is the fact that he not only stands on his principles, but also goes above and beyond what is required. I’d like to give Donovan full honors, but his story lacks certain elements of the hero’s journey. So, I award Donovan 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is excellent. Spielberg suffers no fools, and every supporting character in this story delivers. We’ve already talked about the villainous judge, and the quiet spy. But there was also the (apparently) naive pilot shot down over Russia (Francis Gary Powers), the supportive but worried wife and children, the corrupt CIA officials, the corrupt and devious KGB officials, the youthful college student, and the young people shot down while trying to jump the Berlin wall. All of these characters represent some element of the story, nothing is wasted. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.

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I agree, Greg, that Bridge of Spies is a winner. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical. Having grown up in Los Angeles where I listened to Francis Gary Powers broadcast traffic conditions from his helicopter, I knew his story. But what I didn’t know was the backstory involving the heroic James Donovan working behind the scenes to do the right thing, over and over again, at great risk to himself. I also award this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The dual hero journey is deftly linked and reinforces Donovan’s intelligence, character, and integrity. Like you, Greg, I note the absence of a transformation and a mentor figure who is there to help him transform. In a sense, Donovan is a superhero who is supremely virtuous from start to finish. It’s not a bad hero’s journey, just not the classic journey as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll give Donovan’s heroism 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters, as you point out, are excellent and deserve credit for either assisting Donovan on his journey or for throwing obstacles in his way. I particularly enjoyed Mark Rylance’s wry humor and overall performance as the captured spy who had no chance of acquittal. Overall, these supporting characters deserve a rating of 4 out of 5.

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