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Criminal •••

Criminal_2016_posterStarring: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenplay: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, it looks like Kevin Costner is letting things go to his head.


It’s a sort of “Face/Off” between a “Self/Less” Ryan Reynolds and a “Criminal.” Let’s recap.


In London we meet CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). After obtaining a big duffle bag full of money and a passport, Pope is followed, captured, tortured, and killed by a team of enemy agents led by Elsa Mueller (Antje Traue). Upon learning of Pope’s death, CIA chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) orders a brain surgeon, Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), to perform an experimental procedure on imprisoned sociopath Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).


The surgery plants the memories of the dead Agent Pope in Jericho’s mind. But strangely, it also plants Pope’s kindness and love for his wife and child. Jericho escapes his CIA captors and goes in search of the money. He arrives at Pope’s residence where Pope’s wife and child are sleeping. It turns out that the mind implant has a time limit. The chase is on – will the CIA find Jericho before he finds the money, and will Pope harm the innocent wife and child?


Greg, in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss the crucial role of character transformation in hero stories. People identify most with heroes who undergo significant growth and change during the story. The movie Criminal tries to make the most of this idea by featuring a hero, Jericho, who transforms from a psychopath into a warm, caring individual, and who then begins transforming back into his original psychopathic state. Stories like this are as old as Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and The Werewolf.

Does Criminal succeed as a story? Yes and no. One problem is that this film forgets that the most powerful heroes change willingly as a result of learning from difficult, painful circumstances. Criminal is about a hero, Jericho, who doesn’t change willingly. He only changes through involuntary surgical alteration to his brain. His evolving goodness stems from mental implants from Bill Pope, who doesn’t stick around long enough as a character for us to really bond with him. So while we enjoy seeing Jericho become a good person, we know it really isn’t Jericho changing on his own. For me, that detracts a bit from the appeal of the story.


You make a good point, Scott. I’m also going to take a chapter from our book and talk a bit about anti-heroes. Jericho looks like an anti-hero because he starts out as a very bad individual. He has no empathy and so can commit the most heinous of crimes. I likened him to Charles Manson. In fact, this movie really felt like it was asking the question “What if we gave Charlie Manson a moral core?”

Many people have called Jericho an anti-hero because he is so villainous. But in our taxonomy of heroism, a hero (or villain) is determined by the way he ends up in the story – not how he starts out. We define an anti-hero as someone who starts out bad and ends up bad (like a villain) but is the main character of the story. We may not like him, but he *is* the lead character. Since Jericho ultimately takes on the good qualities of Bill Pope, he is heroic at the end of the story – so we call him a Redeemed Hero.


Yes, he’s redeemed, and the tension at the end of the movie revolves around the question of whether Jericho’s redemption will vanish or remain permanent. We’re led to believe that it’s hopeless for him in the long term, and the issue appears moot as he appears to bite the dust at the end. The happy ending is contrived yet nonetheless satisfying.

So we have an interesting hero’s journey that is made possible by two men: Wells, the man who needs someone with Pope’s knowledge to stop the Dutchman, and Franks, the surgeon who physically makes it possible for our hero to enter his unfamiliar world. I wouldn’t call either of these men “mentors” but they do cast our hero on his journey. In a sense, Jericho’s mentor is Pope’s memories and warmth — they both serve him well in that they save his life and provide him with the ability to live an emotionally normal life.


True enough. It is Pope’s worldview about good and evil, love and hate, etc… that moves Jericho to do the right things. Although Pope’s wife Jill (Gal Gadot) also helps to direct Jericho. I have to say, this is not the type of mentoring we typically see. Usually the mentor is a past hero and instills the hero with new behavior through lessons and advice. Pope doesn’t really teach our hero – he just acts as a system of memories and a code of ethics.

Criminal is a better movie than last year’s Self/Less. Although that’s not saying a lot. In Self/Less Reynolds inherited the memories of a aging evil capitalist. Gradually, Reynolds’ good memories came through and he saved the girl and his daughter. In Criminal Reynolds give his good thoughts to an evil man who ultimately becomes good. I enjoyed Criminal a lot more than I expected and I can give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jericho makes for an interesting redeemed hero. He starts out as pure evil and is suddenly imbued with the memories of a good man. Jericho does the right thing despite himself. And ultimately stands to lose this new found goodness, but retains enough of it to become a new man – enough perhaps for a sequel. I give Jericho 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I found the mentor characters here were pretty insubstantial. Pope was an inactive set of rules and memories. Jill Pope was more of a damsel in distress than a guide. Dr. Franks imbues Jericho with Pope’s good thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to give him mentor status. I can only give the mentors in this story 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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I hate agreeing with you, Greg, but you’ve summed it up nicely. Criminal is a fairly good movie but not a great movie. It is far-fetched along the lines of this year’s London Has Fallen, but I found Criminal to be a story with more heart than London. We have no business caring for Jericho and yet we do because he possesses a good man’s sense of honor and decency. I agree that this film deserves 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is fascinating and capitalizes on our fascination with heroic transformation. Throughout the movie I found myself looking for signs that Jericho was changing, either for the better or for the worse, depending on which act of the movie I was watching. We have a love interest (Pope’s wife) and a couple of good villains at which we can direct our venom. A rating of 3 Heroes out of 5 seems right to me.

As we’ve noted, the mentor to Jericho is not an actual living person but the memories and feelings of a freshly murdered individual, Pope. Jericho is pretty much on his own, and perhaps that’s how it should be in a movie like this. So the best we can do, it seems, is award a measly 2 Mentors out of 5.

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The Boss •••

The_Boss_posterStarring: Melissa McCarthyKristen BellPeter Dinklage
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenplay: Ben FalconeSteve Mallory
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: April 8, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, hide what you’re doing The Boss is coming.


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

Melissa McCarthy is a boss no one wants to mess with. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy), a self-made millionaire who lives the high life giving motivational speeches on a stage with dancers and a flame-throwing dragon. She thinks little of those around her, especially her assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) who is (we’re told again and again) a single mother. Darnell doesn’t ride high forever as her nemesis Renault (Peter Dinklage) discovers she has committed insider trading and turns her in. Her world is turned upside-down when she lands in federal prison and loses everything, including anyone who might care about her.


When Darnell is released from prison, she has nowhere to go, so she ends up living with Claire and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Darnell’s plan is to recapture her former glory as a successful businesswoman. She discovers that Rachel’s girl-scout-like group, the Dandelions, sells cookies as a fundraiser, and she also discovers that Claire makes incredible tasting brownies. Darnell’s scheme is to make a fortune by creating a rival group that aggressively sells these brownies at a huge profit.


Scott, Melissa McCarthy has had a stream of movie successes over the last few years. There’s a common theme running through these films: female empowerment. Back in 2013 she starred in buddy-cop movie The Heat with Sandra Bullock. The following year she followed up with Tammy. And last year she burst out with Spy. While not all of these films were critical successes, they all display the lead character as a woman who takes control of her environment and succeeds on her own terms.

The Boss is no exception. In Darnell we are witness to a woman who grew up in an orphanage and was rejected so much that she concludes that “family is for suckers.” She strikes out on her own and creates a multi-million dollar empire. However, her lost lover exposes her for insider trading and she is thrown in federal prison for 6 months. The Martha Stewart jokes abound – there is no subtlety to the parallels. When Darnell has paid her dues, she has nothing left and none of the men she supported on their way up will help her. It’s a boy’s club and she’s missing the Y-chromosome.


You’re right about McCarthy’s repeated portrayals of strong, take-no-prisoners women who dare to succeed in domains usually reserved for males. Her persona is huge here, and I mean huge in all the wrong, Donald Trump kind of ways. We’re talking narcissism, exploitation, aggression, and cruelty. Yet McCarthy uses these character defects as a set-up for her character’s hero’s journey. Darnell must soften up and cultivate her humanity to truly transform as a person. Amidst all the silliness in this movie, we are witness to exactly this heroic transformation from Trump (or Stewart) to a compassionate human being who finds her connection to humanity.

So it sounds like I enjoyed this movie. At the level of hero transformation, yes, I was satisfied. But the movie itself is not particularly fun to watch. Many of the visual and verbal gags fall flat, and I think part of the problem is that The Boss tries too hard to be constantly funny rather than telling a story that doesn’t need to be constantly funny. There’s no denying McCarthy’s comedic talent, but she tries too hard here when her messages about women’s empowerment and de-Trumpification can stand on their own without the barrage of mediocre gags.


We disagree again, but not completely. On the Trumpisms – yes. But McCarthy is a master of slapstick comedy. There’s a scene early on where she wears lip-expanders that is hilarious. Just when I thought she had played the gag out, she pushed it further and I was howling. There’s another scene (also in the trailers) where Darnell is helping Claire dress for a date and they start bouncing each other’s boobs. I mean, it’s sophomoric, grade-school humor. But McCarthy is a master and I bust a gut. I want more.

This is a classic hero’s journey. Darnell goes from being a hard-core greed-addicted capitalist with no need for friend or family, to a caring individual who uses her talent for goodness and niceness rather than evil. There is no subtlety to this transformation, but it is sweet and done quite well for a slapstick comedy.

I was struck by the fact that Darnell is acting as the mentor in this story. She mentors Claire in standing up for herself, and she mentors the girls of Darnell’s Darlings in the ways of business. It’s pretty rare for us to see the Hero-as-Mentor. Usually the mentor is a secondary role. But in Darnell’s case, we see her not only mentor others but undergo a radical transformation as well.


Greg, I was struck by the appearance of a grand-mentor, whom we define as the mentor to the mentor. Kathy Bates plays the role of Ida Marquette, a woman who mentored Darnell many years earlier. We first saw a grand-mentor in Eddie the Eagle, where Christopher Walken played a classy, highly revered old grand master. In The Boss, nothing is classy and everything is brassy, thus we’re not surprised to see Ida Marquette show the same ball-busting qualities as her protege Darnell.

I agree that Darnell mentors Claire, but let’s not discount the possibility that Darnell and Claire are also buddy heroes who help each other transform. Darnell convinces Claire to dream big and leave her humdrum job, and then she also shows Claire how to build a business empire. In return, Claire teaches Darnell the lessons of humanity and interpersonal decency. Rachel also shows Darnell the importance of family and connection to loved ones. So the mentorship goes both ways between Darnell and Claire, as we see in many buddy hero stories — which is topic we dive into in our Reel Heroes & Villains book.


The Boss is a fun slapstick comedy by a master comedian. As an R-rated comedy you’ll want to leave the kids at home. But this isn’t for the kids. It’s a smart movie with heart made for adults by adults. Melissa McCarthy shines in a role that takes advantage of her big talent. I enjoyed her over-the-top humor and transformation into a Darnell who welcomed family. I give The Boss 4 out of 5 Reels.

Darnell is the lead character in this story, in my humble opinion. While you, Scott, saw this as a buddy story, I have to disagree as Claire played second banana the whole movie. Darnell’s young life as an unwanted orphan hardened her to emotional attachments. But her incorporation with Claire and her daughter Rachel melted her frozen heart. I enjoyed watching Darnell, but the hero’s journey suffered in favor of the comedic shenanigans. I can only award Darnell 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And Darnell as Mentor was an interesting case. On the one hand she shows all the girls in her brownie business how to stand up for themselves and how to run a successful company. But on the other she is a dark mentor showing them that anger and violence resolves all confrontations. It’s an interesting mix, but one that I can only award 3 Mentors out of 5.

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The Boss is a wonderful movie only if you are a Melissa McCarthy fanatic with a high tolerance for 90 minutes of one ridiculous (and often mediocre) gag after another. Yes, McCarthy is a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, and she does dare to portray women in powerful roles. I suspect that her films will improve if and when she evolves into a more dramatic actor. Doing so will enhance the effectiveness of her message of empowerment for women. For now, her movies veer close to resembling the forgettable canon of Adam Sandler, and that’s no compliment. I can only award this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is actually the one strength of The Boss. Who doesn’t like seeing Scrooge soften up or the Grinch develop a heart? Such stories are always immensely satisfying, although this movie’s mediocre comedic elements put a huge dent in the immenseness. Having said that, I’m a sucker for people finding their compassion, and I also like the empowering effect that Darnell has on Claire. I’m willing to give these two heroic transformations a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also rock solid, with each of our two main heroes offering important guidance and life lessons for the other. I also loved the appearance of the grand mentor who years earlier trained Darnell to become a successful business tycoon. I was alarmed, however, by all the dark mentoring directed at the numerous children in the movie. These kids were shown how to cheat and fight physically with others, and it was all presented as humorous. Not good. We’re left not knowing if these kids were ever un-mentored from this nastiness. Still, there is enough good mentoring to award this film a rating of 3 Mentors out of 5.

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Eye in the Sky ••••1/2

Eye_in_the_Sky_2015_film_posterStarring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert
Drama/Thriller/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: April 1, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, I’ve got my eye on you and your review of Eye in the Sky.


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

Aye aye, Captain Greg. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) who has a mission to capture high-level Al-Shabaab extremists meeting in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) in Nevada controls a drone for aerial surveillance Meanwhile, undercover Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), uses an electronic “beetle” for ground observations. When Farah discovers that the terrorists have explosives, the mission turns into a military strike.


Powell discovers that switching the mission from “capture” to “kill” is not so easy. She must get legal clearance from UK Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) and his team of advisors. There are questions about whether it is permissible to kill British and American citizens, and whether it can be done without American permission and without Kenyan permission. Complicating matters is the appearance of an innocent young girl (Aisha Takow) who is selling bread next to the kill sight. Time is running out for Powell as she pushes for a strike but cannot seem to get the permissions she needs.


Scott, Eye in the Sky Is not your typical hero’s journey. Like last year’s The Martian this movie is layered with three or more stories. However, unlike The Martian this film lacks a strong transformation for its characters. This is also a cause movie (those with a point to make about a particular cause). But unlike other cause movies Eye makes a case for both sides of the argument and leaves the audience to make a judgement about the relative merits of the differing points of view in the story.

I’ll get to the point and expose the ending right away. Basically, to kill the bad guys in the house, Colonel Powell makes a decision to sacrifice a little girl as collateral damage. Her argument (and that of General Benson) is that the bad guys are planning a suicide bombing and it is better to sacrifice one little girl rather than let the bad guys kill 80 or more civilians. Powell makes this decision with cold and calculated math. However, pilot Watts uses the prevailing rules of engagement to delay the decision as long as he can. But in the end the clock runs out. And with all the principals sitting in the safety of their air-conditioned offices, they watch as the little girl dies from the explosion.


Greg, it’s only April but this movie is clearly one of the best films of 2016. What makes it shine is its riveting and suspenseful treatment of the thorny ethics of drone warfare. We are drawn into the horrors of committing violent actions as well as horrors of not performing those actions. We feel both the agony of acting and of not acting, and the pain of those who must make these heart wrenching decisions. Alan Rickman’s final film is one of his best films. He knows firsthand the awful reality of suicide bombs destroying lives and the awful reality of sometimes needing to destroy lives to prevent suicide bombs from happening.

At first I found myself pulled in each direction, taking the side of whomever was making his or her argument at any one time. Eventually it became clear to me which decision should be made, and it was gut-wrenching for me to see it not be made. Yet I sympathize with all parties and with all sides. None of these decisions can be made easily and without anguish. This movie does a brilliant job of presenting both sides with fairness, accuracy, and with so much heart and soul. Like last year’s American Sniper and this year’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I view Eye in the Sky as largely an anti-war film that shows us the senseless horror of killing people, no matter how seemingly noble the cause.


I wish I could agree. That is, I agree this is a well-crafted film told in the same simmer-to-a-boil fashion as 2013’s Closed Circuit. Both are British films and are told in a patient manner. However, I don’t think this is an anti-war film. I think it is a “fair and balanced” telling of the necessity of drone strikes and the tightrope that the highers-up walk when making life and death decisions. It was clear that the military were calculating losses and the politicians were weighing optics. If by anti-war you mean that the message is that “war sucks” then I will agree. But this film goes beyond that simple message. I think the message is “war is complicated.” It doesn’t matter on which side of the argument you fall, this film presented it with accuracy.

There are no heroes here. Truly, everyone lost. Colonel Powell lost no sleep over her decision to sacrifice an innocent little girl to kill suicide bombers. It was simple math for her. General Benson has seen war up close and personal. He didn’t like this choice. He will lose sleep over it. But he knew the alternative and this was the lesser of two evils. The politicians kept kicking the can upstairs until the answer came down that the decision had to be made in the operations room. They just wanted plausible deniability. This is one film where there is no classic hero’s journey – but it is still a compelling and memorable story that spurs debate.


I was thinking about the heroes or lack of heroes here, and my conclusion is that all the main players are one giant heroic ensemble that can be broken down into several different teams. In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we present a model of heroism in which “the team” is a common heroic protagonist. We see teams as heroes in such movies as Ocean’s Eleven and A League of Their Own. The teams in Eye in the Sky are Benson’s team, Powell’s team, and Farah’s team. There is even a fourth team in Las Vegas in charge of actually pushing the button that unleashes the drone bomb.

As heroic teams, do they transform? The agonizing decisions they must make must surely change them to some degree, although I suspect that the young rookies in Vegas were more transformed by this incident than were the grizzled veterans (like Powell) who have been so desensitized to violence over the years that they can make these decisions without breaking a sweat. The young Vegas team was in tears knowing what they were about to do, and so I half-expected them at the end to give their superior officer the “you can take this job and shove it” speech. But no speech was forthcoming. We’re left concluding that they’ll come to work tomorrow and kill more innocent little girls. It was horrifying to watch this movie but I think it’s a “must see” because we all need to be horrified about what is going on in this crazy world of ours.

 


There weren’t any visible mentors in this film either. Each person in the story had an internal code of ethics. For the rookies in Vegas who were flying the drone, that code of ethics is that you don’t kill innocent little girls (that’s not why I signed up, sir). But the outer code of ethics is that you follow the chain of command – and that ultimately won in the rookies’ case.

It was interesting that the United States politicians had no problem blowing up a little girl. They were dismayed that the British high command even took the time to interrupt their golf games with such an obvious answer. The British politicians kept passing the buck until it stuck with the low-level decision makers. Their internal code was to never let something stick. This movie was an analysis of competing inner and outer codes.


Eye in the Sky is a terrific film and is easily one of the best movies of 2016. Never has a movie so effectively portrayed the agonizing moral decision making of political, military, and civilians during times of war. Every member of this ensemble cast shined in their roles. I found myself on the edge of my seat for two hours, and for days afterward I found my mind revisiting the morally complex issues of this movie. We learn that fighting evil only produces another kind of evil in us. I hope this movie gets the recognition it deserves at Oscar time. I give it the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As you noted, Greg, the hero’s journey here is no ordinary journey. Once the mission changes from “capture” to “kill”, the four heroic teams in this film are all sent into the dark unfamiliar world. It’s gut-check time for everyone, and we see impressive physical courage from Farah and huge moral courage from the Vegas team. It seems like the higher up you go in the chain of command, the less courageous and heroic the people — unless of course you agree with the final decision, which is not an unreasonable decision even if I disagree with it. So much is going on here in terms of heroic decision making and action that we’ve only scratched the surface. Still, because the heroism here is a bit messy and difficult to discern (which is maybe the point), I will award less than the maximum rating and give these teams 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship dynamic is also complicated, as there are advisors and people being advised throughout the movie. Yet the chain of advisory command is often questioned, and we’re often left with the sense that it isn’t clear who is in authority and who isn’t. Can you imagine Mr. Myagi in The Karate Kid asking Daniel for karate advice? Yet this is what often happens in Eye in the Sky. Advisors assert authority only to realize they can be overruled, and those who are overruled sometimes rely on loopholes to get their way. The dynamic of counsel and chain of command is muddied further by the multinational nature of the mission. It’s all fascinating but again, because of the lack of clarity (which again is maybe the point), I can only award 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Eye in the Sky is an amazingly balanced “cause” movie that approaches being preachy, but never crosses the line. The performances were all excellent with bonus points to Helen Mirren whom I never tire of watching, and Alan Rickman in his final role. The tension and suspense were slow growing and artfully played out. While I do think this was an extraordinary film, I can think of many that are better. I give Eye just 4 out of 5 Reels.

As I pointed out earlier, this is not a hero’s journey movie. Not all movies follow the classic pattern. Yes there are standard turning points, but this is not a story of transformation of character. It is a story of competing ethics. There were no winners and losers here. Everyone lost. At the end of the day, well-meaning men and women had to choose between one little girl, or 80 unknowns. It’s the devil’s game. I wish there were a “Not-Applicable” rating. I’ll give these characters just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, one of the mentor types that we’ve been discussing this year is the hidden or internal mentor. This is the kind of mentor who has passed on their mentorship in the form of book learning or a moral code. Since I feel that this movie is a competition of ethics versus codes, it is all about internal mentors at odds with each other. It’s hard rate a character who is never on-screen. Still I’ll award the internal mentors 4 out of 5 points.

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ••

Batman_v_Superman_posterStarring: Ben AffleckHenry CavillAmy Adams
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris TerrioDavid S. Goyer
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 151 minutes
Release Date: March 25, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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It’s the battle of the century. Batman v Superman – are you team Clark or Bruce?


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

I’m rather partial to Alfred and Lois, actually. Let’s recap.


During the battle between Superman and General Zod (see Man of Steel), Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis. His employees were in the buildings that were devastated by the damage incurred by super beings fighting in the skies above. Bruce (aka Batman) is deeply disturbed by the danger that Superman has brought to the planet. He feels Superman is more of a liability than an asset. He makes it his goal to destroy Superman.


Meanwhile, Superman is also becoming unhappy with Batman, whom Clark Kent sees as more of a villain than a hero. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) steps in to take advantage of the rift between the two superheroes. Luthor retrieves a weapon containing Kryptonite from the bottom of the Indian Ocean. While attending Luthor’s party Bruce Wayne meets Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who manages to steal information from Wayne that Wayne stole from Luthor. Soon it becomes clear that Batman and Superman must have a showdown, and that such a fight can only work to Luthor’s advantage.


BvS Is a totally mixed bag of nuts. The plot meanders from Superman’s love interest, to Batman’s angst, to Superman’s nightmares, then Batman’s nightmares, to Lex Luthor’s manic obsession with killing both Superman and Batman (for reasons never made clear). And Wonder Woman thrown into the mix just because. We’re witness to Superman’s keen instincts to Lois being in danger and Lois appearing in places just as Superman needs her. There is no logic or internal consistency to this story, just scene after scene of special effects knit together by bits of dialog that make no sense.


Greg, I had problems with the entire premise of the movie, namely, that Batman and Superman could be duped into disliking each other. We recently reviewed the movie Allegient in which I noted the discontinuity of a genius hero such as Tris being easily fooled by the villain. In BvS, we have not one but two superior beings who show a silly misjudgment of each other. It’s as if some higher-up in the movie industry was inspired by King Kong vs. Godzilla and thought two legendary heroes fighting it out would be brilliant. It isn’t.

We’ve now reviewed three movies in a row in which there is no hero transformation. This pattern is unfortunate, but perhaps it is no coincidence that these are March releases and not Oscar season releases. The other two recent non-transformative movies were Allegiant and London Has Fallen. One could argue that Batman and Superman were transformed in their opinions of each other, with each of them realizing at the movie’s conclusion that the other wasn’t such a bad guy after all. For me, that hardly qualifies as a transformation. It’s more a statement of the obvious, and we didn’t need two and a half hours to figure out that both superheroes are super-heroic and really deserved a better movie than this.


You’re right, Scott. There is no logic to this movie. Apparently Batman becomes best buddies with Superman when the Man of Steel begs the Caped Crusader to save “Martha.” What a coincidence that both men have “Martha” for a mother’s name. It’s a ridiculous plot point and is only one of many in the film. As you point out, neither hero is transformed. And this is the case with many episodic heroes. We don’t look for a change in their character because that means they will be different in the next incarnation and we need Batman to be angst-ridden and we need Superman to feel alienated.

As for mentors, there really are none here. Alfred acts more as an engineer, building suits and toys to Bruce’s specifications. And Lois Lane is the constant damsel in distress. Clark’s mother offers some advice and a ghost/dream/imaginary visit from Clark’s father also offers some guidance. But otherwise, it’s a mentorless journey. Pretty dull stuff, really.


Yes, we’re treated to a lot of cool CGI effects and some terrific fight scenes. You can tell that the movie knows it is lacking substance when it becomes what we call a cluster-truck. Only substitute the word truck for a word that rhymes with it. When the big green monster makes an appearance at the film’s end, I was not only looking at my watch, I was actively rooting for time to speed ahead faster than a speeding bullet. We needed this movie to end about 30 minutes before it actually did.

And you’re correct about the vapidness of the hero’s journey, and about the mentors to our heroes being largely absent. I do need to mention one positive to this movie, and that is the performance of Jesse Eisenberg in the role of Lex Luthor. I remember admiring the potential for evil in Eisenberg in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Now we see Eisenberg’s unsurpassed ability to play a quirky, humorous evil genius who is more than a match for not one but two legendary superheroes. It’s fun to watch.


I won’t drag this review out any further. There’s virtually nothing good in this film. I thought Lex Luthor lacked any sense or motivation. There’s an attempt to foreshadow other Justice League characters besides Wonder Woman. I think that the DC Comics execs have seen the success of the Marvel Studios movies and felt the need to catch up – so they dumped everything into one movie and it is just superhero stew. It needs salt. I give Batman v Superman just 2 Reels out of 5.

We’ve already discussed the deficiencies with the heroes here. We have a certain common thread in that the heroes are orphans but one got over his loss and the other didn’t. There’s no transformation and a very strange buddy friendship in the end. I can’t muster more than 2 Heroes out of 5.

And there were no mentors. None. So I award 0 Mentors.

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Batman v Superman is based on the gimmicky idea that two super-smart heroes would make the super-dumb mistake of believing the other to be a villain. It’s a faulty premise, and the mistake is compounded by the movie’s poor execution that relies on weird things going on like the appearance of Wonder Woman and a big green monster. Also, any movie that kills superman twice, and is twice wrong (of course) is lacking in creativity and stretching the bounds of credibility. I can only award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

We’ve both pounded home the point that there is no hero’s journey, no hero’s transformation, and no point in watching, unless of course we like big green monsters. You’re right that this movie follows the pattern of a buddy hero story. We have two men who dislike each other but are forever bonded together because their mothers happen to share the same name. Good grief. I can only award a rating of 1 Hero out of 5.

I suspect that Alfred was a mentor to Bruce Wayne, although you are correct that his mentorship was limited at best. One could say that these two superheroes are guided by super-codes of super-conduct. So while there may be a dearth of actual living heroes, there are implicit codes by which they live their heroic lives. Still, there’s not much mentorship going on here, so I can only muster a rating of 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Allegiant ••

AllegiantfilmposterStarring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper
Action/Adventure/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, do you pledge an Allegiant review?


Only as an appeasement to you. Let’s recap:


We pick up the story with Evelyn (Naomi Watts) holding trials for members of the Erudite and Dauntless factions. The trials turn into executions for some of the lead conspirators. Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) decide to escape the walls of Chicago. With them are Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz), and Peter (Miles Teller). Outside the walls, the landscape reveals the toxic, decimated aftereffects of nuclear war. The fleeing group is attacked by Edgar (Jonny Weston), but a squadron of airships saves them and whisks them away to a highly advanced city.


In the Bureau of Genetic Welfare Tris learns that Chicago is an experiment. The world was infected with “bad genes” and walled-in Chicago was an attempt to “purify” the gene pool. David (Jeff Daniels) explains that Tris is the first and only truly Divergent – a genetically pure individual. This means that the city can be cured and humanity can be reunited.


Greg, it seems pretty clear that movies such as Allegiant and The Hunger Games have run their course. We not only get the message of these films, but we got it a long time ago. I think it’s important to emphasize that young adult dystopian future stories have served a useful purpose. Societies, as run by old geezers like you and me, have been corrupt and exploitative. Young adults have had enough and are demanding much-needed change. In the real world, we see this “revolution” happening in a mostly peaceful way with, ironically, an oldtimer like Bernie Sanders leading the charge.

So I get all that. Unfortunately, the movie formula has worn thin and has outlived both its usefulness and its entertainment value. In these films, you can take it to the bank that all characters over the age of 30 are bad, and characters under the age of 30 are generally good. The exceptions are sleazy youth who become paid minions of the nasty geezers. A second problem with these dystopian franchises is that they slice and dice the original books into multiple movies. The resultant fragmentation gives us lead characters who don’t grow or evolve over the course of a single film. Across all the films, there is considerable growth, but it’s less detectable and less powerful in these film fragments. These movie fragments leave us with a lot of things going on in the service of very little plot advancement.


You’re right on every count, Scott. And Allegiant fails again at delivering a hero we can invest in. As with 2014’s Divergent and last year’s Insurgent, Allegiant serves up a weakling hero. I know you favor Tris, Scott. But I find her to be increasingly a damsel in distress to be rescued by boyfriend Four. Again and again we see Tris taking the safe road while masculine Four leads the way or saves our hero. It’s unacceptable and surely if the gender roles were reversed we’d reject that hero’s journey. This is in no way the fault of star Shailene Woodley who does all she can with the material handed her. Woodley is wonderful in everything she does – it’s just that Tris is a disappointing hero.

You also point out that the message of the story is hard to digest. I don’t think it’s just that we’re tired of the dystopian model (which we are) but the world created by Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant simply makes no sense. The premise is that Chicago is a walled-off city-as-experiment (see 2014’s The Maze Runner). Apparently, those inside the city have damaged DNA and by separating the inhabitants into 5 communities based upon their personality types, a “pure” DNA sample will emerge (the Divergent). Of course this is preposterous.

And apparently David has the ability to wipe everyone’s mind with a gas that has to be dispersed from inside the city. So he sends a mole in to throw the switch. However, he DOES have the power to shut every door to the switch that will turn it off – which thwarts Tris’s climactic race against time to undo the damage. But if David can control the rat maze that Tris is running, why can’t he just throw the switch himself remotely? It’s non-sensical and insults the audience’s intelligence.


Yes, the movie is problematic on several levels. The movie insults our intelligence by trying to convince us that people could live in a wasteland so toxic that it is incapable of growing vegetation, where the drinking water is red, and where it rains blood. The land is clearly inhospitable to life, just like this movie is inhospitable to believability.

As I’ve noted, our hero Tris shows no growth here, and if anything she shows some character regression. Jeff Daniels does a commendable job of playing the villain role, but one has to wonder why everyone knows he’s a cad except Tris who, if she’s truly a Divergent, should be sharper and not duller than everyone. She’s obviously a good candidate for some helpful mentoring here, but alas, no positive mentors are to be found — unless you count Four, whose counsel she ignores because if she listens to him then we’d only have a 40-minute movie.


I think Daniels’ character is a dark mentor. He’s leading her down a path that subjugates the weak children of the dead zone and enslaves the citizens of Chicago. And of course he’s also the villain. As with many villains he believes that what he is doing is right and any means justifies the ends. So we have an interesting hybrid character of the dark mentor/villain.

Allegiant is just a half of a movie as the source material was cut in two to allow the movie studio to extract an extra movie ticket out of us. And it makes the storytelling more difficult as the movie ends at the midpoint of the last book in the series. The story here makes little sense and leaves us feeling up in the air. I give Allegiant just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Tris, as the hero, lives up to my low expectations. As with earlier incarnations of the hero, she is not very thoughtful or much of a leader. Triss does ultimately take on the role of leader of Chicago by the end of the film which is a nice transformation for her. I can only give her 3 out of 5 Heroes, though that is one more than I gave her last year.

Finally, there is a dearth of mentor characters here. Daniels’ character is an obvious dark mentor that anyone could see coming. And as a villain he lacks a certain dangerous quality. I can only give him 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Allegiant is the most disappointing of the three Divergent movies, demonstrating the perils of chopping a single story into multiple stories. There’s some decent material here to work with, but this film dooms itself with a few obvious plot holes and with a hero whose obliviousness belies the supposed genius of her character. Like you, Greg, I can only award Allegiant 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey is problematic for reasons that we needn’t go over again. Let’s just award her 2 Heroes out of 5 and move onto the rating of the mentor characters — of which there are none. You do make a good observation, Greg, that David is a dark mentor. Tris needs all the help she could get but other than Four there was no one to advise her. I agree that 1 Mentor out of 5 is the most appropriate rating.

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London Has Fallen ••

London_Has_Fallen_posterStarring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
Director: Babak Najafi
Screenplay: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt
Action/Crime/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it looks like Londoners are under attack. Will Gerard Butler be able to save them?


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

The Butler did it, Greg. Let’s recap.


After rescuing the President of the United States from an attack, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is now the head of President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) security detail. They’re in London for a wake for the British Prime Minister. They’re not there long when a massive attack on London kills many heads of state and now Banning and the President are on the run.


The terrorists shoot down the President’s helicopter, sending Banning and the Prez into the subway system for shelter. But the terrorists are everywhere and have succeeded in shutting down the city’s power network. Back at the White House, the Vice President (Morgan Freeman ) and cabinet members are frantically trying to save the President behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the mastermind of the attacks, Barkawi (Waleed Zuaiter), is out to capture the President alive so that he can execute him on live television.

 


Scott, if Olympus Has Fallen (the prequel) was ridiculous, then London Has Fallen is surreal. The entire premise of this film – that all the world’s leaders could be killed by a massive full-frontal assault on a major city – is impossible to believe. Despite the recent spat of terrorist attacks around the world, I have to believe that SOMEONE would have seen this attack coming.

This was not some two or three person plot that took the lives of 30 or so people. The attack on the screen took out Big Ben, London Bridge, and Yorkshire Tower. There were masked minions by the dozens, nay hundreds, and commando trucks and helicopters aplenty. It was so impossible to believe that the rest of the movie was ruined for me.


I agree, Greg. London Has Fallen should be called Standards Have Fallen. One could argue that it’s unfair to judge a movie by the criterion of believability — after all, how believable is Star Wars or The Hobbit? Still, stuff happens here that simply can’t happen, and so we’re left with a cartoonish fantasy about the unlikely survival of a President and his super-human best-buddy bodyguard. The scenarios in the movie are outlandish and verge on insulting our intelligence.

One way I judge the quality of a movie is by using the rumination test — I consider how much time I spend thinking about the movie in the days following my viewing of it. I hate to say this, but I didn’t give this film a nanosecond of thought between the time I saw it and the time I sat down to write this review. That fact by itself stands testimony to this movie’s utter forgettability. You’d think I’d remember Big Ben collapsing or our President about to be decapitated. Unfortunately, this film somehow managed to portray these cataclysmic events in a humdrum fashion.

 


It’s not clear who the hero of this film is. On the one hand, Banning is the character who does the active attacking and defending. President Asher is a sort of active damsel in defense. But they are also buddies – with Asher giving Banning life advice on being a new father. To a certain degree, Banning and Asher constitute buddy heroes. They start out together, they go through trials together, and emerge triumphant together. But unlike many buddies, there is little conflict.


Yes, I’d say this is a buddy hero movie with Banning as the action hero and Asher positioned as the focus of Banning’s mission. We see the hero’s journey unfold dramatically with the attack on London, sending our two heroes out of the familiar world and into the dangerous world. What’s missing is any type of transformation. Our heroes start out noble and brave, and they remain that way throughout the story. That’s probably why this movie is so forgettable. We need to see heroes grow and evolve in meaningful ways. One could argue that Banning changes a little because he’s ready to resign his position at the beginning of the film but changes his mind at the conclusion. But that’s hardly a major character shift.


Yeah. He also is overly protective of his unborn child. But Asher gives him some sage advice that makes Banning realize that he can’t cover all the contingencies, nor should he want to. That makes Asher a bit of a sidekick mentor. Not terribly exciting.

Let’s face it, this is just an action film with very little subtlety thrown in. If you like a lot of explosions and nameless/faceless minions getting blown away, you will be happy with London has Fallen. But I require a bit more character development and plot. So I can only award 2 out of 5 Reels.

Our buddy heroes start out together and end up together, both physically and emotionally. There’s not a lot of dialog between the two so it’s hard to say if they grow much. I give them just 1 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, Asher acts as a minor mentor character by helping Banning come to grips with his fears of becoming a father. It’s very mild mentoring so I give him just 1 Mentor out of 5.


London Has Fallen is a mindless dark fantasy that covers no new ground and defies credibility in dozens of scenes. This isn’t a bad movie if you’re willing to turn off all critical thinking skills and set your IQ to double digits. I agree with you, Greg, that this film eeks out a rating of 2 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey is spotty at best. Our two heroes confront severe and deadly challenges in a dark, dangerous world, but there are no missing inner qualities that they must acquire to succeed in their mission. Growth and change in our heroes is missing, a fact which dooms this story to mediocrity. These heroes earn a mere 2 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, it could be argued that Asher and Banning mentor each other, and it is also possible that there is some self-mentoring going on, with both our highly trained heroes relying on teachings from their distant past to guide them through the current crisis. In fact, as Asher is about to be executed, he recites the Presidential Oath — the mentor in this case is not a living being but rather a code of conduct. A rating of 3 Mentors out of 5 seems about right to me.