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Captain America: Civil War •••1/2

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterStarring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Date: May 6, 2016


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Scott, I don’t want this to come to blows, but it’s time we reviewed the latest film from Marvel Studios.

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

Yep, this time it’s all-out warfare among the good guys. Let’s recap.

We meet the Avengers fighting the good fight in Lagos where villain Brock Rumlow is attempting to steal a biological weapon. After defeating Rumlow and his minions, Captain America (Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans) captures Rumlow (Frank Grillo) who tells him his long lost buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is alive. Cap, stunned by the news, lets his guard down long enough for Rumlow to ignite his bomb-vest. Ever alert, Scarlett Witch (Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen) uses her powers to contain the explosion. But she is not powerful enough to prevent it from tearing through a building, killing several Wakandan citizens.

Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) informs the Avengers that the world will no longer tolerate them having free reign to decide which missions to pursue and how to execute those missions. The United Nations is about to approve The Sokovia Accords establishing a UN committee to oversee all Avenger operations. Some of our superheroes, led by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), are in agreement with this new oversight, while others in the group, led by Steve Rogers, oppose it. The resultant internal fight compromises the group’s ability to stop supervillain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) from carrying out his evil mission.

Scott, after suffering through last March’s Batman v Superman, Civil War was a welcome respite. Here is a complicated story with multiple heroes told in a compelling, thoughtful, and still exciting manner – all the things missing from the ponderous BvS. While there were slow moments in the film (the meeting with a very young Spider Man () brought the movie to a standstill), overall, this was a movie worth the nearly two-and-a-half hours running time.

This movie had it all. A huge cast with lots of action. And, everybody on-screen wanted something. There were no hangers-on. There were no merely-mentioneds. Nothing went to waste and everything pushed the story forward. This was a logical completion to the Captain America trilogy, and it sets us up for future Avengers films. I was fully satisfied.

Greg, Civil War is an appealing movie for all the reasons that you mention. How many times over the years have we said, well, Marvel has done it again: Another smart, crisply told story with rich, appealing characters. As you mention, Civil War pulls out all the stops by including almost every superhero in the Marvel universe.

Ironically, these added characters augment the Avengers while also compromising them. Legitimate philosophical differences divide the group, which I found fascinating and realistic. What I didn’t find realistic was the group fighting each other to the near-death. So I have the same criticism for this film that I had for Batman vs. Superman, namely, the implausible premise that super-smart and super-virtuous heroes would be so dumb as to try to kill each other.

Yes, at a superficial level it is fun and cool to watch all these superpowers matched up against each other. But come on. We should expect more from our heroes than brutish fighting among them. Isaac Asimov once said that violence is the last resort of the incompetent. I agree. What’s next, a movie in which Jesus and Gandhi get into a knife fight?

So while I admire the impeccable craftsmanship of this movie, I question its premise of having super-good guys deciding to do super-bad things to each other. Violence is not the answer, and it never will be the answer, to human problems. We need role models who exemplify this basic principle, not violate it. I understand it wouldn’t have been much of a movie if the Avengers resolved their differences peacefully. Sadly, we only gravitate to movies in which conflict is settled by brute force — even when it’s our so-called superheroes who initiate that brute force.

Well, all I can say to that is that violence has solved all our major wars. And, we have super smart people at all levels of government and still we fight senseless battles. So, while I agree with your sentiment, there are plenty of counter examples about smart people and stupid solutions.

The thing that impresses me is the lack of villains in this story. We’ve written before that the best villain mirrors the hero in every way. What better way to create oppositional forces for heroes – than other heroes? It’s a deft move on Marvel’s part and creates a tension that you could not possibly create with pure-evil villains. Here we have heroes fighting heroes where we can see both sides of the argument. There is no clear right or wrong. And, as we have seen before, the best villains think they are in the right. Team Cap and Team Iron Man both strongly believe they are in the right. It’s a strong composition of equal heroes instead of equal heroes and villains. Very cool stuff.

We do encounter a couple of villains in this movie, such as Brock Rumlow at the outset and Helmut Zemo throughout most of the story. In fact, dealing with Zemo’s villainy is what drives the intra-group conflict within the Avengers. I was struck by the inner schism of Bucky Barnes — he is part hero, part villain, which metaphorically characterizes the schism within the Avengers.

It’s interesting to consider the mentors, or lack of mentors, in this film. Perhaps the Avengers foolishly fight amongst themselves because they are lacking good mentorship. Who is there to tell Tony Stark that he should allow Steve Rogers to follow his own path? No one, and that’s a problem. Heroes who lack mentors are prone to doing stupid things, which is exactly what transpires when the Avengers begin self-destructing. In a sense, The Sokovia Accords represent an attempt by the world’s nations to mentor the Avengers, to help them use their superpowers more wisely.

Those are some interesting thoughts about mentors in this story. Often we see former heroes become the mentors for the up-and-coming heroes. However, the Avengers are in a strange place – they are the first of their kind. While Captain America does mentor the younger Scarlet Witch, he is, in fact, the prototypal hero. There is no one to guide him.

On the other hand, we have Iron Man. He should have been mentored by his father. But we see that Tony Stark was largely ignored by his father, and so Tony lacks a proper mentor. In fact, it is possible that the elder Stark may be considered a dark mentor as he offered negative examples for his son.

Rating Captain America: Civil War is a challenge. On the one hand, we have the flawed premise of super-virtuous people fighting each other. On the other hand, we have Marvel’s impeccable execution of this flawed premise. There’s an old adage that goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.” The flawed storyline here doesn’t render the movie entirely piggish, as there is still much to like here. Civil War is great fun to watch and represents another technological marvel for Marvel. So despite the flawed premise I will award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The heroes here do go on a journey of divisiveness and healing. The schism begins with the presentation of The Sokovia Accords and ends when our heroes finally come to their senses after nearly destroying each other. Have they changed much as a result of their journey? Besides all the bruises, they may have been humbled and reached some understanding of the pointlessness of their fighting. Again, a Heroes rating of 3 out of 5 seems about right.

As we’ve noted, there isn’t much mentorship going on here, which may be the main problem with our heroes engaging in their senseless battle. You’re right, Greg, about Tony Stark lacking a moral compass from either his father or from Pepper Potts. Steve Rogers just does his thing without help, and it shows. The Sokovia Accords is the world’s attempt to mentor our heroes, but they’re a pretty stubborn bunch. The best I can do is give a rating here of 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Scott, I think you have to rate a film on what it attempts to bring to the screen. If this were a slapstick comedy, I’d rate it as a slapstick comedy. But since it’s action-adventure, I believe you have to rate it on the genre it is slotted in. I appreciate your non-violent leanings, but as you point out there is no story here without the conflict – it is subtitled Civil WAR after all. I enjoyed this film and I think it nicely rounds out the Captain America trilogy. The filmmakers delivered on their promise and I happily award 4 out of 5 Reels.

But I have to agree with you on the Heroes rating. These heroes are fairly well-established here and there is little growth or transformation. That is the primary thing you and I look for in a hero’s journey and it’s lacking here. Nobody really learns anything. In the end, Captain America and Iron Man go their separate ways after a knock-down-drag-out fight. However, the secondary characteristics we look for in heroes (charisma, strength, loyalty, etc…) are there in strong measure. Like you, I award 3 out 5 Heroes.

And there is little mentoring going on here. We see suggestions of dark mentoring from the senior Stark, but there are no past heroes to guide our up-and-coming heroes. I can only muster 1 out of 5 Mentors for Captain America: Civil War.

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Keanu ••1/2

Keanu_posterStarring: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Tiffany Haddish
Director: Peter Atencio
Screenplay: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: April 29, 2016


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I think the Matrix has me – did I just see a movie about Keanu Reeves?

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

No, Greg, this is a film about a good cat and some bad cats. Let’s re-cat — I mean recap.

We meet Rell Williams (Jordan Peele) who was just dumped by his girlfriend. Just when he was in the depths of despair, he finds a kitten on his doorstep who he immediately names “Keanu.” His best friend and cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) drops by to console him and is also smitten with the young feline.

It turns out that Keanu belonged to the gang leader of a Mexican drug cartel who was killed by an intimidating pair of killers called the Allentown Boys. Another gang leader named Cheddar (Method Man) abducts Keanu while ransacking Rell’s apartment which is next-door to his drug dealer Hulka (Will Forte). Rell and Clarence pay a visit to Cheddar, who mistakes the men for the Allentown Boys. He’ll only return the cat to them if they perform one dangerous job for him.

Let’s face it, this is not the stuff of great drama. Instead, it’s a platform for two of the hottest comedians in show business right now – Key and Peele. And they bring their particular brand of comedy to the big screen in a ridiculously simple premise – everyone is smitten with the kitten. And it should be no shock as the most watched videos on YouTube.com are videos of kittens.

It’s hilarious to see some of the the hardest core bad guys lay down their fortunes and their lives for the love of Keanu. Our two heroes are about as nerdy as one can get. So it’s only natural that they might wade into dangerous waters to save their feline. But then gang leader “Chedda” latches on to the miniature manx, things get funny. Our two suburban nerds must put on the airs of hard-core gangstas in order to win the trust of the kingpin. This leads to a series of jokes about stereotypes of gang life which I found hilarious.

I found the movie to be not terribly funny, Greg. Do you remember that scene in Airplane when Barbara Billingsley pretends to speak like a tough male African-American? This movie resurrects this old joke and milks it for over 90 minutes. Yes, we know that Rell and Clarence are not bad-asses and that they must act and talk like “gangstas” in order to find the cat. But this movie forgets that the Barbara Billingsley joke worked because we heard it only once. Here it gets old fast. This entire story is a one-joke pony that exposes Keanu’s creatively bereft writing team.

But it also calls out the cliches we see in buddy cop movies. The undercover guys must mix it up with the cold-hard gangstas. A running gag is Clarence’s love of George Michaels and Wham. Clarence is in a tight spot and must bond with the uneducated gangstas. So he convinces them that Michaels is also a hard core gangsta and his “Father Figure” song is about not having a father. The gangstas weep and get George Michaels tattoos. And there’s a fantastic drug-induced reimagining of Michaels’ “Faith”  music video. I was rolling in the aisle (RITA?).

And there is a beautiful girl that Rell falls for. Only to find out she’s a cop and everything that has happened to them was a set up to capture the drug-dealing gangstas. It’s such a typical plot line and Key and Peele hyped it to perfection.

None of this impressed me, Greg. I’m not saying there weren’t a few jokes that worked. The gimmick of ordinary guys having to act tough was fun for a short while. It wore thin for me, as the did the gimmick of the cute kitten eluding danger repeatedly. We know that the kitten will never be harmed because moviegoers would find any harm to a kitten to be unacceptable. So the only issue holding my interest centered on whether Rell and Clarence could pull off their subterfuge. Their adventure is rife with improbable silliness, and really the only thing saving their necks is the comedy genre in which this film operates.

In terms of a hero’s journey, our two buddy heroes do go on the classic journey and help each other transform. The adventure of recovering the cat helps Rell evolve from a person on the brink of suicide to a person with a mission and a reason to live. Clarence’s evolution is a bit more subtle but we do witness him become a stronger person. There’s not much positive mentoring to speak of, unless you count Liam Neeson whose movie our two heroes watch on the eve of their adventure.

Keanu is a fun movie and the debut for Key and Peele. I enjoyed myself for a couple hours. I loved the George Michaels references and the nerds-as-tough-guys schtick. However, as much as it pains me to agree with you, Scott, there really isn’t much more to enjoy here. You either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I did, but I hope the duo’s next outing is a bit more sophisticated. I give Keanu 3 out of 5 Reels for average entertainment value.

There is a nice little buddy story here. There’s growth for both of our heroes. But, as we have seen in other comedies, the hero’s journey plays second fiddle to yucks. I can only give 2 out of 5 Heroes to Rell and Clarence.

And I suffer to agree with you again, Scott. There are no true mentors in this story. Keanu is merely a McGuffin, as Hitchcock would say. And while the fearless feline draws our heroes into the world of gangsta rap, he surely did not coach them in the ways of the underworld. Alas, Rell and Clarence seem to draw upon film depictions of stereotypical drug dealers to fuel their knowledge of their special world. I can only muster 1 out of 5 Mentors for this film.

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Keanu is a mildly funny movie about two decent, goofy guys who find themselves way in over their heads among criminal mobsters. The story is built around two gimmicks that grow old quickly. One plot device requires our two squeaky clean heroes to act like gangstas, and the other device relies on a cute viral-on-youtube kitten to string along our heroes. This movie isn’t terrible but I won’t be giving it a second look. I award it 2 Reels out of 5.

Our two protagonists are buddy heroes who help each other accomplish the mission and grow as individuals. There is too much goofiness in this comedy for the hero’s journey to be taken too seriously, and so I can only award 2 Heroes out of 5 to these two guys. Because the hero’s journey is taken lightly by the filmmakers, there isn’t much mentoring so speak of. As such a Mentor rating of 1 out of 5 seems right to me, too, Greg.

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The Jungle Book ••••1/2

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Marks, Rudyard Kipling
Adventure/Drama/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016


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

Greg, it looks like Disney decided to re-make an old classic.

Can you re-make a new classic? Let’s recap The Jungle Book.

We meet Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young man-cub who was left for dead in the jungle and then rescued by a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Mowgli is raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and her pack of young wolf-cubs. The young boy tries to act like a wolf but on occasion he can’t help showing the cleverness of a human. During this particular year, the dry season hits the jungle hard. All the animals call a truce so that they can all drink safely at the ever-shrinking watering hole.

That’s when Shere Khan arrives and declares that there’s not enough room in this jungle for him and the man cub. Once the truce is over he wants young Mowgli turned over to him. But Baheera decides to return the boy to the man-village so that he can be among his own kind. And so begins the boy’s odyssey.

Greg, I have to admit, I greeted the arrival of this movie with skepticism and cynicism. I’m a big fan of Disney’s original 1967 version of The Jungle Book, and I saw no need to revisit such hallowed, near-perfect ground. Well, I’m here to tell our readers that as fabulous as the original movie was, this 2016 version is even more wondrous and spectacular. I’m reluctant to call any movie flawless, but this film was damn near perfect. I’m talking about character development, hero’s journey, supporting characters, CGI effects, you name it. I was dazzled and beyond satisfied.

Yeah, The Jungle Book was a much more sophisticated bit of animation than its predecessor. You will believe a tiger can talk. However, there were moments when I wondered if Mowgli was animated himself. When a film is clearly a cartoon (as was the 1967 version) you aren’t thrown out of the story by such questions. But there were times when I was asking myself “is this Mowgli a CGI or not?” And in those moments I was looking at the technology and not the story. It was a bit of a distraction.

But on the other hand, when you compare to a movie like Zootopia where the characters are animated – Jungle Book seems light-years ahead. The animals looked like lions and tigers and bears.

Also, the story itself is subtler than the original. The original story has Mowgli going from animal to animal trying on their lifestyle to see if he fits. Ultimately, Mowgli finds the man-tribe and realizes this is where he fits in. Bears should be with bears, and boys with boys.

But that message doesn’t fit with 21st century sensibilities. In 2016, Mowgli returns to his wolf pack. He is a member of a blended family and he is at home with his differences. He draws strength from the variety of the animal kingdom and he takes his place as an equal among different animals. It’s a more complex message.

The hero’s journey is compelling and non-traditional in some ways. It follows the classic journey in that Mowgli is sent away from his home and then encounters his bear friend Baloo and a couple of villainous obstacles in the form of the snake Kaa and the orangutan King Louie. Usually a hero is missing some inner quality that he must obtain in order to triumph. The Jungle Book turns this formula upside-down by identifying his human intelligence as his fatal flaw. At the beginning of the film, the animals with whom Mowgli lives are critical of his humanity and try to drill it out of him. It’s also one of the reasons why Shere Khan wants him gone.

But rather than shed this quality, Mowgli stays true to himself and uses his human cleverness to help himself and others. In fact, at the film’s climax, it is Mowgli’s ingenuity that saves him from Shere Kahn. Thus we have an interesting hero’s journey that turns the hero’s transformation on its head by underscoring the importance of not changing as a means of completing the journey. Instead of needing to find his missing inner quality, Mowgli has already been in possession of it and must hang onto it despite pressures to abandon it. For me this makes his hero path fascinating and unique.

That’s an interesting distinction. Mowgli gets many mentors in this story. Of course there’s Akela from the wolf pack, and Bagheera, later Baloo shows Mowgli how to enjoy the easy life. Ultimately, Mowgli listens to his inner self and combines all his mentors into a whole.

I enjoyed The Jungle Book more than I expected. Disney has taken animation to a new level with the photo realism of the jungle animals. I was occasionally distracted by trying to determine if I was looking at a real person or a CGI image, but other than that I was drawn into this story and completely enjoyed myself. I give The Jungle Book 4 out of 5 Reels.

Mowgli makes for an interesting hero. He starts out sheltered and naive and grows to become mature and confident. It was a gradual process and enjoyable to watch. I give Mowgli 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The mentors in this story, including the unwritten code of the wolf pack, gave Mowgli the direction he needed to overcome his lack of confidence and allowed him to grow into the person he was destined to be. I give the mentors in The Jungle Book 4 out of 5 Mentors.

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You’re right about the richness of the mentorship in this movie, and I have some observations to make about it before launching into my ratings. We’re learning that heroes receive assistance from many different types of “helpers”, for lack of a better term. A mentor is one such helper, and we define a mentor as an older figure who serves as the hero’s teacher. Sometimes these helpers assume a parental role; in this film, Akela plays that role with Mowgli. Sometimes these helpers are guides who know the terrain and who lead the hero to the special world; here Bagheera assumes that role. These guides could be called Charons, named after the ferrymen in Hades who guided people between worlds across the river Styx.

Other helpers are bodyguards who offer physical protection for the hero; this role aptly describes Baloo the bear. Still other helpers are coaches who physically train the hero; Akela and Bagheera both share those duties here. As you’ve pointed out, Greg, mentoring can also come in the form of an internalized code of conduct; the wolves code in this film plays a pivotal role in steering Mowgli toward noble behavior. So we have physical, transportational, parental, and didactic teachers all helping our hero survive the jungle and defeat Shere Khan. The Jungle Book is one of the richest mentor/helper stories we’ve encountered in the movies in 2016.

Overall, this movie is a true gem, one of Disney’s finest offerings of the past decade. This coming-of-age story is as old as storytelling itself, centering on a hero who must find his true identity. Mowgli cannot be trained to become a wolf, although he certainly makes the effort. His journey is a path toward manhood, and only through defeating the evil Shere Khan can his humanity be revealed. Every aspect of this movie is stirring and triumphant. It’s Reel Heroes Hall of Fame material to me, and so I’m more than happy to award this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As I’m mentioned, the hero’s journey is cleverly turned on its head, with Mowgli’s apparent flaw of “cleverness” being precisely the quality that must be cultivated for Mowgli to achieve success on his journey. So ironically, the transformation that our hero’s friends implore him to undergo at the beginning of the movie is exactly what he must avoid undergoing in order to succeed on his journey. Mowgli is a wonderful hero on a classic journey in every sense of the word. He merits the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

I needn’t delve again into the rich assortment of mentor-like characters who assist our young hero on his journey. These characters are an inspired collection of teachers with unique and appealing personalities, and they help Mowgli emotionally, mentally, and physically. They are among the best mentors in the movies we’ve seen this year, rivaling those seen in Eddie the Eagle I award Mowgli’s helpers a Mentor rating of 5 out of 5.

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