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Love and Friendship ••1/2

Love_&_Friendship_posterStarring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Jane Austen, Whit Stillman
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2016


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It looks like we’re about to review the latest movie from Elizabethan author Jane Austen.

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

Quite so. Prepare yourself for some old-fashioned mating rituals. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to a middle-aged widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). She has burned through her husband’s estate and now is “visiting” friends and family. She has her sights set on a younger eligible bachelor named Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). She seduces the young lad with her advanced womanly wiles.

Meanwhile, Lady Susan is urging her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to wed the wealthy yet silly and dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The problem is that Frederica refuses to marry Sir James and would rather lead the impoverished life of a teacher. Meanwhile, this histrionic Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray) is having marital problems with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Scott, I’m mystified by the attraction of this movie. It was long, dull and nothing but a series of talking heads. The screenplay is based on a never-published story written by Austen when she was 14 years old. There’s a reason this story was never published – it was boring. Writer/Director Whit Stillman took the original work (which was told as a series of letters) and created long scenes of people riding in carriages and talking, eating dinner and talking, walking the grounds and talking, and talking about talking. And the things the characters are talking about are incredibly superficial. It was like someone took a modern soap opera and placed it in the mid 1700s.

The writer didn’t even have the wherewithal to SHOW us what each character contributed to the story. Instead of SHOWING us that someone was dimwitted, there were screen cards before each character entered a scene TELLING us that so-and-so was none-to-bright or was married to such-and-so. The first rule any writer learns is … show, don’t tell. Stillman apparently didn’t go to the right school. I know, some of you think this is part of the joke, the whimsy. It wasn’t. It was simply dumb.

Greg, paradoxically, your harsh critical analysis of Love and Friendship is right on the mark but directed at the wrong target. Jane Austen stories are supposed to be about women talking to women, and women talking to men, about romance, marriage, and the obstacles to both. This movie is cast in the same mold as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in showcasing the sad reality, in the year 1800, of women’s dependency on men for their financial and social standing.

In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss many different types of heroes, and one of them is the family unit. Love and Friendship features a family ensemble, with the two main heroes being Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica, both of whom are searching for good husband material. The classic hero’s journey with its masculine bias doesn’t quite fit the Jane Austen mold. This hero’s journey here reflects the prevailing Zeitgeist of Austen’s time, during which the woman’s hero journey is severely limited by patriarchal forces beyond her control. Austen dared to show women with moxie whose pushback against these limitations was heroic and often rewarded.

There’s no doubt that I’m not a fan of Austen’s work. Still, I’ve seen the Emma Thompson version of Sense & Sensibility (1995) and was enchanted. The difference between these films is the craftsmanship and a script that goes beyond the strict interpretation of Austen’s work.

In my mind, this is an anti-hero story. In our definition of the anti-hero, we look for a lead character who starts out negative and ends up even more negative. Lady Susan is manipulative and out for number one. She has thrown her daughter at Sir James who is a nice man but dim witted and naive. She is trying to seduce a younger man (Reginald) for whom she has nothing to offer. And in the end, her daughter gets Reginald and Lady Susan is pregnant with Lord Manwaring’s child while married to Sir James. I have no respect for this woman who takes advantage of everyone around her and has nothing of value to offer in return.

You’re right about Lady Susan’s utter sleaziness in this story. A charitable interpretation of her behavior is that she’s doing her best as a woman trapped in a man’s world. One could say she is merely acting like a man and we’re guilty of applying a double-standard. But yes, I have to side with your anti-hero interpretation. On the bright side, she does try to mentor Frederica, imploring her young daughter to “sell-out” and do what’s practical rather than follow her heart.

This conundrum facing young women is a common theme in Jane Austen’s work. Is this bad mentorship on Lady Susan’s part, or are we to applaud her pragmatism? Probably the former, but many good parents gave their children the same advice. There is other mentorship going on in this film, too, with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) dispensing advice here and there. Alas, none of it is very memorable.

Love and Friendship plays to its audience. If you love Jane Austen you will be pleased with this adaptation. However, if, like me, you are of a modern mind you may find this story simplistic and yet difficult to follow in places. The lead character has few redeeming qualities and the people surrounding her aren’t much better. I give L&F just 2 out of 5 Reels.

I think the hero’s journey plays out here alright. While we appear to come in at the “inciting incident” (the point where Lady Susan is cast into the special world of living as a widow), we watch as she overcomes challenges and survives a devastating defeat only to recover and gain a sort of victory where she has one man for money and another for sex. I give Lady Susan just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Lady Susan is not just the anti-hero, but also a dark mentor. She tries to lead her daughter down the path of dependency. Frederica eschews these lessons (whether she is willful or insightful is unclear) and ultimately wins a virtuous man on her own merits. I give Lady Susan 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Love and Friendship is textbook Jane Austen, showcasing the usual assortment of women in need of husbands and men revealing themselves either to be worthy or unworthy of filling this role. All the actors here give wonderful performances, and if you can get over the Austen-esque violation of the show-don’t-tell rule, you’ll have a good time getting to know these characters. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The anti-hero story of Lady Susan is done well here, as she shows herself to be conniving, manipulative, and deceitful. We can’t really apply Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth to this story, as Lady Susan is hampered by the limitations placed on women of that era. She and Frederica navigate this world in very different ways. I give the heroes in this story a rating of 2 out of 5. In terms of mentorship, there are attempts at mentorship but none of them turn out to be very effective. Therefore I award this movie a mentorship rating of 2 out of 5, also.

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X-Men: Apocalypse ••1/2

X-Men_-_ApocalypseStarring: James McAvoy,  Michael Fassbender,  Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg,  Bryan Singer
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we have another movie with superheroes battling superheroes.

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

What’s with the movie industry’s obsession with superheroes self-destructing? Let’s recap.

In the prologue for this movie, we see an ancient civilization performing a ritual inside a pyramid. A giant figure of a man (Apocalypse played by Oscar Isaac) is transporting his essence into another body to extend his life and gain more super powers. But his followers have another plan. They destroy the pyramid, capturing him for millennia.

Then one day, some time in 1983, archeologist and past flame of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) discovers the ruins and inadvertently wakes up the sleeping giant. Now he is searching for 4 mutants who will act as his henchmen in a quest to take over the world.

One of these mutant henchmen is Angel (Ben Hardy) whom Apocalypse enhances with steel wings. Another is Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who enjoys the power of metal-bending. Meanwhile, Professor Xavier is helping a new mutant recruit, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), to develop his optic superpowers. Xavier consults with CIA agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) about the looming threat of Apocalypse.

Scott, the superhero vs. superhero pattern is getting a lot of attention this year. Of course, most of the X-Men movies pit X-Men against other X-Men. It’s just that this year we’ve seen it in Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and even Deadpool. I’m getting superhero fatigue. This movie even seems fatigued in the way the actors and the story plays out. It drags along with Apocalypse pulling together his team of “horsemen” while Mystique and Professor X build their team. This is very much a long origin story that somehow doesn’t seem to match up with the first X-Men movie. I wasn’t excited.

I share your disappointment, Greg. There are actually some fun elements in this movie, but the build-up to them is laborious and unoriginal. Your description of the problem as fatigue is right on the mark. It seems like we can’t go a month without a new superhero movie, and now that each new offering involves the heroes fighting one another, I’m becoming increasingly bored.

Part of the problem with this film is that our heroes take a backstage to the villain Apocalypse. He gets a lot of screen time, which isn’t a bad idea if he were multidimensional and interesting. But he isn’t. He’s pure evil and therefore not deserving of the amount of attention devoted to him. None of our X-Men heroes have much depth to them either, nor do they exude the charisma of Iron Man or even Captain America. There’s a lot of stuff going on but I just couldn’t find myself caring much about it all.

One bright spot is Apocalypse as a Dark Mentor. He picks up Storm and imbues her with more power than she started with. And he teaches the others how to use their powers for evil rather than good. But his choice of mentees seems haphazard. He doesn’t really do a CraigsList ad looking for the most powerful or qualified mutant. Rather, he appears to pick the first mutant who crosses his path. It’s pretty uninteresting.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a disappointment and offers only modest entertainment value. I give it just 3 out of 5 Reels for superhero action. The heroes are pretty ordinary. Even Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) seemed to be walking through this role. There was a nice cameo by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). But there were hardly any meaningful transformations. I give these X-Men just 3 out of 5 Heroes. Finally, the mentoring was mainly on the evil side of the fence and that was pretty uninteresting. I give the mentors 2 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, I think the overwhelming success of the superhero genre in film has movie studios foaming at the mouth to spew out more products. Well, they’ve now hit the saturation point. We’ll still support and applaud good superhero movies that are well-crafted and feature meaningful storylines that go beyond superheroes fighting each other. Until then, we’re going to have to be critically honest about movies that just don’t move us. I give X-Men: Apocalypse 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroes were blasé, almost like they were going through the motions. The young Charles Xavier was the most mildly interesting of the bunch. But as you point out, there isn’t meaningful change in our heroes, unless you include the “baldification” of Xavier. We may need to add “scalp transformation” to our next model of heroes. I give these heroes a rating of 2 out of 5. Good call on the dark mentorship of Apocalypse. Xavier also attempted some mentorship of the young mutant recruits, but none of it was inspired. Again, I give their mentorship a rating of 2 out of 5.

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The Nice Guys •••

The_Nice_Guys_posterStarring: Russell Crowe,  Ryan Gosling,  Angourie Rice
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black,  Anthony Bagarozzi
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: May 20, 2016


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

Greg, we just watched a movie about two guys searching for a movie. You could say they are Reel Heroes.

I think the real heroes are those who sat through the whole film. Let’s recap:

The movie opens in 1977 with porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) dying in a car crash. We then meet Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who makes his money using his brass knuckles to warn punks to stay away from his clients. We also meet small-time private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and his precocious 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). Misty Mountains’ aunt (Lois Smith) claims to have seen Misty after her death and hires March to investigate.

It turns out that young Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) has hired Healy to beat up on March because he’s following her around. Healy thinks March is a creep stalking a young girl. But it turns out March has been paid to find Amelia who is a missing person with a reward for her return. Meanwhile a sweet old lady, Mrs. Glenn, says Misty Mountains is her niece and just saw her – two days after her death. The chase is on as Healy and March team up to find the missing girl and uncover the mystery of the murder of Misty Mountains.

Greg, I appreciated The Nice Guys for personal reasons. I lived in Los Angeles in 1977 and I was able to recognize certain landmarks and neighborhoods in the film. I could also identify with the tone, feel, and ambience of this period of southern California history. The Nice Guys is a stylish, semi-comedic movie reminiscent of the film noir genre of the 1940s and 50s. The set-up of the film is serious but the story is always winking at us in acknowledgment of its own absurdity. Healy and March are prototypical buddy heroes, starting out as enemies and then thrown together by circumstances to achieve a common goal. It’s an engaging movie and I was entertained, although I doubt I’d ever bother to give this film a second look.

I appreciate your labeling of the film as “semi-comedic.” This film couldn’t make up its mind whether to be serious or silly. One case in point is a scene where March has fallen off a balcony into a wooded back yard. He comes to a stop against a tree where a dead man is propped up next to him. And he does a silent scream in a way that I can only describe as … Stooge-esque. He reminded me of Curly from the Three Stooges when he sees a ghost.

But the show is not a comedy. People are dying left and right. The backdrop is the introduction of the clean emissions laws of the 1970s. It looks as though the Secretary of the US Department of Justice (Kim Basinger) is involved in a conspiracy to prevent the catalytic converter laws from going into effect. This is serious stuff. It *could* be possible to create a comedy from this. But I didn’t find March or Healy particularly funny. Unlike Misty Mountains, the jokes fell flat.

We just reviewed Money Monster, another film depicting the corrupt corporate world’s skewering of the common man. With all the many dystopian future movies also telling us that no one in authority can be trusted, one has to wonder what kind of seismic changes our society is poised to undergo. In all of these movies, the hero is the person who not only uncovers the plot to screw over innocent people, she (or they) also bring the corruptors to justice. Here it is Kim Basinger’s character who is caught exploiting people, and we’re left wondering if her conspirators in Detroit’s auto industry are also exposed and punished.

Our two buddy heroes traverse the classic hero’s journey, being thrown together by circumstance to find Amelia and unravel the Misty mystery. Healy is transformed the most, from thug to something softer than a thug, and he can thank 13-year-old Holly for demonstrating a kinder, gentler approach to life. Usually mentors are older, grizzled characters, but at times good storytelling features a surprisingly wise youth who coaches our heroes. In this way The Nice Guys follows in the tradition of movies like Pay it Forward and Free Willy.

I think you’ve uncovered something too, Scott. The Young Mentor – someone who hasn’t been corrupted by the experiences and disappointments of adult life, and reminds the hero of their own younger, idealistic days. No doubt March is an irresponsible parent. But even the worst parent wouldn’t allow a child to a coke-driven Hollywood party or a gun fight. Still, in order for Amelia to impose her young-mentor talents, she had to be on the scene.

While The Nice Guys was entertaining, I was often confused as to its comedic versus dramatic balance. While it was not a slapstick comedy, often slapstick elements were introduced which threw me out of the action. Whenever I’m thinking about the filmmaking rather than being in the story, the film loses pace and I get lost. I can only give The Nice Guys 3 out of 5 Reels.

I liked the buddy story here. Our two heroes start out about as far apart as two can get. But the ultimately combine their powers for the better good. While they didn’t save the girl (she was a McGuffin after all), they did uncover the conspiracy and the city of Los Angeles was saved. I give them 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The main mentor here is Amelia, March’s daughter. She is a constant reminder to both of the “lost” or “fallen” heroes that a they are capable of being better men. She not only holds them to a higher standard than they hold themselves, but she reminds them of what is right and wrong. But there was too little of her mentoring to give her a high score. However, I see her as playing a pivotal role in the transformation in March and Healy. I give her 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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The Nice Guys is a quirky, clever, and stylish neo-noir film that draws from the energetic chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. This movie is two hours of fun and interesting fluff that won’t win any awards but is still worth a watch. Like you, Greg, I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes go on the standard hero’s journey and find themselves forever changed, thanks to the precocious wisdom of a 13-year-old girl who imparts wisdom about kindness and restraint in their dealings with people. So again, I hate to do this, but I have to agree with you, Greg, that this film merits 3 Heroes out of 5 and 3 Mentors out of 5, too.

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Money Monster •••

Money_Monster_posterStarring: George Clooney,  Julia Roberts,  Jack O’Connell
Director: Jodie Foster
Screenplay: Jamie Linden,  Alan DiFiore
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: May 13, 2016


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Scott, it’s time for the newest PBS/HBO Sesame Street character Money Monster.

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

Wrong movie, Greg. This monster is all too human and realistic, I’m afraid, Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Lee Gates (George Clooney) a financial personality who has a daily show on the Financial News Network (FNN). He tells people the hottest tips for investing. In his ear is his producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) who has secretly taken a new job, because Gates is such a pain in the ass. They’re putting on their latest dazzling display of financial wizardry leading with the story of IBiS Global’s loss of $800 Million due to a computer “glitch.”

In the middle of Gates’s show, a young man named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) breaks into the studio and takes Gates hostage. With the camera still rolling and on live television, Budwell makes Gates wear a vest containing a bomb that will explode if Budwell lets go of his hand control unit. We learn that Budwell lost his life savings totalling $60,000 because of the IBiS glitch. He blames Gates for strongly recommending the stock, and he will detonate the bomb unless he gets an explanation.

This movie had a lot going for it – at first. I thought it was going to be an assault on the financial divide. Which is where it started. But as the drama played out, it became more about a singular CEO who gamed an online trading program to make off with $800 million to destabilize an African country’s platinum mines. A shrewd investment – as it could triple its value overnight. However, it’s both illegal and immoral. The investor’s response was that it was money and money has its own morality. So, rather than deal with the real challenges of the market (as did The Big Short), the director and writers played it safe with one fictional arbitrage investor. It turns out to be quite dull.

Greg, I think this movie does indeed feed off the anger Americans feel toward Wall Street and big businesses that place greed ahead of humanity. Our hero is everyman Kyle Budwell, who is mad as hell and just won’t take it anymore. In an unlikely pairing, he and Lee Gates become buddy heroes who start out as enemies but evolve into a single team of truth-seekers who are driven to expose the misdeeds of IBiS’s CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). Money Monsters held my attention, despite its predictability, as we know IBiS is the villain and that Budwell must die to make his point. I enjoyed Clooney’s performance and reveled in the tense take-down of the corrupt, villainous fat-cat Camby.

The heroes here are Gates and Budwell with Fenn constantly in Gates’ ear. She reminded me of Jiminy Cricket – giving advice and encouragement from behind the glass windows. As you point out, Gates and Budwell become a sort of buddy hero team – starting apart and gradually growing closer as the film progresses. In the end Budwell reveals to Gats that the suicide vest he is wearing is packed with clay, not explosives. While it wasn’t necessary, Budwell commits “suicide by cop” when he appears to take his thumb off the dead-man’s trigger and the entire police force shoot him down.

Fenn is indeed Gates’ mentor, leaving Budwell without one — unless you count his histrionic girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) who is briefly videoed into the studio to help but instead douses the situation with gasoline with her vitriolic excoriation of Budwell. Molly could thus be considered a dark mentor. Another possible dark mentor is our arch villain Camby, who betrays his protégé Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe).

Money Monster is the movie that could have been. While it has a good cast and an able director in Jodie Foster, the climax left me wanting. The ending with a martyred Budwell was telescoped from the beginning and was wholly unnecessary. While I was entertained for a couple hours, I didn’t leave the theater feeling smarter or more introspective about the world of high finance. I give Money Monster 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero story was good enough with Gates and Budwell portraying a classic buddy hero pattern – starting out at odds and ending up on the same page. Clooney’s Gates rang true to the several money investment types I’ve seen on cable news channels. And Budwell came across as an everyman who had been pulled to his wit’s end. I give them 3 Heroes.

The mentors were pretty weak in this story. Fenn is constantly in Gates’ ear but offers more direction than actual advice. Scott, you pointed out the dark mentors which I agree – but they got scant screen time. They only get 2 Mentors from me.

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I’d say you’re pretty much on the money with your assessments, Gregger. I enjoyed Money Monster for what it is, namely, a tense drama exposing the unbridled greed of our times and its calamitous effects on common everyday people. The performances by George Clooney and Julia Roberts are well worth watching, and we get a satisfying ending that signals hope and justice for our corrupt society. Like you, I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

Our two heroes start out as unlikely buddies but they evolve into people who sense that the true enemies are not each other but Walt Camby, the evil CEO of IBiS. The hero story is satisfying because our two buddies undergo a transformation — Gates starts out an arrogant ass and becomes humbled by dire circumstances. Budwell’s extreme actions make Gates’ transformation possible, and Gates works with Fenn to help educate Budwell about the true villain at work in the story. It’s a pretty decent hero’s journey worthy of 3 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is better than you give it credit for, Greg. Fenn is indispensable as a smooth, wise, voice of reason for Gates. She gets him through this crisis. Budwell, meanwhile, receives some mentoring directly from Gates and indirectly from Fenn. He also operates by an internal code of justice. We also have a bit of dark mentoring from Budwell’s girlfriend and from Camby directed toward Lester. So overall, I have no qualms awarding 3 out of 5 Mentors here, too.

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