Home » 2016 » September

Monthly Archives: September 2016

Snowden •••1/2

snowden_film_posterStarring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2016


reel-3 480px-One-half.svg mentor4 h-logo-3h-logo-half

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

Greg, are you ready to review Oliver Stone’s latest foray into controversial American political issues?

I was hoping I would be “snowed in” and not able to see it. But, alas, it’s the peak of summer. Let’s recap:

The year is 2013, and Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in a Hong Kong high rise hotel, arranging to meet journalists from the US and UK. He has information to give them that he illegally downloaded from US intelligence services’ computers. We then flashback to nine years earlier when a young fresh-faced Snowden first applied to join the military special forces.

Snowden wants nothing more than to serve his country. But he is physically unable to get through basic training. He chooses instead to join the CIA as an analyst and study the world of internet hacking. He shows his value immediately as he solves difficult hacking problems in minutes not hours. This endears him to the CIA director, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans) and leads Snowden into the world of CIA operatives.

Greg, Snowden presents the true story, or at least Oliver Stone’s version of the true story, of a controversial man who leaked classified government information, and then paid the price by being disowned by his country. Among hero activists around the world, Snowden is considered a hero, a whistleblower who sacrificed his career to do the right thing. Many others view him as a traitor who endangered lives. In this film, Oliver Stone clearly takes the heroic interpretation, portraying Snowden as a genius who starts out loyal to the US but slowly transforms into a person who cannot condone the mountain of evidence pointing to his country’s illegal activities.

Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to paint Snowden in a good light. He’s at once idealist, genius-level intelligent, patriotic, and honest to a fault. In writing we call this a “Mary Sue” – someone so perfect as to be impossible. It’s too bad, because it makes the character on-screen seem unbelievable, and that makes for a bad story.

Snowden starts out believing in America. He is a staunch conservative. When he meets his ultra-liberal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), they clash over the role of government in American lives. But slowly, as the relationship matures and endures both positive and negative growth, Snowden comes to question his government’s actions. This is an interesting transformation for Snowden – one of ideology.

Right, Greg. So once again we see women having an important transformative effect on men (see also The Light Between Oceans). Lindsay “mentors” Snowden by coaching him to adopt more liberal viewpoints about America and the world. Lindsay’s influence gives Snowden a different lens through which he sees his country’s spying activities. Eventually, Snowden can no longer turn a blind eye to all the rule-breaking that he sees going on within our intelligence communities.

In storytelling, it’s not unusual for a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hero to have a lot of learning to do. Snowden arrives at the CIA full of naive idealism. One of the first people he encounters is Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a CIA operative who has been banished from the front lines for curious reasons. Forrester plants the first seeds of doubt in Snowden regarding the purity of the CIA’s motives in the world. “You can disagree with your government and still be a patriot,” he tells Snowden — an obvious foreshadowing of what is to come.

Snowden is a one-sided view of Edward Snowden’s decision to become a whistleblower on a government that apparently has overreached its bounds. It’s now a particularly engaging movie. There are long stretches of Snowden doing “coding” tasks. This is not an inspired film. A lot of the technology issues are simplified for the average movie-goer. Certainly, the subtleties of the line between whistleblower and traitor are never explored. I give Snowden just 3 out of 5 Reels.

As a hero, Snowden is painted quite favorably. He is shown as a bright young man with promise. He is also displayed as a patriot who becomes disillusioned with what he deems is unpatriotic behavior. He’s given few if any negative traits. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Heroes for him.

There are a number of good mentors in Snowden. Corbin O’Brien becomes the dark mentor as he leads young Snowden deeper and deeper into the world of the CIA. Hank Forrester is the “cautionary tale” mentor – showing Snowden what happens to an operative who goes too far in the world of international internet espionage. And finally, the “light” mentor, Lindsay Mills, shows Snowden an alternative path. I liked the variety of mentors and influences in Snowden – I give its mentors 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

 Movie: reel-3Mentors: mentor4Heroes: h-logo-3

Greg, we went into Snowden thinking that Oliver Stone might present a mixed picture of the man, thereby allowing audiences to decide for themselves. We were wrong in a big way. Stone clearly views Snowden as a noble and heroic whistleblower, a genius with a big heart and the perfect girlfriend. Although I would have liked to have seen the other side to the story told, I have to admit that Stone has crafted a compelling film that deserves to be watched. I give Snowden 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey here is an interesting one. Snowden is pulled into the dark world of espionage, and he can choose to thrive in this dark world or he can choose to expose it to the greater world. Doing the latter means being pulled into the even more dangerous lifestyle of a fugitive. His decision to spend his life hiding from the US government is the kind of self-sacrifice that we see only in our greatest heroes. Snowden’s journey merits a hero rating of 4 out of 5.

As we’ve mentioned, Snowden receives all the mentoring he needs to transform from a conservative pawn of the government into a liberal activist. He comes to recognize O’Brien as a dark force of influence, and he ends up heeding Forrester’s dictum that true patriots are willing to take a stand against their government. The ever-present Lindsay guides him toward the ideology needed to blow the whistle. Overall, it’s a very strong mentor story, earning the film 4 Mentor points out of 5.

 Movie: reel-4Mentors: mentor4Heroes: h-logo-4

The Light Between Oceans ••••

the_light_between_oceans_posterStarring: Michael Fassbender,  Alicia Vikander,  Rachel Weisz
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2016


reel-4 mentor3mentor-half h-logo-4

Scott, it looks like we’re going to trip the light fantastic.

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

No doubt the trip will lead to an ocean of motion. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Tom Sherbourne who is back from WWI and ready to have some alone time working as the lighthouse keeper for the sleepy town in Australia. After three months, Tom is offered the job full-time and he marries young Isabel. It isn’t long before the two are expecting a wee bairn. Sadly, Isabel miscarries and they bury their child. The two try again but with the same results.

One day Tom spots a small boat adrift in the ocean. On board is a live baby girl and her dead father. Tom is duty-bound to report the discovery but Isabel, desperate for a baby, wants to keep the incident a secret and raise the infant as their own. Tom grudgingly agrees. They name the girl Lucy and all appears well until a few years later when Tom encounters Lucy’s actual mother (Rachel Weisz) who believes her daughter to be dead. This sets in motion an ocean of trouble for Tom and Isabel.

Scott, this is a refreshing change from the classic hero’s journey. Here we see a couple who have selected a path that requires them to lie about their lives and the life of their child. Tom cannot stand to keep the lie and delivers a letter to the original mother letting her know that her husband is dead and her daughter is being cared for. This is only a temporary fix for Tom’s conscience. He must now live a new lie: the lie of omission to his wife as he keeps the secret of their changeling daughter.

One thing is for certain about The Light Between Oceans: it is expertly designed to take us on an emotional roller coaster. We’re thrilled when two young lovers get together, then we’re crushed when their babies die. Then we’re happy when they (conveniently) find a lost baby, but then we’re crushed when we discover this new baby has a mother who thinks it’s dead. The ups and downs go on and on — but in a good way from an entertainment perspective.

The movie actually tells a good heroic tale. Greg, you call it a “refreshing change” from the usual hero journey but it seems pretty standard to me. At the tearful request of Isabel, our hero Tom is thrust into the dangerous world of committing a crime he normally would never commit. But his love for her trumps his ethics, sending him down a dark path that he eventually couldn’t live with. Coming clean is his only path to redemption, and his honesty saves him, his marriage, and the true mother of the child. Tom and Isabel certainly grow from the ordeal, and their growth is absolutely necessary for their personal and marital salvation.

I felt Light didn’t follow the typical path of giving the hero a goal or quest. The focus is on the crushing burden of an honest man maintaining a lie. It’s more of a character study than a journey. This movie asks a question: What if an honest man has to choose between honesty and true love. Tom loves his wife so much that he would give up his most closely held belief in doing what is right. And in the end, he lays the groundwork for the discovery of his lie. He can’t do what is wrong, even for the love of his life. In the end, he is willing to give up his life in exchange for the truth to be told, and to protect his wife. It’s a story deep in character, less so in plot.

Interesting way to look at it, Greg. In terms of mentorship, I’m really struck by the transformative effect that women can have on men in the movies. The Light Between Oceans is no exception. Curiously, Isabel has both a positive and a negative mentoring effect on Tom. At first, she is good for him. She transforms him from a numb, shell-shocked man who is running away from himself and his past, into a man who is capable of opening his heart and having an intimate relationship.

But later she turns into a dark mentor, convincing Tom to betray his ethics. We’ve seen several movies that are primarily about a hero who must overcome a dark mentor, movies such as War Dogs and Whiplash. Usually the dark mentor wields a great deal of power over the hero, making it difficult for the hero to extricate himself from the mentor’s influence. In Light Between Oceans, Isabel doesn’t have power per se over our hero Tom, but Tom’s love and loyalty toward her and their child makes it extremely challenging for him to defy her influence. Yet he must do so for his heroism to unfold.

You pretty much nailed it, Scott. There’s also Tom’s inner mentor of the “rules of being an honest man.” In the westerns it might be called “The Law of the West.” We’ve seen this in other movies where past mentors instilled rules and lessons in the young hero. These guiding principles are what create the drama in this movie.

The Light Between Oceans is the story of one man’s conflict between his morals and the love of his life. There are a lot of ways this story could have gone. It is Tom’s conflict between doing the right thing and giving his wife what she desperately needs that makes this movie so interesting. I was glad to have a film that wasn’t about a man’s missing inner quality and a tangible quest. Instead we get a deep character study. I give Light 4 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Sherbourne is an exceptionally good man. He’s honest, trustworthy, and a committed husband. He is put in the position of violating one or both of his strongly held beliefs. On the one hand he must be truthful. When he discovers the boat with the dead German and baby, he knows he must record it in his log and report it to the authorities. But when his wife demands he let her keep the baby, the rule of love creates a conflict with his morals. I give Tom 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Isabel plays the role of the dark mentor, leading Tom down the path of disobeying his inner rules. These inner rules are Tom’s mentor, guiding him to do the right thing. These are important mentors for this story, but are not as strong as many we’ve seen this year. I give Isabel and Tom’s inner mentor just 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

 Movie: reel-4Mentor: mentor3  Hero: h-logo-4

The Light Between Oceans is a soap opery tale about Australian love, tragedy, and redemption. The movie works because the story effectively pulls us into the drama and makes us care about these characters. We care about Tom and root for him to heal his war-time injuries. We root for young love to blossom. We’re heartbroken about the lost babies and not only understand Isabel’s desire to keep the baby who washes up ashore but also understand why Tom would compromise his principles to please her. It’s all rather maudlin and overly dramatic, yet it all works on every level of filmmaking. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Tom is a classic hero in many senses of the word. He is a hero of the Great War, he is a hero of love, he is a hero of honesty, he is a hero of loyalty, and he is a hero of redemption. We don’t see much greater heroism than this in the movies. His journey is extraordinarily painful yet effective in transforming him and in bringing out his best qualities. I also award Tom 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship role that Isabel plays is a fascinating one that we rarely see in storytelling. It is highly unusual for the same character to play both a positive and a negative mentoring role, yet Isabel assumes this bipolar role in her influence on Tom. Good call, Greg, on noting Tom’s inner moral compass as another type of mentor operating on him. It all adds up to a rather interesting movie for mentoring, necessitating a Mentor rating of 4 out of 5.

 Movie: reel-4Mentor: mentor4 Hero: h-logo-4

Sully •••1/2

sully_xxlgStarring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki, Chesley Sullenberger
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2016


reel-3 480px-One-half.svg mentor3 h-logo-4h-logo-half

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

Greg, it looks like someone wants to avoid a sullied reputation.

Sully rabbit, tricks are for kids. Let’s take a look at the latest movie from Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood:

We meet Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a veteran US Airways pilot. He’s recovering from the aftermath of an emergency landing he had to make on the Hudson River shortly after Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport. His co-pilot that day was Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

But instead of being treated like a hero, the National Transportation Safety Board wants to prove that he made a huge mistake. Instead of landing in the Hudson, they think he should have landed at either LaGuardia or Teterboro. This leads Sully to question his own decision making. The rest of the film answers the question: Is Sully a hero, or incompetent.

Greg, this movie taps into the powerful archetype of the hero who is wrongly accused of villainy and must spend the entire storyline trying to establish his innocence. As such, this is a movie that deliberately makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable with the idea of a sinking plane maneuvering through Manhattan skyscrapers. You feel the discomfort of a man who is tortured with the burden of the ‘hero’ label. You’re frustrated with an NTSB board that seems hellbent on proving that Sully made a reckless choice to land in the Hudson.

This movie, along with Tom Hanks, deserve Oscar consideration. Even though we know the story’s ending, we’re never really sure how we’ll get there. The hero’s journey is extremely unconventional, with much of the film devoted to flashbacks of the hero’s descent (literally) into the dangerous, unfamiliar world of double-engine failure on the jet plane. But even more so it is a film about the hero’s subsequent descent into the dangerous, unfamiliar worlds of unwanted fame, family turmoil, accusations of wrongdoing, and courtroom drama. It’s a movie that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, with the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

Scott, I was less enthusiastic about this movie than you. The fact is, Sullenberger is an unqualified hero. Sadly, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great story. Sully is the most boring of heroes – he simply did his job extremely well and saved 155 lives. But to create a story around this, you have to have a goal and you have to have a villain to thwart that goal. Director Clint Eastwood creates a goal of surviving the NTSB inquisition, which makes the NTSB the villains. It’s clumsily executed. The movie ends in an unrealistic courtroom scene that left me feeling the whole movie was a made up story.

From where I was sitting in the audience, the plot was more suited to a made-for-tv movie than a big-screen extravaganza. It sounds like it would be great as it has a true-to-life hero in Sully, big-time director Eastwood, and America’s favorite leading man, Tom Hanks. But scene after scene seemed stilted and put on.

As a case in point, let’s look at what they did to Sully’s poor wife. She’s portrayed as a harried homemaker who was more concerned about whether they were going to lose their summer home than the fact that her husband survived a near-fatal crash. She keeps asking when he’ll be home when she knows he is fighting for his professional life. Now, this is not done to show how unsupportive the real Mrs. Sullenberger was. But rather, to expose to the audience what was at stake for Sully. It’s handled clumsily and throws poor Mrs. Sully under the bus in exchange for exposition. And that’s straight out of the Hallmark Home Movie tradition.

My only quibble is that the movie glossed over the skill it took to land a plane successfully on water. At the time (in 2009), there were numerous stories, all fascinating, of the specific technique needed to bring the plane down on the water’s surface without it plunging immediately to the river bottom. Apparently, Sully had to maneuver the jet to emulate a bird landing on the water, an image and skill that the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with. This achievement should have been highlighted as a major reason behind Sully’s heroism. In addition, it is also true that Sully was saving his own life in landing that plane safely, so to say that he was completely selfless is untrue.

Still, the accomplishment was remarkable and Clint Eastwood deserves kudos for putting together a movie that serves as a worthy tribute to this truly humble hero who wanted no part of the hero label. The handling of the bumbling NTSB and the histrionic wife didn’t particularly bother me that much, except for the apparent fact that these two elements of the story departed from reality quite a bit. In typical Clint style, this movie is about a man who sticks it to “the man”. Sully is a kinder, gentler Dirty Harry.

As far as mentorship goes, Sully’s mentor is hard to identify but I think we have hinted at the type of indirect mentor at work in this hero’s life. We’ve seen movies like The Martian in which there is an “implicit mentor” whose training of the hero helped him survive an ordeal. We’ve also seen films like London Has Fallen where the hero is not an actual person but a code of ethics or behavior that the hero lives by. With Sully we see hints of these two types of mentorship at work in Sully’s life. His 42 years of aviation experience were instrumental (pardon the pun), as was mentorship from his father which is hinted at in a brief flashback scene.

Sully is a flawed biopic about a true American hero. They don’t make heroes better than Captain Sullenberger. I enjoyed the film but I can’t get past the unskilled use of the NTSB and Sully’s wife as foils. Compare to the excellent Eye in the Sky which we reviewed earlier this year. In that film both sides of an argument were presented without bias. There was no need to make the NTSB the villains – except to further the narrative that Sully was a persecuted hero. I give Sully just 3 out of 5 Reels.

There’s not doubt that Sully is a hero. By just about any measure one has to appreciate the fact that it was Sully’s devotion to his craft and trade that allowed him to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Then he went further by being so humble about his heroism. I give Sully 5 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Scott, Sully doesn’t expose his mentors directly. It is his training that gives him the strength to pull off the impossible feat of saving 155 souls on a flight that should have crashed. I give Sully’s mentorship 3 out of 5 Mentors.

 Movie: reel-3 Heroes: h-logo-5Mentors: mentor3

Sully is yet another triumph for ageless director Clint Eastwood. This movie relies on the time-honored archetype of the hero who is falsely accused of villainy, and much of the successful use of this formula can be attributed to the acting genius of Tom Hanks. No actor could better capture Sullenberger’s earnest humility, moral caring, and quiet competence better than Hanks. This film is a winner and easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey takes a nontraditional route by first giving us flashbacks of Sully’s recent hero journey involving double-engine failure and a river landing. Then we witness Sully’s subsequent hero’s journey that is less physically dangerous yet more emotionally distressing, in which he must deal with antagonists such as the media, his wife, and the NTSB. Clint Eastwood weaves these two hero’s tales together with great flair and effectiveness. I give our hero Sullenberger a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship here is subtle, complex, yet pivotal for our hero’s success. Sullenberger’s past training and experience were his strongest allies in the cockpit that day in the air. His father also guided him capably. Later, on the ground and in the unwelcome limelight, Sullenberger flounders about with little mentoring to help him other than his own personal integrity and steadfast confidence that he made all the right moves on that airplane. The mentoring in this movie is present yet elusive. As such, I’ll bump the rating down a bit to 3 Mentors out of 5.

 Movie: reel-4Heroes: h-logo-4Mentors: mentor3

Hell or High Water •••••

hell_or_high_water_film_posterStarring: Dale Dickey,  Ben Foster,  Chris Pine
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2016


reel-5 mentor5 h-logo-5

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

Greg, is it true that someone told us to go to Hell?

Only if Hell is a town in West Texas. Let’s recap:

We meet the Howard brothers, a pair of modern-day cowboys who have taken to robbing banks in west Texas. Toby (Chris Pine) is the younger brother, and Tanner (Ben Foster) is the older brother who has recently been released from prison. On their tail is a pair of Texas Rangers who want to put an end to the brothers’ crime spree. The head Ranger is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is nearing retirement, and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who somehow tolerates Hamilton’s racist banter.

The brothers have a scheme to rob the Midland Bank of enough cash to pay off the debts of their mother’s reverse-mortgaged ranch. The brothers are following Toby’s plan, but Tanner is a loose cannon and strays from the plan. This leaves enough clues for Hamilton and Parker to predict their next heist. It’s a game of cat and mouse as the Rangers close in on the brothers in a tight spiral.

Greg, I’ll just come right out and say it. Hell or High Water is one of the best movies of 2016. How refreshing it is for a film released in August to boast a rich and nuanced screenplay coupled with memorable and multidimensional characters. This movie held me in rapture, from the opening scene to the closing scene. The film opens with a bank robbery but in the background stands a church with three prominent crosses on the wall, foreshadowing the later deaths of three of this film’s main characters. In the concluding scene, Hamilton moves away from the camera while the camera hits the dirt, suggesting that he is, in fact, the third casualty.

This movie compels you to see things and to see people at a deeper level, a human level. The four main characters have an unusual strength and depth to them, a multi-dimensionality that I haven’t seen in the movies in years. Jeff Bridges didn’t just portray a Texas Ranger; he was that Ranger. It’s Oscar time for him, for sure. Every character inhabiting this film came alive on the big screen, made me laugh, made me cry, or repulsed me. The film is a true gem, a throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking when character development mattered.

Part of the pleasure of this story is that it’s a mystery. The mystery is: why are these cowboys robbing these banks? We’re fed clues incrementally, just as the Texas Rangers discover them. So, despite the fact that we’re following the brothers closely, we don’t know the reasons why until nearly the third act.

This is a great anti-villain story cut from the same cloth as Bonnie and Clyde and The Sting. The lead characters are villainous as they are on the moral high ground. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we talk about anti-heroes. They take on the characteristics of villains but are the characters we are rooting for. Contrariwise, the Texas Rangers are anti-villains. That is, they are the good guys in the story, but are the antagonists for the leads.

It’s a great structure. But what makes this film work, more than anything else, is the depth of the characters portrayed. I had to do a double-take because I thought this might have been a Coen Brothers or Weinstein film (both producers of great character-based films). But no, this one was penned by veteran television writer Taylor Sheridan (Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy). I was blown away by the combination of action, suspense, and great character detail.

You’re so right, Greg. The hero’s journeys are nontraditional, with the Howards voluntarily moving into the dangerous unfamiliar world while pulling the Rangers in with them. Tanner performs the ultimate (anti-) heroic act of sacrificing himself for the success of the mission, and Alberto does the ultimate heroic act of sacrificing himself, albeit involuntarily, for the success of the Rangers’ mission. We have parallel anti-hero and hero stories with no real transformation, only adaptation to circumstances — which can be considered a type of transformative adjustment heroes need for success.

The mentoring is equally rich and unconventional. Older brother Tanner takes the physical lead role in being badass and anti-heroic, but it is his younger brother Toby who masterminds the entire caper. Among the Rangers, it is Marcus who mentors Alberto in the dress code and in doing detective work, but in the end it is Alberto’s quiet dignity that exerts a great emotional impact on Marcus. Toby also plays an important mentoring role with his older son — or, rather, an anti-mentoring role, as Toby cautions his son not to be like him.

While the Rangers serve as anti-villain characters, it’s also pretty clear that the biggest villain in this story is the institution of banking. In our most recent book we discuss how institutions can take on villainous roles. Usually these institutions are societal scourges such as racism or sexism. In this film the villainous institution is clearly the financial industry that conspires to squeeze every cent out of society’s most innocent and vulnerable people. In doing their noble anti-villainous work, the Rangers encounter obstacles in the form of popular disdain for the banks that are being robbed. The robbers, in effect, take on folk-hero status. So the villain in this story, the banking industry, ends up hindering the anti-villains’ ability to carry out their mission while having a slightly facilitative effect for the anti-hero brothers. In all it’s a fascinating triad of anti-heroes, anti-villains, and institutional villain.

Hell or High Water is a cleverly draw tail of modern-day anti-heroes. Everything in this film is excellent: the acting, the cinematography, the story, even the scenery. Often in the movies I’m distracted by the execution of the “seams” of the standard plot points. But Hell kept me in suspense with it’s unspoken mystery of why these brothers were robbing banks. I can’t imagine anything that would have made this film better. I give it 5 out of 5 Reels and I expect an Oscar nomination for the film.

The brothers are classic anti-heroes in that they are making morally wrong choices, but still we see them as heroes because they are subverting the evil banking institution. They are chased by the virtuous (if albeit cantankerous) Rangers as anti-villains, trying to thwart the brothers’ goal of robbing the bank. In the end Tanner martyrs himself, which is a selfless act, but kills Ranger Parker in the process, cementing his anti-hero status. I give this hero structure 5 out of 5 Heroes.

We’re witness to some fine mentoring by the venerable Ranger Hamilton upon the younger Ranger Parker. Although Hamilton insults Parker, he lets us know that it’s a friendly way of acknowledging and (in a strange way) respecting their differences. We also see cross-mentoring between brothers Toby and Tanner. Tanner advises Toby in the ways of bank robbing while Toby shares his intelligence and values with Tanner. It’s wonderful mentoring throughout which I award 5 out of 5 Mentor points.

 Movie: reel-5 Mentor: mentor5 Heroes: h-logo-5

Ditto, ditto, ditto, Greg. By hell or high water, this movie had better garner some Academy Award nominations. This film is a true cinematic achievement and boasts the complete package — a meaty script, memorable characters, marvelous acting, a socially relevant message, and a surprising twist or two in the closing act. Jeff Bridges is especially brilliant; I’ll never forget his complex emotional reaction after his successful sniping of his prey. I have no hesitation in awarding the film the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

Our four main characters represent the finest combination of heroes and anti-heroes we’ve seen in the movies in several years. As you’ve noted, Greg, each pairing has its own unique dynamic of power, influence, and communication. The Howard brothers have a lifetime of chemistry to draw from, and the Rangers are in the process of developing theirs. In the end, there is an unshakeable bond within each pairing, and it’s a true tragedy that only one of the four walks away the rubble of this tragic story. For giving us fabulous characters with moral complexity whom we can really sink our analytic teeth into, this ensemble easily merits a rating of 5 Heroes out of 5.

We’ve talked at length about the complex and nuanced mentoring that goes on within each buddy hero and anti-hero pairing. We’re also treated to a rare episode of anti-mentoring going on between Toby and his son. The father-son relationship is actually the catalytic epicenter of the entire robbery spree. As with everything else in this film, the mentoring is exceptionally interesting and warrants a rating of the full 5 Mentors out of 5.

Movie: reel-5 Mentor: mentor5 Heroes: h-logo-5

War Dogs •••1/2

War_Dogs_2016_posterStarring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Steve Lantz
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: August 19, 2016


reel-3480px-One-half.svg mentor3 h-logo-3h-logo-half

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

Greg, I think we just saw a flick about two poodles drafted into combat.

It’s time for a different role for Jonah Hill. One where he swears a lot. But wait, that’s every Jonah Hill role. Let’s recap.

We meet David Packhouz (Miles Teller), a massage therapist who struggles to make a living. He tries his hand at selling linens to old age homes, but goes nowhere. Now his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant and he’s especially in need of extra income. Enter childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who is now making boatloads of money as an independent arms dealer. Diveroli convinces Packhouz to join him in his growing business.

The have modest success picking up the crumbs of contracts left by the billion-dollar enterprise dealers. Their first big break comes when they run some guns out of Israel through Jordan and into the heart of Iraq. They succeed mainly because they don’t know the danger they’re in. When they get home they don’t know where their next big job will come from. But then they see a deal they can’t pass up: a contract for a billion rounds of ammunition. If they can pull this off, they’ll make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Greg, War Dogs is based on a true story about two twenty-somethings who don’t mind cutting corners in their big-deal makings, and in the end they find themselves in way over their heads. Although the film features two buddy-heroes, it’s clear to me that it’s a pairing of a psychopath anti-hero (Diveroli) with a more sympathetic hero character who shows he can grow and transform (Packhouz). In fact, one could argue that this movie tells Packhouz’s story. We learn how Packhouz struggled financially to the point of needing to join forces with the nefarious Diveroli, and then lived to regret the pairing.

So I’m curious, Greg, whether you view this film as a buddy hero film or as a dark mentor film in which our hero must extricate himself from the mentor. Actor Miles Teller seems to make it a habit of gravitating to roles in which his character falls under the spell of a dark teacher. Two years ago, in Whiplash, he was abused by J. K. Simmons’ character. In most buddy hero stories, each buddy helps the other buddy transform, but as Packhouz is the only character here who shows transformative growth, I lean toward viewing the story as more of a dark mentor tale.

Yes, Scott, I think you’ve nailed it. War Dogs is actually narrated by the Packhouz character so it very much seems to be a hero’s journey where the hero must extricate himself from a dark mentor. It *is* very much like Whiplash in that sense.

I’m seeing Miles Teller all over the place these days. He’s a true rising star. His performances are getting better with each film he appears in. However, Jonah Hill seems to be playing himself in every movie. He’s loud, obnoxious, and swears extensively. We saw it in Superbad, The Wolf of Wall Street, and This is The End. I am tired of this guy.

When we look at Hill’s character, Diveroli, it’s clear he’s a manipulator. He shows up when Packhouz is at a funeral – a vulnerable time. He takes advantage of Packhouz when his wife becomes pregnant – getting him to sign on at a time of need. Eventually, Diverolli reneges on his promise to share 30% of the company with Packhouz. Diveroli is not a good friend to have.

The movie works only because we see hints of goodness in Packhouz throughout the story, and we root for him to build on that foundation even when he makes one dumb decision after another. Yes, he’s skirting legal trouble, lying to his wife, taking unnecessary chances, and cavorting with the unsavory Efraim. But his potential for transformation is made abundantly clear and it takes his inevitable fall into an abyss of trouble for his conversion experience to happen.

We’ve already mentioned that Efraim plays the dark mentor role, and in a strange way the character of Henry, played by Bradley Cooper, attempts to take on a mentoring role toward the very end of the film. Henry is impressed by Packhouz’s integrity in not implicating Henry in the ammunition caper, and we’re left wondering whether Henry is “grooming” Packhouz toward another round of shady business dealings. I applaud the filmmakers’ decision to leave us wondering which direction Packhouz takes. Yes, by film’s end Packhouz transformed into a good husband and honest man, but is this change permanent? We can hope but we’ll never know.

War Dogs is an interesting, nearly light-hearted look at the world of weapons trade. We follow our fumbling hero-buddies as they navigate this morally-gray realm and root for them to succeed. The story is mixed with humor and intrigue and pulls us along for an entertaining ride. I don’t think this film will win any Academy awards, but, like the similar Wolf of Wall Street, offers a cautionary tale of greed and stupidity. I award War Dogs 4 out of 5 Reels.

While this appears to be a hero-buddy story, I think it’s really Packhouz’s story. We witness him telling simple white lies to his wife, followed by bigger and bigger lies until he loses her in the end. Ultimately, his lies and deceit lead him to be indicted on weapons charges and lands him in jail. He comes to his senses and rejects the dark world of international weapons trading and gets his wife and child back. It’s an entertaining tale of the redeemed hero and I give Packhouz 4 out of 5 Heroes.

I see two dark mentors in this story: Efraim Diveroli and Henry. Deivroli take on the shape of whomever he needs to when he is talking to someone. In Packhouz’s case, it is the form of best friend. This shapeshifting dark mentor leads Packhouz down a trail of lies and deceipt that ultimately land im in jail. Henry is the hidden dark mentor. He is a weapons trader who works in the shadows and only comes into the light to make course corrections for his own plans. I give these dark mentors 3 out of 5 Mentors.

 Movie: reel-4Mentors: mentor3 Heroes: h-logo-4

War Dogs surprised me with its true-life portrayal of two guys in over their heads in the dangerous game of unscrupulous arms dealings. The story is a cautionary tale of greed and all the despicable things humans will do for money. Most importantly, the film warns us of the dangers of cavorting with the wrong mentor figures in life. If we hang out with dreck, our lives become dreck. There’s a lot to like in this movie but it’s doubtful that I’ll ever give it a second look. I’m awarding it a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

We’ve seen this type of hero journey before in Miles Teller’s Whiplash. There’s clearly a descent into a dark world from which our hero Packhouz must escape. Interestingly, he doesn’t receive help from others; he must extricate himself on his own, and he does so by allowing the natural consequences of his poor decision making to unfold. Perhaps that’s the only way he will learn, and the only way any of us learn how not to live our lives. Again, it’s a good hero’s journey but not a great one. I give it 3 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, you and I agree on the mentoring in this film. One observation I might add is that time and time again Packhouz resists the positive influence of his wife Iz, who loves him and will love him whether he is rich or poor. I’ve noticed that in storytelling, men get in trouble whenever they defy the positive transformative influence of women. Overall, the mentoring in this story merits a rating of 3 Mentors out of 5.

Movie: reel-3 Mentors: mentor3 Heroes: h-logo-3

Jason Bourne ••••

Jason_Bourne_(film)Starring: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse
Action/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: July 29, 2016


reel-4 mentor3 h-logo-3

Well it’s time for a new Bourne movie. I guess it’s Jason Bourne, Again.

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

Apparently, you can never be Bourne too many times, and once Bourne, you never die.  Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) as a loner fighting in back alleys and warehouses to make a living. Naturally, he’s invincible. But he spies blonde Nicki Parsons (Julia Stiles) looking for him. He chases her down and relates that he remembers everything about his time as a super spy. She admonishes that “just because you remember everything, doesn’t mean you know everything.” And the two begin a chase scene sponsored by high-level CIA officials in a remote computer room. The CIA activates “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel) to track down and kill Bourne.

The Asset blames Bourne for the torture that the Asset underwent after Bourne released sensitive information. Killing Bourne is also at the top of CIA chief Robert Dewey’s (Tommy Lee Jones) to-do list. But Dewey has to pretend to be open to the possibility that Bourne is “salvageable”, an idea proposed to him by CIA operative Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who is the one person in this movie who takes the time to read Bourne’s file. Lee ends up secretly working with Bourne to take down the corrupt Dewey.

I was leary of watching another Bourne movie. But I liked this story, although it wasn’t that different from Bournes gone by. Despite the fact that Matt Damon has reportedly few lines (25 by some estimates), I felt we were more involved in the relationships in this movie than in other movies this summer. Jason Bourne was all about the infighting of the highers-up in the CIA. We’re also introduced to some of the reasons Bourne was inducted into his program and the reasons he came out of hiding. I had a good time.

Greg, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this film. Yes, it’s a summer popcorn movie, and so you need not engage your brain at all to follow and appreciate the action. And that’s what this movie is, basically — two hours of non-stop action, a taut, tight thriller that relentlessly and effortlessly carries viewers along for the ride. I enjoyed it for what it is, even if I was annoyed at times by the tiresome use of the shaky camera.

As Jason Bourne is part of a series, there really is no character growth per se with regard to our hero, although he does gain some insight into his “origin story”. Still, he is just as unwilling to trust the CIA and return to the organization at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Bourne remains a dangerous, renegade hero, and that’s what we love about him, even if there is no significant hero transformation going on.

I’d like to add that this movie continues the trend of Hollywood giving women more juicy roles to sink their teeth into. Nicki Parsons, and most especially Heather Lee, are two smart, strong, brave women characters who show the same moxy and charisma as any of their male counterparts. Lee, in fact, is in line to take over for the evil Dewey as head of the CIA, and I look forward to seeing her in this role in the next Bourne film.

Jason Bourne is a classic male hero – he’s tough, smart, good-looking, and is kind to small animals. Matt Damon has done a remarkable job growing this character as he ages. As you point out, Scott, Bourne is an episodic hero and so he ends up at the end of the story very much as he started out. And the reason is so that we can come back to him in the next installment. On the other hand, the characters who surround the episodic hero often transform instead. And this is the case for Heather Lee. She starts out as an underling being trained by a dark mentor, Dewey. But by the end of the film, she is a strong contender for the head of the CIA. That’s a big transformation, especially for a secondary character.

That’s an interesting observation, Greg. If serial heroes don’t change, perhaps these movies hold our interest because the characters around them do. I’ll have to start observing whether this hypothesis holds true. In terms of mentoring, we learn that Bourne was strongly influenced by his father, and in fact Bourne’s strongest motivation for getting at the truth of his origins resides in discovering what really happened to his dad. So in this film we not only have atonement with the father — a classic hero motif — we have atonement FOR the father.

Jason Bourne is an unusually rich action adventure. We gain insight into Bourne’s personality and are filled in on some of his backstory. The action is excellent as it not only kept the plot moving, but also interjected character development simultaneously. That’ a pretty good trick. Jason Bourne is above-average summer fare – so I award it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Our hero, Jason Bourne, does not undergo much of a transformation, which is the key ingredient we seek in our heroes. However, he does help those around him transform – Heather Lee, e.g. But Bourne, despite his killing qualities, displays the elements of heroism we expect. He’s strong, honest, earnest, and he has a burning question that he wants answered. I have a hard time giving Bourne high marks since he’s an episodic hero, and so less interesting than transformational heroes. So I award him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The main mentoring we see in this film is the dark mentor Dewey as he leads the younger Lee down the path of corruption. She learns the lessons well as she ultimately dispatches Dewey and uses her special knowledge of secret programs to position herself to replace him. Perhaps Dewey did his job all too well. I give this mentor/mentee duo 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

 Movie: reel-4Mentors: mentor3Heroes: h-logo-3

You and I are in complete agreement, Greg, and so I’ll keep my final ratings brief so as to avoid redundancy. Jason Bourne is a taut roller coaster ride of a movie that grabs your attention and holds it for dear life. This film is a nearly flawless portrayal of a hero archetype featuring a man on the run, an individual with great integrity who has been wronged and is trying to make things right. I agree, Greg, that the movie deserves 4 Reels out of 5.

I also concur with your analysis of our hero’s qualities, why he’s interesting, and why he’s a bit less interesting than some of the better transformed heroes in the movies. So like you, Greg, I’m awarding 3 Heroes out of 5. We’ve both offered our insights into the mentoring going on in this film, with Dewey serving as the dark guide and Bourne’s father being the indirect positive influence on our hero Jason. I award these two mentors 3 rating points out of 5.

 Movie: reel-4Mentors: mentor3Heroes: h-logo-3