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The Edge of Seventeen •••1/2

the_edge_of_seventeen_2016_film_posterStarring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2016


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

Greg, it’s about time we got in touch with our inner-teenager.

It’s time for high-school drama. I’m not on the edge of my seat. Let’s recap:


We meet a 17-year-old high school junior named Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She runs into her history teacher’s (Woody Harrelson) empty classroom while he’s eating lunch and proceeds to tell him that her life sucks and she wants to kill herself. We then flashback to when she was a very little girl. She was the anxious one who never fit in, while her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) always seemed so perfect.

And her super-cool-and-nice dad died 4 years ago. And she’s in love with the local bad boy just back from juvenile detention. And her mom just doesn’t understand. And mom is running off to a weekend with a dentist she met on Match.com. So it’s time for a party. And her best friend since grade school just hooked up with her brother. And the nerdy/shy boy in class likes her. And now, all Nadine wants is to get with the bad-boy hottie and break up her bestie and brother.

Greg, every decade has movies of teenage angst. There were the Molly Ringwald movies of the 1980s. In the 1990s we had Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. In the 2000’s we had Ellen Page show us similar teen angst in Juno. Now in the 2010s, we have Hailee Steinfeld continue in the same tradition in The Edge of Seventeen.

You may recall that I suggested that we see this movie because as a coming-of-age story, it held the promise of showing good examples of mentoring. And I was mostly right. Nadine’s dad was shown to be a loving soul, the only adult figure she could count on and who understood her. Her history teacher, Mr. Bruner, is less loving but represents a stable presence in her life. Nadine’s mother is an anti-mentor, a broken woman whose damaging comments send Nadine into the arms of a boy who is obviously bad for her.

Scott, I was wary of this movie from the get-go. It smacked of a Judy Blume story akin to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” In fact, at the “dark moment of the soul” (DMS) point in the film, Nadine (on the toilet) actually prays to God asking for help. My fears were confirmed.

In many ways, this film starts out like 2007’s excellent Juno. It has a smart, nerdy, outcast teenage girl trying to find her way in high school. But it takes a turn for the worse at that DMS moment I mentioned and from there it devolves into an “ABC Afterschool Special.”

Nadine does finally hook up with the bad boy and she stops him before things go too far and explains she’d like to get to know him better. In any modern story, Nadine might have been raped. But in this story the bad boy simply kicks her out of his car. Then she has a run-in with her brother and realizes everything isn’t about her and she finds acceptance with the nerdy boy and his crowd of friends. This was very much a sunny resolution to what was an otherwise darkish story.

Wow. To me, this movie was as unlike an afterschool special as any movie we’ve ever seen. Those ABC specials have bland characters and dialogue and suffer from utter predictability. The Edge of Seventeen boasts characters with considerable depth and nuance. Mr. Bruner, for example, is mysterious. Does he care about Nadine or not? How will he end up helping her? Older brother Darian is also complex. He does appear too perfect for us to like him, but in the end he reveals his wounds and vulnerability.

Nadine’s mother is a complete mess and does her best to ensure that her daughter is a mess, too. She tells Nadine something almost unforgivably hurtful, yet at least reveals a small willingness to let her daughter grow. I will admit that the disastrous romantic encounter with the bad-boy is predictable — such encounters seem to be a core part of the teenage angst movie formula. Still, the litmus test for good characters for me is whether I’m eager to learn more about them. This movie passes that test. I want to know more about Nadine’s dad, Mr. Bruner, Krista, and Erwin.

I agree that Nadine is an interesting character. She starts out as an outsider and eventually finds her niche. She’s witty, troubled, overly dramatic, smart, but not exceptional in any particular way. Which makes her an everywoman. We identify with her and feel her loss when her father dies – the one person who seemed to understand her.

And you’ve nailed the mentor role her father plays. Her mother plays the counter example as the anti-mentor. I was a bit disappointed in Bruner’s role. He’s hilarious as the “teacher who’s seen it all.” But I don’t know if he qualifies as a mentor. Usually we look for mentors to act as a guide for the hero as she navigates the special world. But Bruner is very hands-off. On the other hand, he’s always there for her. And when everything comes crashing down around Nadine’s shoulders, he is the dependable adult. I liked Bruner a lot, but I don’t know that he qualifies as a mentor.

In a way, you’re right, Greg. Bruner is a stable older-male presence, which is perhaps all she needs from him. You could argue that Bruner’s wife, in a brief passing comment, does more good mentoring for Nadine than Bruner ever did. Maybe we can call him “the subtle mentor.” Nadine does run to him (literally) when her life is in shambles. He listens, offers a sardonic retort, and she relaxes. He tells her that she’s his favorite student. That could be all she needs or expects from him.

The Edge of Seventeen is a movie that’s not for everyone. It’s heavy on personal drama and teenage whining. But I was impressed by the film’s dark, edgy realism. Most of us know the pain of growing up, feeling isolated, losing a loved one, and struggling with relationships. This movie masterfully taps into those archetypal feelings. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Turning now to the hero’s journey, Hailee Steinfeld does a hell of a job navigating her way through the traps and snares of adolescence, emerging on the other side a significantly changed individual. Her journey features many of the classic elements of the hero’s path, and only when her dream romance with the bad-boy is shattered does she obtain insight and clarity about who she is and what’s important in life. I award Nadine a total of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship here is subtle and unique. Nadine carries with her the scars of losing her father whom she adored, and the mother who has damaged her. She turns to her history teacher, Bruner, for sanity and stability. He offers her this and his wife offers her words of encouragement. Joseph Campbell has said that even with help the hero must always travel the journey on her own, and Nadine certainly does exactly that. I give the mentors a rating of 3 out of 5.

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The Edge of Seventeen is a contradiction within itself – starting out dark and edgy but ultimately delivering a saccharine view of modern teenage life. I was disappointed by the two pivotal scenes where Nadine finally gets a date with her bad-boy crush and gets accepted into a new crowd. They smacked of the simplistic worldview of the After School Special. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for Edge.

Nadine is a wonderful hero and goes through the trials and tribulations that I imagine young girls go through. Her ultimate resolution in finding a niche where she fits in is a nice ending to her hero’s journey, but not very complex. I give Nadine just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And while I liked the mentoring of the father in the film, it was mostly off-screen in flashbacks. I’m not sure if we can really give Mentor points to him. Although, we have recognized unseen teachers as mentors in such films as The Martian. Bruner is less of a mentor and more of a supporting character – literally. I am not sure what kind of mentoring that might be. I can only give 3 out of 5 Mentor points to them.

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Arrival ••••1/2

arrival_movie_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we’ve finally arrived…

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

… and it’s about time. Literally. Let’s get to reviewing this next movie about alien visitation.

We’re introduced to Professor Leslie Banks (Amy Adams) who is having a strange day as 12 “shells” (very large egg-shaped alien craft) have landed across the world. She’s visited by a Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) who insists she help him translate the speech patterns of the aliens. She resists but ultimately gives in when her curiosity gets the better of her. She’s whisked away to a midwest town where she is paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and must discover the reason for the alien visit.

Banks and Donnelly meet two of the aliens and nickname them Abbott and Costello. Communication seems impossible until Banks attempts written language. She discovers that the aliens’ writing is composed of complex circular characters and sentences, and she also discovers that the more she deciphers the language, the more strange visions she has of herself raising a child. Meanwhile, in China, General Shang (Tzi Ma) is about to wage war with the aliens, making it imperative that Banks and Donnelly crack the code before disaster strikes.

Arrival is a film that arrived without much fanfare. I don’t recall seeing any previews for it in the theaters or ads on TV. So, I had very few preconceptions going in. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is an arguably ponderous film with very little action and a lot of dialog. It’s a thinking-man’s movie, so it appealed to me. One of the opening scenes has physicist Donnelly reading Banks’ book which states that all interactions begin with language. But he differs – claiming the basis for communication is science. Whereas Colonel Webber is looking at the situation from a tactical point of view. And so the stage is set for a three-way confrontation of ideals. And in the end, it is Banks’ view that wins out. I was favorably impressed.

Greg, I loved Arrival. It’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a meaty science fiction story that really makes you think. I was struck by the possibility that our language is not so much a reflection of our linear thinking but a determinant of it. The temporal non-linearity of the aliens was fascinating and allowed for some truly creative plot developments. We’re also treated to some wonderfully innovative renditions of aliens and alien language. Not to mention that Amy Adams delivers a terrific performance as a hero who must piece together the temporal puzzle to save the world. It all adds up to a stellar movie, pardon the pun.

Amy Adams was definitely the brightest star in this film. Her character Leslie Banks undergoes a strong transformation from disillusioned academic to an enlightened world figure. She also exhibits uncommon empathy for the aliens. She puts aside her innate fear of the unknown and is captivated by the question of what is the purpose of the alien visit. I found her very inspiring.

Banks definitely goes on an inspired hero’s journey — yet another example of Hollywood finally “getting it” that women characters can make tremendous heroes in the movies. The hero’s journey begins with Banks answering the “call” from the military to make first contact with aliens who have landed in Montana. She immediately assumes a lead role in her partnership with Donnelly, a physicist on her team. Her missing quality is her understanding of the alien language, and the keys to her acquiring this quality are her openness to thinking outside the box, her trust that the aliens will do no harm, and her courage to defy the military’s antagonistic approach to the alien encounter.

Banks possesses many of the great eight characteristics of heroes; she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, caring, inspiring, and selfless. In keeping with the hero’s journey, she encounters a love interest (Donnelly), allies in Abbott, Costello, and oppositional forces in the military and CIA. Her mentors turn out to be the aliens themselves, who have arrived to help the earth understand and change their language and use of time. In exchange, the earth will help the aliens 3,000 years from now. Everything comes full circle, which is beautifully symbolized in the alien circular linguistic characters.

The aliens are good mentor figures here. And we also see that Banks acts as a hero-mentor in that she mentors the aliens in our language. After all, it is she who instructs the aliens, not the other way around. However, this does imply a bit of a plot hole. If the aliens are so advanced, why are they so dense in understanding our language? Compare to our own understanding of animal language. It is human researchers who have taught apes to speak American Sign Language. I would think it incumbent upon the more advanced civilization to find a way to communicate with us.

Arrival is a departure from other first contact movies like Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind where language is the source of the communication. I enjoyed the slow burn from fear to understanding for all the characters in the story. I give Arrival 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dr. Banks is a great hero who undergoes a transformation from naive to educated in the ways of the alien creatures. Like many heroes we’ve studied in the last few years, she has a “super power” which in this case is the ability to understand language. But it is her human innate quality of empathy which endears Banks to us. I give her 4 out of 5 Hero points.

And Banks is the most excellent hero-mentor. And when you join her with the superior alien-mentors we get a mentoring experience that goes beyond what most films offer. I give Banks and the aliens 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Arrival is the science fiction you’ve been looking for in film for several years now. Greg, the plot hole you identify is not so much a hole but the key to understanding the puzzle with which the aliens present humanity. Twelve shells arrive on earth, each with a different piece to the puzzle that the twelve earth stations must share to unravel the mystery. The idea is to bring humanity together in a non-zero-sum-game-like way. This guiding principle, along with stunningly crafted heptapods and their innovative language, make Arrival a treat to watch. I give this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Louise Banks proves herself braver and smarter than all her male counterparts in both developing a working relationship with the aliens and in deciphering their cryptic language. She encounters friends who help her and foes who oppose her, and she undergoes a profound mental transformation. In our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains, we define a mental transformation as a significant change in the way that a hero views the workings of the universe. Banks now sees time, language, and thought as intertwined. She travels the full hero’s journey, including the act of giving back to society what she has learned in the form of lectures and a book on the universal language of the heptapods. She earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also strong in this film, with the aliens mentoring Banks as well as the entire human race itself. Our planet is taught how essential it is for our survival to adopt a non-zero-sum philosophy in our international relations. You’re right, Greg, that Banks also mentors the aliens — although I suspect they intentionally adopted a passive stance in the first contact proceedings to force us to do the work of deciphering and cooperating with each other internationally. Oh, and let’s not forget that the future Louise Banks mentored the present-day Louise Banks via many hallucinogenic messages. In short, the mentoring is rich in this film and also merits the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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Hacksaw Ridge ••••1/2

hacksaw_ridge_posterStarring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Drama/History/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016


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Let’s take a look at Mel Gibson’s latest offering – Hacksaw Ridge.

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

It’s a story about a great hero from our home state of Virginia. How cool is that? Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who lives with his WWI veteran father, his mother, and older brother. Doss has fallen in love with a beautiful young nurse at the local hospital. When his brother joins the army to fight the Nazis, Doss decides to join too. But he’s a conscientious objector. As a child he often got into fights with his brother and nearly killed him once. That experience, and his Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, caused him to vow never to touch a gun. Naturally, this belief engages him in some friction when he enlists.

Doss refuses to handle a gun during training, and as a result his commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) makes Doss’s life miserable as a soldier. Howell also tries to have Doss discharged for psychiatric reasons. Doss, however, refuses to quit and is about to be court martialed until his father (Hugo Weaving) intervenes by pulling a favor with the Brigadier General. Doss is finally allowed to serve as a medic in the war, and is sent to fight in Okinawa without a gun.

Scott, I was surprised by this film. I had anticipated a Christian Inspirational. So many Christian films put the message ahead of the story and the film suffers as a result. Hacksaw puts story front and center. And in doing so, delivers its message in spectacular form.

On the other hand, I was surprised by the brutality and graphic nature of the film. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was well-known for its graphic portrayal of war. But director Mel Gibson has raised the bar to new heights – or perhaps lowered it to new lows – depending on your point of view. This view of war makes clear just how horrible war can be. There were images of dismembered bodies, entrails, and killing that were so graphic, the viewer can believe they were in a war.

I’m with you, Greg. Hero stories don’t come any better than this. Doss possesses most if not all of the Great Eight traits of heroes — he’s smart, strong, reliable, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring. You could even argue that he is quietly charismatic. His heroic power also derives from his ability to resist social pressure. Doss receives intense heat to conform to military standards, and he’s probably the only hero I know who sticks to his guns by eschewing them.

After watching almost seven seasons of The Walking Dead, I’ve become desensitized to graphic displays of violence and human innards. Like most modern movies, this film shows more gore than it has to, but I don’t blame Mel Gibson because audiences have come to expect it. One could also argue that Doss’s heroism is enhanced by his overcoming horrific violence, explosions, and flamethrower carnage.

Doss is an extraordinary hero. He went into battle without a weapon. Then, when all the other soldiers had left the battlefield, Doss went back and single-handedly, one-by-one lowered 75 wounded men from a cliff over 12 hours. He had to overcome his fears and ignore his fatigue. The men in his unit considered what he did a miracle. So much so, that they refused to go into battle again the next day unless he went with them. It’s a remarkable hero’s journey.

We see some mentors in Doss’s life, not all of them positive. His father is a very negative mentor. Scott, we often talk about dark mentors (people who lead a hero down the wrong path). But Doss’s father represents what we’ve come to know as the anti-mentor. This is a person who leads the hero down a path by showing the counter-example. Doss’s father was so abusive that it caused Doss to vow never to touch a gun. That was just as powerful a mentoring as any positive mentor.

Yes, but Doss’s father also redeems himself by using his connections to help Doss avoid court martial. We don’t see very many redeemed anti-mentors in the movies. But we do see many instances of parents who play a pivotal mentoring role in either a child’s heroism or villainy. This year’s The Accountant is a recent example.

It’s interesting that Doss is a great hero because he not only transforms himself, he transforms others. At the end of the movie, several soldiers approach him sheepishly, admitting to Doss that they were wrong about him and asking him for forgiveness. The men Doss served with are forever inspired by Doss and transformed by serving with him. The man who first identified the various stages of the hero’s journey, Joseph Campbell, argued that the hero’s positive influence on other is the ultimate culmination of the hero’s journey.

Hacksaw Ridges is a powerful tribute to a pacifist hero. While the film was grisly at times, it made the case for a conscientious objector who made a difference. The movie gets off to a slow start – giving us a lot of backstory of Doss’s early life. I was also thrown off by the frequent flashbacks. But the thrilling climax makes up for any problems in pacing. I was shocked at first by the gore, but I recovered enough to enjoy the story. I give Hacksaw Ridge 4 out of 5 Reels.

Doss is an unlikely hero. As a pacifist with a religious objection to carrying a gun, he has to show his devotion to his country and to his comrades in other ways. When he looks past his own safety and fatigue to rescue the men in his battalion, he exposes his true heroic nature. He is the epitome of the selfless hero. I give Desmond Doss 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Once again we are met with a number of lesser mentors. Doss’s father represents an anti-mentor who shows Doss a path by his counter example. And I consider his drill sergeant a dark mentor since he derides Doss and gives tacit permission for the other men to abuse Doss. I give these mentors just 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, you nailed it. Hacksaw Ridge is a must-see movie. You just don’t encounter a better example of heroism than this, a form of heroism that is packed with off-the-charts selflessness and profound moral conviction. I prefer the term Doss uses to describe himself: A conscientious cooperator more than a conscientious objector. He wants to serve in the military, but only on his pacifistic terms. Heroes who stand up to social pressure to do the right thing, and who risk their lives to save others, are our most powerful heroes. I give Hacksaw Ridge 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is also potent, and it is broken up into two separate journeys. The first half of the film details Doss’s ordeal at basic training, during which Doss is thrown into the dangerous world of the dissenter who dares to defy the military convention to use weaponry. In this hero’s journey, Doss’s only ally is his father, a broken man who redeems himself by helping Doss pass basic training and get shipped to Okinawa. At Okinawa, Doss’s second hero’s journey emerges, one that propels him into brutal combat while he saves 75 men with Japanese sharpshooters all around him. These are two powerful journeys, earning Doss 5 shining Hero points out of 5.

I see a bit more mentoring going on than you do, Greg. Besides the dark mentoring of his father and sergeant, let’s not forget the ultimate mentor, God, whose divine presence is repeatedly guiding and supporting Doss during his darkest moments. Whether you believe in God or not, there is no denying that Doss relied on Him to get him through all his travails. I give these mentors 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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Inferno ••

inferno_2016_filmStarring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Dan Brown, David Koepp
Action/Adventure/Crime, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2016


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It’s time to review Tom Hanks’ new movie Inferno.

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

It’s a hellish experience reviewing this infernal movie. Let’s recap.

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back and this time he’s waking up in a hospital bed in Italy. It seems someone has shot at him and now he’s temporarily lost his memory due to a graze on his head. Luckily, beautiful young doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) is there to help him. He no sooner awakes when a police officer breaks into the hospital and starts shooting at him. Brooks takes Langdon by the hand and whisks him back to her apartment where they discover he has a “Faraday Pointer” (a tiny projector) in his pocket. It displays Dante’s eight levels of hell – only the levels have a clue which leads him and the doctor on a scavenger hunt.

Apparently the clues have been left by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who is suspected of creating a virus that will decimate the human population. Zobrist has just committed suicide while being chased by government agents. A huge fan of Dante’s Inferno, Zobrist has imbedded clues about the whereabouts of the virus in the Faraday image of the eight levels of hell. Langdon’s expertise in this area has him involved in the search for the virus, and now and he and Brooks are racing to find it before it kills billions of people.

Scott, I wasn’t very excited about viewing this film. The first movie in the series (The DaVinci Code) was actually pretty good. But the second in the series (Angels & Demons) was pretty far-fetched. This latest episode didn’t look much better. And I wasn’t disappointed. This was a very unbelievable scavenger hunt that made little to no sense.

The good news is that the performances in this film are worth the price of admission, but just barely. Direct Ron Howard and leading man Tom Hanks work well together and can make even a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The action is relentless and Hanks definitely delivers a believable performance as Dr. Langdon. However, Howard does seem to be in love with Felicity Jones’ face as her close-ups measured in the dozens. I think the combination of a dazzling pace as well as Jones’ dazzling appearance covered a multitude of sins.

Among these sins are the premise that Langdon has on his person a receptacle that opens only with his thumb print. And inside is a “Faraday Pointer” which is a miniature projector made of human bone. The image is a bastardization of Dante’s 8 levels of hell which spell out a clue to the next step in the scavenger hunt. What the heck? Why in the world would Langdon have a tube that only opens with his thumbprint? It’s never explained. Why was this “Faraday Pointer” made of bone? Why was the pointer the means of displaying this cryptic clue? None of these things are explained.

You’ve pretty much summed it up, Greg. This franchise began well enough with The DaVinci Code but it’s now running on fumes, and those fumes are largely coming from someone’s backside. Hanks himself admitted that his main reason for agreeing to appear in this film was the delightful prospect of spending a couple of months filming in Florence. You’re right that Howard and Hanks can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, although I was going to say that you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.

The hero’s story begins well enough with Hanks waking up in a hospital with amnesia and then making his escape with a beautiful doctor. But as you point out, it all goes downhill from there. Even the much maligned Angels and Demons had more interesting twists and turns than this film, proving that Dan Brown’s stories on the big screen are getting repetitive and cliched. Especially since we know that Langdon will no doubt save the world from destruction in the end.

We’ve talked about the basic problem with the episodic hero – of which Langdon is one. The episodic hero rarely grows or learns from his mistake. By necessity, he ends up pretty much as he started out – so that in the next episode he can take on the next adventure. Langdon doesn’t undergo much of a transformation in this film. His beliefs and abilities are pretty much the same at the end as when he started out. In fact, he doesn’t even “get the girl” by the end of the story. It’s a pretty flat presentation.

And to go along with the flat hero and flat presentation, there is flatulence in the mentoring. In others, no mentoring to speak of. Now you could argue that years of schooling and training have enabled Langdon to unravel these Florentine mysteries. All these implicit mentors from his past are certainly helping Langdon. But we see none of it on the screen, making Langdon a dull, mentorless hero.

Inferno is a fast-paced but dull movie that makes no sense from beginning to end. It is only due to Ron Howard’s skill that this film is even watchable. Throw in the talents of Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones and the film becomes bearable. I give Inferno just 2 out of 5 Reels.

As we’ve said, Langdon is the same old guy he’s always been. There’s no transformation for him. He’s a good guy – mostly (when he’s not stealing rare artifacts). And he has the right mission (to save the earth from mass infection). I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes for Langdon.

Scott, you make a good point about Langdon’s unseen teacher-mentors. I suppose the villain Zobrist can also be considered a dark mentor for our sidekick Dr. Brooks. I give them 1 Mentor point out of 5.

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Let’s hope that this film puts this franchise to rest, once and for all. We don’t need to see Robert Langdon running around Italy any longer looking for secret passageways and dangerous new artifacts. All we need is better movie-making with stronger storylines that make us care about what’s happening. We don’t have that here. But you do make the good point that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks make this film watchable. The question is: Why are they wasting their good talents on projects like this?  I agree that the movie deserves 2 Reels out of 5.

I’m also with you that the hero rating here is also 2 out of 5. Langdon goes on a journey but not much else happens other than he slowly recovers from his amnesia and discovers the true reason why people want to kill him. Perhaps that’s supposed to pass as a transformation, but if so it’s a total cheat. Recovering one’s memory does not a mental transformation make. Also, without good mentoring, there’s not much to say about this category of rating, so 1 out of 5 is all it deserves.

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The Accountant ••••

the_accountant_2016_filmStarring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay: Bill Dubuque
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2016


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

Greg, can I count on you to review The Accountant?

Sure, but there’s no accounting for taste. Let’s recap.

We meet an autistic child named Christian Wolff (Seth Lee/Ben Affleck), whose parents are very worried about his ability to lead a “normal” life. We also meet Christian’s younger brother Baxter (Jake Presley/Jon Bernthal). Christian’s dad (Robert C. Treveiler) decides that young Christian doesn’t need special psychological help for his autism; he only needs toughening up. Along the way, Baxter receives the same military-style upbringing.

Flash forward 30 years and Christian Wolff is invited to review the books of robotics company Live Robots. He finds a discrepancy but is told to stop the investigation. Meanwhile, agents at the FBI have taken an interest in Christian’s extracurricular activities. It seems he was the perpetrator of a killing of a mob boss that the director of the FBI was involved in. Further investigation reveals that Christian is deeply involved in the bookkeeping of several drug and crime lords. Who is this mysterious accountant?

Greg, I enjoyed The Accountant, probably far more than I should have. Perhaps it’s because Ben Affleck is at his best when he delivers an understated performance. Perhaps it’s because this movie defied Hollywood’s norm of portraying a disabled person as impeccably virtuous. Or perhaps because we have an intriguing story here with a number of memorable performances, most notably by J.K. Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, and John Lithgow.

The story structure is interesting in first showing us revealing snippets of Wolff’s childhood struggles with autism, and then abruptly moving deep into Wolff’s hero’s journey as a 40-year-old accountant. Or rather his anti-hero’s journey, as Wolff may be a genius but he has used his genius to help some really bad dudes. As is typical of a hero, Wolff is missing something important that he must find to obtain true happiness. In this case, it is a connection with people. The character of Dana Cummings enters his life to help him discover this missing quality.

I also enjoyed The Accountant more than I expected. While there were a few plot holes, they weren’t too egregious as to interrupt my enjoyment of the film. We’ve been fed a lot of “superhero” movies this year, and in many ways, the Accountant is a superhero as well. He has super intelligence as well as super fighting and weapons abilities. In many ways, the Accountant is similar to Affleck’s other role of late – Batman.

In writing circles we have a concept called “Saving the Cat.” This is an act by an otherwise rough character that softens his persona for the audience. In The Accountant, Wolff saves Dana’s life in a situation that amounts to pure altruism. He has no stake in her survival, yet he goes out of his way, risking his own life and his mission to get Dana to a safe place. This ingratiates him to us, and so his anti-hero status is softened.

That’s an interesting cat concept, Greg. Our hero Wolff is a complex character, helping out bad guys but also revealing fabulous mental superpowers and saving people like Dana. We may not agree with his criminal associations, but we empathize with his severe autism and can understand how he was led down a dark path by his father’s parenting failures. It didn’t help that Wolff is mentored in prison by Lamar Black (Jeffrey Tambor) who shares with Wolff the secrets of cooking the books.

Yes, Wolff has a couple of dark mentors. I found it curious that his father took him out of the special school for autistic children, yet Wolff gave copious sums to them as donations. It implies that the school acted as a mentor to his inner self, rather than to his physical capacities or to train his autistic mind.

I had trouble with labeling the father as a dark mentor. After all, he taught Wolff to defend himself against bullies. However, both Wolff and his brother end up in the employ of seedy characters doing dark deeds. In the end, their father’s military training does appear to be dark mentoring.

Good point about the father. We go out of our way to label these characters as either good mentors or dark mentors, but in doing so we lose sight of the fact that most fathers are probably a mix of both good and bad. That certainly seems to be the case with Wolff. Should we create a category of mentor called the mixed mentor? Something to chew on.

Overall, The Accountant grabbed my interest from the outset and held my attention for the full two hours. I wanted to know what happened to this struggling little boy with the cold, demanding father. And then when we find out, I wanted to know if the struggling man, who is still a boy in many ways, can finally grow up and transform into something better. The answer is yes, and I was left fully satisfied as a moviegoer. I doubt The Accountant will win any awards but it did win my heart. I give it 4 Reels out of 5.

As mentioned, this film portrays the hero’s journey in an unconventional way, giving us an overview of Wolff’s childhood and then jumping ahead 30 years to Wolff in early middle-age. This is the point in the story when Wolff is ripe for transformation, as his love interest enters his life and he has several “moments of truth” to deal with. Wolff’s journey is not one that we see very often in the movies, and I enjoyed it. I give him a rating 3 Heroes out of 5.

Mentorship has a strong presence in this movie. In addition to Wolff’s two darkish mentors, J. K. Simmons’ character, Ray King, serves as a strong and also darkish mentor to his protégé  Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). The mentors in this film earn a rating of 4 Mentors out of 5.

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The Accountant was a surprise in many ways. Firstly, it made an accountant interesting – quite the daring feat. Secondly, the accountant in this story is fairly emotionless. That is a difficult role for an actor. Such other notable characters in film come to mind – Spock from the Star Trek franchise and the eponymous Lucy from 2014. Affleck really delivered the goods. While he was characteristically stoic throughout the film, we definitely came to sympathize and ultimately root for him in the end. And while this was clearly an action/adventure, there was plenty of character development and relationships at play. Pile on that this was an origin story for a new kind of superhero (which often takes up half a film), and you can see that a lot was packed into 120 minutes. I also award 4 out of 5 Reels.

I think this is a bit of an anti-hero story, Scott. As we note in our book “Reel Heroes & Villains,” the anti-hero is an otherwise villainous character who is the protagonist. Wolff deals on the wrong side of the law and kills with impunity. However, we see him apply his super skill to save an old farming couple and Dana. I liked this anti-hero and award him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And while I agree with your assessment of the mentors in this film, dark though they were, I don’t have as much enthusiasm for them as you do. They are pretty average mentors that we have seen before. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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The Girl on the Train ••1/2

the_girl_on_the_trainStarring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson, Paula Hawkins
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2016


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Hey Scott, is this the sequel to Gone Girl – on a Train?

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

Either that or it’s a sequel to Girl on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) who travels drunk into the city every day on the train. She passes the house she lived in with her (now) divorced husband, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Next door to them is the beautiful couple Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) with whom Rachel is obsessed. One day, Rachel observes Megan having an affair with a man who is not her husband and Rachel is distraught.

Rachel’s life gets more complicated when one day, while drunk, she follows Megan toward the entrance to a tunnel. She blacks out and wakes up at home bloodied and caked with dirt. She later discovers that she is suspected by police of murdering Megan. Rachel also discovers that the man Megan was seeing was a psychiatrist whom Megan was seeing professionally — until the professional relationship turned romantic. The situation gets very tense and complicated as Rachel confronts Scott with this information.

The Girl on the Train is the epitome of the “unreliable narrator”. We observe the world through Rachel’s point of view – but it’s the point of view of a deeply troubled woman. She was unable to have  a child with her husband and feels deep guilt and remorse over that. She begins drinking and blacking out. Then, after her husband has an affair with the realtor (Anna), he divorces Rachel and marries the realtor. The new couple now have a child and Rachel can’t bear the thought of them having the life she wants. So she breaks into their house and takes the child – however returns her right away. Rachel is one troubled soul.

As the main character, Rachel is the hero of the story. But she’s not the typical hero. She has few redeeming qualities. She abuses alcohol, she is a burden on her friends, she’s a child abductor, and she lives like a voyeur through the life of Megan and her husband. But we sympathize with her because she is so deeply wounded by the loss of the life she could have had. Despite her shortcomings, she is a pathetic character who has hit rock bottom, and we want her to get help.

Greg, for me the The Girl on the Train is a melodrama stitched together like a made-for-TV movie. About a third of the film is devoted to close-ups of Rachel’s face looking sad, confused, and concerned. The story plays out like a mystery — is Rachel a terrible and crazy person responsible for Megan’s death? Or is she a victim of brainwashing and abuse? It takes an interminably long time to unravel the mystery and get passed 25 minutes of Rachel’s dazed face, but we finally do get an answer.

There is a hero’s journey of sorts. Her journey to the dark, unfamiliar world begins when she recovers from an alcoholic blackout all bloodied and filthy. She is a suspect in Megan’s disappearance and is kicked out of her sister’s home. Heroes usually lack a missing quality that they must discover or recover to succeed on their journey. Megan has about a dozen such missing qualities; she lacks sobriety, clarity, self-confidence, courage, resilience, and overall sanity. Eventually, she does learn that she’s not crazy and that Tom has abused and brainwashed her.

So in terms of mentoring, Tom could be viewed as her Dark Mentor. Like many predators, he has groomed his victim and laid waste to her self-esteem. Good heroes are gradually able to extricate themselves from the nefarious influence of dark mentors, and Rachel does just this, although she appears to do it on her own without much positive mentoring. The psychiatrist (Edgar Ramírez) seemingly tries to mentor Megan and Rachel, but he just fills up space in this movie by representing an attractive male love interest with an exotic accent.

I think you’re being too harsh on this film, Scott. I thought the exposition of a mystery through the eyes of both the prime suspect and a hero with a faulty memory was compelling. I was constantly on the edge of my seat wondering who murdered Megan, and could it possibly be our hero? I was kept in suspense up to the end of the film. I’d recommend this movie to a friend.

However, I have to agree with you on the mentoring element of the story. While Rachel does have a friend who lets her live in a spare room, there are no guides for her. She has to depend on herself – someone who is inherently undependable. She must solve the mystery of the murder using her own faulty wits. She is on her own in this story.

I guess we just disagree, Greg, which is fine as long as we agree that I’m more right than you are.

The Girl on the Train is a mystery story that failed to hold my interest despite a premise that could have worked had the the director, Tate Taylor, been less obsessed with Emily Blunt’s face and more concerned with plot and character development. Our hero Rachel is riddled with more problems than I can ever remember a hero having — divorce, unemployment, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, a suspect in a murder case, and more. She’s a total mess yet somehow, without any help, clears up the mystery. I was not impressed. The Girl on the Train deserves to be shamed with a rating of 1 Reel out of 5.

As I’ve mentioned, there is a hero’s journey but it seems unlikely that Rachel could overcome so many serious problems without a huge team of therapists, self-help groups, and several years of healing. Yet she does gain clarity about the true nature of Tom’s abuse and thus enjoys a true personal triumph, not to mention a triumph over evil. But there aren’t very elements of the classic hero’s journey beyond the departure, suffering, and (hopefully) a transformation. So I can only award Rachel 2 Heroes out of 5.

The mentoring is pretty non-existent in the film, which is unfortunate given that we’ve never encountered a hero who needed more mentoring than Rachel. Just another example of this film’s sloppy lack of credibility. A Mentor rating of 1 out of 5 seems generous.

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The Girl on the Train is a taut psychological mystery/thriller that had me guessing at every turn. It’s difficult to write for an unreliable narrator, and as it turns out, Rachel is as unreliable as they come. Her frequent blackouts leave her with the inability to depend on anyone, least of all herself. She falls so deep into despair that she even wonders if she committed murder. It’s pretty rare for me to become so enrapt in a character’s world that I forget that I’m in a theater. The Girl on the Train did just that for me. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

I don’t know what more you need for a transformational character, Scott. Here we have someone who is so very flawed that her own life is in danger. By the end of the film, however, she sidesteps her disabilities, solves the case, dispatches the villain, and gets the help she needs to overcome her alcoholism. This is a classic redeemed hero story. I give Rachel 4 out of 5 Heroes.

But we agree on the mentoring. There isn’t anyone helping Rachel on her journey and in that sense I have to agree with you that the story lacks some credibility. I would have liked to have seen at least one friend who lent moral support. I give the mentors in The Girl on the Train just 1 Mentor out of 5.

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