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Alien: Covenant •••

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Will you enter into a covenant with me to review the latest Alien movie?


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

No doubt the words from this review will explode from the page. Let’s recap.


We meet newly minted android David (Michael Fassbender) who has been invented by genius Weyland. Then, we flash forward to the future where the crew of the Covenant is awakened by android Walter (also Michael Fassbender) from cryogenic sleep because their ship has run into trouble. The Covenant is a colony ship taking 2000 colonists to a terra-formed planet. While repairing the ship, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) receives a message from a nearby planet. He makes a plan to go to the planet, against the advice of his second in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston).


A team of crew members descend to the planet and notice it is void of any animal or insect species. They discover a ship that had crash-landed there years earlier. Two crew members become infected with tiny microorganisms that soon morph into creatures that explode from the crew members’ bodies. The landing craft is destroyed and android David appears on the scene to rescue the remaining crew by taking them to a sheltered area. Soon the truth about David’s motives and his past actions on the planet becomes horrifyingly clear.


Alien: Covenant is a proper prequel to the franchise started with the original Alien film from 1979. The other so-called prequel, 2012’s Prometheus was a confusing mish-mash of science fiction tropes that never quite jelled as a coherent story. There was a lot of confusion about whether Prometheus occurred within the same universe as Alien – both among fans and the filmmakers. Alien: Covenant aims to knit the story lines of the four Alien stories with the less popular Prometheus. And I think it succeeds.

Sadly, however, Alien: Covenant is not only predictable, but borrows so heavily from Alien and 1986’s Aliens that there is nothing new to see here. When we see two identical androids, we know that there’s going to be the ol’ switcheroo at some point. It’s an idea older than Star Trek’s “Enemy Within” episode with two Kirks. We aren’t surprised when there are pods in David’s basement and a “face-hugger” erupts and kills Oram. We are only surprised that Oram is so clueless as to put his face into the pod as it slowly, menacingly, opens and undulates. We saw all of this in the classic Alien films so it doesn’t shock us as it once did.


Greg, I think you’ve pretty much nailed the main issues with this movie. It’s time for the producers and writers of the Alien franchise to make a decision about what its goals are and where it should be heading. Ridley Scott, are you listening? Yes, when we go to an Alien movie, we do harbor the sick need to see razor-toothed neo-creatures explosively burst out of live human bodies. Alien: Covenant gives us three cool body-explosions with aliens chewing their way out of a man’s back, another man’s stomach (very old-school), and one out of a man’s mouth. The CGI effects are sickeningly realistic and we love it.

But what’s the point? As you’ve said, Greg, we’ve seen this before and we’ve also seen “synthetics” who oscillate between good and evil. The franchise desperately needs to move forward with fresh storylines that go beyond mere survival from face-hugging biological weaponry. The idea of a Prometheus race of superhumans who created homosapiens on earth is promising but the concept is barely explored in these past two Ridley Scott films. Let’s hope we see some much-needed inventiveness in the next Alien installment — and this inventiveness needs to extend further than showing a new bodily orifice from which a creature explodes.


The hero structure is a bit muddied. We’re not sure who we’re following in this film. At first it looks like we’re following Walter since he’s the android running the ship when the prologue is over. Then it looks like an ensemble where we’re following the crew of 12. But then the story appears to focus on Captain Oram and his difficult decisions to both save the colonists and his crew. But ultimately, it is Daniels who is the hero of the story since the rest of the crew is picked off one-by-one and Oram gets an embrace from an alien. I found it hard to know who was the main character.

As far as transformations go, there aren’t any to speak of. Oh sure, people are transformed into alien fodder. And aliens seem to go from pods to full-grown Xenomorph. Nobody really learns anything. Daniels seems like a strong character at the beginning and it’s no surprise when she goes full “Ripley” on the alien when the chips are down. This is a classic horror film set in outer space. No one really needs to grow or change since scaring the audience is the priority.


You’re right, we have a large hero ensemble operating here, although it could be argued that ultimately this is a story of two cyborgs, Walter and David, who operate not as buddy heroes but as rival heroes. The human characters are a large group and so we don’t really have sufficient time to bond with any of them, which is unfortunate. They all die one by one, and in true Ridley Scott fashion, at the end the remaining hero is a woman who is at the mercy of evil forces beyond her control. The filmmakers here have once again set the table up perfectly for a sequel.

Although it is true that there are no real transformations among the humans, the synthetic David has undergone a transformation toward the dark side. The unfortunate aspect of his transformation is that it occurs off-camera and we’re only told (sort of) how he came to destroy the Promethians and why he is now enamored with the alien creatures. There are a lot of physical transformations going on among the Xenomorphs, some of them inexplicable, but these physical changes are consistent with previous incarnations of the Alien franchise.


Alien: Covenant is a good prequel to the Alien series and a much better addition to the franchise than Prometheus. While I was entertained, there wasn’t much depth to the story and we didn’t see much that we haven’t seen before. I give Alien: Covenant 3 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes are hard to measure. In the end, I would say that Daniels is the hero as she is the last woman standing. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5. Finally, the transformations are hard to find as well. Daniels seems to go from a submissive follower to a true leader and warrior. I give her transformation 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


We’re basically on the same page here, Greg. A total of 3 Reels out of 5 seems about right for a movie that delivers all the blood-splattering alien killings that we hope for in an Alien film. One hopes that the next installment introduces some fresh storytelling ideas. Daniels is certainly one of the heroes in this ensemble, but I see the duo of synthetic beings, Walter and David, as the main hero pairing. Their story is fairly solid but hardly memorable, and so 2 Hero points out of 5 seems right to me. The paucity of transformations is another weakness of this film, so like you, Greg, I can only award 2 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Snatched ••1/2

Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Kim Caramele
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenplay: Katie Dippold
Action/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: May 12, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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It looks like Amy Schumer snatched Goldie Hawn out of retirement.


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

It also looks like this movie snatched two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. Let’s recap.


Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) is working in a retail fashion store when she’s fired. Then her musician boyfriend dumps her. But she’s got non-refundable tickets to South America. So, she invites her mother, reclusive Linda Middleton (Goldie Hawn) to come along. They arrive to a paradise-like setting where Emily meets handsome local man James (Tom Bateman). They enjoy the day together and party all night long. James promises to pick Emily up the next morning.


Sure enough, James picks up Emily, who also brings her mom. James takes them on the scenic route through Ecuador, meaning they drive through some scary looking remote towns. A van smashes into James’ car deliberately and the two women are kidnapped. The kidnappers demand a ransom from Emily’s brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) who is hopelessly agoraphobic.


Scott, Snatched is the latest film from popular comedian Amy Schumer. It’s a great follow-up to her 2015 debut Trainwreck. We’ve reviewed a number of horror and comedy films in the last few weeks and commiserated on the fact that very often story gives way to shock effect. But Schumer understands story structure and her films deliver a story and comedy in one fell swoop.

Emily is a likable yet flawed young woman who really can’t get out of her own way. She’s bawdy and sassy and very funny. She has a missing inner quality in that she lacks empathy. She is very self-centered which is obvious when she’s stuck with vacation tickets and can’t get anyone to go with her. So, she guilt-trips her mother to go with her. Not because her mother needs a vacation, but because Emily doesn’t want to go alone.

As the story unfolds, we witness both mother and daughter bonding during their captivity and escape. We see two strong female characters who stand up for themselves and ultimately rescue each other. While Emily is not a great role model at the beginning of the film, she becomes the hero we hope she can be by putting her mother ahead of herself. It’s a great transformative hero’s journey – which is funny at the same time.


Greg, I’m sorry that I don’t share your enthusiasm for this film. Snatched is a lightweight comedy that squanders the talents of Amy Schumer and reminds us why Goldie Hawn is rarely seen in the movies. Any older woman actor could have played Hawn’s character, but only Schumer could make her character work. Schumer specializes in playing quirky, pathetic, yet likable characters. Emily is not simply a lovable loser; she’s a funny lovable loser who almost makes Snatched worth watching.

The film suffers from a painfully predictable plot that could have been redeemed had there been some laugh-out-loud moments. But there are none. I’ll give Snatched credit for portraying several significant transformations. As a result of her ordeal, Emily does become less selfish. Linda appears to re-discover her inner free spirit. And Jeffrey conquers his agoraphobia. The presence of these transformations proves that they are a necessary but not a sufficient ingredient of a good movie. In a quality movie, there is an interesting story, clever writing, or stellar acting (sorry, Goldie). Snatched Is sadly lacking those qualities.


This is a classic buddy-hero story with Emily and Linda at opposite ends of the adventure spectrum. Emily learns that in her younger days, her mother was quite the risk-taker – living on the edge and having fun. Emily feels her mother needs to recapture that free spirit. And Linda feels that Emily needs to get more centered, more practical. So, in classic buddy-hero fashion, the two work on each other and draw to a center. They normalize each other. Linda becomes more adventuresome, and Emily becomes more … adult.

And that is also where the transformations take place. We see an emotional transformation for both Emily and Linda. Brother Jeffrey also overcomes his agoraphobia when he realizes his mother and sister are in danger. He must leave the house and face the outside world. This is a story of how sometimes families get stuck in a rut and need a big event to shake things up. The ‘snatching’ of Emily and Linda is the event that shakes up everyone’s world and causes them all to reevaluate their lives.


Snatched is a sad bump in the road in Amy Schumer’s meteoric career, an aberration of underachievement from someone who has proven star power. This film is a throwaway comedy with no real redeeming value. The jokes are few and far between and there isn’t much at all to commend the predictable plot and substandard acting from Goldie Hawn. The most I can muster is a rating of 2 Reels out of 5, and that even feels generous.

As you point out, Greg, this is a buddy hero story with one buddy who is funny (Emily) and the other who is the film’s weak link (Linda). There is a clear hero’s journey, with our two heroes thrown into the hands of criminals and forced to acquire the resourcefulness necessary to extricate themselves. There are no surprises, only pointless predictability. But there is an identifiable hero’s journey and so I’ll give our heroes 3 Hero points out of 5.

The transformations are so obvious they are sledgehammered into the film, proving that a good movie needs a lot more than significant character transformation. Enough has been said on this topic and about this disappointing film. I award our heroes 3 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


I thought Snatched was another notch in Amy Schumer’s comedy belt. It was a funny premise delivered well. Emily and Linda are not your standard “damsels in distress.” They take control and ultimately exact revenge on the villains. I laughed out loud and happily award 3 out of 5 Reels.

These are standard buddy heroes. Similar to the Odd Couple from the sixties, one is out of control and the other is a control freak. Between them they learn to work together and save the day. I give them a standard 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the transformations are telegraphed from the beginning – I’ll give you that, Scott. We know Emily is going to become selfless. We know Linda is going to loosen up. And we aren’t the least bit surprised when Jeffrey calls in the cavalry. I give this standard transformation 3 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 •••

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn, Dan Abnett
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 136 minutes
Release Date: May 5, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, looks like the galaxy needs saving yet again. Do you think the Guardians are equal to the task?


My opinion is guarded at best. Let’s recap:


The Guardians are back: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel). The group has been asked by the Sovereign race to fight and destroy a huge monster from another dimension. In exchange, the Guardians receive custody of Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). When the Sovereigns discover that Rocket has stolen valuable batteries, they give chase and force the Guardians to crash land on nearby planet.


And who should be on that planet but Quill’s long lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell). He wants Quill to work with him to rule the galaxy. Ego teaches Quill to draw power from the planet to create magical power balls and other stuff. Meanwhile, Nebula has escaped and is in search of Gamora to kill her. And Drax is making friends with Ego’s sidekick, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff). While Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) are searching the galaxy for their lost friends. It’s wild and wacky mayhem in a galaxy not so far, far away.


Greg, Guardians Vol. 2 fascinated me. I couldn’t help think that this entertaining screenplay was penned by a group of Marvel writers who were a bit inebriated — by alcohol and by the unparalleled success of their movie studio. Guardians Vol. 2 is Marvel’s 15th straight number one opening at the domestic box office. And this movie feels like a film drunk on its own success.

What this means exactly is that the movie winks at itself and is saturated with irreverence. David Hasselhoff from Baywatch makes a cameo; the soundtrack thunders with 1970s hits; a giant pac-man swallows up the villain; and we learn that Drax has sensitive nipples and generates large turds. Just when I thought that the film was missing a reference to Mary Poppins, sure enough we got one.

Marvel films have always boasted some of these droll elements, but along with Deadpool I think the studio has now crossed the line into the comedy genre and is veering perilously close to Spaceballs in the wisecracking department. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Guardians Vol. 2. But let’s not begin to think about this movie as a serious hero story packed with meaningful life lessons. Guardians Vol. 2 is a high-quality space comedy, and coupled with Deadpool it underscores the increased comedic trajectory of Marvel.


If by “high-quality” you mean that the filmcraft was excellent, then I’ll agree. The CGI, camerawork, and acting are all first-rate. But the story lacked any coherence. The main plotline seemed to be Quill’s reuniting with his father and mending the pain of being abandoned by him. The secondary plot involved sisters Gamora and Nebula reconciling after years of sibling rivalry. So, the theme of this movie seems to be “family”.

But there was scant little plot. There was no “main goal” to be acquired. Rather, we’re to be sustained by the ongoing mystery of “who is Ego” and a ton of wisecracks. If Guardians is, indeed, a spoof or farce, then story may fall prey to comedy. As we’ve seen recently, horror and comedy stories often lack strong story lines as they, instead, rely on shock and awe.

However, I expect more from Marvel and from my science fiction adventure films. There wasn’t a clear villain in this story until the very end when Ego is revealed to be evil. Without a strong villain, you cannot have a strong hero. And so, Quill is just following his father along until he realizes that he’s not a very nice guy and must be destroyed. But this realization doesn’t occur until the three-quarter mark and by then it’s much too late. I was hopelessly bored by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.


I can see your point, Greg. We’ve watched plenty of movies that are long on comedy and short on storytelling. I don’t think Guardians Vol. 2 is the best example of movies of this type. There are two stories running parallel here, one involving family division moving toward reconciliation (or lack thereof) and the other focusing on the Guardians’ mission to save the universe. The two stories are effectively intertwined, too, with the seemingly good dad, Ego, turning out to be the father from hell, and the seemingly bad dad, Yondu, turning out to be the terrific father. Ego’s efforts to destroy the universe must be stopped and our heroes do the job.

The transformations here are interesting. Quill, Gamora, and Nebula glean significant insights about family, loyalty, and love. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains, we call this a mental transformation. The character of Yondu seems to especially evolve into selfless heroism, undergoing a moral transformation. Nebula also experiences significant emotional and moral transformations. So all told, I’ll have to rate the film highly on this dimension.


The traits we look for in heroes are here. Quill looks to do the right thing by himself and his crew. Gamora is loyal to Quill and her friends. And even when battling her estranged sister, shows mercy and compassion.

The transformations are less clear. Quill doesn’t seem changed by his experience. He’s still “Star Lord” by the end of the film. And while Gamora and Nebula have reconciled, they’re still who they were at the beginning of the film. And Drax and Rocket continue to be Drax and Rocket. And this should come as no surprise – as this is a franchise film. The films are episodic. So, we need our characters to reset at the end of each episode. We keep coming back to these films because we expect to see the characters we’ve come to know and love. So, any true transformation is squelched by the need to return the characters to their initial states.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 represents another Marvel triumph, despite my misgivings about their film products slowly evolving in farce. We have strong, memorable characters comprising the heroic ensemble; there are two parallel-running plots that satisfy us emotionally; and we are treated to remarkable CGI effects. The opening 5-minute scene featuring a dance number by Baby Groot dazzles us and is worth the price of admission by itself. I am concerned that Marvel films are morphing into a theater of the absurd, but even with this concern I would be a curmudgeon to award this film anything less than 4 Reels out of 5.

These Guardians remain a diverse and highly enjoyable set of heroes. As you mention, Greg, they possess many heroic traits and their strengths complement one another. They go on a pretty standard hero’s journey, encounter unexpected friends along with a surprising villain, they undergo change, and they live up to their job description by saving the galaxy. The timeless message at film’s end is that the main hero, Quill, had the secret to success within him all along. I see every reason to award this hero ensemble a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, I’m surprised you don’t see as much hero transformation going on as I do. Perhaps you are focusing only on inner transformation, which is understandable since that’s how we describe the concept of transformation in our last Reel Heroes book. But I can’t overlook the power of relationship transformation. Relationships in this film undergo vast change — consider the relationships between (1) Quill and Ego, (2) Quill and Yondu, and (3) Gamora and Nebula. They are all completely metamorphosized. And each relationship metamorphosis reflects deep changes within each party involved in the relationship. As such, I award this film 4 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


I guess I’m a curmudgeon, then, Scott. I was totally bored by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This was a CGI fest with no story to speak of. I wasn’t impressed with Quill’s gradual realization that Ego was a bad guy. And I wasn’t impressed with Rocket and Yondu flying through 700 wormholes. And I wasn’t impressed with the battle between the two sisters Gamora and Nebula. There was no plot and that left me waiting for over 2 hours for something to happen. I give Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 only 2 out of 5 Reels.

These are bland heroes with no particular qualities that made me care about them. Yondu in particular has always been a sort of gray moral character. So when he was revealed to be a father figure for Quill, I was not bowled over. I didn’t feel any sense of loss when he died. I give these characters just 2 Heroes out of 5.

And while I’ll grant you some relationship deltas, Scott. This is an action adventure and I wanted to see something more for transformations. This was not a romantic comedy or drama – so a relationship transformation isn’t interesting. But as I said before, these are episodic heroes and transformation is not in their model. I give them 2 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

The Circle 1/2

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it’s time to circle the wagons and review The Circle.


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

I’m coming around to it, Greg. Thanks for keeping me in the loop. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to young Mae (Emma Watson). She works in a dull cubicle job collecting money for the water department. When one day, her best friend calls and says she got an interview with “The Circle” – an Apple/Google/Facebook-like company that specializes in social media software. The interview is a bit bizarre, but she gets in and can’t wait to get started.


Mae begins working at the Circle and immediately realizes that she is expected to make the job her entire life — her friends, activities, and parties are all arranged by the Circle. At one of these parties she meets Ty Leffit (John Boyega), one of the mythical founders of the Circle who has now gone incognito. Mae realizes that Ty doesn’t revere the Circle as everyone else seems to. Soon Mae is taken under the wing of Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who uses Mae to demonstrate the formidable power of social media.


Scott, The Circle is a movie that cannot find its center. On the one hand it wants to show us the scary side of social media and technology. On the other hand, it seems to solve all problems by adding technology to our lives.

The company introduces a mini-cam that is the size of an eyeball and can be glued to any standing structure. The idea is that it can see everything all the time. We’re never shown the downside of this but we’re led to believe there is one.

Then Mae goes “transparent” – broadcasting her every move to the world. But it gets scary when she accidentally broadcasts her parents having sex.

Then she outs a fugitive using the ubiquity of cellphone cameras. But then her best friend is killed when the same social media tool is used to chase him down. We can never tell what this film is trying to say – is technology good or bad?


I think it’s trying to say that it’s both. It’s good when used wisely and bad when used unwisely. Kind of like money, sex, marriage, and a million other things that can be good or bad.

The Circle is a well-intentioned movie about the dangers of technology in compromising our privacy. Alas, good intentions do not necessarily translate into good movies. There are major problems with this film that make me surprised that actors as seasoned as Tom Hanks and Emma Watson would agree to be a part of it.

First, this theme of technology invading privacy is hardly new. This topic has been bandied about for many years. Second, the way the storyline unfolds is painfully predictable. We know from the start that the Circle is evil, and so the ending of the film is entirely anticlimactic. Third, Emma Watson fails to portray a character who convincingly evolves from naivety to revelation. She just sort of changes one day without us seeing it happen. That’s simply bad filmmaking.


I cannot measure just how disappointed I was in this film. If you want to see both sides of an issue look at the filmcraft of Eye in the Sky. Here, three points of view about the collateral death of a young girl during a bombing the middle east are presented. It leaves the conclusions to the audience, but it makes clear that there are no good solutions.

But The Circle simply moves from one technical issue to the next with no resolution to speak of. And the writer seemed to have no comprehension of how technology works. We were dragged into an abandoned subway where apparently hard drives would be spun up with information on each of us. In fact, data is distributed across the globe to promote redundancy.

On top of that are glaring contradictions in philosophy. In one scene, Mae is devastated by the loss of her friend Mercer who died at the hands of a social media chase she instigated. She apparently has shunned technology. And so she reaches out to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) – using her cell phone. She’s in a video chat with her friend and says: “I like this. This personal connection. This is the way people should communicate.”

This was a serious face-palm moment for me. Apparently, using the internet to have a personal conversation is alright. But using the same technology to talk to a hundred people is not. Apparently talking by way of videophone is better than meeting in person. The movie is rife with these contradictions. It was maddening.


The hero’s journey is boring and predictable. Mae is excited to join the Circle and we know from the get-go that she will eventually come around to seeing the Circle as the evil entity that it plainly is. There’s not a single surprise in this movie. The only surprise is that the film was made and that good actors found themselves trapped in the Circle.

So while Mae does undergo a transformation, we aren’t impressed because we know it’s going to happen about 10 minutes into the film. And even though Mae transforms, it’s not clear in her acting that it’s happened. You don’t see it in her eyes or in her gait or anywhere — except in the speech she gives to trap Bailey at the end. This movie is a true yawner.


I don’t have your talent for clairvoyance, apparently, Scott. I can’t see what isn’t there. There is no hero’s journey in this film. We never get to see what the leaders of The Circle want. We never see Mae overcome an obstacle because every obstacle is replaced with something beneficial: When Mercer dies, The Circle invents self-driving cars to eliminate car accidents. When The Circle realizes that all voting age people are members, they create democratic voting online. Is this good or bad? We can’t tell because the ramifications of these acts are never shown.

In the final act, when Mae exposes all of The Circle’s emails, Tom Hanks turns to his henchman and says “we’re fucked.” But we don’t know why they’re fucked – because we never saw a single email they sent. No conflict means no transformation and no story.

The Circle is the most nonsensical movie you will see this year. It has no opinions about technology. Most of the technological issues it presents have been dealt with in the recent past – and in some cases decades ago. Some very fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Watson are wasted. I recently called out The Promise as a cause film which did not serve its cause. The Circle is a cause film without a cause. If you avoid one movie this year, make it The Circle. I give it zero out of 5 Reels.

Mae is a likable and naive young woman with noble intentions. She loves her parents and wants to help them. She likes her friend Mercer, even if she can’t return his love. But she never encounters any real obstacles and so can never grow. As a hero, she gets a mere 1 Hero out of 5.

There are no transformations in this story. Except that I was transformed from alert and watchful to bored and sleepy. I give The Circle zero Deltas out of 5.

Movie: 0  Transformations: 0  Heroes:


The Circle certainly was a gigantic disappointment. This movie should have gone straight to DVD or blu-ray. The plot is painfully predictable and the issues about technology are not explored in any depth or in any way that holds our interest. Only true diehard fans of Tom Hanks or Emma Watson may want to give this film a look. No one else should dare go near. I give this movie 1 Reel out of 5.

Mae’s hero journey is mapped out for us from the very start, and so it’s a major disappointment not seeing a single surprise from start to finish. We’ve already talked about the lack of any meaningful transformations, so let’s get right to the ratings: 1 Hero point out of 5, and 1 transformation Delta out of 5, too.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

The Promise •1/2

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale
Director: Terry George
Screenplay: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, do you promise to review this next movie with me?


OK. But I don’t see much promise in a 5-Reel review. Let’s recap:


The story begins in 1914 with a young apothecary named Mikael (Oscar Isaac) leaving his small town of Sirun in Turkey to attend medical school in Constantinople. Mikael promises to marry a young woman in Sirun and uses her dowry to finance his schooling. At med school, Mikael meets Emri (Marwan Kenzari), the nephew of a high ranking Turkish government official. Mikael also meets Chris (Christian Bale), an American AP reporter, and Chris’s lovely girlfriend Ana (Charlotte Le Bon).


It’s not long before Mikael falls in love with Ana. But their stars are crossed because just as they realize their love, the Turks attack the Armenians. Emri is drafted into the army and Mikael is captured as a slave to lay train tracks for the Turkish army. Chris goes undercover to report on the atrocities the Turkish army commits against the Armenian people while Ana works with churches to save orphans. Mikael escapes from the Turkish army and returns to his village where he marries his betrothed and goes into hiding.


Greg, The Promise is a decent movie that could have been, perhaps should have been, a grand, sweeping, memorable epic. The story of the genocide of the Armenian people deserved Oscar-worthy treatment. There is the tremendous suffering of an entire people, death on an unimaginable scale, incredible heroism, the worst kind of villainy, treachery, bravery, romance, and more. Yet we’re only left with a semi-decent movie. That’s really a shame.

What went wrong exactly? Greg, I’m sure you have your opinions and I’m eager to hear them. My own feeling is that this film is a near-miss. The filmmakers’ treatment of the genocide is done well, but the romantic triangle involving Mikael, Ana, and Chris has all the depth and complexity of a slice of white bread. These three lovers are all brave, selfless heroes who show no reaction to the triangle except show acceptance of it and tolerance for the other parties involved. That’s commendable, I suppose, but it’s hardly the stuff of good drama. By the end of the movie I was left wondering why they bothered to include so much material about a love triangle that goes nowhere.


Scott, we’ve seen a lot of “cause” movies in the last 5 years – and we’re going to see more soon, I guarantee. The problem with “cause” films is that they serve more to educate the audience about the cause than to deliver a compelling story. The Promise breaks its promise because it doesn’t let us know it is a cause film. It draws us in with the promise of a story about love in a distant land. Instead, it delivers a one-sided view of the Armenian genocide. The would have done better to create a documentary.

You’re right, Scott. The Promise is a lackluster story of three people we don’t really care about. We never spend enough time with these people to “bind” with them and develop an affinity towards them that would make us care when something bad happens. When we see a village of Armenians left for dead in a river, they are a nameless, faceless mass and it is hard to get worked up over their demise. To make this even more difficult to get invested in this film, this is an event that happened in a foreign land, to a foreign people, over one hundred years ago. It’s just not compelling enough to make a difference in our everyday lives. In addition, there’s no “call to action.” What do we do with this new information? We can’t bring these poor people back from the dead. We are left with a “so what” feeling since we don’t know these people, they have been dead over 100 years, and the story we were promised was a ruse to give us a history lesson. It’s just not engaging.


Well, in this film’s defense, there are plenty of compelling historical movies showing the atrocities of human evil. I’m thinking of Schindler’s List, for example. If done well, these movies tell an important story that can be riveting and must never be forgotten. The Promise just isn’t in the same league as Schindler’s List, for reasons that we’ve both mentioned.

All three major characters in The Promise are put to the test multiple times throughout the film, and all three show gallantry and courage to the extreme. The severe situations confronting them brought our steely resolve and inspiring selflessness. My main complaint is that the characters are a bit too perfect. Effective characters, even heroes, have flaws, and in fact a hero’s flaws make her even more heroic, or at least give her more heroic potential. The only flaw we see among Mikael, Anna, and Chris is perhaps Chris’s occasional heaving drinking. We need more depth from our heroes for them to come alive on the screen and for us to relate to them.


Actually, I had little sympathy for Mikael and Ana because they were adulterers. Mikael had taken a woman’s dowry with the promise to become a doctor and return to marry her and raise a family in their village. Ana is attached to Chris but takes up with Mikael. Mikael falls in love with Ana and begins to make plans to leave his betrothed. This is not a situation where he was left with no other options. He simply preferred Ana over his fiance. He’s a bit of a jerk and I didn’t have any sympathy for his plight.  When war breaks out, Mikael is imprisoned and Ana returns to Chris expecting him to take her back. And when Mikael turns up alive, she runs back into his arms. These are not the actions of noble individuals.

As for transformations, it’s hard to see who transforms in this story. By the end of the movie, Chris is still the brave American journalist. Anna is still the adorable and charming ingenue. And Mikael is the bereaved adulterer. The lack of transformation in this story is another reason the whole story falls flat.


The Promise had promise but squandered it by juxtaposing a romance alongside the genocidal murder of almost 2 million people. If you were going to make a movie about a genocide, would you name the movie after the largely irrelevant romance that transpires during the atrocity? This miscalculation neuters the movie, leaving us unsatisfied by characters whose love lives don’t really move us in any meaningful way. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

Our three heroes have all the qualities of good heroes but are rather one-dimensional. They certainly go on the hero’s journey, encounter obstacles, collide with enemies and receive help from friends. Some aspects of these hero journeys are worth viewing but they aren’t terribly memorable. Moreover, there isn’t the all-essential hero’s transformation to be seen anywhere, except perhaps with the character of Emri, who faints during a surgical operation, has the courage to inform the US Ambassador about Chris’s imprisonment, and is then executed by the Turks. These hero journeys earn 3 Heroes out of 5, and the transformations (or lack thereof) deserve a rating of 1 transformation Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


The Promise is a lackluster story of a genocide that occurred to people we don’t know over 100 years ago. It’s hard to get worked up over the events without becoming attached to the people in the story – and the filmmakers never gave us that chance. I give The Promise 1 out of 5 Reels.

The lead characters in this story aren’t very heroic. Mikael and Ana are cheaters. Only Chris and Emri display heroic qualities that we admire. I give them 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And there are no transformations of note. Everyone ends up pretty much as they started. I give this movie 1 Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: