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Flatliners ••

Starring: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay: Peter Filardi, Ben Ripley
Drama/Horror/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: September 29, 2017




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

Greg, do you think the brainwaves of movie studio executives have flatlined?

I flat out believe that is the worst one-liner ever. Let’s recap:

A young woman named Courtney (Ellen Page) is driving and texting at the same time with a little girl in the passenger seat. The distraction causes the car to veer out of control and into a river. Nine years later, Courtney is a physician completing her residency at a prestigious hospital. She’s interested in near death experiences and wants to map the area of the brain responsible for these hallucinatory experiences. Enlisting the aid of friends Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), Courtney decides to “die” and then get revived while under a CT scanner.

Sophia stops Courtney’s heart and she has an out of body experience. Her friends are so amazed by the happenings that they in turn go through the experiment. But something goes awry. Sophia starts having illusions of someone following her. And her friends see strange things as well. Soon, they realize that they’ve brought something back with them from the great beyond – something they each will have to deal with.

Greg, this modern version of Flatliners had the potential to be something good and worthwhile but it squanders all that potential by taking the cheap and easy route to storytelling. The idea that there may be a realm of conscious existence beyond death is a fascinating concept and deserves serious treatment. This film teases us into believing it might take an earnest look at the topic but instead it devolves into a standard ghost story with an unlikely and unbelievable moral resolution.

There are so many flaws to the movie that I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps the most striking idiocy occurred when all the characters leap to the bizarre conclusion that making amends for their past transgressions will rid them of the ghosts from the afterworld. We never actually see any evidence for this strange form of posthumous justice, but I suppose the idea we’re supposed to swallow is that all bad things happen for reasons that we all have control over. If only the world were this simplistic.

I agree. This film starts out wanting to ask questions about the hereafter, but never attempts to answer them. One suggestion I’ve heard is that part of the “dying process” is to be confronted with your sins and given the opportunity to atone for them. Since our heroes never complete the journey, they bring their sins back with them. I like this point of view, but surely, it is never presented in the film.

The real annoyance here is that there is mounting evidence about near death experiences that are much more interesting than this movie. I think a documentary about the dying brain would be more entertaining than (as you call it), a standard ghost story.

There is a discernable hero’s journey here, with our heroic ensemble departing into a supernatural world. The closest thing we have to a mentor figure in this story is Diego Luna, a more seasoned resident physician who gives warnings about the dangerous nature of his colleagues’ activities. Our heroes appear to be transformed morally as a result of their experiences. Sophia must apologize to a classmate for broadcasting nude pictures of her all over her high school. Jamie must make amends to a former girlfriend whom he impregnated and abandoned. Marlo must admit that she caused a patient’s death. As I’ve mentioned, these moral transformations seem contrived to me.

Yes, while Flatliners is an updated version of the classic, it is no more moving than the original. It was enjoyable as a horror film, but certainly not as good as other horror movies we’ve seen this year. I can only give 2 out of 5 Reels for this film. The heroes are average and go through changes that make them worthy of screentime, but not very exciting. I give them 3 out of 5 Heroes. Finally, this movie is all about transformation of the ensemble heroes. I agree with you that these transformations seem contrived, so I can only award 2 out of 5 Deltas.

 Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

No doubt Flatliners fell flat, Greg. The film had more than a kernel of potential but ruined it by settling for a cheap ghost story with a silly, hollow moral twist at the end. The ensemble cast was likeable and talented but there was no reviving the deadness of this screenplay. I agree that the movie only earns 2 Reels out of 5. We do have a hero’s journey here with some familiar elements such as departure to a dangerous world, encounters with villains, mentorship, and a real, albeit contrived transformation. This movie proves that a scary story needs good storytelling, otherwise the only thing I’m scared of is going to the theater again to see more “scary” fare from these filmmakers. I’ll give our heroes 2 hero points out of 5, and 2 transformation Deltas out of 5, too.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Kingsman: The Golden Circle ••1/2

Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: September 22, 2017


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

Greg, the men of the king are back at it again.

And it looks like the men of the States are at it too. Let’s recap:

Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), an agent of the spy organization, Kingsman, is ambushed by Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a former Kingsman who is now working for drug cartel magnate Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore). Eggsy escapes but Charlie’s cybernetic arm is able to hack into Kingsman’s computer network. This allows Poppy to destroy nearly all of the Kingsman’s agents.

Only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are left. They travel to America where their counterparts – the Statesmen – are ready to help. But it’s not long before Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum) has contracted a virus implanted by Poppy in her drugs. In fact, it’s a worldwide epidemic. Poppy demands a ransom before releasing the antidote. Meanwhile, Kingsman Agent Galahad (Colin Firth) is found to be alive and joins Eggsy, Merlin, and Statesman Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to track down the antidote before everyone dies.

Greg, I was prepared to dislike this movie, as sequels are usually inferior re-treads of the original version. Somehow, Kingsman: The Golden Circle managed to entertain me far more than it had any right to. As in the original, Golden Circle features crisp and clever dialogue and several likeable characters in Eggsy, Merlin, Galahad, and Tequila.

Two complaints I have are in the length of the movie (please, VERY few movies need to exceed two hours) and in the unnecessary zaniness. I’m reminded of the last Guardians of the Galaxy film in which David Hasselhoff, a giant pac-man, and Mary Poppins all make cameos. Here it is Elton John, butterflies, and John Denver. No doubt this film never wants us to take it seriously, and I suspect this is all part of the greater problem of this movie not really knowing who its audience is.

I think I’ve figured out who the audience is – it’s 18-25 year-old young men. As much as the film is nostalgic for the original Bond movies, it’s not mature enough to reach Bond status. The gratuitous sex and violence (there is little subtlety on either account – witness a fingering of a woman’s vagina) as well as the gore make the film too adult for children. That leaves a “sweet spot” of what writers call the “New Adult” genre.

You’ve already alluded to my problems with this film. Poppy is in love with the 1950’s – yet she’s kidnapped 1970s pop star Elton John. Why? For no rational reason. Perhaps the writer/director Matthew Vaughn simply adores Elton John and wanted him in it.

And what does Vaughn have against the United States – and Kentucky in particular? In the last film, it’s American Samuel L. Jackson who is the villain. And Colin Firth shoots up a Kentucky church filled with homophobic racists. In Golden Circle we have Julianne Moore, drugs, and (once again) a Kentucky Statesman gone bad. I found the America bashing in the first film odd. But the recurrence of the “redneck American” in this film clinched it for me – Matthew Vaughn doesn’t like Americans.

Although it is true that the “Statesman” organization in Kentucky is on the side of good, you’re right that they are portrayed as British caricatures of rural America. I’m not sure why Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges agreed to play these demeaning hillbilly roles; it seems beneath them. I will give Vaughn credit for accurately portraying Donald Trump as a ruthless profiteer.

Regarding heroic transformation, our hero Eggsy doesn’t change in this film but he does mentally transform his beloved mentor, Harry Hart. The film’s mastermind villain, Julianne Moore, is pure evil and hence doesn’t change much, either. She does, however, physically transform her minions into zesty ground meat. The sheer evil of this act is jarring against the backdrop of the movie’s comedic elements.

I think you’ve nailed it, Scott. This movie borders on parody without tipping the scales enough to make it so. The violence borders on slapstick. The action borders on farce. It’s hard to decide whether to take this film seriously or to enjoy it as comedy. There’s a point where Merlin gives up his life for our heroes. It’s hard to know how to feel about this since a commonly accepted rule of comedy is that no one really gets hurt. Yet, amid this slapstick battle, a beloved character dies. It’s a bit of a confusing mess.

As for the transformations – again you’ve hit the nail on the head. Nobody really transforms in this story. Eggsy is already an accomplished spy. Galahad is returned to normal. And everyone else ends up pretty much as they started. As we’ve noted with other films this year, transformation is not the point of comedy stories. Transformation and good storytelling give way to yucks.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a fairly entertaining movie that tries hard to blend serious James Bond-like action and drama with Austin Powers-like goofiness and parody. There are some successes in this regard and some failures, resulting in an overall mixed bag that at two hours and 21 minutes is a fun but bloated ride. This is a movie that tries to be serious yet assaults us with Elton John sight gags and John Denver soundtracks. Still, the good heartfelt performances from Taron Egerton and Julianne Moore compel me to award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey here is a retread of many past spy movies involving double-agents, rival spy organizations, and irredeemable villains. This installment of the nascent Kingsman franchise reveals a hero in Eggsy that is already polished and resourceful, and so there isn’t much of a journey of self-discovery and improvement for us to witness. The best hero rating I can give is 2 out of 5. As you’ve pointed out, Greg, there is little in the way of hero transformation, other than Colin Firth evolving from brain-damaged dolt to his previous brilliant self. A transformation rating of 2 Deltas out of 5 seems fitting.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a cringe-worthy attempt to match parody with drama. It is over the top in both the sex and violence categories with individuals actually getting bifurcated. The presence of Elton John is both unnecessary and distracting. I was offended by the presentation of Americans in general, and Kentuckians specifically. I give this film just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Eggsy has evolved into a true gentleman spy – much like Bond before him. I like where they’ve taken him. And he is actually more honorable than Bond as he is in a committed relationship and hesitates to use his manly charms without permission from his woman. I give Eggsy 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The film didn’t leave much in the way of transformation for any of the characters. I can only muster 1 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Home Again ••

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Nat Wolff
Director: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Screenplay: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: September 8, 2017



Scott, it looks like Reese Witherspoon finds there’s no place like home.

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

Every good hero story is about self-discovery and home-discovery. Let’s recap.

We meet forty-year-old Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) who is separated from her husband Austin who is a music producer. She’s moving back to her childhood home with her two children Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield). Her new home is actually where she grew up with her late father who was a director of some classic films of the 1970s.

We also meet three twenty-something young men Teddy (Nat Wolff), Harry (Pico Alexander), and George (Jon Rudnitsky) who have just won a prize at a film festival. The three have been kicked out of their home for lack of payment. Harry (the director) meets Alice at a bar and they hook up. Long story short, she learns of his dilemma and invites him and his friends to move into the guest house until they get on their feet.

The three young men settle into the guest house and immediately prove themselves to be useful around the house. They also become excellent male role models for Alice’s two young children. The men also begin to get a taste of career success, although there is tension when George begins going solo professionally. Meanwhile, husband Austin misses Alice and makes a surprise visit. Sparks fly when he begins to feel threatened by Teddy, Harry, and George’s presence around Alice and the kids.

Scott, Home Again is a confusing mess. My first and biggest complaint is – why are there three men living in her guest house? That is, the three of these characters could easily have been rolled into one and the story would have been that much simpler to tell and that much easier to follow. Indeed, each of the male characters offers a dimension that Alice admires in a man. I kept thinking to myself – “This is one character with three heads.”

The other complaint I have about this movie is that it is horribly uninteresting. We never get deep enough into any one character’s issues that we care about what is happening to them. It’s a straight line from beginning to end with few twists or turns. When the estranged husband finally shows up, there’s a bit of fisticuffs and then – nothing really happens. This movie is one dull minute after another.

Therein lies the problem, Greg. There isn’t enough material here to sustain a 90-minutes movie, and so the writers split up one character into three parts for the purpose of creating more needless dialogue. We know that one of the men has a fling with Alice; another one loves her but doesn’t act on it, while the third just hangs around to offer observations about what’s happening. Two of the three also begin stealth solo careers that have no bearing on the plot whatsoever but do create needless tension among the three.

This movie tries to match the intelligence and wit of the 2009 movie, It’s Complicated. Both films feature a middle aged woman who gets divorced and is pursued again by her ex, only things are complicated by the fact that the woman is happy being on her own and has another love interest on the side. It’s Complicated benefits enormously from the performances of Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, whereas Home Again only has Reese Witherspoon — and it isn’t enough.

Home Again is a lackluster portrayal of a middle-aged woman having a fling with a younger man. It doesn’t delve deeply into anyone’s character for us to care whether this works or if it’s moral. Reese Witherspoon is wasted in this film and the direction is haphazard. I give it just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Alice is the lead character in the film and does fairly well as a hero. She’s decent and strong. In the beginning she feels she needs a man to satisfy her needs and in the end realizes that she’s fine by herself and still finds a way to mix her family in a way that everyone benefits. I give her 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And Alice’s transformation from needy and insecure to self-sufficient and secure is clumsily delivered but present nonetheless. I give her transformation 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Home Again is a vanilla ice cream cone that’s sat out in warm air too long. It’s soft and drippy, makes a mess on your hands, and is ultimately unsatisfying. I can see the comedic premise, but then again so did the makers of It’s Complicated eight years earlier, only they did a much better job. This film is a throwaway effort about which the less said the better. I give it (generously) 2 Reels out of 5.

Alice is a strong hero who, like most heroes, receives help from friends and mentors, enabling her to adjust to her new life in California. She’s a good character trapped in bad movie. A rating of 2 Hero points out of 5 seems right to me. Alice’s transformation toward greater self-confidence is notable here, but more important to me is the transformation of her children.

This film underscores how much children benefit from healthy adult role models and support figures. Overall, a Delta score of 2 out of 5 seems right to me.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Wind River ••••

Starring: Kelsey Asbille, Jeremy Renner, Julia Jones
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Crime/Drama/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: August 18, 2017


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

Greg, apparently rivers are not just wet. They are windy as well.

A young woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is shown running frantically in the snow. We learn later that she was raped and as good as murdered while fleeing in sub-zero temperatures. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers her frozen body and informs her father Dan (Apesanahkwat). To solve the mystery about what happened to Natalie, Lambert teams up with Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).


The autopsy indicates sexual violence and Lambert assumes the girl died from exposure while running away from a rape. Banner decides to stay on the case and investigate the homicide rather than report it as a rape. Because if it’s a rape then her superiors will take her off the case.

Greg, Wind River is a movie dripping with loss and heartache. In addition to institutionalized poverty and despair, there are lives lost to rape, murder, and alcoholism. Yet amidst all the tragedy there are beacons of hope who assume human form in the characters of Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, who push hard for truth and justice. One of our buddy heroes is deeply wounded from divorce and the loss of his daughter. He redeems these wounds by hunting down a pack of human predators. The other buddy hero is young and seemingly in-over-her-head, yet she digs deeps to deliver justice. Despite the dark tone of this movie, we’re left with a sliver of hope at the end.

Overall this movie moved me and impressed me. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are cast perfectly and display a robust chemistry as partners in their heroic mission. Graham Greene is also outstanding in his role of the jaded sheriff worn down by his impoverished surroundings. If I had to find two nitpicks, it is that (1) Corey has to save Jane in a sexist, damsel in distress kind of way, and (2) Cory delivers a poetic justice to the main predator at the end that strikes me as over-the-top Hollywood and inappropriate. It is unnecessarily demeaning to his character.

I also enjoyed this film. Mostly for its storytelling and less for its political overtones. The final card on-screen explains that many Indian women are lost each year and there are no records about how many there are. It’s a curious end to a suspense/thriller. If this were a film about a cultural phenomenon regarding disproportionate abduction of indigenous women, it certainly wasn’t on the screen.

I am also a little confused about casting. In recent months a lot of attention has been given to so-called yellow-face: the portrayal of Asians by whites (See Emma Stone in Hawaii). Here we have a story about the problems of American Indians with whites in the lead. The Renner character could easily have been indigenous with little change to the plot.

The production value of the cinematography is off the charts, almost on par with that of Revenant a couple of years ago — and that’s the highest praise I can give a movie. The majesty of the cold, stark mountains coupled with the sweeping, spacious landscapes were breathtaking to behold. I nearly got frostbite sitting in my comfy theater seat. Director Taylor Sheridan deserves huge credit for creating a dark, chilling atmosphere of despair in every frame of this film.

There is a fabulous hero’s journey here experienced by our buddy pairing of Cory and Jane. After being thrown into the dangerous pursuit of a rapist and killer, Cory finds himself mentoring the young and inexperienced Jane. As such, Jane undergoes more of a transformation than does Cory in this film. She gains experience, self-confidence, and a greater understanding of human loss and of injustices inflicted on Native Americans. Cory also grows and undergoes some healing from the loss of his daughter a few years earlier.

We’re in agreement here, Scott. Wind River is a beautifully shot movie with some excellent performances. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we call out the duo hero structure or “buddy hero” as two heroes with equal weight. Cory and Jane are a classic buddy hero pair with one hero being established and the other needing training. They start out at alternate ends of the experience scale. But Cory mentors Jane along until the exit the story on a similar plane.

It’s Jane’s transformation more than Cory’s that drives the story. While we’re informed of Cory’s loss of his own daughter years earlier, we don’t much see any healing for him after solving this girl’s murder. In fact, his estranged wife warns him that he won’t find any answers here. On the other hand, Jane starts out naive and filled with self righteous indignation. In the end, she comes to more fully understand the plight of the indigenous peoples. It’s through her transformation that the audience is likewise transformed.

Wind River is one of the best surprises of 2017, offering a riveting depiction of murder and redemption in the bitter cold mountains of Wyoming. The dark tone in this film’s  look and feel is matched by the equally lurid storyline. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their roles as detectives tracking down a killer who destroys a girl and her family. Wind River hit me hard emotionally and deserves a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes, Cory and Jane, make a terrific pairing as they must rely on each other to solve the case. They are thrown into a grisly world of death and despair, encountering obstacles in human form and in the form of institutional poverty and racism. These heroes deserve 4 Hero points out of 5.

As befitting good buddy heroes, Cory and Jane also help each other transform. Cory aids Jane in the ways of the world and in the plight of the Native Americans who suffer socially and economically. Jane helps Cory by providing FBI resources to bring about closure to the case which enable Cory to heal somewhat from the loss of his daughter a few years earlier. I give these buddies a rating of 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Wind River is a satisfying murder mystery and buddy hero story with both a message and a mission. It carries us through the murder investigation of a young Indian woman while exposing the problems inherent in the world of Indian Reservations. I wish the final message of the problem of Indian women disappearing was supported by the events of the film. I give Wind River 4 Reels out of 5.

Our buddy heroes Cory and Jane play off each other nicely with Cory acting as the mentor character and Jane as the straight and narrow cop from the city. I enjoyed their chemistry and appreciated Jane’s transformation from naive to informed. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes and 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes: