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Wonder •••1/2

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad
Drama/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: November 17, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, I wonder if you’ll review this week’s movie with me?


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

Maybe Wonder Woman should review it, Gregger. Get out the Kleenex and let’s recap.

 


We’re introduced to young 10-year-old Auggie (Jacob Tremblay). He was born with a congenital birth defect that has disfigured his face. He’s unusually bright, especially in the sciences, and has been home-schooled for his entire life. He’s about to go to private school so a trio of kids are showing him around before his first day of class. The kids are a little freaked out by his deformity but they’re friendly nevertheless. Auggie returns home and puts on his space helmet to hide in his make-believe world of outer space.


Auggie has two loving parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts), and Nate (Owen Wilson), and a sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who feels neglected because her parents appear to be spending the majority of their time tending to Auggie. At school, Auggie befriends a boy named Jack (Noah Jupe) but soon they have a falling out when Auggie overhears Jack insulting Auggie’s appearance to other kids. Meanwhile, Via has a falling out with her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), but after signing up for the school play Via falls in love with a boy named Justin (Nadji Jeter).


Scott, Wonder is light fare akin to an ABC Afterschool Special – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It reminds me of 1985’s Mask in many ways. Wonder seems to be aimed at younger audiences with its PG rating. The story is a fiction (contrary to Mask’s true underpinnings) which, for me, reduced its impact. It’s easy to contrive situations in fiction to prove a point – it’s much harder to withstand such prejudices when they are based in fact.

The structure of the movie is interesting as it presents the events from four different points of view. The action starts with Auggie’s entrance into school, through surviving his first major disappoint. Then, we turn to sister Via’s POV and we learn that the world revolves around Auggie leaving her to fend for herself. This could have been the source of great drama, but Via doesn’t have bitterness towards her brother. Instead, she has a deep love of her brother. Other POVs include Jack’s and Miranda’s. I enjoyed this revolving look at Auggie’s world.


Greg, I’d say Wonder exceeds a made-for-TV movie by a pretty wide margin. For starters, we have a couple of Hollywood heavyweights in Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts leading the charge here. More than that, we have excellent storytelling centered around a small vulnerable boy with an unconventional face whom everyone underestimates. It’s a classic underdog story that we’ve seen in many variations a thousand times before, and this one is particularly poignant. The fact that it is fiction does not diminish the film in any way.

Another theme emphasized in Wonder is the heroic theme of redemption. Most of the characters in this film find ways to atone for mistakes they’ve made that have hurt others. Isabel neglects Via and then promises to spend a day with her. Jack hurts Auggie badly and then bends over backward to make amends. Miranda dumps Via as a friend but then later sacrifices herself to allow Via to shine in the lead role of the school play. Julian (Bryce Gheisar) bullies Auggie and never redeems himself, thus solidifying his status as the story’s villain.


Auggie is a catalytic hero in that he changes the opinions of those around him. He starts out being shunned by his peers. And over time earns their trust and respect. But there is transformation for him as well as he starts out ashamed of his appearance and grows to understand that he is as he is – and anyone who has a problem really has a problem within themselves and not with him. His sister Via transforms from sitting in the background to Auggie’s needs and eventually comes to the fore as she steps on the stage and delivers a great performance in the high school play.


Greg, you’re right that transformations abound in this film. Auggie transforms from a frightened social outcast to a bold inspiration for others. In fact, he’s a stand-in for almost all of humanity, as I’m willing to bet that everyone at one time or another have felt like outliers unable to penetrate the mainstream. Via grows in her self-confidence. Her life once put on hold, Isabel finishes her masters thesis. Both Miranda and Jack discover the value of friendship. Auggie’s influence is the key to all of these transformations. It’s a classic theme in heroic storytelling for the most unlikely person to discover their treasure, which they then pass onto others.


Wonder is a wonderful story for youngsters. It’s PG rating is well-earned as there is little drama here. It’s a story of bullying and anti-bullying – which are popular topics today. I would prefer a story like this be based on true events because it is easy to conconct situations and resolutions in fiction. And in fact, we’ve seen better stories in such movies as Mask. I give Wonder 3 out of 5 Reels.

Auggie is a good hero. He has a disability that he overcomes through the power of his personality. He also has a competence in the sciences that endears us to him. He is surrounded by a loving family who act as his mentors. At school, he has a few friends who also mentor him in the special world of private school. I give Auggie 3 out of 5 Heroes.

As you mention, Scott, there are transformations for nearly every character in this story. I give them 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Wonder is a wonder of a movie designed expertly to tug at our hearts and give our tear-ducts a workout. This film along with Karate Kid are the two best cinematic depictions of the underdog archetype that I’ve ever encountered. I left the theater feeling hopeful that the darkness of humanity is beautifully redeemable. Wonder deserves 4 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Auggie is a talented, delightful young kid who wins over the hearts of anyone willing and able to get past superficial anomalies in his appearance. Auggie plunges into the hero’s journey, encounters friends and enemies, finds ways to overcome obstacles, and emerges as a self-confident and socially skilled young man. His hero’s journey earns 4 Hero points out of 5.

Wonder is a cauldron of transformation, not just in Auggie but in all those he touches. Everyone around him grows up in some way and absorbs inspiration from our hero. Greg, we’ve reviewed movies in which the hero transforms, or in which the hero transforms others, but rarely are we treated to both personal and collective transformations in the same film. I award all these characters 5 transformative Delta points out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Lady Bird •••

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Odeya Rush
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenplay: Greta Gerwig
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: December 2, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, is this next movie about President Johnson’s wife?


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

No, Greg, it’s about basketball legend Larry Bird’s wife. Or is it? Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). She’s a 2002 high school senior who is about as average as you might expect. But she has ambitions to go to college – anywhere that isn’t in Sacramento, CA where she lives. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) wants her to apply to community college so that she’ll stay close to home. Her father (Tracy Letts)  is recently fired from his job. And her half-brother and his girlfriend live with them too.


Lady Bird joins her school’s theater group and begins dating a boy named Danny (Lucas Hedges). The relationship ends when she discovers that Danny is gay. She then begins dating Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a member of a locally popular band. This relationship also ends badly when she sleeps with Kyle and discovers he lied about being a virgin. Meanwhile, Lady Bird secretly applies to colleges on the east coast and butts heads frequently with her emotionally abusive mother.


Lady Bird is a well-crafted film that has little to offer in terms of story. There aren’t any revelations here. It’s the story of an underachieving girl who wants to go away to college. More than anything she wants to get out of town. She doesn’t apply herself to her studies so that she can make her way in on her best merits, but instead, gets waitlisted and at the last minute gets accepted because someone else dropped out. She makes simple mistakes that high-school girls make in uninspiring ways. She has fights with her mother that typical teens have. This is very much a cliched look at an average teenage girl’s life in 2002 – perhaps a bit autobiographical and so somewhat self-indulgent.


Greg, you make an interesting observation about this film’s lack of story. My interpretation of the film is that it concentrates on a thin slice of the hero’s journey, namely, the prelude to the departure into the unfamiliar world. Lady Bird is a would-be hero who feels trapped at home, which she finds stultifying. Her mother is a trainwreck and the town of Sacramento serves as a prison from which her heroic self must break free. While this story focuses only on a tiny slice of the hero’s journey, it is a fascinating and satisfying slice. Saoirse Ronan does a phenomenal job with the character, although she is too old to pass for a high-school student.

As the prelude to the full hero quest, this film leaves us with a feeling of incompletion. We just reviewed the film, Wonder, which portrays a child’s full journey from despair to triumph. In Lady Bird, we’re hopeful that our hero will triumph on the east coast but we’ll never know. The bulk of this movie is one glimpse after another of Lady Bird’s mistakes and awkward moments — the kinds of things pre-heroes do. Her disastrous relationships with Danny and Kyle are good examples, not to mention her crazy decision to jump out of a car going at high speed to escape her crazy mother. At the end of the film when Lady Bird finally changes her hair and drops the ‘Lady Bird’ nickname, we know she is finally ready to go on her journey.


Laurie Metcalf is wonderful as the mother who is desperate to keep her daughter at home. There isn’t much left for mom and holding on to her last child becomes her only goal. Mom is a damaged woman who uses guilt and guile to keep “Lady Bird” in line. Despite constantly exposing her daughter’s weaknesses, it’s clear she loves Christine and is working hard to keep her family together.

More than anything, this movie is a study of relationships. It does a good job of showing us the tensions between Christine and the people in her life. Still, I look for a story that I can take home. I want to see more exposure of the lessons the hero learns. For Christine, it’s her relationship with her mother that changes rather than Christine herself.

You describe this as a prelude to the hero’s journey – and I can see how you might come to that conclusion. But for me, one of the evidences of the hero’s emergence is a change in attire and in this case, a change in name. Christine sheds the “Lady Bird” moniker and accepts her “given” name as her identity. She’s come to grips with who she is. And she had to leave home to find the basis for the relationship with her mother. As such, it is a coming of age story, just not one that I enjoyed very much.


Lady Bird is a well-crafted story of a young woman’s efforts to pull free from her familiar, stifling world. Her dysfunctional family dynamics pose a considerable hindrance to her desire and ability to attend college 3,000 miles away, with her damaged mother proving to be especially obstructionistic. We’re also treated to the inevitable disasters of a young person’s first few romantic dalliances. The film shows us a mini-hero’s journey nested within the larger hero’s journey of her life, and I was both impressed and moved by her story. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

We’ve described Lady Bird’s heroic arc in enough detail, so no need for further elaboration. We’re denied the full story of Lady Bird’s life, and thus this movie did leave me wanting more. That in itself can be both a good thing and a bad thing. I give our protagonist 3 Hero points out of 5. Regarding transformations, we witness our hero metamorphosize from her self-appointed label of ‘Lady Bird’ to her true self, Christine. The transformations are fun to watch and rang true to me. I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:


I have similar problems with Lady Bird as I had with Ronan’s other coming-of-age film: Brooklyn. In both films there are few conflicts and the ones our hero has are solved in simplistic ways. I kept wanting something to happen in this story, and it never did. We’re treated to one lackluster event after another culminating in a lackluster transformation. I give Lady Bird just 2 Reels out of 5.

Christine is an unremarkable young woman who doesn’t try very hard to get what she wants. And in the end, she does get what she wants but only through the luck of the draw. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5. Finally, her transformation is simplistic and a bit saccharine. I give her just 2 Deltas out of 5.

As a postscript, I would like to call out Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the stand-out element of this film. This is a conflicted woman who is full of love trying to hold her family together despite myriad forces that are pulling her world apart. This was a complicated character that Metcalf portrayed skillfully. I look forward to nominations for her work in this film.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ••••1/2

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, did you ever think they’d make a movie about billboards?

 


There’s advertising everywhere, even in movies. Let’s recap:


We meet Mildred (Frances McDormand), a woman grieving her daughter’s rape and murder. She’s also upset that the police in her hometown of Ebbing, Missouri, are not making any progress in apprehending the perpetrator. She rents three old unused billboards just outside of town, and on them she displays in big letters, “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and many of the town’s citizens want Mildred to take down the billboards.

 


Mildred won’t take the signs down and faces assaults by all the town’s people including her own dentist. Willoughby isn’t the redneck tough guy you expect. He is sympathetic to Mildred’s case, but after 7 months there’s not much more he can do. Then, he reveals that he has cancer. Mildred is not moved and pushes him to solve the case before his cancer consumes him. But before too long, he takes his own life.


Greg, Three Billboards is a true gem of a movie that is filled with memorable characters who all seem to be undergoing challenging life journeys. The film is a dark portrayal of human nature, yet it is also a depiction of one woman’s relentless campaign to triumph over that darkness. Writer and director Martin McDonagh may hail from Ireland but he has firm handle on the rot and muck of middle America.

Special kudos go to Frances McDormand, who unleashes an Oscar-worthy performance here. She’s a special kind of hero in that she is basically unstoppable. The mystery of who brutalized her daughter appears to be unsolvable, yet her Billboards open the door to clues about the perpetrator. Mildred reminds me of the character of Carol in The Walking Dead; she is a force to be reckoned with, and people pay a steep price in underestimating her.


Three Billboards is an unexpected pleasure. This is not a typical story of heroes and villains. Sheriff Willoughby looks like he might be an incompetent boob – but he’s actually the glue that holds the town together. Mildred seems like a woman without a heart – but she deeply cares about Willoughby and his fight with cancer. Dixon is a classic racist in a position of power – and we learn he’s little more than a child. We keep expecting people to be called out for their biases and ultimately we learn that everyone in town is human, flawed, and dealing with their own pain.

The other thing this story does is never resolve the murder. It is simply a McGuffin designed to throw these people together to expose their pain and flaws. Dixon is the most transformed because he has the furthest to travel towards redemption. He has to overcome the biases his (pure evil) mother has inflicted upon him. It’s Willoughby who is the catalyst for his change. In a posthumous letter he tells Dixon he’s a good man who mistakes hate for strength and tells him to embrace love. Dixon seems to absorb this advice and finally takes a beating to bring a rapist to justice.


Dixon’s transformation is fascinating because it raises the question of whether it is possible for a person to transform so quickly from extreme evil to extreme good. One could argue that such a dramatic swing defies belief and any notion of realism. Yet we know that big changes in character are reasonable given the parameters and goals of storytelling. Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr argue that the veracity of a tale is less important than its ability to inspire, motivate, and educate its audience.

As you point out, Greg, Willoughby’s letter is the source of Dixon’s conversion. In our analysis of movies, we’ve found that great mentoring may be the most important determinant of transformation. We also know that great suffering can also be the impetus for change, and Dixon suffers tremendously when half his body is badly burned in the fire started by Mildred. Willoughby himself transforms when he softens his antagonism toward Mildred and even funds her billboards after he discovers that his death is imminent.


Three Billboards is a welcome change in pace from the summer blockbusters. It’s less a story as much as it an examination of a collection of characters. Everyone is flawed and in some kind of pain. It’s the slow exposition of these pains, and how each character deals with them that makes this a movie to enjoy. I give Three Billboards 4 out of 5 Reels.

Mildred is an uncommon hero. In many ways, she’s an antagonist for Willoughby. And she performs evil acts – like burning down the police station. Ultimately, she conspires to commit murder. In our book “Reel Heroes & Villains” we classify a hero who ends up as a negative character the anti-hero. Mildred is an uncommon anti-hero, but I think she fits the definition. I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Nearly everyone in this story goes through a transformation. Mildred releases her anger, grief, and guild for the loss of daughter and trades it in for revenge. Willoughby trades in one great day with his family for his life. Dixon trades his race hatred for compassion. Three Billboards gets 4 out of 5 Deltas from me.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


You’re right, Greg, Three Billboards is terrific movie-making and should receive several Academy Award nominations, especially for Best Picture and Best Actress. Frances McDormand shines as a woman on a mission to secure justice for her raped and slain daughter. Her methods are creative, extreme, and borderline cruel, but she succeeds in rattling the town’s crooked cages and getting results. This film soars on the big screen and is exactly the reason why we watch movies. I award it the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Greg, I have to differ with your assessment that Mildred is an anti-hero. She’s as strong a hero as they come, a true champion of uncovering the truth and delivering justice. Yes, she and Dixon are going after a rapist who didn’t murder her daughter. But this evil man’s victim was someone’s daughter and inflicted unspeakable pain on another person and a family. Mildred’s willingness to stick her neck out to achieve justice is exactly in keeping with the definition of a hero — there is personal sacrifice, great risk, moral courage, and a superhuman effort to bring justice into the world. Mildred easily earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

You’re absolutely right that transformations abound in the movie, with Mildred the source of all these conversions. She sets in motion a series of events that eventually transforms Dixon into a decent human being, and she also softens the heart of Willoughby. Does Mildred herself change? I’m not so sure, and for that reason I’ll award this film 4 out of 5 transformative Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Coco •••••

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Screenplay: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


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

Finally, Greg, a movie about hot chocolate.


No, Scott. It’s the story of a Mexican boy, his great-grandmother, and the love of music. Let’s recap:


We meet 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with a multi-generational family in Mexico. We learn that Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) to pursue a career in music. As a result, the family has banned all music and even the mention of music. It turns out that Miguel loves music, especially that of the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).


Miguel figures out that he is the great-great-grandson of de la Cruz and on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) young Miguel decides to steal the late Ernesto’s guitar and play in the talent show. But when he does, he is transported to the Land of the Dead where the skeletons of passed relatives try to gain entrance to Earth on this one day to visit their living relatives.

Miguel befriends Hector (Gael García Bernal), a ne’er-do-well spirit who wants to visit his daughter one last time before she forgets him – causing him to disappear forever. Together, the two try to get the late Ernesto’s blessing so that Miguel can return to Earth and play the guitar. But they must hurry, because if they don’t succeed before sunrise, Miguel turns into a skeleton and will be trapped forever in the Land of the Dead.


Greg, Coco is a true delight and gives us one of the most emotionally satisfying movies of 2017. We don’t get much better hero stories than this one, and curiously it is a hero’s journey turned sideways. Usually, it is the hero who is missing some important quality, but in this film everyone except our hero has a missing quality, namely, an appreciation for music. It turns out that music is the key that unlocks the secret of Miguel’s great-great grandfather’s true identity. More importantly, it is music that brings Coco to life and jogs her memory about her true love: Hector.

Our hero Miguel turns out to be a change-agent hero inasmuch as everyone in his family lacks an appreciation for music and it is up to Miguel to instill in them a respect for musicianship as a career choice. This is not to say that Miguel is a hero without a flaw at the beginning of his journey. He lacks a clear understanding of his true family tree, and of the true evil nature of de la Cruz. The hero’s journey is always a search for one’s true special identity. Coco is no exception to this rule in its focus on Miguel’s quest to understand his place in his very tangled family tree.


I was prepared to dislike this movie because I don’t see how you can have skeletons at Christmas. I’m no fan of Nightmare before Christmas with all of its macabre overtones. Skeletons are creepy. Skeletons are scary. But after watching Coco skeletons became family. They were warm and loving and characters I wanted to be around. Pixar is relentless in the creation of stories that hit the viewer at their emotional core. And Coco is a resounding success in that regard.

And it is a success in every other way as well. The animation in this film is so exact that I forgot that I was watching an animation. That is to say, when I compare this to the CGI in Justice League, the pixels vanished. Every image was smooth and vibrant. The facial expressions were real and expressive. The characters emoted with energy and authenticity. I never wanted to look away. Coco is a rare delight.


You’re right, Greg. The computer animation was off-the-charts extraordinary. Just when you think Pixar’s design team can’t possibly up the ante any further, they produce something as magnificent as Coco. There are two scenes that show a stunning panoramic view of the Land of the Dead. The level of detail here is jaw-dropping, adding the kind of production value to the film that are on par with the spectacular mountain scenes in The Revenant. A generation ago, it would be unimaginable for a cartoon to rival images from real life in power, scope, and impact. But Coco delivers.


There are transformations a-plenty in this film. Miguel changes from hiding his talent to brandishing it with pride. De la Cruz falls from a hero on a pedestal to an evil villain. Hector is redeemed as a lost father to a cherished great-grandfather. And all of Miguel’s family transform from music haters to music lovers. It’s a wonderful change for practically the entire cast. As you mention, it is Miguel who is the catalyst for these changes. It’s his heart and drive that makes the change possible.


Coco is yet another triumph for Pixar and is perhaps the most emotionally fulfilling movie of the year. This film is proof that it is possible to shed a tear during a cartoon movie. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be deeply moved by Coco springing to life at the conclusion of this story. Besides great storytelling, Coco features some of the most remarkable CGI cartoon imagery the movie world has ever seen. This cinematic achievement earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Miguel’s hero’s journey is a bit unconventional but still contains all the classic elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth. Our hero is separated from his familiar world, receives help from friends, escapes from the proverbial belly of the whale, and acquires insight into his true identity. He also forever changes his family, too. I give our hero 5 Hero points out of 5. And because he transforms personally and also transforms others as well, I might as well award him 5 transformative Deltas out of 5, also.

Movie: Transformations:   Heroes:


Coco is a delight for adults and children alike. Filled with complex characters who each have a distinct desire, this film has a plot that drives forward from beginning to end. It avoids being macabre even though the majority of the action takes place in the netherworld. I give Coco 5 out of 5 Reels.

Miguel is a wonderful hero filled with ambition, hope, and naivete. We all want him to succeed in becoming the musician we know he can be. And his love of music both captivates and infects those around him making Miguel a catalytic hero. He helps to transform all his family and save his father from a fate worse than death. I give Miguel 5 out of 5 Heroes and Coco 5 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: