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The Commuter •••

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: January 12, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, looks like Liam Neeson took the last train to Clarksville.


I was very “taken” with his latest action film. Let’s recap:


We meet Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), a former cop and insurance agent in New York City. One day, out of the blue, he gets fired. Rather than tell his wife, he walks directly to the local pub where he drowns his sorrows with his former police partner Alex (Patrick Wilson). MacCauley catches the train home and has an encounter with a woman name Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who challenges him to play a game. To earn $100,000, all he has to do is find someone on the train “who doesn’t belong” and place a homing device on this person’s travel bag.


MacCauley at first doesn’t believe the woman’s proposal. But then he finds the first $25,000 in the restroom. He knows he’s being watched, so he passes a note to a friend. When the friend gets off the train McCauley’s phone rings and Joanna tells him not to try that again – just as McCauley witnesses his friend thrown in front of a bus. Joanna warns him that his family is next if he doesn’t complete his mission. Now, MacCauley has to find the “missing person” and save his family before the train comes to its last stop.


Greg, The Commuter is a nice, taut thriller with plenty of intrigue and action. One thing I learned from watching this film is that for a 65 year-old man, Liam Neeson can apparently take a lot of punches and can land a few himself. I wonder how much longer his shelf-life as an action hero is going to last, as I’m beginning to worry about an elderly man physically manipulating train cars at high speed. This movie is far-fetched to be sure, and I’m placing it in the category of films that are enjoyable as long as you don’t think too much about how ridiculous they are.

As a scholar of heroism, I must say that I was impressed at the film’s end, when train passengers stepped up and said, “I’m Prynne”, thereby placing themselves in great peril in order to spare the life of an innocent woman. Supreme acts of selflessness and self-sacrifice are the inspiring ingredients of classic heroism, and I wanted to applaud. However, in this same scene, I had to work hard to turn my brain off as hundreds of wet newspaper pages somehow glued themselves to perfection on the windows of the train. It was all too convenient and groan-worthy, yet I still enjoyed the film’s climactic displays of heroism.


I had to laugh at that same moment, Scott. Just before Alex turns to the commuters I nudged my date in the ribs and whispered “I’m Spartacus I’m Spartacus” It was a moment that was telescoped way in advance and it tickled me pink to see it play out.

I am in full agreement with you on this one. This film stretches the suspense of disbelief to its limits. If you give in to the premise and just – excuse the pun – go along for the ride, you’ll have a good time.


This film taps into the classic archetype of the innocent man who, through no fault of his own, is targeted unfairly by unsavory people. We can all identify with MacCauley, as he represents the “everyman” who is simply doing his best to navigate his way through an unfair world that has fired him from his job and is now threatening his family. MacCauley tries to do the right thing yet discovers that even the police are conspiring against him.

We also see that MacCauley performs one honorable act after another, and that he is rewarded at the end of the film by returning to the police force. As a result of his heroism, he is now in a position to bestow further gifts to society, which is a wonderful element of the classic hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Overall it’s a nice hero’s journey containing all the ingredients of departure, initiation, and return.


We also see the family archetype played out here. MacCauley’s wife and son are put on display and used as leverage to push him into dark actions he would not otherwise perform. To add to the leverage is MacCauley as the “old guy put out to pasture.” He pines at one point “I’m 60 years old with a mortgage and college tuition to pay – who is going to hire me?” There’s the femme fatale in Joanna. And ultimately there is the the “damsel in distress” when MacCauley realizes that the object of his detection is a young girl, Prynne.


The Commuter isn’t a great movie but it does provide good solid, if not superficial, entertainment. Our hero is thrown into a supremely challenging situation and must dig deep to develop the resourcefulness needed for survival. There are a few preposterous moments that remind us that we’re watching a silly action movie, but Liam Neeson’s performance is strong enough that I could, for the most part, overlook these absurd departures from reality. The feel-good ending of the story also really carried the day. I give The Commuter 3 Reels out of 5.

Our hero’s journey here is rock solid, with MacCauley first undergoing a departure from his safe, familiar world, followed by his encounter with villains, obstacles, helpers, and life-altering experiences. Our hero acquires new insights about himself, his family, his former police colleagues, and his place in the world. He is forever transformed and bestows gifts to the world as a result of his harrowing journey. I give him a rating of 4 Hero points out of 5.

The archetypes in this story are numerous and varied. Greg, you and I each saw archetypes describing MacCauley, his role in the universe he inhabits, his nemesis Joanna, and the innocent woman around whom the plot revolves. These archetypes are portrayed effectively but none of them jumped out at me as exceptional. I’ll award them 3 archetype “arcs” out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


The Commuter is another in a long list of Liam Neeson films where an everyman saves one or more people with a “certain set of skills.” It’s enjoyable to watch, but it isn’t really great cinema. I’m beginning to think Liam Neeson is his own archetype. If you’re a fan of his type of movie, you’ll enjoy The Commuter. But otherwise you might find it is pretty unbelievable. I give this film 3 out of 5 Reels.

Neeson’s MacCauley is a decent hero. He’s moral and strong. But there’s nothing particularly interesting about him. I give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The archetypes are not that strong. The VILLAIN is hidden most of the time and is diluted because we think it’s Joanna when it’s actually his best friend. Finally, MacCauley arrests Joanna who warns him that the danger goes much deeper – alluding to a hidden villain. The FAMILY archetype is also hidden until the very end. We never really see the DAMSEL until the end of the film. There’s a lot hidden here. I give these archetypes just 3 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes:   Heroes:

Maze Runner: The Death Cure ••

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario
Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: T.S. Nowlin, James Dashner
Action/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: January 26, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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I was hoping this would be a movie about children running in maize fields.


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

Amazing that you would think that, Greg. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who is trying to rob a speeding train. He and his friends steal a super helicopter, disconnect a car from the moving train and carry it off hanging from the super-copter. When they land they release the prisoners: a gaggle of youngsters round up by WCKD (Wicked) who want to harvest their blood to make a potential cure for the Death Plague. But the object of Thomas’s heist, friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee), is not in the car – he’s been swept away to The City and is being forced to experience terrifying images so that his body will excrete the serum that Theresa (Kaya Scodelario) hopes will be the cure.


Thomas and his friends devise a plan to secretly enter The City to find Minho. Their former friend Gally (Will Poulter), who was believed dead, helps them find passage inside the city walls. Their plan is to use Thomas’ former girlfriend Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) to help them enter the big research skyscraper where Minho is being held. They capture Teresa, who guides them into the building where all sorts of mayhem ensues after encounters with the villainous Janson (Aidan Gillen).


Maze Runner: The Death Cure is no improvement over its previous incarnations. The story makes little sense and is a series of unlikely events strung together that never deliver on their promises. At one point, I thought the writers were going to martyr Thomas, but they did not. I thought they were setting up a love triangle between Thomas, Teresa, and Brenda (Rosa Salazar), but they did not. I thought they were going to have Gally betray them, but he did not. This movie was one uninspiring scene after another. I was relieved when it was all over.


Greg, is it just me or have we seen far too many movies in the “dystopian-future-young-adult fiction” genre that all seem to share essentially the same plot. These movies feature a group of young people in rebellion over a corrupt older generation that has inflicted terrible injustices on the youth. Maze Runner: The Death Cure gives us nice ensemble cast of characters whom we can get behind, with solid kudos to Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, and Kaya Scodelario. The story of these young heroes overthrowing their corrupt elders is pretty much by-the-numbers and predictable.

The two most interesting characters turn out to be the villains, Ava Paige and Janson. We get the sense that Paige’s intentions are good though her means for attaining her goals are ethically a disaster. Janson, in contrast, is a total bad apple who is driven by a lust of power and control. We can tell a villain is pure evil when he smiles as he kills. Actor AIdan Gillen plays essentially the same sordid character here as he did in Game of Thrones. The character of Teresa is also complex as she finds herself caught between two worlds, and of course she must make a choice about which world to commit to — a conundrum that naturally leads to her demise.


Yes, adult corruption and overthrow is a common theme in Young Adult literature, and it has just about had its run. In my interactions with writers and agents in writer’s workshops and conventions, I’m hearing a yearning from young readers for themes that more closely relate to their world. Young readers (and movie goers) are well aware of these well-worn patterns and are ready for a change. Maybe that’s the reason for last year’s Lady Bird and Wonder.

As for the archetypes we encountered in Maze Runner 3, Thomas is the clear HERO. And we have dual LOVE INTERESTs in Teresa and Brenda. However, it appears that Teresa is the true object of Thomas’s affections as he risks everything to save her from WCKD. Brenda, on the other hand has little to do in this story. Gally is an interesting character as he is both BACK FROM THE DEAD and a REDEEMED VILLAIN.

In my book Agile Writer: Method I point out that at the 75% point in a story someone close to the hero may die. Newt fits the SACRIFICIAL LAMB archetype. It’s not necessary for someone to die, but movies often kill off a popular character at that point in the story to demark the lowest point for the hero and also to show that the stakes are very high – life or death.

Every hero needs a goal and saving Minho fulfils that role. Hitchcock called this THE MCGUFFIN. It doesn’t matter if Minho is actually saved because that’s not important. It’s the hero’s missing inner quality that needs healing. As you point out, every hero also needs a VILLAIN and that’s Janson – he most clearly is trying to thwart Thomas’s goal. It’s interesting that you mention Ava Paige because she’s not a classic villain – she’s an administrator with the goal to save humanity from the death plague. Her methods are cruel – to torture young people so they produce serum. I’m not quite sure what archetype she fits.


Greg, I’m not sure that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is a cure for death but it most certainly offers a cure for insomnia. There just isn’t any new ground covered here, only a recycling of many Young Adult literary themes from The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, and many other recent movie franchises. There are some commendable performances from several cast members, and a glimpse or two of effective villainy, but beyond that there is not much to cheer about. I give this film 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroes of this story do indeed traverse the hero’s journey. They boldly attempt a rescue by entering the enemy’s big city; they receive help along the way; and they encounter villains and obstacles. I don’t see any significant character transformation, which is not unusual given that this movie is merely a single installment of a series. Overall, the heroes are portrayed effectively, and so I award them 3 Hero points out of 5.

Greg, you mention several nice examples of this story’s use of archetypes. If I had to identify Paige’s archetype, it would be that of the tragic hero who means well but whose pride and arrogance condemns her to make bad decision (and also leads to her death). The effective use of archetypes here belies the mediocrity of the film. I give The Death Cure 4 archetype Arc points out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes:   Heroes:


Maze Runner: The Death Cure is par for the course in the Maze Runner series. Like the prequels, a lot is promised and little is delivered. The whole movie has a sort of made-for-TV feel to it. I also give it 2 out of 5 Reels.

Thomas is a typical teen-in-dystopia hero – if there is such a thing. I’m reminded of Triss from the last movie in the Divergent series. They both seem to wander aimlessly through villages and brushlands. At any rate, Thomas dos all the things we expect him to do and he’s quite the bore for it. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes for him.

As noted, there are a number of archetypes and they all perform their usual functions. There are no new or noteworthy icons. I’m giving just 3 out of Arcs for them.

Movie: Archetypes:   Heroes:

The Post ••••1/2

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 27, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Is this a film about a President’s online posts?


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

More like The Washington Post, Greg. Let’s recap.


It’s 1971 and Rand Corporation contractor Daniel Ellsberg has been working on a study for the Pentagon under direction of Secretary of State Robert McNamara. The study reviews the relative failure of the United States’ war in Viet Nam. Ellsberg realizes that the office of the President has been lying to the public and congress for the entire 30 years of the US involvement and proceeds to copy some 4,000 pages of the report. He delivers it to the New York Times who publish a headlining story proclaiming that every administration for 30 years has kept the war going – just to save face.


The Times is ordered by the higher courts to refrain from publishing any more of the pentagon papers. So the Washington Post’s Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hunts down Ellsberg himself and delivers the incriminating documents to the Post’s editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Bradlee asks Post owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) for permission to publish. She is pressured by attorneys and the board of directors to avoid publishing but ultimately gives Bradlee the green light to expose the pentagon papers.


Scott, The Post is a superbly well-crafted film by a director and lead actors who are at the peak of their craft. The story is so perfectly told with subtle acting and attention to detail that it almost escaped my attention that this is a cautionary tale for modern-day events.

The Nixon administration had waged war against the press – attempting to silence first the New York Times, and then The Washington Post. The principals at the Post pushed back against first amendment attacks by Nixon – that changed the relationship between the media and the White House forever. And, it solidified the right of the people to have an independent and free press. Given the attacks on the media from the current administration, this story is more than topical.


Greg, I’m in complete agreement. The Post is a powerful movie that shows a dramatic moment in history, and it hammers home how (given today’s current events) history is repeating itself. Nixon was Trump-like in wanting to censor the press, and it took true heroism for Katherine Graham to risk everything to do the right thing. This film is also timely in demonstrating the importance of the #MeToo movement. Graham is rarely taken seriously by the patriarchal world in which she operates, and yet she grows in her confidence and ultimately takes a bold position while defying the male members of the newspaper’s board.

There aren’t many movies that better illustrate how heroes must fight off strong pressures to take the wrong action. It would have been so easy for Bradlee and Graham to avoid publishing the incriminating papers, or simply delay publishing them. Their attorneys, friends, and colleagues were begging them to be “prudent”, sensible, and sensitive to the newspaper’s profits — and perhaps even its very existence. It would have been easy to take the “safe” action, but our heroes took a big risk and made potentially life-altering self-sacrifices. This is truly the stuff of great heroism.


Meryl Streep plays Graham superbly. Graham starts out as an unwilling leader having inherited the Washington Post from her husband after his untimely death. We see her in opening scenes rehearsing for a pitch to investors as she takes the business public. She’s uncertain — letting the men in the room do the heavy lifting.

But by the end of the film she is secure in her position as the custodian of her husband’s legacy. Streep doesn’t make this transition suddenly with an epiphany. Instead, she comes to this position gradually, with a series of revelations that lead her naturally to the conclusion that she must make the Pentagon papers public. She understands that the media has a responsibility to the people to keep the government in check. And then she risks everything to take a moral stand at a time when the Nixon administration is attacking the fourth estate with impunity.


You’re right about Katherine Graham’s transformation. It’s the kind of transformation that women in general have been compelled to undertake over the past couple of generations in our society. She is mentored by both men and women, but like all heroes, she must traverse the journey on her own, summoning up the strength and wisdom to do what must be done even at great personal and professional risk. The men in this story do not change as much, although Bagdikian and Bradlee (along with Graham) can be seen as change-agents whose actions have an important transformative effect on society.


The Post is seamless in its presentation. While it hits all the turning points of the hero’s journey – you hardly notice because of the skill and artistry of the director, actors, and crafts-men and -women who created this movie. I award The Post 5 out of 5 Reels because I can’t see how it could have been improved.

While Tom Hanks shares headlining credit, it is Streep’s Graham who owns this story. We love stories of transformation and Graham changes in ways both profound and subtle. I give Katherine Graham 5 out of 5 Heroes and 5 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie:   Transformations: Heroes:


Greg, The Post was very good but falls short of landing in the “great movie” category. I’m reminded of the 2015 film Spotlight, which also depicted a newspaper’s fierce campaign to unveil a painful and vehemently denied truth. Both these movies drive home the important role that a free and aggressive press plays in a society rife with bureaucratic deceit. I award The Post 4 Reels out of 5.

This is an ensemble cast of heroic characters headed by Katherine Graham, a woman who makes the courageous call to print the truth at great potential cost to herself and others. Bradlee and Bagdikian get their hands dirty doing their heroic work in the trenches and also deserve high marks for their heroic grit and perseverance. I award all these heroes 5 Hero points out of 5. And because of Graham’s bold transformation and transformative effect on others, she deserves 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: