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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:

Logan Lucky •••

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Rebecca Blunt
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: August 18, 2017


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

Greg, in all this excitement, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”

It’s de-ja-vu all over again in this remake of Hell or High Water – in West Virginia.

We meet Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a construction worker at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He is fired from his job for liability reasons after it is discovered that he walks with a limp due to an old football injury. Jimmy visits his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who wears a prosthetic hand as a result of injury during the Iraq war. After getting in a fight with Max Chiblain (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant British celebrity, the two men decide to organize a complex heist of the huge cash vault underneath the Charlotte Speedway.

They enlist the aid of incarcerated bank robber Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). They promise to break him out of jail and repay him money he lost to his ex-wife. But Joe wants his brothers Fish and Sam in on the action, too. Now the two men and their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), create a plan to use the money pneumatic pipes to suck the cash out of the vault.

Logan Lucky Is a delightfully quirky movie about the antics of some quirky characters, not all of whom are delightful. This film sits confidently in the mold of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise in that we witness the complicated heist of a massive institution, which this time happens to be NASCAR. Our heroes are actually anti-hero criminals, although we find ourselves rooting for them because (1) the writers were smart enough to endow these characters with some endearing qualities, and (2) other people in the film are portrayed as far more dastardly.

One thing that struck me was that our lead hero in the ensemble, Jimmy, shows an intuitive understanding of the hero’s journey. He composes a “to-do” list describing the process of pulling off the heist successfully, and lo and behold the list contains key elements of the hero’s journey such as “shit happens” and “deal with said shit”. Joseph Campbell described these setbacks in far more eloquent terms but the idea is the same. Heroes encounter obstacles, failures, and growth opportunities, which ultimately contribute to a successful execution of the hero mission.

I have a much dimmer view of this film than you, Scott. First, it plays upon the hillbilly stereotype. Second, in most anti-hero stories, the anti-heroes are battling against something evil, so we root for them. Jimmy and Clyde are ripping off NASCAR. Even Clyde asks the obvious question: “Why are we robbing NASCAR? They are the best thing in America.” But Jimmy has no answer.

It’s no wonder that this film bears a resemblance to Oceans 11 – it shares the same director in Steven Soderbergh. And it comes hot off the heels of last year’s Hell or High Water. Except in that film, the anti-heroes were fighting the evil forces of a bank that was leeching the life out of a small town. We root for those guys because they’re being ripped off. But Jimmy and Clyde are just down on their luck and happen to know the weakness of Charlotte Raceway’s money vault. I don’t have sympathy for them and I don’t see any justification for their reward.

The premise worked for me, Greg, because we see Jimmy get unjustly fired from his job, and we also see Jimmy and Clyde get insulted because they suffer from physical disabilities. This ignites our sympathy for them. NASCAR is a billion dollar business and certainly isn’t as evil as the banking industry or as sleazy as a big casino, but these days rich fat-cats of any type are perceived as guilty of greed and therefore ripe for robbery. I’m not condoning this perception; it’s just the mindset of our society right now.

So we do have a strong hero’s journey, and although Jimmy doesn’t anticipate every bump on the heroic road, he plans well enough to pull off the heist. Daniel Craig nearly steals the show with his portrayal of a smart, dangerous convict who helps our heroic duo break into the vault. I do agree with you, Greg, that the stereotype of southerners as slow and stupid did bother me. I’m lived in the South for over 30 years and trust me, dear readers, this movie does not accurately portray people south of the Mason-Dixon line.

And, what was Seth MacFarlane doing in this film? He was basically a douche-bag brit that insulted Clyde’s lost hand. That was apparently the inciting incident that led our boys into a life of crime. Otherwise, he had little purpose in this film.

As with other films of this ilk, there’s little transformation here. Our heroes seem richer for their efforts (is this a type of transformation we’ve neglected?), and are closer as brothers. Jimmy’s ex-wife seems to be more willing to let him see his daughter. But otherwise, everyone is the same as they started. And who knows? Maybe Hillary Swank as the last-minute FBI agent might figure out what our boys did and they’ll get their cum-uppance.

Logan Lucky is a fun, adventurous, and clever movie that features some wonderful performances by Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig. The dialogue, chemistry, and antics of these three characters are certainly worth the price of admission. This film has a mission-impossible-like feel to it, with a nice mix of complex planning that we are privy to and other planning that catches us by surprise. The combination of memorable and colorful characters along with a fun and sprightly plotline compels me to award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Our anti-heroes are down-on-their luck brothers who appear so deserving of a break that we find ourselves rooting for them to succeed in their criminal caper. Jimmy and Clyde follow the hero’s journey almost to the letter; they attract helpers, encounter anti-villains and obstacles, and emerge richer and self-confident. Most importantly, the Logan curse has been lifted. I award this duo 4 Hero points out of 5.

The transformation is a bit more subtle and thus difficult to pinpoint. Clearly, with the curse lifted, they have experienced a transformation of self-confidence. Greg, I would not call wealth accumulation a transformation, although if you pushed me I might say it is a type of physical transformation that we discuss in our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains. One thing to keep in mind is that the story is not yet over, as FBI agent Hilary Swank appears poised to track down and capture our anti-heroes. I’ll give our dynamic duo just 2 Deltas out of 5 because they didn’t truly transform much, and that’s okay because transformation was never the point of this film.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:

Logan Lucky is a wannabe mash-up of Hell or High Water and Oceans 11 – but the results are disappointing. I don’t feel any remorse for our anti-hero brothers Jimmy and Clyde – at least not enough for me to get over the fact that they’re committing a crime. The crime itself is a good caper but the twist at the end left me feeling tricked rather than impressed. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Reels for this film.

The heroes come off as dim-witted but ultimately show that they know more than the average bear. Jimmy does his best to be a good dad to his daughter Sadie. He’s ripping off NASCAR so he can afford to move to Lynchburg to follow Sadie when her mom moves there. Still, I don’t admire a man who breaks the law to show his dedication. I only have 2 Heroes for Jimmy and Clyde.

There are some transformations here. Joe Bang gets out of jail. The boys get their money. Jimmy gets to be with Sadie. And Clyde gets a nicer prosthetic arm. I give them all 1 Delta out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:

Kidnap ••

Starring: Halle Berry, Sage Correa, Chris McGinn |
Director: Luis Prieto
Screenplay: Knate Lee
Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: August 4, 2017



Scott, you’d have to kidnap and restrain me in order to get me to look at this film again.

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

Greg, I kid you not, I’d rather nap than see this flick again. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Karla (Halle Berry) – she’s a waitress and mother in the middle of a divorce. She’s taken her son to the park when she gets a call from her lawyer. Her husband wants primary custody of her son. While she’s distracted, her son is abducted by woman. Karla sees him stuffed into a car and she jumps into her SUV to give chase.

And chase she does. There is a lot of chasing and a lot of mayhem during these chases. Karla learns from her son’s recording device that the two kidnappers are named Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple). During these chase sequences, Margo and Terry threaten to harm the kid if Karla doesn’t back off. Karla persists in giving chase and eventually has violent encounters with the kidnappers.

Scott, this film is reminds me of 2013’s The Call – also a Halle Berry movie. There really isn’t much to this story. The child is abducted and we watch Halle Berry emote into the camera for 90 minutes as she chases the abductors. I wish there were more to report, but that’s it.

The production values are very low. The script was sparse. The action was simple. There weren’t a lot of intense car chases or stunts. This was about as simple as a Hollywood film can get. I noted that Halle Berry’s own company “606 Films” was listed as one of the producers. This film really feels like a training run for her production company.

If you’re going to make a movie that consists of 90 minutes of chasing, then those chase scenes had better be extraordinary and the lessons learned had better be deep and enduring. Alas, this was not the case in Kidnap. You’re right, Greg, about the cheap production value of the film. You know you’re in trouble when half the movie consists of close-ups of Halle Berry’s emotionally contorted face. The car chases themselves were rather pedestrian, although I do admit on one or two occasions they were suspenseful.

My main problem is with the so-called heroism of our protagonist, Karla. Yes, she saves her young child, but along the way she maims and kills cops, pedestrians, and other motorists. Does her relentless pursuit of her son make her a hero when she’s left a swath of death and destruction in her wake? The concluding scene should have shown her being arrested. Now we know why throughout the country, long and dangerous police chases are slowly being phased out. They aren’t worth the carnage they inflict on innocent bystanders. By film’s end, Karla has become an unintended anti-hero.

Kidnap is a low-thrills rollercoaster ride. It’s a showcase for Halle Barry’s production company and as such doesn’t try anything controversial. An average film might get three Reels but this is a decidedly below-average film. I rate it just 2 Reels out of 5. Karla is little more than a cardboard cutout. I can only give her 2 out of 5 Heroes. And there’s scant little transformation going on – so I give this film 1 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Heroes: Transformation:

That’s a harsh yet accurate synopsis of this film, Greg. At best, Kidnap is a made-for-TV quality chase scene stretched out to 90 minutes due to long, frequent cuts to Halle Berry’s frantic facial expressions. This movie portrays Berry’s character heroically despite the fact that she has killed and seriously harmed many people en route to rescuing her son. The underwater fight scene near the end is unintentionally funny and the conclusion of the story is predictable. I’d say 2 Reels out of 5 is quite reasonable and perhaps even generous.

Because the hero is actually an anti-hero, and because the film doesn’t even acknowledge this fact, I have to award our protagonist Karla a single Hero point out of 5. And you’re right, Greg, that there is no transformation to be found here, a fact that compels me to award 1 transformational Delta out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Transformation:

Transformers: The Last Knight •1/2

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 149 minutes
Release Date: June 21, 2017



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

Greg, it seems like these Transformers never change.

It turns out they really are not more than meets the eye. Let’s recap:

In the 5th century, Merlin has teamed up with a dozen transformers in England to defeat the Saxons. In the present day, most of earth has outlawed transformers but they appear to be everywhere and they keep arriving. Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has devoted his life to protecting the transformers, and he befriends a 14-year-old girl named Izabella (Isabela Moner). Meanwhile, on the planet Cybertron, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has been captured by the evil Quintessa (Gemma Chan).

Over in England, Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) has summoned Cade because he’s been chosen by an ancient Transformer to the the last knight. Cade meets the beautiful and educated Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). She knows the location of Merlin’s staff that can repel Cybertron. Now it’s a race against time as Cade and Vivian try to escape the Army, the TRF, ancient Transformers, and the Decepticons to defeat Quintessa and evil Optimus Prime and save Earth.

Greg, these Transformers movies are exhausting. No wonder this movie clocks in at two and a half hours – its tries to pack in every character and every plot device from every action movie ever made. We have a confusing array of heroes. First, there is a young girl in the ruins. Then there is Mark Wahlberg’s character Cade Yeager. Then Anthony Hopkins shows up. Then a beautiful professor of history joins in. There are also many villains: A floating metal woman named Quintessa, the TRF police hunting the transformers, plus a criminal gang of robot freaks led by Megatron.

It’s as if this movie wants to be an amalgam of Men in Black, National Treasure, and even Star Wars (as there are two robots resembling R2D2 and C3PO). This film has the same basic problem that plagues previous installments of Transformers, namely, it doesn’t know what it wants to be or who in the audience it should appeal to. The movie is too juvenile to appeal to adults and too crude to be appropriate for kids. Maybe that’s why it throws in everything plus the kitchen sink. If you include enough of everything, maybe something will stick to someone.

I could not agree more. What I saw was drones that looked like Tie-Fighters and robot destructors that looked like At-At’s. And plot twists that came out of The DiVinci Code. As if that weren’t enough, this was more like two separate movies. The first half resembles the plot of Logan with Izabella the Hispanic girl chasing our hero. She’s tough and resilient – just like Laura from the aforementioned movie. Then the movie abandons this storyline in favor of a sort of a DaVinci Code plot with the vivacious Vivian where they must decode the mysteries of historical artifacts. It is as if the writers could not agree on a plot so they combined two. It was a colossal mess.

I don’t think this film is a total disaster, as it does try to hit some key elements of the hero’s journey and heroism in general. Optimus Prime redeems himself and transforms back into his old benevolent self when an old friend expresses a willingness to die for him. This scene actually moved me. But I also know that the filmmakers threw in a few ingredients of heroism as an afterthought, just to make sure they covered a few key bases in the most perfunctory way.

For example, at the film’s end there is a brief speech about how our heroes just want to find home and how so much of our inner discoveries remain mysteries. Cade Yeager even has a secret identity as a knight, which is a classic theme in hero mythology. That’s all well and good but this film is guilty of superficially exploring these heroic themes. Sadly, Transformers movies are first and foremost hyper-masculine films consisting mostly of violence, cleavage, and “dickhead” comments.

Yeah. There are a lot of tossed-in elements. It’s like some sort of movie salad. Borrowed elements from other movies. Borrowed archetypes. Borrowed characters. The most heroic character (and by far the most interesting) was Izabella. She’s wise beyond her years, tough, and capable. Cade tries to treat her like a naive child and she has none of it.

Likewise, Vivian is a lot smarter than Cade and when the chips are down, it is she who can wield Merlin’s staff and save the day. Which is very confusing because it makes us wonder what Cade is there for. The artifact that chose him to be “the one” true knight. The artifact turns into Excalibur and then in a flash disappears. The most interesting characters in this film are the two women and there isn’t a single scene with the two of them together.

I think your “movie salad” description really says it all, Greg. Transformers: The Last Knight is an oversized casserole that you can’t possibly finish, nor would you want to. There’s just too much sound and fury with too little substance. There’s quite possibly a good movie lurking somewhere in this sloppy stew, but it’s hopelessly obscured by a cacophony of sights and sounds, most of them unnecessary. I’m generously awarding this film 2 Reels out of 5.

We do have several worthy heroes. Izabella is a good character who deserves more character development. She’s an example of heroic potential wasted. Cade Yeager is also an admirable hero who grows into his knightly role, but he’s also a flimsy character due to this film’s emphasis on action, CGI effects, flash, and noise. Burton and Wembley also have potential but are lost in the blaring cacophony. Heroic themes of home and inner discovery are buried as well. Thus all I can muster is a hero rating of 2 out of 5.

You’d think a Transformers movie would be bursting with interesting transformations, but alas, the vast majority of transformations here are of the physical variety. Machines become monsters and monsters become vehicles, etc. Optimus Prime does undergo a moving transformation from hero to villain and then back to hero again. But it’s all done on an unsatisfying surface level. As a result, I can only must a rating of 2 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Scott, you are far too generous to this film. Transformers: The Last Knight is a mashup of a dozen other films. There’s nothing original here. And it was bloated to over 2 hours and 30 minutes. Yet in all this mess there was a barely perceptible plot. The goal was to save the Earth – but that isn’t established well into the second act. It took a long time to know what this film was about. I can only give it 1 Reel out of 5.

There were a bunch of heroes in this film that we haven’t really talked about. There were many Autobot Transformers to play sidekicks. And the Decepticons were there for a minute. There’s a big scene where Megatron picks his Suicide Squad – and then they never appear in the film. These heroes are weak and uninteresting. Aside from the two women, I don’t have any use for them. I give this film 1 out of 5 Heroes.

And despite the many transformations from robot to automobile back to robot – there really isn’t much growth or transformation for these characters. I give them all just 1 Delta out of 5.

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



(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:

Life •••

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: March 24, 2017


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

Greg, we just saw a movie that was certainly full of life. And its opposite.

For the life of me I can’t remember a more thrilling movie. Let’s recap:

The six-member crew of an international space station recovers a dormant single-cell life form from Mars. They successfully revive it, and soon it grows into a complex multicellular organism. Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) calls it “all muscle, all brain, and all eye.” Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) conducts experiments on it, and one day the creature grabs onto his hand and won’t let go.

And it begins killing crewmembers. Captain North begins to instantiate the first of three firewalls. They lock the creature in the lab. But things don’t go as planned and it slips into the ventilation system. Now it’s a race against time to try and destroy the creature before it destroys the crew. And since they don’t know if the creature can withstand the rigors of planetary re-entry, they can’t allow the space station’s orbit to decay and allow the creature to get loose on Earth.

Greg, the title of this film, Life, is both brilliant and misleading. Its brilliance lies in the movie’s portrayal of how humans discover new extraterrestrial life. The misleading aspect of the title, of course, resides in the wake of human dead bodies resulting from the alien’s ruthless nature. The creature has an unyielding drive to live, a drive that stops at nothing to destroy and consume all other life forms in its path. This movie called Life is about a death machine.

This film left me feeling disturbed and dismayed about life in the universe and the doom awaiting our own planet. I haven’t felt this deflated and defeated after seeing a movie since 2014’s Nightcrawler. You may recall that Nightcrawler ends not just with evil triumphing over good, but evil growing stronger throughout the movie and remaining seemingly unstoppable at the end. Life does exactly that, too. Perhaps not coincidentally, actor Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both Nightcrawler and Life. To take on these roles, Gyllenhaal must believe that human life is pretty much doomed.

I saw Life as a combination of 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1979’s Alien. In The Andromeda Strain a virus is brought to Earth when a satellite crash lands after being hit by a tiny meteor. And of course Alien is the classic horror-in-outer-space thriller about an alien attacking a crew aboard a spaceship.

What all of these films have in common is man’s unwitting demise due to our innate curiosity. We are reaching out into the unknown vastness of space. Some stories talk about the exciting possibilities. Life, and the others, remind us that “here, be dragons.”

I enjoyed Life for what it was – a horror film set in outer space. But there’s not much new here. The creature grows at an alarming rate. It appears to learn even faster. Somehow, it knows about spacecraft, outerspace living, and how to use sharp objects. It’s all very unbelievable. But, since the point of the film is to play upon our darkest fears, logic is not a necessity.

As a horror film, there is a particular storyline formula for our hero ensemble to follow. There must be peace and levity at the outset, followed by an encounter with an unknown entity. Our heroes must underestimate the danger of the entity, with one or two of the heroes making crucial errors allowing the entity to gain better access to the group. One by one the heroes are killed in gruesome fashion by the entity, until the very end when one lone hero survives. But in Life, the survivor appears to be stranded in space while the evil entity has landed on earth and is about to feast on 7 billion inhabitants. Our heroes have failed in their mission — never a sign of good storytelling, in my opinion.

I must say, I much preferred the ending in the original Alien movie in which Sigourney Weaver outwits and outlasts the alien entity. We’re left frightened but exhilarated that good has defeated evil. I do understand that Life’s dismal ending appears necessary as a set-up for a sequel. Imagine the bloodbath that awaits humanity, and all the heroes who will need to step up to stop the monster and its offspring. Still, as a stand-alone story, Life doesn’t work, as our heroes do not transform and use their transformation to prevail.

As we noted in our review of Get Out – story often gives way to shock value in horror stories. Still, not all stories must end happily. If you look the the classic Planet of the Apes (1968), the story ends with our hero realizing that he was stranded on a future planet Earth where Man had destroyed himself, giving way to the rise of the apes. It is a cautionary tale.

In Life we see the same result. Our hero takes the creature to the planet surface and local fisherman unwittingly open the capsule, apparently unleashing the creature on the Earth’s populace. This, too, is a cautionary tale: Don’t mess with mother nature. If Mars is dead, it’s probably best to leave it alone. As we venture out into space, we must be sure not to bring back anything that might harm us. For me, it was a satisfying ending.

Life is a movie about death, lots of it in fact, both onscreen and inevitably soon to come in big numbers in the future. Don’t get me wrong; this movie is expertly crafted and riveting. Our hero ensemble is simply outmatched by this creature designed as a biological weapon, and as such we have a failed hero’s mission and failed hero’s journey. I left the theater feeling worse than when I entered, which is never a good storytelling effect. Because the movie is so well made, I still have to award it 3 Reels out of 5.

There was heroism in this movie, albeit with failed results. Dr. North locks herself out of the space station while the beast is attached to her, thereby (she thinks) saving her colleagues. Dr. Jordan selflessly volunteers to be jettisoned out in space with the creature, thereby (he thinks) saving Golovkina and the planet Earth from the creature. These failed acts of heroism are noteworthy, but they don’t come with any transformation, mentoring, or positive outcomes. As such I can only award these heroes 2 Hero points out of 5.

I didn’t detect any lasting transformations among our heroic characters. Displays of selflessness do occur, and one could argue they stemmed from transformations in the moment. But good storytelling demands a lasting dispositional change in the protagonists, and we don’t get that here, as most of our heroes die. The alien creature undergoes physical transformation — it gets bigger, stronger, and deadlier. So for that reason, I can award 1 Transformation delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Life isn’t an original movie. We’ve seen this theme before. What it does have is Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. And that makes it some kind of fun. The creature was pure evil which isn’t unusual in a horror flick. And the ending caught me by surprise, even if it was obvious to my date. I can give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Our heroes are the spacemen and women. They display the usual elements of heroic behavior including intelligence, strength, and endurance. But not quite enough intelligence – which makes the horror story all the more interesting. I give them just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And there isn’t a lot of transformation for our heroes. Although the creature undergoes a strong physical transformation. I give it just 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: