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Manchester by the Sea ••••1/2

manchester_by_the_seaStarring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2016


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

Greg, can’t you see that it’s time to review Manchester by the Sea?

It’s the end of the Oscar year and about time for a serious movie. Let’s recap.

We meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman who lives in Boston and whose job is to fix the plumbing and electrical problems of the tenants in several apartment buildings. Lee appears to be a loner and gets into occasional bar fights. Yet for the most part, he is kind and gentle. One day he gets a telephone call telling him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died.

Lee travels from Boston to his hometown of Manchester to meet with friends and family of Joe’s. It seems Joe has left behind a small boat, a house, and a son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While Lee attends to Joe’s funeral needs, he stops by the lawyer’s to check on Joe’s will. Since Joe had a degenerative heart condition, he made sure all his affairs were in order. Lee is surprised beyond words when he learns that Joe has made him Patrick’s guardian. Joe has left enough money for Lee to move from Boston and take residence in his home. But Lee doesn’t want this new responsibility and is strangely opposed to moving back to Manchester.

Greg, Manchester by the Sea is one of those rare movies that takes its time telling its story and developing its characters. There are scenes that don’t seem necessary yet speak volumes about the kind of people we are getting to know, as when Lee Chandler misunderstands his nephew Patrick and almost inadvertently hurts him with his car. Scenes are also extended to include seemingly superfluous dialogue, yet in this movie even small talk looms large in revealing character details.

Casey Affleck is highly deserving of all the kudos he is receiving for his performance here. In truth, almost all the performances here are dynamic and convincing. We see the pain in these characters’ eyes and we care deeply about how their messy predicaments can get resolved. This movie pulls no punches about what Richard Rohr calls “the tragic sense of life”. There are no villains here; life’s difficult circumstances crop up and grab our hero by the throat, forcing him to make decisions and take risks. This is compelling drama, portrayed with heartfelt realism.

I couldn’t agree more. This is a story with no winners. Death leaves Lee holding the bag and it doesn’t make his life easy. He is hesitant to move back to Manchester and we’re left wondering why. Then, through a series of flashbacks, we’re shown that he once had a family in Manchester. While things weren’t perfect, they were pretty good. And then one night he accidentally burned down his house, killing his three young children. Afterwards, he, his wife, and the town, could not forgive him. He is forced to leave Manchester and take up residence in Boston doing odd jobs.

When he is given the chance to return to Manchester, he at first rejects this “call to adventure.” He doesn’t want to try and make it all work. But as he becomes more attached to his nephew and the town he left, we see him attempt to find work. But he is turned away. The town still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten what he did. Ultimately, he finds a middle ground. Patrick will be adopted by friends, and he will regain his full birthright at the age of 21. Lee will relocate to a closer job in Boston so he can be a part of Patrick’s life. It’s not a Hollywood happy ending. It’s not what anyone really wants. But in the circumstances that Lee, Patrick and Manchester find themselves, it is the best that can be done.

Lee desperately needs a mentor to help him with his life decisions, especially regarding what to do with caring for Patrick. This movie shows us how agonizing life’s difficult circumstances can be when person lacks help from a trusted mentor figure. Lee’s older brother Joe, now deceased, probably served as a quasi-mentor figure for Lee, but now Joe’s gone. Lee’s parents are pretty useless in helping Lee, his vitriolic mother especially.

Lee is left in the role of mentor for his nephew and finds himself ill-equipped to perform in this role, mostly because Lee himself hasn’t properly come to terms with his past. He’s an emotionally shattered man who has shut down. In the end, Lee finds a compromise regarding his nephew, an arrangement that is far from perfect but is the best Lee can do, especially considering the fact that he lacks any kind of mentoring.

I think you’re right again, Scott. This movie proves that you don’t need a mentor for the hero. But there are consequences for the mentorless soul. The hero goes looking for answers but finds none. The hero looks for solutions but finds none. This is a story of a man thrown into a position of responsibility, but a responsibility that he cannot handle. He does his best, but his best is not good enough.

Manchester by the Sea is a heart-rending story of a man looking for redemption, but finds none. It is an honest story about a man fractured by his own guilt. The story unfolds, not slowly, but deliberately. Each scene takes its time showing us the events of a man trying to cope with the responsibility that he didn’t ask for. We want Lee to succeed. We even need him to succeed. But he won’t succeed. It’s not the story we want to see. But in life, it’s often the story we’re dealt. I give Manchester by the Sea 5 out of 5 Reels for telling a story that is as honest as a movie can be.

Lee Chandler appears to be a decent fellow in the beginning of the film. He serves his tenants and keeps to himself. His one vice is that he seems to pick fights in bars – even preferring them to advances by attractive women. Although he doesn’t want the responsibility of taking care of his orphaned nephew, we witness him doing his best. This is the hero within him. He tries. He tries very hard. And in the end he cannot overcome the tragedy that he brought upon himself. He is guilt-ridden and broken. He is the tragic hero who gets 4 out of 5 Heroes from me.

As you point out, Scott, there are no mentors in this film. And that is part of what Manchester by the Sea is about. Lee is mentorless at a time when he could most use a mentor. He has no champion. And in the end, he loses to circumstance. If he had a mentor, things might have gone differently. It seems unfair to award this film zero mentor points since it succeeded in telling this tale without one. But as there is no mentor, 0 Mentor points is all I can offer.

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Manchester by the Sea is a heart-achingly realistic portrayal of a damaged man doing his best to cope with a family emergency. This movie pulls no emotional punches; it tells a tough story and does it with searing truth. Casey Affleck does a phenomenal job portraying Lee Chandler and deserves strong Oscar consideration. I can’t think of an actor who is more gifted at showing pain through his eyes and nonverbal behavior. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The heroic path of Lee Chandler is fascinating and unconventional from the standpoint of the classic hero’s journey. He is independent to a fault, resisting efforts to bond with people who could grow close to him and help him with much-needed healing. There are no villains, only inner-demons to conquer. Lee’s story is hard to watch at times yet ultimately redemptive. I award his character 4 Hero points out of 5.

While there is no mentor for poor, suffering Lee Chandler, he does nevertheless serve as a mentor figure for his nephew Patrick. How effective Lee is in this role is open to debate. Patrick needs a mentor almost as badly as Lee does, and we get the sense that the loss of Joe has created a big mentorship void in the entire family. Ironically, the conspicuous absence of mentorship in this film gives it prominence. Thus I give the mentorship in the film a total of 2 Mentor points out of 5.

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La La Land •••

la_la_land_filmStarring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Comedy/Drama/Musical, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2016


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Well Scott, are you Ga Ga over La La Land?

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

La La Land was definitely not doo doo and much better than so so. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to bright and emerging actress Mia (Emma Stone). She is trying out for a number of movies and has big dreams of becoming a movie star. But first she must work in the movie studio’s coffee shop as a barista. She goes to a restaurant at Christmastime where she hears a young Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) playing a piano. Things aren’t going so well for young Sebastian as he is summarily fired for not playing holiday standards.

Mia and Sebastian’s paths keep crossing. Eventually they go out, enjoy great chemistry together, and fall in love. Sebastian meets an old friend and bandmate who invites Sebastian to join his band. The offer is lucrative, and Sebastian accepts but is dismayed to discover that the band’s music is uninteresting and a total sell-out. Meanwhile, Mia’s one-woman play is a total bust, sending Mia home to live with her parents in Nevada.

The opening scene of La La Land is a massive production number where all the (young) drivers in Los Angeles’ gridlock get out of their cars and sing and dance. This is a promise that we’re in for a classic musical ala the 1940’s. But it is a promise that will soon be broken as the leads in this story really don’t sing or dance very much. And when they do it is the minimum necessary. La La Land is a huge disappointment.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if that were the only flaw. But this movie fails on every level. Musical: the songs are abandoned at about the 25% point. Dance: Stone and Gosling barely perform – I’ve seen better work on TV’s Dancing with the stars. Plot: This is a hackneyed story that has little depth. Jazz: Gosling’s thing is that he wants everyone to love Jazz. And by the end of the story we don’t care one wit about Jazz. It’s a story full of promises that are never delivered upon.

I disagree, Greg. Yes, La La Land is lightweight fun but it is fun nonetheless. The film is packed with visual and emotional appeal. At the visual level, we are treated to delightful cinematography capturing the spirit of the southern California lifestyle and the glamor of the entertainment industry. At an emotional level, we fall in love with the idea of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling falling in love. There is a palpable spark between them, made more poignant by their professional struggles.

The heroes of the story are the romantic duo of Mia and Sebastian. We can tell they are destined to fall in love because they dislike each other at the outset. La La Land is clever in its introduction to our heroes. There is a minor road rage incident, a snub at a nightclub, and an annoying party song request. Each hero hits a low point; his is at the beginning, hers is toward the end. There are no villains, other than the difficult entertainment industry in which they work. The journey consists of them helping each other succeed, and the adventurous storyline exudes fun, energy, wit, and charm.

I had no problem with these characters as the leads – except that there was nothing particularly interesting about them. Gosling did a good job as the jazz pianist – apparently playing the piano himself in scenes that required it. Aside from one scene where he explains jazz to Mia, we don’t really get to see his passion. And when Mia encourages him to try out for a band, he resists at first, then joins up. Apparently he had personality conflicts with the leader (played by John Legend). But we never really see these conflicts. And our hero seems to genuinely enjoy playing the “new jazz.” So it’s a bit of a surprise when he claims he only joined because Mia exhorted him to.

Likewise with Mia’s talents. Sebastian encourages Mia to stop auditioning and work on her one-woman show. Which she does and when only a handful of people show up, she decides to quit acting altogether. But then a casting agent saw the show and wants to cast Mia in a major feature. And we have the same problem again – we never saw the one-woman show. So we have no idea whether she was any good in it. The only real example of Mia’s acting we get is a monologue where she reminisces about an aunt who got a passing mention in an earlier scene. It’s truly a touching moment – possibly the only one in the film.

So I’m pretty unenthusiastic about this romantic hero pairing. There’s a lot of talk about their relative passions, but very little of it is on-screen. We just have to take their word for it. So I’ll go back to the old saw about writing – “show, don’t tell.”

They showed plenty to me. Sebastian’s passion for jazz jumped off the screen for me, and inspired me (a disliker of jazz) to actually enjoy the music I heard in this movie. It was all “show” and very little “tell”. And thank God they didn’t show Mia’s one-woman show; what a waste that would have been. We witnessed her talent big-time during her failed auditions, where she was jinxed time and again.

This year we’ve explored the important role of mentoring in the movies, and this movie could serve as an example of a story that works just fine without mentoring. The reason is that our two heroes help each other transform — a type of peer assisted transformation. Mia helps Sebastian learn to follow his dream, a conceptual transformation for him. In turn, he helps her by getting her to the movie audition — a mechanical transformation. That’s more black-and-white than it really is, but the point is that any mentoring they received happened earlier in their lives, with Sebastian getting great keyboard training and Mia some impressive acting lessons.

Once again, as with so much in this film, the mentoring is off-camera. There was so much that was off-camera in this film I felt that I didn’t really need to be in the theater.

La La Land is a film that promised much and delivered little. Even it’s opening scrawl promised it would be a Cinemascope classic. But it pales in comparison to such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and Top Hat. Those films, even with their limited plotlines, delivered amazing songs and dance routines. “I’ve watched theatrical musicals. I met theatrical movies. Theatrical movies have been friends of mine. La La Land – you’re no theatrical musical!” I give La La Land just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this film are flimsy and uninteresting. They scarcely have an arc that I could detect. The one saving grace is the last scene which was a “what could have been” montage. That was a welcome diversion from an otherwise ho-hum hero’s journey. I give the heroes in this film just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the mentoring was non-existent save for the owner of Mia’s coffee shop. 1 Mentor for her.

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La La Land is a spirited visual and musical spectacle that will keep your toes tapping and your heart singing long after you leave the theater. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone enjoy a sizzling romance that struggles to bloom and then lights up the big screen. I fell in love with the idea of them falling in love, and I wasn’t disappointed at all by the clever, realistic ending that showed them in different places yet forever changed by each other. La La Land falls just shy of earning all 5 points but does merit a festive 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two star-crossed lovers win our hearts with their sweet intentions, winning dispositions, and boundless talent. Ryan Gosling always amazes me by portraying characters whom I shouldn’t like but nevertheless find myself rooting for. Emma Stone remains one of the most mega-talented actors in Hollywood, and together these two stars make magic in the theater. Their hero’s journeys are textbook and I enjoyed watching them help each other transform into entertainers who achieve their full potential. They easily earn 4 Hero points out of 5.

There is no mentoring per se in this movie, at least not on-screen, but this is a film that doesn’t require mentoring to be effective. So no worries at all (from me) in assigning 1 single measly Mentor point out of 5.

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Rogue One •••

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterStarring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2016


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Scott, it looks like the Star Wars franchise has returned to its roots.

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

Rogue “won” my heart, Greg. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is her father and the lead designer of the Empire’s new weapon – the Death Star. She was separated from her father at youth and raised by elite rebel Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). The Rebellion needs Jyn, now 28, to find Saw and determine what he knows about a message her father sent about the new weapon. She meets him at Jedha only to find that the Empire is there and is about to destroy the city – and Gerrar with it.

Jyn learns that Galen has sabotaged the design of the Death Star so that it can be destroyed, so she devises a plan to steal the star’s schematics. The schematics are located on the highly secure tropical planet Scarif. With the assistance of Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind spiritual leader, Jyn and rebel intelligence officer Cassian (Diego Luna) infiltrate the planet with the goal of altering the balance of power in the Empire.

Scott, Rogue One is a sort of Episode 3.5 in the Star Wars lineage. While it is billed as a standalone film, it fits nicely between Star Wars: Episode 3 – Revenge of the Sith and 1977’s Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope. The ending of Rogue One is the natural beginning to Episode 4.

And herein lies the first of many problems with this film: we know how it must end. We know that the rebels must get the plans because Episode 4 starts with Princess Leia sending the plans to the dusty planet of Tatooine. And so, there is no real tension in this story because we know our heroes will succeed.

Another problem is a large number of so-called Easter Eggs. We see characters from Episode 4 pop up randomly and inexplicably throughout Rogue One. The cameos are intended to delight those of us who have watched Episode 4 since 1977 – but for me it was a distraction as I tried to remember where the characters came from and how they merge with this new film.

And the epic nature of the film causes the first half of the film to be a series of vignettes rather than proper scenes. We are delivered first from planet to planet where snippets of the story are told. But we have very little time to get invested in any of the characters. This “set up” took nearly half the film and was quite dull.

If you’re looking for Rogue One to move the great Star Wars story arc forward, you’re in for a disappointment. Rogue One is a prequel that introduces new characters whom we never seen in later installments, so we pretty much know these characters are going to have to die. So not only do we know the outcome of the story, we know what has to happen to our heroes. The only thing we don’t know is exactly how it will happen.

I would say that Rogue One is one of the better films in the Star Wars universe. I wasn’t dazzled by this movie but it did several good things. For starters, Rogue One stars Felicity Jones who does a fabulous job portraying a multi-faceted hero. I was impressed with how she demonstrated the physically heroic traits of strength and courage, and combined them with a softer, gentler side — as evidenced when she saves a young child’s life. For me, this is an important step forward, showing that stereotypically masculine traits need not be the only defining characteristics of heroes.

What the movie industry now needs is male heroes who are portrayed in this same fuller way. The same hero can both kick ass and show a nurturant quality, regardless of whether the hero is male or female.

I’d like to say that Jyn undergoes a heroic transformation, but she only goes through the motions. Aside from the prologue where we meet her as a child, we meet Jyn as a fully formed rebel soldier. She’s already been trained by her mentor Saw Gerrera and is recruited by the rebellion to find her father. But she’s a loner. And the lesson she must learn is to depend upon others.

The key word in Rogue One is “hope.” Her new sidekick Cassian Andor tells her that rebellions are built on hope. And then, when the senate won’t support an attack on a remote base, she repeats this new lesson. But we never see Jyn undergo the transformation that shows us that she believes in the rebellion. She simply changes her tune because it makes for a convenient plot twist.

And the moment you mention, Scott, where she saves the little girl is just inserted into the middle of a battle scene with little context. In writing circles we call this the “save the cat” moment. If you have a rough character and you want to soften her, you have her save a cat from a tree (or some other such thing). And this is precisely what Jyn’s saving the child does. However, it’s the only such scene we see – and it is antithetical to the rest of her personality as displayed in the story.

Her ultimate transformation from a loner to a leader doesn’t occur so much from a series of events that lead her inexorably to this new state – but by the writers simply putting her in the position of making an impassioned plea. There are no scenes that show her growing into this new leadership role. She simply becomes a leader because the story required it. It was a very disappointing presentation.

Well you’ve put your finger on some of the perennially dissatisfying elements of the typical Star Wars film. They usually feature overly simplistic characters engaged in the classic battle between good and evil. For me, Rogue One has a bit more depth and nuance than most Star Wars movies. Even the robot character, K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), is more interesting than past robots in this franchise.

But the evil characters are monolithically pure evil, which renders them uninteresting. They even manage to laugh at the carnage they wreak on the rebel forces. Psychological research on evil has shown that evil-doers typically do not enjoy performing their evil acts (click here for an interesting article on the psychology of evil by Roy Baumeister). I did enjoy seeing some mentoring, especially from the spiritual Imwe, whose blindness channels the ancient Greek archetype of the blind soothsayer in classic mythic tragedies. Interestingly, this is the second movie we’ve seen of late involving spiritual mentors, the other one appearing in Doctor Strange.

I think we see a true mentor in Saw Gerrara, but we never see the actual mentoring. Otherwise, there is little mentoring going on here. Cassian offers an example of what the hero can look like – but he doesn’t really give Jyn advice and gifts that help her manage the new situation she’s in. Imwe is an interesting character. He seems like a failed Jedi as he doesn’t quite channel the Force but does rely upon it. Again, he offers some examples to Jyn on how to be a good hero, but doesn’t actually instruct her.

Rogue One is a visually beautiful movie with stunning CGI effects and memorable characters who captures the spirit of the Star Wars universe. Still, I was less than dazzled by the story, as it could only lead to one known final outcome. It also telegraphed the unhappy demise of our heroes. I hope that future Star Wars movies focus on advancing the story rather than giving us prequels that box themselves in artistically. I award this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

Our main hero, Jyn Erso, traverses the hero’s journey, but as you point out, Greg, some key elements of the journey are implied as having taken place off-camera rather than shown to us. Jyn does receive assistance from friends and companions along the way, and although we never see it, she does undergo a transformation between her childhood and adulthood. Despite these disappointments, I enjoyed seeing a hero who combines masculine and feminine qualities. I give Jyn a rating of 3 Hero points out of 5.

As you emphasize, Greg, the mentors are shown to occupy key roles in our hero’s life, but we don’t actually see much mentoring. The two main mentors, Gerrara and Imwe, are memorable characters but ultimately suffer from an unsatisfying emptiness in this story. I give them 2 Mentor points out of 5.

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Rogue One is a skillfully crafted CGI fest that nestles nicely into the Star Wars universe. While I found it entertaining, I was left feeling that good storytelling gave way to fan-boy fantasy. Just as with Star Wars: Episode 7: The Force Awakens we’re given a female hero who has been left without her parents. It seems you can’t be a Star Wars hero unless you’re an orphan of some sort. The performances were fine but the script lacked originality and tension. I give Rogue One just 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero’s journey is mostly off-screen and often implied when for the bits that are on-screen. Jyn does transform from a loner to a leader, but it seems mainly as a result of the writers’ needs rather than anything that Jyn experiences. I can give Jyn only 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the mentorship here is lacking or non-existent. Saw Gerrera trains Jyn, but it is only related to us in backstory, never something we see on-screen. The other characters act as descent examples to Jyn but never step up to true mentors. I give only 1 out of 5 Mentor points to Rogue One.

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Inferno ••

inferno_2016_filmStarring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Dan Brown, David Koepp
Action/Adventure/Crime, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2016


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It’s time to review Tom Hanks’ new movie Inferno.

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

It’s a hellish experience reviewing this infernal movie. Let’s recap.

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back and this time he’s waking up in a hospital bed in Italy. It seems someone has shot at him and now he’s temporarily lost his memory due to a graze on his head. Luckily, beautiful young doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) is there to help him. He no sooner awakes when a police officer breaks into the hospital and starts shooting at him. Brooks takes Langdon by the hand and whisks him back to her apartment where they discover he has a “Faraday Pointer” (a tiny projector) in his pocket. It displays Dante’s eight levels of hell – only the levels have a clue which leads him and the doctor on a scavenger hunt.

Apparently the clues have been left by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who is suspected of creating a virus that will decimate the human population. Zobrist has just committed suicide while being chased by government agents. A huge fan of Dante’s Inferno, Zobrist has imbedded clues about the whereabouts of the virus in the Faraday image of the eight levels of hell. Langdon’s expertise in this area has him involved in the search for the virus, and now and he and Brooks are racing to find it before it kills billions of people.

Scott, I wasn’t very excited about viewing this film. The first movie in the series (The DaVinci Code) was actually pretty good. But the second in the series (Angels & Demons) was pretty far-fetched. This latest episode didn’t look much better. And I wasn’t disappointed. This was a very unbelievable scavenger hunt that made little to no sense.

The good news is that the performances in this film are worth the price of admission, but just barely. Direct Ron Howard and leading man Tom Hanks work well together and can make even a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The action is relentless and Hanks definitely delivers a believable performance as Dr. Langdon. However, Howard does seem to be in love with Felicity Jones’ face as her close-ups measured in the dozens. I think the combination of a dazzling pace as well as Jones’ dazzling appearance covered a multitude of sins.

Among these sins are the premise that Langdon has on his person a receptacle that opens only with his thumb print. And inside is a “Faraday Pointer” which is a miniature projector made of human bone. The image is a bastardization of Dante’s 8 levels of hell which spell out a clue to the next step in the scavenger hunt. What the heck? Why in the world would Langdon have a tube that only opens with his thumbprint? It’s never explained. Why was this “Faraday Pointer” made of bone? Why was the pointer the means of displaying this cryptic clue? None of these things are explained.

You’ve pretty much summed it up, Greg. This franchise began well enough with The DaVinci Code but it’s now running on fumes, and those fumes are largely coming from someone’s backside. Hanks himself admitted that his main reason for agreeing to appear in this film was the delightful prospect of spending a couple of months filming in Florence. You’re right that Howard and Hanks can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, although I was going to say that you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.

The hero’s story begins well enough with Hanks waking up in a hospital with amnesia and then making his escape with a beautiful doctor. But as you point out, it all goes downhill from there. Even the much maligned Angels and Demons had more interesting twists and turns than this film, proving that Dan Brown’s stories on the big screen are getting repetitive and cliched. Especially since we know that Langdon will no doubt save the world from destruction in the end.

We’ve talked about the basic problem with the episodic hero – of which Langdon is one. The episodic hero rarely grows or learns from his mistake. By necessity, he ends up pretty much as he started out – so that in the next episode he can take on the next adventure. Langdon doesn’t undergo much of a transformation in this film. His beliefs and abilities are pretty much the same at the end as when he started out. In fact, he doesn’t even “get the girl” by the end of the story. It’s a pretty flat presentation.

And to go along with the flat hero and flat presentation, there is flatulence in the mentoring. In others, no mentoring to speak of. Now you could argue that years of schooling and training have enabled Langdon to unravel these Florentine mysteries. All these implicit mentors from his past are certainly helping Langdon. But we see none of it on the screen, making Langdon a dull, mentorless hero.

Inferno is a fast-paced but dull movie that makes no sense from beginning to end. It is only due to Ron Howard’s skill that this film is even watchable. Throw in the talents of Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones and the film becomes bearable. I give Inferno just 2 out of 5 Reels.

As we’ve said, Langdon is the same old guy he’s always been. There’s no transformation for him. He’s a good guy – mostly (when he’s not stealing rare artifacts). And he has the right mission (to save the earth from mass infection). I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes for Langdon.

Scott, you make a good point about Langdon’s unseen teacher-mentors. I suppose the villain Zobrist can also be considered a dark mentor for our sidekick Dr. Brooks. I give them 1 Mentor point out of 5.

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Let’s hope that this film puts this franchise to rest, once and for all. We don’t need to see Robert Langdon running around Italy any longer looking for secret passageways and dangerous new artifacts. All we need is better movie-making with stronger storylines that make us care about what’s happening. We don’t have that here. But you do make the good point that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks make this film watchable. The question is: Why are they wasting their good talents on projects like this?  I agree that the movie deserves 2 Reels out of 5.

I’m also with you that the hero rating here is also 2 out of 5. Langdon goes on a journey but not much else happens other than he slowly recovers from his amnesia and discovers the true reason why people want to kill him. Perhaps that’s supposed to pass as a transformation, but if so it’s a total cheat. Recovering one’s memory does not a mental transformation make. Also, without good mentoring, there’s not much to say about this category of rating, so 1 out of 5 is all it deserves.

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The Girl on the Train ••1/2

the_girl_on_the_trainStarring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson, Paula Hawkins
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2016


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Hey Scott, is this the sequel to Gone Girl – on a Train?

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

Either that or it’s a sequel to Girl on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) who travels drunk into the city every day on the train. She passes the house she lived in with her (now) divorced husband, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Next door to them is the beautiful couple Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) with whom Rachel is obsessed. One day, Rachel observes Megan having an affair with a man who is not her husband and Rachel is distraught.

Rachel’s life gets more complicated when one day, while drunk, she follows Megan toward the entrance to a tunnel. She blacks out and wakes up at home bloodied and caked with dirt. She later discovers that she is suspected by police of murdering Megan. Rachel also discovers that the man Megan was seeing was a psychiatrist whom Megan was seeing professionally — until the professional relationship turned romantic. The situation gets very tense and complicated as Rachel confronts Scott with this information.

The Girl on the Train is the epitome of the “unreliable narrator”. We observe the world through Rachel’s point of view – but it’s the point of view of a deeply troubled woman. She was unable to have  a child with her husband and feels deep guilt and remorse over that. She begins drinking and blacking out. Then, after her husband has an affair with the realtor (Anna), he divorces Rachel and marries the realtor. The new couple now have a child and Rachel can’t bear the thought of them having the life she wants. So she breaks into their house and takes the child – however returns her right away. Rachel is one troubled soul.

As the main character, Rachel is the hero of the story. But she’s not the typical hero. She has few redeeming qualities. She abuses alcohol, she is a burden on her friends, she’s a child abductor, and she lives like a voyeur through the life of Megan and her husband. But we sympathize with her because she is so deeply wounded by the loss of the life she could have had. Despite her shortcomings, she is a pathetic character who has hit rock bottom, and we want her to get help.

Greg, for me the The Girl on the Train is a melodrama stitched together like a made-for-TV movie. About a third of the film is devoted to close-ups of Rachel’s face looking sad, confused, and concerned. The story plays out like a mystery — is Rachel a terrible and crazy person responsible for Megan’s death? Or is she a victim of brainwashing and abuse? It takes an interminably long time to unravel the mystery and get passed 25 minutes of Rachel’s dazed face, but we finally do get an answer.

There is a hero’s journey of sorts. Her journey to the dark, unfamiliar world begins when she recovers from an alcoholic blackout all bloodied and filthy. She is a suspect in Megan’s disappearance and is kicked out of her sister’s home. Heroes usually lack a missing quality that they must discover or recover to succeed on their journey. Megan has about a dozen such missing qualities; she lacks sobriety, clarity, self-confidence, courage, resilience, and overall sanity. Eventually, she does learn that she’s not crazy and that Tom has abused and brainwashed her.

So in terms of mentoring, Tom could be viewed as her Dark Mentor. Like many predators, he has groomed his victim and laid waste to her self-esteem. Good heroes are gradually able to extricate themselves from the nefarious influence of dark mentors, and Rachel does just this, although she appears to do it on her own without much positive mentoring. The psychiatrist (Edgar Ramírez) seemingly tries to mentor Megan and Rachel, but he just fills up space in this movie by representing an attractive male love interest with an exotic accent.

I think you’re being too harsh on this film, Scott. I thought the exposition of a mystery through the eyes of both the prime suspect and a hero with a faulty memory was compelling. I was constantly on the edge of my seat wondering who murdered Megan, and could it possibly be our hero? I was kept in suspense up to the end of the film. I’d recommend this movie to a friend.

However, I have to agree with you on the mentoring element of the story. While Rachel does have a friend who lets her live in a spare room, there are no guides for her. She has to depend on herself – someone who is inherently undependable. She must solve the mystery of the murder using her own faulty wits. She is on her own in this story.

I guess we just disagree, Greg, which is fine as long as we agree that I’m more right than you are.

The Girl on the Train is a mystery story that failed to hold my interest despite a premise that could have worked had the the director, Tate Taylor, been less obsessed with Emily Blunt’s face and more concerned with plot and character development. Our hero Rachel is riddled with more problems than I can ever remember a hero having — divorce, unemployment, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, a suspect in a murder case, and more. She’s a total mess yet somehow, without any help, clears up the mystery. I was not impressed. The Girl on the Train deserves to be shamed with a rating of 1 Reel out of 5.

As I’ve mentioned, there is a hero’s journey but it seems unlikely that Rachel could overcome so many serious problems without a huge team of therapists, self-help groups, and several years of healing. Yet she does gain clarity about the true nature of Tom’s abuse and thus enjoys a true personal triumph, not to mention a triumph over evil. But there aren’t very elements of the classic hero’s journey beyond the departure, suffering, and (hopefully) a transformation. So I can only award Rachel 2 Heroes out of 5.

The mentoring is pretty non-existent in the film, which is unfortunate given that we’ve never encountered a hero who needed more mentoring than Rachel. Just another example of this film’s sloppy lack of credibility. A Mentor rating of 1 out of 5 seems generous.

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The Girl on the Train is a taut psychological mystery/thriller that had me guessing at every turn. It’s difficult to write for an unreliable narrator, and as it turns out, Rachel is as unreliable as they come. Her frequent blackouts leave her with the inability to depend on anyone, least of all herself. She falls so deep into despair that she even wonders if she committed murder. It’s pretty rare for me to become so enrapt in a character’s world that I forget that I’m in a theater. The Girl on the Train did just that for me. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

I don’t know what more you need for a transformational character, Scott. Here we have someone who is so very flawed that her own life is in danger. By the end of the film, however, she sidesteps her disabilities, solves the case, dispatches the villain, and gets the help she needs to overcome her alcoholism. This is a classic redeemed hero story. I give Rachel 4 out of 5 Heroes.

But we agree on the mentoring. There isn’t anyone helping Rachel on her journey and in that sense I have to agree with you that the story lacks some credibility. I would have liked to have seen at least one friend who lent moral support. I give the mentors in The Girl on the Train just 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Deepwater Horizon ••

deepwater_horizon_filmStarring: Mark Wahlberg,  Kurt Russell,  Douglas M. Griffin
Director Peter Berg
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan,  Matthew Sand
Action/Drama/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: September 30, 2016


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It’s October and time for a hunt for a good film. Deepwater Horizon was our first stop – and I fear we’ll have to keep looking.

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

We’re going to have to go deeper into the year for Oscar material and then we’ll find brighter horizons. Let’s recap.

We are introduced to Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) – a rigger for the oil drilling ship the Deep Horizon. He spends time with his daughter who is doing a show-and-tell about her father’s job. For her class (and the audience) she explains that Williams drills the hole that releases millennia-old dinosaur-created oil so that subsequent ships may come and pump the oil out. Williams heads out to the airport where he meets the captain of their ship – James “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and pilot Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Things are not getting off to a good start when it appears the cement cap team is leaving the Deepwater Horizon prematurely.

It turns out that BP representative Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) made the executive decision to bypass the normal safety procedure of testing the cement cap. Harrell is unhappy with this development and insists on conducting some pressure tests of the main pipeline. The results are ambiguous, leading to a follow-up test of the “kill-line”. Meanwhile, far beneath the sea, we witness ominous fissures, bubbles, and pressure brewing. Up on the rig, workers are relaxed and cracking jokes, unaware of the impending disaster.

Scott, Deepwater Horizon is a technically well-crafted movie. The effects and acting are just great. You will believe those people are on a burning drilling rig. However, as a story, the movie falls flat. It’s merely a “day in the life” of some people who were in a terrible situation. This movie pales in comparison to Sully, the film of Capt. Sullenberger and his heroic efforts to save a failed flight.

Sully had a true plot with villains and heroes. While Deepwater attempts to create drama with BP’s Vidrine acting as a villain, there is no true problem to solve. Deepwater is content to throw us into the events of the worst oil spill in American history, but not to give us a proper story with a beginning, middle, and an end. I didn’t have a good time.

I hate to agree with you, Greg, but I have no choice. This movie desperately needed Clint Eastwood’s magic touch, the same touch that turned Sully from a potentially dull day-in-the-life story into a riveting portrayal of a complex man in a complex situation. In Deepwater Horizon, there really isn’t any complexity. In fact, you and I knew exactly what would happen before we entered the theater: A big company wanted to save money by cutting corners on safety procedures. The good guys warned the big company of the consequences, but to no avail. Disaster ensued.

We do have a hero’s journey, but it tends to be a one-dimensional account of the good guys being thrown into a calamity and having to survive it. The CGI effects are terrific, which is this movie’s one saving grace. But they aren’t enough to compensate for the simplicity of the story, such as it is. Jimmy Harrell sort of mentors Mike Williams, but not really. A running joke (and a bad one at that) throughout the film is all the mentoring advice people are giving Fleytas about her car, but it’s not relevant to anything. The story and the characters all suffer from a fatal case of blandness, although I must confess that Kate Hudson’s character Felicia was gorgeous and had my full attention.

Deepwater Horizon is an exciting disaster film, but with few other enticements. The production values are good as is the acting. But the film lacks heart and borders on documentary. I can only give it 2 out of 5 Reels.

The men and women on the Deepwater Horizon acted heroically. Their counterparts in BP were vilified and made to look to be at fault for the accident. It’s hard to be objective since the film was slanted against the BP execs. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes for this film.

The mentors are lacking as there isn’t a lot of guidance through a special world, or gifts given. I offer only 1 Mentor point out of 5.

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I completely agree, Greg. The filmmakers here missed an opportunity to tell a good story about a senseless disaster. Instead, we’re treated to a film plagued by all the cliches of disaster movies from yesteryear. Deepwater Horizon isn’t a complete fiasco; it just suffers from bland predictability. I’d say 2 Reels out of 5 is a generous rating here.

There is a hero’s journey in this story, but it’s a fairly one-dimensional tale of survival. Our heroes are good decent people whom we root for, and our villains are shortsighted selfish bastards who deserve to be locked up. There’s no depth, no heroic transformation of character, just survival. Again, a rating of 2 out of 5 Heroes seems about right for me.

Alas, the heroic mentorship in this film is even more lacking than the other key elements of the hero story. There’s some implied mentoring that we never see but little else. A rating of 1 Mentor point out of 5 seems about right.

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Suicide Squad ••

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterStarring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie |
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: David Ayer
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: August 5, 2016


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

Greg, don’t look now but a group of supervillains is on the loose.

If you’re a fan of The Dirty Dozen, this will be only half as good. Let’s recap:

With Superman gone, the world is vulnerable to attack by evil beings who have Superman’s powers. CIA operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) decides to assemble a team of incarcerated supervillains who will carry out missions for the government in exchange for reduced time for their crimes. The villains include Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

Their mission, should they decide to accept it, is to rescue a VIP from the top of a skyscraper where evil witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) has imprisoned them. The team is reluctant to oblige, but they’ve all be implanted with super-small but super-powerful subcutaneous neck-bombs. If they don’t comply, off with their heads. And so we’re off to fight the coal-men minions protecting the tower.

Greg, Suicide Squad was a movie with great potential. Some of it was realized but much of it wasted. The strength of this movie resides in the memorability of two of its villainous characters: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. Both these villains exude charisma and left me wanting to see more of them and know more about them. The remaining three villains (Diablo, Boomerang, and Croc) were largely forgettable characters, and the movie suffers from devoting so much time on them. In fact, Suicide Squad spends far too much film time introducing its cast at the expense of offering good storytelling.

I heartily agree, Scott. I thought Will Smith and Margot Robbie delivered great performances. As did Jared Lito with his interpretation of the Joker. If somehow the focus was on these three characters I think DC/Warner would have had the basis for great follow-on stories. But as we’ve seen so many times this year (and with last year’s Batman v. Superman) special effects and action/fight scenes were emphasized over story.

I like to compare this story to 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. It’s essentially the same story. A bunch of bad guys are sprung from jail to perform one impossible mission. And in return the bad guys get clemency. The older movie took care to emphasize the evolution of the team with a focus on just a few of the lead characters. It was a successful mix which made Dozen a classic.

There is a hero’s journey for our heroic/villainous ensemble, although as you point out, Greg, it is hardly original. Our super villains must do the nearly impossible task of defeating a super powerful villainous entity and its hench-creatures. The interesting feature of this journey is that while it doesn’t really transform the ensemble, it transforms our perception of them. We learn that Deadshot is a family man with a soft heart. We learn that Harley Quinn yearns for a normal family life with the Joker. The movie does its best to convince us that these villains are hopelessly evil but we learn differently.

This is a DC Universe origin story. The purpose of the film was to introduce us to the fleet of villains we’ll see in movies to come. And as such, it succeeds. There isn’t much of a character arc to these characters because we want to learn who they are and why the are who they are. We don’t see much a transformation here so the hero’s journey is weak. We do see a bit of a “coming together” for the team. But the motivations for this teamwork are also weak. There’s not much holding this team together, and so the story itself doesn’t hold together well, either.

Mentorship is hard to come by in this film. There are samples of mentors, but none that were central to the story. We see Deadshot mentoring his daughter in a parent/child relationship. And we see the Joker as a dark mentor for Harley Quinn. I don’t think there are any mentors for the anti-heroes themselves. The “leader,” Captain Rich Flagg (Joel Kinnaman ) is less of a mentor and more of a animal trainer – keeping the villains in check. But when he destroys the control for the neck-explosive, somehow he and the crew of five agree to work together for the common good. But not due to some powerful mentoring on Flagg’s part. But for inexplicable reasons that each of the villains has for themselves. It all makes for a very weak mentoring plot.

Suicide Squad is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we are delighted to encounter a colorful and dynamic — not to mention formidable — collection of villains who are tasked with saving the world from all-powerful evil. On the other hand, not all the villains prove to be interesting and the film is so preoccupied with introducing and building up the ensemble that we’re left with a rather flimsy story. This movie was close to being good but falls short in key areas. I can only award it 2 Reels out of 5.

Our ensemble of heroic villains is fun to watch at times, particularly Deadshot and Harley Quinn. These two characters pack a lot of charismatic punch and left me wanting to see more of them and less of the others. The hero’s journey is in plain sight but I sensed that the characters are not terribly transformed by their journey. It is more the case that their story gives us, the audience, insight into their humanity (or in Croc’s case, his reptility). Because two of the supervillains impressed me with their charisma (one of the great eight traits of heroes), I can justify awarding our heroes a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5.

You’re right, Greg, that mentorship was not a central concern of Suicide Squad. Flagg and Waller play more of a zookeeper role than mentor role to our heroes. Deadshot seems to be the voice of reason within the ensemble but I called it more of a leadership role than mentorship. Good call, Greg, on the Joker’s sinister “grooming” of Harley Quinn. Overall, this film eeks out a mentorship rating of 2 out of 5.

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Suicide Squad was an introduction, of sorts, to the villains of the DC Universe. Stand outs Deadshot and Harley Quinn will be welcomed additions due to their complex natures and apparent flaws. Diablo, Boomerang, and Killer Croc are not so interesting and are likely to play lesser roles in the future. The movie is a visual feast, but lacks story and character development. I give it 2 out of 5 Reels.

This is an anti-hero story so we look for how well the villains devolve into their villainous roles. The seem no more evil and no more heroic at the end of the film than they do at the start. What we do get is a nice insight into what makes them villains. That is good considering this is an origin story for our villains. I give the anti-heroes just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And Scott and I agree there is a lack of mentorship here. Captain Rich Flagg and his puppet master/mastermind Amanda Waller don’t mentor our villains into something more heroic so they get no points. We are witness to the Joker’s dark mentorship of Harley Quinn. I can only muster 1 Mentor point out of 5.

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Ghostbusters ••

Ghostbusters_2016_film_posterStarring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig
Action/Comedy/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: July 15, 2016


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Well, Scott, they’ve rebooted Ghostbusters, what’d you think?

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

These days it’s hard to find a movie that isn’t a reboot of something. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) who are estranged friends over a book on the paranormal they wrote together. Yates is studying paranormal events with Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) at a community college. The three decide to go into business together when a local museum has a haunting and Gilbert is “slimed.”

A fourth ghostbuster, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), joins the group after she witnesses a ghostly entity in the New York subway. The group hires a receptionist, pretty boy Kevin Beckman (Chris Hemsworth) who is quite dim-witted. Bad guy Rowan North (Neil Casey), an occultist with a chip on his shoulder, develops a device that summons all the ghostly spirits to wreak havoc upon New York.

This is the 2016 reboot of the 1984 classic. While many have compared the two films, I prefer to review this incarnation of the film on its own merits. And frankly, I was disappointed. There isn’t much of a story here. The characterizations are thin in favor of a large number of grandiose special effects. Like so many of the summer blockbusters this year, this is all about the experience and not about either story nor characters.

I pretty much agree, Greg. In many ways this movie reminds me of Independence Day: Resurgence, which also took a pretty good movie from yesteryear and made little effort to improve upon it. I will give this edition of Ghostbusters credit for casting women in the lead roles, which is a nice sign of progress for a movie industry that so desperately needs to broaden its inclusivity. It was also nice to see the bimbo secretary for the ghostbusters be a male rather than a female airhead.

The movie also portrays Erin Gilbert’s College Dean, who denies her tenure, to be a stuffy old male who obviously misjudges her. He’s a fool, as is the male head of the next college that denies our heroes space to do their work. In our review of Melissa McCarthy’s last movie, The Boss, we mentioned that all of McCarthy’s movies tend to turn gender roles on their heads. The only thing this version of Ghostbusters could have done to further the cause was to cast the main villain as a female. It didn’t, but the film still issues a strong statement about the emergence of women as heroes in the movies.

Frankly, I thought the all-female cast was more of a gimmick than anything else. We reviewed 2013’s The Heat (also a Melissa McCarthy film with Sandra Bullock). It was kind of Lethal Weapon with women. And like The Heat there is little in this film that was improved by the all-female cast. Certainly, nothing in the movie made issue of the fact that the Ghostbusters were women. While that may be a step forward for womankind, it does stretch believability as surely there would be some misogyny encountered were it the real world – but it was absent in the film.

Other than that, there isn’t a lot to talk about with this film. There are some nice cameos by members of the original cast. I thought Kate McKinnon’s performance as the bizarre super-nerd Holtzmann was over-the-top goofy. At the end of the film she makes a side comment about finally belonging somewhere, now that she’s a member of the Ghostbusters. But we were never given an inkling that alienation was a concern for Holtzmann. So, it’s a throwaway line for a character that was paper thin to begin with. And so it is for all the characters in this film. There was no room for character growth when the spectacle of CGI was the real star.

Character growth was never a goal when they set out to make this movie. The goal was to make money by showing people getting slimed by ghosts. So you’re right, Greg, that this movie provides some mild fun and entertainment but gives us little to sink our teeth into. You know a movie is in trouble when the highlight of the film is the series of cameos by the original cast from 30 years ago.

In terms of mentorship, we learn that Sigourney Weaver mentored Kate McKinnon’s character, although we never see the mentorship in action. In an ironic twist, our two ghostbusting authors, Abby Yates and Erin Gilbert, wrote a book that served as inspiration for bad guy Rowan North. We could call this an accidental or inadvertent mentorship, which is rarely seen in the movies.

Ghostbusters is a run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster where CGI is the star and story and character take a backseat. There were few jokes and way too many nods to the original, despite the great pains to make this new incarnation original. I’m OK with a film being strictly a no-brainer when all you want is to get out of the summer heat. But Ghostbusters offers little more than a visual feast. I can only summon 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes walk through the movie with little if any conflict to be resolved. There is a nice bit about the mayor of the town confidentially supporting our heroes, only to disavow them to the public. Not because he’s evil, but because he needs to distance himself from paranormal types or seem unmayorly. It was an interesting twist on the usual villain character, but it made for lackluster conflict. And, without conflict, there is little transformation. I only have 2 Heroes for our gruesome foursome.

As you point out, Scott, there is little mentoring. There is a cute cameo at the end where Sigourney Weaver pops in as an older version of Holtzman giving praise. So we have an implied mentor, but nothing concrete. Which sums up the whole of Ghostbusters. Lots of slimey attempts at humor, action, and relationships, but nothing concrete. I give the mentors in this movie just 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Greg, for me the CGI wasn’t good enough to be the star of Ghostbusters. “Run of the mill” about sums up the quality and contributions of this movie. I’d only recommend it for fans of Kristen Wiig, fans of Melissa McCarthy, and absolute fanatics of the original 1980s version. There is no new comedic ground broken here, just some mild fun and a few pleasant cameos from the original cast. I do like the all-woman heroic ensemble, but this grouping is not enough to salvage the movie. Greg, your rating of 2 Reels out of 5 seems just about right to me.

This hero ensemble does go on a journey that resembles the classic hero’s quest in myth and literature. But this journey is only a loose skeleton designed to hold the mediocre jokes together. There isn’t much character transformation, unless you count people becoming convinced of the reality of ghosts as a transformation. Our heroes accomplish their mission but there’s nothing to distinguish this mission. Again, a rating of 2 out of 5 Heroes seems appropriate.

I’ve already pointed out Sigourney Weaver’s mentoring role, which is merely mentioned in passing but never shown. And our villain was mentored, albeit inadvertently, by two of our four ghostbusters. Overall it’s pretty clear that this movie isn’t really about mentoring, only slime, and so I can only award 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Independence Day: Resurgence ••

Independence-Day-2-posterStarring: Liam Hemsworth,  Jeff Goldblum,  Bill Pullman
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenplay: Nicolas Wright,  James A. Woods
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: June 24, 2016


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Just in time for the Fourth of July, it’s the resurgence of a bad film from 20 years ago.

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

Actually, I semi-enjoyed the original film with Will Smith. Did this new one measure up?  Let’s see.

It’s 20 years after the aliens invaded the Earth and we repulsed their attacks. The captured aliens, who were previously dormant, have become strangely animated. It turns out they aren’t angry – they’re celebrating because the mothership is returning. Now it’s up to the human race to re-prepare for the oncoming invasion.

Fortunately, humanity has learned a lot from the alien technology left behind from the prior invasion. Still, they are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by a mothership that is the size of a continent. The alien ship begins emitting a powerful laser beam into the earth with the goal of harvesting our planet’s molten core.

Scott, I was not a fan of the original Independence Day and Resurgence is a pale imitation of a lousy original. All the original characters are back, except for Will Smith’s character who died in the 20 years between events. He’s replaced by his son Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher) and two friends Jake Morrison and Ritter (Liam Hemsworth and James A. Woods). There’s some sort of animosity between Jake and Dylan that is barely explained.

And Dr Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner) is back – but I thought he died in the original. He (and President Whitmore – Bill Pullman) have some sort of psychic connection to the aliens. xxx also has a buddy who appears to be closer to a lover. The script is written so that you can believe they’re gay if you want to, or they’re just Bert and Ernie types of friends. I’m not a fan of ambiguity. If you want to have gay characters in your story, I’m OK with that. Just put it out there.

Just as it was 20 years ago, there are too many stars in this film. Nobody gets much screen time and you never feel close to any character. The result is that you never get invested in anyone and so you cannot get invested in the story. ID:R is a lackluster affair, to be nice.

Yep, this summer of 2016 is turning into a major suck-fest. It’s still July and there’s still time for the movie industry to redeem itself. But boy, are we thirsty for a decent movie or what? You’re absolutely right about too many stars spoiling the broth here. We just reviewed Now You See Me 2 and it had the same problem of many stars but little shine.

The entire story is by-the-numbers and routine. We have aliens attacking and we have humans fighting them. It looks like all is lost until a fallen, has-been hero gets his sh**t together and comes to the rescue. The aliens have an evil queen, and of course the evil queen is easily tricked into making herself vulnerable to attack. I’m struck by the vast number of alien movies that portray aliens as insects with a hive mentality and ant-like colonies and hierarchies. Moviemakers must figure that these types of animalistic, pure evil villains are easy to root against.

Independence Day: Resurgence is simple popcorn fare. There’s not a lot of depth here. It’s a run-of-the-mill attack of the aliens story with no surprises and no heart. While the CGI was good, I am inured now to all CGI fests. I am far past the point where special effects affect me. I expect high-quality special effects. I expect that filmmakers can make anything happen on screen. So when “anything” *does* happen, I’m not the least bit impressed. I feel that they’ve done was was expected. I give ID:R just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this story are a watered-down version of what we saw in the original. It apparently takes three people to replace Will Smith. Bill Pullman’s President is a mere shadow of his former self. Jeff Goldblum didn’t even try to pull off his usual geeky-science-guy act. He very much phoned it in. The female President played by Sela Ward was easy on the eyes, but didn’t command much of anything. I could go on quite a bit because there were so many characters and each were lackluster in every way. The hero’s journey here is supplanted by CGI and a rehashed plot. I give the heroes in this movie just 1 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to say if there were any mentors in ID:R. Judd Hersch is back as the kindly grandfather. He gives kindly words of wisdom to some children. I guess that’s ‘kindly’ mentoring. However, I did notice a new mentor type – the Martyred Mentor. Will Smith appears as the hero who has died. He is remembered with great reverence and is held up as an example for the young heroes to live up to. Somehow, that character is greater in death than he was in life. This is the only thing that allows me to award 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Greg, I think you’ve said it all, and the less said the better. Independence Day: Resurgence is lightweight fare even by mindless summer-movie standards. I came into the theater with fairly low expectations and they were met in every possible way. There’s nothing original to see here, but maybe people who enjoy aliens’ butts being kicked will get a charge out of this flick. 2 Reels out of 5 seems generous but that’s what I’ll give it.

As you mention, the heroes here are about as unmemorable as heroes can get. I didn’t see much of a hero’s journey or much character transformation going on. A rating of 1 Hero out of 5 seems generous once again. And as far as mentors go, the late great Will Smith character is the legend who inspires and Judd Hersch’s wrinkles make him wise. So let’s give these mentors a big 2 out of 5 as well.

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Captain America: Civil War •••1/2

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterStarring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Date: May 6, 2016


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Scott, I don’t want this to come to blows, but it’s time we reviewed the latest film from Marvel Studios.

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

Yep, this time it’s all-out warfare among the good guys. Let’s recap.

We meet the Avengers fighting the good fight in Lagos where villain Brock Rumlow is attempting to steal a biological weapon. After defeating Rumlow and his minions, Captain America (Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans) captures Rumlow (Frank Grillo) who tells him his long lost buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is alive. Cap, stunned by the news, lets his guard down long enough for Rumlow to ignite his bomb-vest. Ever alert, Scarlett Witch (Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen) uses her powers to contain the explosion. But she is not powerful enough to prevent it from tearing through a building, killing several Wakandan citizens.

Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) informs the Avengers that the world will no longer tolerate them having free reign to decide which missions to pursue and how to execute those missions. The United Nations is about to approve The Sokovia Accords establishing a UN committee to oversee all Avenger operations. Some of our superheroes, led by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), are in agreement with this new oversight, while others in the group, led by Steve Rogers, oppose it. The resultant internal fight compromises the group’s ability to stop supervillain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) from carrying out his evil mission.

Scott, after suffering through last March’s Batman v Superman, Civil War was a welcome respite. Here is a complicated story with multiple heroes told in a compelling, thoughtful, and still exciting manner – all the things missing from the ponderous BvS. While there were slow moments in the film (the meeting with a very young Spider Man () brought the movie to a standstill), overall, this was a movie worth the nearly two-and-a-half hours running time.

This movie had it all. A huge cast with lots of action. And, everybody on-screen wanted something. There were no hangers-on. There were no merely-mentioneds. Nothing went to waste and everything pushed the story forward. This was a logical completion to the Captain America trilogy, and it sets us up for future Avengers films. I was fully satisfied.

Greg, Civil War is an appealing movie for all the reasons that you mention. How many times over the years have we said, well, Marvel has done it again: Another smart, crisply told story with rich, appealing characters. As you mention, Civil War pulls out all the stops by including almost every superhero in the Marvel universe.

Ironically, these added characters augment the Avengers while also compromising them. Legitimate philosophical differences divide the group, which I found fascinating and realistic. What I didn’t find realistic was the group fighting each other to the near-death. So I have the same criticism for this film that I had for Batman vs. Superman, namely, the implausible premise that super-smart and super-virtuous heroes would be so dumb as to try to kill each other.

Yes, at a superficial level it is fun and cool to watch all these superpowers matched up against each other. But come on. We should expect more from our heroes than brutish fighting among them. Isaac Asimov once said that violence is the last resort of the incompetent. I agree. What’s next, a movie in which Jesus and Gandhi get into a knife fight?

So while I admire the impeccable craftsmanship of this movie, I question its premise of having super-good guys deciding to do super-bad things to each other. Violence is not the answer, and it never will be the answer, to human problems. We need role models who exemplify this basic principle, not violate it. I understand it wouldn’t have been much of a movie if the Avengers resolved their differences peacefully. Sadly, we only gravitate to movies in which conflict is settled by brute force — even when it’s our so-called superheroes who initiate that brute force.

Well, all I can say to that is that violence has solved all our major wars. And, we have super smart people at all levels of government and still we fight senseless battles. So, while I agree with your sentiment, there are plenty of counter examples about smart people and stupid solutions.

The thing that impresses me is the lack of villains in this story. We’ve written before that the best villain mirrors the hero in every way. What better way to create oppositional forces for heroes – than other heroes? It’s a deft move on Marvel’s part and creates a tension that you could not possibly create with pure-evil villains. Here we have heroes fighting heroes where we can see both sides of the argument. There is no clear right or wrong. And, as we have seen before, the best villains think they are in the right. Team Cap and Team Iron Man both strongly believe they are in the right. It’s a strong composition of equal heroes instead of equal heroes and villains. Very cool stuff.

We do encounter a couple of villains in this movie, such as Brock Rumlow at the outset and Helmut Zemo throughout most of the story. In fact, dealing with Zemo’s villainy is what drives the intra-group conflict within the Avengers. I was struck by the inner schism of Bucky Barnes — he is part hero, part villain, which metaphorically characterizes the schism within the Avengers.

It’s interesting to consider the mentors, or lack of mentors, in this film. Perhaps the Avengers foolishly fight amongst themselves because they are lacking good mentorship. Who is there to tell Tony Stark that he should allow Steve Rogers to follow his own path? No one, and that’s a problem. Heroes who lack mentors are prone to doing stupid things, which is exactly what transpires when the Avengers begin self-destructing. In a sense, The Sokovia Accords represent an attempt by the world’s nations to mentor the Avengers, to help them use their superpowers more wisely.

Those are some interesting thoughts about mentors in this story. Often we see former heroes become the mentors for the up-and-coming heroes. However, the Avengers are in a strange place – they are the first of their kind. While Captain America does mentor the younger Scarlet Witch, he is, in fact, the prototypal hero. There is no one to guide him.

On the other hand, we have Iron Man. He should have been mentored by his father. But we see that Tony Stark was largely ignored by his father, and so Tony lacks a proper mentor. In fact, it is possible that the elder Stark may be considered a dark mentor as he offered negative examples for his son.

Rating Captain America: Civil War is a challenge. On the one hand, we have the flawed premise of super-virtuous people fighting each other. On the other hand, we have Marvel’s impeccable execution of this flawed premise. There’s an old adage that goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.” The flawed storyline here doesn’t render the movie entirely piggish, as there is still much to like here. Civil War is great fun to watch and represents another technological marvel for Marvel. So despite the flawed premise I will award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The heroes here do go on a journey of divisiveness and healing. The schism begins with the presentation of The Sokovia Accords and ends when our heroes finally come to their senses after nearly destroying each other. Have they changed much as a result of their journey? Besides all the bruises, they may have been humbled and reached some understanding of the pointlessness of their fighting. Again, a Heroes rating of 3 out of 5 seems about right.

As we’ve noted, there isn’t much mentorship going on here, which may be the main problem with our heroes engaging in their senseless battle. You’re right, Greg, about Tony Stark lacking a moral compass from either his father or from Pepper Potts. Steve Rogers just does his thing without help, and it shows. The Sokovia Accords is the world’s attempt to mentor our heroes, but they’re a pretty stubborn bunch. The best I can do is give a rating here of 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Scott, I think you have to rate a film on what it attempts to bring to the screen. If this were a slapstick comedy, I’d rate it as a slapstick comedy. But since it’s action-adventure, I believe you have to rate it on the genre it is slotted in. I appreciate your non-violent leanings, but as you point out there is no story here without the conflict – it is subtitled Civil WAR after all. I enjoyed this film and I think it nicely rounds out the Captain America trilogy. The filmmakers delivered on their promise and I happily award 4 out of 5 Reels.

But I have to agree with you on the Heroes rating. These heroes are fairly well-established here and there is little growth or transformation. That is the primary thing you and I look for in a hero’s journey and it’s lacking here. Nobody really learns anything. In the end, Captain America and Iron Man go their separate ways after a knock-down-drag-out fight. However, the secondary characteristics we look for in heroes (charisma, strength, loyalty, etc…) are there in strong measure. Like you, I award 3 out 5 Heroes.

And there is little mentoring going on here. We see suggestions of dark mentoring from the senior Stark, but there are no past heroes to guide our up-and-coming heroes. I can only muster 1 out of 5 Mentors for Captain America: Civil War.

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