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Dumb & Dumber To •••

Dumb_and_Dumber_To_PosterStarring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Rob Riggle
Director: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Screenplay: Sean Anders, Mike Cerrone
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: November 14, 2014

Harry & Lloyd: Duo, P-P Mental, Pro (Untransformed Buddy Heroes)

The Pinchelows: Ensemble, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Family Villains)


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

Greg, we’ve been waiting twenty long, painful years for this sequel to Dumb and Dumber.

And watching it felt like another 20 long painful years. Let’s recap:

Twenty years after Lloyd (Jim Carrey) has had his heart broken by a woman in the previous movie, we learn that the shock of the breakup has caused him to be institutionalized for two decades. We also learn that he was faking the trauma as a practical joke directed at Harry (Jeff Daniels). Harry has a damaged kidney and needs a friend or family member to donate one. Harry’s parents are poor candidates because they are Asians and adopted him. But as fate would have it, Harry learns that he fathered a child twenty years earlier. The two men set out to find the child (now grown) and her kidney.

Scott, Dumb and Dumber To is impressive not in its content, but in the commitment its two stars put into their roles. This movie has a very loose plot held together with some very outrageous jokes and slapstick. There are some running gags left over from the original film (young Billy and the birds are back). And some new ones (the cat named Butthole, because, you know, cats have butt holes).

This is a classic buddy hero story with Lloyd and Harry on a quest to find Harry’s long lost daughter. But as heroes these guys leave a lot to be desired. They can be mean (as when they heckle a scientist at a TED-type talk), they are selfish and self-centered, and they are not the least bit reliable. They are poor examples of human beings. Still, they care for each other. Harry has been visiting his old friend in the nursing home for 20 years. And Lloyd is committed to getting his friend a new kidney, regardless the cost. What they lack in visible heroism, they make up for in loyalty.

Greg, Dumb and Dumber To is one of those movies that defies any kind of serious analysis, and yet here we are as movie reviewers writing about these characters as if they matter. The truth is, this movie falls in the same category of throwaway movies as Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups films. Dumb and Dumber To is pure farce, and I use the term farce because it almost sounds like fart. Most of the humor here is about butts, butt cracks, and butt holes. You mention, Greg, that these are buddy heroes but I think you meant butty heroes.

Our two heroes are not bad people, Greg. They are just stupid people. What psychologists know about human nature is that nothing makes us feel better about ourselves than witnessing others people who are dumber than us. In fact, that’s what this movie franchise should be called: Dumber Than Us. And what’s most disturbing about this movie is that I found myself laughing at many of the jokes. I’ve never felt so much shame in my entire life.

Not only are they not very smart, but not very mature. Imagine, if you will, two ten-year-olds with drivers licenses. When you look at Dumb and Dumber To in that light, it all starts to make sense. This is the mentality of all the Farrelly Brothers films (Dumb and Dumber, The Three Stooges, and Movie 43). There’s nothing wrong with that, but if your characters start out as children, and end up as children, there’s not much growth (or transformation) going on.

The villains were a pretty plain lot too. All of them were painted pretty broadly and with no real dimension. The evil wife character Adele (Laurie Holden) is slowly poisoning her husband to get his fortune and is in cahoots with her adulterous boyfriend Travis (Rob Riggle). This is a simplistic plot device in a simplistic movie. Later, Travis is replaced with mercenary Captain Lippencott who is another “pure evil” character with little other explanation. This is all pretty tame fare designed as scaffolding for a series of (as you put it) butt jokes.

You’re right about the villains, Greg. These may be labeled Family villains, as described by Paul Moxnes and his model of both good and evil family social roles. Despite being thousands of IQ points smarter than Harry and Lloyd, these villains somehow are vanquished by our two butty heroes. Much of the humor of this movie stems from the ways that Harry and Lloyd experience one unlikely (and purely lucky) triumph over a villain after another. As you point out, our two heroes are hardly good people, but compared to Adele and Travis, they are pure of heart and thus we have no trouble rooting for them. Sort of.

Still, I had a good time at Dumb and Dumber To, due in large part to the 100% commitment of Carrey and Daniels. Both actors have much better things to do with their time than make such low-brow comedy. But I did fall in love with the Harry and Lloyd’s innocence. In the end (sorry) that is where the heart of this movie lies. For an enjoyable 100-minute ride, I’ll give Dumber and Dumber To 3 out of 5 Reels. And for our naive heroes 3 out of 5 Heroes. The villains left me wanting, but surely didn’t distract me, so I’ll give them 1 Villain out of 5.

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I also enjoyed Dumb and Dumber To, Greg. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels were born for these toilet roles. They clearly enjoy doing these movies and it shows. Sometimes it shows a bit too much, as when Daniels displays more butt-cleavage than Dolly Parton. I didn’t learn a thing and grow in any way as a result of watching this film, but I did enjoy connecting with my innermost potty-humor self. Like you, I award this movie 3 Butt-Reels out of 5.

The hero story is inconsequential and there is no growth or change in our heroically stupid characters. Apologies to Joseph Campbell, who is probably turning over in his grave. There is no Great Eight, only a Great Taint. I’ll kindly award these two goofballs 2 Heroes out of 5. The villains were ridiculous, as they allowed themselves to be defeated by a couple of cheeky (sorry), empty-headed losers. One Villain out of 5 sounds about right.

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The Identical ••

The_Identical_posterStarring: Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd
Director: Dustin Marcellino
Screenplay: Howard Klausner
Drama/Music, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: September 5, 2014

Ryan: Single, P-PP Moral/Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)


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Scott, we just saw The Identical. It wasn’t Elvis, but an amazing simulation.

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

I had the identical reaction, Greg. Let’s recap.

It’s the Great Depression and William and Helen Hemsley (Brian Geraghty, Amanda Crew) can’t afford to keep their newly born identical twin boys. They decide to give one of them to Reverend Wade and his wife (Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd). The boys are never to know their origins. Dexter Hemsley, the son that stayed, goes on to be a big rock-n-roll star. Meanwhile, Ryan Wade (Blake Rayne) is growing up as a preacher’s son – but he has the gift of music. While the Reverend Wade wants Ryan to follow in his father’s footsteps, Ryan has other ideas.

Ryan eventually tells his dad that his true calling is a career as a musician, not as a minister. Reverend Wade does not take the news very well at all. Ryan finds success imitating his twin brother’s hit songs on stage, but soon he grows tired of the gig and wants to produce his own original music. One day Ryan discovers that he is actually Dexter’s twin brother. He reconciles with his father and has a tearful reunion with his biological dad.

Scott, I have read that Elvis was a twin and his brother died at birth. Elvis spent his life guilt-ridden wondering if he had so much power because he had stolen it from his twin. This movie appears to try to answer the question: “What if Elvis’ brother had lived?”

If that is the case then the filmmakers went out of their way to do so without specifically saying so. They hired Blake Rayne (who is himself an Elvis impersonator) who looks so much like Elvis that sometimes you’re left wondering if Rayne isn’t himself a twin of the King of Rock-n-Roll. The music is patterned after the rockabilly themes of the 1950s but never comes close to really doing justice to the same. And the story itself seems like a retread of movies gone by where a preacher’s son just isn’t cut out for the cloth and wants to pursue a life of forbidden music (or dance, or acting, or fill-in-the-blank).

Greg, The Identical is a simple, sweet movie that’s a throwback to 1970s made-for-television films. Today you’d see this type of movie on Hallmark cable television. There’s nothing specifically wrong with this movie. The acting, directing, and production are all fine. The problem is that there is nothing distinctive or distinguishing about the film. No new ground is broken, and in fact we’ve seen tales of this type a thousand times before.

If you are going to take us, the audience, down a well-worn path, you’d better include some especially dazzling scenery along the way. We don’t have that here. Even the music is pedestrian. Blake Rayne is impressively Elvis-esque but my feet weren’t a-tappin’ like they were during Jersey Boys earlier this year. I found myself rooting for the characters and hoping that something interesting would happen. Alas, it never did.

As a hero, Ryan Wade does all right. He’s  a good, honest guy with lots of charisma and boy-like charm. But as you point out about the film itself, Ryan doesn’t really have anything interesting to set him apart from other heroes we’ve seen this year or last. He just goes through the paces and sings some really forgettable songs.

There aren’t any real villains in this story. The preacher / father character pushes Ryan down a path like the one he followed. And when Ryan finally diverges from the path, the father delivers contradictory messages by lauding the fact that the boy made an adult decision, then tells him he is breaking his father’s heart. It’s pretty tame stuff.

I agree that Ryan is hardly the most interesting character we’ve seen on the big screen. But I do have to give him credit for undergoing a significant transformation as a hero. He starts out with an overeagerness to please his father, a type of over-selflessness that limits him both professionally and spiritually. His missing inner-quality is his backbone, which he finally develops when he courageously stands up to his father. He summons this same courage later when he defies his business manager. The Identical shows us how we can never fulfill our full potential until we become true to ourselves.

You’re right, Greg, that there are no bad people in this story, only some challenging circumstances encountered by a man who is struggling to discover himself. I’m leaning toward calling this a “Man vs. Self” struggle in which the “villain” to overcome (if you could call it that) is one’s own inner limitations. Ray Liotta deserves some praise for his portrayal of a good man and a good preacher who smothers his son’s potential yet later redeems himself. Reverend Wade could have succumbed to a trite stereotype of the evil, backward southern minister, but to this film’s credit, he doesn’t.

The Identical won’t be winning any awards this year. It was a plodding, uninteresting, conflict-free, two hours of uninspiring music, dialog, and plot. There were some nice performances by veteran actors Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd. Newcomer Blake Rayne has a nice future of playing Elvis, but little else. I give The Identical just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Ryan Wade is about as dull a hero as we’ve ever seen on the big screen. There are no hard decisions or climactic surprises. I give him just 1 Hero out of 5.

And whether you think the opposition is Ryan himself, or the preacher daddy, or Ryan’s awkward situation, there aren’t any real villains to speak of. And the conflicting forces were pretty weak. I give The Identical just 1 out of 5 Villains.

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The Identical might win an award, Greg, but it would be a Razzi Award. To be honest, this film isn’t that bad, it’s just outdated. Audiences from the 1950s would be impressed by The Identical but today’s audiences demand greater sophistication in the plot, the characters, and the overarching themes of the story. There is a charming sweetness to the story but it can’t carry the plain oversimplicity of everything we see here. I agree that this film merits a score of only 2 Reels out of 5.

As I noted earlier, there is a fairly decent hero story in The Identical. Ryan Wade may be a rather simple man but he is forced to grow and develop some cajones to escape the oppressive influence of his father. It’s not a particularly inspiring hero’s journey but several key elements of the journey are in place here. A more sophisticated, updated version of the hero story might garner a higher rating but I can only muster 2 Heroes out of 5 here.

Ryan Wade encounters no villains other than himself in this movie, and so the villain rating in this film depends entirely on how we witness Ryan overcome the weaknesses that are holding him back as a character. Unfortunately, there isn’t much meat on this bone, just some flabby gristle that left me largely unsatisfied as a consumer. The paucity of interesting characters is this film’s main deficit, especially in the realm of villainy. Like you, Greg, I can only give a villain score of 1 out of 5.

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Guardians of the Galaxy •••1/2

GOTG-posterStarring: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: August 1, 2014

Guardians: Ensemble, N-P Moral, Pro (Redeemed Episodic Military Heroes)

Quill: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Mastermind Villain)


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Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s next big franchise.

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

Seems like it’s an ever-expanding Marvel-ous universe. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) (who likes to call himself Star Lord). He’s an outer space pirate aligned with the Ravagers. He’s stolen an orb and wants to sell it on the black market. He no sooner escapes with his treasure when he is accosted by green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who is aligned with the evil Ronan. But bounty hunters Rocket (a genetically engineered racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a tree-like humanoid voiced by Vin Diesel) interfere with Gamora as they try to capture Quill. The lot of them are thrown into prison when the Nova Corps (the intergalactic police) get involved. It is in prison that they meet the very literal Drax (Dave Bautista) and our team of misfit guardians is complete.

The Guardians are charged with the task of preventing the orb from falling into the hands of the evil Ronin, who will no doubt use the orb’s powers to conquer the galaxy. Ronin eventually attacks the Guardians and steals the orb. When he unlocks the sphere, we see that it contains a beautiful infinity stone. Ronin absorbs the stone into his warhammer thereby acquiring the powers to destroy the galaxy. The remainder of the movie shows us how the Guardians are able to work together to re-acquire the infinity stone, thus saving the galaxy from destruction.

This was a fun addition to the Marvel universe. The opening scene was a little too reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark for me. Quill makes his way into a cave to steal an orb which is immediately stolen by other thieves. Quill even makes an off-handed remark about Indiana Jones later on. The alien characters all seemed to be mere humanoids differentiated by their brightly colored skins. The beautiful Karen GiIlan shaved her long red trusses for this film. She looked good as a blue-skinned gal, but sadly she really showed off her lack of acting chops.

As a hero group, I classify this merry band as a military ensemble lead by Quill. Quill has a lot of the qualities we see in hero characters. He’s an orphan in a strange world. He has to prove his abilities to those who follow him. His team-mates are solid hero fare as well. Each has an edge to them, but they are all out to do the right thing. And they’re funny, which adds a great twist to a hero’s journey. The light air of this film really sets it apart from some of the other Marvel films we’ve seen. There’s always a sense of urgency, but Quill and friends make everything look funny.

Greg, my admiration for Marvel keeps growing. Guardians of the Galaxy is the fourth, count’em, fourth Marvel feature film released in 2014. We’ve seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and now this quirky ensemble of galaxy-saving guardians. Despite the possibility that Guardians may be the weakest of the four Marvel entries this year, it’s still an impressive achievement on several levels.

First, I found the always-strong CGI effects to be particularly extraordinary. The sets, production values, costuming, and character visuals are off-the-charts stunning. Second, this film’s character development has Marvel’s more than capable fingerprints all over it. For the most part, these characters are impressively constructed and also quite memorable, from Rocket the rambunctious Raccoon to Groot the shapeshifting tree. One complaint I have is that Peter Quill, our main hero, lacks the kind of charisma and magnetism that I would want to see in a lead character. Still, Guardians is a fun and, at times, thrilling roller coaster ride of a movie.

Yes, the CGI was great and nobody builds a universe the way Marvel does. Which does remind me of one problem I had with the film. It seemed to me that too many pains were taken to merge the universes of Thor, the Avengers, and Guardians together. The bit about the evil overlord Thanos and the infinity stones is a plot line that I think they are trying to weave into all the movies.

And speaking of villains, the villains in this story were really lacking. Thanos is the mastermind controlling his minions and having them do his dirty work – there’s no real dimension there. Ronan as the henchman was painted equally evil without much character. Gillan’s Nebula was Ronan’s daughter with an attitude who hated her siblings for reasons we don’t know. Of all the Marvel films we saw this year, Guardians had the weakest villains for our heroes to play against.

I completely agree with your assessment of the villains here, Greg. Marvel movies usually go to great lengths to craft villains of depth and nuance, but Thanos and Ronan are flat, uni-dimensional brutes. There were silly attempts to call many of the dark features of this movie “Necro” this or “Thanos” that, as if these death-related prefixes would somehow magnify the menacing factor. They didn’t.

Still, I managed to enjoy the movie because even Marvel operating at three-fourths its usual effectiveness is better than most films. As you pointed out, Greg, there is plenty of joy and humor throughout the Guardians, as when it pokes fun of John Stamos or Kevin Bacon, or when it pulls out a clever pun worthy of evoking a good groan or two. Strangely, there is considerable violence in Guardians, more than it needed to retain its sense of danger and adventure. Still, I left the theater fairly satisfied.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a worthy addition to the Marvel tableau of superhero movies. I was thoroughly entertained by the origin story and the through-line of the infinity stone. The CGI mixed with real-world effect made for a visual feast that was worth the price of admission. Despite the fact that there were a lot of characters in this story, everyone got ample screen time. Guardians was a lot of fun. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes were pretty standard fare. I was happy to see Gamora played out as very tough and independent, and no-one’s love interest. Quill has no superpowers to speak of (yet) so we identify with him as a human character we can all aspire to be. Rocket Raccoon was something I’ve never seen before in a picture, at least I’ve never seen a raccoon as an action figure. And who would have thought a tree with regenerating limbs could be a superhero? It was an unlikely ensemble, to be sure. I’m struggling with this score, but I’m afraid I have to give them just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And as we discussed, contrary to villains in other Marvel films, the villains in Guardians are broadly painted with little dimension. And in some cases, given little in the way of villainy to actually carry out. I give them just 2 out of 5 Villains.

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Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another marvelous Marvel product that brings together five unlikely creatures whose job is to save the galaxy. Despite being noticeably less enjoyable than the three other Marvel movies this year, Guardians of the Galaxy is nevertheless a fun, pleasurable jaunt, especially if you’re willing to turn your brain off and simply enjoy brilliant CGI effects, clever dialogue, and memorable characters. I happily give Guardians of the Galaxy 3 Reels out of 5.

The primary strength of the movie is the military-like ensemble of five Guardians. These characters are a diverse collection of misfits who formed a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Drax, Groot, and Rocket are memorable characters whereas Peter Quill, our main hero, is a disappointment. As a group, these Fab Five follow the classic hero’s journey and emerge forever transformed by their experiences. Overall, I’ll generously award them 4 Heroes out of 5.

The villains are a sad collection of monolithically evil megalomaniacs who are as forgettable as a slice of Wonder Bread. Marvel must have decided that this film didn’t deserve an interesting villain, which is a shame because the depth of the villains is a notable strength in every other Marvel offering this year. I can only give a rating of 1 Villain out of 5 here.

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Earth to Echo ••

Earth_to_EchoStarring: Teo Halm, Astro, Reese Hartwig
Director: Dave Green
Screenplay: Henry Gayden
Adventure/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Date: July 2, 2014

Kids: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Fraternity Heroes)

Government: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)


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

Greg, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken 35 years for Hollywood to attempt to re-capture the magic of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Earth to Scott: They still haven’t! Let’s recap.

We meet three 13-year-old kids from in Nevada who live on a street that’s about to be demolished to make room for a new superhighway. The kids are Tuck (Astro), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig). They have a crush on a girl in school, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who seems out of their league. One day their cell phones begin displaying a strange, amoeba-like image. They somehow discover that the image is actually a map of a remote part of the Nevada landscape 20 miles away.

When they arrive (by bicycle) they find an object that contains a living (?) mechanical alien they dub “Echo.” Echo is trying to collect all the pieces to his spacecraft and sends a sequence of maps to the boys’ cell phones. Each map leads to another missing piece. Meanwhile, it turns out that there are some evil government types who are chasing after Echo too. Will the boys find all the pieces in time to save Echo and send him home? Or will the evil adults find him first and do mean nasty experiments on him?

Greg, as your opening line in this review suggests, Earth to Echo in no way approaches the quality or playful spirit of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I don’t mean to imply that Earth to Echo is a failure. If the goal was to create a pleasant diversion for kids that isn’t terribly offensive for adults to sit through, then this movie is a success. Personally, I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t dazzled or entertained to any great degree, either.

The quality of a predictable movie like this one truly depends on the casting of the main actors. Unfortunately, the ensemble of child actors is a rather forgettable lot, despite an obvious attempt to manufacture a Breakfast Club-like grouping. There’s a nerd, a misfit, a bad-boy, and a cute girl, and together they exude little chemistry or flair. A few months from now I’m far more likely to remember their smartphones than their personalities.

Harsher words were never more true, Scott. Echo is a painfully slow quest for missing pieces. The characters just go from place to place and don’t have much of an adventure. There is a nice little lesson – you can be friends despite the distance – but it is mostly just tossed in at the end. It tries a bit too little to be a Stand by Me for millennials with its coming of age theme. I think 2011’s Super 8 is a better film with the same themes. Surely, the shaky-cam first-person effect are reminiscent of such films as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.

As a hero story, it looks like we have a nice ensemble / fraternity cast with the addition of a tomboy thrown in for diversity. The foursome are on a quest and each has their own quirks but nobody seems to overcome any missing inner qualities. As such, the heroes fall flat and leave us wanting more substance.

And speaking of flat substances, our group of heroes encounter an odd, dirty-looking piece of equipment in the desert, and it turns out to be an alien creature in disguise. The kids name him Echo and I suppose we’re supposed to think he’s cute in the same way we fall for E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. But I felt no such emotional connection to Echo. He’s sort of a mechanical Tweety Bird who lacks any of Tweety Bird’s adorable qualities. Echo possesses the power to move inanimate objects when doing so advances the storyline but not when it doesn’t.

The villains in the story are the humans who want to capture Echo, and they are disappointingly unidimensional and uninteresting. The one human who interacts with the kids is a government official posing as a construction worker. The man has all the charm of Atilla the Hun and exists solely as a hateful figure who wants to do harm to Echo. I guess it’s decided that that’s all we need to know about him. Very disappointing.

It’s true. The villain in this story was none other than Jason Gray-Stanford who played Detective Randy Disher on the TV show Monk. He’s a pretty non-threatening-looking guy. His only purpose is to represent all adult people in the universe as being both unfeeling and, well, stupid.

This is pretty much a movie for the younger crowd, Scott and so there aren’t many tense moments. It’s pretty safe for your 5-10 year olds who look up to 13-year olds. However older kids will see through the saccharine and find it silly. I can only give Earth to Echo 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in the story don’t offer us much, but I did like the way they reminded me of the Goonies. They get just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the villains were nearly non-existent. Just one adult chasing after Echo and the kids and he was pretty mild fare. I give him just 1 Villain out of 5.

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Greg, you’ve aptly summed it up. I considered giving this film a single insulting Reel out of 5 but as we’ve already mentioned, Earth to Echo caters to a young crowd and probably delivers to them exactly what they’re looking for. The movie is flimsy in just about every way that’s important to us, but we’re adults and certainly not the target audience. Two out of 5 Reels is about right.

The heroes are a forgettable collection of kids who are predictable and uninspiring. Even Echo himself does his home planet a disservice by lacking sophistication and charm. These heroes do go on a journey and are not totally lacking in redeeming qualities, and so they manage to eek out a rating of 2 Heroes out of 5.

The villains are about as awful as villains can get in a movie, and by “awful” I don’t mean that they are evil or dastardly or the kind of villain that we love to hate. I mean that they are just poorly constructed and an insult even to the intelligence of a 5-year-old kid. I was so thoroughly disgusted by the villains here that I give them a big fat zero rating. That’s right, zero out of five for me, Greg.

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Transformers: Age of Extinction •1/2

kinopoisk.ruStarring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 165 minutes
Release Date: June 27, 2014

Cade Yeager & Optimus Prime: Duo, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Family Heroes)

Lockdown: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Villain)


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

Well, Greg, we just survived another Transformers movie.

Let’s find out if any of the heroes underwent a transformation…

The movie begins with scientists discovering that Transformers killed all life on earth 65 million years ago. We also learn that five years ago, Transformers were narrowly defeated in the ‘Battle of Chicago’, which left Transformer debris and technology scattered over North America. Then we meet Texas inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), his beautiful teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and his friend Lucas (T.J. Miller). Cade dreams of using abandoned Transformer technology to create inventions that will make his family rich. Meanwhile, his home is being foreclosed, and his daughter is mad at him for being irresponsible and overprotective.

Lucas, unbeknownst to Yeager, has called the Feds because the Transformer they found is Optimus Prime who has a bounty on his head. The CIA is out to destroy all Transformers (both the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons) in favor of a new robotic technology built by the company KSI (assisted by galactic bounty hunter Lockdown). The CIA operatives descend on Yeager’s Texas farm and he, his daughter, and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) are on the run with Optimus Prime and what is left of the Autobots.

Greg, Age of Extinction puts the Stink in Extinction. This is easily among the worst movies of 2014. There are so many problems with the film that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the obvious: Director Michael Bay clearly worships at the altar of the “More is Better” philosophy of movie-making. It’s the idea that more action, more chase scenes, and longer movies are better. The word that comes to mind to describe this mess rhymes with “cluster-truck”. And yes, we see a lot of trucks in the movie, because of course more is better.

For me, watching this movie was an endurance contest, with millions of my brain cells, already damaged by watching past bad movies, fighting for survival. I’m shocked that Mark Wahlberg agreed to participate in this mess — he’s proven himself to be a skilled actor capable of attracting far better movie roles. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, Wahlberg is reduced to uttering one hackneyed and predictable line after another. For 160 minutes, he’s either being chased by Transformers or protecting his daughter from danger. I felt sorry for him.

I feel your pain, Scott. I was also struggling throughout the nearly 3-hour film to reconcile the multiple plot lines (father/daughter/boyfriend, CIA/alien/Transformer, entrepreneur/inventor, Autobot/alien/Decepticon) with only limited success. If it is any consolation, this is probably the best of the Transformers movies with the addition of Wahlberg over troublesome actor Shia LaBeouf. I’ve sat through all four of these films and it’s clear they appeal to a very specific audience.

The film is too intense for smaller children and a bit too childish for grown adults. It hits its sweet-spot with 13-25 year-old boys and fans of the original Transformers show. It must be a fairly big demographic because over this weekend alone, Transformers brought in about $100 million. It is also on-target to be the first movie to garner $1 Billion in worldwide revenues. There’s no doubt that Michael Bay knew what he was doing with this film. Whether you like the film or not, it reaches its audience and in a big way.

The money this movie will make pains me; it is just so undeserving. Never has a major movie relied on so many tiresome set-ups and situations. There is the damsel in distress, shown in full shameless fashion about 6 dozen times, as poor Tessa needs either her dad or her boyfriend to save her repeatedly. There is the overused idea of government higher-ups conspiring against us all and sticking it to the little guys. There is a little Jar Jar Binks character whose main role is to annoy us even further. There is a 30-second speech that Yeager gives to a bad guy, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a speech that miraculously converts Joyce to the good guys’ side.

Let’s examine the quality of the hero’s journey. To me, this film appears to feature a couple of group ensemble heroes:  The Yeagers are a family unit and the Transformer team, led by Optimus Prime, is a police/military unit. You could say that Yeager’s character does evolve, as his hatred for Mary’s boyfriend eventually turns to admiration. This change, of course, is painfully predictable and hardly convincing. Several basic elements of the hero’s journey are here, although they lack depth or interest.

The lead heroes are Yeager and Optimus Prime. Prime is feeling let down by the human race as he came to Earth to save us from the evil Decepticons. Now, he is hunted by humans and he has lost the urge to keep humans safe from their own stupidity. He undergoes a transformation as Yeager pleads with him to help his family and all of mankind. Admittedly, this is a pretty weak story arc. Still it is stronger than what we’ve been fed in previous incarnations of the Transformers cinematic universe.

The villains aren’t much better. We are treated to a good performance by Kelsey Grammer (who, by the way, also appears in Think Like a Man, Too released last week). Grammer’s character is a typical bad guy government bureaucrat who is running the CIA. Like other villains of this type, we don’t get much backstory, only that he is evil. He stereotypically does not get his hands dirty and enlists henchmen to perform his evil-do.

And on the Transformer side of the aisle, there is the evil Lockdown who is an intergalactic bounty hunter. He is also of the pure-evil cast and offers no real counterpoint to Optimus Prime except for an extended robot battle in the climax.

I’m fascinated by the way movies portray the head villain. Grammer’s character, Harold Attinger, plays a stereotypical head mastermind who rarely gets his hands dirty and spends most of his time telling his henchmen what to do. We’ve seen this villainous structure in many other movies. For some reason, filmmakers have decided that while the main hero is going to take bullets, fall from buildings, and get physically battered, the main villain is a central command figure who only strains himself making all those tough evil decisions.

One other word about the Transformers themselves. They are imposing mechanical beasts that serve as yet another example of the movie industry’s fetish for size, especially when it comes to villains. How many behemoths have we seen in the movies this past couple of years? I was struck by the shape of these manly, macho mechanical beasts — they sport massive biceps and pecs and teeny, tiny, almost Barbie Doll waists. Do robots really need to show bulging muscles to do their dirty work?

Scott, you called Transformers the worst movie of the year. You may have forgotten the travesty and complete waste of time that was Transcendence. Or the painfully unfunny Ride Along. Or completely misguided Labor Day. Still, I have to admit Transformers: Age of Extinction certainly does rate down there with them. For an excruciatingly long overdose of robotic chaos I give this film 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes are very plain-brown-wrapper and do not stretch our imaginations very far. Wahlberg does a good job of playing the father-who-cares and Optimus Prime “transforms” a bit too. I give them just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

There is no new ground with the villains in this story. The Stanley Tucci character is a Steve Jobs inspired head of corporation who is turned from evil to good. Grammer’s character is right out of the evil government playbook. And Lockdown was not even entertaining. I give these poor sketches of characters just 1 out of 5 Villains.

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Greg, you began this review by pondering whether there was a transformation in the movie. Yes, this is a Transformers movie and so of course there were plenty of transforming events. Chief among them was my transformation from a happy man at the start of the film to a bitter curmudgeon who felt robbed of two and a half hours of his life at the end. A more apt name for this movie is Skunkformers or Trashformers. This movie is borderline Hall of Shame material and barely manages 1 Reel out of 5.

The heroes were wafer-thin, predictable, and uninteresting. Wait, I take that back. There is one interesting character, Lucas Flannery, but he’s killed off early in the film. His quick exit was a portend of things to come. There are elements of the hero journey in this film but they are completely overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of senseless chase scenes, explosions, and CGI chaos. Your rating of 2 Heroes out of 5 seems about right.

The villains were familiar retreads of villains we’ve seen a thousand times before. I thought Kelsey Grammer did a nice job in his role, but he and Wahlberg were both good actors trapped in a cinematic mess. I’ll agree with you that 1 Villain out of 5 is an accurate rating here.

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22 Jump Street ••1/2

22_Jump_Street_PosterStarring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Screenplay: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: June 13, 2014

Schmidt & Jenko: Duo, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Buddy Heroes)

Mercedes: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Mastermind Villain)


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

Greg, it’s looking like Jump Street is a much longer road than we thought.

And I enjoyed the ride a lot more than I imagined I would. Let’s recap:

Our two heroes from 21 Jump Street, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are assigned the task of going undercover at a local university. Apparently, the use of a new illegal drug called WHY-PHY (work hard yes, play hard yes) has reached epidemic proportions and recently killed a young coed. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) wants Schmidt and Jenko to locate and arrest the suppliers of this drug.

Schmidt and Jenko arrive on campus and immediately try to merge into the local scene. They are doing well despite looking older than their peers. Schmidt befriends a young woman (named Maya, played by Amber Stevens) who happens to have been the across-the-hall neighbor of the deceased coed. Meanwhile, hunky Jenko is embraced by a local fraternity where he is becoming best buds with the captain of the football team (Zook, played by Wyatt Russell). This new pairing is splitting up our buddy cops and is the bromance portion of our story.

Greg, although there are some occasionally amusing moments in 22 Jump Street, I just couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for this movie. The story and premise are pretty much pointless. Now I will admit that I’ve enjoyed some pointless comedies in the past, but for a pointless movie to be enjoyable, some elements must truly stand out as excellent. The jokes have to be stellar and consistently good throughout the movie, or the characters must be particularly memorable. I didn’t see that here.

22 Jump Street features some clever humor at times, as when our two heroes remark that Ice Cube’s office looks like a cube of ice. But these moments of cleverness are in short supply. One long-running joke is that the two main male friendships in the movie (between Schmidt & Jenko, and between Jenko & Zook) have some of the characteristics of a gay relationship. This joke isn’t very funny and actually becomes painful to watch as it’s milked repeatedly over 90 minutes. Another tired joke is that Schmidt and Jenko look too old for their roles. Yes, we get that — over and over again.

I liked this film a lot more than you did, Scott. This was a very clever look at the typical buddy-cop sequel. There are constant references made to how “this case is exactly like the last one.” And how Schmidt and Jenko must stop trying to do something different and solve this case just like they did last time. In other words, we all know this is a sequel. We all know that the audience expects a retread of what they’ve seen before. Now just go out there and give it to them.

Within that context, the movie delivers a very sardonic look at the state of movies and their sequels. There are so few new concepts in Hollywood. Last year of the 75 movies we reviewed, 15 were sequels. That’s a whopping 20%. 22 Jump Street’s writers knew what was expected of them – to do the same as last time only bigger. But they didn’t – they delivered a perfect send up of the Hollywood sequel. I think it was a very smart movie.

As much as I like Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, they aren’t funny. At least not to me. They are likeable and amusing, but that’s it. So the running jokes fell flat for me, and not much was going on that held my interest. 22 Jump Street is not only a movie that is constantly winking at itself, it is a movie that is winking at it’s own winking. This isn’t the first film that pokes fun at itself and its genre, and it isn’t close to being the funniest, either.

As you might expect, the buddy hero story here is inconsequential. Goofball comedies aren’t designed to deliver any kind of meaningful message about life or about how people grow or change. So we’re presented with a parody of how buddy cops grow apart and then in the course of events are brought closer together at the end. The characters aren’t meant to be taken seriously, so there isn’t much meaningful analysis we can do here.

Which is exactly the point of this spoof. It takes a look at the buddy-cop hero archetype and plays it to the extreme. For every earnest attempt at creating a buddy-cop movie, there is a joke in 22 Jump Street that pokes fun.

And there are other side jokes that are great. The duo are seeking out a man with a tattoo on his bicep who is the drug supplier. Jenko is on the tail of a college football player (by going undercover as one of the players) only to learn that the tattoo his suspect has is of a … wait for it … red herring. Not the tattoo they were looking for.

The villains are like typical villains we’ve seen in other buddy-cop stories – virtually invisible until we need a chase scene to wrap up the story. And 22 Jump Street delivers on that as well. The villains are painfully ordinary and typical and just what you’d expect. But there’s a twist on who the kingpin is – just as most buddy-cop movies might deliver. Even in creating their villains, 22 Jump Street is keenly aware of the fact that they’re in a sequel making fun of sequels.

22 Jump Street is a movie that I wanted to like but just couldn’t. I have to give them credit — the filmmakers put a lot of effort into this movie, almost as if they realized they had almost nothing to work with and therefore had to pull out all the stops. I give them an “A” for effort here. But the movie deserves only one and a half Reels. I’ll generously round up and make it 2 out of 5.

The buddy heroes were not terribly memorable people, nor was their journey a notable one at all. The less said the better here. Again, I’ll give them 2 out of 5 Heroes. As you note, Greg, the villains play a peripheral role in the movie. But I do need to give a shout-out to the stand-out performance delivered by Jillian Bell who plays the student roommate villain. She is by far the most interesting character in the movie, as well as the funniest. I wish we could have seen more of her in the film. Overall, I’ll give the villains a rating of 2 out of 5.

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I had the opposite opinion – I expected to hate this film but was dragged into its farce kicking and screaming – with laughter. You’re right, this is a film that knew a sequel would be ridiculous – so the filmmakers made it ludicrous. And good for them. Still, the joke can only go so far. While I enjoyed myself, grudgingly, I can only award 3 out of 5 Reels for a comedy that satisfied both those who wanted a sequel and those who dreaded one.

The heroes are not really superb – they are the typical buddy-cops we’ve come to expect from such films. They don’t inspire us to great heights or warn us of great depths. I can only award these caricatures 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I have to agree with you on the villains. The typical bad guys are boring and perform their role. It’s only the introduction of the roommate from hell that makes the villains rise above complete worthlessness. I can only give her 1 Villain out of 5, however.

Finally, if you have any doubt about whether 22 Jump Street in any way takes itself seriously, just sit around for the ending credits. It will definitely fill you in on what is yet to come.

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The Other Woman ••

The_Other_Woman_(2014_film)_posterStarring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Screenplay: Melissa Stack
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: April 25, 2014
Carly/Kate/Amber: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Sorority Heroes)
Mark: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)


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Scott, it’s time to review The Other Woman.

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

Just another review about another man’s other woman. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to high-powered attorney Carly (Cameron Diaz) who has found the perfect man. Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is an entrepreneur and drop dead sexy. Carly is so excited about Mark that she has “cleared the bench” and dates no one else. Eight weeks into the relationship Mark cancels a date with Carly because the toilets at his house have overflowed. Carly is not pleased and sends Mark home. Later that night, she regrets her anger and shows up on Mark’s front door dressed as a sexy female plumber only to be greeted by Mark’s wife Kate (Leslie Mann).

Needless to say, Carly is devastated by Mark’s deceit. But her visit to Mark’s home arouses suspicion in Kate, who stops by Carly’s office and discovers that Mark has been cheating on her. Carly and Kate form an alliance and follow Mark to Florida where they discover that he has a third lover, a buxom blonde named Amber (Kate Upton). The three women conspire to make Mark’s life miserable, and in so doing they discover that Mark has some dark financial secrets which they can use against him.

Scott, in our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1 we categorize heroes into three groupings: Lone Heroes, Duos, and Ensembles. This is an Ensemble hero story. We break Ensembles into The Family, Military & Police, and Fraternity. This movie falls into the last category, only it is more of a Sorority. And on top of that, it’s a revenge plot. These women are out for blood.

It’s not a complex story. The majority of the rest of the movie is scene after scene of making Mark look bad. And he plays right into the women’s plans to make him suffer. Meanwhile, Kate (the wife) is teetering on the verge of forgiving him as he is making their little company grow. But ultimately you know how it has to end, with Mark looking like a big bad schmuck.

Greg, are you ready for another food analogy? Watching The Other Woman is like sitting down for a meal and being served popcorn followed by salt water taffy for dessert. It’s a disappointment, but this assumes you’re expecting a big meal. Most people who go to see The Other Woman are probably only expecting a light snack at best, but even with this expectation this film provides only mediocre fare.

A good romantic comedy, such as last year’s About Time, has some depth to it or at least a take-home message we can chew on for a while. The Other Woman delivers only light, puffy jiffy pop. The nicest thing I can say about the movie is that the lead characters are likeable people who are pleasing for men like me to look at. There are no laugh-out-loud moments, only a few smiles here and there. The Other Woman isn’t a complete waste of time but it is one of the more forgettable movies I’ve seen.

I thought the writers took pains to make Cameron Diaz’s character look more heroic than villainous. Since she is The Other Woman in this story, she could be played up like a home wrecker. The writers wisely painted Mark and Kate King as a couple without children. Adding kids to the mix would definitely have complicated things and made Carly a villain. The other thing they did was to have Carly exclaim (at least twice) “I’m not a mistress! I didn’t know he was married.” This tries to remind the audience that she was an unwitting accomplice in the adultery.

Kate King is played in some very odd ways. In one scene she is portrayed as the frumpy housewife where she literally goes to the bathroom in front of her husband as he brushes his teeth. Later, she is portrayed as the brains of the couple’s business as she describes her latest internet idea to one of Mark’s collaborators. However, in every other scene she is played as ditzy and naive. I found her character to be whatever the writers needed her to be whenever it was convenient.

Finally we have young Amber. As you’ve pointed out, Ms. Kate Upton is in this film for visual appeal only. While she doesn’t embarrass herself on-screen, she is no actor. It takes skill to play the dumb blonde and Ms. Upton isn’t up to the challenge. There are several shots of her in bikinis running in slow motion on the beach. So, the men in the audience have something to look at while the real actors in the show carry out the plot.

The hero story is a shallow pond, only going about ankle-deep into the classic hero journey. As you’ve noted, Greg, this movie features an ensemble of heroes who are certainly thrown into a dark, unfamiliar world, just as mythologist Joseph Campbell would expect to see in a hero story. But there aren’t really any other elements of the hero journey that are worth mentioning. To the movie’s credit, Kate does undergo a transformation of confidence, becoming an independent woman both personally and professionally.

The less said about Kate Upton’s acting, the better. In fact, her character, Amber, has such a limited and impoverished role that you could argue persuasively that this is a buddy hero movie featuring Kate and Carly. Amber would then be a rather minor sidekick or ally to the hero duo.

That’s an apt observation, Scott. The villain in this story is about as two-dimensional as they come. Mark King is a womanizer and a liar and has no redeeming qualities. We feel no sympathy for him and that makes the bullying and revenge on him seem valid. In the end, the women find that he not only cheated on his wife, but set her up as the patsy in a confidence scheme. That leads to a confrontation scene that seemingly justifies his complete humiliation. It’s pretty trite stuff.

You took the words right out of my mouth, Greg. The villain, Mark, is a scumbag with no redeeming qualities, making it easy for us to root for our heroes while they torment him and vanquish him. The women give him drugs that make his hair fall out, and we see large strands of hair being extracted, but strangely enough Mark always has a full head of hair in every scene. There’s not much density in the villain story here, certainly not enough for someone like me, who has a food fetish, to sink my teeth into.

The Other Woman is a light comedy that tries nothing new and is a vehicle for its leads to play together on-screen. The girlfriend dynamic between Diaz and Mann is entertaining and they let young Upton play along. The two leads do a good job and deliver decent performances so I give The Other Woman 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this story aren’t very strong. Diaz’s character is a lawyer, but we don’t see much lawyering going on here. Mann’s wife character is clueless and a victim for most of the film and we don’t much care about her. And Upton is only there for looks. I give them just 2 Heroes out of 5.

And the villain is a cardboard cutout of everything women hate in men. He gets only 1 Villain out of 5 from me.

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The Other Woman is a throwaway movie, in that it follows an overused formula of  the betrayal of love and typical act of vengeance. Movies that rely on such a common storyline cannot stand out unless they truly excel in other areas, but this film can make no such claim. If you are a Cameron Diaz fanatic, then this movie will appeal to you; otherwise, I recommend staying away. Like you, Greg, I award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero duo was unremarkable and followed the familiar path of two people disliking each other at first and then growing to be best buddies. Leslie Mann’s character has some annoying verbal mannerisms that almost made me feel empathy for the villain Mark. Cameron Diaz remains a terrific actress and plays a very smart, likeable character here. Because they break no new ground, I can only award this duo (or trio if you like) 2 Heroes out of 5.

The villain Mark is entirely forgettable. Greg, you are generous by endowing him with 2 dimensions when it is hard to discern any. This movie is an example of a story in which the villain is a mere prop, and the entire film hinges on the success or failure of the rest of the cast and story. So for a lightweight villain, I agree that he only deserves one puny Villain out of 5.

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Non-Stop •••

NST_31_5_Promo_4C_4F.inddStarring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach
Action/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2014
Marks: Single, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Villains: Duo, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Hidden Divergent Villains)


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

Greg, it’s time to stop what we’re doing to review Non-Stop.

Scott, the action in this movie was non-stop. Let’s recap.

Air marshall Bill Marks’s (Liam Neeson) personal life is a mess. He’s recently divorced and his young daughter just passed away. Now he’s an alcoholic, angry at life and very agitated. He boards a flight from New York to London and finds himself sitting beside Jen Summers (Julianne Moore). When the plane is well over the Atlantic, Marks receives a threatening text message on his secure phone line.

The sender says that someone will die every 20 minutes until his demands are met. That’s when Marks goes into action. He consults another Air Marshall who tells Marks his fears are without merit. However Marks discovers the other marshall is carrying a suitcase full of cocaine. When Marks confronts him the two duke it out and Marks is forced to kill him, just at the 20 minute mark.

Greg, airline disaster movies were common in the 1960s and 70s, but we stopped seeing them after the groundbreaking and satirical Airplane! was released in 1980. Since that time, it’s been difficult to create an airline disaster movie with any originality or unintentional humor. I have to give Non-Stop credit for taking a risk with a movie storyline that shares much of the conventional build-up with those air-disaster movies of yesteryear.

Does this film work? I think it does to some extent. Liam Neeson does a nice job of capturing a tormented father dealing with many personal issues. His character Bill Marks is a classic hero in the sense that he is missing inner peace, self-confidence, and self-respect. The air disaster awaiting him serves as the vehicle of his redemption. This movie is far from perfect, but it did hit all the right notes in terms of following the mythic hero journey.

I have to agree, Scott. Non-Stop employs a classic device to make the movie captivating – the countdown timer. Every 20 minutes something has to happen. This creates tension and impending doom. I thought it was a little convenient that Marks killed his colleague just in time for the first countdown, but I was willing to let it slide for the sake of my willing suspension of disbelief.

As a hero Marks does pretty well. He is courageous and a leader when the time comes to act. And, as you point out, has some important personal demons that he has to overcome. He blames himself for not being around when his daughter was dying of cancer. Despite the fact that his job requires him to fly he is afraid of take-offs. And he drinks to excess which is probably not in his job description. I’m not sure that he overcomes any of these imperfections, but he does save the day and that makes him a hero.

Well, I think we can assume that Marks’s drinking was a symptom of his character deficits that his completed hero journey was able to remedy. The man is basically a mess, and just when it looks like everyone on board is about to lynch him, he confesses his sins to the angry mob in an impassioned speech that tugs on every passenger’s heartstrings. For me, this was perhaps the only unintentionally humorous scene in the movie, but his brutal honesty does win over the passengers and seems to spur him to take a slew of extraordinary actions that will save everyone’s lives.

One nagging question I had throughout much of the movie was why Marks didn’t trust the NYPD cop sooner. That oversight made Marks’s job tougher than it needed to be. It was also more than a little far-fetched that he happens to be in the right place at the right time to save the life of a little girl who happens to be the same age as his deceased daughter, who of course he couldn’t save. Still, despite a few imperfections here and there, I was impressed by Neeson’s performance and entertained by the story.

The villain in this story is pretty much invisible until the very end of the movie. This added a certain level of mystery to him and made him a bit ominous. However, when the villain is revealed, we find that he is an Iraq war veteran who is disillusioned with the purpose of the war. He wants to underscore the fact that America is still vulnerable to attack and so hijacked the plane.

I felt this was a lame excuse for a villain’s motivation. It was a political statement that should have stayed home. It comes from out of nowhere and has no basis in popular culture. The villain pulled off some pretty impressive feats (like creating a Swiss bank account in Marks’s name, bribing an Air Marshall with a massive amount of cocaine, and creating a bomb that eluded detection). I found the villain’s story to be clumsy and unbelievable.

I completely agree with your analysis, Greg. The villains could have been anyone on the plane and were impossible to guess. The backstory of the two (or three) villains did not unfold until the very end, and even then it was a villain origin story that stretched the bounds of believability. Their villainous motives were bizarre and unrealistic, in my opinion. Compared to our hero, Bill Marks, the villains in this movie were a big disappointment.

Non-Stop was a thrilling ride from beginning to the end. Some of the plot points were a bit hard to swallow, but if you hang on during some of the wider turns, you’ll enjoy yourself. I give Non-Stop 3 out of 5 Reels.

Liam Neeson plays a decent hero with lots of deficits who redeems himself in the end. I enjoyed watching Marks work out the mystery of the hidden villain. I give Marks 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain was hidden from us for most of the movie and that amped-up the mystery. But the final reveal was unbelievable and disappointing. I give him just 1 Villain out of 5.

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Non-Stop is an entertaining movie that is hardly groundbreaking but still manages to hold our interest with its likeable hero, suspenseful story, and act of redemption. Liam Neeson deserves credit for delivering a terrific performance and for making us feel his pain as well as his satisfying redemption at the end. Like you, Greg, I give this movie a solid 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was a strong one, in my opinion. Marks was as emotionally and spiritually beaten up as a man can be, and the dark, dangerous events on the plane allowed him to develop qualities that were the seeds of his transformation. In evolving as a person, he delivers a gift to the people around him by saving their lives. I give Marks 4 Heroes out of 5.

You’re absolutely right that this movie’s big weak spot was its ridiculous villains whose motives were so absurd that, in my opinion, the actors who played the villains could not even do their jobs well. Quite generously, I award these so-called villains 1 Villain out of 5.

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The Monuments Men •••

The_Monuments_Men_posterStarring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray
Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: February 7, 2014
Monuments Men: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Military Heroes)
Nazis: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Military System Villains)


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

Greg, it’s time to review The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, who also wrote and directed the film.

It wasn’t a monumental film but I enjoyed myself. Let’s recap.

The year is 1944. The second world war is nearing an end as Allied troops close in on Hitler’s German forces. As European cities are being reduced to rubble, an American museum curator named Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is concerned about the safety of all the priceless works of art in Europe. These paintings and statues are at risk of being destroyed or stolen by either the Nazis or the Russians.

Stokes needs help and he knows who he wants with him. So, in a scene reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen he travels around the art community picking up six old friends (and I do mean old). Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) join Stokes along with younger men James Granger (Matt Damon) and Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin).

They are all civilians and so must endure a comical bout of basic training. Once they are on their way, they are met with resistance from men on the front lines. Stokes tries to dissuade allied commanders from bombing priceless buildings only to meet resistance in the face of saving art over saving lives.

Greg, The Monuments Men is a pretty good movie that means well. But it fell far short of what it could have been, especially given that the movie assembled such a luminary cast. In fact, that star-studded cast may have been the albatross that weighed the film down (to mix metaphors). When I see George Clooney, Bill Murray, and John Goodman on the screen, I see those actors rather than the characters they are playing. The Butler made the same mistake last year. One or two mega-stars is fine, but having superstar actors in every scene is unnecessary and distracting. Why not find some lesser known quality actors to play a few of these roles?

A second problem the movie suffers from is predictability. There is a scene in The Monuments Men where John Goodman gets shot at from a window in an abandoned building. There is tension: who could be this mystery shooter? No one should be surprised that it ends up being a child. And of course we know that the film must conclude with the men finding the prized Madonna of Bruges statue. There are other issues, too, but before I go on I want to hear you weigh in here, Greg.

I found Monuments Men to be a light (if not light hearted) World War II era film about a subject that had gone unnoticed until now – Hitler’s obsession with art. As the Germans invaded city after city, they rounded up all the art (and gold) they could find. The tension in this film is created by a deadline. With the allies closing in on Berlin, Hitler has given an order to destroy all the art rather than leave it to the Russians or Americans.

I bought into this story, Scott. I didn’t expect a lot of character acting. I was satisfied to watch the heroes in this story figure out where the stolen art was being kept and race to find it before the Germans turned it to ash. The lighter moments of the film were offset by some more dramatic moments. While there were few very high or very low points, I got the message: people come and go, but our art tells the story of civilization and it is worth our lives to protect it.

To me, that message was communicated somewhat poorly, Greg. In the middle of the movie, George Clooney’s character gives a rousing speech that says, essentially, that whereas human lives are temporary, art is forever. That sounds noble, but his speech also implies that human lives are expendable in the effort to preserve paintings – a not so noble belief. Bottom line is that characters in this movie willingly die in the service of preserving artwork, and I can (grudgingly) accept this loss of life because it was their choice. But one gets the sense that Clooney (and the movie) are telling us that any lives are worth risking to preserve artwork, including the lives of civilians who certainly aren’t freely choosing to risk themselves.

The fourth and final issue I had was that the heroes in the movie don’t grow. Good hero stories show us how heroes become transformed. But these monuments men show a selfless courage from the beginning of the movie to the very end. I have the same problem with the character of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, who also shows heroic qualities from beginning to end and never grows. Yes, the characters in The Monuments Men are heroes but we, the audience, are most satisfied when we see heroes undergo significant change and evolution. This just doesn’t happen in this film.

I didn’t get that message from the movie. I don’t recall any civilian loss of life in the efforts to save the lost art. The message I got was that these men were so committed to preserving our (combined) heritage that *they* were willing to risk, and in some cases give, their lives. It was both noble and heroic.

And the orders to save this art came from on high. Truman himself signed the orders and that makes him a hero, too. As we’ve seen before, heroes don’t always transform (themselves or others). Sometimes they perform a selfless act and that alone is enough to earn them the badge of honor. In this case, six men who had nothing to gain from their acts risked their lives for an ideal. Monuments Men did a good job of selling that ideal to me and I bought it whole.

The villains in this story are primarily the Germans and the Russians, both of whom want to steal artwork that belongs to others. The Germans especially are cast in an evil light because they prefer to destroy any priceless art that they can’t have for themselves. There are countless movies featuring Nazi Germany and Hitler as the villains, and their relentless bloodthirstiness never fails to stir us into hatred for them. But while they are effective villains in this movie, they aren’t terribly memorable or noteworthy in any way. The Monuments Men is first and foremost a film about the heroism of an ensemble of men who sacrifice themselves to improve and preserve humanity’s artistic contributions to the world. The German villains are largely window dressing whose main role is to challenge our heroes.

You’re right about that, Scott. Usually when you have an overwhelming enemy like the Nazis the director will pick one character to represent all of the evil-doers. This gives us one person to identify with as the villain. While there was one Nazi curator who ran off with a ton of art, we hardly see him after the first act. Then there was a scene where Stokes confronts a Nazi head of a concentration camp. But that was just a random bad guy. A good hero needs a good villain and Monuments Men failed to deliver.

I somewhat enjoyed The Monuments Men but was disappointed that it fell short of its potential. As I’ve noted, the film suffers from too many Hollywood legends in its cast, a tendency to be overly predictable, a somewhat confusing message about sacrificing lives for artwork, and a set of heroes who do not transform themselves during their hero journeys. The Monuments Men is a pretty good movie but certainly not a great one, and so I can only award it 3 Reels out of 5.

For reasons stated above, the heroes were clearly heroic but they didn’t inspire me with their growth as characters. Because their hero journeys were stunted, I can only give them 2 Heroes out of 5. The villains were certainly villainous — anyone who destroys priceless Picasso paintings merely because they can’t have them themselves is indeed dastardly and barbaric. But the individual villain characters are not developed at all and so the best I can do is award 2 Villains out of 5 for them.

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While I think I enjoyed Monuments Men more than you did, Scott, I give the film the same score. This was a movie that informed more than inspired and it did that fairly well. I didn’t know about Hitler’s zeal to keep the world’s art to himself. And I didn’t know about his desire to put it all into a single museum in the heart of Germany or how close we came to losing it all. I also give Monuments Men 3 out of 5 Reels.

I liked the heroes in this film but I agree they weren’t as strong as some other hero films we’ve reviewed. As you point out, there may have been too many stars in this one and not enough story to go around. There is a little bit of a redemption story for Hugh Bonneville’s character, but it seemed to be a side dish. And lest we forget the role played by Cate Blanchett as the secretary who kept an itemized list of all the art that went through her museum. The film is full of mini-heroes who just barely add up to 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the villains: cardboard cutouts of movies gone by. Patently evil and uncaring. Dispicable in the face of their failures. There was no opposition here. I give them a blanket 1 Villain out of 5.

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Labor Day ••

Labor_Day_PosterStarring: Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Jason Reitman
Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: January 31, 2014
Frank: Single, N-P Emotional, Pro (Redeemed Lone Hero)
Cops: System, P-P Moral, Ant (Hidden Police Anti-Villain)


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Scott, it’s not quite summer but it is time to review Labor Day.

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

It’s never any labor to do a review with you, Greg!

It’s 1987 and we’re introduced to young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who is about 12 years old. His father has left him and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) for a younger woman. Adele is a recluse as she suffers from depression. She is afraid to go out in public wanting instead to stay home and avoid contact with the outside world. But occasionally she must venture out to do such things as buying new clothes for Henry as school starts in just a few days.

While at the local store, Henry is approached by a strange man named Frank (Josh Brolin) who firmly insists that he get a ride with Henry and Adele back to their house.

Adele and Henry bring Frank to their home, but they are clearly afraid of him and then discover that Frank is an escaped convicted murderer. But it soon becomes clear that Frank poses no threat to them and in fact cares for their well-being. He ties up Adele but only briefly so that she can truthfully tell authorities that she helped Frank against her will. Then Frank does all he can to do to help out with chores around the house and yard. Meanwhile, law enforcement personnel searching for Frank begin to close in on him.

Scott, Labor Day is the worst kind of nonsense that we find in trashy romance novels. It shows a hunky dangerous convict with a heart of gold. We assume that he was unjustly convicted and the story bears this out through flashbacks. Frank appears to be a bad man, running from the law, but gently ties his victim to a chair and feeds her chili – so he can’t be all bad, right? The heroine in the story is helpless not only in her day-to-day goings on, but also to the dark charms of our hero-villain. This is the sort of drek that sets modern feminism back 50 years.

Not only that, but the plot tries to tie-in a coming of age story for young Henry. This sub-plot receives very little attention but is a welcome distraction from the unbelievable love story. The whole movie is slow and plodding and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Greg, I do agree that the premise of Labor Day is a weak one, relying on the formulaic tale of a man wrongly imprisoned who escapes and must prove his romantic worthiness. Women who love to reform a bad-boy will love this film. The performances by Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet are excellent; the only problem is that even their immense talent can’t spin screenplay straw into gold.

The character of Frank is just a tad too perfect. He fixes things around the house, cleans the dust bunnies under the furniture, repairs the car engine, cooks like an award-winning chef, and is a tender loving caretaker to a child with cerebral palsy. Apparently, the makers of this movie got together and asked, how can we make a convicted murderer and the female lead, Adele, fall in love in only a few days? The answer they came up with was to make him perfect in every way. It just doesn’t ring true.

Scott, Frank is a confusing character. On the one hand he is a violent criminal on the run from the law. In most movies that makes him the villain. But on the other hand, he is a hero – acting as a father image to young Henry. He teaches Henry to play ball, and to bake a perfect pie. I’ve coined a new word for this type of character – the anti-villain. Just as we have anti-heroes (like Bonnie and Clyde) who start out good and turn to evil, the anti-villain starts out as a villain but shows the character traits of a hero.

I don’t see the character of Frank as confusing. He’s cut from the same mold as Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive – the innocent man victimized by a corrupt and incompetent legal system. We see in flashbacks that Frank had no intention of harming his wife and is in fact a sympathetic character who has suffered more than enough for any wrongdoing he may have done.

I do like your characterization of Frank as an anti-villain, as he is a good man who is on the lamb. The problem with Frank as a character is that his perfection is so neatly intact from start to finish that there is no room for growth or transformation. You could argue that Adele shares the hero role with Frank — she learns to trust and to open her heart again, but as you point out, this reduces her to a tiresome cliche straight from the pages of a cheap romance novel.

I didn’t see much growth in Adele. After Frank is taken away, she still is reclusive and is barely able to function. I don’t think every woman in films has to be strong and independent. But I don’t care for a hero character who is fully reliant on a man to take care of her and make her happy. That’s not heroic and that was no kind of transformation. The way this movie was made I felt we were watching something that came out of the 1950’s rather than 1987.

Young Henry is taken away from Adele and goes to live with his father. He grows into a fine young man and ultimately returns to Adele’s home for his final semester in high school. Aside from growing up, there wasn’t much growth for him either. Overall, there wasn’t much of a heroic story in this movie.

Labor Day is a sweet story of love but suffers from unrealistic characters caught in a contrived and cliched plot. If you like the idea of idealized romance without the messiness of reality to soil it, then this movie is for you. I admit I’m a sucker for love stories, even poorly told ones, and I also admire the talents of Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet. For these reasons, despite its obvious flaws, I’m willing to give Labor Day 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story here is pretty much non-existent. The hero (or anti-villain, as you aptly describe him, Greg) is a hollow stereotype with no room for growth. His story also lacks many of the classic social elements of the hero’s journey, such as the presence of mentors, sidekicks, and father figures. Adele is a sympathetic figure but is hardly heroic herself. Her role is simply to observe Frank’s greatness and be affected by it. Sadly, I give Frank, and even Adele, a mere 1 Hero out of 5.

The villains are an inconsequential element of the story in Labor Day. The cops looking for Frank are hardly villains, and they exist merely as props to bring the romance between Frank and Adele to life. For this reason, I can only award 1 Villain out of 5.

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Scott, we have vastly different views of this film and yet come away with similar scores. Brolin and Winslet do a great job of acting in this film.  Jason Reitman’s directing is very good. It’s just that I really hated the story. I can’t get behind a convicted murderer abducting a woman and her son who is really a good guy at heart. A good guy would never have taken hostages – regardless of how well he treated them. What Adele really underwent was Stockholm’s syndrome – where the hostage begins to side with the kidnapper. If it weren’t for the excellent craftsmanship of this film I’d have awarded it just 1 Reel. But for good performances and good direction, I give Labor Day 2 out of 5 Reels.

Frank comes off as heroic and we pity him his situation. But as far as heroes go, I don’t think he measures up. As I just said, no true hero would take hostages. But when you score him on your Great Eight Characteristics, he does pretty well. I give Frank 1 Hero out of 5.

And Frank is also the villain, but because he is the romantic interest and father image he doesn’t provide any opposition. I give Frank his anti-villain score of 1 Villain out of 5.

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