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Room •••••

Room_PosterStarring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, Emma Donoghue
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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

Greg, do you have room in your schedule?

I’d like a room with a view. A viewing of our latest movie Room to be precise. Let’s recap:

The opening scenes of this movie occur inside a small room where a young mother named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are living. We aren’t sure how or why they are living in such an odd small space until it becomes apparent that they are being held captive by a man named Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped Joy seven years ago and fathered her child (through rape). The “room” is actually a shed in Nick’s backyard.

One day the power goes out and Joy and Jack nearly freeze to death. That’s when Joy realizes that she needs a plan to help Jack escape. She begins to teach him of the outside world, a thing he’s never seen. Then she coaches him on how to be sick, even how to act dead. Nick falls for the rouse and takes Jack out of the shed to bury him. But Jack escapes. And that is when his real journey begins.

Greg, Room is the perfect name for this movie. It refers, of course, to the location of the trapped mother and son, but it also refers to room for growth and the spaces we need to become what we’re meant to become as human beings. Joy and Jack turn out to be buddy heroes who need each other to escape their physical prison and then later their psychological prisons. I enjoyed this movie’s ability to take us from small scary spaces to large scary places.

Scott, this is not your usual hero’s journey. Often, the hero’s ordinary world is exposed to the viewer in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Then, an “inciting incident” happens that takes the hero to an unusual place. Room starts in the unusual place (which is the only place Jack has ever known). We spend half the film there, getting to know what it is like to be trapped for seven years.

The inciting incident comes at the halfway mark when Jack escapes into our ordinary world – but his special world of “the outside.” But he is so overwhelmed by the openness and vastness of the world that he is hardly able to talk. Jack befriends a police officer who gently coaxes information from him so that they can rescue his mother.

The film’s unusual presentation of the hero’s journey is one of many elements that captivated me. For Jack, the room is his ordinary world. For Joy, it is the unfamiliar world. So our two heroes start out in different worlds, yet ironically they’re in the same room. The movie must end with them both safely ensconced in the same world. That’s a highly unusual journey for two people to travel, and so no wonder it is rife with tension, pain, and suffering for both of them.

We often talk about good heroes needing to transform themselves, and there can be no transformation while trapped in the room. So our heroes must escape, and after they accomplish this feat, the doctor who examines Jack makes the point that Jack is “plastic” — a term pointing toward his malleability being greater than his mom’s. Indeed, Jack’s ability to cope in his new world is less problematic than Joy’s return to her original world. It doesn’t help that her original world can be cruel. Joy’s father behaves badly and journalists ask her insensitive questions. Perhaps Jack derives his resilience from his long hair, which turns out to hold the hero’s secret power, much like the ring’s power to aid Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

The supporting characters around Jack are mostly seen through the haze of the young boy’s inexperience. Besides his mother, the only person Jack sees in the room is “Old Nick” – the kidnapper/rapist. And then only through the slats of a wardrobe Jack hides in when Nick visits from time to time.

Once outside, Jack meets a police officer who acts as his mentor in the new world. Later, he meets doctors and nurses who, I believe, are shot in such a way that we never see their faces. Next Jack meets his grandparents. As Scott mentioned, the grandfather (William H. Macy) can’t accept Jack. The grandmother expects her daughter, Joy, to be the same little girl she lost seven years ago. These aren’t strong characters – which is fine – as we need to focus on Jack and his struggle to make sense of a world far more immense than anything he ever imagined.

Yes, exactly, Greg. Once again, we encounter supporting characters who are either instrumental in helping our heroes accomplish their goal or who hinder the heroes. You’re right that the woman cop helps nurture Jack and guide him to safety. Her mentorship is pivotal, occurring during the crucial initiation of his journey. But Jack’s lifelong mentor is his mother Joy, who teaches him about the world of the “room” and then helps him unlearn those lessons in order to adapt to the world beyond the room. Joy therefore plays a dual role in this story; she is both a hero and a mentor figure.

A wonderful coda to the story occurs when the heroes return to the room at the film’s end. In any good hero tale, the hero returns home but sees home in an entirely new way. Joy takes Jack back to the room and he can’t believe how much smaller it seems. Isn’t that the way all of us see our old homes and neighborhoods? Even Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz realized that home is now much bigger than her original geographic conception of home. Like any good hero, Jack now realizes that home is not what he remembers it to be, that he can never return home, and that he is forever changed by his new experience of home.

Room is a welcome disruption to the classic hero’s journey. While we spend a long time in the Room, it’s all put to good use. We learn what it’s like to live in a world that is only 100 square feet and the only reality is what you see on TV. I’ve seen Brie Larson in other films, but she really commanded the screen in Room. Young Jacob Tremblay also deserves praise for a performance that even seasoned veterans would have found challenging. For two actors to hold us in rapt attention for 60 minutes with nothing but a shed to work in is an achievement. I give Room 5 out of 5 Reels.

It’s unclear if this is a buddy film or some sort of hybrid. We start out with Joy as the main character taking care of her child. In the initial scenes, she is driving the story. But soon we learn it is a symbiotic relationship where Jack sustains Joy’s sanity as much as Joy sustains Jack. So it moves into buddy territory. When Jack and Joy are released into the world, the symbiosis continues. But when Joy has a breakdown, it’s Jack who becomes the lead character – sustaining Joy. It’s not clean, but nothing about Joy and Jack’s life is clean. I give the symbiotic duo 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the supporting characters aren’t much in this story. Old Nick, the villain, is barely in it and is dispatched at the halfway mark. Then, the villain becomes Joy and Jack’s inner pain and reemergence into reality. Joy’s mother doesn’t have much to do but bake cookies and her new husband is there only to be a swell guy. As I said before, these secondary characters are downplayed to give Jack and Joy the limelight. I give them only 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Room is one of the year’s best movies. Brie Larson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young woman who must overcome horrific circumstances to survive, and if that weren’t enough, she must help her young son overcome those same horrific circumstances. I was riveted by their dual journeys and deeply felt their every triumph and every setback. One could argue that the movie represents a wonderful metaphor for how we all must break out of our prisons, help others along the way, and overcome our personal demons. This movie grabbed me in many ways and deserves the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As you aptly point out, Greg, this film takes the conventional hero’s journey and turns it on its head in a unique and masterful way. Our two heroes start out in different worlds but end up in the same, beautiful world together. They are forever transformed by their journeys and truly needed each other to triumph on their individual missions. This story captures the hero’s journey in clever and satisfying ways. I give Joy and Jack a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters play pivotal roles in assisting or blocking our heroes from their development as characters. The most important secondary characters are the woman cop who intuitively reads Jack’s cryptic verbal and nonverbal cues during his escape, and Joy’s family members whose dysfunctional qualities make you wonder why Joy didn’t run away from home sooner than she did. Joy and Jack are clearly the stars of this movie, relegating the supporting cast to minor status. These team of players gets a respectable 3 cast rating points out of 5.

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My All American •••

My_All_American_UpdatedStarring: Aaron EckhartFinn WittrockRobin Tunney
Director: Angelo Pizzo
Screenplay: Angelo PizzoJim Dent
Biography/Drama/Sport, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: November 13, 2015


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

Greg, are you ready for some football?

Only if it’s All-American football – let’s recap…

We meet a young high school student named Freddie Steinmark (Finn Wittrock), who has a passion for playing football and a father (Michael Reilly Burke) who helps train him. While playing for his high school team, Freddie befriends the quarterback Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell). Freddie is the star player on his team, but his relatively small size means that most big-time colleges are uninterested in recruiting him. Freddie and his dad become discouraged.

But Freddie captures the attention of University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart). Royal recognizes that Freddie isn’t the biggest kid, but he has the biggest heart and offers him a spot on the team. Soon, it’s clear that things aren’t going well for the Longhorns and Royal needs to make a change. The seniors aren’t following the new plan, but youngsters Freddie and James Street (Juston Street) get the new plays and they are moved up to first string.

As Freddie nears the end of his junior year he has trouble with his leg. He reports to the doctor and finds that he has bone cancer. This is a devastating blow but it doesn’t dampen his commitment to his team.

Greg, I admit to being a sentimental fool. Movies like this bring me to tears, even when I feel completely manipulated by the filmmakers. Everyone knows the basic plotline of these maudlin tearjerkers. We meet a wonderful person, an individual who is so virtuous and so wholesome that he really doesn’t exist in the real world. I don’t care that this movie portrays our hero as too perfect. Freddie Steinmark embodies our society’s most treasured attributes, and that makes him a hero worth rooting for. Naturally, when he dies, it crushes us.

This hero story taps into a deeply held archetype we have for the hero who dies before his time. Billy Joel sang, “Only the Good Die Young” for a reason. There’s a poignancy to a tragic early death that moves us at the deepest of levels. The poignancy is only magnified here by the perfect person that Freddie is portrayed to be. The hero transformation is physical and emotional; Freddie trains his heart out to become a great football player. Later, he is compelled by the worst of circumstances to acquire grit and courage.

Screenwriter and Director Angelo Pizzo is no stranger to such heroic sports stories. He also penned historic sports films Rudy and Hoosiers. What is interesting in all three stories is the importance of the “runt of the litter.” They all feature a young person who is smaller than his teammates, but makes up for it with heart.

As a story, My All American breaks the traditional mold. This is pretty much a story of a young man who has everything going his way. There isn’t much conflict until well into the third act when Freddie is diagnosed with bone cancer. He stands up to it as he did with all his other obstacles. While he ultimately succumbs to his illness, he faces it with bravery. There’s not much of a transformation here. He was a strong hero at the start, and he finished the same way. Usually, such a hero transforms others. But there is no catalytic effect in American. This is just a story of someone who died the way he lived – full on.

Scott, I’m constantly amazed by the power of sport in American society. There is something heroic in becoming the very best one can be. And if the sports hero has to overcome uneven odds to succeed, all the better. But there is an imbalance in this hero worship. We pay our sports heroes more than our teachers, first responders, and warfighters. Somehow watching someone be better than we can be is more rewarding than actually being better than we can be. It’s a curious phenomenon.

You’re right, Greg. Since ancient times societies have tended to worship their warriors, and in this film the sport of football is seen as a symbolic (or not so symbolic) form of warfare. I find it ironic that this movie, which glorifies Freddie’s ability to lay waste to his opponents, comes out just before another movie (Concussion) offers a stern indictment of the sporting act of laying waste to others. Our culture is changing. I suspect that the Freddie Steinmarks of the football world will not be worshipped much longer.

But let’s turn to the secondary characters in My All-American. As you point out, the villain of the story is not a person but is in fact cancer, the one thing that precipitates Freddie’s demise. We’ve seen cancer as a villain before in The Fault in Our Stars. Freddie is benefited by numerous mentors including his dad, his high school coach, and Daryl Royal, coach of the University of Texas. As befitting a hero, Freddie also has a loyal love interest who assists him emotionally. These are all central elements in the classic hero’s journey.

My All American won’t be winning any Oscars, but it is still a fine film of how someone can rise to be the best that they can be. There’s not a lot of drama here. We’re witness to Freddie’s growth as a spunky football kid to a spunky football adult. Even at his worst, Freddie doesn’t falter. It’s a bit of a monotone and so I can only award My All American 3 out of 5 Reels.

Freddie Steinmark started out small but grew to hero status by his commitment. While we look see no transformation in the hero or those close to him, Freddie embodies the things we value in our heroes. He was fearless in the face of danger, devoted to those he loved and who loved him, and had a strong moral compass. As a movie critic, he’s not the hero I was looking for, but he exemplifies all the things we value in our heroes. I give Freddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters in this film are cardboard cutouts of stereotypical supporting types. All the other football players were sort of minions who just played along. The coaches were tough guys who followed the leader. The mom and dad were the epitome of the 1950s parents. It’s all pretty dull and I can only muster 2 out of 5 Cast points for them.

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You’ve described this movie to a tee, Gregger. My All-American tells the story of a tragic early death and milks it as effectively as any movie possibly can. The film taps into a powerful archetype about the heart-wrenching loss of vast human potential. Our emotions are shamelessly manipulated by the filmmakers but we’re so in love with the hero of the story that we don’t even care. We just enjoy the ride. My All-American is good wholesome fun and a fine story well worth watching. I give the movie 3 Reels out of 5, also.

Our hero Freddie is a remarkable kid with so many terrific qualities that we celebrate every one of his successes. He’s an underdog that we’re all drawn to and root for with great relish. Freddie traverses the hero’s journey with stylish flair and dexterity until he meets the only obstacle that he cannot overcome — cancer. His heroic gift to the world is accomplished posthumously; to this day he remains an inspiration to everyone at the University of Texas. I give Freddie 4 Heroes out of 5.

I enjoyed the secondary characters a bit more than you did, Greg. Aaron Eckhart does a stellar job in his role as Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach. As a mentor, Royal strikes just the right balance between toughness and kindness. I do agree that some members of Freddie’s support team are not terribly memorable, but they play their roles in solid workmanlike manner. I’m okay giving the supporting characters a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Spectre ••

Spectre_posterStarring: Daniel CraigChristoph WaltzLéa Seydoux
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: John LoganNeal Purvis
Action/Adventure/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 148 minutes
Release Date: November 6, 2015


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Is there a ghost of a chance we’ll review Spectre, Scott?

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

If the spirit is willing, Greg.  Let’s recap.

In the opening scene, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is chasing after some bad guys. After a thrilling chase, Bond finds a ring with an octopus on it. When Bond returns to London, the new ‘M’ (Ralph Fiennes) reports that ‘C’ (Andrew Scott) is shutting down MI6 and the double-0 program. So, Bond travels to Rome and has sex with the widow of the man he just killed, and she whispers sweet nothings about Spectre into his ear.

Bond then secretly infiltrates a SPECTRE meeting, where he encounters the leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). When Bond is recognized, he escapes and is pursued by a SPECTRE assassin. Bond soon realizes that the octopus symbol is showing up at terrorist attacks all over the world. He convinces Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to help him seek out Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who has crucial information needed to dismantle SPECTRE.

Scott, Skyfall was the culmination of a trilogy of excellent films which laid the backstory of James Bond. Spectre is a lumbering, undirected, nearly random series of action-events that has only the barest semblance of a plot. Needless to say, I thought this film was lacking. Just the second scene where Bond seduces the wife of a man he just killed lacked any intelligence. The woman is in mourning for her husband and a total stranger breaks into her home so the first thing she thinks to do is undress and share herself with him. It makes no sense.

Spectre is indeed disappointing, Greg. I’m a fan of the Jame Bond franchise but it’s pretty clear that this series is overdue for an overhaul. The same tired old formula doesn’t work any longer, especially since other movie franchises have appeared on the scene that meet or surpass the standards set by previous Bond films. I’m thinking of the Mission Impossible series and the Jason Bourne franchise, for example.

Spectre isn’t a bad movie; Daniel Craig is terrific, in fact. It’s just “same old, same old.” I often judge a movie by how much it sticks with me the day or two after viewing it. After watching Spectre on Sunday, I couldn’t tell you anything about the movie on Monday. To write this review, I had to rely on Wikipedia’s summary of the film’s plot. The two hours I spent in the theater were highly forgettable.

Well that brings up the question of whether Bond is a great hero. In Skyfall we get a deep look at what makes Bond tick, and why ‘M’ invested in him. He was an orphan and ripe for molding into an agent. Bond needed a mother image and MI6 in general and ‘M’ in particular gave him a home. That movie really gave us a hero’s journey. This one, however, is an episode in the series. As we’ve mentioned before, episodic heroes can be really boring. They lack a missing inner quality that gives the character an arc.

And I think that’s one reason Spectre falls flat. It’s just a roller coaster ride. We aren’t interested in seeing Bond become a better man. We’re supposed to be drawn in by the mystery of Spectre and how he’ll solve it. But it’s the same tired plot we’ve seen all year. The overarching organization is in danger and it’s up to Bond to solve the mystery and prove the value in the 00-program. We saw this in Avengers and Mission Impossible this year. It’s a tired plotline and it didn’t help Spectre.

This movie’s disappointment can also be traced to its clichéd supporting characters. Bond’s women are uninteresting and sadly rely on Bond to save them. In addition, as you point out, Greg, the women lack emotional believability. In any James Bond film, the villain should occupy a pivotal role. Alas, what we have here is a villain who is utterly lacking in charisma.

It turns out that Oberhauser is a sad and inferior re-tread of past Bond villains. For example, on not one but two occasions Oberhauser could have easily killed Bond and thus ensured the success of his evil plan. Instead, our villain devolves into a stereotype or caricature of villains in this genre by, in the words of Austin Powers, “placing him [Bond] in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.”

So true. The ‘good guys’ are the new ‘M’ who represents a sort of mastermind character. He’s the one giving Bond his “henchman” orders (many of which Bond ignores). And there’s ‘Q’ who is a youngster in this incarnation who gives Bond few toys this time around. And then there’s Moneypenny who is Bond’s “inside man”. Devoted and brilliant. It’s a nice little crowd of supporters.

There’s not much else worth saying. Let’s hope they get it right next time. I can only recommend Spectre for the most diehard James Bond fans, or for fans of the very talented Daniel Craig. There’s not a speck of the spectacular in Spectre. I can only award this film a measly 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is by-the-numbers plain and ordinary. There are some fun parts but by and large there’s nothing original to be seen here. James Bond films aren’t supposed to follow the classic hero’s journey and Spectre is no exception in this regard. I give Bond a rating of 2 Heroes out of 5.

As for the supporting characters, there isn’t a whole lot to say other than they are as unmemorable as the rest of the film. The villain put me to sleep and most of the rest of the characters left no real impression. Again, I give this group 2 rating points out of 5.

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The only Spectre here is the ghost of Bonds gone by. The story is pretty dull and is merely a patchwork of set up situations. There’s hardly any plot and the finale is forced such that we get the origin story of Bond’s nemesis. I’ve heard that Daniel Craig is not returning as Bond. In my humble opinion he should have quit with Skyfall. I also give Spectre just 2 out of 5 Reels.

As a main character, Bond is the classic episodic hero. He doesn’t have a missing inner quality to overcome. So, there’s no arc to the character. He’s going to be the same character in each episode. For me, that makes Bond a dull boy. Still he’s the rugged, independent, competent, super spy we all expect him to be. So I give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Sadly, this is really the origin story of Bond’s super nemesis. I say sadly because we get more of an insight into the pain that created the villain. As you’ve often pointed out, Scott, the difference between the villain and hero origin story is how the villain deals with pain. Heroes overcome their hurt and villains succumb to them. The other characters are pretty forgettable so I won’t rate them this time around. For that reason I give 3 points out of 5 to the villain.

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The Intern •••

The_Intern_PosterStarring:Robert De NiroAnne HathawayRene Russo
Director:Nancy Meyers
Screenplay:Nancy Meyers
Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: September 25, 2015


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

Well Greg, Robert De Niro doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to retire — both in real life and in this movie.

I found the whole thing (re)tiring. Let’s recap:

We meet Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old widower who is restless and dissatisfied with his life as a retiree. While searching for something meaningful to do with his time, he stumbles across an advertisement for an senior internship program. He decides to apply as an intern at a company called About The Fit, a fast-growing business that sells fashionable clothing online. Ben’s interview goes well and he is hired as an intern.

But his new boss is Jules: a high-strung workaholic young woman (Anne Hathaway) who micromanages everyone. At first she shuns Ben claiming that she doesn’t need an assistant. Ben employs his old-school discipline of never leaving the building before the boss and picking up the boss’s loose ends. One day, he notices her driver is a bit too drunk to drive and he takes his place as Jules’ driver. And before you know it they’re best buddies.

If you’ve been following our movie reviews over the years, you know that I haven’t been much of a fan of Robert DeNiro’s recent body of work. With The Intern, there is now some promising indication that his slump is over. DeNiro shines in his portrayal of a retired gentleman from a bygone era who takes on the role of a rookie intern in a quest to inject his geezerly life with some meaning. He not only finds what he is looking for, he also manages to endow several other people’s lives with richness, wisdom, and direction.

The hero’s journey here takes on a unique and interesting form. Ben starts out as a useless minion to Jules, but over time he evolves into a trusted sidekick. By the end of the film, Ben is arguably Jules’ equal, and also her mentor. To the extent that Ben and Jules are equals, one could argue that they are buddy heroes who follow the classic pattern of being at odds with each other at first and then grow into BFFL’s. Whether Ben is her sidekick, mentor, or buddy is open to interpretation here. Regardless, their relationship evolves and becomes transformative for them both.

I thought this movie was too reminiscent of last year’s The Interns starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Similarly, we have two older salesmen who teach old-school lessons to the Internet savvy youngsters of Google. The Intern is a little more personal in that Ben takes on a more mentorly role early in the film. In fact, he much reminds me of a butler similar to Hobson in 1981’s Arthur – or even Mary Poppins. He takes Jules’ daughter to kindergarten and fixes her relationship with her stay-at-home husband.

Scott, we just reviewed The Martian where astronaut Watney graduates from hero to teacher. In that review we noted the ultimate destination for the hero is to become a mentor. And I think we see this pattern revisited here in The Intern. Ben has been a leader of a major company and has retired to a sedate life. Now, with this new opportunity, he has a chance to pass on his wealth of knowledge not only to Jules, but also to all the members of her staff. He has found his final destination.

Greg, this movie has a sweetness to it that I found extremely appealing. Both of the lead characters need something, and what they need can only be found with help from the other. Jules wants to be seen as independent and so she resists Ben’s help. She is smart enough to know that Ben represents no threat to her authority and legitimacy as a leader. So she bends, and as befitting a good hero story, her receptivity to change is brought about by a deep hurt — the devastating reality of her husband cheating on her.

As you point out, Greg, Ben himself has already accomplished in life many of the goals that Jules is now seeking. And so he is developmentally ready to just assume a helping role, a mentoring function. As they say, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The first half of this movie is devoted to Jules not being ready. All heroes are humbled in some way, and this ends up being the key to her openness to transformation. I enjoyed watching these two heroes do all the things that heroes do when they are in two different stages of life. Thirty or forty years in the future, I can easily envision Jules doing all the things that Ben is doing in this movie.

Actually, Scott, I found this movie somewhat patronizing. Aside from Jules, all the other characters in the story were caricatures and stereotypes of millennials. Ben is seated with the other interns, all of whom are recent college graduates.

Young Davis is being kicked out of his parent’s basement. So Ben takes him in and teaches him the importance of getting out of bed on time and dressing in a suit and tie.

Young Jason is too interested in partying and Ben shows him the way of moderation.

And young administrative assistant Becky is drawn to tears when she fears Ben is getting more attention than she is. “I’ve got a degree in marketing from Harvard Wah wah wah” And of course Ben calms her down with a pat and a hanky – then pushes Jules to delegate some of her authority to Becky.

These are all stereotypes that will appeal to the older crowd, who appear to be the target audience. There’s no nuance here. Jules is the female Mark Zuckerberg who needs a nudge to realize that if she’s going to play with the big boys, she has to grow a pair. And it’s Ben’s gentle nudging that gets her there.

I found it all very patronizing verging on condescending.

Sorry you felt that way, Greg. The Intern represents a comeback of sorts for actor Robert De Niro, who shines as an older man looking for a way to live a meaningful life. His heroic urge to mentor others is fulfilled when he is partnered with a rising business star, played with great zest and skill by Anne Hathaway. This movie accomplishes what all good hero stories should accomplish – it teaches us that when we’re young, we need good mentors. And that when we’re old, we need to give back, to do good mentoring. There’s nothing condescending about needing help and giving help; it’s just a reality of lifespan development. For giving us a sweet tale of two lives intertwined across generations, I award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

The two hero’s journeys of our lead characters are fun to watch, and they show how two people who need each other can help each other grow and evolve. Ben is wise enough to know he needs to come out of retirement to meet his need to mentor, and Jules becomes wise enough to recognize that she needs mentoring. The movie’s ending is ambiguous — does Ben no longer need to mentor? This dual hero story is moving, sometimes silly, but compelling overall. I give this pair 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast is adequate but not terribly memorable. Another intern is a comic figure. One of Jules’ employees is also comedic in a pathetic sort of way. There’s no real villainy to speak of. This is a story of people growing and developing more than it is a story of overcoming any particular villain. Overall, the supporting characters earn a decent rating of 3 out of 5.

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I found The Intern to be an overly simplistic, melodramatic, under humored and pandering to the older generation. Even the idea that a woman could run her own company was undermined by her having to be taught the values of bygone days by an older man. I felt it was a boring, and like it or not, condescending look at a fantasy of modern business. I can’t muster more than 2 Reels out of 5 for The Intern.

I’ll grant you a nice hero’s journey for both Ben and Jules. It’s a pattern I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of – a mentor who needs his up-and-coming apprentice. And an apprentice who needs the mentoring of a former hero to rise to her own potential. I give these odd-couple buddy heroes 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast were all weak cardboard cutouts of young people stereotypes. I’ve already outlined my thoughts on them. 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials ••

Maze-Runner-The-Scorch-Trials-PosterStarring:Dylan O’BrienKaya ScodelarioWill Poulter
Director:Wes Ball
Screenplay:Noah OppenheimGrant Pierce Myers
Action/Mystery/Science-Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: September 19, 2015


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Scott, I feel like a rat trapped in a maze.

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

And I feel like I’ve been scorched at the box office. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who has recently been rescued from WCKD (pronounced “Wicked”) – an evil organization who trapped him in a deadly maze. They were lab rats with immunity to the Flare virus. He learns that the Earth has been “scorched” and zombies rule the night. He no sooner lands in the safety of the compound before he realizes this is a new trap. The leader of the compound Mr. Janson (Aidan Gillen) keeps Thomas and his friends locked away in a dormitory with other groups of kids. And each day a half dozen or so are lead away to a sanctuary. But is it so?

No, it can’t be so, because then the movie would only be about 10-minutes long. Thomas sneaks away from his group’s dormitory to see where exactly his fellow “Immunes” are being taken. To his horror, he discovers that everyone is being rendered unconscious, locked in a huge storage facility, hooked up to a tangle of tubes, and hung like meat in a meat locker. Thomas and his friends manage to escape the facility in search of the “Right Arm”, a resistance group that may help them escape the wicked WCKD.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is yet another Young Adult Dystopian Future movie. It at least has the distinction that it doesn’t divide the youngsters into factions or districts or whatever based upon their personality. But like so many other YADF stories, the adults have created a mess of the world and it is up to the youth to fix it.

Our hero in this story is Thomas who definitely seems a cut above the rest of the troupe. When others are frightened, he’s staunch. When others run, he stands strong. He’s smarter than the average teen and takes risks. He is loyal to his friends, perhaps to a fault. As a hero type, he does really well.

Greg, this genre of story and movie is wearing a bit thin. The dysto-popularity tells me that young people are extremely dissatisfied with the status quo and blame geezers like me for creating unfair, unjust societies.

I get that. What I don’t get is why these movies aren’t better quality movies. This Maze Runner film is about a bunch of kids who are constantly running from something. Sometimes they are running from zombies. Sometimes it’s the bad guys from WCKD. Maybe they were the actors trying to run from the set of their own bad movie.

The hero Thomas is substandard, in my opinion, because he shows no transformation. Normally, I might excuse the absence of transformation by pointing out that this is an episodic hero. After all, we know that the makers of movie franchises resist deviating from a successful formula so they maintain an unchanging hero. I suspect that the filmmakers here are just incapable of making a movie with meaningful character change. The focus seems to be on a very simplistic good versus evil story with zombies, cool CGI effects, and people running all the time from danger. It could have been so much more.

This was definitely a transitional movie. Like The Empire Strikes Back, it sets up the next film in the series rather than being a stand-alone story. Thomas is surrounded by a surprisingly balanced diverse group of friends. One of them drops dead after an encounter with a zombie. And after that they are pretty much interchangeable. Thomas and friends do encounter a couple of survivors of the scorch: Jorge and Brenda. Jorge is not Brenda’s father, but he cares for her as if she were his daughter.

But your point is well-taken, Scott. Just when you think you know the relationships in this movie, these new characters are introduced and we’re off on some tangent where Thomas and Brenda are swept up in a rave-club. There doesn’t appear to be any storytelling reason for this, other than to show how youngsters are trapped and shipped off to WCKD if they are immune to the Flare. It reminded me a bit of Disney’s Pinocchio and “Pleasure Island” where the boys drink liquer and smoke cigars – only to be turned into donkeys so they can work in the salt mines.

A lot of these dystopian future movies seem to have women play the role of the mastermind villain. In The Giver it was Meryl Streep’s character. In Divergent it was Kate Winslet’s character. Now, here in Maze Runner it is Patricia Clarkson’s character named Ava Paige. One could applaud filmmakers for showing greater gender egalitarianism, but as I psychologist I can’t resist speculating about the significance of a female mastermind engineering a horrible future. Why are women to blame for a society that exploits young people? Is this some sort of twisted Mother Complex?

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a passable sequel to last year’s The Maze Runner. It suffers the plight of many a sequel in that it is not as good as the original, and as it is the second of four planned films, it also suffers from being the middle child. Like this summer’s Insurgent, we follow the hero from location to location without much going on. I can’t see giving MR:TST more than 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero in this story has all the right ingredients – but one. He lacks a missing inner quality. He comes prefabricated with all the tools he needs to be a leader. Since there is nothing for him to overcome, he doesn’t transform and so is a dull character. I reserve a score of three for anything that is average. And as Thomas falls below average, I give him just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the secondary characters in MR:TST are pretty interchangeable. There’s a moment when Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) appears to be a love interest. But then Thomas runs off with Brenda and neither relationship amounts to much. However, the character of Jorge was a pretty 3-D guy. He was an opportunist and pragmatist, but still had a soft spot for is young ward, Brenda. However, I still give the secondary characters just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is another movie about the elders of the future abusing young people. This film isn’t terrible but it’s also not inspired in any way. One method I use to judge a movie is by how memorable it is two days after seeing it. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials didn’t even pass the 12-hour test. At most I can only award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was formulaic and impoverished. Thomas isn’t a bad hero, but he cannot escape the blandness of the movie any more than he could escape WCKD. He doesn’t transform at all, and there aren’t good mentors or parent figures to help him. Perhaps this is because anyone with grey hair in this movie genre can’t be trusted. Thomas as a hero also eeks out a rating of 2 out of 5.

The supporting characters are a fairly decent complement to Thomas. Brenda and Jorge may be the most compelling figures in the movie, and I admit that I did admire their very cool hideout.  Ava as the female mastermind isn’t as charismatic as her counterparts in this genre, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. The zombies were just plain silly and unnecessary. Generously I award this motley group 2 out of 5 cast points.

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The Visit •

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterStarring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Comedy/Horror, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: September 11, 2015


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

Greg, it’s time to visit The Visit.

In which we’re reminded of something we’ve known since childhood: old people are scary. Let’s recap.

We meet a woman named Paula (Kathryn Hahn) and her two children, a 13-year-old son named Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and his older sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge). Becca is estranged from her parents, and consequently Tyler and Becca have never met their grandparents, who live far away in Pennsylvania.

Tyler and Becca’s grandparents have finally gotten in touch with Paula and have requested to have the grandchildren come stay with them for a week. Paula is unsure at first, but gives in to the request when the children point out that she’s not had a vacation since… forever. So the children get on a train and meet their grandparents for the first time.

Things are going pretty well. The children settle into their new abode and Grandpa comes into the bedroom and says that it’s best if they all go to bed at 9:30. After all, these folks are old and accustomed to an early bedtime. However, things get creepy when Becca hears strange noises. She opens the bedroom door only to see her grandmother walking aimlessly around downstairs and vomiting on the floor. The next day Grandpa explains Gramma has “Sundown Syndrome” which makes her kind of crazy after the sun goes down. And we’re off…

The Visit is the scary movie we’ve seen a million times before. There is the predictable set-up, where a family is happily excited about entering into a new situation. We encounter the scary entities (in this case the grandparents), and for some reason these scary entities decide to become scary gradually. There are plenty of false alarm scares. We have victims (in this case two kids) who don’t leave the house when anyone in their right minds, even kids, would leave in a heartbeat. We have a warning early in the story not to go somewhere (in this case, a basement). Yet somehow our victims go there anyway.

So there’s nothing original here. We even have the derivative use of a handheld cam, along with several absurd situations where our victims are holding the cam long after it makes any sense to do so. The absurdity is heightened by one of the victims taking a poopy diaper in the face. Yes, you read that correctly. No, this isn’t the Three Stooges, but Moe would have been proud to have delivered that poopy-diaper-facial.

You’re right about that Scott. The good thing about this movie is that the horror is played up for laughs. It’s not as smart as, say, 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods but it comes close. The movie seems to know that it’s a ridiculous horror movie so it has our heroes do crazy things. Tyler is a budding young rap star, or so he thinks. He’s obsessed with getting girls to like him so he makes up rap lyrics about how all the girls his age are a foot taller than him, etc…

Becca is a wanna-be movie director, so it makes sense that she’d want to videotape everything and gives her brother a camera too – so he can videotape everything. Each day ends with Becca reviewing and editing her self-shot videos into a documentary about her mother and grandparents.

This “found footage” approach has been used in horror films before. It was most notably used in The Blair Witch Project (1999) and in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008). Director M. Night Shyamalan spoofs the technique by having the actors do things no one in their right minds would do. Like pointing the camera behind them as they run. Or having the grandmother find a hidden camera, only to drop it in just the right place so the audience can witness her trying to open a door with a butcher’s knife. Since it looks like a spoof, we’re all happy to play along.

Speaking of Shyamalan, The Visit even features the typical Shyamalan surprise-ending, all predicated on the confluence of many unlikely events, namely, that the kids have never seen photos of their grandparents, that mom never sees the grandparents during their Skype chats, that visitors always come over when no one is home, etc. Now that I think about it, that poopy diaper to the face was the highlight of the movie.

There is no hero transformation in this movie that I could detect, with the possible exception that maybe the two kids are scarred for life and will need decades of therapy. For this movie to work, the two trapped kids have to experience something interesting, mystical, or transformative to escape their horrid situation. Alas, the resolution is not even remotely interesting. Shyamalan arranges for the girl to stab grandma and the boy to hit grandpa with the refrigerator door. It’s a pedestrian ending to a pedestrian movie.

I think we have this problem with extreme genre films, Scott. When you look at slapstick comedy (which The Visit comes close to) you realize that story is secondary to yucks. Likewise with horror movies. What’s important is the fright factor. People don’t go to these films to be uplifted or to learn something deep – they go for the feelings of laughter and fright.

And I’m OK with that. I think you overlook the fact that Tyler has always felt his dad left home because he froze during a tackle in a pee-wee football game. This has left him with guilt and germaphobia. Well, the diaper in the face fixed the germaphobia and the climactic scene where he saves his sister by tackling Grandpa shows his growth as well. It’s not fantastic growth, but I think it counts.

The secondary characters of the grandparents were interesting as they evolved from being kindly mentors into dark mentors and even “pure evil” villains in the end. The mother is in the prologue and epilogue and otherwise has no purpose in the film – other than to be oblivious to the danger she’s put her children into. And finally, the two mental hospital employees who check in on the kids are not really germane at all.

The Visit is not worth a visit to the theater, nor is it worth a visit to Netflix, unless of course you love seeing incontinent old people terrorizing young children. I found The Visit to be humorless, predictable, and uninteresting. The two child actors, however, did a very nice job with mundane material, and so kudos to Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge for making the most of their poopy situation. I give The Visit a grand total of 1 Reel out of 5.

I didn’t detect much of a hero’s journey here at all, although I will grant you that the two kids were thrown into a dangerous unfamiliar world. But that’s about the only element of the classic hero quest that I see here. There’s no mentor figure or transformation, although you’re right, Greg, that the dirty diaper was the answer to the boy’s fecal-phobia. I’ll be generous and award our buddy heroes 2 Heroes out of 5.

As you point out, Greg, there aren’t many secondary characters. The two deranged grandparents do a decent job of creeping us out, and the kids’ mom does a serviceable job in her role. The supporting characters get a whopping 2 rating points out of 5.

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I found The Visit to be a light-hearted jab at the horror genre. Shyamalan did a good job of giving the audience exactly what it wanted: something simple with a predictable twist. He used his many talents to produce a comedic horror film without getting lost in his own mythos. It’s not a great horror film, and not a great comedy. I give it just 1 Reel out of 5.

The protagonists of the story comprise a type of buddy hero pair that we haven’t examined until now: that of siblings. They represent a pretty simplified view of siblings who love each other but also kind of get on each others nerves. We haven’t seen the likes of this since The Brady Bunch. Unlike you, Scott, I saw some transformation for our heroes. But I have to admit, it looked like it was thrown in at the last moment. I give them just 2 Heroes out of 5.

As for our secondary characters: the mother is a prop to start the whole thing off and to bring us home again at the end. She has no real purpose in the story otherwise. The two grandparents have in interesting trajectory that starts out benign and grows into sinister. I give them all just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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A Walk in the Woods ••

A_Walk_in_the_Woods_PosterStarring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Director: Ken Kwapis
Screenplay: Rick Kerb, Bill Holderman
Adventure/Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2015


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This review should be pretty easy; quite a walk in the woods.

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

At Redford’s and Nolte’s age, it should have been called Walkers in the Woods. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), a retired writer in his 70s who hasn’t produced much in the last 10 years. He attends a funeral where he realizes that there are fewer days ahead than behind. After taking a walk along a part of the Appalachian Trail, he determines to walk the entire length of the trail – some 2,200 miles. He makes calls to his old buddies only to find that all of them think he is crazy.

All but one of them. Bill’s old friend Stephen (Nick Nolte) gives him a call, saying he’s interested. Bill hadn’t even considered inviting Stephen, who has always been a hard-drinking, womanizing wild-card. But Bill’s wife (Emma Thompson) insists that he go with someone, so Bill and Stephen set out on the trail. Soon they are deep into woods and up to their saggy, craggy necks in danger. Sort of.

Scott, A Walk in the Woods is sort of a geriatric version of Wild. We have a couple of unlikely men who are quite old to be going on a 2,200 mile hike. It’s a pretty low-key story with a few yucks and a bit of angst. There really isn’t a lot in this story to hate, nor to love. It’s very middle of the road. There’s a nice bit of excitement when a young hiker with a lot of energy arrives and tells the two everything they’re doing wrong. Played by Kristen Schaal, it’s a funny bit as she is wrong about half of what she says and incorrect about the rest.

This is a classic buddy story. Bryson is a very conservative, by-the-book sort of guy. Stephen is untidy to the extreme. He’s not just a messy person, but he lives his life without a concern for what comes next. He hasn’t planned for the future and he is aimless in his pursuits. This creates a tension between him and Bryson and comes to a climax when the two men come close to quitting the hike. Bryson blows up at Stephen and says he doesn’t want to end his life the way Stephen has lived his – by quitting when the going gets tough.


You’ve pretty much described it, Greg. A Walk in the Woods is a story about two old buddies who have nothing in common except a desire to prove they are still alive and relevant. People seem to gravitate to stories about heroes going on a daring physical adventure to escape reality or to prove a point. Greg, you mention the film Wild, and that’s a prime example. This movie is cut from the same cloth. I suspect this film is telling us that aging baby boomers still need to feel relevant.

A Walk in the Woods is the first buddy movie I’ve seen in a long, long time in which the two buddies don’t initially hate each other. That’s usually the pattern, with the story centering on the building of a friendship. In this movie, the only possible wedge between the men is an old $600 bet that has never been paid, but that bet is not a sticking point at all. There are lots of scenes with the two men bantering about the old days. The bickering you mention, Greg, seems a little too manufactured. I guess there can be no movie without some conflict, even if it’s a bit contrived.

There aren’t a lot of secondary characters. There are ancillary hikers walking by, or a cute waitress here or there. But aside from Schaal’s annoying know-it-all, we don’t get a lot of interaction with others. Nature makes a nice adversary for our heroes as they look at the 2,200 miles stretching ahead of them and realize that they’ve only travelled a quarter mile. It’s a simple story with minimum of conflict and interactions.

I didn’t like A Walk in the Woods as much as I enjoyed Wild. There was less of an inner conflict for our main character, Bryson than we had in Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl. In that film, Cheryl is dealing with the loss of her mother and a life not fully lived. Bryson, on the other hand, is an accomplished man. And we’re reminded of this by the contrast of his buddy Stephen. There’s just not a lot of inner conflict and the outer conflict is very haphazard. I give A Walk in the Woods just 2 out of 5 Reels.

As I mentioned, there’s not a lot of depth to the two characters we’re given here. If you’re going to present two men and Nature as the three characters in your story, you’re going to have to give me a lot of character development in the leads. We just don’t get that here. Also, when you have a weak villain, you have a weak hero. The Appalachian trail was portrayed as all too easy. So it didn’t bring out the worst or best in our heroes. I give Bryson and Stephen just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And we’ve already discussed the fact that there were very few secondary characters. Schaal’s character was fun for a minute and was mercifully removed before she got to be too annoying. Nature as the villain was too kind. And the nameless faceless other hikers didn’t really add to the story. I give them just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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The hero story is not a bad one in that we have two old guys who still have important things to learn about themselves. I mention “relevance”, and that’s certainly a part of it, but there is also learning about nature, about pushing oneself to one’s limits, about facing and overcoming danger, and about acceptance. Both men do undergo a subtle but important transformation; they get exactly what they need from this hero’s journey.

The secondary characters are, as you say, barely worth mentioning. Emma Thompson, the wife, has absolutely no on-screen chemistry with Robert Redford. I can overlook this issue, as first and foremost this is a story about a pair of hiking geezers. The minor characters who appear here and there on the trail have the same depth and dimensionality as the two bears who attacked the men’s camp. The one mentor figure is the implied presence of the late, great naturalist John Muir, who Redford quotes as having said that sometimes you just have to go on a hike.

Overall, A Walk in the Woods is light fare. It’s the kind of movie that you can fully understand and appreciate with it playing in the background while you’re cooking dinner and have a conversation with a friend. That’s not exactly high praise. So my rating of 2 Reels out of 5 should come as no surprise.

As I’ve mentioned, there are subtle transformations in our two heroes as a result of their hike. These changes are not terribly profound, as they learn things like “the galaxy is vast”, “rocks take a long time to form and erode”, and “species of trees come and go”. Nothing terribly deep is to be found here. I give the heroes a rating of 2 out of 5. And because the two bears were the most interesting supporting characters, I give the overall support team a rating of 2 out of 5 as well.

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Straight Outta Compton •••1/2

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterStarring: O’Shea Jackson Jr.Corey HawkinsJason Mitchell
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay: Jonathan HermanAndrea Berloff
Music/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Date: August 14, 2015


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Scott, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube produced their own biopic. Does it deserve it’s good rap?

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

I’m straight outta answers, Greg. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Eazy-E, a mule for the local drug dealer. He’s running drugs but he wants to move on to something a little more… sane. And a lot less dangerous. When his friend Dr. Dre proposes he invest some of his drug money in a rap album, he’s dubious. But between Dre and their mutual friend Ice Cube, they convince Eazy-E to bankroll the new group. Not only do they convince him to pony up the cash to produce the first single, but also convince him to rap on it.

The group decides on a name, NWA, and they turn out a hit single. During a live show, music agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) sees the group’s potential and approaches Eazy E, who hires him. Soon NWA has a record label, Priority Records, which produces NWA’s first album, Straight Outta Compton. It becomes a smash hit, and NWA is on its way to legendary fame.

Scott, I have never appreciated rap or hip-hop music. It never reached me. And after watching Straight Outta Compton I can see why. These young men were rapping about their inner city situation, something completely outside of my experience. They were living in a world surrounded by drugs and crime. And a police force that assumed their guilt just because they were black and hanging around on the streets. No wonder they created a hit single called “F* the Police.”

Unlike so many biopics we’ve seen, this one had a lot of heart. Even though I felt the drugs, sex, and crime were watered down for public display, I was drawn into the world of NWA and grew to appreciate the enormity of their accomplishment. They created a new genre of “Gangsta Rap” that continues to have an impact today.

You’re right, Greg. On the surface, Straight Outta Compton is a movie about a rap group. But it is so much more than that. This film is about human relations – how those relations form, how they evolve, how they unravel, and how we clean up the mess. Compton makes you think about the ways that human beings treat each other, in the good sense but mostly in the destructive sense.

For the most part, Straight Outta Compton focuses on the ability of a group of African-Americans to overcome the institution of racism. Yes, we know that the film cleaned up its portrayal of this hip-hop group, but there is still much more than a kernel of truth in Compton’s message about the dangers of a racist police force. The anger in the song lyrics seems extreme yet understandable.

These are flawed heroes. Eazy-E earns his money running drugs – a strictly illegal vocation. But he sees the drug business as a losing proposition. The dangers outweigh the return on investment. When Dr. Dre approaches to start a record label, he is dubious at first (a classic call to adventure and refusal of the call) but then jumps in with both feet. Dre is painted as a good kid who has dreams of setting the world on fire with his DJ mastery. There’s even a classic scene where Dre is told not to spin that hip-hop stuff and play the master list. But he breaks the boss’s rules and gets the crowd hopping to his mad licks. And Ice Cube has the lyrics. He’s the poet of the group. In a lot of ways, this is a classic rock and roll success story complete with the excess in alcohol, drugs, and sex. But these heroes also have to deal with the seedy underworld of crime as the people running the show are criminals.

In some ways, this movie tells the familiar tale of the rock’n roll group that can’t handle success and must disintegrate. There is a Beatle-esque sequence involving the group writing song lyrics that skewer Ice Cube for leaving the group, followed by the Cube returning the favor in his subsequent songs. We see redemption at the end when the guys patch things up.

The sleazy embezzling Heller character is interesting. He is a mix of the good mentor and the dark mentor. He helps NWA achieve superstardom but in the end Heller reveals himself to be a lying cheat. Another manager is later shown to be crooked and pays the price by having his office dismantled by a baseball bat. We’ve seen this sleaze in the music industry in last year’s Jersey Boys and Get On Up.

There aren’t a lot of secondary characters to review in this movie. There are a lot of minions – people who are hangers on, coasting on the coattails of NWA. There is also what we call a “System” in the police – who are cast as oppressors in this film. Usually there is a single character who might represent the face of the minions or the police, but this film does a disservice by making both a nameless, faceless mass.

Straight Outta Compton was not meant to appeal to an older, non-rappy guy like me. Yet I found myself strangely moved by the film. I found myself rooting for these underdog heroes and appreciating the systemic obstacles placed in their road to success. I’m referring, of course, to the systems of racism and power-abusing law enforcement. This film was well-made and quite interesting. I’m happy to award it 3 Reels out of 5.

Our NWA heroes are not choir boys but they nevertheless travel the classic hero’s journey that includes a departure into the unfamiliar world of celebrity status, help from mentors (both good and bad), encounters with lovers, and battles with villainous institutions. Eazy-E’s death in the end was poignant, too. I’ll give this group a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

As you mention, Greg, there aren’t many supporting characters. Heller is a scumbag for cheating the group but he also helped them in some important ways. The appearance of Snoop Dogg and others is inconsequential. Because there isn’t much here, I can only award 2 Cast points out of 5.

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Straight Outta Compton is another classic rock-n-roll story, except this time it has a happy ending – mostly. It isn’t surprising that you and I identified with these young men, despite the differences in our backgrounds. We admire people who start with nothing and rise to successful heights.

Not only that, but there are significant transformations here. Dre and Ice Cube grow from young hoodlums into mature adults who are leaders in their respective industries. Even Eazy-E comes to realize that he let money and fame cloud his judgement and he renews his friendship with Dre and Ice Cube, only to be struck down in his prime by AIDS. It is a story of mythic proportions, one that anyong can identify with. I give Straight Outta Compton 4 out of 5 Reels and 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters are few and far between. The one character of interest is Heller and he plays both good and bad mentor. The mass of hangers-ons and evil police are hardly noteworthy. I give them 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Ricki and the Flash ••

Ricki_and_the_Flash_posterStarring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Comedy/Drama/Music, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: August 7, 2015


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Scott, don’t lose that number, it’s time to review Ricki and the Flash.

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

Ricki has some splainin to do. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), an aging rocker working bars and honky tonks and playing songs from the classic age of rock and roll – with an occasional diversion into Pink. She’s barely making ends meet between her gigs and clerking at the grocery store, when she gets a call from her ex-husband that their 20-something daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has attempted suicide.

Ricki scrapes up enough money to fly to Indianapolis to give her daughter Julie some emotional support. She’s too poor to stay at a hotel and so she stays with her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) who lives in a mansion with his current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Ricki must deal with Julie’s resentment toward her, and the awkwardness of her visit is compounded by the arrival of her other two children and Maureen herself.

Scott, there’s nothing really interesting about this story. Unless you are a fan of Meryl Streep. As usual, she gives a great performance. She reminds me of Bonnie Raitt from the 90’s. Frankly, I thought she sauntered through this role. It didn’t look like much of a stretch for her. On the other hand, Streep’s own daughter plays the role of Julie. Gummer does a passable job as the spoiled and distraught daughter.

Ricki brings a certain chaos to Pete’s life which is otherwise quite bland. And it looks as though that chaos is what attracted Pete to Ricki in the first place. The story goes through the usual paces with Ricki telling her daughter to skip therapy and take a spa day. There’s also a run-in with the new wife who held the family together in Ricki’s absence. And then there’s the bisexual son who is really gay but never told Ricki. It’s all very run of the mill without a lot of real conflict. Just situations where conflict might exist.

It’s a good story, Greg. The problem is that everything that happens is too predictable and too saccharine. Ricki starts out estranged from just about everyone — her band member Greg (Rick Springfield), her ex-husband, all her children. Because she’s not a bad person, we know that by the end of the story she’ll have bonded with everyone.

The question then becomes how does Ricki’s life change. What we find is that the transformation of all these relationships occurs in unsurprising ways. In-between all these predictable events we’re treated to a lot, and I do mean a lot, of Meryl Streep belting out 70s rock tunes. She does an amazing job, but what we really have here is a 45-minute movie with a 90-minute playing time.

As a hero, Ricki is very flawed. She is insensitive to her boyfriend – refusing to admit she “loves” him or that they are dating. She left her children to be a rock star – a goal that never materialized. She apparently spent little time with her kids as they grew up – letting another woman raise them. It’s only her relaxed lifestyle and clear affection for her children that redeems her to us. And it’s enough to allow us to sympathize with her and root for her to do well.

It’s interesting that we never see Ricki behave poorly as a wife to Pete or as a mother to her three children. We only see her as a sympathetic figure, a woman trying to atone for her past mistakes and who ends up doing a fine job with her redemption. It’s nice that everyone ends up forgiving her, accepting her, and loving her in the end, but this resolution seems unrealistic. And maybe that’s the point — we don’t ever see dysfunctional families doing a big group hug at the end, but we sure would like to.

The supporting cast does a workmanlike job in this film. Rick Springfield surprised me with his acting chops. Pete and the kids are pretty much stock characters who make our hero’s life difficult for a while, but they soften in the end, much like Ricki has softened. Perhaps ‘soft’ is the key term here — this movie is soft in many, not very flattering ways. Like you said, Greg, Streep shows off her vast talents here, but this film is nevertheless a light, fluffy, made-for-TV movie.

I liked the second wife in this movie – Maureen. She’s a strong woman who stepped into the hole that Ricki left. It’s an interesting dynamic between Maureen and Ricki. There’s a sense that Maureen successfully eased Ricki out of her children’s lives. Then, when Ricki returns to California, Maureen has a change of heart and invites Ricki to her son’s wedding. Or was it a change of heart? Was Maureen aware that Ricki wouldn’t have the funds to fly back? Regardless, it is her boyfriend Greg who sells his Stratocaster so that Ricki can attend the wedding.

And that raises a question for me about secondary heroes. Greg is a secondary character, but he is a sort of martyr. He gives up something of great value to him, so that the hero of the story can have something she wants. He’s an enabler of sorts – or in the lexicon of our book “Reel Heroes and Villains” – a catalyst for Ricki’s change.

Ricki and the Flash is a pleasant movie about an aging mom who was once a bad mother and is now given a chance to redeem herself. This theme is a common one in today’s movies — witness films such as 3 Days To Kill, Snitch, and A Good Day To Die Hard. The baby-boomer generation is apparently desperate to make amends to the younger generation for its self-indulgent ways. Ricki isn’t a bad movie but I won’t be giving it a second look. The film deserves about 2 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Ricki is on a journey of redemption. She has no mentors, really, and on her own she relies on kindness, loyalty, and patience to win the hearts of her grown children. Perhaps these are the missing qualities that Ricki needed to achieve her redemption, but we are given no insight into how she acquired them. The hero journey is thus a bit stunted. I award Ricki 2 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are adequate but unmemorable. When I think back to this movie, all I’ll really remember is Streep’s excellent performance as Ricki and as a rock’n roll wanna-be star. Generously I’ll award the supporting characters 2 rating points out of 5.

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Agreed on all counts, Scott. Ricki and the Flash is merely a vehicle for Streep’s daughter, Gummer, to have a bit of the spotlight. Perhaps art imitates life as Streep gives something back to her own daughter. We’ve seen this in other films like Will and Jaden Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and again in Beyond Earth (2013). Movie history is rife with nepotism. I give Ricki and the Flash just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The hero story is pretty simple. Ricki does go through a transformation in that she reconnects with her children. And she realizes that she loves her boyfriend Greg and has to accept him as her lover or lose him. She has been pushing people away her whole life and finally realizes she has to be less selfish. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters are pretty boilerplate, two-dimensional cutouts. The husband is a bland businessman, the second wife is heartless, the kids are a selection of Lifetime tropes (depressed daughter, yuppie son, and gay son). The character I liked most was Greg the boyfriend because it is his sacrifice that tilts the scales and catalyzes Ricki into the transformation she needs. And he has a likable name. I give the supporting cast 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Self/Less ••

Selfless_posterStarring: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenplay: David Pastor, Àlex Pastor
Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2015


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Scott, if anyone had told me Ryan Reynolds was Selfless I would have thought it was a joke.

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

There’s a slash in the title, suggesting either great intrigue or great gimmickry. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley) who is not just old, but near death. He is a very rich man and looks into a technology called “shedding.” His entire mind will be transferred into another body – a younger body that has been grown in a lab and looks a lot like Ryan Reynolds. The transfer goes well but the new Damien has to relearn how to walk and talk. And he has to take red pills to prevent rejection. “New” Damien is doing pretty well when he starts to have nightmares about an alternate life.

The new Damien Google-searches the images he’s seeing in his hallucinations and discovers that his dreams take place in Missouri. He heads to St. Louis, rents a car, and meanders his way into a woman’s home. He learns that his Ryan Reynolds-like body was once this woman’s husband. Meanwhile, the mastermind of the shedding company Albright (Matthew Goode), has sent his henchmen to follow Damien. They try to kill him and the woman, and so now Damien is on the run, trying to unveil the truth about shedding and his true identity.

Scott, this movie had great potential. We start off with an Academy Award winner in Ben Kingsley. He is quickly discarded for the more youthful and less talented Ryan Reynolds. We didn’t get enough time with Kingsley to really recognize him when he wakes up in a different body. And the Reynolds’ character very quickly goes from enjoying his young body to searching for the origins of his new body. Reynolds doesn’t really act like a man who woke up in another man’s body. He seems very motivated to reconcile the wrong that allowed him to “shed” his old body. The Kingsley character was a cut-throat, unflinching, even uncaring pragmatist. But the Reynolds character is the complete opposite. It doesn’t make sense.

You’re right, Greg. Kingsley’s character, Damian Hayes, isn’t on screen long enough for us to get to know him or really care about him. From what we do know, he shouldn’t react in some of the ways that the Ryan Reynolds version of him reacts. For one thing, Damian Hayes as Kingsley is very intelligent, yet he is easily duped by Albright and remains duped even after the physical transformation. Every human body has little marks and imperfections from everyday wear-and-tear. He should have noticed the obvious signs that his new Reynolds body is a “used” (or pre-owned) body.

Another problem with Self/Less is its lack of originality. The 1968 final episode of the original Star Trek series was called Turnabout Intruder, and it featured a similar body and identity switch. Conveniently, to justify any kind of story, Self/Less employs a transference process that is flawed, requiring the ingestion of a pill to completely eliminate the host’s prior identity. Of course this process has to go awry for us to have any kind of story, and the resolution of the conflict, with the Reynolds-Damien character getting the girl in the end, is highly predictable.

The villains in this story are pretty bland. There’s a Steve Jobs-type super genius who invented shedding and tries to control Damien with promises that the red pills will make him feel better. And there’s his new best friend Anton (Derek Luke) who alternately tries to help and then kill Damien. He’s the henchman to Albright’s mastermind.

For secondary characters there is the love interest Madeline (Natalie Martinez) who still loves her husband and is shocked to see his body return with another man at the helm. And also a little daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) who is the whole reason Ryan Reynolds original body owner gave his body to “science.” (It seems little Anna needed chemotherapy and original Ryan Reynolds sold his body to pay for it). She’s adorable and serves the purpose of being cute in the midst of all the craziness.

There isn’t much more to say, so let’s get right to the ratings. Self/Less employs a tired premise of body-switching that uses stock characters and situations that left me uninspired. The performances from the cast are fine but I sensed from the actors that they knew they were stuck in a B-movie. Pretty much everything we see in Self/Less is predictable and unimaginative, and really the only people who need to see this film are fans of Ryan Reynolds. Self/Less earns a measly 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story fell flat to me because, as we’ve mentioned, the protagonist Damian appears to make choices that are inconsistent with his character after he undergoes his physical transformation. One could argue that he’s simply experiencing a moral transformation and has learned the importance of doing the right thing. That may be possible but the transformation doesn’t appear to have been triggered by anything and thus doesn’t ring true. I can only award Damian a paltry 2 Heroes out of 5.

As you note, Greg, the villain Albright is rather dull, and I sensed that Matthew Goode was chosen for this role only because of his English accent. Again, there are stock characters who help and hinder Damian but they’re all rather forgettable. Even the love interest and her cute kid failed to inspire much enthusiasm. The cast also is also saddled with a rating of 2 out of 5.

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Forgettable is the operative word here, Scott. The movie seemed to forget the main character’s true self and transformed into a martyr without visible cause. I also give Self/Less 2 out of 5 Reels.

Ryan Reynolds just can’t seem to catch a break. I think he’s tried to move away from his comedy roots into more dramatic roles, but he keeps ending up in these ‘B’ movies. His work in the earlier film Woman in Gold opposite Helen Mirren was very good. But the movie attracted little attention against the summertime popcorn movies. As you note, Scott, Damien’s transformation is unbelievable and so I can give Damien only 1 Hero out of 5.

And the supporting cast is lackluster. We see the typical Mastermind/Henchman villain structure and the girlfriend and daughter complete a familial unit. The supporting cast gets just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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