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Ocean’s Eight ••1/2

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway
Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: June 8, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, we just reviewed a very watery film called Adrift — is Ocean’s Eight a sequel?


No, it’s proof that eight woman can do the work of eleven men. Let’s recap.


We learn that Danny Ocean’s younger sister, Debbie (Sandra Bullock), has been granted parole. She has big plans to steal a $150 million Cartier necklace, but she needs to assemble a team. Debbie recruits her former partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett), and the two convince big-time celebrity Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear the necklace at a fancy gala dinner. Debbie then manipulates the man who sent her to jail, Claude Decker (Richard Armitage), into being Daphne’s date.


Debbie and Lou recruit a rag-tag fugitive team of women including a street-wise pickpocket, an aging down-on-her-luck fashion designer and a computer whiz-kid. They make their plan to drug Daphne who must go into the lady’s room where the pickpocket will remove the necklace and stash it on a platter destined for the kitchen. Hilarity ensues when things don’t go as planned.


Greg, Ocean’s Eight is a serviceable heist story with the much-needed and long overdue involvement of a team of women doing the heisting. Clearly, these ladies are a team of anti-heroes, and I’m going to shamelessly plug our 2015 book, Reel Heroes & Villains, in which we discuss ensemble teams serving as either heroes or anti-heroes in the movies.

Sandra Bullock’s character is the clear leader of the team and star of this film. Her character is satisfying in some ways and not so satisfying in others. We like her because she has at least five of the “great eight” traits of heroes – she’s smart, strong, resilient, charismatic, and inspiring. She’s been wronged in the past and is out for revenge, and if revenge means becoming a multi-millionaire in the process, so much the better. What is unsatisfying from a hero’s journey perspective is that she doesn’t change at all; she’s essentially the same clever, devious person at the end of this story as she was at the beginning. And maybe that’s by design. Still, a point we’ve hammered home for years is that good hero or anti-hero stories involve character transformation.


I have to say that I enjoyed this movie in part because it wasn’t all about girl-power. It was about a cadre of people who worked together for a common goal. The fact that they were all women was only incidental to the plot. So, it wasn’t as much as a cause film as it was a heist. And, as it was written by the same guy who brought us the other Ocean’s movies, it held up pretty well.

Having said that, there was a distinctly feminine slant to this story. Our heroes are after jewels, they have to dress up for a gala, and there’s a revenge subplot for Debbie’s old lover. There are also a dozen or so cameos from the world of fashion. These are all themes that appeal to a female audience. Still, it was a very entertaining heist movie regardless of your gender persuasion.


Ocean’s Eight has pretty much everything you’d want to see in a large-scale heist movie, and while the film is well-made, the fact that we’ve seen all this before in previous oceanic movies works against it. I did enjoy witnessing the dark side of Sandra Bullock — seeing her evil nature at work is equivalent to seeing Tom Hanks in a diabolical role. She’s very good at deceiving the parole board and pretty much everyone else in the movie. In all, this film deserves a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

Our hero ensemble team is good, but to be honest, other than Sandra Bullock’s character, most of the team is pretty forgettable — with the exception of Helena Bonham Carter as the eccentric Rose Weil who bamboozles Daphne. These heroes don’t change in any meaningful way as a result of their journeys; they merely do their jobs and walk away with millions. We end up admiring their craftiness but little else. I award them 2 Hero points out of 5.

There are a few notable archetypes, such as the irredeemable villain/anti-hero, and a tech nerd kid who magically solves the problem of the necklace’s magnet fastener. Bullock plays a great mastermind anti-hero, and the insurance detective does his best Columbo archetype impression. All told, the archetypes are fairly meager, earning them just 2 Arcs out of 5.

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I’m pretty much in agreement on all counts, Scott. This was a fun movie, but things went a little too well for my tastes. There was never really a time when the plan seemed in jeopardy. Nobody ever seemed in danger of getting caught. And the twist ending, while a surprise, didn’t really satisfy. I award Ocean’s Eight just 2 out of 5 Reels.

This is a classic anti-hero pattern where our heroes are not on the right side of the law, but we are pulling for them to win. The introduction of the ‘villain’ or ‘opposition’ character of insurance investigator John Frazier (James Corden) was a little odd. He didn’t come in until nearly the end and claimed not to be interested in arresting anyone, only in getting the jewels back. Otherwise, there wasn’t a true oppositional character which made the film a little flat. I give these characters just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

As for archetypes, I think you’ve covered it pretty well. I give them just 2 Arcs out of 5.

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Deepwater Horizon ••

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now You See Me 2 ••

Now_You_See_Me_2_posterStarring: Jesse Eisenberg,  Mark Ruffalo,  Woody Harrelson
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Ed Solomon
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Release Date: June 10, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, just like magic, another movie sequel appears out of nowhere.


Now You See Me 2 should have been called Now You Don’t because that’s what I wished I had done.


The three horsemen magicians have been laying low for a year, awaiting instructions from a secret organization called The Eye. Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), and Jack (Dave Franco) are joined by a fourth horse-“man” named Lula (Lizzy Caplan). Their FBI handler, Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), assigns the horsemen the task of stealing a device that can remove data from any computer system. Their heist, however, goes terribly wrong.


It turns out they’ve been hijacked to Macau, China by Merritt’s evil twin Chase. He works for an evil technologist Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Now their main mission is to steal the device for Mabry or suffer the consequences. They rush to an old magic shop in downtown Macau to get the supplies they’ll need for the heist.


Greg, the first Now You See Me was only mildly entertaining at best, and so I had rather low expectations for this sequel. Usually low expectations improve a movie’s chances of impressing me. But alas, not so with this sequel. For me it had the same problems as the first installment. The magic wasn’t real, just all CGI effects, which meant that all that impressive card-throwing (which we saw A LOT of) was faked and hardly jaw-dropping. Then there is the far-fetched plot that depends on multiple cases of “instantaneous hypnosis”. Apparently, all you have to do is surprise someone and they fall under your spell. Ugh.


Yeah, it was pretty weak. The subplot with Merritt meeting his identical twin was just weird. It wasn’t funny, entertaining, or clever. Chase, the twin, showed up without notice wherever the horsemen seemed to be. There was no logic, rhyme, or reason to the character in the movie. It’s almost as if someone said “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if Woody played his own twin? We haven’t seen that in a while,” and then proceeded to inject him wherever the plot seemed to be lagging.


There is at least a hero’s journey. The horsemen are sent down a tube that takes them magically from North America to Asia, and therein begins their adventure in the unfamiliar world. In this world they encounter the usual elements of the hero’s quest, including a mysterious and exotic elderly woman who serves as a mentor figure. Comically, the old lady turns out not to be as exotic as they are led to believe; still, she’s an archetype of wisdom that heroes rely on during their journey.


This is an odd-shaped ensemble cast. The four horsemen are a team and they are commanded by an unseen mastermind “The Eye.” Then there is a fifth guy (Ruffalo) who acts as their mole in the FBI. And then there’s Morgan Freeman acting as … some guy in jail. Freeman appears to be an oppositional character, but ultimately it is revealed that he is “The Eye” and has been molding Ruffalo to take on the role. This is a common trope – the student becoming the master. So, ultimately, Freeman is a mentor. It’s a convoluted, hackneyed and obvious plot point. I wasn’t impressed.


Now You See Me 2 is a sequel that never should have been made, following up on a predecessor that was wracked with mediocrity. This film had the same problems as before — magic tricks that obviously benefitted from CGI enhancements, and a plot that is ridiculously far-fetched. All the star power in this film could not overcome its underwhelmingness. Like its predecessor, I give this move 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero ensemble was fun to watch at times, and the female newcomer to the group, Lula, was a welcome addition. It isn’t exactly a John Hughes-like cross-section of archetypes, but the group does feature a quirky nerd in Eisenberg, a smart-ass in Harrelson, a pretty boy in Franco, and now the Molly Ringwald-esque character in Lula. There is a hero’s journey here and some classic elements straight from Joseph Campbell. So I can justify awarding 3 Heroes out of 5.

The mentors are a muddy mix of men mishandling the magicians. We do appreciate Morgan Freeman’s cleverness, but we are also aghast that he would allow himself to be imprisoned for a couple of years just to fool someone. Rule number 1 of movie-making: Don’t ever do something that is reminiscent of Dumb and Dumber Too.  I’ll award these meager mentors 2 Mentors out of 5.

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It’s hard to be underwhelmed when one’s expectations are already low. Still, while NYSM2 lacked in every other way, at least is accomplished that one thing – completely under-delivering. I won’t recap all that is wrong with this film and give it just 2 out of 5 Reels.

I thought Ruffolo’s character did a nice bit of transformation in this story. If we look at the pain he felt in losing his father, we see it is mended by him taking his own place in the hierarchy of magicians. But the entire movie is so outrageous in its premise that it’s hard to see this as a proper hero’s journey. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I liked the Lula character and wished there were more of her in it. She was the newcomer to the group and could have done with some mentoring. Her immediate acceptance by the team, and subsequent integration into the group’s dynamic left little room for mentorship. On the flip side, I was happy that she wasn’t played up as the “dumb girl who needs to be pulled along.” We’ve touched on the Morgan Freeman mentoring of Ruffalo – but it’s an unlikely scenario. I can award only 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Love and Friendship ••1/2

Love_&_Friendship_posterStarring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Jane Austen, Whit Stillman
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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It looks like we’re about to review the latest movie from Elizabethan author Jane Austen.


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

Quite so. Prepare yourself for some old-fashioned mating rituals. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to a middle-aged widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). She has burned through her husband’s estate and now is “visiting” friends and family. She has her sights set on a younger eligible bachelor named Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). She seduces the young lad with her advanced womanly wiles.


Meanwhile, Lady Susan is urging her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to wed the wealthy yet silly and dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The problem is that Frederica refuses to marry Sir James and would rather lead the impoverished life of a teacher. Meanwhile, this histrionic Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray) is having marital problems with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).


Scott, I’m mystified by the attraction of this movie. It was long, dull and nothing but a series of talking heads. The screenplay is based on a never-published story written by Austen when she was 14 years old. There’s a reason this story was never published – it was boring. Writer/Director Whit Stillman took the original work (which was told as a series of letters) and created long scenes of people riding in carriages and talking, eating dinner and talking, walking the grounds and talking, and talking about talking. And the things the characters are talking about are incredibly superficial. It was like someone took a modern soap opera and placed it in the mid 1700s.

The writer didn’t even have the wherewithal to SHOW us what each character contributed to the story. Instead of SHOWING us that someone was dimwitted, there were screen cards before each character entered a scene TELLING us that so-and-so was none-to-bright or was married to such-and-so. The first rule any writer learns is … show, don’t tell. Stillman apparently didn’t go to the right school. I know, some of you think this is part of the joke, the whimsy. It wasn’t. It was simply dumb.


Greg, paradoxically, your harsh critical analysis of Love and Friendship is right on the mark but directed at the wrong target. Jane Austen stories are supposed to be about women talking to women, and women talking to men, about romance, marriage, and the obstacles to both. This movie is cast in the same mold as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in showcasing the sad reality, in the year 1800, of women’s dependency on men for their financial and social standing.

In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss many different types of heroes, and one of them is the family unit. Love and Friendship features a family ensemble, with the two main heroes being Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica, both of whom are searching for good husband material. The classic hero’s journey with its masculine bias doesn’t quite fit the Jane Austen mold. This hero’s journey here reflects the prevailing Zeitgeist of Austen’s time, during which the woman’s hero journey is severely limited by patriarchal forces beyond her control. Austen dared to show women with moxie whose pushback against these limitations was heroic and often rewarded.


There’s no doubt that I’m not a fan of Austen’s work. Still, I’ve seen the Emma Thompson version of Sense & Sensibility (1995) and was enchanted. The difference between these films is the craftsmanship and a script that goes beyond the strict interpretation of Austen’s work.

In my mind, this is an anti-hero story. In our definition of the anti-hero, we look for a lead character who starts out negative and ends up even more negative. Lady Susan is manipulative and out for number one. She has thrown her daughter at Sir James who is a nice man but dim witted and naive. She is trying to seduce a younger man (Reginald) for whom she has nothing to offer. And in the end, her daughter gets Reginald and Lady Susan is pregnant with Lord Manwaring’s child while married to Sir James. I have no respect for this woman who takes advantage of everyone around her and has nothing of value to offer in return.


You’re right about Lady Susan’s utter sleaziness in this story. A charitable interpretation of her behavior is that she’s doing her best as a woman trapped in a man’s world. One could say she is merely acting like a man and we’re guilty of applying a double-standard. But yes, I have to side with your anti-hero interpretation. On the bright side, she does try to mentor Frederica, imploring her young daughter to “sell-out” and do what’s practical rather than follow her heart.

This conundrum facing young women is a common theme in Jane Austen’s work. Is this bad mentorship on Lady Susan’s part, or are we to applaud her pragmatism? Probably the former, but many good parents gave their children the same advice. There is other mentorship going on in this film, too, with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) dispensing advice here and there. Alas, none of it is very memorable.


Love and Friendship plays to its audience. If you love Jane Austen you will be pleased with this adaptation. However, if, like me, you are of a modern mind you may find this story simplistic and yet difficult to follow in places. The lead character has few redeeming qualities and the people surrounding her aren’t much better. I give L&F just 2 out of 5 Reels.

I think the hero’s journey plays out here alright. While we appear to come in at the “inciting incident” (the point where Lady Susan is cast into the special world of living as a widow), we watch as she overcomes challenges and survives a devastating defeat only to recover and gain a sort of victory where she has one man for money and another for sex. I give Lady Susan just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Lady Susan is not just the anti-hero, but also a dark mentor. She tries to lead her daughter down the path of dependency. Frederica eschews these lessons (whether she is willful or insightful is unclear) and ultimately wins a virtuous man on her own merits. I give Lady Susan 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Love and Friendship is textbook Jane Austen, showcasing the usual assortment of women in need of husbands and men revealing themselves either to be worthy or unworthy of filling this role. All the actors here give wonderful performances, and if you can get over the Austen-esque violation of the show-don’t-tell rule, you’ll have a good time getting to know these characters. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The anti-hero story of Lady Susan is done well here, as she shows herself to be conniving, manipulative, and deceitful. We can’t really apply Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth to this story, as Lady Susan is hampered by the limitations placed on women of that era. She and Frederica navigate this world in very different ways. I give the heroes in this story a rating of 2 out of 5. In terms of mentorship, there are attempts at mentorship but none of them turn out to be very effective. Therefore I award this movie a mentorship rating of 2 out of 5, also.

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Allegiant ••

AllegiantfilmposterStarring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper
Action/Adventure/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, do you pledge an Allegiant review?


Only as an appeasement to you. Let’s recap:


We pick up the story with Evelyn (Naomi Watts) holding trials for members of the Erudite and Dauntless factions. The trials turn into executions for some of the lead conspirators. Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) decide to escape the walls of Chicago. With them are Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz), and Peter (Miles Teller). Outside the walls, the landscape reveals the toxic, decimated aftereffects of nuclear war. The fleeing group is attacked by Edgar (Jonny Weston), but a squadron of airships saves them and whisks them away to a highly advanced city.


In the Bureau of Genetic Welfare Tris learns that Chicago is an experiment. The world was infected with “bad genes” and walled-in Chicago was an attempt to “purify” the gene pool. David (Jeff Daniels) explains that Tris is the first and only truly Divergent – a genetically pure individual. This means that the city can be cured and humanity can be reunited.


Greg, it seems pretty clear that movies such as Allegiant and The Hunger Games have run their course. We not only get the message of these films, but we got it a long time ago. I think it’s important to emphasize that young adult dystopian future stories have served a useful purpose. Societies, as run by old geezers like you and me, have been corrupt and exploitative. Young adults have had enough and are demanding much-needed change. In the real world, we see this “revolution” happening in a mostly peaceful way with, ironically, an oldtimer like Bernie Sanders leading the charge.

So I get all that. Unfortunately, the movie formula has worn thin and has outlived both its usefulness and its entertainment value. In these films, you can take it to the bank that all characters over the age of 30 are bad, and characters under the age of 30 are generally good. The exceptions are sleazy youth who become paid minions of the nasty geezers. A second problem with these dystopian franchises is that they slice and dice the original books into multiple movies. The resultant fragmentation gives us lead characters who don’t grow or evolve over the course of a single film. Across all the films, there is considerable growth, but it’s less detectable and less powerful in these film fragments. These movie fragments leave us with a lot of things going on in the service of very little plot advancement.


You’re right on every count, Scott. And Allegiant fails again at delivering a hero we can invest in. As with 2014’s Divergent and last year’s Insurgent, Allegiant serves up a weakling hero. I know you favor Tris, Scott. But I find her to be increasingly a damsel in distress to be rescued by boyfriend Four. Again and again we see Tris taking the safe road while masculine Four leads the way or saves our hero. It’s unacceptable and surely if the gender roles were reversed we’d reject that hero’s journey. This is in no way the fault of star Shailene Woodley who does all she can with the material handed her. Woodley is wonderful in everything she does – it’s just that Tris is a disappointing hero.

You also point out that the message of the story is hard to digest. I don’t think it’s just that we’re tired of the dystopian model (which we are) but the world created by Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant simply makes no sense. The premise is that Chicago is a walled-off city-as-experiment (see 2014’s The Maze Runner). Apparently, those inside the city have damaged DNA and by separating the inhabitants into 5 communities based upon their personality types, a “pure” DNA sample will emerge (the Divergent). Of course this is preposterous.

And apparently David has the ability to wipe everyone’s mind with a gas that has to be dispersed from inside the city. So he sends a mole in to throw the switch. However, he DOES have the power to shut every door to the switch that will turn it off – which thwarts Tris’s climactic race against time to undo the damage. But if David can control the rat maze that Tris is running, why can’t he just throw the switch himself remotely? It’s non-sensical and insults the audience’s intelligence.


Yes, the movie is problematic on several levels. The movie insults our intelligence by trying to convince us that people could live in a wasteland so toxic that it is incapable of growing vegetation, where the drinking water is red, and where it rains blood. The land is clearly inhospitable to life, just like this movie is inhospitable to believability.

As I’ve noted, our hero Tris shows no growth here, and if anything she shows some character regression. Jeff Daniels does a commendable job of playing the villain role, but one has to wonder why everyone knows he’s a cad except Tris who, if she’s truly a Divergent, should be sharper and not duller than everyone. She’s obviously a good candidate for some helpful mentoring here, but alas, no positive mentors are to be found — unless you count Four, whose counsel she ignores because if she listens to him then we’d only have a 40-minute movie.


I think Daniels’ character is a dark mentor. He’s leading her down a path that subjugates the weak children of the dead zone and enslaves the citizens of Chicago. And of course he’s also the villain. As with many villains he believes that what he is doing is right and any means justifies the ends. So we have an interesting hybrid character of the dark mentor/villain.

Allegiant is just a half of a movie as the source material was cut in two to allow the movie studio to extract an extra movie ticket out of us. And it makes the storytelling more difficult as the movie ends at the midpoint of the last book in the series. The story here makes little sense and leaves us feeling up in the air. I give Allegiant just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Tris, as the hero, lives up to my low expectations. As with earlier incarnations of the hero, she is not very thoughtful or much of a leader. Triss does ultimately take on the role of leader of Chicago by the end of the film which is a nice transformation for her. I can only give her 3 out of 5 Heroes, though that is one more than I gave her last year.

Finally, there is a dearth of mentor characters here. Daniels’ character is an obvious dark mentor that anyone could see coming. And as a villain he lacks a certain dangerous quality. I can only give him 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Allegiant is the most disappointing of the three Divergent movies, demonstrating the perils of chopping a single story into multiple stories. There’s some decent material here to work with, but this film dooms itself with a few obvious plot holes and with a hero whose obliviousness belies the supposed genius of her character. Like you, Greg, I can only award Allegiant 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey is problematic for reasons that we needn’t go over again. Let’s just award her 2 Heroes out of 5 and move onto the rating of the mentor characters — of which there are none. You do make a good observation, Greg, that David is a dark mentor. Tris needs all the help she could get but other than Four there was no one to advise her. I agree that 1 Mentor out of 5 is the most appropriate rating.

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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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


scott
(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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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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


scott
(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.

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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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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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


scott
(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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