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Hidden Figures •••••

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017


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We’re introduced to three African American women stranded on the road in 1960’s Virginia. They are “computers” – women who perform computations for NASA’s space program. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) performs computations for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an engineer in the wind tunnels for the Mercury. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor for the other computing women, all of whom are Black.

Goble has been reassigned to work on the trajectories for the upcoming manned-flights of the Mercury program. She is dismissed by the other mathematicians because she is a woman, and a Black woman at that. Among her many challenges is the fact that the restrooms in the facility are segregated. And the only “colored” rest room for women is across the campus. She frequently has to run a half mile to use the ladies’ room – taking her work with her.

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

Meanwhile, Mary diagnoses a problem in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, inspiring her to pursue an engineering degree. She convinces a judge to grant her permission to attend night classes at an all-white school. Dorothy learns that a huge new IBM computer will replace her co-workers. She sneaks into the computer room and successfully operates the machine. At the library she is scolded for visiting the whites-only section on computer programming. She teaches herself Fortran and is promoted to supervise the programming department, arranging for her women co-workers to be transferred there.

There aren’t many movies featuring women in technology, let alone women of color. Most of our images of engineers and scientists are of young men (see The Social Network). What is marvelous about this film is that it features three such women. They not only have to face gender stereotypes, but also battle racial divides.

The common trope in films dealing with race is that there is a white benefactor who lifts the African American up to where they belong. We see this in such films as The Blind Side, 42, and Race. But in Hidden Figures we’re witness to women who deal with their stereotyped roles head on and fend for themselves. It’s a refreshing change.

I was moved to tears watching Mary stand before a judge and plead her case to be allowed into an all-white community college. I know people who have had to fight for what they have earned. But they deal with a level playing field. Mary has the deck stacked against her. She not only has to change the mind of the white judge who blocks her way into school, but that of her militant husband who believes that violence is the only answer. Hidden Figures delivers three powerful examples of women overcoming prejudice on their own terms.

You’re absolutely right, Greg. Hidden Figures shows the shattering of two barriers, gender and race, in the early 1960s. I had never heard this true story of these three remarkable women, and I’m ashamed of either myself, or the system in which I was raised that suppressed this story, or both. These three heroes won my heart and earned my deepest respect. Like Jackie Robinson in 42, they knew that breaking barriers required them to take the high road when encountering inevitable prejudice and pushback. Their lives and careers were complex, difficult, way-paving and inspiring to say the least.

There may not have been any overt White helpers per se, but one cannot overlook the open-mindedness of people who assisted or supported these women’s efforts. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) deserves kudos in his supervisory role, helping Katherine Goble adjust to her new position and even taking a sledgehammer to the “whites only” restroom sign. The judge who bends an existing exclusionary rule also helps Mary get the education she seeks. There almost have to be people in the majority race who step up to do the right thing in the service of our heroes. Having said that, I agree that this film more than most others we’ve seen emphasizes the independent nature of our heroes’ quest to break their barriers.

We see some good mentoring and leadership in Dorothy’s character. She recognizes that the world is changing and that computing machines are the next big thing. So she learns the FORTRAN computing language and teaches it to her staff. So, when the machine finally work, and the management is looking for programmers, Dorothy is ready with 30 women trained to go.

I liked Hidden Figures very much. I often look for the ‘seams’ in a movie where the structure shows through. But I was so engrossed in the story that the seams fell away. We have three different and connected hero’s journeys – and each got ample screen time. The movie is inspirational to women and people of color, but it also shines a bright light on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Women and minorities are often left behind in the STEM world, and I think Hidden Figures will inspire a new generation of engineers. I give Hidden Figures 5 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, we often look for transformation in our heroes, but sometimes the heroes transform others instead. Katherine showed that she could do a job as well as any white man. In so doing she changed the culture of NASA to be more inclusive. Dorothy broke barriers by becoming the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. And Mary changed the educational system to allow blacks into their community college. In each case the transformation was on society as a whole, rather than in the heroes. I give these three women 5 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to find good mentors, and Hidden FIgures is no different. Each of these women had to forge onward using their own skills and intelligence. But they did it essentially alone. When you’re the first to arrive in the “special world” there often isn’t someone there to act as a mentor. We did witness some good mentoring in Dorothy and her team of ‘computers.’ So I can only muster 2 Mentor points.

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All your praise directed at Hidden Figures is right on the mark, Greg. These brave, remarkable women did what society’s best heroes do, namely, set out on a journey that will bring them pain and resistance from others, defying social conventions that need defying. This movie deserves strong consideration for Best Picture in 2016. I also give it 5 Reels out of 5.

As with other way-pavers and barrier-breakers, these Hidden Figures are both transformed and transforming. We talk about heroes being both the source and the target of transformation in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. These women grow in their courage and resilience, and they have no doubt (and will no doubt) inspire generations of historically oppressed individuals to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

There is mentoring going on in this movie but as we’ve pointed out, this film emphasizes the fierce independence of these women. Yes, they got help of course, but their success derived mostly from their own innate talent and indomitable spirit. I’ll award 3 mentor points out of 5 for the subtle ways that our Hidden Figures received little nudges of help behind the scenes.

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Allied ••1/2

allied_filmStarring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Steven Knight
Action/Drama/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2016


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

Greg, will you join forces with me in reviewing this next movie?

Only if my fears about Allied can be allayed. Let’s recap.

The movie opens with Canadian spy Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into French Morocco during World War II. His mission is to team up with French allied spy Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) in a plot to assassinate a German ambassador. Vatan and Beausejour pretend to be married, and during the pretense they find themselves falling in love.

After the mission, Max invites Marianne to move to London to be his wife. After some weeks of vetting, she’s cleared and they proceed to have a child. About a year later, Max is called into his commander’s office. They suspect Marianne is a German spy and want Max to lay out some fake secret info. If the info leaks out, they know Marianne is a spy – and Max must kill her.

Greg, Allied represents a noble attempt to weave a love story into wartime drama, and I would say that director Robert Zemeckis has partially succeeded. There are some stylish elements to the movie, as when Vatan and Beausejour make love inside a car caught in a sandstorm. There are also some memorable performances, most notably by Marion Cotillard who oscillates skillfully between smoldering vixen and ruthless killer.

Allied tries to be a great movie but only attains the status of ‘good’ movie for several reasons. First, there is the understated performance of Brad Pitt. Frankly, his onscreen charisma is missing here and pales in comparison to that of co-star Cotillard. Second, we have the problem of predictability. We know that the assassination of the ambassador must succeed early in the film, otherwise there would be no film. And we also know that Beausejour must be a spy or there could be no dramatic ending.

The film is basically split in half by the meeting of the spies and the execution of their mission, and the “blue dye” indictment of Marianne. I thought the first half of the film dragged. There was too much time spent in the “getting to know you” segment of the film and the ultimate execution of the ambassador. I kept waiting for something to happen and I had to wait a full hour of the film before it did.

The second half of the film was actually entertaining. We witness Max trying everything he can to clear his wife’s name. Finally we had a goal and some conflict, rather than dinner parties and brunches.

I see this as a “buddy” story with Max and Marianne taking equal parts in the telling. Both are interesting heroes. They are professional killers and good at their jobs. They are also deeply devoted to their causes. And, in the end, deeply devoted to each other.

I actually thought the first half of the movie was important not just for character development but also for relationship development. We need to discover who these two people are, and we need to witness the blossoming of their love. Plus our two heroes do have a goal in the first half, which is to kill the ambassador. For me, the first half was necessary although I do wish it had been executed with more pizzazz from Pitt and from Zemeckis.

As we have two halves to the film, we have two separate hero’s journeys. I consider Vatan to be the main hero of the story. He’s first sent to the dangerous world of Casablanca to complete a mission of killing a man, and then he’s sent to London with the mission of discovering his wife’s true identity. We often see dual journeys in the movies, with the second journey usually being far more dangerous and painful than the first.

The question I have is: Did Vatan undergo a personal transformation? It’s hard to say. The fact that we don’t know makes him less than a memorable hero. He’s certainly put through the wringer and shows remarkable tenacity in the pursuit of the truth, but he probably had this tenacity already. Vatan has no clear mentors, other than perhaps Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) who counsels him to take the charges against Beausejour seriously. Vatan’s skills as a spy and as a killer suggest a number of implicit mentors who trained him well in the past.

I think Max Vatan does have a mentor in the first half of the film: Marianne. She instructs him on the finer points of Parisian French accents. And guides him through the new world of life in Casablanca. She’s the one who has laid the groundwork for the mission by creating social contacts that Max would be challenged to build. Once they return to London, her mentoring ends – as all good mentor / mentee relationships should.

Allied is a slow-moving film at first which picks up in the second half. I was bored for the first hour and felt a bit more engaged in the second. I can’t say I’d want a second look – or even recommend this film to friends. I give Allied just 2 Reels out of 5.

Max and Marianne are a good “buddy” hero duo with a common goal and strong skills. I think Max and Marianne do undergo a transformation since they both start out jaded regarding relationships – especially relationships between spies. I give them 3 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, there is a small amount of mentoring going on here with Marianne coaching Max in the ways of Casablanca life. Otherwise, we have the unseen mentors of the training that both received. I give the mentoring just 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Allied aspires to be a great movie in the spirit of Casablanca and even ends in a dramatic airport scene like the iconic Humphrey Bogart film. But unlike the original Casablanca, this World War II romance story fails to soar in terms of character development and dramatic build-up. This doesn’t mean the movie isn’t worth watching. Marion Cotillard gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and Zemeckis succeeds in bringing some stylish elements to the big screen. Overall, I give Allied 3 Reels out of 5.

I see Vatan as the main hero; the story begins with him and ends with him. He endures two dangerous hero journeys with minimal mentoring and minimal transformation. Vatan’s heroic qualities are his courage and tenacity, and we admire his determination to uncover the truth about his wife, however painful that truth may be. Brad Pitt’s understated performance falls flat for me and hence he falls short of being a memorable hero. I award Vatan 2 Heroes out of 5. And because of the paucity of mentoring, I can only muster a rating of 2 Mentors out of 5 as well.

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The Magnificent Seven •••1/2

magnificent_seven_2016Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Action/Adventure/Western, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: September 23, 2016


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Scott, I missed “The Magnificent” prequels – one through six. Can you fill me in before we review The Magnificent Seven?

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

Greg, just read The Joy of Six and you’ll be fully up to speed. Let’s recap.

The 1870s town of Rose Creek has a problem: it’s been overrun by robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). He has enslaved many of the townsmen as miners for his gold mine. He has no problem killing anyone who gets in his way. When he burns down the church and kills Emma Cullen’s (Haley Bennett) husband in cold blood, she goes in search of someone who can stand up to Bogue, and get her revenge.

Enter warrant officer and bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington). Emma meets Chisolm and asks him to take back the town of Rose Creek. At first, Chisolm declines, but changes his mind when he hears it is Bogue who rules the town. Chisolm realizes he needs a team, so he recruits bad-boy Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), knife guru Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Comanche tribesman Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and Texican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).

Scott, depending on how you count, this is the third incarnation of this film. The original was Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai from 1954. It recounts a village overrun by mean guys with swords and the recruitment of seven estranged samurai to save the town. Six years later, John Sturges reimagined the story as an American western with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson in the saddles. This new incarnation has the same basic plot, but with a modern cast.

I think this version works quite well. Denzel is as great as ever. He’s cool and collected and stands toe-to-toe with any bad guy. Chris Pratt offers the comedic relief – playing the same role he plays in all his films, especially since his break-out role in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s witty, snarky, and disarmingly charming. The cast is more multicultural than the earlier incarnations bringing in an African American, Irishman, Native American, and a Chinese man. This new casting works (although the idea of an arrow-wielding Indian taking on a town full of sharp shooters was a little hard to believe).

Greg, anyone who enjoys the western genre will enjoy this movie. Every western trope is trotted out like a showhorse and used effectively. Unlike westerns of yesteryear, this iteration of The Magnificent Seven carries with it some modern sensibilities. Our two main heroes are a woman and an African American, much like last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You know this movie is in safe, capable hands when the lead role is occupied by none other than Denzel Washington and the talented Haley Bennett. They make a good team.

In a sense, this movie packs two stories into one. First, we get the “origin story” of these superheroes, the backstory of how seven unlikely men unite to save a town. We are then treated to the heroic fruits of these men’s selfless labors. In a way, each member of the ensemble is shown to possess a unique “superpower”. For Chisolm, it is leadership, as he skillfully persuades each man to join what seems to be a lost cause. Faraday’s power is courage. For Bear, it is strength. For Red Harvest, the bow and arrow. For Billy Rocks, the knife. For Robicheaux, sharpshooting.

Good call, Scott. In our book “Reel Heroes & Villains” we identify this as an ensemble hero pattern with police or military attributes. Like other ensembles, there is a clear leader and lesser followers. We’ve seen this in movies such as Eye in the Sky and Suicide Squad. There are often leaders among the ensemble and Mag7 is no exception. While Chisolm is the leader, it is truly the story of the team. Each character has a role to fill.

In terms of mentoring, there is a lack of true mentorship here. There’s the implied “law of the west” which seems to guide our heroes. But there’s not a single character who guides our heroes, giving advice and gifts to help them along in their quest. You might make an argument that Bogue is a dark mentor for his followers. But that is a stretch. He’s a pure evil villain and his minions are just as broadly drawn. However, Chisolm and his friends do mentor the town in how to protect themselves and to take on the responsibility of protecting their town.

I guess it may depend on how you define mentorship. Chisolm does mentor the sharpshooter Robicheaux, who seems to have a bad case of PTSD. Chisolm gives him a good motivational speech, telling him that “what we lost in the fire we can find again in the ashes.” As you point out, Robicheaux and a few others try to mentor the townspeople with mixed success. These ordinary townspeople only have one week to prepare for the onslaught and can only rise to the challenge so much.

I would like to point out that once again we have a movie in which a woman character has a transformative influence on male characters. Here it is Emma Cullen, the woman who seeks justice for her murdered husband. We’ve seen this pattern of women transforming men in recent movies such as The Light Between Oceans and Snowden. I wouldn’t call it a mentoring role, but Cullen does single-handedly set the plotline in motion by offering Chisolm and his men the opportunity for heroism. Cullen is a strong female character who ends up saving Chisolm’s life at the end.

The Magnificent Seven is an entertaining and occasionally humorous film. There aren’t many westerns in theaters any more. Mag7 delivered everything you’d expect from a great western. There were good guys who weren’t all that good, and bad guys who were all bad. There were Indians and bear hunters. It was an all-around good time. I give The Magnificent Seven 4 out of 5 Reels.

These are some classic heroes. While they weren’t necessarily the most moral of men, they were on the right side of the fight. As an ensemble, they shared the spotlight. While Chisolm took the lead, he had great help from his sidekicks. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The movie was light on the mentorship. Our heroes tried to teach the townspeople to shoot. We were left with the law of the west as the guidepost for our heroes. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Mentor points.

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I enjoyed Mag7, too, but probably not quite as much as you did, Greg. As westerns go, this one largely succeeds on the strength of its diverse ensemble cast, led with the cool confidence of Denzel Washington. There are good performances all around, coupled with some great gun battles. For offering a mindless escape from reality that incorporates all the fun elements of a western flick, I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

This ensemble group does indeed travel the hero’s journey, and they do so collectively as well as individually. I enjoyed following the various personal growth patterns of several of our heroes. Not all of them were so magnificent, but their selfless sacrifice truly captures a central element of heroism. These heroes merit a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

Chisolm was a good mentor to a few of the magnificent seven, and Robicheaux attempted to mentor the inept townspeople. There is also implied dark mentorship of our irredeemably evil villain, Bogue. Overall, the mentors were solid although certainly not a prominent feature of this film. These mentors deserve a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Star Trek Beyond ••1/2

Star_Trek_Beyond_posterStarring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban
Director: Justin Lin
Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2016


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

Greg, it’s time once again to boldly go where moviegoers have been many times.

Yes, it’s time for Star Trek Beyond – or as I like to call it – Beyond Belief. Let’s recap.

The Enterprise is docking at the space station Yorktown for some much needed R&R and resupplying. We discover that Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) has applied to become a Vice-Admiral, and that Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is looking to leave Starfleet to follow the career path of the late great Ambassador Spock. Yorktown retrieves a vessel in distress and learns from her captain (Lydia Wilson) that her crew is stranded on a planet in a nearby nebula.

The Enterprise takes off into the nebula only to be devastated by a swarm of thousands of two-man ships. The ships embed themselves into the hull of the Enterprise and the aliens jump out and kill the crew. The leader, Krall (Idris Elba), is in search of an artifact Kirk has secured on-ship. The damage to the Enterprise is so great that Kirk orders evacuation and separates the saucer section from the rest of the ship. Kirk and a handful of officers crash-land on Krall’s planet and begin a plan to find him and determine the reason for the attack.

Greg, your complaint about the last Trek movie was that it lacked originality, having been based on a story from the old movie franchise. You and I both asked for some fresh material in the next installment. Well, the Star Trek gods listened to us and delivered the goods in a big way. Star Trek Beyond offers up a fresh story loaded with new adventures, dilemmas, and villains. The result is a summer movie sizzler that runs on all eight cylinders and shines in every respect.

One impressive feature of the movie is that, despite it being part of a long-running “series”, our two main heroes (Kirk and Spock) undergo significant transformations. Kirk reverses his decision to pursue a promotion, recognizing he needs to be where the action is. Spock reverses his decision to pursue Ambassador Spock’s career, and he also comes to realize that Uhura is his true love. They come about these transformations in interesting ways, too (more on that later). The strength of the two hero’s journeys is one of many appealing elements of this film.

Scott, I’m truly happy that you enjoyed yourself at this film. I could not, however. This film was rife with plot holes and scientific inaccuracies. After witnessing what is possible with such films as Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian it is hard to look at the most traditional of science fiction franchises and not expect that level of quality. This Star Trek is not the Star Trek I grew up with. It lacked a philosophical center that even the worst of the original series episodes managed to embrace. This was basically The Fast and the Furious in outer space. I was not amused.

Let’s take one of the climactic scenes in the film. Kirk and Spock need to find a weakness in the enemy. The vast swarm of ships under Krall’s control communicate in some way that allows them act as a unit. Long story short – they use VHF radio communication. This is just preposterous. Even today, we humans have abandoned VHF in favor of digital communication. To add insult to injury, the frequency that disrupts these ships is precisely the frequency of The Beastie Boys song “Sabotage.” So Kirk, et al, destroy vast quantities of the enemy by simply flying through the swarm broadcasting “classical music.” As I said, this was Beyond Belief. And that is not the most egregious assault on my willing suspension of disbelief. Virtually every minute of Star Trek Beyond contained just such idiocy. This was a literal face-palm moment for me.

There were plenty of meat and potatoes for me to feast on, Greg. For one thing we are treated to the trek universe’s web of warm, complex characters who, with humor and creativity, work together to solve life-and-death problems. So much of the appeal of the original series centered on interpersonal relationships, character dynamics, and (as you point out) philosophical weightiness. In all the Star Trek feature-length movies, this latter asset (philosophy) has to be given short-shrift or else critics will swarm and ticket-purchasers will stay away. So yes, by design this movie isn’t intended to make us ponder life’s greatest issues.

Yet Star Trek Beyond does manage to give us a villain who gives us something to think about. Edison is a disenchanted formed Captain whose xenophobia and paranoia transform him from good to evil. We see real world analogs in the current worldwide political scene. I love the way that the villain Krall was not a “pure evil” villain as I first feared; he turns out to be something far more sinister, a complicated man from inside Starfleet who was thought to have died a century ago.

In terms of mentoring, we have a nice irony — the person in the story who helps Kirk the most is our villain Edison himself, who during a fight with Kirk, accuses our hero of not really knowing who he is. This is a moment of clarity for Kirk. Edison’s words crystalize Kirk’s self-identity and pave the way for transformation. Another mentor for Kirk is his own father, who died when he was Kirk’s age exactly. I’d say this is more implicit mentoring from afar, the kind of mentoring that is always ongoing.

As much as I truly respect and admire you Scott, I fear you’ve fallen for a screenwriting trick. It’s called “bookending.” The only bit of character development for Kirk happens in the beginning and ending of the movie. We open with Kirk saying that he wants out of space exploration. (We never witness this. He is telling us, not showing us). And then in the ending he has an epiphany evoked by a single sentence by the villain. However, we don’t get to see that transformation. Kirk says it to the admiral in another talking-head scene. Hence bookends. We never see Kirk wrestle with these demons. We never witness his transformation. It’s all bookended by (literally) one sentence at the beginning and one sentence at the end. It is the weakest of character transformations that can occur in a motion picture.

And I can’t agree with you on your premise that “philosophical weightiness” must give way to action on the big screen. In all three of the movies I mentioned above we are given philosophical problems to contemplate. I demand more from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the galactic future. As should we all. But the fact is that screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and director Justin Lin (from the Fast & Furious franchise) opted to create massive visual effects rather than tell a character-based story. This is in direct response to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars franchises. Simply put, this is Star Trek in name only. When comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, Roger Ebert said: “I’ve seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They’re called ‘Star Trek’ movies.” We see very little of this interpersonal examination in Star Trek Beyond.

And I don’t know how you can call the villain Krall anything but one-dimensional and pure-evil. His entire backstory and his angst are revealed in a scene where someone reads his profile from a computer screen. It’s just the most trivial character development in the history of film.

Star Trek Beyond delivers the goods in a big way. All our favorite Trek characters are back and give us exactly what we want to see in any good Trek movie – terrific banter, good humor, fun action sequences, a fresh new story, an unexpected villain, help from surprising sources, and good solid character development. The CGI effects, director work, and cinematography are all off-the-scale outstanding here. Everything is running on all cylinders. I can’t give 5 Reels because a movie like this is summer popcorn fare, but it’s the filet mignon of popcorn, trust me. So 4 Reels out of 5 will have to suffice.

Our two heroes, Kirk and Spock, are once again terrific buddy heroes, although it’s probably more accurate to view this movie as an ensemble effort. In our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we would probably call this group a police/military ensemble, to be precise. Anyway, our two heroes have all the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes – smart, strong, reliable, resilient, charismatic, caring, selfless, and inspiring. Plus they transform themselves in meaningful ways, as I’ve mentioned earlier. I’ll give our heroes a rating of 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The mentoring here is subtle, yet significant. Kirk must find his true identity and without a father or Captain Pike in the mix anymore, he’s left to rely on memories of his father. He also fights a villain with a big mouth, a mouth that challenges Kirk to find his true self. This is exactly the kick in the pants that Kirk needs, and so he later decides to remain Captain of the Enterprise. Spock’s mentor is Ambassador Spock, who may have the same distant, indirect mentoring effect as Kirk’s dad. Overall, it’s clear that mentoring was not a central feature of this movie and so the best I can do is award 3 mentoring points out of 5.

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I didn’t find the characters in this installment of the Star Trek reboot particularly engaging. They were shadows of the characters I grew up with. Sure Simon Pegg put some iconic phrases in these actors’ mouths. So they sounded familiar. But these were just phantoms pantomiming echoes of long-lost heroes. There weren’t any real revelations for these characters. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I saw scant mentoring in this film. As you point out we didn’t have Captain Pike to guide our young Captain Kirk. The only mentors for Kirk and Spock were the lessons they learned from dead heroes. But we don’t see them draw upon these lessons and exercise them to some effect in this film. I can only offer 1 Mentor out of 5.

Scott, in the past you’ve advised our readers to “just turn off your mind” when enjoying summertime popcorn fare. I’m supposing you’re doing the same thing here. However, I think the legacy of Star Trek is that of a thinking man’s action adventure. We have plenty of movie franchises that offer quality entertainment without taxing our brains. Marvel does this exceedingly well. And DC Comics is hot on their heels. Star Wars has less complex character development in favor of action adventure. It’s also a beloved franchise that we’ve seen revived recently and held pretty much to its roots. This incarnation of Star Trek gives us something we already have in abundance: action adventure without a philosophical core.

I’ll give this film 2 out of 5 Reels because it’s good entertainment. It has good performances and decent CGI. But it falls down on basic storytelling and scientific accuracy.

In most of my reviews I relish the opportunity to lambaste a movie that falls down on the job. It is a chance to unleash the petulant smart ass in me. But this time I feel we’ve lost something of great value. In a universe full of brain-dead science fiction action adventure, Star Trek was a beacon of science fiction that is fun, funny, heart-warming, and smart. Something I treasured is gone. Star Trek Beyond was a final opportunity to return to the Star Trek Gene Roddenberry imagined. I’m in mourning because we’ve lost something valuable that we can’t get back. Star Trek is dead.

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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


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

(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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X-Men: Apocalypse ••1/2

X-Men_-_ApocalypseStarring: James McAvoy,  Michael Fassbender,  Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg,  Bryan Singer
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we have another movie with superheroes battling superheroes.

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

What’s with the movie industry’s obsession with superheroes self-destructing? Let’s recap.

In the prologue for this movie, we see an ancient civilization performing a ritual inside a pyramid. A giant figure of a man (Apocalypse played by Oscar Isaac) is transporting his essence into another body to extend his life and gain more super powers. But his followers have another plan. They destroy the pyramid, capturing him for millennia.

Then one day, some time in 1983, archeologist and past flame of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) discovers the ruins and inadvertently wakes up the sleeping giant. Now he is searching for 4 mutants who will act as his henchmen in a quest to take over the world.

One of these mutant henchmen is Angel (Ben Hardy) whom Apocalypse enhances with steel wings. Another is Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who enjoys the power of metal-bending. Meanwhile, Professor Xavier is helping a new mutant recruit, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), to develop his optic superpowers. Xavier consults with CIA agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) about the looming threat of Apocalypse.

Scott, the superhero vs. superhero pattern is getting a lot of attention this year. Of course, most of the X-Men movies pit X-Men against other X-Men. It’s just that this year we’ve seen it in Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and even Deadpool. I’m getting superhero fatigue. This movie even seems fatigued in the way the actors and the story plays out. It drags along with Apocalypse pulling together his team of “horsemen” while Mystique and Professor X build their team. This is very much a long origin story that somehow doesn’t seem to match up with the first X-Men movie. I wasn’t excited.

I share your disappointment, Greg. There are actually some fun elements in this movie, but the build-up to them is laborious and unoriginal. Your description of the problem as fatigue is right on the mark. It seems like we can’t go a month without a new superhero movie, and now that each new offering involves the heroes fighting one another, I’m becoming increasingly bored.

Part of the problem with this film is that our heroes take a backstage to the villain Apocalypse. He gets a lot of screen time, which isn’t a bad idea if he were multidimensional and interesting. But he isn’t. He’s pure evil and therefore not deserving of the amount of attention devoted to him. None of our X-Men heroes have much depth to them either, nor do they exude the charisma of Iron Man or even Captain America. There’s a lot of stuff going on but I just couldn’t find myself caring much about it all.

One bright spot is Apocalypse as a Dark Mentor. He picks up Storm and imbues her with more power than she started with. And he teaches the others how to use their powers for evil rather than good. But his choice of mentees seems haphazard. He doesn’t really do a CraigsList ad looking for the most powerful or qualified mutant. Rather, he appears to pick the first mutant who crosses his path. It’s pretty uninteresting.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a disappointment and offers only modest entertainment value. I give it just 3 out of 5 Reels for superhero action. The heroes are pretty ordinary. Even Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) seemed to be walking through this role. There was a nice cameo by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). But there were hardly any meaningful transformations. I give these X-Men just 3 out of 5 Heroes. Finally, the mentoring was mainly on the evil side of the fence and that was pretty uninteresting. I give the mentors 2 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, I think the overwhelming success of the superhero genre in film has movie studios foaming at the mouth to spew out more products. Well, they’ve now hit the saturation point. We’ll still support and applaud good superhero movies that are well-crafted and feature meaningful storylines that go beyond superheroes fighting each other. Until then, we’re going to have to be critically honest about movies that just don’t move us. I give X-Men: Apocalypse 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroes were blasé, almost like they were going through the motions. The young Charles Xavier was the most mildly interesting of the bunch. But as you point out, there isn’t meaningful change in our heroes, unless you include the “baldification” of Xavier. We may need to add “scalp transformation” to our next model of heroes. I give these heroes a rating of 2 out of 5. Good call on the dark mentorship of Apocalypse. Xavier also attempted some mentorship of the young mutant recruits, but none of it was inspired. Again, I give their mentorship a rating of 2 out of 5.

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Money Monster •••

Money_Monster_posterStarring: George Clooney,  Julia Roberts,  Jack O’Connell
Director: Jodie Foster
Screenplay: Jamie Linden,  Alan DiFiore
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: May 13, 2016


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Scott, it’s time for the newest PBS/HBO Sesame Street character Money Monster.

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

Wrong movie, Greg. This monster is all too human and realistic, I’m afraid, Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Lee Gates (George Clooney) a financial personality who has a daily show on the Financial News Network (FNN). He tells people the hottest tips for investing. In his ear is his producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) who has secretly taken a new job, because Gates is such a pain in the ass. They’re putting on their latest dazzling display of financial wizardry leading with the story of IBiS Global’s loss of $800 Million due to a computer “glitch.”

In the middle of Gates’s show, a young man named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) breaks into the studio and takes Gates hostage. With the camera still rolling and on live television, Budwell makes Gates wear a vest containing a bomb that will explode if Budwell lets go of his hand control unit. We learn that Budwell lost his life savings totalling $60,000 because of the IBiS glitch. He blames Gates for strongly recommending the stock, and he will detonate the bomb unless he gets an explanation.

This movie had a lot going for it – at first. I thought it was going to be an assault on the financial divide. Which is where it started. But as the drama played out, it became more about a singular CEO who gamed an online trading program to make off with $800 million to destabilize an African country’s platinum mines. A shrewd investment – as it could triple its value overnight. However, it’s both illegal and immoral. The investor’s response was that it was money and money has its own morality. So, rather than deal with the real challenges of the market (as did The Big Short), the director and writers played it safe with one fictional arbitrage investor. It turns out to be quite dull.

Greg, I think this movie does indeed feed off the anger Americans feel toward Wall Street and big businesses that place greed ahead of humanity. Our hero is everyman Kyle Budwell, who is mad as hell and just won’t take it anymore. In an unlikely pairing, he and Lee Gates become buddy heroes who start out as enemies but evolve into a single team of truth-seekers who are driven to expose the misdeeds of IBiS’s CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). Money Monsters held my attention, despite its predictability, as we know IBiS is the villain and that Budwell must die to make his point. I enjoyed Clooney’s performance and reveled in the tense take-down of the corrupt, villainous fat-cat Camby.

The heroes here are Gates and Budwell with Fenn constantly in Gates’ ear. She reminded me of Jiminy Cricket – giving advice and encouragement from behind the glass windows. As you point out, Gates and Budwell become a sort of buddy hero team – starting apart and gradually growing closer as the film progresses. In the end Budwell reveals to Gats that the suicide vest he is wearing is packed with clay, not explosives. While it wasn’t necessary, Budwell commits “suicide by cop” when he appears to take his thumb off the dead-man’s trigger and the entire police force shoot him down.

Fenn is indeed Gates’ mentor, leaving Budwell without one — unless you count his histrionic girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) who is briefly videoed into the studio to help but instead douses the situation with gasoline with her vitriolic excoriation of Budwell. Molly could thus be considered a dark mentor. Another possible dark mentor is our arch villain Camby, who betrays his protégé Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe).

Money Monster is the movie that could have been. While it has a good cast and an able director in Jodie Foster, the climax left me wanting. The ending with a martyred Budwell was telescoped from the beginning and was wholly unnecessary. While I was entertained for a couple hours, I didn’t leave the theater feeling smarter or more introspective about the world of high finance. I give Money Monster 3 out of 5 Reels.

The hero story was good enough with Gates and Budwell portraying a classic buddy hero pattern – starting out at odds and ending up on the same page. Clooney’s Gates rang true to the several money investment types I’ve seen on cable news channels. And Budwell came across as an everyman who had been pulled to his wit’s end. I give them 3 Heroes.

The mentors were pretty weak in this story. Fenn is constantly in Gates’ ear but offers more direction than actual advice. Scott, you pointed out the dark mentors which I agree – but they got scant screen time. They only get 2 Mentors from me.

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I’d say you’re pretty much on the money with your assessments, Gregger. I enjoyed Money Monster for what it is, namely, a tense drama exposing the unbridled greed of our times and its calamitous effects on common everyday people. The performances by George Clooney and Julia Roberts are well worth watching, and we get a satisfying ending that signals hope and justice for our corrupt society. Like you, I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

Our two heroes start out as unlikely buddies but they evolve into people who sense that the true enemies are not each other but Walt Camby, the evil CEO of IBiS. The hero story is satisfying because our two buddies undergo a transformation — Gates starts out an arrogant ass and becomes humbled by dire circumstances. Budwell’s extreme actions make Gates’ transformation possible, and Gates works with Fenn to help educate Budwell about the true villain at work in the story. It’s a pretty decent hero’s journey worthy of 3 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is better than you give it credit for, Greg. Fenn is indispensable as a smooth, wise, voice of reason for Gates. She gets him through this crisis. Budwell, meanwhile, receives some mentoring directly from Gates and indirectly from Fenn. He also operates by an internal code of justice. We also have a bit of dark mentoring from Budwell’s girlfriend and from Camby directed toward Lester. So overall, I have no qualms awarding 3 out of 5 Mentors here, too.

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Criminal •••

Criminal_2016_posterStarring: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Director: Ariel Vromen
Screenplay: Douglas Cook, David Weisberg
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016


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

Greg, it looks like Kevin Costner is letting things go to his head.

It’s a sort of “Face/Off” between a “Self/Less” Ryan Reynolds and a “Criminal.” Let’s recap.

In London we meet CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). After obtaining a big duffle bag full of money and a passport, Pope is followed, captured, tortured, and killed by a team of enemy agents led by Elsa Mueller (Antje Traue). Upon learning of Pope’s death, CIA chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) orders a brain surgeon, Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones), to perform an experimental procedure on imprisoned sociopath Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).

The surgery plants the memories of the dead Agent Pope in Jericho’s mind. But strangely, it also plants Pope’s kindness and love for his wife and child. Jericho escapes his CIA captors and goes in search of the money. He arrives at Pope’s residence where Pope’s wife and child are sleeping. It turns out that the mind implant has a time limit. The chase is on – will the CIA find Jericho before he finds the money, and will Pope harm the innocent wife and child?

Greg, in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss the crucial role of character transformation in hero stories. People identify most with heroes who undergo significant growth and change during the story. The movie Criminal tries to make the most of this idea by featuring a hero, Jericho, who transforms from a psychopath into a warm, caring individual, and who then begins transforming back into his original psychopathic state. Stories like this are as old as Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and The Werewolf.

Does Criminal succeed as a story? Yes and no. One problem is that this film forgets that the most powerful heroes change willingly as a result of learning from difficult, painful circumstances. Criminal is about a hero, Jericho, who doesn’t change willingly. He only changes through involuntary surgical alteration to his brain. His evolving goodness stems from mental implants from Bill Pope, who doesn’t stick around long enough as a character for us to really bond with him. So while we enjoy seeing Jericho become a good person, we know it really isn’t Jericho changing on his own. For me, that detracts a bit from the appeal of the story.

You make a good point, Scott. I’m also going to take a chapter from our book and talk a bit about anti-heroes. Jericho looks like an anti-hero because he starts out as a very bad individual. He has no empathy and so can commit the most heinous of crimes. I likened him to Charles Manson. In fact, this movie really felt like it was asking the question “What if we gave Charlie Manson a moral core?”

Many people have called Jericho an anti-hero because he is so villainous. But in our taxonomy of heroism, a hero (or villain) is determined by the way he ends up in the story – not how he starts out. We define an anti-hero as someone who starts out bad and ends up bad (like a villain) but is the main character of the story. We may not like him, but he *is* the lead character. Since Jericho ultimately takes on the good qualities of Bill Pope, he is heroic at the end of the story – so we call him a Redeemed Hero.

Yes, he’s redeemed, and the tension at the end of the movie revolves around the question of whether Jericho’s redemption will vanish or remain permanent. We’re led to believe that it’s hopeless for him in the long term, and the issue appears moot as he appears to bite the dust at the end. The happy ending is contrived yet nonetheless satisfying.

So we have an interesting hero’s journey that is made possible by two men: Wells, the man who needs someone with Pope’s knowledge to stop the Dutchman, and Franks, the surgeon who physically makes it possible for our hero to enter his unfamiliar world. I wouldn’t call either of these men “mentors” but they do cast our hero on his journey. In a sense, Jericho’s mentor is Pope’s memories and warmth — they both serve him well in that they save his life and provide him with the ability to live an emotionally normal life.

True enough. It is Pope’s worldview about good and evil, love and hate, etc… that moves Jericho to do the right things. Although Pope’s wife Jill (Gal Gadot) also helps to direct Jericho. I have to say, this is not the type of mentoring we typically see. Usually the mentor is a past hero and instills the hero with new behavior through lessons and advice. Pope doesn’t really teach our hero – he just acts as a system of memories and a code of ethics.

Criminal is a better movie than last year’s Self/Less. Although that’s not saying a lot. In Self/Less Reynolds inherited the memories of a aging evil capitalist. Gradually, Reynolds’ good memories came through and he saved the girl and his daughter. In Criminal Reynolds give his good thoughts to an evil man who ultimately becomes good. I enjoyed Criminal a lot more than I expected and I can give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jericho makes for an interesting redeemed hero. He starts out as pure evil and is suddenly imbued with the memories of a good man. Jericho does the right thing despite himself. And ultimately stands to lose this new found goodness, but retains enough of it to become a new man – enough perhaps for a sequel. I give Jericho 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I found the mentor characters here were pretty insubstantial. Pope was an inactive set of rules and memories. Jill Pope was more of a damsel in distress than a guide. Dr. Franks imbues Jericho with Pope’s good thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to give him mentor status. I can only give the mentors in this story 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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I hate agreeing with you, Greg, but you’ve summed it up nicely. Criminal is a fairly good movie but not a great movie. It is far-fetched along the lines of this year’s London Has Fallen, but I found Criminal to be a story with more heart than London. We have no business caring for Jericho and yet we do because he possesses a good man’s sense of honor and decency. I agree that this film deserves 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is fascinating and capitalizes on our fascination with heroic transformation. Throughout the movie I found myself looking for signs that Jericho was changing, either for the better or for the worse, depending on which act of the movie I was watching. We have a love interest (Pope’s wife) and a couple of good villains at which we can direct our venom. A rating of 3 Heroes out of 5 seems right to me.

As we’ve noted, the mentor to Jericho is not an actual living person but the memories and feelings of a freshly murdered individual, Pope. Jericho is pretty much on his own, and perhaps that’s how it should be in a movie like this. So the best we can do, it seems, is award a measly 2 Mentors out of 5.

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