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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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Manchester by the Sea ••••1/2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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La La Land •••

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rogue One •••

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doctor Strange •••1/2

doctor_strange_posterStarring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016


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

Strange that we haven’t yet reviewed this movie, Greg.

Here’s one film that doesn’t need a script doctor. Let’s recap.

The movie opens with the villainous sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) stealing a documented ritual from a book and murdering the librarian of ancient mystical texts in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tries to prevent the theft but is unsuccessful. We then meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant and cocky neurosurgeon who lives a swanky lifestyle, and his former lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who is turned off by Strange’s egocentricity.

Strange goes for a ride in his sports car and is distracted by his cell phone while driving. He goes off a cliff and in a near-death accident loses nearly all the functioning of his hands – which are his bread and butter. He attempts every operation and seeks the help of every surgeon, but none can help him. Finally he travels to Nepal and becomes a student of The Ancient One – who begins to tame his arrogance.

Greg, Doctor Strange tells the origin story of a spiritual superhero, Stephen Strange, played with great flair by Benedict Cumberbatch. In some ways, the story is predictable in showing us a man of science who is skeptical of the spirit world yet must immerse himself in that world if he is to transform himself into a heroic entity. The film works largely due to the performances of Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, who plays Strange’s mysterious and powerful spiritual mentor. We’re also treated to some nice CGI effects that depict many wondrously wizardly visuals.

If The Matrix, Inception, and Harry Potter had a baby, it would look a lot like Dr. Strange. I was favorably impressed with Doctor Strange. I’m not prone to enjoying stories dealing with mysticism – as they too often call upon spell-of-the-moment to solve a problem. But Doctor Strange takes great care to build the rules of the mystical universe – and then takes great pains to work within those rules.

If I were to name a complaint, it’s that the powers that Doctor Strange and his cohorts rely upon are channeled through a device called a “Sling Ring.” It smacked too much of Harry Potter’s wand and for such an advanced mystical realm, seemed too limiting. But of course, the Sling Ring made for convenient plot disruptions when a character loses their ring and cannot perform magic.

Another nod to the Harry Potter universe is the way certain magical objects “choose their user” rather than the other way around. Strange’s iconic cape selected him during a fierce battle and saved his life. I’m not familiar with the Doctor Strange comics, so I can’t say which universe used the idea first. But it was a distraction that pulled me out of the story.

Strangely, that cape assumes the unusual role of mentor to Strange. It guides him to the metal straightjacket that stops Kaecilius during the fierce battle that you mention. Have we ever before seen a lifeless prop serve as a mentor? Of course, in a world of spells and spirits, nothing is really lifeless with every object holding the potential for magic.

The Ancient One is the primary mentor of the story, although she is a flawed one in deriving her energy from the dark side. One of the strengths of Doctor Strange lies in the development of her character and the evolution of the relationship between her and Strange. It’s a complicated alliance that ebbs and flows. Kaecilius may serve as a dark mentor to Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who seems to have been influenced by the villain’s dark, twisted logic.

Doctor Strange is an interesting hero because he undergoes a dramatic transformation. He starts out self-absorbed, falls into despair, becomes so humble that he throws himself to the mercy of The Ancient One, then rises to take his place in the hierarchy of the mystic realm and a protector of the Earth. It’s a rollercoaster ride that delivers a very satisfying resolution.

Strange’s relationship with The Ancient One is one we’ve seen before. He goes seeking the mentor whereas usually the mentor finds the hero. As with The Karate Kid. the mentor here does not initially accept the hero as a student. The hero must convince the mentor to take on the role. However, The Ancient One suffers the same fate as mentors past – she must die for the hero to feel the full force of the stakes of the story. It was a predictable albeit poignant moment.

Another thing to notice about The Ancient One is that she is a past hero. We often see mentors pass along their heroic lessons to up-and-coming heroes. We’ve seen this in The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Star Trek 2009 and so many other stories. Our mentor character has been to battle and back. And now the hard-won lessons learned are gifted to the new hero.

Doctor Strange introduces us to a new superhero in the Marvel universe, a gifted physician who loses his hands and can only recover his functioning by undergoing a dramatic spiritual transformation in an exotic location. The film owes its success to some powerful performances, most notably by the ever-versatile Benedict Cumberbatch and the enigmatic Tilda Swinton. I enjoyed Doctor Strange and award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is rich and complex. Strange’s accident brings him to his knees and like most heroes, Strange undergoes a significant transformation with help from Mordo and especially The Ancient One. One of the themes of the story is the struggle between arrogance and humility: Will Strange allow his massive ego to turn him to the dark side of Kaecilius or will he remain humble enough to use his powers wisely? Strange is tested in this area and appears to pass the test, albeit barely. Strange’s heroic development earns him 4 Hero points out of 5.

The mentoring in the story is strong and fascinating, as it involves a cape who assists our hero in making wise choices and a powerful spiritual guru who employs tough love in imparting great wisdom to our hero. As I’ve noted, the relationship between Strange and the Ancient One is complex, dynamic, and commands our attention throughout the film. I give the mentorship in this movie 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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Doctor Strange was a surprise offering from Marvel films. It’s unusual for a film to premier in November and continue to run through December – and rank consistently high in box office sales. Doctor Strange does this by offering a unique world filled with strong characters and even stronger performances. While the film owes much of its appeal through masterful special effects, it’s the presentation of a superhero the likes of which we haven’t seen before that makes Doctor Strange worth seeing once and again. I give this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

Stephen Strange’s origin story is just what we’d expect from Marvel films. Strange is immensely gifted but is completely self-centered. His debilitating accident doesn’t change his egocentric nature. But when he begs to be taught the ways of The Ancient One, he enters a world of mysticism at complete odds with his scientific training. He has to reevaluate everything he knows. It’s a great set up for a hero’s journey and Doctor Strange delivers a hero’s genesis story that kept me wanting more. I give Stephen Strange 4 out of 5 Heroes.

There’s a lot of mentoring in this film. Even before Strange meets The Ancient One, he has years of training in the sciences that make him a successful surgeon. We’ve talked about the unseen mentors before. But it isn’t until he enters the world of mystical realms that we see the kind of mentoring that truly changes our hero. The Ancient One shows Strange what *can be* and so opens the door to new realities. She then gives him advice, teaching, and magical gifts that allow him to transcend the limits of his scientific mind and become a true hero. I give The Ancient One 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Moana ••••1/2

moana_teaser_posterStarring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House
Director: Ron Clements, Don Hall
Screenplay: Jared Bush, Ron Clements
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2016


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Well it looks like we’re going to review the latest Disney princess movie.

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

No reason to piss and moana about it. Let’s just get to it.

We’re introduced to young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). She’s an eight-year-old girl living in the Peloponnesian islands. Her father is the chief and she’s the heir to the throne. Daddy wants her and her people to stay on the island where it’s safe. But Moana wants to journey out past the reef. Her father keeps her at bay until one day the islanders find that their island is dying.

Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) encourages Moana to follow her heart and shows the young girl a secret cave containing large seafaring vessels that their ancestors used to explore the vastness of the ocean. Tala gives Moana the heart of Te Fiti to which was stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and Moana’s calling is to replace the heart to restore life to the dying islands.

Moana was a surprise. I expected a pretty typical Disney princess damsel in distress movie. But Moana is a strong female hero with a mission to save her people. She’s not someone to be saved, but someone to save everyone else. The movie knows it is an atypical story because Moana repeats at least twice “I’m no princess.”

This film surprised me, too, Gregger. What a delight it is. I felt like I visited a set of Polynesian islands and mingled with the indigenous people. The craftsmanship of this movie is unparalleled, with ocean waves and vegetation springing to life in vivid detail. Most importantly, Moana raises several timeless themes of human existence, most notably the theme of the importance of maintaining a connection with nature and the theme of discovering one’s true identity. The film’s treatment of these themes is creative, original, and inspiring.

As you point out, our hero Moana is a wonderful character with whom both girls and boys can identify. She is drawn to the sea and becomes obsessed with the idea of venturing beyond the safe confines of the island lagoon. This movie challenges us all to look within our hearts to discern our true calling in life — a theme of heroism that is explored at length in the recently released Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership. What impresses me is how Moana encourages us not only to discover our true individual calling, but to also discover the calling of an entire community of people. Who are we and what are we meant to do with our lives? This film dares to ask such big questions.

Moana is aided in her quest by the demigod Maui. Maui also has a goal – to find his magic fish hook. He believes it is what gives him his power. But in fact, he already has his power within him. Maui shows Moana how to pilot a canoe, how to navigate the waters, and how to be a voyager. It’s his guidance that ultimately allows Moana to save the islands and restore the goddess to her rightful place.

Yes, Moana’s two main mentors are her grandmother Tala and then, later, Maui. Tala helps her discover her mission, whereas Maui helps her execute it. Interestingly, Maui himself is mentored in a unique way by one of his tattoo images, which reveals to Maui what the “right” choice is in any given situation. Moana’s dad plays an interesting role in discouraging his young daughter from following her heart. I wouldn’t call her dad a dark mentor, but his tendencies toward “playing it safe” suggest an anti-mentoring role for him.

The father plays the role of the oppositional force, or antagonist. Not quite the villain, but he’s the voice in Moana’s head who keeps her back. He’s not a bad guy. He wants to protect her and his people. But his energies are misdirected. So, I wouldn’t call him the dark mentor, but he does offer the initial resistance that the hero needs.

I enjoyed Moana much more than I expected. After a string of successes that include The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Clements & Musker have created a new kind of hero that boys and girls both can admire and aspire to. I give Moana 4 out of 5 Reels.

Moana has everything going for her. She’s smart, brave, adventurous, virtuous, and beautiful. She starts out uncertain in herself and grows to find the voyager within her. I do have a problem with Moana – she’s too perfect. A little darkness in a hero is a good thing. It’s a force to overcome and control. I give Moana 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the mentoring in this film was just wonderful. Her first mentor is her grandmother who helps Moana discover who she can be and sets her on her journey. Then Moana trades up to Maui who is in need of some assistance himself. Maui shows Moana how to be voyager she was born to be and ultimately to be the leader her people need. I give these mentors 5 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Moana is one of the best movies of 2016. The film explores grand, sweeping themes of human yearning, and is equally grand and sweeping in its visual effects. We learn from watching this film that playing it safe in life is not an option as it only leads to death and decay. This is an especially important message for young girls in the audience who historically have not had as many worthy role models in the movies as boys have had. This movie will become a classic “must see” film for generations to come and thus earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Moana is an inspiring character and terrific hero in every sense of the word. I don’t see her as being too perfect, Greg. She is naive about the world and thus needs mentoring from her grandmother. She lacks seafaring skills and thus needs help from Maui. Her arduous journey compels her to acquire courage and resilience, and she not only transforms personally, she also transforms her people. Moana’s great heroism merits the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship of the hero is exemplary, as we’ve both pointed out. Everything in this film is pretty much textbook, including these helpers and guides who shepherd our hero through life, assisting her in her mission to discover her identity and save her island. These mentors easily earn the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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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 Edge of Seventeen •••1/2

the_edge_of_seventeen_2016_film_posterStarring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2016


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

Greg, it’s about time we got in touch with our inner-teenager.

It’s time for high-school drama. I’m not on the edge of my seat. Let’s recap:


We meet a 17-year-old high school junior named Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). She runs into her history teacher’s (Woody Harrelson) empty classroom while he’s eating lunch and proceeds to tell him that her life sucks and she wants to kill herself. We then flashback to when she was a very little girl. She was the anxious one who never fit in, while her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) always seemed so perfect.

And her super-cool-and-nice dad died 4 years ago. And she’s in love with the local bad boy just back from juvenile detention. And her mom just doesn’t understand. And mom is running off to a weekend with a dentist she met on Match.com. So it’s time for a party. And her best friend since grade school just hooked up with her brother. And the nerdy/shy boy in class likes her. And now, all Nadine wants is to get with the bad-boy hottie and break up her bestie and brother.

Greg, every decade has movies of teenage angst. There were the Molly Ringwald movies of the 1980s. In the 1990s we had Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. In the 2000’s we had Ellen Page show us similar teen angst in Juno. Now in the 2010s, we have Hailee Steinfeld continue in the same tradition in The Edge of Seventeen.

You may recall that I suggested that we see this movie because as a coming-of-age story, it held the promise of showing good examples of mentoring. And I was mostly right. Nadine’s dad was shown to be a loving soul, the only adult figure she could count on and who understood her. Her history teacher, Mr. Bruner, is less loving but represents a stable presence in her life. Nadine’s mother is an anti-mentor, a broken woman whose damaging comments send Nadine into the arms of a boy who is obviously bad for her.

Scott, I was wary of this movie from the get-go. It smacked of a Judy Blume story akin to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” In fact, at the “dark moment of the soul” (DMS) point in the film, Nadine (on the toilet) actually prays to God asking for help. My fears were confirmed.

In many ways, this film starts out like 2007’s excellent Juno. It has a smart, nerdy, outcast teenage girl trying to find her way in high school. But it takes a turn for the worse at that DMS moment I mentioned and from there it devolves into an “ABC Afterschool Special.”

Nadine does finally hook up with the bad boy and she stops him before things go too far and explains she’d like to get to know him better. In any modern story, Nadine might have been raped. But in this story the bad boy simply kicks her out of his car. Then she has a run-in with her brother and realizes everything isn’t about her and she finds acceptance with the nerdy boy and his crowd of friends. This was very much a sunny resolution to what was an otherwise darkish story.

Wow. To me, this movie was as unlike an afterschool special as any movie we’ve ever seen. Those ABC specials have bland characters and dialogue and suffer from utter predictability. The Edge of Seventeen boasts characters with considerable depth and nuance. Mr. Bruner, for example, is mysterious. Does he care about Nadine or not? How will he end up helping her? Older brother Darian is also complex. He does appear too perfect for us to like him, but in the end he reveals his wounds and vulnerability.

Nadine’s mother is a complete mess and does her best to ensure that her daughter is a mess, too. She tells Nadine something almost unforgivably hurtful, yet at least reveals a small willingness to let her daughter grow. I will admit that the disastrous romantic encounter with the bad-boy is predictable — such encounters seem to be a core part of the teenage angst movie formula. Still, the litmus test for good characters for me is whether I’m eager to learn more about them. This movie passes that test. I want to know more about Nadine’s dad, Mr. Bruner, Krista, and Erwin.

I agree that Nadine is an interesting character. She starts out as an outsider and eventually finds her niche. She’s witty, troubled, overly dramatic, smart, but not exceptional in any particular way. Which makes her an everywoman. We identify with her and feel her loss when her father dies – the one person who seemed to understand her.

And you’ve nailed the mentor role her father plays. Her mother plays the counter example as the anti-mentor. I was a bit disappointed in Bruner’s role. He’s hilarious as the “teacher who’s seen it all.” But I don’t know if he qualifies as a mentor. Usually we look for mentors to act as a guide for the hero as she navigates the special world. But Bruner is very hands-off. On the other hand, he’s always there for her. And when everything comes crashing down around Nadine’s shoulders, he is the dependable adult. I liked Bruner a lot, but I don’t know that he qualifies as a mentor.

In a way, you’re right, Greg. Bruner is a stable older-male presence, which is perhaps all she needs from him. You could argue that Bruner’s wife, in a brief passing comment, does more good mentoring for Nadine than Bruner ever did. Maybe we can call him “the subtle mentor.” Nadine does run to him (literally) when her life is in shambles. He listens, offers a sardonic retort, and she relaxes. He tells her that she’s his favorite student. That could be all she needs or expects from him.

The Edge of Seventeen is a movie that’s not for everyone. It’s heavy on personal drama and teenage whining. But I was impressed by the film’s dark, edgy realism. Most of us know the pain of growing up, feeling isolated, losing a loved one, and struggling with relationships. This movie masterfully taps into those archetypal feelings. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Turning now to the hero’s journey, Hailee Steinfeld does a hell of a job navigating her way through the traps and snares of adolescence, emerging on the other side a significantly changed individual. Her journey features many of the classic elements of the hero’s path, and only when her dream romance with the bad-boy is shattered does she obtain insight and clarity about who she is and what’s important in life. I award Nadine a total of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship here is subtle and unique. Nadine carries with her the scars of losing her father whom she adored, and the mother who has damaged her. She turns to her history teacher, Bruner, for sanity and stability. He offers her this and his wife offers her words of encouragement. Joseph Campbell has said that even with help the hero must always travel the journey on her own, and Nadine certainly does exactly that. I give the mentors a rating of 3 out of 5.

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The Edge of Seventeen is a contradiction within itself – starting out dark and edgy but ultimately delivering a saccharine view of modern teenage life. I was disappointed by the two pivotal scenes where Nadine finally gets a date with her bad-boy crush and gets accepted into a new crowd. They smacked of the simplistic worldview of the After School Special. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for Edge.

Nadine is a wonderful hero and goes through the trials and tribulations that I imagine young girls go through. Her ultimate resolution in finding a niche where she fits in is a nice ending to her hero’s journey, but not very complex. I give Nadine just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And while I liked the mentoring of the father in the film, it was mostly off-screen in flashbacks. I’m not sure if we can really give Mentor points to him. Although, we have recognized unseen teachers as mentors in such films as The Martian. Bruner is less of a mentor and more of a supporting character – literally. I am not sure what kind of mentoring that might be. I can only give 3 out of 5 Mentor points to them.

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Arrival ••••1/2

arrival_movie_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we’ve finally arrived…

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

… and it’s about time. Literally. Let’s get to reviewing this next movie about alien visitation.

We’re introduced to Professor Leslie Banks (Amy Adams) who is having a strange day as 12 “shells” (very large egg-shaped alien craft) have landed across the world. She’s visited by a Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) who insists she help him translate the speech patterns of the aliens. She resists but ultimately gives in when her curiosity gets the better of her. She’s whisked away to a midwest town where she is paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and must discover the reason for the alien visit.

Banks and Donnelly meet two of the aliens and nickname them Abbott and Costello. Communication seems impossible until Banks attempts written language. She discovers that the aliens’ writing is composed of complex circular characters and sentences, and she also discovers that the more she deciphers the language, the more strange visions she has of herself raising a child. Meanwhile, in China, General Shang (Tzi Ma) is about to wage war with the aliens, making it imperative that Banks and Donnelly crack the code before disaster strikes.

Arrival is a film that arrived without much fanfare. I don’t recall seeing any previews for it in the theaters or ads on TV. So, I had very few preconceptions going in. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is an arguably ponderous film with very little action and a lot of dialog. It’s a thinking-man’s movie, so it appealed to me. One of the opening scenes has physicist Donnelly reading Banks’ book which states that all interactions begin with language. But he differs – claiming the basis for communication is science. Whereas Colonel Webber is looking at the situation from a tactical point of view. And so the stage is set for a three-way confrontation of ideals. And in the end, it is Banks’ view that wins out. I was favorably impressed.

Greg, I loved Arrival. It’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a meaty science fiction story that really makes you think. I was struck by the possibility that our language is not so much a reflection of our linear thinking but a determinant of it. The temporal non-linearity of the aliens was fascinating and allowed for some truly creative plot developments. We’re also treated to some wonderfully innovative renditions of aliens and alien language. Not to mention that Amy Adams delivers a terrific performance as a hero who must piece together the temporal puzzle to save the world. It all adds up to a stellar movie, pardon the pun.

Amy Adams was definitely the brightest star in this film. Her character Leslie Banks undergoes a strong transformation from disillusioned academic to an enlightened world figure. She also exhibits uncommon empathy for the aliens. She puts aside her innate fear of the unknown and is captivated by the question of what is the purpose of the alien visit. I found her very inspiring.

Banks definitely goes on an inspired hero’s journey — yet another example of Hollywood finally “getting it” that women characters can make tremendous heroes in the movies. The hero’s journey begins with Banks answering the “call” from the military to make first contact with aliens who have landed in Montana. She immediately assumes a lead role in her partnership with Donnelly, a physicist on her team. Her missing quality is her understanding of the alien language, and the keys to her acquiring this quality are her openness to thinking outside the box, her trust that the aliens will do no harm, and her courage to defy the military’s antagonistic approach to the alien encounter.

Banks possesses many of the great eight characteristics of heroes; she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, caring, inspiring, and selfless. In keeping with the hero’s journey, she encounters a love interest (Donnelly), allies in Abbott, Costello, and oppositional forces in the military and CIA. Her mentors turn out to be the aliens themselves, who have arrived to help the earth understand and change their language and use of time. In exchange, the earth will help the aliens 3,000 years from now. Everything comes full circle, which is beautifully symbolized in the alien circular linguistic characters.

The aliens are good mentor figures here. And we also see that Banks acts as a hero-mentor in that she mentors the aliens in our language. After all, it is she who instructs the aliens, not the other way around. However, this does imply a bit of a plot hole. If the aliens are so advanced, why are they so dense in understanding our language? Compare to our own understanding of animal language. It is human researchers who have taught apes to speak American Sign Language. I would think it incumbent upon the more advanced civilization to find a way to communicate with us.

Arrival is a departure from other first contact movies like Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind where language is the source of the communication. I enjoyed the slow burn from fear to understanding for all the characters in the story. I give Arrival 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dr. Banks is a great hero who undergoes a transformation from naive to educated in the ways of the alien creatures. Like many heroes we’ve studied in the last few years, she has a “super power” which in this case is the ability to understand language. But it is her human innate quality of empathy which endears Banks to us. I give her 4 out of 5 Hero points.

And Banks is the most excellent hero-mentor. And when you join her with the superior alien-mentors we get a mentoring experience that goes beyond what most films offer. I give Banks and the aliens 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Arrival is the science fiction you’ve been looking for in film for several years now. Greg, the plot hole you identify is not so much a hole but the key to understanding the puzzle with which the aliens present humanity. Twelve shells arrive on earth, each with a different piece to the puzzle that the twelve earth stations must share to unravel the mystery. The idea is to bring humanity together in a non-zero-sum-game-like way. This guiding principle, along with stunningly crafted heptapods and their innovative language, make Arrival a treat to watch. I give this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Louise Banks proves herself braver and smarter than all her male counterparts in both developing a working relationship with the aliens and in deciphering their cryptic language. She encounters friends who help her and foes who oppose her, and she undergoes a profound mental transformation. In our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains, we define a mental transformation as a significant change in the way that a hero views the workings of the universe. Banks now sees time, language, and thought as intertwined. She travels the full hero’s journey, including the act of giving back to society what she has learned in the form of lectures and a book on the universal language of the heptapods. She earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also strong in this film, with the aliens mentoring Banks as well as the entire human race itself. Our planet is taught how essential it is for our survival to adopt a non-zero-sum philosophy in our international relations. You’re right, Greg, that Banks also mentors the aliens — although I suspect they intentionally adopted a passive stance in the first contact proceedings to force us to do the work of deciphering and cooperating with each other internationally. Oh, and let’s not forget that the future Louise Banks mentored the present-day Louise Banks via many hallucinogenic messages. In short, the mentoring is rich in this film and also merits the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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Hacksaw Ridge ••••1/2

hacksaw_ridge_posterStarring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Drama/History/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016


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Let’s take a look at Mel Gibson’s latest offering – Hacksaw Ridge.

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

It’s a story about a great hero from our home state of Virginia. How cool is that? Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who lives with his WWI veteran father, his mother, and older brother. Doss has fallen in love with a beautiful young nurse at the local hospital. When his brother joins the army to fight the Nazis, Doss decides to join too. But he’s a conscientious objector. As a child he often got into fights with his brother and nearly killed him once. That experience, and his Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, caused him to vow never to touch a gun. Naturally, this belief engages him in some friction when he enlists.

Doss refuses to handle a gun during training, and as a result his commanding officer, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) makes Doss’s life miserable as a soldier. Howell also tries to have Doss discharged for psychiatric reasons. Doss, however, refuses to quit and is about to be court martialed until his father (Hugo Weaving) intervenes by pulling a favor with the Brigadier General. Doss is finally allowed to serve as a medic in the war, and is sent to fight in Okinawa without a gun.

Scott, I was surprised by this film. I had anticipated a Christian Inspirational. So many Christian films put the message ahead of the story and the film suffers as a result. Hacksaw puts story front and center. And in doing so, delivers its message in spectacular form.

On the other hand, I was surprised by the brutality and graphic nature of the film. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was well-known for its graphic portrayal of war. But director Mel Gibson has raised the bar to new heights – or perhaps lowered it to new lows – depending on your point of view. This view of war makes clear just how horrible war can be. There were images of dismembered bodies, entrails, and killing that were so graphic, the viewer can believe they were in a war.

I’m with you, Greg. Hero stories don’t come any better than this. Doss possesses most if not all of the Great Eight traits of heroes — he’s smart, strong, reliable, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring. You could even argue that he is quietly charismatic. His heroic power also derives from his ability to resist social pressure. Doss receives intense heat to conform to military standards, and he’s probably the only hero I know who sticks to his guns by eschewing them.

After watching almost seven seasons of The Walking Dead, I’ve become desensitized to graphic displays of violence and human innards. Like most modern movies, this film shows more gore than it has to, but I don’t blame Mel Gibson because audiences have come to expect it. One could also argue that Doss’s heroism is enhanced by his overcoming horrific violence, explosions, and flamethrower carnage.

Doss is an extraordinary hero. He went into battle without a weapon. Then, when all the other soldiers had left the battlefield, Doss went back and single-handedly, one-by-one lowered 75 wounded men from a cliff over 12 hours. He had to overcome his fears and ignore his fatigue. The men in his unit considered what he did a miracle. So much so, that they refused to go into battle again the next day unless he went with them. It’s a remarkable hero’s journey.

We see some mentors in Doss’s life, not all of them positive. His father is a very negative mentor. Scott, we often talk about dark mentors (people who lead a hero down the wrong path). But Doss’s father represents what we’ve come to know as the anti-mentor. This is a person who leads the hero down a path by showing the counter-example. Doss’s father was so abusive that it caused Doss to vow never to touch a gun. That was just as powerful a mentoring as any positive mentor.

Yes, but Doss’s father also redeems himself by using his connections to help Doss avoid court martial. We don’t see very many redeemed anti-mentors in the movies. But we do see many instances of parents who play a pivotal mentoring role in either a child’s heroism or villainy. This year’s The Accountant is a recent example.

It’s interesting that Doss is a great hero because he not only transforms himself, he transforms others. At the end of the movie, several soldiers approach him sheepishly, admitting to Doss that they were wrong about him and asking him for forgiveness. The men Doss served with are forever inspired by Doss and transformed by serving with him. The man who first identified the various stages of the hero’s journey, Joseph Campbell, argued that the hero’s positive influence on other is the ultimate culmination of the hero’s journey.

Hacksaw Ridges is a powerful tribute to a pacifist hero. While the film was grisly at times, it made the case for a conscientious objector who made a difference. The movie gets off to a slow start – giving us a lot of backstory of Doss’s early life. I was also thrown off by the frequent flashbacks. But the thrilling climax makes up for any problems in pacing. I was shocked at first by the gore, but I recovered enough to enjoy the story. I give Hacksaw Ridge 4 out of 5 Reels.

Doss is an unlikely hero. As a pacifist with a religious objection to carrying a gun, he has to show his devotion to his country and to his comrades in other ways. When he looks past his own safety and fatigue to rescue the men in his battalion, he exposes his true heroic nature. He is the epitome of the selfless hero. I give Desmond Doss 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Once again we are met with a number of lesser mentors. Doss’s father represents an anti-mentor who shows Doss a path by his counter example. And I consider his drill sergeant a dark mentor since he derides Doss and gives tacit permission for the other men to abuse Doss. I give these mentors just 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, you nailed it. Hacksaw Ridge is a must-see movie. You just don’t encounter a better example of heroism than this, a form of heroism that is packed with off-the-charts selflessness and profound moral conviction. I prefer the term Doss uses to describe himself: A conscientious cooperator more than a conscientious objector. He wants to serve in the military, but only on his pacifistic terms. Heroes who stand up to social pressure to do the right thing, and who risk their lives to save others, are our most powerful heroes. I give Hacksaw Ridge 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is also potent, and it is broken up into two separate journeys. The first half of the film details Doss’s ordeal at basic training, during which Doss is thrown into the dangerous world of the dissenter who dares to defy the military convention to use weaponry. In this hero’s journey, Doss’s only ally is his father, a broken man who redeems himself by helping Doss pass basic training and get shipped to Okinawa. At Okinawa, Doss’s second hero’s journey emerges, one that propels him into brutal combat while he saves 75 men with Japanese sharpshooters all around him. These are two powerful journeys, earning Doss 5 shining Hero points out of 5.

I see a bit more mentoring going on than you do, Greg. Besides the dark mentoring of his father and sergeant, let’s not forget the ultimate mentor, God, whose divine presence is repeatedly guiding and supporting Doss during his darkest moments. Whether you believe in God or not, there is no denying that Doss relied on Him to get him through all his travails. I give these mentors 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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