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The Post ••••1/2

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 27, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Is this a film about a President’s online posts?


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

More like The Washington Post, Greg. Let’s recap.


It’s 1971 and Rand Corporation contractor Daniel Ellsberg has been working on a study for the Pentagon under direction of Secretary of State Robert McNamara. The study reviews the relative failure of the United States’ war in Viet Nam. Ellsberg realizes that the office of the President has been lying to the public and congress for the entire 30 years of the US involvement and proceeds to copy some 4,000 pages of the report. He delivers it to the New York Times who publish a headlining story proclaiming that every administration for 30 years has kept the war going – just to save face.


The Times is ordered by the higher courts to refrain from publishing any more of the pentagon papers. So the Washington Post’s Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hunts down Ellsberg himself and delivers the incriminating documents to the Post’s editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Bradlee asks Post owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) for permission to publish. She is pressured by attorneys and the board of directors to avoid publishing but ultimately gives Bradlee the green light to expose the pentagon papers.


Scott, The Post is a superbly well-crafted film by a director and lead actors who are at the peak of their craft. The story is so perfectly told with subtle acting and attention to detail that it almost escaped my attention that this is a cautionary tale for modern-day events.

The Nixon administration had waged war against the press – attempting to silence first the New York Times, and then The Washington Post. The principals at the Post pushed back against first amendment attacks by Nixon – that changed the relationship between the media and the White House forever. And, it solidified the right of the people to have an independent and free press. Given the attacks on the media from the current administration, this story is more than topical.


Greg, I’m in complete agreement. The Post is a powerful movie that shows a dramatic moment in history, and it hammers home how (given today’s current events) history is repeating itself. Nixon was Trump-like in wanting to censor the press, and it took true heroism for Katherine Graham to risk everything to do the right thing. This film is also timely in demonstrating the importance of the #MeToo movement. Graham is rarely taken seriously by the patriarchal world in which she operates, and yet she grows in her confidence and ultimately takes a bold position while defying the male members of the newspaper’s board.

There aren’t many movies that better illustrate how heroes must fight off strong pressures to take the wrong action. It would have been so easy for Bradlee and Graham to avoid publishing the incriminating papers, or simply delay publishing them. Their attorneys, friends, and colleagues were begging them to be “prudent”, sensible, and sensitive to the newspaper’s profits — and perhaps even its very existence. It would have been easy to take the “safe” action, but our heroes took a big risk and made potentially life-altering self-sacrifices. This is truly the stuff of great heroism.


Meryl Streep plays Graham superbly. Graham starts out as an unwilling leader having inherited the Washington Post from her husband after his untimely death. We see her in opening scenes rehearsing for a pitch to investors as she takes the business public. She’s uncertain — letting the men in the room do the heavy lifting.

But by the end of the film she is secure in her position as the custodian of her husband’s legacy. Streep doesn’t make this transition suddenly with an epiphany. Instead, she comes to this position gradually, with a series of revelations that lead her naturally to the conclusion that she must make the Pentagon papers public. She understands that the media has a responsibility to the people to keep the government in check. And then she risks everything to take a moral stand at a time when the Nixon administration is attacking the fourth estate with impunity.


You’re right about Katherine Graham’s transformation. It’s the kind of transformation that women in general have been compelled to undertake over the past couple of generations in our society. She is mentored by both men and women, but like all heroes, she must traverse the journey on her own, summoning up the strength and wisdom to do what must be done even at great personal and professional risk. The men in this story do not change as much, although Bagdikian and Bradlee (along with Graham) can be seen as change-agents whose actions have an important transformative effect on society.


The Post is seamless in its presentation. While it hits all the turning points of the hero’s journey – you hardly notice because of the skill and artistry of the director, actors, and crafts-men and -women who created this movie. I award The Post 5 out of 5 Reels because I can’t see how it could have been improved.

While Tom Hanks shares headlining credit, it is Streep’s Graham who owns this story. We love stories of transformation and Graham changes in ways both profound and subtle. I give Katherine Graham 5 out of 5 Heroes and 5 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie:   Transformations: Heroes:


Greg, The Post was very good but falls short of landing in the “great movie” category. I’m reminded of the 2015 film Spotlight, which also depicted a newspaper’s fierce campaign to unveil a painful and vehemently denied truth. Both these movies drive home the important role that a free and aggressive press plays in a society rife with bureaucratic deceit. I award The Post 4 Reels out of 5.

This is an ensemble cast of heroic characters headed by Katherine Graham, a woman who makes the courageous call to print the truth at great potential cost to herself and others. Bradlee and Bagdikian get their hands dirty doing their heroic work in the trenches and also deserve high marks for their heroic grit and perseverance. I award all these heroes 5 Hero points out of 5. And because of Graham’s bold transformation and transformative effect on others, she deserves 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

 

Molly’s Game •••

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, Molly Bloom
Biography/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
Release Date: December 30, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


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

Greg, if you like playing games, Molly was once the go-to person in New York and Hollywood.

 


And like poker, her success is not a matter of luck, but skill. Let’s recap.

 


We meet young Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a US Olympic hopeful as a skier. Her father (Kevin Costner) pushes her to the limit and beyond to become successful. But Molly suffers a horrible skiing accident and doesn’t make the team. Her plan was to attend law school but she puts those plans on hold to live in Los Angeles employed as Dean Keith’s (Jeremy Strong) personal assistant. One day Keith asks Molly to set up a high-stakes poker game involving some notable Hollywood celebrities.


She’s a quick study and soon learns all the details of high-stakes poker. When her boss threatens to fire her if she doesn’t take a pay cut, she folds her hand – only to start her own poker game – taking her boss’s friends with her. She becomes the toast of the town until one high-value player wants to cut in on her success and he kills the game when she refuses. Out of money and out of luck, she makes her way to the Big Apple to start all over again.


Greg, Molly’s Game caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting a story about high-stakes poker to contain such intrigue, depth, and nuance. Molly finds herself in an underground world of rich and powerful men who manipulate others and sometimes self-destruct. She’s drawn there by the allure of money and power, and soon she finds herself spinning out of control with drug addiction and legal problems. She lived on the edge of criminality and crossed the line, yet her intelligence, resilience, and integrity won the day.

Jessica Chastain shines in this film, and I hope she garners some accolades for her portrayal of a smart, complex woman. Her character of Molly Bloom is an ideal hero who possesses nearly all of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes: She is intelligent, strong, reliable, charismatic, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring. As in another film, The Post, this story centers on a talented woman trying to navigate her way through a man’s world. Being an attractive woman certainly helped her at times, but at other times she was disrespected and underestimated.


Scott, I’m an outlier in believing this is a rare miss by writer/director Aaron Sorkin. The heart of any story is a compelling hero with whom we sympathize. I found Molly Bloom completely unsympathetic. All of her problems were those she brought upon herself. Sorkin tries to get us to relate to her by showing her uncommon strength in overcoming a debilitating back injury. It’s a good try.

But she knows she’s skirting the law when she runs this game of chance (although she insists it’s a game of skill). She knows the Russian Mafia is involved in the games and anticipates their arrival. Then she gets attacked when she doesn’t play along. Finally, she knows that she cannot skim the pot legally and decides to dip – accumulating $2M illegally. When the FBI commonderes the funds, we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. But I don’t feel sorry for her in any way. She’s responsible for all her problems and I can’t muster any sympathy for her – or for Sorkin’s story.


Greg, no hero is ever perfect, and in fact the basis of the hero’s journey resides in the hero’s ability to achieve redemption by overcoming their inherent flaws. Let’s keep in mind that Molly’s most striking attribute is her integrity, which wins over her initially skeptical attorney (Idris Elba). The best evidence of her integrity is seen in her willingness to serve time in prison rather than disclose information that would harm the families of her poker players. For the most part, she runs her poker business on the up-and-up, boldly navigating her way through a man’s world.

Only toward the end does she succumb to the temptations of drugs and skimming the pot. She atones for these mistakes by becoming drug-free and taking full legal responsibility for her actions. Molly is truly an admirable character whose journey matches the template of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth, and she undergoes transformations toward darkness and then back into the light of goodness.


I don’t think she ever redeems herself. Her self-ascribed motive for not naming-names is that she doesn’t want the families of the bad guys to be hurt. Still she created the environment where they squandered millions of dollars. She seems very selective in her morality. So I don’t see much in the way of transformation here.

Molly’s Game is a convoluted, poorly written, and amateurishly directed film by an artist who has done better work – and very like will do better work in the future. Sorkin did not waste one of his good screenplays on his directorial debut, treating this very much like practice for features to come. Fine performances by Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain (and occasional bright spots with Kevin Costner) cannot save this dull piece of work. The ending where all our hero’s problems are attributed to “daddy issues” falls flat. I give Molly’s Game 2 out of 5 Reels.

Molly is a failed hero who, as far as I can tell, has not redeemed herself. All of her problems are her own making, and she is saved only by the kindness of men – Elba’s lawyer takes pity on her to take her case, and the judge ignores the prosecution’s sentencing recommendations and gives her the lightest possible sentence. I don’t see any redemption in her and in my book she is an anti-hero. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, I cannot find evidence of transformation for anyone in this story. Molly doesn’t seem repentant for her ill-gotten-goods nor does she turn over evidence that would put bad guys away for decades. I saw that Kevin Costner’s character came back at the last moment to psychoanalyze his daughter – so I give him just 1 Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Greg, it’s as if you and I saw a completely different movie. Molly’s Game impressed me with its riveting portrayal of a brave and resilient woman who goes down a hazardous career path, pays the price, and then ultimately redeems herself with a noble act of integrity. Jessica Chastain delivers the best performance of her career here, portraying a flawed hero whose fierce determination, strength, and intelligence serve her very well. This is a smart film that deserves an audience that appreciates tough women operating successfully in a man’s world. I give Molly’s Game 4 Reels out of 5.

Molly’s hero’s journey is highly inspiring. She overcomes a severe injury, and then works hard to evolve from a penniless young woman living far from home into a multi-millionaire. Molly then succumbs to a drug addiction and illegally skimming the pots of her high stakes poker games, and she pays the legal price. Like all good heroes, she receives help from a mentor (her attorney), cleans up her act, and makes choices that reveal her honorable nature — even at great potential cost to her well-being. I award her heroism 4 Hero rating points out of 5.

Molly undergoes several important transformations. First, as a young athlete she undergoes an emotional metamorphosis by growing in her emotional strength and resilience. As a poker entrepreneur, she later learns how the world of big money and celebrity dynamics work. This mental transformation was then followed by a negative physical transformation in the form of drug addiction. Finally, in her legal battles, we witness a moral transformation toward doing the right thing with regard to information that could ruin her former clients’ families. All these transformations earn Molly 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Darkest Hour •••1/2

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: December 22, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, we just saw film that sheds light on a darkest hour.


It’s the second film this year about the Dunkirk rescue. Let’s recap.


In mid-May of 1940. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) appeasement policy with Hitler has proven unsuccessful, with German forces now streaming into Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) has just been appointed the new Prime Minister. He is impatient with his new secretary, Miss Layton (Lily James) and he must have weekly lunches with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who is skeptical of Churchill’s policies.


Churchill is sure that Hitler will not honor any terms of surrender that Brittain may offer. He assembles a cabinet of men who are not entirely friendly to Chamberlain because he wants honest opinions – not yes men. In particular Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is pushing for an agreement with Hitler. The totality of Britain’s army – some 300,000 men are stuck on the shore of Dunkirk, France – with the German army closing in fast. Chamberlain has to come up with a plan to rescue his men and convert the minds of Parliament before Hitler slaughters his army.


Greg, Darkest Hour is reminiscent of that extraordinary 2012 movie Lincoln that garnered multiple Best Picture awards. Both films focus on remarkable leadership during times of national crisis, and both offer heavy emphasis on dialogue, negotiation, and inner struggle. While I wouldn’t place Darkest Hour in the same stratosphere of excellence as Lincoln, it is an extremely worthy micro-biopic that showcases the talent of its star, Gary Oldman, whose depiction of Churchill’s eccentricity and volatility are right on the mark.

I use the term ‘micro-biopic’ because we are only given a glimpse of a three-week window in the life of Winston Churchill. During these crucial weeks, Chamberlain has been ousted as Prime Minister, Churchill has been appointed, and advancing German armies in Europe must be dealt with. It is a pivotal moment in European history and this film centers of Churchill’s transformative resolve to fight the Nazis in lieu of negotiating with them. As the audience, we know the right way to proceed but only with our 20-20 hindsight. This movie teaches us that peace at all costs can be a risky ideology.


Darkest Hour is a wonderful film with a very endearing performance by Gary Oldman. While historical images of Churchill present a bulldog of a man, the character we see here is humble, uncertain, and deeply pained by his loss at Gallipoli. He starts the film with virtually no one in his corner – least of all the king. He event doubts himself at his “Darkest Hour” and gains strength from commoners on a subway train. Then he rouses himself and orchestrates one the greatest rescues in human history. Finally, he wins the hearts of Parliament and sets Britain on a difficult but ultimately victorious path. Regardless of the historical accuracy of the film, it is a compelling hero’s journey.


That’s my main complaint about the film, namely, that Churchill’s unorthodox decision to meet with the commoners on the London Underground never really happened. This turns out to be the critical moment when Churchill recognizes that the public has a steely resolve to defeat Hitler rather than appease him. It’s a transformative incident, as the Prime Minister now know what he must do. Too bad it never happened that way. While including this fictitious scene makes for a better drama, I would have preferred a more veridical account of history.

So in this micro-slice of Churchill’s hero’s journey, we’re privy to his transformation along with his transformative effect on others. The latter is illustrated in Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. His words were so rousing that even Churchill’s detractors (such as Chamberlain) were silenced and forever rendered irrelevant. Churchill’s heroism proves that heroes do not have to be tall, handsome, and conventionally charismatic to be effective. They can find their heroic voice in their own idiosyncratic way, much like Lincoln did in the US nearly a century earlier.


Darkest Hour is a well-produced slice of the life of Winston Churchill during the darkest hours of Britain’s history. Gary Oldman’s performance is Oscar-worthy. As is typical of such biopics, Churchill changes the hearts and minds of others more than he himself changes. As the audience we know what the historical events will be – but what we don’t know is the behind-the-scenes story. I give Darkest Hour 3 out of 5 Reels for an average movie-going experience. Winston Churchill gets a full 5 Heroes out of 5 for standing in the face of villainy and doing what had to be done to save his country and ultimately the world. And finally, the Parliament gets 3 out of 5 Deltas for their transformation due to Winston’s steadfast leadership.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


I agree that Darkest Hour does an exemplary job of chronicling how an iconic leader met the challenges of a pivotal moment in world history. As with another recent movie, Lady Bird, this story offers but a tiny slice of our hero’s life, yet it still manages to show us the hero’s ability to transformatively rise above severe challenges. Gary Oldman did the near-impossible by portraying Churchill’s eccentricity and boldness so effectively. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Churchill’s heroism is impressive in that he did what the best heroes among us manage to do, namely, find a way to do the right thing despite significant social pressures to do the wrong thing. His transformation can best be described as a metamorphosis from uncertainty to certainty, from hesitation to resolve, from thoughts of condoning evil to fighting it aggressively. As such I award him 4 Heroes out of 5 and 4 transformative Deltas out of 5, too.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi •••

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, George Lucas
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 152 minutes
Release Date: December 15, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, are we about to review the last Star Wars Film?


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

The Force is with us both, Greg. Let’s recap.


The Rebel alliance is attempting to evacuate their base when First Order ships arrive and prepare to blow the base to bits. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) lights just off the main ship’s bow and leads an attack on their Dreadnaught class destroyer. They succeed at destroying the ship, but at a great cost losing all their bombers and several fighters. However, it gives the rebels time to evacuate and jump into hyperspace toward their next base.


Meanwhile Kylo Ren, sensing his mother General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) presence, fails to fire on the resistance’s main ship. Rey seeks to learn the ways of the force from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has exiled himself to a remote island. He reluctantly agrees. Rey also begins having telepathic communications with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whom she believes is redeemable. This belief appears to be corroborated by Ren’s decision to save Rey’s life at the hands of Snoke (Andy Serkis), whom he slays. Ren, however, remains on the dark side.


Scott, I have mixed emotions about The Last Jedi. On the one hand it is a proper sequel to the last film, The Force Awakens, but on the other, it seems like a scattered project that tried to accomplish too much. And with a 150-minute running time, you’d think it would have accomplished all its goals. But it does not. As with the last film, there are echoes of previous episodes which left me feeling as though the story doesn’t really move forward.

There are four distinct plotlines here. The first being the escape of the Resistance to a new base. This is Princess Leia and Poe’s story. The second is the emergence of Rey as a Jedi under the (reluctant) training of Luke Skywalker. The third is the evolution of Kylo Ren into the Master of the First Republic. Fourth and finally is the search for a thief to help Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take down the Republic’s main ship.

The first plotline is pretty boring stuff with Poe constantly second-guessing Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) authority. Not much happens here until the end. The training of Rey with Skywalker resembles much of what we saw in The Empire Strikes Back but with intercuts of Rey and Kylo Ren having inter-Force communication. Rey ultimately leaves her training before she’s finished to face Ren because she “feels there is still good in him.” This all feels very much like Empire.


Greg, this is a curious, complicated movie. There is much to like, some to dislike, and much to ponder over. My summative feeling is somewhat positive, but wow, where do we begin with all that is thrown at us in this film? You’ve pointed out the multiple simultaneous plotlines, at times exhilarating but at times delivered in a disjointed manner. There is also the bold move to redefine “the force” as more supernatural than in previous Star Wars incarnations. This cheapens the force, IMHO, yet I admit it’s handled well in the film’s final act when Luke’s magical powers save everyone’s butt.

Luke Skywalker’s persona has radically changed, which may not be terribly surprising as decades have passed since we’ve last seen much of him. Again I see some value in giving him inner conflict but at times I wasn’t sure this was the same character we’ve grown to love. There are also several strange directorial decisions by Rian Johnson. One irritation is his bizarre decision to include dozens of unnecessarily closeup face-shots of Ren and Rey. The film is long and densely packed, a smorgasbord of good and not-so-good Star Wars fare.

Although J.J. Abrams didn’t direct the film, it does have his fingerprints all over it. There is plenty of action and several powerful homages to iconic Star Wars lines involving “the force”, “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi”, and Yoda uttering reverse sentence structures. So ultimately, we should leave the theater satisfied — assuming we can overlook the many complications.


Star Wars has become less about telling a great story, and more about creating a spectacle. The logic behind the Republic’s ships having to slowly track the Resistance is confusing. This is just a placeholder while action occurs elsewhere. The events on the casino planet have no real impact on the story at hand. But it does introduce a number of colorful characters and exotic animals that will make nice plastic toys at Christmastime.

LIkewise on the island where Luke has self-exiled himself we see very cute little bird-like creatures that have no purpose in the story except to be cute. Very much like the Ewoks. For some reason, these creatures have taken roost on the Millennium Falcon. And there are “caretaker” creatures as well as 4-bosomed sea whales which Luke milks for breakfast. None of these characters play into the plot. They are just part of Star Wars’ world building for the sake of merchandising.


Wow, you really are cynical about the merchandising placements, Greg. To be honest, I hadn’t given this much thought until now, but you may be right. We may agree about this film’s attempt to be a spectacle, and so the big question for us to consider is whether the movie is a spectacle that tells a compelling hero story. We do have heroes undergoing severe trials and transformation, which left me mostly satisfied. We also have the classic Star Wars battle between good and evil, with Kylo Ren filling the void left by the surprising death of Snoke. There’s a bit too much going on but overall the film hits enough classic Star Wars notes to produce a satisfying movie-going experience.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi was an entertaining visual feast – but pretty light fare. Star Wars has increasingly become a franchise for children and the young at heart. There are no morals or messages to take home. Characters seem to appear for little reason other than to fulfill either a gender or ethnic checklist. The story lines seem to have no real purpose other than to create a reason for flash and boom. The original Star Wars trilogy was about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker – a story with mythical proportions. I’m left asking “What is this story about?”

This latest series appears to be an attempt to right a galactic wrong – that of an absence of female characters in the Star Wars universe. As such, we get characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) who does little more than stand in for Admiral Leia while she’s knocked out and to confound pilot man-child Poe by keeping him (and the rest of the Rebel fleet) in the dark about her plans. The men in this universe seem universally dim while all the women seem eternally wise. Just when you think something interesting is going to happen (will Rey and Kylo Ren rule over a new Empire?) – it doesn’t. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for this film.

There are so many lead characters in this story, it’s hard to figure out who I’m supposed to care about. Rey seems to follow Luke’s storyline from Empire Strikes Back and goes to fight the dark side without full Jedi training. Kylo Ren is still impetuous and fighting authority figures – even when he’s the ultimate authority. Poe had no trajectory in this story as his only purpose was to be a loose canon. Finn goes on a merry chase with Rose and has no arc to speak of. Leia spends most of the film sleeping off a vacuum-induced hangover. Rose has the best line of the film – only to find herself unconscious in the end. Luke evaporates for unknown reasons. I can’t get excited about anyone in this film and can barely extend more than 2 Heroes out of 5 and 2 Deltas as well.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


My impressions of this film are similar to yours, Greg. The Last Jedi is pretty good Star Wars but lacks sufficient cohesiveness and focus to emerge as exemplary Star Wars fare. There are a few bold moves here involving an extension of what has for decades been iconically known as “the force”. Now apparently the force involves extreme magical prowess, which is unfortunate as the force used to connote a more subtle special power that metaphorically endowed all of us with the ability to become the best versions of ourselves. Overall, I was entertained by this movie despite its flaws and I also give it 3 Reels out of 5.

There are plenty of good heroes in this movie and in fact their abundance is a drawback. Still, we are treated to the spicy hero’s journeys of Poe, Luke, Leia, Finn, Rose, and others. These heroes transform in meaningful ways; they grow in their maturity and understanding of themselves, the force, the nature of good and evil, and the world in which they live. Ren and Snoke are also formidable and interesting villains for our heroes to overcome. There’s so much going on at the expense of cohesion that I’ll only award 3 Hero points out of 5 as well as 3 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Wonder •••1/2

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad
Drama/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: November 17, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, I wonder if you’ll review this week’s movie with me?


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

Maybe Wonder Woman should review it, Gregger. Get out the Kleenex and let’s recap.

 


We’re introduced to young 10-year-old Auggie (Jacob Tremblay). He was born with a congenital birth defect that has disfigured his face. He’s unusually bright, especially in the sciences, and has been home-schooled for his entire life. He’s about to go to private school so a trio of kids are showing him around before his first day of class. The kids are a little freaked out by his deformity but they’re friendly nevertheless. Auggie returns home and puts on his space helmet to hide in his make-believe world of outer space.


Auggie has two loving parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts), and Nate (Owen Wilson), and a sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) who feels neglected because her parents appear to be spending the majority of their time tending to Auggie. At school, Auggie befriends a boy named Jack (Noah Jupe) but soon they have a falling out when Auggie overhears Jack insulting Auggie’s appearance to other kids. Meanwhile, Via has a falling out with her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), but after signing up for the school play Via falls in love with a boy named Justin (Nadji Jeter).


Scott, Wonder is light fare akin to an ABC Afterschool Special – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It reminds me of 1985’s Mask in many ways. Wonder seems to be aimed at younger audiences with its PG rating. The story is a fiction (contrary to Mask’s true underpinnings) which, for me, reduced its impact. It’s easy to contrive situations in fiction to prove a point – it’s much harder to withstand such prejudices when they are based in fact.

The structure of the movie is interesting as it presents the events from four different points of view. The action starts with Auggie’s entrance into school, through surviving his first major disappoint. Then, we turn to sister Via’s POV and we learn that the world revolves around Auggie leaving her to fend for herself. This could have been the source of great drama, but Via doesn’t have bitterness towards her brother. Instead, she has a deep love of her brother. Other POVs include Jack’s and Miranda’s. I enjoyed this revolving look at Auggie’s world.


Greg, I’d say Wonder exceeds a made-for-TV movie by a pretty wide margin. For starters, we have a couple of Hollywood heavyweights in Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts leading the charge here. More than that, we have excellent storytelling centered around a small vulnerable boy with an unconventional face whom everyone underestimates. It’s a classic underdog story that we’ve seen in many variations a thousand times before, and this one is particularly poignant. The fact that it is fiction does not diminish the film in any way.

Another theme emphasized in Wonder is the heroic theme of redemption. Most of the characters in this film find ways to atone for mistakes they’ve made that have hurt others. Isabel neglects Via and then promises to spend a day with her. Jack hurts Auggie badly and then bends over backward to make amends. Miranda dumps Via as a friend but then later sacrifices herself to allow Via to shine in the lead role of the school play. Julian (Bryce Gheisar) bullies Auggie and never redeems himself, thus solidifying his status as the story’s villain.


Auggie is a catalytic hero in that he changes the opinions of those around him. He starts out being shunned by his peers. And over time earns their trust and respect. But there is transformation for him as well as he starts out ashamed of his appearance and grows to understand that he is as he is – and anyone who has a problem really has a problem within themselves and not with him. His sister Via transforms from sitting in the background to Auggie’s needs and eventually comes to the fore as she steps on the stage and delivers a great performance in the high school play.


Greg, you’re right that transformations abound in this film. Auggie transforms from a frightened social outcast to a bold inspiration for others. In fact, he’s a stand-in for almost all of humanity, as I’m willing to bet that everyone at one time or another have felt like outliers unable to penetrate the mainstream. Via grows in her self-confidence. Her life once put on hold, Isabel finishes her masters thesis. Both Miranda and Jack discover the value of friendship. Auggie’s influence is the key to all of these transformations. It’s a classic theme in heroic storytelling for the most unlikely person to discover their treasure, which they then pass onto others.


Wonder is a wonderful story for youngsters. It’s PG rating is well-earned as there is little drama here. It’s a story of bullying and anti-bullying – which are popular topics today. I would prefer a story like this be based on true events because it is easy to conconct situations and resolutions in fiction. And in fact, we’ve seen better stories in such movies as Mask. I give Wonder 3 out of 5 Reels.

Auggie is a good hero. He has a disability that he overcomes through the power of his personality. He also has a competence in the sciences that endears us to him. He is surrounded by a loving family who act as his mentors. At school, he has a few friends who also mentor him in the special world of private school. I give Auggie 3 out of 5 Heroes.

As you mention, Scott, there are transformations for nearly every character in this story. I give them 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Wonder is a wonder of a movie designed expertly to tug at our hearts and give our tear-ducts a workout. This film along with Karate Kid are the two best cinematic depictions of the underdog archetype that I’ve ever encountered. I left the theater feeling hopeful that the darkness of humanity is beautifully redeemable. Wonder deserves 4 a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Auggie is a talented, delightful young kid who wins over the hearts of anyone willing and able to get past superficial anomalies in his appearance. Auggie plunges into the hero’s journey, encounters friends and enemies, finds ways to overcome obstacles, and emerges as a self-confident and socially skilled young man. His hero’s journey earns 4 Hero points out of 5.

Wonder is a cauldron of transformation, not just in Auggie but in all those he touches. Everyone around him grows up in some way and absorbs inspiration from our hero. Greg, we’ve reviewed movies in which the hero transforms, or in which the hero transforms others, but rarely are we treated to both personal and collective transformations in the same film. I award all these characters 5 transformative Delta points out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Lady Bird •••

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Odeya Rush
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenplay: Greta Gerwig
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: December 2, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, is this next movie about President Johnson’s wife?


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

No, Greg, it’s about basketball legend Larry Bird’s wife. Or is it? Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). She’s a 2002 high school senior who is about as average as you might expect. But she has ambitions to go to college – anywhere that isn’t in Sacramento, CA where she lives. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) wants her to apply to community college so that she’ll stay close to home. Her father (Tracy Letts)  is recently fired from his job. And her half-brother and his girlfriend live with them too.


Lady Bird joins her school’s theater group and begins dating a boy named Danny (Lucas Hedges). The relationship ends when she discovers that Danny is gay. She then begins dating Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a member of a locally popular band. This relationship also ends badly when she sleeps with Kyle and discovers he lied about being a virgin. Meanwhile, Lady Bird secretly applies to colleges on the east coast and butts heads frequently with her emotionally abusive mother.


Lady Bird is a well-crafted film that has little to offer in terms of story. There aren’t any revelations here. It’s the story of an underachieving girl who wants to go away to college. More than anything she wants to get out of town. She doesn’t apply herself to her studies so that she can make her way in on her best merits, but instead, gets waitlisted and at the last minute gets accepted because someone else dropped out. She makes simple mistakes that high-school girls make in uninspiring ways. She has fights with her mother that typical teens have. This is very much a cliched look at an average teenage girl’s life in 2002 – perhaps a bit autobiographical and so somewhat self-indulgent.


Greg, you make an interesting observation about this film’s lack of story. My interpretation of the film is that it concentrates on a thin slice of the hero’s journey, namely, the prelude to the departure into the unfamiliar world. Lady Bird is a would-be hero who feels trapped at home, which she finds stultifying. Her mother is a trainwreck and the town of Sacramento serves as a prison from which her heroic self must break free. While this story focuses only on a tiny slice of the hero’s journey, it is a fascinating and satisfying slice. Saoirse Ronan does a phenomenal job with the character, although she is too old to pass for a high-school student.

As the prelude to the full hero quest, this film leaves us with a feeling of incompletion. We just reviewed the film, Wonder, which portrays a child’s full journey from despair to triumph. In Lady Bird, we’re hopeful that our hero will triumph on the east coast but we’ll never know. The bulk of this movie is one glimpse after another of Lady Bird’s mistakes and awkward moments — the kinds of things pre-heroes do. Her disastrous relationships with Danny and Kyle are good examples, not to mention her crazy decision to jump out of a car going at high speed to escape her crazy mother. At the end of the film when Lady Bird finally changes her hair and drops the ‘Lady Bird’ nickname, we know she is finally ready to go on her journey.


Laurie Metcalf is wonderful as the mother who is desperate to keep her daughter at home. There isn’t much left for mom and holding on to her last child becomes her only goal. Mom is a damaged woman who uses guilt and guile to keep “Lady Bird” in line. Despite constantly exposing her daughter’s weaknesses, it’s clear she loves Christine and is working hard to keep her family together.

More than anything, this movie is a study of relationships. It does a good job of showing us the tensions between Christine and the people in her life. Still, I look for a story that I can take home. I want to see more exposure of the lessons the hero learns. For Christine, it’s her relationship with her mother that changes rather than Christine herself.

You describe this as a prelude to the hero’s journey – and I can see how you might come to that conclusion. But for me, one of the evidences of the hero’s emergence is a change in attire and in this case, a change in name. Christine sheds the “Lady Bird” moniker and accepts her “given” name as her identity. She’s come to grips with who she is. And she had to leave home to find the basis for the relationship with her mother. As such, it is a coming of age story, just not one that I enjoyed very much.


Lady Bird is a well-crafted story of a young woman’s efforts to pull free from her familiar, stifling world. Her dysfunctional family dynamics pose a considerable hindrance to her desire and ability to attend college 3,000 miles away, with her damaged mother proving to be especially obstructionistic. We’re also treated to the inevitable disasters of a young person’s first few romantic dalliances. The film shows us a mini-hero’s journey nested within the larger hero’s journey of her life, and I was both impressed and moved by her story. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

We’ve described Lady Bird’s heroic arc in enough detail, so no need for further elaboration. We’re denied the full story of Lady Bird’s life, and thus this movie did leave me wanting more. That in itself can be both a good thing and a bad thing. I give our protagonist 3 Hero points out of 5. Regarding transformations, we witness our hero metamorphosize from her self-appointed label of ‘Lady Bird’ to her true self, Christine. The transformations are fun to watch and rang true to me. I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:


I have similar problems with Lady Bird as I had with Ronan’s other coming-of-age film: Brooklyn. In both films there are few conflicts and the ones our hero has are solved in simplistic ways. I kept wanting something to happen in this story, and it never did. We’re treated to one lackluster event after another culminating in a lackluster transformation. I give Lady Bird just 2 Reels out of 5.

Christine is an unremarkable young woman who doesn’t try very hard to get what she wants. And in the end, she does get what she wants but only through the luck of the draw. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5. Finally, her transformation is simplistic and a bit saccharine. I give her just 2 Deltas out of 5.

As a postscript, I would like to call out Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the stand-out element of this film. This is a conflicted woman who is full of love trying to hold her family together despite myriad forces that are pulling her world apart. This was a complicated character that Metcalf portrayed skillfully. I look forward to nominations for her work in this film.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ••••1/2

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, did you ever think they’d make a movie about billboards?

 


There’s advertising everywhere, even in movies. Let’s recap:


We meet Mildred (Frances McDormand), a woman grieving her daughter’s rape and murder. She’s also upset that the police in her hometown of Ebbing, Missouri, are not making any progress in apprehending the perpetrator. She rents three old unused billboards just outside of town, and on them she displays in big letters, “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and many of the town’s citizens want Mildred to take down the billboards.

 


Mildred won’t take the signs down and faces assaults by all the town’s people including her own dentist. Willoughby isn’t the redneck tough guy you expect. He is sympathetic to Mildred’s case, but after 7 months there’s not much more he can do. Then, he reveals that he has cancer. Mildred is not moved and pushes him to solve the case before his cancer consumes him. But before too long, he takes his own life.


Greg, Three Billboards is a true gem of a movie that is filled with memorable characters who all seem to be undergoing challenging life journeys. The film is a dark portrayal of human nature, yet it is also a depiction of one woman’s relentless campaign to triumph over that darkness. Writer and director Martin McDonagh may hail from Ireland but he has firm handle on the rot and muck of middle America.

Special kudos go to Frances McDormand, who unleashes an Oscar-worthy performance here. She’s a special kind of hero in that she is basically unstoppable. The mystery of who brutalized her daughter appears to be unsolvable, yet her Billboards open the door to clues about the perpetrator. Mildred reminds me of the character of Carol in The Walking Dead; she is a force to be reckoned with, and people pay a steep price in underestimating her.


Three Billboards is an unexpected pleasure. This is not a typical story of heroes and villains. Sheriff Willoughby looks like he might be an incompetent boob – but he’s actually the glue that holds the town together. Mildred seems like a woman without a heart – but she deeply cares about Willoughby and his fight with cancer. Dixon is a classic racist in a position of power – and we learn he’s little more than a child. We keep expecting people to be called out for their biases and ultimately we learn that everyone in town is human, flawed, and dealing with their own pain.

The other thing this story does is never resolve the murder. It is simply a McGuffin designed to throw these people together to expose their pain and flaws. Dixon is the most transformed because he has the furthest to travel towards redemption. He has to overcome the biases his (pure evil) mother has inflicted upon him. It’s Willoughby who is the catalyst for his change. In a posthumous letter he tells Dixon he’s a good man who mistakes hate for strength and tells him to embrace love. Dixon seems to absorb this advice and finally takes a beating to bring a rapist to justice.


Dixon’s transformation is fascinating because it raises the question of whether it is possible for a person to transform so quickly from extreme evil to extreme good. One could argue that such a dramatic swing defies belief and any notion of realism. Yet we know that big changes in character are reasonable given the parameters and goals of storytelling. Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr argue that the veracity of a tale is less important than its ability to inspire, motivate, and educate its audience.

As you point out, Greg, Willoughby’s letter is the source of Dixon’s conversion. In our analysis of movies, we’ve found that great mentoring may be the most important determinant of transformation. We also know that great suffering can also be the impetus for change, and Dixon suffers tremendously when half his body is badly burned in the fire started by Mildred. Willoughby himself transforms when he softens his antagonism toward Mildred and even funds her billboards after he discovers that his death is imminent.


Three Billboards is a welcome change in pace from the summer blockbusters. It’s less a story as much as it an examination of a collection of characters. Everyone is flawed and in some kind of pain. It’s the slow exposition of these pains, and how each character deals with them that makes this a movie to enjoy. I give Three Billboards 4 out of 5 Reels.

Mildred is an uncommon hero. In many ways, she’s an antagonist for Willoughby. And she performs evil acts – like burning down the police station. Ultimately, she conspires to commit murder. In our book “Reel Heroes & Villains” we classify a hero who ends up as a negative character the anti-hero. Mildred is an uncommon anti-hero, but I think she fits the definition. I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Nearly everyone in this story goes through a transformation. Mildred releases her anger, grief, and guild for the loss of daughter and trades it in for revenge. Willoughby trades in one great day with his family for his life. Dixon trades his race hatred for compassion. Three Billboards gets 4 out of 5 Deltas from me.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


You’re right, Greg, Three Billboards is terrific movie-making and should receive several Academy Award nominations, especially for Best Picture and Best Actress. Frances McDormand shines as a woman on a mission to secure justice for her raped and slain daughter. Her methods are creative, extreme, and borderline cruel, but she succeeds in rattling the town’s crooked cages and getting results. This film soars on the big screen and is exactly the reason why we watch movies. I award it the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Greg, I have to differ with your assessment that Mildred is an anti-hero. She’s as strong a hero as they come, a true champion of uncovering the truth and delivering justice. Yes, she and Dixon are going after a rapist who didn’t murder her daughter. But this evil man’s victim was someone’s daughter and inflicted unspeakable pain on another person and a family. Mildred’s willingness to stick her neck out to achieve justice is exactly in keeping with the definition of a hero — there is personal sacrifice, great risk, moral courage, and a superhuman effort to bring justice into the world. Mildred easily earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

You’re absolutely right that transformations abound in the movie, with Mildred the source of all these conversions. She sets in motion a series of events that eventually transforms Dixon into a decent human being, and she also softens the heart of Willoughby. Does Mildred herself change? I’m not so sure, and for that reason I’ll award this film 4 out of 5 transformative Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Coco •••••

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Screenplay: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


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

Finally, Greg, a movie about hot chocolate.


No, Scott. It’s the story of a Mexican boy, his great-grandmother, and the love of music. Let’s recap:


We meet 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with a multi-generational family in Mexico. We learn that Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) to pursue a career in music. As a result, the family has banned all music and even the mention of music. It turns out that Miguel loves music, especially that of the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).


Miguel figures out that he is the great-great-grandson of de la Cruz and on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) young Miguel decides to steal the late Ernesto’s guitar and play in the talent show. But when he does, he is transported to the Land of the Dead where the skeletons of passed relatives try to gain entrance to Earth on this one day to visit their living relatives.

Miguel befriends Hector (Gael García Bernal), a ne’er-do-well spirit who wants to visit his daughter one last time before she forgets him – causing him to disappear forever. Together, the two try to get the late Ernesto’s blessing so that Miguel can return to Earth and play the guitar. But they must hurry, because if they don’t succeed before sunrise, Miguel turns into a skeleton and will be trapped forever in the Land of the Dead.


Greg, Coco is a true delight and gives us one of the most emotionally satisfying movies of 2017. We don’t get much better hero stories than this one, and curiously it is a hero’s journey turned sideways. Usually, it is the hero who is missing some important quality, but in this film everyone except our hero has a missing quality, namely, an appreciation for music. It turns out that music is the key that unlocks the secret of Miguel’s great-great grandfather’s true identity. More importantly, it is music that brings Coco to life and jogs her memory about her true love: Hector.

Our hero Miguel turns out to be a change-agent hero inasmuch as everyone in his family lacks an appreciation for music and it is up to Miguel to instill in them a respect for musicianship as a career choice. This is not to say that Miguel is a hero without a flaw at the beginning of his journey. He lacks a clear understanding of his true family tree, and of the true evil nature of de la Cruz. The hero’s journey is always a search for one’s true special identity. Coco is no exception to this rule in its focus on Miguel’s quest to understand his place in his very tangled family tree.


I was prepared to dislike this movie because I don’t see how you can have skeletons at Christmas. I’m no fan of Nightmare before Christmas with all of its macabre overtones. Skeletons are creepy. Skeletons are scary. But after watching Coco skeletons became family. They were warm and loving and characters I wanted to be around. Pixar is relentless in the creation of stories that hit the viewer at their emotional core. And Coco is a resounding success in that regard.

And it is a success in every other way as well. The animation in this film is so exact that I forgot that I was watching an animation. That is to say, when I compare this to the CGI in Justice League, the pixels vanished. Every image was smooth and vibrant. The facial expressions were real and expressive. The characters emoted with energy and authenticity. I never wanted to look away. Coco is a rare delight.


You’re right, Greg. The computer animation was off-the-charts extraordinary. Just when you think Pixar’s design team can’t possibly up the ante any further, they produce something as magnificent as Coco. There are two scenes that show a stunning panoramic view of the Land of the Dead. The level of detail here is jaw-dropping, adding the kind of production value to the film that are on par with the spectacular mountain scenes in The Revenant. A generation ago, it would be unimaginable for a cartoon to rival images from real life in power, scope, and impact. But Coco delivers.


There are transformations a-plenty in this film. Miguel changes from hiding his talent to brandishing it with pride. De la Cruz falls from a hero on a pedestal to an evil villain. Hector is redeemed as a lost father to a cherished great-grandfather. And all of Miguel’s family transform from music haters to music lovers. It’s a wonderful change for practically the entire cast. As you mention, it is Miguel who is the catalyst for these changes. It’s his heart and drive that makes the change possible.


Coco is yet another triumph for Pixar and is perhaps the most emotionally fulfilling movie of the year. This film is proof that it is possible to shed a tear during a cartoon movie. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be deeply moved by Coco springing to life at the conclusion of this story. Besides great storytelling, Coco features some of the most remarkable CGI cartoon imagery the movie world has ever seen. This cinematic achievement earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Miguel’s hero’s journey is a bit unconventional but still contains all the classic elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth. Our hero is separated from his familiar world, receives help from friends, escapes from the proverbial belly of the whale, and acquires insight into his true identity. He also forever changes his family, too. I give our hero 5 Hero points out of 5. And because he transforms personally and also transforms others as well, I might as well award him 5 transformative Deltas out of 5, also.

Movie: Transformations:   Heroes:


Coco is a delight for adults and children alike. Filled with complex characters who each have a distinct desire, this film has a plot that drives forward from beginning to end. It avoids being macabre even though the majority of the action takes place in the netherworld. I give Coco 5 out of 5 Reels.

Miguel is a wonderful hero filled with ambition, hope, and naivete. We all want him to succeed in becoming the musician we know he can be. And his love of music both captivates and infects those around him making Miguel a catalytic hero. He helps to transform all his family and save his father from a fate worse than death. I give Miguel 5 out of 5 Heroes and Coco 5 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Justice League ••• 1/2

Starring: Ben AffleckGal GadotJason Momoa
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris TerrioJoss Whedon
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: November 17, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, can our review do justice to the latest DC franchise film?

 


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

Greg, our review is in a league of its own — which may or may not be a good thing. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Batman (Ben Affleck) hanging a hoodlum upside down from the side of a tall building in Gotham City. The hoodlum’s fear attracts a man-sized flying insect that Batman captures and it self destructs. Batman fears that with the passing of Superman (Henry Cavill), the galaxy knows that Earth is vulnerable to attack. He reaches out to Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot) for help, but she is reluctant to get involved. The two go in search of other heroes to help them in the coming attack.


The main villain is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who has lain dormant for thousands of years and now is hellbent on acquiring unlimited power from three mother boxes scattered around the globe. Batman and Wonder Woman know they’ll need to assemble a team, and so they find and recruit Arthur Curry as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen as The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone as Cyborg (Ray Fisher). When it becomes clear that they cannot defeat Steppenwolf without Superman’s help, they hatch a plan to resurrect the man of steel from his grave.


Scott, aside from this summer’s Wonder Woman, this is the best of the DC Extended Universe movies. But that’s not saying much. The film takes its time assembling its team of superheroes. To its credit, there are a number of scenes with heartfelt talks between characters. This is a welcome difference from the other films in this series (probably thanks in large part to a rewrite by Joss Whedon who is well-known for his character building).

The weak point in this film, as in most of the DCEU films, is the villain, This guy was just pure evil bent on the destruction of Earth for no reason other than he is cranky. And he’s not even the mastermind – the “motherbox” is apparently even bigger and badder than he is. If Steppenwolf is boring, then the motherbox is even worse. We don’t really know anything about it or its powers. And when it starts taking over the Chernobyl-like facility, all we see are scary black weeds. It’s hard to get invested in a villain that is mainly invisible.


Greg, slowly but surely, DC Films is finally acquiring an understanding of how to make a good superhero movie. You’re right about Joss Whedon’s fingerprints being all over this screenplay, and his influence gives this film a nice human touch. There’s also a concerted effort here to make superhero movies fun, an insight that Marvel figured out long ago.

In fact, my main criticism of Marvel superhero movies is that they are comedies with occasional dramatic moments. With Justice League, I see an attempt by DC Films to create a superhero movie that is a drama with occasional comedic moments. This latter approach works better for me, giving DC Films an edge once they master the formula, which they are close to doing.


There are other problems with DC Films. Among them being the poor quality Computer Graphics Imagery (CGI). The CGI in this film resembles cartoon drawings. Steppenwolf looked like a low-res XBOX 360 rendering. I’m stunned since it cost a reported $300MM to produce.

This is a good batch of heroes. Wonder Woman is more than just eye candy. She’s still reeling from the loss of Steve Trevor over 100 years ago. And she is a superior warrior as exposed in the opening scenes. Young Flash is entertaining as the newcomer to the scene. Cyborg, however, seems to have just the right superpowers that are needed at any point in time. But he is dealing with the man-vs-machine problem. Aquaman is hyper-masculine in what appears to be DC attempting to overcome the “lame” factor (YouTube.com). And then we have Batman, who has no real powers except, perhaps, leadership. Finally, Superman is back from the dead and he is more powerful than the rest of them combined.


The CGI didn’t bother me; in fact, I thought there was a cool, cruel, complexity to Steppenwolf’s look. The relevant flaw to me resides in the uni-dimensionality of this villain. Pure evil is rarely interesting, as you point out, Greg.

The transformations in this film were notable, beginning with the resurrection of Superman. We all knew it was coming, and they did a nice job of portraying his physical and mental transformations. Batman’s greying hair reveals that his physical decline is inevitable, unless of course they replace the aging Ben Affleck with a younger actor. His fragility makes him more of a liability than an asset to the team. Flash is portrayed as a young kid who provides comic relief, and his is a coming-of-age transformation story.


Justice League is an improvement over previous DCEU films. This “coming together” segment justifiably spent most of its time collecting the heroes into an ensemble and less time with the actual battle of good vs. evil. It’s not a terrible film, but DC has a long way to go to catch Marvel. I give Justice League just 3 out of 5 Reels.

The ensemble curated and led by Batman is a good group. They have, after all, been cultivated over decades since the launch of DC in the 1930s. It’s clear that Wonder Woman is the breakout star of the DCEU, rivaling the entertainment value of both Batman and Superman. I give these heroes 4 out of 5 Heroes.

You pretty well covered the transformations. Wonder Woman seems to have accepted the responsibility for saving the world that she hid from since the death of Steve Trevor. Cyborg is growing into his status as a superhero. Flash is still coming-of-age and is also finding his place in the league. I give these transformations 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movies: Transformations: Heroes:


For me, Justice League was not merely an improvement over previous DC Comics Films; it represents a triumph. Finally we are treated to a film with some heart and soul behind the capes and masks of our DC superheroes. If Marvel films give us superhero tales that are comedies, DC Films would be wise to continue making dramas sprinkled with comedic elements. There is an appealing simplicity to Justice League that gives it great entertainment value. I give the film 4 Reels out of 5.

I agree with you, Greg, that we have an impressive group of superheroes who engage in lively banter and enjoy sizzling chemistry. The ensemble must work together and overcome daunting obstacles to defeat Steppenwolf, and several of them must undergo significant transformative change to do so — Superman, especially. I give this super-crew a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5 and their transformations a rating of 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movies: Transformations: Heroes:

Murder on the Orient Express ••••

Starring: Kenneth BranaghPenélope CruzWillem Dafoe
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Michael GreenAgatha Christie
Crime/Drama/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


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

Greg, it looks like Hercule Poirot took the last train to Clarksville.


Stop monkeying around and let’s review Murder on the Orient Express.


In Jerusalem in 1934, the famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is in the process of solving a case. Afterward, he is called on a case in London and must board the Orient Express, slated to leave Istanbul. At first it appears that the train is completely booked but Poirot obtains passage thanks to his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who is the director of the Orient Express.


He meets an array of characters, among them gangster Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to enlist Poirot as his personal assistant – looking out for anyone trying to do him harm. Poirot declines pointing out that he chooses his company, and he does not want to be in the company of Ratchett. Later that night, Ratchett is found dead in his room with a dozen knife wounds in his chest. Poirot would rather start his vacation, but the game is afoot!


Greg, Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish re-make of two other films based on Agatha Christie’s iconic 1934 novel by the same name. Viewers may need to be fans of the mystery genre to appreciate this film, as there is a lot of talking between Poirot and the dozen suspects of the crime. These conversations are intelligent and witty, and it was fun watching Poirot struggle to put all the pieces together. Kenneth Branagh deserves kudos for bringing Poirot and his ridiculous mustache to life on the big screen once again.

It helps that this re-make is superbly cast. The assortment of colorful characters include Caroline Hubbard played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Hector MacQueen played by Josh Gad, and Gerhard Hardman played by Willem Dafoe. Depp also steps up his game in portraying the sleazy killer whom everyone wants dead. A prominent non-human character in the film is the beautiful yet foreboding Bulgarian mountain range that supplies the avalanche needed to give Poirot time to solve the case.


I had a good time with this film. Unlike other offerings this year, it was not a slam-bam fest. It was a thoughtful, humorous, and enjoyable two hours. Branagh’s Poirot, though, was a very monotone character – rarely raising his voice or even an eyebrow.

It has been a long time since I read “Murder on the Orient Express” in high school, so I didn’t remember the ending. It turns out that all the suspects took a stab at the villain. I was surprised that Poirot let them all go. I suppose it was his guilt at not responding to Armstrong’s letter that swayed him. I feel it made him just as guilty as the rest. But it’s hard to argue with Agatha Christie. I think she took a risk aligning her hero with killers. Perhaps sensibilities were different in the 1930s. But otherwise, Poirot is the classic “competent” hero.


Greg, I’d say you’ve put your finger on the heroic transformation of Poirot, if you could call it that. Remember, he is portrayed as having an OCD perfectionism that requires him to see the world in black-and-white terms. The circumstances of the murder compel Poirot to re-examine his rigidity and recognize the moral grey area surrounding the murder. Ratchett is a despicable man who got away with either killing or ruining the lives of several good people, and while this fact doesn’t excuse the taking of his life, it certainly does mitigate the immorality of the act. Poirot walks away from this grisly affair with a more nuanced understanding of justice, human nature, and human culpability.


Murder on the Orient Express is an enjoyable mystery, true to the original. It was not ambitiously paced which made for a relaxing movie-going experience. It has one of the most original endings of any mystery in history. The star-studded cast delivered and Branagh as Poirot was a treat. I give Murder on the Orient Express 4 out of 5 Reels.

Poirot is Poirot throughout and is the epitome of the “competent” hero. Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot was a bit on the reserved side. While Poirot himself is a reserved character, a few highs and lows would have been appreciated. I give this incarnation of Hercule Poirot 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Transformations are abundant in this film as we watch everyone on the train change from who we thought they were – into who they really were. But no one was particularly changed for the better. I give the perpetrators just 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


You’ve summed it up nicely, Gregger. Murder on the Orient Express delivers exactly what fans of mystery movies desire, namely, a smart and charismatic detective and an assortment of colorful suspects who supply a mix of intriguing clues. I agree that a rating of 4 Reels out of 5 is a fair assessment.

The hero’s journey is a bit stunted by the fact that Poirot is a recurring character with limited ability to grow or change from his journey. He also lacks good mentors or a love interest. I give his heroism a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5. Poirot does show a slight transformation toward appreciating moral nuance, and Ratchett transforms from alive to dead. The reality is that this genre of film isn’t about transformation, and so I give these characters 2 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: