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Spotlight ••••

Spotlight_(film)_posterStarring: Mark Ruffalo,  Michael Keaton,  Rachel McAdams
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Josh Singer,  Tom McCarthy
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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Scott, it’s time to shine a little light on our latest review.

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

I pray that we get this review right, Greg. Let’s recap.

It’s the year 2001 in Boston and the Boston Globe has a new editor. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has just read an article about how the Boston Archbishop Cardinal Law was accused of protecting a priest who was sexually abusing children. He directs Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) to take his crack investigative team, Spotlight, and dig deeper and see how far the accusations go.

One member of the Spotlight team, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), is assigned the task of interviewing Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney who represents a number of victims of priest molestations. Garabedian leaks information to Rezendes that the extent of the abuse scandal is far greater than it appears. The team shows resourcefulness in uncovering the names of 87 priests whose crimes were covered up by the church.

Scott, Spotlight is a great story of team problem solving. At first the Spotlight team believes they are trying to uncover a coverup of a single priest gone bad, they soon discover there are as many as 87 pedophile priests in the Boston archdiocese. As Robertson and his team work to learn as much as they can, they are thwarted at every turn by Bostonians who don’t want the secret out. It seems everyone wants to believe they live in a good town, and to let the truth out would make Boston look very bad. It’s Nationalism at the city level.

Spotlight is a movie cut from the same cloth as The Big Short. Both these movies expose the corruptive elements of our society and how leadership (if you can call it that) often turns a blind eye to malfeasance. For me, Spotlight works better than Big Short. In Spotlight, we enjoy nice continuity in following one team of heroes throughout the story whereas Big Short presents a scattered approach that is dissatisfying. We discuss the team as an important unit of heroic protagonist in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Spotlight showcases the workings of a heroic team in wonderful detail.

The heroes in this story are what we call catalyst heroes. They don’t transform themselves as a result of their journey (which is typical of the hero’s journey). Instead, catalyst heroes transform society. We’ve encountered catalytic heroes in other movies we’ve reviewed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. These Boston Globe journalists truly do shake things up in the Catholic Church, right some terrible wrongs, and better society as a result.

One could also argue that these heroes occupy a category of heroes called protectors. These are heroes who look out for the underdog. They help and protect the weak, the disadvantaged, and those who cannot protect themselves. So we have a team of catalytic protector heroes who do what needs to be done to correct injustices, protect others, and reform a corrupt system. In a sense, they are a team of superheroes.

You’re right, Scott. I call such movies “cause” films because they expose some cause the filmmakers think the public should know about. Often they resemble documentaries because the cause becomes more important than the story.

Spotlight overcomes this problem to a very large degree because it focuses on the people in the story. Not only the victims, but on the reporters and how the revelations affect them personally. You mention that the main characters don’t transform. But I did see a transformation in Robby Robertson. The pedophile story had been brought to his attention years earlier but he buried it in the Metro section of the paper. He overcame his guilt and shame to lead his team to a compelling story and discovery of a nationwide conspiracy within the church to hide widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic church.

When I look for mentors, I look for a character who gives guidance and support to the heroes. Marty Baron, the new editor of the Boston Globe, performs this role. He lays down the “call to adventure” when he challenges Robby Robertson and his team to investigate Cardinal Law. Robertson first “refuses the call” – because nobody challenges the church. But Baron persists and pushes the Spotlight team to dig ever deeper.

Good call about Marty Baron, Greg. This movie drives home the important point that it often takes exotic outsiders to effect change in people and in organizations. Baron is a Jew in a city dominated by Catholics. He’s also new in town, having moved to Boston from Florida. He couldn’t be more different from the status quo, and as such he brings fresh perspectives that challenge standard practices. The hero’s journey in classic mythology is rife with examples of exotic creatures from far away lands who magically appear before the hero to help him or her resolve whatever conflict the hero faces. Yoda from Star Wars is a striking modern example.

Baron represents the mentor who arrives on the scene, unsought by the Spotlight team and perhaps even unwelcome. Yet his impact is unmistakable and positive, as they grow to discover. Another type of mentor is the one who is actively sought out by the hero. During their investigation, the team seeks the guidance of a researcher in Baltimore who enlightens the team about the huge extent of the problem. Again, it is an outsider who helps the heroic team accomplish its mission.

One last point. As we’ve seen in other movies, Greg, heroes must often overcome the influence of dark mentors. There is an older male character named Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle) who represents the church and whose job is to fix problems for the church such as this one. He counsels Robby, or rather tries to counsel Robby, to ignore the problem because the city needs the church, etc. Robby will not drop the case and the dark mentoring attempt fails.

Spotlight is a surprisingly good “cause” movie – mainly because it focuses on the impact the story has on the principle characters. I was also impressed that such a star-studded ensemble cast shared the “spotlight” so well. Although, the personal lives of each character got little attention, so characterization was a bit thin. But I was entertained while I was educated, which is the goal of such a cause film, afterall. I give Spotlight 4 out of 5 Reels.

The main character in this story is Robby Robertson and he has a mild transformation. But it is the city of Boston that undergoes the transformation due to the efforts of the ensemble cast. This makes them a sort of “catalytic” team hero which I give 3 Heroes to.

The secondary characters also take on mentorship roles. There’s the dark mentor Conley that Scott mentioned. As well as the newcomer Marty Baron who can see things with eyes. Their mentorship isn’t as profound as it might have been. I give them just 3 out of 5 Cast Points.

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I think you pretty much nailed it, Greg. Spotlight shines a light on the dark workings of a religious organization that participated in a shameful cover-up of countless unspeakable crimes. This film is effective in portraying how a team of journalists finds its moral core so that it can shed light on a church that has lost its moral core. The acting, the pacing, and the storytelling are all exemplary. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The team of heroes at the Boston Globe are fun to watch as they unravel the mystery confronting them. They bring about transformative change to their community and to the Catholic church, and they deliver justice to hundreds of victims whose tragic stories never saw the light of day. Watching these heroes do their heroic work was gratifying. I give them 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting cast was strong and provided exactly what our team of heroes needed to do their job (or to make their heroic job harder). The work here is more than perfunctory but not quite exemplary. A rating of 3 out of 5 cast points seems reasonable here.

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The Big Short ••1/2

The_Big_Short_teaser_posterStarring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: December 23, 2015


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I thought this was a movie about oversized boxers.

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

It’s less about underwear than about underhanded dealings. Let’s recap.

It’s 2005 and  hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) predicts the housing market will collapse. He creates a credit default swap where he bets against the housing market. Nobody believes him and so his clients try to pull out of the fund. Meanwhile…

Hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers that stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is also involved in the credit default swap market. Baum wants more information before he barrels into these unprecedented investment waters, and he is shocked to learn that the housing market is about to burst. He and others are shown how they attempt to capitalize on the impending housing bubble. Meanwhile…

Recent college graduates Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) find a prospectus by Vennett. They call upon their buddy Ben Rikert (Brad Pitt) to help them get into the deal. They go to a Los Vegas convention where a mortgage security forum is taking place. With Ben’s help they make their deals. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Greg, I suppose I should be very interested in what The Big Short is telling us about greed and corruption in corporate America. After all, this movie spares no detail in illuminating the many ways that Americans like me were bamboozled by a bunch of white-collar scumbags who invented ways to make money at the expense of their country and every decent person around them. These fat-cats in suits were, in effect, organized criminals and thugs, preying on the innocent, selling their souls to the devil, and laughing all the way to the bank.

I do care about all that because, after all, it is a true story and this entire mess happened  only a few years ago. And I am very unhappy about it. I am not, however, a big fan of The Big Short. This movie did portray all this ugliness, and did it well, but it did so in the form of little vignettes about fat cats causing the mess and fat cats trying to gain financially  from the mess. The nitty gritty specifics of the shady dealings didn’t hold my interest and were, in fact, tedious.

I have to agree, although to a lesser extent. This was a documentary in a Hollywood wrapper. There were moments when the filmmakers wanted to explain something difficult so they tried to “dumb it down” by having it presented by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a roulette table. It wasn’t effective. Instead it was just confusing.

I don’t blame the “heroes” in this story for capitalizing by betting against the market. They were smart enough to see the bad debts coming due. What the film tries to do, and does it fairly well, is to show us just how intricate and corrupt the financial system is. Even the Standard and Poor’s ratings executives were afraid to downgrade the CDOs for fear of pissing off the big banks. Everyone was either covering their ass, or trying to profit from the bubble.

Exactly. This movie features a lot of players in the mortgage feeding frenzy, including main characters who appear to be neither heroes nor villains but just people out to make a buck. I didn’t have any feelings for the majority of the players. For example, are we supposed to feel badly for Michael Burry that his foresight about the housing bubble, and his scheme to make money from this foresight, was going unrewarded?

The closest thing to a hero in this movie would be Mark Baum, who starts out as a bitter, brooding man solely motivated by profit like everyone else in this film. Yet as the horror of the mortgage mess unfolds, Baum slowly transforms into a man who recaptures his humanity. Also, Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert, shows some empathic concern for others when he schools a couple of young upstarts about the increased mortality rate associated with bad economic data. So there are two characters at least, Baum and Rickert, who are chasing a buck like everyone else but who at least pause for a moment to consider the human cost of this financial disaster.

Yeah, this was a pretty tedious story. The filmmakers tried to give Baum a transformation by sharing with us his tragic loss. His brother had committed suicide and when he had a chance to help him, he just offered him money. Baum is idealistic and realizes that he can’t fix the world and ultimately forgives himself. It’s all a bit clumsy and pretty uninteresting.

Scott, The Big Short is what I call a “cause” film. It isn’t about the story, it’s about telling the world about some “cause” important to the filmmakers. As such, the cause becomes the hero of the story and the elements of good storytelling are left behind. Especially in this film, there are no heroes – only a tragedy that needs to be exposed. Frankly, such causes should be left to documentaries.

You’re right, Greg. The Big Short is short on plot, short on character development, and short on heroes. It explains the 2008 financial crisis in far more detail than anyone cares to hear. The film did drive home the point that our elected officials and private corporations are not to be trusted to look out for our best interest — but wait, hasn’t that always been obvious? The one thing I did learn was never order seafood stew when dining at a restaurant. You’ll have to see this movie to understand this fishy metaphor. Overall, I felt shortchanged by The Big Short. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

There is no hero story, unless you walk away believing that all these money-chasers somehow learned their lesson about unbridled greed. I doubt that they did. Perhaps their transformation resided in their newfound lesson in how to milk the system in sneakier ways, or how not to get caught when exploiting others. I’m not sure. Yes, Mark Baum finds some semblance of his humanity, but his awakening hardly qualifies as a hero’s journey. I award these heroes (ahem) 1 Hero out of 5.

The supporting characters do a commendable job of pursuing their greedy lifestyles and trying to find the best way to make a buck. It was a bit jarring seeing Steve Carell in a non-comedic role and he somehow pulled it off with skill and alacrity. I wonder if the villain in this story is time itself. Everything is about timing the market, getting in on the deal on time, the timing of the housing bubble, the time that investors give a broker to earn a profit, etc. Overall, the players in this movie did their jobs fairly well and so I can see giving them 3 cast rating points out of 5.

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The Big Short comes up short in making me care about anyone in this film. However, I did walk away better informed about the 2007 housing market collapse. As such, this “cause” film delivered on its goals. I give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

The lead characters were not the heroes of the story – the market collapse was. And that rates only 1 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast was stellar. We’ve seen big-star-casts before that deliver a disappointment, but The Big Short does a great job of integrating all these talents. I think the villain in this movie is the big banks and government. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Brooklyn •••

Brooklyn_FilmPosterStarring: Saoirse RonanEmory CohenDomhnall Gleeson
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick HornbyColm Tóibín
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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

Don’t know why, but I expected a leprechaun or two to be in this next movie.

I thought a tree grew in it. Regardless, let’s recap…

We meet a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in Ireland with her mother and older sister named Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis works in a shop run by Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), a cruel and insensitive town gossip. Wanting a better life for Eilis, Rose arranges for her sister to travel to America where she will work in a department store in Brooklyn.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn her benefactor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), enrolls her in an accounting class and finds shelter for her in an Irish boarding home. Eilis is wracked with homesickness. That is until she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen). Tony is an Italian lad with a fondness for Irish lasses. He introduces her to the better things in Brooklyn.

Greg, Brooklyn is a sweet movie about an insecure young woman who is cast from her familiar home into a new world 4,000 miles away. We watch her struggle with shyness, self-confidence, and homesickness. She has such a good heart that we worry that she’ll fall into the wrong crowd or fall for the wrong man. But she manages to steer her life in a positive direction, even meeting and falling in love with a young man who to our surprise is good for her.

Just as she’s hitting her stride, she’s called home to help out her mom. In most hero stories, returning home is the endpoint of the journey, but in this case returning home becomes a stern test for our young hero. She starts to fall for an Irish young man and is gradually pulled into the possibility of remaining in Ireland rather than returning to her life in New York. Only an encounter with a bitter nemesis awakens her to the reality of her true calling to be with her new young man in Brooklyn. It’s an effective hero’s journey about a woman coming of age. I enjoyed it.

Scott, I think I hated this movie for all the reasons you liked it. At every turn when you thought something might go wrong for our hero, it didn’t. She breaks down in tears at work because she’s homesick – so she might get fired: she doesn’t. She sits across from two gossipy girls in the boarding home – so they might be catty and treat her badly: they become best friends. She meets a boy who makes love to her – she might get caught, thrown out of her boarding home, or get pregnant: she doesn’t. She goes home to Ireland and pretends she isn’t married – so she might get caught and disgraced: she doesn’t. Every time we think the story might take an interesting turn – it simply doesn’t. This movie plays it safe from beginning to end and I was bored to tears.

You could call it playing it safe, Greg, or you could call it a refreshing change of pace from the same old predictable storylines of Hollywood movies. Yes, the young man she meets would have been an abusive jerk in most other movies. How nice that he turns out unexpectedly to be good for her! Yes, the Catholic priest who helps her could have been a perverted creep who ends up steering her in the wrong direction, but how nice that we have a movie in which a priest is actually a kind, decent person. When is the last time that happened in the movies?

Our hero Eilis has plenty of challenges and setbacks with which to grapple. She gets dreadfully ill on the voyage to America and must adapt to countless unfamiliar situations and odd norms in the new land. She struggles with shyness and terrible homesickness. Her sister’s death certainly set her back, as did her mother’s expectation to come home and stay home longer than she would have preferred. There is also the temptation to cheat on her husband which, for the most part, she manages to resist. Refreshingly, none of these story elements follow the traditional script from the big movie studios. I applaud this film’s willingness to risk deviating from established Hollywood norms.

If being facile is bucking the Hollywood norm, I’ll take the Hollywood norm, thank you very much. Eilis is what we in the writing world call a “Mary Sue” (a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting – Wikipedia). Things just don’t go wrong for her. The only real conflict in this story is when she has to choose between an Irish man (Jim Farell played by Domhnall Gleeson) and Tony back in America. When she gets caught in her lie we think there might be a bit of conflict. But no. She simply admits her error and returns home to Tony and the story ends. No consequences at all. She doesn’t even face her Irish lover. She leaves a lousy note. There’s no conflict, no tension, and so no catharsis.

This story follows the Hero’s Journey in only the most superficial of ways. The hero starts out in her ordinary world (Ireland) and travels to a special world (America) where she should meet enemies, allies and is tested. But where are the enemies in this story? There are none. She has allies a-plenty. And her trials are … learning to spin spaghetti on a spoon and wearing a bathing suit on Coney Island.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a beautifully shot movie with outstanding performances from young actors Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen (and isn’t Domhnall Gleeson everywhere these days?). But it is so sanitized in its portrayal of Irish/Italian relations that it reminds me of a Disney movie with Eilis as a Disney princess. This movie is little more than Oscar bait. And the Academy has taken this bait hook, line, and sinker.

Her primary enemy is herself. The Self as a villain figure occupies a prominent place in our model of villainy outlined in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains. In 2015 we encountered the Self as a villain in movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. In this current movie, Brooklyn, Eilis battles her shyness, lack of self-confidence, and naiveté about the world. Heroes who struggle with deficiencies in their personal life do not let these deficits define them; they find ways to overcome their shortcomings and triumph in the end. It’s enjoyable to watch Eilis’s transformation unfold. She’s very much a delicate flower that must grow through some stormy weather conditions to emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever.

The supporting characters are pillars of strength in this movie. Tony and his family are a colorful lot, especially Tony’s eight-year-old brother Freddie (James DiGiacomo) who added some delightful comic relief to the film. Eilis is helped on her journey by a number of helpful older figures, such as Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), her landlady (Mrs. Keough played by Julie Walters), and her supervisor at work (Miss Fortini played by Jessica Paré). Back in Ireland there are a pair of dark mentors she must overcome, including her mother and Miss Kelly, whose provincial nastiness awakens Eilise to her essential calling to resume her transformed life in America.

If you want this to be a story of Eilis versus herself, she would have to fail due to her inner problems. We saw this to the extreme in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Davis was a character with true inner demons that threatened to not only upend his dreams,, but ultimately resulted in his destruction. We don’t see that in Brooklyn. All of Eilis’s flaws are mere inconveniences which were overcome in the simplest ways. I can’t agree that this is a woman-vs-self story. It’s just a villain-less coming of age story – and quite dull as a result.

I’m glad you mentioned the little tyke Freddie. Here was a character who hinted at the fact that Italians and Irish didn’t get along in 1950s Brooklyn. But his racism is laughed off by the rest of the family. And the strange thing is that he apparently learned this racism from his older brothers. It’s often the case that a child is placed in a script to say the things adults don’t dare say. This may be a new character type for our list, Scott – the (innocent or naive) child as the outer voice of the inner thoughts of adults.

Brooklyn offers a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young woman who is thrown into a dangerous new world where she is compelled to grow in several meaningful ways. This film refreshingly defies stereotypes about people and about situations, surprising us with a delightful tale of heroic transformation. It also occurs to me that this film owes its success to the fact that relatively unknown actors populate the screen. These fresh talented faces added realism and texture to a movie that transfixes us with authentic images and ambience from a bygone era in America. I’m more than happy to award Brooklyn 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey can be characterized as Woman versus Self, as our hero Eilis must overcome her timidity and naivete to succeed in transitioning from Ireland to America. Moreover, in what amounts to a second hero’s journey, her return to Ireland presents her temptations to undo all the growth she achieved in America. Her character development is revealed in her ability to defy these temptations. If I have a criticism of this journey, it is that her character should be far more sensible than to spend every waking hour in Ireland with Jim Ferrell. This temptation seems forced and not in keeping with her normally rational nature. One final note — it is nice to see, at the film’s conclusion, Eilis serving as a mentor to another young girl making the voyage to America. We saw this mentee to mentor transformation in the film Joy earlier this year. Overall, Eilis’s hero’s journey merits 4 Heroes out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the supporting team of players are superb. Their colorful, quirky, and memorable presence in the film serve as an effective foil to Eilis’s rather staid and understated character. I am especially happy that this movie steers clear of traditional Hollywood stereotypes of evil priests and abusive boyfriends. Elise is helped along her journey by a trio of wonderful mentors and she deftly sidesteps a pair of dark mentors. Overall, all these characters earn 4 cast rating points out of 5.

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I’m wondering if we saw the same movie? Brooklyn is a safe bet. It portrays 1950s Brooklyn through the lens of a 1950s sensibility. Our hero, Eilis, is never in any danger because she’s constantly surrounded by supportive mentors. What some might call a breath of fresh air I call a passive delivery of a non-story. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I give Brooklyn just 2 Reels out of 5.

Eilis is a terribly uninteresting character who grows from a naive young woman to a worldly young woman. Not through any challenges she had, but by careful hand-holding of several good mentors. She has a nice temptation when she returns to Ireland, which was interesting. But it was unraveled in the most uninteresting way. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was an autobiography where the writer couldn’t reveal her darker inner self. The bit where Eilis becomes the mentor to a young passenger on her way back to America is a nice touch, but was virtually telescoped from the beginning. I give Eilis just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The secondary characters in this story were such stereotypes as to be cardboard cutouts verging on caricatures. There’s the kindly Irish priest, the shrewish neighborhood gossip, the boy next door, and the best girlfriends. Not a single character stands out as someone I might remember the next day. I literally had to look up all the character’s names on the Internet because none of them left a lasting impression (except the impetuous tyke Freddy – the most memorable character in the movie). I give these secondary characters just 1 Cast point out of 5.

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Creed ••••

Creed_posterStarring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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Apollo… Adonis… and … Rocky? Is this a Greek Tragedy?

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

Sophocles is not listed as the screenplay writer. So this must be Creed, the latest installment of the 40-year-old Rocky franchise. Let’s recap.

We meet young Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan). He’s the love child of the late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. While he’s been raised in a wealthy home and has a nice cushy job in a securities firm, he’s always wanted to prove himself to be as good a boxer as his father. He travels to Philadelphia in search of the former great boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him to fight in the ring.

Rocky declines to train Adonis, forcing the young boxer to scrounge around for others to train him in their spare time. Adonis stays in touch with Rocky and eventually convinces him to be his trainer. Meanwhile, world boxing champion Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) from England discovers that Adonis is Apollo Creed’s son and becomes eager to fight Adonis for the championship. The remainder of the movie shows us how both Adonis and Rocky must overcome big obstacles to meet their challenges.

Scott, Creed had the potential to be a seriously bad movie. While the original Rocky movie is a classic, the sequels have left most viewers wanting. In fact, it is quite the cultural joke that the Rocky sequels would go on without end, with the quality getting ever worse. (Consider this image from Airplane 2). But Creed is a fresh story that draws upon the best of the original Rocky franchise had to offer. There are certain elements that are the same: a washed up mentor, a young earnest up-and-coming fighter, a beautiful girl, and a seemingly invincible opponent. Creed is as good as the original.

Greg, I have to admit, Creed caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting a movie with emotional and narrative depth to it, but that’s what Creed delivers. As with many aging superstar actors from the 1970s, Sylvester Stallone has graduated from action hero to mentor figure. Yet in this film, Rocky Balboa is far more than mere mentor. He is a heroic figure in his own right, an equal buddy hero to young Adonis Creed who aspires to become the next Rocky.

Yes, Rocky is still a fighter, but now he fights a deadly disease instead of fighting adversaries. This movie handles Rocky’s illness with great sensitivity and grace. Rocky wants no part of a cure that didn’t help his wife Adrian, and Adonis wants no part of Rocky giving up on life. As befitting a good buddy hero story, the two men help each other undergo the transformations necessary to achieve their goals. The result is a surprisingly moving story about characters we grow to care about deeply.

It’s interesting that you call this a buddy hero story, Scott. Because it has many of the elements of the buddy hero story (two characters who start out disliking each other who come together in a unified purpose). However, Rocky is clearly a mentor character to Adonis. I’m reminded of The Karate Kid. Mr. Miagi did not want to mentor young Daniel-San. It was Miagi who had the “Refusal of the Call” – refusing to mentor Daniel. Similarly, it is Rocky who initially refuses to mentor young Adonis. I’m wondering if this is a new heroic duo – the Hero/Mentor pair. That would make the mentor (in this case) equal to the hero in the story – not a secondary character.

Exactly. You’ve described this hybrid perfectly. Usually mentors occupy secondary roles but in Creed we have a mentor who is thrown into his own personal hero’s journey, receives as much screen-time as his mentee, and benefits from the assistance of the mentee. The mentor’s story and the mentee’s story are intertwined and bounce off each other in interesting and surprising ways.

Greg, I’m noticing a pattern among the supporting characters in movies about sports heroes. In both this film and in My All-American, the hero receives aid from three different sources. Each of these three helpers assists the hero in transforming in a different way. First, there is the childhood mentor who gets our hero’s life off to a good start. In Creed it is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who rescues Adonis from foster care. She is no doubt a hero to Adonis, giving him the love and direction he so desperately needs to succeed in life.

Second, there is the current-day trainer who enables the hero to acquire the physical skills necessary to achieve his heroic goal. Rocky Balboa assumes this role in Creed. Third, the hero meets a woman who provides the love and emotional encouragement that he needs to triumph. All three of these allies are instrumental in helping the hero transform mentally, physically, and emotionally.

That’s a good observation. I think we could do a series on sports heroes and how they parallel other heroes journeys.

Creed is a surprisingly good heroic journey that just happens to be a sports movie. There is a lot to admire here. The roots of this movie reach back to the original Rocky films to launch a new hero in Adonis. We get strong performances from the two leads and a story that is emotionally satisfying. I did find the relationship between Adonis and Bianca a bit forced. It wasn’t necessary for the story – not nearly so much as Adrian was to Rocky. I give Creed 4 out of 5 Reels.

I’m perplexed as to whether this is a buddy hero story or if Adonis is the hero supported by Rocky as mentor. If it is a hybrid, as you call it, then I’d have to rate the duo rather than Adonis alone as hero. Certainly Adonis overcomes his missing inner quality of feeling like Apollo Creed’s mistake. He comes into his own by the end of the movie. And Rocky successfully passes the torch to the younger generation. And there’s the added benefit that Rocky has honored Apollo’s memory by training his son. I give the pair 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting players were less impressive than the leads. There were an assortment of boxers for Adonis to spar with. They were not very interesting. The villain was not as clearly defined as in other films. There were two boxers Adonis had to beat to overcome his feelings of inadequacy. But they weren’t really villains – just obstacles. The villain here, more than anything, was Adonis’s own inner turmoil. The girlfriend Bianca was a typical romantic interest. Adonis’s mother isn’t in it much. Overall, it was a pretty bland backdrop of supporting characters that I can only give 3 out of 5 Cast points to.

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Creed also surprised me by giving us an intelligent story about two men whose lives intersect and who both benefit greatly from the intersection. Adonis Creed is looking to establish his identity and needs Rocky Balboa to achieve this goal. Rocky himself is a man teetering on the edge of geezerdom and needs Adonis to give him purpose and a reason to fight a deadly illness. This story had no business captivating me and moving me to tears, but it did exactly that. I’m happy to award Creed 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story follows the classic buddy-hero pattern but also has obvious elements of the hero-mentor pattern as well. I view it as a hero-mentor story on steroids. Our two protagonists transform in meaningful ways and they rely on each other to acquire personal qualities necessary for these transformations. The dual hero’s journeys here take some surprising turns and are both satisfying and robust. I have to award our duo 5 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are effective but also a bit uneven in this film. Ricky Conlan provides just the right amount of menace in and out of the boxing ring. But none of the remaining secondary characters stand out in any memorable way. Perhaps this is because Creed is first and foremost a story that zeroes in on the interdependent lives of two men, Adonis and Rocky. I give the supporting characters 3 rating points out of 5.

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Burnt •••

Burnt_Poster_UpdatedStarring:Bradley CooperSienna MillerDaniel Brühl
Director:John Wells
Screenplay:Steven KnightMichael Kalesniko
Comedy, Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Date: October 30, 2015


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

Greg, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

We’ve been burnt by Hollywood before. Let’s see how Burnt stacks up…

We meet a thirty-something man named Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), who was a chef at one of the best restaurants in Paris a few years earlier. Adam’s drug and alcohol addiction, along with his anger management issues, caused him to self-destruct. He also brought down the Parisian restaurant and sullied the careers of several of his chef colleagues, too. Adam exiled himself to New Orleans where he punished himself by shucking one million oysters. Now he is in London and ready to redeem his image by obtaining the highly coveted third Michelin star.

Adam approaches his ol (but no longer) friend Tony (Daniel Brühl) and tells him he’s going to take over the restaurant. Adam gathers “the usual suspects” – old friends from his days as a young chef: Michel, Max, and a young up-and-coming chef Helene – who really doesn’t like him that much. And for good measure, the drug dealers Adam left high and dry come circling around looking for the money Adam owes them. Finally, Adam has pissed off an old friend (Reece) who is top chef at a local restaurant and vows to put him out of business. And we’re off…

Greg, I’m no chef, and in fact I’m a danger to myself and others in the kitchen. But I know a good story when I see one, and Burnt delivers up a flavorful story about a man seeking redemption. The most satisfying part of the plotline is that his atonement plan does not unfold the way he anticipates, which evokes plenty of pain and resistance but also a much greater payoff in the end.

Bradley Cooper is cast perfectly for this role. His character has just enough madness and relentless mania to be an intimidating force and dysfunctional leader in the kitchen. Yet he also has just enough intelligence and sensitivity to avoid being too far gone and beyond hope once things go horribly awry. It’s a nice balancing act that Cooper plays to perfection. His hero’s journey is complex, volatile, and an uncomfortable joy to watch.

I also enjoyed Burnt. My daughter is in the fine dining business and Cooper as Adam plays a part reminiscent of people I’ve met. He’s dedicated, passionate, demanding, and a little mad. Adam is brash and arrogant – so much so that he entices a food critic (Uma Thurman) to try is food. Her review is enough to get him promoted to top chef. It’s a brazen move and as an audience we are immediately won over.

Adam pushes his staff to the brink of exhaustion. Every night, the staff get together and cook a meal for themselves. Adam never takes part – he feels the need to distance himself from the rest of the staff – both a professional and a personal distance. By the end of the film, though, he has a complete turn of face and realizes that his staff are not his employees – but his family. And in a touching moment sits to break bread with them.

Yes, exactly Greg. Adam Jones’ missing qualities include a much-needed dose of humility and an ability to play as a team and be part of a family. These deficits set the stage for his transformation. By missing these qualities, he ends up alienating himself from the very people who are needed for him to accomplish his mission.

His low point – when he believes he has failed to acquire the highly coveted third star – is the point at which his transformation takes place. As is often the case in hero stories, only when the hero’s ego has been deconstructed is he or she open to change. We see this rock bottom point in countless hero stories, and it is always so very satisfying to see the hero change and grow in response to this desperate situation.

The rest of the cast is a bit mundane. There is no real mentor in the story, except perhaps Adam’s teacher – Jean Luc – who died while Adam was touring the world in a self-absorbed mission to eat a million oysters. This is a rare “dead” mentor who advises from the grave. Helene, is sadly, the typical romantic interest. Michel plays the old friend who happens to be gay and is secretly in love with Adam – which makes for an interesting bit of a love triangle. But this is Adam’s story and the supporting cast are less memorable artifices designed to showcase Cooper in another manic performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Burnt serves up some delicious fare with its rich, tasty hero story peppered with several interesting allies and garnished (or should I say tarnished?) with a not-so-surprising villainous figure. Bradley Cooper once again proves himself to be one of the hottest, if not the hottest, male leading actor in Hollywood. His intelligent freneticism grabs and holds our attention, and we are emotionally moved by his hero’s journey. The only weakness in the movie was that it dragged on a bit too long and may have been a tad too predictable. I’ll award Burnt 3 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey is top-notch and enjoys a richness not seen in most stories of redemption. Adam Jones is a complicated and tragic figure, and he has already has changed by the time we meet him early in the story. Little does he know that significantly more change awaits him and is necessary for him to complete his journey. Good call, Greg, on identifying Jean Luc as the “mentor from afar” whom we never meet but is referenced repeatedly. We’ve seen this in previous movies this past year including A Walk in the Woods and The Martian. I give our hero Adam here a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

I enjoyed the supporting characters very much. Adam has not one but two love interests, one female and one male. They play important roles in helping, hurting, and distracting Adam while he’s on his journey. There is also a rival chef who helps him recover from a “slip”. His entire team of chefs in the kitchen are important characters, too, as is the restaurant’s maître d’. I can easily award this group of supporting people a rating of 4 out of 5.

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Well, Scott, I think Burnt was especially made just for your brand of food-based metaphors. I agree that Bradley Cooper delivers in this film. He brings a manic focus to the character that in other hands would look cartoonish. I enjoyed this film, but I think it was a bit too formulaic and predictable for my tastes. I appreciated the catharsis of Adam’s rebirth, but I found the film largely forgettable. I can only mustard [sic] 3 out of 5 Reels.

Adam is a wonderful hero and his arc is gratifying. He starts out self-absorbed but filled with passion. He tries to woo the young female chef, but she isn’t taken in by his charm. It isn’t until he believes he has hit rock bottom that he learns a bit of humility and empathy for others. I give him 4 out of 5 Heroes.

I felt the supporting cast was serviceable but not engaging. Everyone seemed to fall into the background, overshadowed by Cooper’s fiery presence. Even the woman from his past was only present to solve his financial problems in the end. It’s all a little too simplistic for me. I give them all just 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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The Walk •••1/2

The_Walk_(2015_film)_posterStarring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
Adventure/biography/drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 123 mintues
Release Date: October 9, 2015


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Well it won’t be a walk in the park, but we should review The Walk.

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

This movie is less about walking and more about sphincter-tightening acrobatics. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to a young Parisian Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is getting kicked out of his family home because all he wants to do with his life is walk the high-wire. While at the dentist’s office, he sees a picture of the under-construction World Trade Center Towers in NYC. He is immediately enamoured of the idea of walking a tightrope between the two towers.

But first Philippe must practice his craft and raise money to accomplish his dream. He meets Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), an older man who runs a local circus troupe. Papa Rudy sees potential in young Philippe and begins to mentor the young man about knots, techniques, and the psychological aspects of walking on tightropes. Philippe illegally walks between the two towers at Notre Dame and soon begins attracting a following. Meanwhile, he assembles a team of helpers and the financial resources to fulfill his ambition to walk the Twin Towers.

Scott, The Walk was an unexpected pleasure. Joseph Gordon-Levitt really shines in this role. I fell in love with his passion for tightrope walking from the instant I met young Philippe. The story unfolds with Philippe as a youth and we grow with him as he gets more and more proficient at his craft. We’re witness to the extremes he must go to – and the incredible focus he must possess – in order to accomplish his goal.

If there is one thing I can complain about in this film, is that director Robert Zemeckis insisted that Gordon-Levitt narrate the entire story. As if he could not trust himself to tell a story that was delivered on-screen. The age-old adage of writing still is true: “Show, don’t Tell.” And there was an abundance of telling in this movie. As I was watching, I tried to figure out what was missing in the showing that needed so much telling. And I couldn’t discern it. Except that the film would have been about 20 minutes shorter – the narration was an unnecessary distraction.

The Walk gives us an inside peek into a man’s obsessive dream to accomplish a physical feat that appears to have no redeeming value other than it demands courage and perseverance. I use the word “appears” because it could be argued that the audacity shown by Philippe in this movie is no different from the audacity shown by the astronauts in The Martian to study Mars. This movie showcases the pervasive human drive to test the limits of human skill and endurance in accomplishing daring physical feats.

As with any good hero, Philippe undergoes an important transformation during this story. His dream by itself is not enough; he must hone important techniques and acquire self-confidence. Moreover, he must acquire leadership skills and a willingness to learn from the master himself, Papa Rudy. Once successful, Philippe enjoys a newfound maturity and sense of utter accomplishment. And along the way, he remains open to receiving assistance from numerous friends and allies, not to mention a prominent love interest. Overall, The Walk tells a good solid hero story.

I couldn’t agree with you more, Scott. The Walk is a classic hero’s journey and Zemeckis is well-schooled in telling just such stories. There are even (farcical) conspiracy stories about how Zemeckis is fulfilling a prophecy he foretold in Back to the Future 2. But I digress. Philippe’s “coup’ – or clique of accomplishes – is forged when he pulls in the support of Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). She becomes his romantic interest and greatest supporter. Second is Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) whom Philippe makes his ‘official’ photographer. Slowly, Philippe gathers together a small entourage of followers who are dedicated to helping him conquer his beast – the World Trade Center Towers.

You are correct in pointing out all the very capable supporting characters in this film. Let’s not forget the villainous forces that oppose young Philippe. There is the New York Police Department, an institution that frowns upon our French hero’s ambitions. At least a half-dozen cops play minor roles as the face of this institution. Another obstacle are a couple of Philippe’s friends who are not up to the task of helping him, or who are barely up to snuff. One of them, for example, has an extreme fear of heights — not exactly the man you want helping you set up the high wire 1200 feet above ground..

One nice touch in this film was the decision to show Annie leaving Philippe after he has succeeded in walking the tightrope between the towers. I applaud the filmmakers for including this scene, as it tells us that women are far more than mere supporters of the dreams of men. Women have their own lives and their own dreams to fulfill, without a man’s help. Well done.

The Walk is a dizzying display of heroic accomplishment and the allies necessary to make dreams come true. Philippe Petit’s story would be unfathomable if it weren’t absolutely true. While I hope this film doesn’t inspire any young people to risk their lives in death defying feats, I am sure The Walk will inspire many young people to go forward to achieve their dreams. I give The Walk 4 out of 5 Reels.

Philippe Petit is everything we look for in a hero. He’s determined, charismatic, and bigger than life. He even has devastating fears that make him all the more human. I give him 4 out of 5 Heroes.

And his supporting cast is both rich and diverse. Philippe combines friends from France as well as new friends from the USA. We’re treated to a love interest, a scribe, and even an ally who faces his own fears and overcomes them with Philippe’s help. The one thing missing was a strong villain – but I suppose the combination of the heights of the Twin Towers and the forces of gravity fill that role. I give the supporting cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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The Walk is a fun and pleasant movie about a man with a dream to accomplish a feat that is utterly useless to humanity but is essential for the man’s sense of self-completion. This film is fanciful and endearing in its style of presentation and in its portrayal of loyal, loving characters who support our hero’s dream. The movie earns a respectable 3 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve mentioned, our hero Philippe travels a full hero’s journey replete with friends, a lover, a mentor, and an institutional villain. As befitting a hero, he undergoes both physical and emotional transformations. Does he give anything back to society at the end? Not really, or at least not directly. Perhaps he has inspired thousands of people to follow their dreams, and in the end, that is quite a gift in itself. I can easily award young, audacious Philippe a worthy 4 Heroes out of 5.

I agree with you, Greg, that the supporting characters are a worthy collection of diverse people who make Philippe’s extraordinary feat possible. Even the pathetic cops are enjoyable in their failed attempt to thwart our hero. Three cast points out of 5 seems appropriate indeed.

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The Perfect Guy ••1/2

ThePerfectGuyPosterStarring: Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy, Morris Chestnut
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Screenplay: Alan B. McElroy, Tyger Williams
Drama/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: September 11, 2015


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

Greg, it’s a perfect time to review this next movie.

Yes, it’s Fatal Attraction for a new generation. Let’s recap.

Thirty-six-year-old Leah (Sanaa Lathan) and her boyfriend Dave (Morris Chestnut) are having relationship woes. She can feel her biological clock ticking away, and she wants to have a family. But Dave doesn’t. The issue is a dealbreaker for her, so she dumps him. Now Leah is back in the dating world, trying to get over Dave and move on with her life…

… when she meets Carter (Michael Ealy) – a very nice guy who brings flowers to her mother and Giants tickets to her father. He ingratiates himself to Leah, her family, and her best friends. But one night while getting gas, Carter get jealous when a man is admiring his car – which Carter mistook for unwelcome admiration of Leah. Carter beats the living tar out of the man. Leah tells him she never wants to see him again, but Carter begins stalking her. Leah appeals to the police but their hands are tied. Now it’s a game of cat and mouse as Carter advances, and Leah retreats.

Greg, by calling itself The Perfect Guy, this movie gives away its premise, namely, that some poor woman is going to fall for a guy who seems too good to be true — and is. So right off the bat, we know exactly what will happen, but we don’t know how it will happen. The strength of the movie lies in its execution: Are the characters interesting, do they have depth, do they grow or change in any significant way, does the hero captivate us, etc. In short, can this movie overcome its self-inflicted predictability?

Sadly, the answer to all these questions is “not so much”. To be sure, this is a movie that is hard to dislike, thanks in large part to the sweet girl-next-door appeal of our hero Leah, who has a good heart and rotten luck with men. Her first beau, Dave, isn’t a bad guy at all; he just isn’t ready for children. We can’t even blame Leah for falling for Carter, who does and says all the right things. Herein lies the appeal of the story. We’ve all been in Leah’s shoes. We know what a risk it is to meet complete strangers and begin dating them. We’ve all seen Fatal Attraction and in the back of our minds lurks the fearful possibility that we’re falling for a Glenn Close-like character.

The Perfect Guy reminds me of last year’s No Good Deed. In it, a woman helps a man who is on the run. He seems nice enough at first, but ultimately the movie turns into a long chase scene with the plucky damsel in distress ultimately doing in the bad guy. Here, Leah does everything she should do (including calling the police) but Carter keeps coming back. The movie ends with Leah killing Carter with a shotgun.

Leah is a pretty good hero. She’s smart and resourceful. She doesn’t fall into a lump and cry because she doesn’t like her situation. She changes her phone number. She calls the police. She asserts herself and gets a restraining order. She learns to shoot a gun. This is a take-charge woman who knows what she wants.

I agree, Greg, that Leah’s hero’s journey is fairly solid. At first she lacks the ability to take control of her life and survive the threat that Carter represents. With the help of her police mentor, Detective Hansen (Holt McCallany), she learns to become self-sufficient and gains self-confidence in the process. At the beginning of the movie, this is a woman who is vulnerable; by the movie’s end, this is a woman you don’t want to mess with. She also discovers an important truth: It isn’t easy to find and fall in love with the right person, and so when you do, it’s best not to let anything come between you and the well-being of that relationship.

The supporting characters are limited in size but quite strong. Carter was indeed a wonderful guy on the surface and would have fooled me, too. He’s an effective deceptive villain. Dave is a sweet friend and lover to Leah, a strong, silent type. Detective Hansen is a bit stereotypical as the police sergeant who is limited in what he can do to help Leah, but he emerges as an indispensable help to her. Leah’s two girlfriends are rather forgettable. But overall, as with the hero’s story, we have a solid herd of supporting characters.

I liked that they gave Carter a bit of backstory to explain his evil ways. You see, Carter was adopted. And he felt abandoned by the fact that his birth parents didn’t want him. This avoids the “pure evil” character that we warn about in our book “Reel Heroes & Villains.” You want your villain to have a pain that he succumbs to – as a way of explaining why the villain turned to evil.

The Perfect Guy isn’t the perfect movie. It isn’t the perfect horror. Nor is it the perfect thriller. But it is a good way to pass a couple hours in the dark. The one thing that left me wondering is a scene Leah has with her mother. She asks Mom how she knew Dad was the one. Mom replies that he was persistent – no matter how many times she said no, he still kept on trying. It’s a nice little story. But it, too, smacks of stalking. What’s the lesson then? I don’t think anyone can parse a lesson out of this film which is why I give it a middling score of 3 out of 5 Reels.

Leah is a decent hero. As you point out, Scott, she travels a nice arc from being vulnerable to being able to fend for herself. We don’t get much backstory for her, though. It is apparently enough that she is a mature woman of thirty-something and naturally wants children. We don’t see any negative traits to her, aside from throwing out a perfectly good man just because he isn’t ready to procreate. I give Leah just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And our secondary characters are pretty much par for the course. I enjoyed Michael Ealy’s Carter character. He was likable and sinister at the same time. The other characters (Detective Hanson, Mom and Dad, the dueling BFFs) were hardly worth writing home about. Not to mention (we almost didn’t) the bland next door neighbor who you knew was going to die from the moment you see her on the screen. I was going to give them all just two cast points, but Ealy was great in this film. So I’ve incremented their score to 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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I wouldn’t recommend The Perfect Guy to couples who are on their first date or two, or to people who love being surprised by a movie’s twists and turns. There are no twists and turns in The Perfect Guy. It’s perfectly predictable, but also perfectly innocuous and semi-appealing if you don’t mind turning your brain off and basking in seeing someone else have a worse love life than yours. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is quite respectable in showing how Leah transforms from a naïve, dependent woman into a strong, independent force to be reckoned with. There is excellent mentoring from the police detective and friends and allies who assist Leah on her journey. None of this is academy award material, but it’s still a decent hero’s story. I give Leah 3 Heroes out of 5.

The three main supporting characters — Dave, Carter, and Hansen – do a fine job of helping or opposing Leah. I was shocked that the cat survived this movie, as I was 100% convinced that it would be boiled to death like the bunny in Fatal Attraction. For some reason, Leah never even connected the bland neighbor’s death to Carter, which I found to be an odd omission in the film. Overall, these characters earn 3 out of 5 cast points.

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We Are Your Friends ••1/2

We_Are_Your_FriendsStarring: Zac EfronWes BentleyEmily Ratajkowski
Director: Max Joseph
Screenplay: Max JosephMeaghan Oppenheimer
Drama/Music/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: August 28, 2015


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Well Scott, it looks like another movie about young men from the bad side of town making their way in the music industry.

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

Different guys, different music, different movie. But is it the basically the same story? Let’s find out.

We’re introduced to four young men living in the south side of the Los Angeles valley. Cole had dreams of setting the world on fire with his one track of Electronic Dance Music. He and his friends party it up each night to the point of unconsciousness. They make a few bucks a week encouraging young people to drop by the local club and buy drinks. Things are going pretty well when Cole meets James, an older and more experienced DJ.

James takes an interest in Cole and recognizes his potential as a DJ. Cole, on the other hand, takes an interest in James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Cole and his friends are lured into working for a real estate company that preys on homeowners caught in a foreclosure. Cole has some decisions to make about love, priorities, and career.

Scott, We Are Your Friends is a weak attempt to offer a complement to the outstanding Straight Outta Compton. WAYF has a meandering almost pointless plot that seemed to be knit together scenes from every Saturday Morning Special – ever. Boy wants career. Boy meets evil mentor. Boy falls in love with mentor’s girl. Best friend dies. Boy succeeds in career and integrate loss into show.

Zac Efron seems out of place in this movie. He does a great job of delivering despite a lackluster script. I enjoyed him in last year’s Neighbors where he was convincing as the head frat boy. Given the opportunity, Efron can make us believe he is… well pretty much as he is.

Greg, We Are Your Friends is a movie with a good heart but poor execution, as you note. The good heart is revealed in Cole’s pure motives to improve himself, to help those who were exploited by the real estate scheme, and to play a song whose main lyric is “there’s gotta be something better than this.” This movie guides us through the upward mobility of our hero Cole, who must recognize one mentoring as dark, and act on it, and another mentoring as beneficial, and act on that one, too.

Comparisons to Straight Outta Compton are inevitable, I suppose. It’s a little unfair to do so, as Compton is a (mostly) true story and has interesting cultural and institutional barriers for the group of heroes to overcome. We Are Your Friends is more about a lone hero who must wrestle with his conscience while developing his talent. There’s a different emphasis in the two movies, with really only music being the common denominator.

Cole has three friends and each represents a different stereotype of young men. There’s the leader, Mason, who lives for today and whose highest ambition is to find an apartment where they can all live together. Then there’s Ollie who wants to be an actor but can’t find a gig. And finally, there’s Squirrel who is the most naive of the four but sees things more clearly than the rest. Of course, he must die. Cole represents the “one who succeeds” as he realizes his dream despite betraying his mentor.

Good description of the fraternity hero ensemble, Greg. I enjoyed the battle of the dueling mentors. Cole is being guided by James, who is a positive mentor in terms of offering professional guidance. But Cole is also under the influence of Paige (Jon Bernthal), a man who has no qualms about finding a legal way to steal homes from financially struggling homeowners. Cole is transformed by both mentors; he listens to the good mentor but defies the dark one. Both mentors help shape Cole’s character in different ways and help him transform as a hero.

Also playing a pivotal role in the film is Sophie, who turns in a voluptuous performance. The romance between Cole and Sophie is telegraphed early when we see them get off to a bad start. Just for once, I’d like to see filmmakers dare to make a movie in which two lovers do not initially hate each other. If I saw this I think I’d fall out of my theater seat.

We Are Your Friends is a coming of age story for post-adolescents. It looks at four possible paths for young men including death due to overindulgence. I found that almost everything in the story was predicted from the beginning. Nothing in this movie surprised me. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the recent Straight Outta Compton which was a far superior film. WAYF was simplistic, formulaic, and uninspiring. The Electronic Dance Music that James and Cole were supposed to be experts in seemed just as simplistic. I found myself wondering if there are festivals where thousands of people stand in the hot sun and listen to “hot licks.” I give WAYF just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Cole is a pretty good hero, even if he is cut from familiar cloth. He starts out naive and inexperienced and through the support of an older mentor becomes the man we all know he can be. Zac Efron is too good for this role and I wonder if he needs a new agent. Still, Efron takes the role seriously and displays a range of emotions from immature to chagrined to mournful and finally redeemed. I give Cole 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting characters are a good collection of archetypes. As I pointed out earlier, the three other young men in the fraternity ensemble represent alternative paths that Cole could have taken. The romantic interest was an inevitable distraction. The good mentor was troubled and we’re exposed to some of his backstory. The dark mentor on the other hand was less textured but offered a good contrast. I give this group 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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We Are Your Friends is harmless entertainment about the rising career of a DJ. There is a lot of music in this movie that is not in my wheelhouse, but I could appreciate the art and the science of creating sounds that people can rock their bodies to. As I’ve mentioned, there is a lot of heart in this film, but also a lot of predictable fluff. I give We Are Your Friends a rating of 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story has its charms and does feature our hero Cole undergoing a transformation of talent along with a transformation of moral conscience. Cole receives help along the way from James, Sophie, and his friends. His dark mentor Paige also teaches him how not to conduct oneself and prods Cole toward enlightenment. I can award Cole 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are adequate for the task, but I wasn’t too fond of Cole’s group of friends. Cole seems too smart to tolerate their Neanderthal ways but I suppose the filmmakers wanted to inject some drama into Cole’s life for entertainment’s sake. The two mentors were interesting, and Sophie, besides having her obvious charms, played a key role in dividing Cole from his good mentor. This support group earns a rating of 3 out of 5.

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American Ultra •••1/2

American_Ultra_posterStarring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenplay: Max Landis
Action/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: August 21, 2015


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

Well, Greg. Other countries have had their ultra, whatever that is. Now it’s America’s turn.

I think it should have been called Apollo Ape – that’s an inside joke for those who have seen it! Let’s recap:

We meet a young man, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in a small town in West Virginia. Mike is a likeable pot-head who works at a convenience store. Despite having a number of quirks and phobias, he does have a cute girlfriend named Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). He wants to propose marriage to Phoebe but has trouble finding just the right time to do so.

Things are going along pretty well when one day a strange woman in dark glasses shows up at the convenience store where he works. She says some strange things to him and leaves. Soon, a couple of goons show up and try to kill him. He goes into overdrive and slashes one dude’s throat with a spoon and disarms the other one and kills him with his own gun. Where did Mike get these super-spy abilities?

American Ultra is a quirky yet entertaining tale that taps into a mythic archetype with universal appeal. The hero is a person who is unaware of his special heritage, his exceptional pedigree. He has a type of amnesia at the outset of the story, and the whole point of the narrative is to witness him undergo many trials to discover his true special nature. We see this in fables and fairy tales about a protagonist who is oblivious about his or her royal birthright, and the story is all about reclaiming that birthright. It’s a narrative structure that has great appeal.

We’re apparently drawn to stories in which appearances about the hero are deceiving. Especially stories where the hero seems, at least on the surface, to be a harmless, weak pushover. But once placed in danger, the hero is a remarkably skilled fighting machine. We’ve seen this type of character in Red and The Equalizer. We tend to revere heroes who mask their greatness.

I think of this story is more like The Bourne Identity in which Matt Damon has exactly the same experience. Except, in American Ultra, we’re given the unlikely hero of a stoner who can barely feed himself and his girlfriend, let alone kick someone’s ass.

While on the surface Mike seems to be an unlikely hero, he has some redeeming qualities. He’s very good to his girlfriend (who loves him for unseen reasons). He’s very honest. And he has some clever ideas for a graphic novel based on an ape who was part of the Apollo program – hence the reference to Apollo Ape earlier. Aside from being clueless, he’s a genuinely nice guy who suffers from anxiety attacks.

You’re right, Greg. And he’s certainly transformed into a different person by the end of this movie, and not just by virtue of discovering his identity but more importantly by his development of personal, professional, and romantic self-confidence. This is a man who learns how to achieve his goals, get the girl, and become a great person who will succeed in life. He’s a far cry from the sniveling dorky goofball whom we see at the film’s outset.

In two movies we’ve seen recently (Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation) we’ve encountered secondary heroic characters who provide comic relief. In American Ultra, we meet a dark jester character (Walton Goggins) — a villain with a creepy laugh who makes light of the carnage he wreaks, much like the Joker or the Riddler in Batman. Interestingly, once the dark jester is defeated, he confesses his admiration for Michael in a speech that tugs at our heartstrings. Are the filmmakers here telling us that anyone with a sense of humor can’t be all bad? Do we have a deep-seated need for funny people to show redemption?

And don’t forget the role Phoebe plays. She’s not just a romantic interest for our hero. She is a sort of mentor as well. (SPOILER) It turns out she’s Mike’s handler from the CIA. She gave up her life as an agent to stay with Mike and watch over him once the CIA was done with his special abilities. And, as a CIA agent, she, too has special ass-kicking powers, albeit not as refined as Mike’s.

The villain in this story is CIA manager Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). Yates is a fast-rising star at the CIA and is eager to make his mark. He has created his own army of operatives who have a much less subtle way of dealing with threats. Among the was the “Laugher” character you mentioned, Scott. But there are a team of minions who wreak havoc on Mike’s small town. This is the classic Mastermind/Henchman pattern we mention in our book Reel Heroes & Villains. Also, we’re shown a pattern we’ve seen this year: “minions” – characters who are a sort of nameless/faceless mass of character whose apparent role is to die strange and horrible deaths.

American Ultra is fun romp that provides just the right balance between serious drama and semi-farce. Jesse Eisenberg does a stellar job of striking all the right notes during both the grim and lighthearted moments. His character Mike transforms from a loveable loser to an unstoppable heroic force. There are no huge surprises in this film but it still exudes charm and provides good solid entertainment. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero transformation here is as striking as one will ever find in the movies. We have a story that captures all the elements of the mythic archetypal narrative of the sleeping beauty, the ugly duckling, the Cinderella who is destined to rise from the basement to the penthouse. Mike gets assistance from two important women in the story and must defeat a team of formidable villains. I award Mike 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are rock solid, albeit the villains are stereotypical and uni-dimensional. Still, they include an interesting dark jester figure, and they do their job of endangering our hero’s life and making his transformation as difficult to achieve as possible. I award the supporting group a rating of 3 out of 5.

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American Ultra is to Jason Bourne as Austin Powers is to Jame Bond. This is a fun and well-deployed film. It takes the stereotypes of the amnesiac protagonist and plays them the their ridiculous conclusions. While Mike was trained for subtle killing, he is pitted against a team of heavy-handed hoodlums. This contrast makes for great comedy as well as exciting action. I give American Ultra 4 out of 5 Reels.

As an unlikely hero, Mike Howell couldn’t have been better drawn. He’s a likable slob who is unreliable but loves his girlfriend. His transformation into a physically and mentally strong character gives all of us reason to feel good about ourselves. And isn’t that what heroes are for after all? I give Mike 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters are a mix of strong women and weak men. Phoebe turns out to be loyal, honest, and competent. (And kudos to Kristen Stewart who has had bad luck to date. She delivers in this film). Her boss, Lasseter (Connie Britton) is brilliant and tough. These are two women who are not to be taken lightly. Lasseter’s second-in-command Petey (Tony Hale from Veep) is a limp-wristed comic relief character who is weak at first, but does the right thing in the end. The villain Yates is a cardboard cutout of the yuppie who is stuck on himself. His henchman Laugher is probably more interesting as he exposes the dark side of what Mike’s life could have been. I give this supporting cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Trainwreck •••1/2

Trainwreck_posterStarring: Amy SchumerBill HaderBrie Larson
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenplay: Amy Schumer
Comedy/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: July 17, 2015


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Well Scott, I thought this movie was about trouble on the B&O Railroad.

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

No, Greg. This is a comedy starring the brilliant, up-and-coming Amy Schumer. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Amy (Amy Schumer) who is a hard-working journalist at a women’s magazine called “S’nuff”. Amy is also a hard-playing gal with many suitors and a steady boyfriend-ish guy. She is sent on a job to interview a popular sports doctor named Aaron Connors (Bill Hader). Amy and Aaron hit it off – which surprises Amy because she doesn’t want a committed relationship. Hilarity ensues as Aaron attempts to nice-guy convince Amy that they were meant to be together.

Amy and Aaron begin dating and Amy does her best to remain true to her pattern by sabotaging the relationship. But Aaron sticks with her and they begin to fall for each other. Amy’s dad (Colin Quinn) reminds her of who she is, a person like him (her dad) who is incapable of commitment. Amy manages to break up with Aaron but learns her lesson, giving us the Hollywood happily-ever-after ending.

Amy Schumer is a bawdy comedian whose stand-up routines and her hit TV show Inside Amy Schumer deal with many topics, not the least of which is the American perception of women in the media and the workplace. Trainwreck is a natural extension of these routines. I’ve seen Schumer in an interview where a reporter asks her if Amy (in the movie) is a “skank.” Not missing a beat she says “Were you thinking of your mom just then?” Amy Schumer is a force to be reckoned with.

The movie is a lot of fun. Amy is confounded by Aaron’s consistent politeness at calling the day after sex, bringing flowers, and asking her a second date. Aaron has to confront Amy’s sleep-around lifestyle and gets unnerved by it. Amy, meanwhile, gets unnerved by her own feelings of affection for Aaron. Sadly, the movie ends with the two getting together and Amy becoming a one-woman-man. As you point out, Scott, it’s pretty much a Hollywood rom-com ending.

Trainwreck is an innocuous, enjoyable comedy that owes its success entirely to the comedic genius of Amy Schumer. This movie would likely have bombed if any other actress had played the lead character. Trainwreck works because Schumer knocks our socks off with her brilliant portrayal of the “modern woman” who is professionally successful but who is also an ardent commitment-phobe.

Greg, you use the term “sadly” to describe the ending. The movie must end on this note if we are to have any kind of hero’s journey. We learn early on that Amy must overcome a dark mentor (her dad), who taught his kids that “monogamy is unrealistic.” To this movie’s credit, the dad isn’t a bad person, and in fact Schumer remains very close to him despite his bad mentoring about relationships. Schumer transforms herself from a commitment-phobe to a woman who is ready to embrace commitment. She accomplishes this feat by learning the way that most heroes do – by suffering a big humiliation that has serious consequences. Specifically, she has one last promiscuous fling, this time with an underage guy, which gets her fired from her job.

Indeed, I say “sadly” because it cops out to the norms of society that I think Schumer is railing against. There’s a montage where she throws out her booze, candy, chips, etc… and “cleans up her act.” I much prefer the ending to Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) where her Mr. Darcy accepts Bridget just as she is – cigarettes, booze, and extra padding. Amy Schumer is clever enough to come up with a more insightful ending.

However, I see your point about the transformation. It’s an abrupt one brought on by her coming to a very low point in her life. She has to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. So, yeah. It’s a nice little hero’s journey. But not every transformation has to end with accepting social norms. As in Bridget Jones’ case, sometimes the transformation is in realizing that you’re fine just as you are.

Good point. The villain in this story is Schumer herself. She is compelled to overcome her fear of commitment, and she also has a slight problem with alcohol. Stories of heroes who must triumph over their inner demons are common in Hollywood. We saw the “self” as villain in 2014 movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. For these movies to work, the hero must be someone we truly care about so that we, the audience, can root hard for them to overcome their issues. Schumer is such a character in Trainwreck. She is instantly likeable and remains so throughout the movie, even during scenes when she is embarrassing herself.

The rest of the supporting characters all do their jobs well. The dad may be a dark mentor, but his degenerative disease makes him a sympathetic figure. LeBron James is surprisingly good as Aaron’s good friend and confidante. Amy leans on a few girlfriends for help and they do a serviceable job in this role. Aaron is a sweetheart of a guy whom we know is good for Amy, if only she would see the light. All these characters are good but it is Schumer herself who is the unequivocal star of the show.

It’s true Amy is her own worst enemy, but she has a few oppositional characters to deal with. Not the least of which is her go-go-go boss Diana (Tilda Swinton) who keeps reminding her of her flaws. There’s an interesting rom-com switcheroo here too. Amy has a best friend Nikki who keeps telling Amy to play the field and run away from commitment-man Aaaron. Meanwhile, Aaron has empathetic-verging-on-sensitive buddy Lebron James telling him to shield his heart and not get hurt.

Also, there’s Amy’s sister who has settled down with a very stable man and his stable son. They represent the life Amy could have if she would give up her wild ways. I was very happy that Schumer didn’t cop out completely and have the young boy turn into a brat at the end of the movie. This is a stereotypical turnabout that she avoided. He turns out to be a nice, well-adjusted little boy who loves his Aunt Amy.

Trainwreck is a bouncy, witty, romantic comedy that provides giggles along with a charming love story. Amy Schumer now has her breakout movie and I anticipate an avalanche of Schumer movies in the coming years. Trainwreck features a female lead character, beset with self-destructive tendencies, whom we laugh at and care about. It’s a formula we’ve seen before many times but Schumer’s unique comedic genius allows this film to soar above most of the rest. I award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey is rock solid, with Amy cast into an unfamiliar world of steady romantic love, which makes her squirm and rebel in discomfort. She has dark mentoring to overcome, which she does with help and patience from her loving and adorable boyfriend Aaron. If Aaron is anything less than a good man, we’d be disappointed with this fairytale ending. For me, it works just fine. I give this hero’s journey 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters aren’t terribly noteworthy but they all play their roles in either helping or hindering our hero Amy. In a way, Trainwreck reminds me of an early Jim Carrey movie. In those films, Carrey’s immense talent and energy made everyone around him rather forgettable in comparison. Schumer is such a character. No disrespecting the supporting cast, but this is Schumer’s movie. I’ll still give this cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Trainwreck is a lot of fun. It falls in line with such predecessors as Bridesmaids and The Heat. It gives us a non-traditional look at a non-traditional romance. I laughed out loud. But I was disappointed at the traditional ending. I give Trainwreck 3 out of 5 Reels.

Schumer creates a fully-developed three-dimensional hero. She is flawed, lovable, idiosyncratic, and smart. It’s hard not to get invested in her story. She undergoes a nice Hollywood-style transformation and turns into the girl next door. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the supporting cast was quite excellent. Amy had her best friend Nikki. And LeBron James as Aaron’s buddy was a surprise standout. The sister’s family was a nice contrast to Amy’s wild party life. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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