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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:

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:

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:

Thor: Ragnarok ••1/2

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: November 3, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, let’s review the latest muppet movie: Thor: FraggleRock.

 


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

You’ll get hammered by Thor for your disrespect, Greg. Let’s recap.


It looks like Thor has been trapped upside down and is talking to a skeleton for some reason. Meanwhile his brother Loki is pretending to be his father Odin for some reason. The two make friends and go in search of their father who is dying in Norway for some reason. Odin warns the two that their (heretofore unknown) sister is coming back to reign terror and take over their homeworld of Asgard… for some reason.


Odin explains that Hela had once been a vicious conqueror but had been vanquished and erased from history. Sure enough, Odin dies and Hela appears. She easily defeats Thor and jettisons him into space to die. Traveling into the underworld, Hela resurrects her old army and oversized wolf. She also recruits an Asgard named Skurge (Karl Urban) to be her executioner. Meanwhile, Thor appears on a planet of garbage and is captured by Valkyrie Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) who appears ready to sell him into slavery.


Scott, I think I no longer know what makes a good movie. Thor: Ragnarok is about as nonsensical a film as any I’ve ever seen. And yet critics and fans alike give the film rave reviews (93% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 90% from fans). I’ve seen bad movies (like Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups films) that have low scores from critics, but high scores from fans. That makes sense to me – an artist like Sandler knows his audience and delivers. But how in the world critics can give Ragnarok a good review is beyond me.

Here’s my beef: it longs to be Guardians of the Galaxy but has none of the charm and complexity of that film. Nothing in Ragnarok makes sense: We have a purely evil character in Hela. How is it that she can destroy Thor’s hammer? I thought it was indestructible and only could be held by someone of incredible virtue? She has a backstory that comes out of nowhere and her storyline is basically put on the back burner while we follow Thor on Sakaar who has to fight for the Grandmaster (delightfully played by Jeff Goldblum who seems to be keenly aware he’s in a ridiculous movie) against, of all creatures, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). How convenient / unlikely is that?

This scenario is clearly designed to pit two Marvel characters against each other in humorous ways. But in the end it begs a bunch of questions about just how super these superheroes are. I mean, is Thor indestructible? He can withstand being bashed against walls and floors. If so, why is he disabled by a little shock of electricity from Scrapper’s device? Isn’t Thor the God of Thunder? Shouldn’t he be able to withstand the shock of, say, lightning. This movie made no sense at all and I didn’t find the situations funny as much as they were contrived.


Greg, you’ve been singing the praises of Marvel films for years now, and I can’t think of a single one that operates in the world of logic, consistency, or reality. They’re all skillfully crafted goofball adventure stories, with pretty much every scene of these films requiring a cavernous suspension of disbelief.

Thor: Ragnarok continues in this tradition and is another storytelling triumph for Marvel. This film showcases the cycle of life, with our hero Thor going through the ordeal of replacing his father on the throne. In the process he even loses his eye in the same way that his father did. As with most Marvel films, this movie has depth and heft to it, gifting audiences with memorable characters and a screenplay offering a perfect blend of intelligence and wit.

Redemption is a key component of heroism and it abounds in this film. Loki is the obvious redeeming figure, but we also see redemption in the rock creature rotting in the Grandmaster’s dungeon, and in Scrapper 142, the Valkyrie who captures Thor but later becomes empowered to reclaim her rightful place in the universe. There is also redemption in the Hulk, who is liberated from the Grandmaster’s fighting arena. In addition, we see satisfying redemption in Skurge, the henchman who turns against Hela and dies saving the citizens of Asgard.


Scott, in my own defense, most of the Marvel films have internal consistency and deep characters that make them worth watching. I didn’t find this to be true in Thor: Ragnarok.

Thor as a hero is his usual self. He’s super powerful and super moral. He is also flawed in that he is still brash and filled with hubris. He seems to mature in this film as he puts his people ahead of himself and takes the throne. He realizes that leadership is a service and not a burden nor a privilege. Different than his earlier incarnations, he is both willing and able to make this transition.

As mentioned, Thor undergoes a deep transformation as he shifts from a selfish, devil-may-care character to a leader. The demise of his sister Hela seems accomplished in a simplistic way. She goes from a ‘hellish’ leader to a bit of ash by the film’s end. It seems the relationship between Thor and Loki, while still tenuous, has also matured into one of mutual respect and cooperation.


I’m glad you mention transformations, Greg. Transformation and redemption go hand-in-hand, and so this film is chock-full of them. In a key scene, Thor and Loki are having a heart-to-heart conversation about how different they turned out, and Thor cuts to the chase: While he (Thor) has changed and grown as a person, Loki has not. Thor even mentions that growth and transformation are what life is all about. Perhaps his little speech had an effect, as Loki later steps up and helps Thor defeat his older sister.

And so we see that Thor serves as Loki’s mentor, thus demonstrating how mentorship is key to transformation. Thor ends up mentoring several people, including Bruce Banner, the Valkyrie, and the rock creature. Odin operates as Thor’s mentor.


Thor: Ragnarok mystifies me as I don’t see the appeal. It’s a loosely tied plot with shallow characters and no point. The only character I found interesting was the Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum. I am dumbfounded by how Thor can withstand intense beatings by the Hulk and yet lose his eye to lightning – of which he is the supposed god. I give this film 1 out of 5 Reels.

As far as heroes go, Thor does pretty well. He is the classic superhero which gives him a baseline of points. And he undergoes a transition from fractious child to responsible adult as he takes both the throne and responsibility for his people. I give Thor 3 out of 5 Heroes and 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Thor: Ragnarok is yet another winner for Marvel, the movie studio that has perfected the art of producing fabulously entertaining superhero stories. This film works on every level, from storytelling to character development to production value. Our hero Thor is tested to the limits and is humbled en route to defeating his evil older sister. I’m impressed by the numerous instances of redemption and transformation in a half-dozen characters who are forced by circumstances to respond to the heroic challenges facing them.

This movie is clever and imaginative, easily earning it 4 Reels out of 5. For its emphasis on heroic growth among many of its ensemble of characters, I award Thor: Ragnarok’s heroes a rating of 4 Hero points out of 5. The pervasiveness of redemptive story arcs among these characters also signifies significant character growth and change, and thus I also give this film 4 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

 

The Dark Tower ••1/2

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date: August 4, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, I was definitely in the mood for a movie about something dark protruding into the sky.


It seems our next film is the fight of good vs. evil over Trump Tower. Let’s recap:


We meet eleven-year-old Jake (Tom Taylor), who is having dreams and visions about a dark tower, a gunslinger (Idris Elba), and a man dressed in black (Matthew McConaughey). Everyone thinks Jake is crazy, and his mother (Katheryn Winnick) even takes him to a psychiatrist about these disturbing visions. One day two workers from a psychiatric facility come to Jake’s home to take him away, but he recognizes them as members of the evil forces in his fantasies.

 


Jake runs away and finds a portal to another world. He steps through and immediately meets up with the Gunslinger from his nightmares. The Gunslinger explains that the Man in Black is trying to destroy the Dark Tower – the thing that keeps the universal badness at bay. Now it’s a race against time as Jake and the Gunslinger track down the Man in Black to save both their worlds.


Greg, whatever The Dark Tower was trying to do, it misses the mark. It wasn’t a scary movie, a horror movie, an action movie, or a western. I suppose it belongs in the fantasy genre, but what kind of fantasy involves a dark, foreboding tower holding the universe together? Usually those are the kinds of towers we want to destroy, not keep standing, so I’m not sure what kind of metaphor or symbol this story is proposing.

The tale is a simple one involving our hero, a young boy, and his mission to preserve the tower. To accomplish this feat, he enlists the aid of a friend and mentor in the form of the gunslinger, and he must defeat the villainous Matthew McConaughey. So it’s a pretty standard hero’s journey, a coming-of-age type of story with most of the elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth in place. But nothing in the film is particularly inspiring. There’s not much action, not much suspense, not much interesting dialogue, and not much to get excited about. This film is a by-the-numbers fantasy that barely kept my attention for 95 minutes.


Yeah, I agree. In anticipation of the film, I read book one in The Dark Tower series. Only to learn that the movie is not based on any one of the books. But rather, is a sort of amalgam of all the books combined. As such it was not satisfying in any way. Also, the books are very dark and suitable mainly for adult consumption. This new film (and apparent series) was watered down and seems to be a young adult offering. It was not scary or dark and did not bring the adult level of entertainment of the books.

However, the performances were top-notch. Idris Elba as Roland, the Gunslinger, was at once brooding and sympathetic. He was a man out for vengeance. McConaughey’s Man in Black was equally brooding and quite scary as a man with a singular purpose – to bring down the tower by sucking the life energy out of small children.

Despite McConaughey’s brilliant portrayal, the Man in Black is a one-dimensional character. We don’t know why he wants to topple the Dark Tower. We don’t know how he came to be such a villainous character. As we’ve noted in the past, the pure evil villain, however well presented, is still bland and boring. A little more backstory for the Man in Black might have upped the game for this story.


I interpreted McConaughey’s “man in black” character to be the devil — or something equivalent in midworld — and as such it didn’t seem to matter how he became pure evil. But even the devil is a fallen angel with a backstory, and so you’re right, it would have been nice to know how he evolved into such utter badness. We learn a bit more about the gunslinger’s history but only at a surface level.

In terms of transformation, we do have a young boy with a secret identity whose powers are initially misunderstood by everyone. This case of mistaken identity is a deep heroic archetype in ancient storytelling, seen in tales from Cinderella to the Ugly Duckling. So there is a transformation from ordinary (and vilified) to extraordinary (and revered) in our young hero. And his highly evolved powers save the day at the end.


Yeah, actually I enjoyed Jake’s transformation in this film. He thinks he’s a nut case – going crazy. Only to find that he’s got some sort of special power. So he comes into his own as a hero.

The Dark Tower is a disappointing if not technically powerful achievement. The acting and special effects are as good as any movie we’ve seen this year. But the story is not as adult as I would have liked and it doesn’t relate to the book it’s based upon. I give The Dark Tower 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jake is the hero of the story and his transformation is entertaining. His mentor is the Gunslinger who has his own transformation to undergo. The Man in Black is a strong villain. What he lacks in backstory or motivation he makes up for in being a competent and challenging opponent. I give Jake and his hero’s journey 3 out of 5 Heroes. Jake’s transformation is good, he comes into his own in this story. I give him 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


I agree that The Dark Tower is a towering disappointment. This is a movie that didn’t know what it wanted to be. I suppose it was a fantasy adventure for pre-teens that doesn’t hold much appeal for adults. Overall there wasn’t enough fun, suspense, or adventure in this film to hold my interest. Pretty much everything about this movie and in this movie is forgettable. I can only give it 2 Reels out of 5.

Having said that, the film does feature a decent hero’s journey and a solid hero’s transformation. Jake is separated from his ordinary world and encounters all the basic elements of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero — a friend and mentor, a formidable villain, and a mission to eradicate evil. Jake discovers his true powers and true identity and in so doing he defeats the enemy. As such, I can award 3 Hero points and 3 transformation Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Dunkirk •••••

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, we just witnessed a brilliant cinematic depiction of war heroism at its finest.


Dunkirk is an amazing achievement for Christopher Nolan. Let’s recap.


We meet a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who narrowly escapes with his life while being shot at by German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. Tommy flees to the beach where thousands of British and French soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. He meets another soldier named Gibson who apparently has buried a friend on the beach. The two men encounter a wounded man and carry him to an evacuation ship. Meanwhile back in Britain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) take their private boat through the English channel to help with the evacuation.


We’re treated to four points of view (POV): young soldier Tommy trying to escape, Mr. Dawson coming to the rescue, flying ace Farrier (Tom Hardy) guarding the shore, and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) supervising the evacuation. It’s a great structure that tells one of the lesser-known stories of WWII, at least for Americans.


You’re right, Greg. I was woefully ignorant of the story behind this heroic evacuation. Apparently Hitler made a huge mistake by not aggressively attacking the evacuees, and we can all be grateful for his blunder.

Dunkirk is an extremely well-crafted film. It skillfully weaves together three stories about different characters whose lives converge at the end. This is a war movie and so there is plenty of death, but director Christopher Nolan wisely chooses not to make gore the star of this film. The star is valor, and it is on full display from minute-one until the closing credits. Nolan also makes great use of the “less is more” principle in filmmaking. There are long and excruciatingly tense scenes with little or no dialogue. The fear is palpable. But so is the heroic drive in these characters to act in spite of the fear.


LIke many of our readers, I’ve seen a lot of war movies. But I’ve never watched a movie that made me feel the emotion of desperation that Dunkirk evokes. I never understood just how personal the war was. Britons of all ages felt that their way of life and their very lives were at stake.

There are different levels of heroism in this film. There’s the heroism of the young men just trying to survive long enough to get on a boat. Then there’s the heroism of the commander overseeing the evacuation, then volunteering to stay behind to oversee the evacuation of the French. And we see the heroism of civilians going to sea to rescue the soldiers. And finally, the heroism of a pilot who lets his tanks run dry protecting the men trying to get away. He martyrs himself in the service of others.


Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is only on partial display here, but in no way does this limitation detract from this film’s excellence. Campbell discusses the low-point, the nadir of the hero’s journey, as the “belly of the whale” – the point in the journey when all appears to be lost for the hero and death seems imminent. Dunkirk is a film that shows in vivid detail what the belly of the whale is like for the hero, and it is hell indeed. This is the epicenter of the hero’s transformation – either the hero musters up the courage and grit to thwart death, or the hero succumbs.

Dunkirk shows us both these polar opposite outcomes. Young George is one of our heroes who dies in the process of saving British soldiers. In no way is he any less of a hero for dying; in fact, by making this ultimate sacrifice he solidifies his heroism to an extreme, thus illustrating that heroes need not complete the Campbellian journey to secure their status of hero. Tommy, our main hero, does survive the whale’s belly. Will he become as “shell-shocked” as the soldier that Mr. Dawson rescued at sea? We don’t know. But the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD is a tragic one that sadly afflicts millions of people.


One of the things that this movie (and another the comes to mind, Warhorse) exemplifies is that not every compelling story is a Hero’s Journey. Surely each of these POV characters is heroic. But the story structure doesn’t follow the classic rise and fall we’ve come to expect from our movies. There are elements of the Hero’s Journey (Tommy returning to the ordinary world of England, eg). But the transformation of the hero or those around him is not necessary for a compelling story. This is one of those rare occasions where the enormity of the event is enough to move the viewer into an emotional state that makes the event memorable.

 


Dunkirk is a superb film that brilliantly captures the agonizing unacceptability of war. Yet it does so in a tasteful and aesthetically dexterous way. Christopher Nolan deserves Oscar consideration for weaving together three disparate stories of stellar heroism. I daresay that Dunkirk is one of the best films of 2017, showcasing the best of human virtue and valor. I have been torn between awarding 4 versus 5 Reels, but after some consideration, I’m going with the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

The heroism, as we’ve said, is unparalleled and hyper-inspirational. I was struck by the heroism of civilians who took action when it was not required of them as it was of the soldiers. Ordinary people like Mr. Dawson who step up to do the right thing are especially admirable and elevating. Most of the heroism on display here occurs during a tiny sliver of the hero’s journey, the belly of the whale, and this is indeed where the heroic rubber meets the road. Director Christopher Nolan deserves huge kudos for portraying the whale’s belly in riveting, exemplary fashion. The heroism here merits the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

Regarding transformation, we are witness to instantaneous transformations “in the moment” of severe crisis, as when heroes must respond immediately to U-boat bombs pummeling ships and bullets piercing a boat’s hull. These spontaneous transformative heroic acts are marvelous to behold. Much less marvelous is the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD that we witness from Mr. Dawson’s first evacuee. We can’t overlook the unsavory aftermath of an especially punishing hero’s journey. Overall, I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Few films have displayed heroism as well as Dunkirk. The story is told with amazing technical acuity. I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk before entering the theater, but it is forever etched in my mind. The very purpose of storytelling is to share our values and history with each other – to deliver the messages of our past to those of the future. Dunkirk does this with surprising power. I give it a full 5 out of 5 Reels.

Heroism comes in many forms. We’re witness to heroism in great sacrifice (as in the case of the Spitfire pilot) down to small acts of kindness (as when the young man lies to the shell-shocked soldier as to the death of young George.) I give 5 out of 5 Heroes to Dunkirk.

I don’t think this movie was about transformation as much as it was about sacrifice. We do see some transformations – but they are incidental to the story. Everyone in the movie was already giving all they had to give. I would say that they all had already undergone their transformations to get to the point of desperation they experienced on the shores of Dunkirk. While I award only 3 out of 5 Deltas, it in no way diminishes the power of Nolan’s work.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Spider-Man: Homecoming ••••

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: Jon Watts
Screenplay: Jonathan Goldstein,  John Francis Daley
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: July 7, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, let’s get into the swing of things and start reviewing the latest Spider-Man movie.


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

I marvel at your pun-manship, Greg. Let’s recap.


In the prologue, we’re introduced to Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) – an everyman contractor responsible for cleaning up the alien tech left over from the last battle the Avengers had with beings from beyond the stars. He’s interrupted by a federal official who is taking over the salvage operation since the tech is so dangerous. But Toomes isn’t deterred and goes underground selling the alien tech on the black market.

Meanwhile, young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has already had some notoriety as Spider Man after fighting in the Avengers Civil War. Now, he’s sitting in Tony Stark’s limo getting some mentoring. Stark passes his responsibilities on to “Happy” (Jon Favreau) – his man Friday – who must keep tabs on the new young superhero.


While waiting for Stark to contact him to fight crime alongside the other Avengers, Peter passes up a lot of opportunities for extracurricular activities such as joining the debate team. Meanwhile, he is attracted to a young girl named Liz (Laura Harrier) who is on the debate team and who Peter wants to take to the prom. While breaking up an ATM robbery one night, Peter accidentally reveals his identity to his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). The two work together to try to win favor with Tony Stark, but it isn’t easy.


Scott, we’ve come to expect a lot from Marvel films. They are strongly character-based and still have great plots. It’s a hard combination to master, but Marvel generally does it. However, they let me down with Spider-Man: Homecoming. The coming- of-age story for young Peter Parker is not very compelling and the it had a lot of holes in it. I left the film feeling disappointed.

For one thing, the villain character never comes off as particularly evil. He’s just a guy trying to provide for his family. He accidentally kills one of his henchmen rather than overtly dispatching him. While he appears to steal the alien ‘junk’ – we never see him do it. Keaton’s bad guy just isn’t bad enough.

Perhaps this incarnation of Spider-Man is aimed more at a younger audience, say tweens (10-12 year olds) rather than teens and twenty-somethings. There was a clear lack of blood and violence. And the language was similarly subdued. Even Peter Parker is a younger version of Spider-Men of years gone by – just age 14 (or 15). If this is Marvel’s attempt to cater to a younger audience, then this sort of “Avengers-lite” presentation makes sense.


You’re right about Marvel films, Greg. They are so consistently polished and gleaming that part of me resents their formulaic success and actively roots for one of their movies to fail. The problem is that for Marvel, failure is not an option. I’m forced to report that Spider-Man: Homecoming continues Marvel’s almost monotonous tradition of excellence. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a terrific movie, Greg. I tried not to like it, I really did! But Tom Holland is just perfect in the role of a young Spider-Boy. He has puppy dog eyes, a squeaky (clean) adolescent voice, and a charming and naive do-gooder attitude that in combination are all perfect for a young superhero who is coming of age.

We never want our villains to suffer from the dullness of being purely evil, and Michael Keaton as Toomes strikes the perfect dark grey shade of villainy. He’s not a terrible man but he’s bad enough to wreak havoc on society and even kill people in the name of profit. In addition to Toomes, the ensemble supporting characters add depth to the strong story. Girlfriend Liz, buddy Ned, Aunt May, Toomes, and Tony Stark supply humor, heft, and a spirited energy that won me over.


Young Peter Parker is a great heroic character. He is virtuous and strong but not egotistical. His major flaw is the desire to be a super hero on par with his Avenger contemporaries. He’s too impatient to wait for his maturity to catch up with his super powers. This is where Tony Stark (and to a lesser degree, Happy) come in as mentors. Sadly, their mentoring is little more than a pep talk before and after events. I did like the sort of reluctant mentoring that Tony gives Peter. Tony is uncertain as to how to advise the younger hero and so his advice is often too terse to have good effect (not to mention that he has delegated this responsibility to Happy and literally phones his mentoring in from time to time). But, of course, that is where the fun lies as Peter makes mistake after super-mistake when not taking heed of Tony’s advice and wisdom.

There are plenty of transformations here. Peter grows as a young man as he approaches dating the object of his desire, Liz. He also grows in confidence as he first learns to use the extended powers of his super suit, and then later to act without it.

I am concerned, though, about that suit. I think Spider-Man is on the same path as Iron Man was. Is it the suit or the man who is the hero? In older incarnations of Spider-Man, Peter Parker has only a few super powers: super strength, “Spidey Sense”, and advanced intelligence. The only devices he uses are the web-slinging apparatus. So, Spider-Man has (up until now) been all about the wit, charm, and intelligence of a mostly mortal against advanced powers of his villains. I fear this new incarnation of Spider-Man, with his sophisticated suit, will devolve into “gadget of the week” where it’s the suit that becomes the object of interest, not the man.


Mentoring can go one of two ways — either the mentor has to encourage a fledgling hero who lacks self-confidence, or the mentor has to knock an overconfident hero down a peg. The latter occurs with this rendition of Spider-Man. Tony Stark takes this peg-knocking to a new level with his rather dismissive attitude toward young Peter, telling the arachnid to basically give up hope of joining the Avengers. But Stark also shares an extremely important insight, namely, that if Peter only thinks he’s something in the suit, then he’s not worthy of the suit. So naturally, young Peter confronts a situation in which he proves himself sans suit.

As this film tells a coming-of-age story, we do witness Peter Parker transform himself from a small-time hero operating with training wheels to a stronger, smarter hero who uses both his wits and his emerging skills to take down criminal bad-asses. And he can’t do it without help from others. He needs his buddy Ned to lend a hand, and he also needs Tony Stark’s dismissiveness as added fuel. I wish I could say that Peter needs Liz and Aunt May, but alas, these women are relegated to distant supporting roles.


Spider-Man: Homecoming is an entertaining film filled with special effects and a new take on a classic hero. Like other films this season, CGI gives way to good storytelling. It’s a perfect allegory for the Spider-Man problem. Peter Parker must learn that technology is only the sugar coating to true heroism – just as CGI is the sugar coating to a great story. If you don’t have a great core, the whole suffers. I can only give Spider-Man: Homecoming 4 out of 5 Reels.

Peter Parker is a proto-hero. This is the story of how Peter Parker becomes the true Spider-Man. At the beginning of the story he’s a clumsy super hero. Then he becomes overconfident in the power of the suit. Finally, he throws off the suit and becomes the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. It’s a great hero origin story. I give Peter Parker 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Peter’s transformation is a good one. He grows emotionally by realizing that heroism comes from within – not from without. I give this film 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Spider-Man: Homecoming continues Marvel’s marvelous run of first-rate comic book superhero film extravaganzas. Young actor Tom Holland shines as a budding young super-arachnid who is desperate to prove himself and prove his mentor Tony Stark wrong. This movie offers an entertaining blend of humor, adventure, and superheroism. I also award it 4 Reels out of 5.

I agree with you, Greg, that we have here an exemplary coming-of-age story of heroic development. Peter Parker is fearless in confronting bad guys no matter how dangerous the job, and he shows a willingness to sacrifice a romance with his high school crush, Liz, in order to fight crime. All the elements of the classic hero’s journey are here — the call to adventure, the mentor, the villain, the belly of the whale, and the transformation into a full-blown spidery hero. I’ll also give him 5 out of 5 Hero points.

Parker’s transformation is also terrific to behold, as he grows from boy to man right before our eyes. We witness the genesis of transformation — a good mentor figure in Starks as well as a steely courage from Parker during his darkest hour without his suit. I award him 4 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Baby Driver ••••1/2

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Action/Crime/Music, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Nobody puts Baby in the corner, unless he’s driving around the corner of your block.


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

This Baby’s got a lot of Miles on him, that’s for sure. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young hot shot getaway driver. He has tinnitus – a ringing in the ears – and must constantly listen to music to escape the din. His boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) has him indentured as Baby stole one of his cars years ago. Now, Baby has to drive getaway for bank robbers until his debt is paid. And he has just one more run to go to pay back what he owes.


Baby successfully completes his final job for Doc and then meets a lovely young woman named Debora (Lily James). The two hit it off but when they’re out to dinner one night, Doc confronts Baby and threatens Debora’s safety if Baby doesn’t perform one more getaway drive. Baby reluctantly agrees and makes plans to run away with Debora. The driving job goes wrong in several ways and Baby finds himself fighting for his life and for the safety of Debora and his foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).


Scott, I’m rarely bowled over by a movie, but Baby Driver hits all the right notes. I cannot describe the precision of every detail in this film. Right from the opening credits where Baby rocks out to “Bellbottoms” – every beat, break, and note is linked with the action we see on the screen. Director of Photography Bill Pope (The Matrix) aligns the lyrics to scenic elements. Editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss synchronize the constant drum of the soundtrack to every image we see on the screen. Even Ansel Elgort lip-syncs these songs as if he were raised on them as mother’s milk. If you thought the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy was great, you must see Baby Driver. There is nothing else like this film.


Absolutely correct, Greg. Despite a few minor flaws, Baby Driver is one of the best films of 2017. My fear going into the movie was that it would be a remake of Fast and Furious, but this movie is far superior to any installment of the F&F franchise. The driving scenes are mostly in the service of character development and moving the plot forward. Director Edgar Wright deserves Oscar consideration for exemplary and innovative camera work, and Kevin Spacey merits similar recognition for his portrayal of a ruthless yet brilliant mastermind villain.

Oddly, we’re introduced to our hero, Baby, midway through his hero’s journey. We’re told through narrative exposition that Baby was thrust into his main hero’s journey years earlier when his parents died in a car crash. Later he’s thrown into another sub-journey when he steals Doc’s car. This unusual story structure has the advantage of propelling us into the action right away but it also denies us seeing Baby’s origin story. I, for one, would love to see a prequel to this film that would take us back to Baby’s childhood and adolescence so that we can see how he evolved into a thief and then got swallowed into Doc’s cauldron of evil.


I thought the hero’s journey was pretty standard, actually. In his ordinary world, Baby’s a driver for a dark mentor, Doc. Things are going pretty well when one day he meets a beautiful young woman. She lays down the call to adventure – to hit the road and never look back. Now, his main goal is to finish his job with Doc and get out of town. But there are complications when Doc doesn’t let Baby out of the job. It’s an expertly executed story structure from beginning to end. The bits about his parents’ demise is all backstory. But I would go with you to see that backstory as a prequel. Yes, indeed.

As a hero, Baby is perfect – by having flaws. He is basically a good kid. He has a “superpower” of being an exceptional driver. He’s kind to his deaf-mute foster father. He’s gallant with his love interest. Yet, he’s in the dark business of robbing banks – which occasionally results in someone getting hurt or killed. He’s a bit of an anti-hero with Doc as a dark mentor and Debora as the anti-villain – leading him away from a life of crime.


So does that mean that Baby fails to transform as most good heroes do? We get the sense that he’s a good man. He takes care of his indigent foster father; he warns the post office worker not to enter the building while it’s being robbed; and he returns the purse to the lady whose car he hijacks. He’s a good person caught in a bad situation — something we can all relate to and ultimately draws us to him. But he seems to be this good person from the beginning of the film to the end, suggesting a lack of transformation.

Quite possibly Baby’s transformation is not a moral one but a mental and emotional one. He falls in love, quite possibly for the first time, and learns all too well the price of loving another. His dealings with Doc reinforce the darkness of the world and teach him valuable lessons about trust and loyalty. And speaking of Doc, the film’s end showcases an act of supreme redemption when Doc sacrifices his life to save Baby and Debora. Redemption, by definition, implies transformation, and Doc’s was both powerful and timely.


I’m glad you brought up Doc’s transformation. It seemed sudden and out of character. We don’t get any indication that Doc is soft-hearted in any way. He’s very hard-nosed, in fact. He threatens to call off the Post Office job when a weapons deal goes south. He’s ruthless, cunning, and uncompromising. Yet, at the last minute, when he sees Baby has a girlfriend, he has a change of heart and helps Baby escape, even giving his own life. It was a transformation that didn’t ring true.

Despite this flaw, I still found Baby Driver was an amazing piece of art and I cannot recommend it higher. I give Baby Driver a full 5 Reels out of 5.

Baby is a great hero – possibly even an anti-hero. While he is virtuous, his morals are in question as he is a thief and an accomplice to burglary and even murder. But we like him for his high level of competence as a driver and his kindness to his girlfriend and foster father. I give Baby 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The transformations in this film are good, but I’m not sure they’re great. Baby is sentenced to 25 years in jail with parole at 5 years. And in the epilog, it appears he is released for his good deeds at parole. And he appears to have become the moral man we know he can be. However Doc’s inexplicable transformation from a dark mentor to a martyr is hard to believe. I can only give 4 out of 5 Deltas for them.

Movie: Transformation:  Heroes:


Baby Driver is one of the best films of 2017, a true sleeper hit that is crafted stylishly and expertly in terms of story quality, character development, and the heroic journey. This is one of those movies that deserves Oscar consideration but likely won’t receive it because of the time of year (early summer) that it was released. I’m happy to award Baby Driver 4 Reels out of 5.

Baby is a hero, not an anti-hero, as he ends on a morally positive note, extricating himself from his life of crime while demonstrating a loving heart to his father, his girlfriend, and even complete strangers. Baby has many of the characteristics of the great eight traits of heroes, including intelligence, strength, reliability, resilience, caringness, selflessness, and inspiration. I give Baby a hero rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

Regarding heroic transformation, Baby finds love which heightens his transformation away from his life of crime. Along the way he also discovers key insights about himself and the dark world of crime. Greg, you may be right about Doc’s transformative self-sacrifice being out of character, but I’m not so sure. Baby may have won over Doc the way he won over everyone else. Still, I’m only giving this film 3 Deltas out of 5 because we never do see Baby’s original, central transformation to a life of crime, as this movie begins at the midpoint of the hero’s journey. Let’s hope a prequel film is in the works that will illuminate Baby’s path toward criminality.

Movie: Transformation:  Heroes:

Alien: Covenant •••

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Will you enter into a covenant with me to review the latest Alien movie?


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

No doubt the words from this review will explode from the page. Let’s recap.


We meet newly minted android David (Michael Fassbender) who has been invented by genius Weyland. Then, we flash forward to the future where the crew of the Covenant is awakened by android Walter (also Michael Fassbender) from cryogenic sleep because their ship has run into trouble. The Covenant is a colony ship taking 2000 colonists to a terra-formed planet. While repairing the ship, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) receives a message from a nearby planet. He makes a plan to go to the planet, against the advice of his second in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston).


A team of crew members descend to the planet and notice it is void of any animal or insect species. They discover a ship that had crash-landed there years earlier. Two crew members become infected with tiny microorganisms that soon morph into creatures that explode from the crew members’ bodies. The landing craft is destroyed and android David appears on the scene to rescue the remaining crew by taking them to a sheltered area. Soon the truth about David’s motives and his past actions on the planet becomes horrifyingly clear.


Alien: Covenant is a proper prequel to the franchise started with the original Alien film from 1979. The other so-called prequel, 2012’s Prometheus was a confusing mish-mash of science fiction tropes that never quite jelled as a coherent story. There was a lot of confusion about whether Prometheus occurred within the same universe as Alien – both among fans and the filmmakers. Alien: Covenant aims to knit the story lines of the four Alien stories with the less popular Prometheus. And I think it succeeds.

Sadly, however, Alien: Covenant is not only predictable, but borrows so heavily from Alien and 1986’s Aliens that there is nothing new to see here. When we see two identical androids, we know that there’s going to be the ol’ switcheroo at some point. It’s an idea older than Star Trek’s “Enemy Within” episode with two Kirks. We aren’t surprised when there are pods in David’s basement and a “face-hugger” erupts and kills Oram. We are only surprised that Oram is so clueless as to put his face into the pod as it slowly, menacingly, opens and undulates. We saw all of this in the classic Alien films so it doesn’t shock us as it once did.


Greg, I think you’ve pretty much nailed the main issues with this movie. It’s time for the producers and writers of the Alien franchise to make a decision about what its goals are and where it should be heading. Ridley Scott, are you listening? Yes, when we go to an Alien movie, we do harbor the sick need to see razor-toothed neo-creatures explosively burst out of live human bodies. Alien: Covenant gives us three cool body-explosions with aliens chewing their way out of a man’s back, another man’s stomach (very old-school), and one out of a man’s mouth. The CGI effects are sickeningly realistic and we love it.

But what’s the point? As you’ve said, Greg, we’ve seen this before and we’ve also seen “synthetics” who oscillate between good and evil. The franchise desperately needs to move forward with fresh storylines that go beyond mere survival from face-hugging biological weaponry. The idea of a Prometheus race of superhumans who created homosapiens on earth is promising but the concept is barely explored in these past two Ridley Scott films. Let’s hope we see some much-needed inventiveness in the next Alien installment — and this inventiveness needs to extend further than showing a new bodily orifice from which a creature explodes.


The hero structure is a bit muddied. We’re not sure who we’re following in this film. At first it looks like we’re following Walter since he’s the android running the ship when the prologue is over. Then it looks like an ensemble where we’re following the crew of 12. But then the story appears to focus on Captain Oram and his difficult decisions to both save the colonists and his crew. But ultimately, it is Daniels who is the hero of the story since the rest of the crew is picked off one-by-one and Oram gets an embrace from an alien. I found it hard to know who was the main character.

As far as transformations go, there aren’t any to speak of. Oh sure, people are transformed into alien fodder. And aliens seem to go from pods to full-grown Xenomorph. Nobody really learns anything. Daniels seems like a strong character at the beginning and it’s no surprise when she goes full “Ripley” on the alien when the chips are down. This is a classic horror film set in outer space. No one really needs to grow or change since scaring the audience is the priority.


You’re right, we have a large hero ensemble operating here, although it could be argued that ultimately this is a story of two cyborgs, Walter and David, who operate not as buddy heroes but as rival heroes. The human characters are a large group and so we don’t really have sufficient time to bond with any of them, which is unfortunate. They all die one by one, and in true Ridley Scott fashion, at the end the remaining hero is a woman who is at the mercy of evil forces beyond her control. The filmmakers here have once again set the table up perfectly for a sequel.

Although it is true that there are no real transformations among the humans, the synthetic David has undergone a transformation toward the dark side. The unfortunate aspect of his transformation is that it occurs off-camera and we’re only told (sort of) how he came to destroy the Promethians and why he is now enamored with the alien creatures. There are a lot of physical transformations going on among the Xenomorphs, some of them inexplicable, but these physical changes are consistent with previous incarnations of the Alien franchise.


Alien: Covenant is a good prequel to the Alien series and a much better addition to the franchise than Prometheus. While I was entertained, there wasn’t much depth to the story and we didn’t see much that we haven’t seen before. I give Alien: Covenant 3 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes are hard to measure. In the end, I would say that Daniels is the hero as she is the last woman standing. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5. Finally, the transformations are hard to find as well. Daniels seems to go from a submissive follower to a true leader and warrior. I give her transformation 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


We’re basically on the same page here, Greg. A total of 3 Reels out of 5 seems about right for a movie that delivers all the blood-splattering alien killings that we hope for in an Alien film. One hopes that the next installment introduces some fresh storytelling ideas. Daniels is certainly one of the heroes in this ensemble, but I see the duo of synthetic beings, Walter and David, as the main hero pairing. Their story is fairly solid but hardly memorable, and so 2 Hero points out of 5 seems right to me. The paucity of transformations is another weakness of this film, so like you, Greg, I can only award 2 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Snatched ••1/2

Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Kim Caramele
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenplay: Katie Dippold
Action/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: May 12, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-2 480px-One-half.svg

It looks like Amy Schumer snatched Goldie Hawn out of retirement.


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

It also looks like this movie snatched two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. Let’s recap.


Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) is working in a retail fashion store when she’s fired. Then her musician boyfriend dumps her. But she’s got non-refundable tickets to South America. So, she invites her mother, reclusive Linda Middleton (Goldie Hawn) to come along. They arrive to a paradise-like setting where Emily meets handsome local man James (Tom Bateman). They enjoy the day together and party all night long. James promises to pick Emily up the next morning.


Sure enough, James picks up Emily, who also brings her mom. James takes them on the scenic route through Ecuador, meaning they drive through some scary looking remote towns. A van smashes into James’ car deliberately and the two women are kidnapped. The kidnappers demand a ransom from Emily’s brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) who is hopelessly agoraphobic.


Scott, Snatched is the latest film from popular comedian Amy Schumer. It’s a great follow-up to her 2015 debut Trainwreck. We’ve reviewed a number of horror and comedy films in the last few weeks and commiserated on the fact that very often story gives way to shock effect. But Schumer understands story structure and her films deliver a story and comedy in one fell swoop.

Emily is a likable yet flawed young woman who really can’t get out of her own way. She’s bawdy and sassy and very funny. She has a missing inner quality in that she lacks empathy. She is very self-centered which is obvious when she’s stuck with vacation tickets and can’t get anyone to go with her. So, she guilt-trips her mother to go with her. Not because her mother needs a vacation, but because Emily doesn’t want to go alone.

As the story unfolds, we witness both mother and daughter bonding during their captivity and escape. We see two strong female characters who stand up for themselves and ultimately rescue each other. While Emily is not a great role model at the beginning of the film, she becomes the hero we hope she can be by putting her mother ahead of herself. It’s a great transformative hero’s journey – which is funny at the same time.


Greg, I’m sorry that I don’t share your enthusiasm for this film. Snatched is a lightweight comedy that squanders the talents of Amy Schumer and reminds us why Goldie Hawn is rarely seen in the movies. Any older woman actor could have played Hawn’s character, but only Schumer could make her character work. Schumer specializes in playing quirky, pathetic, yet likable characters. Emily is not simply a lovable loser; she’s a funny lovable loser who almost makes Snatched worth watching.

The film suffers from a painfully predictable plot that could have been redeemed had there been some laugh-out-loud moments. But there are none. I’ll give Snatched credit for portraying several significant transformations. As a result of her ordeal, Emily does become less selfish. Linda appears to re-discover her inner free spirit. And Jeffrey conquers his agoraphobia. The presence of these transformations proves that they are a necessary but not a sufficient ingredient of a good movie. In a quality movie, there is an interesting story, clever writing, or stellar acting (sorry, Goldie). Snatched Is sadly lacking those qualities.


This is a classic buddy-hero story with Emily and Linda at opposite ends of the adventure spectrum. Emily learns that in her younger days, her mother was quite the risk-taker – living on the edge and having fun. Emily feels her mother needs to recapture that free spirit. And Linda feels that Emily needs to get more centered, more practical. So, in classic buddy-hero fashion, the two work on each other and draw to a center. They normalize each other. Linda becomes more adventuresome, and Emily becomes more … adult.

And that is also where the transformations take place. We see an emotional transformation for both Emily and Linda. Brother Jeffrey also overcomes his agoraphobia when he realizes his mother and sister are in danger. He must leave the house and face the outside world. This is a story of how sometimes families get stuck in a rut and need a big event to shake things up. The ‘snatching’ of Emily and Linda is the event that shakes up everyone’s world and causes them all to reevaluate their lives.


Snatched is a sad bump in the road in Amy Schumer’s meteoric career, an aberration of underachievement from someone who has proven star power. This film is a throwaway comedy with no real redeeming value. The jokes are few and far between and there isn’t much at all to commend the predictable plot and substandard acting from Goldie Hawn. The most I can muster is a rating of 2 Reels out of 5, and that even feels generous.

As you point out, Greg, this is a buddy hero story with one buddy who is funny (Emily) and the other who is the film’s weak link (Linda). There is a clear hero’s journey, with our two heroes thrown into the hands of criminals and forced to acquire the resourcefulness necessary to extricate themselves. There are no surprises, only pointless predictability. But there is an identifiable hero’s journey and so I’ll give our heroes 3 Hero points out of 5.

The transformations are so obvious they are sledgehammered into the film, proving that a good movie needs a lot more than significant character transformation. Enough has been said on this topic and about this disappointing film. I award our heroes 3 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


I thought Snatched was another notch in Amy Schumer’s comedy belt. It was a funny premise delivered well. Emily and Linda are not your standard “damsels in distress.” They take control and ultimately exact revenge on the villains. I laughed out loud and happily award 3 out of 5 Reels.

These are standard buddy heroes. Similar to the Odd Couple from the sixties, one is out of control and the other is a control freak. Between them they learn to work together and save the day. I give them a standard 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the transformations are telegraphed from the beginning – I’ll give you that, Scott. We know Emily is going to become selfless. We know Linda is going to loosen up. And we aren’t the least bit surprised when Jeffrey calls in the cavalry. I give this standard transformation 3 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes: