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The Edge of Seventeen •••1/2

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hacksaw Ridge ••••1/2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Accountant ••••

the_accountant_2016_filmStarring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay: Bill Dubuque
Action/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2016


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

Greg, can I count on you to review The Accountant?

Sure, but there’s no accounting for taste. Let’s recap.

We meet an autistic child named Christian Wolff (Seth Lee/Ben Affleck), whose parents are very worried about his ability to lead a “normal” life. We also meet Christian’s younger brother Baxter (Jake Presley/Jon Bernthal). Christian’s dad (Robert C. Treveiler) decides that young Christian doesn’t need special psychological help for his autism; he only needs toughening up. Along the way, Baxter receives the same military-style upbringing.

Flash forward 30 years and Christian Wolff is invited to review the books of robotics company Live Robots. He finds a discrepancy but is told to stop the investigation. Meanwhile, agents at the FBI have taken an interest in Christian’s extracurricular activities. It seems he was the perpetrator of a killing of a mob boss that the director of the FBI was involved in. Further investigation reveals that Christian is deeply involved in the bookkeeping of several drug and crime lords. Who is this mysterious accountant?

Greg, I enjoyed The Accountant, probably far more than I should have. Perhaps it’s because Ben Affleck is at his best when he delivers an understated performance. Perhaps it’s because this movie defied Hollywood’s norm of portraying a disabled person as impeccably virtuous. Or perhaps because we have an intriguing story here with a number of memorable performances, most notably by J.K. Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, and John Lithgow.

The story structure is interesting in first showing us revealing snippets of Wolff’s childhood struggles with autism, and then abruptly moving deep into Wolff’s hero’s journey as a 40-year-old accountant. Or rather his anti-hero’s journey, as Wolff may be a genius but he has used his genius to help some really bad dudes. As is typical of a hero, Wolff is missing something important that he must find to obtain true happiness. In this case, it is a connection with people. The character of Dana Cummings enters his life to help him discover this missing quality.

I also enjoyed The Accountant more than I expected. While there were a few plot holes, they weren’t too egregious as to interrupt my enjoyment of the film. We’ve been fed a lot of “superhero” movies this year, and in many ways, the Accountant is a superhero as well. He has super intelligence as well as super fighting and weapons abilities. In many ways, the Accountant is similar to Affleck’s other role of late – Batman.

In writing circles we have a concept called “Saving the Cat.” This is an act by an otherwise rough character that softens his persona for the audience. In The Accountant, Wolff saves Dana’s life in a situation that amounts to pure altruism. He has no stake in her survival, yet he goes out of his way, risking his own life and his mission to get Dana to a safe place. This ingratiates him to us, and so his anti-hero status is softened.

That’s an interesting cat concept, Greg. Our hero Wolff is a complex character, helping out bad guys but also revealing fabulous mental superpowers and saving people like Dana. We may not agree with his criminal associations, but we empathize with his severe autism and can understand how he was led down a dark path by his father’s parenting failures. It didn’t help that Wolff is mentored in prison by Lamar Black (Jeffrey Tambor) who shares with Wolff the secrets of cooking the books.

Yes, Wolff has a couple of dark mentors. I found it curious that his father took him out of the special school for autistic children, yet Wolff gave copious sums to them as donations. It implies that the school acted as a mentor to his inner self, rather than to his physical capacities or to train his autistic mind.

I had trouble with labeling the father as a dark mentor. After all, he taught Wolff to defend himself against bullies. However, both Wolff and his brother end up in the employ of seedy characters doing dark deeds. In the end, their father’s military training does appear to be dark mentoring.

Good point about the father. We go out of our way to label these characters as either good mentors or dark mentors, but in doing so we lose sight of the fact that most fathers are probably a mix of both good and bad. That certainly seems to be the case with Wolff. Should we create a category of mentor called the mixed mentor? Something to chew on.

Overall, The Accountant grabbed my interest from the outset and held my attention for the full two hours. I wanted to know what happened to this struggling little boy with the cold, demanding father. And then when we find out, I wanted to know if the struggling man, who is still a boy in many ways, can finally grow up and transform into something better. The answer is yes, and I was left fully satisfied as a moviegoer. I doubt The Accountant will win any awards but it did win my heart. I give it 4 Reels out of 5.

As mentioned, this film portrays the hero’s journey in an unconventional way, giving us an overview of Wolff’s childhood and then jumping ahead 30 years to Wolff in early middle-age. This is the point in the story when Wolff is ripe for transformation, as his love interest enters his life and he has several “moments of truth” to deal with. Wolff’s journey is not one that we see very often in the movies, and I enjoyed it. I give him a rating 3 Heroes out of 5.

Mentorship has a strong presence in this movie. In addition to Wolff’s two darkish mentors, J. K. Simmons’ character, Ray King, serves as a strong and also darkish mentor to his protégé  Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). The mentors in this film earn a rating of 4 Mentors out of 5.

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The Accountant was a surprise in many ways. Firstly, it made an accountant interesting – quite the daring feat. Secondly, the accountant in this story is fairly emotionless. That is a difficult role for an actor. Such other notable characters in film come to mind – Spock from the Star Trek franchise and the eponymous Lucy from 2014. Affleck really delivered the goods. While he was characteristically stoic throughout the film, we definitely came to sympathize and ultimately root for him in the end. And while this was clearly an action/adventure, there was plenty of character development and relationships at play. Pile on that this was an origin story for a new kind of superhero (which often takes up half a film), and you can see that a lot was packed into 120 minutes. I also award 4 out of 5 Reels.

I think this is a bit of an anti-hero story, Scott. As we note in our book “Reel Heroes & Villains,” the anti-hero is an otherwise villainous character who is the protagonist. Wolff deals on the wrong side of the law and kills with impunity. However, we see him apply his super skill to save an old farming couple and Dana. I liked this anti-hero and award him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And while I agree with your assessment of the mentors in this film, dark though they were, I don’t have as much enthusiasm for them as you do. They are pretty average mentors that we have seen before. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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The Light Between Oceans ••••

the_light_between_oceans_posterStarring: Michael Fassbender,  Alicia Vikander,  Rachel Weisz
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we’re going to trip the light fantastic.

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

No doubt the trip will lead to an ocean of motion. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Tom Sherbourne who is back from WWI and ready to have some alone time working as the lighthouse keeper for the sleepy town in Australia. After three months, Tom is offered the job full-time and he marries young Isabel. It isn’t long before the two are expecting a wee bairn. Sadly, Isabel miscarries and they bury their child. The two try again but with the same results.

One day Tom spots a small boat adrift in the ocean. On board is a live baby girl and her dead father. Tom is duty-bound to report the discovery but Isabel, desperate for a baby, wants to keep the incident a secret and raise the infant as their own. Tom grudgingly agrees. They name the girl Lucy and all appears well until a few years later when Tom encounters Lucy’s actual mother (Rachel Weisz) who believes her daughter to be dead. This sets in motion an ocean of trouble for Tom and Isabel.

Scott, this is a refreshing change from the classic hero’s journey. Here we see a couple who have selected a path that requires them to lie about their lives and the life of their child. Tom cannot stand to keep the lie and delivers a letter to the original mother letting her know that her husband is dead and her daughter is being cared for. This is only a temporary fix for Tom’s conscience. He must now live a new lie: the lie of omission to his wife as he keeps the secret of their changeling daughter.

One thing is for certain about The Light Between Oceans: it is expertly designed to take us on an emotional roller coaster. We’re thrilled when two young lovers get together, then we’re crushed when their babies die. Then we’re happy when they (conveniently) find a lost baby, but then we’re crushed when we discover this new baby has a mother who thinks it’s dead. The ups and downs go on and on — but in a good way from an entertainment perspective.

The movie actually tells a good heroic tale. Greg, you call it a “refreshing change” from the usual hero journey but it seems pretty standard to me. At the tearful request of Isabel, our hero Tom is thrust into the dangerous world of committing a crime he normally would never commit. But his love for her trumps his ethics, sending him down a dark path that he eventually couldn’t live with. Coming clean is his only path to redemption, and his honesty saves him, his marriage, and the true mother of the child. Tom and Isabel certainly grow from the ordeal, and their growth is absolutely necessary for their personal and marital salvation.

I felt Light didn’t follow the typical path of giving the hero a goal or quest. The focus is on the crushing burden of an honest man maintaining a lie. It’s more of a character study than a journey. This movie asks a question: What if an honest man has to choose between honesty and true love. Tom loves his wife so much that he would give up his most closely held belief in doing what is right. And in the end, he lays the groundwork for the discovery of his lie. He can’t do what is wrong, even for the love of his life. In the end, he is willing to give up his life in exchange for the truth to be told, and to protect his wife. It’s a story deep in character, less so in plot.

Interesting way to look at it, Greg. In terms of mentorship, I’m really struck by the transformative effect that women can have on men in the movies. The Light Between Oceans is no exception. Curiously, Isabel has both a positive and a negative mentoring effect on Tom. At first, she is good for him. She transforms him from a numb, shell-shocked man who is running away from himself and his past, into a man who is capable of opening his heart and having an intimate relationship.

But later she turns into a dark mentor, convincing Tom to betray his ethics. We’ve seen several movies that are primarily about a hero who must overcome a dark mentor, movies such as War Dogs and Whiplash. Usually the dark mentor wields a great deal of power over the hero, making it difficult for the hero to extricate himself from the mentor’s influence. In Light Between Oceans, Isabel doesn’t have power per se over our hero Tom, but Tom’s love and loyalty toward her and their child makes it extremely challenging for him to defy her influence. Yet he must do so for his heroism to unfold.

You pretty much nailed it, Scott. There’s also Tom’s inner mentor of the “rules of being an honest man.” In the westerns it might be called “The Law of the West.” We’ve seen this in other movies where past mentors instilled rules and lessons in the young hero. These guiding principles are what create the drama in this movie.

The Light Between Oceans is the story of one man’s conflict between his morals and the love of his life. There are a lot of ways this story could have gone. It is Tom’s conflict between doing the right thing and giving his wife what she desperately needs that makes this movie so interesting. I was glad to have a film that wasn’t about a man’s missing inner quality and a tangible quest. Instead we get a deep character study. I give Light 4 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Sherbourne is an exceptionally good man. He’s honest, trustworthy, and a committed husband. He is put in the position of violating one or both of his strongly held beliefs. On the one hand he must be truthful. When he discovers the boat with the dead German and baby, he knows he must record it in his log and report it to the authorities. But when his wife demands he let her keep the baby, the rule of love creates a conflict with his morals. I give Tom 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Isabel plays the role of the dark mentor, leading Tom down the path of disobeying his inner rules. These inner rules are Tom’s mentor, guiding him to do the right thing. These are important mentors for this story, but are not as strong as many we’ve seen this year. I give Isabel and Tom’s inner mentor just 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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The Light Between Oceans is a soap opery tale about Australian love, tragedy, and redemption. The movie works because the story effectively pulls us into the drama and makes us care about these characters. We care about Tom and root for him to heal his war-time injuries. We root for young love to blossom. We’re heartbroken about the lost babies and not only understand Isabel’s desire to keep the baby who washes up ashore but also understand why Tom would compromise his principles to please her. It’s all rather maudlin and overly dramatic, yet it all works on every level of filmmaking. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Tom is a classic hero in many senses of the word. He is a hero of the Great War, he is a hero of love, he is a hero of honesty, he is a hero of loyalty, and he is a hero of redemption. We don’t see much greater heroism than this in the movies. His journey is extraordinarily painful yet effective in transforming him and in bringing out his best qualities. I also award Tom 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship role that Isabel plays is a fascinating one that we rarely see in storytelling. It is highly unusual for the same character to play both a positive and a negative mentoring role, yet Isabel assumes this bipolar role in her influence on Tom. Good call, Greg, on noting Tom’s inner moral compass as another type of mentor operating on him. It all adds up to a rather interesting movie for mentoring, necessitating a Mentor rating of 4 out of 5.

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Sully •••1/2

sully_xxlgStarring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki, Chesley Sullenberger
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2016


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

Greg, it looks like someone wants to avoid a sullied reputation.

Sully rabbit, tricks are for kids. Let’s take a look at the latest movie from Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood:

We meet Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a veteran US Airways pilot. He’s recovering from the aftermath of an emergency landing he had to make on the Hudson River shortly after Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport. His co-pilot that day was Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

But instead of being treated like a hero, the National Transportation Safety Board wants to prove that he made a huge mistake. Instead of landing in the Hudson, they think he should have landed at either LaGuardia or Teterboro. This leads Sully to question his own decision making. The rest of the film answers the question: Is Sully a hero, or incompetent.

Greg, this movie taps into the powerful archetype of the hero who is wrongly accused of villainy and must spend the entire storyline trying to establish his innocence. As such, this is a movie that deliberately makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable with the idea of a sinking plane maneuvering through Manhattan skyscrapers. You feel the discomfort of a man who is tortured with the burden of the ‘hero’ label. You’re frustrated with an NTSB board that seems hellbent on proving that Sully made a reckless choice to land in the Hudson.

This movie, along with Tom Hanks, deserve Oscar consideration. Even though we know the story’s ending, we’re never really sure how we’ll get there. The hero’s journey is extremely unconventional, with much of the film devoted to flashbacks of the hero’s descent (literally) into the dangerous, unfamiliar world of double-engine failure on the jet plane. But even more so it is a film about the hero’s subsequent descent into the dangerous, unfamiliar worlds of unwanted fame, family turmoil, accusations of wrongdoing, and courtroom drama. It’s a movie that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, with the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

Scott, I was less enthusiastic about this movie than you. The fact is, Sullenberger is an unqualified hero. Sadly, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great story. Sully is the most boring of heroes – he simply did his job extremely well and saved 155 lives. But to create a story around this, you have to have a goal and you have to have a villain to thwart that goal. Director Clint Eastwood creates a goal of surviving the NTSB inquisition, which makes the NTSB the villains. It’s clumsily executed. The movie ends in an unrealistic courtroom scene that left me feeling the whole movie was a made up story.

From where I was sitting in the audience, the plot was more suited to a made-for-tv movie than a big-screen extravaganza. It sounds like it would be great as it has a true-to-life hero in Sully, big-time director Eastwood, and America’s favorite leading man, Tom Hanks. But scene after scene seemed stilted and put on.

As a case in point, let’s look at what they did to Sully’s poor wife. She’s portrayed as a harried homemaker who was more concerned about whether they were going to lose their summer home than the fact that her husband survived a near-fatal crash. She keeps asking when he’ll be home when she knows he is fighting for his professional life. Now, this is not done to show how unsupportive the real Mrs. Sullenberger was. But rather, to expose to the audience what was at stake for Sully. It’s handled clumsily and throws poor Mrs. Sully under the bus in exchange for exposition. And that’s straight out of the Hallmark Home Movie tradition.

My only quibble is that the movie glossed over the skill it took to land a plane successfully on water. At the time (in 2009), there were numerous stories, all fascinating, of the specific technique needed to bring the plane down on the water’s surface without it plunging immediately to the river bottom. Apparently, Sully had to maneuver the jet to emulate a bird landing on the water, an image and skill that the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with. This achievement should have been highlighted as a major reason behind Sully’s heroism. In addition, it is also true that Sully was saving his own life in landing that plane safely, so to say that he was completely selfless is untrue.

Still, the accomplishment was remarkable and Clint Eastwood deserves kudos for putting together a movie that serves as a worthy tribute to this truly humble hero who wanted no part of the hero label. The handling of the bumbling NTSB and the histrionic wife didn’t particularly bother me that much, except for the apparent fact that these two elements of the story departed from reality quite a bit. In typical Clint style, this movie is about a man who sticks it to “the man”. Sully is a kinder, gentler Dirty Harry.

As far as mentorship goes, Sully’s mentor is hard to identify but I think we have hinted at the type of indirect mentor at work in this hero’s life. We’ve seen movies like The Martian in which there is an “implicit mentor” whose training of the hero helped him survive an ordeal. We’ve also seen films like London Has Fallen where the hero is not an actual person but a code of ethics or behavior that the hero lives by. With Sully we see hints of these two types of mentorship at work in Sully’s life. His 42 years of aviation experience were instrumental (pardon the pun), as was mentorship from his father which is hinted at in a brief flashback scene.

Sully is a flawed biopic about a true American hero. They don’t make heroes better than Captain Sullenberger. I enjoyed the film but I can’t get past the unskilled use of the NTSB and Sully’s wife as foils. Compare to the excellent Eye in the Sky which we reviewed earlier this year. In that film both sides of an argument were presented without bias. There was no need to make the NTSB the villains – except to further the narrative that Sully was a persecuted hero. I give Sully just 3 out of 5 Reels.

There’s not doubt that Sully is a hero. By just about any measure one has to appreciate the fact that it was Sully’s devotion to his craft and trade that allowed him to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Then he went further by being so humble about his heroism. I give Sully 5 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Scott, Sully doesn’t expose his mentors directly. It is his training that gives him the strength to pull off the impossible feat of saving 155 souls on a flight that should have crashed. I give Sully’s mentorship 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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Sully is yet another triumph for ageless director Clint Eastwood. This movie relies on the time-honored archetype of the hero who is falsely accused of villainy, and much of the successful use of this formula can be attributed to the acting genius of Tom Hanks. No actor could better capture Sullenberger’s earnest humility, moral caring, and quiet competence better than Hanks. This film is a winner and easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey takes a nontraditional route by first giving us flashbacks of Sully’s recent hero journey involving double-engine failure and a river landing. Then we witness Sully’s subsequent hero’s journey that is less physically dangerous yet more emotionally distressing, in which he must deal with antagonists such as the media, his wife, and the NTSB. Clint Eastwood weaves these two hero’s tales together with great flair and effectiveness. I give our hero Sullenberger a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship here is subtle, complex, yet pivotal for our hero’s success. Sullenberger’s past training and experience were his strongest allies in the cockpit that day in the air. His father also guided him capably. Later, on the ground and in the unwelcome limelight, Sullenberger flounders about with little mentoring to help him other than his own personal integrity and steadfast confidence that he made all the right moves on that airplane. The mentoring in this movie is present yet elusive. As such, I’ll bump the rating down a bit to 3 Mentors out of 5.

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War Dogs •••1/2

War_Dogs_2016_posterStarring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Steve Lantz
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: August 19, 2016


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

Greg, I think we just saw a flick about two poodles drafted into combat.

It’s time for a different role for Jonah Hill. One where he swears a lot. But wait, that’s every Jonah Hill role. Let’s recap.

We meet David Packhouz (Miles Teller), a massage therapist who struggles to make a living. He tries his hand at selling linens to old age homes, but goes nowhere. Now his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant and he’s especially in need of extra income. Enter childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who is now making boatloads of money as an independent arms dealer. Diveroli convinces Packhouz to join him in his growing business.

The have modest success picking up the crumbs of contracts left by the billion-dollar enterprise dealers. Their first big break comes when they run some guns out of Israel through Jordan and into the heart of Iraq. They succeed mainly because they don’t know the danger they’re in. When they get home they don’t know where their next big job will come from. But then they see a deal they can’t pass up: a contract for a billion rounds of ammunition. If they can pull this off, they’ll make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Greg, War Dogs is based on a true story about two twenty-somethings who don’t mind cutting corners in their big-deal makings, and in the end they find themselves in way over their heads. Although the film features two buddy-heroes, it’s clear to me that it’s a pairing of a psychopath anti-hero (Diveroli) with a more sympathetic hero character who shows he can grow and transform (Packhouz). In fact, one could argue that this movie tells Packhouz’s story. We learn how Packhouz struggled financially to the point of needing to join forces with the nefarious Diveroli, and then lived to regret the pairing.

So I’m curious, Greg, whether you view this film as a buddy hero film or as a dark mentor film in which our hero must extricate himself from the mentor. Actor Miles Teller seems to make it a habit of gravitating to roles in which his character falls under the spell of a dark teacher. Two years ago, in Whiplash, he was abused by J. K. Simmons’ character. In most buddy hero stories, each buddy helps the other buddy transform, but as Packhouz is the only character here who shows transformative growth, I lean toward viewing the story as more of a dark mentor tale.

Yes, Scott, I think you’ve nailed it. War Dogs is actually narrated by the Packhouz character so it very much seems to be a hero’s journey where the hero must extricate himself from a dark mentor. It *is* very much like Whiplash in that sense.

I’m seeing Miles Teller all over the place these days. He’s a true rising star. His performances are getting better with each film he appears in. However, Jonah Hill seems to be playing himself in every movie. He’s loud, obnoxious, and swears extensively. We saw it in Superbad, The Wolf of Wall Street, and This is The End. I am tired of this guy.

When we look at Hill’s character, Diveroli, it’s clear he’s a manipulator. He shows up when Packhouz is at a funeral – a vulnerable time. He takes advantage of Packhouz when his wife becomes pregnant – getting him to sign on at a time of need. Eventually, Diverolli reneges on his promise to share 30% of the company with Packhouz. Diveroli is not a good friend to have.

The movie works only because we see hints of goodness in Packhouz throughout the story, and we root for him to build on that foundation even when he makes one dumb decision after another. Yes, he’s skirting legal trouble, lying to his wife, taking unnecessary chances, and cavorting with the unsavory Efraim. But his potential for transformation is made abundantly clear and it takes his inevitable fall into an abyss of trouble for his conversion experience to happen.

We’ve already mentioned that Efraim plays the dark mentor role, and in a strange way the character of Henry, played by Bradley Cooper, attempts to take on a mentoring role toward the very end of the film. Henry is impressed by Packhouz’s integrity in not implicating Henry in the ammunition caper, and we’re left wondering whether Henry is “grooming” Packhouz toward another round of shady business dealings. I applaud the filmmakers’ decision to leave us wondering which direction Packhouz takes. Yes, by film’s end Packhouz transformed into a good husband and honest man, but is this change permanent? We can hope but we’ll never know.

War Dogs is an interesting, nearly light-hearted look at the world of weapons trade. We follow our fumbling hero-buddies as they navigate this morally-gray realm and root for them to succeed. The story is mixed with humor and intrigue and pulls us along for an entertaining ride. I don’t think this film will win any Academy awards, but, like the similar Wolf of Wall Street, offers a cautionary tale of greed and stupidity. I award War Dogs 4 out of 5 Reels.

While this appears to be a hero-buddy story, I think it’s really Packhouz’s story. We witness him telling simple white lies to his wife, followed by bigger and bigger lies until he loses her in the end. Ultimately, his lies and deceit lead him to be indicted on weapons charges and lands him in jail. He comes to his senses and rejects the dark world of international weapons trading and gets his wife and child back. It’s an entertaining tale of the redeemed hero and I give Packhouz 4 out of 5 Heroes.

I see two dark mentors in this story: Efraim Diveroli and Henry. Deivroli take on the shape of whomever he needs to when he is talking to someone. In Packhouz’s case, it is the form of best friend. This shapeshifting dark mentor leads Packhouz down a trail of lies and deceipt that ultimately land im in jail. Henry is the hidden dark mentor. He is a weapons trader who works in the shadows and only comes into the light to make course corrections for his own plans. I give these dark mentors 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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War Dogs surprised me with its true-life portrayal of two guys in over their heads in the dangerous game of unscrupulous arms dealings. The story is a cautionary tale of greed and all the despicable things humans will do for money. Most importantly, the film warns us of the dangers of cavorting with the wrong mentor figures in life. If we hang out with dreck, our lives become dreck. There’s a lot to like in this movie but it’s doubtful that I’ll ever give it a second look. I’m awarding it a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

We’ve seen this type of hero journey before in Miles Teller’s Whiplash. There’s clearly a descent into a dark world from which our hero Packhouz must escape. Interestingly, he doesn’t receive help from others; he must extricate himself on his own, and he does so by allowing the natural consequences of his poor decision making to unfold. Perhaps that’s the only way he will learn, and the only way any of us learn how not to live our lives. Again, it’s a good hero’s journey but not a great one. I give it 3 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, you and I agree on the mentoring in this film. One observation I might add is that time and time again Packhouz resists the positive influence of his wife Iz, who loves him and will love him whether he is rich or poor. I’ve noticed that in storytelling, men get in trouble whenever they defy the positive transformative influence of women. Overall, the mentoring in this story merits a rating of 3 Mentors out of 5.

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Finding Dory •••

Finding_DoryStarring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill
Director: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: June 17, 2016


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Well it looks like we’re back in the ocean looking for another disabled fish.

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

Finding Dory has definitely whet my appetite. But not for seafood. Let’s recap.

We meet Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang fish who lacks short termed memory. It’s been a year since she helped find Nemo and we flash forward to the present. Dory keeps introducing herself to other fish as if they had met for the first time. Then she has a flashback where she remembers her parents trying to teach her (as a young fish) how to find her way home. They are very understanding and patient fish and are teaching Dory coping mechanisms for her memory problems.

Dory is captured by the Marine Life Institute, where she is tagged and thrown into the quarantine section. There she meets a grumpy octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who wants Dory’s tag so that he can be sent to a permanent aquarium. To get the tag, he agrees to help Dory find her parents. Soon she meets an old childhood friend a shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and a whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), who both play a role in helping Dory.


It’s been a long time since I saw the prequel Finding Nemo. I think both of these films feature young fish with a disability. And the thrust of the film is how to deal with the challenges life throws at you regardless of your abilities. This is a wonderful message for young children who always feel powerless in a world of adult giants.

Dory is just as adorable as her voice actor – America’s sweetheart Ellen Degeneres. The only problem I had with the film and Dory is that she suffers from selective memory. She appears to remember things just in time for the plot points.

I’m torn in my evaluation because on the one hand this is a children’s film. And Pixar delivers. But there are leaps and gaps in logic (Dory happens to go down the same drain as her parents did two years ago. And they’re still in the same location waiting for Dory to come home. Lucky). This film will entertain children for years to come. But Pixar has a reputation for appealing to both the child and adult markets, and I think they missed the mark for adults.

I was thinking the same thing, Greg. This is a kids movie, pure and simple. I found myself in the unfamiliar position of being bored — an unheard of place for me to be during a Pixar film. All these characters are quite lovable and appealing, but there isn’t much depth or substance in the characters or in the situations they encounter (with one notable exception which I’ll get to shortly). Much is made of all the different places, rooms, and bodies of water that the fish find themselves in, and I suppose there is some cleverness in how they are transported to those places. But again, these kinds of action sequences appeal to children.

So let’s talk about the one exceptional feature of Finding Dory that was very clever and sophisticated. It is her short-term memory problem that you mention, Greg. Typically the hero is missing an important quality and the hero’s journey forces the hero to develop this quality. In Dory’s case, her memory problem cannot be fixed, and so this movie teaches us that even when we face permanent deficits, we can draw on our other strengths to compensate for these deficits. Dory spends her hero’s journey discovering hidden strengths that others do not possess — strengths which more than make up for her memory issues. This is a nice twist on the conventional hero’s journey and I really appreciated it.

Finding Dory is a nice sequel to Finding Nemo. We see similar themes in how to deal with disabilities. The word ‘nice’ comes to mind quite frequently. It’s a nice little story. Dory is a nice character. The parents were nice and patient. And I had a nice time. But there wasn’t a lot of the drama that made Finding Nemo compelling to all ages. Dory merely moves from place to place – each place adding a piece to the puzzle that is her memory. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for Finding Dory.

Dory as the hero does really well here. As you point out, Scott, she has a missing inner quality of a missing memory. But she also has the missing inner quality of not belonging. She suddenly realizes that she’s missed her parents and needs to find them. So her quest to find her parents propels the story forward and her ultimate reunion with them resolves her inner hurt. I liked Dory and I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Dory as several mentors in this film. Her parents act as her early mentors – teaching her how to survive despite her memory problems by drawing on her other gifts. The “septapus” xxx is her guide through the special world of the Marine Habitat. And Dory herself acts as a “by example” mentor to Nemo’s dad xxx. He learns to act in the moment and do “what Dory would do” when the need arises. I give them 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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I think you’ve summed up Finding Dory quite nicely, Greg. Children under the age of 14 should enjoy this movie, and adults will either enjoy it or at least find it palatable. The characters are all adorable and movie captures quite well the time-honored theme of finding home. Finding Dory will never been known as one of Pixar’s finest offerings but it’s still worthy entertainment. I also award it 3 Reels out of 5.

Delivering a strong hero’s journey is Pixar’s strength, and this film is no exception. All the classic elements of the hero’s quest are here in full form, beginning with the departure from home, the encounter with allies to help with the mission, the presence of ominous oppositional forces, and the hero’s meaningful transformation as a result of the journey. I agree that this hero deserves a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

There are plenty of mentors, as you point out, Greg. Dory’s strength is remaining open to learning from them all. She also teaches these mentors a thing or two about showing determination and solving problems. I think I’ll bump up the mentor rating a notch from yours and give these mentors a rating of 4 out of 5.

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The Nice Guys •••

The_Nice_Guys_posterStarring: Russell Crowe,  Ryan Gosling,  Angourie Rice
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black,  Anthony Bagarozzi
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: May 20, 2016


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

Greg, we just watched a movie about two guys searching for a movie. You could say they are Reel Heroes.

I think the real heroes are those who sat through the whole film. Let’s recap:

The movie opens in 1977 with porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) dying in a car crash. We then meet Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who makes his money using his brass knuckles to warn punks to stay away from his clients. We also meet small-time private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and his precocious 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). Misty Mountains’ aunt (Lois Smith) claims to have seen Misty after her death and hires March to investigate.

It turns out that young Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) has hired Healy to beat up on March because he’s following her around. Healy thinks March is a creep stalking a young girl. But it turns out March has been paid to find Amelia who is a missing person with a reward for her return. Meanwhile a sweet old lady, Mrs. Glenn, says Misty Mountains is her niece and just saw her – two days after her death. The chase is on as Healy and March team up to find the missing girl and uncover the mystery of the murder of Misty Mountains.

Greg, I appreciated The Nice Guys for personal reasons. I lived in Los Angeles in 1977 and I was able to recognize certain landmarks and neighborhoods in the film. I could also identify with the tone, feel, and ambience of this period of southern California history. The Nice Guys is a stylish, semi-comedic movie reminiscent of the film noir genre of the 1940s and 50s. The set-up of the film is serious but the story is always winking at us in acknowledgment of its own absurdity. Healy and March are prototypical buddy heroes, starting out as enemies and then thrown together by circumstances to achieve a common goal. It’s an engaging movie and I was entertained, although I doubt I’d ever bother to give this film a second look.

I appreciate your labeling of the film as “semi-comedic.” This film couldn’t make up its mind whether to be serious or silly. One case in point is a scene where March has fallen off a balcony into a wooded back yard. He comes to a stop against a tree where a dead man is propped up next to him. And he does a silent scream in a way that I can only describe as … Stooge-esque. He reminded me of Curly from the Three Stooges when he sees a ghost.

But the show is not a comedy. People are dying left and right. The backdrop is the introduction of the clean emissions laws of the 1970s. It looks as though the Secretary of the US Department of Justice (Kim Basinger) is involved in a conspiracy to prevent the catalytic converter laws from going into effect. This is serious stuff. It *could* be possible to create a comedy from this. But I didn’t find March or Healy particularly funny. Unlike Misty Mountains, the jokes fell flat.

We just reviewed Money Monster, another film depicting the corrupt corporate world’s skewering of the common man. With all the many dystopian future movies also telling us that no one in authority can be trusted, one has to wonder what kind of seismic changes our society is poised to undergo. In all of these movies, the hero is the person who not only uncovers the plot to screw over innocent people, she (or they) also bring the corruptors to justice. Here it is Kim Basinger’s character who is caught exploiting people, and we’re left wondering if her conspirators in Detroit’s auto industry are also exposed and punished.

Our two buddy heroes traverse the classic hero’s journey, being thrown together by circumstance to find Amelia and unravel the Misty mystery. Healy is transformed the most, from thug to something softer than a thug, and he can thank 13-year-old Holly for demonstrating a kinder, gentler approach to life. Usually mentors are older, grizzled characters, but at times good storytelling features a surprisingly wise youth who coaches our heroes. In this way The Nice Guys follows in the tradition of movies like Pay it Forward and Free Willy.

I think you’ve uncovered something too, Scott. The Young Mentor – someone who hasn’t been corrupted by the experiences and disappointments of adult life, and reminds the hero of their own younger, idealistic days. No doubt March is an irresponsible parent. But even the worst parent wouldn’t allow a child to a coke-driven Hollywood party or a gun fight. Still, in order for Amelia to impose her young-mentor talents, she had to be on the scene.

While The Nice Guys was entertaining, I was often confused as to its comedic versus dramatic balance. While it was not a slapstick comedy, often slapstick elements were introduced which threw me out of the action. Whenever I’m thinking about the filmmaking rather than being in the story, the film loses pace and I get lost. I can only give The Nice Guys 3 out of 5 Reels.

I liked the buddy story here. Our two heroes start out about as far apart as two can get. But the ultimately combine their powers for the better good. While they didn’t save the girl (she was a McGuffin after all), they did uncover the conspiracy and the city of Los Angeles was saved. I give them 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The main mentor here is Amelia, March’s daughter. She is a constant reminder to both of the “lost” or “fallen” heroes that a they are capable of being better men. She not only holds them to a higher standard than they hold themselves, but she reminds them of what is right and wrong. But there was too little of her mentoring to give her a high score. However, I see her as playing a pivotal role in the transformation in March and Healy. I give her 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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The Nice Guys is a quirky, clever, and stylish neo-noir film that draws from the energetic chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. This movie is two hours of fun and interesting fluff that won’t win any awards but is still worth a watch. Like you, Greg, I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes go on the standard hero’s journey and find themselves forever changed, thanks to the precocious wisdom of a 13-year-old girl who imparts wisdom about kindness and restraint in their dealings with people. So again, I hate to do this, but I have to agree with you, Greg, that this film merits 3 Heroes out of 5 and 3 Mentors out of 5, too.

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The Boss •••

The_Boss_posterStarring: Melissa McCarthyKristen BellPeter Dinklage
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenplay: Ben FalconeSteve Mallory
Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: April 8, 2016


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Scott, hide what you’re doing The Boss is coming.

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

Melissa McCarthy is a boss no one wants to mess with. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy), a self-made millionaire who lives the high life giving motivational speeches on a stage with dancers and a flame-throwing dragon. She thinks little of those around her, especially her assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) who is (we’re told again and again) a single mother. Darnell doesn’t ride high forever as her nemesis Renault (Peter Dinklage) discovers she has committed insider trading and turns her in. Her world is turned upside-down when she lands in federal prison and loses everything, including anyone who might care about her.

When Darnell is released from prison, she has nowhere to go, so she ends up living with Claire and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Darnell’s plan is to recapture her former glory as a successful businesswoman. She discovers that Rachel’s girl-scout-like group, the Dandelions, sells cookies as a fundraiser, and she also discovers that Claire makes incredible tasting brownies. Darnell’s scheme is to make a fortune by creating a rival group that aggressively sells these brownies at a huge profit.

Scott, Melissa McCarthy has had a stream of movie successes over the last few years. There’s a common theme running through these films: female empowerment. Back in 2013 she starred in buddy-cop movie The Heat with Sandra Bullock. The following year she followed up with Tammy. And last year she burst out with Spy. While not all of these films were critical successes, they all display the lead character as a woman who takes control of her environment and succeeds on her own terms.

The Boss is no exception. In Darnell we are witness to a woman who grew up in an orphanage and was rejected so much that she concludes that “family is for suckers.” She strikes out on her own and creates a multi-million dollar empire. However, her lost lover exposes her for insider trading and she is thrown in federal prison for 6 months. The Martha Stewart jokes abound – there is no subtlety to the parallels. When Darnell has paid her dues, she has nothing left and none of the men she supported on their way up will help her. It’s a boy’s club and she’s missing the Y-chromosome.

You’re right about McCarthy’s repeated portrayals of strong, take-no-prisoners women who dare to succeed in domains usually reserved for males. Her persona is huge here, and I mean huge in all the wrong, Donald Trump kind of ways. We’re talking narcissism, exploitation, aggression, and cruelty. Yet McCarthy uses these character defects as a set-up for her character’s hero’s journey. Darnell must soften up and cultivate her humanity to truly transform as a person. Amidst all the silliness in this movie, we are witness to exactly this heroic transformation from Trump (or Stewart) to a compassionate human being who finds her connection to humanity.

So it sounds like I enjoyed this movie. At the level of hero transformation, yes, I was satisfied. But the movie itself is not particularly fun to watch. Many of the visual and verbal gags fall flat, and I think part of the problem is that The Boss tries too hard to be constantly funny rather than telling a story that doesn’t need to be constantly funny. There’s no denying McCarthy’s comedic talent, but she tries too hard here when her messages about women’s empowerment and de-Trumpification can stand on their own without the barrage of mediocre gags.

We disagree again, but not completely. On the Trumpisms – yes. But McCarthy is a master of slapstick comedy. There’s a scene early on where she wears lip-expanders that is hilarious. Just when I thought she had played the gag out, she pushed it further and I was howling. There’s another scene (also in the trailers) where Darnell is helping Claire dress for a date and they start bouncing each other’s boobs. I mean, it’s sophomoric, grade-school humor. But McCarthy is a master and I bust a gut. I want more.

This is a classic hero’s journey. Darnell goes from being a hard-core greed-addicted capitalist with no need for friend or family, to a caring individual who uses her talent for goodness and niceness rather than evil. There is no subtlety to this transformation, but it is sweet and done quite well for a slapstick comedy.

I was struck by the fact that Darnell is acting as the mentor in this story. She mentors Claire in standing up for herself, and she mentors the girls of Darnell’s Darlings in the ways of business. It’s pretty rare for us to see the Hero-as-Mentor. Usually the mentor is a secondary role. But in Darnell’s case, we see her not only mentor others but undergo a radical transformation as well.

Greg, I was struck by the appearance of a grand-mentor, whom we define as the mentor to the mentor. Kathy Bates plays the role of Ida Marquette, a woman who mentored Darnell many years earlier. We first saw a grand-mentor in Eddie the Eagle, where Christopher Walken played a classy, highly revered old grand master. In The Boss, nothing is classy and everything is brassy, thus we’re not surprised to see Ida Marquette show the same ball-busting qualities as her protege Darnell.

I agree that Darnell mentors Claire, but let’s not discount the possibility that Darnell and Claire are also buddy heroes who help each other transform. Darnell convinces Claire to dream big and leave her humdrum job, and then she also shows Claire how to build a business empire. In return, Claire teaches Darnell the lessons of humanity and interpersonal decency. Rachel also shows Darnell the importance of family and connection to loved ones. So the mentorship goes both ways between Darnell and Claire, as we see in many buddy hero stories — which is topic we dive into in our Reel Heroes & Villains book.

The Boss is a fun slapstick comedy by a master comedian. As an R-rated comedy you’ll want to leave the kids at home. But this isn’t for the kids. It’s a smart movie with heart made for adults by adults. Melissa McCarthy shines in a role that takes advantage of her big talent. I enjoyed her over-the-top humor and transformation into a Darnell who welcomed family. I give The Boss 4 out of 5 Reels.

Darnell is the lead character in this story, in my humble opinion. While you, Scott, saw this as a buddy story, I have to disagree as Claire played second banana the whole movie. Darnell’s young life as an unwanted orphan hardened her to emotional attachments. But her incorporation with Claire and her daughter Rachel melted her frozen heart. I enjoyed watching Darnell, but the hero’s journey suffered in favor of the comedic shenanigans. I can only award Darnell 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And Darnell as Mentor was an interesting case. On the one hand she shows all the girls in her brownie business how to stand up for themselves and how to run a successful company. But on the other she is a dark mentor showing them that anger and violence resolves all confrontations. It’s an interesting mix, but one that I can only award 3 Mentors out of 5.

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The Boss is a wonderful movie only if you are a Melissa McCarthy fanatic with a high tolerance for 90 minutes of one ridiculous (and often mediocre) gag after another. Yes, McCarthy is a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, and she does dare to portray women in powerful roles. I suspect that her films will improve if and when she evolves into a more dramatic actor. Doing so will enhance the effectiveness of her message of empowerment for women. For now, her movies veer close to resembling the forgettable canon of Adam Sandler, and that’s no compliment. I can only award this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is actually the one strength of The Boss. Who doesn’t like seeing Scrooge soften up or the Grinch develop a heart? Such stories are always immensely satisfying, although this movie’s mediocre comedic elements put a huge dent in the immenseness. Having said that, I’m a sucker for people finding their compassion, and I also like the empowering effect that Darnell has on Claire. I’m willing to give these two heroic transformations a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also rock solid, with each of our two main heroes offering important guidance and life lessons for the other. I also loved the appearance of the grand mentor who years earlier trained Darnell to become a successful business tycoon. I was alarmed, however, by all the dark mentoring directed at the numerous children in the movie. These kids were shown how to cheat and fight physically with others, and it was all presented as humorous. Not good. We’re left not knowing if these kids were ever un-mentored from this nastiness. Still, there is enough good mentoring to award this film a rating of 3 Mentors out of 5.

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Miracles From Heaven ••1/2

Miracles_from_Heaven_posterStarring: Jennifer Garner,  Kylie Rogers,  Martin Henderson
Director: Patricia Riggen
Screenplay: Christy Beam,  Randy Brown
Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: March 16, 2016


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

Greg, we just saw a movie that begs the question, Do you believe in miracles?

It also begs the question, Who does God love more? Let’s recap:

We meet the Beam family: Christy (Jennifer Garner) and Kevin (Martin Henderson), along with their three children Abbie (Brighton Sharbino), Adelynn (Courtney Fansler), and Anna (Kylie Rogers). They’re all happy and doing great until one day Anna throws up for no reason. Soon we learn that she’s constantly sick and in pain. The Beams go from one doctor to another without getting any answers.

Finally they find someone who can advise them: Dr. Nurko. He explains that the signals from Anna’s brain don’t fully make their way to her digestive system. So she’s basically paralyzed from the stomach through her small and large intestines. She has to subsist on a liquid diet and lots of pain meds. The prognosis looks grim but he offers some small hope.

Miracles From Heaven is a Christian-based movie that follows the usual formula of the genre. We meet a hero of faith who is happy, but then something bad happens that ruins the happiness and jeopardizes the faith. In the end, God comes through with a needed miracle and both happiness and faith are restored. With a title like Miracles From Heaven, we know from the get-go what is going to happen. What we don’t know are the details, and any movie that gives away its punchline had better get those details right.

This movie pretty much gets the details right, and so the enjoyability of the movie hinges on one’s taste for the genre. The details that are effective begin with our two heroes, Christy and Anna. Jennifer Garner plays a distraught mother with agonizing effectiveness, and Anna exudes a tender sweetness even when she’s in pain. The hopelessness of Anna’s medical condition is heart wrenching to bear, and the maudlinism is dragged out a bit too long for my tastes. But the promised miracle delivers just the right punch.

There are several problems with this movie. The first is that the climax is delivered in the trailer. We know what is going to happen: The little girl gets sick, the doctors can’t help her, she falls from a tree onto her head, and she is cured. We aren’t ever in the situation where we fear for the little girl’s life – so it’s just a matter of waiting for the events to unfold.

There are a number of troubling scenes in this film. Not the least of which is a scene where Anna is in the hospital with a little girl dying from leukemia. The girl asks Anna if she fears death and she admits that she does, but she gets strength from her faith. Anna gives the girl her own cross and that is that. Until the end of the film when it is revealed that the girl is the daughter of the Boston Globe’s reporter Ben Wexler and she died after three weeks. So, apparently, if you’re a Christian girl and pray, God cures you. But if you’re a Jewish girl and don’t, God lets you die. It’s a troubling message.

This is the sort of question that such movies gloss over. On the one hand, God is glorified for curing blonde haired, blue eyed little girls. But gets no blame when other little girls die for no good reason. This is exacerbated by the fact that the pastor gives a sermon on how if things are not going well in your life, maybe you need to search your soul to see if you’re sinning. So, a couple parishioners approach Christie and ask her to reflect on her life and her husband’s. Or perhaps, Anna herself is the cause of her own illness. It’s an appalling question that the pastor shrugs off later. But it is the sort of themes that we see in Christian Inspirational movies.

I think this movie pretty much discredits any notion that people get sick because God is punishing them. The three parishioners who make this argument are shown to be cruel simpletons. The pastor’s unfortunate wording allows for misinterpretation. Sure, if we’re unhappy with a situation (like divorce or being thrown in jail) we need to look at our part — what role did we play in causing it? The situation facing our heroes was illness, so the question isn’t “what did I do to cause it” but rather “have I drifted away from God?” If a Christian drifts away like Christy Beam does, there will be misery and struggle.

So nothing the pastor says is wrong, but his wording allows for misuse of God and religion. I didn’t view his sermon as problematic because I don’t have the warped mindset of the three parishioners who twisted the message. It’s unfortunate that the makers of this film included this muddied and confusing message. I wonder if they deliberately made the pastor’s wording ambiguous to appeal to a wide swath of people — those who misuse religion as well as those who don’t. Who knows.

But let’s not lose sight of the hero’s journey here. It’s a pretty good one, regardless of whether you see the story through the lens of an atheist or a believer. The hero of the story is either the entire Beam family or it is the mother Christy — or it could even be the duo of mother and child. Regardless, the hero or heroes of this story venture into a dangerous unfamiliar world of sickness and dying. They get help along the way — a physician, a church friend, a receptionist, an airline employee, and even a server in a restaurant. It’s a community of helpers, each offering a hand in a different way.

The two primary mentors are the pastor who offers spiritual guidance, and the Boston physician who offers medical expertise. Going into the movie, I was anticipating that God Himself might serve as a mentor figure. There are scenes of our heroes praying for guidance from the Divine Mentor, and one could argue that God gave our heroes invaluable help in the form of friends and fire departments, not to mention the serendipitous accident that solves our hero’s problems.

Fair enough. But we also see Christy falling deeper and deeper into a loss of faith in God. She’s at the bottom of her well of despair when Anna falls from a tree and bangs her head – leaving her unconscious. Now, Christy and her friends and family come together and pray harder than they ever have. And when Anna is cured of her illness, Christy regains her faith. This shows that when good things happen, God is worthy of praise and thanks. But bad things are cause for abandoning God. It’s a bad message – and contrary to what the film is trying to show. So, the film lacks an internal consistency.

But you bring up another criticism I have of this film. Who is the lead character? I say it’s the mother. And we’re on a journey with her through a loss of faith and reclaiming it. The child is merely the prop that causes Christy to fall into the abyss of faithlessness. But the classic hero’s journey is lost here. While we see the ordinary world of Christy’s idyllic life with her happy family and children, she is cast into a special world of pain and anguish when her child falls ill. But it’s not through her overcoming of some missing inner quality that she attains her goal of curing her child. It’s a literal deus-ex-machina moment where Anna is cured by a miracle. The hero has no catharsis – she simply succeeds by dumb luck.

What is dumb luck to you is divine intervention to others. Our hero’s prayers were answered. Whether you believe in God or prayer or not, answers did arrive. The magic here is no different from the magic of Bilbo Baggins’ ring in The Hobbit or the wizardry at work in countless other films such as Big, Maleficent, and Groundhog Day. Heroes often want a particular outcome, and they do what it takes to invoke the miracle needed for it to happen.

The real issue here isn’t whether God exists or not, or whether God is fair to everyone, or anything having to do with religion. The central issue for us is whether we have a valid, complete, and effective hero’s journey. I see a pretty decent hero narrative here, one that is far from perfect but the elements are all in place — a journey to a perilous world, social helpers, a villainous entity, missing inner qualities in the hero, and success at the end. We don’t really see the heroes bestowing a boon to the world at the end, unless of course this movie is the Beams’ way of sharing their faith with others.

There’s yet another scene where young Anna is in such terrible pain that she wishes to die. Poor Christy is dumbstruck not knowing how to console her child. It’s a heartbreaking moment that any parent can sympathize with. Then, Anna poses a question that the movie glosses over. She asks, “Why should I stay here where I am in pain when I could go to heaven and be pain free and happy with God?” This is a deep philosophical question. If heaven is so wonderful, why should we endure the pain and suffering of life on Earth? Indeed, for this child there seemed to be no hope. And for her young friend the same. But instead of dealing with this question, it was solved by having her father and sisters burst into the room to make her feel better. It was a missed opportunity to deal with a real religious question.

The movie ends with a scene where Anna explains that while she was unconscious she saw God and he told her she’d be alright. It harkens back to the other movie by the same producers: Heaven is for Real. This scene is dropped into the end of the film with little attachment to any other scene. Near death experiences are significant events that are worthy of study and may hold deeper philosophical and religious consequences. In the other film, it was the central point of the story. Here, it’s merely an afterthought. This is another missed opportunity.

Fair enough. Let’s get to the ratings. Miracles From Heaven is a moving tale of pain and tested faith. It shows us the despair of facing an incurable disease, the stress of financial ruin from medical costs, and the emptiness of lost faith in God. That this tale is a true story is utterly remarkable. Anna’s recovery is indeed a miracle, unexplained by science and exactly what this family needed to heal spiritually and physically. Although Miracles From Heaven moved me, it did drag in places and portrayed religious belief in an overly simplistic and sometimes confusing way. Still, the movie earns 3 Reels out of 5.

Our hero or heroes really went through the wringer here, undergoing a terrible ordeal that wracked them emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. The hero’s journey contained many of the elements that we look for in good hero narratives. Greg, you raise the point whether our hero was transformed. I don’t know how one could not be transformed from the hell the family went through. Anna certainly acquired resilience and wisdom, and the mother undergoes a loss of faith followed by a powerful reaffirmation of it. Something tells me she’ll never question God again in her life. The heroes here merit 4 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, the mentoring is solid, with a preacher providing spiritual goodies and the famous doctor dispensing his compassionate care with great acumen. I’d still like to argue that the Beam family turned to God Himself for some serious mentoring, and they got from Him what they asked for. Perhaps not when and how they asked for it, but that kind of mysterious divine mentoring is a hallmark feature of Christianity. The collection of mentors here get a more than solid rating of 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Jennifer Garner is excellent in her role as the mother who will do anything to save her child. And young Kylie Rogers as Anna delivers a performance that brought tears to my eyes. Nobody wants to watch another person suffer, but to watch a child suffer excruciating pain for 90 minutes is truly unbearable. Miracles from Heaven is not the worst Christian Inspirational movie I’ve ever seen (that award goes to last year’s Kirk Cameron Saves Christmas). But it is loaded with all the tropes and simplistic storytelling that is common in the genre. I can only give Miracles 2 Reels out of 5.

Christy as the hero of the story leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve seen stories of people who have lost all hope and turn to God for support. Last year’s flawed Unbreakable is a good example. We love to see people come from the bottom of their emotional well and rise up to overcome their lacking faith. Here, Christy loses her faith and it is only restored when her daughter is cured by a miracle. It’s a bad message. People of faith, the ones who truly have faith, keep it through the worst of times and maintain it even after a great tragedy. It’s what buoys them and carries them. In that sense, the father was a better representative of a heroic journey. I can only give Christy 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the movie has two mentors of interest. The pastor is a good man who is leading his flock. He’s there when Christy suffers a crisis of faith. It’s a common character (we see it also in Soul Surfer). But he’s not very active in guiding Christy. The second mentor is Dr Nurko. He reminded me of Patch Adams – a jocular and caring man who was guiding Christy and Anna through the special world of this uncommon disease. Usually you want to see the mentor counsel the hero so that they can manage the special world – and then the hero goes on alone as a master of that world. But Dr. Nurko has no advice for Christy when medicine has done all it can – and it is not enough. He sends Anna home to die. He’s a nice man, but not a great mentor. I can only give him and the pastor 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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