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Star Wars: The Force Awakens ••••

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterStarring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams,
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: December 18, 2015


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Well Scott, let’s review the movie that was 30 years in the making.

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

It was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who lives on the dusty planet of Jakka. She makes her living, such as it is, by scavenging parts from the deserted ships of the Empire. It’s been 30 years since the Rebellion defeated the Empire, which has been replaced by the First Order. Things are getting slim when she saves a small robot, BB-8, from being disassembled for parts. It’s not long before she encounters young Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper of the First Order. Together, they learn that BB-8 has a map to the legendary Luke Skywalker and needs to be returned to the Rebel base.

Soon after Rey and Finn team up, they are aggressively pursued by a squadron of First Order stormtroopers. As fate would have it, the pair make their escape in a discarded old ship called the Millennium Falcon. Rey and Finn encounter the original owners of the ship who, of course, are Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). We then get the backstory of how Luke Skywalker tried to rebuild the Jedi Order but was thwarted by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a former Jedi who fell into the dark side. Rey and Finn then spend the rest of the movie trying to deliver the map to the leaders of the resistance.

Scott, it’s deja vu all over again. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII)  is merely a repackaging of Episodes IV, V, and VI. Just as in A New Hope we meet a young person who befriends a droid with a message to be delivered to the Rebels. This young person is unaware that they can command the powers of The Force and and must help their new friends blow up a gigantic planet-killing weapon. While from a technical point of view SW:TFA is a stunning film to watch, it is all too familiar territory. JJ Abrams has done with Star Wars as he did with Star Trek – he’s just replaying the best hits of the originals. I was less than impressed.

The build-up for this film was enormous and expectations were beyond the stratosphere. As for the final product — how could we expect anything different? JJ Abrams plays it safe by recycling old ideas and characters, which he had to do to please a fan-base that would not tolerate much deviation from the mega-successful formula. At the same time, Abrams introduces several new characters who can carry the mantle for the next several installments of the franchise. With these new heroes, not everything is the same — just similar.

As it turns out, our two heroic newcomers, Rey and Finn, are outstanding characters whom we grow to love and enjoy rooting for soon after meeting them. Both these characters are cut from that familiar Star Wars heroic cloth — they come from humble origins and are oblivious to their special pedigree. As these characters are tested, they begin to slowly transform into the greatness that was always there beneath the surface. No movie franchise does a better job than Star Wars at developing characters with this sort of amnesia about their true identities. It’s done with great effectiveness in this installment of Star Wars.

Well, you’re right about that, Scott. Rey is in every way a classic hero. She starts out alone and yearning for her parents to return. By the end of the film she has found a new home and a new belonging. Her growth from a scavenger to a warrior is heartening. She befriends Finn who literally has no identity. He takes on the ramant of a Resistance fighter and grows into it. Like Rey, he is alone at the start of the film (despite being surrounded by a horde of look-alike Stormtroopers). But by the end he also has found a new home. I like these newcomers very much and I look forward to their journey forth in this new series.

The villains in this story are also familiar. Kylo Ren is pretty much a Darth Vader wannabe. He uses the Dark Side and reports to an all powerful master. This is the same Mastermind/Henchman pattern we saw in Episodes IV-VI.

Harrison Ford nearly steals the show as an aging Han Solo. He delivers a great performance of the swashbuckling hero we knew in the earlier films. And in a twist, it is Han who is the father of Kylo Ren – echoing the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker relationship. Carrie Fisher is all grown up and in charge as General Leia Organa. Her interactions with Ford are a bit stilted and “expositiony.” But, she is not the only woman in the galaxy, as was true of the last incarnation. Aside from Rey, we also have a Stormtrooper leader and several X-Wing fighters who are of the feminine persuasion. It’s a good crop of side characters.

Yes, there’s much to like about this incarnation of Star Wars. Our two new young heroes show some demographic diversity. How refreshing it is to see non-Whites and non-males dominate the heroic landscape. Yet the movie remains faithful to the classic elements of the hero’s journey. Rey and Finn both undergo transformations of the head, heart, and identity. They both have important mentor figures to guide them. Luke Skywalker, for example, is a mentor from afar whose legacy has been mythologized by the resistance. Rey has her own Yoda, a wonderfully wiseand exotic female alien named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).

The villains are a multi-layered version of the mastermind-henchman template that we discuss in our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Usually this template features a single evil mastermind who uses henchmen and minions to do his or her dirty work. In this movie, we see several layers of the villainous onion, starting with a horrid ‘Supreme Leader’ who really could benefit from a trip to Bath & Body Works. Beneath this Supreme Leader are several mid-managers of evil such as Kylo Ren, each of whom order their assigned Stormtroopers to carry out specific evil deeds.

I can’t emphasize enough this film’s use of the classic hero journey in mythology. George Lucas himself made much of his use of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythic symbols, images, and plot points. Here Abrams carries on the tradition. For example, some key scenes in this movie take place in the forest, which is always a symbol of the unknown, dangerous, and volatile forces lurking within our unconscious. There is also a strong family structure that characterizes the ensembles of both the heroes and the villains. These strong family roles run deep in fairy tales and legends throughout the ages. Finally, the theme of redemption courses through this film’s veins. Heroes like Finn set out to turn their wrongs into rights, and villains like Kylo Ren are given the opportunity, and fail — for now at least.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a technically exciting film with a familiar story arc. While it will win no awards for originality, it should win awards for special effects. It will certainly win awards at the box office for the records it will break. While I enjoyed myself, there is nothing that will entice me to keep coming back. I am tempted to award only three Reels, but that’s a score I use for the average film-going experience. SW:TFA is well above average, but lacks anything new. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this film are plenty. We’re reminded of the heroes gone by and introduced to new ones as well. Rey and Finn work well together as newcomers, but neither is naive. Each has street smarts from their own worlds. And they both grew in their roles. It was good to get caught up with Han, Chewie, and Leia. As with other aging heroes we see that the destination for the hero is to become a mentor. And the old guard did not disappoint. I give the heroes in this film 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters were also very good. Kylo Ren as the fallen hero-come-villain fits nicely into the “Villain’s Journey” that we outlined in our last book. He is subservient to a (nearly) hidden mastermind. BB8 as the dutiful and emotic sidekick played its role well – although I’m confused as to how everyone understood BB8’s beeps-and-boops, but no one understands R2D2 but C3PO (who also made a nice pair of cameos). I give the secondary characters 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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The Force Awakens definitely kept me awake and is a box office force to be reckoned with. But does it deliver the goods? Mostly yes, in a play-it-safe kind of way. Fans of Star Wars will be elated, while fans of outstanding movies will have more muted praise. JJ Abrams does his usual excellent job; he injects the Star Wars universe with new interesting heroes, technical marvels, and a lot of clever one-liners. But there isn’t a whole lot of new ground broken here. I’m with you, Greg, in awarding this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

The characters of Rey and Finn in this film are an impressive pair of buddy heroes. They follow the usual buddy-hero pattern of distrusting and disliking each other at first, but after learning they have the same goals they develop an unshakable bond. They also help each other transform and evolve into heroically courageous individuals. All the elements of the hero’s journey stand out in bold relief, and it is refreshing that the filmmakers dared to embrace diversity in their casting of this duo. I’m happy to award Rey and Finn a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The remaining characters all did their jobs in superb fashion. I agree with you, Greg, that Harrison Ford handled his geezerly role with both charm and alacrity. All the secondary heroes and villains were fun to root for and to despise. The treachery of Kylo Ren was somewhat routine and predictable, and the Star Wars robots, whom I’ve never been fond of at all, were grating to me. Still, the cast did a great job overall and so I also award them 4 out of 5 cast points.

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Bridge of Spies •••••

Bridge_of_Spies_posterStarring: Tom HanksMark RylanceAlan Alda
Director:Steven Spielberg
Screenplay:Matt CharmanEthan Coen
Birgrapy/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141  mins
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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Like a bridge over troubled waters, there are spies like us.

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

Indeed. This is a movie about walls and bridges. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to James Donovan (Tom Hanks) a tax lawyer in 1957. He’s been recruited to defend a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel. Donovan takes this very seriously – he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, after all. However, nobody around him thinks the spy deserves a trial – they’ve already convicted him in their minds. Donovan is also getting the evil eye from everyone in town, even to the point of death threats and shooting out his windows.

As expected, Donovan loses the case and Abel is convicted. However, Donovan succeeds in sparing Abel from the death penalty. He does this by persuading the judge that, hypothetically, keeping Abel alive allows for the possibility that a future hostage exchange could take place should the Soviets ever capture an American spy. As it turns out, Donovan is prescient.

Scott, you’d expect a movie by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks would be excellent, and Bridge of Spies doesn’t disappoint. Every character in this film is acted out with a sort of precision that you don’t see every day. The spy, Abel, is a cool character. He seems worn out, but meticulous in his behavior and attention to his spy craft. Hanks delivers a very Jimmy Stewart sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” performance. He is truly cinema’s leading, leading man. From both a technical and storytelling point of view, there are no flaws with this film.

Absolutely right, Gregger. This movie shines in every way that a movie can shine. First and foremost, Donovan is a hero with moral courage. His character taps into an important hero archetype that describes a man who does the right thing even when it is very unpopular. Because he defends a suspect who is universally hated, Donovan receives menacing glares on the subway. His home is the target of gunfire, and his family pressures him to rethink his decision. Despite the risks and the danger, Donovan does what needs to be done.

Bridge of Spies features two separate hero’s journeys. The first journey is the unpopular legal defense of the Soviet spy. The second journey takes place later in East Germany after Donovan is assigned the task of negotiating the release of American soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As in the initial journey, Donovan once again takes on the unpopular fight. Under pressure from the CIA to focus only on Powers, Donovan insists on making sure that a 25-year-old American hostage is also released during the prisoner exchange. Once again, our hero does the right thing regardless of the cost to himself.

I’m glad you mentioned the double-hero’s-journey, Scott. While it did keep true to the events of the time, it slowed the movie down. There were two ordinary worlds, and two special worlds to become acclimated to. I can’t think of a fix (and I would never argue with the master, Spielberg). Still the characterizations and suspense pull this film along to it’s thrilling conclusion.

The supporting characters were superb. Of course we already mentioned Rudolf Abel, played exceedingly low-key by Mark Rylance. (My favorite line is when Donovan asks Abel: “Aren’t you worried?” and he replies, “Would it help?”). This is a combination anti-hero and villain character. Certainly not a villain as he is not trying to prevent Donovan from doing his job, but he’s a bad guy; a particularly easy-going bad guy. As such, he’s not so much even an anti-hero as much as a prop – he’s Donovan’s main goal (to give Abel a fair trial).

But it is the system represented by Judge Byers who is the villain in the first half of the film. Byers wants to get the trial over with and sentence Abel to death as soon as possible. He’s already passed his judgement. Donovan even says out loud that his role in this case is to prove that America does not have kangaroo courts. It is Byers who is attempting to thwart Donovan’s main goal. When the jury passes down a guilty verdict, Byers is in the position to sentence Abel to death. But Donovan convinces Byers that Abel may be a bargaining chip in the event an American spy is captured by the Russians. So, while Donovan loses the battle, he wins the war.

The fact that we have two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s journey isn’t enough for him. He’s a person who has no doubt been on many hero journeys, with Bridge of Spies giving us a glimpse of only two of them. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second.

I agree that the supporting cast more than holds its own in this film. Abel is a likeable Soviet villain, and some of the Americans are less than likeable in their dogmatic views and behaviors. You could argue that we have both institutional heroes and institutional villains, with Donovan serving as the face of the “West” and several characters serving as the various faces of the Soviet eastern bloc. These characters include Abel and several of the politicians that Donovan negotiates with to win the release of the two hostages.

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful work of art created by two masters of their craft. Spielberg directs this film in a way that shows off both the heroism of Donovan, and also the corrupt natures of the Soviet and American governments, alike. Hanks delivers again as the most likable guy in Hollywood. Together, the two paint a picture of a man of courage – or as Able calls him – “the standing man.” I can’t think of anything that could have made this film better. I award Bridge of Spies 5 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Hanks is great as the confident yet modest insurance lawyer called to the adventure of defending a villain. Donovan steps up to the challenge and delivers. He has no mentor in his journey, but he draws upon the values laid down by the Constitution. Just as the hero of the western lives by the code of the West, Donovan lives by the ideals set down by the founding fathers. There is also no “missing inner quality” to overcome. While Donovan is modest about his abilities, he is not unconfident. As you point out, Scott, it took two events in Donovan’s life to expose the depth of his character. In the epilog to the film, we’re informed that he also negotiated the release of 1,163 Bay of Pigs prisoners. It’s clear from this film that the heroic element of Donovan is the fact that he not only stands on his principles, but also goes above and beyond what is required. I’d like to give Donovan full honors, but his story lacks certain elements of the hero’s journey. So, I award Donovan 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is excellent. Spielberg suffers no fools, and every supporting character in this story delivers. We’ve already talked about the villainous judge, and the quiet spy. But there was also the (apparently) naive pilot shot down over Russia (Francis Gary Powers), the supportive but worried wife and children, the corrupt CIA officials, the corrupt and devious KGB officials, the youthful college student, and the young people shot down while trying to jump the Berlin wall. All of these characters represent some element of the story, nothing is wasted. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.

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I agree, Greg, that Bridge of Spies is a winner. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical. Having grown up in Los Angeles where I listened to Francis Gary Powers broadcast traffic conditions from his helicopter, I knew his story. But what I didn’t know was the backstory involving the heroic James Donovan working behind the scenes to do the right thing, over and over again, at great risk to himself. I also award this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The dual hero journey is deftly linked and reinforces Donovan’s intelligence, character, and integrity. Like you, Greg, I note the absence of a transformation and a mentor figure who is there to help him transform. In a sense, Donovan is a superhero who is supremely virtuous from start to finish. It’s not a bad hero’s journey, just not the classic journey as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll give Donovan’s heroism 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters, as you point out, are excellent and deserve credit for either assisting Donovan on his journey or for throwing obstacles in his way. I particularly enjoyed Mark Rylance’s wry humor and overall performance as the captured spy who had no chance of acquittal. Overall, these supporting characters deserve a rating of 4 out of 5.

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Steve Jobs ••••

SteveJobsposterStarring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, Walter Isaacson
Biography/drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: October 23, 2015


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

iGuess it is time to iWrite another iReview, Greg.

It’s deja vu all over again as we review another Steve Jobs film. Let’s recap:

The movie begins with a tense conversation between Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and his marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) just prior to the 1984 launch of the Apple Macintosh. Jobs rails against Time Magazine’s decision to put a PC computer on its cover, and he is upset at Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) for a glitch that prevents the computer from saying “hello” to the world. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) shows up and asks Jobs to acknowledge the work of the old Apple II team, but Jobs refuses.

Meanwhile, Jobs’ old girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) shows up with her daughter Lisa in tow. What ensues is what appears to be a familiar argument between the two. Chrisann points out that Steve is Lisa’s father and he should give her more money for Lisa – after all, he’s worth $42 million. Jobs insists that Lisa is not his daughter and refuses. Still he demonstrates the Macintosh to the little girl and finally relents after she draws him an abstract artwork with MacPaint.

Greg, back in 2013 we reviewed an earlier biopic on Steve Jobs, called simply Jobs, in which Ashton Kutcher played the legendary founder of Apple. The film was forgettable and uninspired. This current movie, Steve Jobs, proves that if you add the hero’s first name to the title, the film improves considerably. Steve Jobs boasts a crisp and clever screenplay that sizzles with snappy, snarky conversations. The movie might not appeal to people who crave action and adventure; it is most certainly dialogue-heavy. But the dialogue is well worth hearing.

Our hero is on a journey that blends self-aggrandizement with self-discovery. Much is made of Jobs’ relentless drive to promote himself and his new electronic gizmos, and interspersed with these efforts are repeated references to Jobs’ upbringing as an adopted child who never quite received enough approval and validation for who he was. During his verbal jousting with CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), Jobs is reminded of his confused identity. In a way, this movie combines an origin story with a hero story that is clouded and confounded by the incoherent origin of the hero.

If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs you won’t recognize any of the scenes in this movie. But you might recognize a lot of the one-liners. It appears that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin created three major events (the introduction of the Macintosh, the introduction of the NeXT computer, and the introduction of the iPod) to illustrate three phases in Jobs’ life. The content is right, just rearranged in a way to better illustrate his hero’s journey.

The film is rife with secondary supporting characters. Right-hand woman Johanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) covers all the loose ends and at one point becomes Jobs’ conscience. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is Jobs’ alter ego. Where Jobs has no technical skills and struggles with personal relationships, “Woz” points out that it is possible to be both a genius and a nice guy. John Scully represents a father figure – the one Jobs both lacks in his own life and fails for his daughter Lisa. It’s a strong cast and a rich support system for the lead character.

I agree with you about the supporting characters, Greg. They carry the movie, as there isn’t really any story other than what you hear in the constant stream of dialogue that comprises the entire screenplay. As you mention, Joanna serves as a mentor figure to Jobs, and Scully is the father figure that Sigmund Freud believed that all of us must tear down in order for us to carve out our unique and independent identities. His daughter Lisa is a pivotal character. Just as Jobs must tangle with Scully, Lisa must spar with Jobs, with both father and daughter struggling to gain acceptance and recognition.

Overall, the structure of this movie is strange, limiting, yet effective. We witness no hero journey per se, as all the “action” of the film takes place in dialogue form just prior to big product announcements. Yet we are privy to what has transpired before and between events that are known to us or are described for our edification. This movie shouldn’t work, yet it does, thanks to terrific performances by Fassbender, Winslet, and Daniels, not to mention terrific writing that brings to life the complexity of the relationships among the characters.

I was kept in rapt attention throughout the whole film. I was entranced by the dialog between the players and got a strong sense of just how complex Jobs was. Also, unlike 2013’s Jobs, Steve Jobs shows us a maturing Steve Jobs. I give this incarnation of the Jobs saga 4 out of 5 Reels.

We look for transformation in the hero’s journey. And we get a nice transformation in Steve Jobs. Jobs starts out self absorbed, fanatical about detail, and focused on delivering perfection on time. By the time we get to the end of the film we see a mellowed Jobs. One who is as baffled by his younger self as those around him. It’s not a classic hero’s journey (there’s no all-encompassing main goal, for example). But it is still a transformative tale. I give Steve Jobs 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast, as we’ve already pointed out, fulfills the roles of father figure, mentor, reflection, love interest and child. The performances lifted this film to an Oscar-caliber level. I give the supporting cast 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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Steve Jobs is a superbly written tale of a visionary man whose runaway ego almost destroys him time and again. Yet somehow this man prevailed, and this movie offers glimpses into how and why he is able to engineer his successes. Despite being a movie that is completely devoid of action, this film held my attention and fascinated me. Like you, Greg, I believe it deserves 4 Reels out of 5.

I’m still not sure whether our charismatic main character is a hero or an anti-hero. I found myself liking John Scully, Steve Jobs’ nemesis, more than Jobs himself. In fact, almost every character in this movie is more likeable than Jobs. Yet Jobs does manage to attract our sympathy and our respect, and his hard edges do soften in this movie just as they do in Ashton Kuchar’s Jobs. The hero story here is a bit disjointed and missing a few classic elements. As such, it merits a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are terrific and not much more needs to be said about them. Both Jobs and Scully show us that a fine line exists between the good guys and the bad guys. There is only one character that sticks by Jobs’ side throughout the messes he creates for himself, and that is Joanna, who isn’t quite a love interest but sort of plays that role along with the role of sidekick and mentor. Overall, this cast shines and I can agree with you, Greg, that they deserve a rating of 4 out of 5.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation •••1/2

Mission_Impossible_Rogue_Nation_posterStarring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Christopher McQuarrie
Action/Adventure/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: July 31, 2015


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

Greg, your mission, should you choose to accept, is to review this next movie with me.

Once again it looks like another round of Mission Improbable. Let’s recap:

The movie opens with super IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) acrobatically stopping a plane from transporting canisters of nerve gas to terrorists. He receives his next mission at a small record shop, where he is intercepted by a mysterious blond-haired bad guy (Sean Harris) who gasses Hunt into unconsciousness. Hunt then avoids horrible torture when a woman (Rebecca Ferguson), appearing to be a double-agent, allows him to escape.

The IMF is disbanded because of Hunt’s crazy antics in the previous four movies. And now Hunt is on the run as the CIA, FBI, and NSA are all out to get him. He scrapes together his band of closely held friends to concoct a plan to take down the Insyndicate – the rogue anti-IMF task force – or die trying.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the strongest installment in the mission impossible franchise. The movie works on the strength of its hero, Tom Cruise, who seems to have kicked it up a notch as a lead character. As with most Cruise movies (Edge of Tomorrow being one exception), Rogue Nation doesn’t feature a hero who evolves much as a character. Yet somehow, paradoxically, Cruise’s portrayal of Ethan Hunt reveals a growing maturity, an increased presence and wisdom from the actor that has seeped into his performance here.

It doesn’t hurt that Rogue Nation is an example of superb filmmaking. The stunts are stunning and the cast is a blast. I was particularly impressed with Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Ilsa, Cruise’s love interest, occasional ally, and occasional nemesis. Ilsa is a wonderfully complex person with a variety of strengths that we don’t often see in women characters in the movies. It’s refreshing to see Ilsa as Hunt’s physical, mental, and emotional equal.

I’ll second that emotion – Ilsa is every bit as strong a character as Ethan Hunt. Rogue Nation does suffer from the improbability of some of its stunts and some of its situations. The opening scene with Cruise hanging from the side of a plane (it’s really him, not a stunt double) is hard to believe. And his 6-minute swim below the depths of a water-cooled computer storage area push the limits of believability as well. But heck, this is Mission Impossible after all! It is everything you look for in a summertime popcorn movie.

Ethan Hunt measures up pretty well as a hero. He’s dashing, strong, smart and even empathetic and kind to his team members. Sadly, there’s not much of a transformation for anyone in this film. Hunt starts out awesome and ends up awesome. Which is one of the traits we noticed in our recent book Reel Heroes & Villains. He is an episodic hero – one that basically doesn’t change from episode to episode.

Good observation, Greg. I’m fascinated by the presence of a comedic supporting character in almost every serious movie that we see. Simon Pegg has made a career out of playing the super-smart and super-goofy sidekick with great charm and pizzazz.  Comic relief in a secondary character goes back to the time of ancient Greece, yet here we are continuing to witness it 25 centuries later. This archetype must reflect some deep-seated need in humans to seek emotional comfort from the most dire circumstances.

Another deep archetype appears to be the fugitive from justice who is innocent and who must devote his life to proving his worthiness. In stories of this type, the fugitive needs a team of people who selflessly risk their lives to assist the hero. The team is often a ragtag group that overachieves despite long odds. Yet another archetype is the blustery, bullheaded authority figure who has an entirely wrong impression of our hero, until the very end when the bullhead must eat crow. In a strange casting choice, Alec Baldwin does a nice job with this role.

We already sang the praises of Ilsa as a secondary character. Although we see her as a romantic interest, Hunt treats her as a equal professional. For the most part, it’s all business between these two. I wonder if she represents a mirror image of Hunt – a reflection character.

The villains are pretty typical. Last year we acknowledged the Villain/Henchman pattern and it is played out pretty well here. Sean Harris as Solomon Lane controls everything from afar, letting his band of merry men do the dirty work. In fact, it is only when he comes out from behind his laptop camera that he is done in. Once he starts to get his hands dirty, he makes himself vulnerable and is eventually caught.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation grabbed me from the get-go and never lost its grip on me for two fun-filled hours. If you’ve read my reviews of previous Tom Cruise movies, you know I’m not his biggest fan, but perhaps his middle-aged persona is growing on me. This film has everything you’d want in a summer blockbuster – action, adventure, romance, strong characters, and tightly-crafted script. I have no problem awarding Rogue Nation 4 Reels out of 5.

As an episodic hero, there isn’t much character transformation in Ethan Hunt, but then again we neither expect it nor require it for the movie to work. Hunt defeats the villain because he’s smarter, stronger, more charismatic, more resilient, more…. well, let’s just say he has more of all the Great Eight characteristics of heroes than the villain does. Hunt deserves a rating that is as rock solid as his abs. I give him 4 out of 5 heroes.

The supporting cast is simply terrific. We have a strong and dislikeable villain in Solomon Lane. His head henchman is the bone-crushing Vinter, whom we also love to hate. Simon Pegg is the funny man, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa kicks beautiful ass, and Alec Baldwin is effective as the foolish boss. The entire cast impressed me and thus deserves a full 5 Cast points out of 5.

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Rogue Nation is a lot of fun but not as good as the first Mission Impossible film. I’ve longed for the sort of smart story line that we got in that first outing. Like so many sequels, the producers have emphasized and expanded the glitzy elements of the movie in favor of the story elements. The plot device of shutting down the IMF smells a bit like what we’ve seen in the Marvel universe where S.H.I.E.L.D was similarly shut down. It’s a bit unimaginative. While I had a good time, I can only give Rogue Nation 3 out of 5 Reels.

I still want to see some sort of transformation in either the hero or someone close to the hero. Ethan Hunt’s lack of change or catalyst for change left me wanting. Like other episodic heroes we’ve seen this summer (Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man, etc…) Hunt doesn’t grow much. I  can only give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

I agree that the supporting cast is well designed. They either support or thwart the hero (or the villain) and there is a decent amount of depth to the characters. Still, because it’s a sequel, a lot of the backstory of these characters is unspoken assuming we’ll remember them from previous incarnations. I give the cast 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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Jurassic World •••1/2

Jurassic_World_posterStarring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: June 12, 2015


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Head for the hills, Scott – the dinosaurs are back

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

And this time they’re a World of trouble. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to a cherubic boy, Gray (Ty Simpkins), and his older brother Zach (Nick Robinson). They’re on their way to Jurassic World, a theme park with real dinosaurs. They are to be met by their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who runs the entire park. But she’s far too busy with, you know, running the park to attend to their needs. So she assigns an underling to babysit them. But it isn’t long (actually it really is a long time) before the big bad Indominasaur gets loose and the boys are first on the dinner menu.

Meanwhile, head of security Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who plans to use the raptors as a military weapon, now wants to use them to stop the Indominasaur from eating the 20,000 paying customers on the island. The raptors’ trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) opposes the idea but is kept busy trying to rescue the two boys. To help him understand the Indominasaur, Grady wants to know which dinosaurs’ DNA was combined to engineer the beast, but no one, including park geneticist Henry Wu (BD Wong), will tell him.

Jurassic World is the fourth in the Jurassic Park series. And it is arguably as good as the first. And why not? It’s essentially the same plot as the first. The movie has the same message as Jurassic Park as well: don’t mess with Mother Nature. The modern CGI and animatronics in this film made it worth the $11 I paid for admission. While I didn’t pay for the 3D version, I can see why people would.

As popular as this film is (it is the highest grossing film in history), I was troubled with the long setup. The director spent a leisurely amount of time introducing all the characters before anything exciting happens. Usually the “inciting incident” happens in the first 10 minutes of the film. But the escape of the Indominasaurus doesn’t happen for at least 30 minutes in. It took a long time to get to the action, but when it did, the action was fast and furious.

Jurassic World pretty much gives viewers everything they could possibly want in a movie about dinosaurs run amok. There is a genetically engineered dinosaur that is bigger and badder than any dinosaur that ever lived. There are vulnerable children whom you know will be chased and nearly eaten. There is a love story that you know will be in peril thanks to the big bad beast. There is a park executive who is over-confident about park security. Yes, all the pieces are in place and used to great effect.

Jurassic World is a movie that works despite its predictability because it gives us characters that we care about and a dinosaur that’s unlike anything anyone has ever seen. In our new book Reel Heroes: Volume 2, we discuss a type of villain who is shrouded in mystery. The Indominasaur is just such a villain. We aren’t privy to its breeding background until late in the film at a pivotal moment when it’s true insidious power is revealed. The mysterious evil origins and unprecedented intelligence of this animal makes it a formidable adversary for our heroes.

As impressed as I was with the special effects, I was nonplussed by the story. It was a thinly veiled reimagining of the first installment – which in turn was a thinly veiled retelling of Jaws. Even the park manager explains how this film works when she says (of the park, not the movie) “Customers want bigger, louder, more teeth.” And that is what we got.

And the hero’s journey is hard to decipher. Was this Owen Grady’s story? Or was it Claire’s. Owen doesn’t grow in the story, but Claire grows from a frosty corporate stiff into a domesticated woman ready to lay down her life for her children and her man. Or is it a buddy story of two lost lovers who come together in the face of a common foe? Then again, it might be the story of redemption for the park owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) who gives his life saving the park customers. It’s hard to focus on any one story as there are so many threads in play.

Greg, I categorize the heroes in this film as a family ensemble, with Aunt Claire and boyfriend Owen playing the parent figures to the two nephew boys Zach and Gray. All four of these family members share roughly equal screen time and go on their own hero journeys. All four of them transform in different ways. Claire evolves from a cold, bottom-line executive to a moving, feeling human who can empathize with the dinosaurs and care about the children. Owen discovers that he is capable of loving Claire. The boys experience a coming-of-age journey in which they have to grow up quickly and develop resourcefulness and courage.

Besides the Indominasaur, the primary villain in the film is Hoskins, who cares about nothing except using the dinosaurs to eat people in America’s wars in the middle-east. Hoskins is a lone villain with plenty of military minions at his disposal. He is fun to loathe because he treats everyone around him, humans and dinosaurs alike, as objects that he can manipulate to serve his interests.

I think I detect a new type of secondary character in this film, Scott. That of the “endangered mass.” The 20,000 customers of the park are in peril, and it is our heroes’ goal to save them all. We’ve seen this in other films this summer: San Andreas, for example.

There were a few noteworthy secondary characters. Jake Johnson puts in a nice performance as Lowry – the geeky guy who believes in the purity of the original dinosaurs. Then there’s his female counterpart who is equally geeky but less committed to the dream. The boys’ mother puts in a motherly performance to contrast with Claire’s cool demeanor.

Jurassic World is a world of fun. Besides providing us with a good characters and plenty of people being chewed to bits, the movie delivers an important message about hubris. Jurassic World shows us the dangers associated with underestimating the power of nature and the foolishness of placing profit over the humane treatment of animals. Yes, these themes are familiar and the film is predictable but I enjoyed this bone-crunching adventure very much. I’ll award Jurassic World 4 Reels out of 5.

The family hero ensemble is put together quite effectively and undergoes at least two meaningful transformations. It was gratifying to see Claire transform into a character who shows ample strength and courage. She saves Owen’s life at least once, and morphs into a caring Aunt. The two kids show us some impressive grit and courage, too. Not all the elements of the hero’s journey are present but enough are there to make me happy. I give this family group 3 Heroes out of 5.

I have to admit, I loved the Indominasaur. This beast is a smart, enigmatic behemoth. The movie does a good job of withholding its lethal pedigree until the very end at a key moment. Hoskins is a nasty villain who abuses and misuses the dinosaurs in ways that leave us longing for him to receive his comeuppance (which he does). These two villains are fun to fear and revile. The rest of the cast shines, too, in their limited supporting roles. Overall I give the secondary cast a rating of 4 out of 5.

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As usual, I wasn’t as enamoured of this film as you were, Scott. Jurassic World is a retread of retreads. We’ve seen all of this before. The special effects were impressive, but the story has become hackneyed. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for Jurassic World.

I like your assessment of the family hero structure in this film. But I think it was much more a dual buddy arrangement. There was the romantic buddy story with Owen and Claire, and the brother buddy story between Gray and Zach. In the first pairing, Claire becomes less frosty as she admits she cares for Owen and her nephews. In the second, Zach becomes more adult as he takes responsibility for his brother’s well-being. It’s an interesting structure, especially as the stories combine in the end to resemble the family hero structure. I give this hero ensemble 4 out of 5 Heroes.

As we’ve already noticed, we’re treated to a bunch of good secondary characters in Jurassic World. Almost too many to count, really. But they were all used to good effect. I give the supporting cast 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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Spy ••••

Spy2015_TeaserPosterStarring: Melissa McCarthyRose ByrneJude Law
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Paul Feig
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: June 5, 2015


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I spy with my little eye, a movie about a female spy.

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

No lie, our latest movie is Spy, starring the multi-talented Melissa McCarthy. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) who works for the CIA as an agent. But she’s not a field agent – she’s relegated to the vermin-infested basement of Langley.  She supports bigger-than-life spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) by watching him on satellite feeds and gives him pointers in his earpiece. Cooper is secretly in love with Fine and is despondent when Fine is killed on her watch.

The CIA needs to know the location of a nuclear bomb, but a huge security breach has exposed the identities of all active agents. Cooper volunteers to tail Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) who knows the whereabouts of the bomb. Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) vehemently objects to Cooper’s involvement but is overruled by CIA chief Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney). Cooper earns Rayna’s trust by saving her life, and with help from her CIA buddy Nancy (Miranda Hart), Cooper ends up being more than any of the bad guys can handle.

Scott, I was prepared for this to be another poop-fart-puke fest with a lot of swearing and embarrassing stereotypes. Instead, we got a hilarious stereotype-breaking poop-fart-puke fest with a lot of swearing. I was pleasantly surprised. Melissa McCarthy delivers a very layered portrayal of a woman who is at first marginalized and later emerges as confident and in control. Spy was a welcome change from such movies as 2013’s The Heat where McCarthy is played strictly for yucks. In this film, she becomes a comedic feminist hero.

One could say that Spy has all of the comedic elements of The Heat but with a more intelligent and progressive portrayal of women in the heroic role. Like you, Greg, I expected Spy to be the kind of movie that would require me to turn off my brain and enjoy some silly slapstick humor. But Spy is much more than a fun romp – although it is that for sure. This movie is about the successful empowerment of women in roles traditionally assigned to men.

Every woman character in Spy is more competent than she seems to be, and every male character is less competent than he seems to be. And yet this role reversal isn’t as insulting to men as it is designed to honor the capabilities of women. Susan Cooper is a woman who starts out lacking self-confidence but when thrown into the fire she turns out to be just as kick-ass as James Bond and Indiana Jones combined. In keeping with the classic hero journey, she receives help along the way from sidekicks and mentors. The hero transformation is fun and rewarding to witness.

Susan Cooper is truly a transformed lone hero. She starts out the film grovelling at Fine’s feet. She’d do anything for him and has a secret love for him. When he goes missing, she attempts to volunteer for the assignment but is laughed at by her male counterparts. Gradually, as Cooper enters and masters the special world of the field agent, she becomes more and more competent. In the end she saves the day and realizes that she doesn’t need Fine or any man. She is fully self-actualized. A true hero’s journey.

The supporting cast in Spy is a joy to watch, too. Agent Rick Ford plays a key role as the representative of the old male mentality in the CIA. He is insulting to Cooper and overstates his accomplishments and abilities to an absurd degree. The falseness of his bravado is revealed in humorous and humiliating ways, and Cooper ends up saving his sorry ass more than a few times. The main villain, Rayna, is ruthless and greedy in ways that are the equal of any male villain in the James Bond canon. Cooper’s sidekick, Nancy, actually goes on her own transformative hero journey as well.

Spy is a fun and funny parody of spy films – a sugar-coated feminist romp. I laughed out loud and cheered for Cooper. While it had a few moments of gross-out humor, they were easily overshadowed by clever writing and deft acting by McCarthy. I am happy to award 4 out of 5 Reels for Spy.

Melissa McCarthy outdoes herself as she transforms from a mousy, insecure analyst into a fully realized field agent. What could have been a movie about the humiliation of a woman in a man’s world turns into a celebration of growth. I give Susan Cooper 5 out of 5 Heroes.

I’m in full agreement with you on the supporting cast, Scott. The men were all played for yucks and the women were mainly played for competence. I especially liked Allison Janney as Crocker – Cooper’s boss. Statham’s character was a true clown. I give the supporting cast 4 out of 5 Cast points.

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Spy surprised me by being much more than a comedy and satire of the spy movie genre. This movie turns gender roles on their head by portraying subjugated women as highly skilled, crafty, and competent CIA operatives. We learn that underestimating women spies is a bad idea for both our country and for the men who dare to keep women in their metaphorical (and in this movie, literal) basements. For a fun and thought-provoking two hours of entertainment, I award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero journey appears here in full form. Cooper goes the complete journey and has assistance from a worthy and also underestimated sidekick and a mentor CIA boss who has faith in Cooper’s abilities. She finds her self-confidence and proves that she – and many other women – are worthy of achieving great things if given the chance. I’m happy to award Cooper 4 Heroes out of 5 here.

The oppositional characters are entertaining to watch and appear in two forms. First, Cooper is opposed by her own male colleague, Rick Ford, who comes across as a fool in the way that he overestimates his own abilities and undervalues women. Second, Cooper encounters a formidable foe in Rayna. We don’t know much about Ford or Rayna other than they represent roadblocks for Cooper’s heroism. Still, they are a worthy pair of oppositional characters. The rest of the supporting cast shines, too. Like you, I’ll award the cast a rating of 4 out of 5, Greg.

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