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The Post ••••1/2

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

Movie:   Transformations: Heroes:


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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

 

Wonder •••1/2

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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


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

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

 


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

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

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

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

 


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


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

 


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Marshall •••

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Screenplay: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Koskoff
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 13, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


Scott, can you marshall enough interest to review Chadwick Boseman’s latest film?


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

I’m glad the law is on our side with the Marshall in town. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) in 1941. He’s the head lawyer with the NAACP and his boss has a new job for him. In a small town in the deep south a black man has been wrongly accused of the rape and attempted murder of a well-to-do white woman. Insurance fraud lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) has been tapped for the defense, but he’s never defended such a case before. And the court has ruled that Marshall cannot defend the defendant because he’s from out of state. So it’s up to Marshall to coach Friedman in the ways of criminal defense to save the life of an innocent man.


Marshall takes steps to give the defendant, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, fair and proper representation. But the deck is stacked against him. The judge (James Cromwell) is a personal friend of the prosecuting attorney’s father. Moreover, Friedman is less than thrilled to be involved in the case, as it could ruin his career and endanger his family. Slowly but surely, Marshall and Friedman uncover enough facts to undermine to case against Spell — but not without cost to themselves.


Scott, this film reminds me of Red Tails (2011) in that it tells a historical/biographical story worth telling, but with a lackluster script. Still, Marshall succeeds in relating a story of a black American who does not transform (as in 42) but instead transforms those around him. There are plot elements that don’t really go anywhere (Marshall’s wife is left alone to cope with a miscarriage) – but serve to show his devotion to his mission. I was very worried at the start of this film that the low-budget approach would not do the story justice. But performances by both Boseman and Gad save Marshall from being a campy period piece and instead deliver a powerful story of how far we’ve come in race relations and how far we yet have to go.


I agree, Greg. The hero of our story, Thurgood Marshall, serves as a transforming agent for others. His job is to change attitudes and win hearts, but most importantly, he’s there to win legal cases in the service of delivering racial justice. In this film, Marshall transforms two people specifically: his prosecuting attorney partner Sam Friedman, and the defendant Joseph Spell, whom he convinces to speak the truth and fight back. This movie drives home the point that many oppressed African-Americans feel utterly defeated and rarely fight a system that is rigged against them. Marshall empowers them in meaningful ways.

And speaking of ‘meaning’, perhaps my favorite line of dialogue in the movie occurs near the film’s conclusion, when Marshall is asked how he finds meaning while working on so many individual cases of racial injustice. His reply: “My job isn’t to put out fires. It’s to get rid of fire altogether.” This nice metaphor for racial prejudice underscores Marshall’s vision of the bigger picture. So we see that Marshall’s goal is not simply to transform Friedman and Spell, nor is it to merely exonerate Spell. His mission is to transform those of us in the audience at the theater thereby eliminating prejudice altogether.


Marshall is a flawed but well-thought-out biopic. Rather than trying to tell Marshall’s life story, they exemplify his accomplishments by focusing on one specific event. It’s enough to show us who Marshall was. One of the problems with the film is the overly dramatic nature of it. Many of the scenes seem right out of a 1940s gangster film. Likewise with the dialog. But I am glad the film was made and I found it enlightening. I give Marshall 3 out of 5 Reels.

Heroes don’t come better than Thurgood Marshall. He was fighting an uphill battle against all odds. His is called a ‘flat’ character arc in that he doesn’t change much in the telling of the story. But he changes those around him. I give Thurgood Marshall 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the transformations of those around Marshall are dramatic. Marshall converts an uninterested insurance fraud lawyer into a civil rights activist. He converts the opinions of the people of the town. He transforms Spell from a man with no hope to a man with honor. I give the transformations in Marshall 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


You’ve summed it up well, Greg. Marshall is unlikely to win any awards but it does effectively convey the daunting obstacles facing the NAACP and other pre-Civil Rights activists. Thurgood Marshall’s story inspires us to do the right thing and to work for justice event when laws and social forces seem hopelessly conspired against us. I agree that this film deserves a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

Marshall only gives us a thin slice of Marshall’s overall hero’s journey, but within this slice we do see him in a dangerous world through which he is able to navigate successfully. The journey isn’t easy, but our hero is able to win hearts and influence minds in the direction of racial justice. Marshall doesn’t transform but he sure does trigger a metamorphosis in two key characters and in society as a whole. I’ll give his hero’s journey a rating of 4 out of 5 and his transformative effect on others a rating of 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Blade Runner 2049 ••••1/2

Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 164 minutes
Release Date: October 6, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it’s time to run, don’t walk to the theater and see Blade Runner: 2049.


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

This blade is sharp indeed. Let’s recap.


It’s the year 2049 and we’re introduced to ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling). He’s an android developed specifically for the purpose of hunting down and killing renegade androids. His boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is very concerned because K has just killed an android that left behind a strange box. When K opens it he finds the bony remains of a female android that appears to have had a caesarian section implying that the unthinkable has happened – an android has reproduced.


K is ordered by Joshi to find the replicant offspring and “retire” it. The deceased female replicant is identified as ‘Rachel’, and K discovers that she had a relationship with a former blade runner. Meanwhile, the head of the company that manufactures replicants, Wallace (Jared Leto) sends his henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to steal Rachel’s remains and to find the child.


Scott, Blade Runner 2049 is a great sequel to the original 1982 film. LIke its predecessor, 2049 is a bit ponderous – director Denis Villeneuve really takes his time setting up and executing each scene. And the scenes are constructed with great care and deliberation – which is to say that they are very detailed. The story is also told with great care and deliberation. It’s basically a mystery with clues left along the way as well as red herrings.

The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes – which is long by almost any standard. I thought there were several places where scenes could have been more economical. We see a lot of shots of K deep in thought (which Gosling is known for). This feels more like a director’s cut than a theatrical release. The special effects were very good and at times it felt like the director was offering pornagraphic material – not so much because of nude bodies, but because he lingered so long on the effect.

I was also disappointed in the lack of scenes with Harrison Ford (Deckard, from the original) as he is featured prominently in the trailers (and listed as a costar).


Greg, we’re in agreement about this film’s excellence. Blade Runner 2049 is a masterfully constructed sci-fi flick that sets a very high bar for future work in this genre. Director Villeneuve makes exquisite use of space – I’m referring to the space between people, between objects, between buildings, etc. There’s also deft use of lighting and shadowing, along with creative camera angles that accentuate tension and emotional impact within a character. The craftsmanship here should earn Villeneuve an Oscar nomination, at the very least.

Yes, the movie strained my bladder, and I’d like to start a petition requiring movies to run no longer than two hours. If you can’t tell a story in 120 minutes, then you aren’t a good storyteller. Movie directors seem to fall in love with their work and can’t bear to leave a frame of their precious film on the cutting room floor. It would have been nice indeed to see more of Harrison Ford, but he appears to have reached the stage of his career when he plays more supporting roles than lead roles. Personally I believe he can still carry a movie on his geezerly shoulders, but Villeneuve doesn’t give him the chance here.


K as the hero of the film is worth following. Unlike his predecessor, Deckard, K is outed in the opening scroll as a replicant (android). It’s interesting to see this character treated as a slave and at the same time contemplate his own existence. We’re witness to K’s gradual realization that he is “the one” (a replicant born of a female replicant). Then the sudden revelation that he is not the one. It’s jarring both for the character and the audience.


You’ve identified perhaps the most fascinating element of the hero’s journey here, Greg. While all hero’s journeys are a search for identity, this film is daring in depicting an identity dead-end for our hero K. Believing for a while that he was “the chosen one”, he is instead left absorbing the reality of his ordinariness. This film is strong enough to get away with an identity realization that defies heroic convention. I could be cynical here by pointing out that this anti-revelation merely paves the way to yet another sequel, but I’d say there’s more going on here. The “treasure we seek,” in the words of Joseph Campbell, is rarely the treasure that we think we’re seeking. This film was so long that the treasure I sought was the nearest urinal.


There is no transformation for the world in which K lives. However, we do see K transform from a lost slave performing the duties he told to execute, into a self-aware and self-actualized individual. He makes decisions for himself and makes his own destiny. It’s not clear if he survives the film, although it doesn’t look good for him. And Deckard appears to have gone from just existing in his wasteland to caring about what happens to his offspring. It’s true that these transformations appear to be setting us up for a sequel, but it’s a sequel I’m looking forward to.


Blade Runner 2049 ranks among the best science fiction films of the past several years. This is true movie-making, a film crafted with careful attention to every frame, every camera angle, and every line of dialogue. The story also makes the bold move of defying an iconic convention of hero storytelling, namely, the illumination of the hero’s special identity. We thus see how skillful storytellers know how to break the rules. I award Blade Runner: 2049 a glowing rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Ryan Gosling is cast perfectly in the role of K. a dutiful replicant who goes rogue in response to surprising revelations about his possible new identity. His hero’s journey contains the classic elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero — a departure to a startling new world followed by an initiation of trials, villains, detours, and discovery. This film gifts us with a terrific hero tale worthy of 4 Hero points out of 5.

Greg, you’re right about K’s transformation from a brutal slave enlisted simply to “retire” outdated replicants to an enlightened and empowered near-human being. In our Reel Heroes & Villains book, we describe five types of transformations: moral, mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. In this film, K undergoes a mental transformation, as his entire worldview is turned upside-down. K’s growth is this film is fascinating to watch and it earns him 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Scott, I couldn’t agree more. Despite the long running time and rather slow delivery, this is a film worth both waiting for and wading through. It’s artful, entertaining, and is every bit as good as the original. I can’t see how to improve it — 5 out of 5 Reels.

K’s journey from obedient slave to rising acolyte, to fallen hero is a great hero’s journey. It’s a heroic transformation that we don’t get to see often. And it was so skillfully delivered that I have to give a full 5 Heroes and 5 Deltas. Excellent.

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Wind River ••••

Starring: Kelsey Asbille, Jeremy Renner, Julia Jones
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Crime/Drama/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: August 18, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, apparently rivers are not just wet. They are windy as well.


A young woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is shown running frantically in the snow. We learn later that she was raped and as good as murdered while fleeing in sub-zero temperatures. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers her frozen body and informs her father Dan (Apesanahkwat). To solve the mystery about what happened to Natalie, Lambert teams up with Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).

 


The autopsy indicates sexual violence and Lambert assumes the girl died from exposure while running away from a rape. Banner decides to stay on the case and investigate the homicide rather than report it as a rape. Because if it’s a rape then her superiors will take her off the case.


Greg, Wind River is a movie dripping with loss and heartache. In addition to institutionalized poverty and despair, there are lives lost to rape, murder, and alcoholism. Yet amidst all the tragedy there are beacons of hope who assume human form in the characters of Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, who push hard for truth and justice. One of our buddy heroes is deeply wounded from divorce and the loss of his daughter. He redeems these wounds by hunting down a pack of human predators. The other buddy hero is young and seemingly in-over-her-head, yet she digs deeps to deliver justice. Despite the dark tone of this movie, we’re left with a sliver of hope at the end.

Overall this movie moved me and impressed me. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are cast perfectly and display a robust chemistry as partners in their heroic mission. Graham Greene is also outstanding in his role of the jaded sheriff worn down by his impoverished surroundings. If I had to find two nitpicks, it is that (1) Corey has to save Jane in a sexist, damsel in distress kind of way, and (2) Cory delivers a poetic justice to the main predator at the end that strikes me as over-the-top Hollywood and inappropriate. It is unnecessarily demeaning to his character.


I also enjoyed this film. Mostly for its storytelling and less for its political overtones. The final card on-screen explains that many Indian women are lost each year and there are no records about how many there are. It’s a curious end to a suspense/thriller. If this were a film about a cultural phenomenon regarding disproportionate abduction of indigenous women, it certainly wasn’t on the screen.

I am also a little confused about casting. In recent months a lot of attention has been given to so-called yellow-face: the portrayal of Asians by whites (See Emma Stone in Hawaii). Here we have a story about the problems of American Indians with whites in the lead. The Renner character could easily have been indigenous with little change to the plot.


The production value of the cinematography is off the charts, almost on par with that of Revenant a couple of years ago — and that’s the highest praise I can give a movie. The majesty of the cold, stark mountains coupled with the sweeping, spacious landscapes were breathtaking to behold. I nearly got frostbite sitting in my comfy theater seat. Director Taylor Sheridan deserves huge credit for creating a dark, chilling atmosphere of despair in every frame of this film.

There is a fabulous hero’s journey here experienced by our buddy pairing of Cory and Jane. After being thrown into the dangerous pursuit of a rapist and killer, Cory finds himself mentoring the young and inexperienced Jane. As such, Jane undergoes more of a transformation than does Cory in this film. She gains experience, self-confidence, and a greater understanding of human loss and of injustices inflicted on Native Americans. Cory also grows and undergoes some healing from the loss of his daughter a few years earlier.


We’re in agreement here, Scott. Wind River is a beautifully shot movie with some excellent performances. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we call out the duo hero structure or “buddy hero” as two heroes with equal weight. Cory and Jane are a classic buddy hero pair with one hero being established and the other needing training. They start out at alternate ends of the experience scale. But Cory mentors Jane along until the exit the story on a similar plane.

It’s Jane’s transformation more than Cory’s that drives the story. While we’re informed of Cory’s loss of his own daughter years earlier, we don’t much see any healing for him after solving this girl’s murder. In fact, his estranged wife warns him that he won’t find any answers here. On the other hand, Jane starts out naive and filled with self righteous indignation. In the end, she comes to more fully understand the plight of the indigenous peoples. It’s through her transformation that the audience is likewise transformed.


Wind River is one of the best surprises of 2017, offering a riveting depiction of murder and redemption in the bitter cold mountains of Wyoming. The dark tone in this film’s  look and feel is matched by the equally lurid storyline. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their roles as detectives tracking down a killer who destroys a girl and her family. Wind River hit me hard emotionally and deserves a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes, Cory and Jane, make a terrific pairing as they must rely on each other to solve the case. They are thrown into a grisly world of death and despair, encountering obstacles in human form and in the form of institutional poverty and racism. These heroes deserve 4 Hero points out of 5.

As befitting good buddy heroes, Cory and Jane also help each other transform. Cory aids Jane in the ways of the world and in the plight of the Native Americans who suffer socially and economically. Jane helps Cory by providing FBI resources to bring about closure to the case which enable Cory to heal somewhat from the loss of his daughter a few years earlier. I give these buddies a rating of 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Wind River is a satisfying murder mystery and buddy hero story with both a message and a mission. It carries us through the murder investigation of a young Indian woman while exposing the problems inherent in the world of Indian Reservations. I wish the final message of the problem of Indian women disappearing was supported by the events of the film. I give Wind River 4 Reels out of 5.

Our buddy heroes Cory and Jane play off each other nicely with Cory acting as the mentor character and Jane as the straight and narrow cop from the city. I enjoyed their chemistry and appreciated Jane’s transformation from naive to informed. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes and 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Wonder Woman ••••1/2

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenplay: Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: June 2, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

No more wondering when we’ll review Wonder Woman. It’s now, Greg.


She’s a wonder, that Wonder Woman. Let’s recap:


In the present day, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receives a photo of her taken 100 years earlier during World War I. We then flash back to her childhood on the island of Themyscira, where young Diana yearns to become an Amazon warrior but is discouraged by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). We learn that Ares, the god of war, corrupted all of humanity and killed all the gods including his father Zeus. The Amazons were left with one weapon able to destroy Ares if he ever returned.


Then, one day, a plane flies into the waters off Themyscira. Diana, now grown, jumps into the water and saves American pilot and WWI spy Capt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). But he was followed by Germany’s navy. The Germans attack Themyscira and the Amazons defend their turf, but at a high cost. Diana’s Antiope (Robin Wright) was killed along with a score of other fierce Amazon warriors.

Queen Hippolyta interrogates Trevor using the magic golden lasso of truth. He tells her that the war has consumed the world and the Germans are planning an all-out attack that will kill millions and destroy any chance at armistice. Diana is convinced that Ares is behind this world war. She makes a plan to take Trevor back to London and go to the front to destroy Ares and restore the world to peace.


Greg, DC Films has done it. The movie studio with an uneven track record has produced a fabulous Wonder Woman film that succeeds wildly on several different levels. Let’s begin with aesthetics. The fight scenes in Wonder Woman are as good as we’ve ever seen in the movies, a couple of levels beyond The Matrix and countless action films since then. The look and feel of this film really has no precedent, with the dynamic artistry and physicality of Wonder Woman leaving me dazzled and wanting more.

There is much, much more to commend this movie. Gal Gadot delivers a superb performance in a film saturated with strong female heroes along with a wickedly memorable woman villain in Dr. Poison. Going into the film I was concerned that the character of Wonder Woman would be relegated to the role of a hyper-masculinized ass-kicker. Yes, we do see the ass-kicking side of our hero but the filmmakers here wisely endow her with compassion and a gentle wisdom, too. This androgynous balance is often sadly lacking in male heroes and it bestowed Wonder Woman with refreshing depth and appeal.


So very close, Scott. But not quite. Wonder Woman is by far the best of the new DC Extended Universe movies. Like the other films in this series the special effects and acting are superb. However, previous films (Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad) offered flimsy, dare I say, terrible, storylines. Wonder Woman’s script was much better than its predecessors.

But there are still problems with this film. First, let me say that “origin story” films always suffer from front-loading the backstory of the hero and so often give short shrift to the hero-villain story. WW does particularly well here – balancing Diana Prince’s life on Themyscira with her main goal of destroying Ares in “the real world.”

But the story gets a bit muddled and rushed as the end draws near. Wonder Woman kills the “Big Bad” – German General Ludendorf (Danny Huston) – only to find that he is not Ares, but an ordinary man. Ares is, however, British Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) in disguise. This realization is followed by a flashy CGI battle between her and this new Big Bad. It raises a lot of questions about why Sir Patrick sent her and Steve Trevor to the front to begin with. And Wonder Woman’s proclamation that “I don’t believe in war, I believe in love” is not just corny, but was not part of the theme of the entire movie. It was a confusing and anticlimactic ending.


Much of Wonder Woman’s success derives from its effective use of deep archetypes to which we all resonate. For example, Diana Prince has a secret identity known only to the elders of the Amazon society, and it is an identity she must discover on her own. The “search for self” is a classic story theme in literatures throughout the world, and the hidden identity motif is seen in stories from The Ugly Duckling to Cinderella. All heroes, it seems, possess an inner greatness, a royal heritage, and a secret power that beg for discovery. Discovering our divine birthright is the classic basis for all heroic transformation.

A central compelling element of Wonder Woman is the coming-of-age story of Diana Prince. She starts out innocent and naive about the world, and her mother makes a telling comment that Diana’s naivete may in fact protect her from Ares. Yet the simplicity of Diana’s worldview belies a wisdom in her that Chris Pine’s character Trevor underestimates. It is jarring for Diana, who is so empowered by her Amazon upbringing, to witness the oppression of women in the early 20th century, and she recognizes that only love can save women, and the world, from the influence of corrupt gods such as Ares. Diane experiences the epiphany that “there is so much more” to people than the evil she’s seen, recognizing that Ares’ destructive influence can be countered by love. To his credit, Trevor helps her reach this insight.

To me, there is nothing corny about the take-home message of love, especially in light of the incessant acts of terrorism and violence that plague our contemporary world. Diana Prince realizes that one cannot fight evil by performing similar retaliatory acts of evil. The only solution to war is love, and at the end of the film she makes it her life’s mission to save the world through the use of her native sense of empowerment, her newly developed wisdom about human nature, and her compassion for all people. We’ll have to see how her mission plays out in future installments of Wonder Woman.


Very passionately said, Scott. I don’t have a problem with love as a solution to war. Except that nothing in this film drew Diana Prince to this conclusion. It’s a throwaway line that was meant to be dramatic but falls flat for me because Diana never had a problem with love v. war in the whole of this movie. It’s only at the end that she comes to this conclusion. It’s a nice premise that was not proven by the events of the film.

Wonder Woman (the movie) is a skillfully crafted film that incorporates great cinematography, acting, and choreography to deliver a visual feast. I was disappointed in the final act as the conclusion was not a natural result of the preceding events. Gal Gadot is the legitimate heir to the Wonder Woman crest. I give Wonder Woman 4 out of 5 Reels.

Wonder Woman (the character) is a great heroic entity. She embodies all the characteristics of an emerging hero. She’s moral, ethical, honest, and yet naive. She is naturally charismatic without being self-centered or egotistical. She’s confident and bold without being arrogant. I don’t think it’s possible to construct a more solid and powerful hero than this incarnation of Wonder Woman. I give her 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The transformations here are quite good. Diana is presented to us as a child with ambitions to be a warrior. Her mother opposes that goal but relents in the end. She is mentored by Antiope and grows to be the best of the Amazons. Then she leaves the nest of Themyscira where she has been safe and sound for the world of men. There she falls in love and loses her naivete when she loses Steve Trevor. Few stories have so much transformation for a single character. I award Wonder Woman 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Wonder Woman is an artistic tour de force for DC Films and is not only one of the best films of 2017 but also a fabulous triumph for the woman superhero genre in film. In fact, Diana Prince’s heroism transcends gender. She is a hero and role model for both men and women, demonstrating an inspiring pattern of lifespan development that mirrors Joseph Campbell’s stages of the hero’s journey. Wonder Woman is a landmark cinematic achievement that easily deserve the full 5 Reels out of 5.

The character of Wonder Woman possesses a depth and complexity that we haven’t seen in the movies in a long time. She is naively innocent yet also profoundly wise; she shows great strength yet also warm tenderness; she grows as a person without losing the cherished values of her culture of origin. Wonder woman’s journey is arduous, illuminating, surprising, and ultimately inspiring. She no doubt deserves the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

This coming-of-age story of Diana Prince yielded an embarrassment of transformational riches. Our hero undergoes physical transformation from her aunt during training, and while on her mission with Trevor she acquires key insights about humanity and the genesis of evil in the hearts of men. This mental transformation also includes a discovery of her secret powers, her hidden ability to be the slayer of evil gods. It’s a beautifully crafted story of self discovery that merits the full 5 transformational Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Beauty and the Beast •••1/2

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Family/Fantasy/Musical, Rated: PG
Running Time: 129 minutes
Release Date: March 17, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, we just saw a remake of an old classic.


As the song says, “Be our guest…” and put our patience to the test. Let’s recap:


In France, a beautiful and mysterious enchantress (Hattie Morahan) disguised as a beggar interrupts a party hosted by a selfish prince (Dan Stevens). The enchantress punishes the prince for failing to help the beggar. She transforms him into a beast until he learns to love another and earns love in return. All of his servants are converted into objects around his castle and will not revert back to human form unless the spell is broken.


We’re introduced to young Belle (Emma Watson). She’s a bookworm who can’t help falling into song at the drop of a hat. The local townspeople think she is quite odd with her book learnin’ and all. She is also without a mother but is the daughter to the local inventor, Maurice (Kevin Kline). He’s a bit of a kook too. Well, one day he is on his way to the city to sell his tinker toys when he happens upon a castle with a beast in it. He’s thrown in the dungeon, because he stole a rose.

Meanwhile, Maurice’s horse has returned home without him and Belle is worried. She mounts the horse and rides off to find her father. She finds him locked up in the castle. The beast claims that Maurice must stay. But Belle makes a deal to trade places with her father. And thus begins the oldest story of Stockholm Syndrome ever – a tale as old as time.


Greg, this modern live-action version of Beauty and the Beast is a gorgeous spectacle that leaps off the screen and comes alive musically and visually. My main problem is with the story, which you mention, is that it is a creepy tribute to the Stockholm syndrome that reinforces the subjugation of women. If you can get past this problem and focus on the many positive elements of the storytelling, then there is much to appreciate here.

My favorite part of the movie is a scene early in the story in which Belle’s father describes Belle in terms that describe a hero to a tee – Belle is odd, fearless, and ahead of her time. Apparently these same traits describe Belle’s mother, demonstrating the important role of mentoring in producing a hero. Later we learn that the Beast was raised by a father who was cruel, again underscoring the pivotal role of parenting in developing heroes.


I loved this movie when my daughters watched the animated version in the 90s as little girls. The animation and the music made it a delight. And the running time of just over 90 minutes also made it tolerable for even adults. But this new incarnation clocks in at about 130 minutes and in this case more was not better. I was bored by the extended musical numbers that went on for 5 minutes or longer. And the new songs and plot elements seemed to be mere padding. I much more enjoyed the economical storytelling of the original animated feature.

Having said that, Disney has created a marvel of CGI. The animated characters in this story truly came to life. I’m constantly amazed at the quality and extremes of computer generated images in modern films. If I was bored by the longish storytelling, I was impressed with the craft.


You’re right, Greg, this movie was much like the character of Gaston and fell in love with itself by running about 10 or 15 minutes too long. This problem is endemic to all of Hollywood’s offerings and not just this film. Like you, I was sufficiently dazzled by the CGI to leave the theater content that I got my money’s worth.

The hero of this story is the Prince who commits a moral transgression at the film’s outset and must redeem and transform himself to right his wrong. The key to his transformation is Belle, who transforms him by demonstrating a morally wondrous act of self-sacrifice to save her father. After witnessing this act, the Prince/Beast then does something similar in saving Belle from the wolves. This sets in motion the romance that ultimately redeems the Beast.

We’ve seen women occupying the role of transformer many times in the movies. Apparently, in the movies and perhaps in storytelling in general, men need women to change them. This is often the formula in romantic comedies in which women fall in love with flawed men and somehow change them. I have to admit I’m not a fan at all of this kind of transformation in storytelling, and yet I can’t deny its pervasiveness in stories and fables throughout history.


I think the hero of the story is Belle. It is Belle’s perspective the story asks us to take on. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we identify two types of heroes: transformed heroes and catalytic heroes. The transformed hero is changed by her experience. But the catalytic hero is a catalyst for change in others. Belle is the latter. She is the agent for change in the beast. It is by her love that the beast comes to care about someone other than himself. He changes from being a selfish cad to putting Belle’s needs before his own. It’s a powerful story dynamic.

And since we’re studying transformation this year, there’s a lot of transformation going on in Beauty and the Beast. As discussed, the prince is transformed from selfish to caring. But Belle undergoes a transformation as well. While she starts out as being kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and caring, she also starts out hating the beast. And ultimately she comes to care for and love him. And while she transformed the beast, she also was the agent of change for all the animated objects in the castle and ultimately the townspeople. There’s a lot of transformation in this story.

But not all transformation is good. Unfortunately, Disney is in love with the premise that ugly people are bad and beautiful people are good. The prince is evil during his beast phase and when he is changed into a kinder, gentler beast, he magically transforms into a beautiful young man. As a professor of psychology I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Do people generally think that beautiful people are naturally more virtuous?


Yes, research on the halo effect shows that people assume that beautiful people are also good people. This story deserves credit for demonstrating that we can look past ugliness and see inner beauty, but shame on this story for ending the tale with the ugly beast being transformed back into a handsome prince. A better lesson for all of humanity would be for Belle to live happily ever after with inner beauty, not outer beauty.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast is a visual and artistic triumph that tells an ancient story quite well despite its unfortunate glorification of the Stockholm syndrome along with the hypocrisy of outer beauty signifying inner beauty. There is an excellent hero’s journey here, with the Prince’s mistake at the film’s outset setting in motion a heartfelt story of redemption and transformative love. The music here is moving, the casting with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens is perfect, and the visuals are breathtaking. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

While the Prince/Beast is the main hero, it’s more accurate to say that he and Belle form a romantic duo hero pairing which we describe in our last book Reel Heroes & Villains. The giveaway that they are romantic heroes lies in the fact that they hate each other at the beginning and grow to love each other by the end. The Prince/Beast does most of the transforming; he learns how to love. Belle is his mentor, demonstrating how one loves through loyalty and self-sacrifice. It’s a nice hero story and deserves a hero rating of 4 points out of 5.

The transformation of the Prince is, of course, the centerpiece of the tale, and we’ve discussed it in this review at length. Earlier I described women in storytelling as being the catalyst of male transformation, and I left out the main female transformative agent that sets everything in motion. I’m referring to the enchantress, who transforms the Prince into the Beast and who later rescues Belle’s father thus assisting (albeit indirectly) the Beast’s transformation back into a Prince. This story is saturated with transformation and as such I’ll award it 5 Transformation points out of 5.

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Beauty and the Beast is a feast for the eyes, but plods along at a snail’s pace. Emma Watson is delightful as always and the CGI of the beast, the enchanted castle, and its inhabitants is without peer. Still, I can’t get past the long running time and needless additional scenes and songs. I give Beauty and the Beast just 3 out of 5 Reels.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Belle is the hero of the story. Surely there were dozens of little girls dressed as princesses in the theater and not one beast. Belle is nearly too perfect and virtuous. The villain is the beast and it is Belle’s virtue that transforms him. I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Scott, there are plenty of transformations in this film. In our book we identify 5 different types of transformation. We see both physical and emotional transformation in this story. And you might argue for some intellectual transformation for the townspeople as well. I give the transformations 3 out of 5 transformation “deltas.”

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Split •••1/2

split_2017_filmStarring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Horror/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 

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

Greg, we’re often split in our opinions about a movie.


I’m of two minds on this film. Let’s recap…


We meet three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). Claire and Marcia and the “cool” girls and Casey is a loner who frequently gets into trouble at school. The girls are in a car, ready to be driven home by one of their fathers, when a man named Kevin (James McAvoy ) commandeers the vehicle, kidnapping the girls and locking them in a subterranean room.


Meanwhile, Kevin is meeting with his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who has been receiving frantic emails from Kevin’s alter ego Barry. Dr. Fletcher’s suspicions are raised when Kevin denies sending the messages. In a later session Kevin describes a new personality called “The Beast” which has the powers of many powerful animals. Fletcher thinks The Beast is a metaphorical character, but we know better.


Greg, how interesting that we are devoting our 2017 movie reviews to the importance of character transformation in storytelling, and lo and behold we are presented with a movie about a man with dissociative identity disorder. Kevin routinely transforms among two dozen different personal identities. We’ll get to that later.

First, let me say how surprisingly pleased I was with this movie. Based on the trailer, I didn’t expect much. The film turns out to be far more than a formulaic teenage screamer/thriller movie with the usual false scares and predictable slasher villain. Split is a psychologically fascinating film that serves as a sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s very underrated Unbreakable. We’re treated to a movie that makes us think about the very purpose of the hero’s journey, which is to take us on a path that will bring us great pain yet make us better, stronger people in the end.


I agree. Split was an uncommon thriller. The photography and direction seemed stilted, almost amateurish. But the performance by James McAvoy switching between multiple personalities, often in the same scene, really sold the story.

The three girls represent three different types of victims. Claire is the natural leader and believes that her Tai Kwon Do lessons will be enough to overpower Kevin. Marcia is the follower who looks to the other girls to decide how to proceed. And Casey wants to wait and see what Kevin is all about. Casey has experience with predators since her uncle ritually molested her as a child. It’s an interesting comparison of personalities.


I see this film as a tale of two heroes, Kevin and Casey. They’re both emotionally broken from abuse, outsiders doing their best to deal with their pain. Dr. Fletcher almost serves as the narrator of the story, telling us how the broken among us have a head start in becoming their best, superhuman selves. Kevin is slowly transforming into “the beast”, an indescribably strong, powerful mutant who needs people to eat. Casey’s transformation is brought about by her ordeal as Kevin’s captive.

The entire story is based (loosely) on the true and inspiring theory of post-traumatic growth in the field of psychology. The idea behind PTG is that the horrid experiences that traumatize us can serve as grist for the transformative mill. That which does not kill us may indeed make us stronger, better people. Research studies are confirming this phenomenon, giving many abuse victims great hope for a better future.

 


While Kevin undergoes a physical transformation, Casey undergoes an emotional one. Kevin, as The Beast, kills the other two girls. But when Kevin realizes that Casey is also a victim of abuse, he lets her go. He’s only interested in the “impure” girls, not the “pure” Casey. Frantly, I’m confused by Kevin’s definition of pure or impure. But, at any rate, after Casey has survived The Beast, she finds a new resolve to stand up to her abusive uncle. She is no longer a victim.


Split is a surprisingly cerebral thriller that takes the message of the hero’s journey to a superheroic extreme. We learn that emotionally broken people are more highly evolved than the non-broken among us. It’s a theme with biblical origins (“the last shall go first”) and it has psychological validity in theories of post traumatic growth. “We are what we believe we are,” our hero Kevin proclaims, summing up the film’s message of mind over matter and mind transforming matter. James McAvoy turns in an astounding performance and M. Night Shyamalan has produced a winner of a movie. I award Split 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two heroes, Kevin and Casey, go on remarkable heroes journeys. Many of the most searingly painful stages of their journeys occur earlier in their lives and are shown in brief flashbacks. We are thus treated to the final stages of the journey during which our heroes are on the precipice of great change. Our heroes are complex, almost anti-hero in the case of Kevin and tortured in the case of both of them. Their journey of growth is unconventional yet inspiring. I give them 5 Hero points out of 5.

The transformation of our two heroes is the true star of this film. Kevin’s transformative journey has been ongoing for years, whereas Casey’s is brought to fruition via her captivity. Our two heroes’ transformations are physical, mental, and emotional in nature. We describe these types of transformations in our book, Reel Heroes & Villains. The transformations in this film are dramatic, surprising, and inspiring. I give them 5 Transformative points out of 5.

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I agree, Scott. Split is an exciting thriller and a nice addition to M. Night Shyamalan’s catalog. Aside from some stylistic choices in cinematography, it was a well-conceived and executed film. However, I was unhappy with the epilog which brought back Bruce Willis as David Dunn from Unbroken. There wasn’t anything that tied the two films together except one line at the tail. It smacks of commercialism and an attempt to revive interest in the older film. I give Split 3 Reels out of 5.

I agree again that we have a strong pairing here, but I wouldn’t call Kevin a hero. Surely Casey is the hero and Kevin is that antagonist. Casey wants to escape and Kevin opposes that goal. Casey is stronger than her two counterparts. And it is her past experience with abuse that makes her more likely to survive her ordeal than her unlucky friends. I give Casey 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The transformations in this film are on the one hand physical, for Kevin, and emotional for Casey. We watch Kevin transform from a splintered personality to a terrible “horde” who eats flesh for delight. It’s a gruesome change. Casey starts out already stronger than her peers. But we learn that she wasn’t strong enough to fend off her molesting uncle. But by the end of the film, her experience with Kevin made her strong enough to stand up for herself. If she could face Kevin, then she surely could face her uncle. I give these transformations 4 out of 5 points.

Movie: reel-3Transformation: delta-4 Heroes: h-logo-4