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IT •••

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga
Drama/Horror, Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: September 8, 2017


Scott, to paraphrase Indiana Jones: Clowns. Why did it have to be clowns?

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

I do believe this story was Stephen King’s clowning achievement. Let’s recap.

It’s 1989 and we’re introduced to 12-year-old Billy (Jaeden Lieberher). His younger brother George had gone missing a year ago and for the most part everyone believes him dead. But Billy is holding out hope. We know that evil PennyWise (Bill Skarsgård), the Dancing Clown killed George in a gruesome way.

Billy and his best buddies (Ben, Richie, Mike, Eddie, and Stan) are heading into their thirteenth summer with some obstacles. Among them, three bullies lead by Henry. Henry cuts portly Ben in an act of villainy and the boys need supplies from the pharmacy to patch him up. They enlist the help of 13-year-old Beverly (Sophia Lillis) who distracts the pharmacist as the boys abscond with gauze, tape, and rubbing alcohol.

Ben does some research and discovers that the town of Derry has been plagued by terrible tragedies and missing children every 27 years. And like clockwork, the current year of 1989 is ripe for tragedy again. The boys begin encountering the clown individually and narrowly escape with their lives each time. They learn that the clown feeds on each individual’s unique fears. Billy suspects that George may still be alive and devises a plan to confront the clown at the well house where all the town’s sewers meet.

Scott, I don’t usually like horror films. I went in to IT with low expectations. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was reminiscent of Stand By Me and The Goonies. Everyone in the ensemble has a hurt or pain and a main goal. By the end everyone learns a lesson, lasting friendships are forged, and the world is a better place.

Usually horror films rely on eerie music and shocking surprises to instill fear into the viewer. IT doesn’t disappoint here. Although, I felt the soundtrack overly foreshadowed the scarier moments. When I look back at other horror films, only The Exorcist still gives me a reptilian sense of dread. IT had a scary clown, but nothing in this film really made me look over my shoulder on the way to my car. IT wasn’t that scary.

Greg, I do enjoy some movies based on Stephen King novels. Stand By Me, The Green Mile, and Shawshank Redemption come to mind. Those stories are not “scary” movies by any means; they have depth and storytelling elements that transcend the horror genre. I’m afraid that this film, IT, follows the formulaic scary movie plotline a little too closely for my tastes. There is a monster that is killing people, and we are subjected to both false scares and real scares. While kids are dropping one by one, a group of heroes takes matters into their own hands and gangs up on the monster, killing it.

My bias against this genre is no doubt showing itself big-time, but the bias exists because these scary movies simply prey on the same fear over and over again. This movie lasts over two hours, which is unfortunate and unnecessary. Every parental figure in this film is a horrible human being, which conveniently pits our young teen heroes on their own against this circus performing menace. The clown has extraordinary supernatural powers that conveniently appear and reappear, depending on whether the plot is best served by them. Although there were elements of the story that I appreciated, such as the pseudo-romance between Beverly and a couple of the boys, there just wasn’t enough here to maintain much of my interest.

The ensemble cast led by Billy and Bev make up a nice team hero structure. Everyone contributes and everyone has something to overcome. It’s hard to manage a 7-way ensemble cast and give everyone something to do. Usually some character gets relegated to the background while some other character drives the story forward. In the ‘biz’ doing it right is called ‘sharing focus.’ And IT does ‘it’ really well.

Our heroes are all lacking courage at first but exhibit increasing confidence as the story progresses. When Bev’s bathroom is sprayed with blood, all the boys chip in to clean up the mess. One definition of courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in the face of fear. And our heroes ultimately achieve that level of heroism.

You’re right that there is a clear heroic transformation taking place during the course of the film. These boys (and Beverly) band together to fight the evil Henry and the evil clown, overcoming their various phobias and past baggage in the process. The transformation goes beyond conquering fears; there are also three coming-of-age elements at work here: blossoming romantic feelings, male bonding, and rebellion against parental figures. Stephen King’s fingerprints are all over these characterizations and they do add much-needed depth to the anemic horror-film structure.

IT is uncommon horror fare. I was surprised that I had a good time. I came to care about these characters and I enjoyed their transformation and coming of age. I give IT 4 out of 5 Reels. The ensemble structure was very well-managed. It’s hard to pull off a group dynamic and IT delivered. I give the kids 4 out of 5 Heroes. And you can’t ask for a better transformation than 7 people each facing their individual fears and overcoming their weaknesses. I give them 5 out of 5 Deltas.

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IT is an overly long scary movie that doesn’t distinguish itself enough from the countless other films in this genre for me to give it a positive review. Yes, clowns are scary, but no one needs to see over two hours of killer clowning going on. Stephen King did add some much-needed character depth to our hero ensemble, and this movie desperately needed it. Still, the story is too formulaic for my tastes, and as such I can only award IT 2 Reels out of 5.

These heroes do go on a journey and endure hard trials, a terrifying enemy, and an admirable love interest in Beverly. There are no human mentors assisting them; only a library full of books detailing the dark history of the town. There is a coming-of-age transformation that is done well and saved this movie from being a limp re-tread of bad horrors movies from the past. I award these heroes 3 Hero points out of 5, and 3 transformation Deltas out of 5, also.

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Doctor Strange •••1/2

doctor_strange_posterStarring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016


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

Strange that we haven’t yet reviewed this movie, Greg.

Here’s one film that doesn’t need a script doctor. Let’s recap.

The movie opens with the villainous sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) stealing a documented ritual from a book and murdering the librarian of ancient mystical texts in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tries to prevent the theft but is unsuccessful. We then meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant and cocky neurosurgeon who lives a swanky lifestyle, and his former lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who is turned off by Strange’s egocentricity.

Strange goes for a ride in his sports car and is distracted by his cell phone while driving. He goes off a cliff and in a near-death accident loses nearly all the functioning of his hands – which are his bread and butter. He attempts every operation and seeks the help of every surgeon, but none can help him. Finally he travels to Nepal and becomes a student of The Ancient One – who begins to tame his arrogance.

Greg, Doctor Strange tells the origin story of a spiritual superhero, Stephen Strange, played with great flair by Benedict Cumberbatch. In some ways, the story is predictable in showing us a man of science who is skeptical of the spirit world yet must immerse himself in that world if he is to transform himself into a heroic entity. The film works largely due to the performances of Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, who plays Strange’s mysterious and powerful spiritual mentor. We’re also treated to some nice CGI effects that depict many wondrously wizardly visuals.

If The Matrix, Inception, and Harry Potter had a baby, it would look a lot like Dr. Strange. I was favorably impressed with Doctor Strange. I’m not prone to enjoying stories dealing with mysticism – as they too often call upon spell-of-the-moment to solve a problem. But Doctor Strange takes great care to build the rules of the mystical universe – and then takes great pains to work within those rules.

If I were to name a complaint, it’s that the powers that Doctor Strange and his cohorts rely upon are channeled through a device called a “Sling Ring.” It smacked too much of Harry Potter’s wand and for such an advanced mystical realm, seemed too limiting. But of course, the Sling Ring made for convenient plot disruptions when a character loses their ring and cannot perform magic.

Another nod to the Harry Potter universe is the way certain magical objects “choose their user” rather than the other way around. Strange’s iconic cape selected him during a fierce battle and saved his life. I’m not familiar with the Doctor Strange comics, so I can’t say which universe used the idea first. But it was a distraction that pulled me out of the story.

Strangely, that cape assumes the unusual role of mentor to Strange. It guides him to the metal straightjacket that stops Kaecilius during the fierce battle that you mention. Have we ever before seen a lifeless prop serve as a mentor? Of course, in a world of spells and spirits, nothing is really lifeless with every object holding the potential for magic.

The Ancient One is the primary mentor of the story, although she is a flawed one in deriving her energy from the dark side. One of the strengths of Doctor Strange lies in the development of her character and the evolution of the relationship between her and Strange. It’s a complicated alliance that ebbs and flows. Kaecilius may serve as a dark mentor to Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who seems to have been influenced by the villain’s dark, twisted logic.

Doctor Strange is an interesting hero because he undergoes a dramatic transformation. He starts out self-absorbed, falls into despair, becomes so humble that he throws himself to the mercy of The Ancient One, then rises to take his place in the hierarchy of the mystic realm and a protector of the Earth. It’s a rollercoaster ride that delivers a very satisfying resolution.

Strange’s relationship with The Ancient One is one we’ve seen before. He goes seeking the mentor whereas usually the mentor finds the hero. As with The Karate Kid. the mentor here does not initially accept the hero as a student. The hero must convince the mentor to take on the role. However, The Ancient One suffers the same fate as mentors past – she must die for the hero to feel the full force of the stakes of the story. It was a predictable albeit poignant moment.

Another thing to notice about The Ancient One is that she is a past hero. We often see mentors pass along their heroic lessons to up-and-coming heroes. We’ve seen this in The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Star Trek 2009 and so many other stories. Our mentor character has been to battle and back. And now the hard-won lessons learned are gifted to the new hero.

Doctor Strange introduces us to a new superhero in the Marvel universe, a gifted physician who loses his hands and can only recover his functioning by undergoing a dramatic spiritual transformation in an exotic location. The film owes its success to some powerful performances, most notably by the ever-versatile Benedict Cumberbatch and the enigmatic Tilda Swinton. I enjoyed Doctor Strange and award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is rich and complex. Strange’s accident brings him to his knees and like most heroes, Strange undergoes a significant transformation with help from Mordo and especially The Ancient One. One of the themes of the story is the struggle between arrogance and humility: Will Strange allow his massive ego to turn him to the dark side of Kaecilius or will he remain humble enough to use his powers wisely? Strange is tested in this area and appears to pass the test, albeit barely. Strange’s heroic development earns him 4 Hero points out of 5.

The mentoring in the story is strong and fascinating, as it involves a cape who assists our hero in making wise choices and a powerful spiritual guru who employs tough love in imparting great wisdom to our hero. As I’ve noted, the relationship between Strange and the Ancient One is complex, dynamic, and commands our attention throughout the film. I give the mentorship in this movie 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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Doctor Strange was a surprise offering from Marvel films. It’s unusual for a film to premier in November and continue to run through December – and rank consistently high in box office sales. Doctor Strange does this by offering a unique world filled with strong characters and even stronger performances. While the film owes much of its appeal through masterful special effects, it’s the presentation of a superhero the likes of which we haven’t seen before that makes Doctor Strange worth seeing once and again. I give this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

Stephen Strange’s origin story is just what we’d expect from Marvel films. Strange is immensely gifted but is completely self-centered. His debilitating accident doesn’t change his egocentric nature. But when he begs to be taught the ways of The Ancient One, he enters a world of mysticism at complete odds with his scientific training. He has to reevaluate everything he knows. It’s a great set up for a hero’s journey and Doctor Strange delivers a hero’s genesis story that kept me wanting more. I give Stephen Strange 4 out of 5 Heroes.

There’s a lot of mentoring in this film. Even before Strange meets The Ancient One, he has years of training in the sciences that make him a successful surgeon. We’ve talked about the unseen mentors before. But it isn’t until he enters the world of mystical realms that we see the kind of mentoring that truly changes our hero. The Ancient One shows Strange what *can be* and so opens the door to new realities. She then gives him advice, teaching, and magical gifts that allow him to transcend the limits of his scientific mind and become a true hero. I give The Ancient One 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Arrival ••••1/2

arrival_movie_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we’ve finally arrived…

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

… and it’s about time. Literally. Let’s get to reviewing this next movie about alien visitation.

We’re introduced to Professor Leslie Banks (Amy Adams) who is having a strange day as 12 “shells” (very large egg-shaped alien craft) have landed across the world. She’s visited by a Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) who insists she help him translate the speech patterns of the aliens. She resists but ultimately gives in when her curiosity gets the better of her. She’s whisked away to a midwest town where she is paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and must discover the reason for the alien visit.

Banks and Donnelly meet two of the aliens and nickname them Abbott and Costello. Communication seems impossible until Banks attempts written language. She discovers that the aliens’ writing is composed of complex circular characters and sentences, and she also discovers that the more she deciphers the language, the more strange visions she has of herself raising a child. Meanwhile, in China, General Shang (Tzi Ma) is about to wage war with the aliens, making it imperative that Banks and Donnelly crack the code before disaster strikes.

Arrival is a film that arrived without much fanfare. I don’t recall seeing any previews for it in the theaters or ads on TV. So, I had very few preconceptions going in. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is an arguably ponderous film with very little action and a lot of dialog. It’s a thinking-man’s movie, so it appealed to me. One of the opening scenes has physicist Donnelly reading Banks’ book which states that all interactions begin with language. But he differs – claiming the basis for communication is science. Whereas Colonel Webber is looking at the situation from a tactical point of view. And so the stage is set for a three-way confrontation of ideals. And in the end, it is Banks’ view that wins out. I was favorably impressed.

Greg, I loved Arrival. It’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a meaty science fiction story that really makes you think. I was struck by the possibility that our language is not so much a reflection of our linear thinking but a determinant of it. The temporal non-linearity of the aliens was fascinating and allowed for some truly creative plot developments. We’re also treated to some wonderfully innovative renditions of aliens and alien language. Not to mention that Amy Adams delivers a terrific performance as a hero who must piece together the temporal puzzle to save the world. It all adds up to a stellar movie, pardon the pun.

Amy Adams was definitely the brightest star in this film. Her character Leslie Banks undergoes a strong transformation from disillusioned academic to an enlightened world figure. She also exhibits uncommon empathy for the aliens. She puts aside her innate fear of the unknown and is captivated by the question of what is the purpose of the alien visit. I found her very inspiring.

Banks definitely goes on an inspired hero’s journey — yet another example of Hollywood finally “getting it” that women characters can make tremendous heroes in the movies. The hero’s journey begins with Banks answering the “call” from the military to make first contact with aliens who have landed in Montana. She immediately assumes a lead role in her partnership with Donnelly, a physicist on her team. Her missing quality is her understanding of the alien language, and the keys to her acquiring this quality are her openness to thinking outside the box, her trust that the aliens will do no harm, and her courage to defy the military’s antagonistic approach to the alien encounter.

Banks possesses many of the great eight characteristics of heroes; she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, caring, inspiring, and selfless. In keeping with the hero’s journey, she encounters a love interest (Donnelly), allies in Abbott, Costello, and oppositional forces in the military and CIA. Her mentors turn out to be the aliens themselves, who have arrived to help the earth understand and change their language and use of time. In exchange, the earth will help the aliens 3,000 years from now. Everything comes full circle, which is beautifully symbolized in the alien circular linguistic characters.

The aliens are good mentor figures here. And we also see that Banks acts as a hero-mentor in that she mentors the aliens in our language. After all, it is she who instructs the aliens, not the other way around. However, this does imply a bit of a plot hole. If the aliens are so advanced, why are they so dense in understanding our language? Compare to our own understanding of animal language. It is human researchers who have taught apes to speak American Sign Language. I would think it incumbent upon the more advanced civilization to find a way to communicate with us.

Arrival is a departure from other first contact movies like Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind where language is the source of the communication. I enjoyed the slow burn from fear to understanding for all the characters in the story. I give Arrival 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dr. Banks is a great hero who undergoes a transformation from naive to educated in the ways of the alien creatures. Like many heroes we’ve studied in the last few years, she has a “super power” which in this case is the ability to understand language. But it is her human innate quality of empathy which endears Banks to us. I give her 4 out of 5 Hero points.

And Banks is the most excellent hero-mentor. And when you join her with the superior alien-mentors we get a mentoring experience that goes beyond what most films offer. I give Banks and the aliens 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Arrival is the science fiction you’ve been looking for in film for several years now. Greg, the plot hole you identify is not so much a hole but the key to understanding the puzzle with which the aliens present humanity. Twelve shells arrive on earth, each with a different piece to the puzzle that the twelve earth stations must share to unravel the mystery. The idea is to bring humanity together in a non-zero-sum-game-like way. This guiding principle, along with stunningly crafted heptapods and their innovative language, make Arrival a treat to watch. I give this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Louise Banks proves herself braver and smarter than all her male counterparts in both developing a working relationship with the aliens and in deciphering their cryptic language. She encounters friends who help her and foes who oppose her, and she undergoes a profound mental transformation. In our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains, we define a mental transformation as a significant change in the way that a hero views the workings of the universe. Banks now sees time, language, and thought as intertwined. She travels the full hero’s journey, including the act of giving back to society what she has learned in the form of lectures and a book on the universal language of the heptapods. She earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also strong in this film, with the aliens mentoring Banks as well as the entire human race itself. Our planet is taught how essential it is for our survival to adopt a non-zero-sum philosophy in our international relations. You’re right, Greg, that Banks also mentors the aliens — although I suspect they intentionally adopted a passive stance in the first contact proceedings to force us to do the work of deciphering and cooperating with each other internationally. Oh, and let’s not forget that the future Louise Banks mentored the present-day Louise Banks via many hallucinogenic messages. In short, the mentoring is rich in this film and also merits the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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Snowden •••1/2

snowden_film_posterStarring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2016


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

Greg, are you ready to review Oliver Stone’s latest foray into controversial American political issues?

I was hoping I would be “snowed in” and not able to see it. But, alas, it’s the peak of summer. Let’s recap:

The year is 2013, and Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in a Hong Kong high rise hotel, arranging to meet journalists from the US and UK. He has information to give them that he illegally downloaded from US intelligence services’ computers. We then flashback to nine years earlier when a young fresh-faced Snowden first applied to join the military special forces.

Snowden wants nothing more than to serve his country. But he is physically unable to get through basic training. He chooses instead to join the CIA as an analyst and study the world of internet hacking. He shows his value immediately as he solves difficult hacking problems in minutes not hours. This endears him to the CIA director, Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans) and leads Snowden into the world of CIA operatives.

Greg, Snowden presents the true story, or at least Oliver Stone’s version of the true story, of a controversial man who leaked classified government information, and then paid the price by being disowned by his country. Among hero activists around the world, Snowden is considered a hero, a whistleblower who sacrificed his career to do the right thing. Many others view him as a traitor who endangered lives. In this film, Oliver Stone clearly takes the heroic interpretation, portraying Snowden as a genius who starts out loyal to the US but slowly transforms into a person who cannot condone the mountain of evidence pointing to his country’s illegal activities.

Stone doesn’t miss an opportunity to paint Snowden in a good light. He’s at once idealist, genius-level intelligent, patriotic, and honest to a fault. In writing we call this a “Mary Sue” – someone so perfect as to be impossible. It’s too bad, because it makes the character on-screen seem unbelievable, and that makes for a bad story.

Snowden starts out believing in America. He is a staunch conservative. When he meets his ultra-liberal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), they clash over the role of government in American lives. But slowly, as the relationship matures and endures both positive and negative growth, Snowden comes to question his government’s actions. This is an interesting transformation for Snowden – one of ideology.

Right, Greg. So once again we see women having an important transformative effect on men (see also The Light Between Oceans). Lindsay “mentors” Snowden by coaching him to adopt more liberal viewpoints about America and the world. Lindsay’s influence gives Snowden a different lens through which he sees his country’s spying activities. Eventually, Snowden can no longer turn a blind eye to all the rule-breaking that he sees going on within our intelligence communities.

In storytelling, it’s not unusual for a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hero to have a lot of learning to do. Snowden arrives at the CIA full of naive idealism. One of the first people he encounters is Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a CIA operative who has been banished from the front lines for curious reasons. Forrester plants the first seeds of doubt in Snowden regarding the purity of the CIA’s motives in the world. “You can disagree with your government and still be a patriot,” he tells Snowden — an obvious foreshadowing of what is to come.

Snowden is a one-sided view of Edward Snowden’s decision to become a whistleblower on a government that apparently has overreached its bounds. It’s now a particularly engaging movie. There are long stretches of Snowden doing “coding” tasks. This is not an inspired film. A lot of the technology issues are simplified for the average movie-goer. Certainly, the subtleties of the line between whistleblower and traitor are never explored. I give Snowden just 3 out of 5 Reels.

As a hero, Snowden is painted quite favorably. He is shown as a bright young man with promise. He is also displayed as a patriot who becomes disillusioned with what he deems is unpatriotic behavior. He’s given few if any negative traits. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Heroes for him.

There are a number of good mentors in Snowden. Corbin O’Brien becomes the dark mentor as he leads young Snowden deeper and deeper into the world of the CIA. Hank Forrester is the “cautionary tale” mentor – showing Snowden what happens to an operative who goes too far in the world of international internet espionage. And finally, the “light” mentor, Lindsay Mills, shows Snowden an alternative path. I liked the variety of mentors and influences in Snowden – I give its mentors 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Greg, we went into Snowden thinking that Oliver Stone might present a mixed picture of the man, thereby allowing audiences to decide for themselves. We were wrong in a big way. Stone clearly views Snowden as a noble and heroic whistleblower, a genius with a big heart and the perfect girlfriend. Although I would have liked to have seen the other side to the story told, I have to admit that Stone has crafted a compelling film that deserves to be watched. I give Snowden 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey here is an interesting one. Snowden is pulled into the dark world of espionage, and he can choose to thrive in this dark world or he can choose to expose it to the greater world. Doing the latter means being pulled into the even more dangerous lifestyle of a fugitive. His decision to spend his life hiding from the US government is the kind of self-sacrifice that we see only in our greatest heroes. Snowden’s journey merits a hero rating of 4 out of 5.

As we’ve mentioned, Snowden receives all the mentoring he needs to transform from a conservative pawn of the government into a liberal activist. He comes to recognize O’Brien as a dark force of influence, and he ends up heeding Forrester’s dictum that true patriots are willing to take a stand against their government. The ever-present Lindsay guides him toward the ideology needed to blow the whistle. Overall, it’s a very strong mentor story, earning the film 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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The Jungle Book ••••1/2

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Marks, Rudyard Kipling
Adventure/Drama/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: April 15, 2016


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

Greg, it looks like Disney decided to re-make an old classic.

Can you re-make a new classic? Let’s recap The Jungle Book.

We meet Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a young man-cub who was left for dead in the jungle and then rescued by a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Mowgli is raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and her pack of young wolf-cubs. The young boy tries to act like a wolf but on occasion he can’t help showing the cleverness of a human. During this particular year, the dry season hits the jungle hard. All the animals call a truce so that they can all drink safely at the ever-shrinking watering hole.

That’s when Shere Khan arrives and declares that there’s not enough room in this jungle for him and the man cub. Once the truce is over he wants young Mowgli turned over to him. But Baheera decides to return the boy to the man-village so that he can be among his own kind. And so begins the boy’s odyssey.

Greg, I have to admit, I greeted the arrival of this movie with skepticism and cynicism. I’m a big fan of Disney’s original 1967 version of The Jungle Book, and I saw no need to revisit such hallowed, near-perfect ground. Well, I’m here to tell our readers that as fabulous as the original movie was, this 2016 version is even more wondrous and spectacular. I’m reluctant to call any movie flawless, but this film was damn near perfect. I’m talking about character development, hero’s journey, supporting characters, CGI effects, you name it. I was dazzled and beyond satisfied.

Yeah, The Jungle Book was a much more sophisticated bit of animation than its predecessor. You will believe a tiger can talk. However, there were moments when I wondered if Mowgli was animated himself. When a film is clearly a cartoon (as was the 1967 version) you aren’t thrown out of the story by such questions. But there were times when I was asking myself “is this Mowgli a CGI or not?” And in those moments I was looking at the technology and not the story. It was a bit of a distraction.

But on the other hand, when you compare to a movie like Zootopia where the characters are animated – Jungle Book seems light-years ahead. The animals looked like lions and tigers and bears.

Also, the story itself is subtler than the original. The original story has Mowgli going from animal to animal trying on their lifestyle to see if he fits. Ultimately, Mowgli finds the man-tribe and realizes this is where he fits in. Bears should be with bears, and boys with boys.

But that message doesn’t fit with 21st century sensibilities. In 2016, Mowgli returns to his wolf pack. He is a member of a blended family and he is at home with his differences. He draws strength from the variety of the animal kingdom and he takes his place as an equal among different animals. It’s a more complex message.

The hero’s journey is compelling and non-traditional in some ways. It follows the classic journey in that Mowgli is sent away from his home and then encounters his bear friend Baloo and a couple of villainous obstacles in the form of the snake Kaa and the orangutan King Louie. Usually a hero is missing some inner quality that he must obtain in order to triumph. The Jungle Book turns this formula upside-down by identifying his human intelligence as his fatal flaw. At the beginning of the film, the animals with whom Mowgli lives are critical of his humanity and try to drill it out of him. It’s also one of the reasons why Shere Khan wants him gone.

But rather than shed this quality, Mowgli stays true to himself and uses his human cleverness to help himself and others. In fact, at the film’s climax, it is Mowgli’s ingenuity that saves him from Shere Kahn. Thus we have an interesting hero’s journey that turns the hero’s transformation on its head by underscoring the importance of not changing as a means of completing the journey. Instead of needing to find his missing inner quality, Mowgli has already been in possession of it and must hang onto it despite pressures to abandon it. For me this makes his hero path fascinating and unique.

That’s an interesting distinction. Mowgli gets many mentors in this story. Of course there’s Akela from the wolf pack, and Bagheera, later Baloo shows Mowgli how to enjoy the easy life. Ultimately, Mowgli listens to his inner self and combines all his mentors into a whole.

I enjoyed The Jungle Book more than I expected. Disney has taken animation to a new level with the photo realism of the jungle animals. I was occasionally distracted by trying to determine if I was looking at a real person or a CGI image, but other than that I was drawn into this story and completely enjoyed myself. I give The Jungle Book 4 out of 5 Reels.

Mowgli makes for an interesting hero. He starts out sheltered and naive and grows to become mature and confident. It was a gradual process and enjoyable to watch. I give Mowgli 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The mentors in this story, including the unwritten code of the wolf pack, gave Mowgli the direction he needed to overcome his lack of confidence and allowed him to grow into the person he was destined to be. I give the mentors in The Jungle Book 4 out of 5 Mentors.

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You’re right about the richness of the mentorship in this movie, and I have some observations to make about it before launching into my ratings. We’re learning that heroes receive assistance from many different types of “helpers”, for lack of a better term. A mentor is one such helper, and we define a mentor as an older figure who serves as the hero’s teacher. Sometimes these helpers assume a parental role; in this film, Akela plays that role with Mowgli. Sometimes these helpers are guides who know the terrain and who lead the hero to the special world; here Bagheera assumes that role. These guides could be called Charons, named after the ferrymen in Hades who guided people between worlds across the river Styx.

Other helpers are bodyguards who offer physical protection for the hero; this role aptly describes Baloo the bear. Still other helpers are coaches who physically train the hero; Akela and Bagheera both share those duties here. As you’ve pointed out, Greg, mentoring can also come in the form of an internalized code of conduct; the wolves code in this film plays a pivotal role in steering Mowgli toward noble behavior. So we have physical, transportational, parental, and didactic teachers all helping our hero survive the jungle and defeat Shere Khan. The Jungle Book is one of the richest mentor/helper stories we’ve encountered in the movies in 2016.

Overall, this movie is a true gem, one of Disney’s finest offerings of the past decade. This coming-of-age story is as old as storytelling itself, centering on a hero who must find his true identity. Mowgli cannot be trained to become a wolf, although he certainly makes the effort. His journey is a path toward manhood, and only through defeating the evil Shere Khan can his humanity be revealed. Every aspect of this movie is stirring and triumphant. It’s Reel Heroes Hall of Fame material to me, and so I’m more than happy to award this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As I’m mentioned, the hero’s journey is cleverly turned on its head, with Mowgli’s apparent flaw of “cleverness” being precisely the quality that must be cultivated for Mowgli to achieve success on his journey. So ironically, the transformation that our hero’s friends implore him to undergo at the beginning of the movie is exactly what he must avoid undergoing in order to succeed on his journey. Mowgli is a wonderful hero on a classic journey in every sense of the word. He merits the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

I needn’t delve again into the rich assortment of mentor-like characters who assist our young hero on his journey. These characters are an inspired collection of teachers with unique and appealing personalities, and they help Mowgli emotionally, mentally, and physically. They are among the best mentors in the movies we’ve seen this year, rivaling those seen in Eddie the Eagle I award Mowgli’s helpers a Mentor rating of 5 out of 5.

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Eye in the Sky ••••1/2

Eye_in_the_Sky_2015_film_posterStarring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert
Drama/Thriller/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: April 1, 2016


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Scott, I’ve got my eye on you and your review of Eye in the Sky.

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

Aye aye, Captain Greg. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) who has a mission to capture high-level Al-Shabaab extremists meeting in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) in Nevada controls a drone for aerial surveillance Meanwhile, undercover Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), uses an electronic “beetle” for ground observations. When Farah discovers that the terrorists have explosives, the mission turns into a military strike.

Powell discovers that switching the mission from “capture” to “kill” is not so easy. She must get legal clearance from UK Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) and his team of advisors. There are questions about whether it is permissible to kill British and American citizens, and whether it can be done without American permission and without Kenyan permission. Complicating matters is the appearance of an innocent young girl (Aisha Takow) who is selling bread next to the kill sight. Time is running out for Powell as she pushes for a strike but cannot seem to get the permissions she needs.

Scott, Eye in the Sky Is not your typical hero’s journey. Like last year’s The Martian this movie is layered with three or more stories. However, unlike The Martian this film lacks a strong transformation for its characters. This is also a cause movie (those with a point to make about a particular cause). But unlike other cause movies Eye makes a case for both sides of the argument and leaves the audience to make a judgement about the relative merits of the differing points of view in the story.

I’ll get to the point and expose the ending right away. Basically, to kill the bad guys in the house, Colonel Powell makes a decision to sacrifice a little girl as collateral damage. Her argument (and that of General Benson) is that the bad guys are planning a suicide bombing and it is better to sacrifice one little girl rather than let the bad guys kill 80 or more civilians. Powell makes this decision with cold and calculated math. However, pilot Watts uses the prevailing rules of engagement to delay the decision as long as he can. But in the end the clock runs out. And with all the principals sitting in the safety of their air-conditioned offices, they watch as the little girl dies from the explosion.

Greg, it’s only April but this movie is clearly one of the best films of 2016. What makes it shine is its riveting and suspenseful treatment of the thorny ethics of drone warfare. We are drawn into the horrors of committing violent actions as well as horrors of not performing those actions. We feel both the agony of acting and of not acting, and the pain of those who must make these heart wrenching decisions. Alan Rickman’s final film is one of his best films. He knows firsthand the awful reality of suicide bombs destroying lives and the awful reality of sometimes needing to destroy lives to prevent suicide bombs from happening.

At first I found myself pulled in each direction, taking the side of whomever was making his or her argument at any one time. Eventually it became clear to me which decision should be made, and it was gut-wrenching for me to see it not be made. Yet I sympathize with all parties and with all sides. None of these decisions can be made easily and without anguish. This movie does a brilliant job of presenting both sides with fairness, accuracy, and with so much heart and soul. Like last year’s American Sniper and this year’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I view Eye in the Sky as largely an anti-war film that shows us the senseless horror of killing people, no matter how seemingly noble the cause.

I wish I could agree. That is, I agree this is a well-crafted film told in the same simmer-to-a-boil fashion as 2013’s Closed Circuit. Both are British films and are told in a patient manner. However, I don’t think this is an anti-war film. I think it is a “fair and balanced” telling of the necessity of drone strikes and the tightrope that the highers-up walk when making life and death decisions. It was clear that the military were calculating losses and the politicians were weighing optics. If by anti-war you mean that the message is that “war sucks” then I will agree. But this film goes beyond that simple message. I think the message is “war is complicated.” It doesn’t matter on which side of the argument you fall, this film presented it with accuracy.

There are no heroes here. Truly, everyone lost. Colonel Powell lost no sleep over her decision to sacrifice an innocent little girl to kill suicide bombers. It was simple math for her. General Benson has seen war up close and personal. He didn’t like this choice. He will lose sleep over it. But he knew the alternative and this was the lesser of two evils. The politicians kept kicking the can upstairs until the answer came down that the decision had to be made in the operations room. They just wanted plausible deniability. This is one film where there is no classic hero’s journey – but it is still a compelling and memorable story that spurs debate.

I was thinking about the heroes or lack of heroes here, and my conclusion is that all the main players are one giant heroic ensemble that can be broken down into several different teams. In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we present a model of heroism in which “the team” is a common heroic protagonist. We see teams as heroes in such movies as Ocean’s Eleven and A League of Their Own. The teams in Eye in the Sky are Benson’s team, Powell’s team, and Farah’s team. There is even a fourth team in Las Vegas in charge of actually pushing the button that unleashes the drone bomb.

As heroic teams, do they transform? The agonizing decisions they must make must surely change them to some degree, although I suspect that the young rookies in Vegas were more transformed by this incident than were the grizzled veterans (like Powell) who have been so desensitized to violence over the years that they can make these decisions without breaking a sweat. The young Vegas team was in tears knowing what they were about to do, and so I half-expected them at the end to give their superior officer the “you can take this job and shove it” speech. But no speech was forthcoming. We’re left concluding that they’ll come to work tomorrow and kill more innocent little girls. It was horrifying to watch this movie but I think it’s a “must see” because we all need to be horrified about what is going on in this crazy world of ours.


There weren’t any visible mentors in this film either. Each person in the story had an internal code of ethics. For the rookies in Vegas who were flying the drone, that code of ethics is that you don’t kill innocent little girls (that’s not why I signed up, sir). But the outer code of ethics is that you follow the chain of command – and that ultimately won in the rookies’ case.

It was interesting that the United States politicians had no problem blowing up a little girl. They were dismayed that the British high command even took the time to interrupt their golf games with such an obvious answer. The British politicians kept passing the buck until it stuck with the low-level decision makers. Their internal code was to never let something stick. This movie was an analysis of competing inner and outer codes.

Eye in the Sky is a terrific film and is easily one of the best movies of 2016. Never has a movie so effectively portrayed the agonizing moral decision making of political, military, and civilians during times of war. Every member of this ensemble cast shined in their roles. I found myself on the edge of my seat for two hours, and for days afterward I found my mind revisiting the morally complex issues of this movie. We learn that fighting evil only produces another kind of evil in us. I hope this movie gets the recognition it deserves at Oscar time. I give it the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As you noted, Greg, the hero’s journey here is no ordinary journey. Once the mission changes from “capture” to “kill”, the four heroic teams in this film are all sent into the dark unfamiliar world. It’s gut-check time for everyone, and we see impressive physical courage from Farah and huge moral courage from the Vegas team. It seems like the higher up you go in the chain of command, the less courageous and heroic the people — unless of course you agree with the final decision, which is not an unreasonable decision even if I disagree with it. So much is going on here in terms of heroic decision making and action that we’ve only scratched the surface. Still, because the heroism here is a bit messy and difficult to discern (which is maybe the point), I will award less than the maximum rating and give these teams 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship dynamic is also complicated, as there are advisors and people being advised throughout the movie. Yet the chain of advisory command is often questioned, and we’re often left with the sense that it isn’t clear who is in authority and who isn’t. Can you imagine Mr. Myagi in The Karate Kid asking Daniel for karate advice? Yet this is what often happens in Eye in the Sky. Advisors assert authority only to realize they can be overruled, and those who are overruled sometimes rely on loopholes to get their way. The dynamic of counsel and chain of command is muddied further by the multinational nature of the mission. It’s all fascinating but again, because of the lack of clarity (which again is maybe the point), I can only award 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Eye in the Sky is an amazingly balanced “cause” movie that approaches being preachy, but never crosses the line. The performances were all excellent with bonus points to Helen Mirren whom I never tire of watching, and Alan Rickman in his final role. The tension and suspense were slow growing and artfully played out. While I do think this was an extraordinary film, I can think of many that are better. I give Eye just 4 out of 5 Reels.

As I pointed out earlier, this is not a hero’s journey movie. Not all movies follow the classic pattern. Yes there are standard turning points, but this is not a story of transformation of character. It is a story of competing ethics. There were no winners and losers here. Everyone lost. At the end of the day, well-meaning men and women had to choose between one little girl, or 80 unknowns. It’s the devil’s game. I wish there were a “Not-Applicable” rating. I’ll give these characters just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, one of the mentor types that we’ve been discussing this year is the hidden or internal mentor. This is the kind of mentor who has passed on their mentorship in the form of book learning or a moral code. Since I feel that this movie is a competition of ethics versus codes, it is all about internal mentors at odds with each other. It’s hard rate a character who is never on-screen. Still I’ll award the internal mentors 4 out of 5 points.

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