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Solo: A Star Wars Story ••••

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: May 25, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, would you like to review this movie together or go solo?


Let’s see if this ‘millennial’ falcon stands up to the rest of the franchise. Time to recap.


The galaxy is in turmoil with gangsters and warlords fighting to gain economic and political control. Looking to escape a chaotic planet, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) bribe a local official to gain passage on a transport ship, but only Han is able to escape. Three years later, he is an infantryman for the Empire and encounters a gang of criminals led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson).


Having befriended the Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the two join forces with Becket and his friends to rob the Empire of the powerful fuel “coaxium” for the evil Crimson Dawn lead by Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). But things go awry when the radical group Enfys Nest interfere and the shipment is destroyed. Now, Becket, Han, and Chewbacca must face Vos and find a way to replace the shipment of fuel.


Greg, I’m not a Star Wars fan and yet I found Solo: A Star Wars Story to be thoroughly enjoyable. Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford, and yet he does a serviceable job creating a character who somewhat resembles a young Han Solo. His motive throughout the film is to “get the girl”, and even when he finds Qi’ra his goal centers re-winning her heart after a three year separation. Woody Harrelson’s complex character of Beckett is one of the true highlights of this movie. Beckett is one of those complicated people we admire one minute and hate the next – and all for plausible reasons.

This movie does a nice job of explaining the origins of Solo’s last name, as well as depicting how Solo meets and befriends Chewbacca. Solo isn’t so much a mercenary (as we might have expected) as he is a love-struck young man who will do anything to find Qi’ra and then (re-)win her heart. His superb piloting skills save his butt several times, and we’re not terribly surprised to see him go toe-to-toe with Beckett and come out on top. In all, the story works and director Ron Howard deserves credit for crafting an entertaining story out of the various elements of Solo’s character.


After the last three Star Wars films, I was afraid Solo would devolve into a child-appropriate story with lots of cute creatures suitable for sale as plush toys. But Solo turned out to be a pretty gritty story of a young man’s desire to be free and then falling into a life of moral ambiguity. While the film very much bent over backwards to fill in the blanks of Solo’s mythology (like the infamous ‘Kessel run in 12 Parsecs’ comment – and proves that when necessary, Han shoots first), it also found some deep and complex characters. And there weren’t any cute creatures to turn into cartoonesque toys.


Because Star Wars is derived directly from Joseph Campbell’s archetype-filled analysis of the hero’s journey, there are no shortage of archetypes to chew(bacca) on here. Han Solo is your classic rogue soldier, an independent agent who pretends to have no moral compass while his actions prove otherwise. There is also the mastermind villain, the baddest of bad guys who outsources his evil with an army of henchmen. We discuss the different layers of villainy in our last book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Qi’ra, I’m happy to say, defies female convention in the movies by showing a savvy and strength that ultimately saves the day in the end. She is much more than a sidekick and occupies a dual archetype of love interest to the hero as well as co-hero to Han.


Solo: A Star Wars Story does a great job of filling in the blanks of Han’s story – including his ‘frenemy’ status with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). There’s plenty of action, as well as a well-thought-out heist story. Ehrenreich channels his inner Harrison Ford to portray a devil-may-care Han Solo that we both recognize and come to know as a young man. I give Solo 4 out of 5 Reels.

Han is an interesting hero. He is devious and cunning, and he seems to apply his skills not just to what benefits himself, but to the underdog as well. His motivation for the majority of the film is to return to Qi’ra and save her. He takes on a mentor in Beckett and quickly learns the lessons of the mercenary lifestyle. We come to learn that Han started out as a compassionate character and only through his difficult choices becomes the cynical scoundrel we meet in Episode IV. I give Han Solo 4 out of 5 Heroes.

There are a multitude of archetypes here. Han as the URCHIN becomes the MERCENARY. Beckett is a DARK MENTOR. Qi’ra is both the DAMSEL IN DISTRESS and the FEMME FATALE. Lando, plays the role of the FAT MAN (the owner of a cantina and con man), though he is obviously fit for fashion.  Dryden Vos is the HENCHMAN reporting to a higher MASTERMIND. I give these archetypes 4 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us a wonderful backstory about the early adult life of Han Solo, one of the most beloved characters in the Star Wars universe. The filmmakers here decided wisely to make Han’s motives less mercenary and more romance-based; doing so endows him with more noble, heroic qualities of selflessness and self-sacrifice. Woody Harrelson and Emelia Clarke deserve kudos for  endowing this film with heart, soul, and grit. Letting go of the idea that Alden Ehrenreich could “become” Harrison Ford allowed me to enjoy Ehrenreich on his own merits. This film is a winner, earning a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Han’s hero’s journey is an exciting adventure wrapped in intrigue, as his goal is to win the girl whose heart he once won but whose character may have changed during their three-year separation. Like all good heroes, Han enlists the aid of several allies who help him defeat the bad guys, not to mention the traitorous Beckett. Most important, his helpers help him win back Qi’ra’s heart. Our hero has all of the ‘great eight’ traits of heroes – he’s smart, strong, charismatic, reliable, caring, resilient, selfless, and inspiring. I give Han Solo a rating of 4 Hero points out of 5.

We’ve already shared our views of the archetypes, so I’ll just give my score of 4 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Deadpool 2 ••••

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin
Director: David Leitch
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: May 18, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, Ryan Reynolds is back in the gene pool with Deadpool 2.


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

I’ve been dying to swim in the Deadpool again, Greg. Let’s recap.


Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool) has dispatched a ‘pool’ of bad guys when he returns home to his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). The two are canoodling when one of the remaining bad guys interrupts and kills Vanessa. Now, Wade is despondent and attempts suicide by blowing himself into small bits – hoping that his regenerative powers are not sufficient to pull him back together.


Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) picks up Wade’s pieces and attempts to rehab him by enrolling him as a trainee in the X-Men school. On his first assignment, Wade is asked to diffuse a situation in which Russell Collins (Julian Dennison) has exploded in anger over being mistreated by the headmaster. Wade mishandles the situation, leading to he and Russell being incarcerated together. But a cyber-thug named Cable (Josh Brolin) arrives from the future to wreak havoc and kill Russell.


Scott, ‘Deadpool 2’ is the sequel that should not have been made. Or at least, a sequel that is really just a transition to a new franchise. It seems the purpose of this film is to create a new group of mutants called the X-Force. If you liked the first Deadpool, you may like this film, too. Although the shock value of a superhero who is nearly as bad as his villains has worn off. Reynolds’ sarcastic humor is still in force here. There are a lot of pop culture references that probably will go over the heads of younger audience members – so it seems every joke has to be explained (for example, Deadpool is regenerating his lower-half and he uncrosses his legs in a style reminiscent of Sharon Stone in ‘Basic Instinct’. So, someone quips that Wade has given in to his ‘Basic Instinct’. So on-the-nose.)


Greg, it’s no secret that I’ve had issues with several recent films from the Marvel Comics universe. But I’m going to have to differ with you here and proclaim Deadpool 2 to be an unequivocal winner, perhaps the best Marvel film I’ve seen in years. Like most Marvel movies, this one is a comedy, but it is no ordinary comedy. The filmmakers have taken the comedic elements to another level here, breaking the fourth wall in clever ways and giving us many laugh-out-loud moments. This movie also has a stylishness here that is usually reserved for classier films outside this genre. I was particularly taken with rather inventive, surreal scenes of the afterlife involving Deadpool’s slain girlfriend.

When we reviewed the first Deadpool, I believe we disagreed on the issue of whether Wade Wilson was a hero or an antihero. I think it’s pretty clear in this film that Wilson falls into the hero camp. Inspired by dreamlike encounters with his girlfriend in the afterlife, Wilson develops a desire to save Russell Collins before Collins becomes irredeemably bad. At the end, Wilson even sacrifices his life to save Collins’s life, with a convenient time machine able to reverse Wilson’s death. All this makes Deadpool a first-rate hero.


I’m not so easily convinced, Scott. Deadpool seems to kill without provocation – assigning himself the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. I don’t think a proper hero would do that. Compare to Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War – is he a hero or villain? Most would consider him a clear villain. But Thanos put himself in the same role of deciding for the universe who lives and dies.

Deadpool crosses the “Batman Line” in that he’s a vigilante. But unlike Batman, he doesn’t let the justice system determine the villain’s outcome – he takes it upon himself to dispatch justice. This is what X-Men Colossus and Negasonic are trying to teach him. And that is the very reason we find him in jail. However, by the end of the film, it looks like he may have found a balance. We’ll see in the next installment of this franchise.


Deadpool 2 represents a breath of fresh air in offering us a fun story with clever, comedic irreverence. The fact that I was once critical of Ryan Reynolds as an actor has come back to haunt me; he’s proven himself to be absolutely perfect in the role of Wade Wilson. This movie has many layers of nuanced humor that will require a second viewing to fully appreciate. I’m eager for more Deadpool and am sad to have to wait a couple years until the next installment. This film merits a rating of 5 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey stands out in bold relief, with Wade being thrown into the journey when his girlfriend is murdered. He’s rather pitiful for a while but the combined influence of Colossus, Russell Collins, and his love interest (in the afterlife) do a tag-team job of pulling Wade out of his funk and into his best heroic self. Wade undergoes a terrific heroic transformation in this film. I award this Pool of Dead 4 Hero points out of 5.

In this film we see many of the usual archetypes depicted in superhero movies. The super-strong hyper-masculine male is on full display in Wade, Colossus, and Russell. There is also the archetype of the revenge motive, which spurred Deadpool into action in the first movie as well as in this one. The time-travelling archetypes is old and worn yet used well with self-deprecating humor here. I give this film a rating of 3 archetypal Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


I was bored during most of Deadpool 2 – perhaps I’m suffering superhero fatigue. There was just so much demolition that I had trouble parsing out the story. I enjoyed the twist that Cable was not out to kill Deadpool, but the kid Russell. This gives Deadpool someone to protect. But in the end, it’s Cable who is trying to save his daughter by preemptively killing Russell who ultimately kills her. It creates a dual “saving the cat” motive that creates depth for both characters. I give Deadpool 2 3 out of 5 Reels.

As we’ve discussed, I’m not sold on Deadpool as a hero. Although, in this film, it looks like Wade Wilson may have come to some resolution on his villainous choices and may, in the future, not be so heavy-handed with doling out judgement. I give him 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The archetypes are typical superhero fare. Wade as the SUPERHERO, Russell as the SIDEKICK, Cable as the MISUNDERSTOOD VILLAIN, Vanessa as the FALLEN BRIDE, and Colossus as the MENTOR. I give them 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Unsane ••••

Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Horror/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, if 7-up is the un-cola, could Dr. Pepper be the un-sanity?


Um… Ok. Let’s take a look at a veiled take-down of the mental health profession as we review Unsane.


We meet young Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), a woman who has recently moved 500 miles away from her hometown and is trying to establish a new life. She is depressed and seeks help from a psychiatrist, who commits Sawyer against her will to a mental institution. Sawyer’s efforts to escape only serve to convince the staff that she requires even more institutionalization. Her only friend in this hospital is a man named Nate (Jay Pharoah), who is spending four weeks there to recover from his opioid addiction.


Sawyer has given in to the fact that she will have to spend a week held against her will, when she meets an orderly, George, who she claims is her stalker, David Strine (Walton Goggins). Nobody believes her, least of all the audience. Sawyer is paranoid and explosively violent. But soon, String drugs Sawyer and we’re all in on it – Strine has followed Sawyer from Boston and is stalking her even in captivity. Now, Sawyer has to find a way out of her mental prison and escape this dangerous man.


Greg, Unsane gives us a suspenseful depiction of a young woman’s involuntary incarceration in a mental hospital. This movie is packed with villains. There is the deranged stalker who makes life miserable for our hero. There are the evil hospital administrators who knowingly imprison Sawyer for profit. There is also the American healthcare system that incentivizes hospitals to ensnare captive victims such as our hero. This film is disturbing yet effective, and giant kudos go to Claire Foy who does a terrific job playing a tormented hero.

This is as dark a hero’s journey as we’ve ever seen, Greg. At the outset of the story we see that our hero is struggling emotionally and socially. Attempting to get help from a psychiatrist totally backfires on her, and then we learn that her crazed stalker is in charge of dispensing her medications. She gets help from her mother and from Nate, both of whom are soon eliminated by the stalker. This is one of those films where the hero is left completely on her own and must summon inner reserves necessary to vanquish the villain. Sawyer musters the courage and grit to outwit her nemesis. Is she transformed by her harrowing experience?

The film’s final scene suggests that she is not transformed, that she remains a slave to her inner demons. This lack of transformation represents a deviation from the normal hero story pattern, and I think it was done intentionally to underscore the deep scarring of sexual violence in our society. Sawyer should most certainly not simply go on with her life as if nothing had happened. To do so would diminish the trauma and seriousness of this deep societal problem.


Scott, this movie gave me flashbacks to Misery. We have an unwelcome admirer who uses a medical condition to trap our hero. There’s even a scene where the villain, Strine, hobbles our hero by smashing her ankles with a hammer.

Otherwise, I thought this a skillfully played ‘cause’ film – a film that wants to promote a cause through storytelling. Unlike other cause films (such as 2016 The Promise which did a terrible job of exposing Armenian genocide), Unsane focuses on delivering a psychological thriller while at the same time exposing corruption in the mental health system. Unsane shines a light on mental health at a time when there is much lip-service paid to it in the United States.


Unsane is a first-rate thriller that had me on the edge of my seat and had my heart pounding. It is predictable in spots – do we ever doubt that Nate will bite the dust? But despite a few lapses, Unsane soars on the strength of its star, Claire Foy. She shines in the role and gives us a searingly convincing victim of stalking and harassment. Unsane deserves a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, Sawyer’s hero’s journey is among the darkest and grimmest we’ve seen in quite a while. We just reviewed Tomb Raider and commended the physicality of its star Alicia Vikander. In Unsane, similar commendations go to Claire Foy, who exudes a remarkable physical presence in combating her fellow patients, hospital staff, and stalker. Sawyer also has many of the Great Eight traits of heroes — she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, and inspiring. Is she caring and selfless, too? Yes, as she shows compassion for her mother and for Nate. I give her 4 Hero points out of 5.

Several archetypes do stand out in this film: the innocent victim, the evil corporation, the deranged stalker, the guilt-mongering mother, and the slain ally to the hero. I award them 3 archetype Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


Unsane is an interesting movie for a couple of reasons. First, it has long uncut scenes of mostly dialog. Second, it was filmed completely on an iPhone 7 by writer/director Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh is known for creating minimalistic and experimental works. See his project Mosaic – a choose-your-own adventure for mobile viewers. I was impressed with the accomplishment of creating a good psychological thriller with a minimum of overhead. I give Unsane 4 out of 5 Reels.

Sawyer is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. She is psychologically damaged. And she very well should have been committed for observation. But when she sees her stalker nobody, not even we, believe her. Even though we know she is damaged, we are pulling for her because we see she is strong and resilient – two qualities we look for in a hero. I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

For archetypes, I’ll see your INNOCENT VICTIM and raise you a WITLESS DOCTOR who is a COG IN THE MACHINE along with the EVIL ADMINISTRATOR. I give them 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Red Sparrow ••••

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Jason Matthews
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
Release Date: March 2, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


First there was Black Panther and now a Red Sparrow.


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

What’s next, Green Lantern? Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence). She is at the top of her game when an on-stage accident breaks her leg and ruins her career. Enter her uncle, Vanya Eborov (Matthias Schoenaerts). He’s the head of Russian intelligence and wants her to seduce a Russian politician and swipe his phone for evidence. When she gets the man to his room, an agent comes in through the window and strangles him dead. Now Dominika knows too much. So her uncle gives her an option to become a “Sparrow” – a deadly agent who uses sex to influence enemies of the state.


Dominika chooses to work for her uncle, as the alternative could possibly mean her own death. Her sparrow training reveals her toughness and especially a keen ability to read people’s motives. Uncle Vanya assigns her to the task of “befriending” American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who has established a relationship with a Russian mole in the Russian intelligence agency. Complications arise when Dominika senses Nate’s inherent goodness and becomes tempted to betray her Uncle.


Scott, I was prepared for this movie to be another like 2017’s Atomic Blonde or even 2010’s Salt – both of which featured leading ladies in pure action-adventure, but very little plot. Red Sparrow surprised and enthused me with it’s strong story interlaced with action-as-needed.

The plot plays out in a typical Bourne-esque way with our hero going undercover and befriending Nash. But along the way we see clues to the final twist that makes it all worthwhile. We see Dominika picking up evidence, or plant suspicions that we think are inconsequential. But in the end, she’s plotting her revenge on her uncle and her eventual escape from the Red Sparrows. Her uncle tells her that she must “do anything and everything to succeed in her mission.” What he doesn’t know is that her mission is to escape him.


Greg, Red Sparrow is of the best movies in the spy-thriller genre that we’ve seen in years. Jennifer Lawrence sizzles on the screen, and her sizzle derives from a constellation of heroic factors, most notably her strength, resourcefulness, courage, resilience, and adaptability. Once again Hollywood gives us a woman hero who is stronger and smarter than all of her male counterparts. I understand there are some criticisms of the film based on the exploitation of Dominika’s sexuality. These critics have a point in that a woman’s heroism should be no more based on her sexuality than a man’s should. A notable recent example is Wonder Woman, which showcases a female hero who reveals her best heroic self without resorting to any sexual themes.

I love your phrase, “action-as-needed” to describe what we encounter in this film. However, having said that, we witness one of the most harrowing torture scenes we’ve encountered in the movies in years. Were these unconsented skin-grafts needed? Or were we shown too much pain and gore? I can appreciate the filmmakers’ conundrum here, as audiences have come to expect bathtubs of blood and anything less is tame and lame. For me, the most important element of the movie that makes it work is the hero’s journey, and my goodness, Dominika is sent on a rich, dynamic, and roller-coaster of a journey that would have made Joseph Campbell proud.


Dominika is as heroic as they come. She lies, cheats, and steals to get her way. All the time we think she’s trying to manipulate her American accomplice Nash, she’s really laying the groundwork for a greater plan. So while she has the power, authenticity, and morality of a hero – she has control of the dark side of a villain.

While I hear your concern about the overt sexuality in the film – I think what’s important is that Dominika never gives up agency of her body. In one scene she is attacked in the shower and beats her fellow student to a pulp. When she’s told she should have let him have his way – she is instructed to strip down and “give him what he wants.” She obeys – disrobing in front of her entire class. But when the man approaches her, she commands him to take her. He cannot perform and she reveals what he really wants: “Power.” Dominika was in control of all the men around her, and only gave her body when she decided she wanted to.


With its intriguing plotline and unforgettable heroes and villains, Red Sparrow held my full interest and earns high marks for its style, steam and sizzle. Jennifer Lawrence shows us some new range and flexes her acting chops in nearly every scene. This film deserves credit for delivering an ending that surprised and delighted me. Were there flaws? Yes, the Russian stereotype as cold and robotic is in full force here, and Nate, our hero’s male love interest, is just a bit too perfect. Still, I was very much entertained and have no problem awarding this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Dominika’s hero’s journey begins with her leg being deliberately shattered, an “accident” likely ordered by her nefarious uncle. From there she descends into one unthinkably painful circumstance after another, yet she adapts brilliantly, usually staying one step ahead of the dangers around her. Nash assists her yet also nearly gets her killed, and in the end Dominika’s brilliant strategy for extricating herself from her uncle is the stuff of heroism at its finest. I give our Russian hero 4 Hero points out of 5.

There are plenty of archetypes to see here as well. We have the strong fem-fatale in Dominika; an evil uncle that Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes has identified as a “dark prince” in storytelling; a pure evil Red Sparrow teacher and psychopathic Russian torturer; and Dominika’s inept boss who Dominika outwits. Overall, these archetypes work quite well and earn a rating of 3 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


Red Sparrow delivers a suspenseful story filled with intrigue and an unexpected twist. The violence plays into the story rather than strictly for spectacle. I give Red Sparrow 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dominika is strong and competent – qualities we look for in a hero. As well has mastering the negative traits of a villain (lying, deceit, and torture) to get what she needs. In the end she vanquishes the villain and saves her mother. She is a classic hero and I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.

We see several archetypes including the EVIL UNCLE in Vanya, the WOUNDED MOTHER, and the BENEFICENT AGENT OF GOOD in Nash. I give them 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

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:

 

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:

Murder on the Orient Express ••••

Starring: Kenneth BranaghPenélope CruzWillem Dafoe
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Michael GreenAgatha Christie
Crime/Drama/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


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

Greg, it looks like Hercule Poirot took the last train to Clarksville.


Stop monkeying around and let’s review Murder on the Orient Express.


In Jerusalem in 1934, the famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is in the process of solving a case. Afterward, he is called on a case in London and must board the Orient Express, slated to leave Istanbul. At first it appears that the train is completely booked but Poirot obtains passage thanks to his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who is the director of the Orient Express.


He meets an array of characters, among them gangster Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who tries to enlist Poirot as his personal assistant – looking out for anyone trying to do him harm. Poirot declines pointing out that he chooses his company, and he does not want to be in the company of Ratchett. Later that night, Ratchett is found dead in his room with a dozen knife wounds in his chest. Poirot would rather start his vacation, but the game is afoot!


Greg, Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish re-make of two other films based on Agatha Christie’s iconic 1934 novel by the same name. Viewers may need to be fans of the mystery genre to appreciate this film, as there is a lot of talking between Poirot and the dozen suspects of the crime. These conversations are intelligent and witty, and it was fun watching Poirot struggle to put all the pieces together. Kenneth Branagh deserves kudos for bringing Poirot and his ridiculous mustache to life on the big screen once again.

It helps that this re-make is superbly cast. The assortment of colorful characters include Caroline Hubbard played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Hector MacQueen played by Josh Gad, and Gerhard Hardman played by Willem Dafoe. Depp also steps up his game in portraying the sleazy killer whom everyone wants dead. A prominent non-human character in the film is the beautiful yet foreboding Bulgarian mountain range that supplies the avalanche needed to give Poirot time to solve the case.


I had a good time with this film. Unlike other offerings this year, it was not a slam-bam fest. It was a thoughtful, humorous, and enjoyable two hours. Branagh’s Poirot, though, was a very monotone character – rarely raising his voice or even an eyebrow.

It has been a long time since I read “Murder on the Orient Express” in high school, so I didn’t remember the ending. It turns out that all the suspects took a stab at the villain. I was surprised that Poirot let them all go. I suppose it was his guilt at not responding to Armstrong’s letter that swayed him. I feel it made him just as guilty as the rest. But it’s hard to argue with Agatha Christie. I think she took a risk aligning her hero with killers. Perhaps sensibilities were different in the 1930s. But otherwise, Poirot is the classic “competent” hero.


Greg, I’d say you’ve put your finger on the heroic transformation of Poirot, if you could call it that. Remember, he is portrayed as having an OCD perfectionism that requires him to see the world in black-and-white terms. The circumstances of the murder compel Poirot to re-examine his rigidity and recognize the moral grey area surrounding the murder. Ratchett is a despicable man who got away with either killing or ruining the lives of several good people, and while this fact doesn’t excuse the taking of his life, it certainly does mitigate the immorality of the act. Poirot walks away from this grisly affair with a more nuanced understanding of justice, human nature, and human culpability.


Murder on the Orient Express is an enjoyable mystery, true to the original. It was not ambitiously paced which made for a relaxing movie-going experience. It has one of the most original endings of any mystery in history. The star-studded cast delivered and Branagh as Poirot was a treat. I give Murder on the Orient Express 4 out of 5 Reels.

Poirot is Poirot throughout and is the epitome of the “competent” hero. Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot was a bit on the reserved side. While Poirot himself is a reserved character, a few highs and lows would have been appreciated. I give this incarnation of Hercule Poirot 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Transformations are abundant in this film as we watch everyone on the train change from who we thought they were – into who they really were. But no one was particularly changed for the better. I give the perpetrators just 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


You’ve summed it up nicely, Gregger. Murder on the Orient Express delivers exactly what fans of mystery movies desire, namely, a smart and charismatic detective and an assortment of colorful suspects who supply a mix of intriguing clues. I agree that a rating of 4 Reels out of 5 is a fair assessment.

The hero’s journey is a bit stunted by the fact that Poirot is a recurring character with limited ability to grow or change from his journey. He also lacks good mentors or a love interest. I give his heroism a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5. Poirot does show a slight transformation toward appreciating moral nuance, and Ratchett transforms from alive to dead. The reality is that this genre of film isn’t about transformation, and so I give these characters 2 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:

Spider-Man: Homecoming ••••

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


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

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

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

Movie: Transformation: Heroes: