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The 15:17 to Paris •1/2

Starring: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Dorothy Blyskal, Anthony Sadler
Drama/History/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: February 9, 2018



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

Greg, we just saw another movie about a train. This one’s a true story, however.

Well, at least we’ll always have Paris. Let’s recap:

We meet three young men from Sacramento, California, who are all obviously close friends. They are Spencer Stone (Spencer Stone), Anthony Sadler (Anthony Sadler), and Alek Skarlatos (Alek Skarlatos). We flashback to their middle-school years when they made regular trips to the principal’s office. Their parents are single mothers who are doing their best to raise these three boys who are energetic and show a strong interest in the military.

The boys grow up and at 25 years old, Spencer reflects on his life. He’s tried football, basketball, and pizza delivery – and failed at all them. He resolves to get into shape and apply for the Air Force Paratroopers. He gets in, but his lack of depth perception tanks his hopes. Ultimately, he is trained as a medic. To celebrate, he arranges for a European tour with his old friends. That leads to an encounter that will make them famous.

Greg, The 15:17 to Paris tells a great story, but it is not a great movie. In a rare misfire, director Clint Eastwood shows us how three young men evolve from schoolboy goof-ups to noble heroes. The problem with this film is that Eastwood also shows us much more. He shows us what ice cream our heroes enjoy, what kinds of selfies they take, and what cities they like to visit. There’s more than a lot of dispensable fluff, which is a shame because this story needed to be told. A running time of 50 minutes would have been about right in lieu of the 90 minutes we’re forced to endure.

The coolest aspect of this film, of course, is that our three real-world heroes portray themselves in the movie. They do a semi-respectable acting job and the decision to cast them in these roles delivers a great payoff when we’re treated to actual footage of them receiving medals of honor from the French president. The message of the movie is also important in emphasizing how all of us are potential heroes, and how it is imperative that we stand up and take action when action is required.

We could probably end the review here – because you have hit all the points I would have made. Truly half the film follows two of our heroes on a trip through Europe. It’s worse than a series of home movies. Every five minutes the pair would stop for a beer and muse out loud: “Should we go to Paris? It sounds so boring…” Literally 5 or 6 times they go through this dialog. I guess the screenwriter was attempting to create tension. But it was the worst dialog ever written.

And even master director Clint Eastwood couldn’t fix this story. The bits at the beginning with the heroes as kids are nice. But again the dialog is so on the nose. In one scene a dowdy school marm informs the mothers that their rambunctious boys need Ritalin. The women storm out saying “My God is stronger than your medicine!It’s all kinds of confusing. We never find out if the boys get medicated or if they actually have ADD. It’s just left hanging there like some Floridian chad.

You’re right, Greg, we should just get to our ratings while also commenting on the archetypes that come alive in this movie.

Rating the overall quality of this movie is difficult for me, as I love the story but dislike the manner in which it is told here. We’ve already described the general problem — there simply isn’t enough meat on this cinematic bone to warrant a full-feature film, and as such we’re subjected to enough padding (and inane dialogue) to fill the grand canyon. The only thing preventing me from giving a rating of 1 Reel out of 5 is that this story is pure and beautiful heroic non-fiction. Thus I’ll bump the rating up to 2 Reels out of 5.

The heroism here is fabulous. We’re witness to the transformative journey that enabled these men to perform their heroic act on the train. Alek Skarlatos is the main hero who never seemed to find his way in life as a boy nor as a young man. He transforms himself and hits his stride in the military, but his lack of depth perception seems to derail him. Rather than let this setback define him, he trains as an EMT and now has the heroic potential to deal with a dangerous, life-threatening situation. I give these heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

Several archetypes jump out at me, Greg. The underdog archetype is prominent, as our three heroes are at first dismissed as hopeless goofballs who will never amount to anything. We also see the military warrior archetype. What makes our heroes’ heroism possible is the villainous terrorist, who is portrayed as pure evil here. Carl Jung raised the idea of a demon archetype, a powerful force in our collective unconscious as well as a powerful force on this French train. Overall these archetypes earn 4 archetypes Arc points out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

I agree with you on the quality of this movie. It’s a real disappointment. Unlike you, however, I have no problem rating it 1 Reel out of 5. There’s no way I can recommend anyone watch this movie for any reason other than its historical value. It’s just truly bad.

However, I compensate the low quality rating with a perfect hero score of 5 Heroes out of 5. This story emphasizes the importance of realizing that we all have the element of heroism in us. Here, we see Alek work exceptionally hard to become the person he wants to be. He fails over and over and never gives up. And when the moment calls for him to act in the service of others, he does not fail. He steps up and saves the lives of dozens of people. This is what we look for in heroes – and we all have it in us.

I know we have both struggled with our definition of “archetype.” Sometimes I feel like we are looking at tropes or even stereotypes. All three terms are valuable and subtly different. We do see the VILLAIN archetype played out by the terrorist on the train. Sadly, it is the stereotype that is presented in this movie. We get no backstory to this man. We only see his brown skin and dark features and the stereotype of the middle eastern or Muslim terrorist fills in the blanks. While it makes for economical storytelling, it is a dangerous stereotype as there are plenty who look like this villain who are good people. I give the HERO archetypes high marks. So, I’ll award 3 out of 5 Arcs for the archetypes.

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




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

(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:


Coco •••••

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Screenplay: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2017



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

Finally, Greg, a movie about hot chocolate.

No, Scott. It’s the story of a Mexican boy, his great-grandmother, and the love of music. Let’s recap:

We meet 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who lives with a multi-generational family in Mexico. We learn that Miguel’s great-great grandfather was a musician who abandoned his wife Imelda (Alanna Ubach) and daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) to pursue a career in music. As a result, the family has banned all music and even the mention of music. It turns out that Miguel loves music, especially that of the famous Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Miguel figures out that he is the great-great-grandson of de la Cruz and on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) young Miguel decides to steal the late Ernesto’s guitar and play in the talent show. But when he does, he is transported to the Land of the Dead where the skeletons of passed relatives try to gain entrance to Earth on this one day to visit their living relatives.

Miguel befriends Hector (Gael García Bernal), a ne’er-do-well spirit who wants to visit his daughter one last time before she forgets him – causing him to disappear forever. Together, the two try to get the late Ernesto’s blessing so that Miguel can return to Earth and play the guitar. But they must hurry, because if they don’t succeed before sunrise, Miguel turns into a skeleton and will be trapped forever in the Land of the Dead.

Greg, Coco is a true delight and gives us one of the most emotionally satisfying movies of 2017. We don’t get much better hero stories than this one, and curiously it is a hero’s journey turned sideways. Usually, it is the hero who is missing some important quality, but in this film everyone except our hero has a missing quality, namely, an appreciation for music. It turns out that music is the key that unlocks the secret of Miguel’s great-great grandfather’s true identity. More importantly, it is music that brings Coco to life and jogs her memory about her true love: Hector.

Our hero Miguel turns out to be a change-agent hero inasmuch as everyone in his family lacks an appreciation for music and it is up to Miguel to instill in them a respect for musicianship as a career choice. This is not to say that Miguel is a hero without a flaw at the beginning of his journey. He lacks a clear understanding of his true family tree, and of the true evil nature of de la Cruz. The hero’s journey is always a search for one’s true special identity. Coco is no exception to this rule in its focus on Miguel’s quest to understand his place in his very tangled family tree.

I was prepared to dislike this movie because I don’t see how you can have skeletons at Christmas. I’m no fan of Nightmare before Christmas with all of its macabre overtones. Skeletons are creepy. Skeletons are scary. But after watching Coco skeletons became family. They were warm and loving and characters I wanted to be around. Pixar is relentless in the creation of stories that hit the viewer at their emotional core. And Coco is a resounding success in that regard.

And it is a success in every other way as well. The animation in this film is so exact that I forgot that I was watching an animation. That is to say, when I compare this to the CGI in Justice League, the pixels vanished. Every image was smooth and vibrant. The facial expressions were real and expressive. The characters emoted with energy and authenticity. I never wanted to look away. Coco is a rare delight.

You’re right, Greg. The computer animation was off-the-charts extraordinary. Just when you think Pixar’s design team can’t possibly up the ante any further, they produce something as magnificent as Coco. There are two scenes that show a stunning panoramic view of the Land of the Dead. The level of detail here is jaw-dropping, adding the kind of production value to the film that are on par with the spectacular mountain scenes in The Revenant. A generation ago, it would be unimaginable for a cartoon to rival images from real life in power, scope, and impact. But Coco delivers.

There are transformations a-plenty in this film. Miguel changes from hiding his talent to brandishing it with pride. De la Cruz falls from a hero on a pedestal to an evil villain. Hector is redeemed as a lost father to a cherished great-grandfather. And all of Miguel’s family transform from music haters to music lovers. It’s a wonderful change for practically the entire cast. As you mention, it is Miguel who is the catalyst for these changes. It’s his heart and drive that makes the change possible.

Coco is yet another triumph for Pixar and is perhaps the most emotionally fulfilling movie of the year. This film is proof that it is possible to shed a tear during a cartoon movie. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be deeply moved by Coco springing to life at the conclusion of this story. Besides great storytelling, Coco features some of the most remarkable CGI cartoon imagery the movie world has ever seen. This cinematic achievement earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Miguel’s hero’s journey is a bit unconventional but still contains all the classic elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth. Our hero is separated from his familiar world, receives help from friends, escapes from the proverbial belly of the whale, and acquires insight into his true identity. He also forever changes his family, too. I give our hero 5 Hero points out of 5. And because he transforms personally and also transforms others as well, I might as well award him 5 transformative Deltas out of 5, also.

Movie: Transformations:   Heroes:

Coco is a delight for adults and children alike. Filled with complex characters who each have a distinct desire, this film has a plot that drives forward from beginning to end. It avoids being macabre even though the majority of the action takes place in the netherworld. I give Coco 5 out of 5 Reels.

Miguel is a wonderful hero filled with ambition, hope, and naivete. We all want him to succeed in becoming the musician we know he can be. And his love of music both captivates and infects those around him making Miguel a catalytic hero. He helps to transform all his family and save his father from a fate worse than death. I give Miguel 5 out of 5 Heroes and Coco 5 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Dunkirk •••••

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Action/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2017


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

Greg, we just witnessed a brilliant cinematic depiction of war heroism at its finest.

Dunkirk is an amazing achievement for Christopher Nolan. Let’s recap.

We meet a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who narrowly escapes with his life while being shot at by German soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. Tommy flees to the beach where thousands of British and French soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. He meets another soldier named Gibson who apparently has buried a friend on the beach. The two men encounter a wounded man and carry him to an evacuation ship. Meanwhile back in Britain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his sons Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) take their private boat through the English channel to help with the evacuation.

We’re treated to four points of view (POV): young soldier Tommy trying to escape, Mr. Dawson coming to the rescue, flying ace Farrier (Tom Hardy) guarding the shore, and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) supervising the evacuation. It’s a great structure that tells one of the lesser-known stories of WWII, at least for Americans.

You’re right, Greg. I was woefully ignorant of the story behind this heroic evacuation. Apparently Hitler made a huge mistake by not aggressively attacking the evacuees, and we can all be grateful for his blunder.

Dunkirk is an extremely well-crafted film. It skillfully weaves together three stories about different characters whose lives converge at the end. This is a war movie and so there is plenty of death, but director Christopher Nolan wisely chooses not to make gore the star of this film. The star is valor, and it is on full display from minute-one until the closing credits. Nolan also makes great use of the “less is more” principle in filmmaking. There are long and excruciatingly tense scenes with little or no dialogue. The fear is palpable. But so is the heroic drive in these characters to act in spite of the fear.

LIke many of our readers, I’ve seen a lot of war movies. But I’ve never watched a movie that made me feel the emotion of desperation that Dunkirk evokes. I never understood just how personal the war was. Britons of all ages felt that their way of life and their very lives were at stake.

There are different levels of heroism in this film. There’s the heroism of the young men just trying to survive long enough to get on a boat. Then there’s the heroism of the commander overseeing the evacuation, then volunteering to stay behind to oversee the evacuation of the French. And we see the heroism of civilians going to sea to rescue the soldiers. And finally, the heroism of a pilot who lets his tanks run dry protecting the men trying to get away. He martyrs himself in the service of others.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is only on partial display here, but in no way does this limitation detract from this film’s excellence. Campbell discusses the low-point, the nadir of the hero’s journey, as the “belly of the whale” – the point in the journey when all appears to be lost for the hero and death seems imminent. Dunkirk is a film that shows in vivid detail what the belly of the whale is like for the hero, and it is hell indeed. This is the epicenter of the hero’s transformation – either the hero musters up the courage and grit to thwart death, or the hero succumbs.

Dunkirk shows us both these polar opposite outcomes. Young George is one of our heroes who dies in the process of saving British soldiers. In no way is he any less of a hero for dying; in fact, by making this ultimate sacrifice he solidifies his heroism to an extreme, thus illustrating that heroes need not complete the Campbellian journey to secure their status of hero. Tommy, our main hero, does survive the whale’s belly. Will he become as “shell-shocked” as the soldier that Mr. Dawson rescued at sea? We don’t know. But the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD is a tragic one that sadly afflicts millions of people.

One of the things that this movie (and another the comes to mind, Warhorse) exemplifies is that not every compelling story is a Hero’s Journey. Surely each of these POV characters is heroic. But the story structure doesn’t follow the classic rise and fall we’ve come to expect from our movies. There are elements of the Hero’s Journey (Tommy returning to the ordinary world of England, eg). But the transformation of the hero or those around him is not necessary for a compelling story. This is one of those rare occasions where the enormity of the event is enough to move the viewer into an emotional state that makes the event memorable.


Dunkirk is a superb film that brilliantly captures the agonizing unacceptability of war. Yet it does so in a tasteful and aesthetically dexterous way. Christopher Nolan deserves Oscar consideration for weaving together three disparate stories of stellar heroism. I daresay that Dunkirk is one of the best films of 2017, showcasing the best of human virtue and valor. I have been torn between awarding 4 versus 5 Reels, but after some consideration, I’m going with the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

The heroism, as we’ve said, is unparalleled and hyper-inspirational. I was struck by the heroism of civilians who took action when it was not required of them as it was of the soldiers. Ordinary people like Mr. Dawson who step up to do the right thing are especially admirable and elevating. Most of the heroism on display here occurs during a tiny sliver of the hero’s journey, the belly of the whale, and this is indeed where the heroic rubber meets the road. Director Christopher Nolan deserves huge kudos for portraying the whale’s belly in riveting, exemplary fashion. The heroism here merits the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

Regarding transformation, we are witness to instantaneous transformations “in the moment” of severe crisis, as when heroes must respond immediately to U-boat bombs pummeling ships and bullets piercing a boat’s hull. These spontaneous transformative heroic acts are marvelous to behold. Much less marvelous is the post-heroic transformation toward PTSD that we witness from Mr. Dawson’s first evacuee. We can’t overlook the unsavory aftermath of an especially punishing hero’s journey. Overall, I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Few films have displayed heroism as well as Dunkirk. The story is told with amazing technical acuity. I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk before entering the theater, but it is forever etched in my mind. The very purpose of storytelling is to share our values and history with each other – to deliver the messages of our past to those of the future. Dunkirk does this with surprising power. I give it a full 5 out of 5 Reels.

Heroism comes in many forms. We’re witness to heroism in great sacrifice (as in the case of the Spitfire pilot) down to small acts of kindness (as when the young man lies to the shell-shocked soldier as to the death of young George.) I give 5 out of 5 Heroes to Dunkirk.

I don’t think this movie was about transformation as much as it was about sacrifice. We do see some transformations – but they are incidental to the story. Everyone in the movie was already giving all they had to give. I would say that they all had already undergone their transformations to get to the point of desperation they experienced on the shores of Dunkirk. While I award only 3 out of 5 Deltas, it in no way diminishes the power of Nolan’s work.

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


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

(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:

Wonder Woman ••••1/2

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Hidden Figures •••••

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017


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We’re introduced to three African American women stranded on the road in 1960’s Virginia. They are “computers” – women who perform computations for NASA’s space program. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) performs computations for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an engineer in the wind tunnels for the Mercury. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor for the other computing women, all of whom are Black.

Goble has been reassigned to work on the trajectories for the upcoming manned-flights of the Mercury program. She is dismissed by the other mathematicians because she is a woman, and a Black woman at that. Among her many challenges is the fact that the restrooms in the facility are segregated. And the only “colored” rest room for women is across the campus. She frequently has to run a half mile to use the ladies’ room – taking her work with her.

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

Meanwhile, Mary diagnoses a problem in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, inspiring her to pursue an engineering degree. She convinces a judge to grant her permission to attend night classes at an all-white school. Dorothy learns that a huge new IBM computer will replace her co-workers. She sneaks into the computer room and successfully operates the machine. At the library she is scolded for visiting the whites-only section on computer programming. She teaches herself Fortran and is promoted to supervise the programming department, arranging for her women co-workers to be transferred there.

There aren’t many movies featuring women in technology, let alone women of color. Most of our images of engineers and scientists are of young men (see The Social Network). What is marvelous about this film is that it features three such women. They not only have to face gender stereotypes, but also battle racial divides.

The common trope in films dealing with race is that there is a white benefactor who lifts the African American up to where they belong. We see this in such films as The Blind Side, 42, and Race. But in Hidden Figures we’re witness to women who deal with their stereotyped roles head on and fend for themselves. It’s a refreshing change.

I was moved to tears watching Mary stand before a judge and plead her case to be allowed into an all-white community college. I know people who have had to fight for what they have earned. But they deal with a level playing field. Mary has the deck stacked against her. She not only has to change the mind of the white judge who blocks her way into school, but that of her militant husband who believes that violence is the only answer. Hidden Figures delivers three powerful examples of women overcoming prejudice on their own terms.

You’re absolutely right, Greg. Hidden Figures shows the shattering of two barriers, gender and race, in the early 1960s. I had never heard this true story of these three remarkable women, and I’m ashamed of either myself, or the system in which I was raised that suppressed this story, or both. These three heroes won my heart and earned my deepest respect. Like Jackie Robinson in 42, they knew that breaking barriers required them to take the high road when encountering inevitable prejudice and pushback. Their lives and careers were complex, difficult, way-paving and inspiring to say the least.

There may not have been any overt White helpers per se, but one cannot overlook the open-mindedness of people who assisted or supported these women’s efforts. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) deserves kudos in his supervisory role, helping Katherine Goble adjust to her new position and even taking a sledgehammer to the “whites only” restroom sign. The judge who bends an existing exclusionary rule also helps Mary get the education she seeks. There almost have to be people in the majority race who step up to do the right thing in the service of our heroes. Having said that, I agree that this film more than most others we’ve seen emphasizes the independent nature of our heroes’ quest to break their barriers.

We see some good mentoring and leadership in Dorothy’s character. She recognizes that the world is changing and that computing machines are the next big thing. So she learns the FORTRAN computing language and teaches it to her staff. So, when the machine finally work, and the management is looking for programmers, Dorothy is ready with 30 women trained to go.

I liked Hidden Figures very much. I often look for the ‘seams’ in a movie where the structure shows through. But I was so engrossed in the story that the seams fell away. We have three different and connected hero’s journeys – and each got ample screen time. The movie is inspirational to women and people of color, but it also shines a bright light on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Women and minorities are often left behind in the STEM world, and I think Hidden Figures will inspire a new generation of engineers. I give Hidden Figures 5 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, we often look for transformation in our heroes, but sometimes the heroes transform others instead. Katherine showed that she could do a job as well as any white man. In so doing she changed the culture of NASA to be more inclusive. Dorothy broke barriers by becoming the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. And Mary changed the educational system to allow blacks into their community college. In each case the transformation was on society as a whole, rather than in the heroes. I give these three women 5 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to find good mentors, and Hidden FIgures is no different. Each of these women had to forge onward using their own skills and intelligence. But they did it essentially alone. When you’re the first to arrive in the “special world” there often isn’t someone there to act as a mentor. We did witness some good mentoring in Dorothy and her team of ‘computers.’ So I can only muster 2 Mentor points.

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All your praise directed at Hidden Figures is right on the mark, Greg. These brave, remarkable women did what society’s best heroes do, namely, set out on a journey that will bring them pain and resistance from others, defying social conventions that need defying. This movie deserves strong consideration for Best Picture in 2016. I also give it 5 Reels out of 5.

As with other way-pavers and barrier-breakers, these Hidden Figures are both transformed and transforming. We talk about heroes being both the source and the target of transformation in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. These women grow in their courage and resilience, and they have no doubt (and will no doubt) inspire generations of historically oppressed individuals to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

There is mentoring going on in this movie but as we’ve pointed out, this film emphasizes the fierce independence of these women. Yes, they got help of course, but their success derived mostly from their own innate talent and indomitable spirit. I’ll award 3 mentor points out of 5 for the subtle ways that our Hidden Figures received little nudges of help behind the scenes.

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Hacksaw Ridge ••••1/2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hell or High Water •••••

hell_or_high_water_film_posterStarring: Dale Dickey,  Ben Foster,  Chris Pine
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2016


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

Greg, is it true that someone told us to go to Hell?

Only if Hell is a town in West Texas. Let’s recap:

We meet the Howard brothers, a pair of modern-day cowboys who have taken to robbing banks in west Texas. Toby (Chris Pine) is the younger brother, and Tanner (Ben Foster) is the older brother who has recently been released from prison. On their tail is a pair of Texas Rangers who want to put an end to the brothers’ crime spree. The head Ranger is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is nearing retirement, and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who somehow tolerates Hamilton’s racist banter.

The brothers have a scheme to rob the Midland Bank of enough cash to pay off the debts of their mother’s reverse-mortgaged ranch. The brothers are following Toby’s plan, but Tanner is a loose cannon and strays from the plan. This leaves enough clues for Hamilton and Parker to predict their next heist. It’s a game of cat and mouse as the Rangers close in on the brothers in a tight spiral.

Greg, I’ll just come right out and say it. Hell or High Water is one of the best movies of 2016. How refreshing it is for a film released in August to boast a rich and nuanced screenplay coupled with memorable and multidimensional characters. This movie held me in rapture, from the opening scene to the closing scene. The film opens with a bank robbery but in the background stands a church with three prominent crosses on the wall, foreshadowing the later deaths of three of this film’s main characters. In the concluding scene, Hamilton moves away from the camera while the camera hits the dirt, suggesting that he is, in fact, the third casualty.

This movie compels you to see things and to see people at a deeper level, a human level. The four main characters have an unusual strength and depth to them, a multi-dimensionality that I haven’t seen in the movies in years. Jeff Bridges didn’t just portray a Texas Ranger; he was that Ranger. It’s Oscar time for him, for sure. Every character inhabiting this film came alive on the big screen, made me laugh, made me cry, or repulsed me. The film is a true gem, a throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking when character development mattered.

Part of the pleasure of this story is that it’s a mystery. The mystery is: why are these cowboys robbing these banks? We’re fed clues incrementally, just as the Texas Rangers discover them. So, despite the fact that we’re following the brothers closely, we don’t know the reasons why until nearly the third act.

This is a great anti-villain story cut from the same cloth as Bonnie and Clyde and The Sting. The lead characters are villainous as they are on the moral high ground. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we talk about anti-heroes. They take on the characteristics of villains but are the characters we are rooting for. Contrariwise, the Texas Rangers are anti-villains. That is, they are the good guys in the story, but are the antagonists for the leads.

It’s a great structure. But what makes this film work, more than anything else, is the depth of the characters portrayed. I had to do a double-take because I thought this might have been a Coen Brothers or Weinstein film (both producers of great character-based films). But no, this one was penned by veteran television writer Taylor Sheridan (Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy). I was blown away by the combination of action, suspense, and great character detail.

You’re so right, Greg. The hero’s journeys are nontraditional, with the Howards voluntarily moving into the dangerous unfamiliar world while pulling the Rangers in with them. Tanner performs the ultimate (anti-) heroic act of sacrificing himself for the success of the mission, and Alberto does the ultimate heroic act of sacrificing himself, albeit involuntarily, for the success of the Rangers’ mission. We have parallel anti-hero and hero stories with no real transformation, only adaptation to circumstances — which can be considered a type of transformative adjustment heroes need for success.

The mentoring is equally rich and unconventional. Older brother Tanner takes the physical lead role in being badass and anti-heroic, but it is his younger brother Toby who masterminds the entire caper. Among the Rangers, it is Marcus who mentors Alberto in the dress code and in doing detective work, but in the end it is Alberto’s quiet dignity that exerts a great emotional impact on Marcus. Toby also plays an important mentoring role with his older son — or, rather, an anti-mentoring role, as Toby cautions his son not to be like him.

While the Rangers serve as anti-villain characters, it’s also pretty clear that the biggest villain in this story is the institution of banking. In our most recent book we discuss how institutions can take on villainous roles. Usually these institutions are societal scourges such as racism or sexism. In this film the villainous institution is clearly the financial industry that conspires to squeeze every cent out of society’s most innocent and vulnerable people. In doing their noble anti-villainous work, the Rangers encounter obstacles in the form of popular disdain for the banks that are being robbed. The robbers, in effect, take on folk-hero status. So the villain in this story, the banking industry, ends up hindering the anti-villains’ ability to carry out their mission while having a slightly facilitative effect for the anti-hero brothers. In all it’s a fascinating triad of anti-heroes, anti-villains, and institutional villain.

Hell or High Water is a cleverly draw tail of modern-day anti-heroes. Everything in this film is excellent: the acting, the cinematography, the story, even the scenery. Often in the movies I’m distracted by the execution of the “seams” of the standard plot points. But Hell kept me in suspense with it’s unspoken mystery of why these brothers were robbing banks. I can’t imagine anything that would have made this film better. I give it 5 out of 5 Reels and I expect an Oscar nomination for the film.

The brothers are classic anti-heroes in that they are making morally wrong choices, but still we see them as heroes because they are subverting the evil banking institution. They are chased by the virtuous (if albeit cantankerous) Rangers as anti-villains, trying to thwart the brothers’ goal of robbing the bank. In the end Tanner martyrs himself, which is a selfless act, but kills Ranger Parker in the process, cementing his anti-hero status. I give this hero structure 5 out of 5 Heroes.

We’re witness to some fine mentoring by the venerable Ranger Hamilton upon the younger Ranger Parker. Although Hamilton insults Parker, he lets us know that it’s a friendly way of acknowledging and (in a strange way) respecting their differences. We also see cross-mentoring between brothers Toby and Tanner. Tanner advises Toby in the ways of bank robbing while Toby shares his intelligence and values with Tanner. It’s wonderful mentoring throughout which I award 5 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Ditto, ditto, ditto, Greg. By hell or high water, this movie had better garner some Academy Award nominations. This film is a true cinematic achievement and boasts the complete package — a meaty script, memorable characters, marvelous acting, a socially relevant message, and a surprising twist or two in the closing act. Jeff Bridges is especially brilliant; I’ll never forget his complex emotional reaction after his successful sniping of his prey. I have no hesitation in awarding the film the full 5 Reels out of 5 here.

Our four main characters represent the finest combination of heroes and anti-heroes we’ve seen in the movies in several years. As you’ve noted, Greg, each pairing has its own unique dynamic of power, influence, and communication. The Howard brothers have a lifetime of chemistry to draw from, and the Rangers are in the process of developing theirs. In the end, there is an unshakeable bond within each pairing, and it’s a true tragedy that only one of the four walks away the rubble of this tragic story. For giving us fabulous characters with moral complexity whom we can really sink our analytic teeth into, this ensemble easily merits a rating of 5 Heroes out of 5.

We’ve talked at length about the complex and nuanced mentoring that goes on within each buddy hero and anti-hero pairing. We’re also treated to a rare episode of anti-mentoring going on between Toby and his son. The father-son relationship is actually the catalytic epicenter of the entire robbery spree. As with everything else in this film, the mentoring is exceptionally interesting and warrants a rating of the full 5 Mentors out of 5.

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Joy ••••

JoyfilmposterStarring: Jennifer LawrenceRobert De NiroBradley Cooper
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. RussellAnnie Mumolo
Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2015


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

Greg, I get the feeling that Joy will be a joy to review.

I enJoyed myself at this movie. Let’s recap:

We meet a woman in her late twenties named Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence). Joy is a divorced single mom who somehow finds herself taking care of everyone:  her kids, her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), her neurotic mom who lives upstairs (Virginia Madsen), and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who lives in the basement. Then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) moves in with her and begins sharing the basement with her ex. Joy is an aspiring inventor but all her time is spent working for an airline and taking care of her many dysfunctional family members.

Rudy starts dating a widow named Trudy who is well-to-do. Trudy invites Rudy and his family (including Joy and her overachieving sister Peggy) for a trip on her boat. When Joy drops her wine glass it shatters and she feels compelled to clean it up. Doing so, she gets her hands chapped and cut wringing out the mop. When she gets home she dreams up an idea for a mop you never have to touch with your hands and can be thrown in the washing machine. She prototypes the device and pitches it to Rudy and Trudy. They reluctantly agree to invest in her invention and Joy begins an odyssey that will determine her future and the future of her family.

Greg, Joy is yet another movie featuring a strong female hero. But our hero Joy doesn’t start out that way. At the beginning of the film, Joy is mentally beaten down by her family, who expect much from her but think little of her. She has sacrificed so much for her parents, her ex-husband, and her children, that she has lost herself in the process. Joy is too kind and selfless for her own good.

The good news is that deep inside, Joy understands her own worth and does not give up on her dream to become an inventor. Rather than quit and allow others to define who she is, Joy summons the courage to resurrect her dream to invent things and to become an entrepreneur. Doing so requires great strength and courage from Joy, who has acquired these qualities from her grandmother and mentor Mimi. Joy’s self-confidence and sense of worth lay dormant for a while but eventually these qualities are allowed to blossom.

What’s wonderful about this film is that we are shown that when the mentor dies, the student can still thrive. In short, the mentoring does not stop. Joy has internalized her grandmother’s advice. This film drives home the life-changing importance of loving support and wisdom passed down to children from elderly family members.

Joy was an enchanting and heartwarming story about persistence and perseverance. Joy starts out as someone lost in her own family. Everyone depends on her, she gives unselfishly to those she loves, and they respond by holding up a mirror to her that only reflects her failures. She reemerges when she is so beaten down that the only thing that remains is a childhood memory of things she created and left in a shoebox. That spirit of creativity is the kindling that turn into a fire that drives Joy to put everything she has into a final push to create something that will define her.

Joy is a wonderful example of the hero’s journey. She starts out submerged and filled with a deep hurt inflicted by the separation of her parents during her childhood. When she realizes that her life won’t change unless she makes a change, she passes into the special world of being an inventor. She has to grow as a person and resolve her inner feeling of a lack confidence.

There’s a scene that I love in Joy that reminds me of what we often see in these heroic transformations. Joy is at her lowest point. She’s been cheated by her suppliers, beaten down by her family, and even sabotaged by her sister. She then changes her clothes. She dons the attire of a warrior – trading in her peasant blouse and cotton pants for black leather and slacks. She even bobs her hair. She is ready for battle and she makes a final transition into the world of tough negotiators. The change of garb is a clear marker that the hero is going into battle.

Greg, you’ve made a nice observation about the transformed physical appearance symbolizing, and signifying, the inner heroic transformation. I recently watched the movie Brooklyn in which the female hero’s clothing, hair, makeup, and gait all serve as important indicators of transformative change. It’s the equivalent of Clark Kent finding the nearest phone booth to switch into his Superman costume.

Another nice element to the film Joy is the effective use of the supporting cast in making Joy’s heroic transformation possible. Several of the characters are seemingly supportive of Joy’s dream. Witness the initial backing of Rudy, Trudy, and QVC founder Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). When things don’t go swimmingly right away, all of these folks are quick to remove their support and even belittle Joy in a way that makes us want to strangle them. I was relieved to see that Neil’s character has enough depth and complexity to give Joy a second chance, which of course results in the achievement of her dream. All these secondary characters are used to great effect in providing our hero with obstacles and opportunities for resilience.

Scott, we’ve mined the Moxney’s paradigm more than once in these reviews. This is the mythical structure that models relationships after the family. And in Joy’s case, it is a literal mapping. She is dealing with her estranged parents, her estranged husband, her estranged sister, and her mentor grandmother Mimi. However, here, all the estranged characters represent a dysfunctional family and so the Moxney’s structure fails. It’s Joy who is at the top of the hierarchy and pulls the rest of her family up as they attempt to drag her down.

We also see an interesting villain structure here. Her older sister consistently attempts to belittle and sabotage Joy’s successes. As if that weren’t enough, her suppliers believe she’s an ignorant and naive woman and work to steal her ideas. And behind them is their Texan dealmaker – the puppetmaster (or as we like to call him, the Mastermind).

I’d also like to mention Joy’s adorable children. Frankly, they don’t have a big role here. They often serve as a reminder of Joy’s own childhood. This is especially true when Joy is at her lowest point and yells at her daughter not to dream too big – just as she was taught when she was a child. However, she is buoyed more than once by her grandmother Mimi who always had confidence in her.

Joy is a wonderful and inspiring story about a remarkable woman who puts her remarkableness on hold while she sacrifices for many other members of her family. When her entrepreneurial dream is eventually realized we are moved by her successes and frustrated by her setbacks. Joy’s perseverance is finally rewarded but not without significant delays and hardship. This film is a terrific portrayal of a modern woman’s hero’s journey and it easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Joy has all of the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes. She is smart, strong, charismatic, kind, caring, inspiring, resilient, and reliable. Her journey is tortured yet profoundly satisfying in the end. I was struck by the sea of humanity standing in the way of her dreams as well as by the people who came through for her to help her achieve her goals. Joy is transformed from a human doormat into a soaring business force to be reckoned with. I give her complex character and breakthrough journey a score of 5 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters represent a wonderful blend of good, bad, and quirky individuals. At times we want to wring their necks and at other moments we cheer them on. The grandmother Mimi plays a pivotal role in assisting Joy with her transformation, as does her ex-husband Tony. Joy’s father and especially her sister prove to be formidable villains to overcome, but Joy manages to outmaneuver them. The entire cast shines in Joy and I’m happy to award them all 5 rating points out of 5.

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Joy is the semi-biographical story of a woman’s journey from a child of great potential, to an underachieving adult, to an accomplished millionaire. Jennifer Lawrence delivers a wonderful performance that is Oscar-worthy. She shows us just how loyal and devoted she is to her family – so much so that she loses herself. Then she shows us that Joy can recover her inner child only to have her hopes dashed again and again. This is a movie with as much heart as It’s a Wonderful Life. I could see it again and again. The only problem I had with this story is that it is narrated by grandma Mimi and … she’s dead, Jim. I give Joy 4 out of 5 Reels.

As we’ve mentioned this is a complete hero’s journey. Joy crosses the threshold from her ordinary world of service to everyone around her, into the world of entrepreneurship. She’s fully committed to this journey. She falls to her deepest depths only to regroup and emerge as a warrior. Finally, in the epilog, we learn that she goes on to be a mentor to other women. I give Joy 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast is a very mixed bag of nuts. There are no families more dysfunctional in Hollywood films than Joy’s. We’ve already talked about the obstacles her father, mother, and sister provide. Not to mention the many men who take her for a fool. But we also saw some characters we haven’t talked about much this year. Like the “best friend” – person who is not a family member but gives support and solace. And I don’t even know what archetype the plumber in this story is. (He’s from Jamaica and Joy’s reclusive mother begins an inexplicable romance with him). This group definitely left me feeling frustrated and I was just watching. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Joy! I give them all 5 out of 5 Cast points.

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