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Moana ••••1/2

moana_teaser_posterStarring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House
Director: Ron Clements, Don Hall
Screenplay: Jared Bush, Ron Clements
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2016


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Well it looks like we’re going to review the latest Disney princess movie.

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

No reason to piss and moana about it. Let’s just get to it.

We’re introduced to young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). She’s an eight-year-old girl living in the Peloponnesian islands. Her father is the chief and she’s the heir to the throne. Daddy wants her and her people to stay on the island where it’s safe. But Moana wants to journey out past the reef. Her father keeps her at bay until one day the islanders find that their island is dying.

Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) encourages Moana to follow her heart and shows the young girl a secret cave containing large seafaring vessels that their ancestors used to explore the vastness of the ocean. Tala gives Moana the heart of Te Fiti to which was stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and Moana’s calling is to replace the heart to restore life to the dying islands.

Moana was a surprise. I expected a pretty typical Disney princess damsel in distress movie. But Moana is a strong female hero with a mission to save her people. She’s not someone to be saved, but someone to save everyone else. The movie knows it is an atypical story because Moana repeats at least twice “I’m no princess.”

This film surprised me, too, Gregger. What a delight it is. I felt like I visited a set of Polynesian islands and mingled with the indigenous people. The craftsmanship of this movie is unparalleled, with ocean waves and vegetation springing to life in vivid detail. Most importantly, Moana raises several timeless themes of human existence, most notably the theme of the importance of maintaining a connection with nature and the theme of discovering one’s true identity. The film’s treatment of these themes is creative, original, and inspiring.

As you point out, our hero Moana is a wonderful character with whom both girls and boys can identify. She is drawn to the sea and becomes obsessed with the idea of venturing beyond the safe confines of the island lagoon. This movie challenges us all to look within our hearts to discern our true calling in life — a theme of heroism that is explored at length in the recently released Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership. What impresses me is how Moana encourages us not only to discover our true individual calling, but to also discover the calling of an entire community of people. Who are we and what are we meant to do with our lives? This film dares to ask such big questions.

Moana is aided in her quest by the demigod Maui. Maui also has a goal – to find his magic fish hook. He believes it is what gives him his power. But in fact, he already has his power within him. Maui shows Moana how to pilot a canoe, how to navigate the waters, and how to be a voyager. It’s his guidance that ultimately allows Moana to save the islands and restore the goddess to her rightful place.

Yes, Moana’s two main mentors are her grandmother Tala and then, later, Maui. Tala helps her discover her mission, whereas Maui helps her execute it. Interestingly, Maui himself is mentored in a unique way by one of his tattoo images, which reveals to Maui what the “right” choice is in any given situation. Moana’s dad plays an interesting role in discouraging his young daughter from following her heart. I wouldn’t call her dad a dark mentor, but his tendencies toward “playing it safe” suggest an anti-mentoring role for him.

The father plays the role of the oppositional force, or antagonist. Not quite the villain, but he’s the voice in Moana’s head who keeps her back. He’s not a bad guy. He wants to protect her and his people. But his energies are misdirected. So, I wouldn’t call him the dark mentor, but he does offer the initial resistance that the hero needs.

I enjoyed Moana much more than I expected. After a string of successes that include The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Clements & Musker have created a new kind of hero that boys and girls both can admire and aspire to. I give Moana 4 out of 5 Reels.

Moana has everything going for her. She’s smart, brave, adventurous, virtuous, and beautiful. She starts out uncertain in herself and grows to find the voyager within her. I do have a problem with Moana – she’s too perfect. A little darkness in a hero is a good thing. It’s a force to overcome and control. I give Moana 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the mentoring in this film was just wonderful. Her first mentor is her grandmother who helps Moana discover who she can be and sets her on her journey. Then Moana trades up to Maui who is in need of some assistance himself. Maui shows Moana how to be voyager she was born to be and ultimately to be the leader her people need. I give these mentors 5 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Moana is one of the best movies of 2016. The film explores grand, sweeping themes of human yearning, and is equally grand and sweeping in its visual effects. We learn from watching this film that playing it safe in life is not an option as it only leads to death and decay. This is an especially important message for young girls in the audience who historically have not had as many worthy role models in the movies as boys have had. This movie will become a classic “must see” film for generations to come and thus earns the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Moana is an inspiring character and terrific hero in every sense of the word. I don’t see her as being too perfect, Greg. She is naive about the world and thus needs mentoring from her grandmother. She lacks seafaring skills and thus needs help from Maui. Her arduous journey compels her to acquire courage and resilience, and she not only transforms personally, she also transforms her people. Moana’s great heroism merits the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship of the hero is exemplary, as we’ve both pointed out. Everything in this film is pretty much textbook, including these helpers and guides who shepherd our hero through life, assisting her in her mission to discover her identity and save her island. These mentors easily earn the full 5 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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Eddie The Eagle ••••

Eddie_the_Eagle_posterStarring: Taron Egerton,  Hugh Jackman,  Tom Costello Jr.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Screenplay: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton
Biography/Comedy/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 26, 2016


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Scott, it’s time to take off on another movie.

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

Greg, I’m ready for Eddie. Let’s do this.

It’s 1988 and we’re introduced to Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) – an awkward man who has grown from a child wanting nothing more than to participate on the British Olympic Team. He has overcome a disability that kept him from running and playing with other children. Now, in his early twenties, Eddie has become an above-average skier with the British team. But they decide they simply don’t want him – he’s not British enough. Not letting anything deter him, he sets his sites on ski jumping. Since Britain hasn’t launched a ski jumping team since the 1920s, the requirements for qualifying are still very low – just a 70-meter jump. He relocates to Germany and self-trains, but nearly kills himself. That’s when he attracts the attention of drunken snow-groomer Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman).

We learn that Bronson was once an American ski jumping star who squandered his talent and under-achieved. Eddie asks Bronson to coach him but Bronson declines, observing that Eddie lacks the experience and talent necessary to become a world-class ski jumper. Eventually, Bronson is won over by Eddie’s tenacity and work ethic. Bronson begins to train Eddie, who edges closer to his goal of competing in the Calgary Winter Games.

Scott, Eddie the Eagle Is a classic sports success movie with the added bonus that it is based on a true story. We meet the underdog athlete who desires to be the best in his field. In this case, the underdog has already overcome a physical challenge, so we admire his tenacity. But then he raises the stakes on himself to compete in one of the toughest of winter sports.

We’ve seen this kind of pluck in other stories – like The Karate Kid and Creed. In these stories, the hero character is not ready for the challenge of their selected sport. They have to train hard to overcome their underdog status and realize their goal. What’s interesting about Eddie, and the thing I like most, is that Eddie doesn’t play to win – he plays to be the best he can be.

There’s a touching scene where Eddie is riding the elevator to the top of the highest jump and he’s talking with the world record holder, Matti “The Flying Finn” Nykänen. Nykänen says they are alike in that they aren’t competing against each other, but against themselves – to make their personal best. This message is what makes Eddie the Eagle stand alone among sports hero movies.

Yes, this movie is the prototypical underdog story that showcases a lovable guy who doesn’t let any of his many disadvantages deter him from pursuing his dream. Eddie is sweet and innocent, yet also fearless and determined. It is this fearlessness and unwavering resolve that help Eddie attract a primary mentor figure that he needs to accomplish his dream of competing in the Olympics. Bronson is that mentor.

Speaking of which, this movie has more layers of mentoring than I’ve ever seen in a movie. Eddie’s parents are his first mentors, with his mom being the positive nurturer who encourages his dream and his dad serving as a dark, discouraging mentor who belittles the dream. Next, Eddie befriends a woman at the ski jump facility who gives him basic tips about where to go and whom to see on his quest to gain experience. Then there is Bronson, the main mentor, who has his own mentor, whom we’ll call The Grand Mentor. Eddie is also discouraged from competing by rival skiers and coaches, and he is counseled to abandon his dream by his own country’s Olympic committee. And before his final jump, Eddie gets advice from Matti Nykänen. I can’t recall a hero who has to navigate through so many good and bad elders, advisors, and mentors.

You’re right, Scott, In the classic hero’s journey the hero is approached by a mentor who lays down the call to adventure. Almost invariably, the hero refuses the call before ultimately going on his adventure.However here, (and with the other films I mentioned) we see a mentor character who is approached by the hero who asks for help. It is the mentor who initially refuses the call to adventure. I wonder if this is typical of just sports movies, or if there are examples in other genres as well. I think this makes Bronson a Reluctant Mentor.

As with other mentors we’ve reviewed this year, Bronson is a former hero turned mentor. But Bronson is a fallen hero as he was kicked off the ski team due to his drinking, womanizing, and generally bad attitude. Throughout the movie we get glimpses of Bronson’s old coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken). Both Eddie and Bronson look to Sharp as an example of good coaching. In the end Sharp gives Bronson his blessing, making Bronson a kind of Redeemed Mentor.

All these layers of mentoring are fascinating. One thing we learn is that while a mentor is given great respect, a grand mentor is revered like a god. When Warren Sharp enters the room, he attracts a kind of solemn silence usually reserved for royalty. If a mentor is like a hero to our hero, then a grand mentor is the hero to the hero’s hero — a multigenerational multiplicative effect that we just don’t see much of in storytelling. I liked it.

One more thing to add about our hero, Eddie: He definitely transforms, as any good hero must if we are to care about him. You could argue that with all these mentors, he should transform, right? But let’s not forget all the dark mentoring in Eddie’s way. This is a hero who believes in himself and clings to his dream no matter what kind of feedback he is given. It’s a great lesson for us all. And he transform in terms of courage, resilience, and physical ability.

Eddie the Eagle Is a surprisingly fun sports drama with a message we don’t often see. I enjoyed watching Eddie grow from a handicapped child to his own champion. We got some wonderful performances from both Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman. (BTW: How does Hugh Jackman, a big star, end up in these little films?). It’s a period piece that took us back to the eighties in style. I happily reward Eddie the Eagle 4 out of 5 Reels.

Eddie stacks up as a great hero. He’s likable due to his unrelenting enthusiasm, as well as his ability to overcome obstacles. He is a dreamer and idealist. There’s a lot to like about Eddie. In fact, he is such a great guy, that his transformation is a little lackluster. He starts out great and ends up great, too. While he does undergo a physical transformation (one of the five types we mention in our book Reel Heroes and Villains), the internal transformation is lacking. Still, I give Eddie 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Scott, you point out correctly that there are mentors a-plenty in this movie. Although I think identifying the parents as mentors is a bit of a stretch. Generally, you look to mentors who give advice and gifts. While his mother is encouraging, she doesn’t give him advice that will help him be a great ski jumper. She’s more of an ally than a classic mentor. Bronson is interesting for the redeemed mentor character – overcoming his deficiencies as a hero by contributing to the advancement of a new hero. And I award bonus points for introducing us to the Grand Mentor character in Warren Sharp as well. I’m happy to award a full 5 Mentors out of 5.

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You’ve nailed these ratings, Greg. This is a movie that’s almost impossible to dislike, unless you’re a total misanthrope. Eddie teaches us to embrace our dreams and pursue them, no matter what the cost and no matter who, or how many, oppose us. What better message is there about how we should all live our lives? I, too, give Eddie the Eagle 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey follows the classic pattern and gives us a hero who is willing and able to transform himself from a crippled child to a Olympic ski jumper. Eddie not only transforms himself, his story inspires us all to transform ourselves. Best of all, this movie allows us to sink our teeth into a multi-layered mentor cake. It seems that every secondary character is a mentor of some sort, and our main mentor Bronson even experiences “an atonement with the father” — a reconciliation that is usually reserved only for the main hero. Like you, Greg, I also award Eddie 4 solid Heroes out of 5.

With more mentors than you can shake a stick at, how can one not award the maximum rating of 5 Mentors out of 5? This gaggle of mentors is a fascinating and variegated collection that illuminates the importance of social support in the hero’s journey. In developing our model of mentoring in the movies this year, we’ll be referring to Eddie the Eagle quite a bit. And deservedly so.

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