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Solo: A Star Wars Story ••••

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


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

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

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

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Avengers: Infinity War •••

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 149 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, if there can be an infinity war, can there be an infinity peace?

 


Only if we have an infinity of time – and the stones to do it… Let’s recap:


Thanos and his henchmen have just obtained the Power Stone and are now plotting to acquire the 5 remaining sacred stones. Doing so will give Thanos (Josh Brolin) complete rule over the universe. Sure enough, Thanos obtains the Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Meanwhile, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) warns Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) of Thanos’ plan to kill half the population of the universe once he realizes his goal of acquiring all the stones.


Fearing for the Mind Stone embedded in Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head, Captain America (Steve Rogers, Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) appear in Paris to assist Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in fighting off more of Thanos’ helpers. Meanwhile, Thor is found alive among the debris of his ship by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now the fight is on to prevent Thanos from getting his hands on all the Infinity Stones and decimating the universe’s population.


Greg, this movie exhausted me. Yes, it’s a triumph of sorts, weaving dozens of super beings into a story about saving the universe. But my goodness, what a clusterfuck. For 150 minutes we’re subjected to one fight scene after another, after another. A cacophony of characters and physical mayhem, it’s a wet dream for people with ADHD, and it left my brain bleeding.

There are so many questions that need answering. Why do these magical creatures bother punching each other when they are impervious to punches? They slam each other into skyscrapers when they know their adversaries are immune to the ill-effects of such slamming. These super-peeps can be impaled, crushed, and mangled yet bounce right back up with only a slight cut on their forehead. They withstand every kind of physical abuse and we watch them pound each other to smithereens ad nauseum. What is the point?

The other problem that this film shares with many others is the problem of “superpower convenience”. When the plotline demands it, a seemingly invulnerable good guy or bad guy will suddenly show a vulnerability, or the reverse will happen, with a previously established super-strength from someone disappearing conveniently because the story demands it.

If I overlook these issues, and the problem of film-length (always my pet peeve), then we have an extremely large-scale good versus evil superhero movie. Our heroes must work together to stop Thanos from obtaining all 6 infinity gemstones, which would give him dominion over the universe. I like Thanos as a villain; he’s a morally ambiguous dude, a guy with good intentions but a questionable game-plan. But Thanos cannot rescue this frenetic mess of a film.


We’re in basic agreement, here Scott. However, in true Marvel fashion, they managed to get a dozen major stars and their characters in one movie – and no egos were bruised. Everyone gets screen time. Everyone gets great dialog. All the heroes are equals. It’s a monumental task and the writers delivered a coherent, albeit bloated, movie.

Having said that, this is just one immense battle scene after another. When you strip away all the explosions and fisticuffs, there’s not much of a story here. And since we’ve had introductions to all the major heroes in the story (through their own franchised films), the only character who has any depth is the villain – Thanos.

And what a villain, indeed. Thanos believes the universe is overpopulated. (Which is never substantiated in ANY way in this story. AND, it appears that Thanos is aware of UNIVERSAL problems when GALACTIC problems are not made clear. I would have preferred that Thanos’ goal were to cure the galaxy of overpopulation. The universe is a pretty big place.) Thanos is given the option of trading the one thing he loves (his daughter Gamora) for the Soul Stone.

This is a huge deal. Thanos is not a PURE EVIL character after all. He cares about his planet enough to take initiative to save half the population. And he actually loves his daughter. But he loves the universe enough to “give his only begotten daughter” to save it. This is the stuff of heroes to certain ways of thinking. As we mention in our book Reel Heroes and Villains – the villain often thinks he is the hero of the story. Thanos fits this to a tee.


Infinity War is a triumph of sorts but it falls victim to the mentality of “more is more” when we all know that “less is more”. My fear is that the billion-dollar success of this film will open the door to many more movies of this type, movies with too many characters, too many explosions, and too many illogical fight scenes. I am hoping that the DC Comic universe will not follow suit, but the cynic in me suspects that Infinity War has ushered in a new era of the bloated superhero movie. I give this film 2 Reels out of 5.

There are many, many heroes here trying to stop Thanos and his hench-army. There isn’t much of a journey to speak of, not much going on  in terms of character development, and not much indication of hero attributes to discuss (other than super-strength). As such, I give this humongous ensemble of heroes a rating of 2 Hero points out of 5.

In terms of archetypes, there is much more to talk about. Superhero movies are replete with archetypes of power, strength, and hyper-masculinity. Greg, you’ve nicely pointed out the archetype of sacrifice — Thanos’s daughter must be sacrificed and half the universe must be sacrificed, all presumably in the name of promoting the greater good. These and other archetypes earn this film 4 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


Infinity War would have been a nice cap on the Avengers franchise, but based on the ending credits easter egg, it looks like a new hero is coming. I try to rate films in the genre in which they’re set. Superhero films are supposed to be filled with screen-smashing explosions and bigger-is-more effects. Infinity War does this “infinitely” better than others. But the lack of any character development is a negative. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

As you say, Scott, these are heroes we’ve met before. The only real character development happens in the villain. I give this film 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the archetypes are all standard fare. Superheroes will be superheroes. Superwarriers will fight super hard. I give them all 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

A Wrinkle In Time ••1/2

Starring: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell
Adventure/Family/Fantasy, Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: March 9, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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I thought this was a movie about an old guy who arrives just in time.


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

Chris Pine has just enough gray in his beard for you to be right, Greg. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) who is bullied at school because her astrophysicist father (Chris Pine) went missing four years ago. She has an adoptive brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) who is a child savant and sees the world in ways that Meg cannot, her pain at being abandoned by her father blocking her vision. Then one day, a magical “witch” appears – Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) – who tells her that she and her brother are able to follow her father through the magic of the Tesseract – a way of folding space-time that her father and PhD mother were researching.


Two other magical witches appear, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), and joining the kids on their journey to find their father is neighborhood kid Calvin (Levi Miller). The witches first take the kid to a luminous planet with intelligent flowers who inform them that Mr. Murry had been there but had left. Here they also learn about the great evil force of the universe, IT, which is spreading. They must find their father on the planet Camazotz where they must defeat evil to find Mr. Murry.


Scott, it’s rare for a movie to be better than the book, but A Wrinkle in Time succeeds. The book is plagued by a first-half that merely takes our heroes from exotic planet to exotic planet without furthering the plot. This incarnation abandons the world-building-for-world-buildings-sake plot for a more compact telling.

However, the movie maintains a critical problem with the book in that it has no clear villain. The “IT” is an amorphous blob that reaches out into the universe like spiney tindrels. As we noted in our book Reel Heroes and Villains the best villains are those who have a physical, personal presence. These sorts of “pure evil” villains leave little to the imagination and are difficult to have an argument with.

Director Ava DuVernay eventually uses the device of having Charles Wallace be possessed by the IT so that Meg can have an emotional discourse with IT. While it’s not particularly entertaining, it is much better than fighting a largely unseeable villain.


Greg, A Wrinkle in Time is a movie with a big heart and certainly means well. Somehow, this noble intention coupled with big star-power doesn’t add up to a successful movie. My theory is that the film does a poor job of identifying its audience. If it’s pitched to kids, then why throw around fancy theories of space and time? If it’s pitched to adults, why give us dialogue at the second grade level? It doesn’t help that the three witches are silly-looking and even sillier-sounding. I recently watched The Wizard of Oz — its 1939 rendition of Glinda The Good Witch far outshines Wrinkle’s CGI-infested portrayals of Who, Whatsit, and Which.

I did enjoy some elements of the film, particularly its message of the unsurpassed transformative power of love. There is also a great theme of our defects hiding our strengths, with our wounds being the place where the light enters us. These are great messages to pass onto both kids and adults.


Scott, director DuVernay has been criticised for her use of a young Black girl as the protagonist. I’ve read complaints that Wrinkle is a love letter to them. If so, then good for her. So many movies are aimed at young white men (think of any action adventure film, Harry Potter, Transformers etc…) that one film that lifts up and enriches girls is both far overdue and very welcome. We’re treated to a young woman who is highly intelligent, fearless, and sensitive. And she’s mentored by three strong and wise women. Despite Wrinkle’s many flaws, I suspect in 10 or 20 years there will be millions of women who look back on A Wrinkle in Time as an inspiration.


Greg, I’m shocked to hear that anyone has a problem with a female African-American playing the lead role in a movie. I think you’d agree with me that less than 1% of the movies we review feature a Black woman in the hero’s role. We need more fair demographic representation of people of color in the movies, not less.

There are some notable archetypes in A Wrinkle in Time that are worth mentioning. Our hero Meg Murry is an outcast and an orphan, which positions her as an underdog whom we root for. Another underdog is her friend Calvin who joins them on the journey. We also have the young genius archetype in Charles Wallace, who (when he’s not possessed) is smarter than any other human character. There is also the mad scientist archetype (Mr. and Mrs. Murry), the good magical Witch archetype, and the pure evil demon villain (IT).


A Wrinkle in Time is a fantastic voyage with dark overtones which I believe will become a cult favorite similar to 1984’s Neverending Story. And as with the latter film, Wrinkle has a number of flaws that make for a good child’s fantasy, but leave adults wanting. I give A Wrinkle in Time 3 out of 5 Reels.

Meg is a wonderful hero who is smart, fearless, resilient, and capable. We want her to find her father – and ultimately it is her combination of intelligence and heart that save him. She’s flawed in that she can’t see beyond the pain of her abandonment by her father and her inability to accept love and feelings as being as valid as any science. I give Meg 4 out of 5 Heroes.

You’ve nailed the archetypes: The MENTOR, the ABSENT FATHER, the MAD SCIENTIST, CHILD SAVANT, FRIEND SIDEKICK, PURE EVIL VILLAIN. This movie has them all. I award 4 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


A Wrinkle in Time is a child-like adventure tale that I would only recommend for children below the age of 10. It saddens me that the filmmakers here didn’t pitch the movie to a mature audience, because certainly the message of the film is timeless and potentially transformative for us all. I wish I could award Wrinkle more than 2 Reels out of 5 but I can’t.

There is most definitely a stirring hero’s journey here, with Meg and her friends led on an interplanetary adventure that teaches them valuable life lessons about love, loyalty, family, and good and evil. I see some classic elements of the hero’s journey, such as friendship, mentorship, and transformation. As such, I’ll award 4 Hero points out of 5.

With regard to archetypes, there are plenty of them for us to sink our teeth into. None of them moved me to any great degree, perhaps because I’m not in the film’s intended demographic. I’ll give the movie 3 archetype Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi •••

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, George Lucas
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 152 minutes
Release Date: December 15, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, are we about to review the last Star Wars Film?


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

The Force is with us both, Greg. Let’s recap.


The Rebel alliance is attempting to evacuate their base when First Order ships arrive and prepare to blow the base to bits. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) lights just off the main ship’s bow and leads an attack on their Dreadnaught class destroyer. They succeed at destroying the ship, but at a great cost losing all their bombers and several fighters. However, it gives the rebels time to evacuate and jump into hyperspace toward their next base.


Meanwhile Kylo Ren, sensing his mother General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) presence, fails to fire on the resistance’s main ship. Rey seeks to learn the ways of the force from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has exiled himself to a remote island. He reluctantly agrees. Rey also begins having telepathic communications with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whom she believes is redeemable. This belief appears to be corroborated by Ren’s decision to save Rey’s life at the hands of Snoke (Andy Serkis), whom he slays. Ren, however, remains on the dark side.


Scott, I have mixed emotions about The Last Jedi. On the one hand it is a proper sequel to the last film, The Force Awakens, but on the other, it seems like a scattered project that tried to accomplish too much. And with a 150-minute running time, you’d think it would have accomplished all its goals. But it does not. As with the last film, there are echoes of previous episodes which left me feeling as though the story doesn’t really move forward.

There are four distinct plotlines here. The first being the escape of the Resistance to a new base. This is Princess Leia and Poe’s story. The second is the emergence of Rey as a Jedi under the (reluctant) training of Luke Skywalker. The third is the evolution of Kylo Ren into the Master of the First Republic. Fourth and finally is the search for a thief to help Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take down the Republic’s main ship.

The first plotline is pretty boring stuff with Poe constantly second-guessing Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) authority. Not much happens here until the end. The training of Rey with Skywalker resembles much of what we saw in The Empire Strikes Back but with intercuts of Rey and Kylo Ren having inter-Force communication. Rey ultimately leaves her training before she’s finished to face Ren because she “feels there is still good in him.” This all feels very much like Empire.


Greg, this is a curious, complicated movie. There is much to like, some to dislike, and much to ponder over. My summative feeling is somewhat positive, but wow, where do we begin with all that is thrown at us in this film? You’ve pointed out the multiple simultaneous plotlines, at times exhilarating but at times delivered in a disjointed manner. There is also the bold move to redefine “the force” as more supernatural than in previous Star Wars incarnations. This cheapens the force, IMHO, yet I admit it’s handled well in the film’s final act when Luke’s magical powers save everyone’s butt.

Luke Skywalker’s persona has radically changed, which may not be terribly surprising as decades have passed since we’ve last seen much of him. Again I see some value in giving him inner conflict but at times I wasn’t sure this was the same character we’ve grown to love. There are also several strange directorial decisions by Rian Johnson. One irritation is his bizarre decision to include dozens of unnecessarily closeup face-shots of Ren and Rey. The film is long and densely packed, a smorgasbord of good and not-so-good Star Wars fare.

Although J.J. Abrams didn’t direct the film, it does have his fingerprints all over it. There is plenty of action and several powerful homages to iconic Star Wars lines involving “the force”, “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi”, and Yoda uttering reverse sentence structures. So ultimately, we should leave the theater satisfied — assuming we can overlook the many complications.


Star Wars has become less about telling a great story, and more about creating a spectacle. The logic behind the Republic’s ships having to slowly track the Resistance is confusing. This is just a placeholder while action occurs elsewhere. The events on the casino planet have no real impact on the story at hand. But it does introduce a number of colorful characters and exotic animals that will make nice plastic toys at Christmastime.

LIkewise on the island where Luke has self-exiled himself we see very cute little bird-like creatures that have no purpose in the story except to be cute. Very much like the Ewoks. For some reason, these creatures have taken roost on the Millennium Falcon. And there are “caretaker” creatures as well as 4-bosomed sea whales which Luke milks for breakfast. None of these characters play into the plot. They are just part of Star Wars’ world building for the sake of merchandising.


Wow, you really are cynical about the merchandising placements, Greg. To be honest, I hadn’t given this much thought until now, but you may be right. We may agree about this film’s attempt to be a spectacle, and so the big question for us to consider is whether the movie is a spectacle that tells a compelling hero story. We do have heroes undergoing severe trials and transformation, which left me mostly satisfied. We also have the classic Star Wars battle between good and evil, with Kylo Ren filling the void left by the surprising death of Snoke. There’s a bit too much going on but overall the film hits enough classic Star Wars notes to produce a satisfying movie-going experience.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi was an entertaining visual feast – but pretty light fare. Star Wars has increasingly become a franchise for children and the young at heart. There are no morals or messages to take home. Characters seem to appear for little reason other than to fulfill either a gender or ethnic checklist. The story lines seem to have no real purpose other than to create a reason for flash and boom. The original Star Wars trilogy was about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker – a story with mythical proportions. I’m left asking “What is this story about?”

This latest series appears to be an attempt to right a galactic wrong – that of an absence of female characters in the Star Wars universe. As such, we get characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) who does little more than stand in for Admiral Leia while she’s knocked out and to confound pilot man-child Poe by keeping him (and the rest of the Rebel fleet) in the dark about her plans. The men in this universe seem universally dim while all the women seem eternally wise. Just when you think something interesting is going to happen (will Rey and Kylo Ren rule over a new Empire?) – it doesn’t. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for this film.

There are so many lead characters in this story, it’s hard to figure out who I’m supposed to care about. Rey seems to follow Luke’s storyline from Empire Strikes Back and goes to fight the dark side without full Jedi training. Kylo Ren is still impetuous and fighting authority figures – even when he’s the ultimate authority. Poe had no trajectory in this story as his only purpose was to be a loose canon. Finn goes on a merry chase with Rose and has no arc to speak of. Leia spends most of the film sleeping off a vacuum-induced hangover. Rose has the best line of the film – only to find herself unconscious in the end. Luke evaporates for unknown reasons. I can’t get excited about anyone in this film and can barely extend more than 2 Heroes out of 5 and 2 Deltas as well.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


My impressions of this film are similar to yours, Greg. The Last Jedi is pretty good Star Wars but lacks sufficient cohesiveness and focus to emerge as exemplary Star Wars fare. There are a few bold moves here involving an extension of what has for decades been iconically known as “the force”. Now apparently the force involves extreme magical prowess, which is unfortunate as the force used to connote a more subtle special power that metaphorically endowed all of us with the ability to become the best versions of ourselves. Overall, I was entertained by this movie despite its flaws and I also give it 3 Reels out of 5.

There are plenty of good heroes in this movie and in fact their abundance is a drawback. Still, we are treated to the spicy hero’s journeys of Poe, Luke, Leia, Finn, Rose, and others. These heroes transform in meaningful ways; they grow in their maturity and understanding of themselves, the force, the nature of good and evil, and the world in which they live. Ren and Snoke are also formidable and interesting villains for our heroes to overcome. There’s so much going on at the expense of cohesion that I’ll only award 3 Hero points out of 5 as well as 3 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Justice League ••• 1/2

Starring: Ben AffleckGal GadotJason Momoa
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris TerrioJoss Whedon
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: November 17, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, can our review do justice to the latest DC franchise film?

 


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

Greg, our review is in a league of its own — which may or may not be a good thing. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Batman (Ben Affleck) hanging a hoodlum upside down from the side of a tall building in Gotham City. The hoodlum’s fear attracts a man-sized flying insect that Batman captures and it self destructs. Batman fears that with the passing of Superman (Henry Cavill), the galaxy knows that Earth is vulnerable to attack. He reaches out to Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot) for help, but she is reluctant to get involved. The two go in search of other heroes to help them in the coming attack.


The main villain is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who has lain dormant for thousands of years and now is hellbent on acquiring unlimited power from three mother boxes scattered around the globe. Batman and Wonder Woman know they’ll need to assemble a team, and so they find and recruit Arthur Curry as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen as The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone as Cyborg (Ray Fisher). When it becomes clear that they cannot defeat Steppenwolf without Superman’s help, they hatch a plan to resurrect the man of steel from his grave.


Scott, aside from this summer’s Wonder Woman, this is the best of the DC Extended Universe movies. But that’s not saying much. The film takes its time assembling its team of superheroes. To its credit, there are a number of scenes with heartfelt talks between characters. This is a welcome difference from the other films in this series (probably thanks in large part to a rewrite by Joss Whedon who is well-known for his character building).

The weak point in this film, as in most of the DCEU films, is the villain, This guy was just pure evil bent on the destruction of Earth for no reason other than he is cranky. And he’s not even the mastermind – the “motherbox” is apparently even bigger and badder than he is. If Steppenwolf is boring, then the motherbox is even worse. We don’t really know anything about it or its powers. And when it starts taking over the Chernobyl-like facility, all we see are scary black weeds. It’s hard to get invested in a villain that is mainly invisible.


Greg, slowly but surely, DC Films is finally acquiring an understanding of how to make a good superhero movie. You’re right about Joss Whedon’s fingerprints being all over this screenplay, and his influence gives this film a nice human touch. There’s also a concerted effort here to make superhero movies fun, an insight that Marvel figured out long ago.

In fact, my main criticism of Marvel superhero movies is that they are comedies with occasional dramatic moments. With Justice League, I see an attempt by DC Films to create a superhero movie that is a drama with occasional comedic moments. This latter approach works better for me, giving DC Films an edge once they master the formula, which they are close to doing.


There are other problems with DC Films. Among them being the poor quality Computer Graphics Imagery (CGI). The CGI in this film resembles cartoon drawings. Steppenwolf looked like a low-res XBOX 360 rendering. I’m stunned since it cost a reported $300MM to produce.

This is a good batch of heroes. Wonder Woman is more than just eye candy. She’s still reeling from the loss of Steve Trevor over 100 years ago. And she is a superior warrior as exposed in the opening scenes. Young Flash is entertaining as the newcomer to the scene. Cyborg, however, seems to have just the right superpowers that are needed at any point in time. But he is dealing with the man-vs-machine problem. Aquaman is hyper-masculine in what appears to be DC attempting to overcome the “lame” factor (YouTube.com). And then we have Batman, who has no real powers except, perhaps, leadership. Finally, Superman is back from the dead and he is more powerful than the rest of them combined.


The CGI didn’t bother me; in fact, I thought there was a cool, cruel, complexity to Steppenwolf’s look. The relevant flaw to me resides in the uni-dimensionality of this villain. Pure evil is rarely interesting, as you point out, Greg.

The transformations in this film were notable, beginning with the resurrection of Superman. We all knew it was coming, and they did a nice job of portraying his physical and mental transformations. Batman’s greying hair reveals that his physical decline is inevitable, unless of course they replace the aging Ben Affleck with a younger actor. His fragility makes him more of a liability than an asset to the team. Flash is portrayed as a young kid who provides comic relief, and his is a coming-of-age transformation story.


Justice League is an improvement over previous DCEU films. This “coming together” segment justifiably spent most of its time collecting the heroes into an ensemble and less time with the actual battle of good vs. evil. It’s not a terrible film, but DC has a long way to go to catch Marvel. I give Justice League just 3 out of 5 Reels.

The ensemble curated and led by Batman is a good group. They have, after all, been cultivated over decades since the launch of DC in the 1930s. It’s clear that Wonder Woman is the breakout star of the DCEU, rivaling the entertainment value of both Batman and Superman. I give these heroes 4 out of 5 Heroes.

You pretty well covered the transformations. Wonder Woman seems to have accepted the responsibility for saving the world that she hid from since the death of Steve Trevor. Cyborg is growing into his status as a superhero. Flash is still coming-of-age and is also finding his place in the league. I give these transformations 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movies: Transformations: Heroes:


For me, Justice League was not merely an improvement over previous DC Comics Films; it represents a triumph. Finally we are treated to a film with some heart and soul behind the capes and masks of our DC superheroes. If Marvel films give us superhero tales that are comedies, DC Films would be wise to continue making dramas sprinkled with comedic elements. There is an appealing simplicity to Justice League that gives it great entertainment value. I give the film 4 Reels out of 5.

I agree with you, Greg, that we have an impressive group of superheroes who engage in lively banter and enjoy sizzling chemistry. The ensemble must work together and overcome daunting obstacles to defeat Steppenwolf, and several of them must undergo significant transformative change to do so — Superman, especially. I give this super-crew a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5 and their transformations a rating of 4 Deltas out of 5.

Movies: Transformations: Heroes:

The Dark Tower ••1/2

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date: August 4, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, I was definitely in the mood for a movie about something dark protruding into the sky.


It seems our next film is the fight of good vs. evil over Trump Tower. Let’s recap:


We meet eleven-year-old Jake (Tom Taylor), who is having dreams and visions about a dark tower, a gunslinger (Idris Elba), and a man dressed in black (Matthew McConaughey). Everyone thinks Jake is crazy, and his mother (Katheryn Winnick) even takes him to a psychiatrist about these disturbing visions. One day two workers from a psychiatric facility come to Jake’s home to take him away, but he recognizes them as members of the evil forces in his fantasies.

 


Jake runs away and finds a portal to another world. He steps through and immediately meets up with the Gunslinger from his nightmares. The Gunslinger explains that the Man in Black is trying to destroy the Dark Tower – the thing that keeps the universal badness at bay. Now it’s a race against time as Jake and the Gunslinger track down the Man in Black to save both their worlds.


Greg, whatever The Dark Tower was trying to do, it misses the mark. It wasn’t a scary movie, a horror movie, an action movie, or a western. I suppose it belongs in the fantasy genre, but what kind of fantasy involves a dark, foreboding tower holding the universe together? Usually those are the kinds of towers we want to destroy, not keep standing, so I’m not sure what kind of metaphor or symbol this story is proposing.

The tale is a simple one involving our hero, a young boy, and his mission to preserve the tower. To accomplish this feat, he enlists the aid of a friend and mentor in the form of the gunslinger, and he must defeat the villainous Matthew McConaughey. So it’s a pretty standard hero’s journey, a coming-of-age type of story with most of the elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth in place. But nothing in the film is particularly inspiring. There’s not much action, not much suspense, not much interesting dialogue, and not much to get excited about. This film is a by-the-numbers fantasy that barely kept my attention for 95 minutes.


Yeah, I agree. In anticipation of the film, I read book one in The Dark Tower series. Only to learn that the movie is not based on any one of the books. But rather, is a sort of amalgam of all the books combined. As such it was not satisfying in any way. Also, the books are very dark and suitable mainly for adult consumption. This new film (and apparent series) was watered down and seems to be a young adult offering. It was not scary or dark and did not bring the adult level of entertainment of the books.

However, the performances were top-notch. Idris Elba as Roland, the Gunslinger, was at once brooding and sympathetic. He was a man out for vengeance. McConaughey’s Man in Black was equally brooding and quite scary as a man with a singular purpose – to bring down the tower by sucking the life energy out of small children.

Despite McConaughey’s brilliant portrayal, the Man in Black is a one-dimensional character. We don’t know why he wants to topple the Dark Tower. We don’t know how he came to be such a villainous character. As we’ve noted in the past, the pure evil villain, however well presented, is still bland and boring. A little more backstory for the Man in Black might have upped the game for this story.


I interpreted McConaughey’s “man in black” character to be the devil — or something equivalent in midworld — and as such it didn’t seem to matter how he became pure evil. But even the devil is a fallen angel with a backstory, and so you’re right, it would have been nice to know how he evolved into such utter badness. We learn a bit more about the gunslinger’s history but only at a surface level.

In terms of transformation, we do have a young boy with a secret identity whose powers are initially misunderstood by everyone. This case of mistaken identity is a deep heroic archetype in ancient storytelling, seen in tales from Cinderella to the Ugly Duckling. So there is a transformation from ordinary (and vilified) to extraordinary (and revered) in our young hero. And his highly evolved powers save the day at the end.


Yeah, actually I enjoyed Jake’s transformation in this film. He thinks he’s a nut case – going crazy. Only to find that he’s got some sort of special power. So he comes into his own as a hero.

The Dark Tower is a disappointing if not technically powerful achievement. The acting and special effects are as good as any movie we’ve seen this year. But the story is not as adult as I would have liked and it doesn’t relate to the book it’s based upon. I give The Dark Tower 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jake is the hero of the story and his transformation is entertaining. His mentor is the Gunslinger who has his own transformation to undergo. The Man in Black is a strong villain. What he lacks in backstory or motivation he makes up for in being a competent and challenging opponent. I give Jake and his hero’s journey 3 out of 5 Heroes. Jake’s transformation is good, he comes into his own in this story. I give him 3 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


I agree that The Dark Tower is a towering disappointment. This is a movie that didn’t know what it wanted to be. I suppose it was a fantasy adventure for pre-teens that doesn’t hold much appeal for adults. Overall there wasn’t enough fun, suspense, or adventure in this film to hold my interest. Pretty much everything about this movie and in this movie is forgettable. I can only give it 2 Reels out of 5.

Having said that, the film does feature a decent hero’s journey and a solid hero’s transformation. Jake is separated from his ordinary world and encounters all the basic elements of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero — a friend and mentor, a formidable villain, and a mission to eradicate evil. Jake discovers his true powers and true identity and in so doing he defeats the enemy. As such, I can award 3 Hero points and 3 transformation Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

The Mummy •1/2

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: June 9, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, I’m all wrapped up in this new Tom Cruise film.


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

Greg, you sound all wound up. I’d switch to de-coffin-ated coffee if I were you. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to two travellers on horseback in the sandy dunes of Iraq. Government contractor Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) encourages his sidekick friend Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) to ride into the town below and steal some religious artifacts to sell on the black market. Vail is dubious, especially considering that the town is overrun with Iraqi insurgents. They race into the town and are immediately surrounded by gunfire. Vail calls in an airstrike that scares away the militants. But it also reveals a giant Egyptian tomb buried under the town.


Morton’s recent love interest, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) is an archeologist on the scene. She’s excited to discover the tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) along with the sarcophagus. It is priceless.  Morton makes the mistake of making eye contact with the sarcophagus, as it causes a curse to be passed from Ahmanet to Morton. The sarcophagus is transported out of Iraq by plane but the curse of Ahmanet leads to the evil possession of Vail and causes the plane to crash, killing Morton. Or so we think.

 


Scott, The Mummy is the first in a potential series of films in the Dark Universe franchise from Universal Films. It’s an attempt by Universal to cash in on the latest trend of extended universes as seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe. Universal is tying together such classics as The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and others. This incarnation of The Mummy is an origin story for the Tom Cruise character to become the main character on a quest to seek out and destroy evil monsters who live amongst us.


Exactly, Greg. Only Universal’s plans are a universal failure. This movie simply doesn’t work, and the reasons for the failure are numerous. We just reviewed Wonder Woman, which falls roughly in the same genre making it impossible not to compare the two films. WW told a good story and didn’t rely on the CGI effects to be the main attraction.The Mummy, on the other hand, is solely about placing Tom Cruise in scary situations and then watching zombies, rats, or birds wreak havoc on him. There are numerous chase scenes that we simply don’t need to see. The story felt flat and lifeless to me.

Other problems abound. Morton’s sidekick Vail becomes possessed and goes on a stabbing spree on a plane, bringing it down and killing many people. Yet afterward this still-possessed sidekick regains his normal personality and kids around with Morton as if nothing had happened. We also have an unfortunate regression to the days when women constantly needed to be rescued by men. We witness Morton save Jenny’s life over and over again, which causes her to fall in love with him (insert gag reaction here). I was left completely disappointed by the film’s end.


I agree, this was a complete waste of celluloid – if only it were on film. There were so many problems with this film. At the core the biggest problem is that we don’t know what anyone wants in this film. Morton saves Jenny, wakes up cursed, and he doesn’t want to do anything about it. He doesn’t want to cure himself. He doesn’t want to find the mummy. He doesn’t seem to want or need to get back to his job. WIthout a main goal for each character, the story is pointless. And so it meanders – as you point out – from chase scene to chase scene.

Another problem with this story is Morton’s relationship with Jenny. In the end of the story Morton gives his life to save Jenny. But the filmmakers never establish a strong relationship between the two. We know they had a one night stand, but otherwise, there is no strong feelings between them. So his sacrifice is an empty one.


Well, I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to create a believable love story, the kind where two attractive people start out on shaky ground and then bond through adversity. We talk about romantic duos in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains. So our two heroes are destined to undergo an emotional transformation, with each helping the other grow. Jenny helps Morton become a better person and see the value of things beyond monetary profit. In turn, Morton’s good deeds win Jenny’s heart. I found neither of these transformations to be authentic or believable. They are based on insulting gender stereotypes from yesteryear.


As a hero Morton comes up short. He’s not very honest or courageous. He does occasionally do something good – like saving Jenny. But overall, he’s not someone we think of as a model citizen. He’s selfish and self-serving. In the end he gives up his life to save Jenny. As you point out, it’s not a believable transformation.

There are other transformations, however. We see the goddess Ahmanet going from a high priestess, to a murderer, to a mummy and ultimately dispatched into nothingness. We see Vail go from a headstrong (albeit reluctant) profiteer, to a ghost, back to living sidekick to Morton. None of these transformations are particularly interesting as The Mummy isn’t really about characters and their transformations, it’s about creating ghastly images. And frankly, I’ve seen better quality scary stuff on HBO and Starz this year. The Mummy is pretty dull.


Enough said. The Mummy is a film that disappoints on many levels. At the center of this disheveled story is poor Tom Cruise being pulverized by various objects and creatures. His reputation as an actor takes the biggest hit, however. If this movie’s goal was to kickstart Universal Films’ new franchise of monster movies, well, I’m sorry to report that the franchise is off to a bad start. The Mummy earns only 1 Reel out of 5.

Our two heroes’ love story never rings true, with Jenny being a damsel in constant distress and Norton saving her repeatedly despite having the moral center of a sea-slug. Yes, there is a hero’s journey here but it is “forced” and anachronistic. As mentioned earlier, I also had a problem with Norton’s sidekick Vail who one moment is a possessed killer and the next moment is a wisecracking buddy. The hero rating here is 2 Heroes out of 5.

The emotional transformations of Norton and Vail never ring true, and in fact they are irrelevant in a movie whose main goal is to incessantly throw bats, ravens, and zombies at our two heroes. A rating of 2 transformational Deltas out of 5 seems about right to me.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


That’s a nice “wrap” up Scott. The Mummy is a dull, uninteresting monster thriller that deserves only 2 Reels out of 5 for its lackluster story. The hero’s journey is likewise dull and forced. I give Morton just 2 Heroes out of 5. And while there are several transformations in this story, I can only muster 2 Deltas out of 5. It seems Universal is off to a slow start in its new franchise. If The Mummy is any indication, Dark Universe will also be dank and disappointing. Let’s hope things get better.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Wonder Woman ••••1/2

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Beauty and the Beast •••1/2

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


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

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

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

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Doctor Strange •••1/2

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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