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Baby Driver ••••1/2

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Action/Crime/Music, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2017



Nobody puts Baby in the corner, unless he’s driving around the corner of your block.

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

This Baby’s got a lot of Miles on him, that’s for sure. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young hot shot getaway driver. He has tinnitus – a ringing in the ears – and must constantly listen to music to escape the din. His boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) has him indentured as Baby stole one of his cars years ago. Now, Baby has to drive getaway for bank robbers until his debt is paid. And he has just one more run to go to pay back what he owes.

Baby successfully completes his final job for Doc and then meets a lovely young woman named Debora (Lily James). The two hit it off but when they’re out to dinner one night, Doc confronts Baby and threatens Debora’s safety if Baby doesn’t perform one more getaway drive. Baby reluctantly agrees and makes plans to run away with Debora. The driving job goes wrong in several ways and Baby finds himself fighting for his life and for the safety of Debora and his foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).

Scott, I’m rarely bowled over by a movie, but Baby Driver hits all the right notes. I cannot describe the precision of every detail in this film. Right from the opening credits where Baby rocks out to “Bellbottoms” – every beat, break, and note is linked with the action we see on the screen. Director of Photography Bill Pope (The Matrix) aligns the lyrics to scenic elements. Editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss synchronize the constant drum of the soundtrack to every image we see on the screen. Even Ansel Elgort lip-syncs these songs as if he were raised on them as mother’s milk. If you thought the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy was great, you must see Baby Driver. There is nothing else like this film.

Absolutely correct, Greg. Despite a few minor flaws, Baby Driver is one of the best films of 2017. My fear going into the movie was that it would be a remake of Fast and Furious, but this movie is far superior to any installment of the F&F franchise. The driving scenes are mostly in the service of character development and moving the plot forward. Director Edgar Wright deserves Oscar consideration for exemplary and innovative camera work, and Kevin Spacey merits similar recognition for his portrayal of a ruthless yet brilliant mastermind villain.

Oddly, we’re introduced to our hero, Baby, midway through his hero’s journey. We’re told through narrative exposition that Baby was thrust into his main hero’s journey years earlier when his parents died in a car crash. Later he’s thrown into another sub-journey when he steals Doc’s car. This unusual story structure has the advantage of propelling us into the action right away but it also denies us seeing Baby’s origin story. I, for one, would love to see a prequel to this film that would take us back to Baby’s childhood and adolescence so that we can see how he evolved into a thief and then got swallowed into Doc’s cauldron of evil.

I thought the hero’s journey was pretty standard, actually. In his ordinary world, Baby’s a driver for a dark mentor, Doc. Things are going pretty well when one day he meets a beautiful young woman. She lays down the call to adventure – to hit the road and never look back. Now, his main goal is to finish his job with Doc and get out of town. But there are complications when Doc doesn’t let Baby out of the job. It’s an expertly executed story structure from beginning to end. The bits about his parents’ demise is all backstory. But I would go with you to see that backstory as a prequel. Yes, indeed.

As a hero, Baby is perfect – by having flaws. He is basically a good kid. He has a “superpower” of being an exceptional driver. He’s kind to his deaf-mute foster father. He’s gallant with his love interest. Yet, he’s in the dark business of robbing banks – which occasionally results in someone getting hurt or killed. He’s a bit of an anti-hero with Doc as a dark mentor and Debora as the anti-villain – leading him away from a life of crime.

So does that mean that Baby fails to transform as most good heroes do? We get the sense that he’s a good man. He takes care of his indigent foster father; he warns the post office worker not to enter the building while it’s being robbed; and he returns the purse to the lady whose car he hijacks. He’s a good person caught in a bad situation — something we can all relate to and ultimately draws us to him. But he seems to be this good person from the beginning of the film to the end, suggesting a lack of transformation.

Quite possibly Baby’s transformation is not a moral one but a mental and emotional one. He falls in love, quite possibly for the first time, and learns all too well the price of loving another. His dealings with Doc reinforce the darkness of the world and teach him valuable lessons about trust and loyalty. And speaking of Doc, the film’s end showcases an act of supreme redemption when Doc sacrifices his life to save Baby and Debora. Redemption, by definition, implies transformation, and Doc’s was both powerful and timely.

I’m glad you brought up Doc’s transformation. It seemed sudden and out of character. We don’t get any indication that Doc is soft-hearted in any way. He’s very hard-nosed, in fact. He threatens to call off the Post Office job when a weapons deal goes south. He’s ruthless, cunning, and uncompromising. Yet, at the last minute, when he sees Baby has a girlfriend, he has a change of heart and helps Baby escape, even giving his own life. It was a transformation that didn’t ring true.

Despite this flaw, I still found Baby Driver was an amazing piece of art and I cannot recommend it higher. I give Baby Driver a full 5 Reels out of 5.

Baby is a great hero – possibly even an anti-hero. While he is virtuous, his morals are in question as he is a thief and an accomplice to burglary and even murder. But we like him for his high level of competence as a driver and his kindness to his girlfriend and foster father. I give Baby 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The transformations in this film are good, but I’m not sure they’re great. Baby is sentenced to 25 years in jail with parole at 5 years. And in the epilog, it appears he is released for his good deeds at parole. And he appears to have become the moral man we know he can be. However Doc’s inexplicable transformation from a dark mentor to a martyr is hard to believe. I can only give 4 out of 5 Deltas for them.

Movie: Transformation:  Heroes:

Baby Driver is one of the best films of 2017, a true sleeper hit that is crafted stylishly and expertly in terms of story quality, character development, and the heroic journey. This is one of those movies that deserves Oscar consideration but likely won’t receive it because of the time of year (early summer) that it was released. I’m happy to award Baby Driver 4 Reels out of 5.

Baby is a hero, not an anti-hero, as he ends on a morally positive note, extricating himself from his life of crime while demonstrating a loving heart to his father, his girlfriend, and even complete strangers. Baby has many of the characteristics of the great eight traits of heroes, including intelligence, strength, reliability, resilience, caringness, selflessness, and inspiration. I give Baby a hero rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

Regarding heroic transformation, Baby finds love which heightens his transformation away from his life of crime. Along the way he also discovers key insights about himself and the dark world of crime. Greg, you may be right about Doc’s transformative self-sacrifice being out of character, but I’m not so sure. Baby may have won over Doc the way he won over everyone else. Still, I’m only giving this film 3 Deltas out of 5 because we never do see Baby’s original, central transformation to a life of crime, as this movie begins at the midpoint of the hero’s journey. Let’s hope a prequel film is in the works that will illuminate Baby’s path toward criminality.

Movie: Transformation:  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



(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.”

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

La La Land •••

la_la_land_filmStarring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Comedy/Drama/Musical, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2016


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Well Scott, are you Ga Ga over La La Land?

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

La La Land was definitely not doo doo and much better than so so. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to bright and emerging actress Mia (Emma Stone). She is trying out for a number of movies and has big dreams of becoming a movie star. But first she must work in the movie studio’s coffee shop as a barista. She goes to a restaurant at Christmastime where she hears a young Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) playing a piano. Things aren’t going so well for young Sebastian as he is summarily fired for not playing holiday standards.

Mia and Sebastian’s paths keep crossing. Eventually they go out, enjoy great chemistry together, and fall in love. Sebastian meets an old friend and bandmate who invites Sebastian to join his band. The offer is lucrative, and Sebastian accepts but is dismayed to discover that the band’s music is uninteresting and a total sell-out. Meanwhile, Mia’s one-woman play is a total bust, sending Mia home to live with her parents in Nevada.

The opening scene of La La Land is a massive production number where all the (young) drivers in Los Angeles’ gridlock get out of their cars and sing and dance. This is a promise that we’re in for a classic musical ala the 1940’s. But it is a promise that will soon be broken as the leads in this story really don’t sing or dance very much. And when they do it is the minimum necessary. La La Land is a huge disappointment.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if that were the only flaw. But this movie fails on every level. Musical: the songs are abandoned at about the 25% point. Dance: Stone and Gosling barely perform – I’ve seen better work on TV’s Dancing with the stars. Plot: This is a hackneyed story that has little depth. Jazz: Gosling’s thing is that he wants everyone to love Jazz. And by the end of the story we don’t care one wit about Jazz. It’s a story full of promises that are never delivered upon.

I disagree, Greg. Yes, La La Land is lightweight fun but it is fun nonetheless. The film is packed with visual and emotional appeal. At the visual level, we are treated to delightful cinematography capturing the spirit of the southern California lifestyle and the glamor of the entertainment industry. At an emotional level, we fall in love with the idea of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling falling in love. There is a palpable spark between them, made more poignant by their professional struggles.

The heroes of the story are the romantic duo of Mia and Sebastian. We can tell they are destined to fall in love because they dislike each other at the outset. La La Land is clever in its introduction to our heroes. There is a minor road rage incident, a snub at a nightclub, and an annoying party song request. Each hero hits a low point; his is at the beginning, hers is toward the end. There are no villains, other than the difficult entertainment industry in which they work. The journey consists of them helping each other succeed, and the adventurous storyline exudes fun, energy, wit, and charm.

I had no problem with these characters as the leads – except that there was nothing particularly interesting about them. Gosling did a good job as the jazz pianist – apparently playing the piano himself in scenes that required it. Aside from one scene where he explains jazz to Mia, we don’t really get to see his passion. And when Mia encourages him to try out for a band, he resists at first, then joins up. Apparently he had personality conflicts with the leader (played by John Legend). But we never really see these conflicts. And our hero seems to genuinely enjoy playing the “new jazz.” So it’s a bit of a surprise when he claims he only joined because Mia exhorted him to.

Likewise with Mia’s talents. Sebastian encourages Mia to stop auditioning and work on her one-woman show. Which she does and when only a handful of people show up, she decides to quit acting altogether. But then a casting agent saw the show and wants to cast Mia in a major feature. And we have the same problem again – we never saw the one-woman show. So we have no idea whether she was any good in it. The only real example of Mia’s acting we get is a monologue where she reminisces about an aunt who got a passing mention in an earlier scene. It’s truly a touching moment – possibly the only one in the film.

So I’m pretty unenthusiastic about this romantic hero pairing. There’s a lot of talk about their relative passions, but very little of it is on-screen. We just have to take their word for it. So I’ll go back to the old saw about writing – “show, don’t tell.”

They showed plenty to me. Sebastian’s passion for jazz jumped off the screen for me, and inspired me (a disliker of jazz) to actually enjoy the music I heard in this movie. It was all “show” and very little “tell”. And thank God they didn’t show Mia’s one-woman show; what a waste that would have been. We witnessed her talent big-time during her failed auditions, where she was jinxed time and again.

This year we’ve explored the important role of mentoring in the movies, and this movie could serve as an example of a story that works just fine without mentoring. The reason is that our two heroes help each other transform — a type of peer assisted transformation. Mia helps Sebastian learn to follow his dream, a conceptual transformation for him. In turn, he helps her by getting her to the movie audition — a mechanical transformation. That’s more black-and-white than it really is, but the point is that any mentoring they received happened earlier in their lives, with Sebastian getting great keyboard training and Mia some impressive acting lessons.

Once again, as with so much in this film, the mentoring is off-camera. There was so much that was off-camera in this film I felt that I didn’t really need to be in the theater.

La La Land is a film that promised much and delivered little. Even it’s opening scrawl promised it would be a Cinemascope classic. But it pales in comparison to such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and Top Hat. Those films, even with their limited plotlines, delivered amazing songs and dance routines. “I’ve watched theatrical musicals. I met theatrical movies. Theatrical movies have been friends of mine. La La Land – you’re no theatrical musical!” I give La La Land just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this film are flimsy and uninteresting. They scarcely have an arc that I could detect. The one saving grace is the last scene which was a “what could have been” montage. That was a welcome diversion from an otherwise ho-hum hero’s journey. I give the heroes in this film just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the mentoring was non-existent save for the owner of Mia’s coffee shop. 1 Mentor for her.

Movie: reel-2 Mentors: mentor1 Heroes: h-logo-2

La La Land is a spirited visual and musical spectacle that will keep your toes tapping and your heart singing long after you leave the theater. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone enjoy a sizzling romance that struggles to bloom and then lights up the big screen. I fell in love with the idea of them falling in love, and I wasn’t disappointed at all by the clever, realistic ending that showed them in different places yet forever changed by each other. La La Land falls just shy of earning all 5 points but does merit a festive 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two star-crossed lovers win our hearts with their sweet intentions, winning dispositions, and boundless talent. Ryan Gosling always amazes me by portraying characters whom I shouldn’t like but nevertheless find myself rooting for. Emma Stone remains one of the most mega-talented actors in Hollywood, and together these two stars make magic in the theater. Their hero’s journeys are textbook and I enjoyed watching them help each other transform into entertainers who achieve their full potential. They easily earn 4 Hero points out of 5.

There is no mentoring per se in this movie, at least not on-screen, but this is a film that doesn’t require mentoring to be effective. So no worries at all (from me) in assigning 1 single measly Mentor point out of 5.

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We Are Your Friends ••1/2

We_Are_Your_FriendsStarring: Zac EfronWes BentleyEmily Ratajkowski
Director: Max Joseph
Screenplay: Max JosephMeaghan Oppenheimer
Drama/Music/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: August 28, 2015


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Well Scott, it looks like another movie about young men from the bad side of town making their way in the music industry.

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

Different guys, different music, different movie. But is it the basically the same story? Let’s find out.

We’re introduced to four young men living in the south side of the Los Angeles valley. Cole had dreams of setting the world on fire with his one track of Electronic Dance Music. He and his friends party it up each night to the point of unconsciousness. They make a few bucks a week encouraging young people to drop by the local club and buy drinks. Things are going pretty well when Cole meets James, an older and more experienced DJ.

James takes an interest in Cole and recognizes his potential as a DJ. Cole, on the other hand, takes an interest in James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Cole and his friends are lured into working for a real estate company that preys on homeowners caught in a foreclosure. Cole has some decisions to make about love, priorities, and career.

Scott, We Are Your Friends is a weak attempt to offer a complement to the outstanding Straight Outta Compton. WAYF has a meandering almost pointless plot that seemed to be knit together scenes from every Saturday Morning Special – ever. Boy wants career. Boy meets evil mentor. Boy falls in love with mentor’s girl. Best friend dies. Boy succeeds in career and integrate loss into show.

Zac Efron seems out of place in this movie. He does a great job of delivering despite a lackluster script. I enjoyed him in last year’s Neighbors where he was convincing as the head frat boy. Given the opportunity, Efron can make us believe he is… well pretty much as he is.

Greg, We Are Your Friends is a movie with a good heart but poor execution, as you note. The good heart is revealed in Cole’s pure motives to improve himself, to help those who were exploited by the real estate scheme, and to play a song whose main lyric is “there’s gotta be something better than this.” This movie guides us through the upward mobility of our hero Cole, who must recognize one mentoring as dark, and act on it, and another mentoring as beneficial, and act on that one, too.

Comparisons to Straight Outta Compton are inevitable, I suppose. It’s a little unfair to do so, as Compton is a (mostly) true story and has interesting cultural and institutional barriers for the group of heroes to overcome. We Are Your Friends is more about a lone hero who must wrestle with his conscience while developing his talent. There’s a different emphasis in the two movies, with really only music being the common denominator.

Cole has three friends and each represents a different stereotype of young men. There’s the leader, Mason, who lives for today and whose highest ambition is to find an apartment where they can all live together. Then there’s Ollie who wants to be an actor but can’t find a gig. And finally, there’s Squirrel who is the most naive of the four but sees things more clearly than the rest. Of course, he must die. Cole represents the “one who succeeds” as he realizes his dream despite betraying his mentor.

Good description of the fraternity hero ensemble, Greg. I enjoyed the battle of the dueling mentors. Cole is being guided by James, who is a positive mentor in terms of offering professional guidance. But Cole is also under the influence of Paige (Jon Bernthal), a man who has no qualms about finding a legal way to steal homes from financially struggling homeowners. Cole is transformed by both mentors; he listens to the good mentor but defies the dark one. Both mentors help shape Cole’s character in different ways and help him transform as a hero.

Also playing a pivotal role in the film is Sophie, who turns in a voluptuous performance. The romance between Cole and Sophie is telegraphed early when we see them get off to a bad start. Just for once, I’d like to see filmmakers dare to make a movie in which two lovers do not initially hate each other. If I saw this I think I’d fall out of my theater seat.

We Are Your Friends is a coming of age story for post-adolescents. It looks at four possible paths for young men including death due to overindulgence. I found that almost everything in the story was predicted from the beginning. Nothing in this movie surprised me. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the recent Straight Outta Compton which was a far superior film. WAYF was simplistic, formulaic, and uninspiring. The Electronic Dance Music that James and Cole were supposed to be experts in seemed just as simplistic. I found myself wondering if there are festivals where thousands of people stand in the hot sun and listen to “hot licks.” I give WAYF just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Cole is a pretty good hero, even if he is cut from familiar cloth. He starts out naive and inexperienced and through the support of an older mentor becomes the man we all know he can be. Zac Efron is too good for this role and I wonder if he needs a new agent. Still, Efron takes the role seriously and displays a range of emotions from immature to chagrined to mournful and finally redeemed. I give Cole 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting characters are a good collection of archetypes. As I pointed out earlier, the three other young men in the fraternity ensemble represent alternative paths that Cole could have taken. The romantic interest was an inevitable distraction. The good mentor was troubled and we’re exposed to some of his backstory. The dark mentor on the other hand was less textured but offered a good contrast. I give this group 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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We Are Your Friends is harmless entertainment about the rising career of a DJ. There is a lot of music in this movie that is not in my wheelhouse, but I could appreciate the art and the science of creating sounds that people can rock their bodies to. As I’ve mentioned, there is a lot of heart in this film, but also a lot of predictable fluff. I give We Are Your Friends a rating of 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero story has its charms and does feature our hero Cole undergoing a transformation of talent along with a transformation of moral conscience. Cole receives help along the way from James, Sophie, and his friends. His dark mentor Paige also teaches him how not to conduct oneself and prods Cole toward enlightenment. I can award Cole 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are adequate for the task, but I wasn’t too fond of Cole’s group of friends. Cole seems too smart to tolerate their Neanderthal ways but I suppose the filmmakers wanted to inject some drama into Cole’s life for entertainment’s sake. The two mentors were interesting, and Sophie, besides having her obvious charms, played a key role in dividing Cole from his good mentor. This support group earns a rating of 3 out of 5.

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Straight Outta Compton •••1/2

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterStarring: O’Shea Jackson Jr.Corey HawkinsJason Mitchell
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay: Jonathan HermanAndrea Berloff
Music/Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Date: August 14, 2015


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Scott, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube produced their own biopic. Does it deserve it’s good rap?

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

I’m straight outta answers, Greg. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Eazy-E, a mule for the local drug dealer. He’s running drugs but he wants to move on to something a little more… sane. And a lot less dangerous. When his friend Dr. Dre proposes he invest some of his drug money in a rap album, he’s dubious. But between Dre and their mutual friend Ice Cube, they convince Eazy-E to bankroll the new group. Not only do they convince him to pony up the cash to produce the first single, but also convince him to rap on it.

The group decides on a name, NWA, and they turn out a hit single. During a live show, music agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) sees the group’s potential and approaches Eazy E, who hires him. Soon NWA has a record label, Priority Records, which produces NWA’s first album, Straight Outta Compton. It becomes a smash hit, and NWA is on its way to legendary fame.

Scott, I have never appreciated rap or hip-hop music. It never reached me. And after watching Straight Outta Compton I can see why. These young men were rapping about their inner city situation, something completely outside of my experience. They were living in a world surrounded by drugs and crime. And a police force that assumed their guilt just because they were black and hanging around on the streets. No wonder they created a hit single called “F* the Police.”

Unlike so many biopics we’ve seen, this one had a lot of heart. Even though I felt the drugs, sex, and crime were watered down for public display, I was drawn into the world of NWA and grew to appreciate the enormity of their accomplishment. They created a new genre of “Gangsta Rap” that continues to have an impact today.

You’re right, Greg. On the surface, Straight Outta Compton is a movie about a rap group. But it is so much more than that. This film is about human relations – how those relations form, how they evolve, how they unravel, and how we clean up the mess. Compton makes you think about the ways that human beings treat each other, in the good sense but mostly in the destructive sense.

For the most part, Straight Outta Compton focuses on the ability of a group of African-Americans to overcome the institution of racism. Yes, we know that the film cleaned up its portrayal of this hip-hop group, but there is still much more than a kernel of truth in Compton’s message about the dangers of a racist police force. The anger in the song lyrics seems extreme yet understandable.

These are flawed heroes. Eazy-E earns his money running drugs – a strictly illegal vocation. But he sees the drug business as a losing proposition. The dangers outweigh the return on investment. When Dr. Dre approaches to start a record label, he is dubious at first (a classic call to adventure and refusal of the call) but then jumps in with both feet. Dre is painted as a good kid who has dreams of setting the world on fire with his DJ mastery. There’s even a classic scene where Dre is told not to spin that hip-hop stuff and play the master list. But he breaks the boss’s rules and gets the crowd hopping to his mad licks. And Ice Cube has the lyrics. He’s the poet of the group. In a lot of ways, this is a classic rock and roll success story complete with the excess in alcohol, drugs, and sex. But these heroes also have to deal with the seedy underworld of crime as the people running the show are criminals.

In some ways, this movie tells the familiar tale of the rock’n roll group that can’t handle success and must disintegrate. There is a Beatle-esque sequence involving the group writing song lyrics that skewer Ice Cube for leaving the group, followed by the Cube returning the favor in his subsequent songs. We see redemption at the end when the guys patch things up.

The sleazy embezzling Heller character is interesting. He is a mix of the good mentor and the dark mentor. He helps NWA achieve superstardom but in the end Heller reveals himself to be a lying cheat. Another manager is later shown to be crooked and pays the price by having his office dismantled by a baseball bat. We’ve seen this sleaze in the music industry in last year’s Jersey Boys and Get On Up.

There aren’t a lot of secondary characters to review in this movie. There are a lot of minions – people who are hangers on, coasting on the coattails of NWA. There is also what we call a “System” in the police – who are cast as oppressors in this film. Usually there is a single character who might represent the face of the minions or the police, but this film does a disservice by making both a nameless, faceless mass.

Straight Outta Compton was not meant to appeal to an older, non-rappy guy like me. Yet I found myself strangely moved by the film. I found myself rooting for these underdog heroes and appreciating the systemic obstacles placed in their road to success. I’m referring, of course, to the systems of racism and power-abusing law enforcement. This film was well-made and quite interesting. I’m happy to award it 3 Reels out of 5.

Our NWA heroes are not choir boys but they nevertheless travel the classic hero’s journey that includes a departure into the unfamiliar world of celebrity status, help from mentors (both good and bad), encounters with lovers, and battles with villainous institutions. Eazy-E’s death in the end was poignant, too. I’ll give this group a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

As you mention, Greg, there aren’t many supporting characters. Heller is a scumbag for cheating the group but he also helped them in some important ways. The appearance of Snoop Dogg and others is inconsequential. Because there isn’t much here, I can only award 2 Cast points out of 5.

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Straight Outta Compton is another classic rock-n-roll story, except this time it has a happy ending – mostly. It isn’t surprising that you and I identified with these young men, despite the differences in our backgrounds. We admire people who start with nothing and rise to successful heights.

Not only that, but there are significant transformations here. Dre and Ice Cube grow from young hoodlums into mature adults who are leaders in their respective industries. Even Eazy-E comes to realize that he let money and fame cloud his judgement and he renews his friendship with Dre and Ice Cube, only to be struck down in his prime by AIDS. It is a story of mythic proportions, one that anyong can identify with. I give Straight Outta Compton 4 out of 5 Reels and 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters are few and far between. The one character of interest is Heller and he plays both good and bad mentor. The mass of hangers-ons and evil police are hardly noteworthy. I give them 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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