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Red Sparrow ••••

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!


First there was Black Panther and now a Red Sparrow.


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


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

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

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

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Game Night •••

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler
Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Screenplay: Mark Perez
Comedy/Crime/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: February 23, 2018

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, are you game to write this next review?


I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted to win. Let’s recap:


We meet Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), two 30-somethings who fell in love and got married as a result of their passion for playing games such as charades, trivia pursuit, and jenga. They live next door to Gary (Jesse Plemons) an odd policeman separated from his wife. Gary once was invited to Max and Annie’s game nights but now he is no longer invited. Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives in town, and we learn that Max feels insecure because he can never seem to measure up to his big brother.


Brooks, feeling the need to one-up Max again, invites Max and his friends to his house for a game night. He has paid for an “experience” where actors will break into his house and abduct one of them. Then, the rest must follow the clues to retrieve the kidnapped player. The winner receives a classic 1976 Corvette Stingray. But things are thrown for a loop when real kidnappers break in and take Brooks. Max and their friends still think it’s a game and go on a mission to find Brooks never knowing the danger they’re in.


Greg, this film is a clever prank-fest where in scene after scene we’re left guessing what’s a game and what isn’t, and it’s all in good fun. The performances are outstanding, especially Jesse Plemons in the role of creepy Gary who surprises us late in the movie with some clever hijinx. I was also impressed by the clever screenwriting, evidenced by the callback to Fight Club and in the way the various pieces of the storyline are resolved.

Lurking beneath the screwball elements of this dark comedy is a fairly nice hero’s journey. Our group ensemble of heroes are hurled onto the journey by the game set up by Brooks, and on another deeper level by the hijacking of the game by the film’s villains. We watch our heroes fall into a few predictable traps and then generate amusing ways to extricate themselves. You know it’s a comedy when a bullet through the arm is treated like an insect bite. Still, our heroes do triumph and we happily witness a transformed brotherly bond between Max and Brooks.


Yes, I was also favorably impressed with Game Night. You surely cannot take this film seriously in any way. But if you like other Jason Bateman films (Horrible Bosses, Office Christmas Party) then you will not be disappointed.

Max is an everyman. He’s a good husband, and a good friend. He has a problem many suburbanites have: what do you do when a neighbor couple gets divorced and the remaining “friend” is the one you don’t like?

Max also has a missing inner quality in that he competes with his older brother and is never measuring up. Even the latest game that Brooks has created is beyond anything he’s provided for his wife and friends. So the odyssey that he goes on to find and rescue his brother is really a search to mend this missing hurt. It’s a great platform for any story, but making this the basis for a comedy makes Game Night not just madcap fun, but engaging and endearing.


Let’s get right to the ratings. To put it simply, Game Night is loads of fun and throws in just enough surprises and twists to have kept my keen interest throughout the 90 minutes of airtime. There will be no Golden Globe or Oscar awards here, but don’t let that deter you from giving Game Night a viewing. If you’re in the mood for ridiculous madcap rompings and clever storytelling at the most superficial level, then this film is the elixir you’re looking for. I award it 3 Reels out of 5. I’ve already described the hero’s journey of our ensemble of heroes, and it’s solid enough to also earn 3 Hero points out of 5 as well.

There are several notable archetypes worth mentioning here. There is the social misfit in Gary, and as you point out Greg, it’s rewarding to witness Gary’s transformation from creepy lurker to a mainstream game-playing buddy with his neighbors. We also have the archetype of the perfect older sibling with whom our hero (seemingly) cannot compete. Then there is the exotic foreign villain, the Bulgarians, along with some throwaway actors who represent the face of this evil. Overall, I have to once again give these archetypes 3 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:


That pretty well sums it up, Scott. I liked this film. Especially the loving relationship between Max and his wife Annie. So often we see comedy derived from the tension between spouses. Like 2014’s Neighbors the plot and comedy are strengthened by their love and respect for each other. I give Game Night 3 out of 5 Reels.

Max and Brooks have a classic brother-feud. Max has revelations that pour salve on his feelings of inadequacy towards Brooks. It’s a nice hero’s journey that I can award 3 Heroes out of 5. And the archetypes are simple enough – HUSBAND, WIFE, OLDER BROTHER. They also get 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Murder on the Orient Express ••••

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

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


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

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

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Suburbicon •

Starring: Matt DamonJulianne MooreOscar Isaac
Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: Joel CoenEthan Coen
Crime/Drama/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: October 27, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Greg, it’s time to watch George Clooney’s biting critique of suburban America.


More like his ultra-liberal wet dream – Suburbicon. Let’s Recap.


We meet Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his crippled wife Rose (Julianne Moore), sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). They live in Suburbicon, a fictitious all-white middle-class neighborhood in 1959 America.


Young Nicky Lodge neighborhood is up in arms because a black family has moved in next door. Nicky’s invalid mother Rose tells the boy to go play with the family’s young boy. This causes unrest in Rose’s sister, Maggie. That night, two men come to Nicky’s house and tie him, his father Gardner, his mother, and his aunt up and chloroform them into unconsciousness. But just as Nicky is drifting off, he sees one of the men give Rose an additional dose of chloroform. When he awakes in the hospital, he learns that his mother is dead.


Greg, Suburbicon is a Coen brothers misfire. Intended to be a dark comedy, the film is instead a soul-crushing story that left me thinking, “what’s the point?” There are two stories running parallel here, the main one involving a love-triangle murder to collect on a life insurance policy. The second storyline isn’t so much a story as it is a neighborhood’s violent tirade against an African-American family. The connection between these two tales isn’t fleshed out, and all I can figure is that the main story is about family dysfunction while the secondary story shows us societal dysfunction.

Everyone in this film is a vile character, with the exception of Nicky’s uncle, who dies while saving the boy from one of the killers. I get the impression that the Coen brothers felt like producing something dark a la Fargo but they forgot to insert Fargo’s cleverness or charm. There are no real heroic journeys to follow, only an anti-hero story that went basically nowhere. Even the film’s ending fell flat, with Nicky deciding to go play ball with his African-American buddy next door while blood-soaked bodies are littered about his home. I suppose this ending is intended to offer a sliver of hope, but I found it to be totally contrived.


I fully concur, Scott. This film is supposed to be some sort of cynical look at White America in the 1960s. I suppose what the twin stories is supposed to show is that Suburbicans thought the nice Black family were monsters, when in fact the true monsters were right next door.

There’s a point in the story when the insurance adjuster proclaims “There are just so many coincidences. One coincidence smells bad, but too many make a story smell really bad.” He could easily have been talking about this very movie. The boy, Nicky is not supposed to be at the initial police line up, but there he is. He’s not supposed to be in the room, but there he is. Someone turns the light on, and the bad guys can see him through the two-way mirror. And this is just in the first 20 minutes of the film. Truly, a more contrived set of circumstances could not have been created in a motion picture.

The thing that really grinds my gears is that this is not the film we were sold in the trailers. If you look at them, they sold us a dark comedy about a milquetoast man who defends his family, home, and neighborhood from the onslaught of an external mafia invasion. That seems interesting. But this film, whatever it thought it was, was not anywhere near what was promised.


There is an anti-hero’s journey of sorts, with Gardner descending into a dark world (which he’s made for himself). His descent gets deeper as one mishap after another seals his fate. Gardner doesn’t really undergo any type of transformation, although one could possibly argue that his villainy escalates during his attempt to save his skin. The secondary plot is void of any hero’s journey or transformation unless, again, one makes the argument that the neighborhood’s intolerance of the African-American family grows increasingly hostile over time.


I fully agree, Scott. The confusing thing about this story is that it’s told pretty much from the point of view of the young boy, Nicky. And yet, it’s the story of the anti-hero father. The story of the next-door-neighbor Black family is merely a side-by-side comparison. Nothing is learned and the artistic statement falls flat. This was a total waste of celluloid. Oh wait, this was a digital movie, so there’s a small win in that no film was harmed in the making of this story.

Suburbicon was a complete waste of time and resources. George Clooney and his Coen brother friends have lost their minds thinking that they were telling some sort of tale of White corruption. In fact, they promised a campy comedy and delivered a complete zero of a movie. Sadly, several very good performances, camera work, and costuming were also wasted. As much as I wanted to give zero Reels, I have to at least appreciate the visual appeal of this film. I give Suburbicon just 1 Reel out of 5.

The main character is the anti-hero Gardner Lodge. But the story is told through the eyes of young Nicky. If we view this as an anti-hero story we have to decide if the decline and eventual downfall of the protagonist delivered a cautionary tale. I’d say it did not. There is no real message to this story and the journey that both Gardner and young Nicky take leave us nothing of value. I give them 0 out of 5 Heroes.

And finally, we look for transformation in our movies and there is little to be found here. Almost anyone of note in the story ends up dead. Even Gardner is killed not by any action of his own or his son’s, but by accidentally eating the poisoned sandwich Margaret had intended for Nicky. So, Nicky doesn’t even stand up for himself but is saved by happenstance. I award 0 out of 5 Deltas for Suburbicon.

Movie: Transformation: 0  Heroes: 0


Suburbicon might as well have been named Subpar-icon. It baffles me that the Coen brothers and George Clooney bought into this anemic and unsatisfying screenplay. The main story simply describes a crime gone awry, and the peripheral story is merely the depiction of angry racists. It’s sad to give the Coen brothers only 1 Reel out of 5 but that’s all this film deserves.

I see that you’ve given both the heroes and their transformation a rating of zero, Greg. You make a good argument that there is nothing heroically of value, yet there may be a smidgeon of an anti-hero’s journey worth considering. Unlike you, I do see a cautionary tale here, with Gardner reminding us that crime never pays and that karma is a bitch. So I’ll give the anti-heroes 1 measly hero rating out of 5. The paucity of transformation merits (if that’s the right word) a barren 0 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: 0  Heroes:

Blade Runner 2049 ••••1/2

Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 164 minutes
Release Date: October 6, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it’s time to run, don’t walk to the theater and see Blade Runner: 2049.


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

This blade is sharp indeed. Let’s recap.


It’s the year 2049 and we’re introduced to ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling). He’s an android developed specifically for the purpose of hunting down and killing renegade androids. His boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is very concerned because K has just killed an android that left behind a strange box. When K opens it he finds the bony remains of a female android that appears to have had a caesarian section implying that the unthinkable has happened – an android has reproduced.


K is ordered by Joshi to find the replicant offspring and “retire” it. The deceased female replicant is identified as ‘Rachel’, and K discovers that she had a relationship with a former blade runner. Meanwhile, the head of the company that manufactures replicants, Wallace (Jared Leto) sends his henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to steal Rachel’s remains and to find the child.


Scott, Blade Runner 2049 is a great sequel to the original 1982 film. LIke its predecessor, 2049 is a bit ponderous – director Denis Villeneuve really takes his time setting up and executing each scene. And the scenes are constructed with great care and deliberation – which is to say that they are very detailed. The story is also told with great care and deliberation. It’s basically a mystery with clues left along the way as well as red herrings.

The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes – which is long by almost any standard. I thought there were several places where scenes could have been more economical. We see a lot of shots of K deep in thought (which Gosling is known for). This feels more like a director’s cut than a theatrical release. The special effects were very good and at times it felt like the director was offering pornagraphic material – not so much because of nude bodies, but because he lingered so long on the effect.

I was also disappointed in the lack of scenes with Harrison Ford (Deckard, from the original) as he is featured prominently in the trailers (and listed as a costar).


Greg, we’re in agreement about this film’s excellence. Blade Runner 2049 is a masterfully constructed sci-fi flick that sets a very high bar for future work in this genre. Director Villeneuve makes exquisite use of space – I’m referring to the space between people, between objects, between buildings, etc. There’s also deft use of lighting and shadowing, along with creative camera angles that accentuate tension and emotional impact within a character. The craftsmanship here should earn Villeneuve an Oscar nomination, at the very least.

Yes, the movie strained my bladder, and I’d like to start a petition requiring movies to run no longer than two hours. If you can’t tell a story in 120 minutes, then you aren’t a good storyteller. Movie directors seem to fall in love with their work and can’t bear to leave a frame of their precious film on the cutting room floor. It would have been nice indeed to see more of Harrison Ford, but he appears to have reached the stage of his career when he plays more supporting roles than lead roles. Personally I believe he can still carry a movie on his geezerly shoulders, but Villeneuve doesn’t give him the chance here.


K as the hero of the film is worth following. Unlike his predecessor, Deckard, K is outed in the opening scroll as a replicant (android). It’s interesting to see this character treated as a slave and at the same time contemplate his own existence. We’re witness to K’s gradual realization that he is “the one” (a replicant born of a female replicant). Then the sudden revelation that he is not the one. It’s jarring both for the character and the audience.


You’ve identified perhaps the most fascinating element of the hero’s journey here, Greg. While all hero’s journeys are a search for identity, this film is daring in depicting an identity dead-end for our hero K. Believing for a while that he was “the chosen one”, he is instead left absorbing the reality of his ordinariness. This film is strong enough to get away with an identity realization that defies heroic convention. I could be cynical here by pointing out that this anti-revelation merely paves the way to yet another sequel, but I’d say there’s more going on here. The “treasure we seek,” in the words of Joseph Campbell, is rarely the treasure that we think we’re seeking. This film was so long that the treasure I sought was the nearest urinal.


There is no transformation for the world in which K lives. However, we do see K transform from a lost slave performing the duties he told to execute, into a self-aware and self-actualized individual. He makes decisions for himself and makes his own destiny. It’s not clear if he survives the film, although it doesn’t look good for him. And Deckard appears to have gone from just existing in his wasteland to caring about what happens to his offspring. It’s true that these transformations appear to be setting us up for a sequel, but it’s a sequel I’m looking forward to.


Blade Runner 2049 ranks among the best science fiction films of the past several years. This is true movie-making, a film crafted with careful attention to every frame, every camera angle, and every line of dialogue. The story also makes the bold move of defying an iconic convention of hero storytelling, namely, the illumination of the hero’s special identity. We thus see how skillful storytellers know how to break the rules. I award Blade Runner: 2049 a glowing rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Ryan Gosling is cast perfectly in the role of K. a dutiful replicant who goes rogue in response to surprising revelations about his possible new identity. His hero’s journey contains the classic elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero — a departure to a startling new world followed by an initiation of trials, villains, detours, and discovery. This film gifts us with a terrific hero tale worthy of 4 Hero points out of 5.

Greg, you’re right about K’s transformation from a brutal slave enlisted simply to “retire” outdated replicants to an enlightened and empowered near-human being. In our Reel Heroes & Villains book, we describe five types of transformations: moral, mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. In this film, K undergoes a mental transformation, as his entire worldview is turned upside-down. K’s growth is this film is fascinating to watch and it earns him 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Scott, I couldn’t agree more. Despite the long running time and rather slow delivery, this is a film worth both waiting for and wading through. It’s artful, entertaining, and is every bit as good as the original. I can’t see how to improve it — 5 out of 5 Reels.

K’s journey from obedient slave to rising acolyte, to fallen hero is a great hero’s journey. It’s a heroic transformation that we don’t get to see often. And it was so skillfully delivered that I have to give a full 5 Heroes and 5 Deltas. Excellent.

 Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Wind River ••••

Starring: Kelsey Asbille, Jeremy Renner, Julia Jones
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Crime/Drama/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: August 18, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


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

Greg, apparently rivers are not just wet. They are windy as well.


A young woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is shown running frantically in the snow. We learn later that she was raped and as good as murdered while fleeing in sub-zero temperatures. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers her frozen body and informs her father Dan (Apesanahkwat). To solve the mystery about what happened to Natalie, Lambert teams up with Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).

 


The autopsy indicates sexual violence and Lambert assumes the girl died from exposure while running away from a rape. Banner decides to stay on the case and investigate the homicide rather than report it as a rape. Because if it’s a rape then her superiors will take her off the case.


Greg, Wind River is a movie dripping with loss and heartache. In addition to institutionalized poverty and despair, there are lives lost to rape, murder, and alcoholism. Yet amidst all the tragedy there are beacons of hope who assume human form in the characters of Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, who push hard for truth and justice. One of our buddy heroes is deeply wounded from divorce and the loss of his daughter. He redeems these wounds by hunting down a pack of human predators. The other buddy hero is young and seemingly in-over-her-head, yet she digs deeps to deliver justice. Despite the dark tone of this movie, we’re left with a sliver of hope at the end.

Overall this movie moved me and impressed me. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are cast perfectly and display a robust chemistry as partners in their heroic mission. Graham Greene is also outstanding in his role of the jaded sheriff worn down by his impoverished surroundings. If I had to find two nitpicks, it is that (1) Corey has to save Jane in a sexist, damsel in distress kind of way, and (2) Cory delivers a poetic justice to the main predator at the end that strikes me as over-the-top Hollywood and inappropriate. It is unnecessarily demeaning to his character.


I also enjoyed this film. Mostly for its storytelling and less for its political overtones. The final card on-screen explains that many Indian women are lost each year and there are no records about how many there are. It’s a curious end to a suspense/thriller. If this were a film about a cultural phenomenon regarding disproportionate abduction of indigenous women, it certainly wasn’t on the screen.

I am also a little confused about casting. In recent months a lot of attention has been given to so-called yellow-face: the portrayal of Asians by whites (See Emma Stone in Hawaii). Here we have a story about the problems of American Indians with whites in the lead. The Renner character could easily have been indigenous with little change to the plot.


The production value of the cinematography is off the charts, almost on par with that of Revenant a couple of years ago — and that’s the highest praise I can give a movie. The majesty of the cold, stark mountains coupled with the sweeping, spacious landscapes were breathtaking to behold. I nearly got frostbite sitting in my comfy theater seat. Director Taylor Sheridan deserves huge credit for creating a dark, chilling atmosphere of despair in every frame of this film.

There is a fabulous hero’s journey here experienced by our buddy pairing of Cory and Jane. After being thrown into the dangerous pursuit of a rapist and killer, Cory finds himself mentoring the young and inexperienced Jane. As such, Jane undergoes more of a transformation than does Cory in this film. She gains experience, self-confidence, and a greater understanding of human loss and of injustices inflicted on Native Americans. Cory also grows and undergoes some healing from the loss of his daughter a few years earlier.


We’re in agreement here, Scott. Wind River is a beautifully shot movie with some excellent performances. In our book Reel Heroes & Villains we call out the duo hero structure or “buddy hero” as two heroes with equal weight. Cory and Jane are a classic buddy hero pair with one hero being established and the other needing training. They start out at alternate ends of the experience scale. But Cory mentors Jane along until the exit the story on a similar plane.

It’s Jane’s transformation more than Cory’s that drives the story. While we’re informed of Cory’s loss of his own daughter years earlier, we don’t much see any healing for him after solving this girl’s murder. In fact, his estranged wife warns him that he won’t find any answers here. On the other hand, Jane starts out naive and filled with self righteous indignation. In the end, she comes to more fully understand the plight of the indigenous peoples. It’s through her transformation that the audience is likewise transformed.


Wind River is one of the best surprises of 2017, offering a riveting depiction of murder and redemption in the bitter cold mountains of Wyoming. The dark tone in this film’s  look and feel is matched by the equally lurid storyline. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their roles as detectives tracking down a killer who destroys a girl and her family. Wind River hit me hard emotionally and deserves a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two buddy heroes, Cory and Jane, make a terrific pairing as they must rely on each other to solve the case. They are thrown into a grisly world of death and despair, encountering obstacles in human form and in the form of institutional poverty and racism. These heroes deserve 4 Hero points out of 5.

As befitting good buddy heroes, Cory and Jane also help each other transform. Cory aids Jane in the ways of the world and in the plight of the Native Americans who suffer socially and economically. Jane helps Cory by providing FBI resources to bring about closure to the case which enable Cory to heal somewhat from the loss of his daughter a few years earlier. I give these buddies a rating of 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


Wind River is a satisfying murder mystery and buddy hero story with both a message and a mission. It carries us through the murder investigation of a young Indian woman while exposing the problems inherent in the world of Indian Reservations. I wish the final message of the problem of Indian women disappearing was supported by the events of the film. I give Wind River 4 Reels out of 5.

Our buddy heroes Cory and Jane play off each other nicely with Cory acting as the mentor character and Jane as the straight and narrow cop from the city. I enjoyed their chemistry and appreciated Jane’s transformation from naive to informed. I give them 4 out of 5 Heroes and 4 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Atomic Blonde ••1/2

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Director: David Leitch
Screenplay: Kurt Johnstad, Antony Johnston
Action/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: July 28, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Well Scott, it looks like her cover is blown: Debbie Harry was a double agent in the late 1980s.

 


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

Wrong “blondie”, Greg. This one is quite nuclear. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to blonde bombshell Lorraine Broughton. She’s a top spy for MI6 in 1989 and about as hot as Charlize Theron. She’s on a mission: it seems someone has stolen a list of all the secret agents in the Soviet Union and Lorraine has to get them before the KGB does and expose the double agent Satchel to boot.


Upon arrival in Berlin, Lorraine is ambushed by KGB agents but manages to kill them and escape. She meets her main contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy) who sets her up to be ambushed at a dead agent’s apartment. She survives this incident and then has a brief romantic fling with a French agent there named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).


Atomic Blonde is one drawn-out fight scene after another held together loosely by bits of plot. And when I say “bits” I’m not kidding. This is the thinnest plot I’ve ever seen in an action film. Basically, there’s a list of agents (haven’t we seen this a dozen times? Think Mission Impossible) that have to be recovered. But this time, some guy has memorized the list (haven’t we seen this before? Think Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and our hero needs to get him from East Berlin to West Berlin (Think Bridge of Spies). The plot wasn’t enough to keep me interested, and unless you enjoy seeing people beating each other to a pulp, you won’t be interested either.


Greg, I was thinking the same thing, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the plot of this film was thin. The plot was just fine. I’d say the movie is a satisfying albeit conventional spy thriller with a nice surprise twist at the end. You’re right that this film is saturated with bloody, bone-crunching, hand-to-hand combat scenes. These fight scenes are as gripping and painfully realistic as we’ve ever seen in the movies. While Charlize Theron’s face and fists are bruised and battered, the rest of her body remains softly feminine and unbruised. We should see welts the size of Mount Rushmore on her.

My wife and I have recently been watching Alfred Hitchcock movies from the 1950s and 60s, and we’re struck by Hitchcock’s emphasis on story and dialogue and by the paucity of violence. Movies today seem to have forgotten that story is the main dish and that action and violence are mere side dishes designed to augment the main entree. Nowadays the chase scenes and fisticuffs are not only the main dish, they seem to take up the entire plate. Atomic Blonde has strong enough story elements that we don’t need to be bombarded with mayhem from start to finish.


Well, Scott, whether we agree on the quality of the story, we’re in agreement on a trend we are seeing in major motion pictures. Filmmakers are opting for spectacle in favor of story. Atomic Blonde is not designed as a thoughtful, emotional experience. It’s more of a visual feast. We see this in other films as well. The Transformers franchise is a good example. The movie theater is becoming a place to see big films filled with visuals that don’t impress on the small screen. Meanwhile, stories with long story lines and deep characters are finding a home on television. The movie theater is, more and more, becoming an amusement park ride.


There is certainly a hero’s journey worth mentioning, although it lacks a few key elements. Lorraine is sent to Berlin and discovers it to be a hornet’s nest. She is tested in many big ways, and also finds a key love interest. She encounters villains and relies on implicit mentors from the past who trained her well in the art of lethal killing and self-defense. I don’t see much of a transformation here, as the main point of the film is to offer a blood-splattered spy story. Lorraine remains untransformed, a superhero who has superheroic powers from start to finish.


Atomic Blonde is entertainment for those who enjoy fisticuffs. The soundtrack was good if you’re a fan of 80’s new wave (which I am). But, after enjoying the synchrony between song and story in Baby Driver, this film’s use of music is much more uncoordinated background noise than soundtrack. I give Atomic Blonde 2 out of 5 Reels.

As a hero, Lorraine does alright. She’s smart and strong and easy to look at. But she doesn’t reveal many other redeeming qualities. I give her 2 out of 5 Heroes. And as you point out, there isn’t much in the way of transformation for anyone in this film. I can only muster 2 Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:


I pretty much agree with you, Greg, except that I found that amidst all the mayhem and bloodshed in Atomic Blonde, there was a decent story to sink one’s teeth into. Charlize Theron shines in this ass-kicking role, and I liked the surprise ending quite a bit. I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

I’ve already mentioned the deficits in the hero’s journey and I’d also like to add one other caveat on the topic of gender and heroism. Although Atomic Blonde is to be commended for featuring a woman in a strong heroic role, it is also true that it is a hyper-masculine role. You may recall that a strength of Wonder Woman was its emphasis on androgenous heroic leadership, i.e., heroism that contains elements of both agency (masculinity) and communality (femininity). Not to get on my soap box, but this world needs softer, gentler heroism from both its male and female protagonists. And yes, I admit that it’s probably unfair of me to point this out in the context of a film with a woman hero, as it is certainly a criticism of almost all movies, not just this one.

So regarding my hero rating, I’ll give Lorraine 3 Hero points out of 5. We both acknowledge that transformation was not the point of the story here, and so I’ll agree with you, Greg, that all these main characters deserve is a measly 2 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Heroes: Transformations:

Get Out •••1/2

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Horror/Mystery, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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

Well, Greg, it’s time to get out the old review pad and review this next movie.


Get out of town – let’s recap…


The story begins with a Meet the Parents-like scenario. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to meet the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris is concerned because Rose hasn’t told her parents that he’s Black, but she assures him it won’t be an issue. They arrive at the home of Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), and Chris notes the odd behavior of the African-American couple, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who work for the Armitages.

 


Chris is especially worried about Rose’s mother, Missy’s occupation – a hypnotherapist. He doesn’t trust therapists at all and hypnotists least of all. Missy promises to cure Chris of his smoking habit. Later that night, when Chris is craving a cigarette, he goes out on the lawn for a smoke. He encounters the lawnkeeper going for a sprint. When he goes back inside, Missy is there stirring a teacup in a way that causes him to go into a hypnotic trance. She makes him relive his mother’s death when he was a child. It’s a chilling moment for him and for the audience.

 


Greg, Get Out is both odd and oddly enjoyable. The movie taps into a great fear that many of us have involving the meeting of a significant-other’s parents. We want everything to go well, and so good storytelling demands that things go poorly. In Get Out, everyone Chris meets at his girlfriend Rose’s house is either slightly “off” or very much “off”. And it gets worse with time, leading one to wonder why Chris (along with every family in every haunted house movie) doesn’t run fast and run far much sooner than he does.

Despite operating from a predictable formula, this movie strays cleverly from it by focusing on racism in its ugliest forms. I was never able to quite figure out why horrible racists would want the consciousness of their loved ones to inhabit the bodies of what they consider to be racially inferior people. The racists seem to dwell on the so-called size and strength of African-Americans, but it still defies logic that white supremacists would perform this surgical procedure. In any event, the story follows a common pattern but does so in a fresh, albeit bizarre fashion, and the overall cinematic result is strangely enjoyable.

 


To elaborate on what you’re talking about, Scott, we have to let our readers in on the secret of the film: the aging white population of Rose’s family is killing black visitors and exchanging brains with them. So, the elderly white folk are inhabiting the young bodies of such people as Chris whom Rose is enchanting and bringing home to their demise.

It’s a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with elderly white folk as the pods. The story gives director Jordan Peele an opportunity to expose white racism by putting Chris in the “special world” of the fish out of water. And by fish I mean a black man and by water I mean a sea of elderly white folk. It’s both embarrassing and embarrassingly funny to watch Rose’s family touch Chris’s hair, comment on his genetics, and praise Black celebrities (“I voted for Obama twice”).


Chris follows a good hero’s journey, being thrown into bizarre and dangerous circumstances. Unlike most hero stories, Chris receives no help; he’s totally on his own, although we can’t discount the assistance from afar from his pal Rod (LilRel Howery) back home who IDs Logan, the missing musician from Brooklyn. More than anything, Get Out is a story of survival, much like Gravity and the final act of Silence of the Lambs. The hero finds him/herself in the proverbial belly of the whale and does what it takes to basically not die.

In terms of transformation, there is certainly a series of sinister physical transformations taking place at the Armitage’s residence. Does our hero Chris transform during the story or as a result of the story? He certainly must summon up courage and resourcefulness to extricate himself from the dungeon of doom in the basement. This type of transformation in times of crisis is common in the movies (and in real life). We never see how Chris becomes a changed man in the aftermath of his ordeal, but we can infer with confidence that he’s forever changed.


With comedy and horror, story structure often gives way to shock value. Director Jordan Peele is half of the comedy duo of Key and Peele who have made a career of poking fun at racial issues. Both come from interracial families and have seen racism “from both sides, now.” Get Out is the culmination of Peele’s comedy career and with it he continues to mine racism for humor – and now horror as well.

So, it’s no surprise when no one in the movie really transforms. Chris is probably scared straight on white women – or potentially romantic relationships – for a while. He’s pretty much the same guy at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. However, the audience rose in cheers when Chris finally breaks his bonds and skewers Rose’s brother with the antlers of a stuffed deer. There was definitely some catharsis for the viewers in my theater when he transforms from prey to predator – taking out the whole family one by one.


Get Out shocked and entertained me for two hours, thanks to numerous creepy and memorable characters plus a grisly secret kept by the family whom our hero is trying to impress. The racism in the film was blunt and discomforting to a comic extent, which was probably the intent of the filmmakers. The performances by the cast were excellent and the storytelling was solid, despite the family secret defying logic from their racist perspective. I award this film 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey was bold and required a fierce independent spirit for our hero Chris to survive. It is a true story of survival requiring courage, resilience, resourcefulness, and necessary brutality. My only complaint is that Chris takes a little too long to ask Rose if they could leave the house. The minute that Walter, the groundskeeper, came at Chris at full speed at 3am at night was the minute that Chris should have hightailed it home to safety. But he stayed and paid the price, thereby treating us to a horrific ordeal from which he escapes. I give his heroism 3 Hero points out of 5.

There isn’t much in the way of overt transformations in this film, other than the obvious physical mutilations carried out by Dean and Missy Armitage. As I’ve mentioned, Chris couldn’t have extricated himself from the horror of his situation without transforming mentally, emotionally, and physically. These are the types of transformation we discuss in our latest book, and they happen when real world heroes confront emergency situations. Still, we never see Chris as a changed man after his ordeal, and so I can only award 2 Transformation deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Get Out is an uncomfortably comedic horror film. It’s said there is truth in comedy.  Surely the funniest moments in the film were of white people saying stupid things in the presence of a black man. Both white folk guilty of such moments and black folk who are subject to them feel a sense of discomfort that gives rise to humor.

The image of white people taking on the bodies of black men and women may be a metaphor for white people adopting black culture: minstrels in blackface, tap dancing musicals, rock and roll music, and modern rap are all examples of how whites take on black culture and make it their own. And in so doing rob blacks of their own cultural identity. For holding up a funhouse mirror to American racial culture, I give Get Out 4 out of 5 Reels.

In the typical horror movie, the protagonist commits some social sin (say, teenagers having sex, drinking alcohol, and smoking pot). Then they go somewhere they should not be going (say, into an abandoned house). And must pay the consequences (attack by an axe wielding madman).

Chris is just such a character. He’s defied social norms by dating outside his race. He is transported to a scary mansion where he meets the evil family looking to rob him of his brain and his life. It’s not what I’d call a hero’s journey, but it is a classic horror plot. I give Chris 3 out of 5 Heroes.

As we’ve discussed, there isn’t much transformation going on in Get Out. This story isn’t so much about transforming the characters in the movie. But, perhaps, the people transformed are the viewers. We can laugh a bit at ourselves and become more aware of our latent and subtle racism. And so we can transform into more aware individuals. I give Get Out 3 out of 5 Deltas for transforming the audience.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Arrival ••••1/2

arrival_movie_posterStarring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, it looks like we’ve finally arrived…


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

… and it’s about time. Literally. Let’s get to reviewing this next movie about alien visitation.


We’re introduced to Professor Leslie Banks (Amy Adams) who is having a strange day as 12 “shells” (very large egg-shaped alien craft) have landed across the world. She’s visited by a Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) who insists she help him translate the speech patterns of the aliens. She resists but ultimately gives in when her curiosity gets the better of her. She’s whisked away to a midwest town where she is paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and must discover the reason for the alien visit.


Banks and Donnelly meet two of the aliens and nickname them Abbott and Costello. Communication seems impossible until Banks attempts written language. She discovers that the aliens’ writing is composed of complex circular characters and sentences, and she also discovers that the more she deciphers the language, the more strange visions she has of herself raising a child. Meanwhile, in China, General Shang (Tzi Ma) is about to wage war with the aliens, making it imperative that Banks and Donnelly crack the code before disaster strikes.


Arrival is a film that arrived without much fanfare. I don’t recall seeing any previews for it in the theaters or ads on TV. So, I had very few preconceptions going in. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is an arguably ponderous film with very little action and a lot of dialog. It’s a thinking-man’s movie, so it appealed to me. One of the opening scenes has physicist Donnelly reading Banks’ book which states that all interactions begin with language. But he differs – claiming the basis for communication is science. Whereas Colonel Webber is looking at the situation from a tactical point of view. And so the stage is set for a three-way confrontation of ideals. And in the end, it is Banks’ view that wins out. I was favorably impressed.


Greg, I loved Arrival. It’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a meaty science fiction story that really makes you think. I was struck by the possibility that our language is not so much a reflection of our linear thinking but a determinant of it. The temporal non-linearity of the aliens was fascinating and allowed for some truly creative plot developments. We’re also treated to some wonderfully innovative renditions of aliens and alien language. Not to mention that Amy Adams delivers a terrific performance as a hero who must piece together the temporal puzzle to save the world. It all adds up to a stellar movie, pardon the pun.


Amy Adams was definitely the brightest star in this film. Her character Leslie Banks undergoes a strong transformation from disillusioned academic to an enlightened world figure. She also exhibits uncommon empathy for the aliens. She puts aside her innate fear of the unknown and is captivated by the question of what is the purpose of the alien visit. I found her very inspiring.


Banks definitely goes on an inspired hero’s journey — yet another example of Hollywood finally “getting it” that women characters can make tremendous heroes in the movies. The hero’s journey begins with Banks answering the “call” from the military to make first contact with aliens who have landed in Montana. She immediately assumes a lead role in her partnership with Donnelly, a physicist on her team. Her missing quality is her understanding of the alien language, and the keys to her acquiring this quality are her openness to thinking outside the box, her trust that the aliens will do no harm, and her courage to defy the military’s antagonistic approach to the alien encounter.

Banks possesses many of the great eight characteristics of heroes; she is smart, strong, resilient, reliable, caring, inspiring, and selfless. In keeping with the hero’s journey, she encounters a love interest (Donnelly), allies in Abbott, Costello, and oppositional forces in the military and CIA. Her mentors turn out to be the aliens themselves, who have arrived to help the earth understand and change their language and use of time. In exchange, the earth will help the aliens 3,000 years from now. Everything comes full circle, which is beautifully symbolized in the alien circular linguistic characters.


The aliens are good mentor figures here. And we also see that Banks acts as a hero-mentor in that she mentors the aliens in our language. After all, it is she who instructs the aliens, not the other way around. However, this does imply a bit of a plot hole. If the aliens are so advanced, why are they so dense in understanding our language? Compare to our own understanding of animal language. It is human researchers who have taught apes to speak American Sign Language. I would think it incumbent upon the more advanced civilization to find a way to communicate with us.

Arrival is a departure from other first contact movies like Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind where language is the source of the communication. I enjoyed the slow burn from fear to understanding for all the characters in the story. I give Arrival 4 out of 5 Reels.

Dr. Banks is a great hero who undergoes a transformation from naive to educated in the ways of the alien creatures. Like many heroes we’ve studied in the last few years, she has a “super power” which in this case is the ability to understand language. But it is her human innate quality of empathy which endears Banks to us. I give her 4 out of 5 Hero points.

And Banks is the most excellent hero-mentor. And when you join her with the superior alien-mentors we get a mentoring experience that goes beyond what most films offer. I give Banks and the aliens 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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Arrival is the science fiction you’ve been looking for in film for several years now. Greg, the plot hole you identify is not so much a hole but the key to understanding the puzzle with which the aliens present humanity. Twelve shells arrive on earth, each with a different piece to the puzzle that the twelve earth stations must share to unravel the mystery. The idea is to bring humanity together in a non-zero-sum-game-like way. This guiding principle, along with stunningly crafted heptapods and their innovative language, make Arrival a treat to watch. I give this film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Louise Banks proves herself braver and smarter than all her male counterparts in both developing a working relationship with the aliens and in deciphering their cryptic language. She encounters friends who help her and foes who oppose her, and she undergoes a profound mental transformation. In our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains, we define a mental transformation as a significant change in the way that a hero views the workings of the universe. Banks now sees time, language, and thought as intertwined. She travels the full hero’s journey, including the act of giving back to society what she has learned in the form of lectures and a book on the universal language of the heptapods. She earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship is also strong in this film, with the aliens mentoring Banks as well as the entire human race itself. Our planet is taught how essential it is for our survival to adopt a non-zero-sum philosophy in our international relations. You’re right, Greg, that Banks also mentors the aliens — although I suspect they intentionally adopted a passive stance in the first contact proceedings to force us to do the work of deciphering and cooperating with each other internationally. Oh, and let’s not forget that the future Louise Banks mentored the present-day Louise Banks via many hallucinogenic messages. In short, the mentoring is rich in this film and also merits the full 5 Mentor points out of 5.

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The Girl on the Train ••1/2

the_girl_on_the_trainStarring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson, Paula Hawkins
Drama/Mystery/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2016

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Hey Scott, is this the sequel to Gone Girl – on a Train?


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

Either that or it’s a sequel to Girl on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) who travels drunk into the city every day on the train. She passes the house she lived in with her (now) divorced husband, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Next door to them is the beautiful couple Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) with whom Rachel is obsessed. One day, Rachel observes Megan having an affair with a man who is not her husband and Rachel is distraught.


Rachel’s life gets more complicated when one day, while drunk, she follows Megan toward the entrance to a tunnel. She blacks out and wakes up at home bloodied and caked with dirt. She later discovers that she is suspected by police of murdering Megan. Rachel also discovers that the man Megan was seeing was a psychiatrist whom Megan was seeing professionally — until the professional relationship turned romantic. The situation gets very tense and complicated as Rachel confronts Scott with this information.


The Girl on the Train is the epitome of the “unreliable narrator”. We observe the world through Rachel’s point of view – but it’s the point of view of a deeply troubled woman. She was unable to have  a child with her husband and feels deep guilt and remorse over that. She begins drinking and blacking out. Then, after her husband has an affair with the realtor (Anna), he divorces Rachel and marries the realtor. The new couple now have a child and Rachel can’t bear the thought of them having the life she wants. So she breaks into their house and takes the child – however returns her right away. Rachel is one troubled soul.

As the main character, Rachel is the hero of the story. But she’s not the typical hero. She has few redeeming qualities. She abuses alcohol, she is a burden on her friends, she’s a child abductor, and she lives like a voyeur through the life of Megan and her husband. But we sympathize with her because she is so deeply wounded by the loss of the life she could have had. Despite her shortcomings, she is a pathetic character who has hit rock bottom, and we want her to get help.


Greg, for me the The Girl on the Train is a melodrama stitched together like a made-for-TV movie. About a third of the film is devoted to close-ups of Rachel’s face looking sad, confused, and concerned. The story plays out like a mystery — is Rachel a terrible and crazy person responsible for Megan’s death? Or is she a victim of brainwashing and abuse? It takes an interminably long time to unravel the mystery and get passed 25 minutes of Rachel’s dazed face, but we finally do get an answer.

There is a hero’s journey of sorts. Her journey to the dark, unfamiliar world begins when she recovers from an alcoholic blackout all bloodied and filthy. She is a suspect in Megan’s disappearance and is kicked out of her sister’s home. Heroes usually lack a missing quality that they must discover or recover to succeed on their journey. Megan has about a dozen such missing qualities; she lacks sobriety, clarity, self-confidence, courage, resilience, and overall sanity. Eventually, she does learn that she’s not crazy and that Tom has abused and brainwashed her.

So in terms of mentoring, Tom could be viewed as her Dark Mentor. Like many predators, he has groomed his victim and laid waste to her self-esteem. Good heroes are gradually able to extricate themselves from the nefarious influence of dark mentors, and Rachel does just this, although she appears to do it on her own without much positive mentoring. The psychiatrist (Edgar Ramírez) seemingly tries to mentor Megan and Rachel, but he just fills up space in this movie by representing an attractive male love interest with an exotic accent.


I think you’re being too harsh on this film, Scott. I thought the exposition of a mystery through the eyes of both the prime suspect and a hero with a faulty memory was compelling. I was constantly on the edge of my seat wondering who murdered Megan, and could it possibly be our hero? I was kept in suspense up to the end of the film. I’d recommend this movie to a friend.

However, I have to agree with you on the mentoring element of the story. While Rachel does have a friend who lets her live in a spare room, there are no guides for her. She has to depend on herself – someone who is inherently undependable. She must solve the mystery of the murder using her own faulty wits. She is on her own in this story.


I guess we just disagree, Greg, which is fine as long as we agree that I’m more right than you are.

The Girl on the Train is a mystery story that failed to hold my interest despite a premise that could have worked had the the director, Tate Taylor, been less obsessed with Emily Blunt’s face and more concerned with plot and character development. Our hero Rachel is riddled with more problems than I can ever remember a hero having — divorce, unemployment, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, a suspect in a murder case, and more. She’s a total mess yet somehow, without any help, clears up the mystery. I was not impressed. The Girl on the Train deserves to be shamed with a rating of 1 Reel out of 5.

As I’ve mentioned, there is a hero’s journey but it seems unlikely that Rachel could overcome so many serious problems without a huge team of therapists, self-help groups, and several years of healing. Yet she does gain clarity about the true nature of Tom’s abuse and thus enjoys a true personal triumph, not to mention a triumph over evil. But there aren’t very elements of the classic hero’s journey beyond the departure, suffering, and (hopefully) a transformation. So I can only award Rachel 2 Heroes out of 5.

The mentoring is pretty non-existent in the film, which is unfortunate given that we’ve never encountered a hero who needed more mentoring than Rachel. Just another example of this film’s sloppy lack of credibility. A Mentor rating of 1 out of 5 seems generous.

 Movie: reel-1  Mentors: mentor1 Heroes: h-logo-2


The Girl on the Train is a taut psychological mystery/thriller that had me guessing at every turn. It’s difficult to write for an unreliable narrator, and as it turns out, Rachel is as unreliable as they come. Her frequent blackouts leave her with the inability to depend on anyone, least of all herself. She falls so deep into despair that she even wonders if she committed murder. It’s pretty rare for me to become so enrapt in a character’s world that I forget that I’m in a theater. The Girl on the Train did just that for me. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

I don’t know what more you need for a transformational character, Scott. Here we have someone who is so very flawed that her own life is in danger. By the end of the film, however, she sidesteps her disabilities, solves the case, dispatches the villain, and gets the help she needs to overcome her alcoholism. This is a classic redeemed hero story. I give Rachel 4 out of 5 Heroes.

But we agree on the mentoring. There isn’t anyone helping Rachel on her journey and in that sense I have to agree with you that the story lacks some credibility. I would have liked to have seen at least one friend who lent moral support. I give the mentors in The Girl on the Train just 1 Mentor out of 5.

 Movie: reel-4 Mentors: mentor1 Heroes: h-logo-4