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Overboard •••

Starring: Anna Faris, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria
Director: Rob Greenberg
Screenplay: Leslie Dixon, Bob Fisher
Comedy/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: May 4, 2018


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

Greg, let’s not go overboard in our praise for this movie, okay?

I have to admit, I was not over bored by how much better this remake was than the original. Let’s recap…

We meet Kate (Anna Faris), a woman studying to become a nurse while also holding down two jobs to feed her family. One day, while cleaning the carpets aboard a yacht, Kate runs into the playboy owner of the yacht, Leonardo (Eugenio Derbez). He insults her and literally throws her overboard, along with her equipment which she must now pay for.

Leonardo doesn’t waste much time getting wasted and falls overboard his yacht. He ends up in the hospital with amnesia. His sister Theresa (Eva Longoria) wants to take over the family business and having Leonardo out of the way makes that easy. So, she leaves him there. Meanwhile, Kate sees Leo’s picture on the news and hatches a plan to make him pay her back by serving as her husband and father to her three children while she studies for her nursing degree.

On the surface, Overboard is a lightweight throwaway comedy, with a far-fetched plot, stock characters we’ve seen a million times before, and a predictable, saccharin ending. Yet from a hero’s journey perspective, this movie is pure gold. Our romantic hero duo of Leo and Kate are both thrust into a new world of a faux marriage that transforms them both, especially Leo. His riches-to-rags change in setting produces a total personality makeover, transforming him from a spoiled jerk to a humbled, loving husband and father. This discovery of the true self as a result of the journey is the hallmark feature of any good hero’s tale.

When Leo returns to his rich lifestyle, he is now “Master of Both Worlds”, a man who knows wealth but who can also thrive in impoverished circumstances. While experiencing poverty, Leo transformed into a humble, devoted family man, and once transformed our hero cannot become untransformed. His faux marriage allowed him to find his “true self” who, in the terminology of Joseph Campbell, has found his bliss and emerges as a man who is in union with all the world.

Great analysis of the hero in this story, Scott. Overboard is an unlikely Hollywood comedy remade from the Goldie Hawn 1984 original. I thought this version did a great job of paving over the plot holes in the original. The production values, acting, and writing were also much better. As ridiculous as I found the plot, watching Leo commiserate with his fellow workmates was hilarious. (At one point he says, “I feel like this is not my life. Like I was destined for more. And I haven’t had sex in months.” To which his hard-working, married, and low-wages compatriots reply – “Yup. Me too.”)

While this is very much Leo’s story of redemption, Anna Faris’s depiction of Kate as a hard-working, earnest, but still wide-eyed naive single mom delivers the goods. Faris is known for her screwball comedies. But here she gives us a warm, harried, flawed, but genuinely likeable character. Regardless of whether we agree with what she’s done, we agree with her motivations.

Overboard is a silly, far-fetched story that we’ve seen in various forms many times before in storytelling. Despite the tale’s predictability, Overboard manages to touch our hearts by depicting a man’s arduous journey toward becoming his best self. The method by which this transformation occurs is heavy-handed and disturbing in a Beauty and the Beast kind of way. If you’re willing to overlook kidnapping and abuse as a means of helping someone change, this movie is for you. I give Overboard a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

As mentioned earlier, the hero’s journey is almost textbook, with Leo’s accident on the boat propelling him (pardon the pun) onto his journey toward self-realization. His transformation is aided by the group of construction workers with whom he works, and also by Kate’s three kids who manage to squirm their way into Leo’s heart. Leo’s amnesia and subsequent self-discovery are wonderful exemplars of timeless tales of unknown hero identities becoming fully known in their richness and connectedness with the world. I give the heroes a rating of 3 Hero points out of 5.

Regarding archetypes, we have a clear example of psychologist Paul Moxnes’ family unit archetype consisting of Leo’s father (the patriarchal king), his evil sister (the dark princess), and his good sister. There is also the archetypal idea of the hero’s obliviousness about his true identity and his undergoing suffering to discover his authentic self. Then we have a very problematic archetype (which I’ll call a “darketype”), seen before in Beauty and the Beast, involving the idea of kidnapping someone long enough for them to fall in love with their kidnappers. Why this “darketype” exists really baffles me. These archetypes merit a score of 3 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes:   Heroes:

Overboard is a lot of fun and Derbez and Faris make it work. I had fun the whole time. Everyone likes to see the rich and powerful taken down a peg, and Leo definitely has his day. The “amnesia” trope is impossible to believe, but if you can swallow that, the rest plays out in a very fun way. And if you can get over Leo’s “Stockholm Syndrome” – falling in love with Kate – then you’ll have fun, too. I give Overboard 3 out of 5 Reels.

Yes, this is a redemptive story for Leo. It’s possible only because Leo has selective memory about what he is entitled to as a rich man and gaps about being married. He also doesn’t seem to question the fact that virtually nothing in the house belongs to him. But we like to see our flawed hero become a better man. So I give Leo 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, you’ve covered the archetypes very well. As you said, we have the Moxnes’ family unit with Leo as father, Kate as mother, and the children in play. And it’s the fulfillment of this family structure that completes Leo as a FATHER and HUSBAND. I give these archetypes 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes:  Heroes:

Home Again ••

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Nat Wolff
Director: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Screenplay: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: September 8, 2017



Scott, it looks like Reese Witherspoon finds there’s no place like home.

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

Every good hero story is about self-discovery and home-discovery. Let’s recap.

We meet forty-year-old Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) who is separated from her husband Austin who is a music producer. She’s moving back to her childhood home with her two children Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield). Her new home is actually where she grew up with her late father who was a director of some classic films of the 1970s.

We also meet three twenty-something young men Teddy (Nat Wolff), Harry (Pico Alexander), and George (Jon Rudnitsky) who have just won a prize at a film festival. The three have been kicked out of their home for lack of payment. Harry (the director) meets Alice at a bar and they hook up. Long story short, she learns of his dilemma and invites him and his friends to move into the guest house until they get on their feet.

The three young men settle into the guest house and immediately prove themselves to be useful around the house. They also become excellent male role models for Alice’s two young children. The men also begin to get a taste of career success, although there is tension when George begins going solo professionally. Meanwhile, husband Austin misses Alice and makes a surprise visit. Sparks fly when he begins to feel threatened by Teddy, Harry, and George’s presence around Alice and the kids.

Scott, Home Again is a confusing mess. My first and biggest complaint is – why are there three men living in her guest house? That is, the three of these characters could easily have been rolled into one and the story would have been that much simpler to tell and that much easier to follow. Indeed, each of the male characters offers a dimension that Alice admires in a man. I kept thinking to myself – “This is one character with three heads.”

The other complaint I have about this movie is that it is horribly uninteresting. We never get deep enough into any one character’s issues that we care about what is happening to them. It’s a straight line from beginning to end with few twists or turns. When the estranged husband finally shows up, there’s a bit of fisticuffs and then – nothing really happens. This movie is one dull minute after another.

Therein lies the problem, Greg. There isn’t enough material here to sustain a 90-minutes movie, and so the writers split up one character into three parts for the purpose of creating more needless dialogue. We know that one of the men has a fling with Alice; another one loves her but doesn’t act on it, while the third just hangs around to offer observations about what’s happening. Two of the three also begin stealth solo careers that have no bearing on the plot whatsoever but do create needless tension among the three.

This movie tries to match the intelligence and wit of the 2009 movie, It’s Complicated. Both films feature a middle aged woman who gets divorced and is pursued again by her ex, only things are complicated by the fact that the woman is happy being on her own and has another love interest on the side. It’s Complicated benefits enormously from the performances of Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, whereas Home Again only has Reese Witherspoon — and it isn’t enough.

Home Again is a lackluster portrayal of a middle-aged woman having a fling with a younger man. It doesn’t delve deeply into anyone’s character for us to care whether this works or if it’s moral. Reese Witherspoon is wasted in this film and the direction is haphazard. I give it just 2 out of 5 Reels.

Alice is the lead character in the film and does fairly well as a hero. She’s decent and strong. In the beginning she feels she needs a man to satisfy her needs and in the end realizes that she’s fine by herself and still finds a way to mix her family in a way that everyone benefits. I give her 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And Alice’s transformation from needy and insecure to self-sufficient and secure is clumsily delivered but present nonetheless. I give her transformation 2 out of 5 Deltas.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Home Again is a vanilla ice cream cone that’s sat out in warm air too long. It’s soft and drippy, makes a mess on your hands, and is ultimately unsatisfying. I can see the comedic premise, but then again so did the makers of It’s Complicated eight years earlier, only they did a much better job. This film is a throwaway effort about which the less said the better. I give it (generously) 2 Reels out of 5.

Alice is a strong hero who, like most heroes, receives help from friends and mentors, enabling her to adjust to her new life in California. She’s a good character trapped in bad movie. A rating of 2 Hero points out of 5 seems right to me. Alice’s transformation toward greater self-confidence is notable here, but more important to me is the transformation of her children.

This film underscores how much children benefit from healthy adult role models and support figures. Overall, a Delta score of 2 out of 5 seems right to me.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Everything, Everything •••1/2

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose |
Director: Stella Meghie
Screenplay: J. Mills Goodloe,  Nicola Yoon
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2017



Scott, if you had everything in the world, where would you put it?

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

The Everly Brothers once sang, “Every thing, Every where, Every time.” Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Maddy (Amandla Stenberg). She has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) and hasn’t left the house since she was three years old. That’s when her brother and father were killed in an automobile accident. Now, she’s celebrating her 18th birthday when something special happens: a cute young man named Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door. They strike up a relationship over text messages and begin to fall in love.

Maddy and Olly arrange to meet in person, without Maddy’s mother’s permission. Soon they kiss, and shortly thereafter Maddy runs outside her home to comfort Olly after the boy has a violent run-in with his father. Maddy gets sick briefly but recovers. She realizes that she can’t avoid life and love forever, and so she applies for credit cards and arranges for her and Olly to go on a secret vacation to Hawaii. Maddy gets sick there, too, but soon the truth about her illness is revealed and forever changes her life.

Scott Everything, Everything is based on the popular young-adult novel by the same name. We’ve seen many YA books translated to film with great results that appeal to both young and old. Sadly, EE does not fall into that category. EE is very simplistic in its dealing with disease, loss, isolation, and betrayal. This is more an “Afterschool Special” made for TV than a full cinematic presentation. I was very disappointed.

As a case in point, Maddy seems very happy and well-adjusted in her closed-off world. She doesn’t seem to yearn for the outside life. After having spent her entire life within the same 4 walls, you’d expect that she’d have a pretty big case of cabin fever. And, she’s never had a crush of any sort. With her access to the internet and social media, I would expect her to have at least had an online romance. But she seems perfectly happy to create her scale models of diners and buildings as part of her architectural studies. I found it all a bit too simplistic.

I guess I’ll be the contrarian here. Greg, Everything, Everything won my heart. How could anyone not love these two kids who fall in love and face seemingly impossible odds of their relationship working? The only possible criticism of this movie is that our two romantic leads are just a bit too perfect, too good-looking, and too well-adjusted. Given Maddy’s isolation from the world, you’d think she’d be more socially awkward, and given Nick’s violent father, you’d think he’d have some dark baggage for the audience to see. But even with the implausibility of these hyper-perfect kids, I was drawn into the story and was moved deeply.

True, the film does have a made-for-TV feel, and yes, it’s a simple love story that won’t win any awards for originality. Yet I couldn’t help detect the metaphorical significance of Maddy’s SCID disease. I believe that many people today, Millennials especially, have trouble “connecting” with people due to self-inflicted barriers to intimacy. I suspect that a lot of viewers of this film can relate to feeling separated from others and feeling unable to find love. It’s no coincidence in this movie that the barriers to love are dismantled once they are discovered to originate from the corrupt older generation, a theme we’ve seen in many YA dystopian future movies such as Hunger Games and Divergent.

The two characters represent a romantic duo. But the story is clearly Maddy’s. It’s all about her isolation, her new-found love, and her ultimate ambition to escape the confines of her home. Olly is the catalyst for her journey and in many ways a mentor to her as she reaches out to a world beyond her jail. She starts out naive and ultimately learns a difficult secret. She’s a good hero – but not great. She has no flaws that we can see. She’s beautiful, polite, refined, obedient, and just too perfect. To be relatable, we need heroes to have some flaws.

Good hero stories usually feature heroes who transform in significant ways. In this film Maddy does grow socially and emotionally. She also acquires an important insight about her mother, a painful mental transformation she must undergo. Olly grows in similar ways but we’re not as privy to his transformations.

In our last book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we noted that one thing that separates heroes from villains is that heroes transform but villains don’t. Everything, Everything provides ample evidence of this distinction. The film’s villain, Maddy’s mother, does not see the light and in fact cannot see the light. She needlessly imprisons her daughter and never becomes enlightened about the cruelty of her actions. She remains stuck in an untransformed state.

Everything, Everything is The Boy in the Plastic Bubble for a new generation. It also resembles another film: The Space Between Us. EE is very light fare made for the younger viewers in the audience – especially young girls. It treats Maddy’s situation and illness with a light touch and so is appropriate for that group. I give Everything, Everything 3 out of 5 Reels.

Maddy is a bit too perfect in every way. She undergoes a great transformation from acquiescing to her mother’s every whim, to becoming a full adult and making decisions for herself. The realization at the film’s end – where Maddy learns that her mother made up her illness – is a devastating moment for her and a stark illustration of how fragile trust is. I wish that Maddy were a more realistic character, so I give her just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

There’s not a lot of transformation other than for Maddy in this film. Olly is pretty much who Olly is all throughout. And the other ancillary characters are mere shadows. I can only muster 2 out of 5 transformation Deltas for Maddy’s transformation.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

I’ll acknowledge some of the weakness of this film that you point out, Greg. Yet the bottom line for me is that Everything, Everything moved me at a deep emotional level, despite the flaws we’ve identified. This movie tugs at our heartstrings in telling a timeless tale of unrequited love, and in doing so it evokes strong emotional payoffs. I give the film 4 Reels out of 5.

Our two romantic heroes go on a classic hero’s journey and help each other grow socially, mentally, and emotionally. These heroes possess most if not all of the qualities in the “great eight’ traits of heroes: they are smart, strong, reliable, resilient, charismatic, caring, selfless, and inspiring. I award our heroes 3 Hero rating points out of 5.

As I’ve noted, both our heroes help each other grow and transform in significant ways. Moreover, we sadly see that Maddy’s mother suffers the fate of most villains in good storytelling. She remains stuck and in denial, thus forever untransformed. The lesson is clear here and in all good stories — unless you are willing to grow and change, you risk either painful stagnation or, worse, a harmful regression that poisons hearts and relationships. I award these characters 3 transformation Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Allied ••1/2

allied_filmStarring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Steven Knight
Action/Drama/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2016


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

Greg, will you join forces with me in reviewing this next movie?

Only if my fears about Allied can be allayed. Let’s recap.

The movie opens with Canadian spy Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into French Morocco during World War II. His mission is to team up with French allied spy Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) in a plot to assassinate a German ambassador. Vatan and Beausejour pretend to be married, and during the pretense they find themselves falling in love.

After the mission, Max invites Marianne to move to London to be his wife. After some weeks of vetting, she’s cleared and they proceed to have a child. About a year later, Max is called into his commander’s office. They suspect Marianne is a German spy and want Max to lay out some fake secret info. If the info leaks out, they know Marianne is a spy – and Max must kill her.

Greg, Allied represents a noble attempt to weave a love story into wartime drama, and I would say that director Robert Zemeckis has partially succeeded. There are some stylish elements to the movie, as when Vatan and Beausejour make love inside a car caught in a sandstorm. There are also some memorable performances, most notably by Marion Cotillard who oscillates skillfully between smoldering vixen and ruthless killer.

Allied tries to be a great movie but only attains the status of ‘good’ movie for several reasons. First, there is the understated performance of Brad Pitt. Frankly, his onscreen charisma is missing here and pales in comparison to that of co-star Cotillard. Second, we have the problem of predictability. We know that the assassination of the ambassador must succeed early in the film, otherwise there would be no film. And we also know that Beausejour must be a spy or there could be no dramatic ending.

The film is basically split in half by the meeting of the spies and the execution of their mission, and the “blue dye” indictment of Marianne. I thought the first half of the film dragged. There was too much time spent in the “getting to know you” segment of the film and the ultimate execution of the ambassador. I kept waiting for something to happen and I had to wait a full hour of the film before it did.

The second half of the film was actually entertaining. We witness Max trying everything he can to clear his wife’s name. Finally we had a goal and some conflict, rather than dinner parties and brunches.

I see this as a “buddy” story with Max and Marianne taking equal parts in the telling. Both are interesting heroes. They are professional killers and good at their jobs. They are also deeply devoted to their causes. And, in the end, deeply devoted to each other.

I actually thought the first half of the movie was important not just for character development but also for relationship development. We need to discover who these two people are, and we need to witness the blossoming of their love. Plus our two heroes do have a goal in the first half, which is to kill the ambassador. For me, the first half was necessary although I do wish it had been executed with more pizzazz from Pitt and from Zemeckis.

As we have two halves to the film, we have two separate hero’s journeys. I consider Vatan to be the main hero of the story. He’s first sent to the dangerous world of Casablanca to complete a mission of killing a man, and then he’s sent to London with the mission of discovering his wife’s true identity. We often see dual journeys in the movies, with the second journey usually being far more dangerous and painful than the first.

The question I have is: Did Vatan undergo a personal transformation? It’s hard to say. The fact that we don’t know makes him less than a memorable hero. He’s certainly put through the wringer and shows remarkable tenacity in the pursuit of the truth, but he probably had this tenacity already. Vatan has no clear mentors, other than perhaps Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) who counsels him to take the charges against Beausejour seriously. Vatan’s skills as a spy and as a killer suggest a number of implicit mentors who trained him well in the past.

I think Max Vatan does have a mentor in the first half of the film: Marianne. She instructs him on the finer points of Parisian French accents. And guides him through the new world of life in Casablanca. She’s the one who has laid the groundwork for the mission by creating social contacts that Max would be challenged to build. Once they return to London, her mentoring ends – as all good mentor / mentee relationships should.

Allied is a slow-moving film at first which picks up in the second half. I was bored for the first hour and felt a bit more engaged in the second. I can’t say I’d want a second look – or even recommend this film to friends. I give Allied just 2 Reels out of 5.

Max and Marianne are a good “buddy” hero duo with a common goal and strong skills. I think Max and Marianne do undergo a transformation since they both start out jaded regarding relationships – especially relationships between spies. I give them 3 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, there is a small amount of mentoring going on here with Marianne coaching Max in the ways of Casablanca life. Otherwise, we have the unseen mentors of the training that both received. I give the mentoring just 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Allied aspires to be a great movie in the spirit of Casablanca and even ends in a dramatic airport scene like the iconic Humphrey Bogart film. But unlike the original Casablanca, this World War II romance story fails to soar in terms of character development and dramatic build-up. This doesn’t mean the movie isn’t worth watching. Marion Cotillard gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and Zemeckis succeeds in bringing some stylish elements to the big screen. Overall, I give Allied 3 Reels out of 5.

I see Vatan as the main hero; the story begins with him and ends with him. He endures two dangerous hero journeys with minimal mentoring and minimal transformation. Vatan’s heroic qualities are his courage and tenacity, and we admire his determination to uncover the truth about his wife, however painful that truth may be. Brad Pitt’s understated performance falls flat for me and hence he falls short of being a memorable hero. I award Vatan 2 Heroes out of 5. And because of the paucity of mentoring, I can only muster a rating of 2 Mentors out of 5 as well.

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The Light Between Oceans ••••

the_light_between_oceans_posterStarring: Michael Fassbender,  Alicia Vikander,  Rachel Weisz
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2016


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Scott, it looks like we’re going to trip the light fantastic.

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

No doubt the trip will lead to an ocean of motion. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Tom Sherbourne who is back from WWI and ready to have some alone time working as the lighthouse keeper for the sleepy town in Australia. After three months, Tom is offered the job full-time and he marries young Isabel. It isn’t long before the two are expecting a wee bairn. Sadly, Isabel miscarries and they bury their child. The two try again but with the same results.

One day Tom spots a small boat adrift in the ocean. On board is a live baby girl and her dead father. Tom is duty-bound to report the discovery but Isabel, desperate for a baby, wants to keep the incident a secret and raise the infant as their own. Tom grudgingly agrees. They name the girl Lucy and all appears well until a few years later when Tom encounters Lucy’s actual mother (Rachel Weisz) who believes her daughter to be dead. This sets in motion an ocean of trouble for Tom and Isabel.

Scott, this is a refreshing change from the classic hero’s journey. Here we see a couple who have selected a path that requires them to lie about their lives and the life of their child. Tom cannot stand to keep the lie and delivers a letter to the original mother letting her know that her husband is dead and her daughter is being cared for. This is only a temporary fix for Tom’s conscience. He must now live a new lie: the lie of omission to his wife as he keeps the secret of their changeling daughter.

One thing is for certain about The Light Between Oceans: it is expertly designed to take us on an emotional roller coaster. We’re thrilled when two young lovers get together, then we’re crushed when their babies die. Then we’re happy when they (conveniently) find a lost baby, but then we’re crushed when we discover this new baby has a mother who thinks it’s dead. The ups and downs go on and on — but in a good way from an entertainment perspective.

The movie actually tells a good heroic tale. Greg, you call it a “refreshing change” from the usual hero journey but it seems pretty standard to me. At the tearful request of Isabel, our hero Tom is thrust into the dangerous world of committing a crime he normally would never commit. But his love for her trumps his ethics, sending him down a dark path that he eventually couldn’t live with. Coming clean is his only path to redemption, and his honesty saves him, his marriage, and the true mother of the child. Tom and Isabel certainly grow from the ordeal, and their growth is absolutely necessary for their personal and marital salvation.

I felt Light didn’t follow the typical path of giving the hero a goal or quest. The focus is on the crushing burden of an honest man maintaining a lie. It’s more of a character study than a journey. This movie asks a question: What if an honest man has to choose between honesty and true love. Tom loves his wife so much that he would give up his most closely held belief in doing what is right. And in the end, he lays the groundwork for the discovery of his lie. He can’t do what is wrong, even for the love of his life. In the end, he is willing to give up his life in exchange for the truth to be told, and to protect his wife. It’s a story deep in character, less so in plot.

Interesting way to look at it, Greg. In terms of mentorship, I’m really struck by the transformative effect that women can have on men in the movies. The Light Between Oceans is no exception. Curiously, Isabel has both a positive and a negative mentoring effect on Tom. At first, she is good for him. She transforms him from a numb, shell-shocked man who is running away from himself and his past, into a man who is capable of opening his heart and having an intimate relationship.

But later she turns into a dark mentor, convincing Tom to betray his ethics. We’ve seen several movies that are primarily about a hero who must overcome a dark mentor, movies such as War Dogs and Whiplash. Usually the dark mentor wields a great deal of power over the hero, making it difficult for the hero to extricate himself from the mentor’s influence. In Light Between Oceans, Isabel doesn’t have power per se over our hero Tom, but Tom’s love and loyalty toward her and their child makes it extremely challenging for him to defy her influence. Yet he must do so for his heroism to unfold.

You pretty much nailed it, Scott. There’s also Tom’s inner mentor of the “rules of being an honest man.” In the westerns it might be called “The Law of the West.” We’ve seen this in other movies where past mentors instilled rules and lessons in the young hero. These guiding principles are what create the drama in this movie.

The Light Between Oceans is the story of one man’s conflict between his morals and the love of his life. There are a lot of ways this story could have gone. It is Tom’s conflict between doing the right thing and giving his wife what she desperately needs that makes this movie so interesting. I was glad to have a film that wasn’t about a man’s missing inner quality and a tangible quest. Instead we get a deep character study. I give Light 4 out of 5 Reels.

Tom Sherbourne is an exceptionally good man. He’s honest, trustworthy, and a committed husband. He is put in the position of violating one or both of his strongly held beliefs. On the one hand he must be truthful. When he discovers the boat with the dead German and baby, he knows he must record it in his log and report it to the authorities. But when his wife demands he let her keep the baby, the rule of love creates a conflict with his morals. I give Tom 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Isabel plays the role of the dark mentor, leading Tom down the path of disobeying his inner rules. These inner rules are Tom’s mentor, guiding him to do the right thing. These are important mentors for this story, but are not as strong as many we’ve seen this year. I give Isabel and Tom’s inner mentor just 3 out of 5 Mentor points.

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The Light Between Oceans is a soap opery tale about Australian love, tragedy, and redemption. The movie works because the story effectively pulls us into the drama and makes us care about these characters. We care about Tom and root for him to heal his war-time injuries. We root for young love to blossom. We’re heartbroken about the lost babies and not only understand Isabel’s desire to keep the baby who washes up ashore but also understand why Tom would compromise his principles to please her. It’s all rather maudlin and overly dramatic, yet it all works on every level of filmmaking. I also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Tom is a classic hero in many senses of the word. He is a hero of the Great War, he is a hero of love, he is a hero of honesty, he is a hero of loyalty, and he is a hero of redemption. We don’t see much greater heroism than this in the movies. His journey is extraordinarily painful yet effective in transforming him and in bringing out his best qualities. I also award Tom 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship role that Isabel plays is a fascinating one that we rarely see in storytelling. It is highly unusual for the same character to play both a positive and a negative mentoring role, yet Isabel assumes this bipolar role in her influence on Tom. Good call, Greg, on noting Tom’s inner moral compass as another type of mentor operating on him. It all adds up to a rather interesting movie for mentoring, necessitating a Mentor rating of 4 out of 5.

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Love and Friendship ••1/2

Love_&_Friendship_posterStarring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Jane Austen, Whit Stillman
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2016


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It looks like we’re about to review the latest movie from Elizabethan author Jane Austen.

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

Quite so. Prepare yourself for some old-fashioned mating rituals. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to a middle-aged widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). She has burned through her husband’s estate and now is “visiting” friends and family. She has her sights set on a younger eligible bachelor named Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). She seduces the young lad with her advanced womanly wiles.

Meanwhile, Lady Susan is urging her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to wed the wealthy yet silly and dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The problem is that Frederica refuses to marry Sir James and would rather lead the impoverished life of a teacher. Meanwhile, this histrionic Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray) is having marital problems with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Scott, I’m mystified by the attraction of this movie. It was long, dull and nothing but a series of talking heads. The screenplay is based on a never-published story written by Austen when she was 14 years old. There’s a reason this story was never published – it was boring. Writer/Director Whit Stillman took the original work (which was told as a series of letters) and created long scenes of people riding in carriages and talking, eating dinner and talking, walking the grounds and talking, and talking about talking. And the things the characters are talking about are incredibly superficial. It was like someone took a modern soap opera and placed it in the mid 1700s.

The writer didn’t even have the wherewithal to SHOW us what each character contributed to the story. Instead of SHOWING us that someone was dimwitted, there were screen cards before each character entered a scene TELLING us that so-and-so was none-to-bright or was married to such-and-so. The first rule any writer learns is … show, don’t tell. Stillman apparently didn’t go to the right school. I know, some of you think this is part of the joke, the whimsy. It wasn’t. It was simply dumb.

Greg, paradoxically, your harsh critical analysis of Love and Friendship is right on the mark but directed at the wrong target. Jane Austen stories are supposed to be about women talking to women, and women talking to men, about romance, marriage, and the obstacles to both. This movie is cast in the same mold as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in showcasing the sad reality, in the year 1800, of women’s dependency on men for their financial and social standing.

In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss many different types of heroes, and one of them is the family unit. Love and Friendship features a family ensemble, with the two main heroes being Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica, both of whom are searching for good husband material. The classic hero’s journey with its masculine bias doesn’t quite fit the Jane Austen mold. This hero’s journey here reflects the prevailing Zeitgeist of Austen’s time, during which the woman’s hero journey is severely limited by patriarchal forces beyond her control. Austen dared to show women with moxie whose pushback against these limitations was heroic and often rewarded.

There’s no doubt that I’m not a fan of Austen’s work. Still, I’ve seen the Emma Thompson version of Sense & Sensibility (1995) and was enchanted. The difference between these films is the craftsmanship and a script that goes beyond the strict interpretation of Austen’s work.

In my mind, this is an anti-hero story. In our definition of the anti-hero, we look for a lead character who starts out negative and ends up even more negative. Lady Susan is manipulative and out for number one. She has thrown her daughter at Sir James who is a nice man but dim witted and naive. She is trying to seduce a younger man (Reginald) for whom she has nothing to offer. And in the end, her daughter gets Reginald and Lady Susan is pregnant with Lord Manwaring’s child while married to Sir James. I have no respect for this woman who takes advantage of everyone around her and has nothing of value to offer in return.

You’re right about Lady Susan’s utter sleaziness in this story. A charitable interpretation of her behavior is that she’s doing her best as a woman trapped in a man’s world. One could say she is merely acting like a man and we’re guilty of applying a double-standard. But yes, I have to side with your anti-hero interpretation. On the bright side, she does try to mentor Frederica, imploring her young daughter to “sell-out” and do what’s practical rather than follow her heart.

This conundrum facing young women is a common theme in Jane Austen’s work. Is this bad mentorship on Lady Susan’s part, or are we to applaud her pragmatism? Probably the former, but many good parents gave their children the same advice. There is other mentorship going on in this film, too, with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) dispensing advice here and there. Alas, none of it is very memorable.

Love and Friendship plays to its audience. If you love Jane Austen you will be pleased with this adaptation. However, if, like me, you are of a modern mind you may find this story simplistic and yet difficult to follow in places. The lead character has few redeeming qualities and the people surrounding her aren’t much better. I give L&F just 2 out of 5 Reels.

I think the hero’s journey plays out here alright. While we appear to come in at the “inciting incident” (the point where Lady Susan is cast into the special world of living as a widow), we watch as she overcomes challenges and survives a devastating defeat only to recover and gain a sort of victory where she has one man for money and another for sex. I give Lady Susan just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Lady Susan is not just the anti-hero, but also a dark mentor. She tries to lead her daughter down the path of dependency. Frederica eschews these lessons (whether she is willful or insightful is unclear) and ultimately wins a virtuous man on her own merits. I give Lady Susan 2 Mentors out of 5.

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Love and Friendship is textbook Jane Austen, showcasing the usual assortment of women in need of husbands and men revealing themselves either to be worthy or unworthy of filling this role. All the actors here give wonderful performances, and if you can get over the Austen-esque violation of the show-don’t-tell rule, you’ll have a good time getting to know these characters. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.

The anti-hero story of Lady Susan is done well here, as she shows herself to be conniving, manipulative, and deceitful. We can’t really apply Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth to this story, as Lady Susan is hampered by the limitations placed on women of that era. She and Frederica navigate this world in very different ways. I give the heroes in this story a rating of 2 out of 5. In terms of mentorship, there are attempts at mentorship but none of them turn out to be very effective. Therefore I award this movie a mentorship rating of 2 out of 5, also.

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Brooklyn •••

Brooklyn_FilmPosterStarring: Saoirse RonanEmory CohenDomhnall Gleeson
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick HornbyColm Tóibín
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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

Don’t know why, but I expected a leprechaun or two to be in this next movie.

I thought a tree grew in it. Regardless, let’s recap…

We meet a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in Ireland with her mother and older sister named Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis works in a shop run by Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), a cruel and insensitive town gossip. Wanting a better life for Eilis, Rose arranges for her sister to travel to America where she will work in a department store in Brooklyn.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn her benefactor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), enrolls her in an accounting class and finds shelter for her in an Irish boarding home. Eilis is wracked with homesickness. That is until she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen). Tony is an Italian lad with a fondness for Irish lasses. He introduces her to the better things in Brooklyn.

Greg, Brooklyn is a sweet movie about an insecure young woman who is cast from her familiar home into a new world 4,000 miles away. We watch her struggle with shyness, self-confidence, and homesickness. She has such a good heart that we worry that she’ll fall into the wrong crowd or fall for the wrong man. But she manages to steer her life in a positive direction, even meeting and falling in love with a young man who to our surprise is good for her.

Just as she’s hitting her stride, she’s called home to help out her mom. In most hero stories, returning home is the endpoint of the journey, but in this case returning home becomes a stern test for our young hero. She starts to fall for an Irish young man and is gradually pulled into the possibility of remaining in Ireland rather than returning to her life in New York. Only an encounter with a bitter nemesis awakens her to the reality of her true calling to be with her new young man in Brooklyn. It’s an effective hero’s journey about a woman coming of age. I enjoyed it.

Scott, I think I hated this movie for all the reasons you liked it. At every turn when you thought something might go wrong for our hero, it didn’t. She breaks down in tears at work because she’s homesick – so she might get fired: she doesn’t. She sits across from two gossipy girls in the boarding home – so they might be catty and treat her badly: they become best friends. She meets a boy who makes love to her – she might get caught, thrown out of her boarding home, or get pregnant: she doesn’t. She goes home to Ireland and pretends she isn’t married – so she might get caught and disgraced: she doesn’t. Every time we think the story might take an interesting turn – it simply doesn’t. This movie plays it safe from beginning to end and I was bored to tears.

You could call it playing it safe, Greg, or you could call it a refreshing change of pace from the same old predictable storylines of Hollywood movies. Yes, the young man she meets would have been an abusive jerk in most other movies. How nice that he turns out unexpectedly to be good for her! Yes, the Catholic priest who helps her could have been a perverted creep who ends up steering her in the wrong direction, but how nice that we have a movie in which a priest is actually a kind, decent person. When is the last time that happened in the movies?

Our hero Eilis has plenty of challenges and setbacks with which to grapple. She gets dreadfully ill on the voyage to America and must adapt to countless unfamiliar situations and odd norms in the new land. She struggles with shyness and terrible homesickness. Her sister’s death certainly set her back, as did her mother’s expectation to come home and stay home longer than she would have preferred. There is also the temptation to cheat on her husband which, for the most part, she manages to resist. Refreshingly, none of these story elements follow the traditional script from the big movie studios. I applaud this film’s willingness to risk deviating from established Hollywood norms.

If being facile is bucking the Hollywood norm, I’ll take the Hollywood norm, thank you very much. Eilis is what we in the writing world call a “Mary Sue” (a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting – Wikipedia). Things just don’t go wrong for her. The only real conflict in this story is when she has to choose between an Irish man (Jim Farell played by Domhnall Gleeson) and Tony back in America. When she gets caught in her lie we think there might be a bit of conflict. But no. She simply admits her error and returns home to Tony and the story ends. No consequences at all. She doesn’t even face her Irish lover. She leaves a lousy note. There’s no conflict, no tension, and so no catharsis.

This story follows the Hero’s Journey in only the most superficial of ways. The hero starts out in her ordinary world (Ireland) and travels to a special world (America) where she should meet enemies, allies and is tested. But where are the enemies in this story? There are none. She has allies a-plenty. And her trials are … learning to spin spaghetti on a spoon and wearing a bathing suit on Coney Island.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a beautifully shot movie with outstanding performances from young actors Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen (and isn’t Domhnall Gleeson everywhere these days?). But it is so sanitized in its portrayal of Irish/Italian relations that it reminds me of a Disney movie with Eilis as a Disney princess. This movie is little more than Oscar bait. And the Academy has taken this bait hook, line, and sinker.

Her primary enemy is herself. The Self as a villain figure occupies a prominent place in our model of villainy outlined in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains. In 2015 we encountered the Self as a villain in movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. In this current movie, Brooklyn, Eilis battles her shyness, lack of self-confidence, and naiveté about the world. Heroes who struggle with deficiencies in their personal life do not let these deficits define them; they find ways to overcome their shortcomings and triumph in the end. It’s enjoyable to watch Eilis’s transformation unfold. She’s very much a delicate flower that must grow through some stormy weather conditions to emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever.

The supporting characters are pillars of strength in this movie. Tony and his family are a colorful lot, especially Tony’s eight-year-old brother Freddie (James DiGiacomo) who added some delightful comic relief to the film. Eilis is helped on her journey by a number of helpful older figures, such as Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), her landlady (Mrs. Keough played by Julie Walters), and her supervisor at work (Miss Fortini played by Jessica Paré). Back in Ireland there are a pair of dark mentors she must overcome, including her mother and Miss Kelly, whose provincial nastiness awakens Eilise to her essential calling to resume her transformed life in America.

If you want this to be a story of Eilis versus herself, she would have to fail due to her inner problems. We saw this to the extreme in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Davis was a character with true inner demons that threatened to not only upend his dreams,, but ultimately resulted in his destruction. We don’t see that in Brooklyn. All of Eilis’s flaws are mere inconveniences which were overcome in the simplest ways. I can’t agree that this is a woman-vs-self story. It’s just a villain-less coming of age story – and quite dull as a result.

I’m glad you mentioned the little tyke Freddie. Here was a character who hinted at the fact that Italians and Irish didn’t get along in 1950s Brooklyn. But his racism is laughed off by the rest of the family. And the strange thing is that he apparently learned this racism from his older brothers. It’s often the case that a child is placed in a script to say the things adults don’t dare say. This may be a new character type for our list, Scott – the (innocent or naive) child as the outer voice of the inner thoughts of adults.

Brooklyn offers a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young woman who is thrown into a dangerous new world where she is compelled to grow in several meaningful ways. This film refreshingly defies stereotypes about people and about situations, surprising us with a delightful tale of heroic transformation. It also occurs to me that this film owes its success to the fact that relatively unknown actors populate the screen. These fresh talented faces added realism and texture to a movie that transfixes us with authentic images and ambience from a bygone era in America. I’m more than happy to award Brooklyn 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey can be characterized as Woman versus Self, as our hero Eilis must overcome her timidity and naivete to succeed in transitioning from Ireland to America. Moreover, in what amounts to a second hero’s journey, her return to Ireland presents her temptations to undo all the growth she achieved in America. Her character development is revealed in her ability to defy these temptations. If I have a criticism of this journey, it is that her character should be far more sensible than to spend every waking hour in Ireland with Jim Ferrell. This temptation seems forced and not in keeping with her normally rational nature. One final note — it is nice to see, at the film’s conclusion, Eilis serving as a mentor to another young girl making the voyage to America. We saw this mentee to mentor transformation in the film Joy earlier this year. Overall, Eilis’s hero’s journey merits 4 Heroes out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the supporting team of players are superb. Their colorful, quirky, and memorable presence in the film serve as an effective foil to Eilis’s rather staid and understated character. I am especially happy that this movie steers clear of traditional Hollywood stereotypes of evil priests and abusive boyfriends. Elise is helped along her journey by a trio of wonderful mentors and she deftly sidesteps a pair of dark mentors. Overall, all these characters earn 4 cast rating points out of 5.

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I’m wondering if we saw the same movie? Brooklyn is a safe bet. It portrays 1950s Brooklyn through the lens of a 1950s sensibility. Our hero, Eilis, is never in any danger because she’s constantly surrounded by supportive mentors. What some might call a breath of fresh air I call a passive delivery of a non-story. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I give Brooklyn just 2 Reels out of 5.

Eilis is a terribly uninteresting character who grows from a naive young woman to a worldly young woman. Not through any challenges she had, but by careful hand-holding of several good mentors. She has a nice temptation when she returns to Ireland, which was interesting. But it was unraveled in the most uninteresting way. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was an autobiography where the writer couldn’t reveal her darker inner self. The bit where Eilis becomes the mentor to a young passenger on her way back to America is a nice touch, but was virtually telescoped from the beginning. I give Eilis just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The secondary characters in this story were such stereotypes as to be cardboard cutouts verging on caricatures. There’s the kindly Irish priest, the shrewish neighborhood gossip, the boy next door, and the best girlfriends. Not a single character stands out as someone I might remember the next day. I literally had to look up all the character’s names on the Internet because none of them left a lasting impression (except the impetuous tyke Freddy – the most memorable character in the movie). I give these secondary characters just 1 Cast 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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Trainwreck •••1/2

Trainwreck_posterStarring: Amy SchumerBill HaderBrie Larson
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenplay: Amy Schumer
Comedy/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: July 17, 2015


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Well Scott, I thought this movie was about trouble on the B&O Railroad.

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

No, Greg. This is a comedy starring the brilliant, up-and-coming Amy Schumer. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Amy (Amy Schumer) who is a hard-working journalist at a women’s magazine called “S’nuff”. Amy is also a hard-playing gal with many suitors and a steady boyfriend-ish guy. She is sent on a job to interview a popular sports doctor named Aaron Connors (Bill Hader). Amy and Aaron hit it off – which surprises Amy because she doesn’t want a committed relationship. Hilarity ensues as Aaron attempts to nice-guy convince Amy that they were meant to be together.

Amy and Aaron begin dating and Amy does her best to remain true to her pattern by sabotaging the relationship. But Aaron sticks with her and they begin to fall for each other. Amy’s dad (Colin Quinn) reminds her of who she is, a person like him (her dad) who is incapable of commitment. Amy manages to break up with Aaron but learns her lesson, giving us the Hollywood happily-ever-after ending.

Amy Schumer is a bawdy comedian whose stand-up routines and her hit TV show Inside Amy Schumer deal with many topics, not the least of which is the American perception of women in the media and the workplace. Trainwreck is a natural extension of these routines. I’ve seen Schumer in an interview where a reporter asks her if Amy (in the movie) is a “skank.” Not missing a beat she says “Were you thinking of your mom just then?” Amy Schumer is a force to be reckoned with.

The movie is a lot of fun. Amy is confounded by Aaron’s consistent politeness at calling the day after sex, bringing flowers, and asking her a second date. Aaron has to confront Amy’s sleep-around lifestyle and gets unnerved by it. Amy, meanwhile, gets unnerved by her own feelings of affection for Aaron. Sadly, the movie ends with the two getting together and Amy becoming a one-woman-man. As you point out, Scott, it’s pretty much a Hollywood rom-com ending.

Trainwreck is an innocuous, enjoyable comedy that owes its success entirely to the comedic genius of Amy Schumer. This movie would likely have bombed if any other actress had played the lead character. Trainwreck works because Schumer knocks our socks off with her brilliant portrayal of the “modern woman” who is professionally successful but who is also an ardent commitment-phobe.

Greg, you use the term “sadly” to describe the ending. The movie must end on this note if we are to have any kind of hero’s journey. We learn early on that Amy must overcome a dark mentor (her dad), who taught his kids that “monogamy is unrealistic.” To this movie’s credit, the dad isn’t a bad person, and in fact Schumer remains very close to him despite his bad mentoring about relationships. Schumer transforms herself from a commitment-phobe to a woman who is ready to embrace commitment. She accomplishes this feat by learning the way that most heroes do – by suffering a big humiliation that has serious consequences. Specifically, she has one last promiscuous fling, this time with an underage guy, which gets her fired from her job.

Indeed, I say “sadly” because it cops out to the norms of society that I think Schumer is railing against. There’s a montage where she throws out her booze, candy, chips, etc… and “cleans up her act.” I much prefer the ending to Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) where her Mr. Darcy accepts Bridget just as she is – cigarettes, booze, and extra padding. Amy Schumer is clever enough to come up with a more insightful ending.

However, I see your point about the transformation. It’s an abrupt one brought on by her coming to a very low point in her life. She has to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. So, yeah. It’s a nice little hero’s journey. But not every transformation has to end with accepting social norms. As in Bridget Jones’ case, sometimes the transformation is in realizing that you’re fine just as you are.

Good point. The villain in this story is Schumer herself. She is compelled to overcome her fear of commitment, and she also has a slight problem with alcohol. Stories of heroes who must triumph over their inner demons are common in Hollywood. We saw the “self” as villain in 2014 movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. For these movies to work, the hero must be someone we truly care about so that we, the audience, can root hard for them to overcome their issues. Schumer is such a character in Trainwreck. She is instantly likeable and remains so throughout the movie, even during scenes when she is embarrassing herself.

The rest of the supporting characters all do their jobs well. The dad may be a dark mentor, but his degenerative disease makes him a sympathetic figure. LeBron James is surprisingly good as Aaron’s good friend and confidante. Amy leans on a few girlfriends for help and they do a serviceable job in this role. Aaron is a sweetheart of a guy whom we know is good for Amy, if only she would see the light. All these characters are good but it is Schumer herself who is the unequivocal star of the show.

It’s true Amy is her own worst enemy, but she has a few oppositional characters to deal with. Not the least of which is her go-go-go boss Diana (Tilda Swinton) who keeps reminding her of her flaws. There’s an interesting rom-com switcheroo here too. Amy has a best friend Nikki who keeps telling Amy to play the field and run away from commitment-man Aaaron. Meanwhile, Aaron has empathetic-verging-on-sensitive buddy Lebron James telling him to shield his heart and not get hurt.

Also, there’s Amy’s sister who has settled down with a very stable man and his stable son. They represent the life Amy could have if she would give up her wild ways. I was very happy that Schumer didn’t cop out completely and have the young boy turn into a brat at the end of the movie. This is a stereotypical turnabout that she avoided. He turns out to be a nice, well-adjusted little boy who loves his Aunt Amy.

Trainwreck is a bouncy, witty, romantic comedy that provides giggles along with a charming love story. Amy Schumer now has her breakout movie and I anticipate an avalanche of Schumer movies in the coming years. Trainwreck features a female lead character, beset with self-destructive tendencies, whom we laugh at and care about. It’s a formula we’ve seen before many times but Schumer’s unique comedic genius allows this film to soar above most of the rest. I award this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey is rock solid, with Amy cast into an unfamiliar world of steady romantic love, which makes her squirm and rebel in discomfort. She has dark mentoring to overcome, which she does with help and patience from her loving and adorable boyfriend Aaron. If Aaron is anything less than a good man, we’d be disappointed with this fairytale ending. For me, it works just fine. I give this hero’s journey 3 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters aren’t terribly noteworthy but they all play their roles in either helping or hindering our hero Amy. In a way, Trainwreck reminds me of an early Jim Carrey movie. In those films, Carrey’s immense talent and energy made everyone around him rather forgettable in comparison. Schumer is such a character. No disrespecting the supporting cast, but this is Schumer’s movie. I’ll still give this cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Trainwreck is a lot of fun. It falls in line with such predecessors as Bridesmaids and The Heat. It gives us a non-traditional look at a non-traditional romance. I laughed out loud. But I was disappointed at the traditional ending. I give Trainwreck 3 out of 5 Reels.

Schumer creates a fully-developed three-dimensional hero. She is flawed, lovable, idiosyncratic, and smart. It’s hard not to get invested in her story. She undergoes a nice Hollywood-style transformation and turns into the girl next door. I give her 3 out of 5 Heroes.

And the supporting cast was quite excellent. Amy had her best friend Nikki. And LeBron James as Aaron’s buddy was a surprise standout. The sister’s family was a nice contrast to Amy’s wild party life. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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Aloha •••

Aloha_posterStarring: Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone
Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: May 29, 2015


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Well, Scott it seems Aloha isn’t just another way to say Goodbye.

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

It must be another way to say marquis cast, too. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) who is a former Air Force pilot turned defense contractor. He was wounded in Afghanistan and now works for Carson Welch (Bill Murray) – a shady billionaire who is looking to take over the space program. Gilcrest has come to Hawaii to oversee the launching of Welch’s latest satellite in conjunction with the Air Force. He bumps into his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who has married heck-of-a-nice-guy John “Woody” Woodside (John Krasinski). Meanwhile, exceptionally perky fighter pilot Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone) is put in charge of supervising Gilcrest.

Gilcrest’s job is to secure permission from the King of the Hawaiian nation (Dennis Bumpy Kanahele) to allow some native burial land to be relocated so that Welch can launch his satellite. Captain Ng’s background in the spiritual importance of the issue proves invaluable in helping Gilcrest sway the King. Gilcrest finds himself not only falling for Ng but also rekindling his connection with Tracy. He also learns of a secret payload aboard the satellite that looks ominously like massive weaponry. Ng becomes upset when she discovers the secret, and Gilcrest must choose between completing his mission or doing the right thing.

Scott, I was very concerned about the ambitions of this film when I saw the stellar cast. When you have that many egos in the room at the same time, something is bound to go wrong. I was right, but for the wrong reason. This was a team of talented actors wasted on a script that was just too ridiculous to make sense. The story meandered from Hawaiian indigent rights, to military overreach, to the loss of the space program to the private sector all while trying to work in a romance and reconciliation. It was too much to pack into a 105-minute film.

On top of that, it has an incredible case of the cutes. Rachel McAdams’ character Tracy was facing some really tough choices. She had an old flame who had come to town, she was having marital problems with an incommunicative husband, and she was dealing with the paternity of her eldest child. Yet, McAdams never stops smiling from opening scene to credits. Emma Stone’s Captain Ng was so incredibly perky I wondered if she weren’t a teenager. She’s a fighter pilot for Pete’s sake. And a Captain at that – which is usually someone in their mid thirties. It was hard to know just how seriously to take this film.

In our first Reel Heroes book, we describe the tendency of movies crammed with multiple stars to be destined to failure. This movie certainly had that potential and a case could be made that this film under-performed, given that most of the all-star cast members are in their prime. As you point out, the plot is a little strange and overly complicated, plus there are a few too many characters. Director Cameron Crowe tries to do a lot here and he has all the talent and resources in the world at his disposal, but the whole doesn’t quite match up to the parts.

Yet, having said that, this film appealed to me. Aloha is a movie with a lot of heart. For me, the three female lead characters steal the show. First, Emma Stone’s wholesome sex appeal shines through in her performance as Captain Ng. Admittedly, Stone doesn’t strike me as a fighter pilot at all but she tugged at my heartstrings. The character of Tracy is a sympathetic figure as she is trapped in a bad marriage and desperately longs for a man like Gilcrest. Then we have Tracy’s daughter, Grace, played beautifully by Danielle Rose Russell, who is on the cusp of womanhood and who develops a wonderful awareness of her true ancestry. These three women characters not only saved Aloha from being a dud but carried it emotionally.

The hero of the story is Brian Gilcrest. He is the lead character in an ensemble and a love triangle. He’s got all the traits of a good hero – he’s a good guy who is trying hard to do his best. He has some sympathetic characteristics – among them he is a war veteran and is overcoming his war wounds. So we’re pulling for this guy.

The secondary characters include Captain Ng and Tracy, who Scott has already described. Other notables are Bill Murray’s Carson Welch (patterned apparently after Elon Musk of Space-X fame). This character is shadowy and looks to be a dark mentor. He is leading Gilcrest down a path of corruption and evil. There’s also Woody who is the strong silent type. He is the competition for Gilcrest’s alpha male status (does that make Woody the “beta male?”). Alec Baldwin has a fleeting role in this film as a general who yells a lot. I think he is the polar opposite of the dark mentor. He represents Gilcrest’s past – a past when Gilcrest was a military man in good standing.

Good synopsis of the relational structure of the cast, Greg. As you note, Gilcrest is a worthy hero figure who is pulled in many directions and must overcome his emotions and the evil Carson Welch in order to do the right thing. He has help from Ng and General Dixon, but mostly Ng, without whom Gilcrest would be lost professionally, romantically, and ethically. You’re right that Welch is a dark mentor who leads Gilcrest down an ominous path, much like Terence Fletcher led Andrew Nieman to ruin in the 2014 movie, Whiplash.

In movies featuring dark mentors, the hero often must overcome selfish greed to break free from the grip of the mentor. In Whiplash, Nieman has to let go of blind ambition to regain a sense of self-preservation to break free. In Aloha, Gilcrest must let go of his almost pathological need to rehabilitate his image with the Air Force. Only in this way can he break free from Welch.

Aloha isn’t a great movie. It has a confusing plot with side dishes of military, political, and historical controversy. We’re never clear on what Gilcrest wants from Tracy. And he is trying to avoid Captain Ng. We don’t much care about anyone in this movie and nobody really seems to be having much drama. It was really hard to get invested in the story. I give Aloha just 2 out of 5 Reels.

The hero of the story seems to have it all. Gilcrest is a decent guy with a few problems that he has to work out. He has a clear goal (launch the satellite) and a missing inner quality (unrequited love for Tracy). But the internal conflict appears to be about following the corrupting influence of Welch or the innocence of Ng. I can’t summon more than 2 Heroes out of 5 for Gilcrest.

The ensemble cast never really gels. Tracy (the old flame) is too happy for someone in a bad relationship. Ng (the new obsession) is too perky to be believable. Welch never appears evil enough to rise to the level of a villain. General Dixon isn’t on-screen enough to operate as a positive mentor. The King of the island appears as the innocent native. Woody is the stoic representation of what Gilcrest could have had. The ingredients are all there, but there is just not a decent stew to be made. I give the supporting cast just 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Greg, my mind agrees with you but my heart was won over by this movie. You and I have both said that the whole of the film doesn’t match the parts, and even knowing that I found myself charmed by Captain Ng, empathizing with Tracy, and moved by young Grace’s coming of age. Aloha is not a great movie, but if you are a fan of the members of this all-star cast, you just might be satisfied by this film the way that I was. I’m semi-embarrassed to give Aloha 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story was similar to that of Whiplash in that our hero is being driven to destruction by a dark mentor on a power trip. What makes Whiplash a better film is its simplicity compared to the rather complex clunkiness of Aloha. Still, Bradley Cooper does a fine job as our hero Gilcrest, who traverses the hero’s journey in fine fashion. I’m happy to award him 3 Heroes out of 5.

As I’ve said, the three main women characters tugged at my heart and carried this film in a big way. Emma Stone may not be believable as a part-Asian fighter pilot, but her screen presence is powerful as always. The characters of Tracy and Rachel are warm, wonderful figures whom we root for, and even the male cast (e.g., the King and Woody) are wise, warm, likeable figures. In a role that’s unusual for him, Bill Murray’s eccentric and malevolent Welch character charmed me, too. This supporting cast is the star of the film. I give them a rating of 4 out of 5.

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