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February Movie Mashup (2020)

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Reel Heroes & Villains
Greg Smith & Scott T. Allison
Reel Heroes Volume 1

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Movie Greg Scott
THE CALL OF THE WILD
JOJO RABBIT
THE INVISIBLE MAN
THE WAY BACK
Awards Greg Scott
Film of the Month JoJo Rabbit The Call of the Wild
Hero of the Month Jojo Betzler Jack Cunningham

Welcome back, Scott to the Movie Mashup. As you may remember from last time, we now look at four movies we’ve seen and give them our rankings.

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

Yep, I’m up for the challenge if you are, Greg.

THE CALL OF THE WILD

THE CALL OF THE WILD

I was looking forward to this film. I’m a big fan of dogs, and Jack London. But it’s from Disney and the dogs and other animals are all computer graphics (CGI). And… it’s got Harrison Ford, which is always great.

It’s an odyssey story of a dog who goes from living the pampered life on a plantation, gets kidnapped and sold into doggie-slavery, then runs the Alaskan Yukon sled team, and finally lands with Harrison Ford who is a gold miner. If you ever wanted to tell a story of what life was like in the 1890’s, this is an entertaining tour-de-force.

However, as good as the source material is, Disney mangled it badly. While the performances of all the players are wonderful, the CGI animals are classic Disney. Our main character, Buck, is a Saint Bernard with unusually large eyes – so that we can get some emotion out of him. I fully understand where Disney is going here. Working with REAL animals is very hard. They can be unpredictable, and it’s difficult to ask a St. Bernard to look sad, happy, concerned – well practically any emotion. But in the end, these CGI animals look like cartoon characters. I was not impressed.

As much as I love this story, and Harrison Ford as the grizzled traveler trying to heal old wounds, the true story lies with Buck’s call to return to his wolf heritage. The underlying meaning of the story (which is to be yourself, and head your own calling) is lost in an attempt to dumb the narrative and the cinatography to a child audience.

And this is the problem I have with EVERYTHING coming out of Disney studios – it’s all aimed at a child audience. Even Star Wars and the Marvel franchises are less concerned with great storytelling and more concerned with appealing to the child-mind. I can’t think of a single thing coming from Disney that isn’t aimed at exploitation of their films in multiple markets (toys, clothing, music). And the people who are buying these things are children and their parents.

So, my rating is 2 Reels for a lackluster presentation and 2 Heroes for a watered down message.

Greg, I understand all your concerns with this movie and I share some of them, albeit not to quite the same degree. For me, The Call of the Wild is a good, family-friendly, entertaining movie – assuming you can get over the slightly distracting computerized dogs. I can totally understand the need to use computer dogs. After all, the RDAU (Real Dog Actors Union) has some Reel Teeth, ensuring that Hollywood studies pay celebrity dog actors exorbitant paychecks along the lines of those received by Tom Hanks and The Rock. Thus animation is the way to go, for sure. I just wish the animation didn’t venture so close to creepy uncanny-valley territory.

So yes, our hero is a computer dog named Buck who is just a bit too expressive, intelligent, and perceptive to be convincing as a real dog. But Buck is brimming with heroic qualities, possessing all eight of “The Great Eight Traits’ of heroes: Buck is smart, strong, selfless, reliable, resilient, caring, charismatic, and inspiring. Buck also goes on the classic hero’s journey and transforms into the dog he was always meant to be, a dog in the wild, cohabitating with his own distant wolf relatives.

The ending is a departure from the usual “return home” conclusion of the hero’s journey, but the choice here is bold and appropriate. Buck is far too smart and special to be somebody’s pet. He outgrows the need for humans or for human companionship. Joseph Campbell always said that it was the hero’s imperative to venture into the forest at the darkest place, on a path that no one else has ever taken. Buck does exactly this, and for that reason, this movie works for me big-time.

So I have to give this movie a higher rating than you did, Greg — sorry about that. It tugged on my heartstrings and it featured a fabulous canine hero. For that reason I give the film 4 out of 5 Reels and the full 5 out of 5 Hero points.

JOJO RABBIT

JOJO RABBIT

We next turn to JoJo Rabbit, a quirky film that received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 2019. This is the tale of a young boy named JoJo who lives in Nazi Germany during the second world war. These are stressful times and JoJo, a Nazi Youth, adopts a quirky version of Adolf Hitler as his best friend. One day the boy discovers a Jewish girl hiding in the wall of their home. The story takes us through JoJo’s transformation from childish naivete to enlightenment.

JoJo Rabbit is dark comedy that does what any good movie should do – depict the capacity of all human beings to transform into “the better angels of their nature”, to quote Abraham Lincoln. Animals in the movie are important symbols. Rabbits, for example, are depicted as beautiful animals, captured, abused, or fleeing from capture. There are also unicorns as mythical creatures, representing human delusion. The film boasts a strong supporting cast, including Sam Rockwell as a tragic figure, forced into supporting the Nazi cause but willing to do the right thing when it counts. Taika Waititi plays the role of Hitler as a racist buffoon, embodying the worst of humanity, who transmits his pain onto others.

Overall, I enjoyed JoJo Rabbit but was surprised when it garnered an Oscar nomination. For me it was a lighthearted foray into World War II that only somewhat exceeded the depths of the 1960s television series, Hogan’s Heroes. The film was entertaining and conveyed a nice message, but I see no need to revisit it any time soon. I can award the film as many as 3 Reels out of 5, and our hero JoJo 3 Hero points out of 5 as well.

Scott, I was very concerned about this film as I find it inconceivable that you can make a comedy about Adolph Hitler (Charlie Chaplan tried in his film The Little Dictator and had marginal success). But I think JoJo Rabbit succeeds. I don’t know that I’d compare this movie to Hogan’s Heroes as the latter pretty much played the Germans for yuks. Whereas here, we get a more cynical look at what it was to be a Nazi in Germany near the end of the war.

Young JoJo is taught that Jews are evil folk with horns and all manner of beastly habits. When he meets the young Jewish woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), whom his mother is hiding, he has to reconcile his understanding of what he’s been taught with the person in front of him. Through the course of the film, JoJo falls in love with her and ultimately wants to keep her for himself. When the Americans liberate their town, he has to let her go.

This is both a heartwarming and heart-wrenching movie to watch. We’re reminded of what race hatred really is. We watch JoJo reject his dark mentor (Adolph Hitler) when he realizes that everything he’s been taught is wrong. This is a very strong movie with harsh themes that are told in a sardonic, cynical, and comical way. I give JoJo 5 Heroes for his transformation, and Taika Waititi 5 Reels for a wonderful film that showed Adolph Hitler transitioning from a Hero to a Fallen Hero and ultimately, a Villain. Freakin’ brilliant.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

THE INVISIBLE MAN

This incarnation of H.G. Wells’ story The Invisible Man takes on a #MeToo issue: What if a man tried to make a woman look crazy by gaslighting her?

I have to say, this is not a great film. In just about every way, the writing, the CGI, the premise, the in-your-face social activism; this is a pretty mundane presentation. But Elisabeth Moss has a great presence on camera.

In addition, I was very disappointed in a couple plot points that all “Invisible Man” movies include. There’s a scene where Moss dumps a can of paint on the I.M. – which leaves no footprints and washes off more like milk than paint. Also, our I.M. seems to have access to everything everywhere. And, his invisible suit seems to also give him super strength.

All of these are forgivable since Moss’s performance is stunning. She not only makes you believe she’s on the verge of a mental breakdown, but also really sells the visuals of fighting with an unseen foe. The ending is telescoped from the beginning, but we don’t care. Moss is awesome and is the main (perhaps only) reason to see this film. I give her 2 Reels and 3 Heroes.

Elizabeth Moss officially has my attention. Moss carries this movie singlehandedly, showing the gamut of emotions while expertly traversing the hero’s journey. First, let me comment on the superpower on display here. And by that I mean figuratively on display, as I refer of course to the power of invisibility. The Invisible Man is a story of what happens when a terrible villain gets hold of a superpower. Havoc is wreaked, to say the least. No wonder Stan Lee had to remind us that with great power comes great responsibility. In the wrong hands, great power is a recipe for evil.

The hero’s journey is textbook. At the outset of the movie, our hero Cecilia makes a great escape from her abusive, gaslighting boyfriend. She’s brave but she has a lot of growing to do, and as is the case for many hero journeys, Cecilia’s growth only emerges after terrible suffering. By film’s end, she has transformed from a frightened, insecure woman into a self-confident, brilliant hero. Cecilia actually doesn’t get help from others; she’s pretty much on her own.

So, my dear Gregger, once again I like a movie a lot more than you did. The silly milk-spilling on the invisible dude didn’t bother me as much as it bothered you. Let’s face it, future movie-makers should use a different substance to stick to the I.M. — tar and feathers, perhaps, or maybe Elmer’s glue with sparkly confetti. In any event, this movie was fun and our hero showed tremendous personal growth as a result of her experience. For that reason, I give the film 4 out of 5 Reel and Cecilia 4 out of 5 Hero points.

THE WAY BACK

THE WAY BACK

Greg, The Way Back is a nice reminder that one of the most satisfying variations of the hero’s journey involves the pathway to redemption. My first heroes book came out a decade ago (my how time flies) and my coauthor George Goethals and I devoted an entire chapter to the topic of redemption. Human beings have a deep craving to see people correct a past wrong, mend their ways, and transform into the best version of themselves.

 And here’s what I like about The Way Back – when the credits roll at the movie’s end, Ben Affleck’s character, Jack, hasn’t quite morphed into his best self. He’s still a work in progress. He hasn’t gotten the girl, he hasn’t yet conquered his alcoholism, and he’s still in emotional pain. But, we get hints that he’s headed in the right direction, and so we have a realistic story of pain and healing but not a complete picture of the finished product. I found this lack of closure to be extremely refreshing and realistic.

It’s also great to see a movie that really drives home the point that the effects of good mentorship don’t end just because the mentor is gone. The basketball team has lost its coach but not his influence. We see that Jack’s coaching wisdom and inspiration has stayed with the players and is carrying them into the future without the Jack’s direct help. This is the way powerful and effective mentoring works. We all stand on the shoulders of giants who aren’t there any more, boosting us up and moving us forward with their ongoing influence. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5, and I award our hero Jack 5 Hero points out of 5.

I was very disappointed in this film as I thought it was a remake of the Sherman and Peabody stories of The Way Back Machine (ala Mr. Peabody and Sherman from 2004). But alas, it’s another story of alcoholic redemption, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This was a good opportunity for Ben Affleck to show off his brand of stoic acting (aka bad acting). And he excelled. All kidding aside, his performance was the only good thing about the film. It tries the play off the ‘coach of the year’ trope. It tries to use the sports as redemption trope. It tries to play off the lost a kid to cancer trope. And (to quote Captain Kirk) “like a poor marksman it keeps missing the target.” Any one of these story elements could be fantastic. But it’s a shallow attempt to look like a modern Hoosiers. And it fails miserably.

I’m actually trying really hard to find more to say about this movie. It just never finds its center. It wants to be a sports film, but the sporting elements are completely missing. It wants to be about inspiring young people, but we never see the transformation of the players – they just do. It wants to be about loss of a child and the devastating effects it has on parents and their relationships – but it buries it. I can’t say I recommend this film to anyone for anything at any time. I give it 1 Reel and 2 Heroes.

AWARDS

And now it’s time to hand out our awards, Greg. Which of these four movies deserves to be named Film of the Month, and which of our four heroes deserves to be awarded Hero of the Month? For me, it’s a close call, but I have to go with The Call of the Wild as the film of the month. Usually when a story departs from the classic hero’s journey, there are disastrous results, but in this case, Buck the heroic dog needed to return to a deeper home than the home of the Judge from whence he came. Buck’s home is in the wild, the home of his ancestors. I found this to be a poignant and effective ending to a powerful story.

My hero of the month is Jack in The Way Back. I’ve seen better movies about redemption, about recovering from alcoholism, and about basketball. But somehow this film combines these elements in a most satisfying manner, and Jack’s earnest likeability and resilience are heroic qualities that had me really rooting for him. I hope the filmmakers resist the urge to do a sequel of this story, as Jack’s unfinished transformation was one of the true surprising highlights of his story.

My pick for Movie of the Month is JoJo Rabbit. As I said, it takes a lot of talent, skill, and empathy to create a movie about Nazi Germany, make it funny, and sensitive. JoJo Rabbit does this in a very heart-breaking way.

My pick for hero of the month is young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler. This is clearly a story of redemption and coming of age in the most brutal of times in world history. JoJo goes from an unfeeling, misinformed Hitler Youth, to a sensitive, loving young man. He’s a truly redeemed hero.

Movie Greg Scott
THE CALL OF THE WILD
JOJO RABBIT
THE INVISIBLE MAN
THE WAY BACK
Awards Greg Scott
Film of the Month JoJo Rabbit The Call of the Wild
Hero of the Month Jojo Betzler Jack Cunningham

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