Monday, September 25, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Battle of the Sexes," "Columbus" and "How To Change the World," as well as a radio show preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

‘Battle of the Sexes’ confronts and smashes barriers

“Battle of the Sexes” (2017). Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Jessica McNamee, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Lewis Pullman, James Mackay, Cooper Friedman. Archive Footage: Howard Cosell, Howard K. Smith, Roosevelt Grier, Chris Evert, Lloyd Bridges, George Foreman. Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy. Web site. Trailer.

Getting ahead in life can be fraught with obstacles that keep us from moving forward. But, no matter how formidable these limitations may appear, they’re all meant to be overcome, provided we believe in the possibility. That can be challenging, especially when the barriers appear on multiple fronts, but it’s by no means impossible, as demonstrated by the new sports biopic, “Battle of the Sexes.”

In September 1973, the nation’s attention (if not that of much of the world) was captivated with, of all things, a tennis match. But, in many ways, it was no ordinary tennis match; it was a contest with wide-ranging implications in the sports world and society at large – the Battle of the Sexes, featuring 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) squaring off against 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone).

With both players having won championships at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open, the talent was considerable on both sides of the net. However, Riggs, as a self-avowed male chauvinist, embodied the opinion held by many of the professional tennis world’s movers and shakers that women couldn’t compete with men when it came to skill on the court. Tennis promoters and commentators like former pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) contended that women weren’t as physically adept and, hence, not as interesting to watch. And this, they claimed, justified the smaller prizes paid to women in professional tournaments. So, when Riggs challenged King to a one-on-one match, she accepted if for no other reason than to prove him and his peers wrong.

Tennis pros Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, left) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, right) meet the media to promote their epic tennis match in the new sports biopic, “Battle of the Sexes.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

“Battle of the Sexes” chronicles the events leading up to the big match, both from personal and professional standpoints. These back story items are crucial to the narrative, for they explain some of the motivations of the characters and spotlight the significance of the main event, both in the tennis world and further afield.

For example, viewers witness Riggs’s struggle as a compulsive gambler, an addiction that frequently caused issues in his marriage to his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and that helped bring out the natural Barnum-esque huckster in him. Meanwhile, audiences are let in on King’s efforts to launch a professional women’s tennis tour – one free of the constraints dictated by the sport’s male-dominated hierarchy – with the assistance of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), founder of World Tennis Magazine, and sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes, one of the first brands of smokes specifically marketed to women. In addition, the film also examines King’s personal struggles in accepting her emerging homosexuality through her clandestine involvement with her lover and hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), an incident that created tension in her marriage with her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), and that sparked whispers among sponsors and fellow competitors, like Australian powerhouse Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).

What’s more, the film also delves into the media spectacle that was the Battle of the Sexes, one of the first high-profile public events accorded such unrelenting hype and over-the-top promotion. In many ways, the match set the standard for similar events that would follow in the ensuing years – and that remain part of the media culture and fabric of society to this day.

Most importantly, though, the film is an exercise in illustrating what it means to rise to one’s own greatness, to push through barriers and limitations that hold us back, as well as those facing similar circumstances. This is certainly true in the professional arena, as evidenced by King’s efforts to level the playing field in the world of women’s sports (not just tennis), but also to promote wider social acceptance of alternate lifestyles. Clearly this was an event about more than just a tennis match.

Tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, right) wrestles with her emerging homosexuality through an encounter with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, left), in “Battle of the Sexes.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

So how did the Battle of the Sexes grow to be as significant as it was? It comes down to the fact that everyone who had even a remote connection to the event wanted to see it succeed to promote their particular agendas – aims driven by their beliefs, the cornerstone of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience. These co-creations (or “mass events,” as many conscious creation advocates term them) embody many diverse elements and outlooks, each seeking materialization thanks to the belief power underlying them.

For champions of the old order, for example, the event had the belief energy of figures like Riggs and Kramer propelling it toward manifestation. By contrast, the new paradigm had the backing of King and all of her many followers, both in her personal and professional life, to catapult it to success. And, through it all, as noted earlier, the belief energy aimed at surpassing personal limitations was suffused throughout the event, both at the time of the match and in the incidents preceding it.

On the night of the big event, male chauvinist tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, left) gives opponent Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, right) the gift of a giant Sugar Daddy in the often-hilarious sports biopic, “Battle of the Sexes.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

In many ways, the Battle of the Sexes served as a centerpiece event in the larger social changes that were taking place at the time. It served as a sort of lightning rod in which impassioned proponents on each side of the issues at stake sought to bring their hoped-for manifestations into being. The ceremony and spectacle associated with such considerations were created to draw the concerns in question into sharp focus for all to see – and to witness which side would come out the winner. And it ultimately demonstrated that, as conscious creators steadfastly maintain, we’re all in a constant state of becoming, ever evolving to something new. (Adherents of old, worn-out ideas, take note.)

Those of us who were around at the time these actual events played out will appreciate the authenticity of this well-crafted cinematic time capsule. “Battle of the Sexes” superbly re-creates one of the biggest sports and social spectacles in recent history, thanks to excellent performances by Stone and Carell – both of whom practically channel their characters – and masterful period piece production values that effectively capture the look and feel of its subject matter. Admittedly, the picture tends to drag slightly in the first 45 minutes, but, this shortcoming aside, the film otherwise delivers in every other regard. As directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have demonstrated in such previous works as “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Ruby Sparks” (2012), they know how to pick good stories and tell them well on the big screen. Game, set, match.

When we set our sites on achieving a particular objective, it can be difficult to hold us back, especially if we’re hungry enough and back those passions with adequate belief support. However, if we waver in our enthusiasm and drive, or if we allow doubts or fears to creep into the mix, we can set ourselves up for disappointment. Yet, if we maintain our resolve and focus, there’s no telling what we can accomplish. Just ask Billie Jean King.

In striking out on her own to create a women’s professional tennis tour, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, right) receives the backing of World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, left) in “Battle of the Sexes.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

‘Columbus’ gives us space for reflection

“Columbus” (2017). Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michele Forbes, Erin Allegretti. Director: Kogonada. Screenplay: Kogonada. Web site. Trailer.

Getting away from it all – even under less-than-ideal conditions – can sometimes work wonders, particularly if there’s much weighing us down. But what we do with such opportunities when they present themselves is most important. That’s very much the case for a pair of searching protagonists in the new, thought-provoking drama, “Columbus.”

While on a national lecture tour, a renowned, aging, Korean-born architect collapses, falling into a coma. With no one to attend to his needs, his longtime aide, Eleanor (Parker Posey), springs into action, summoning the ailing icon’s son, Jin (John Cho), to come care for him. Having been estranged from his father for quite some time, Jin is far from enthused about being called upon now, given their unreconciled feelings and the fact that it will seriously impinge upon his job as a book translator. However, considering the expectations thrust upon him to be the dutiful son, he reluctantly makes the journey to join his father. The one saving grace in this, though, is that Jin must travel to a place of beauty and inspiration, the architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana.

By all rights, Columbus might initially strike outsiders as little more than a nondescript Midwestern town, yet it is much more than what initially meets the eye. Located roughly halfway between Indianapolis and Louisville, Columbus has long been home to an array of innovative structures designed by some of the world’s leading architects, such as Eero Saarinen. And that attribute is what has made this community more than just another easily overlooked stop on the interstate. It also explains the reason behind Jin’s father’s visit.

With his father unresponsive, Jin’s vigil soon turns into an extended visit, one that leaves him with plenty of free time on his hands. One afternoon, while strolling in the gardens of the bed and breakfast where he’s staying, he meets one of the locals, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent high school graduate who works at the local library. They strike up a conversation and quickly discover that they share somewhat similar circumstances. Just as Jin is caring for his father, Casey is doing the same for her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict.

Through their times and dialogues together, Jin and Casey address a number of topics of mutual interest, sharing views and serving as sounding boards for one another. And they do so, ironically enough, while touring the local architectural sites, contemplative venues that give them perfect environments for collecting their thoughts. Jin, for example, vents much of the long-simmering resentment he’s been harboring toward his father and the rigid ways of his culture. Casey, meanwhile, quietly expresses the frustration she’s been experiencing in looking after Maria, especially since doing so has caused her to set aside her own dreams of becoming an architect, a talent at which she seems extremely well suited.

As their conversations play out, Jin and Casey have an opportunity to cover a variety of subjects, including life, love, art, healing, forgiveness, personal growth and human relations, to name a few. Their talks give them much to think about, both in terms of where they are and where they wish to go in their lives. The question is, of course, will they heed their own revelations and insights?

When we take stock of our lives, it often helps to place ourselves in circumstances where we can devote our uninterrupted time and attention to such matters. This is particularly true if we’re dissatisfied with our situations and need to take steps to alter them. That can be difficult to accomplish, however, if our minds are cluttered with the day-to-day flotsam that distracts us. That’s where creating a respite for ourselves can work wonders.

To achieve that, though, we first need to understand how we’ve gotten to where we are and how we can manifest the conditions needed to materialize that much-needed reprieve. This is where the conscious creation process comes into play, the philosophy that maintains we realize the existence we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And it’s a discipline in which Jin and Casey are about to get a profound and thorough education.

The solitude of a small, quiet Midwestern town characterized by beautiful buildings, dynamic public artworks, elegant parks, magnificent gardens and lush landscapes provides a perfect setting to clear our heads to think things through. That’s especially true when it comes to assessing the beliefs that we’ve been holding onto in creating the reality we’ve been experiencing – and what we might want to do to change the nature of the game as we move forward. An introspective milieu like this thus enables us to implement needed adjustments in various areas of our lives, such as healing ourselves, repairing our relationships and taking steps to live up to our personal potential.

Of course, to make this happen, there must be a willingness on our part to proceed with such tasks, and that, too, depends on our beliefs. If we remain close-minded, we’ll remain prisoners of our own self-imposed limitations, unable to see past the barriers that obscure the possibilities open to us.

This, again, is another instance where our environment can help to work wonders. In a venue like Columbus, where the architectural landscape is peppered with structures that defy convention, one finds oneself surrounded by inspiration. It’s especially interesting to note that such inspiration is found in an artform like architecture, one that has an inherent “structure” in its finished works. When that structure assumes inventive forms, as it does throughout Columbus, it thus shows the myriad ways in which it can take shape, offering us tangible options as to how we might do the same in conceiving and realizing creative new structures of our own. That’s one of the true beauties that conscious creation – and Columbus – have to offer.

As movies go, “Columbus” is a nearly perfect film in virtually every regard. This quiet, cerebral, cinematic meditation gives viewers much to think about, especially when facing life’s hard choices. The film’s exquisite, Kubrick-esque cinematography, ethereal, haunting score, and deft use of sound provide elegant wrapping for this sometimes-humorous, sometimes-heartbreaking, frequently mesmerizing tale. Don’t expect much action from this one; in fact, don’t be surprised if you often find yourself wondering where the story is going, given its often-cryptic dialogue. But sit back, let the film wash over you and take it all in – you’ll likely be very pleasantly surprised, especially by the award-worthy performance of John Cho, who demonstrates talents not seen in any of his previous roles.

Central Indiana may not be the first locale that comes to mind when we think of places to get away from it all. But, then, sometimes we might be pleasantly surprised with what comes out of the unexpected, be it in literal or figurative terms (or both). It’s with that in mind, then, that we should all consider going on explorations of our own to discover the Columbus within each of us – and the new world it represents.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Join Me for Cinema Scribe Wednesday

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio's Seeker's Path show, tomorrow, September 20, at 12:30 pm ET, available by clicking here (on the "Shows" tab). And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on the podcast!

Monday, September 18, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Free in Deed" and "Presenting Princess Shaw" and a magazine article preview are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cinematic Missteps

Everyone makes mistakes, even filmmakers. That can be a real disappointment to fans, including those who enjoy movies with New Age, spiritual and metaphysically oriented themes. Read about some of them in “Cinematic Missteps,” my latest installment in the Conscious Cinema series in the fall edition of The HAPI Guide magazine, available by clicking here, here or here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

‘Free in Deed’ probes the power and peril of faith

“Free in Deed” (2015 production, 2017 release). Cast: David Harewood, Edwina Findley, RaJay Chandler, Preston Shannon, Prophetess Libra, Helen Bowman, Kathy Smith, Zoe Lewis, Jon W. Sparks, Lindsey Roberts. Director: Jake Mahaffy. Screenplay: Jake Mahaffy. Web site. Trailer.

When confronted with oppressively debilitating conditions, it’s only natural to long for relief, and, quite understandably, the harsher the ordeal, the more desperate we become. We may even reach a point where we are so distressed that we’ll do just about anything to be released from such burdens, sometimes going to lengths that surprise us. And, when the sought-after liberation finally arrives, we may be even more shocked, particularly if it assumes an unexpected form. Those are the issues faced by a trio of downtrodden souls in the moving, fact-based religious drama, “Free in Deed.”

Abe Wilkins (David Harewood) can’t seem to get a break. He lives in a seedy Memphis motel and is routinely burdened by financial, legal and job security issues, all of which also tend to impact his health. Somedays he finds it difficult to carry on. But, despite these circumstances, Abe soldiers on, largely because of the moral and spiritual support he receives from the clergy and followers of a storefront Pentecostal church, including its charismatic bishop (Preston Shannon) and spirited parishioners, most notably big-hearted Mother (Prophetess Libra) and the eminently compassionate Isabelle (Helen Bowman).

Abe isn’t alone in his challenges, though. Single mother Melva Neddy (Edwina Findlay) struggles to hold down a job while raising her two children, Etta (Zoe Lewis), a sweet young soul, and Benny (RaJay Chandler), a seriously disturbed preteen whose uncontrollable emotional outbursts frequently get him – and his mother – in trouble. As fate would have it, Melva has a chance encounter with Isabelle, who recommends that the two of them pray over Benny, a suggestion the young mother initially resists. However, when she sees her son begin to quiet down in response to the gesture, she’s impressed with the results, a reaction that prompts Melva to accept Isabelle’s invitation to attend church with her.

Pentecostal pastor Abe Wilkins (David Harewood) seeks his connection to the divine to invoke his healing talents in the gripping, fact-based religious drama, “Free in Deed.” Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

Through their attendance at services, Abe and Melva each begin to feel renewed, at least while in the company of their spiritual peers. Abe is so moved by the experience, in fact, that he quickly discovers he has the ability to help heal others, a skill that Mother and the bishop encourage him to develop once he’s named a junior pastor of the fellowship. However, despite his successful track record, Abe is initially hesitant to proceed with this task, especially since he seems unable to effectively heal his own life outside of the church. But, when others convince him to proceed, he confidently slips right into the role. And such confidence is something he’ll need when he’s called upon to tackle his biggest challenge of all – healing Benny.

Under Abe’s influence, Benny experiences calming effects far greater than what was achieved during the prayer session with Isabelle or from the many medical practices his doctor (Jon W. Sparks) tries. However, the effects aren’t permanent; not long after the boy settles down, he’s acting up once again, exhibiting behavior that seriously tries his mother’s patience and that even poses a danger to the well-being of his little sister.

What’s to become of Benny? Can Abe truly work his healing magic on the young man? Does he have enough faith in his abilities to see him through this ordeal? And what of Melva – how long will she be able to hold up under these trying conditions? Those are among the questions that get called as this intense spiritual scenario plays out.

Those who are fervently religious know well what results can arise from the power of faith and prayer. The intensity behind such beliefs and practices can indeed work miracles. In many ways, though, this is precisely what’s behind the success of practitioners of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And the more fervor we place behind them, the greater the likelihood we’ll arrive at the destination we seek. In that regard, then, no matter what one calls such doctrines or undertakings, the bottom line in either instance is fundamentally the same – to invoke our connection with the divine through our metaphysical initiatives to achieve the outcomes we desire.

Troubled single mother Melva Neddy (Edwina Findley) struggles to keep her life balanced while attempting to raise her severely emotionally disturbed son in director Jake Mahaffy’s “Free in Deed.” Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

When Abe seeks to heal others, he’s clearly invoking conscious creation principles, even if he hasn’t heard of the philosophy or doesn’t use such wording to describe the practice. He’s earnest and passionate in his efforts, feelings that fuel and infuse his beliefs to materialize the intended outcomes. It’s as if he believes that’s his destiny.

But, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Abe’s success only occurs in the church. Why so? Why is he unable to employ the same healing principles to his own life? For that matter, one might even wonder why he can’t attain the same results with others when he’s not in the parish, as he regretfully finds out when he fails to take away the emotional pain of a prostitute (Lindsey Roberts) who lives in his motel. What gives?

As every conscious creator knows, our employment of the process depends entirely on our beliefs, right down to all of their finest particulars. If Abe can heal others but not himself, then there must be something in his matrix of beliefs that’s preventing it. Perhaps he feels it’s something only meant for others. Or perhaps he somehow believes he’s unworthy of being the recipient of divine grace, no matter how impassioned he is in making his requests for God’s assistance. As long as such beliefs are place, he’ll be incapable of achieving for himself what he so readily attains with others. And, if he ever hopes to alter that outcome, then he must also change his beliefs. Considering how stubbornly those notions can persist, that may be easier said than done.

Despite this apparent contradiction in his outlook, it’s not unchangeable. In fact, many healers maintain that by healing others – as Abe so readily does – we work toward healing ourselves, a process that could take some time to fall into place. But, with a subject as problematic as Benny is, this endeavor could provide Abe with the opportunity he needs to break through the barrier of his belief limitations and move him toward reaching the goal he’s set for himself. And that’s been made possible because Abe used the conscious creation process – even if he wasn’t aware of it – to draw someone like Benny into his life.

A key point that conscious creators (Abe included) must realize is that our divine collaborator may bring us results that fulfill our intents but that don’t necessarily take the forms we expect, sometimes even leading us down difficult or perilous paths. However, when the outcomes are analyzed at bottom, we find that the materializations we experience fulfill the underlying intents behind what we asked for. In some ways, this could be the conscious creation equivalent of the notion that “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” To be sure, we might not recognize the innate significance of our manifestations at the time they appear, but, if we were to look at them closely, we just might find we get exactly what we ask for, at least conceptually speaking. As the Rolling Stones so aptly put it, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find, you get what you need.”

Benny (RaJay Chandler), an emotionally distressed preteen, undergoes a variety of treatments – from medical to spiritual – to alleviate his suffering in “Free in Deed.” Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

Virtually anyone who’s in pain – be it emotional, physical or circumstantial – wants to be free of the anguish, and that’s certainly the case with the parishioners Abe heals. But, given their situations, it’s also very much the case with Melva, Benny and the pastor. They each desperately seek to be released from their burdens, even if they’re not able to adequately express such feelings for themselves, as is the case with Abe’s young subject. They long to be, as the film’s title suggests, “free in deed.” The question, of course, is, will they achieve it? And, if they do, when it happens, will they recognize and accept their circumstances for what they are?

This ambitious, frequently heartwrenching tale of faith and the elusive search for understanding our relationship to the divine is, admittedly, sometimes difficult to watch. The film’s intensity is palpable, affecting viewers on a gut level, suggesting there’s more to this than just a story, that it’s a reflection of some intrinsic truth. While the film could have used some judicious editing to eliminate some narrative redundancies, this fact-based drama is otherwise gripping and engaging, with an excellent ensemble cast bringing the story to life, especially among the three principals. It’s particularly impressive that director Jake Mahaffy succeeded in pulling this all together on a shoestring budget.

This 2015 production has been somewhat slow in coming to the theatrical marketplace. It played at a number of film festivals throughout 2016 and has only recently gone into domestic release, but the wait has been worth it. Along the way, though, the picture received its share of accolades, including a number of awards. It earned considerable recognition in the Independent Spirit Awards competition, where it racked up nominations for best male lead, best supporting female, best cinematography and the contest’s John Cassavetes Award, which honors the best film made on a production budget of $500,000 or less.

The answers we seek in life aren’t always easy to come by, and, when they do, they often surprise us, taking us in unexpected directions. This is particularly true when it comes to matters involving the alleviation of suffering and our understanding of our relationship with our Creator. They often yield results that don’t necessarily match the form of our hopes but that nevertheless invariably embody their sought-after essence. Recognizing this may not be easy. However, when that happens, then we have a shot at real freedom.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.