Thursday, March 16, 2017

Check out Reviewers Roundtable

Join me and fellow reviewers Miriam Knight and Cynthia Sue Larson for the latest edition of our quarterly Reviewers Roundtable discussion on New Consciousness Review radio on the OmTimes Radio Network. We’ll look at some of the best new books and movies with spiritual, metaphysical and consciousness-related themes, including "The Red Turtle," "Minimalism," "Kedi" and "The Wisdom Tree." Tune in to the podcast on demand by clicking here. Join us for some lively chat!






This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Get Out" and "Christine" and a podcast preview are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.





Sunday, March 12, 2017

‘Kedi’ gives us paws for reflection

“Kedi” (2016 production, 2017 release). Director: Ceyda Torun. Web site. Trailer.

Our four-legged feline friends provide many of us with tremendous joy. But, in one of the world’s most dynamic cities, cats are more than just pets; they’re an integral part of its culture and collective soul. The impact of this is now brought to life in the charming new documentary, “Kedi.”

The City of Istanbul is at the crossroads of the world. For centuries, the port city on the cusp of Europe and Asia has been a center of trade and trading ships, many of which kept cats to help control on-board rodent populations. When these vessels made port, many of their feline crew members disembarked and made themselves at home in this newly arrived destination. Cats from all over the world took to the streets, claiming them as their own, their ranks swelling ever since. And, given that the furry creatures performed the same function on land that they once did aboard their sailing ships, they were warmly welcomed by the locals. The fact that they were adorable likely helped, too.


Through the centuries, street cats have made themselves home throughout the city, and residents have come to regard them as family, with virtually everyone taking part in helping to care for them without considering them pets. It’s now hard to imagine Istanbul without its pervasive feline influence. And that influence is considerable, affecting residents’ outlooks on such matters as care, compassion and even inter-species relationships, all of which they believe are readily transferable skills that can also be applied to interpersonal dealings. They have sincerely come to believe that cats can teach us as much about ourselves as they can teach us about them.

Told largely through the eyes of seven of the city’s street cats and the people who see to their needs, audiences are treated to a panoramic tour of the Turkish city and its diverse neighborhoods, lively and engaging conversations with its colorful residents, and a wealth of adorable cat’s eye-view footage, much of which is guaranteed to prompt prolonged “awwwws” at regular intervals. The mix makes for entertaining viewing at virtually every turn.

But “Kedi” is more than just a visually heartwarming feast. In fact, there are numerous subtexts running through the film that make it a surprisingly profound production.

One might not readily associate metaphysical insights with a picture such as this, but their presence is there, even if subtly. In particular, the interactions between humans and cats clearly illustrate the inherent connectedness between us, one of the chief qualities that characterizes the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. The bonds between care givers and care recipients are undeniable, demonstrating that the so-called separation we often adhere to is a mere illusion.

With such a new understanding, we thus have an opportunity to shift the nature of our relationships with these creatures. It allows us to become aware of and appreciate our co-creative capabilities. It enables us to broaden our view of what it means to communicate, an observation that echoes the message of the recently released sci-fi thriller, “Arrival”. But, perhaps most importantly, it gives us a new perspective on the concept of compassion; the residents’ relationship with the cats draws out that capacity, one that we can employ not only in our dealings with them, but also in our interactions with one another. That’s a message whose ramifications have potential to extend far outside the waters of the Bosphorus. And, when we put the energy of our beliefs behind such notions, it’s amazing to think about what’s possible – all of which we can learn and put into practice simply by caring for cats.

While it might be tempting to classify this documentary as little more than an extended cat video, “Kedi” delivers so much more through its gorgeous cinematography, gentle humor and insightful observations. Having seen this film in a jam-packed, 750-seat theater for a matinee showing, this release clearly proves there are audiences for content that don’t involve explosions or inane laughs. Feline lovers will no doubt adore this one the most, but those who appreciate good cinema, regardless of subject matter, will likely find much to enjoy here, too.

In the end, this delightful film gives us pause (and paws) for reflection. And to think that all it takes is a little tuna, a little love and few gentle past on the head.

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

‘A United Kingdom’ showcases the power of love

“A United Kingdom” (2016 production, 2017 release). Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Anastasia Hille, Arnold Oceng, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayvior, Jack Lowden, Madison Manowe. Director: Amma Asante. Screenplay: Guy Hibbert. Web site. Trailer.

The power of love is undeniable. In fact, when employed skillfully, it can work wonders, not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in circumstances that have wider ramifications, some of which may be unforeseen at the outset. That’s the surprising and amazing outcome for a romance once considered taboo, one even with international implications, as depicted in the new historical love story, “A United Kingdom.”

In the late 1940s, Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) of the southern African nation of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) attends law school in London in preparation for his ascendancy to the throne, a destiny that has been awaiting him since the untimely death of his father, the king, while he was a young boy. During Seretse’s upbringing, the affairs of the nation have been handled by his uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), who has dutifully served as regent. And now, with his education nearly complete, the prince is summoned home to assume his role as the country’s new king. But, before leaving, an unexpected development occurs – Suretse falls madly in love with an English woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike).

The attraction is instant and intense. It’s also one that’s frowned upon by the members of both Suretse’s and Ruth’s families. Yet, despite this opposition, Suretse refuses to return to Bechuanaland without marrying the love of his life, an act the couple defiantly carries out. However, this decision carries serious consequences, not only for the future of their marriage, but also for the fate of international relations at the southern tip of Africa.

Prince Suretse Khama (David Oyelowo, right), heir apparent to the throne of the African nation of Bechuanaland, unexpectedly falls in love with English office clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, left) in the new historical romance, “A United Kingdom.” Photo by Stanislav Honzik, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

As a British protectorate, Bechuanaland is seriously beholden to the wishes of the English government, particularly the dictates of Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), who oversees the crown’s diplomatic interests in the region. And, under the complicit regency of Tshekedi Khama, the British government has grown accustomed to getting what it wants. But the prospect of a Black king and his White queen coming to power is unacceptable, sending shockwaves throughout the region, as well as the member states of the British Commonwealth.

This is particularly true in neighboring South Africa, which is actively implementing its racially segregationist policy of apartheid. As a member of the Commonwealth, South Africa is not pleased with the idea of an interracial couple taking charge in an adjacent state and places pressure on the crown to thwart Suretse’s plans. Given British dependency on South Africa’s abundant and lucrative natural resources, Canning and his minions, like Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), feel compelled to comply. And so, with their marching orders in hand, Canning and Lancaster clandestinely seek to prevent Suretse and Ruth from rising to power – and to even be together as a married couple.

Confident that it has matters in hand, the British government proceeds with its obstructionist plans. The ante for this gets further upped when it’s suspected that natural resources like those found in neighboring South Africa may also be present in Bechuanaland. However, for all its presumed airtight maneuverings, the crown fails to take into account the power of love and what it can accomplish – especially when in the hands of a devoted couple seeking to pursue its rightful calling, one that ultimately has impact that extends beyond just the future of their relationship.

The couple’s willingness to proceed with their plans, despite the odds, shows an unshakable faith in their love for one another. But, perhaps even more importantly, it shows an unwavering conviction in their belief that their plan will succeed. And that’s significant, since their commitment to that underlying belief is crucial to their objective’s ultimate manifestation, just as it is with anything we seek to materialize through the conscious creation process, the means by which we bring our reality into being through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Prince Suretse Khama (David Oyelowo, right), heir apparent to the throne of the African nation of Bechuanaland, and his English wife, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, left), start a new family with their daughter Jacqueline (Madison Manowe, center), amidst multiple controversies in director Amma Asante’s new historical romance, “A United Kingdom.” Photo by Stanislav Honzik, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

For Suretse and Ruth, their beliefs are initially most concerned with personal considerations, namely, the fate of their love and marriage. But, as quickly becomes apparent, those beliefs get caught up in broader concerns. And, even though those considerations are nearly always qualified by the dynamics of their unconventional relationship, they plainly have little to do with that; rather, they relate to matters of politics and international relations, with their romance pegged as a convenient scapegoat when things go awry.

Suretse and Ruth may not have initially envisioned themselves becoming embroiled in such sticky circumstances, But, once they did, it was up to them to devise the means to resolve them. And, ironically enough, their devotion to one another (and the beliefs driving it) helped provide the basis of their solutions. Their belief in their love for one another not only helped solidify their personal relationship, but it also provided the means for bringing the political considerations to the fore. By doing so, they helped shape the future of their nation, something that benefited them and all of their countrymen, even if it wasn’t something they necessarily thought about when exchanging vows.

Even though Suretse and Ruth may not have envisioned the difficulties in which they found themselves, on some level they may have sensed the need to go through them to bring about larger changes. For instance, while attending law school in London, Suretse explains to peers from his homeland his belief in the need for the creation of a racially unified Africa, one where all races exist on an equal and integrated footing. This was something of a radical notion among both Blacks and Whites at the time, yet, since both races inhabited the continent, Suretse believed it was positively essential that everyone get along if there were to be a harmonious future for Africa. He may not have pictured that goal being fulfilled by way of his interracial marriage and everything that got swept up in its wake. But the seed of racial harmony nevertheless emerged as a belief from his consciousness, ultimately surfacing in its eventual myriad manifestations.

In bringing about these results, Suretse and Ruth effectively drew upon all of the faculties that go into successful belief formation. In particular, they made wise use of their intuition, the element of belief formation that many of us tend to underutilize, despite its importance to the process. Logic may well have told them that getting married was a bad idea, but their intuition convinced them otherwise, and, thankfully, they listened to it. This proved essential not only to the success of their relationship, but also to all of the reforms they were eventually able to enact in Bechuanaland. And, in that regard, this is yet another example of the power of unshakable faith – and of love itself.

Prince Suretse Khama (David Oyelowo, right), heir apparent to the throne of the African nation of Bechuanaland, faces complex dealings with British diplomat Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport, left) in the new historical drama, “A United Kingdom.” Photo by Stanislav Honzik, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

As in her previous film, “Belle” (2013), director Amma Asante has again capably told a captivating love story that carries implications that extend beyond romance. Although a bit formulaic at times, this love story with a political twist imparts an intriguing tale of a little-known bit of history, all the while never losing sight of the romance that lit the fuse of an intense international controversy. With fine performances by Oyelowo and Pike, a cogently written script, and fine production values, this release is an enjoyable, entertaining and informative offering that delights, surprises and inspires on multiple levels.

Love truly is a force to be reckoned with, and those who attempt to deny it do so at their peril. “A United Kingdom” makes that abundantly clear, showing us just how powerful it can be. What Suretse and Ruth wrought has had implications that have lasted to this very day, impressing even such accomplished leaders as Nelson Mandela. That’s saying a lot. The example set here thus provides a potent source of inspiration to anyone seeking to overcome obstacles, be they in romance, politics or even everyday life itself.

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

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Wisdom Tree" and "The Music of Strangers," as well as a magazine article preview and more, are all available in this week's edition of Movies with Meaning on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.




Saturday, March 4, 2017

Why So Sad?

Despite a dramatic finish that even Cecil B. DeMille would envy and a capable hosting job by late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, this year’s Oscars broadcast was said to be the third-lowest rated ceremony of the millennium. This naturally prompted advertisers, programmers, pundits, movie goers and a host of others to wonder why.

I have my own suspicions for why the ratings were low, and I promise to address them in a postscript at the end of this blog. But many media watchers allegedly in the know speculated that it had more to do with the movies being honored than anything to do with the broadcast itself.

In years past, those observers have noted (and somewhat rightly so) that viewers stayed away from some of those previous broadcasts because they hadn’t heard of most of the movies up for nomination, an outcome largely attributable to the underwhelming marketing and distribution efforts behind some of those films. This year, however, some of those same experts are saying that viewers didn’t tune in because the films in question were all “so sad.”

Sad?

Having seen the films up for best picture, I found that word to be an odd choice to describe them. To be sure, most of these movies were somewhat serious and featured characters who underwent challenges or had to work for their rewards. But sad? Am I missing something here? “Maybe,” I even thought to myself, “that’s what accounts for the popularity of ‘La La Land’ (seemingly inexplicable though that may be), a picture that, at least ostensibly, comes across as ‘happier’ than many of its fellow nominees” (even though one could argue that it has its own share of pathos).

But, then, I also recalled something else many of the alleged experts said – that many of them hadn’t seen all, or in some cases any, of the best picture nominees. “How then,” I asked myself, “do they feel qualified to comment on these films and their character in any way?

As I went through the list of nine best picture nominees, I tried to determine what might make them seem sad, yet I was hard-pressed to see how they qualified on that score. Here’s a look at each of them, with how I saw them (and I’ll do my best to discuss them without spoilers):

“Arrival”: This sci-fi/metaphysical drama focuses on the efforts of a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) in her attempts to discern how to communicate with a newly arrived alien species. In the course of her work, she discovers that being able to “speak” with this new species requires grasping an understanding of how they view reality, as that significantly impacts the structure of their language, a realization that, in turn, applies just as much to us as it does to them. That newfound awareness thus gives us a new way to see ourselves, the nature of our existence and even our view of things like time. Admittedly, there are moments of tension in this story, especially as the process for developing this new understanding unfolds. But, when all is said and done, the professor’s revelations give us all an inspired perspective on how we view – and live – our lives. (What’s sad about that?)

“Hidden Figures”: This uplifting period piece comedy-drama depicts the little-known role played by three African-American women (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer) in advancing the progress of the U.S. space program in the early 1960s. Through their courageous individual stories and significant contributions, viewers witness how they were part of an enormously successful collective initiative while reaching for their own personal stars. (Tragic, right?)

“Moonlight”: This year’s best picture winner tells the compelling coming of age story of a young African-American man growing up under difficult conditions in a Miami housing project in his quest to discover himself. Told in three segments from different periods in his youth, the film illustrates how he comes to learn his true identity and embrace his own sense of personal empowerment. (Sounds like something to get really depressed about, doesn’t it?)

“Lion”: Although not the greatest picture from a purely cinematic standpoint, this fact-based drama tells the heartwarming story of a young Indian boy (Sunny Pawar) who becomes separated from his family and is subsequently adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham, Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman). Despite the material comfort and opportunities his adoptive parents provide hum, he longs to find his lost relatives, a challenging process he undertakes when he becomes a young adult (Oscar nominee Dev Patel). One can only imagine how that search turns out. (Utterly demoralizing, to be sure.)

“Hell or High Water”: When a bank takes advantage of the financial difficulties of a Texas family and seeks to seize their property, two brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) seek fiscal justice, pursuing a unique path to restitution – by robbing the bank’s facilities and using its own cash to repay their outstanding debt. While crime may not be the right way to achieve the desired outcome, there is nevertheless a certain inspired poetic justice that comes from the brothers’ efforts, even when under the scrutiny of a determined Texas lawman (Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges). (I’m sure hordes of viewers wept for the plight of the bank in this one.)

“Hacksaw Ridge”: This tale of a World War II hero (Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield) who took a different route to attaining his personal valor chronicles his unconventional efforts at being of service without firing a shot. In a genre where combat is often unduly glorified, this fact-based drama illustrates there are more ways to serve one’s country than by picking up a gun. (But, since war is hell, as we’re all well aware, that fact alone negates whatever positive insights this film might have to impart.)

“La La Land”: Seen by many as the “feel good” movie of the best picture field, this breezy, albeit somewhat snoozy, patience-trying musical follows the exploits of an aspiring actress (Oscar winner Emma Stone) and would-be jazz musician (Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling) in the pursuit of their personal and professional dreams. Not everything in this film is as hunky dory as its fans would lead you to believe, but the protagonists’ enduring, hopeful spirit nevertheless serves up a generally inoffensive brand of motivation, inspiring to those who’ve ever had a cherished goal to chase. (The only thing truly sad about this one was that so many people heaped so much undeserved praise on it.)

“Manchester by the Sea”: This heart-tugging drama follows the life of a middle-aged janitor (Oscar winner Casey Affleck) who’s suddenly called upon to act as guardian for his teenage nephew (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) when his father (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly dies. Now I’ll concede that this one has its share of tragedy and heartache, but it’s also a sincere exercise in redemption and forgiveness, qualities that are in far too short supply these days. (Yeah, but, as we all know, in this cynical age of ours, the power of sorrow automatically trumps whatever virtuous qualities might be present in circumstances like these.)

“Fences”: OK, I’ll admit this one is somewhat on the dour side. This screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play follows the up-and-down life of a middle aged baseball player-turned-trash collector (Oscar nominee Denzel Washington) and his loving wife (Oscar winner Viola Davis) in 1950s Pittsburgh. While the film honestly depicts the disappointment and disillusionment that can arise from life’s setbacks (especially those that come from acts of self-sabotage), it also illustrates the silver linings that can emerge out of life’s even darkest clouds. (Still sounds like too little, too late, though, doesn’t it?)

All very sad, right?

Well, if one were to examine these films superficially, I suppose I could see how someone might view them that way. But, if one were to look a little deeper, to see what’s behind the narrative veneers of these stories, a lot more comes into view, much of it inspiring, heartfelt and uplifting, and I believe those are the points these productions are trying to make. However, if one perpetually sees the glass as half empty, the half full part will never come into view. And, to me, that’s the really sad part of all this.

What I find even more sad, though, is that the so-called pundits who haven’t seen these movies on the false belief that they’re inherent downers may be discouraging would-be viewers from seeing them on the basis of their faulty, misinformed assessments. That kind of close-mindedness is doing real damage to our society on so many levels these days, and it’s unfortunate that its pervasiveness has even carried over into the arts. Movies can be a tremendous source of enlightenment if we allow them to be. But, if we close ourselves off from them based on superficial and incorrect assumptions before we ever give them a chance, we stand to lose out on a lot, and that’s perhaps the saddest outcome of all.

If you haven’t seen these pictures and you’re at all curious about any of them, check them out. Go to a theater. Rent the DVD or Blu-ray. Stream them online. But, by all means, watch them. Don’t let uninformed naysayers keep you from what are potentially transformative experiences. Otherwise, you may regret that more than any distressed feelings these films may engender.

**********************************************************************

Now, as for that postscript I promised…

In my view, the contention that viewers are staying away from the Oscars broadcast because many of them haven’t heard of the nominated pictures in question indeed still has merit, at least in part. That could be solved simply enough by studios and distributors making these films more widely available in advance of the ceremony. That’s especially true in smaller markets, which frequently are left out, and for lesser-known independent pictures like “Moonlight,” which truly deserve wider exposure. However, that’s not the only fix that’s needed.

If the Academy and the network want to attract more viewers, the broadcast itself needs shoring up in a number of ways. And this is not a new issue, either; it’s been discussed for years, and the producers of the show just don’t seem to get it. With a few simple fixes, the broadcast could be improved immeasurably, and those changes just might help to draw in those sought-after viewers.

In general, the ceremony is simply too damned long. At a run time of nearly 3:45 this year, that’s too much time to park oneself in front of the TV to watch some accolades handed out. That’s particularly important when it comes to attracting much-coveted younger viewers in the 18-to-49 age bracket, a demographic not especially known for having a long attention span. What’s more, given the plethora of other broadcast awards ceremonies available these days – the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the BAFTAs and the Independent Spirit Awards – viewers may be suffering awards show burnout by the time the Oscars roll around, making the prospect of sitting through an overlong, overly windy telecast somewhat unappealing.

So what are some of the specifics that can be implemented to improve the show? Here are a few ideas:

* Faster overall pacing. Keep the show moving. Shorten the presenter banter (which is often not very funny), and delete elements that aren’t necessary (see below). The Academy could learn a lot about this from the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Award broadcasts.

* Delete the performances of the nominated songs. This is a suggestion that’s been made for years. Who really cares about them? In most cases, these songs aren’t well known or even very good. In fact, I often treat these segments as my bathroom break times. What’s more, the Academy isn’t even consistent about their inclusion in the ceremony. During the 2016 broadcast, for example, the show featured performances by three of the five songs, leaving out two compositions entirely. If the broadcast’s producers believe they can leave out some of them, then why not leave out all of them? They wouldn’t be missed.

* Delete the presentations of the short subject awards. If you thought no one sees the nominated feature films, then who sees these virtually unknown offerings (even in larger markets)? With no disrespect intended toward short films, they really don’t belong as part of the main ceremony; they should have their own separate ceremony, like the technical awards, with the winners announced in a combined short video segment or in voice-over announcements as lead-ins to commercials.

* Delete the self-congratulatory elements, like the remarks of the Academy president. Again, no one listens to this sort of padding. Trash it.

* Include more film clips. If the Academy really wants viewers to see its nominated films, there’s no better way to draw attention to them than to show segments from them. Admittedly, the Oscars have gotten better on this point over the years, but there’s always room for more on this front.

* Include edgier comedy bits. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of creativity, right? Well, show some of that creativity in the humorous elements of the broadcast. The broadcast’s comedy is often hit or miss; make it better, and you’ll have more viewers (especially among the target audience). The Academy could learn a lot from the Independent Spirit Awards and Golden Globes on this point.

So will the Academy listen? We can only hope. If it wants more viewers, let’s hope so.

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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Movies with Power

Power. The word itself inspires a range of impressions, from intimidation to awe to a tool we can use to manifest a range of envisioned outcomes and conceptions. But what is it really? Movies can help provide us clues. Find out more by reading "Managing Our Personal Power," my latest article in the Conscious Cinema series of New Consciousness Review magazine, available by clicking here. And, while you're there, be sure to check out my review of the engaging DVD, "The Wisdom Tree."