Monday, February 10, 2020

How’d I Do on This Year’s Oscars?

With this year’s Academy Awards ceremony behind us, it’s time to take a look at how I did on my predictions for the winners in this annual competition, as first outlined in my previous blog, “Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars?”, first published on January 24. This was a mixed season for handicapping, some easy, some not. But I was generally pleased with the results, even when I was wrong in my predictions.

So how did I do? Four out of six correct calls, with two misses (and qualified ones at that). Here are the details:

Best Picture

 

The Field:  “Ford v Ferrari,” “The Irishman,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Joker,” “Little Women,” “Marriage Story,” “1917,” “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”)

Projected Winner:  “1917”

Actual Winner:  “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”)

Result:  Missed call (sort of)

This has become the most difficult category to call in recent years, largely because it’s been hard to discern the mind of the Academy voters. What’s more, there were three films actively in the running for this award, based on the results from competitions leading up to the Oscars. Going in, “Parasite,” “1917” and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” all had legitimate shots.

In my predictions blog, I called “1917” the winner for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were its wins in the contests sponsored by the Producers Guild of America and, post-blog, the Directors Guild of America, both of which are often strong predictors of the big prize at the Oscars. However, much to my surprise, on awards night, the statue went to “Parasite,” which seemed more like a dark horse than a shoo-in among the leading contenders.

Not that I’m disappointed with the choice; after all, “Parasite” was my favorite film of 2019. In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, I could see the picture gaining momentum, as evidenced by its win for best acting ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. But I didn’t think it would build up enough steam in time for the ceremony. Obviously I was wrong about that.

Support for this film ultimately proved to be so strong that it even overcame the projected split that I saw coming in the best picture and best director categories (see below). That’s impressive. What’s more, though, the selection of “Parasite” as best picture represents a significant breakthrough in Academy Award history. It’s the first foreign language film to win the best picture award. It’s also the first Korean film to win the award for best international feature film. That’s quite a number if obstacles to overcome, but it did it successfully – and deservingly so.

But, perhaps most importantly, this film’s win represents a broadening of horizons among Academy voters, a change from the “playing it safe” mindset that has dominated its thinking and choices so much in recent years. Let’s hope that voters keep that up in future years, that they’re more willing to think outside the box than they typically have. They’ve shown here that they can do it – if they so choose.

To my own credit, ahem, I did say that “Parasite” was the nominee that should win. So, given that this ended up being the case, I’ll gladly take a half-credit on this one (because I can!). Maybe I’ll get the mood of the voters right in future years.

Best Actor

 

The Field: Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory” (“Dolor y gloria”); Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”; Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”; Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”; Jonathan Pryce, “The Two Popes”

Projected Winner:  Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”

Actual Winner:  Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker.”

Result:  Correct call

This was a no-brainer. Phoenix had won virtually everything leading up to the Oscars, and his only serious competition – Taron Egerton for “Rocketman” – wasn’t even nominated. Phoenix thus had a clear path open to him, and he made the most of it, taking home his first statue after four nominations.

Best Actress

 

The Field:  Cynthia Erivo, “Harriett”; Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”; Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”; Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”; Renée Zellweger, “Judy”

Projected Winner:  Renée Zellweger, “Judy”

Actual Winner:  Renée Zellweger, “Judy”

Result:  Correct call

This was another no-brainer, since Zellweger had been the front runner even before awards season began. She swept all of the major competitions and deservedly so. This was a good choice, the right performer for the right performance.

Best Supporting Actor

 

The Field:  Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”; Anthony Hopkins, “The Two Popes”; Al Pacino, “The Irishman”; Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”; Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

Projected Winner:  Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

Actual Winner:  Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

Result:  Correct call

Like the performances in the lead categories, this was another clear-cut winner, though it still boggles my mind how. Pitt swept all of the competitions throughout awards season, so there was no reason why the Oscars should have been any different. I still would have preferred another winner here (any of the other four would do, though Tom Hanks was my favorite), but sometimes the logic of Academy voters escapes me – as it clearly did here.

Best Supporting Actress

 

The Field:  Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”; Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”; Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”; Florence Pugh, “Little Women”; Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”

Projected Winner:  Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”

Actual Winner:  Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”

Result:  Correct call

Do we see a pattern here with the acting categories? This was another category that was not difficult to predict, given that Dern had won virtually every other competition (except the National Board of Review) leading up to the Oscars. Again, this award was hers to lose, and it was yet another example of the right performer winning for the right performance.

Best Director

 

The Field:  Martin Scorsese, “The Irishman”; Todd Phillips, “Joker”; Sam Mendes, “1917”; Quentin Tarantino, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”; Bong Joon Ho, “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”)

Projected Winner:  Quentin Tarantino, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

Actual Winner:  Bong Joon Ho, “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”)

Result:  Missed call (sort of)

Like the basis of the 1948 erroneous newspaper headline “Dewey defeats Truman,” my prediction here (as with best picture) was based on outdated information. My prognostication of there being a split in the winners for best picture and director (with the spoils going to “1917” and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” respectively) was based on information from early on in awards season. However, as noted in my foregoing discussion about best picture, “Parasite” came on strong in recent weeks, not only in the top category but also for best director, enabling it to take both prizes and wiping out the split I projected.

Again, “Parasite” was my preferred choice in this category, despite the fact that I didn’t see it happening, so I’ll take another of those half credits I spoke about earlier.

Oscar® and Academy Award® are registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Reviews of some of the winners and nominees are available at the following links:

“1917”

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

“Bombshell”

“Harriet”

“Jojo Rabbit”

“Joker”

“Judy”

“Marriage Story”

“Parasite”

“The Two Popes”

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 7, 2020

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Les Miserables," "Clemency" and "Corpus Christi" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

A Joieful Time!

Don't miss the next episode of the Positively Joieful podcast, when four special guests and yours truly will join host Joie Lamar to talk about the movies! Join me, TV host Antoine Elhashem, writer Joey Viola, filmmaker Kate Johnston and writer/actor/director Chrysanthi Zora Michaelides when we talk about the movies -- what we love, what Hollywood is doing right and the Oscar nominations! Tune in starting tomorrow, Saturday February 8, by clicking here.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

‘Corpus Christi’ asks, ‘Who speaks for God?’

“Corpus Christi” (“Boże Cialo”) (2019). Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Kurzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat. Director: Jan Komasa. Screenplay: Mateusz Pacewicz. Web siteTrailer.

Some of us are naturally inclined to feel the power of spirit, to experience its movement through us. As a consequence, we may well want to convey the essence of that divinity to others, especially those in need of comfort or guidance. But is it a practice for which we need the permission of authority figures? Or should we be free to express ourselves, regardless of whether we fulfill the “qualifications” supposedly required for carrying out this mission? Those are among the questions raised in the new fact-based Polish morality play, “Corpus Christi” (“Boże Cialo”).

Twenty-year-old juvenile detention inmate Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a walking contradiction. In one moment, he can be as tough and gritty as the streets he comes from. In the next, however, he can be supremely blissful, even inspiring to others, especially when assisting the prison chaplain, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), in conducting mass. It’s strange how someone with such an inherently violent streak can find genuine peace and contentment through a religious experience, but Daniel genuinely does, something not lost on Fr. Tomasz. The cleric even suggests that his young follower may have a religious vocation in his future, despite the fact that the priesthood is out of the question in light of his criminal record.

Not long thereafter, Daniel is paroled, and, with Fr. Tomasz’s help, he lands a job at a sawmill in a remote community. However, upon viewing his new workplace, he realizes it’s not for him, particularly with the presence of ghosts from his past on site, raising the specter of retaliation against him from those he clashed with while incarcerated. Instead of reporting for work, he wanders into a nearby small town, where he comes upon the village parish. There he meets the church sexton, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), and her daughter, Marta (Eliza Rycembel), both of whom he convinces he’s a newly ordained priest from Warsaw, a lie they readily believe, especially when he flashes a cleric’s collar he swiped from the prison chaplain.

[caption id="attachment_11292" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Former juvenile detention inmate Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), an imposter posing as a stand-in priest in a small Polish town, packs the house of a dwindling congregation with his upbeat, impassioned style in the new fact-based drama, “Corpus Christi” (“Boże Cialo”). Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

Before long, Lidia introduces Daniel to the parish’s ailing elderly priest (Zdislaw Wardejn). Given the pastor’s poor health, he’s in need of a break from his duties. And, with an apparent replacement fortuitously in his midst, he suggests that Daniel fill in for him while he’s recuperating. The imposter jumps at the opportunity, stepping in as the community’s new temporary cleric.

Despite a rocky start, Daniel soon slips into his new station quite comfortably. He abandons the standard, by-the-book liturgical practices he learned while serving with Fr. Tomasz, opting instead to implement his own form of ministering. He delivers impromptu, impassioned sermons and officiates masses in his own singular style, and, in no time, the paltry congregation swells as new churchgoers attend his unconventional and uplifting services. He also participates in nightly vigils held at a makeshift memorial for the seven victims of a horrific traffic accident, tenderly comforting bereaved family members, including Marta, who lost her brother in the incident.

Clearly, Daniel becomes a local sensation. In a community in need of spiritual rebirth and rejuvenation, the new young “priest” fills the bill perfectly. But not everyone is convinced; Lidia, for example, is suspect of his unorthodox style. She’s also somewhat skeptical about Daniel’s claim of being a legitimate cleric when she sees him taking what appears to be a more than passing interest in her daughter, advances to which Marta readily responds. But, given Daniel’s nature, such behavior is not surprising, especially in light of the hard partying ways and unabashed womanizing he partakes in during his time immediately after his release from prison.

[caption id="attachment_11293" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Would-be priest Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) seeks divine guidance to retain his “post” when faced with challenges threatening to expose his imposter status in director Jan Komasa’s latest offering, “Corpus Christi” (“Boże Cialo”). Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

At the same time, though, Daniel also successfully manages to come across as the real deal, such as when he’s called upon to administer last rights to a dying woman. He also sets an example for others to follow when he extends heartfelt and much appreciated compassion to the ostracized widow (Barbara Kurzaj) of the deceased driver who lost control of his vehicle and killed the other accident victims. He even advocates for a proper burial for the departed motorist, seeking to replace the town folk’s scorn with mercy.

However, keeping up the façade proves to be increasingly difficult. Over time, Daniel runs afoul of an old nemesis, Pinczer (Tomasz Zietek), who threatens to blow the imposter’s cover. Then he engages in several tense encounters with the village’s mayor (Leszek Lichota), who also just happens to be the owner of a certain sawmill where a recently recruited employee failed to show up for work. And, with the looming possibility of a visit from the mayor’s friend, Fr. Tomasz, Daniel is faced with his biggest challenge at keeping his true identity secret. If divine intervention were ever called for, now would definitely be the time.

“Corpus Christi” raises a variety of questions about promoting faith, offering redemption, extending salvation and providing spiritual comfort – and who’s “legitimately” allowed to engage in such activities. Are these activities to be restricted to a select few, those who have been officially certified by a religious bureaucracy that, arguably, puts its own needs before those of its representatives and congregants? Or are they undertakings to be administered by those who possess the gifts needed to dispense them most effectively, particularly to those in greatest need? And should the ability to engage in such pursuits be qualified by one’s character and behavior, with rigid exclusions for such transgressions as criminal acts (including those for which a perpetrator has allegedly earned forgiveness by rightfully paying the requisite penance)?

Such issues are at the heart of Daniel’s odyssey, one that reveals his many different sides and tests him with a variety of intriguing challenges. And, as he progresses through it all, he frequently looks within for guidance, searching his thoughts, beliefs and intents for answers, for they will ultimately govern what he experiences. That’s because these elements provide the foundation of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these intangibles in materializing our external existence. Even if he is unaware of this practice, he nevertheless seems to understand its principles, making effective use of them when the need arises, be it in matters of religion or in the act of self-preservation.

Given what Daniel manifests, he’s set himself up for some profound and potentially life-changing experiences, both for himself and those to whom he ministers, some of which may prove quite challenging. For instance, in a solidly entrenched Roman Catholic stronghold like Poland, centuries of traditions, customs and practices have become deeply ingrained in the nation’s culture and religious institutions, the kind that are not easy to shake. Yet, ironically, this has undoubtedly contributed, at least in part, to the dwindling attendance at church services conducted at parishes like the one at which Daniel assumes the helm. However, thanks to his ability to convey uplifting spiritual messages to a congregation hungry for them, he’s able to reverse the backslide of this particular flock.

[caption id="attachment_11294" align="aligncenter" width="350"]When imposter priest Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia, right) is confronted by his former mentor, Fr. Tomasz ((Lukasz Simlat, left), his true identity is threatened with revelation, as seen in the Oscar-nominated drama, “Corpus Christi” (“Boże Cialo”). Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

Still, if Church authorities were to catch wind of his true identity, there would quickly be considerable hell to pay, given that he hasn’t attended seminary and that his criminal record would prevent him from even attending (rules, after all, are rules). But, realistically, should someone who’s able to feel the spirit move him be prevented from doing so simply because of past secular misdeeds or because he hasn’t met all of the prerequisites of some perfunctory religious checklist, especially if bringing said individual on board helps bolster attendance on Sundays? For an organization that’s experiencing difficulties holding on to its followers, making adjustments in its policies may be something the leadership might want to consider.

Traditionalists might also argue that Daniel should be prohibited from serving as a priest because he doesn’t live up to what’s expected of a cleric, that he’s somehow inauthentic. However, opponents of such an argument might readily ask, “What, exactly, constitutes authenticity in this context?” Is it to be based on the fulfillment of an inventory of required ecclesiastical qualifications? Or does one’s authenticity for such a calling come from within, the intangible inner world of spirit? Given the fundamental nature of this work, an innate inclination toward the latter would probably better serve an aspirant than having a pedigree from the right seminary.

That’s the basis on which Daniel seems to rely. In taking on the role of priest, he’s expressing a part of himself based on his sense of personal integrity. The way in which he sees this quality of himself may not fall into line with how those in authority typically define it, but, then, Daniel’s outlook is rooted in his most heartfelt beliefs and not determined by officious apostolic requirements. And, when it comes to serving in a capacity where the fulfillment of others’ spiritual needs is at the core of the work, it would seem that his beliefs about integrity are better suited to the performance of his duties than those advocated by church bureaucrats. Even though Daniel may not have met all of the official qualifications for what he does, he seems to understand the nature of the vocation better than those calling the shots, and there’s much to be said for that when it comes to his effectiveness in the job – a clear result of the beliefs he holds about who he is, what he does and why he’s doing it.

By taking on this challenge, Daniel is also allowing his own natural evolution to unfold. He breaks through conventional belief limitations to allow his true self to emerge and to engage in the fulfillment of his destiny, what conscious creators sometimes call value fulfillment. In many ways, Daniel is a sort of test case when it comes to the question of who can rightly lay claim to the title of priest. And, to his credit, he has strong arguments in his favor, backed by firm beliefs that, if allowed to blossom, could enable significant changes in this matter.

[caption id="attachment_11295" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Imposter priest Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia, left) takes a more than passing liking to Marta ((Eliza Rycembel, right), daughter of the church sexton, a development that threatens to expose his false cleric’s claim in “Corpus Christi” (“Boże Cialo”). Photo courtesy of Film Movement.[/caption]

As this scenario plays out, evolution confronts tradition as a new set of beliefs seeks to slip into place and supersede those that have long been allowed to hold sway. Circumstances like these thus provide a textbook example of one of the foundational principles of conscious creation at work, that everything is in a constant state of becoming. Indeed, if Daniel’s way of practicing the spiritual arts takes root, then it would indicate that it was time for a change, that conditions were ripe for evolution. And, when the tide turns in cases like this, it’s often difficult to stop.

Those who zealously cling to past ways often call changes like this “wrong.” But, as conscious creators are well aware, beliefs aren’t inherently right or wrong or good or bad; it all depends on what we do with them when we invoke them in acts of creation. The beliefs that traditionalists may be quick to label as “heresy” may ultimately serve to introduce something more meaningful, inspiring and enlightening; they simply have to be given a chance to succeed or fail, depending on how we implement them. That’s especially true in matters of a spiritual nature. If Daniel, for example, is able to bring his congregants closer to God or to more effectively comfort the aggrieved in their time of sorrow, why should he be prohibited from doing so? Would it be preferable to leave such tasks in the hands of those less gifted just because they played by a list of outmoded rules? Consider those two approaches when picking which one to invoke, no matter what act of manifestation may be involved.

“Corpus Christi” presents an intriguing look at someone trying to follow a calling that’s been detoured – and could possibly continue to be detoured – by his past. Director Jan Komasa’s offering takes viewers on an engaging journey that travels down many paths, both inwardly and in the world at large. In doing so, the film paints a diverse and colorful portrait of a young man in search of himself while simultaneously offering poignant commentary about a religious institution in need of re-examining its status if it hopes to sustain itself. However, while the picture has a number of involving moments, the overall package unfortunately tries to incorporate a few too many plot lines and cover a little too much ground, leaving certain important aspects of the narrative (such as the protagonist’s motivations and back story) underdeveloped. A pared-down treatment of some of the movie’s story threads would have benefitted the picture significantly, making for a more focused and meaningful offering.



The film has mostly played at film festivals, but a general release is scheduled for the near future. That expanded distribution undoubtedly benefitted from the picture earning a somewhat unexpected Oscar nomination for best foreign film. In addition, the picture also received the Chicago International Film Festival Silver Hugo Award for Best Actor for Bielenia’s charismatic lead performance, a rising star worth watching.

Those who hear and feel the word of the divine often feel compelled to share it, even if they are unclear why they have made such a profound connection. What they may have more trouble with, though, is being denied the opportunity to carry through on that undertaking, especially when blocked by the capricious rulings of others, no matter how allegedly powerful those forces may be. In such circumstances, we must be honest and truthful with ourselves and seek to persevere in our quest, regardless of the difficulties involved. If we don’t, we may have trouble living with ourselves, a regret we may never be able to live down.

Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Two for One on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, today, February 4, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

Monday, February 3, 2020

‘Clemency’ pushes us to look at our personal morality

“Clemency” (2019). Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Richard Gunn, Michael O’Neill, Vernee Watson, Dennis Haskins, LaMonica Garrett, Danielle Brooks, Michelle C. Bonilla, Alex Castillo, Alma Martinez. Director: Chinonye Chukwu. Screenplay: Chinonye Chukwu. Web site. Trailer.

Life and death matters generally give us pause to reflect upon our outlook on life, especially from a moral standpoint. But what happens when we’re conflicted? Can we sort out our feelings to come up with beliefs that lead to the right decisions about such issues? Such is the dilemma faced by a high-ranking prison official in the intense new drama, “Clemency.”

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has spent many years as the warden of a maximum security prison, and, from the way she’d probably describe herself, she’s done a damned good job at it. Her no-nonsense, by-the-book demeanor governs all of her actions, and she diligently maintains her steely, unflinching façade at all times. That’s true even in moments of high tension, such as the many executions of death row inmates that she has overseen. Always the professional, she never lets emotions get in the way of doing her job.

But all the years of doing this work have slowly taken their toll. As button-down and in charge as Bernadine appears outwardly, she’s beginning to show signs of wear internally. She drinks too much. She has trouble sleeping. She’s quick to dig in her heels when challenged, especially by attorneys seeking to advocate on their clients’ behalf and even by the families of inmates petitioning for special requests. But, most of all, she has difficulty getting close to people, including her loving husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), who’s beginning to have serious doubts about the future viability of their marriage. In fact, the only people with whom she seems to have any kind of meaningful relationships are her fellow employees, particularly Deputy Warden Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn) and, somewhat ironically, Chaplain David Kendricks (Michael O’Neill). It’s as if she’s an island unto herself, and the tide is ever rising.

[caption id="attachment_11283" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfred Woodard) oversees executions of death row inmates as part of her job, one that grows increasingly difficult for her, in the tense new drama, “Clemency.” Photo by Eric Branco, courtesy of Neon.[/caption]

The heat gets turned up further when two volatile incidents occur. The first is an execution gone terribly wrong when the staff responsible for carrying out the procedure is unable to find a suitable blood vessel to insert the IV line used for transmitting the lethal medications into the convict (Alex Castillo). As he writhes in pain, he begins to experience what might readily be called cruel and unusual punishment, a sight that clearly flusters the usually unshakable Bernadine as she seeks to follow through on her duty and maintain as much order as possible.

In the wake of that troubling event, Bernadine is quietly shaken, especially when she begins getting pressured for answers from the press and death penalty opponents. For perhaps the first time ever, she’s less certain about herself, her responsibilities and her willingness to proceed in her capacity as warden. That doubt is further fueled by the scheduling of another upcoming execution, one that involves an inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who may very well be innocent of the capital crime of which he was convicted. She tries to downplay her feelings, carrying forward in a business-as-usual manner, despite her growing – and increasingly visible – apprehensions. Those feelings become more noticeable to others, such as Woods’s attorney, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who’s increasingly convinced she can’t hide from her feelings – or herself.

How will Bernadine resolve these issues? Can she remain committed to her job and to the practice of capital punishment? Those are the questions she must address, not only from a vocational standpoint, but also when it comes to how she sees herself and what her work may be doing to her soul. In many ways, one could say she’s just as much a prisoner of her circumstances as are the convicts who reside within her prison’s walls.

Circumstances like this force us to come face to face with ourselves and our beliefs. Because of the high-stakes nature involved, we’d be wholly irresponsible to address them flippantly, dismissively or without thoughtful consideration. And the reason for that is that our beliefs play a crucial role in the reality we experience, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these metaphysical building blocks in manifesting our existence.

When we employ our beliefs to create scenarios as intense as the one presented in this film, we’re treading into potentially dangerous territory. It’s obvious that using conscious creation in such a way is intended to address significant life lessons, the kind that deserve to be treated cautiously, reverently and with all deliberate seriousness given what’s at stake.

These situations give us much to consider. For example, are they something we really want to create? Are we genuinely interested in being (and/or remaining) a part of them? If not, why not? And, if that’s the case, can we find a way to extricate ourselves and change our circumstances? Those are difficult questions, and the answers may not be readily forthcoming – unless we’re willing to take a concerted look at the beliefs that got us into these scenarios and make an effort to change the conditions.

This is clearly what Bernadine is wrestling with in this story. It’s as if she’s painted herself into a corner and doesn’t know how to find her way out of it. She does what she thinks is best to cope with these conditions, but they’re mere bandage solutions based on temporary fixes. To a much greater degree, she’s wrapping herself up in a blanket of denial, refusing to squarely face the beliefs that got her into these circumstances in the first place. And, because of that, she’s effectively trapped, unable to avert her attention away from matters that she can no longer bear to look at. That’s the epitome of being a prisoner of one’s own beliefs.

If Bernadine hopes to escape her situation, she must be willing to look at her beliefs honestly, with a resolute sense of integrity. Why is she doing this kind of work in the first place? Why has she stayed with it so long? And why does she seem to have so much trouble tearing herself away from it? Until she’s able to answer these kinds of questions, she’ll be unable to come up with solutions that help to solve her dilemma.

Even if Bernadine is able to address the foregoing issues, she still needs to ask herself if she’s willing and capable of making changes. Can she envision alternatives that take her away from the self-created hell in which she finds herself? And, if so, does she have any idea what such a new reality might look like? That may be a challenging venture for her, given how long and how deeply she’s been ensconced in her present circumstances. Dragging herself out of those conditions could be more than she’s prepared to handle.

Of course, it’s always possible to do so with help. Bernadine certainly has sources of assistance available to her if she chooses to avail herself of them. First there’s her husband, Jonathan, who genuinely expresses his concern on multiple occasions. Then there are her professional peers, Chaplain Kendricks and Deputy Warden Morgan, both of whom clearly care about her well-being and seem willing to step in when needed. Even attorney Lumetta appears to have some quiet compassion for the warden, despite the many times in which they butted heads. If Bernadine were to reach out to any of these resources, she’d find she has helping hands upon which to draw, but she must decide – and believe – that this assistance would be in her best interests.

The consequences involved here are incalculably high, particularly where Bernadine’s personal welfare is concerned. If she were to turn a blind eye to her innermost beliefs, she faces the possibility of killing someone who’s not ready to die, as well as putting an innocent man to death in error. Can she live with this? Or would she be better off by walking away and beginning a new life, one in which she didn’t have such heavy responsibility on her shoulders and in which she could allow her true self to at last emerge? The choice is hers, and her beliefs will activate the events and circumstances that arise from those choices. We can only hope that she’ll choose wisely given the potential karmic consequences that await her and her mortal soul.



Capital punishment issues are frequently the stuff of robust social discourse, but how often is it scrutinized at the personal level? That’s what this intense new drama seeks to do, both for the executioner and those awaiting that ultimate fate. How does it feel to be the individual on death row? And how does it feel to be the one who orders that the final act be sanctioned? The moral dilemmas faced by all involved may not be as easy or clear-cut to decipher as one might think. Woodard gives a superb (and criminally overlooked) performance, enhanced by the picture’s chilling cinematography and excellent supporting cast. Admittedly, the film could have used more development of the protagonist’s motivations and back story, as well as a slightly brisker pace overall. However, these shortcomings aside, this one is likely to haunt viewers after leaving the theater, giving us all much to think about when it comes to matters of justice, life and death. For its efforts, “Clemency” has picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations for best feature and screenplay, as well as Woodard’s lead performance.

If we’re not truthful with ourselves when it comes to the kinds of matters examined in this film, there may be hell to pay, be it figurative or perhaps even literal (depending on one’s beliefs). This is why it’s so crucial to get it “right” where these issues are involved. If we don’t, a lasting legacy could dog us for a long time, preventing us from finding peace – and launching us onto a path that might make us long for a resolution that, sadly, ever eludes us.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

‘Les Misérables’ asks us to examine our intentions

“Les Misérables” (2019). Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu, Almamy Kanoute, Nizar Ben Fatma, Raymond Lopez, Jeanne Balibar, Fodjé Sissoko. Director: Ladj Ly. Screenplay: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. Book: Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us often look upon the world and wonder why it exists in the state that it does. Some elements seem so patently unfair and incapable of being made better. What’s more, the task of rectifying them is so daunting that it appears to be an impossible undertaking, one clearly beyond our abilities. However, if we make the effort to scrutinize the underlying cause of these conditions, it might not be so difficult to do after all. But that, of course, all depends on us, a message at the core of a modern-day remake of a literary classic, “Les Misérables.”

In the mid-19th Century, legendary French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was witness to some of the most turbulent times in his nation’s history, particularly in matters of humanitarianism and social justice. His observations of the circumstances and conditions of the period, especially in the lives of the poor in communities like Montfermeil on the outskirts of Paris, often provided inspiration for his writings, most notably his magnum opus on the subject, Les Misérables, first published in 1862. In that five-volume work, he chronicled the difficulties afflicting the French underclass and their struggles for reform, drawing attention to a subject that had long been ignored and that many in society and officialdom did not want to address. But Hugo’s best-seller struck a chord and pushed French society to begin looking at what it would rather not see.

In the years since then, one would like to believe that we’ve made progress at overcoming those past indignities. However, from the viewpoint of modern-day Montfermeil residents, one might be tempted to remark – trite though it may be – that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s especially true for those who live in les Bousquets, high-rise public housing projects that are home to poor, mostly Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in Africa. Even though these residents may look and live differently from those who occupied Montfermeil in Hugo’s time, they face many of the same hardships, and their lives might easily be chronicled in accounts not all that different from what the iconic author wrote.



That, in essence, is what this film seeks to impart. Other than a smattering of passing allusions to its source material, the story in this version of “Les Misérables” has little to do with bread-stealing protagonist Jean Valjean and his arch antagonist Inspector Javert (and even less to do with the popular musical adaptation of their decades-long saga). Instead, director Ladj Ly’s offering features a contemporary drama that elaborates upon the humanitarian and social justice themes covered in Hugo’s novel to illustrate how present-day conditions mirror those that the author wrote about. It shows how the downtrodden of today face challenges not unlike those that confronted by their predecessors, that les misérables of the 21st Century may not be all that different from les misérables of the 19th Century and that the title of their story is just as germane to them as it was to their forbears.

In many regards, “Les Misérables” could be characterized as a contemporary crime drama. When recently divorced police detective Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) relocates to Paris from rural France to be closer to his son, he takes a job as a beat cop responsible for helping to keep the peace (as much as that’s possible) in the Montfermeil community, a rundown, crime-ridden immigrant neighborhood. It’s a side of Paris many don’t see, one that’s not pictured in travel brochures, yet it nevertheless needs monitoring by authorities to keep matters from getting out of hand.

Ruiz, a mild-mannered, stand-up sort, is not alone in his work. As part of a trio that patrols the streets, he’s joined by Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a Black, easygoing officer who grew up in the neighborhood, and Chris (Alexis Manenti), a White, hot-headed, strong-armed control freak who leads the group and proudly relishes his nickname “Pink Pig.” Together they seek to keep order, frequently employing questionable practices (generally initiated under Chris’s direction) and paying regular visits to street allies, such as Le Maire (“the Mayor”) of Montfermeil (Steve Tientcheu), the head of the community’s criminal underworld who helps keep a lid on neighborhood violence while handsomely lining his own pockets. It’s all somewhat unsavory in Ruiz’s mind, but he goes along with the routine as much as he’s able to, often clashing with Chris in the process.

[caption id="attachment_11276" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Newly arrived police recruit, Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard, left), starts his first day on patrol of the Montfermeil neighborhood of Paris with his colleagues, group leader “Pink Pig” Chris (Alexis Manenti, center) and patrolman Gwada (Djebril Zonga, right), in director Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated feature, “Les Misérables.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

The relative “calm” in the neighborhood becomes upset, however, when Zorro (Raymond Lopez), the gypsy owner of a small travelling circus, angrily complains to Le Maire that someone from his community stole his beloved lion cub, demanding the animal’s return under the threat of a repeat visit the next day “with guns blazing.” The Mayor claims to know nothing about the lion’s disappearance and calls in his police associates to help sort out the situation.

Chris, Gwada and Ruiz agree to help Le Maire in the search for the missing animal, an investigation that leads to strained relations between the Mayor and others in the neighborhood, most notably Salah (Almamy Kanoute), an influential and devout business owner with a strong local following. But, thanks to Ruiz’s soothing mediation skills, tensions ease somewhat. And, with some astute police work, the officers quickly find the lion cub in the possession of Issa (Issa Perica), a teenage troublemaker with a long history of run-ins with authorities. However, retrieving the cub is easier said than done; when Issa flees, he’s joined by other local teens who run interference for him, thwarting the officers’ attempts at capturing the perpetrator. In the crush of the moment, the mob creates havoc that results in the firing of a flash-ball weapon, injuring the suspect. And, to complicate matters further, the entire incident is captured on video by an overhead drone operated by a shy, geeky teen, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who becomes the subject of a new investigation – one aimed at seizing the device to prevent footage of the incident from being revealed to the public.

The combination of a seriously injured, unpredictable teenage perpetrator, documented footage of the incident in which he was hurt, the desperate search for the owner of the drone that captured images of the volatile event, and an attempt at a deliberate police cover-up make for a highly combustible mix. Add to that the strained relations between Le Maire and neighborhood residents, and the heat gets turned up even further. It all makes for an explosive situation, one that threatens to erupt and create even greater chaos, an episode with the potential to reaffirm everything that Victor Hugo presciently wrote about nearly two centuries earlier.

[caption id="attachment_11277" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Le Maire (“the Mayor”) (Steve Tientcheu), head of the criminal underworld in the Montfermeil neighborhood of Paris, seeks to keep a lid on community violence while lining his own pockets in the Oscar-nominated feature, “Les Misérables.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

The similarity of life in Montfermeil in 2019 compared to the 19th Century raises some interesting – and puzzling – questions. For all of our supposed compassion, tolerance and advanced knowledge, how is it that these kinds of conditions persist? Why do people continue to suffer? Why do we cling to different standards of acceptance – and hence exhibit different standards of behavior – toward different groups of individuals in such areas as justice, opportunities for economic and social advancement, and humanitarian treatment? And, despite changes in the material nature of our world, why have we remained stuck in our outlooks when it comes to how we treat others and how we interrelate with them? Indeed, did we learn nothing from Hugo’s writings?

If we have a hard time fathoming how such conditions have endured during all that time, then maybe it’s time we take a good hard look at ourselves. And, in particular, maybe we should pay special attention to our beliefs, for they provide the building blocks of the reality around us, the cornerstones of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon them in manifesting the existence we experience. These tremendously powerful intangible elements spring forth from within us to materialize our external reality. And, for better or worse, what we get faithfully mirrors the source from which it originates, persisting for as long as such notions continue to receive the power we give to them.

If we consider that, then, it speaks volumes about those questions raised above. If the present-day conditions mimic those of the past with little meaningful change, then we’ve obviously allowed the underlying beliefs that created them to endure. Whether we’ve played an active part in their preservation (as Chris, Le Maire and Issa do, for example) or merely stood on the sidelines as onlookers (as, say, Gwada does), many of us have had a hand in maintaining them with little, if any, change. The power and persistence of these beliefs, in turn, make it difficult for those who hope to see improvement (as evidenced by the frustration Ruiz experiences). In the end, if any of us really hope to see progress made, we have to start with our beliefs, rewriting them as needed to bring about the kinds of adjustments we seek.

This is not to suggest that change is impossible. The power that we give to our beliefs is essentially a neutral force, neither good nor bad; it all depends on what we do with it through the “applications” to which it is put. As Hugo wrote in Les Misérables, “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators,” and this is just as true where our beliefs are concerned. The same energy that goes into creating something nefarious or injurious could just as easily be applied to the manifestation of something beneficial or joyful. Consider, for instance, the film’s opening sequence in which the residents of Montfermeil join in the jubilation of their fellow Parisians at the Arc de Triomphe to revel in France’s victory at the World Cup soccer championship, a celebration born out of a wellspring of upbeat intentions. By contrast, however, the energy applied so readily to that undertaking could just as well be infused into the criminal activities that those same individuals engage in when they return to their home neighborhood. The question, of course, is, “What will they choose to do?”

[caption id="attachment_11278" align="aligncenter" width="350"]The restless and discontented youth of les Bousquets, the rundown public housing projects of the Montfermeil neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris, face a difficult and frustrating upbringing in director Ladj Ly’s gripping new retelling of the classic Victor Hugo novel, “Les Misérables.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

This is where paying attention to the nature and content of our beliefs comes into play. And, for those who may lack the insight to know how to proceed at this, that is where the impact of beneficial role models can make all the difference. If the Montfermeil residents had more people like Ruiz than like Chris or Le Maire in their lives, they might very well make different choices regarding their beliefs – and, consequently, experience a very different reality from what they’re accustomed to. And, if there were enough Ruizes in the life of the community, then maybe the kinds of reforms Hugo pushed for might finally begin to be realized in greater numbers. But, no matter what unfolds, it all comes back to the beliefs that are put into place to begin with.

It should be noted that, as in Hugo’s age, Montfermeil is far from an isolated example in our world today. There are many communities like it around the globe where conditions are as bad as, if not worse, than there. The violent events in this film, not unlike the 2005 Paris riots on which portions of this picture were inspired, should serve as a wake-up call, not only to change the conditions, but also to change the underlying beliefs that have brought these conditions into play in the first place. “Les Misérables” is a good starting point to draw from, providing us with a powerful cautionary tale we should all take to heart.

This stunning urban crime drama adaptation provides a gritty, contemporary twist on the notions of liberty, equality, fraternity and social justice (and their all-too-frequent absence) all these many years later. Director Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated offering for best foreign language film, influenced strongly by Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989), hits hard, seldom holding anything back. With its fine performances, excellent cinematography and compelling electronic soundtrack by Pink Noise, the film captivates as it works its way through an increasingly tense narrative that leaves as many questions open as it resolves. This version of “Les Misérables” may not superficially resemble any of those that preceded it, but it leaves an impact just as emotionally powerful – if not more so – than any of its predecessors, bringing Hugo’s message into the present and shoving it squarely in our faces.

[caption id="attachment_11279" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Paris erupts in jubilation at the nation’s victory in the World Cup soccer championship, a rare moment of joy in “Les Misérables,” a contemporary adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel about the challenges faced by the downtrodden in French society. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

Were it not for the existence of Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”), “Les Misérables” might otherwise be the best foreign language film of 2019, a distinction that likely would have made it possible to sweep all the honors in this category in the movie industry’s various awards competitions. As it is, the picture earned the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. Since then, however, in addition to its Oscar nod, the film has consistently pulled down nominations in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Award contests, accolades of which it is certainly deserving and, in another year, might have easily translated into victories. But, even without a trophy case full of hardware, this is a picture well worth its weight in praise and definitely worth seeing.

Bringing fairness and justice into the world is something mankind has sought to do throughout its history, with varying degrees of success. Some can argue that we have indeed made progress, and they can point to a number of noteworthy examples. But, as long as certain basic inequalities are allowed to endure, we’ll never live up to the promise and potential of what we might be able to achieve as a species. We can only hope that Victor Hugo’s message sinks in at some point – and that we truly become what we’re genuinely capable of.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.