Friday, June 5, 2020

‘Alice’ colorfully examines the process of starting over

“Alice” (2019 production, 2020 release). Cast: Emilie Piponnier, Martin Swabey, Jules Milo Levy Mackerras, Chlöé Boreham, Ariana Rodriguez Giraldo, Juliette Tresanini, Christophe Favre, Philippe de Monts, David Coburn. Robert Burns, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Marie Coulonjou, Marine Blake (voice). Director: Josephine Mackerras. Screenplay: Josephine Mackerras. Web siteTrailer.

Life sure seems unfair at times. We may think we’ve got it made when, all of a sudden, everything evaporates before our very eyes. We might be shattered (and rightfully so), unsure of where to turn next. However, such a turning point could be one of the best things to ever befall us, a scenario explored in the new French domestic drama, “Alice.”

From all appearances, Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) leads a stable, contented, reasonably happy life. The young Parisian wife and mother keeps a busy schedule tending to the needs of her husband, François (Martin Swabey), and their young son, Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras), as well as helping out others, such as her friend, Carole (Juliette Tresanini), but things overall seem generally pleasant.

However, that all disappears one morning when she attempts to use her credit cards and to obtain funds from an ATM: All of her transactions are turned down. Alice frantically calls François to see if he knows anything about this, but she keeps getting his voicemail, leaving messages that are never returned. And, when she checks with her financial institutions, she learns that her husband has withdrawn large amounts of cash and failed to make payments on their debts for months. With no money in hand, the threat of eviction looming and no response from François, the young mother with a high-maintenance toddler in tow is clearly up against it – and no idea how to move forward.

[caption id="attachment_11506" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Parisian wife and mother Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier, background) cares for her young son, Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras, foreground), before taking a radical career turn in the new French domestic drama, “Alice.” Photo courtesy of Monument Releasing.[/caption]

To make matters worse, all of the resources Alice thought she could count on for help turn a blind eye. In a painful phone call to her mother (Marine Blake), Alice explains her situation, but mom shows little sympathy, even taking François’s side, suggesting that her daughter isn’t working hard enough at her marriage – and probably not doing enough to keep her husband “satisfied.” Whether or not accurate, that last sentiment proves rather uncanny, especially when Alice discovers that most of the missing funds have been paid out to a company called Elegant Escorts. François, it seems, has been engaging the services of expensive prostitutes for months, so much so that it has depleted the couple’s financial resources.

When Alice contacts the escort service, the company’s owners, Véra (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and Jessica (Marie Coulonjou), offer little information over the phone, but they invite their caller to attend their offices for their next group audition. Desperate for answers, Alice accepts the invitation to find out whatever she can. But, much to her surprise, in the wake of her appearance at the audition, the beautiful young mother learns that the owners would like to bring her on board as one of their girls. Alice doesn’t initially know how to react, but, when she learns of the kind of money she can make – more than enough to bail her out of her financial woes and to adequately support herself and Jules – and considering the hurt François caused her, Alice figures, “Why not?”

Given that she’s new at this sort of thing, Alice starts off somewhat comically and clumsily, but, thanks to an understanding first client (Philippe de Monts), she manages to work her way through it and get paid. And, with tips from Lisa (Chlöé Boreham), one of her escort peers who has become quite proficient at her craft, Alice hones her skills as well, quickly amassing a bundle that helps her pay off her debts. She even seems to enjoy what she’s doing, relishing the liberation that this new line of work has provided her.

[caption id="attachment_11507" align="aligncenter" width="350"]When Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier, left) learns that her philandering husband, François (Martin Swabey, right), has depleted the family funds by engaging the services of high-end escorts, she seeks retribution in multiple ways in director Josephine Mackerras’s feature film debut, “Alice.” Photo courtesy of Monument Releasing.[/caption]

But, just when things start going well for the first time in a while, she’s hit with another bombshell – François returns, admitting his guilt and looking to reconcile. He begs Alice to forgive him for the foolishness of his ways, that he desperately misses her and Jules. However, having now had a taste of freedom and realizing that she no longer needs her husband in her life, she resists nearly all of his attempts at conciliation. Admittedly, she’s willing to avail herself of his assistance when she needs a babysitter to take care of Jules when she needs to go out on a call, sincerely believing that he owes her. But, unfortunately, that sends the wrong message, giving François false hope for the future – and opening the door to nasty prospects that threaten to undo all the progress Alice has made, not to mention wiping away all of her newfound happiness.

When Alice initially uncovers what’s unfolding in her life, she’s understandably devastated. In a matter of hours, everything she had come to believe about her daily existence was wiped away, leaving her not knowing what to think. To be sure, such an unanticipated downfall is nothing to be minimized. However, at the same time, it also represents a tremendous opportunity, to start with a clean slate and begin anew. And the promise and potential behind that all rests with Alice herself; given that the beliefs she held constituted the basis for her old existence, it stands to reason that whatever new beliefs she chooses to embrace will do the same for the new one she manifests for herself. It’s an outcome made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we materialize the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Because conscious creation innately makes anything possible, all outcomes are essentially fair game. With a limitless palette of belief options available to her, Alice can choose virtually anything she wants for a fresh start. Considering what she recently experienced, it may not be easy to view her circumstances in this light. However, if she (or anyone, for that matter) can see such an opportunity for what it is, unburdened by the weight of emotional baggage, the world truly could be her oyster (though, given her zeal and proficiency for her new line of work, oysters probably aren’t necessary).

[caption id="attachment_11508" align="aligncenter" width="350"]With help from her friend and professional peer, Lisa (Chlöé Boreham, left), housewife-turned-escort Alice Ferrand (Emilie, Piponnier, right) discovers a newfound sense of freedom and happiness in the new French domestic drama, “Alice.” Photo courtesy of Monument Releasing.[/caption]

Nevertheless, just because Alice is embarking on her new life, that doesn’t mean the rules governing conscious creation don’t apply. This is particularly true where it comes to matters of responsibility. After all, given that everything we create comes from us and our beliefs, it also means that we bear the responsibility for whatever we materialize, including whatever fallout, side effects and consequences result. We can clearly see what comes from that, for example, in François’s case: The beliefs and intents underlying the fulfillment of his sexual needs indeed brought him the carnal pleasure he sought, but it carried an enormous price. And, in the wake of his loss, he was left broke and without the wife he loved more than he ever realized. (Such is the dual-edged sword that acts of creation can sometimes be.)

Alice has responsibility issues to cope with in light of her new belief choices, too. Most notably there’s the caretaking of her son; after all, dragging one’s child along on an out call doesn’t leave the best impression, so alternate accommodations must be put into place to attend to everyone’s needs. And then there are the inherent risks of her profession itself, conditions that could expose her to all sorts of difficulties from legal, health and reputational standpoints. Of course, all of these concerns can be addressed by incorporating suitable beliefs up front, intents that cover whatever needs to be tackled, minimized or avoided. Preparing for these kinds of contingencies at the outset is in itself a responsible act, one that can stave off unwanted consequences.

Alice’s decision to become an escort may not be everyone’s choice, especially in light of some of the concerns noted above. However, considering what she was up against, she had to take drastic measures to escape her circumstances. This required her to break through limitations, to seek solutions that brought her what she needed, no matter how unconventional they might seem to others – or how they even might have seemed to her at one time. Alice’s novel approach thus suitably fulfilled her material needs. It also probably didn’t hurt that it provided her with a certain degree of self-satisfaction in being able to turn the tables on François by giving him a taste of his own medicine.

[caption id="attachment_11509" align="aligncenter" width="350"]After a challenging start as a high-end escort, Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier, right) develops a proficiency for her craft in “Alice.” Photo courtesy of Visit Films.[/caption]

What’s even more remarkable, though, are the unforeseen benefits that come out of Alice’s decision. For instance, after spending some time in her new line of work, she discovers feelings of liberation and personal fulfillment, qualities that weren’t present (at least to the same degree) during her days as a wife and mother. At the same time, she also discovers an unexpected capacity to give joy to those in need of it, such as some of her clients (David Coburn, Robert Burns), some of whom are even able to return the favor when the need arises. But, most importantly, Alice’s new life provides her with a newfound sense of personal empowerment. And, with an awareness of a quality like that, there’s no telling what she (or any of us) might be able to create with it.

This innovatively empowering, warm and sometimes-funny tale hits most of the right notes, albeit a tad predictably at times. The premise of this domestic drama may seem a bit far-fetched for some (even though it is very French), but its inventive narrative is certainly thought-provoking in its own way. With a fine lead performance by Emilie Piponnier, atmospheric cinematography and an excellent original score, director Josephine Mackerras’s feature film debut serves up an entertaining and evocatively offbeat source of inspiration. “Alice” is currently available for first-run online streaming.

The sourness of the lemons life sometimes hands us can leave more than just a bad taste in our mouths. However, sugar is easy to find to transform those acrid juices into something delicious. We just need to keep our eyes open and know where to look. Alice Ferrand certainly knows how, and we could learn a lot by following her example so that, when the time comes, we’ll know just what to do to drink up and enjoy.

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Coming of Age on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, today, June 2, at 2 pm ET, by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand, with new listening options available! In addition to Spreaker, the show is now available on iHeart Radio, Spotify, Podcast Addict and Podchaser!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "To the Stars" and "Far From the Tree," as well as a look back at a sci-fi classic, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.  


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

‘Far From the Tree’ explores the extension of our roots

“Far From the Tree” (2017 production, 2018 release). Cast: Andrew Solomon, Jason Kingsley, Emily Perl Kingsley, Jack Allnutt, Amy Allnutt, Bob Allnutt, Loini Vivao, Leah Smith, Joseph A. Stramondo, Howard Solomon, John Habich Solomon, Derek Reese, Lisa Reese, Tyler Reese, Rebecca Reese, Charles Kingsley (archive footage). Directors: Rachael Dretzin and Jamila Ephron. Book: Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree. Web siteTrailer.

When a couple settles down to start raising children, the parents-to-be generally assume that everything is going to turn out “normal,” that their hopes and wishes for the typical “mainstream” family are going to materialize free of challenges and difficulties. But what happens when things don’t pan out as expected? Significant differences in any number of areas, from physical attributes to emotional temperaments to sexual orientation, can knock parents for a loop, leaving them to wonder what can or should be done for their offspring – if anything at all That’s the question posed in the engaging 2017 documentary, “Far From the Tree,” available for home viewing.

When gay author Andrew Solomon was growing up, he knew his sensibilities were different from those of other boys his age. The things that typically interested his peers held no appeal for him. And, as he grew older, he also realized this carried over into the area of sexuality. He wondered why he was different and often fretted over his attraction to members of the same gender, even going so far as to look for solutions to change his ways, such as paying visits to female sex workers in hopes that they would be able to “convert” him. Alas, though, nothing worked, and he realized his only choice was to accept or deny his orientation; change was not an option.

Solomon took the bold move to accept himself and be open about it, a risky venture during a far less tolerant time. It initially cost him his relationship with his parents, especially his mother, Carolyn, who drilled the notion into his head that he would never be happy, mainly because of the inherent “instability” of gay relationships. Nevertheless, Solomon stayed with his decision and sought to make his way in the world.

During his process of self-discovery, Solomon asked himself how he could end up so unlike the family into which he was born. But, the more he pondered this question, the more he expanded his inquiry into differences of other kinds, be they emotional, physical or behavioral. How did the parents and families of children who exhibited such other distinctions handle their situations? Did they view their kids’ conditions as “differences” or “disabilities”? Did they see their sons and daughters as saddled with handicaps, or were their children posed with challenges to address and overcome? Indeed, as Solomon himself put it, were these deviations from the norm meant to be looked upon as things to be fixed or celebrated?

It was with those questions in mind that Solomon set about to write what would eventually become the best-selling, much-applauded nonfiction title, Far from the Tree, the book that formed the basis for this documentary. In addition to exploring his own personal odyssey, his book and this film examine the special needs and circumstances of children who turned out vastly different from their parents and siblings. Through these cinematic and literary channels, author Solomon and filmmakers Rachel Dretzin and Jamila Ephron address the experiences of families affected by children with Down syndrome, autism, dwarfism and criminality. The result is a series of remarkable stories in which the challenges were great and hard-fought solutions took considerable effort to be realized – but often with inspiring results. These apples may have fallen, bounced and rolled considerable distances from their boughs, but the fruit is in many respects just as ripe.

Consider, for example, the experience of Jason Kingsley, who was born with Down syndrome. At the time of his birth, his mother, Emily, was advised to give up the child and have him committed to a special facility, essentially out of sight and away from public view. Emily’s health care providers explained that Jason wouldn’t have much of a life, unable to learn and to interact with society in the same way that other children do. It was widely believed that their suggested solution – the standard at the time – would remove the “burden” of trying to raise a child with such a condition, easing life for Emily and her husband, Charles.

[caption id="attachment_11491" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Born with Down syndrome, Jason Kingsley (right) has achieved much in his life, thanks to the tireless efforts of his mother, Emily (left), as seen in the excellent 2017 documentary, “Far From the Tree,” available for home viewing. Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects.[/caption]

Emily and Charles, however, would have none of that. They didn’t buy into the idea that Jason was fundamentally incapable of attaining an education; they believed that he could grow up to have a meaningful, productive and contributing life. But, even more important than that, they simply couldn’t abide by the idea of just giving him away. As Emily put it, one doesn’t stop loving a child just because he or she might have a special condition; a parent just doesn’t do that.

And, as it turned out, Emily and Charles were right. Jason mastered subjects that he supposedly wasn’t capable of learning. He even became something of a celebrity, appearing as an actor on episodes of such TV shows as Sesame Street, The Fall Guy and Touched by an Angel, as well as a guest on talk shows. He graduated from high school and a post-secondary school for students with special needs, and he has since gone on to hold a full-time job and live mostly independently with two other Down syndrome housemates.

Jack Allnut has followed a life path in many ways similar to Jason Kingsley. His parents, Amy and Bob, say that Jack’s early life was seemingly normal. But, then, while a toddler, he began to withdraw, unable to speak and often acting out in tantrums. It became apparent that he was autistic, and nothing Jack’s parents did seemed to help – until they met a special therapist who discovered that a remarkable individual resided within Jack. Through an unorthodox treatment technique, the therapist was able to communicate with Jack in a special way. Jack explained that he understood what was going on around him but that he was unable to convey his thoughts through speech, a hindrance that relentlessly frustrated him and prompted much of his behavior. However, with this new channel of communication now open, the Allnut family discovered that Jack was highly intelligent – an aptitude he applied to schooling, achieving exceptional grades in many of his classes.

[caption id="attachment_11492" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Jack Allnutt (left), who developed autism at a young age, has learned how to manage his condition and become a stellar student thanks to special therapy and the loving support of family members like his father, Bob (right), as chronicled in the documentary “Far From the Tree.” Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects.[/caption]

Carrying on a “normal” social life and being able to have a family life are difficult when one is half as tall as everyone else. Just ask Loini Vivao, Leah Smith and Joseph A. Stramondo. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, either. These three adults who have grown up with dwarfism may not share the same physical attributes as their full-sized peers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the same things out of life as their taller counterparts. Their stories are examined in various ways, such as their attendance at conferences and social gatherings organized specifically for them, as well as the determined efforts of husband and wife Joseph and Leah to have a child. The means for addressing their needs may be different in nature from those of Jason and Jack, but the empowering assistance they receive from their respective support resources (particularly family members) is just as significant. And the incalculable impact of all this is meaningful beyond measure for the lives they seek to lead.

For all these success stories, however, some others are painful, no matter how earnestly one tries to address them. Such is the case for the Reese family, whose teenage son, Trevor, was convicted of an inexplicable, brutal murder of a young child. Trevor had what appeared to be a bright future ahead of him until he committed this senseless killing, an incident so shocking and out of character that even the perpetrator doesn’t know why he did it. He pled guilty to the charges, sparing him the death penalty but resulting in a sentence of life in prison.

The fallout in this case has left the family with what is arguably the greatest burden to bear in all of these stories, given that the fruit has fallen farthest from the tree and saddled them with a future that realistically holds the dimmest prospects for change. Parents Derek and Lisa and their other two children, Tyler and Rebecca, picked up and moved out of state in hopes of a new start, but difficulties linger. Derek and Lisa explain that they often find themselves being vague about their past when meeting new people, given that being too candid frequently doesn’t help in forging new friendships. And Tyler and Rebecca have said that they have no desire to become parents, decisions made out of an abundance of caution. The family still communicates with Trevor, trying to offer whatever encouragement they can under these trying conditions. But, given what the Reeses are up against, what more can they do than continually hope for the best for everyone – even Trevor – going forward?

[caption id="attachment_11493" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Husband and wife Joseph A. Stramondo (left) and Leah Smith (right) won’t let dwarfism stop them from becoming parents, as detailed in “Far From the Tree.” Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects.[/caption]

And then there’s Andrew’s story, which, like the others, started out with more than its share of difficulties. Over time, though, with changes in social conditions and greater acceptance of alternate lifestyles, the author has come into his own as a successful writer. He has also forged a happy home life with his husband, John, and their many children. But, perhaps most importantly, Andrew has made peace with his father, Howard, proving that, when it comes to the bond of blood relations, sometimes the distance from the branches doesn’t matter a bit.

At first glance, many might look upon the situations of these families and individuals as tragic. How can one bear up under such conditions? Is there no hope for a fulfilling life? What is one to do?

However, as these stories illustrate, remarkable miracles often come out of such circumstances. Unexpected joys, heartfelt love, tremendous accomplishments and the means to help others often result from such scenarios, and there’s much to be said for that. It may take getting past some well-entrenched social stigmas and inherent challenges, but that does not mean all is lost, especially if one believes to the contrary. And that belief component is crucial, for it drives the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are drawn upon in manifesting the reality we experience.

If that’s true, though, one might rightfully ask, “Why would anyone materialize such arduous conditions in the first place?” That’s a legitimate question given the difficulties involved in handling such situations. But the reasons behind why any of us manifests what we do is our business and not subject to outside scrutiny or judgment, no matter how innately challenging those circumstances are.

In many cases, individuals and families who create such conditions do so to learn particular life lessons, including those that may be difficult to endure. Given that conscious creation makes anything possible, and considering that our being’s greater purpose is to know what it’s like to experience the full range of existence, at some point we may well choose to go through some of these more challenging undertakings. We may not be consciously aware that we have decided to do so, nor may we even be aware of conscious creation as a practice. However, that does not mean we don’t employ it in manifesting the lives we lead, to see what they have to offer (for better or worse), to determine if we’re able to overcome their intrinsic limitations and to explore what our experiences may contribute to the overall human condition. Those are sincerely noble aspirations, and what we experience through these opportunities may truly astonish us and our peers.

[caption id="attachment_11494" align="aligncenter" width="350"]After years of struggles over his sexuality, gay author Andrew Solomon (left) has made peace with his father, Howard (right), as detailed in the documentary “Far From the Tree,” based on the writer’s best-selling, critically acclaimed book of the same title. Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects.[/caption]

This is especially true when it comes to such undertakings as overcoming fears and pushing past limitations. Through these ventures, we may well see that we’re capable of so much more than we truly thought possible, and this applies to both the individuals directly affected, as well as those around them. By trying out alternate lines of probability, we may end up devising inventive solutions to longstanding difficulties. This can end up benefitting not only us, but also others who are similarly situated. And, in that regard, we may end up doing great services to humanity in the arts, technology, health and well-being, and other areas of endeavor. Conscious creators refer to this as the practice of value fulfillment, that of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of our individual beings, as well as the whole of mankind. Who would think that such innovation could emerge from what many others may offhandedly refer to as “adversity”?

This excellent examination of how individuals and families cope with various challenges that place them outside the mainstream of society enlightens and inspires throughout. While the documentary could use expansion in some areas and judicious snipping in others, the overall production is insightful, especially when it comes to redefining what actually constitutes the meaning of “family,” as well as what conditions need to be encouraged rather than altered or eliminated. “Far From the Tree” is likely to leave viewers with a wide range of impressions that they haven’t considered before. Check it out on DVD or video on demand – you’re sure not to be disappointed.

The lives we lead may not be for everyone. They may deviate significantly from what others believe we should want and from what they have painstakingly prepared for us. But, then, what we bring out of these experiences may end up being immeasurably more uplifting and meaningful, and not just for ourselves. We may like to believe that apples shouldn’t fall far from their trees, but sometimes working in a little distance can prove to be revelatory for us as individuals, as families, and, in the long run, as a species.

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

‘To the Stars’ charts the emergence from one’s shell

“To the Stars” (2019 production, 2020 release). Cast: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Adelaide Clemens, Malin Akerman, Tony Hale, Jordana Spiro, Shea Whigham, Lucas Jade Zumann, Madisen Beaty, Lauren Ashley Stephenson, Sophi Bairley, Tina Parker, Matt Coulson, Natalie Canerday, Doug Jackson. Director: Martha Stephens. Screenplay: Shannon Bradley-Colleary. Web site. Trailer.

Adolescence is seldom an easy time for many of us. It’s an age of exploration and experimentation, a period when we examine the world and ourselves to see how we mesh together. The fit isn’t always exact, though, particularly when our authentic selves differ significantly from what we see around us. It often prompts us to retreat into our shells, sometimes covering our eyes in the process as we struggle to reconcile the discrepancies. But, no matter what coping mechanisms we may employ, coming of age can still be a trying time until we find the key to unlock this especially troublesome door. So it is for a teenager seeking to find herself in the new period piece drama, “To the Stars.”

For a sensitive, misunderstood loner like Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward), attempting to fit in can be a daily exercise in emotional distress and personal frustration. After all, life in small town Wakita, Oklahoma in the 1950s can be stifling enough in itself, let alone for someone whose outlooks and sensibilities aren’t on the same wavelength as everyone else. The constant pressure to conform, as well as many failed attempts at being like everyone else (and the resulting ridicule that comes from those efforts), have taken their toll, leaving Iris with her share of neuroses. In particular, she suffers from bladder control issues, a condition that has prompted her snarky high school classmates to label her with the insulting nickname “Stinky Drawers.”

It doesn’t help that those around Iris continually reinforce the angst she feels. For example, her mother, Francie (Jordana Spiro), a budding alcoholic who shamelessly flirts with local teenage boys, constantly badgers Iris to improve herself, most notably by looking for ways to land a boyfriend. Mom is lovingly supportive of her daughter but only as long as Iris follows her recommendations; whenever the adolescent seeks to follow her own impulses, Francie’s snarly side comes out, her venomous attitude fueled by a mix of generational jealousy and retribution for rejection of what she believes to be foolproof recommendations.

[caption id="attachment_11482" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Sensitive, misunderstood loner Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) struggles to assimilate into the confining culture of 1950s small town Oklahoma in the new coming of age saga, “To the Stars.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.[/caption]

But the troubles don’t stop at home. Iris is bombarded by even more teasing and mockery at school from a pack of mean girls, the popular, cheerleader types who refer to their little clique as “the Songbirds.” Clarissa Dell (Madisen Beaty), the leader of this spiteful little coterie, dishes out more than her share of hurtful barbs, even advising others that hanging out with Iris is tantamount to social suicide. Her efforts are backed by a pair of minions, Rhonda Robertson (Lauren Ashley Stephenson) and Hattie McCoy (Sophi Bairley), sidekicks who handily get in their fair share of cheap shots and faithfully back their alpha when called upon.

Iris seeks solace by looking for ways to be by herself. She frequently hides out in her bedroom, buried under the covers with a transistor radio plastered against her ear. She also goes for late night swims in a nearby pond, one that most locals avoid given that it was the site of a young mother’s tragic suicide. All in all, it’s a pretty lonely life. In fact, the only people who show Iris any meaningful respect and support are her father, Hank (Shea Whigham), and the family’s teenage farmhand, Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann), son of the woman who killed herself.

Things take a drastic turn, however, when a new student arrives at Wakita High, Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato). The urban transplant, who recently relocated to Oklahoma with her family from Kansas City, exudes an air of confidence that allows her to carry herself with authentic self-assurance – and to quickly put the Songbirds and pushy teenage boys in their place whenever the need arises. She also uses this confidence to come to Iris’s rescue whenever she’s being taunted by others, a sort of combination big sister and bodyguard.

Iris is initially perplexed by Maggie’s unsolicited support. Since almost no one has ever come to her defense before, she fails to understand why anyone would have her back. But, the more time they spend together, the more a bond is forged between the two. In addition to protecting Iris from the malicious influences around her, Maggie also helps to bring her shy friend out of her shell. She shows Iris how to change her appearance, providing her with clothing and make-up tips, as well as teaching her how to be more impulsive and in charge of her life. She even takes Iris for a visit to the local beautician, Hazel Atkins (Adelaide Clemens), for a makeover, a transformation that catches the eye of Dad and Jeff and even evokes new reactions from the Songbirds. In fact, the only one who seems unmoved by these changes is Francie, who expresses an undefined mistrust of Maggie; is this because Iris follows her friend’s makeover recommendations over hers, or is there something more behind her suspicion?

[caption id="attachment_11483" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Sensitive, misunderstood loner Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, right) seeks to work out her conflicted relationship with her mother, Francie (Jordana Spiro, left), in director Martha Stephens’s latest release, “To the Stars.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.[/caption]

Over time, despite the closeness that Iris and Maggie have forged, a certain inexplicable tension begins to mount between them. Maggie, it seems, is starting to pull away, alienating herself from her parents (Malin Akerman, Tony Hale), attempting to force a relationship with a football player (Matt Coulson) for whom she has no apparent feelings and spending more time with Hazel. To repay all the kindnesses Maggie extended to her, Iris now tries to return the favor to her friend, but she’s met with the sort of mistreatment she once received from others.

What happened? That question’s answered as the film races toward its conclusion. In a curious mix of surprises and predictability, the characters play out their story, one that in some ways rockets out in new directions while simultaneously coming full circle. The protagonists may reside in Oklahoma, but their journey also takes them someplace more magical – to the stars.

At the outset of this story, one can’t help but look upon Iris and sigh “Poor girl.” She’s desperately struggling to navigate choppy waters in which she’s given precious little opportunity to be herself. Her outcast ways repeatedly place her in difficult circumstances from which there is seemingly no escape. And, the more they recur, the more exasperating it becomes to extricate herself from them. What is she to do?

As vexing and menacing as this situation is, and as troubling as the actions of those around her are, Iris herself also plays a role in her tribulations by unwittingly allowing those conditions to persist. She has firmly come to believe in the negative nature of her circumstances to such a degree that she can’t see her way past them. And that’s attributable to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon those metaphysical resources to manifest the existence we experience. Even if Iris has never heard of this practice (which, in all likelihood, she hasn’t), she nevertheless consistently draws upon it to create – and reinforce – the reality around her.

Obviously Iris needs a way out to turn things around, but where does she begin? She likely isn’t aware of the power of her beliefs and what they’re manifesting, let alone how to change them to something preferable. Yet she also recognizes, even if in unspoken solitude, that she’s not allowing her true, authentic self to shine through. Without a clue on how to proceed in altering her existence, she seeks to latch on to some kind of catalytic spark to help show her how.

[caption id="attachment_11484" align="aligncenter" width="350"]Urban transplant Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato, center) strikes up an unusual friendship with sensitive, misunderstood loner Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, left) when the city girl moves to small town Oklahoma in “To the Stars.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.[/caption]

Enter Maggie. In a relatively short time, the newcomer opens Iris’s mind to possibilities that she hadn’t previously considered. This empowers the wallflower to explore new options and to develop the self-confidence necessary to bring them into being. It’s as if a lightbulb flashes on, enabling Iris to tell herself “I can do that,” a realization she’s never contemplated, let alone embraced, before. Almost overnight, Iris goes through a transformation unlike anything she’s ever experienced.

Key to this is Iris giving herself permission to rewrite her beliefs. She decides it’s time to come out of her shell, to start participating in life more fully than she ever has. It enables the authentic Iris to surface, the one who gives her life meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment, no matter how counter it runs to the lives and expectations of others around her. Indeed, it represents a far cry from her past self.

Interestingly, this alteration to Iris’s reality echoes outward to those around her. Once she’s developed the confidence to change her circumstances, she feels empowered to help others do the same. For instance, the example she sets helps to evoke new and different reactions toward her from the Songbirds, as well as to unexpectedly turn Jeff’s head. Iris even feels capable enough to try and help her mentor when she experiences emerging challenges, even if she doesn’t fully understand what her friend is going through. That’s quite a turnaround, to be sure.

The evolution Iris undergoes also illustrates one of conscious creation’s cornerstone principles – that everything is in a constant state of becoming. Thankfully, that’s generally fortuitous, too, especially when we witness the kind of unrelenting stagnation Iris experiences at the film’s outset. If she were to continue living that kind of life, we can only imagine the lack of fulfillment and joy she probably would have had to endure going forward.

Fortunately, Iris develops an awareness of alternatives and the wisdom to act upon them by shifting her beliefs and backing them up with actions. This is a process that takes courage to overcome our fears and limitations, to be willing to take the steps necessary to explore uncharted territory, to live a truly heroic life. That’s an accomplishment to be commended and celebrated for it brings to us so much more than what we might have imagined and can make the creation of our reality such an overwhelmingly exhilarating experience – even in small town Oklahoma.

This endearing offering from the coming of age genre provides viewers with a story chock full of surprises, warmth and incisive humor. While the film has its share of clichés (especially in the last half hour), it redeems itself by serving up a touching, inspiring friendship story, the kind that’s seen all too rarely in contemporary cinema. Exquisitely filmed in black and white with a fine cast, smart writing and an atmospheric score, this latest production from director Martha Stephens recalls such releases as “The Last Picture Show” (1971) and “Desert Hearts” (1985) but with a narrative and sensibilities all its own. This Grand Jury Prize nominee from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival may not have attracted much attention, but it’s definitely a heartwarming charmer, now available through first-run online streaming.

As we make our way into adulthood, we must inevitably pass through the sometimes-narrow portal that is youth, something we frequently look back on in later years as being wasted on the young. However, as challenging as this time can be, it often prepares us for what’s to come, helping us become the individuals we are in our maturity. Through various fits and starts, we have an opportunity to come out of our shells and discover our authentic selves, tweaking our thoughts, beliefs and intents as needed to become who we want to be and lead the life that suits us. The possibilities in this are astronomical – and as bright as all the stars in heaven.

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

Monday, May 18, 2020

Tune in for The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, May 19, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand, with new listening options available! In addition to Spreaker, the show is now available on iHeart Radio, Spotify, Podcast Addict and Podchaser!

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Look Back at a Sci-fi Classic

Recently, a terrific 2018 article from Popular Mechanics magazine has been circulating social media telling the back story about a little-known and often-overlooked sci-fi classic from 1983, “Brainstorm” (web site, trailer). The film, which almost didn’t make it to the big screen, became somewhat infamous before its release, having earned the somewhat dubious distinction as being known as actress Natalie Woods’s last film (she died during a mysterious drowning incident off Catalina Island during a break from shooting shortly before the picture’s completion). Were it not for the persevering efforts of director Douglas Trumbull to see the project through, “Brainstorm” never would have seen the light of day. And, even at that, the film was a box office flop, despite its many artistic, technical and narrative achievements.

The picture is an important one, though. It was a project that Trumbull launched with the intent of advancing the art of cinema to a new level, and, given the experimental photographic techniques he worked with in developing it, he certainly took things to a new level. The effects of this are especially noticeable when viewed on the big screen, by far the best way to see this movie, if at all possible.

More than that, however, “Brainstorm” has taken on an increasingly added relevance with the development of technology, particularly virtual reality and related developments. At the time of the film’s original release, the technology examined in the film represented a rather fanciful idea, an engaging concept that was seen as intriguing but wholly implausible. That’s not the case, today, though; while the exact technology depicted here may not be replicated per se, it may give us a preview of things to come (and perhaps not too far down the road, either).

One could say that this is a picture that was ahead of its time. It could be viewed as a taste of the immense potential such a technology could hold, one with many beneficial purposes. It could also be seen as a powerful cautionary tale, graphically depicting the dangers that might await us if deployed for nefarious or self-serving purposes. In either instance, the title “Brainstorm” is most fitting, depending on how we interpret and apply it.

Are we ready for that? And what would we choose to do with it? Those are questions applicable not just to what appears on the screen in this film, but also in real life with the ever-advancing progress of technology. Given conditions today, “Brainstorm” could find a new and quite unexpected life for itself. And, if nothing else, it’s one hell of a picture, one well worth your time.

I included “Brainstorm” as one of the featured reviews in my first book, Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, originally released in 2007 and re-released in an updated edition in 2014. What follows is an excerpt from that title, my review of the picture as it appeared in the re-released edition. If you haven’t seen this picture, I sincerely hope that you’ll consider doing so after reading this review. Enjoy!

 Through Another’s Eyes


Year of Release: 1983

Principal Cast: Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood,

Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson, Jordan Christopher,

Donald Hotton, Alan Fudge, Joe Dorsey,

Bill Morey, Jason Lively

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Screenplay: Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina

Story: Bruce Joel Rubin

It’s often been said, usually with a stern finger pointed in our faces, that, if we could see through another’s eyes, we would look at things differently. Of course, since virtually all of us lack that capability (or have chosen not to manifest it), we’ve had a convenient out, enabling us to blithely disregard the wisdom of that admonition. But what if we were to develop the means to acquire that skill? Such a breakthrough would hold the potential to revolutionize the world and how we perceive it, a prospect explored in depth in the sci-fi thriller, “Brainstorm.”

Dr. Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) is a dedicated research scientist for a major corporation. Her workaholic and chain-smoking tendencies aside, she’s sincere and passionate about her studies into the development of a new technology for faithfully recording one’s sensory perceptions on a special type of tape. Once recorded, these impressions are available for playback by those wishing to experience the subject’s sensations firsthand, right down to the minutest details. The possibilities such technology opens up are incredible in such areas as communications, education, counseling, even adult entertainment. Thanks to Lillian’s work, it’s now possible to know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes—literally.

Joining Dr. Reynolds in her investigation is her best friend and trusted colleague, Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken), an enthusiastic but naïve idealist. Keeping the resources flowing for the duo’s research is Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), the corporate executive responsible for project oversight. And handling product design to make the technology palatable to consumers is Karen Brace (Natalie Wood), Michael’s wife. Despite their many years together at the company, this project marks the first time that Michael and Karen have worked directly with one another, an amazing irony since they are also in the process of getting divorced.

When Lillian and Michael achieve a significant breakthrough in their work, it’s a great cause for celebration—or at least it should be. While attending a reception in their honor, they learn from Alex that the government is about to intrude on their turf, splashing more than a little cold water on the festivities. Citing such reasons as preventing the spread of potentially dangerous technology, a contingent of officials led by military brass announces its intentions to step in and jointly “manage” (i.e., prepare to take over) the project. Supporting them are their lackey defense contractors, who clearly want first crack at the new technology for their own questionable applications. In addition, to put a face on their presence in the project, the feds introduce their chief researcher (and spy), Landan Marks (Donald Hotton), whom Lillian unhesitatingly blasts as “a hack.”

As Lillian and Michael continue their research, with Landan surreptitiously watching from behind the scenes, they discover that their technology is capable of recording much more than simple sensory impressions. First they find it can tap into emotions and memories. Later they learn that repeated exposure to certain recorded imagery can affect the viewer’s state of mind or physiology (presumably, from a conscious creation standpoint, by altering the viewer’s beliefs associated with such manifestations). With those kinds of capabilities in place, it’s no wonder the feds want to get their hands on this technology. But, as impressive as these capabilities are, they pale in comparison to what the technology can do when it’s used, quite unexpectedly, to register the impressions that occur during the ultimate journey of one’s consciousness—the sensations that happen at the time of, and after, death. With a recording of information like that at stake, the struggle for control of the technology takes on added dimensions—in every sense of the word.

I find this story’s premise fascinating, highly original in its conception of a new technology and inventive in its thinking about how it might be put to use in conscious creation. Some purists may object to the idea that a physical, externalized technology can be used as part of the process, but employing a tool like this to achieve that end doesn’t make the means any less valid; one needn’t rely on only subjective approaches to create and experience manifested phenomena, for the technology making something like this possible wouldn’t exist were it not for the beliefs that conceived of it in the first place.

What the technology enables is quite remarkable. The ability to sense another’s firsthand experiences is an awesome prospect. On the lighter end of the scale, there are tremendous implications in terms of sheer entertainment and adventure value. Travelogues, for instance, would never be the same again. In more substantial ways, the applications of this technology for educational, anthropological and counseling purposes have huge ramifications. The potential gains in such areas as personal understanding, tolerance and compassion alone are enormous. And, with the developments that come out of advanced research, showing how the technology can be used to tap into feelings and memories and to affect physiological processes, there are amazing opportunities for employing it in areas like counseling and health care. It could even be used like an amplifier of our conscious creation beliefs, making truly significant changes to our reality possible.

Of course, the inherent “neutrality” of a device like this also reveals the dual-edged nature of this technological sword. Like the mind itself, this technology essentially allows all possibilities to be fair game, for better or worse, depending on the intents underlying them. And, when those possibilities are committed to tape, they’re all equally capable of being experienced through playback. Easy access to these recorded experiences, as well as the potential for easy amplification of their effects, thus bring new meaning to the notions of being careful what we wish for and what we create. This is particularly true when research shows how the technology is capable of cataloguing what transpires across supposedly impermeable dimensional barriers.

The aura surrounding this picture has an eerie irony about it, given the story line and the tragic off-screen developments that occurred during its shooting. Actress Natalie Wood’s drowning while on a break from filming cast a cloud over the future of the production, putting its completion in limbo for a time. But director Douglas Trumbull moved forward with the project, improvising and reworking elements as needed to finish it. The result was an engaging, if somewhat chillingly poignant movie that critics praised but that largely flopped at the box office. Its inventive premise is supported by a smartly written script, one that thankfully avoids the temptation to spoon-feed viewers about each of its plot developments. Its cinematography and special effects are dazzling, so try to watch this picture on a large screen, if possible. Its ethereal and haunting score provides an appropriately moving backdrop to the thought-provoking subject matter.

Viewing the world through another’s eyes is tantamount to exploring another reality, for, if we each create our own existence, any others that we experience are sure to be different, even if only in small ways, from those we manifest for ourselves. Experiences like that not only provide us with the fresh perspectives of others, but they may also give us new takes about ourselves and our beliefs and, by extension, the realities we choose to create. Indeed, the insights afforded by an ability like that could change the world in countless ways overnight.

Now, that would be something to see.

Copyright © 2007, 2014, 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.