Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Best – and Worst – of 2016

2016 was a strange year for films. What began with a generally lackluster start (especially in its largely disappointing summer season) somehow regrouped as the year progressed, finishing off the year with a flurry of fine offerings, both at film festivals and in general release. While some highly touted awards season pictures, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land,” have proven to be vastly overrated, many others have been incredibly moving and thought-provoking. So, with that said, here are the best and worst of 2016 in my view.

Included herein are my top 10 and bottom 10 feature films from last year. In separate lists, I’ve included my top 5 documentaries of 2016, as well as my top 5 lead and supporting actor and actress performances, with a few honorable mentions thrown in for good measure.

The Top 10

“Moonlight”: A powerful, sensitive look at the “conflicted” views of the gay lifestyle within the African-American community, as told through the coming of age story of a young man in Miami. The picture’s phenomenal ensemble cast (featuring many first-time performers), incisive writing and creative camera work make a potent, impactful combination that breathes life into a well-told, deftly handled story. This is an important film, one well deserving of all the accolades it has received – and of the awards it has won and is worthy of winning.

“Arrival”: Without a doubt, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a very long time. Its suspenseful, atmospheric mood, along with its profound metaphysical message, heartfelt narrative and understated performances, combine to deliver one of the most impressive, thought-provoking pictures to come out in years. This edge-of-your-seat, edge-of-your-consciousness sci-fi thriller succeeds where predecessors like “Interstellar,” “Gravity” and “2010” failed. It left me awed and speechless, and, if you approach it with an open mind, it just may do the same to you.

“Neruda”: An inventive, semi-surrealistic chronicle of the manhunt for Chilean poet and Communist politician Pablo Neruda after the government issued an order for his arrest as a subversive. The sometimes-campy, somewhat noir-esque tale, told from the perspective of the self-absorbed police inspector who fancied his search for his prey as his own work of art, presents its material with ample laughs, great style and beautiful cinematography. The film certainly pushes the limits of the biopic genre, but it does so in such a refreshing and well-written way that it’s hard not to like this innovative offering. Far from normal, but immensely entertaining to watch.

“Hidden Figures”: A flat-out winner and incredible crowd-pleaser that fires on virtually every cylinder. With the possible exception of the need for a better-developed back story, this inspiring, thoughtful and humorous historical drama hits all the right notes and does so without going over the top, becoming preachy or lapsing into heavy-duty schmaltz. The picture’s incisive script and superb ensemble cast performances make this one to see.

“Loving”: A heartfelt, personal take on a bigger story with wide-sweeping implications, showing the human impact on ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The film’s understated writing, nuanced performances and successful handling of legal issues that could have easily become unwieldy lend much to this well-crafted biopic, one worthy of all the accolades it has and will likely receive. Truly one of the year’s standout offerings.

“The Family Fang”: A funny, somewhat macabre comedy-drama-mystery that’s fresh in virtually every regard. With an excellent cast, an engaging narrative that continually keeps viewers guessing and a deliciously twisted sense of humor, this underrated indie production pushes a lot of buttons about what we should expect out of art in general (and movies in particular). This offering certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but, for those who enjoy cinema that pushes the envelope, this one is definitely for you.

“Midnight Special”: Now this is what sci-fi should be – a gripping, smartly written adventure that hooks you early and keeps you riveted all the way through. The film’s climax is, admittedly, slightly stretched out, but that’s a small price to pay for everything else this well-crafted release has to offer. If you like a hefty dose of intelligence and sophistication with your science fiction, don’t miss this one.

“The Lobster”: One of the most unusual – and thought-provoking – films to come along in quite a while. Its decidedly offbeat humor and wry symbolism work wonders in skewering everything from the current superficial state of courting rituals and relationship matters to the pressures of social conformity, regardless of which end of the polarized ideological spectrum one resides. The film admittedly becomes a little bogged down in the second hour, going off on tangents that could have easily been deleted, but, on balance, “The Lobster” represents a thoughtful, satirical look at where we stand as a society – and, one hopes, where we’ll resist the temptation to go.

“Kills on Wheels”: This highly entertaining Hungarian dark comedy focuses on the exploits of two disabled young men who fancy themselves graphic novel artists but who, for economic reasons, are forced to become accomplices to a disabled fireman-turned-hitman. With its offbeat humor, imaginative cinematography, intriguing mix of photography and animation, terrific soundtrack, and excellent performances by disabled actors in their screen debuts, this offbeat release explores the intersection of two disparate worlds, somewhat reminiscent of the unique fusion presented in “The Crying Game.” This one may be a little graphic for more sensitive viewers, but the violence is always in context and never becomes gratuitous. Look for the film’s upcoming US DVD release this spring.

“Fences”: A faithful theater-to-screen adaptation that, refreshingly, doesn’t feel stagey (as often happens with such translations). Superb performances by the excellent ensemble cast (especially Viola Davis and Denzel Washington) bring the characters to life and captivate viewers from start to finish. Despite a slight tendency to drag a bit in a few spots, the film tells its story well, with deft humor, heartfelt emotion and riveting drama.

The Bottom 10

“Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”: The only thing fantastic about this one is the special effects. The story, writing and acting are all flat, meandering along with little direction, personality or qualities that make the picture even remotely interesting. I frankly couldn’t wait for this one to end. Zzzzzzzz....

“American Pastoral”: Having not read the source material, I can’t speak to how faithful this film is to the original story. However, with that said, it’s easy to spot an adaptation where something has obviously been lost in translation, and that’s clearly the case in this muddled, poorly written, overacted mess of a movie. And, as for Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, let’s just say that he’d be better off doing his work in front of the camera instead of behind it if this is any indication of his capabilities.

“Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie”: A sluggishly paced, generally unfunny theatrical adaptation of the British TV sitcom in search of a story to give the film structure and direction. While a few bits are moderately humorous, they come too few and far between to make the picture watchable. When doing a screwball comedy of comeuppance, the jokes need to come rapid fire, but here it’s like waiting for the bus during off-hours. Even fans of the show are likely to find this unbearably tedious.

“Swiss Army Man”: This stunningly awful release literally brings new meaning to the term artsy-fartsy. At times utterly pretentious, at times positively juvenile, at times painfully tedious, this alleged attempt at making “meaningful statements” about the human condition falls far short of the mark long before it even reaches the halfway point.

“Independence Day: Resurgence”: This cliché-ridden, unbearably silly mishmash of virtually every alien adventure movie or TV series ever made is a big, fat waste of time. Hammy acting, terrible writing, mediocre special effects and a predictable, underwhelming payoff permeate this cinematic mess, trying the patience of even the most hardened of movie viewers.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”: An ill-conceived attempt at creating a story that preserves the magic of its predecessor while cramming in a host of platitudes and insights, with a result that feels like a strung-together amalgamation of oh so many mismatched beads on a chain. The special effects are indeed dazzling, and there are fine performances once again from Mia Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter. But these scant attributes can’t overcome the film’s many inherent weaknesses.

“A Bigger Splash”: Despite fine performances by Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, this high-end, melodramatic alleged art piece meanders from start to finish, with numerous sequences that feel like they’re about to go somewhere but ultimately don’t. Its pointless narrative feels unfocused and incomplete, punctuated by equally incongruent cinematography, tedious pacing, often-amateurish editing and a soundtrack that pushes the limits of eclecticism. The net effect is a film that tries to pass itself off as something it isn’t – worth watching.

“Green Room”: An utterly pointless exercise in unrestrained gratuitous violence with an uninteresting story, boring characters (including the villains) and a waste of great talent. For the life of me, I fail to understand why critics and audiences fawned all over this inane 90-minute debacle. If pornography is defined as something completely unredeeming in social value, then this ill-considered offering should qualify for sure.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”: Though visually dazzling, this needlessly convoluted (and eventually quite tedious) alleged action adventure ultimately fails to deliver on most fronts. Like a shotgun wedding between two storied franchises, the premise of this film seems forced from the get-go, relying on an improbable narrative that’s full of plot holes and shameless tangents aimed at setting up sequels and spinoffs. What’s more, much of the viewer goodwill built up in the film’s “Man of Steel” predecessor is largely undone by this ill-conceived fiasco. The picture’s impressive visuals and solid supporting performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Jeremy Irons are noteworthy, to be sure, but they’re far from enough to save this thoroughly disappointing effort.

“Maquinaria Panamericana”: What starts out as a lighthearted, whimsical contemporary Mexican comedy quickly turns into a heavy-handed, though often-unfocused religious/spiritual satirical commentary whose message becomes increasingly lost in its utter preposterousness. The film goes off the rails as it becomes progressively more ridiculous with each passing frame. Taking a creative approach to subjects like this is certainly laudable. But, when that creativity morphs into unmitigated absurdity focused more on symbol and metaphor than a cogent narrative, the point becomes lost rather quickly.

Top 5 Documentaries

2016 was a banner year for documentary films, continuing a trend that has been steadily growing in prominence and quality in recent years. In the interest of full disclosure, there are several important documentary releases that I have not yet seen, such as “I Am Not Your Negro,” given that they haven’t been released to the moviegoing public as yet. This list is thus based on what has already been distributed, and I look forward to what is yet to come.

“The Music of Strangers – Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”: Quite easily one of the best documentaries that I’ve seen in quite some time. This intimate, transcendent portrait of one of music’s most original and inventive ensembles showcases both the distinctive collaborative art it brings to the world, as well as the greater purpose it serves in fostering global, cross-cultural understanding. It’s easy to make a joyful noise about this jubilant cinematic offering, one whose music and inspiring enthusiasm are downright infectious. See this one by all means.

“Gleason”: An excellent, compellingly candid documentary about a remarkable man on a remarkable journey. The raw honesty and uplifting inspiration showcased here are astounding, portrayed with an uncensored frankness rarely depicted on screen. Even though the film is at times heartbreaking, its celebration of personal heroism and the spirit to carry on despite the odds is touching, enlightening and mesmerizing.

“Tower”: This gripping account of one of the first mass shootings in modern American history inventively chronicles the numerous untold stories of compassion and heroism that occurred on that fateful day in 1966. Those touching and courageous moments are brought to life through a stylish and clever fusion of archival footage, compelling animation and riveting interviews featuring the survivors’ and heroes’ stories. The result is a moving, highly personal account of the incident and its legacy in the annals of American gun violence.

“Life, Animated”: A candid, intimate and engaging chronicle of an inspiring young man challenged to find a way to reconnect with the world at a time when all seemed lost. This enlightening and informative documentary will change your mind about what’s feasible, shedding light on inventive ways to tackle problems that are seemingly unsolvable. With an acute eye toward avoiding sentimentality, “Life, Animated” keeps things real and does so with integrity and a great sense of style. A highly recommended offering for those looking to see possibilities where none are thought to exist.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years”: A fun, lively, nostalgic but never starstruck look back at the early days of the iconic rock ʼn roll band that changed the music business, as well as the art form and the culture at large, forever. The combination of restored archive footage, along with new interviews with the band’s two surviving members and with diehard fans of the group, works tremendously, providing a balanced perspective that’s both entertaining and informative. In a world beset by myriad challenges, it’s refreshing to have a fun respite from its everyday worries, and this documentary fills the bill perfectly.

Top 5 Lead Actors

2016 was a year of many capable, though not especially outstanding, male lead performances. Some of those that have been highly decorated, such as Casey Affleck’s overwrought lead portrayal in “Manchester by the Sea,” in my view, don’t even qualify to make the cut. So, with that said, here are my favorites from last year’s releases:

Denzel Washington, “Fences”: Hands-down the best on-screen male lead performance of 2016 and his best work since “Malcolm X” (1992).
Gael García Bernal, “Neruda”: An unexpectedly delightful performance by a talented actor who really shows his range with this role.
Jake Gyllenhaal, “Demolition”: A vastly underappreciated performance in a vastly underrated release, both of which are deserving of wider attention.
Joel Edgerton, “Loving”: A breakthrough portrayal for a gifted performer with a bright future.
Joseph Gordon Levitt, “Snowden”: A remarkably faithful portrayal of a courageous individual in a riveting, undervalued biopic.

Honorable Mentions: Tom Hanks, “Sully”; Jesse Plemons, “Other People”; Nate Parker, “The Birth of a Nation”; Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool”.

Top 5 Lead Actresses

The crop of female lead performances in 2016 featured many excellent portrayals, some widely recognized and others vastly overlooked. Here are my favorites from last year:

Rebecca Hall, “Christine”: A stunning portrayal of a troubled protagonist that, regrettably, never attained the notoriety and recognition it truly deserves.
Natalie Portman, “Jackie”: A superb interpretation of the iconic first lady, capably showing the many sides of a legendary, enigmatic figure.
Ruth Negga, “Loving”: A quietly powerful portrayal of an ordinary woman trying to hold up under extraordinary circumstances.
Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”: A character that’s hard to like brilliantly brought to life through a wickedly stellar performance.
Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”: Yet another trinket for the trophy case of today’s greatest living actress.

Honorable Mention: Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”; Sally Field, “Hello, My Name is Doris”; Amy Adams, “Arrival”; Helen Mirren, “Eye in the Sky”; Emma Stone, “La La Land”; Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, “Like Crazy”; Zuzana Mauréry, “The Teacher”; Catherine Frot, “Marguerite”.

Top 5 Supporting Actors

Without a doubt, this was the strongest of the four acting categories in 2016. There were many fine supporting male performances, and here’s what I liked:

Ben Foster, “Hell or High Water”: A role that finally lets viewers see what this underappreciated actor is capable of.
Timothy Spall, “Denial”: A perfectly cast actor in a role that was clearly made for him.
Mykelti Williamson, “Fences”: A performance that no one is talking about that everyone should be.
Alex Hibbert, “Moonlight”: A heartbreaking portrayal by a gifted child actor in his big screen debut.
Ashton Sanders, “Moonlight”: Like his junior co-star, a heartbreaking yet empowering portrayal by an adolescent actor in a riveting role.

Honorable Mentions: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”; Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”; Sunny Pawar, “Lion”; Tom Wilkinson, “Denial”; Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”; Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Nocturnal Animals”; Simon Helberg, “Florence Foster Jenkins”; Luis Gnecco, “Neruda”; Jaeden Lieberherr, “Midnight Special”; Liam Neeson, “Silence”; Alex Wolff, “Patriots Day”; Lucas Jade Zumann, “20th Century Women”.

Top 5 Supporting Actresses

Usually a strong category, the supporting actress ranks in 2016 were surprisingly weak or overrated, even though the strongest of the bunch were incredibly strong (especially the top three portrayals). Here’s who made my cut for last year:

Viola Davis, “Fences”: An award-winning portrayal that’s easily the best supporting actress performance of 2016.
Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”: Were it not for Viola Davis, the best supporting actress performance of 2016.
Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”: Were it not for Viola Davis and Naomie Harris, the best supporting actress performance of 2016.
Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures” (tie): It’s impossible to pick one over the others in this fine trio ensemble, all equally brilliant in their respective performances.

Honorable Mentions: Greta Gerwig, “20th Century Women”; Julianne Moore, “Maggie’s Plan”; Molly Shannon, “Other People”; Leslie Uggams, “Deadpool”.

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

‘Neruda’ salutes the liberation of the artist within

“Neruda” (2016). Cast: Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro, Pablo Derqui, Mercedes Morán, Emilio Gutiérrez Caba, Diego Muñoz, Michael Silva. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Guillermo Calderón. Web site. Trailer.

In many respects, every act of creation – no matter how great or small – could be considered an artistic undertaking. And, given that those creations ultimately originate from us, one could also say that we’re each artists in our own respect, even if we don’t always regard ourselves as such. But what does it take to successfully evoke the artist within each of us? That’s what the unusual new Chilean biopic “Neruda” seeks to address.

In post-World War II Chile, poet and politician Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, better known by the pen name Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), was the country’s preeminent Communist. As a member of the Chilean Senate, he represented a party that had steadily grown in popularity, especially among laborers, given the prevailing disparate social and economic conditions of the Latin American nation. Neruda’s inspiring poetry did much to fan the flames of the Communist movement, too, earning him a huge following at home and worldwide. High-profile supporters like painter Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) spoke highly of the famed poet, further galvanizing the backing of his movement.

However, with the rise of the Cold War and increasing suspicions about Communism, Neruda’s party was outlawed by the right-wing government led by President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro), a US-backed lapdog whom the poet had unwittingly help elect. With warrants issued for his arrest, Neruda was forced underground to figure out what to do next. One option was to leave Chile, and he even made an unsuccessful attempt to flee to Argentina. But, when emigrating became a less viable option, he opted to remain in his homeland to continue the fight, even if he had to do so in the shadows. And so, somewhat reluctantly, Neruda and his wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), aided by their colleagues Victor (Pablo Derqui) and Álvaro (Michael Silva), went into hiding.

With many of Chile’s Communists arrested by the government (and sent to prison camps in the desert, such as the one managed by eventual dictator Augusto Pinochet), President Videla believed he had the situation under control, with one notable exception – the capture of the fugitive poet. A warrant for Neruda’s capture was issued, and the task of finding him was assigned to a high-ranking secret police inspector, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal).

Under threat of government arrest, Chilean poet and Communist leader Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco, center) goes into hiding with his wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán, second from left), with the assistance of their colleagues Victor Pey (Pablo Derqui, left) and Álvaro Jara (Michael Silva, right), in director Pablo Larraín’s inventive new biopic, “Neruda.” Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

The handsome, young, immaculately groomed Peluchonneau believed himself to be the last word in criminal justice. In fact, he was so taken with his tenacity and investigative abilities that he saw himself as an artist of his craft, one whose talents in his own particular idiom equaled that of the renegade poet he was now pursuing. However, his pomposity and self-importance also often got him in his own way. Neruda recognized this, too, and he purposely began toying with Peluchonneau. As he stealthily moved from hiding place to hiding place throughout Chile, Neruda always managed to stay one step ahead of the sleuth and his ever-present lackey, Inspector Martinez (Diego Muñoz). He purposely left clues for his would-be captors, a gesture intended to brutally skewer Peluchonneau’s ego and undermine his resolve.

In what becomes an ongoing game of cat and mouse that plays out across the Chilean landscape, Peluchonneau doggedly tracks his prey while Neruda, in turn, mischievously taunts him. Through this cross-country odyssey, viewers are clued in to the mindsets of each party, told primarily from the viewpoint of the inspector, who serves as the story’s narrator. Audiences hear the moving verses of a poet who inspired the soul of a nation, intercut with the pretentious, irrelevant, sometimes-incoherent observations of a conceited poser who fallaciously fancies himself the creator of what will ultimately be the quintessential investigatory masterpiece.

Who will prevail in the end? That’s what remains to be seen. But, as with any artistic endeavor, no matter what the milieu, success depends on what we put into the effort. That’s particularly true when it comes to the input associated with our beliefs, thoughts and intents, the building blocks of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience. Neruda and Peluchonneau each bring their own unique talents, perspectives and convictions to bear in their respective pursuits, and they each attain their own singular results. In both cases, however, their outward, tangible materializations are always reflective of the inner, intangible sources of manifestation that inspired them.

For someone like Neruda, an impassioned poet and an avowed Communist, he lived his beliefs, relishing everything that came from them. As an artist, someone who believes in uninhibited creative expression and freedom from limitation, he brought those convictions to life through his writings. Similarly, as a Communist, someone who (at least philosophically speaking) believes in fairness, equality and the removal of restrictions for all, he championed those notions through his verse, his political initiatives and the fervor he inspired in his followers.

Neruda’s innate integrity for these principles, concepts deftly integrated into his beliefs, accounts significantly for his successes in these areas. Admittedly, some might label Neruda as something of a hypocrite, given that some of his ways, like his love of certain excesses, were decidedly bourgeois. But, at bottom, even those superficially antithetical creations were driven by the same fundamental beliefs in the removal of restraints and equal access for all that he employed in his other, loftier ventures.

With the blessing of Chile’s right-wing government, secret police investigator Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), an immaculately groomed, self-styled master of criminal justice, doggedly pursues his prey, fugitive poet and renegade Communist Pablo Neruda, in the offbeat new biopic, “Neruda.” Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

Meanwhile, for someone like Peluchonneau, an advocate for concepts like confinement and conformity (despite his alleged artistic leanings, whose liberating attributes would seem to run counter to such restrictive notions), he sought to impose his penchant for limitation on those, like Neruda, who refused to comply with the dictates of officialdom. He was hell-bent on fulfilling his quest, no matter what the cost.

Yet, since Peluchonneau also saw his work as a creative undertaking – one that embodied the same kinds of freeing qualities embraced by the renegade artist – he attempted to manifest circumstances driven by inherently contradictory beliefs, a surefire recipe for failure or distorted outcomes. Since he held so fervently to both sets of intents, he failed repeatedly to attain what he saw as his ultimate goal. One could argue that, from a conscious creation standpoint, given his fundamentally conflicted mindset, he got exactly what he espoused (although he probably would have vehemently disagreed with such an assessment).

Considering where each of the protagonists is coming from, is it any wonder that Neruda was able to outsmart Peluchonneau at every turn? He was true to himself and his beliefs, while his worthy opponent was innately conflicted, routinely falling short of the mark in attaining his hoped-for goal. But, then, as noted above, when we embrace the liberating beliefs that characterize artistic sensibilities, those intents will be faithfully reflected in the outcomes we realize, even if they’re not what we thought we were setting out to achieve.

When we give ourselves over to the freeing effects afforded by such beliefs, there’s no telling what else we might be able to accomplish. Neruda’s accomplishments speak for themselves in this regard, taking him, his art and his politics to places he may have never envisioned, exceeding expectations and leaving a lasting legacy. Now that’s real liberation.

Just as he did in “Jackie,” the recently released profile of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has once again creatively and significantly redefined what constitutes the biopic genre. This inventive, semi-surrealistic, sometimes-campy, often-hilarious chronicle of the manhunt for the fugitive artist tells its story with gorgeous, noir-esque cinematography and plays out almost like a live action version of the exploits of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. It’s an excellent showcase for Gnecco and, especially, Bernal, who really shows his range here, portraying the arrogant, self-assured sleuth like a suave yet somewhat-bumbling version of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan. In these regards, the picture undeniably pushes the limits of what one typically expects from films in this category, but it does so in such a stylish, refreshing, creatively written way that it’s hard not to like this innovative offering. In so many respects, “Neruda” is far from typical, but it’s delightfully inspiring and immensely entertaining to watch.

Secret police investigator Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, center), accompanied by his ever-faithful colleague, Inspector Martinez (Diego Muñoz, right), chases his prey, fugitive poet and renegade Communist Pablo Neruda, across Chile in the offbeat new biopic, “Neruda.” Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

This film is certainly earning its share of accolades as well. In this year’s awards season competitions thus far, it earned best foreign language film nominations in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award contests. It has a good chance of capturing similar honors in this year’s Oscar nominations as well.

When we seek to let loose the artist in each of us, we should be aware that we’re liberating more than just our faculties for the methods and materials with which we work; we’re also liberating ourselves, the creative spirit that takes us and our ideas to places we’ve likely never visited before. To make the most of the experience, though, we should be willing to give ourselves over to the process, unhindered by the conflicting notions or unduly restrictive limitations that might prevent us from achieving the results we desire and that keep us from living up to our full potential. The difference between being willing to do so and not is akin to the differences between Neruda and Peluchonneau as they’re depicted in this film. So, in light of that, then, the critical question thus becomes, which would you choose? And, in doing so, be sure to consider the examples set here when making your decision.

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Is It with 'La La Land'?

Seven Golden Globe Awards. Eight Critics Choice Awards (and another four nominations). Two Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. Eleven BAFTA Award nominations. The National Board of Review's 2016 Top 10 List. And, almost assuredly, a basket of Oscar nominations yet to come. Such is the legacy so far for the immensely popular musical, "La La Land."

It seems like everyone is raving about this current offering, which has already made back its estimated $30 million budget and is likely to rake in more box office revenues with its ever-growing list of accolades. The picture has also made it onto virtually every best films list for movie critic societies across the country and around the globe. Everybody loves it.

So what am I missing?

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll freely admit that I'm not much of a fan of movie musicals. As I wrote in the introductions to my two books, Get the Picture?! and Consciously Created Cinema, I find most musicals rather silly, many of them making me wish I'd been born heterosexual. To be sure, there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as "Cabaret" (1972) and "Les Misérables" (2012), but they're in rather lonely company. However, what sets these exceptions apart from most of their counterparts is that they're good films overall; they just happen to have musical numbers included in them.

In an attempt to try and understand why everyone has been going gaga over "La La," I've been asking movie goers for their assessments and reading online posts that have praised the picture. And, interestingly enough, what I've found is largely unsatisfying.

The comment that seems to be coming up the most is that audiences see "La La Land" as "a movie we need now," that it's the allegedly perfect antidote for a stressed-out and world-weary society. That's understandable given the country's and the world's current state of affairs. It's also nothing new; movies made during the Great Depression of the 1930s served a similar function, providing anxiety-ridden viewers with a few hours' escape from their everyday woes. Director Ron Howard's 2016 Beatles documentary, "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years," effectively did the same thing in its own way. But, just because a movie fulfills an important social and stress relief need, does that mean it's an innately good picture? For some of the grand musicals of years past, the answer arguably is yes. But, for "La La Land," I would have to offer a resounding "no."

So why do I say this? Basically it's because, in so many ways, "La La Land" is a genuinely mediocre offering. I'll admit that it's nice to look at; the production design, sets and costumes are top shelf, and its gorgeous cinematography is often stunning. The choreography of its dance numbers -- particularly its now-famous opening traffic jam sequence -- is terrific and inventive. Emma Stone's lead performance, including her singing, shows what a talent she really is. However, those attributes, as strong as they are, can't save the rest of the picture, which falls flat across the board.

So what do I dislike about the film? Well, here goes:

* For starters, there's the musical score, which is easily one of the most forgettable movie soundtracks I've ever heard, let alone one that's part of a musical. Does anyone honestly think anybody will be happily humming or toe-tapping to any of these numbers five years from now? With the exception of the upbeat opening number (which really benefits more from the visuals than the music itself) and the moving, heartfelt "Audition Song," all the other pieces in this picture are flat, generic and uninteresting. If a musical is to truly succeed as a film, the music is the key, and "La La Land" certainly misses the mark on this point.

* Then there's the story itself, which the film's production team and cast have been plugging as being "original." Seriously? A film about aspiring artists trying to make it big in Hollywood is original? Have any of these people ever been to the movies? This story line has been done so many times that it has become one of the tritest narratives in filmmaking. Who do they think they're kidding calling this "original"?

* To make matters worse, there's precious little that's interesting or distinctive about the film's two lead characters. Mia and Sebastian are among the most underdeveloped protagonists I've ever seen in a movie. I came away feeling like I knew very little about them except for what they were directed to do on screen, which wasn't a whole lot except for two hours of singing some boring songs and struggling to get recognized.

* One of the often-praised attributes of this picture is its film editing, and, admittedly, several sequences (especially the dance numbers) are impeccably done. However, "La La Land" is easily about 20 minutes too long, and entire portions of it could have been readily snipped without affecting the flow of the story. To me, the only thing worse than a boring musical is an overlong boring musical, and this picture handily qualifies on that front.

* Finally, there's the picture's leading man, played by Ryan Gosling, one of today's most talented actors. I've genuinely enjoyed many of his performances in other films, but, in this outing, he's about as interesting as a bowl of lukewarm soup in need of salt. I'm completely at a loss to understand why everyone has been swooning over this performance; it's far below what Mr. Gosling is capable of. But then he didn't have a lot to work with, either.

I'll freely admit that the vantage point from which I review films isn't the same as that employed by mainstream movie critics. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean I evaluate a picture's overall cinematic quality differently, even if it doesn't meet the criteria I use in preparing one of my metaphysical film analyses. Just as I wouldn't automatically give high marks to a poorly executed metaphysically oriented film because of its strengths in that area, I also wouldn't automatically bestow low grades on a well-made picture just because it doesn't incorporate philosophical content. Well-made is well-made, regardless of whether or not a film makes the cut for what this blog is meant to do. And, for the reasons discussed above, "La La Land" doesn't measure up on the cinematic standards alone, metaphysical considerations notwithstanding.

I can't help but think that much of this film's critical and box office success comes from the hype surrounding it rather than any of its cinematic attributes. What's most interesting is that everyone associated with this production seems to believe its own publicity, too. At the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, for example, winner after winner rhetorically observed, "Who would have thought a movie musical could be made in this day and age?" They made it sound as though movie musicals are cinematic fossils that haven't graced the big screen in ages. Yet, while it's true that they're not as common as they once were, they're not exactly unheard of, either. In 2014, viewers were treated to "Into the Woods." In 2012, audiences reveled over "Les Misérables," which earned three Oscars on eight nominations. And, in 2002, movie goers flocked to "Chicago," which took home six Academy Awards on 13 nominations, including best picture. What's more, even though they're not musicals per se, virtually all of Disney's animated features over the past 30 years have boasted song-laden soundtracks (many of which included numbers far more memorable than anything in "La La Land"). One can believe one's own hype if one wants to, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

After the surprising success of "Whiplash" in 2014, director Damien Chazelle genuinely distinguished himself as one of Hollywood's brash young filmmakers, one worthy of the kind of backing that would enable him to make more great pictures. But it's disappointing to see that "La La Land" is what he chose to come up with. Admittedly, the film's technical attributes show his prowess as someone who knows his cinematic crafts. But, when it comes to telling an engaging and compelling story, he's clearly missed the target here. He needs to get back to the kind of involving storytelling he employed in his last feature. Should he do that, I believe he'll have a luminous future as one of Tinseltown's brightest stars.

In the meantime, I'm crossing my fingers that Academy voters will see through the overblown campaigning surrounding this picture when it comes time to cast their Oscar ballots. I'm hoping that they'll throw their support behind a number of other more worthwhile releases, like "Moonlight," "Arrival," "Loving" and "Hidden Figures," when it comes to naming 2016's best picture. Even if some see "La La Land" as the movie we need now, that doesn't mean it should be proclaimed the movie that's the best of the year, especially when there are so many other more worthy contenders vying for a title they more genuinely deserve.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

‘Hidden Figures’ revels in reaching for the stars

“Hidden Figures” (2016). Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glenn Powell, Olek Krupa, Ken Strunk, Kurt Krause, Donna Biscoe, Corey Parker. Director: Theodore Melfi. Screenplay: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi. Book: Margot Lee Shatterly, Hidden Figures. Web site. Trailer.

Reaching for the stars, both literally and figuratively, is quite a lofty goal. It’s especially ennobling for those who seem to have the deck stacked against them but whose ambitions are so fervent that they refuse to be denied the pursuit of their goals. Such are the aspirations of a trio of enlightened and irrepressible dreamers seeking to achieve greatness for themselves and a cause near and dear to them in the inspiring new biopic, “Hidden Figures.”

As the space race began heating up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the American effort needed the best and the brightest minds it could find to keep pace with an aggressive Soviet program that chalked up a string of impressive accomplishments. NASA recruited anyone who possessed the talents required to fulfill its needs, including those who were otherwise marginalized by mainstream society, such as women and minorities. That attitude afforded tremendous opportunities to those who might otherwise be left on the economic and professional sidelines, even if some of the challenges and prejudices they faced in the outside world reared their ugly heads inside the ranks of the space agency as well. But, for three gifted African-American women working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, those obstacles were not enough to keep them down – or from realizing their dreams.

NASA employees Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, left), Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, center) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, right) make great strides for the career prospects of African-American women in the U.S. space program in the entertaining new biopic, “Hidden Figures.” Photo by Hopper Stone, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Working with complex mathematical equations came naturally to Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a skill invaluable to an agency dependent on numerical precision (especially without the benefit of computers). As part of a team of human “calculators,” Katherine stood out, her abilities eventually landing her a position on the team charged with planning the launch and re-entry trajectories for NASA’s Mercury program. Although thrilled for the opportunity, Katherine quickly came to face the same kinds of discrimination inside her all-white, all-male workplace that she faced in segregationist Virginia society at large. In the view of close-minded co-workers like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the Mercury program team was no place for a woman, let alone one of African-American background.

So, to fit in (and to keep her job), Katherine put up with those conditions at first. This meant tolerating such institutionalized indignities as having to walk a half mile to a different building to use the only “coloreds” restroom available nearby, a severe inconvenience and a serious hindrance to her productivity. But such impediments didn’t keep Katherine from doing her job. And so, when it became apparent that her colleagues couldn’t get by without her, she began flexing her muscles, an action not lost on her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Al saw what she was up against and unreservedly came to her defense, immediately leveling the playing field for her, regardless of how his other team members felt.

While Katherine was busy laying the foundation for the success of the Mercury program, colleagues from her calculator group were looking for their own springboards to success. For Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the group’s de facto though unofficial supervisor, that opportunity came when she began looking into the technology that was threatening to put her and her peers out of work – a state-of-the-art IBM mainframe computer capable of performing thousands of calculations per second.

Aware of the job security implications associated with this new technology, Dorothy began studying how it worked, an investigation that gave her a novel idea: Even though the computer could perform calculations far faster than its human counterparts, it would need trained programmers to make it operate. And, given that trained programmers were a rarity at the time, even among the ranks of IBM’s employees, Dorothy made it a point to learn how to run the device and, in turn, how to train her colleagues. This enabled NASA to make use of its new toy while preserving the jobs of her group members. It also earned Dorothy the official title of supervisor, along with the pay and perks accompanying it.

Meanwhile, another calculator group member, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), followed a different course. Her knack for all things engineering landed her a spot on the team conducting performance testing on the Mercury capsules. Her aptitude for the work caught the attention of Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), one of the team’s engineers, who encouraged Mary to pursue becoming a full-fledged engineer in her own right.

Given her collegiate background, and with Karl’s support, Mary applied to become a NASA engineer, a dream that was very nearly quashed when her icy, by-the-book supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), informed her that she didn’t meet the qualifications. To come into compliance, Mary would have to complete several extension courses. There was just one problem with that: The classes were only taught at one local high school – and an all-white one at that. Mary wouldn’t be allowed to become an engineer without the required courses, yet she wouldn’t be allowed to take the classes where they were taught because she was black. Needless to say, Mary wouldn’t hear of that, taking matters into her own hands – and to court.

Aspiring NASA engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, right) receives encouragement for her goal from colleague Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa, left) in director Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” Photo by Hopper Stone, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The contributions Katherine, Dorothy and Mary made to NASA were considerable, yet their efforts, until now, have largely gone unrecognized. And they were by no means the only women, the only African-Americans nor the only African-American women who aided the U.S. space program, both in the race to the moon and thereafter. That’s where this movie comes in, celebrating the lives and careers of those long “hidden figures” who made so much possible.

Of course, those remarkable contributors accomplished their goals because they believed they could, the hallmark principle of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Despite the prevailing conventional wisdom and the considerable roadblocks that popped up in their paths, individuals like Katherine, Dorothy and Mary would not be deterred. They were so passionate about their beliefs and had such tremendous faith in themselves that they knew they would be able to succeed with their plans. Their resolute confidence and their sure-footed sense of themselves serve as a shining example to anyone seeking to fulfill grand aspirations.

From a conscious creation standpoint, individuals like the trio profiled here are able to accomplish their goals thanks to several key principles. For starters, they’re adept at envisioning desired outcomes, picturing themselves ensconced in the results they seek to achieve before they ever get there. Katherine sees herself as a full-fledged, contributing member of the Mercury program team; Dorothy sees herself as a supervisor for her computing group, leading and training a dedicated group of workers; and Mary sees herself as a NASA engineer, making contributions and playing a part in her craft just as significant as that of her white male counterparts.

Second, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are aware of the limitations blocking their paths and are not intimidated by them. They forge ahead fearlessly, approaching their quests with personal courage and heroism, as well as mindsets bent on developing solutions that effectively get them around those obstacles. That takes the development of beliefs that run counter to what’s considered common knowledge – and then not being afraid to act on them. This may not be the easiest course to follow, and setbacks may appear along the way. But such circumstances often work wonders in helping us refine our beliefs (as well as the solutions that result from them) and in reinforcing our determination for success. If the three heroines of this film had allowed themselves to be done in by existing conditions, they wouldn’t have had a story to tell – or an opportunity to see their dreams come true.

Mercury program administrator Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) seeks to level the playing field for women and minorities in the engaging new biopic, “Hidden Figures.” Photo by Hopper Stone, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

But, perhaps most importantly, they saw their career paths as expressions of value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept associated with being our best, truest selves for our own benefit and that of those around us. In some ways, this can also be seen as living out one’s destiny, becoming the individuals we were meant to be. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary certainly did that, opening doors for themselves and for those who would follow in their footsteps. That’s quite a legacy, both for them personally and for posterity, an accomplishment whose impact has carried over to this day. And that impact was reflected in so many ways, from the job opportunities they helped make possible for future generations to the many noteworthy achievements of the American space program. That’s quite a feat for those who were once relegated to sitting in the back of the bus.

This delightfully inspiring comedy-drama is a flat-out winner, an incredible crowd-pleaser that fires on virtually every cylinder. Its inspiring narrative comes across like a curious fusion of “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “The Help” (2011), films that celebrate personal heroism in their own unique ways. With the possible exception of the need for a better-developed back story, this thoughtful and humorous historical drama hits all the right notes and does so without going over the top, becoming excessively preachy or lapsing into heavy-duty schmaltz. The picture’s incisive script and superb ensemble cast performances make this one to see for audiences of all ages.

NASA employees Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, third from right) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, center) do their part to advance the U.S. space program for Mercury astronauts like John Glenn (Glenn Powell, left) in “Hidden Figures.” Photo by Hopper Stone, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

For its efforts, “Hidden Figures” has garnered considerable awards season recognition. The film won the National Board of Review award for best ensemble and was named one of the organization’s top 10 films of 2016. In addition, the picture earned three Critics Choice Award nominations, including best ensemble, best supporting actress (Monáe) and best adapted screenplay; two Golden Globe Award nominations for best supporting actress (Spencer) and best original score; and two Screen Actors Guild Award nods for best ensemble and best supporting actress (Spencer). It’s a strong contender to pick up Academy Award nominations as well.

One of the things that keeps us going as human beings is our desire to rise to our own greatness. It’s an aspiration that can appear quite daunting, perhaps even impossible, but those circumstances often don’t stop us from pursuing that Quixotic quest. Like the mythical Sisyphus, we insist on continually rolling that giant boulder to the top of the hill, no matter how many times it may fall back down, all in the hope that our efforts will pay off – because, one of these times, they just might. That’s the sort of determination Katherine, Dorothy and Mary employed in their respective undertakings, and just look at what it got them. We should all be so motivated. And, if we were to be, we’d then know the joy, satisfaction and fulfillment that comes with us reaching for the stars – and getting there.

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

Monday, December 19, 2016

‘Collateral Beauty’ explores the wonder of existence

“Collateral Beauty” (2106). Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Jacob Lattimore, Ann Dowd, Kylie Rogers, Mary Beth Peil, Alyssa Cheatham. Director: David Frankel. Screenplay: Allen Loeb. Web site. Trailer.

Reality can be a funny thing. We can be going along just fine when something suddenly comes out of left field to totally disrupt everything. What’s that all about? And how are we supposed to cope? Much depends on how we view the fundamental functioning of existence – and the role we play in it. Those are the issues that play out in the wondrous new holiday offering, “Collateral Beauty.”

When successful New York ad agency owner Howard Inlet (Will Smith) loses his child (Alyssa Cheatham) to a rare illness, his life falls apart. He becomes withdrawn, abandoning virtually all of his personal and professional relationships and disposing of most of his material possessions. He rarely eats, sleeps or speaks, and he spends most of his office time pointlessly setting up elaborate domino arrangements that he takes little joy in when he finally activates them. In fact, about the only contact he has with outsiders is occasional attendance at the meetings of a support group for parents who’ve lost children, sessions moderated by a sensitive facilitator named Madeleine (Naomie Harris).

Needless to say, Howard’s business begins to suffer seriously, largely because he’s no longer putting any time or attention into the company’s most lucrative accounts, many of which are based on the personal relationships he’s cultivated with client contacts over the years. This worries three of his partners, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Peña), who are helplessly watching the agency racing toward financial ruin. Thankfully, there’s a possible solution to their fiscal woes – a potential buyout. However, for the deal to go through, Whit, Claire and Simon need Howard to vote his majority shares in favor of the deal, and, given his state of mind, it’s unclear he’s even competent enough to grasp the nature of the transaction, let alone see through his part of the plan.

In assessing the situation, Whit, Claire and Simon conclude that their only hope is to somehow get Howard declared mentally unfit to participate in the share vote. They dislike the idea, but they also believe they don’t have any other option. So, to build a case against him, they reluctantly hire private detective Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to follow him in hopes of gathering evidence indicative of his state of mind.

After skulking about behind Howard’s back, Sally collects some intriguing information about her subject. Howard, it seems, is writing letters to vent his feelings, though he’s not penning them to anyone in particular. Rather, he composes (and even mails) missives to abstract concepts – love, time and death. His pointedly critical screeds venomously attack these notions, which is ironic, given that he once credited the impact of these principles with the growth and development of his business.

But are these letters enough to demonstrate the instability of Howard’s mental state? As Claire observes, such writings could be construed as a form of therapy. If she and her collaborators hope to make a case, they need something more substantive, something that can be documented to prove their partner’s allegedly delusional behavior.

Nothing immediately comes to mind, but, one night, while Whit is at home caring for his aging mother (Mary Beth Peil), a stroke survivor, he gets an idea that he shares with Claire and Simon. In the time he has been looking after his mother, Whit has come to realize that her mental state sometimes becomes a bit wonky. He initially tried communicating with her based on his perceptions of reality, but that often became frustrating for both of them, mainly because she couldn’t understand where he was coming from. So, eventually, rather than trying to force her to relate to him on his terms, he began trying to relate to her on her terms, a decision that seemed to solve most of the communications and interpersonal relationship issues.

In light of that, then, Whit proposes that they employ a comparable approach in handling their investigation into Howard’s behavior. After a chance encounter with a trio of talented stage actors, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Lattimore), Whit suggests hiring them to portray the concepts to whom Howard writes his letters. By talking to Howard on his level, the actors can engage in esoteric exchanges with him, conversations not unlike those that Whit has with his mother. To turn such dialogues into “proof” of Howard’s delusional state, Whit proposes that they be held in very visible, highly public places, with Sally surreptitiously recording the “evidence” in the background. And, to further bolster the strength of their case, Whit recommends making the recordings appear one-sided – by deleting all visual and audio references of the actors. It’s a tactic that no one is especially comfortable with, but, again, Whit, Claire and Simon believe they have no choice if they’re to make their case stick.

Not long thereafter, Brigitte (portraying death), Amy (depicting love) and Raffi (playing time) begin meeting with Howard, carrying out the partners’ plan as envisioned. Interestingly, these dialogues begin drawing Howard out of his self-imposed shell, getting him to address the issues that helped cocoon him in the first place. But what’s even more intriguing is that Whit, Claire and Simon unexpectedly find that they each benefit from their interactions with the actors, too. All of which raises the question, who are these people anyway? Convincing thespians? Benevolent spirits in human guise? Something in between? Or something even more cryptic than that? Such is the mystery that plays out as the story moves toward its conclusion, taking viewers on a journey full of feeling, inspiration and wonder.

“Collateral Beauty” is a profoundly engaging – and largely misunderstood – film, one that explores life’s big issues and how we relate to them. In plumbing the depths of those subjects, the picture makes it quite apparent that how we view such concepts as love, death and time depends greatly on our beliefs about them. That’s a crucial point, too, for our beliefs play a pivotal role in the manifestation of the reality we experience. This is the cornerstone concept underlying the functioning of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize the existence around us through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, in many ways, this picture offers audiences a primer on this philosophy as seen through the experiences of characters in need of grasping these principles to create more fulfilling lives for themselves.

What matters most here is how we react to what we’ve manifested. In particular, do we see our circumstances from the perspective of a half-full or half-empty glass? Are we focused on the collateral damage of our existence? Or do we see the collateral beauty that comes out of it, even from circumstances that otherwise appear devastating? It all depends on the beliefs we employ as the lenses through which we perceive our reality. We can view our losses with utter devastation, as Howard does. Or we can look at everything that comes out of such situations, an analysis that might provide us with meaningful and even joyful insights into them, an approach Madeleine takes in coping with her tragedy.

There are no right or wrong answers in this – only choices. Do we want to choose perpetual disappointment? Or are we willing to choose to cherish the joy we experienced, no matter how fleeting? That’s the key question here.

Choice also figures largely into the lives of Whit, Claire and Simon. Collectively, they feel as though their backs are against the wall where the business is concerned, and they’re decidedly uncomfortable with the choices they make for how to resolve it. They’re convinced that they’ll lose a good friend when they present the evidence against him at a competency hearing before the buyout share vote. But is that a faît accompli? Or is another outcome possible? Given the personal feelings that the partners share for Howard, they clearly care about his well-being. And, considering the opportunities he helped make possible for them, the reverse is true as well. So, in light of that, is it guaranteed that the seeming betrayal they’ve orchestrated against him will necessarily result in ill will? Again, it comes down to the beliefs they all share about the nature of their relationships with one another – interactions that are based on belief choices just as much as those employed in the manifestation of virtually any other type of situation.

Choice also looms large in the beliefs governing the private lives of the various partners. Whit, for example, is divorced from his wife after having had an extramarital affair, an incident that has severely strained his relationship with his young daughter, Allison (Kylie Rogers). Claire, meanwhile, has devoted her life to her career, and, with her biological clock now ticking, she’s concerned she’ll never become the mother she’s always dreamed of being. And Simon, whose health is failing, wrestles with disclosing his condition to his family and co-workers, fearing that such an announcement will cause them great emotional harm.

In all three of these cases, the characters can’t see any way out of their circumstances. They feel locked into positions from which they can’t extract themselves. But, again, as conscious creation provides, there are always choices, even if they aren’t easy ones to make. Given their respective circumstances, they could choose to stay stuck in their mindsets; or they could select alternate paths, following courses of dealing that lessen their loads and make their journeys more rewarding in unimagined ways.

From the foregoing, choice is obviously a key component in belief formation, one that’s inherently highly personal in nature. We need not surrender ourselves to the dictates of philosophical, religious or scientific dogma in shaping our own views of reality. Some might even say conscious creation, as a metaphysical philosophy of its own, is fair game for such criticism. However, in its defense, it at least offers us a comparatively broader range of choices for the beliefs we adhere to and the realities we create. We can certainly choose those other options if we believe they best suit us, but we needn’t do so, either, following our own hearts and minds instead.

In his search to find meaning, Howard is coming to understand this. He attempts to explain himself on this point in an impassioned dialogue with Brigitte in which he runs down the flaws of a litany of philosophical, religious and scientific disciplines, schools of thought that offer the promise of figuring out how life works and why it unfolds as it does but that ultimately come up short. On some level, he knows his happiness and well-being come down to the belief choices he makes, but, as this is a comparatively new concept to him, he’s unclear what to do with it or how to proceed. However, those are precisely the lessons he must learn if he hopes to bring himself out of his imprisoning depression – choosing to be happy and on his terms, based on his choices and beliefs, an option that conscious creation makes possible.

To a great degree, this is where Howard’s interactions with Brigitte, Amy and Raffi prove so valuable. Their dialogues help him unlock his pent-up feelings, bringing his intangible inner beliefs to the surface, manifested as tangible, physically expressed materializations. The actors ostensibly speak to him on his level, just as Whit predicted they would when he came up with the plan to hire them. Brigitte, Amy and Raffi provide Howard with the means to transform his thoughts into actions (even if it’s just talking), something that was not (or that he had not allowed to be) available to him previously. They afford Howard a chance to express his most heartfelt feelings about love, time and death, making themselves available as corporeal sounding boards for expressing his thoughts about these notions. In turn, they also provide Howard with a safe opening for giving life to his beliefs, a sheltered starting point for exploring how he wishes to actively employ them in manifesting his reality going forward.

This principle is reflected in the partners’ relationships with the actors, too. Whit, Claire and Simon are each wrestling with their own issues, and their respective interactions with Amy, Raffi and Brigitte enable them to explore their challenges on their levels. Just as Howard manifested the sounding boards he needed, the partners have done the same, even if they weren’t aware they were doing so at the time they were hired. But then, considering their individual circumstances, who better to deal with a broken heart than love? Who better to address a biological chronometer than time? And who better to reconcile our response to a potentially fatal disease than death?

Some have seen this film’s exploration of the foregoing principles as preposterous, absurd and implausible. But, given the standpoint from which its central narrative springs, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s spot-on when it comes to its examination of conscious creation concepts, and it does so quite elegantly and succinctly. In light of that, in my view, the issue here doesn’t lie with the movie but with those who are criticizing it; maybe they’re having trouble appreciating what the picture has to say because, like Howard and his partners, they, too, are mired in their intractable beliefs about how reality works and unable to envision alternate possibilities. It would indeed be wonderful if they could muster the courage, vision and imagination to open up their perspectives just a bit to see what’s on offer here, to genuinely appreciate the collateral beauty of “Collateral Beauty.”

Admittedly, this offering is somewhat manipulative and more than occasionally sappy, yet it effectively redeems itself with its heartfelt earnestness, clever premise and stellar ensemble cast. To be sure, the writing could have been crisper (especially in the first 30 minutes), the sentimentality could have been turned down a few notches and a stronger lead would have made a better casting choice, yet the film also provides viewers with ample thoughtfulness about how to view life’s big issues.

Given the Christmas backdrop for this story, I’d like to hope that it could eventually become a new holiday classic in the tradition of enchanting and heartwarming pictures like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “A Christmas Carol” (1951) and “The Blind Side” (2009), though it may take some time for the impact of this film’s message and meaning to sink in and become appreciated. In an age of rampant smugness and cynicism (and even more smug and cynical film critics), it’s refreshing to see a movie come along that doesn’t apologize for its own forthright emotionalism or its willingness to rely on a little out-of-the-box magic to make its point. (Remember, no one liked Frank Capra’s Christmas fable when it was originally released either.)

Life’s tragedies can surely knock us down. The question is, do we stay down once we’re there? Do we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by despair over the loss of a loved one, or do we choose to bask in the glow of having had the opportunity to share part of our lives with someone we so adored? It all comes down to what we choose to believe and where we decide to place our focus. We can lament the collateral damage that befalls us, or we can rejoice in the collateral beauty we were so privileged to experience. The choice is ours, and, in the end, that’s the essence of the wonder of existence.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 16, 2016

‘Jackie’ profiles grace under fire

“Jackie” (2016). Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Caspar Phillipson, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Sunnie Pelant, Aiden Weinberg, Brody Weinberg, Georgie Glen, Gaspard Koenig, Craig Sechler, Rebecca Compton, Vivienne Vernes. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim. Web site. Trailer.

How would we cope when tragedy strikes? Would we rise to the occasion or fall apart? What would our priorities be in handling it? And would we allow ourselves to be overcome by the circumstances, getting caught up in rhetorical ruminations about why events have unfolded as they have? Those are among the questions faced by a high-profile public figure wrestling with unspeakable grief in the audacious new biopic, “Jackie.”

November 22, 1963 is a date most of us will never forget, even all these many years later. The nation and the world were sent into a collective shock with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) while his motorcade was traveling through the crowded streets of downtown Dallas, Texas. Many of us felt the pain of this tragedy deeply, so much so that it became personal. But no one was more devastated than his wife, Jackie (Natalie Portman), who was sitting beside him when the fatal gunshots rang out, her now-infamous pink designer suit spattered with the blood of her husband.

Jackie’s life changed in countless ways in an instant, and this newly released biopic attempts to examine the myriad conflicted feelings she was experiencing at the time. In many ways, the film is more of a psychological exploration of a turbulent time in her life than a straightforward recounting of her personal history.

The picture opens a week after the President’s storied funeral, an event whose images have become indelibly seared in our memories (especially for those of us of a certain age). Jackie is in seclusion at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, attempting to sort out what’s next for her and her children, Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden Weinberg, Brody Weinberg). In light of what just happened, she seeks the shelter that isolation provides. But, with rampant speculation swirling about what she must be thinking, her firsthand view of the tragic events and how posterity would view the late President’s legacy, she’s compelled to speak out, to let the public know her thoughts and feelings. And so she invites a journalist (Billy Crudup) to visit her at the compound so she can tell her side of the story.

The grace and elegance of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) became known around the world, as depicted in director Pablo Larraín’s new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Through Jackie’s conversations with the journalist – a writer modeled after LIFE magazine scribe Theodore H. White, who met with Jackie at Hyannis Port in the wake of JFK’s assassination – viewers are let in on the most intimate thoughts of the widowed First Lady. Jackie and the journalist touch on a wide array of subjects, ranging from her personal feelings to her concerns for how history would view her husband’s abbreviated presidency, a term in office that lasted a mere two years and nine months, far short of the eight years that many believed he ultimately would have served.

Intercut with these conversations is a series of flashbacks, beginning with Jackie’s televised 1962 tour of the White House after its extensive restoration, a sequence designed to show the poise and grace of the First Lady, qualities that would later come to serve her well when providing a source of inspiration and solace to a grieving public. Flashbacks of the fateful day in Dallas follow, covering everything from the shooting to the swearing in of incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) to Jackie’s lonely return to the White House. These depictions are followed by a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the planning of the President’s funeral, a grand public memorial patterned after that of another fallen leader, Abraham Lincoln, an event that Jackie researched thoroughly while under the pressure of a significantly compressed time frame.

On their arrival in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, left) and First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) greet a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers in the new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by William Gray, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Public events aside, Jackie also had much to contend with personally; after all, her husband had just been brutally murdered, and she needed to sort out her emotions, largely on her own and under an umbrella of quiet desperation. But, if that weren’t enough, she also had the unenviable tasks of explaining to her children what had happened to their father and hastily having to prepare to move out of the White House (and on to an uncertain future) to make way for the new President.

Fortunately, she had remarkable support from her longtime friend and confidante Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). However, even their ample compassion and encouragement weren’t enough to help Jackie resolve her many emotional and spiritual questions, the kinds of issues that only one skilled in guidance and counseling could offer. That’s where Jackie’s meetings with a priest (John Hurt) proved invaluable. Views of those intimate talks are thus woven into the narrative, intercut among the conversations with the journalist and the flashbacks. These dialogues are quite engaging in that they don’t dissolve into spoutings of empty platitudes. Jackie speaks pragmatically, uninhibited in candidly expressing herself and freely touching on everything from her husband’s infidelity to the horror of his killing to her love and devotion for him in spite of everything.

Incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch, center) is sworn into office as successor to assassinated President John F. Kennedy as incoming First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant, left) and widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) look on in “Jackie.” Photo by Bruno Calvo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Taken together, the film paints a portrait of a complicated individual, an enigmatic, larger-than-life public figure who also happened to be a real person with genuine human thoughts, feelings and emotions. We witness the strength she demonstrated publicly during the solemn yet highly visible events in the aftermath of her husband’s death, as well as the private vulnerability she struggled with in her personal seclusion. We thus come to see Jackie as a complete person, one not that very different from the rest of us, in her attempt to hold everything together under phenomenally extraordinary circumstances.

Like many of us who lived through that tragic period, Jackie desperately sought to understand why events played out as they did. Having been raised a devout Roman Catholic, she placed considerable faith in her religion and its teachings. But, given everything she endured during the fateful days of November 1963, not to mention the frustrations, trials and tribulations she experienced prior to that (such as the loss of two children and her husband’s less-than-veiled dalliances), she wondered how a supposedly loving God could allow such incidents to occur.

Her faith in her fellow countrymen was tested in the wake of JFK’s death, too. The President made his trip to Texas in part to help shore up his support in the state with the 1964 election looming, But Texas was unfriendly territory in many ways, too. Some of his progressive policies were vehemently opposed, with some detractors even going so far as to create “Wanted” signs with Kennedy’s image emblazoned upon them. She wondered how this could be in a country that supposedly adhered to the notion of everyone being created equal with liberty and justice for all.

Upon arriving back in Washington, widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) is joined by her grieving brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, left), in director Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

What’s more, as noted earlier, Jackie was also concerned with how posterity would view her husband’s time in office. She saw the tremendous potential JFK possessed as a leader, one who was capable of accomplishing great things but who barely had an opportunity to scratch the surface of what he hoped to achieve. Would the public remember him for his civil rights initiatives and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, or would his legacy be characterized by events like the Bay of Pigs incident?

In short, Jackie struggled with trying to understand why she was burdened by all this, as well as how she was supposed to respond to it. And that must have been devastatingly difficult; after all, these events affected her personally, not just by extension as a constituent. In planning the funeral, for example, her thoughts regarding the staging of a grand memorial vacillated between seeing it as a fitting tribute to a fallen leader and something indulgent that she was doing for the benefit of her own emotional needs. Under circumstances like this, one could argue that it’s entirely feasible to legitimately view the grandeur of that event from either of those perspectives. But what was it really?

In situations like this, our perceptions are colored by our beliefs, which are ultimately responsible for the manifestation of the events as they unfold. That’s the essence of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize (and subsequently interpret) the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, as implausible as it might be to examine circumstances such as these from a philosophical standpoint, the principle nevertheless validly applies here just as much as it would with any other materialization.

Jackie’s role in the manifestation of this very public drama was pivotal. As devastated as she was personally, as the now-widowed First Lady, she also realized she needed to serve as a symbol of public strength to a grieving nation. She poured her energy into the creation of events that allowed her fellow Americans, as well as the citizens of the world, to adequately express their despair and to suitably show their appreciation and gratitude to a leader whose time at the helm was cut short. In doing so, she made it possible to realize the manifestation of a tribute befitting someone of presidential stature, an event that went a long way toward helping to frame the legacy for JFK that she hoped to cultivate.

Jackie also assumed the role of a pillar of strength in her personal dealings. She did what she could, for instance, to reciprocate the support her brother-in-law Bobby showed her (after all, he had just lost his brother and was grieving himself at the same time he was trying to console her). And then there were the children, both of whom were quite young at the time; she needed to break the news of their father’s death to them tactfully but in a way that they would understand what had happened. She even tried to preserve as much of a sense of normality as possible, as evidenced by the party she hosted for John Jr.’s birthday, which fell in the middle of the tragic events.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) presides over her late husband’s casket in preparation for transport to the Capitol rotunda in “Jackie.” Photo by Bruno Calvo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

At the same time Jackie was trying to be the face of courage for the nation, she also took symbolic steps to make her personal feelings known publicly. When Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office, for example, she attended the ceremony aboard Air Force One wearing the same blood-stained outfit that she wore at the time of her husband’s shooting. Despite encouragement from others to change her clothes for an event that was certain to be documented photographically, Jackie refused. She wanted those who openly wished ill will toward JFK to clearly see the quiet anger and the personally devastating fallout that emerged from the violent act that took him down. Some may have seen this purely as an act aimed at generating sympathy, but Jackie saw it differently. She knew what she was doing, firm in her beliefs that her actions would send a message that would significantly shape public perceptions.

Still, despite Jackie’s admirable responses to all of these challenges, the underlying question that kept arising through them was trying to understand the meaning of it all. Jackie certainly did her best to look inward and find the answers – only to find that they were elusive. Those sentiments were even echoed back to her by the priest, who told Jackie during one of their conversations that “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers.”

In light of that, then, what is one to do under such conditions? From a conscious creation standpoint, this is where learning to have faith in our creations becomes vitally important. Since our manifestations mirror our beliefs, then the materializations that arise from them originate from us. That, in turn, means that there’s something that comes out of them that we’re meant to learn or experience, even if we can’t fully appreciate the essence of the creation at the time of its appearance. Indeed, Jackie probably never heard of conscious creation, but, through her acts and deeds during those difficult days, we can see the impact she and her beliefs had at the time (and subsequently) through what they manifested. Even in the midst of her profound personal grief, she still served as a source of strength and inspiration to those who witnessed her efforts and gestures at that time.

Given Jackie’s circumstances, audiences may not view some of the priest’s advice as especially compassionate or even appropriate. However, just as Jackie tried to reassure her kids that everything would be alright, the priest tried to do the same for her, gently nudging her to recognize that, despite the recent tragedy, she still had much of her life ahead of her, that she could start anew and reinvent herself. But, in coming back, she would have to take things one step at a time, living in the moment as she moved forward into the future.

When widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) seeks solace over her loss, she confers with a priest (John Hurt, left) for comfort and guidance in the new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

That’s a cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the notion that the point of power is in the present moment. And, to a great degree, Jackie grasped this idea in her own way, especially when looking back upon her days in the White House with Jack. During her conversations with the journalist, Jackie speaks fondly of how she and her husband would often listen to the phonograph before going to sleep at night, their favorite record being the Broadway cast soundtrack of the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. The couple identified with the music and the story it told, the epic days of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere during the Knights of the Round Table era, a glorious time, brief though it may have been. Jack and Jackie saw many parallels between their days in the White House and those of the residents of Camelot, a period when would-be heroic figures sought to accomplish great things and make the most out of each moment in which they lived. They relished the promise of their age in the same way that Arthur and Guinevere did in theirs.

Unfortunately, Jack and Jackie didn’t envision the brevity of their golden days, an irony that also paralleled the experience of their fictional counterparts. Still, in looking back on her White House years after JFK’s death, Jackie saw the splendor of those brief shining moments that she and her husband shared during that time. She relates these memories to the journalist, even seeing her time in Washington as a modern-day Camelot, a notion that would come to define the nature of the Kennedy presidency – a heritage that has lingered to this day. Even if such a view wasn’t necessarily accurate, as many observers have come to see since then, the image nevertheless persists. Crafting that legacy was chiefly Jackie’s creation, because she believed in its veracity. We can thus thank her for this fond recollection of a strong leader and a storied time in American history, images that still inspire those who aspire to their own personal greatness today. And that’s Jackie’s legacy, the gift of someone capable of elevating us about our own ambitions, even in the face of adversity, allowing our own grace under fire to emerge and blossom.

From the foregoing description, it’s obvious that “Jackie” is far from a typical biopic. The film features a stellar performance by Portman, who supremely captures the protagonist’s look, mannerisms and vocal inflections, right down to Jackie’s distinctive lilting manner of speech. In delivering her portrayal, she’s backed by a first-class supporting cast (with the exception of Sarsgaard, who, regrettably, is very much out of his league here). The picture’s meticulous re-creation of historic events, combined with superb production values in all of its technical areas (costumes, hair and makeup, production design, cinematography), make for an elegant look on the screen, one that captivates in many ways.

Considering the unique approach taken in telling Jackie’s story, the film effectively shows the many sides of its subject, both privately and publicly and in both her positive and less-flattering moments. However, at the same time, this alternate take on the biographical genre sometimes feels like it’s lacking something, especially when it comes to pulling in viewers emotionally (something that should have been easy to accomplish given the story’s subject matter). Audiences may find themselves coming away from the film realizing what a complex individual Jackie Kennedy was, though we never get as close to her as many of us might have thought we would going into the theater. The film’s uneven soundtrack – sometimes sublimely fitting, at other times comically jarring in its dissonance – and its somewhat-jumbled handling of the seminal events and their aftermath don’t always work, either, occasionally leaving viewers a bit confused about the timeline.

Despite the unevenness of director Pablo Larraín’s finished product, the picture has garnered its share of accolades. In the recent Critics Choice Awards, the film took home three statues (best lead actress, costumes, hair and makeup) on six total nominations. It has also earned its share of honors in upcoming awards competitions, including four nods in the Independent Spirit Awards program (best picture, female lead, director, editing), as well as best actress nominations in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award contests.

When misfortune strikes, the mettle of our character is sure to be tested. But, based on the magnitude of such calamities, coupled with our beliefs and experience in such matters, it’s hard to know how we’ll respond until we find ourselves in the thick of things. That’s where sources of inspiration, like that demonstrated by Jackie Kennedy during her own unthinkable tragedy, can prove valuable in helping us cope. We can only hope that we’re able to muster the same grace under fire that she did when a family – and a nation – needed her most.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Check out Reviewers Roundtable!

Join me and fellow reviewers Miriam Knight and Cynthia Sue Larson this Wednesday, December 14, when we’ll get together to discuss some of the latest book and movie releases on the quarterly Reviewers Roundtable broadcast of New Consciousness Review radio on the OmTimes Radio Network. Tune in at 2 pm ET by clicking here, or listen to the podcast on demand thereafter. Join us for some lively chat!