Thursday, September 29, 2016

‘Queen of Katwe’ shows how to beat the odds and excel

“Queen of Katwe” (2016). Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn “Kay” Kyaze, Ivan Jacobo, Nicolas Levesque, Ronald Ssemaganda, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Nikita Waliga, Esther Tebandeke, Philip Luswata, Maurice Kirya, Peter Odeke. Director: Mira Nair. Screenplay: William Wheeler. Book: Tim Crothers, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Web site. Trailer.

What does it take to beat the odds and rise above our challenges? That can be a rather tall order, especially when things seem stacked against us. But, when we put our mind to it, it’s possible to achieve almost anything. One need only look at the inspiring example set by a determined young woman from the Ugandan slums and her dreams to achieve greatness, a fact-based story told in the heartwarming new biopic, “Queen of Katwe.”

Teenager Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) leads a life of few prospects in the ghettoes of Katwe, Uganda. As one of four children being raised by a widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona spends her days selling maize in hopes of raising enough money to keep the family afloat, a seemingly perpetual struggle. In fact, things are so tight financially that Phiona’s mother can’t afford to send her children to school, leaving them without such basic skills as the ability to read.

But, almost as if by chance, Phiona makes an interesting discovery one day. She stumbles upon a ministry-sponsored outreach program aimed at involving underprivileged children in something far removed from their typical everyday experience – the game of chess. The program is run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who took the job to help support his family while trying to land a position in his field. He might not seem like the obvious choice for a position such as this, but he’s actually an ideal candidate, given his proficiency for the game and his remarkable ability to instruct others in how to play it. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he’s about to meet his star pupil, someone who will change his life, as well as her own.

Phiona proves to be a natural at chess, able to predict how a match will unfold eight moves ahead. Needless to say, Robert is astounded by her ability, not only for how quickly she picks up the game, but also for what a sound strategist she is. But, then, as Robert routinely imparts to his students, such foresight is essential to success at the game – and at life. And, as someone who regularly must rely on her wits just to get by, Phiona is as a model of this principle.

Given Phiona’s astounding ability, Robert seeks to enter her in tournaments, something that the organizers of these meets don’t take seriously. How can an illiterate girl from the slums possibly understand, let alone successfully compete, in contests involving such a noble and intellectual game? But that’s where Phiona defies the odds – and the skeptics – especially when she shows her competitors what she can do.

Considering Phiona’s background and circumstances, incredulous onlookers quite naturally ask, “How does she do it?” She comes across as so reserved and unassuming that many might wonder how she can be such a tiger on the chess board. But, for those who practice conscious creation, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, the answer is simple – because she believes she can.

Quite simply, Phiona refuses to buy into the idea that she can’t do what she does. Despite her daily challenges, she’s undeterred when it comes to playing the game she so loves. Her focus is so intent and the beliefs related to her self-confidence are so strong that “extraneous” conditions don’t impinge upon her ability to control the pieces on the chess board. Such belief clarity and personal integrity allow her to work her magic on the field of play, no matter what else may be going on in her life.

Several types of beliefs factor significantly into the mix she employs as a master of the game. Given the virtually limitless number of moves available on a chess board, there are numerous lines of probability open to players in seeking suitable paths to victory. Being aware of these options, and of the ways to circumvent threats from opponents, enables proficient competitors to assess, explore and employ a variety of successful strategies, much as Phiona does. Her firm belief in this capability helps solidify her skills, which, in turn, make themselves apparent during the course of play – and in the results of her matches.

The ability to envision outcomes, another belief-based skill, also plays a significant role. The more we’re able to picture a particular result, the more likely we’re to ultimately see it realized. Such a skill can prove particularly valuable in endeavors involving complex strategies, like playing chess, so anyone who possesses it has a distinct advantage. Of course, this depends on developing and implementing manifestation beliefs that support such a capability, but it is possible, as Phiona’s experience demonstrates. This is evidenced, as noted earlier, by Robert’s astonishment at Phiona’s ability to picture the course of play so far in advance of its unfolding, a revelation that becomes apparent during a game he plays with her, a prime example of the student surpassing even the mentor.

One of the keys to making the foregoing work is a belief in no limits, another quality Phiona possesses. Trying the untried frequently meets with surprising success, and it can be especially useful in a game like chess, where employing the unexpected frequently stuns one’s opponent. However, to be able to employ such unconventional strategies, we must believe in the possibility of their existence and their ability to be successfully implemented. This means overcoming any tendencies we might have toward belief tunnel vision, as well as having the courage to forge ahead with these seemingly unorthodox initiatives. Again, Phiona rises to the occasion, developing the beliefs to enliven such possibilities and to apply them to the field of play.

When we consider the lessons that chess can teach us, it becomes apparent that they’re applicable to more than just this storied board game. The abilities to explore probabilities, envision outcomes, surpass limits and develop effective strategies are all crucial to the game of life as well, and the more we’re able to transfer these fundamental skills into arenas other than competition, the more we’re likely to create lives full of satisfaction and fulfillment. And to think it’s all possible just by learning how to move some pieces around a game board.

Chess may not seem like a particularly compelling subject for cinematic treatment, yet it’s tapped surprisingly often, perhaps because of its ability to effectively portray the foregoing principles. In addition to “Queen of Katwe,” chess has provided the backdrop for a number of other pictures, including “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993), “Pawn Sacrifice” (2015) and “The Dark Horse” (2016). Given that, it would seem that there’s an unusually rich vein of material to be mined from this subject, one that those who would readily dismiss it might want to look at more closely.

For its part, “Queen of Katwe” aptly illustrates the aforementioned principles. It also shows what we can accomplish when we apply ourselves and don’t give in to ill-considered criticism. This can mean a lot to those who lack hope and have doubts about their future. But, with the right mindset and a little support and encouragement from the right backers – those who can genuinely see what someone is capable of – the results can easily come to speak for themselves, as Phiona so eloquently demonstrates.

“Queen of Katwe” is a thoroughly heartening and inspirational offering, perfect for impressionable young minds. The writing is occasionally heavy-handed, wooden and formulaic, coming across as a little too ennobling and schmaltzy for its own good. However, the film’s fine performances, especially Nyong’o and newcomer Nalwanga, resonate warmly with viewers, though the platitude-laden script and sometimes-inconsistent pacing periodically hamper the efforts of the protagonists. This isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it’s certainly an entertaining feel-good movie that’s well worth a look.

Seeking and fulfilling our destiny may take us down some unexpected paths, including those that we might have once never considered pursuing. However, the meaningful outcomes of such efforts can prove rewarding beyond measure, both to those who travel them and to those who encourage us to traverse them. Phiona and Robert show us the way – and find their own in the process.

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Back on the Radio This Week!

Join host Frankie Picasso and me for this month's Movies with Meaning segment on this week's edition of Frankiesense & More on The Good Radio Network. Tune in this Thursday, September 29, at 1 pm ET, or listen to the on-demand podcast thereafter, by clicking here. Join us for some lively movie talk!

Monday, September 26, 2016

This Week in Movies with Meaning

A review of "Queen of Katwe," a Helen Mirren retrospective and a radio show preview are all available in this week's Movies with Meaning post on the Blog Page of The Good Radio Network available by clicking here.

Aspiring chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga, right) learns the game from mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, left) in the inspiring new biopic, “Queen of Katwe.” Photo by Edward Echwalu, courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.

Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), owner of an acclaimed upscale French bistro, struggles to keep a smile on her face with the unexpected arrival of new neighbors whom she believes will threaten her establishment’s reputation in director Lasse Halström’s comedy-drama, “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” Photo by François Duhamel, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures USA.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

‘Sunset Song’ celebrates personal fortitude

“Sunset Song” (2015 production, 2016 release). Cast: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Daniela Nardini, Jack Greenlees, Ron Donachie, Linda Duncan McLaughlin, Niall Greig Fulton, Gilbert Johnston, Douglas Rankine, Simon Tait. Director: Terence Davies. Screenplay: Terence Davies. Book: Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song. Web site. Trailer.

Making one’s way in the world can be difficult enough, even under the best of circumstances. But, when conditions offer repeated challenges, the chances of success can become that much more difficult, as evidenced by the experiences of a young Scottish farm girl in the days before World War I, the subject of the moving drama, “Sunset Song,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray Disk and video on demand.

Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) lives a rather hard life in rural Scotland. She aspires to be a teacher, but she’s perpetually saddled with the responsibilities of the family farm, especially after the death of her mother (Daniela Nardini), the departure of her siblings, including her beloved brother, Will (Jack Greenlees), and the overbearing demands of her authoritarian father, John (Peter Mullan). Even when she manages to find some peace of mind and happiness with her handsome, loving new husband, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), her contentment is interrupted by the onset of the Great War, a conflict far removed from her world but whose impact on her life is undeniable.

Tending a farm in rural Scotland provides many challenges for Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) in the beautiful, moving drama, “Sunset Song,” available on DVD, Blu-ray Disk and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It would be easy to give up under such trying circumstances, but Chris is not deterred. She carries on, hoping for a breakthrough that will ultimately lead to the satisfaction and fulfillment she longs for. That means hanging in through the challenges, but, trite though it may be, as the time-honored saying goes, that which does not kill us only makes us stronger. And Chris can certainly attest to that.

Those of weaker conviction probably would have given up early on, but not Chris. She’s determined to see things through because she believes she can. The strength of those beliefs is important, too, especially for those of us committed to practicing conscious creation, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And in Chris’s case, she has vast reserves to draw upon.

To make the process work, there are certain conscious creation skills that Chris must bring to the table. For starters, she must – and successfully does – rid herself of conflicting convictions that might undercut her materialization efforts. Most notably, she effectively faces down her fears, keeping them from infringing on what she seeks to manifest. In a similar vein, she does the same when it comes to doubt, preventing it from creeping into her intents. That’s important, because beliefs associated with fear and doubt can summarily negate our creative efforts, canceling out our attempts at realizing certain outcomes, no matter how strongly we envision and believe in them. Thankfully, for her sake, Chris has managed to vanquish these demons.

Another reason Chris is so successful is that she keeps an open mind when it comes to her circumstances. As someone who has long possessed a strong interest in education, she has always remained open to the exploration of new ideas (even though that was something not especially expected of women of her era). Because of that, she’s willing to look past limitations to come up with innovative solutions to her various dilemmas, true tests of her conscious creation skills that enable her to stretch her manifestation abilities. She thus sets an example in this regard that we could all learn from in addressing the thorny issues that arise in our existence.

To a great degree, Chis is able to accomplish all this thanks to her strong sense of personal integrity. When conditions challenge her, she never shies away from speaking her mind and making her feelings known, a trait that runs through her belief formation process as well. That serves her effectively, too, since she – like all of us – tends to get the most fulfilling results from her beliefs by following such a course. The fidelity of her manifestations is a direct reflection of the beliefs that drive them, and Chris manages to bring truth to what she creates.

In many ways, these principles might seem like common sense. Yet it’s amazing how often we fall short of the mark in creating what we seek. By allowing the foregoing to become diluted or tainted by conflicts, contradictions or a lack of truthfulness, we can get off track, leading to disappointments and frustrations. But, by following Chris’s lead, we can avoid many of these issues and realize what we most hope for.

Life with loving husband Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie, left) brings great joy to farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn, right) in the beautiful, moving drama, “Sunset Song,” available on DVD, Blu-ray Disk and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Those longing to see the beauty of Scotland will love the positively gorgeous cinematography of “Sunset Song.” Its performances and period piece production values weave together a beautiful and moving cinematic tapestry, with rich character development and a genuine feel for the era depicted. The film is, admittedly, a bit slow-paced and somewhat episodic at times, and it readily recalls themes found in other, more familiar pictures, such as “Far from the Madding Crowd” (2015) and, to a certain extent, “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970). Nevertheless, director Terence Davies’ offering makes a fine viewing choice for one of those windswept fall afternoons when staying in and watching a movie in the comfort of a warm living room seems like the perfect way the spend the day.

The next time you’re ready to fly the white flag, think of the inspiration provided by the example set in this film. You just might find yourself willing to hang in far longer than you thought possible.

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

‘Snowden’ explores the integrity of heroism

“Snowden” (2016). Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Ben Chaplin, Joely Richardson, Ben Schnetzer, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Timothy Olyphant, Bhasker Patel, Edward Snowden. Director: Oliver Stone. Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone. Books: Anatoly Kucherena, Time of the Octopus, and Luke Harding, The Snowden Files. Web site. Trailer.

Heroes come in many forms. Some are obvious by their acts and deeds. Others are less apparent, working quietly behind the scenes to effect meaningful change. And others still may take drastic measures that leave them unappreciated for their efforts, perhaps even being vilified as criminals, agitators or traitors by members of officialdom. Those who fall into this last category often don’t receive the recognition they deserve until well after the fact, despite their rigorous adherence to a strong sense of personal integrity (consider the case of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example). But, in today’s fast-moving media age, it’s now possible to get the word out about someone’s heroic efforts quickly and widely, achievements portrayed in the revealing new biopic, “Snowden.”

In 2013, former CIA and NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stunned the world with his revelation of covert government operations aimed at collecting massive amounts of phone and Internet data from American citizens. This unprecedented aggregation of information was said to be essential for the US government’s intelligence operations in combating the war on terror. But was such an invasion of personal privacy truly necessary – or legal?

Fleeing from the US to Hong Kong, Snowden met secretly with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) to divulge what he knew. This collaboration led to a series of explosive newspaper articles and the documentary “Citizen Four” (2014), all of which set off a media firestorm that made headlines around the globe.

For his efforts, Snowden was labeled a hero by some and a traitor by others. So why did he do it? That’s what this film is all about. Through a series of flashbacks beginning in 2004, viewers learn Snowden’s personal and professional history, first as an aspiring special forces soldier sidelined by injuries and later as a budding CIA operative under the mentoring of agency instructors Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage). Snowden’s interest in such undertakings stemmed from the outrage he felt after the 9/11 attacks. As an avowed patriot, not to mention a computer genius, he wanted to give something back to his country. And, even though he didn’t quite fit the profile of a typical intelligence operative recruit, the powers that be recognized his talents, bringing him aboard without hesitation.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, second from left) consults with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, left) and reporters Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, second from right) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, right) in revealing explosive government secrets in director Oliver Stone’s new biopic, “Snowden.” Photo by Jürgen Olczyk, courtesy of Open Road Films.

Upon the completion of his training, Snowden was placed to postings in Geneva and Japan with the CIA and NSA. However, the more involved he became in these operations, the more disenchanted he became. When he saw the true nature of some of the US government’s initiatives, he grew increasingly uneasy about his participation in them, especially when he learned that the agencies’ spying efforts entailed surveillance of not only foreign elements, but also a massive number of domestic parties.

The stress of this internal conflict took its toll on the idealistic young operative. Snowden began to question his beliefs, growing increasingly skeptical about the government and his personal convictions in supporting it. These circumstances also strained his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), and affected his health. Clearly, something would have to give. And so, while serving in a new post in Hawaii, he decided to take action, a bold move with the potential to blow the lid off everything – and that could potentially cost him everything.

Snowden’s odyssey is indeed an intriguing one. He firmly believed in doing his patriotic duty and sought the means to carry it out. It’s quite ironic, though, that he would end up engaging in acts that some would say embodied the antithesis of patriotism. Yet he ultimately did so in the name of that very concept, one that he believed his own government had turned its back on.

Given the foregoing, it’s obvious Snowden’s actions are inextricably tied up in his beliefs, convictions he held quite dearly. It should thus come as no surprise that events naturally unfolded directly in line with those notions, a cornerstone 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. And, with beliefs as clear and potent as Snowden’s, those convictions packed quite a powerful punch once they materialized.

Interestingly, even though Snowden believed strongly in carrying out his patriotic duty, it took him some time to find the means that expressed this idea with the greatest impact. He initially believed he could do the most good by exploring conventional channels, such as becoming a special forces soldier or working inside the intelligence community. But, when it came to his military experience, he wasn’t up to the challenge physically. And, when he pursued a career in intelligence, he became disillusioned when he found that his idealistic concepts of patriotism didn’t match the often-cynical, self-serving motives of officialdom. Snowden ultimately found his calling by following a very different path, one that deviated significantly from what he initially believed he would end up doing but that had impact far more sweeping than anything else he could have accomplished through more traditional milieus.

In conscious creation terms, some might call this an act of semi-conscious creation, one that’s sometimes fraught with unforeseen perils, particularly failing to recognize the attainment of our goals when we achieve them or being confused that our creations take forms different from what we initially envisioned for them. Snowden sought the fulfillment of his patriotic duty, though he probably never thought he would accomplish this objective by such unconventional and seemingly counterintuitive measures. His actions weren’t what he had in mind when he started out, yet they ended up fulfilling the same purpose in the end. In that sense, then, his experience serves to remind us that, when we engage in acts of conscious creation, we must take care not to confuse form with substance; we may well arrive at our goal, even if it’s dressed up in a different set of clothes from what he had anticipated.

Snowden was able to accomplish his goal by adhering to several key conscious creation concepts. Most notably, he abided by a strong sense of personal integrity, remaining true to himself, his beliefs and his actions. As conscious creators are well aware, we tend to achieve the most fulfilling and authentic results when we’re true to ourselves. By forming and adhering to beliefs genuinely in line with our basic nature, we realize outcomes reflective of those notions, and they’re often among the most powerful and impactful manifestations we can materialize.

To proceed in this vein, though, Snowden was not without challenges, particularly those that threatened his career, his freedom and even his personal safety. Yet, to see his goals realized, he routinely had to rise above these circumstances, facing his fears and living heroically. This often proved difficult, but Snowden was determined to see his mission through, always finding ways to circumvent the challenges put before him to achieve his objectives. This is where the power of beliefs once again comes into play; by holding fast to the fulfillment of his convictions, he also managed to manifest the solutions necessary to successfully surmount whatever obstacles crossed his path.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left) struggles to maintain his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, right), under trying circumstances in director Oliver Stone’s new biopic, “Snowden.” Photo by William Gray, courtesy of Open Road Films.

In the end, all of these efforts represented examples of Snowden’s value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept associated with living our lives as our best, truest selves for our own benefit and that of others. He alerted the world to troubling initiatives known by few outside the intelligence community. Insiders whose efforts he challenged may not have appreciated his actions, but, for those on the outside – and who were most directly affected by such undertakings – Snowden managed to shine a bright light on a slew of highly questionable activities. In doing so, he lived out (and continues to live out) his value fulfillment, giving further credence to the words of famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, who boldly proclaimed during his coverage critical of the McCarthy anti-American hearings of the 1950s, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.”

Snowden is seen by many as a controversial figure, and those whose feathers he’s ruffled obviously hold a different opinion of him than what’s depicted here. However, over time, I suspect that his actions will be vindicated, that his daring acts will truly be seen for the heroic, patriotic aims that they were intended to fulfill. As noted earlier, we must not confuse form with substance, and that’s just as true here as it is in virtually any other conscious creation undertaking.

Though sometimes flat in its tone and drawn out in its pacing, “Snowden” is nevertheless an important piece of cinema that does an excellent job of detailing what happened and explaining the implications of the protagonist’s actions. Gordon-Levitt turns in an excellent performance in capturing Snowden’s soft-spoken but intense demeanor and distinctive vocal inflections, and he’s backed by an excellent supporting cast across the board. This may not be director Oliver Stone’s best cinematic effort, but it’s arguably one of his most significant productions. What’s more, this biopic, though a somewhat fictionalized account, ranks far superior to its documentary predecessor, which, commendably, captured history as it happened but became so bogged down in cyber jargon that its impact was lost on virtually anyone not fluent in tech-speak.

Taking a heroic stand requires remarkable courage and personal fortitude. Those are qualities Snowden demonstrated repeatedly throughout his career, and, when faced with conditions he could no longer sanction, he felt compelled to make them known to the world. He informed the public of secrets that likely never would have seen the light of day. What’s more, he inspired other whistleblowers to come forward to make injustices known. Indeed, if anyone wonders what it means to be a hero, particularly in the face of overwhelmingly oppressive scrutiny, Snowden wears the mantle well. Stepping up to the plate under trying conditions truly requires heroic efforts. And, for his part, Snowden shows us how.

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tune in to Reviewers Roundtable!

Join me and fellow reviewers Miriam Knight and Cynthia Sue Larson this Wednesday, September 21, 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. Tune in at 2 pm ET by clicking here. Join us for some lively chat!

Monday, September 19, 2016

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Snowden" and "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week -- The Touring Years" and a radio show preview are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the Blog Page of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.