Saturday, January 26, 2013

Amour’ illuminates the power of love

Amour” (“Love”) (2012). Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, William Shimell, Alexandre Tharaud. Director: Michael Haneke. Screenplay: Michael Haneke. Web site. Trailer.

Love is one of those sublime intangibles that artists of all callings, from Shakespeare to the Beatles, have sought to define, revere and embrace through their creations. Yet it encompasses such a vast array of embodiments that it’s difficult to encapsulate, or even grasp, all that it entails and makes possible. Nevertheless, the daunting nature of that task has not deterred those who would pay proper homage to the subject, as is amply evidenced in the latest offering from director Michael Haneke, “Amour” (“Love”).

Former music teachers Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva) enjoy a comfortable retirement. The middle class octogenarian couple lives a rich, rewarding life in Paris filled with evenings at the arts, visits from Eva, their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), and Alexandre, a now-famous former student (Alexandre Tharaud), and, above all, the loving company of one another. Indeed, despite the passage of many years, it’s obvious that Georges and Anne are still very much in love with one another. Which is why it’s so utterly heartbreaking when Anne’s health takes a turn for the worse. She suffers a series of strokes, and each episode leads to progressively greater debilitation – and steadily greater demands on Georges’ ability to care for her.

With Anne’s continual descent into incapacitation, the couple is forced to adapt to their new circumstances. While they struggle to preserve things as they always have been, they must increasingly face the reality of a future of things never being the same ever again. Perhaps the only constant in their lives is the love they share for one another, a bond that’s persistently challenged as they go forward, its strength and resilience repeatedly tested in the wake of ever-changing circumstances. But is that love enough to see them through? Or will a breaking point be reached? And, if so, what then? Such are the hard choices the couple must address.

As conscious creation practitioners are well aware, there’s tremendous power in our beliefs to shape the reality we experience. This is especially true when it comes to beliefs related to love. The power associated with beliefs tied to that emotion is so formidable that it’s sometimes difficult to fathom, even by those making use of it in the course of everyday living. But what wonders it can work! For instance, the power to create an intimate, committed relationship spanning decades, such as that enjoyed by Georges and Anne, is just one such example of what it can do. The power that it provides each of them to successfully maintain their bond for so long, and especially in the face of ever-growing challenges over time, is truly awe-inspiring, to say the least.

But love’s ability to nurture and uphold a partnership over the long term represents only a portion of its capabilities. It’s a power that enables its adherents to cope with our beliefs related to other creations, such as life and death, and their associated emotions, such as letting go and acceptance, not to mention the natural frustration that frequently accompanies all this. While love may not be a panacea for such circumstances, it can at least provide a cushioning buffer to ameliorate their impact, making them more manageable to deal with. Indeed, were it not for the belief in love that Georges and Anne have for one another, their journey together would be considerably more difficult (if that’s even possible to imagine).

Beliefs also play a significant role in this film in terms of defining the world that Georges and Anne experience. As time goes by and circumstances begin to close in on them, their world becomes progressively – and noticeably – “smaller.” Limitation significantly begins to define their existence. Moreover, “outside” influences, including such seemingly important factors as the role of family and friends, play an increasingly irrelevant part in the protagonists’ daily lives. As Georges and Anne approach the end of their time together, they use their beliefs to manifest a reality that centers almost exclusively on just the two of them. They spend virtually all of their time only with one another and only within the confines of their apartment. It’s a feeling that audiences might find uncomfortably claustrophobic (despite its cinematic effectiveness), but it’s also a view that Georges and Anne are unlikely to share; they’re simply creating an existence that suits their needs and wants at the time, one that’s designed to get as much out of the devotion they have for one another with whatever time they have left. Some might take issue with such choices, but, when one examines what’s driving them, it’s easy to see the characters’ motivation – the love that they share – despite the prevailing conditions.

Now that’s amour.

Director Michael Haneke has produced an excellent picture here, even if it’s one that’s painful to watch at times. Riva and Trintignant both turn in superb performances, evoking genuine, heartfelt (some would say heartbreaking) emotions throughout, so keep those handkerchiefs handy. And please do keep an open mind to what this film is saying; it’s not merely a heart-tugging tearjerker but a thoughtful meditation on the power and beauty of the emotion that comprises the movie’s title. I recommend it highly.

Amour” came up a big surprise in this year’s Academy Awards competition, but it’s very worthy of the recognition it received. The film captured five Oscar nominations, including best picture, best actress (Riva, who previously earned a Golden Globe Award nomination and truly deserves to win here), best director, best original screenplay and best foreign language film. The picture previously won the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor, as well as Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards for best foreign language film. The film has also been nominated as best international film at the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards. Foreign language movies seldom do so well in mainstream awards competitions, so the great number of accolades it has received speaks volumes about the picture’s true quality.

The power to love (and to be loved) has to be one of the greatest conceptions that we, as conscious creators, could have come up with in our exploration of reality creation. When we see what it makes possible, even in the face of whatever adversity we may simultaneously co-create in conjunction with it, we can draw inspiration from this potent force to help see us through the difficulties that come our way. “Amour” sheds light on this notion, and it does so brilliantly, allowing us to see how each of us can shine – even in the shadow of looming darkness.

Author’s Note: Who will come up the winners at this year’s Oscars? Check out my predictions for the major award categories in my recently posted blog on the subject, What To Expect Out of This Year’s Oscars, available by clicking here.

Photo by Darius Khondji, © Films du Losange, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 18, 2013

'Les Misérables' envisions hope for a world of our dreams

"Les Misérables" (2012). Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, Isabelle Allen, Colm Wilkinson, Michael Jibson, Natalya Wallace, Stephen Tate. Director: Tom Hooper. Screenplay: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer. Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg. Original Lyrics (French): Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Translated Lyrics (English): Herbert Kretzmer. Web site. Trailer.

Daring to dream a world better than the one that we have takes foresight and vision. But, above all, it also takes courage, the fortitude to picture an existence that breaks the chains of limitation and embodies the notion that things don’t have to be as they are. Such is the message inherent in the film adaptation of the epic musical drama, "Les Misérables."

Based on the classic Victor Hugo novel, "Les Misérables" tells the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his struggle to build a new life for himself in post-revolutionary France, a time when class inequality once again threatens to sweep across the land. After spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is released by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), the officer responsible for his incarceration, who vows to keep close tabs on the parolee. But, if Javert’s threat weren’t enough, once Valjean is free, he finds that no one wants anything to do with him. As a marked man, he’s denied work and lodging and forced to sleep in the streets.

But, just when all seems lost, the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson) agrees to take in Valjean, feeding and sheltering him. In turn, Valjean repays his host by stealing the abbey’s silver, an act that leads to his capture by the local authorities. When the police ask the Bishop about the theft, however, he denies that Valjean stole the items in question, a gesture of compassion that astonishes the would-be thief. The Bishop then explains to Valjean that, since he has been the recipient of God’s mercy, he must go forth and build a new life for himself, one based on the same principles of benevolence and service to others that have been so generously bestowed upon him. He embraces the Bishop’s advice, vowing to pursue a virtuous, liberated life, and, to demonstrate his commitment to this new path, before leaving the abbey, he tears up his parole papers.

Valjean remains true to his word, spending the next eight years building a new life for himself as a business owner and as the mayor of Montreuil. He lives under an assumed name, an identity he desperately attempts to keep secret from the newly assigned police inspector, his old nemesis, Javert. Despite this ever-present threat to his freedom, Valjean nevertheless has the power and authority to help others, such as a lovely young femme fatale, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who was wrongly dismissed from her job at Valjean’s factory by an unscrupulous foreman (Michael Jibson). Because of her financial hardships, such as supporting her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), and her child’s opportunistic caretakers, innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter), Fantine is forced into a life of prostitution and personal degradation. When Valjean learns of what happened to Fantine, he vows to take care of her and her daughter, a prospect made all the more difficult when Javert learns of his true identity.

To save himself and Cosette, Valjean must once again go on the run, and he successfully manages to elude his would-be captor for nine years. But, while living in Paris on the eve of the French capital’s 1832 Uprising, his wits are tested once again. In addition to hiding himself, Valjean seeks to protect Cosette, now a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), from the perils of the looming revolt, including the advances of a handsome young revolutionary, Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne). It’s a challenge for Valjean, especially when his efforts embroil him in the insurrection and bring him into contact with an undercover operative attempting to infiltrate the resistance movement, his old foe, Javert.

Will Valjean be able to save his beloved Cosette without alienating her? Will he be unwittingly caught up in a revolt whose intents are noble but whose chances of success are slim? And what of his old adversary, Javert – will he finally get his man? These are just some of the questions that loom as Paris – and Valjean’s life – are about to be enveloped in chaos.

Given the lives of the story’s principal characters, at first glance, one might be tempted to think that its title, "Les Misérables" (loosely translated as "The Miserable Ones," "The Poor Ones" or "The Victims"), is most appropriate. Yet there’s also a certain irony associated with it since the story also deals with the characters’ attempts at rising above their circumstances, idealists who dare to dream that a better, freer, more equitable way of life is indeed possible. It depicts the power of the human spirit, as well as the power of belief, to create a better existence for ourselves and to enable us to grow and mature as individuals.

Such growth, however, invariably comes with its own set of challenges, as all of the story’s principals come to discover for themselves. In the course of taking on those tests, some will succeed; others will valiantly make the attempt, even if their efforts ultimately "fail"; and still others will be overwhelmed at the prospects of what such liberation affords, unable to handle what potential and prospects it carries. Along the way, there will also be influences that keep the protagonists committed to their tasks, such as Javert’s ongoing pursuit of Valjean, his efforts serving as a symbol of our hero’s "conscience" and his pledge to remain true to his goals – and to his true self.

The payoff for Valjean (and anyone similarly situated) is an escape from one’s limitations, those self-imposed restrictions that come to characterize one’s self-created imprisonment (in Valjean’s case, an outcome that materializes quite literally, at least initially). Learning to rise above such restraints is one of the aims of the conscious creation process, and the characters in this epic saga depict that notion fittingly. The level of success any one of them attains, however, will ultimately depend on what beliefs they hold in manifesting the reality they experience. Their examples serve as effective illustrations for us as we attempt to do the same in our own lives.

Perhaps the most significant realization to come out of such efforts is that we’re all inherently capable of redemption, no matter how indelibly branded we may feel we’ve become as a result of our actions. Escape routes are always open to us, provided that we allow ourselves to believe in them and that we’re capable of spotting them when they arise. Such synchronicities can guide us out of the darkness and into the brilliance of enlightenment, as Valjean discovers for himself, for instance, in the incident at the abbey. Events like that show us new ways for living our lives, providing us with examples for how we can approach others and our day-to-day existence, enabling us to reshape our destinies in this thing we call life.

As much as I try to keep an open mind about cinema, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m typically not a fan of movie musicals (as I wrote in the introduction to my book, Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, "most make me wish I’d been born heterosexual"). However, with that said, I must also confess that "Les Misérables" absolutely blew me away, a personal reaction that I was definitely not expecting.

The sheer scale of this production is awe-inspiring, so accolades are clearly in order for director Tom Hooper, if for no other reason than just being able to hold everything together. However, Hooper does more than that here; he has unquestionably marshaled the resources necessary for making a modern epic, one that both entertains and inspires on many levels. The production design and production values are top shelf across the board, from costume design to set design to cinematography and sound quality. But, if that weren’t enough, the film has assembled a remarkable cast, led by the outstanding performances of Jackman, Bonham Carter, Cohen and, above all, Hathaway, whose remarkable vocalizations are a true revelation. If the film has any shortcomings it would be a slight tendency to drag at times in the second half, but that’s more than made up for by everything else it has going for it.

Despite some tepid critical reviews, the film has received a warm audience response and its share of recognition. It recently took home three Golden Globe Awards (on four nominations), including best picture (musical or comedy), best actor (musical or comedy) (Jackman) and best supporting actress (Hathaway), and one Critics Choice Award (on 11 nominations) for best supporting actress (Hathaway). It has also received eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best actor (Jackman) and best supporting actress (Hathaway), as well as three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, including best actor (Jackman), best supporting actress (Hathaway) and best ensemble cast.

The power to confine – and to liberate – ourselves lies within each of us. What we do with that power is also up to each of us. But recognizing that we have the ability in the first place is a significant milestone along the path to discovering the true nature of our true selves. "Les Misérables" shows us, with heartfelt emotion and remarkable clarity, how we can achieve that for ourselves – and our world.

Photo by Laurie Sparham, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What To Expect Out of This Year’s Oscars

The 85th Academy Award nominations were announced earlier this month, and most of those receiving Oscar nods followed projections, with a few surprises (and snubs) thrown in just to keep things interesting. But making predictions on this year’s winners is a bit trickier than in the past; with roughly a month to go until Oscar night, there are some genuine horse races in progress, unlike recent years, when most of the recipients were pretty much foregone conclusions. So, with that said, here’s what I expect out of the major categories in this year’s competition as of now.

Best Picture

The Field: “Amour,” “Argo,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Zero Dark Thirty”

Who Will Likely Win: “Argo.” This picture has the momentum behind it at the moment, having recently won best picture (drama) honors at the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Awards. It’s also well-represented in the nominations for the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards. And, as an entertaining, critically acclaimed, technically well-made picture that honors unsung American heroes, it’s a popular and politically correct choice, even if it isn’t the best offering in the pack.

Who Should Win: “Les Misérables.” Given the sheer scale of this production, not to mention its stellar performances, director Tom Hooper’s cinematic opus outpaces everything else in the field. It’s already won best picture (musical or comedy) at the Golden Globe Awards and truly deserves to take home top honors at the Oscars.

Possible Dark Horses: Despite the plethora of nominations it received, “Lincoln” realistically has to be seen as a dark horse at best at this point. Its mediocre performance at the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards doesn’t bode well, either. The same can be said of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a picture that garnered a lot of early buzz but whose star has faded since becoming embroiled in several controversies involving its content.

Also-Rans: All of the field’s other entries are likely to end up as also-rans, even though they may take home awards in specific categories. “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” should be grateful just for having been nominated, given their marginal audience appeal. And as for “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Life of Pi” and “Django Unchained,” all of which are audience and/or critical favorites that have achieved varying degrees of excellence and/or acclaim, they’re all almost certain to be outgunned by their more superior competition.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered: I know I’m way out on a limb on this one, but I was seriously disappointed that the reincarnational drama “Cloud Atlas” was overlooked. This incredibly ambitious offering merited much more recognition than it received from audiences and critics alike, not to mention the annual awards competitions. I also was disappointed that “The Dark Knight Rises” was ignored (though, given the unfortunate stigma lingering over this picture, its snubbing does not come as a surprise). The heartwarming independent films “The Sessions” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” would have made fine nominees in this category as well (certainly much more deserving than the vastly overrated, utterly pretentious “Beasts of the Southern Wild”).

Best Actor

The Field: Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”; Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”; Hugh Jackman, “Les Misérables”; Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”; Denzel Washington, “Flight”

Who Will Likely Win: Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis has been a prohibitive favorite for this honor even before awards season began. He’s a virtual lock in this category, especially in the wake of his wins as best actor (drama) at the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards.

Who Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis. As admirable as the other nominees are in their performances, none of them can approach the caliber of Day-Lewis’ outstanding portrayal of the nation’s 16th President.

Possible Dark Horse: If any dark horse emerges, it would be truly shocking. However, if I had to select one, I’d most likely choose Hugh Jackman, who recently captured the Golden Globe Award for best actor (musical or comedy). Nevertheless, despite this win, I believe his chances are so slim at this point that the possibility is barely worth discussing.

Also-Rans: Anyone who isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered: The biggest snub in this category was the exclusion of John Hawkes for his outstanding portrayal of handicapped writer Mark O’Brien in “The Sessions.” Hawkes’ performance, easily the best of his career, was much more deserving of a nomination than Joaquin Phoenix’s overwrought portrayal of a misguided drifter in “The Master.” Other contenders who would have made admirable nominees (but who obviously didn’t make the cut) were Bill Murray for “Hyde Park on Hudson,” Anthony Hopkins for “Hitchcock,” Tommy Lee Jones for “Hope Springs,” Jean-Louis Trintignant for “Amour” and Frank Langella for the quirky “Robot & Frank.”

Best Actress

The Field: Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”; Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”; Emmanuelle Riva, “Amour”; Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”

Who Will Likely Win: This is basically a two-horse race between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. At this point, I’d give the edge to Chastain, partly because of the weightier, more demanding nature of her role and partly because of her wins as best actress (drama) at the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards. As commendable as Lawrence’s performance is, and despite her wins as best actress (comedy) at the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards, I don’t believe there’s enough substance to her character to surpass her more serious counterpart.

Who Should Win: Emanuelle Riva. By far, too. This is easily the most demanding role of the five lead actresses, and Riva certainly rises to the occasion, despite the fine performances of her fellow nominees.

Possible Dark Horses: Since a win by Jennifer Lawrence would not come as a totally unexpected surprise, it’s probably not accurate to characterize her as a dark horse in this category. That role would more likely go to either Emmanuelle Riva or Quvenzhané Wallis, but, since neither of their films was widely screened, their nominations should probably be considered their awards. The timely release of “Amour” right before the start of voting could work to Riva’s favor, though foreign language films rarely produce winners in the acting categories.

Also-Ran: Regrettably, the fine performance of Naomi Watts is the one most likely to become lost in the ether, given the popular portrayals turned in by Chastain and Lawrence and the novelty of the nominations given to Riva and Wallis (as the oldest and youngest actress nominees, respectively, ever named by the Academy). One might also argue that Watts’ nomination this year in part is intended to make up for the egregious snub of her positively stellar work in “Fair Game” (2010), a feeble attempt at making amends for a performance that easily could have won her an Oscar.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered: The biggest oversight in this category was the exclusion of Marion Cotillard for the edgy French romance, “Rust and Bone.” Some also would have liked to see Helen Mirren receive a nod for her performance in “Hitchcock,” though I can’t say I’d agree with that recommendation, despite being a big fan of her work.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field: Alan Arkin, “Argo”; Robert De Niro, “Silver Linings Playbook”; Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”; Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln”; Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”

Who Will Likely Win: The early money in this category was on Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I’d say he still probably has the edge, especially in light of his win at the Critics Choice Awards. However, Christoph Waltz’s win at the recent Golden Globe Awards may represent a shift in the momentum. I’d still give the advantage to Hoffman, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Waltz overtakes him in a photo finish. Whoever wins at the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards will probably determine definitively who takes home the Oscar.

Who Should Win: Picking a worthy victor in this category is indeed difficult, since most of the nominees are truly deserving. If pushed to pick a winner, I’d also probably go with Hoffman, though I’d certainly be very pleased with victories by Alan Arkin or Tommy Lee Jones as well.

Possible Dark Horse: Despite a win not that long ago, Alan Arkin could slip in as a dark horse, especially if “Argo” continues to gain momentum in the overall awards race. I don’t think that outcome is likely at this point, but it’s not outside the range of possibility, either.

Also-Rans: It almost seems sacrilegious to think of Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones as also-rans, but, despite their commendable performances, I believe their portrayals are overshadowed by their competition here. Arkin may end up falling victim to the same fate, though I believe the strength of his performance may keep him more in the running than either De Niro or Jones.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered: Limiting the list of nominees here indeed had to be challenging since there were so many worthy contenders this year. Some of the others who merited consideration include Sacha Baron Cohen for “Les Misérables,” Javier Bardem for “Skyfall,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson for “Django Unchained,” Michael Caine for “The Dark Knight Rises” and Josh Brolin for his superb (and very underrated) performance in “Men in Black III.”

Best Supporting Actress

The Field: Amy Adams, “The Master”; Sally Field, “Lincoln”; Anne Hathaway, “Les Misérables”; Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”; Jacki Weaver, “Silver Linings Playbook”

Who Will Likely Win: Anne Hathaway. As the tragic heroine Fantine, Hathaway gives a powerful performance that outstrips all of her competitors, and, with wins at both the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards, she’s just about cemented her lock on this category.

Who Should Win: Anne Hathaway. Without a doubt, she sets the standard for this category in this year’s competition, despite fine performances by her fellow nominees.

Possible Dark Horses: If for some odd reason Hathaway should fall out of favor between now and the time of the Oscars telecast, Sally Field, Helen Hunt and Amy Adams (in that order) could all step up to take her place. All three turned in excellent performances, and in any other year (without the formidable competition from Hathaway) any of them would have easily been capable of taking home the top prize in this category.

Also-Ran: The tide that swept Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro into their nominations for “Silver Linings Playbook” was likely strong enough to sweep Jacki Weaver into contention for her performance. However, despite an excellent career track record and a capable effort in this offering, her portrayal is easily the weakest in this year’s category, and her exclusion from it would have opened the door for several other more deserving nominees, as noted below.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered: As with the supporting actor category, it had to have been challenging to limit the list of nominees for supporting actress. A number of other performers would have made worthy nominees, including Helena Bonham Carter and Samantha Barks for “Les Misérables,” Ann Dowd for “Compliance,” Judi Dench for “Skyfall” (or “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) and Maggie Smith for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (or “Quartet”).

Best Director

The Field: Michael Haneke, “Amour”; Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; Ang Lee, “Life of Pi”; David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”; Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”

Who Will Likely Win: At the moment, the director’s award field is fairly wide open since the winner in this category in this year’s prior competitions, Ben Affleck for “Argo,” wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. The exclusion of such other heavy hitters as Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty” and Tom Hooper for “Les Misérables” makes the front runner among the actual nominees a lot less obvious. In light of that, then, I’d have to say that there’s no clear-cut leader at this point, though I’d probably give a very tenuous edge to Steven Spielberg, given that his heavily nominated film is the most popular and most acclaimed among those created by this year’s director nominees (though I believe that advantage is anemic at best).

Who Should Win: I’m not overly enthused about any of the nominees in this category, though, if I had to choose someone from among the choices, I would probably go with Michael Haneke, though with some reservations. If, however, I had to pick a winner regardless of nomination status, I would opt for Tom Hooper for the same reasons that I would choose his film as best picture.

Possible Dark Horses: Essentially, everyone on the list (except Spielberg) would qualify here, though, I’d probably pick David O. Russell as the leading contender among the pack of dark horses. Giving Russell the award may be a way of rewarding the film with at least one statuette in this year’s competition, since it’s very possible that it may lose in the other categories in which it’s nominated.

Also-Rans: Essentially, everyone on the list (except Spielberg and possibly Russell) would, strangely enough, qualify here, too. Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin in particular should consider their nominations as their awards.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered: For the reasons noted above, I believe Tom Hooper for “Les Misérables” clearly should have been named a nominee. Strong cases could also be made for popular contenders like Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained” and Ben Affleck for “Argo.” However, it would have been nice to see the Academy think outside the box a bit, too, by including such other choices as Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings for “Cloud Atlas,” Christopher Nolan for “The Dark Knight Rises” and Ben Lewin for “The Sessions.”

The Oscars will be presented on February 24, live on ABC-TV. Check back with this page after the ceremony to see how I did. In the meantime, be sure to check out more about some of the nominated films, as well as some that didn’t make the cut, including their web sites and trailers and my reviews, at the following links:

Amour”: web site, trailer, review

“Argo”: web site, trailer, review

“Flight”: web site, trailer, review

“The Impossible”: web site, trailer, review

“Les Misérables”: web site, trailer, review

“Life of Pi”: web site, trailer, review

“Lincoln”: web site, trailer, review

“The Master”: web site, trailer, review

“The Sessions”: web site, trailer, review

“Silver Linings Playbook”: web site, trailer, review

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”: web site, trailer, review

“Cloud Atlas”: web site, trailer, review

“Compliance”: web site, trailer, review

“The Dark Knight Rises”: web site, trailer, review

“Hitchcock”: web site, trailer, review

“Hope Springs”: web site, trailer, review

“Men in Black III”: web site, trailer, review

“Quartet”: web site, trailer, review

“Robot & Frank”: web site, trailer, review

“Rust and Bone”: web site, trailer, review

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 11, 2013

‘State of Illusion’ reveals the reality of reality

“People v. The State of Illusion” (2012). Cast, Fictional Segment: J.B. Tuttle, Michael McCormick, Kevin McDonald, Melanie Lindahl, Tad Jones, Amy Baklini; Expert Commentators: Austin Vickers (narrator), Thomas Moore, Candace Pert, Debbie Ford, Joe Dispenza, Robert Jahn, Brenda Dunne, Peter Senge, Michael Vandermark. Director: Scott Cervine. Screenplay: Austin Vickers. Web site. Trailer.

We all know how reality works, right? Or do we? Many of us like to think of our existence as an easily definable, quantifiable experience governed by readily identified laws that apply across the board. But is it really that simple, or is there something more subjective at work, especially when discrepancies make their presence felt? Those are just some of the considerations addressed in the enlightening documentary “People v. The State of Illusion,” now available on DVD.

Aaron Rogers (no relation to the Green Bay Packers quarterback) (J.B. Tuttle) is having a difficult time in life. Separated from his wife and potentially facing a layoff from his job, he struggles to get by. But that’s all before things go downhill.

One evening, after attending a school play featuring his daughter, Hope (Melanie Lindahl), Aaron runs a red light while driving her home, causing a tragic car accident in which the driver of the other vehicle, a mother of two young children, is killed. But, if that weren’t bad enough, he’s also found to be legally drunk. Having attended happy hour before meeting Hope, he had enough alcohol in his system at the time of the accident to be charged with DUI – as well as manslaughter.

Not long thereafter, Aaron is tried, found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. With his life falling apart, he sees no future for himself. He views his existence as a living hell, one that was bad on the outside before the accident but that has now been made that much worse on the inside. Little did he know, however, that this self-assessment of his life would provide him with a fitting metaphor for capturing the essence of his existence – one that would also be the key in helping him to turn things around.

While in jail, Aaron crosses paths with two people who will play significant roles in helping him sort out his life, a prison guard (Kevin McDonald) and a janitor (Michael McCormick). Through his conversations with them, Aaron comes to realize that his circumstances, both before and after incarceration, are clearly the product of his own creation, the physical manifestation of his prevailing beliefs and worldview. And, as a result of that newfound awareness, he subsequently comes to recognize that changing his fate going forward is also just as much a product of his beliefs and worldview – provided that he allows change to occur.

The story line of this fictional narrative thus takes viewers through the process of awakening and self-discovery that Aaron experiences. Each of the realizations that he experiences as part of that process are defined and commented upon by a panel of experts in the fields of medicine, physiology, psychology and metaphysics, explaining the intrinsic connections between these various disciplines (and how those connections apply to each of us) and illustrating how Aaron’s circumstances are, in fact, the result of his own making, how such connections lead to the thoughts that become the things that make up his life.

In reaching these conclusions, the experts essentially take the notion of conscious creation (or law of attraction) as a given, a fundamental starting point for understanding how reality works. They then walk viewers through the steps of how one’s tangible existence arises from one’s intangible beliefs. However, the experts hasten to add that the beliefs we draw upon to create the reality we experience represent only an infinitesimal part of the total range of belief options available to us. We could just as easily choose a different set of beliefs from the ones we adhere to, but, until we do, the reality we manifest will persist in materializing an existence in line with whatever beliefs prevail.

In that sense, then, the reality we experience is essentially an “illusion,” one of many possibilities that we’re each capable of experiencing but that simultaneously does not serve as an intrinsically objective universal truth applicable to everyone. Whatever we experience comes down to whatever we choose to focus our attention on, a concept repeatedly reinforced in the writings of author and conscious creation advocate Jane Roberts and her noncorporeal channeled entity, Seth. If what we focus on suits us, that’s great; if that’s not the case, however, then it’s time for a change and taking the steps to make that possible.

Learning how to liberate ourselves from our own self-imposed imprisonment – a fitting notion given Aaron’s example – is the key to creating a life of greater fulfillment. Of course, becoming aware of the fact that we have that option at our disposal in the first place is crucial if we ever hope to escape the confinement that we tend to view as fixed and unalterable. In doing so, we must also be willing to accept responsibility for what we manifest, because failure in this regard amounts to nothing more than a fundamental abrogation of our role in the process of creating the reality we experience. However, by witnessing Aaron’s odyssey, combined with the insights of the expert commentators, we’re provided with clues as to how we can do the same for ourselves as the protagonist does for himself in his life.

Those familiar with the enormously popular documentaries “What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?” (2004) (commonly known as “What the Bleep”) and “The Secret” (2006) will undoubtedly recognize the parallels between those films and this production in terms of approach, format and content. However, as commendable as both of those films are, I believe that “People v. The State of Illusion” represents a significant step up from those pictures, providing viewers with clearly defined, highly practical and easily understood information on the reality of reality. Its concise, no-nonsense approach makes its arguments impeccably clear and to the point, and even those who are new to these ideas are likely to come away from this film with an indisputable understanding of the concepts it covers.

The presentation of the picture’s central themes in the context of a “trial” is an inspired approach, one that undoubtedly came naturally to screenwriter and narrator Austin Vickers, himself a former trial lawyer. While the narrative doesn’t follow a trial format per se, the protagonist’s actions are clearly on trial in the view of the “people” (i.e., the audience), his contentions countered by the prosecutorial arguments of the narrator and the expert witnesses. And, in the end, after hearing the cases made by each side, we’re left to render a verdict on the process outlined in the film, not only as it applies to Aaron but also to ourselves.

Birthing an existence that suits us can be an exciting yet tricky process, especially if we intentionally don blinders that keep us from seeing all of the possibilities open to us. But, if we’re willing to consider the range of options available and pursue the desired outcomes, we can reap tremendous rewards for ourselves. And that’s no illusion.

Photo courtesy of Exalt Films.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

‘The Impossible’ reveals how beliefs beat the odds

"The Impossible" (2012). Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring, Geraldine Chaplin, Ploy Jindachote, Johan Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg, La-Orng Thongruang, Tor Klathaley, Douglas Johansson, Emilio Riccardi, Nicola Harrison. Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez. Story: Maria Belon. Web site. Trailer.

Under trying conditions, reconciling oneself to seemingly obvious inevitabilities might look like the only option available. But is it really? What if another choice were possible? And what would it take to materialize it? Those of just some of the questions addressed in the affecting new drama, "The Impossible."

It’s December 2004, and the Bennett family is anxiously looking forward to a Christmas vacation in Thailand. Parents Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), are excited about their upcoming stay at a luxurious beach resort in Khao Lak. They arrive on Christmas Eve and enjoy a festive time together, a suitable prelude to a merry yuletide celebration the next morning. But, on December 26, things change drastically, in ways no one ever could have predicted.

While swimming and sunning at the resort’s pool, the Bennetts begin hearing, and then feeling, a deafening rumble, one that causes them and all of the other foreign tourists to stop dead in their tracks. Moments later, the source of that thunderous roar becomes apparent – an enormous and horrific tsunami crashing over the nearby shoreline, inundating the resort and washing away everything – and everyone – in its path.

In the wake of the huge wave, Maria and Lucas get swept away but miraculously manage to find one another. They take shelter in the branches of a tall tree along with Daniel (Johan Sundberg), a terrified young boy separated from his family. With debris swirling about beneath them, they await help in the relative safety of the sturdy boughs. And help truly is needed given Maria’s condition; as a physician, she’s well aware of the severity of her injuries and the consequences of what will happen to her without treatment.

While Maria and Lucas struggle to save themselves, Henry, Thomas and Simon somehow manage to survive the inundation by taking refuge at what’s left of the resort. They fretfully await word of what might have happened to their loved ones, but, with such widespread devastation and virtually nonexistent communication, they’re essentially helpless to do anything but wait. The trio later becomes separated intentionally when Henry sends his sons to an evacuation camp, opting to stay behind and search for his wife and son, a painful decision for the young father, compounding the flood of anguish that’s already washed over him.

Meanwhile, Maria’s and Lucas’s prayers for a rescue are answered when two local residents (La-Orng Thongruang, Tor Klathaley) shepherd them to the safety of a nearby hospital. Maria’s condition is grave, but she insists that Lucas go help others while she awaits treatment. He leaves her bedside reluctantly, but he’s rewarded for his Samaritan efforts by helping to reunite a Swedish tourist (Douglas Johansson) and his injured son (Emilio Riccardi). Upon returning to his mother’s hospital bed, however, he finds her gone with no word of her whereabouts or condition. Yet another separation for the family thus makes an already trying time even more arduous.

Will the Bennetts reunite? Or will they be forever separated? And what of Maria’s condition? Will she survive? These are the seemingly insurmountable challenges posed to an unsuspecting family that started out on its trip merely hoping for a pleasant holiday vacation. Some might even say that the odds of such a reunion are "impossible." But then, who’s to say the odds are always right?

As conscious creators are well aware, we each draw to ourselves a reality that’s in line with our beliefs and intents. But why, one might ask, would anyone draw to himself events as horrendous as this?

In conscious creation terms, incidents that occur on such a grand scale as this are called "mass events," happenings that are co-created en masse. While the event may be viewed as a single occurrence, it’s actually made up of countless individual events that all unfold under the same umbrella. The beliefs underlying such individual events generally have to do with whatever particular lessons their creators need to learn, and, in the case of this film’s protagonists, there are numerous teachings that each of them is able to experience as a result of this tragedy.

For instance, while on the plane on their way to Thailand, virtually all of the Bennett family members express trepidation about various fears that each of them is dealing with. In all of these instances, however, the fears they’re wrestling with pale in comparison to those they will come to face during the course of their respective upcoming ordeals. The wave, as unquestionably devastating as it was physically and emotionally, nevertheless provides an opportunity for addressing lessons related to fear. One would hope that resorting to means as drastic as this wouldn’t be necessary for learning such lessons, but sometimes we must attract such extreme circumstances to us in order to do so, especially if the issues in question have gone unaddressed for an unduly long time.

Likewise, the individual tragedies that transpire in the course of this mass event also provide prime learning opportunities with respect to compassion, a lesson of particular importance for Lucas. While Lucas may be the least fearful of the family members, it’s due largely to his strong survival instinct, a quality that doesn’t always make allowances for helping others. The tsunami changes that, however. For instance, in the midst of the turmoil of trying to help his injured mother survive the wave, Maria tells Lucas that they must try to help Daniel, even if it’s the last thing they do. Lucas is initially reluctant, but Maria’s insistence compels him to aid the lost young boy, helping Lucas to rewrite his beliefs regarding altruism and ultimately providing a rewarding experience for all involved.

The act of rewriting one’s beliefs can pay benefits in "unexpected" ways, too. For example, by saving Daniel, Lucas and Maria are themselves then saved by the local residents who rescue them from the tree. They get back what they put out, the outside world thus mirroring back to them tangibly what they intangibly believe on the inside. Their intentions are also thus rewarded by their divine conscious creation collaborator, their efforts recognized in a way not unlike that depicted in the heartwarming film "Pay It Forward" (2000). Payback, it seems, can indeed be a blessing.

Coming to understand that this is how the Universe operates helps to deepen our awareness of several other significant conscious creation concepts. First, it strengthens our belief in the notion that everything is inherently connected. It’s truly amazing to see how one mass event can include all of the links integral to the manifestation of so many diverse individual scenarios. Even seemingly "unrelated" influences carry intrinsic connections. If you doubt that, consider where the earthquake occurred that caused the tsunami; who would have thought that an event transpiring hundreds of miles away could wreak havoc in such a distant locale? But the connectedness of the Universe binds all things, no matter how seemingly remote or disparate, which is why we should be cognizant of this notion in the beliefs we form and the existence we seek to create. The Bennetts come to see this for themselves, too, and in more ways than they ever could have imagined.

But, perhaps even more significantly, this film makes the case for having faith. No matter how utterly improbable things may seem, truly "miraculous" events can occur, even in the face of the unlikeliest of odds, provided that one believes they’re possible. Even when things are at their darkest, the Bennetts never lose hope in finding one another. By holding on to that belief and paying attention to the synchronicities that steer them in the right direction, a family separated by tragedy has an opportunity to come together once again, emerging from the ordeal even stronger than ever.

Given the nature of a picture like this, it’s not too difficult to predict the outcome, even from the very beginning. Thus the trick in making a story like this compelling is the means by which the filmmaker gets the audience to the conclusion. But, because of the movie’s inspiring narrative, as well as its comparably uplifting trailer, I must admit to having had my reservations going in. I was concerned that it might easily be sappy and overly sentimental, riddled with clichés and manipulative plot devices. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

"The Impossible" is a truly heartfelt drama that earns the emotional reactions it evokes. In large part that’s due to the fact that the filmmakers have not sugarcoated their depiction of the tsunami. While the picture never descends to the level of being gratuitous, it nevertheless does not hesitate to show the tragedy and its effects in a frank, candid manner. When viewers see what the characters are up against, the responses induced are indeed genuine. This is due in part to the incredible re-creation of events, as well as the stellar performances of McGregor and Watts, who deservedly has earned best actress nominations in the annual Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice award competitions, as well as newcomer Holland, who received a Critics Choice Award nomination as best young actor.

Adversity can be a great teacher in many ways, as this film clearly shows. However, perhaps the greatest lesson it can teach us is that all need not be lost, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Indeed, "the impossible" need only be so if we allow it to be, and, when faced with such an outcome, the alternative might well seem preferable – as long as we believe it so.

Photo by Jose Haro, courtesy of Summit Entertainment,LLC.

Copyright © 2012-13, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

‘Rust and Bone’ examines reinventing oneself

"Rust and Bone" ("De rouille et d’os") (2012). Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero, Jean-Michel Correia, Yannick Choirat, Céline Sallette, Bouli Lanners, Mourad Frarema. Director: Jacques Audiard. Screenplay: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain. Story: Craig Davidson. Web site. Trailer.

Starting over in life can be quite daunting, particularly when one is faced with exceptionally devastating conditions. Getting a foothold on a new way of living can be difficult, too, filling one’s head with images of the seeming futility of grasping at those proverbial straws. But, no matter how seemingly cruel such circumstances might appear, beginning anew is essential to our continued exploration of physical existence as two lost souls discover for themselves in the edgy new French romance, "Rust and Bone."

Alain "Ali" van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts) is seeking a fresh start. As a single father with virtually no money in his pocket and his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) in tow, he leaves his home in northern France for the southern resort town of Antibes, where his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) has agreed to take him in while he gets his house in order. The former security guard who dabbled as a kick boxer quickly lands a job as a bouncer at a local nightclub. Things seem to be shaping up well, but they take an unexpected turn one night while at work.

In the course of breaking up a bar fight, he comes to the aid of a young woman caught up in the midst of the melee, Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). Unlike most of the other women at the club, whom he tends to look upon mostly as potential one-night stands, he’s strangely captivated by this unlikely damsel in distress, who’s simultaneously aloof and alluring. He goes out of his way to help her, doing more than he typically would under the circumstances, eventually giving her a ride home – and his phone number.

Not long thereafter, Stéphanie experiences a serious setback of her own. As an orca trainer at the local marine park, she’s severely injured during a showtime accident that costs her both of her legs. Depressed and confined to a wheelchair, she decides to make use of the phone number of the stranger who was so kind to her, reaching out not only for his assistance but also in an effort to reconnect with life. They slowly forge a bond, one that simultaneously gives Stéphanie a new will to live and that inspires Ali to pursue the boxing interests he had previously left behind. It’s an unusual relationship but one that transcends love; it’s also one that pushes each partner to better understand themselves and to grow as individuals, an outcome that pays benefits in myriad ways.

Reinventing oneself in the face of adversity can be a daunting task, especially when one harbors personal beliefs that run counter to, or even undermine, such attempts at transformation. It’s easy to allow oneself to become discouraged, especially when the challenges mount and progress is slow. But having someone to serve as a source of encouragement can go a long way to dispel such obstacles, especially when one views the other as having greater tests to overcome. Such inspiration can lead to levels of personal growth never dreamed possible.

Of course, to reinvent ourselves, we need to know from whence we’re starting. This involves becoming intimately familiar with who we truly are and getting real about it. We need to take stock of the beliefs we hold and how they manifest the reality we experience through the conscious creation process. Only by doing so can we see where alterations and adjustments are needed to come up with new beliefs that are more in line with the existence we ultimately hope to create.

Accomplishing this sometimes requires us to get in touch with feelings that are very raw. We have to take a hard look at ourselves, a process that’s often far from easy. Ali, for example, needs to overcome the self-centeredness that has characterized much of his life. But, to attain that goal, he must first recognize its existence before he can even begin to think about changing it, a behavior to which he has been largely oblivious. In doing so, he must also take responsibility for all of the creations that arise within his life, and there’s no better tonic for this than having to become accountable for the materializations that comprise our existence. Having to take on the responsibility of caring for a five-year-old child and a disabled girlfriend can go a long way to achieving that objective for someone trying to get over being preoccupied with only himself. Such actions open new doors for us, leading to whole new levels of personal growth and development.

Stéphanie has challenges of her own to overcome as well. In addition to rising above the despair over the loss of her limbs, she must learn that there are other things in life to love than her beloved whales, for all practical purposes the almost-exclusive source of joy in her life before her accident. Because she’s unable to continue her work at the marine park, Stéphanie must find a new outlet for her passions and affections. And, if people are to become the beneficiaries of such emotions, she must come to realize that being aloof toward them won’t do much to win them over. A new approach, and beliefs that support it, are clearly needed. But the payoff from such newfound awareness can be tremendous, such as the realization that love may very well arise from sources that weren’t previously envisioned.

"Rust and Bone" is a film full of passions, many of which are depicted in a very honest, graphic manner. The boxing sequences and love scenes, for instance, are both filmed in a very uncompromising manner, so sensitive viewers take heed. The picture also features passionate, heartfelt portrayals by the two leads, particularly Cotillard, who has deservedly earned best actress nominations for her outstanding performance in the annual Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice award competitions. The movie itself has also earned its own share of accolades, capturing nominations for best foreign film in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Independent Spirit award competitions.

As well as the characters are fleshed out, however, their motivations aren’t always made as clear as they could be. A lot is left to implication, which, if unrecognized, might justifiably lead some viewers to think that the narrative meanders aimlessly at times, a shortcoming that probably could have been overcome with some additional clarity in the writing, editing and direction. Nevertheless, this drawback doesn’t seriously detract from an otherwise-fine film. The picture’s performances, cinematography, soundtrack and emotional intensity more than make up for this.

The struggle to be reborn can be a challenging one, but it can be made that much easier when there’s a companion for the journey, someone to offer encouragement, inspiration and, above all, love. When faced with such circumstances, perhaps intentionally seeking to draw someone to us who can aid us in our efforts is one of the wisest courses we can follow, providing us with a source of support, reassurance and comfort. "Rust and Bone" illustrates one such example of this and does so without becoming sloppy or sentimental in the process. It shows us how love can help conquer all – and rather handily at that.

Photo © by Roger Arpajou/Why Not Productions, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Copyright © 2012-13, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.