Friday, February 27, 2015

‘Red Army’ explores creativity on ice

“Red Army” (2014). Interview footage: Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, Alexei Kasatanov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Krutov, Vladimir Pozner, Scotty Bowman, Felix Nechepore, Lada Fetisov. Archive footage: Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Viktor Tikhonov, Anatoli Tarasov, Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Brehznev, Vladimir Putin, Joseph Stalin, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Herb Brooks, Wayne Gretzky. Director: Gabe Polsky. Screenplay: Gabe Polsky. Web site. Trailer.

One never knows where one’s creative inspiration will come from. Sometimes the sources will seem obvious. But, at other times, it may arise from the unlikeliest of places. Such is the case with the engaging new sports documentary, “Red Army.”

For decades, the Soviet national hockey team dominated the sport in the world of international tournament play, including the Winter Olympics. Organized and operated under the auspices of the Red Army, the team was a virtually unstoppable juggernaut. But how did it come to be such a formidable powerhouse?

In the years after World War II, with the rise of the Cold War, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sought to exploit the world of sport for propaganda purposes. His intent was to demonstrate the alleged inherent superiority of the Communist system through its success in all manner of athletics, and one of the ways he hoped to achieve this was through the game of hockey, long a sport dominated by such Western nations as Canada and the U.S. To reach this goal, Stalin put coach Anatoli Tarasov in charge of building a program from the ground up. And what Tarasov created set the hockey world on its ear.

Unlike traditional Western versions of the game, which were built on intimidating physicality, Tarasov developed a style of play based on finesse, relying more on intricate patterns of passing and skating than on sheer brute force. He brought a highly creative approach to the game, one that was inspired by his study of such unlikely influences as chess and even ballet. This approach completely stumped opponents, who were unable to fathom this innovative style of play.

But, in addition to devising this unpredictable approach to play-making, Tarasov did something else to make his squad invincible – he emphasized the spirit of teamwork. The players became fast friends, almost like a family, spending virtually as much time together off the ice as on it. By encouraging this approach, Tarasov created a harmonious environment for his players to work together, as if they were part of a brotherhood. Cooperation, not competition, dominated the spirit of the team, with its top players serving as leaders for the squad. With its core of defensemen Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov and Alexei Kasatanov, forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, and goalie Vladislav Tretiak, the Red Army team was virtually unbeatable.

The elements that worked so well for so long, however, came under attack when Tarasov was dismissed after an uncharacteristic outburst at one of the team’s games. He was subsequently replaced with Viktor Tikhonov, a hardline authoritarian Red Army officer who is said to have earned his job more out of favoritism with the political powers-that-be than because of his coaching skills. This change alienated players and likely contributed to the team’s upset loss to a scrappy but eminently less talented U.S. squad at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Such “humiliation” led to further changes, including the sequestering of the Soviet players in hockey camps for up to 11 months a year and holding training sessions as frequently as four times a day.

This routine took quite a physical and emotional toll on team members. Some players reportedly became so depleted that they urinated blood, and one player who wanted to visit his dying father had his request denied because of Tikhonov’s assertion that he needed to get ready for the next game. So, even though the players were eager to wipe the slate of their demoralizing 1980 loss (which they did by capturing gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics), there was also a growing disaffection among them to continue playing for a coach they no longer respected.

Coaching troubles were not the only challenge the team faced. Professional hockey leagues in the West (most notably the NHL) were intrigued by the considerable talent of the Soviet players and sought to recruit them. This raised eyebrows not only among the team’s coaching staff, but also among government officials and the Soviet security agency, the KGB. With the Soviet Union quickly deteriorating and fearing a tidal wave of defections, the team and officials clamped down on players seeking to play in the West, severely restricting their movements. Those who were bold enough to press the issue were told they would have to turn over most of their pay in exchange for the opportunity to play outside the U.S.S.R., an ultimatum that deterred some but made others more determined than ever to chart new courses for themselves. The once-great Soviet squad seemed to be on its last legs.

Ironically, the freedom that playing in the West seemed to symbolize came at a cost, too. Some of the Soviet players who eventually made their way into the NHL found it difficult to adapt to a different style of hockey, and others had trouble adjusting to not having every aspect of their daily lives determined for them. This perceived panacea thus wasn’t everything it promised to be. However, when several of the former Soviet players were able to reunite as NHL teammates, the old magic returned. By being able to bring their singular style of hockey to a league unaccustomed to dealing with it, the former Red Army comrades were able to confound their opponents and experience success once again. They demonstrated that the principles that made them great could indeed be replicated, while simultaneously changing their sport once more.

The world of sport may seem like an odd venue for discussing conscious creation principles, but, in many ways, it’s actually one of the most fitting milieus. When athletes of any stripe engage in their sports, they’re involved in an unmistakable act of manifestation – the attainment of a desired accomplishment defined by a particular set of physically expressed parameters, either individually or collectively. Such pursuits involve earnestly sought accomplishments no less legitimate than those associated with undertakings like the painting of a portrait, the performance of an opera or the creation of a feast. And, when the goals of these ventures are reached, the sense of achievement that comes with them are just as satisfying. So it was, too, for the Soviet hockey team.

Considering the highly competitive nature of sport, however, it’s important to make the most of one’s creative capabilities to stand out from the pack and emerge victorious. This calls for thinking outside the box, envisioning inventive outcomes and then developing and employing suitable materialization beliefs that distinguish one’s efforts from those of everyone else. Such an approach was precisely what the Soviets drew upon in compiling their impressive track record. Tarasov’s belief that an innovative style of hockey could be created and put into practice allowed the Red Army team to stand apart and rise to greatness.

Tarasov’s inventive style of play wouldn’t have worked, though, without the backing of his squad. The players’ beliefs in their abilities, coupled with their faith in their coach’s unorthodox ideas, made it possible for them to succeed. The sense of camaraderie Tarasov fostered, in turn, worked synergistically with these other elements to produce the remarkable outcomes the team achieved. Their joint efforts truly embodied the mass event principles that epitomize collective conscious creation writ large.

Even though global propaganda was the chief intent behind Stalin’s initiative, the Red Army team’s success more likely arose as a result of the foregoing concepts than from the so-called superior nature of the nation’s political system. The coach and team, though undeniably patriotic, seemed to draw more upon their love of the game than on any ancillary considerations. Which is why the team got itself into trouble when prevailing conditions – and the underlying beliefs creating them – changed.

Tikhonov’s coaching style was vastly different from that of his predecessor. Rather than creating success as Tarasov did, Tikhonov sought to control circumstances at any cost. Instead of cooperating with the Universe by fostering beliefs and conditions conducive to achieving desired results, the new coach essentially tried to manhandle the manifestation process. The thoughtful, metaphysically deft touch employed when the program was launched (and led to the team’s phenomenal success) was replaced by a culture of inflexibility that ultimately served to alienate those responsible for realizing the very results being sought. It’s no wonder things eventually fell apart.

In many ways, this downfall was characteristic of the larger society of which the Red Army team was a part. As the Soviet system overall began to collapse under the weight of the ubiquitous unyielding strictures governing virtually every aspect of society, it was only a matter of time before the forces of change reshaping the rest of the national culture – and the underlying beliefs driving them – would also come to affect the country’s hockey team. This greater mass event pervaded the Soviet social order, and the world of sports was not immune. Clearly, the changes that took place within the Red Army team in the late 1980s mirrored what was happening on the national stage.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, did not lead to the disappearance of Soviet-style hockey. As former Red Army team members made their way to the West, they brought their skills and style of play with them, and, in some respects, they helped to change the game outside their homeland. Soundly manifested creations will always find a home – even if it’s not where the innovations themselves originated. (Well played, gentlemen.)

At first glance, “Red Army” might seem like a movie just for diehard sports fans, but nothing could be further from the truth. This excellent documentary transcends the world of hockey, skillfully exploring bigger questions, such as themes related to human nature, society and even creativity, ideas seldom raised in pictures about athletics. The film tells its story well and thoroughly, both in its sport and social aspects, through a fine mix of archive footage and contemporary interviews with team members Fetisov, Kasatanov, Tretiak and Krutov, former Soviet journalist Vladimir Pozner, NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman and former KGB operative Felix Nechepore. The picture truly packs a lot of information into its scant 85-minute runtime.

For all its strengths, unfortunately, the picture has a few shortcomings. Some of the camera work and questioning in the interview segments is a little amateurish at times. Some of these sequences easily could have benefitted from some judicious editing, too. But, considering everything else the film accomplishes, these failings can be overlooked (though addressing them definitely would have made for a better movie). The picture is currently in limited release, though it has made its way into some mainstream cinemas, as well as the art houses and specialty theaters.

Our ability to create is a cherished birthright, regardless of the avenue of expression in which it is employed. What’s most important, however, is that we never lose sight of it. Whether tossing a salad or firing a wicked slap shot into an awaiting net, these creations all originate with us and our beliefs. Let us hope we always have the awareness to remember that – and to make the most of it when our time to shine comes.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Follow Me on New Consciousness Review

I'm pleased to announce that I have become a contributor to New Consciousness Review! In this capacity, I will be contributing articles to NCR's quarterly magazine and film reviews to its web site. The first of those reviews, a look at the recently released metaphysical saga "The Last Avatar," is available by clicking here.

In addition, I will be appearing as a regular film reviewer on NCR's radio show with host Miriam Knight, which is available by clicking the radio show tab on the web site's home page. My first show appearance, as part of the NCR Reviewers Round Table series, will air beginning on Tuesday March 3 with reviews of "Still Alice," "Wild," "Cake" and "The Last Avatar." Be sure to tune in for some fascinating conversation about consciousness-related books and movies with my fellow reviewers Miriam Knight and Cynthia Sue Larson.

Monday, February 23, 2015

How’d I Do on This Year’s Oscars?

With this year’s Academy Awards ceremony behind us, it’s time to take a look at how I did on my predictions for the winners in this annual competition, as first outlined in my previous blog, Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars.

And the result? Four out of six correct calls, with two misses. Here are the details:

Best Picture

Projected Winner: “Boyhood”
Actual Winner: “Birdman”
Result: Missed call

Despite its wins in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA Awards competitions, the momentum behind “Boyhood” finally ran out, and “Birdman” took advantage of the opportunity, charging ahead to a much-deserved victory. I probably should have picked up on this shift, given the victor’s recent wins in the Directors’ Guild, Producer Guild and Screen Actors Guild Award contests, momentum that was punctuated with a win at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony the day before the Oscars. Although I saw “Birdman” as one of the films capable of besting “Boyhood,” I didn’t know if it had enough oomph behind it to pull that off. Obviously I was wrong, though I can’t say I’m disappointed with the result. Thankfully, Academy voters saw through the “Boyhood” hype and recognized the film for what it is – an ambitious undertaking based on the unique nature of its logistics and production schedule but not much more. Even though I still would have preferred “Selma” as the best picture winner, I’m not unhappy with the Academy’s selection of “Birdman” for the top prize.

Best Actor

Projected Winner: Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”
Actual Winner: Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”
Result: Correct call

This was the most difficult performance category to handicap, but, thankfully, the strongest portrayal came up the winner in this category. Redmayne was very deserving of every accolade bestowed upon him, though nearly all of his competitors would have made worthy winners as well.

Best Actress

Projected Winner: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”
Actual Winner: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”
Result: Correct call

This was a slam dunk. Moore swept the best actress category in every major competition leading up to the Oscars, so, again, there was no reason to believe that the result was going to be any different this time. Moore was deserving of every accolade bestowed upon her, though nearly all of her competitors also would have made worthy winners.

Best Supporting Actor

Projected Winner: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”
Actual Winner: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”
Result: Correct call

This was another slam dunk. Simmons won every major award leading up the Oscars, so his victory came as no surprise, despite a field of worthy competitors. It was very heartwarming to see this journeyman performer finally receive the recognition he has long deserved through a very distinguished, though often-underrated, career.

Best Supporting Actress

Projected Winner: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”
Actual Winner: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”
Result: Correct call

Once again, this was another category without any suspense. Even with the loss of momentum that “Boyhood” experienced in other categories, there was no stopping Arquette on her way to this win for a very fine performance. Even though I would have preferred the award go to Emma Stone for “Birdman,” Arquette’s award was still well earned, even if it was the only honor the picture picked up all night.

Best Director

Projected Winner: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Actual Winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”
Result: Missed call

As with the best picture category, Linklater’s directorial work on “Boyhood” looked like a shoo-in at one point, though, as I noted in my predictions blog, an “upset” in favor of Iñárritu for “Birdman” was not out of the realm of possibility – which is precisely what happened. What did surprise me, however, was how the momentum behind “Birdman” in this category would be strong enough to carry over and earn it the top prize of the night. Of the directors nominated, I truly believed Iñárritu was the most worthy candidate, even though my favorite directorial work of the year – that of Ava Duvernay for “Selma” – wasn’t nominated.

To find out more about what I had to say about this year’s winners in the leading categories, check out my reviews at the following links:

“Birdman”: Review, web site, trailer

“The Theory of Everything”: Review, web site, trailer

“Still Alice”: Review, web site, trailer

“Whiplash”: Review, web site, trailer

“Boyhood”: Review, web site, trailer

And, to read more about what I had to say about some of this year’s winners and nominees in other categories, check out my reviews at these links:

“Selma”: Review, web site, trailer

“The Imitation Game”: Review, web site, trailer

“Citizenfour”: Review, web site, trailer

“Into the Woods”: Review, web site, trailer

“Wild”: Review, web site, trailer

“Two Days, One Night”: Review, web site, trailer

“Timbuktu”: Review, web site, trailer

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

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Catch Some More Smart Talk!

In case you missed my radio interview on Smart Women Talk Radio with host Katana Abbott this past Tuesday, you can catch the archived edition, available for on-demand listening by clicking here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

‘Timbuktu’ explores the challenges of managing our personal power

“Timbuktu” (2014). Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Abel Jafri, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, Kettly Noël, Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Cheik A.G. Emakni, Damien Ndjie, Weli Cleib, Djié Sidi, Salem Dendou, Fatoumata Diawara, Amadou Haidara. Director: Abderrahmane Sissako. Screenplay: Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall. Web site. Trailer.

Personal power – it’s something we all wield in manifesting and managing our daily lives. It’s a force that can be used beneficially for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. It can also be used to subvert and dominate others for our own gain. It’s even something we can give away, for better or worse. Whichever course we choose, however, depends on us and how we handle the power we each possess, ideas explored individually and collectively in the dramatic new release, “Timbuktu.”

Life in the ancient and fabled Malian city of Timbuktu undergoes a radical change with the arrival of a band of oppressive outsiders. The northwest African community on the edge of the Sahara Desert, long home to a population of spiritually focused, peace-loving Muslims, is disrupted by the appearance of the Islamic Police, a self-proclaimed posse of fundamentalist jihadists seeking to implement Sharia law – mostly by imposing it on the locals at the end of a gun barrel. And, in doing so, the foreign militia force goes beyond the already-strict tenets of the long-established Muslim legal and moral code by enacting such additional measures as prohibitions against smoking, music and soccer and by instituting dress code requirements calling for men to wear trousers of a certain length and for women to wear gloves when in public. It’s a change the locals abhor but feel powerless to change. Even the resident Imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) has difficulty dealing with the spiritually posturing interlopers, his heartfelt, peaceful ways often summarily dismissed by rationalized interpretations of Sharia law handed down by the jihadists.

While those in Timbuktu itself are most directly impacted by the change (as seen in a series of incidents involving perpetrators accused of violating the new dictates), residents who live in nearby outlying areas aren’t affected quite as strongly. Despite this lesser degree of impact, however, many of those living on the city’s fringes flee in anticipation of what might happen. But, risks aside, one family remains determined to hold steadfast. Kidane, a local shepherd (Ibrahim Ahmed), is committed to living his life as he always has with his loving wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), his adoring daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and his young orphaned herdsman, Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed). Even intimidating visits by one of the principal jihadists, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), who comes by uninvited when Kidane is absent to leer suggestively at Satima, don’t faze the family. But that all changes when an incident occurs that brings them squarely under the authorities’ jurisdiction.

Life is good for a family living on the outskirts of the ancient and fabled Malian city of Timbuktu. But that domestic tranquility gets put to the test for a kind-hearted shepherd, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, center), his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki, left), and his daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed, right), when a fundamentalist police force moves into the area, a saga that plays out in the powerful new dramatic release, “Timbuktu.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

When a local fisherman, Amadou (Amadou Haidara), kills one of Kidane’s cattle for becoming entangled in his nets, the shepherd retaliates. Kidane confronts his cow’s slayer, but what begins as an argument soon turns deadly, with Amadou suffering the same fate as the animal he killed. Shortly thereafter, Kidane is taken into custody to await his fate – one that’s not too difficult to envision, either, given the authorities in charge. But, as horrific as Kidane’s impending sentence is, the potential for circumstances escalating even further looms large, threatening to make an already-trying situation much worse. With the community at large and Kidane’s family in particular on the verge of a tragic future, the tension for all concerned becomes virtually unbearable.

“Timbuktu” is a poignant cautionary tale in several respects. In one regard, it painfully shows what can happen when we give away our power, when we allow others to overrun our lives with impunity. The fundamentalist jihadists in this film are portrayed for exactly who they are – unrepentant bullies who get away with whatever they want by virtue of their rhetoric, weaponry and unmitigated gall. They intimidate at will, wantonly imposing their decisions on others and justifying their actions through stretched, convoluted interpretations of the Sharia code.

One might wonder why the subjugated are letting this happen to them. Indeed, why would they give their power away so readily? In part, it no doubt has something to do with the sheer firepower of the jihadists, their arsenal and tactics evoking and spreading fear throughout the city. But that only addresses the question at the “surface” level of their existence. What’s more important to understand is why they would do so on the deeper consciousness level, the internal realm from which our reality springs forth into being – the place where our beliefs reside, the means by which we manifest our world through the process of conscious creation.

This is where understanding the nature of our beliefs becomes so important. For instance, as the Imam acknowledges in a discussion with the occupiers, he and his devout followers believe that jihad is a concept symbolic of an internal struggle, a metaphorical means for doing battle with (and ultimately bettering) oneself, not an externalized extrapolation of a notion intended to be used for browbeating others into obedient submission. The religious leader and his flock also seem to believe they can convey their wisdom on the subject to their adversaries merely with their words. But, as quickly becomes apparent, they’re unable to do so, because the conviction their foes have in their beliefs is so powerful that it squelches any attempts at enlightenment they might wish to impart.

Likewise, the locals profoundly place their faith in the power of love and their belief in its ability to conquer adversity. For example, when Kidane acknowledges his acceptance of his circumstances, he seeks to sway the hearts and minds of his captors and accusers by speaking of his love for his family and what the execution of his sentence will mean for him and them emotionally. He draws upon his situation to try to get them to see what it would be like if they faced a similar fate. But the chief jihadist processing Kidane’s case (Salem Dendou) and the presiding judges overseeing his trial (Weli Cleib, Djié Sidi) are unmoved, firmly entrenched in their own beliefs and personal power for realizing the results they want.

The arrival of a jihadist ruling authority raises uncertainty for the lives of a young desert girl, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed, right), and a hard-working young herdsman, Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, left), in director Abderrahmane Sissako’s powerful new release, “Timbuktu.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

So how does one overcome such daunting circumstances? How do we take our power back? For starters, it begins with acknowledging the possibility that it can be done, for that notion, like anything else capable of being made manifest, originates with our beliefs. Timbuktu’s residents are clearly fed up with the brutality and intimidation of those who have suppressed them, but, if ever they hope to vanquish their conquerors, they must first believe it’s possible.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the locals need to get creative with their beliefs and what they seek to materialize through them. If conventional approaches to sway their oppressors don’t work, no matter how noble or well-intentioned they might be, then it’s time to employ new tactics – and new manifesting beliefs. For instance, given the jihadists’ ban on soccer, local fans of the game are unable to partake in it when the authorities confiscate their equipment. However, Timbuktu’s young footballers won’t allow this to deter them; they thus defy authorities by engaging in games of virtual soccer, taking to the playing field and acting out their sport, even when they don’t have a ball for their “matches.” Their actions don’t technically violate the law, so there’s nothing the authorities can do. Yet such “subversive” tactics work to undermine those in charge, gradually whittling away at their control. At the same time, these measures also help to restore the power that their instigators had previously given away.

Part of the reason why such inventive tactics work is that their originators have overcome their fear of implementing them. This is apparent, for example, in the virtual soccer games. But it’s also visible in an array of simple, everyday acts, such as the refusal of a fishmonger to wear the gloves required of her and the uninhibited public conduct of Zabou (Kettly Noël), an unabashed free spirit who dresses flamboyantly and speaks openly of forbidden topics, often in full view of the powers that be, all in violation of the fundamentalists’ dictates. All of these actions, again, further serve to undermine public authority.

Zabou (Kettly Noël), an uninhibited free spirit, routinely defies the strict dictates of local jihadist rulers in the powerful new drama, “Timbuktu.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Another tactic with potential to take down the bullies is to expose their hypocrisy, a symptom of their inherent lack of personal integrity (and often a key element in undoing one’s conscious creation efforts). For example, Abdelkerim’s two-faced nature becomes all too obvious on many occasions, such as when he speaks to Satima, a married woman, without her husband present, or when he quietly shuffles off to sneak cigarettes, both violations of the Sharia code and the locally implemented regulations to which he supposedly adheres. Were it not for the discretion of his driver and associate, Omar (Cheik A.G. Emakni), Abdelkerim’s actions could easily be exposed, jeopardizing his position and undermining his authority – something that just might happen, too, given Omar’s wavering, sometimes-uncertain view of the occupation and those in charge of it.

But, even if the jihadists’ house of cards doesn’t fall as a result of the efforts of others, their own actions might be their eventual downfall. In addition to the potential problems posed by the aforementioned integrity issues, they could easily fall prey to the detrimental effects that can come from pushing the Universe. As conscious creators know, we work with our divine collaborator to bring our reality into being; we don’t coerce it into cooperation. But, if we attempt to unduly force matters, questions of “create vs. control” soon emerge, presenting us with choices and consequences that often spawn outcomes far from what we hope for. Such was the case for a group of jihadists who overran Timbuktu in 2012; their attempt at seeking to achieve and maintain control, an act that inspired this film, ultimately led to a rude awakening at the hands of French liberators.

“Timbuktu” is an excellent film that effectively exposes the heinous nature of fundamentalist bullies, providing uncompromising (but by no means gratuitous or grotesque) images of their capabilities. Yet, as ugly as some of the depictions are, the film is also full of great beauty, with stunning portrayals of the African landscape, elegantly showcased through the picture’s excellent cinematography. The solid cast and sound writing bring the story to life with heartfelt feeling, along with occasional touches of biting satire, all wrapped up in a powerful and moving cinematic experience. Admittedly, it’s sometimes a little difficult to see how all the ancillary story lines relate to the central narrative (especially early on), but, as viewers make their way through the film, it becomes apparent how they’re all integrated and how pervasive the effects of the occupation are on the local population – something we should all hope we never have to experience firsthand.

“Timbuktu” is also the kind of film that devoted religious followers who believe that their faiths have been hijacked and misrepresented by dogma-spouting fundamentalists should eagerly get behind. By supporting and promoting this film and its message, they can help the world see the true nature of the bullies behind these coercive efforts, thereby clarifying public perceptions of their faiths. In doing so, they would thus make it more difficult for those who would lazily paint the followers of these faiths with broad brushstrokes instead of carefully measured marks.

Even though “Timbuktu” may only now be gaining notoriety with the moviegoing public, it has been well respected in cinematic circles for some time. The picture received a nomination for best foreign language film as Mauritania’s official entry in this year’s Academy Awards program. Prior to receiving its Oscar nod, the film won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Award (named for the famed French journalist and film historian) at the Cannes Film Festival, where it also earned a Palme d’Or nomination, the event’s highest honor. The picture is currently playing in theaters specializing in independent and foreign films.

The responsibility that accompanies the management of our personal power is something to be reckoned with. When that force is left unchecked, it can easily get out of hand, especially if we approach the task casually, indifferently or irresponsibly. But, when we employ our power judiciously, we can make use of it in ways where everyone wins, perhaps even becoming better people for having done so. The choice ultimately rests with us – and the hope that we make the right one.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Join me for some 'Smart Talk'

Join me Tuesday February 17 at 11 am ET when I'll be a guest on Smart Women Talk Radio with host Katana Abbott. We'll discuss conscious creation in the movies, with a look at entries from the newly rereleased edition of my first book, Get the Picture?!, as well as this year's Oscar contenders. Tune in for some lively chat by clicking here, or catch the podcast afterward for on-demand listening. For more information about the show, click here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

‘Two Days, One Night’ implores ‘just ask’

“Two Days, One Night” (“Deux jours, une nuit”) (2014). Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Baptiste Sornin, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Christelle Cornil, Serge Koto, Olivier Gourmet, Yoann Zimmer, Philippe Jeusette. Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Web site. Trailer.

We’re all no doubt familiar with the expression “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Meritorious ideas, as good as they might be, unfortunately often languish as untapped, unmaterialized potential, simply because no steps are taken to bring them into being. And, ironically enough, in many cases, those undertakings could easily get their starts through the simple act of asking to make them manifest. Such is the focus of the dramatic new release, “Two Days, One Night” (“Deux jours, une nuit”).

Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard) feels like giving up. Having recently returned to her job at a Belgian solar panel manufacturer after being on medical leave to treat depression, Sandra learns that company management discovered during her absence that the business could get along without her. So, faced with the need to cut operating costs, the owner, Monsieur Dumont (Baptiste Sornin), gives his employees a choice – allow Sandra to stay on as an employee or be willing to forfeit their annual bonuses. The choice is put to a vote, and the employees overwhelmingly opt in favor of their bonuses. Given her fragile state of mind, Sandra is devastated by the news, especially since she and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), desperately need the money from her job to keep their home. With the announcement coming late on a Friday afternoon, it’s a rather demoralizing end to the workweek.

But all may not be lost. Sandra soon learns from one of her supportive co-workers, Juliette (Catherine Salée), that the vote was unfairly influenced by one of the company’s managers, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet). With that revelation, Sandra and Juliette hastily meet with M. Dumont to plead their case. When he learns that his manager may have mischaracterized the nature of the choice being presented to his employees, M. Dumont agrees to allow a new vote the following Monday morning. That decision thus provides Sandra with an opportunity to hold on to her job, but she has something important to do first: Over the upcoming weekend, she must convince her co-workers to vote in favor of her retention, a plan enthusiastically encouraged by Juliette and Manu. However, given Sandra’s emotional state, coupled with the realization that she’ll need to sway at least 9 of her 16 colleagues, the task seems overwhelming.

Sandra reluctantly agrees to take up the challenge. She thus embarks on a weekend of campaigning for her job, meeting with each of her co-workers one on one. It’s an undertaking full of highs and lows, depending on what her peers say they’ll do. At times she feels like giving up, especially when her request is turned down or when she’s unable to contact her co-workers at home. But then there are pleasant surprises as well, such as when she receives unexpected support from peers who initially voted against her. How everything turns out ultimately depends on how effectively she makes her case before that fateful Monday morning ballot. And, even then, the outcome holds the potential to defy expectations, with more surprises surfacing that present additional new choices – for Sandra herself.

As those who practice conscious creation know, our beliefs determine the outcomes we experience, and that’s just as true for Sandra as it is for anyone else. When she initially considers the task of lobbying her co-workers, she believes the venture is hopeless, that she won’t be able to convince enough of her peers to vote in her favor. So is it any wonder, then, that the first few contacts she makes are met with disappointment? The expectation she puts forth, based on the beliefs she holds, gets fulfilled with remarkable fidelity. Clearly, if she wants a different result, she’ll have to change the intents involved.

Sandra’s negative outlook regarding this particular task most likely has its roots in the core beliefs she holds about the nature of her prevailing reality. To use a computer metaphor, this endeavor is just one of many “applications” running on the underlying “operating system” of her consciousness. As someone with a tendency to hold a depressed view of life, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the existence she experiences is right in line with such thinking. This is apparent not only in her attitude toward the task of vying for her job, but, in some respects, it’s also visible in her relationship with Manu, which has clearly been strained by her emotional state in recent months. Again, if she wishes to alter the tenor of her reality – in all its permutations – she’ll need to adjust her beliefs, and this time she’ll need to do it at the core level, not just with regard to any of the particular milieus of her life.

So why is Sandra depressed at the core level? And why does she believe her cause is hopeless? That’s hard to say. While the specifics of Sandra’s situation and background are never really discussed in the film, in many instances, those who embrace this state of mind often do so as a result of previous disappointing experiences. The impact of those incidents can be so strong that it causes the formation of beliefs that become ingrained in our consciousness, setting up an internal paradigm that becomes self-perpetuating. The more experiences we create that validate those beliefs, the more galvanized we become in them, leading to the manifestation of ever more experiences in line with such notions. It’s almost a sort of metaphysical tape loop that becomes established and replays continually – that is, until we intentionally click the “stop” button and put in a new tape. That’s the task that Sandra – or anyone else similarly situated – is faced with if she (or they) ever hope for things to change.

In changing her circumstances, one of the significant hurdles Sandra needs to overcome is being willing to ask for what she wants. Her reluctance to do so, again, may be based on previous experience; if she’s been disappointed on this front in the past, she might be tempted to say to herself, “Why bother making the effort?” Her beliefs regarding fear of rejection may be significant enough to keep her from pursuing any of her requests. And this could be especially true in light of the perceived magnitude of the task at hand.

However, as conscious creation maintains, all probabilities are available to us for potential materialization at any given moment, including those that we have historically viewed as improbable. So, to counter what we may have traditionally seen as unlikely, we might be able to achieve success by first envisioning the result we have in mind and then taking action to bring it into being through the simple act of just asking for it.

The act of asking can occur by merely putting the thought out to the Universe or, preferably, by actually verbalizing the request, particularly to those in a position to help make it possible. Giving life to the intent in this way significantly promotes its likelihood of manifestation, a gesture that can prove highly beneficial when charting a new course. Sandra gets her shot at this by embarking on her weekend campaign effort; we can only hope she has enough confidence in her request (and in the beliefs underlying it) to bring about the result she desires.

Interestingly, though, as we wend our way through such ambitious undertakings, we may find that the originally desired outcomes change over time. Somewhat surprisingly, when we reach the end of the road of a particular journey, we may very well ask ourselves, “Do we still want this?” That’s because such personal odysseys can reveal new things to us about our hopes, dreams and aspirations, as well as previously unknown aspects of ourselves, all of which lead to redefining the expectations we seek to realize.

This kind of personal evolution is part and parcel of the conscious creation process, which maintains that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. When such instances occur, we would be wise to honor those changes of heart, for they reflect our true inner being, the qualities that characterize us as the new individuals we have become through the growth and change of our beliefs and consciousness. The question, of course, is, “Will we?” Those are just the sorts of choices Sandra may face for herself after her own extraordinary journey.

Unfortunately, as effectively as this film addresses the foregoing sentiments, as a work of cinema, the production is hampered by execution issues that prevent it from measuring up as well as it might have. Given the nature of Sandra’s task, the narrative becomes somewhat repetitive (and a little dull) at times; the same essential scenario recurs in each of Sandra’s encounters with co-workers, and, even though the outcomes of those meetings differ, the setup is more or less identical in each case. The film also includes a lot of inconsequential filler between these sequences, material that amounts to little more than cinematic padding to fill out a story that, even with such celluloid ballast, still has a relatively short runtime of 95 minutes. What’s more, some of the plot developments are fairly implausible, raising credibility issues about the validity of the overall story line.

For her efforts, Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nod and a Critics Choice Award nomination for best lead actress, honors that I believe are somewhat ill considered. While the protagonist turns in a capable performance, I believe the accolades she’s received are overrated. The performances by most of the supporting cast are rather underwhelming, too, with many characters coming off as fairly wooden.

Still, despite these shortcomings, the film seems to have resonated with voters in this year’s awards competitions. In addition to the recognition Cotillard has received, the film itself was named a Critics Choice Award nominee as best foreign language film and a Palme d’Or candidate at the Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. The picture is currently playing in limited run, primarily at theaters specializing in independent and foreign films.

The act of asking may seem intimidating, perhaps even “unnatural,” to some of us. However, if we never avail ourselves of it and what it affords, we may miss out on opportunities to realize dreams and even to further our own personal growth. With that in mind, then, we should look to make friends with this practice and pursue it whenever necessary, especially in those circumstances where it seems particularly difficult. Only by pushing our personal envelopes will we see seemingly unattainable outcomes being reached.

And to think those results might arise from something as simple as posing a question.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars

It’s that time of year again – time for my predictions of the winners at the annual Academy Awards. Most of the major honors appear fairly clear-cut at this point, but, even with that said, here are my picks for who will take home statues this year:

Best Actor

The Field: Michael Keaton, “Birdman”; Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”; Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”; Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”
Who Will Likely Win: Eddie Redmayne. In this talent-packed category, it wasn’t entirely clear at the start of awards season who would end up prevailing. However, Redmayne has gradually emerged as the favorite in light of his wins in the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Awards competitions. While I don’t believe he has a solid lock on the statue at this point, I would say that his position is looking fairly strong, and anyone else grabbing it away from him would have to be considered an upset.
Who Should Win: Eddie Redmayne. Among 2014 releases, the list of potential honorees in this category was quite long, and those in the running – including those who didn’t get nominated – were all deserving of their accolades. That made picking the most worthy recipient difficult. However, given the magnitude of Redmayne’s phenomenal portrayal of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, it would be difficult justifying not giving him the Oscar.
Possible Dark Horse(s): Michael Keaton. Actually, calling Keaton a dark horse is something of a misnomer, given that he’s the only performer to have beaten Redmayne in any of the awards competitions leading up to the Oscars, having bested the front runner for the Critics Choice Award. That victory, coupled with a Golden Globe Award (which he received in a category in which he was not competing head to head with Redmayne) and a likely win in the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards (in which Redmayne is not nominated), could stand him in good stead as an upset winner. However, if the outcome holds true to form for Oscar races between one actor playing a fictional character and one actor playing a historical/biographical character, the actor playing the historical/biographical character nearly always wins. If that’s the case here, count Redmayne in and Keaton out.
Also-Rans: Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Carell and Bradley Cooper should be grateful for their nominations. Even though they each turned in capable performances, I don’t believe any of them has enough momentum to push past Redmayne or Keaton. If one of them were to pull off an upset, it would be Cooper, who could prevail in light of the film’s phenomenal late season financial success, coupled with the fact that he’s something of a wild card, having not been nominated in the lead actor category in any of the season’s other awards competitions (thus providing no basis for comparison). Don’t count on this happening, though it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Everyone nominated should have been included, though, considering the talent pool vying for honors in this category, it’s unfortunate that only five gentlemen were permitted to make the final cut.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: There are many other actors who would have made welcome additions in this category, most notably David Oyelowo for “Selma,” Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nightcrawler” and Christoph Waltz for “Big Eyes,” all of whom received nominations in other awards competitions, and Timothy Spall for “Mr. Turner,” who won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Other candidates worthy of recognition include Chadwick Boseman for “Get On Up,” Philip Seymour Hoffman for “A Most Wanted Man” and Jeremy Renner for “Kill the Messenger.”

Best Actress

The Field: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”; Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”; Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”; Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”; Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”
Who Will Likely Win: Julianne Moore. This is Moore’s award to lose. Having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Awards for best lead actress, coupled with a nomination for best female lead in the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards (which she’s likely to win), it’s hard to imagine the pattern changing on Oscar night. Having been passed over by the Academy four times previously, this is her year.
Who Should Win: Julianne Moore. Even with some formidable competition from Witherspoon and Pike, Moore still rises to the top as the cream of the crop in this category and genuinely deserves the win.
Possible Dark Horse(s): Reese Witherspoon. The actress’s excellent portrayal received some front runner buzz early on in awards season, but, with the release of Moore’s film, Witherspoon’s star faded from the scene rather quickly. That loss of momentum, coupled with the fact that she has already won (for “Walk the Line” (2005)) and Moore hasn’t, serve to work against her. But, if anyone could surpass Moore, it would be her (but don’t count on it).
Also-Rans: Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike and Marion Cotillard should be grateful for their nominations. I don’t believe any of them stands a chance.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Of all the performance categories, lead actress was by far the weakest of them in 2014 (the exact opposite of what happened in 2013). In fact, before awards season began, I had trouble envisioning a slate of five truly worthy candidates. Once the list of nominees was revealed, I wasn’t surprised by the roster, though I was seriously disappointed with one of the choices – Marion Cotillard. As fine an actress as she is, her performance in “Two Days, One Night” has to be one of the most overrated portrayals I’ve seen in recent years. There are several other candidates who would have been far more deserving and should have been named in place of this ill-considered nomination.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: The biggest snub of Oscar season has to be the exclusion of Jennifer Aniston for her outstanding performance in “Cake”; how her portrayal was overlooked truly escapes me. Others who might have been considered for nomination include Amy Adams for “Big Eyes,” Gugu Mbatha-Raw for “Belle,” Helen Mirren for “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and Kristen Wiig for “The Skeleton Twins,” though the strength of these performances – as good as they are – likely didn’t have enough oomph behind them to put them over the top.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field: Robert Duvall, “The Judge”; J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”; Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”; Edward Norton, “Birdman”; Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”
Who Will Likely Win: J.K. Simmons. This is Simmons’s award to lose. Having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Awards for best supporting actor, coupled with a slew of film critics’ awards and a nomination for best supporting male in the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards (which he’s likely to win), it’s hard to imagine the pattern changing on Oscar night. In short, Simmons has a lock on this award.
Who Should Win: J.K. Simmons. Even with some formidable competition from Hawke and Norton, Simmons still holds all the cards in this category and richly deserves to take home the award.
Possible Dark Horse(s): It’s difficult to imagine anyone overtaking Simmons at this point.
Also-Rans: Anyone who isn’t J.K. Simmons. They should thank the Academy for their nominations.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: As much as I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo’s nuanced performance, I believe that the Academy should have nominated one of several other performers in his place, most notably his co-star, Channing Tatum (see below). While I wouldn’t say that this portrayal was completely undeserving, I believe there were other performances that were more worthy.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: As noted above, I believe “Foxcatcher” would have been better represented in the supporting actor category by Channing Tatum, who showed a range not seen in any of his previous roles. With that said, though, there was another noteworthy supporting performance that inexplicably received no recognition – Tim Roth for “Selma.” It truly baffles me how this performance was completely overlooked in all of the season’s other awards competitions and went virtually unmentioned in the entertainment press. I also would have considered Josh Brolin’s portrayal in “Inherent Vice” as a possible nominee.

Best Supporting Actress

The Field: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”; Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”; Emma Stone, “Birdman”; Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods”; Laura Dern, “Wild”
Who Will Likely Win: Patricia Arquette. This is Arquette’s award to lose. Having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Awards for best supporting actress, coupled with a nomination for best supporting female in the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards (which she’s likely to win), it’s hard to imagine the pattern changing on Oscar night. In short, Arquette has a lock on this award.
Who Should Win: Emma Stone. As capable as Arquette’s performance is, Stone really stole the show in the supporting actress category for 2014. She showed talent not previously seen in her prior roles, and she really deserves to win.
Possible Dark Horse(s): It’s difficult to imagine anyone overtaking Arquette at this point. Also-Rans: Anyone who isn’t Patricia Arquette. They should thank the Academy for their nominations, though I must say that I was very happy to see Dern nominated for a wonderful performance that had been overlooked in the season’s other awards competitions.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: As much as I enjoyed Meryl Streep’s performance in “Into the Woods” (and in virtually everything she does), I believe the Academy would have better served its members by nominating someone else in her place. The reason? Given her record number of nominations, as well as three previous victories (“Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979), “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “The Iron Lady” (2011)), she’s simply not going to win for this capable, though not outstanding, performance. That being the case, the nomination is a sort of “throwaway,” one that might have better been bestowed on someone who legitimately has a chance of winning. (I’ll probably burn in hell for having just said that, but I think any nominations Streep receives in the future will have to be for performances that raise the bar far above what she has previously turned in for them to be taken seriously as worthy of victory. Anything that’s seen as merely “adequate” by Streep’s standards is sure to be summarily overlooked, simply because of her track record.)
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: As with the lead actor category, there were many deserving supporting actress performances worthy of recognition, including Jessica Chastain for “A Most Violent Year,” Tilda Swinton for “Snowpiercer,” Imelda Staunton for “Pride” and Rene Russo for “Nightcrawler,” all of whom were nominated in other awards competitions. Others who should have received consideration include Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright, both for “A Most Wanted Man,” and Christine Baranski for “Into the Woods.”

Best Director

The Field: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”; Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”; Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”; Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Who Will Likely Win: Richard Linklater. Having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA Awards, coupled with an Independent Spirit Award nomination (which he stands a good chance to win), Linklater has to be considered the front runner in this category. However, in light of a somewhat surprising loss to Iñárritu in the Directors’ Guild Awards (usually a reliable predictor of the eventual Oscar winner), I don’t believe Linklater has an absolute lock on the statue at this point. Given that he is likely to win the award for best picture (as producer of “Boyhood”) (see below), there’s a possibility he might lose out on the best director award in favor of his “Birdman” competitor. Even though the best picture and best director awards historically run in tandem, splits are known to happen, and I wouldn’t entirely rule out that possibility at this point. Still, if I were to follow my gut instincts, I would have to say I expect Linklater to best Iñárritu in this category.
Who Should Win: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Among the nominees, I believe Iñárritu turned in the best work (even though my favorite directorial performance of 2014 wasn’t nominated, as noted below). Despite the ambitious 12-year undertaking involved in the creation of “Boyhood,” I believe “Birdman” is the better picture, and much of the credit for that rests with its director, who deserves to be honored accordingly.
Possible Dark Horse(s): Wes Anderson. Should Linklater and Iñárritu split the vote for best director, which is not outside the realm of possibility, that could open the door for Anderson to sneak in as a spoiler. I don’t believe this will happen, but I can picture it as a remote possibility.
Also-Rans: Morten Tyldum and Bennett Miller should thank the Academy for their nominations. I suspect neither of them stands a chance.
Who Should Have Been Left Out: Bennett Miller. Very simply, “Foxcatcher” is not a very good film, despite the strength of its three principal performances. How the director managed to pick up a nomination when the film itself wasn’t even considered for best picture escapes me. This slot should have been opened up to any number of other more deserving candidates.
Who Else Should Have Been Considered: In my opinion, the best directorial work of 2014 was turned in by Ava Duvernay for “Selma,” and her exclusion in this category is a glaring oversight. Others worthy of consideration include Damien Chazelle for “Whiplash,” J.C. Chandor for “A Most Violent Year” and Jean-Marc Vallée for “Wild.”

Best Picture

The Field: “American Sniper”; “Birdman”; “Boyhood”; “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; “The Imitation Game”; “Selma”; “The Theory of Everything”; “Whiplash”
What Will Likely Win: “Boyhood.” With its wins in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA Awards competitions, coupled with a best feature nomination in the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards program (which it stands a good chance of winning), this film has to be considered the prohibitive favorite for taking top honors on Oscar night. The picture has a virtual lock on this award, and anything else winning would be a shock.
What Should Win: “Selma.” Without a doubt, “Selma” is the best picture of 2014. Its poor overall showing in the nominations, however, virtually dooms it to also-ran status. The film will have to be satisfied with its award for best original song, which it’s almost certain to win, one of only two nominations that the picture received – far, far, far short of what it deserved.
Possible Dark Horse(s): “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper.” While I don’t realistically expect any of these pictures to present a serious challenge to the front runner, they could slip in as possible dark horses. The biggest wild card here is “American Sniper,” especially in light of the aforementioned late season financial success and lack of comparative performance in other awards competitions. “Birdman” and “Budapest Hotel” also have potential to sneak in, though don’t expect that, especially if either of them captures the director award (as discussed above).
Also-Rans: “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash,” though all admirable, should thank the Academy for their nominations. I don’t realistically see any of these pictures having a chance.
What Should Have Been Left Out: All controversy issues aside, cinematically speaking, “American Sniper” is definitely not in the same league as its competitors and should not have been tapped as a nominee. And, if it were up to me, I probably would not have nominated “Boyhood,” either; its novelty production history, ambitious though it was, is not enough to merit the film the kind of overblown attention it has been receiving, especially in light of its largely underwhelming story line and generally lame performance by its protagonist.
What Else Should Have Been Considered: Several noteworthy films were overlooked in this category, including “Wild,” “A Most Violent Year,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Rosewater.” Any of them would have made fine additions to the category and better choices than those that should have been left out.

The Oscars will be handed out in televised ceremonies on Sunday February 22. I’ll post my report card on these predictions thereafter. Enjoy the show!

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

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Missing the Mark

Two of this year’s awards season releases celebrate the lives of people whom some consider heroes. Director Clint Eastwood’s enormous box office hit “American Sniper” tells the story of military marksman Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sharp shooter who did four tours in Iraq, while filmmaker Angelina Jolie’s modestly successful “Unbroken” profiles the experiences of World War II veteran and U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini. Both pictures have been hailed to critical acclaim, with “Sniper” capturing six Academy Award nominations (including best picture and best lead actor for Bradley Cooper) and “Unbroken” snagging three Oscar nods. Unfortunately, despite their financial and critical successes, both films in my opinion seriously miss their marks. Why? Because they both come up short when it comes to telling the stories they should have told.

How can a biographical film supposedly based on actual events get it wrong? Easily, especially when it comes to those in charge not seeing what the real story is, what truly makes the narrative compelling and engaging. And, in both of these instances, that is precisely what happened.

Much of “American Sniper” focuses on the protagonist’s wartime experience, with numerous, lengthy battlefield sequences reminiscent of many old-time World War II movies. Those episodes are capably filmed and directed, but Kyle’s story involves much more than just surgically taking out insurgents. His wartime experience affects him profoundly, leading him to suffer from a bout of PTSD that impacts him considerably but that he initially tries to deny. He eventually acknowledges and conquers his condition, though, largely by helping other vets similarly affected. And that last part of his saga is the real story here, though one would hardly know it from the film; it’s handled largely as an afterthought, thrown in with what amounts to little more than cinematic lip service.

Likewise, much of “Unbroken” emphasizes Zamperini’s experience in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WW II. Throughout his incarceration, Zamperini is subjected to repeated indignities, not to mention a string of beatings rivaling what was portrayed in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). His time in a Japanese forced labor camp is also featured, with seemingly endless depictions of punishment for disobeying his captors. With the end of the war, however, he and his fellow prisoners are eventually released and sent home. And, in a fleeting footnote at the film’s end, the director throws in a passing reference to how Zamperini forgave his enemies. Again, we witness yet another lost opportunity to tell the real story; Zamperini’s saga is not just about showing how many times he can be brutally roughed up but how he could also successfully summon up the courage and conviction to absolve those who committed such horrific atrocities against him.

In both of these cases, I couldn’t help but wonder, what were the directors and screenwriters thinking? Couldn’t they see what the more absorbing plot lines were in these stories? Movies glorifying battle and showing the pain of torture have been made so many times before that there’s really nothing new about them, and these pictures mostly offer little more than modern-day rehashings of these time-worn narratives. However, when one is presented with a story that has a built-in distinguishing twist, a wrinkle that sets the story apart from virtually anything else that has ever been committed to film, how is it that a filmmaker or screenwriter can so blithely overlook what truly makes the narrative unique? These two examples of this glaring oversight are both baffling – and disappointing.

Both movies (particularly “Sniper”) have come under scrutiny for their politics and for the messages they send. There has even been considerable speculation about the credibility of Kyle’s autobiographical account, which formed the basis of the film, in light of other stories that he allegedly told that have since proven questionable at best. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I, too, hold my own strong opinions about what messages are being conveyed here, and I’ll confess that my mindset probably colors my views about what versions of these stories were – and should have been – made. However, as someone who is first and foremost concerned with the quality of the finished cinematic products, I’ll limit my comments here to that aspect of the story, much like what movie critic Keith Phipps of The Dissolve did in his recent piece on the subject, “The American Sniper controversy proves film critics matter.”

One reason why I believe the stories in these films missed the mark has to do with the character of the protagonists. Kyle and Zamperini are both complex and multifaceted, yet their stories tend to leave these qualities underdeveloped. They each go through personal transformations (in Zamperini’s case several times), yet their changed selves receive far too little attention to reflect these metamorphoses and the significance they hold in their lives. The films’ failure to capitalize on this further holds back these stories from becoming what they could have been.

When I was a journalism student years ago, one of my professors related a story about a cub reporter who was assigned to cover a mayor’s speech at a town council meeting. When the reporter returned to the newspaper office, the neophyte’s editor asked him what the mayor said.

“Nothing,” the reporter replied.

“Nothing?” the editor asked. “Then what’s the story here?”

“There is no story,” the reporter said. “Somebody shot the mayor before he got to say a word.”

I’m reminded of this anecdote whenever I come upon films like “American Sniper” and “Unbroken,” instances where the story that should be told gets lost in the midst of the story (or lack thereof) that actually is told. I can only hope that the filmmakers and screenwriters involved in these projects learn from that cub reporter’s miscalculation – and get it right next time.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

‘Cake’ explores the struggle of letting go

“Cake” (2014). Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Lucy Punch, Evan O’Toole, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo, Camille Mana. Director: Daniel Barnz. Screenplay: Patrick Tobin. Web site. Trailer.

Holding on to what does not serve us can be fraught with difficulties. When it’s of a minor nature, it can be a nagging nuisance. But, when it’s of significant magnitude, it can disrupt our lives in countless ways. The search for how to handle this dilemma provides the basis for one of the most engaging releases of recent months, “Cake.”

Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston) is in a lot of pain, both physically and emotionally. The twin sources of her discomfort are obvious, too, but she focuses almost exclusively on addressing her physical distress, with her psychological anguish receiving little more than cursory attention. In fact, rather than dealing with the source of her emotional suffering, she instead escapes into a routine of denial and bitterness, relying on a treatment regimen of alcohol, prescription painkillers and unrelenting sarcasm in an attempt to quell her pain. By doing so, however, Claire puts off resolving her discomfort and simultaneously alienates those most able to help her heal, including her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), her chronic pain support group facilitator (Felicity Huffman) and her estranged husband (Chris Messina). She even runs the risk of pushing away the one person who has remained unwaveringly faithful through her ordeal, her loyal housekeeper and caretaker, Silvana (Adriana Barraza).

On some level, though, Claire realizes that her current game plan isn’t working. She contemplates her options, some of which might seem quite extreme. One possible course – suicide – emerges when she learns of the self-inflicted death of one of her fellow support group members, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick). Claire mulls over the idea for herself, becoming morbidly fascinated with the particulars of her peer’s demise. In fact, she grows so captivated that Nina begins appearing to her in dreams and drug-induced hallucinations, engaging in both profound and silly conversations about the subject. But, by partaking in these surreal dialogues, Claire discovers she may not be as ready as she thinks she is to take that big last step. And, if she decides against that option, she must then wrestle with the big question of, “If not suicide, then what?”

While evaluating her options, Claire also becomes acquainted with Nina’s survivors, her husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), and son, Casey (Evan O’Toole). Through these interactions, she has an opportunity to assess the merits of carrying on – and seeing what happens to those left behind in the wake of a loved one’s suicide. So, while Claire contemplates the advantages and drawbacks of choosing death, she also has an opportunity to do the same with regard to pursuing life. The overriding question thus becomes, “What will she choose?”

As viewers watch Claire’s story unfold, the source of her physical and emotional pain is revealed slowly (though, from repeated images of her body’s many scars, it’s not too difficult to guess what happened). And, even though her physical distress is obviously quite substantial, her emotional pain is perhaps even more palpable. After all, as many advocates of alternative health care practices contend, physical maladies are rooted in emotional and psychological concerns. So, given Claire’s reluctance to deal with these issues, is it any wonder she doesn’t seem to get better? By ignoring the underlying cause of her discomfort, she’s unable to effectively treat its physical expression.

All of this draws attention to the crucial role our beliefs play in the manifestation of our life experience, the cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process. If Claire is content to cling to beliefs built upon foundations of bitterness, spite and despair, her lack of progress at getting better shouldn’t come as any surprise. Indeed, if she ever wants to turn things around, she will have to choose to embark on a different path, one supported by a set of new beliefs aimed at bringing her the relief and inner peace she seeks.

It’s interesting to note how Claire uses the law of attraction to summon individuals, situations and circumstances that enable her to examine both sides of the coin of life and death. Through her respective interactions with Nina, Roy and Casey, for example, she has an opportunity to see what fallout comes with the act of killing oneself, both for the victim and survivors. She thus gets a chance to address some important questions: Will suicide truly eliminate her pain? Will regrets arise if she follows through on such a plan? And what will happen to those left behind? Answers to these inquiries are pivotal to her decision about what to do – and how to rewrite the beliefs that make the materialization of a new reality possible.

Perhaps the most important question Claire needs to ask herself is why is she holding on to the pain? What is she getting out of it? And are the alleged benefits worth the energy and effort she puts into it? Might she serve herself better by letting go of whatever is keeping her mired in discomfort? But, if so, what must she do to realize a different outcome? And is she willing to do it?

How we respond to such challenges goes a long way toward determining what arises as a result. Perhaps it calls for us to step up to the brink to take a look at what our options might potentially entail. Perhaps it calls for us to get mad, to release the anger that’s keeping us locked in place and in pain. Perhaps it even calls for us to forgive ourselves for misperceptions of our own actions, outlooks rooted in “erroneous” beliefs. Or maybe it calls for some of all of the foregoing. Regardless of what it takes, however, we would be wise to take any steps necessary to realize the outcome of truly letting go – and letting a new and better future unfold for us.

Despite some rather obvious shortcomings (occasionally amateurish and clichéd cinematography and a narrative that sometimes wears its message on its sleeve), “Cake” is generally effective in telling its story and making its point. Claire’s acerbic wit works wonders in taking the edge off a subject that might otherwise be seen as unduly depressing, and the always-surprising interactions between the protagonist and her deceased apparition make the material lively and fresh. A fine supporting cast supplies additional color to the story, often in unexpected ways.

The real strength here, though, is Aniston’s remarkable performance. Even though the former television sitcom star has quietly distinguished herself as a dramatic performer in other lesser-known independent films (like “Friends with Money” (2006)), Aniston has truly established herself as a serious artist in this breakthrough role. For her efforts, she deservedly earned best actress nominations in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award contests. Regrettably, she missed out on capturing an Oscar nod, though her portrayal certainly is worthy of such an honor, easily one of the best female lead performances of 2014.

Letting go may not be easy, especially when faced with the uncertainty of what lies beyond what we already know (even if what we cling to no longer serves us). But holding on unnecessarily may prove to be even more damaging in the long run, preventing us from growing as individuals and depriving us of the potential benefits that await us by embracing change. We can only hope that, when faced with such circumstances, we have the wisdom and courage to see things through.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

'Get the Picture?!' Now on the iTunes Store!

Fans of Apple's iTunes Store can now find the ebook edition of Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies on this popular bookseller's web site, available by clicking here!

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment (