Friday, January 27, 2017

‘Things to Come’ extols the joys of liberation

“Things to Come” (“L’avenir”) (2016). Cast: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob, Sarah Le Picard, Solal Forte, Elise Lhomeau, Daniel Dray-Rabotnik, Guy-Patrick Sainderichen, Yves Heck, Rachel Arditi. Director: Mia Hansen-Løve. Screenplay: Mia Hansen-Løve. Web site. Trailer.

Having it made is something we all crave, right? The prospects of all of our material, vocational and emotional needs being met probably has tremendous appeal for most of us. But what happens when what we thought we wanted becomes a trap that keeps us from exploring other options? We may come to feel stifled, restricted and unfulfilled. But what do we do about it? Those are the questions raised in the thought-provoking new French melodrama, “Things to Come” (“L’avenir”).

By all rights, Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) would appear to be living a great life. She’s been happily married to her husband, Heinz (André Marcon), for many years, and she’s the proud mother of two grown children, Chloé (Sarah Le Picard) and Johann (Solal Forte). She’s also built a successful career as a respected philosophy teacher and author of several highly regarded textbooks. And, with residences in Paris and Brittany, she’s surrounded by culture, beauty and all the joys that come with living in modern-day France.

So, with a life like that, what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, plenty.

Seemingly out of the blue, Nathalie’s life begins falling apart. First, she learns that her publisher has hired several brash new book marketing specialists (Yves Heck, Rachel Arditi) who are eager to implement a number of changes to new editions of her long-established titles. Nathalie views their proposed alterations – changes that are designed purely to boost sales – as tacky and pandering. And that’s just the beginning of her publishing woes.

But the problems don’t stop there. Nathalie’s aging mother, Yvette (Edith Scob), a former model who’s prone to panic attacks and depression and has been teetering on the edge of dementia for some time, grows increasingly needy, challenging her daughter’s ability to realistically care for her. Nathalie routinely receives frantic overnight phone calls from her and is frequently left to deal with warnings from irritated EMTs, who grow increasingly frustrated at having to respond to Yvette’s repeated false alarms. The time may have come for Yvette to move into a senior facility, a proposal that she’s always railed against whenever it’s been suggested, claiming she’s fully capable of independent living, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

And then there’s Heinz, who is forced into admitting that he’s having an affair. Chloé learns of the clandestine relationship and subsequently confronts her father about it, insisting that he make a choice between her mother and the other woman – and that he do it soon. He begrudgingly agrees to his daughter’s wishes and shortly thereafter informs Nathalie that he’s preparing to move out, despite his claims that he still loves her.

With her world collapsing, Nathalie’s left with her head spinning, rhetorically asking herself, “Now what?” All of the pillars that have supported her have now come crashing down around her, leaving her without a clue or sense of direction. And, as a philosophy teacher, someone who’s supposed to have answers for dilemmas like this at her fingertips, she’s adrift in a fog, not sure what to do or which way to turn.

The sense of predictability that Nathalie has long enjoyed evaporates before her eyes. The elements of her life that she thought she could count on to give it direction, meaning and continuity disappear one by one. Even the time-honored philosophical disciplines that she teaches – concepts that she has consistently believed she could rely upon to guide her – suddenly seem murky, inadequate and less assuring. Needless to say, for someone accustomed to such a sense of certainty, these new circumstances are disorienting at best, deeply troubling at worst.

Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) relishes the freedom that personal liberation affords her in the engaging new French melodrama, “Things to Come” (“L’avenir”). Photo by Ludovic Bergery, courtesy of Sundance Selects.

However, as unexpected as these developments are, Nathalie soon discovers new influences coming into her life. For instance, she begins spending time with one of her former students, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). She enjoys the company of her young colleague and is pleased to see that he’s become a sort of protégé, working on profound philosophical writings of his own. At the same time, though, Fabien also defies some of Nathalie’s expectations, such as announcing that he’s leaving the cosmopolitan sophistication of Paris to live on a farm he’s bought in rural France. He sees this as an opportunity to get away from the complexities of city life to clear his mind, to lead a simpler, slower-paced existence, and to spend more time writing.

Although initially surprised at Fabien’s decision, Nathalie’s also intrigued by the prospects of someone of her scholarly stripe taking such a radical step. Before long, she’s so captivated with the idea that she decides to pay him a visit, a journey that gives her a chance to get away from it all and to enjoy the idyllic charms of country life. By doing so, she comes to realize – and to whole-heartedly acknowledge – that the recent changes in her life have actually been a blessing, allowing her to feel liberated and free from restrictions, arguably for the first time in her life. It’s a feeling that’s new to her, but it’s also one that she relishes with gusto, even in its intrinsic unfamiliarity. Indeed, if this new approach to life has enabled her to feel so much better so quickly, she can only imagine what it will permit if she allows herself to become immersed in it for the long term. And that’s what she’s about to discover.

Witnessing Nathalie’s transformation is truly heartening. Admittedly, the journey is somewhat intimidating for her at first, since it represents such new and uncharted territory. But, once she embraces the qualities this existence has to offer, she finds it refreshing and freeing. It affords her an opportunity to appreciate joys that she has either never known or denied herself. It also gives her a new perspective on the things that really matter in life. Her consuming focus on philosophy, for example, becomes somewhat less important. She comes to recognize that pondering life’s mysteries may be an interesting exercise, but, in the end, does it really provide the same degree of satisfaction that comes from beholding a mountain landscape, stroking the fur of a beloved pet or holding a baby in one’s arms?

What makes such changes in outlook possible? It’s a matter of one’s thoughts, beliefs and intents, the cornerstones of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience. It’s a philosophy that makes any outcome possible depending on what underlying forces are driving it. And, for all of her years of study, it’s something that Nathalie has never really taken the time to explore in practical terms. Now, though, with her new liberated perspective, she’s free to do so to her heart’s content.

By adopting this outlook, Nathalie makes it possible to plumb several of conscious creation’s key concepts. For instance, one of the philosophy’s primary aims is to push through our personal, self-imposed limitations. Given how she lived her life prior to all of the recent changes, it’s apparent that Nathalie allowed herself to be hemmed in by a rather restricted worldview. Most everything she did was for her career, her publisher, her husband, her mother and even her mother’s cat. But what was Nathalie doing for Nathalie? With those “impediments” removed, she’s now free to explore aspects of existence that she wants to investigate. That’s a significant change, one that has pushed through some once-formidable barriers.

In opening up herself like this, Nathalie now has an opportunity to look into another of conscious creation’s hallmark principles, the idea that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. By embracing such an evolutionary outlook, we free ourselves to explore an array of manifestation possibilities, both personally and in the conditions of our prevailing reality. There’s tremendous potential for wonder, creativity, fulfillment and awe in circumstances like that, and, again, Nathalie’s just beginning her journey in this regard.

As her life begins to change, newly divorced philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert, left) increasingly enjoys the company of her former student and protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, right), in director Mia Hansen-Løve’s inspiring new release, “Things to Come” (“L’avenir”). Photo by Ludovic Bergery, courtesy of Sundance Selects.

To make these explorations possible, Nathalie invokes her capacity for exercising her innate powers of choice and free will. Obviously, in years past, this is something she didn’t avail herself of as much as she might have, and, on some level, she must have recognized this, too. Having denied herself access to a wealth of metaphysical and manifestation possibilities for a long time, at some point, she must have chosen to change her beliefs to change her reality. The results of this decision subsequently became reflected in how her existence unfolded – the collapse of her old way of life and the emergence of a new one, a world full of the many wonders she wants to experience and explore, all driven by the beliefs that she puts forth.

Having personally gone through an experience like Nathalie’s, I can relate to her circumstances. At the beginning of the breakdown, things were indeed scary. But, over time, I came to recognize the new possibilities that were now available to me, all dependent on what I wanted to do with them and their underlying beliefs. Feelings like that are truly exhilarating, if only we’ll allow ourselves to experience them. Getting past our fears and adopting an attitude of being willing to live heroically certainly help, but recognizing that the power to bring about exciting new creations rests with us is crucial if we’re to make the most of the opportunities. I’d like to think I did well with my choices, and it’s apparent that Nathalie looks forward to the adventures that await her. Anyone facing comparable conditions should take these examples to heart, and this film drives that point home with humor, heartfelt emotion and sparkling clarity.

“Things to Come” is a smartly written, exceedingly well-acted character study deserving of a wider audience than what it has garnered thus far. The film is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in foreign and independent cinema, but it’s certainly worth searching for, especially for anyone facing circumstances similar to its lead character. With yet another outstanding performance by Isabelle Huppert (this is her year it seems), director Mia Hansen-Løve’s production provides much to ponder in terms of what we value and what we believe is important, especially when we embrace the freedom that personal liberation affords.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, sometimes it takes losing everything to discover what we want but don’t have. How easily we move through a process like that depends greatly on how we view developments as they unfold. If we realize that, as conscious creators, we’re responsible for manifesting everything that happens to us – including our perceived setbacks – then we have an opportunity to recognize that such changes are a means to get us somewhere new (and preferably better), psychologically cushioning their impact. That outlook in itself is quite liberating, but, when we apply it to the actual outcomes that occur, we give ourselves a chance to progress with greater ease and less stress – and with open arms to welcome the things to come.

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

A Schedule Change

My apologies to those of you expecting to hear me on Thursday's Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio. Due to a scheduling conflict, the segment has been moved back to next Thursday, February 2, at 1 pm ET, available by clicking here. So sorry for any inconvenience, but check back again next week!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Back on the Radio This Week

Movies with Meaning returns to Frankiesense & More radio this Thursday, January 26 at 1 pm ET. Join show host Frankie Picasso and me as we examine several new meaningful film releases. Tune in live or listen to the on-demand podcast for some lively movie talk by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

‘Fences’ wrestles with the limits of personal barriers

“Fences” (2016). Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney. Director: Denzel Washington. Screenplay: August Wilson. Play: August Wilson, Fences. Web site. Trailer.

The parameters of our existence define the reality we experience. But who or what defines those parameters? Discovering the answer to that question has been a source of debate for eons, but, when we take a really close look at it, we find that the responsibility rests squarely in our own hands, an idea thoughtfully explored in the engaging new stage-to-screen adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “Fences.”

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a walking contradiction. As someone with a somewhat checkered past, including a stint in prison, he’s spent much time and effort since his release trying to get things straight in his life. Having missed his shot at becoming a standout baseball player (partly due to his jail time cutting into what would have been a promising career), he has since worked hard to make something of himself. He now holds a regular job as a trash collector for the City of Pittsburgh, and he’s determined to move up to the position of driver, a promotion that would make him the first in the city, quite an accomplishment in the pre-Civil Rights Era of the 1950s.

Troy has also worked hard at being a good husband, father, brother and friend. He adores his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and he has done his best to instill a sense of responsibility in his sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). He does everything he can to care for his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a victim of a severe World War II head injury that has left him emotionally unstable and routinely delusional. And he’s always generous to his good friend and co-worker, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who never hesitates to return the favor.

But, in spite of these laudable attributes, Troy has a darker side, too. Some might say he drinks a little too much. Despite his love for Rose, he’s been having an affair behind her back, one that has led to the unplanned conception of a love child. What’s more, despite his concern for his sons developing a sense of personal responsibility, he’s so hard on them that he often drives them away by continually doubting their reliability to keep their word or insisting that they pursue the ambitions he believes they should follow. And, even though he claims he’s got Gabe’s best interests at heart, some would say that some of his tactics in that regard aren’t entirely above board.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, left) and his wife, Rose (Viola Davis, right), wrestle with issues related to personal limitations in the new stage-to-screen adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “Fences.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Troy’s conflicted behavior, to some, might indicate a proclivity toward self-sabotage. Despite his verbal protestations to the contrary, his actions often indicate otherwise. His own difficult past, it seems, has forced him into being unduly hard on himself. It’s as if he’s continually punishing himself for past mistakes. Just when he’s about to get ahead in some way, something always seems to come along – generally of his own making – to set him back. And, when he’s not inflicting harms on himself, he ostensibly projects this metaphysical form of self-flagellation onto others, like Lyons and Cory. Despite his claims of offering such “advice” for their own good, he needlessly drives a wedge between him and them, perilously endangering those relationships.

One might wonder why someone would purposely draw such circumstances into his or her life. This is especially true among those who are familiar with the operation of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. However, in instances like these, such experiences are generally attributable to learning certain life lessons, and those that Troy is materializing for himself are particularly difficult examples of such teachings. Indeed, in the process of our soul’s growth, development and evolution, we must all eventually go through such things, if for no other reason than to learn how not to repeat them.

Unfortunately, Troy is trapped – and he doesn’t know how to resolve his circumstances nor how to remove himself from them. And, fittingly, that’s where this story’s title comes from. One of the long-standing home improvement projects Troy has been working on (or, more precisely, intending to work on) for years is the construction of a fence on the periphery of his property’s backyard. His protracted procrastination has even become a source of considerable ribbing. But, all jokes aside, as Mr. Bono astutely observes in one scene, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” In Troy’s case, he’s done some of both metaphorically speaking, keeping at bay those most able to help him and unwittingly penning himself within the confines of his own limiting outlooks. And, over time, it becomes an increasingly more imposing situation, one that threatens to keep him permanently locked in place.

So how does one rectify such circumstances? As conscious creators well know, one of the chief aims of this philosophy is to push through our perceived personal limitations. And, given that our existence springs forth from the beliefs we maintain, that’s where the review process should begin.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, center) works on erecting both literal and metaphorical barriers around himself, aided by his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo, right), and his long-time friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, left), in the award-winning screen adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning stage play, “Fences.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

For all of his attempts at changing his life, Troy is nonetheless bought in to an array of limiting beliefs that prevent him from moving forward. Some of them no doubt stem from his upbringing and personal history. Others can be chalked up to an attitude of “that’s just the way things are.” Regardless of their source, however, these beliefs no longer serve him. They may have worked in the past, and they may have even been invaluable to learning the life lessons he’s already experienced. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they must remain in place as part of his prevailing worldview as he marches into the future.

In some ways, Troy understands the need to embrace new beliefs. Some of his undertakings, such as his pursuit of becoming a driver, indicate this, too. At the same time, though, he stubbornly holds onto outmoded notions that allow him no breathing room for growth. For instance, when Lyons asks to borrow some money to get him through a tight spot, Troy repeatedly berates his son in front of Rose and Jim, saying that he’ll never see those funds again, despite Lyons’s assurances to the contrary. Even though Troy’s tone is somewhat playful, his meaning is clearly disparaging. Whether Troy’s conclusion is rooted in Lyons’s past failures at repaying loans or a projection reflecting insecurities over his own onetime personal financial mismanagement issues, in either case it’s based on a belief that obviously stems from the past, regardless of whether it’s still relevant in the present. Such belief tendencies, unfortunately, can be extremely hindering, especially if we’re trying to get beyond what came before to move on to what’s next. And that doesn’t even take into account what damage such an outlook might be doing to his interpersonal relationships.

At the same time, this is not to suggest that all is lost, either. On some level, Troy recognizes the need for assistance in getting himself out of his own way, and, to that end, he has successfully drawn others into his life to aid him in doing just that. His sons, for instance, set excellent examples of taking personal responsibility, even if their actions don’t necessarily match what Troy believes they should do to demonstrate that capability. Moreover, the presence of his beloved Rose illustrates that it’s indeed possible to attract loving, supportive souls into his existence to assist him with his various personal challenges. Even his unborn love child holds incredible promise for helping him alter the course of his impending future. Troy truly has the potential to benefit tremendously from all of them, provided he allows their influence in to help him shape the tenor and character of his beliefs. Whether or not he does that, however, depends on how widely he’s able to extend his envisioning abilities and how courageously he’s willing to exercise his powers of choice and free will. In the end, that’s all on him.

What’s more, numerous paths to redemption are open to the beleaguered protagonist. He’s not stuck with the existence he believes he’s been saddled with; new vistas are attainable by starting over. But, once again, he must be able to picture these lines of possibility in his own mind and then act on them through the beliefs he forms to mold the reality he experiences. He can indeed atone (and forgive himself) for the missteps of his past – and even his present – by charting new paths. The question is, of course, will he?

It might be easy for some to look at Troy’s odyssey and say “He brought this all upon himself,” and, in a sense, they’d be right. However, must we perpetually shoulder the burdens of our erroneous ways? Are we locked into patterns of thinking and being that are irretrievably unalterable? Can we leave our woes behind, finding a new way and the peace of mind that goes with it? As conscious creation maintains, the answer is a resounding yes, but we must assume the responsibility and take the initiative to do so. Others may help to show us the way, but the impetus is on us. One can only hope Troy discovers this for himself before it’s too late.

Severely damaged by wartime injuries, Gabriel Maxson (Mykelti Williamson) wanders the streets of Pittsburgh in a delusional state, an ongoing challenge for his family to deal with in director Denzel Washington’s “Fences.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Fences” offers viewers a faithful theater-to-screen adaptation of its source material that, refreshingly, doesn’t feel particularly stagey (as often happens with such translations). The film features superb performances by the excellent ensemble cast, all of whom earnestly bring their characters to life and captivate us from start to finish. This is especially true for Davis, who is clearly in her element here, Washington, who turns in his best work since “Malcolm X” (1992), and Williamson, who delivers a performance that, regrettably, has stayed off the recognition radar this awards season. Playwright August Wilson’s screen adaptation of his own work generally sparkles, despite a slight tendency to drag a bit in a few spots. Nevertheless, the picture is a well-crafted vehicle for telling its story, deftly mixing humor, heartfelt emotion and riveting drama, not an easy fusion to realize.

For its efforts, the film is garnering a wide array of accolades, with Davis taking the lion’s share of the honors thus far, having won Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards as best supporting actress, an accomplishment likely to be shared in the upcoming Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award competitions. Washington has earned considerable praise as well, receiving a best actor Oscar nomination, along with comparable honors in the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Award contests, as well as a best director bid in the Critics Choice Award program. The picture’s excellent ensemble has also been recognized with its own nominations, including nods in the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Award contests. In addition, the Oscars and the Critics Choice Award competition have further honored the film with nominations for best picture and best adapted screenplay. That’s quite a haul.

The barriers we place around ourselves shape the existence we experience on the earthly plane, so, if we’re to get the most out of it, we had better set our sights carefully. We must also recognize that we’re not prisoners of our own fences, no matter how seemingly imposing or impenetrable they may appear. In the end, we can always rebuild them in ways that enable us to become enrapt in the kinds of joys and redemption we thought inaccessible. Indeed, we need not stay stuck; rather, we can attain all the wonders we’re capable of envisioning – as long as we allow ourselves to do so.

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Best – and Worst – of 2016

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

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

The Top 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Documentaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Lead Actors

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

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

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

Top 5 Lead Actresses

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

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

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

Top 5 Supporting Actors

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

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

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

Top 5 Supporting Actresses

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

‘Neruda’ salutes the liberation of the artist within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Is It with 'La La Land'?

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

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

So what am I missing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

‘Hidden Figures’ revels in reaching for the stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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