Wednesday, September 18, 2019

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Official Secrets," "One Child Nation" and "Love, Antosha," as well as a radio show preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Check out The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, today, September 17, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

Monday, September 16, 2019

‘Official Secrets’ extols the virtues of integrity

“Official Secrets” (2019). Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifan, Adam Bakri, Jeremy Northam, Conleth Hill, John Heffernan, Indira Varma, Niccy Lin, Monica Dolan, Shaun Dooley, Katherine Kelly, Hattie Morahan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Tamsin Greig, Peter Guinness, Ray Panthaki, Raad Rawi. Archives: George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Ari Fleischer, Peter Goldsmith. Director: Gavin Hood. Screenplay: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and Gavin Hood. Book: Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion. Web site. Trailer.

It's been said that one of the most valuable currencies we possess is our personal integrity. It’s a measure of who we are as individuals, of how genuine we are with ourselves and with others. It’s important for how authentically we each interact with our world. Now imagine this principle applied on a national scale or even on the scale of an international alliance. It speaks volumes about a people and its leadership in its dealings with those outside its borders or territories. But what happens when that collective integrity gets called into question? The authenticity and honor of an entire country (or group of countries) could thus become suspect. It’s that sort of scenario that provides the backdrop for the chilling new fact-based biopic, “Official Secrets.”

In 2003, British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) became an unexpected and unlikely player on the world’s geopolitical stage. As an employee of GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters, Gun routinely processed and translated classified information filtered through the agency, a position that, despite its high-level intelligence sensitivity, she initially saw as “just a job.” However, in the run-up to the Iraq War, as a concerned citizen, she became troubled over the country’s obviously forced efforts to make a case for the conflict. She became incensed watching the rhetorical drum-beating being stirred up in daily media reports featuring U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush.

[caption id="attachment_10972" align="aligncenter" width="300"]British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) becomes troubled about her country’s potential involvement in the impending Iraq War when she uncovers a disturbing memo in the new fact-based biopic, “Official Secrets.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

Surprisingly, Gun’s reaction came across as somewhat out of character. Having never been overly politically active, her interest in this issue seemed uncharacteristically disproportionate. Such vehemence even became something of a cause for concern for her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish Kurd who was applying for U.K. residency at the time. But this was nothing compared to what was to follow.

While at work one day, Gun came across a memo written by the chief of staff at the “regional targets” division of the National Security Agency, the super-secret American intelligence organization. The memo stated that the U.S. was enlisting Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on wavering United Nations Security Council members to blackmail them into voting in favor of an invasion of Iraq. Outraged, Gun could not stand by and watch the world rushed into an illegal war that would result in countless numbers of fatalities and injuries on both sides of the conflict.

The revelation of this initiative was enough for Gun to take action. But doing so involved taking a tremendous chance: As a GCHQ staffer, she swore an oath to defend the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act, a law designed to prevent the disclosure of highly sensitive information, one with severe penalties for violations. The law even placed stringent requirements on suspected violators when it came to sharing disclosed information with their attorneys, potentially compounding the charges that could be leveled and making a viable defense difficult. However, even with those possible consequences, Gun decided to move ahead, believing that she could cover her tracks well enough to keep her from being traced. She thus funneled a copy of the memo to contacts in the antiwar movement, who, in turn, shared it with reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) of the London-based newspaper The Observer.

[caption id="attachment_10973" align="aligncenter" width="300"]London newspaper reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) exposes a blockbuster government scandal in the run-up to the Iraq War in director Gavin Hood’s latest offering, “Official Secrets.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

Making a case for this story with The Observer was challenging, given its stated support for the war. But, after verifying the validity of the information with colleagues Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Bright proceeded to report on the memo with the paper’s blessing. The revelation became a blockbuster story, despite official claims that the memo in question was a fake, a propagandist ploy created by antiwar advocates. Nevertheless, The Observer stood by its story as the U.S. and the U.K. attempted to force the hand of the U.N. Security Council and take the world to war.

With such an embarrassing story now circulating publicly, the British government in general and the GCHQ in particular aggressively sought to discover the source of the leak. A concerted investigation within Gun’s division began, one that led to the scrutiny of all of its employees. As staff members were grilled by management and investigators, Gun could not stand by and watch her colleagues take the heat for what she did. She decided to confess, an act that began a nightmare of harassment that impinged upon all areas of her life – firing, criminal charges, prison time and the possible deportation of her husband.

Gun took a tremendous risk in doing what she did. But, given the soft public sentiment about the war, she was not without sympathizers, particularly in the legal arena. With the aid of attorney Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) and his colleagues, Gun began planning a novel legal defense, one that contended the U.K. had engaged in an illegal war, a claim that, if successful, could exonerate her of the Official Secrets Act violations leveled against her. It was an effort that involved further investigation by Bright and his associates, as well as veiled admissions by government officials who could no longer condone the directives of their higher-ups. What came from it was stunning, but it’s amazing what integrity can compel when it’s put to the test.

[caption id="attachment_10974" align="aligncenter" width="300"]When British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley, left) comes under investigation for leaking top-secret government information, it also jeopardizes the pending legal residency status of her Turkish Kurd husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri, right), in “Official Secrets.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

In an age when integrity seems like it’s in increasingly short supply, Gun’s story shows us just how important it is – and how perilous our circumstances can become when it’s carelessly disregarded. That’s especially true when it comes to the fulfillment of the questionable agendas of a few with little or no regard for the majority that could be adversely affected. Integrity is thus an essential element to the formation of our beliefs and, subsequently, to the functioning of the conscious creation process, the philosophy than maintains we draw upon these metaphysical building blocks for the manifestation of the reality we experience. Indeed, without it, we can all too easily see what we get.

Voluntarily stepping up to play the role of whistleblower is often difficult, even under modest circumstances. So, in a situation where the stakes are as high as they are here, it takes an acutely clear sense of one’s integrity to approach the plate. And that, in turn, calls for a willingness to overcome our fears and live heroically. That was certainly the case where Gun was concerned, as she was ready to risk it all for a principle.

[caption id="attachment_10975" align="aligncenter" width="300"]British journalist Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) investigates questionable claims of weapons of mass destruction while on the ground in Iraq in the new fact-based biopic, “Official Secrets.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

It would be ideal if a nation and its leadership could have the clarity of mind to see this and to implement policies and practices in line with such thinking without prompting or coercion. But, when agendas become compromised by ancillary considerations that cause a people to lose their way, conditions need to be brought back into line by those who possess the integrity, courage and wherewithal to see the truth come shining through. Gun set quite the example in that regard, and we should be grateful for her efforts.

The irony here is that, in many ways, Gun seemed an unlikely candidate for taking on such a challenge. By her own admission, she initially didn’t even view her position as anything more than just a job. But, when the ugly truth became revealed, she could not turn a blind eye. She needed to live her own truth, even if it didn’t seem like it was in line with her typical self. Her beliefs and actions thus launched her in an entirely new direction in her life, one reflective of her destiny and value fulfillment, the conscious creation principle associated with becoming our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. And, if that’s not the ultimate expression of integrity, I don’t know what is.

[caption id="attachment_10976" align="aligncenter" width="300"]While standing trial for violations of the Official Secrets Act, British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley, standing, background) awaits a verdict while her attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes, left), pleads her case in “Official Secrets.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

This somewhat rote but nevertheless compelling biopic tells the inspiring story of someone who was willing to put it all on the line for an idea. It’s a story not especially well known outside the U.K. (for reasons that become apparent in the film), yet it’s one with a message that we should all take to heart, a cautionary tale for those who might be a little too willing to dismiss it. Knightley delivers a knock-out, award-worthy performance as the unlikely heroine, backed by a superb supporting cast and the fine direction of filmmaker Gavin Hood. Regrettably, like the story it’s based on, “Official Secrets” hasn’t received much attention, but it’s definitely a worthwhile view.

Being true to ourselves isn’t always easy. Owning up to actions, policies and practices that don’t fit with what we claim to be the case takes a certain kind of courage and a willingness to admit the truth, no matter how unflattering, distasteful or hypocritical it might be. But, if we’re to live with ourselves, we must follow through with this, because, if we don’t, the consequences could end up being far worse than anything we might imagine, the kind of fallout that makes a little embarrassment pale by comparison.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

‘Love, Antosha’ fondly applauds a life of creativity

“Love, Antosha” (2019). Cast: Anton Yelchin. Interviews: Irina Yelchin, Viktor Yelchin, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Kristin Stewart, Martin Landau, Jon Voight, Willem Dafoe, Bryce Dallas Howard, Frank Langella, Sofia Boutella, Mary Lester, Ian Cripps, Sophie Simpson, Nick Jones, Paul David, Nicolas Cage (narrator). Archive Footage: Anthony Hopkins, Larry David, David Duchovny, Mel Gibson, Karl Urban, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, Robert DeNiro, Felicity Jones, Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Dinklage. Director: Garret Price. Web site. Trailer.

When we look upon the works of artists of any stripe, we often gape in awe, admiring their output and wondering how they came up with their creations. We may even somewhat enviously say to ourselves “I could do that.” But, if so, why aren’t we? Do we lack the talent or resources? Are we intimidated that we won’t measure up? Or are we just unmotivated? If we really want it happen, we can do it, but we need to get ourselves in gear. Perhaps all it takes is a little inspiration, the kind served up in the uplifting new documentary, “Love, Antosha.”

Actor Anton Yelchin (1989-2016) was seemingly born to entertain. As the child of Soviet figure skaters Irina and Viktor Yelchin, the Leningrad-born Antosha came to the U.S. when he was six months old as rising anti-Semitism began to threaten the family’s security and well-being. After their arrival in California as officially sanctioned refugees, a young Anton began to show a talent for acting. In home “movies” made by the youngster, Anton did more than just aimlessly goof off in front of the video camera. He told stories and proudly proclaimed credit for all aspects of his productions. He was clearly on his way.

Not long after he began taking acting lessons, Anton’s teacher told his mother that he was ready to go on auditions. Irina and Anton were surprised – this was something they were primarily doing for fun – but they decided to follow the coach’s advice. And it worked. Before long, Anton was picked for several commercials and then small television roles. His success with these projects, in turn, led to frequent movie work all throughout his teens and into his twenties.

Yelchin quickly developed quite a filmography. He became known for parts in pictures like “Hearts in Atlantis” (2001), “Alpha Dog” (2006), “Charlie Bartlett” (2007), “Fright Night” (2011), “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), “Experimenter” (2015), “Green Room” (2015) and “Thoroughbreds” (2017), as well as all three installments of the latest “Star Trek” franchise reboot (2009, 2013, 2016) portraying iconic Starship Enterprise navigator Ens. Pavel Chekov. He also landed spots on TV series like ER (2000), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004) and NYPD Blue (2004), as well as the Steven Spielberg-produced mini-series Taken (2002). Through these roles, Yelchin worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including actors Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Kristin Stewart, Martin Landau, Jon Voight, Willem Dafoe, Bryce Dallas Howard, Frank Langella, Anthony Hopkins, Larry David, Mel Gibson, Leonard Nimoy, Felicity Jones, Robert Downey Jr., David Duchovny, Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Dinklage, as well as director J.J. Abrams. That’s impressive company for any performer, especially for someone as young as he was.

In addition to his acting work, Yelchin was an accomplished musician, becoming proficient on the guitar after only a handful of lessons. He went on to perform in clubs in greater Los Angeles, earning quite a following. On top of that, he became adept as a photographer, model, writer and voice-over performer, having contributed to a number of animation and video game projects in the “Smurfs” franchise. And, if that weren’t enough, he was an aspiring filmmaker, having become well versed in film history and a variety of cinematic styles. Yelchin was truly a Renaissance man at a tender age with a bright future ahead of him.

But Anton was not without his challenges. He suffered from cystic fibrosis, a condition that required him to practice a regular and rigorous regimen of breathing exercises to stay healthy. He also had an ability to so immerse himself in his roles (particularly those of a dark nature) that he sometimes seriously worried those who cared about him. However, that ability to go within and to get in touch with himself is what made him so effective as a performer, one who completed nearly 70 film and TV roles in his brief career.

Even with such a full plate, Yelchin still managed to find time for those near and dear to him. He adored his parents, especially his mother. He was close to many of his co-stars, especially Kristin Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence, as well as Martin Landau, who saw Anton more as a contemporary than someone decades his junior. But, perhaps more importantly, he stayed life-long friends with many of his childhood acquaintances, preserving the closeness of those relationships, something that often falls by the wayside among Hollywood types when they become famous.

Considering everything Yelchin had to offer professionally and personally, he was deeply loved by those who knew and worked with him. Which is why his death at age 27 in a freak accident was so tragic. When his parked vehicle began rolling backward in his home’s steep driveway, he became pinned between it and a security fence, cutting off his breath, a fatal condition for someone with cystic fibrosis. One of the brightest lights in Hollywood went dark in an instant, cutting short one of the most promising careers in the business.

Those who struggle to express themselves creatively may think it unfair that one individual can be so artistically gifted. But Yelchin had a burning desire to do it all, so much so that many of his colleagues observed that it seemed like he never stopped working (pursuits that Anton himself probably didn’t even see as work). From this, then, it’s apparent that he was proficient in the ways of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents to manifest the reality we experience. Even if Yelchin had never heard of this practice, he certainly mastered many of its principles and put them to use in his creative output.

Yelchin’s creativity seemed to know no bounds. In addition to everything he accomplished, he had many ideas in mind for projects to come at the time of his death. Most notably, Yelchin was preparing to direct his first film, “Travis,” an homage to the Martin Scorsese classic “Taxi Driver” (1976), one of Anton’s favorite movies. Many elements of the production had already come together, including the financing, an increasingly challenging feat in today’s filmmaking landscape. This was more proof that he was eminently capable of envisioning his dreams, believing in their validity and seeing them come into being. It would have been interesting to see what he would have come up with.

In fulfilling these attainments, Yelchin proceeded fearlessly, unencumbered by whatever perceived limitations might stand in his way. To have accomplished as much as he did in such a short time is truly astounding, something that never would have happened if he had allowed himself to be deterred by obstacles. This is particularly true where his health was concerned. He was not about to let his condition bog him down, even if meant having to undertake an arduous treatment program in order to remain physically – and thus artistically – viable.

Based on his output, to say that Anton was a visionary is truly an understatement. His creativity seemed to come to him naturally, and this quality became reflected in his portrayals, even as a youngster. For example, in his first professional role on the TV series ER as a child grieving the loss of a parent, he was called upon to cry on camera, something that’s difficult enough even for seasoned veterans. Not for Yelchin, though; he came through as though he had been doing this sort of thing for years, a natural on the set in every sense of the word.

Anton’s success to a great degree came from his ability to tap into his intuition, one of the elements that contributes significantly to the formation of the beliefs necessary for manifestation. It enabled him to sense what was needed to play a role and to materialize it in his portrayal, a quality that made his performances appear so utterly natural.

Ironically, though, Anton’s intuition also filled him with uncomfortable feelings at times. For example, while on a movie shoot in a cemetery, he grew visibly uncomfortable, a trait that the film crew thought was simply part of his performance. But, after the fact, those who knew Yelchin have come to speculate that his genuine discomfort may have been indicative of a sense of things to come. Not long after the shoot, the actor went through a difficult stint with his health, one that necessitated an intensive treatment period to help him get his physical state back on track. And, unfortunately, his tragic death came shortly thereafter. These events thus can’t help but lead some to wonder whether he was aware, on some level, of his impending demise. That, in turn, may have impelled the sense of urgency he seemed to feel when it came to his work, to get as much completed as possible with the time available to him.

Given Anton’s life experience and the challenges he faced on various fronts – escaping the growing threat to his safety in his homeland, his chronic health condition and perhaps an unsettling awareness of his future – it’s obvious that he deeply and sincerely appreciated the gift of life. He made this apparent in many ways, such as the endearing notes, messages and greetings he sent to his mother, effusively expressing his gratitude for the life that she gave him. And, because of this, it’s clear he felt it important to make the most of what time we have in this existence, to live our lives and to creatively express ourselves to the fullest extent possible. He set a high standard, but he gave us all an impressive and inspiring measure to emulate.

A career cut short by tragedy may not seem like it would provide much material for a filmmaker to work with, but, when it comes to the prolific output of Anton Yelchin, there’s plenty to draw upon – and to look back upon in awe and melancholy. Director Garret Price’s new documentary shows just how much living Yelchin packed into his 27 years, with so much more left in the tank that he never got a chance to express. This bittersweet tribute to a multitalented (and underappreciated) artist features a wealth of clips from Yelchin’s many film and TV appearances and his many musical performances, along with a star-studded array of interviews from those who worked with him, those who knew him as a friend and the parents who adored him. Despite some occasionally sluggish pacing in the first 30 minutes, the film nevertheless manages to evoke a curious mixture of wonder, sadness and fondness in recognition of someone taken too soon. “Love, Antosha” is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in independent and documentary films.

When we reach the ends of our lives, one would hope that we’d approach the finish line without harboring any regrets, especially when it comes to things we wish we had done. Indeed, there are perhaps no more tragic lines than those that begin with the words “If only I had….” Even though Anton Yelchin’s work may not have been complete at the time of his death, he certainly packed more into his short lifetime than many of us might do over one several times its length. He showed us the joy and fulfillment that comes from aggressively engaging in such pursuits – so that we don’t end up lamenting what we left unfinished.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Movies with Meaning Is Back!

It's back! Tune in for the return of Movies with Meaning on Frankiesense & More radio on The Good Media Network on Tuesday September 10 at 1:30 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't catch it live, hear and watch it later on demand!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tune in for The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, today, September 3, at 2 pm ET, by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

Monday, September 2, 2019

‘One Child Nation’ exposes the consequences of ignorance

“One Child Nation” (2019). Cast: Nanfu Wang, Brian Stuy, Longlan Stuy, Tunde Wang, Peng Wang, Huaru Tuan, Zhihao Wang, Shuqin Jiang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Jiaoming Pang. Directors: Nanfu Wang and Zhang Lynn. Web site. Trailer.

It’s all too easy to become so focused on what we want that we may fail to think things through. What’s more, the ante for this can get significantly upped when we examine the ramifications for taking no action. Now imagine what can happen when such a scenario unfolds on a national scale. Under such circumstances, there may be a tendency to act rashly, something that can have dire consequences, a situation detailed in the compelling new documentary, “One Child Nation.”

Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang didn’t think much about the one-child-only “family planning” policy of her homeland until after she immigrated to America and became pregnant herself. Having been born in 1985, six years after the policy took effect, she grew up accepting it as just the way things were, much like nearly all of her countrymen. But, once outside of China, free from the restrictions she would have faced if she had stayed, she began to contemplate the nature – and wisdom – of the policy.

The policy, adopted in 1979, was instituted to ward off a projected famine due to China’s skyrocketing population. In prior years, food shortages resulted in many deaths by starvation. And, with population growth projections in place at the time, it was believed the problem would only worsen, perhaps even leading to cannibalism. Given that, the new policy was introduced to stave off that apparent inevitability, with strict enforcement measures in place to ensure compliance. Restricting families to one child only was seen as a way to avoid tragedy and raise the standard of living for the average household, not to mention a legally dictated civic responsibility.

To help promote the policy, the government and the ruling Communist Party launched an aggressive and ubiquitous propaganda program to drill it into the minds of the Chinese people. The landscape was plastered cheesy, Maoist-style billboards, placards and signage, and the message was emblazoned on playing cards, matchbook covers and all other manner of printed material. The policy was also promoted through traveling stage shows, choral performances and music videos, as well as in the classroom songs taught to schoolchildren. There was no escaping it.

And that included the watchful eye of authorities, too. Women who gave birth were frequently force-sterilized after having their allotted child. Those who became pregnant a second time were often involuntarily forced into abortions, some of them late term in nature with the fetuses carelessly disposed of in trash heaps. Those who actually gave birth a second time generally had their children taken or killed, sometimes even by the very midwives who delivered them. Others found themselves desperately having to hide their offspring to avoid detection and seizure by officials. Mothers of twins faced similar treatment, having to settle for one child only, with the other murdered or confiscated by authorities. While some exceptions for second children were made for families in underpopulated rural areas, as was the case with Nanfu’s family, these instances were far from the rule. To call the practices barbaric was an understatement.

To complicate matters, most Chinese families wanted to have boys, and those who gave birth to girls often abandoned their daughters, surrendering them to orphanages or leaving them in baskets in public places like markets in hopes that someone would take them. This practice was so pervasive and well known that Nanfu’s brother, Zhihao, freely acknowledges this, admitting that, if he had been born a girl, he probably would have been left on someone’s doorstep.

In 1992, when China authorized the adoption of “orphans” by Western nations, the policy developed yet another shameful wrinkle – the emergence of a lucrative market in black market babies. Would-be parents in countries like the U.S., Canada and Spain thus found adoption opportunities available to them that previously didn’t exist. Unfortunately, given the criminal operations proliferating in China, those overseas parents couldn’t be guaranteed that they would be adopting bona fide orphans; many were girls abandoned by their birth families, twins snatched from their siblings or children simply grabbed off the streets whose backgrounds conveniently couldn’t be verified (if any attempt to do so was even made).

After years of burgeoning unanticipated problems, China discovered an even bigger issue: By limiting families to only one child over the course of two generations, the country has been left with an enormous population gap, a severely diminished working age citizenry that is bound to be incapable of financially supporting the nation’s elderly retirees. And this doesn’t even take into account a smaller consumer market or an insufficient number of laborers to fill all of the available jobs. Consequently, in 2015, the nation began to aggressively promote a two-child policy, one that officials hope will eventually undo the damage inflicted by a 35-year shortsighted social experiment.

While many contend that China’s one-child policy was instituted with the best of intentions, that it was an essential move to avoid an impending disaster, there are those who argue that its implementation wasn’t adequately thought through. Its draconian nature, critics say, went too far and ended up creating even more problems than it was meant to solve. Such is what can happen without due regard for the power of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

While some might legitimately claim that hindsight is 20/20, there are those who would contend that the policy was a product of the process of un-conscious creation or creation by default, where the outcome is sought at any cost, without due consideration for the consequences. In a scenario like this, the beliefs are so focused on the results that no attention is given to the fallout – the pain and emotional suffering of those forcefully subjected to the policy, the criminal activity that arose from it, and the extensive, potentially irreparable damage to the nation’s population demographics. This was made all the more worse by the fact that this program emerged from the collective beliefs of virtually an entire country, a potent act of co-creation whose implementation was fueled by the masses and continually reinforced through an aggressive propaganda campaign, perpetuating its existence. Stopping a juggernaut like that is nearly impossible, especially since it had been allowed to become so ingrained in the nation’s psyche. In fact, to counteract the effect, China has had to introduce its new two-child policy with almost equal vigor to its predecessor – and again employing a propaganda program not unlike what preceded it.

Some might wonder why China’s population didn’t rise up against this policy. But, when one considers the government’s violent response to the peaceful 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, it’s easy to see how citizens would fall into line. When faced with severe sanctions for failure to comply with the policy, most of the nation’s population capitulated, often saying “What choice did I have?” Few would probably argue with their reactions under the circumstances.

Regrettably, this illustrates what can happen when we give away our power, when we allow our beliefs to become distorted by the pressure placed upon us by others. Admittedly, it’s easy (and arguably unfair) for those of us not under the thumb of that kind of burden to say what we think the affected should do. But this scenario nevertheless shows how perilous the circumstances can become if we continue to allow ourselves to follow a path such as this.

The impact of this lingers even now after the policy’s abandonment. Many Chinese citizens still believe that the one-child policy was the right thing to do, including Nanfu’s mother, Zaodi, who was allowed an exemption to give birth to a second child. This is even more evident among government authorities who were responsible for enforcement, such as highly decorated family planner Shuqin Jiang, who insists that the policy was necessary, despite whatever “sacrifices” might have been made along the way. These attitudes thus show the power and persistence of beliefs – and how they can enable our manifestations to become so forcefully entrenched, even when they’re no longer officially in force.

Of course, it is possible to make up for the mistakes; conscious creation always makes redemption possible. The two-child policy, for example, is an attempt to restore the population shortfall, even though the degree of damage that was done by its predecessor may take quite some time to rectify (and perhaps not even completely).

But what’s perhaps more meaningful are the individual efforts that have been launched to try to make up for past missteps. These initiatives in and of themselves may not have widespread impact, but they illustrate changes in the zeitgeist that could eventually take hold and help to reshape the prevailing perspective to prevent atrocities and shortsightedness from recurring. For instance, midwife Huaru Tuan, who delivered Nanfu, acknowledges the immorality of some of her actions in the past – the abortions, the forced sterilizations, the killings – and today has devoted herself to assisting couples with infertility issues. She admits that this won’t make up for what she calls her “sins,” but she hopes that, with each child she helps an otherwise-infertile couple to bring into the world, she helps to make up for the lives she took because she was simply following orders.

Likewise, former village official Tunde Wang, who was once responsible for calling out those who violated the policy, openly expresses his regrets about his past actions, admitting that they were wrong and that they tore him up when forced to do so. While his confessions may not bring back the children who were lost or wipe away the punishments inflicted on “the guilty,” his sincere desire to express his regrets feeds positive energy and healing beliefs into the nation’s collective unconscious, contributions that, one would hope, will help to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Making others aware of the failings of this policy help, too. Artist Peng Wang, for example, has created troubling but poignant works that include imagery of the discarded fetuses, a shocking but attention-getting way of informing the unaware of just how horrific the policy could be. Journalist Jiaoming Pang meanwhile wrote an exposé about the separation of twins, The Orphans of Shao, a project so controversial that it forced him to escape from China to Hong Kong for fear of his own safety. And then there are the efforts of Brian and Longlan Stuy, a Utah couple who have adopted three girls from China and subsequently learned about the black market dealings involving the nation’s orphanages and adoption agencies. They have since launched a service to help parents learn the truth about the backgrounds of their adopted children, all in hopes of helping to set the record straight for those who may have been unfairly separated from their families.

When a nation’s survival is on the line, as China claimed was the case in 1979, it may be easy to embrace desperate measures. And the one-child program may have staved off the tragedy it was meant to prevent. But is it wise to cavalierly adopt policies that could potentially raise all manner of other issues in the process? That’s what “One Child Nation” attempts to draw into sharp focus, offering us a powerful cautionary tale about what can happen when actions stem from inadequate thought.

Nanfu Wang’s insightful, sometimes-gruesome, often-appalling look at China’s failed policy details the horrendous emotional damage inflicted upon all those the policy touched, as well as the negative social implications that arose from it both at present and for the future. Yet the director skillfully restrains herself from taking an adversarial position with her interview subjects, letting their own words speak for themselves, for better or worse. This impressive offering earned the film the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary Category at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

When it comes to our family, emotions are often charged, even under ideal circumstances. So when that part of our life is intruded upon by a cold, impersonal force that dictates terms to us about how we handle its affairs, we might well feel imposed upon, perhaps even violated. Such was the case for the citizens of China for 35 years, a situation whose enduring implications are felt even today.  We can only hope we heed the message of this film – and never make those same mistakes again.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Peanut Butter Falcon," "Tel Aviv on Fire" and "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

‘Peanut Butter Falcon’ celebrates getting the most out of life

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” (2019). Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Mick Foley, Wayne DeHart, Bruce Henderson. Directors: Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz. Screenplay: Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz. Web site. Trailer.

How many of us are living truly fulfilled lives? Do we approach our existence with all-out gusto and a willingness to pursue our dreams? Or are we restricted by rules, regulations, fears and regrets – many of our own making – that keep us from fulfilling our potential? Sometimes it takes breaking out of rigid, ingrained patterns of thought and behavior that prevent us from getting the most out of our time in this reality. Such are the themes that underlie the story line of the charming new comedy-drama-road trip movie, “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”

Have you ever been in a situation where there was something you wanted to do but were prevented from doing so by those who thought you were incapable? That’s the problem faced by Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year-old affected by Down syndrome. Having been abandoned by his family, Zak became a ward of the state. But, given the lack of adequate residential facilities for individuals with his condition in his eastern North Carolina community, he’s been forced to live in a senior citizens’ home. And he hates it. As the only resident in his age range and with his condition, he feels isolated. He wants out.

[caption id="attachment_10938" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Eager to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) escapes from his residential care facility to attend a school run by his idol, the Salt Water Redneck, to learn how to become a grappler, as seen in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Photo by Nigel Bluck, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films.[/caption]

Zak has a plan, too. As a huge fan of professional wrestling, he dreams of escaping to enroll in a school run by his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), to learn how to become a grappler. His enthusiasm for the sport is obvious, and physically he’s certainly strong enough for it. All he needs to do is figure out a way to get out.

After a failed escape attempt, Zak is labeled a flight risk by his case worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). She realizes he’s unhappy, and she’s doing everything she believes she can to make his life as satisfying as possible. Even with that, though, she has bars placed on his windows to prevent a repeat episode. However, given Zak’s desire to pursue his dream, he vows to escape, and, with the assistance of his elderly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), the would-be wrestler finds a way to get out, fleeing in the middle of the night. When Eleanor learns of his getaway, she goes in pursuit of the escapee, but finding the clever fugitive proves to be easier said than done.

After hours on the run, Zak comes upon a fishing boat harbor. Tired and in need of sleep, he takes refuge under a tarp on one of the boats. But that rest is soon interrupted when trouble arises for the boat’s skipper, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a rogue crab fisherman who’s been poaching catches from waters claimed by a licensed but vindictive peer, Duncan (John Hawkes). After setting fire to Duncan’s gear in response to strong-arm threats, Tyler looks to make a hasty getaway from the harbor to avoid the retribution of Duncan and his chief muscle, Ratboy (Yelawolf). He jumps into his boat to take off, unaware that he has an unwitting passenger onboard.

[caption id="attachment_10939" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Unlikely road trip companions, wrestling wannabe Zak (Zak Gottsagen, left) and rogue fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, right) set off on an adventure with others in hot pursuit in the charming new comedy-drama, “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Photo by Seth Johnson, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films.[/caption]

A high-speed boat chase ensues, but Tyler manages to escape detection by successfully hiding in a patch of tall aquatic reeds. It’s only then that he discovers Zak. Tyler’s not entirely sure what to do, but, realizing that Zak needs help, he quickly, albeit somewhat reluctantly, finds himself developing a sense of responsibility for his young companion.

Responsibility is something that Tyler has never taken to readily. For example, his recent poaching activity illustrates his limitations in this area. But, more than that, he deeply regrets how his lack of this attribute contributed to the death of someone near and dear to him. Helping Zak find his way to wrestling school, then, just might help him to make up for some of these past oversights.

And so, with their destination of the Salt Water Redneck School of Wrestling in mind, the unlikely duo sets off on a quirky, eventful road trip. Along the way, Tyler and Zak have a number of memorable experiences, such as nearly being overrun by an enormous shrimp boat, encountering a blind, aging evangelist (Wayne DeHart) hell-bent on baptizing them, and sailing aboard a makeshift raft. Tyler also provides Zak with some impromptu training as a wrestler, both physically and attitudinally, including the adoption of his ring name: the Peanut Butter Falcon.

The road trip is not without its challenges, though. Both Tyler and Zak are hotly pursued by others (i.e., Duncan, Ratboy and Eleanor), and they clearly don’t have much patience for the vagabonds’ antics. But, through it all, the duo considers their journey an adventure, one that’s akin to a modern-day version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The question is, though, will they reach their destination? And, if so, will it live up to their expectations? For those driven by their dreams, there’s no telling what’s possible.

[caption id="attachment_10940" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Runaway Zak (Zack Gottsagen, left), case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, center) and renegade crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, right) find life on the road together thrilling but challenging in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Photo by Seth Johnson, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films.[/caption]

Those dreams, of course, are largely made possible by our beliefs – beliefs in what we would like to achieve but, more importantly, in what we consider attainable. The trick, though, is figuring out how to formulate the beliefs required to bring those ideas into being. Those are the cornerstone principles underlying the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of those metaphysical building blocks in manifesting the reality we experience.

A key starting point in this process is developing beliefs where we’re able to envision the desired outcome. As metaphysical author and teacher Gregg Braden has often observed, an effective way of accomplishing this is by picturing the end result as if it’s already happened. In that way, the notion takes on greater weight, an undeniable “density” that helps to root it in our minds and in the line of possible existence we would like to pursue. And that places us one step closer to the outcome’s realization.

In this story, Zak is so sold on becoming a professional wrestler that coming up with beliefs and plans to see it happen are almost second nature, and that makes its materialization that much more likely. He thus serves as a powerful influence to those around him, most notably those in need of getting their acts together and their lives on track. Tyler most readily comes to mind here, given that he appears to have been aimlessly drifting for some time. But, in her own way, this also applies to Eleanor, someone who appears to have more gifts to offer others than merely serving as a mid-level administrator in a nursing home. While there may be nothing inherently wrong with that, it seems that it’s below her capabilities and potential. Perhaps Zak can inspire both of them to find their callings by helping instill in them the ability to envision their future in the same affirmed way he does.

[caption id="attachment_10941" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Angry fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) seeks retribution against a poacher of his catches in the quirky new comedy-drama, “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Photo by Nigel Bluck, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films.[/caption]

Zak is able to accomplish this in large part by not letting limitations hold him back. He doesn’t see his condition as a disability; it’s merely who he is, something he has to work with, but it’s by no means something that intrinsically deters him from following his dreams. In that regard, he’s not only an inspiration to his fellow travelers, but also to anyone who all too easily allows personal crutches from getting in the way of living our lives. And that’s important to recognize, since such notions are beliefs (and self-fulfilling ones at that), not unlike the intents we employ when we seek to manifest anything that’s part of our existence.

In essence, such an attitude reflects the concept of living heroically, moving past our fears and apprehensions to see our aspirations come into being. Again, Zak is an inspiration in this regard, refusing to allow those elements to get in his way, be it an approaching shrimp boat, a vindictive crabber pursuing him and his travelling companion, or a social welfare system seeking to hem him in and keep him from what he wants out of life. That’s powerful stuff, again, not only for those close to him, but also to anyone who’s approaching life timidly and needs to break out of that pattern.

A key component of such an outlook is to learn the power of redemption. The guilt we often experience in the wake of tragedies and disappointments can linger, in large part because it, too, is a belief, one that can become all too easily entrenched. Consequently, we may become stuck in our own thoughts, unable to move forward. But, as conscious creation maintains, we have an infinite range of possibilities for existence available to us at any given time, meaning that our realities can indeed be changed. And those changes, like anything else we create, depend on the beliefs we maintain, including those that allow us to atone for our past, to redeem ourselves for the future that lies ahead of us.

[caption id="attachment_10942" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Wily senior citizens’ home resident Carl (Bruce Dern) helps his roommate escape to pursue his dream in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Photo by Joe Mast, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films.[/caption]

Many of us may find this difficult, but it’s far from impossible to overcome. This is where the power of forgiveness comes into play. In particular, this involves the forgiveness we show ourselves in the wake of situations that prompted the aforementioned guilt. By envisioning, forming and embracing beliefs that make this possible, we can move into a state of forgiveness, one where we let ourselves off the hook for what may have happened, thereby removing the emotional baggage that makes it easier for us to begin the process of getting on with our lives.

Redemption is something Tyler obviously needs to pursue; his guilt and his failure to forgive himself have kept him stuck in a huge rut for a long time. But, in her own way, Eleanor needs to do the same; while she wasn’t personally responsible for a tragedy of her own, she’s apparently been touched by it in a way that has kept her from fully pursuing the happiness she deserves, a redemptive change she’d be wise to give herself permission to experience.

To achieve this, Tyler and Eleanor should yet again look to Zak for guidance. He was no doubt upset that he was abandoned by his family. And he truly dislikes being called “retard” by disparaging strangers. But he refuses to allow such things to characterize him; he’s not his condition, nor is he defined by everything that has come along with it. These are circumstances he deals with in the process of redeeming himself to become the person he wants to be, a lesson we’d all be wise to follow if we hope to get the most out of life. Zak certainly does.

[caption id="attachment_10943" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Like characters out of a modern-day Huckleberry Finn, mismatched traveling companions Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, left), Zak (Zack Gottsagen, center) and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, right) set off on a grand adventure in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Photo by Nigel Bluck, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films.[/caption]

Despite some occasionally sluggish pacing and a narrative that’s more than a little predictable, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt feel good comedy-drama-road trip offerings to come along in years. LaBeouf and Johnson turn in some of their best work here, but newcomer Gottsagen is the real stand-out, a natural on screen who charms and surprises at seemingly every turn. This may not be epic cinema, but it’s certainly satisfying, well-crafted, crowd-pleasing entertainment, the kind of endearing story we could certainly use more of these days.

If we’re unsatisfied by the world around us, we should seek to alter it. As Mohatma Gandhi famously observed, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” That’s good advice, and we should draw from inspirations that embody it, no matter what source they come from. Zak provides us with a good example to follow, both in the wrestling ring and on the playing field of life.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 26, 2019

‘Bernadette’ examines the compulsion to create

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (2019). Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristin Wiig, Laurence Fishburne, Judy Greer, Troian Bellisario, Zoe Chao, Megan Mullally, Steve Zahn, David Paymer, James Urbaniak, Kate Burton. Director: Richard Linklater. Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent and Vince Palmo. Book: Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Web site. Trailer.

Some of us just have to create. The compulsion is so strong that we can’t ignore it, as if it’s an itch that must be scratched. And, if that need goes unfulfilled, it can drive us crazy – literally. So it is for an exceptionally talented woman on the brink in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”

Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) leads a rather unusual life. The eccentric middle-aged Seattle wife and mother spends most of her time tending to her family, husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), a high-level Microsoft engineer, and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), an intelligent, multi-talented adolescent. Bee is so gifted, in fact, that her excellent grades all throughout middle school earned her a reward of her choice, a promise made to her by her parents. And, as the ambitious, adventurous sort that she is, Bee chose big: a family vacation to Antarctica.

[caption id="attachment_10929" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Reclusive Seattle housewife Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) hides out from others – and herself – in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.[/caption]

Bee’s choice, needless to say, comes as something of a surprise, more than what her parents expected. The prospect is especially daunting for Bernadette, given that she’s something of a neurotic recluse. She suffers from severe insomnia and is noticeably uncomfortable around people other than her family. She particularly cringes when having to deal with her nosy, persnickety neighbor, Audrey (Kristin Wiig), who’s managed to elevate political correctness to an art form. Because of these issues, Bernadette seldom leaves home. She doesn’t work (even though she once did as a brilliant, innovative architect), instead devoting much of her time and attention to the renovation of the family’s vintage manor house, a project that sometimes seems more trouble than it’s worth. And now that she’s facing the possibility of having to travel far outside of her comfort zone to a strange land on an excursion where she’ll be among throngs of strangers, she’s more high strung than ever. She doesn’t want to disappoint Bee, but she’s far from certain that she’ll be able to comply with her daughter’s wishes.

As Bernadette attempts to prepare for the trip, her behavior becomes even more unpredictable. She’s accused of being responsible for inflicting injury to Audrey and causing extensive damage to her property. She’s suspected of seeking to acquire dangerous prescription drugs through her physician, strong medication that she claims she needs to help her cope with the extreme sea sickness she anticipates suffering aboard the ship she’ll be taking to Antarctica. And she becomes embroiled in an FBI investigation involving foreign hackers who’ve infiltrated her virtual assistant in an attempt to steal her identity. What’s going on here?

Elgie is naturally concerned, so much so that he believes it’s time for an intervention with a psychiatrist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer). The duo thinks it may be time for Bernadette to check herself into a mental health facility to find out what’s really going on. And, as her story unfolds, there are hints as to what might be wrong. But will Bernadette cooperate in this effort? She initially seems reluctantly willing to go along with the recommendation – that is, until she makes a hasty exit out of a bathroom window, disappearing into the outside world, not to be seen, prompting everyone to ask the question that gives this film its title.

[caption id="attachment_10930" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Doting mother Bernadette (Cate Blanchett, left) and multi-talented daughter Bee (Emma Nelson, right) share a special bond in director Richard Linklater’s latest, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.[/caption]

Bernadette’s bizarre behavior poses a major puzzle to those who care about her. Those who have known her for a long time are truly baffled. They can’t help but ask, “How did someone who once had it all together slip into such a state of personal disarray?” What’s more, given that it appears matters are only getting worse, worried onlookers can’t help but wonder where things will go from here.

To unravel this situation, everyone involved – most notably Bernadette herself – must determine the elements driving such strange conduct. And a good starting point for this is a thorough examination of her beliefs, the foundation of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these tools for manifesting the reality we experience. Clearly, though, she has her work cut out for herself.

A key word in undertaking this analysis is “creation.” What does it mean to her? Many would argue that, given Bernadette’s life of late, she’s not really creating very much. To be sure, she has cultivated a strong relationship with Bee, whom she positively adores. But, beyond that, what does she have to show for her time and effort?

That lack of creative output is surprising, too, given Bernadette’s background. Twenty years earlier when she was living in Los Angeles, Bernadette was a legendary architect, having come up with inventive designs not only for her structures, but also for many of their internal elements, such as inspired furniture creations. She became one of the leading women in her field, even capturing a prestigious MacArthur Grant. She was sought after for her revolutionary thinking, daring to design and construct buildings that no one else could even begin to envision.

[caption id="attachment_10931" align="aligncenter" width="300"]The eccentric behavior of housewife and mother Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, left) causes concern for her loving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup, right) in the quirky new comedy-drama, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.[/caption]

All of this comes out through an obscure but revealing online video about her career, as well as a lengthy chance conversation with one of her former architecture associates, Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne). But, despite her impressive track record, all of a sudden, she mysteriously dropped out of sight. She abandoned her career, attempting nothing more noteworthy than the renovation of the family residence, an uphill battle for which maintaining her enthusiasm is often quite a challenge. Why did she drop out of sight?

To say more would reveal too much. However, suffice it to say that, considering Bernadette’s boundless capacity for creativity, there can be tremendous consequences when a talent like that becomes stifled. And, as becomes apparent, that suppression stems directly from events of her past and the beliefs that stemmed from them, most notably a lack of desire to create in the face of plans going awry or becoming distorted. When this happens, it becomes all too easy to embrace the belief “Why bother?” At the same time, though, when one’s creative impulse is curtailed, even when seemingly undercut by countervailing futility-based beliefs, it nevertheless seeks to become unleashed, like a wild mustang seeking to break out of a holding pen.

That’s where Bernadette is at, and it’s a belief conundrum that impacts her creation efforts in all areas of her life, not just in her talents as an architect. But her inability to see and grasp this problem, as well as her blindness to finding an effective solution, have her stuck in place and quickly sinking into a morass of frustration of her own making. When a creative sort wants to create and can’t, fewer situations are more maddening. If Bernadette hopes to get her life back on track, not to mention save her sanity, she’ll need to clearly see these circumstances for what they are – and find a way to fix them.

[caption id="attachment_10932" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Nosy neighbor Audrey (Kristin Wiig, left) and her condescending partner-in-crime, Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao, right), routinely irk a neurotic recluse in the new comedy-drama, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo by Wilson Webb, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.[/caption]

Should she do this, however, the results can be miraculous. Recharging our creative batteries by implementing beliefs that enable this can produce powerfully rejuvenating outcomes, not only in the tangible manifestations they yield, but also in the outlook of the creator. Such an effort can wipe away the frustration that blocks our creative output while restoring stability to our overall thought processes, especially when it comes to forming and understanding our materialization beliefs and our prevailing general outlook. Imagine what such a change could do for someone like Bernadette.

The importance of all this goes beyond just coming up with pretty things to look at. It can also have significant impact on one’s overarching psychological health, particularly for those who are meant to create. For some individuals, like Bernadette, creativity is their calling, their destiny, their value fulfillment (as conscious creators call it). But, when such impulses become chronically obstructed, the result can be more than just a temporary case of artist’s block; it can become something more debilitating, a condition that far-reaching ramifications not unlike those seen in this story. To avoid that, we had better make sure we keep the creativity flowing – and as abundantly as possible.

[caption id="attachment_10933" align="aligncenter" width="300"]A stroll down memory lane between former architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, right) and onetime colleague Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne, left) stirs up some fond recollections and more than a few ghosts of the past as seen in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.[/caption]

While somewhat ambling in its approach, this offbeat comedy-drama nevertheless delves into a number of profound notions, especially in the areas of creativity and fulfillment and what can happen when they aren’t satisfied. Blanchett and newcomer Nelson deliver fine performances as an outspoken and unusual mother-daughter duo in a quirky tale that’s sporadically overwritten and sometimes verges on losing control of the room. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, director Richard Linklater’s latest is far from perfect (or even adequately developed for that matter), but it’s certainly not the unmitigated train wreck that some have made it out to be.

Creativity in general (and conscious creation in particular) is like a muscle – the more we use it, the stronger it gets. By contrast, if we fail to draw on it, we can run into a serious case of atrophy, making it especially difficult to get back on track if it falls into disuse. As Bernadette’s experience shows, the consequences of that can be far greater than just not producing one’s latest novel or painting; it can affect our very survival. But, then, if we all essentially live to create, there’d be no survival without it.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 23, 2019

‘Tel Aviv on Fire’ seeks to burn through the nonsense of needless drama

“Tel Aviv on Fire” (2018 production, 2019 release). Cast: Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal. Yaniv Biton, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Nadim Sawalha, Salim Dau, Yousef “Joe” Sweid, Amer Hlehel, Laëtitia Eïdo, Ashraf Farah, Ula Tabari, Yaffa Levi. Director: Sameh Zoabi. Screenplay: Dan Kleinman and Sameh Zoabi. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all experienced situations where the drama meter unfortunately gets turned up way beyond manageable levels. We stand by in shock (and sometimes horror) as events spiral to a fever pitch on their way to careening out of control. In fact, all we need is a Greek chorus to drop in and fan the flames of the emerging spectacle. Woe, oh dreaded woe. But must we really head down that path? Perhaps there are better ways to resolve such matters, a suggestion proposed in the new celluloid satire, “Tel Aviv on Fire.”

Fan loyalty notwithstanding, soap operas are often easy targets for ridicule. Their frequently exaggerated, over-the-top story lines and melodramatic acting regularly draw criticism from those who prefer their entertainment outlets to be “more realistic.” But, given the bona fide, often-overinflated drama of everyday life, with developments that are far more absurd than anything script writers can concoct, these shows may not be as out there as many might think.

So it is with Tel Aviv on Fire, an immensely popular Palestinian soap set during the 1967 Six-day War. The show follows the exploits of Manal (a.k.a. Rachel) (Lubna Azabal), a Palestinian resistance fighter sent undercover to infiltrate Israeli Defense Forces by her lover/colleague, Marwan (Ashraf Farah). Posing as an Israeli assistant to Gen. Yehuda Edelman (Yousef “Joe” Sweid), “Rachel” is charged with seducing the general to gather secret military information and siphon it back to her peers, a task that, when successfully completed, will enable Manal to return to her beloved Marwan to marry and live happily ever after.

At least that’s what’s supposed to happen.

[caption id="attachment_10923" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif, foreground), production assistant on the Palestinian soap opera Tel Aviv on Fire, inadvertently runs afoul of Israeli security officer Capt. Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton, background) while at a border checkpoint, necessitating some creative thinking to figure out a way to get back to his home in Jerusalem in the satirical new comedy, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.[/caption]

As a Palestinian production, Tel Aviv on Fire is filmed in Ramallah in the West Bank territory, but not everyone who works on the show lives nearby. Tala, for example, the actress who portrays Manal/Rachel, is actually from France, although most of the cast and crew don’t have a commute nearly as long as hers. Some live comparatively closer, such as Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian production assistant who resides in Jerusalem. Having grown up in Israel, he’s well versed in Hebrew and has been hired by the show’s producer, his Uncle Basam (Nadim Sawalha), to help the actors with their pronunciations, given that Hebrew is not their native tongue.

As part of his daily commuting routine, Salam crosses through the heavily militarized border checkpoint on his way back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem. While returning home one day, the docile, subservient, somewhat bumbling amateur linguist makes a statement that a checkpoint guard interprets as potentially threatening. He’s ordered to report to the security officer in charge of the border crossing, Capt. Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), an egotistical, self-important military operative who, for what it’s worth, probably has more discretionary authority to handle such situations than he genuinely deserves.

During his interrogation with the captain, Salam mentions that he works on Tel Aviv on Fire, giving himself a promotion from production assistant to staff writer in the process. Assi freely admits his dislike for the show, seeing it as nothing more than anti-Zionist propaganda, but he adds that his wife, Maïsa (Laëtitia Eïdo), like many Israelis, is a big fan. Assi then says that, if Salam could tell him what’s going to happen on the next episode (something that he believes would really impress her), he just might consider letting him go on his merry way. Salam hesitates, realizing that the captain’s request is unreasonable in a number of ways. But Assi asserts that, as a writer for the show, who better than Salam to spill the beans about what’s going to happen next?

Realizing that, if he’s ever to get back home, Salam will have to tell Assi what he wants to hear, a gesture that secures his release – but that will also require the clandestine insertion of some unexpected, anonymously written edits into the script of the next episode. Needless to say, Assi’s prescience about these new story elements impresses Maïsa when the show airs, but it also confounds the Tel Aviv cast and crew, most notably its actual writers, Sarah (Ula Tabari) and Nabil (Amer Hlehel). How did this happen?

However, things don’t end there. As Salam again attempts to cross the border, Assi orders him to make a plot change in which Rachel/Manal falls in love with Yehuda for real, spurning Marwan in the process. What’s more, Assi insists upon the alteration if Salam hopes to be able to make his daily border crossing unimpaired. So, to avoid future commuting hassles, Salam realizes he now must become a writer to carry out his marching orders.

With a stroke of remarkable luck and Tala’s fortuitously timed assistance, Salam successfully lands a writer’s position. He’s relieved that it will enable him to implement Assi’s plot change. He’s also hopeful that this promotion will bolster his image to help him get back on good terms with his ex-girlfriend, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi). But Salam’s optimism is short-lived: His plot revisions run into opposition from his uncle and other members of the crew, placing him squarely between the proverbial rock and hard place. He’s now forced to scramble to meet the needs of both Assi and the Tel Aviv crew, a challenge that only becomes increasingly compounded as he struggles to serve two masters, neither of whom inherently like one another very much.

So how will it turn out? As they say in the TV business, stay tuned for the next exciting episode.

[caption id="attachment_10924" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Tala (Lubna Azabal), a French actress hired to play a Palestinian operative posing as an Israeli military officer’s assistant on a popular soap opera, unwittingly helps a co-worker solve a huge moral dilemma as seen in the satirical new comedy, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.[/caption]

In the world of soaps, things always seem to have a way of working themselves out in the end. But can that happen in real life, too? Well, given that the two are often mirrors of one another, it’s entirely plausible. Why not? After all, in their own respective ways, they’re each milieus backed by their own scripting. When it comes to soaps, the staff writers draft what happens, while in real life, it’s up to each of us, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

As noted earlier, many see the events of soap operas as utterly silly and preposterous, but can’t the same be said about real life? Look at the drama that so many of us put ourselves through, scenarios straight out of any daytime serial. In fact, many would contend that the decades-long political drama that has unfolded between the Israelis and Palestinians is right on par with situations found in the soaps. The stakes may have been higher, but much of the drawn-out drama and many of the manipulative machinations are worthy of almost anything seen in Tel Aviv on Fire.

And that, I believe, is the point of this film – to shine a satirical light on an overwrought situation that has gone on too long with entirely too much unnecessary drama. In some ways, it almost gives viewers an overdue opportunity to exhale, to even suggest to themselves, “Gee, it may actually be OK to laugh at this situation at last.” That, of course, depends in large part on how effectively audiences get the message and are willing to act on it to bring about lasting, meaningful change. And that, as conscious creators know all too well, begins with the beliefs we hold about what we hope to manifest.

In its own way, the film reveals the source of the problem, as well as its solution. In many respects, the characters in both the film and the soap opera within it are determined to see their goals fulfilled at any cost, no matter what consequences may arise: Assi wants to see his plot elements incorporated into the show’s scripts, a program in which its characters are determined to have their objectives met. At the same time, the producers have their agendas, too, some of which may be at odds with the other sought-after goals are in play. In each of these instances, this is the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default at work, whereby we do whatever it takes with our thoughts, beliefs and intents to materialize what we seek, regardless of whatever fallout may come from our efforts. Unfortunately, such approaches to the materialization process are also often rife with disaster. One need only look at the long and bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian situation to see this.

The key to resolving such seemingly intractable matters is to break through the belief barriers that hold us back. Getting past the limitations that restrict us and keep us from implementing (or even envisioning) creative solutions is crucial, whether it’s resolving the story line of a soap opera – or ending a war – neither of which may be too far apart from one another, as this film clearly shows.

[caption id="attachment_10925" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi), ex-girlfriend of a bumbling television production assistant, takes a second look at him when he lands a new job in director Sameh Zoabi’s latest comedic offering, “Tel Aviv on Fire.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.[/caption]

But how do we move past those limitations? That depends in large part on the factors that feed into their establishment, but, as this film shows, it typically involves such issues as relinquishing fears that hold us back, being willing to shed attitudes of control at any cost and other similar impediments. These stumbling blocks frequently interfere with efforts to put new plans in place for a host of new conceptions, but they need only get in the way as long as we allow them to. If we’re willing to take the bold steps of pushing them out of the way, we could well open doors for ourselves that make truly inspiring opportunities possible.

That approach can be seen in the tact that filmmaker Sameh Zoabi took in birthing this picture. By using humor, particularly the kind we often find in fables, the director makes his point by busting an exceedingly overinflated balloon and letting viewers see the completely ludicrous nature of the prevailing situation. By picking on soap operas, he’s able to lampoon a readily available target and take some of the edge off the real world situation, even though closer scrutiny obviously reveals a harder-hitting agenda, one we’d be wise to pay attention to if we hope to avoid repeating the same kinds of mistakes with our thoughts, beliefs, intents, actions and deeds as we move forward.

However, as much as I admire the inventiveness of what “Tel Aviv on Fire” attempts to do, the picture doesn’t quite hit the mark as squarely as it could. Its potentially funny premise, regrettably, doesn’t always rise to the level of that potential. Had it been treated more as a campy screwball romp instead of a comparatively safe satire overloaded with overly talky, quasi-philosophical sequences that water down its narrative, this could have been a much, much better film. The picture’s sometimes-tepid, kid gloves handling of its material not only squanders whatever inherent zaniness it had to work with, but it also unwittingly blunts the impact of the underlying sociopolitical commentary, especially in its satirical punchline. While modestly amusing, this offering unfortunately missed an excellent opportunity to present a refreshingly different, completely irreverent, totally unexpected take on a subject that has typically been addressed with relentlessly serious heavy-handedness – and that might be better for everyone with a little lightening up, both on and off the screen.

It always amazes me that we feel the need to get so caught up in the Sturm und Drang of life. While it’s true that conflict can sometimes help us attain wisdom in ways that might not otherwise be possible, there can also be too much of “a good thing.” Sometimes the drama becomes so entrenched that we have difficulty seeing ourselves breaking away from it, largely because it may be all that we know and the uncertainty of the unknown is seen as an even scarier prospect. However, if we take the time to consider the ludicrous nature of this viewpoint, the uncharted territory may seem a lot less intimidating, perhaps even preferable.

Imagine that.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Luce" and "Mike Wallace Is Here," as well as a radio show preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here

Monday, August 19, 2019

‘Luce’ ventures into the search for truth

“Luce” (2019). Cast: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Omar Brunson, Noah Gaynor, Astro, Christopher Mann, Hannah Cabell. Director: Julius Onah. Screenplay: J.C. Lee and Julius Onah. Play: J.C. Lee, Luce. Web site. Trailer.

What is truth? That’s a question scholars, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for eons. But, after all these many centuries, it still lingers, nibbled at by many deep thinkers though never satisfactorily answered. Perhaps that’s because it can’t be adequately nailed down, be it due to an undefinable or transitory nature, a plethora of conflicting opinions, or some other inscrutable quality. For what it’s worth, however, the quest continues, this time on the stage of a highly charged contemporary drama as seen in the gripping new release, “Luce.”

If ever there were a textbook example of an “honor student,” Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) would be it. The Eritrean-born onetime-child soldier whose first name means “light” was adopted by his upper middle class parents, Amy (Naomi Watts), a pediatrician, and Peter (Tim Roth), a financier. With no children of their own, Amy and Peter wanted to use their considerable resources to give a fighting chance to someone who might not otherwise get one. Together they put everything they had into raising the African orphan, who has grown up to be a stellar high school senior, expert debater, star track athlete and fiercely loyal friend.

With a pedigree like that, Luce seems well on his way to a bright future, one aptly befitting of his name. But one day, quite unexpectedly, a bombshell goes off. Amy is called to Luce’s school to confer with his history teacher, Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who shares some troubling news. Miss Wilson is concerned about Luce’s work on a classroom essay assignment in which he and his fellow students were tasked with writing a paper in the first-person voice of a historic figure. For his composition, Luce chose to pen a manifesto by Frantz Fanon, a radical Black revolutionary who advocated violence as the only means to achieve political reform. The incendiary paper was filled with disturbing, inflammatory rhetoric, so much so that it shocked the project’s assignor. And, to see if there was more to this than just his provocative prose, Miss Wilson had Luce’s locker searched, an investigation that uncovered the presence of illegal fireworks, an amount capable of setting off a sizable explosion.

Needless to say, Amy can’t believe what she’s hearing. Given her son’s impeccable reputation, how could he possibly be caught up in something like this? She’s upset about the invasion of her son’s privacy, and she seriously doubts Miss Wilson’s accusations, citing the nature of the assignment to explain its content. She leaves the conference highly skeptical. However, just in case there might be something to the teacher’s claims, she decides to get to the bottom of things with her son but without directly confronting Luce with the alleged evidence. She refuses to level the same unsubstantiated charges against him without fully getting his side of the story.

[caption id="attachment_10911" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Honor student and star athlete Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr., center) is seen as a remarkable young man by his mother, Amy (Naomi Watts, right), despite some serious skepticism by history teacher, Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer, left), in the taut new psychological thriller, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.[/caption]

In questioning Luce, however, Amy finds her son to be somewhat evasive. He admits his relationship with Miss Wilson is somewhat strained, given that she often seems to have it in for him. He notes that she’s highly judgmental with limited views of what she considers acceptable behavior, particularly for minority students, such as Luce’s classmates DeShaun Meeks (Astro) and Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). That’s somewhat ironic, given that Miss Wilson comes from a minority background herself. This aside, though, the lack of definitive answers leaves Amy with doubts, something she didn’t expect to happen. Yet, considering her love for her son and the implicit trust she has long placed in him, she tends to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though she can’t help the onset of vacillation that seems to be creeping into her feelings.

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that matters grow progressively more complicated when a variety of other issues arise. An incident with Miss Wilson’s drug-addicted sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), an internal investigation led by the school’s principal, Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz), a home break-in, accusations of possible sexual assault, and an incident involving the aforementioned fireworks take the situation to whole new level. And, with so much on the line, none of these events brings anyone closer to the truth – if there even is such a thing as a solitary truth.

Yet getting to the truth is what most everyone wants, no matter how elusive it might be. But, if that’s truly the case, why is it so hard to pin down? That’s because truth is often relative, based more on perceptions, perspectives and beliefs and less on objective criteria that go unquestioned. That lack of absolute certainty probably makes many of us quietly uncomfortable, but perceptions, perspectives and beliefs are by their nature variable from one person to another. And, given the role they play in the manifestation of our individual realities, their impact is formidable. In fact, they’re at the core of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these metaphysical building blocks are responsible for shaping the existence we experience.

[caption id="attachment_10912" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Proud parents Peter and Amy Edgar (Tim Roth, left, and Naomi Watts, right) wrestle with some disturbing news about their adopted honor student son in director Julius Onah’s gripping new psychological thriller, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.[/caption]

When those principles are applied to the scenario at work in this film, it’s easy to see how multiple versions of “the truth” emerge. The view each character holds about Luce determines how they each see him. And this doesn’t even take into account the perspective he holds about himself. What’s more, as new revelations continually arise, the sands underlying these perceptions tend to shift, making apparent that “the truth” can readily change over time with changing circumstances.

To many of us, this probably seems obvious. However, this is a reaction coming from an outside perspective. When we find ourselves embroiled in situations like the one depicted here, we may lose that objective outlook; instead, we tap into our own subjective views but somehow convince ourselves that they must be taken as gospel, intrinsically inviolable truths. Such circumstances thus demonstrate the power of beliefs and how we can imbue them with an unshakable certainty, despite the fact that they are readily alterable, even if we’d rather not see them as such. Indeed, if we draw upon these resources to create the reality we experience, they’re going to vary from individual to individual, a condition that accounts for differences in outcomes.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that things seldom arise as all or nothing scenarios. The proverbial “black and white” situations tend not to emerge as readily as we think they do; those murky in-between shades of gray are often more prevalent, and it’s those hues that we should look at most closely. Yet, for what it’s worth, that’s not the case in this story. As Luce himself pleadingly protests when the heat gets turned up, “I only get to be a saint or a monster.” Is he either of those, an upstanding citizen or a sociopath? Or is he more accurately characterized as something in between?

[caption id="attachment_10913" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Asian-American high schooler Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang, center) is upset that her history teacher holds her to a different standard of accountability compared to non-minority students as seen in the stunning new drama, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.[/caption]

This is an important point to bear in mind in today’s culture. Given the polarization seen in contemporary society, it might be easy to fall prey to beliefs that occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s particularly true when it comes to an issue like race, a question that comes front and center in this story. Is it fair, for example, for Miss Wilson to hold minority students to a higher standard of accountability? Is she purposely being hard on them to help prepare them for the challenges they’re likely to face in an often-unfair and imperfect world? Or could it be that she’s projecting personal resentment onto them based on the experiences she underwent as she was attempting to stake her place in the world? The answers to these questions aren’t easy, but they’re almost assuredly based on the underlying beliefs on which they rest.

This riveting psychological thriller is filled with endless twists and turns that leave audiences guessing right up until the very end. What’s more important, though, is that the film forces us to face some thorny questions about race, redemption, privacy, trust, perception and prejudice, all the while showing us that things may not be as simple or clear cut as they seem. The picture’s superb script by playwright J.C. Lee and director Julius Onah, its fine film editing, and its excellent ensemble cast (most notably Spencer, Watts and Harrison) make for one of the best offerings of 2019, a release that sincerely deserves serious consideration come awards season. It already earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination in the dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

[caption id="attachment_10914" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Is he a saint or a sociopath? That’s one of many thorny questions viewers must ask themselves when it comes to high school honor student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as seen in the gripping new drama, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.[/caption]

No matter how earnestly we search, truth may be something that ever eludes us. The answers we come up with may be incomplete, unsatisfactory or even totally off-base. As this story illustrates, the quest may even leave us with more questions than we had at the outset of our inquiries. The important thing, though, is that we never stop searching, for we grow with each step we take along the way, and there’s no telling where that may end up taking us.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.