Friday, November 30, 2012

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ seeks a game plan for living

"Silver Linings Playbook" (2012). Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Shea Whigham, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade, Brea Bee. Director: David O. Russell. Screenplay: David O. Russell. Book: Matthew Quick. Web site. Trailer.

As any sports enthusiast can attest, it helps to have a game plan to achieve victory. The same is true in life, a challenge made all the more onerous when hampered by extenuating circumstances. The search for solutions under such conditions can be quite trying, too, as is revealed in the edgy romantic comedy, "Silver Linings Playbook."

Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has a full plate to manage. Having been released from a mental health care facility where he was committed after flying into a jealous rage and assaulting the lover of his cheating wife Nikki (Brea Bee), he’s now attempting to reintegrate himself back into the routine of everyday life. He’s placed in the custody of his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a risky proposition for an aging couple that has its own share of challenges to contend with, such as dad’s unemployment, his tendency toward obsessive-compulsive behavior and his habitual bookmaking on Philadelphia Eagles football games. Yet the folks’ issues pale in comparison to those of their son, who, despite eight months of treatment, is still seriously in need of getting a grip on reality.

While it’s important that Pat Jr. get a handle on his bipolar condition (diligently taking his meds and following the advice of his psychiatrist (Anupam Kher) would probably help), it’s more crucial that he make the attempt to face his life realistically. Specifically, he needs to address his denial regarding the state of his marriage, which, for all practical purposes, is over. Nikki wants nothing to do with Pat, even going so far as having a restraining order imposed against him, prohibiting all contact with her.

Nevertheless, Pat still loves Nikki, and he sincerely believes she still loves him. He’s desperate to prove his devotion and that he’s a changed man, and he’s willing to do anything to rekindle their romance, no matter what the cost. And, despite the odds seemingly being stacked against him, he’s convinced he can achieve the results he wants. Pat believes "silver linings" are not only possible but a foregone conclusion as long as he maintains a positive attitude and takes the right steps from his personal playbook to achieve them. But is this a realistic outlook or uncontrolled wishful thinking?

Not long after his release, Pat attends a dinner party hosted by his friends Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Veronica (Julia Stiles), one of Nikki’s best girlfriends. At the party, the couple introduces Pat to Veronica’s younger sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow with her own share of personal issues. Tiffany quickly takes a liking to Pat (her cool, detached way of showing it notwithstanding), but Pat resists her advances, citing the fact that he’s married. Tiffany tries to win him over, however, by mentioning that she’s occasionally in contact with Nikki through her older sister. She even says that she might be able to slip Nikki a letter from him, a clear violation of Pat’s restraining order, but a chance that both Pat and Tiffany are willing to take, each for their own very different reasons.

Pat ultimately decides to take Tiffany up on her offer, but she agrees on one condition: that Pat be her partner in an upcoming dance competition. Pat initially dismisses the idea, but, when faced with the prospect that this might be the only way to get a message to Nikki, he relents and agrees to Tiffany’s request. Much to his surprise, he quickly finds this new partnership quite enjoyable. In fact, dancing proves to be very therapeutic, enabling him to achieve focus in his life in ways that other measures previously haven’t allowed. Of course, the positive changes in Pat’s life occur as a result of more than just the dancing; his relationship with his partner has something to do with it, too. And, as the intimacy between the partners grows, it becomes apparent that something more than just two-stepping may be going on. It just might even make Pat forget all about wanting to see his message delivered.

Grasping the essence of our own reality is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks that budding practitioners of conscious creation will ever undertake. It requires waking up to the true nature of how our existence manifests, becoming aware of how our beliefs shape the character of the world around us. And that’s often difficult enough when we approach the task under "normal" conditions, but, when mental health issues get thrown into the mix, the challenge becomes that much more difficult (and one that those who are unaffected frequently misunderstand). Indeed, as conscious creation author Jane Roberts and her noncorporeal channeled entity Seth wrote in their seminal work The Nature of Personal Reality, mental illness is typically a condition in which those affected by it are generally incapable of reconciling the beliefs they hold for manifesting their realities with those employed by the rest of society, thereby creating a fundamental disconnect between the two. Overcoming that discrepancy thus becomes the principal task that the afflicted must face, one fraught with multiple challenges on multiple levels. And that’s essentially what Pat and, to a lesser degree, Tiffany must deal with if they ever hope to achieve peace of mind and contentment in their lives. The question, of course, is, will they be successful?

Getting to that point involves attaining mastery and control over one’s creations and the beliefs that spawn them. It requires an awareness of how the process works and the synchronicities that help point the way. It involves materializing elements that fill in the gaps needed to achieve happiness and fulfillment. But, perhaps even more importantly, it requires us to let go of the elements of our lives that no longer serve us, as well as whatever ego-driven pride that we’ve allowed to become associated with their creation. And all of this calls for a firm commitment on our part to see things through and to take responsibility for what we’ve done and will do going forward. That can be a pretty tall order for someone whose mental state is operating capably, but it can be that much more difficult for someone who’s combatting mental illness on top of it. Such are the challenges that the protagonists in this film must face, and most of us probably wouldn’t envy their burdens.

Fortunately, there are ways of compensating for inherent "deficiencies" that can help to keep us on track, and this is where the role of our conscience comes into play. Manifestations reflecting its presence in our lives can work wonders for keeping us in line. For instance, throughout the picture, Pat’s movements are shadowed by a policeman, Officer Keogh (Dash Mihok), who’s charged with keeping tabs on his actions and whereabouts. Whenever Pat gets out of line, the good constable always seems to have a way of showing up and reminding his subject of what he must to do to toe the line. To some this might seem like a strong-arm tactic, but, if Pat is ever to make good on the goals he’s set for himself, such scrutiny is a necessary creation to help ensure their fulfillment, and he should be thankful for manifesting the officer’s appearance whenever his presence would be most opportune. Anyone who has earnestly sought to realize a personally significant objective can no doubt relate to the value of such perfectly timed materializations and the benefits they ultimately afford, for, in the end, they just might yield success.

For all its strengths in exploring the foregoing themes, however, "Silver Linings Playbook" comes up short in many respects. The picture combines a strange amalgamation of elements that makes it come across like part "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", part Dancing with the Stars and part Monday Night Football, all wrapped in what is allegedly a romantic comedy. And I say "allegedly" here because the movie’s sometimes-edgy nature makes this label seem quite ill-fitting. A number of emotionally volatile scenes quite justifiably had me questioning “So this is a romantic comedy?”

Moreover, I found the film was often quite enamored with the sense of its own quirkiness, an all-too-obvious attempt at trying to keep the picture from being seen as what is essentially a formula film characterized by inevitable predictability. These qualities, in turn, give rise to some very uneven writing. When it’s on, it works well, but when it’s not, it becomes rather trying, especially in several scenes that seem to go on unduly long. Its examination of the mental illness issue is somewhat uneven, too, sometimes handled deftly and at others clumsily. (For those interested in a picture that truly approaches this subject well, I’d heartily recommend the Ben Stiller comedy-drama "Greenberg" (2010) instead.)

Despite these shortcomings, the film does have its share of laughs, as well as a number of fine performances. Lawrence and De Niro are both excellent in their respective roles and have to be seen as strong contenders for awards consideration. And, for their part, Cooper and Weaver handle their characters quite capably as well. However, these assets aren’t enough to save a picture that’s trying to come across as being better than it truly is.

Saving ourselves from ourselves is, arguably, one of the most valuable pursuits we can undertake in life, and having a good grasp on our conscious creation skills can go a long way toward this goal’s realization. And, in getting there, it certainly helps to have a playbook to show us the way. Unfortunately, the example set by this film has far too many diversions to set us on a meaningful path to success, and, by following it, those hoped-for silver linings just may remain as elusive as ever.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

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

‘Life of Pi’ looks for meaning in the unlikeliest of places

“Life of Pi” (2012). Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Vibish Sivakumar, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli, Ayan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu, Shravanthi Sainath, Andrea Di Stefano, Bo-Chieh Wang. Director: Ang Lee. Screenplay: David Magee. Book: Yann Martel. Web site. Trailer.

The search for the meaning of life is as old as mankind, and countless thinkers have devoted innumerable hours pondering it. But not all of those seekers have been scholarly intellects residing in ivory towers; some have been average, everyday folks thrust into the unlikeliest of places or circumstances. Yet, no matter what conditions may prevail, they proceed with their searches in earnest, hoping to make sense out of the seemingly nonsensical, as is the case in the mythic new adventure, “Life of Pi.”

To hear it told, Professor Piscine Militor Patel (or “Pi” for short) has lived quite a remarkable life, though most people would probably never know it from meeting him. As an adult (Irrfan Khan), Pi lives a quiet life in Montreal with his wife and children, a far cry from the eventful days of a childhood and adolescence that he doesn’t talk much about. But, when word of that captivating upbringing catches the ear of an aspiring writer (Rafe Spall), Pi keeps his silence no longer and shares the story of his life.

Pi was born and raised in Pondicherry, India, a community that had once been under French control. Because of this, Pondicherry was influenced by a variety of religious, spiritual and metaphysical traditions, including those of the local Hindus and Muslims, as well as the Western teachings of Christians and rationalists. Pi was thus exposed to a wide variety of ideas growing up, and, as a serious and studious young man, he took them all to heart in an attempt to understand his world and his place in it.

Pi’s father, Santosh (Adil Hussain), was the proprietor of a privately owned zoo housed in the local botanical garden. He, too, was exposed to the same traditions as his son, but, as a businessman interested in the ways of the modern world, he took a much more “pragmatic” approach to life, choosing to embrace reason as his guiding principle. Santosh told his young son to “enjoy the stories” of the ancient religious traditions but urged him to take a rational approach to life, firmly believing that reason, and not “superstition,” would ultimately see him through life’s challenges.

With this background in place, the stage was thus set for Pi when he would come face to face with the biggest test of his life – and his faith – as an adolescent (Suraj Sharma). With changing political conditions and possible economic hardship looming, Santosh announced his plan to sell the animals in his zoo and use the funds to relocate his family to Winnipeg, where new business opportunities – and a new life – awaited them. Pi initially railed at the idea, but, when left with no choice, he was forced to go along with his father’s decision. And so, before long, Santosh, Pi, his mother Gita (Tabu), his brother Ravi (Vibish Sivakumar) and the family’s animal collection boarded a Japanese freighter bound for Canada.

Leaving India behind was painful for Pi. But it wasn’t nearly as devastating as what would happen next. During a powerful Pacific storm, the freighter capsized and sank. Pi’s parents and brother were lost, but he managed to escape, making his way to one of the lifeboats. He wasn’t alone, either; several of the animals managed to join him, including a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and, most significantly, an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Thus began an incredible journey of survival, self-discovery and transformation for the young man who would clearly come to see the inner world of his beliefs reflected back to him through the eyes of another – and one who wasn’t even human.

This is the story that Pi tells his friend the author, who hangs on his every word. But is Pi’s story truly how things happened? Or is it his own version of one of “those stories” his father cautioned him about, a tale to be enjoyed but not to be taken literally? That, of course, is a question that viewers of “Life of Pi” must answer for themselves.

So much of what Pi experiences while lost at sea brings back the lessons of his youth. He comes to see the relevance and value of the various teachings he learned from the different religious, spiritual and metaphysical traditions he was exposed to while growing up. He experiences firsthand how the principles underlying those disciplines can serve him during this challenging time of personal growth and development, a true test of his integrity, morality and fortitude. And, fortunately, for his sake, he has the wherewithal to recognize their significance as they happen, enabling him to appreciate the wisdom of the teachings and their applicability to his current circumstances.

Indeed, the reality of the shipwreck draws sharply into focus the notion that our outer world is a mirror of our internal beliefs, one of the primary concepts behind conscious creation. And, because Pi so devotedly embraced the many spiritual traditions he encountered in his youth, he’s built up a storehouse of enlightened outlooks that make up the inherent character of his inner world, many of which are not only spiritual concepts but conscious creation principles as well, including the following:

• All things that manifest in our reality, for better or worse, happen for a reason, even if we’re not aware of that fact at the time we experience a particular phenomenon. The origin of such manifestations always begins with us, and their materialization is made possible through our relationship with our divine collaborator. This is true whether the phenomena are clothed in either metaphorical or practical guise. Understanding this also goes a long way toward appreciating the true nature of religious parables, those stories that provide us with valuable nuggets of insight about our relationship with the divine, the nature of our true character, and the joys and challenges of daily living.

• All of our experiences inevitably help to prepare us for what is to come in our lives, again, even if we’re not aware of it at the time they occur. For instance, Santosh is an avid swimmer, having embraced it as a means to overcome a childhood health issue. So, because he saw swimming in such a beneficial light, he strongly encouraged a youthful (and sometimes reluctant) Pi to become proficient at it, an ability that would obviously prove positively essential years later when he was adrift at sea – and in a better position to see its merit.

• An awareness of the foregoing notions leads to a better understanding of how the Universe fundamentally works and how our reality unfolds, and this is a skill that only gets stronger with more practice. This, in turn, allows us to achieve greater degrees of mastery and control over our abilities as conscious creators.

• Paying attention to life’s synchronicities, no matter how seemingly improbable and, again, whether clothed metaphorically or practically, gives us a richer sense of our lives and how they blossom. In many ways, such awareness speaks directly to the “rational” approach to life that Santosh so passionately adheres to. But it also falls in line with the spiritual traditions Pi has so fervently embraced, disciplines that rely on such “knowing” as a means to better understand our divine conscious creation partner.

• Given that the existence we experience stems from us working in collaboration with our divine co-creator, there’s nothing that comes to us that we haven’t had a hand in manifesting. Therefore, there’s value to be had in everything we experience, for better or worse. It means that we dwell in an inherently “safe” Universe, one that helps provide the means for our personal growth and development and will not give us more than we’re capable of handling. This is particularly true in the areas of facing our fears, overcoming limitations that impede our advancement and enabling us to grow stronger as individuals, as Pi discovers for himself repeatedly in his often-tumultuous relationship with Richard Parker.

• If we truly believe in the power of All That Is to provide us with materializations that are in line with our beliefs, wants and needs, then we must have faith in its ability to so comply. To that end, we need to let go of our expectations regarding the form those manifestations ultimately take. We must relinquish our control over the “how” of materialization and let the Universe provide, for, as author and conscious creation advocate Jane Roberts observed, it invariably “leans in our direction.” Pi witnesses this repeatedly while shipwrecked. For example, when he pleads with the Universe to supply fish to feed the ravenously carnivorous Richard Parker and meets with no success in catching any on his own, a school of flying fish appears miraculously, seemingly out of nowhere, filling the boat with food that more than meets the big cat’s needs. The intention was thus fulfilled, even if it didn’t take the form Pi was expecting. In that regard, then, we’d all be better off if we just sit back and let All That Is do its thing; it’s far more capable than we could ever hope to be at coming up with solutions that effectively fulfill our requests.

Clearly, “Life of Pi” has much to offer in the way of metaphysical and spiritual insights. Regrettably, however, these eloquent, profound ideas aren’t always conveyed as well as they could be. The many notions it touches upon aren’t always developed as fully or presented as coherently as they might have been. Perhaps it’s because there are so many notions vying for viewer attention that they end up unwittingly competing with one another. The expectation of profound “aha!” moments is instead met with a series of underwhelming “oh, ok” moments. A stronger, better defined script would have gone a long way toward alleviating this problem.

Uneven pacing, an issue all too common in director Ang Lee’s work, makes its presence felt again in this film, and correcting this deficiency may have also helped clarify the picture’s messages. For instance, the movie’s opening sequence, which provides the necessary setup for what’s to come, goes on unduly long and is somewhat clumsily handled. We’re introduced to two of the film’s principal characters – Pi as an adult and his author friend – through a bland, plodding and sometimes seemingly pointless conversation that can’t help but cause viewers to legitimately wonder “Who are these people, why are we meeting them and why we should care?” As a consequence, the director nearly loses control of the room in the first 30 minutes. Admittedly, Lee redeems himself somewhat as the picture progresses, but the impact is somewhat watered down by the ill-handled opening.

Despite these faults, “Life of Pi” is exquisitely filmed, with terrific cinematography and excellent special effects (even if it doesn’t always make the best use of its 3-D technology). The picture also features a fine performance by first-timer Sharma, capably handling the exacting demands of the role of unexpected castaway, and a lovely, emotive soundtrack. It’s unfortunate that the quality of the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to that of these strengths; if it had, this would have been a truly epic picture, but, instead, viewers are left with an ambitious near-miss.

Meaning has a way of showing up when one least expects it, even under the most unforeseen conditions. That should give us all hope to go on, no matter how seemingly dire the circumstances are. “Life of Pi” illustrates that (albeit not always as effectively as it could), but it nevertheless inspires us to keep searching, for, in the end, we’ll never know what we’ll find unless we continue looking.

Photo courtesy of Rhythm & Hues and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

‘The Sessions’ probes the beliefs underlying sexuality

"The Sessions" (2012). Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Adam Arkin, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman, Robin Weigert, W. Earl Brown, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Rusty Schwimmer, Jennifer Kumiyama. Director: Ben Lewin. Screenplay: Ben Lewin. Source Material: Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” The Sun magazine. Website. Trailer.

It’s been said “We are what we eat,” an observation that frequently proves right on the money. But, in my experience, I’ve found that we often are everything we do in our lives, especially the acts that comprise a part of our existence that many of us are averse to talk about, sex. Yet, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’re likely to find that we indeed are what we do sexually. So imagine what it must be like for someone who’s living a life without it – what would that say about him? And what would it say about him once he finally has the opportunity to experience it? Such is the odyssey of a disabled, middle-aged virgin who finally has the chance to come of age in the touching, fact-based story of "The Sessions."

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lives a life most people would probably find discouraging. As a childhood polio victim who defied the odds and grew into adulthood, he has no use of his limbs, spends most of his time confined to an iron lung and requires nearly constant care. But, despite these limitations, Mark has not allowed his disabilities to deter him from living his life. He earned his college degree from the University of California, Berkeley, becoming a writer, poet and advocate for the disabled.

However, his academic and career accomplishments notwithstanding, Mark’s life has been anything but typical. Many of the things that we take for granted simply aren’t part of his everyday existence, and this is perhaps most apparent in an area many of us would consider significant – sex. At age 38, he’s never experienced anything even remotely approaching a sexual encounter, and, with his longevity increasingly in question (given the nature of his condition and his advancing age), it’s an area he’d like to explore while he still has the chance.

Mark’s physical state, by itself, makes this prospect a challenging proposition; the logistics alone are indeed problematic. But, if that weren’t enough, Mark’s desire to explore this uncharted part of his life is further complicated by the conflicted beliefs he holds about sex, thanks mostly to his devout Roman Catholic upbringing. He’s so uncertain about how to proceed that, before he even begins examining his options, he consults his parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), for guidance.

One might question the wisdom of seeking advice on a subject from someone who’s likely to be just as clueless about it as the inquirer is. But that issue quickly proves irrelevant. Through their many conversations, Mark and Father Brendan develop a rapport more like friends than like priest and parishioner, even though their discussion topics involve profound questions of personal morality and spirituality. For instance, Mark expresses sincere trepidation about his desire to explore sexuality outside of marriage, a cardinal prohibition of traditional Catholicism and, allegedly, the word of God. At the same time, he also freely admits to a belief that God has a "wicked sense of humor," one that he envisions typified by such images as a Heavenly Father chortling over his trials and tribulations at reconciling the challenge foisted upon him. So, when Mark finally asks Father Brendan how he should proceed, the kindly vicar says reflectively, "Given your circumstances, I think He’d give you a pass on this one." And so, with that "blessing," Mark begins investigating his options.

After several false starts at initiating a sex life, such as with one of his caregivers, Amanda (Annika Marks), Mark finally decides to engage the services of a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt). Their sessions together, though definitely sexual in nature, are intended to be educational and therapeutic, not tawdry or lascivious. Because Mark has never experienced much in the way of physical touch, let alone physical touch of an erotic nature, Cheryl focuses on issues of body awareness, teaching him about sensations with which he’s largely unacquainted. She also coaches him about what it’s like to interact with a partner. And, through it all, she approaches her work with a curious mixture of professional detachment and intimate, though not necessarily personal, involvement, a practice that often involves precariously walking a very fine line.

Through their sessions, which are limited to six meetings (a professional standard meant to distinguish the services of a surrogate from those of a prostitute), Mark comes to learn what pleases him and what it takes to please a woman. And he definitely enjoys the sessions, no matter how unintentionally "abbreviated" they might be. Over time, though, he grows more accustomed to and comfortable with the sensations and the experience. In fact, sex even becomes quite revelatory for him, especially as he becomes more intimately acquainted with the feelings associated with the experience. But the awakenings that come out of these sessions are anything but one-sided; as the student learns from the teacher, so, too, does the teacher learn from the student, an unexpected development that stuns even the seasoned instructor. The experience ultimately changes everyone in profound and unexpected ways – and forever.

As with any experience that’s part of our reality, there are beliefs driving what we manifest. This cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process underlies all aspects of our existence, from the environment in which we dwell to the people with whom we interact to all of the activities in which we engage – even sex. The idea that this act can be reduced to purely a mechanistic operation or animalistic urge fails to recognize that it, too, arises from underlying beliefs that impel its manifestation from the realm of potential into the world of the physically expressed.

How that experience unfolds, of course, depends on the beliefs in question, and they often involve factors that go beyond one’s preferences for superficial physical considerations like gender and body type. It often includes less tangible, less recognizable qualities, such as one’s own self-image, expectations and limitations, elements that frequently do more to define the nature of the materialized sexual experience than anything having to do with partiality for a particular shade of hair color or physique.

These considerations become apparent in both protagonists’ experiences. For instance, someone in Mark’s circumstances might easily look upon his personal physical limitations as an insurmountable hindrance to enjoying a sex life of any kind, let alone a fulfilling one. The same could be said of the religious notions he wrestles with, those self-imposed, guilt-driven barriers that could easily derail one’s path to pleasure. On some level, though, Mark obviously believes otherwise; if he didn’t, he would not have been able to manifest the experiences he ultimately encounters, both during his time with Cheryl and in his life thereafter. In large part, this becomes possible as a result of his beliefs associated with, first, genuinely accepting his circumstances and, subsequently, envisioning their transcendence, moving past his initial creation to one greater than what he initially materialized. He uses his powers of conscious creation to plug the gaps in his reality, filling in the missing pieces that allow him to actually experience what might otherwise remain merely a vision. This is truly significant personal growth, and its relevance in the sexual arena is just as valid as in any other area of one’s life.

Interestingly, though, Mark is not the only one to experience such transcendence. Cheryl goes through her own transformation as well, thanks to unexpected developments in her dealings with Mark. As someone who has long managed to skillfully maneuver the razor’s edge separating professional distance from personal engagement, Cheryl initially handles her involvement with Mark as she would with any other client. But, as time passes and she begins to see the effect she’s having on him, she begins to shift her own beliefs, coming to appreciate the impact of what she’s now enabling for him, allowing herself to receive the feelings he so freely gives her and, perhaps most importantly, letting her own personal emotions regarding a client to surface for the first time. Suddenly, her work seems less clinical, more heartfelt, than she’s ever experienced before, a development that impacts her not only professionally, but also personally.

In the end, then, our sexual experiences are as much a product of who we are and what beliefs we hold as they are of any particular preferences we have or any particular acts in which we engage, and the evolution of Mark’s and Cheryl’s beliefs bears this out. The better the handle we have on what beliefs we hold, the more conscious we’ll be of the experiences they yield and the degree of pleasure that we get out of them. Such awareness will also allow us to make whatever adjustments we deem necessary to improve the quality of eroticism we enjoy. The richness and fulfillment to come out of these experiences thus serve as some of the best examples of the joy and power inherent in the act of creation.

"The Sessions" is arguably one of the best, and thus far most underrated, offerings of this year’s awards season films. It exceeded my expectations by a long shot, skillfully telling a story that’s simultaneously heartfelt, touching and wickedly funny. It’s also one of those unusual pictures that starts out well and gets better as it goes along (how often does one see something like that these days?). The performances by Hawkes and Hunt are exemplary, perhaps the best work each of them has ever done, and both have to be considered highly viable awards contenders. The writing, editing and direction are top-notch, too, making for a very cohesive overall package.

Two cautions are in order, however. First, don’t be deceived by the movie’s promotional trailer; it paints a somewhat misleading picture of the film, making it look like a high-end sex comedy, which, despite ample humor, it clearly is not (and, regrettably, sells the movie short). Second, the film is very sexually explicit, with frequent nudity and unabashed discussion and depiction of sexual topics; those who are sensitive to these issues or are easily offended should clearly avoid this picture.

A rewarding sex life has the potential to show us much about ourselves, yet all too often we allow personal or philosophical limitations to get in the way, keeping us from enjoying the experience and perhaps even preventing us from discovering unknown parts of ourselves. "The Sessions" illustrates the significance of this – the value of breaking through such barriers, of finding our own personal uncharted territories and of exploring the resplendent beauty within them. Indeed, making time for "sessions," be they those depicted in this movie or those of your own creation, is undoubtedly time well spent.

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

Plotline turbulence bogs down incomplete ‘Flight’

"Flight" (2012). Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Brian Geraghty, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, Peter Gerety, Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, James Badge Dale. Director: Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: John Gatins. Website. Trailer.

Frequent flyers have no doubt experienced their share of bumpy flights. Even under the best of conditions, there are times when turbulence can make these journeys a little difficult to get through. Such is also the case, metaphorically speaking, with the latest offering from director Robert Zemeckis, "Flight."

"Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a highly capable commercial pilot, well-versed in flight procedures and aircraft capabilities. He’s also an alcoholic – granted, a highly functioning alcoholic, but an alcoholic nevertheless. This combination of attributes makes for a potentially volatile mix, too – especially when he steps into the cockpit.

One rainy morning, Whip is scheduled to pilot a flight from Orlando to Atlanta. It’s a short trip, one that should be a breeze. But things get off to a shaky start when foul weather results in a rough take-off. Fortunately, Whip successfully steers the aircraft into clear air, putting the plane on course for what should be a smooth flight. Comfortable with the flying conditions, he hands over the helm to his co-pilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), after which he secretly helps himself to a cocktail and nods off for a nap. And, working with a flight crew that routinely covers for him, he’d ordinarily be able to get away with such reckless behavior without incident, but hopes for that get dashed when circumstances take a sudden, unexpected turn: Not long before landing, the jet begins seriously malfunctioning, threatening to break apart while in midair.

Whip snaps awake and takes charge of the situation, performing a daring maneuver to stabilize the aircraft long enough to get it into position for an emergency landing in an open field. During its final descent, however, the plane clips the steeple of a church, crashing to the ground and shattering. Miraculously, most of the passengers and crew survive, including Whip, who’s hailed as a hero. Those accolades are short-lived, though, when the results of his blood alcohol test show that he was legally drunk, an offense that could land him in prison.

The airline quickly goes into damage control mode, hiring attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to handle the case. Lang seeks to quash Whip’s blood test results (citing procedural irregularities) in an effort to divert attention away from pilot error as a possible cause of the crash. But the success of that tactic is far from guaranteed, especially since the crash inquiry is being handled by one of the NTSB’s most scrupulous investigators, Ellen Block (Melissa Leo).

While on leave from flying during the investigation’s pendency, Whip’s free to focus on healing his crash injuries. During his hospital stay, he meets Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict recovering from a near overdose. Their "chance" encounter quickly evolves into a romance, one that seems to suit both of them well in many ways. But their relationship is threatened when each follows a different path with regard to their respective addictions. Nicole is intent on quitting drugs, while Whip resists getting sober, contending that his drinking is a conscious choice, one that he’ll give up when, and only when, he’s ready.

Whip’s decision thus brings him face to face with some hard choices on a number of fronts. Will he be able to hold on to his relationship with Nicole, perhaps one of the best developments to come along in his life in quite some time? Can he hold his own in the face of a thorough and potentially career-ending government investigation? But, perhaps most importantly, is he capable of staring down his demons and achieving recovery? Just as Whip maintains with regard to his decision to drink, everything comes down to the conscious choices that he elects to make. The question thus becomes, which ones will he choose?

As conscious creation practitioners are well aware, we create the reality we experience based on the beliefs we choose to embrace. The manifestation of our existence falls directly in line with those choices, for better or worse, so it’s incumbent upon us to choose wisely. In Whip’s case, he maintains that his drinking is clearly a conscious choice. But, based on the events that transpire in his life, it’s also abundantly clear that he’s not fully cognizant of the consequences that can stem from such a choice. He rationalizes the results when they bring "unintended" outcomes, even resorting to lying or shifting blame when it becomes convenient or necessary to disavow himself of un-consciously or semi-consciously created materializations. However, when the stakes become ever more significant, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to continue denying the results – or the source of their origin. In a case like this, accepting awareness of, and responsibility for, one’s creations becomes imperative.

Moreover, the longer we remain in denial of such circumstances, the more the ante gets upped to force us into their acknowledgment. And just how does the ante get upped? That’s where our divine conscious creation collaborator comes into play: When we refuse to address our choices and implement needed changes, the Universe (or God, Goddess, All That Is, Source or whatever other term best suits you) steps in, yielding conditions based on our existing beliefs in ever-increasing degrees of magnitude to get our attention and compel us into examining them. If we recognize what’s going on and make the necessary adjustments, new beliefs form and new manifestations arise from them, replacing the previously prevailing conditions. However, if we fail to acknowledge the true nature behind what we’re manifesting, the existing pattern will persist, and the ante will continue to get upped even further.

Some may see such circumstances as a cruel joke or the retribution of an unloving, capricious Supreme Being. Indeed, in one scene in the film, Lang explains that one of the causes of the crash under investigation is "an act of God," a notion that prompts Whip to ask rhetorically, "Whose God would do this?" Whip’s comeback, however, reveals his failure to recognize that his divine collaborator is presenting him with an opportunity to take a hard look at his choices and the consequences they birth. And, as long as Whip persists in that failure, the Universe will likewise persist in prompting him to examine his beliefs and their outcomes – with ever-increasing degrees of intensity.

This act (and others like it) are far from being the whims of an unsupportive Universe. Rather, they’re the gestures of a truly loving God, one that so genuinely wants for its souls to succeed in learning valuable life lessons that it’s willing to go so far as to engage in such acts of tough love in order to make its point known. Conscious creators who are well-versed in this practice recognize the hand of their divine collaborator at work when such circumstances arise, enabling them to examine their beliefs (and their resulting creations) and to make whatever changes are necessary to spawn new, more suitable outcomes.

For Whip’s sake, one can only hope that he recognizes the divine hand at work and takes appropriate steps to make the most of the opportunities afforded him before it’s too late. Indeed, the prospect of salvation is a significant theme in the film, and it’s reflected repeatedly through numerous visual and narrative references (often directly invoking the name or image of God). It’s a concept that even Whip himself appears well-acquainted with, having successfully saved souls in peril on many occasions, including both his passengers and crew, as well as the new love interest in his life. But, despite his aptitude in rescuing others, does he possess the vision and wisdom to see the need to save himself? Is he aware of the assistance so freely being offered to him by All That Is, as well as by the likes of Nicole, Lang and his longtime friend, pilots’ union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood)? And, even if so, will he ultimately allow it?

The payoffs from following the divine lead in this regard can be significant in many ways. By successfully addressing our beliefs and making changes where warranted, we have the opportunity to face fears, overcome self-imposed limitations and conquer self-destructive tendencies, some of which may also have adverse impact on others. As a consequence, we may thus make it possible to achieve mastery and control over our beliefs (especially those of a potentially "negative" nature), produce more satisfying creations, and perhaps even attain salvation or transcendence. Anyone who has successfully tackled addictive behaviors can no doubt attest to the benefits of these results.

However, despite the film’s successful treatment of the foregoing ideas, "Flight" comes up short in many other respects. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the picture feels innately "incomplete." A number of story elements and narrative themes are raised, and danced around, but never fully or satisfactorily explored. For instance, the reasons behind Whip’s alcoholism are never made clear, and even when one possible trigger is hinted at, we find out that his binging began before the events in question. In the alternative, if the film was attempting to suggest that Whip’s drinking arose for no readily discernible reason (as some recovering alcoholics would contend can happen), then this intent should have been made plainly apparent (which it is not). The inclusion of a more substantial back story, or at least a more clearly defined intent, would have worked wonders here. Instead, viewers are left with a big mystery, one that creates a significant hole in the movie’s principal narrative. And this deficiency is just one such example of many that hamper the film’s overall character.

Given the nature of the picture’s story line, it’s not difficult to predict its outcome. To counter such inherent predictability, a movie can overcome an innate pitfall like this by providing audiences with an engaging path to the anticipated conclusion. In the case of "Flight," however, the plotline is riddled with so many gaps and underdeveloped ideas that viewers wind up at the foreseen ending without a clear sense of how or why they got there (or whether they should even care once they do).

To its credit, "Flight" features some terrific performances, most notably those of Washington (very likely a serious contender for a number of awards season nominations) and Cheadle, as well as great special effects and a dynamite soundtrack showcasing the music of the Rolling Stones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joe Cocker and the Cowboy Junkies. However, these strengths, as well as the picture’s capable exploration of the conscious creation concepts noted above, have their work cut out for them to make up for the film’s other shortcomings.

Those who’ve battled addiction often say they that their experiences are a form of escape, of "taking flight" into a reality removed from the vestiges of daily life. Doing so may seem to alleviate one’s difficulties, however, it can also easily become an abrogation of our responsibility as aware and actively engaged conscious creators. The consequences of such actions can be extensive and profound, too, as the film’s protagonist comes to discover the hard way. The sooner we own up to this, the less turbulence – and the more clear skies – we’re all likely to experience.

Photo by Robert Zuckerman, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Catch this and all of my other current movie reviews at Master Heart Magazine. Just click on the tab "Brent's Movies" on the site's home page.

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Check out the Premiere!

Check out my review of "Cloud Atlas," the premiere entry of Brent Marchant's Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies at Master Heart Magazine ( Just click on the tab "Brent's Movies" on the site's home page.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies

I'm thrilled to announce a new home for my reviews of current movies! Beginning this Friday, November 9, look for my latest offerings on the web pages of Master Heart Magazine ( Just look for the banner "Brent's Movies" on the site's home page. You can even get a preview of my work by clicking here.

I'm excited about my new partnership with Master Heart, and I hope you'll stop by regularly to check out my reviews, as well as all of Master Heart's other wonderful, insightful content. And, while you're at it, sign up for Master Heart's newsletter on the site's home page and get a free gift for doing so!

This is going to be fun! Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'Cloud Atlas' showcases the connectedness of all things

“Cloud Atlas” (2012). Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee. Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Screenplay: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski. Book: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Web Site: Trailer: Click here.

What do a 19th Century lawyer, a 20th Century composer, an investigative reporter, a frazzled book publishing executive, a genetically engineered human and a post-apocalyptic shepherd have in common? Surprisingly, plenty, their disparate realities full of unlikely connections that link them across the span of time. And those seemingly unrelated bonds are now brought to life in an inspiring and innovatively engaging new film, “Cloud Atlas.”

“Cloud Atlas” is arguably one of the most unique pictures to come out in a long time. It features six interwoven plot lines, spanning several centuries, that, at first glance, come across like stories capable of standing on their own. Yet the uncanny parallels that permeate them draw attention to a number of common threads, themes that connect the different narratives across time. These connections are further reinforced through the film’s stellar writing, its deftly executed editing and the performances of its principal cast members, most of whom play multiple roles in the picture’s various sequences, suggesting reincarnational, even karmic, links among the characters – and their eternal spirits – through the ages.

As the film opens, viewers are provided with setups for each of the following story lines:

* Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young lawyer working for his wealthy, slave-owning father-in-law (Hugo Weaving), seeks to curry favor with the old man by handling a business deal for him in the South Pacific’s Chatham Islands in 1849. In doing so, however, Adam gets to see firsthand the deplorable treatment inflicted upon the slave population, a circumstance that troubles him. Also, as one who's unaccustomed to the harsh conditions of this far-off land, he falls ill. He's placed under the care of Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), an ostensibly kind physician, but one whose treatments are questionable, to say the least. So, with his business concluded and his health failing, Adam sets sail for home. However, despite Dr. Goose’s seemingly attentive care, Adam grows weaker with each passing day, and, before long, he finds himself on a journey that places his life and his fortunes at risk. Adam’s only aid comes from an unlikely source – Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway slave for whom he secures freedom. But, given Adam’s progressively dire condition, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to survive the trip back to America. And, even if he does, his life is unlikely to ever be the same again.

* Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is one of the most talented – and most unknown – contemporary composers in 1930s England. His lack of notoriety is fueled, in part, by the “reputation” that dogs him; despite his efforts at maintaining discretion, word of Robert’s sexual exploits with members of both genders has a way of leaking out. In fact, that reputation contributes to his decision to part company with the love of his life, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), an aspiring Cambridge physicist; he doesn’t want to sully the good name of his companion, even if his own is tarnished. Besides, Robert has an opportunity to advance his career by relocating to Scotland to work as an amanuensis for a once-famous but aging composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), who seeks to have his remaining pieces transcribed before his demise. Through his association with Ayrs, the young composer has a chance to birth his own material and to make new connections in the music world, as well as an opportunity to redeem himself. But will his senior associate allow that? And just how far is Robert willing to go to see his aspirations realized?

* Investigative reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is looking for the story that gives her that sought-after big break. Working as a journalist for a San Francisco alternative newspaper in 1973, she’s assigned to report on a controversial nuclear power plant. She initially feels like she’s being “handled” by the power company’s spin masters, such as CEO Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). However, through a series of seemingly improbable synchronicities, Luisa makes contact with several would-be whistleblowers – one of the plant’s chief physicists, Rufus Sixsmith (remember him?), who has compiled potentially devastating information about the facility's reactor, and Dr. Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks), one of Sixsmith’s colleagues, who discreetly keeps his peer’s findings secret. Will the damaging information be made public? Or will Luisa and her sources fall prey to the strong-arm silencing tactics of the power company’s enforcer, Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving)? The stakes are high for everyone involved – as well as the population of the nearby Bay Area.

* Financially beleaguered publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) unexpectedly becomes a hot commodity when one of his authors, gangster Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), brutally kills an unflattering critic at a present-day high-profile book release party in London. Timothy is initially appalled by the tragic events, but he’s quickly elated when the book becomes a surprise hit. Timothy’s jubilation is short-lived, though, when Dermot’s family puts the screws to him, demanding outlandishly enormous royalty payments – in cash. Timothy seeks assistance from his wealthy older brother, Denholm (Hugh Grant), but he summarily dismisses his junior sibling’s request due to his repeated failures to repay past debts. Denholm does offer his brother a place to go into hiding, however, a location where no one is likely to find him – ever.

* Life is very different in the high-tech, consumer-driven, totalitarian world of Korea’s Neo Seoul in 2144. “Pure-blood” humans live lives of privilege, comfort and luxury, served dutifully by genetically engineered beings known as “fabricants.” The cloned humans attend to the wants and needs of pure-bloods without question – most of the time. But when one of the fabricants, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), gets out of line (assisted by resistance fighter Hae Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), who knows the real reason behind the created beings’ existence), life in Neo Seoul is disrupted, threatening the prevailing social order – and the future – of a world precariously hanging in the balance.

* One hundred winters after “The Fall,” humanity has degenerated into an existence not unlike that found in the “Mad Max” movies. Even in a locale as supposedly idyllic as Hawaii, daily life is a challenge. Were it not for the occasional visits of “the Prescients,” the world’s last remaining civilized beings, life would be even more difficult for the tribal people of this lush but now dangerous land. But the Prescients call on the locals for reasons other than providing humanitarian assistance; they’re looking for something, and they need the natives’ help in finding it. They get that chance when the local abbess (Susan Sarandon) is unable to treat the deathly ill niece of Zachry (Tom Hanks), one of the island’s tribesmen. Meronym (Halle Berry), a Prescient healer, steps in to help, restoring the young woman’s well-being. In exchange for Meronym’s assistance, Zachry consents to his Prescient visitor’s request: that he escort her to the top of a nearby mountain, the home of what the locals believe to be evil spirits – and the alleged location of what Meronym and her colleagues are looking for. One can’t even begin to imagine what they’ll find there.

Thus begins the amazing odyssey that is “Cloud Atlas.” And what a ride it is, both for its story and the concepts it embodies.

As conscious creation practitioners are well aware, everything in our created reality is interconnected. Indeed, if we recognize that we use our thoughts, beliefs and intents to manifest the world around us, then we must also realize that we do so to create the totality of that surrounding reality. But this applies not only to the immediate world around us; it also relates to the greater existence of which we, as multidimensional beings, are a part. Our materialization initiatives thus extend beyond our localized existence, reaching into the other timelines, and even the other dimensional planes, in which other portions of our greater selves dwell. Because of that, we must endeavor to be conscious of the choices we make and the responsibility inherent in that, for these considerations carry implications that may be far more wide-ranging than we realize.

“Cloud Atlas” illustrates these notions brilliantly, and in myriad ways, from start to finish. It’s apparent in the recurrent themes connecting the various story lines. It’s present in the relationships and interactions among the characters (and their spirits) across time. It’s even visible in the undeniable sense of familiarity that bonds souls to one another from era to era, a connection more profound than anything that can be afforded by physical existence.

Given the intrinsic nature of connectedness, it can be applied to every aspect of existence, and, as conscious creators, we’re free to explore it from any angle we choose. Covering all the bases in this regard in any one film, however, would be unwieldy and impractical, and so “Cloud Atlas” wisely focuses on a select handful of areas, offering them up as examples of this larger principle. Throughout its various narratives, the picture explores such ideas as freedom vs. captivity, kindness vs. brutality, benevolence vs. greed and compassion vs. callousness. We repeatedly witness how the choices we make in these areas resonate through time, how the scenarios we create offer us opportunities to learn valuable life lessons, and how we may ultimately draw upon these experiences to grow and develop as human beings.

All of this, of course, assumes that reincarnation is a given and that we each get opportunities to live out different kinds of lives. Our spirits can don the costumes of both villain and hero, creator and destroyer, healer and killer, as well as the trappings of both genders and all ethnicities (all clearly borne out through the multiple character portrayals of the principal cast members). These assorted incarnations allow us to experience the full range of probabilities that conscious creation makes possible and provide us with opportunities to work out our karma, in all cases for better or worse, enabling us to become the individuals – and the spirits – we’re truly capable of being.

“Cloud Atlas” is an incredibly ambitious project, well executed in virtually every respect. The performances are terrific across the board, an amazing feat considering the demanding multiple characterizations involved (wait until you see the full list of who played who in the closing credits!). It’s also technically brilliant, breathtakingly beautiful in its cinematography and special effects and masterful in its sets, designs, costumes and makeup, all backed up by an ethereal, emotive musical score. It draws inspiration from a wide range of films in a variety of genres, including everything from “Mutiny on the Bounty” to “The China Syndrome” to “Blade Runner,” successfully paying homage to them all but without ever becoming a blatant impersonator.

The film is, admittedly, a little slow in the first 30 minutes, but, given the setup work involved in getting six story lines off the ground, that’s easily overlooked. Likewise, the movie has a tendency to wear its metaphysics on its sleeve, but, considering the subject matter involved, I’d rather the film overcompensate on this aspect than cryptically understate its intentions. Perhaps the only area in need of some serious tweaking would be in some of the dialogue of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian sequence; it’s a little too “Mad Max” for my taste, at times almost indiscernible and a tad pretentious.

Nevertheless, at the risk of overstatement, “Cloud Atlas” truly is epic filmmaking, one of the most impressive releases in recent years. I must confess that I had some reservations about this picture going in, given that it was the product of the makers of “The Matrix” series, a collection of films that I thought was highly overrated. Not so with this offering; it lives up to every bit of its billing. The picture is best enjoyed on the big screen, so be sure to catch it in theaters while you have the opportunity; you’ll want to savor every grand, sweeping moment as it majestically unfolds before you. And if it affects you as much as it did me, you’ll emerge from the darkness walking on air. But then with a title like “Cloud Atlas,” who would expect anything less?

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