Friday, December 21, 2012

Check out the Latest at Master Heart Magazine!

Check out my latest film review, Truth and deceit take center stage in 'Argo', an in-depth look at the new Ben Affleck thriller, "Argo," available at Master Heart Magazine ( To find out more about the movie, click here, and to see the film's trailer, click here.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Monday, December 17, 2012

‘Hitchcock’ portrays a master creator at work

“Hitchcock” (2012). Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Richard Portnow, Ralph Macchio, Kurtwood Smith, Josh Yeo. Director: Sacha Gervasi. Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin. Book: Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Web Site. Trailer.

It’s always a joy to watch a master creator at work, no matter what endeavor is being pursued. The passion for producing one’s heartfelt desires is indeed something to behold, not only for the one ensconced in the creative process but also for anyone fortunate enough just to watch. Such is the focus of the engaging new biopic, “Hitchcock.”

In 1959, legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) was at the top of his game. Having just released “North by Northwest,” yet another in a string of successful pictures, he was riding high in Hollywood. Or was he? The master of suspense had earned a well-deserved reputation for making thrillers that captivated viewers and lit up box offices. But, despite his impressive track record, some began raising questions about the filmmaker and his work. He had made so many movies like his most recent release that some were wondering whether his creativity had peaked. Some also suggested that his recent foray into television with his enormously popular series Alfred Hitchcock Presents had “cheapened” his image as an artist. So was the auteur truly a man at the pinnacle of his career? Or was he perched atop the crest of a wave that was about to come crashing down?

As for the director himself, in spite of his advancing age and faltering health, he believed he still had some untapped creativity in the tank. Nevertheless, he also recognized that perhaps his work was becoming a little stale, that maybe he had taken his singular style of suspense as far as it could go and needed to plumb new territory if he really wanted to push the creative envelope. To address this, he believed he needed to tackle material that was uniquely fresh and unreservedly audacious. But he also knew he’d meet with studio resistance in taking on such a risky project, mainly because any of his prior films that attempted to chart new ground, such as “Vertigo” (1958), generally (and inexplicably) bombed at the box office.

No matter how daunting these circumstances were, though, Hitchcock refused to be deterred, pushing ahead to find the right story that would meet his criteria, and he found it in, of all places, a chilling, grisly novel titled Psycho, by Robert Bloch. The book, loosely based on true events, chronicled the gruesome exploits of serial killer Norman Bates, and it told a horrific tale, one that Hitchcock knew would make a terrific picture.

Needless to say, given the movie’s grotesque subject matter (which represented new territory in the film industry at the time), production on “Psycho” (1960) met with resistance at every turn. Members of the media were aghast at the picture’s premise when Hitchcock introduced it at a press conference. Paramount Pictures President Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) refused to bankroll it. Production Code Administrator Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith), who oversaw film industry censorship issues, threatened to withhold approval of the movie’s release certificate. Even Hitchcock’s wife and fiercely loyal collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), was uncharacteristically hesitant about supporting the project, viewing it as a sensationalist, sadistic exercise that was beneath his considerable talent, sarcastically suggesting that maybe he should produce it as a musical starring Doris Day.

Hitchcock disagreed, criticisms and impediments notwithstanding, going so far as to mortgage his home to raise money and fund the movie as an independent production, with the studio serving only as distributor. He cast actress Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as his leading lady and relative newcomer Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) as the troubled protagonist, along with Hollywood staple Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) in a supporting role. “Psycho” was a huge gamble financially, artistically and professionally, but, in the end, it was one that paid off handsomely, becoming the most successful film of Hitchcock’s career.

So much for the detractors.

Regardless of what one might think about the subject matter of Hitchcock’s films, one can’t deny that he truly was a master of his genre. “Psycho” in particular, as gruesome as it was, broke cinematic ground in many ways, featuring unprecedented depictions of violent and suggestive content never before seen on screen. It was even the first picture to show the highly controversial image of a flushing toilet (horrors!). But, for better or worse, “Psycho” went on to attain considerable acclaim, including the distinction of being named the top celluloid thriller of all time according to the American Film Institute.

Hitchcock’s tremendous accomplishments, both in “Psycho” and in virtually all of his films, stemmed from his conscious creation proficiency. He believed so passionately in his work that the elements of his creations came together with seemingly effortless precision, just as any materialization birthed by an ardent conscious creator operating from a position of unfettered intent would inevitably manifest. And, because Hitchcock intuitively understood this, success naturally followed. Like a maestro conducting a symphony, he took control of the creative process and milked it for all it was worth, even down to his expert, perfectly timed manipulation of audience responses (wait until you see the sequence portraying Hitchcock’s reaction to viewers seeing the film for the first time!).

Even when faced with challenges to overcome, Hitchcock was masterful at being able to attract workable solutions. For instance, when he searched for someone to adapt Bloch’s novel for the screen, he “fortuitously” stumbled upon Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio), an aspiring script writer with his own share of self-avowed neuroses (and who better to flesh out a character like Norman Bates?). Similarly, in casting Anthony Perkins as the tortured protagonist, Hitchcock found the perfect actor for the part, especially when Perkins confided to the director that there were elements of his character that he could relate to personally. Such synchronicities, as macabre as they might be, are nevertheless indicative of a conscious creator operating in top form.

Of course, the director’s success as a conscious creator arose in large part from him being true to himself and not really caring what others thought about it, a quality that typified both his personal and professional lives. For example, he made little attempt to conceal his passions for excess and the unconventional, be it in his work, his love of food and drink, and his infatuation with blonde femme fatales. He embraced such obsessions, attitudes and behaviors, no matter how crass, self-serving or unusual they may have been perceived, even by his beloved Alma.

Hitchcock also didn’t let fear stand in his way. He had no reservation examining subjects that no one else would touch. He believed, as conscious creation maintains, that all probabilities are capable of being expressed, including those that arise from “the dark side,” a quality that he sincerely believed we each possess. Some of us would probably like to deny our shadow’s existence, but Hitchcock wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it, or even to explore it, as he did unhesitatingly (albeit “benignly”) through his films. In that regard, we should all be so forthright.

When in need of insight, Hitchcock readily drew upon the resources available to him, too, again no matter how unconventional they were. For example, when he sought inspiration during the filming of “Psycho,” he would try to envision what the killer would do, occasionally even appearing to tap into the consciousness of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life individual on whom Norman’s character was based. The “advice” of this ghoulish muse would invariably help to show him the way. Likewise, when shooting the infamous shower scene in “Psycho,” Hitchcock was not getting the reaction he wanted out of his leading lady; he believed Janet Leigh was coming across too timidly for the imminent terror her character was facing, and the actress’s repeated failure to live up to his expectations angered him. He became so frustrated at this that he assumed the reins of Bates’s character and lunged ferociously at Leigh, his rage fueled by the anger he was harboring toward those who he thought were sabotaging his project, such as Balaban and Shurlock. Needless to say, that impulsive gesture got him the reaction he was looking for.

But what was perhaps most significant about Hitchcock’s work as a filmmaker (and his proficiency as a conscious creator) was his enduring desire to innovate. As noted above, he believed he still had untapped creativity within him at a time when some were suggesting that he should hang things up. He proved through his choice of “Psycho” as a project, his inventiveness in filming the picture, his inspired marketing campaign for the movie and even his novel means of financing it (atypical at the time) that he was willing to try the untried, pushing the envelope not only for himself but also for his art form and his industry. His eagerness to boldly take things in such new directions is one of the hallmarks of conscious creation, aptly reflecting the oft-cited observation of author/philosopher Jane Roberts that “we’re all in a constant state of becoming.”

“Hitchcock” is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a long time, fun in virtually every respect. It’s a terrifically campy romp through the Hollywood of 1960, a well-made period piece reminiscent of movies like “My Week with Marilyn” (2011), meticulous in all of its historical details. It also features ample laughs and superb performances by Hopkins (a strong awards contender), Mirren and a fine supporting cast. The film’s portrayal of Hitchcock’s private life (particularly the strain in his relationship with Alma) doesn’t work quite as well as its depiction of his professional and creative sides, but it doesn’t take away from the picture’s overall quality either.

Alfred Hitchcock truly was an original, a one-of-a-kind whose likes and works may be imitated but never duplicated (as the forgettable 1998 remake of “Psycho” clearly illustrates). His contributions to cinema, no matter how one sees them, were undeniably innovative, opening doors that were previously closed, even unenvisioned, thereby paving the way for the many successors who would follow. In conscious creation terms, this is known as living out one’s value fulfillment, and live it out he did, masterfully and with distinction. “Hitchcock” is a fitting tribute to the man and his art and to what we can all achieve when we allow ourselves to be the master creators we were all born to be.

Photo by Suzanne Tenner, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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

Friday, December 7, 2012

Noble intents, practical thinking join forces in ‘Lincoln’

“Lincoln” (2012). Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath, Gloria Reuben, Boris McGiver, David Costabile, Walton Goggins, David Warshofsky, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, Bill Raymond. Director: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Tony Kushner. Book: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Web site. Trailer.

Bold moves often pay off in big rewards. Thinking through one’s aspirations, and then following them up with practical, inspired action, frequently yield tremendous benefits, not only for the initiator, but also for all who are touched by their realization. It’s a concept made plain in the sweeping new historical drama, “Lincoln.”

In January 1865, not long after Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) was elected to his second term as the sixteenth President of the United States, the commander-in-chief oversaw the waning days of the American Civil War, an exceedingly bloody conflict that divided the nation and turned brother against brother. Yet, despite the heavy toll that the war had taken on the country, it was only a matter of time before the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) would defeat their Confederate counterparts.

But Lincoln wanted more than just an end to the conflict; he also sought to have the House of Representatives pass a Constitutional amendment, to be sent to the states for ratification, bringing a formal end to slavery, one of the driving forces that prompted the outbreak of the war. And, even though he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves two years earlier, Lincoln was uncertain whether this Presidential directive would successfully withstand legal challenges after the war’s end, so he wanted the amendment passed to ensure slavery’s demise – once and for all.

Since slavery had contributed so significantly to the nation’s deep, painful schism, Lincoln was convinced that ending this abomination was essential to reunite the country and heal its wounds. But, even more than that, he believed it was fundamentally the right thing to do. However, with the conflict quickly drawing to a close and the peace movement steadily gaining momentum, Lincoln had to act fast to see his goal realized. The nation had grown war weary, so there was strong support to end hostilities and negotiate peace with the Confederacy, regardless of what happened on the slavery issue. Even avid proponents of the amendment, such as Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the founder of Lincoln’s own political party, believed the Union had to pursue peace overtures with the South, an initiative that the President reluctantly sanctioned to secure Blair’s backing for solidifying support for the amendment among his fellow Republicans in the House.

Appeasing both the abolitionists and the pacifists required Lincoln to walk a rather precarious tightrope, an effort that often required him to keep mum on certain matters, such as Blair’s peacemaking mission. And, to win over enough votes for passage of the amendment, he had to assemble a coalition of members of both political parties, an effort that took a great deal of old-fashioned horse trading to accomplish. However, with the zealous support of abolitionist legislator Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the pragmatic diplomacy of Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), and the wheeling and dealing of lobbyist/operative William Bilbo (James Spader), Lincoln genuinely believed he could secure the amendment’s passage – provided that time didn’t run out on him first.

In addition to balancing all of his political priorities, Lincoln had his share of domestic challenges to juggle at the time. Chief among them was the ongoing emotional instability of his wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), who was devastated by the loss of their son Willie in 1862. The President and First Lady also wrestled with the decision of their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in the military, a move that both parents strongly opposed. Yet, for all of the trials and tribulations that Lincoln encountered in both his political and family lives, none of them would compare to the one he would face on a fateful evening at the theatre in April 1865.

Conscious creators who truly understand how the philosophy works realize that the external reality we experience springs forth from our internal beliefs and intents. The more aware we are of those aims, the more proficient we become at manifesting an existence that suits us. Indeed, the more clearly we express ourselves metaphysically, the more likely we’re able to attract to us materializations in line with our expectations. Inspiration thus soars, making potential solutions more readily apparent and goals more readily attainable. In essence, then, conscious creation, when properly executed, makes it possible to bring our internal and external worlds into alignment, marrying the intangible and the tangible, the theoretical and the pragmatic, even the idealistic and the achievable.

For his part, Lincoln understood this need for balance perfectly. He truly believed that noble intents could give birth to virtuous outcomes. But he also realized that practical means were frequently required to bring such results into being; vacuous optimism and purely altruistic arguments simply wouldn’t cut it. And, even if workable solutions didn’t instantly materialize when needed, he knew intuitively that they would synchronistically appear.

For instance, Lincoln was convinced that he could win over the support of representatives who were reluctant to back the Constitutional amendment, but he also knew that it would take more than just lofty speeches to get them in his corner. Some palms would need to be greased, some compromises would have to be struck and even some gentle arm-twisting was in order. But, given the tremendous stakes at issue – the elimination of slavery and the reunification of the nation – he wasn’t above employing such shrewd measures if they would further these causes and contribute to the eventual manifestation of his heartfelt beliefs. Those seeking fulfillment of idealistic objectives would be wise to take a cue from Lincoln’s success, because wishful thinking or merely hoping desired outcomes into being in most instances won’t suffice (at least as long as we choose to express ourselves as physical beings).

Lincoln was also acutely aware that it was unrealistic to bring about sweeping radical change all at once. Like many of his fellow abolitionists, he envisioned a nation in which the freed slaves would be able to enjoy a broad range of rights, such as voting. But, considering the magnitude of the change that abolishing slavery entailed, he realized that he couldn’t aggressively push such a progressive agenda at the time; getting an amendment passed to eliminate an institution that had been around since colonial times was quite an exacting ordeal in itself. Nevertheless, he was aware of the power of beliefs and of how ideas grow, so, with the amendment’s passage secured, he wasn’t averse to planting seeds for the future, introducing these notions into the national consciousness in hopes that they would one day take root (and we all know how those efforts eventually turned out).

Again, those looking to foment significant changes, be they in one’s own life or in society at large, should take a page from Lincoln on this. Even if the changes don’t occur in one’s own lifetime, that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually materialize. Individuals from all walks of life and all segments of society, from Susan B. Anthony to Jackie Robinson to Harvey Milk to Barack Obama, can attest to what the power of beliefs and their sustained nurturing can make possible.

Of course, none of us would get anywhere with this unless we’re also willing to face our fears. Drastic changes like those Lincoln sought to implement can be quite intimidating, if for no other reason than they involve trying the untried, stepping into the realm of uncharted territory, a daunting experience for many of us, to say the least. However, we’ll never know what can come from those dreamed-of probabilities unless we’re willing to take the first steps to explore them. As this film illustrates, Lincoln was willing to do that, and he set an example we can all draw from in our own pursuits into the unknown.

In many regards, “Lincoln” is quite an accomplished piece of filmmaking. As a period piece, it’s technically meticulous in its detail. And, as an actor’s showcase, it provides an excellent venue for the cast members to brilliantly show off their considerable talent, including Jones, Field, Strathairn and Holbrook, all of whom are strong, or at least potential, contenders for awards consideration. But Day-Lewis is the real star of this show; his magnificent portrayal of the beleaguered President easily makes him the frontrunner for best lead actor in this year’s awards competitions. In addition, John Williams’ beautiful original score, one of his best in years, provides a majestic musical backdrop for the action taking place on screen.

For all its virtues, however, “Lincoln” suffers from one huge undermining flaw – its tedious pacing. The campaign to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is examined in such painstaking detail that the picture’s flow gets bogged down, resulting in a series of protracted talky sequences that can try the patience of even the most ardent history buff, yours truly included (at the screening I attended, audience members began walking out after only 45 minutes into the movie’s 2½-hour runtime).

In my opinion, the main problem is that the film never should have been made for the big screen. Since there is so little action and so much dialogue, “Lincoln” would have been a project much better suited to the small screen – as a public television broadcast or DVD – or as a stage play. It’s the kind of story that you want to watch when time isn’t an issue, perhaps while curled up on the couch on a gloomy winter afternoon or while spending a pleasant Saturday evening at the theatre. In its present form, however, it’s wasted on the big screen, rarely capitalizing on the attributes this cinematic milieu affords. Perhaps it will fare better as a home entertainment vehicle.

Still, despite this inherent drawback, the story in “Lincoln” is one worthy of being told. Were it not for the diligence of Lincoln’s efforts in securing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the United States would likely be a very different country today. His passion, tenacity, practicality, leadership and skillful political maneuvering combined to bring about one of the biggest fundamental changes in the nation’s character, one that has often made it an example for other emerging democracies to emulate. And we’d all be wise to follow that inspired lead in our personal lives as well.

Photo by David James, courtesy of Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC.

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