Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

Considering a New Year's resolution? You might want to think about that before you make it. Read more about it in "Be It Resolved: Making Every Day New Year's Day," my latest blog post at www.smartwomensempowerment.org.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Intent, integrity get put on trial in ‘American Hustle’

“American Hustle” (2013). Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, Paul Herman, Danny Corbo, Sonny Corbo, Robert DeNiro (uncredited). Director: David O. Russell. Screenplay: Eric Singer and David O. Russell. Web site. Trailer.

Getting what we want out of life often takes considerable moxie. But all the chutzpah in the world won’t matter a damn if it’s not properly backed up with traits like personal integrity and sound intent. That can be a difficult lesson to learn, too, as a coterie of colorful characters finds out all too well in the new, fact-based, period piece comedy, “American Hustle.”

The plot of “American Hustle” is rather complicated, and revealing it in detail would give away too much of the story. In a nutshell, however, the picture is loosely based on the 1978 covert FBI operation known as Abscam, which sought to expose corruption among political power brokers, including members of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator, with the aid of professional con artists.

In this fictionalized account, the film follows the exploits of con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner-in-crime/sometimes-lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Together they routinely and convincingly scam desperate borrowers in search of hard-to-find cash. Their racket is quite successful, too, until they cross paths with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who nabs the duo in an undercover sting. DiMaso makes them an interesting offer, however; he’s willing to trade jail time for their assistance as consultants on a high-profile white collar crime operation he’s planning. Irving and Sydney agree to the overzealous, opportunistic agent’s offer, but, as things get under way, none of them can possibly envision what awaits them – especially when the stakes spiral wildly out of control.

What ensues is an elaborate con game in which everyone hustles everyone else, both in “business” matters and in romantic dealings. This applies not only to the scheme’s three principals but also to virtually everyone else connected with it. This tawdry cast of supporting characters includes Irving’s brassy, loud-mouthed, neurotic wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence); the well-meaning and well-connected but woefully naïve mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner); DiMaso’s mild-mannered but overly officious boss, Stoddard Thorson (Louis C.K.); a politically ambitious federal prosecutor, Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola); a Latino FBI agent, Paco Hernandez, who feebly poses as a phony Middle Eastern sheikh (Michael Peña); a pair of mob-connected casino operators (Robert DeNiro, Jack Huston) and their crooked attorney (Paul Herman); and an array of Congressmen eager to grant political favors in exchange for generous “campaign contributions.” And, as events unfold and plans go wildly astray, the results give new meaning to concept of “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

The conscious creation experiences of this film’s characters shine a very bright light on the notion of intent and what underlies our manifestation efforts. The beliefs we employ in materializing our existence get reflected back to us with sparkling clarity, even if we’re not always clear about what those beliefs inherently involve. So, if we willfully engage in intentional acts of deception, as Irving, Sydney and, ultimately, Richie do, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the results we realize are in line with that thinking, the outcomes often containing elements where the deceivers themselves wind up deceived. The aftermath of that can make for some rather bitter medicine to swallow.

These circumstances thus lend considerable credence to the importance of integrity in our creative efforts, particularly when it comes to striving for the results we desire. If we fudge the essence of our beliefs, for example, we’ll attain outcomes commensurate with such obfuscation, for better or worse. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this really shouldn’t come as any surprise, either, yet it’s amazing how often we’re shocked when we get precisely what we put forth. Nevertheless, as consciousness pioneer Jane Roberts often wrote, we get what we concentrate upon. That’s frequently a painful lesson for the film’s protagonists, but it’s especially devastating for Carmine, who periodically engages in willful wrongdoings, even when he knows better, because he assumes such acts are just part of how things get done. He justifies his conduct by holding fast to the belief that it’s sincerely intended to serve an allegedly higher purpose, but these actions still raise all sorts of thorny questions about the ends justifying the means.

By contrast, the one character in the film who’s unabashedly truthful to herself is Rosalyn. She knows what she wants and doesn’t hesitate to make her wishes known, no matter how embarrassing, inconvenient or undermining the expression of her intents may be to others. She knows she’s in touch with this notion, too, even going so far as to brag about having read a book on the subject written by Wayne Dyer (a fan I’m sure he never knew he had!). And, in Rosalyn’s efforts to operate from her own sense of integrity, she keeps everyone else honest, whether they want to be or not.

It’s ironic that these issues come up so pointedly for these characters, especially since, on some level, most of them are legitimately seeking to reinvent themselves. However, the act of genuine reinvention requires sincerity and truthfulness, personal qualities these players seriously lack. With little or no experience in this area, their attempts at making such changes ultimately represent major life lessons for them. And, in that regard, one probably can’t fault them for any of their efforts that go awry since such foibles are an intrinsic part of their learning curves. For their sake, though, one can only hope that they learn from their missteps and make real forward progress.

All of the foregoing considerations make clear just how important it is for us to get in touch with the tools available to us to aid in our personal evolution, particularly our intuition. Not only does it help guide us in our own belief formation and manifestation efforts, but it can also provide a valuable hedge against potentially disastrous pitfalls. I’m sure all of the victims of Irving’s scams wish they would have tapped into it before they got taken to the cleaners. But, then again, I’m sure Irving wishes he’d drawn upon it, too, before his plans, fittingly enough, came back to bite his own posterior. (Would-be scammers take note.)

In my view, “American Hustle” is easily the best picture I’ve seen so far this year. Not only does it make its metaphysical points well, but it’s also an expertly crafted film in virtually every regard. The ensemble of performers is one of the best assembled casts I’ve seen in years, and everybody is terrific in their respective roles (it’s hard to single out anyone in particular, but Bale and Lawrence are especially noteworthy). These stellar portrayals are made possible by the superb writing and the excellent direction of filmmaker David O. Russell, who has arguably turned out his best work in this picture. But, as remarkable as these attributes are, the movie positively nails its take on the ʼ70s in everything from its evocative soundtrack to its tacky clothes and, especially, its hideous hairstyles. The result is a campy, kitschy, nostalgic romp that provides as many laughs through its visuals and its attitude as it does through its many hilarious one-liners. Indeed, as Irving routinely explains to his initiates, “success is in the details,” and that principle is aptly reflected in the filmmaking on display here.

This picture deserves every bit of praise that it earns, and that’s apparent in the many accolades that have already been generously heaped upon it. The film has captured 7 Golden Globe Award nominations, 2 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and a whopping 13 Critics Choice Award nominations, many of which involve honors for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best acting ensemble, and individual acting nominations for all of the principals, particularly Bale and Lawrence. But, considering the quality involved, it’s easy to see why.

Qualities like integrity and truthfulness are often the first casualties in manifestation efforts governed by self-serving expediency, even when veiled in fabricated attitudes that seemingly espouse the contrary. However, if we’re ever to attain what we truly say we desire, those absent traits must be put into place. Failing on this front can carry grave consequences, as the Abscam offenders painfully found out for themselves. And so, to that end, then, as anyone who grew up in the disco era of the ʼ70s well knows, “hustling” is something best left for the dance floor, not the dance of life.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 20, 2013

‘Saving Mr. Banks’ celebrates the magical nature of our personal reality

“Saving Mr. Banks” (2013). Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Griffiths, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee. Director: John Lee Hancock. Screenplay: Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Web site. Trailer.

Have you ever looked at something one way only to find that everyone else sees it completely differently? That might seem improbable to some, but, if we accept the notion that we each create our own reality, the idea doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. In fact, it might even be seen as downright magical. However, if we’re unable or unwilling to recognize the existence of such personal distinctions, we set ourselves up for trouble, as illustrated by the new, fact-based docudrama, “Saving Mr. Banks,” a chronicle of the back story behind the making of the beloved children’s film, “Mary Poppins” (1964).

In 1961, children’s author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) faced a serious dilemma: She was broke. Despite having published a number of best-selling titles (most notably the Mary Poppins books, the endearing adventures of the Banks family and their magical nanny), revenues and royalties from those works had dried up. Confronted with the prospect of losing her London home, Travers’ situation had become quite dire. But, in spite of this looming misfortune, she had a way out – if she chose to make use of it. Availing herself of this safety net was easier said than done, however, because it involved a decision that pained her greatly.

World-renowned movie producer Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) had been a fan of Travers for over 20 years. In fact, he was so taken with the Mary Poppins books and the favorable impact they had on his daughters that he promised them he would one day make a picture based on those enchanting works. To that end, he aggressively sought to obtain the movie rights to the books, and, as someone accustomed to getting his way, he was confident he could achieve that goal. There was just one hitch – Travers hated Disney’s movies and was loath to sell him the rights to her works.

Travers thought most of Disney’s films (especially the animated ones) were little more than inane, overly sentimental, saccharin-encrusted pap. She felt their simplistic, unrealistic narratives did a grave disservice to their audiences, leaving the hordes of children who watched them ill-prepared for the harsh realities of everyday life, and she wanted no part of that. However, Disney was willing to pay handsomely to secure the movie rights, enough to solve Travers’ financial woes. So, with her back to the fiscal wall, she reluctantly made a trip to Hollywood to discuss Disney’s proposal, holding her nose the entire way.

Despite a warm and accommodating welcome from Disney and his staff, Travers had her guard up from the moment she arrived. She agreed to discuss a movie project in principle, but she was unwilling to sign over the rights until she knew exactly what Walt had in mind. She met with script writer Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman), but she was adversarial from the outset, insisting on approval of every detail. In fact, she was so mistrustful of her would-be collaborators that she required all of their sessions together to be tape-recorded as a hedge against any misunderstandings.

To make matters worse, Travers was exceedingly belligerent and condescending in her objections, which ran the gamut from major issues, such as a prohibition against the use of animation, to the smallest of minutiae, such as one of the characters being given a previously nonexistent mustache. At one point, she even went so far as to express her dislike of the color red, insisting that it not be used anywhere in the film. Such unreasonable and unrealistic demands finally prompted the mild-mannered Disney to step in to find out what was really going on.

Through discussions with Walt and her collaborators, Travers gradually revealed that she was reluctant to subject her beloved characters to Disney’s proposed treatment, mainly because it didn’t accurately reflect the image she had long held of her cherished creations. And the reason for this was that Mary Poppins and the Banks family were based on Travers’ own childhood experiences. Thus the war of wills between Travers and Disney was not one based on creative differences; it was personal.

To gain Travers’ support, Disney and company needed to engage in what essentially amounted to some impromptu counseling. They needed to understand where Travers was coming from to get a better handle on the nature of her objections. Viewers of this film become aware of that through a series of intercut flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia, most notably episodes depicting the bittersweet relationship between her younger self (Annie Rose Buckley) and her kindly but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). The challenges associated with those difficult daily living conditions eventually prompted her overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson) to seek outside help to bring order to the household. That assistance was provided by Travers’ Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), a stern but loving woman who provided the necessary stability – and who would one day become the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

As Travers revealed more about her personal story, Disney and his creative team also came to see that they had misunderstood the intent underlying the narratives of the Mary Poppins books: They had innocently, but mistakenly, believed that the title character showed up in the lives of the Banks family to help out with the children. However, as Travers gradually and painfully made clear, Mary Poppins’ arrival was instead predicated on saving Mr. Banks, a fictionalized version of her father, and it’s that storyline that she insisted the film must depict. Thus began an intense, heartfelt process that would transform the movie project, not to mention Travers herself.

The central misunderstanding at the core of this story, ironically enough, is very telling about the nature of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we create our own reality through our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Travers was troubled (and, arguably, somewhat justifiably so) that her beloved characters were being unacceptably misrepresented. But, then, that’s understandable, because she created them based on her beliefs – impressions that, quite obviously, differed markedly from those of her readers and of the Disney staff, who created their own visions of Mary and the Bankses based on their own beliefs. And, because Travers’ creations arose from beliefs based on such personally touching experiences, their proposed alterations were difficult for her to fathom.

As unintentionally inoffensive as those alternate interpretations may have been, they were nevertheless painful for Travers to contemplate, especially since many of the conflicted feelings associated with the beliefs and experiences that gave rise to her creations remained unresolved, even after all those years. In fact, the author was so clear in her own mind about her vision for the characters (and unaware of the discrepancies between that and the views of others) that it never even occurred to her that Mary Poppins and the Banks family could be seen in any other light than the one she had intended for them (hence, her resistance and antagonism).

This, in turn, points out one of the potential pitfalls that can come with conscious creation – the possibility of developing tunnel vision with regard to our beliefs. Our focus can become so one-directional that we lose sight of the myriad other options the philosophy makes possible. We thus run the risk of falling prey to the practice of creation by default, or un-conscious creation, wherein we become locked into one way of thinking (and creating), one that keeps us from seeing other equally viable possibilities.

Travers’ experience with Disney and his associates thus helps to open her eyes to never-before-considered options. In that respect, then, she has her horizons broadened in much the same way that Mary Poppins helps expand the vistas of those she touches. In particular, this experience teaches Travers that she, like all of us, must learn how to let go of outmoded beliefs and creations when they no longer serve our interests.

For instance, the difficulties of Travers’ childhood, which helped give shape to her writings, also helped frame the course of her own adult life. The tampering that Disney and company proposed for her characters and narratives represented a symbolic threat to the beliefs she had employed all of her life in creating the reality she experienced, and, in her view, changing the means by which her existence arose – no matter how unfulfilling or even detrimental that reality may have been at times – was not an acceptable option. On some level, however, Travers also knew she needed to change her beliefs to change her reality. As a student of Buddhism and Gurdjieff, she was clearly in search of answers, but nothing she investigated seemed to work.

That’s where Disney’s involvement proved invaluable. Specifically, Walt and his colleagues showed the author that it was okay to embrace beliefs about being happy, that life needn’t always be seen as being full of despair. They employed this tactic on several levels, too, including everything from how they respectfully intended to portray her characters to how they treated her as a person (thanks in large part to the courtesies extended her by Ralph (Paul Giamatti), the affable chauffeur Disney assigned to Travers during her stay in Hollywood). In this way, Disney did justice not only to her characters, but also to their creator herself.

The film adaptation of “Mary Poppins” went on to become one of the most endearing children’s films of all time, winning 5 Oscars on 13 nominations and 1 Golden Globe Award on 4 nominations. Even if Travers wasn’t entirely pleased with the finished product, the experience helped change her life and the beliefs she drew upon in creating her existence. And all it took was a little metaphysical magic, the kind that her brainchild routinely employed in transforming the lives of those with whom she interacted. In that sense, Travers’ experience went full circle, creating a character who helped change the lives of others and whose influence, in turn, helped change the life of the one who created her. Given that, then, “Saving Mr. Banks” could just as easily have been titled “Saving Mrs. Travers.” In either instance, the designation would have been just as appropriate.

I’ll admit to having had some strong reservations about this film going in. Based on its trailer, the picture struck me as a lightweight, self-congratulatory piece of fluff, but that impression, thankfully, is far from the truth.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is an excellent movie in virtually every regard. It’s surprisingly substantive for a Disney release, one that honors the subject matter on which it’s based but that successfully avoids slipping into an exercise in studio propaganda. It’s a superb period piece, effectively capturing the look and feel of both 1960s Hollywood and turn-of-the-century Australia. Its razor-sharp writing is spot-on, especially in the incisive barbs casually tossed about by Travers and in its more emotional moments, evoking feelings without being manipulative. But, most of all, this picture is an actors’ showcase, featuring tremendous performances across the board, particularly by Thompson, who has richly earned best actress nominations in the upcoming Critics Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions. The film itself picked up three additional Critics Choice Award nominations, including best picture.

Our awareness of how and why we create our reality as we do is one of our most precious metaphysical birthrights, and we’d serve ourselves well never to lose sight of that. “Saving Mr. Banks” shows us what can occur when that happens, as well as what it takes to get it back. But, even more importantly, the film celebrates the boundless joy that comes from creating our personal reality. And that’s pretty magical if you ask me.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beliefs, self-discovery take center stage in ‘Philomena’

“Philomena” (2013). Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Wunmi Mosaku, Kate Fleetwood, Tadhg Bowen, Saoirse Bowen. Director: Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Book: Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Web site. Trailer.

When we go looking for something, sometimes we find more than we anticipated. Searches driven by heartfelt, introspective concerns in particular often lead us to unexpected revelations and discoveries. Such is the case for an unlikely duo in the touching, fact-based comedy-drama, “Philomena.”

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a retired nurse living in London, harbors a painful secret, and she desperately desires to unburden herself. That opportunity finally comes on what would have been the 50th anniversary of a significant, though closely guarded event in her life – the birth of her son out of wedlock in the seclusion of an Irish convent. It was an incident that, at the time, was looked upon as nothing short of an eternal damnation sentence, at least in the eyes of the Church and its sanctimonious minions, most notably Mother Barbara (Ruth McCabe) and her relentless attack dog, Sister Hildegarde (Kate Fleetwood).

As penance for her “sin” (and in reparation for the discreet care she received from the Sisters), the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was required to spend four years working at the convent, performing chores for no money under the ever-watchful eye of the nuns. She had few pleasures in her life and even fewer allies, though she could always count on the support of her best friend, Kathleen (Charlie Murphy). She also took great pleasure in being able to spend a little time each day with her son, Anthony (Tadhg Bowen), a happy little lad who was highly protective of, and virtually inseparable from, Kathleen’s young daughter, Mary (Saoirse Bowen).

But, despite these small joys, Philomena, Kathleen and the other unwed mothers all had a perpetual threat hanging over them – the prospect that their children could be taken away at any time by would-be adoptive parents with deep pockets. When that fate unexpectedly befell Philomena, she was devastated. Her only remembrance of Anthony was a single photograph that had been clandestinely slipped to her by one of the more compassionate Sisters. And it was all she would ever have, even 50 years later.

Philomena long wondered what happened to her little boy. When she finally works up the nerve to reveal her secret to her adult daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), she explains how desperate she is to know that Anthony grew up safe and sound. She even expresses hope that she might meet him somehow, despite the odds against that. As a concerned daughter, Jane wants to help her mother in any way that she can, and, fortunately, a highly fortuitous synchronicity presents itself shortly thereafter.

While attending a cocktail party, Jane meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a one-time BBC reporter and former government communications director who left office after becoming embroiled in a scandal involving a very public (and very embarrassing) news leak. With no job and no clear career path, Martin has been floundering about, futilely searching for his next journalism gig. That soon changes, however, when Jane and Martin cross paths. She pitches him on the idea of writing a story about her mother’s plight. As a former foreign affairs correspondent, he’s initially reluctant, claiming he doesn’t write human interest stories. But, once he’s introduced to another party guest, Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), an editor always on the lookout for noteworthy stories to publish (especially from writers with high-profile pedigrees), Jane’s proposal suddenly doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

Before long, Jane arranges a meeting between Philomena and Martin. The unlikely duo seems a decidedly mismatched pair to embark on such an ambitious undertaking, especially since Philomena has precious little to offer Martin in helping him find her son. But, given that he’s in need of a job and having been effectively swayed by his subject’s touching story, Martin decides to forge ahead with the assignment. Thus begins the saga of an intrepid reporter and a heartbroken mother to locate her long-lost son, an odyssey that ends up spanning two continents and taking the determined investigators on a journey filled with numerous twists and turns.

Thematically speaking, the film’s greatest strength rests with its exploration of our ability to control our beliefs – or to let them control us. Whichever of these choices we make subsequently affects the nature of the reality we experience as conscious creators. This is particularly true with religious-based beliefs and how we allow them (or don’t allow them) to help shape the manifestations that comprise our everyday lives.

It’s especially interesting to see how this plays out with the two protagonists, both of whom were raised Roman Catholic. For Martin, a recovering practitioner, he’ll have no part of the Church’s seemingly arbitrary and capricious dictates about how we must live our daily lives. He wants nothing to do with the subjective commandments that it routinely and dogmatically passes off as unquestionable, absolute truths. Consequently, he frames his thoughts and creates a reality based on beliefs driven by rational, logical notions, those that can be “proven” only with substantive, evidentiary facts. In doing this, however, he also tends to throw out the baby with the bath water, giving short shrift to whatever beneficial teachings the Church might have to offer, something about which he periodically needs to be reminded.

Philomena, by contrast, was raised a good Catholic girl, one who dutifully abided by its decrees, even if they caused her personal anguish, pain and suffering. However, she also couldn’t help but quietly question much of what she was taught to believe. For instance, the Church made it abundantly clear that sex was something dirty and sinful, yet Philomena pondered why God would give us something so eminently pleasurable if it was meant to be viewed in such a wholly negative light. And, if the Church could get something like that wrong, she wondered, what else might it have erred about? For example, was it really necessary for Anthony’s disposition to be handled as it was? Or were other, equally viable options available that weren’t offered to her? But, whenever such radical thoughts would arise, the beliefs premised on all those threatening old lessons would come racing back to her, quickly quelling such upstart, “unacceptable” notions.

The net effect of all this was to leave Philomena perpetually conflicted. Did she do the right thing by letting the Sisters handle Anthony’s circumstances as they did? Or should she have cast aside those beliefs and taken a more proactive approach to things? The doubt that lingered for half a century tortured her terribly, which is why she eventually had to find out what happened to her son if she were ever to have any peace of mind – not only with regard to how she handled herself, but also with respect to her feelings about those who handled matters for her.

Of course, Philomena’s story also shines a light on the intents behind the beliefs being put forth by the Church, both as teachings to its followers and as the means of creating the institution’s reality. One can’t help but ask why did the Sisters do what they did? Were their beliefs driven by compassion and the well-being of those they cared for, or was there something more self-serving involved? That’s something Martin and Philomena must wrestle with as their investigation unfolds, both in terms of what actually happened and how those events are to be reconciled with their personal beliefs.

In reaching the answers they seek, Philomena and Martin frequently find themselves following hunches, those intuitive flashes that sometimes seem illogical but that often lead to remarkable revelations and starling synchronicities. For Philomena, a woman of faith, this isn’t as much of a stretch as it is for Martin, a man of reason, who is nearly always astounded whenever such discoveries make themselves apparent. By readily drawing upon this faculty, both protagonists are able to sharpen the clarity of their beliefs and the effectiveness of their conscious creation skills to reach the objectives they seek to fulfill. It’s an example we’d be wise to follow, too, especially for those of us seeking to improve our manifestation proficiency.

Through their amazing odyssey together, Philomena and Martin eventually reach their goal, but what they find may not be what they (or audiences) had envisioned at the outset of their journey. In arriving at what they’re looking for, they discover much more than the specific answers they initially sought; they also discover parts of themselves they never knew existed. In that sense, the journey to find Anthony is just as much a journey for them to find Philomena and Martin as well. It’s quite astounding how the quest for fulfilling a particular objective ends up revealing others that we never knew we were meant to go looking for. But a process such as this often brings us face to face with the beliefs that not only created the circumstances in question but that also helped to shape our overall existence and being – including those parts of ourselves that we never knew existed but were ultimately meant to find.

On its surface, “Philomena” might seem like a formula feel-good movie, but it’s much more than that. In many ways it’s a mystery, a road trip story and an unconventional buddy flick, one that’s delightfully warm and touching but filled with a delicious sense of unpredictability. Credit director Stephen Frears for a deft touch in his handling of the material and the superb writing of screenwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope for delivering an affecting, humorous, heartfelt script. But, most of all, give major kudos to the superb performances of Dench and Coogan, who are terrific individually and together. Dench’s portrayal is already chalking up considerable awards season buzz, and she’s deserving of every bit of attention she receives, including her recent nominations as best lead actress in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions. The film has also received Golden Globe nominations for best dramatic picture and best screenplay.

It’s been said that, in finding others, we find ourselves. Given their journey together, Philomena and Martin can certainly attest to the truth of that, and the film that tells their story brings it to life for all to see. May we all one day be so fortunate to have such an enlightening experience.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

An Additional Web Site for My Work!

I'm pleased to announce an addition to the family of web sites featuring my online writings. You can now find my works posted to the web site of the Smart Women's Empowerment program, available at www.smartwomensempowerment.org. The first of my contributions has been posted, and others will follow soon. Stop by and give a look to my posts, as well as those of the many other fine experts featured there!

Friday, November 29, 2013

‘Nebraska’ urges us to honor our connections

“Nebraska” (2013). Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan. Director: Alexander Payne. Screenplay: Bob Nelson. Web site. Trailer.

It’s easy to take our world for granted. In fact, sometimes we can even lose sight of what connects us to it and everything that makes up its being. But what do we lose when we embrace such an aloof, disconnected outlook? Arguably, it could be far more than we realize, and getting it back may be more difficult than we can imagine. Such is the challenge put to the protagonists in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Nebraska.”

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a man on a mission. The retired septuagenarian auto mechanic is determined, one way or another, to make his way from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. The reason? Thanks to a promotional mailing he received, Woody’s convinced he’s won $1 million in a sweepstakes sponsored by a magazine sales company. And, since he doesn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service to promptly deliver his reply form, he’s resolved to collect his money in person – even if it means walking all the way there. Woody believes there’s too much at stake to leave matters to chance.

Woody’s family, meanwhile, is justifiably concerned. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), and his sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), worry about their stubborn relation. Woody’s alcoholic tendencies, coupled with intermittent bouts of dementia and periodic mobility issues, make him a disaster waiting to happen when left to his own devices. And then there’s Woody’s naïveté about the sweepstakes; Kate and the boys believe Woody will be crushed when he discovers the truth about its misleading nature. But, no matter what they do to keep him in line, there’s simply no deterring Woody from fulfilling his quest.

Woody is so headstrong about his objective that he’s even made plans for how to spend the money. He wants to buy a new pickup truck (even though he no longer drives) and a new auto body painting compressor to replace the one that he believes his former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), stole from him years before (even though they’re no longer in business together). And, even though Kate, David and Ross fail to understand the importance of these seemingly trivial material possessions, they nevertheless matter to Woody, and he’s hell-bent on getting them, regardless of what it takes.

To assuage the old man’s feelings (and to keep him from hurting himself), David agrees to drive Woody from Billings to Lincoln. But, given Woody’s obstinate behavior, their journey together proves to be almost as challenging as if the family had let him go on his own. David hopes that will change, however, when he and Woody make a stopover in dad’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. David crosses his fingers that the once-familiar surroundings and a reunion with long-unseen relatives will put his father’s mind at ease, quelling thoughts about his foolish obsession. But, when they arrive at Woody’s old haunts, nothing could be further from the truth.

When word of Woody’s alleged fortune spreads throughout Hawthorne, anyone who ever knew him tries to cash in on his supposed new wealth. David is appalled that everyone (including family members) would try to unabashedly take advantage of a feeble, mentally challenged old man. And, for his part, Woody is so clueless about the intentions of the circling vultures that he even expresses an interest in helping them out. With matters quickly spinning out of control, the inevitable disappointment awaiting Woody and David in Lincoln suddenly seems far preferable by comparison.

It’s painfully obvious that Woody is a disconnected soul. He’s quite comfortable being a recluse, frequently venturing off on his own, routinely losing himself in drink and often tuning out others, even when they’re in his presence. Some might easily think such gestures make him the embodiment of antisocial behavior.

But, given the quality of his life, it’s also understandable why Woody might act as he does. He grew up in a desolate small town where there was precious little to do, surrounded by self-serving, equally disinterested family members. He fought in Korea at a tender young age, an experience that he never speaks of but that obviously had quite a profound effect on him. He partnered with an untrustworthy businessman, one who wouldn’t hesitate to shaft Woody at every turn. And, to top it all off, he married a shrew of a wife who thinks mostly of herself, perpetually henpecking her husband into submission – and withdrawal.

Considering these circumstances, it’s easy to see why Woody would seek to unplug from life. Yet, despite the often-untethered nature of his existence, connection is really what he craves most. On some level, he knows, as all conscious creators do, that there’s an inherent connectedness that binds all aspects of reality. It’s something that he wants but that’s noticeably absent from his reality. In fact, it’s so far removed that he doesn’t even know how to look for it anymore. He’s incapable of birthing suitable beliefs to make such a lofty goal possible, so he settles for pale substitutes, like drinking, an illusory financial windfall and the prospect of owning a new pickup truck.

What’s perhaps even more troubling, however, is that David sees himself heading down a similar path. He’s still young and vital, but he’s had connection issues of his own. Having once battled the bottle as well, he now finds himself living a solitary existence and stuck in a dead-end job. He’s justifiably concerned that he may one day end up like Woody – someone who desires the same kind of meaningful connection that’s lacking in his old man’s life. In fact, it’s those very circumstances that prompt David to embark on the road trip to Lincoln. He’s hoping that the time spent with Woody will help to forge the kind of bonds – to one another and to life in general – that each of them so desperately seeks. And, with the formation of appropriate beliefs and some concerted action on their part, they just might be able to achieve it.

Still, given the foregoing, one probably can’t help but wonder why Woody and David would go to the extreme of creating such conspicuous disconnection as a means to manifest meaningful connection. Indeed, why go to all that needlessly contradictory trouble?

As strange as it may seem, sometimes materializing the absence of what we seek serves to fuel our passion for making our dreams happen. We so desperately wish to experience what’s missing that we’ll create the exact opposite of what we say we want to help us intently focus our beliefs in the direction of what we seek to manifest. One would hope after a lesson like this that it’s far simpler to just concentrate on what we do want, but sometimes we need the experience of taking the long way around to find the shortest path to realizing our aspirations.

To that end, “Nebraska” also inspires us to never give up on our dreams, no matter how simple or elaborate they may be. Having faith in the beliefs that underlie their materialization is crucial to see them realized, again, regardless of their scope or the means by which they’re made manifest. Sometimes it’s quite possible to see even the seemingly impossible come to fruition if we hold fast to the outcome, rather than the means by which it’s hatched, no matter what the objective is. By holding on to that idea, Woody and David just might see all of their hoped-for expectations come true.

None of this is meant to suggest that “Nebraska” is a dour, plodding exercise in endless despair and exasperating hand-wringing. It’s actually chock full of laugh-out-loud humor, as well as many heartfelt, touching moments, providing an effective mix of comedy and drama. Director Alexander Payne has stepped up his game considerably since his last outing, “The Descendents” (2011), a much-acclaimed though often-unsatisfying effort that pales compared to what he has achieved here. The picture’s exquisite black-and-white cinematography effectively captures the look and feel of the American heartland, recalling such Peter Bogdanovich films as “Paper Moon” (1973) and “The Last Picture Show” (1971). Its excellent script calls to mind the gentle humor and simple, homespun folksiness embodied in Coen Brothers offerings like “Fargo” (1996) and “Raising Arizona” (1987). And its superb performances by Dern, Keach and, especially, Squibb make this film a real treat to watch.

Despite its initial limited release, “Nebraska” is already garnering considerable awards season buzz. In fact, the film has already chalked up some impressive honors, earning notable accolades at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Dern’s performance captured the award for best actor, and the film was a Palme d’Or nominee, the Festival’s highest honor. Look for more such praise to be forthcoming as awards season progresses.

Connecting – or reconnecting – to life can prove to be one of our most rewarding experiences. But recognizing the absence of our connectedness and taking steps to restore it are essential if we ever hope to see this goal realized. One can only hope that we succeed at this before the clock runs out, while we still have the chance to appreciate all it has to offer – pickup trucks notwithstanding.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 22, 2013

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ celebrates the power of transformation

“Dallas Buyers Club” (2013). Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Dallas Roberts, Steve Zahn, Kevin Rankin, Griffin Dunne, Michael O’Neill, Deneen Tyler, Scott Takeda, Martin Covert, Ian Casselberry, Bradford Cox. Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Screenplay: Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. Web site. Trailer.

When we meet those who are set in their ways, we’re often tempted to think they’ll never change. We frequently assume they’re so entrenched in their beliefs that they’ll always be as they are. But is that really the case? What if dramatically new circumstances arise that significantly affect their realities? What then? That very scenario provides the basis for the storyline of the new, fact-based drama, “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) loves to party. The hard-drinking, fast-living good ole boy likes his liquor and the ladies, and he looks to cut loose whenever he can, usually with his running mate, T.J. (Kevin Rankin). But Ron’s wild man lifestyle eventually catches up with him; after years of uninhibited sexual exploits and relentless drug use, he collapses and ends up in the hospital, where he’s diagnosed with AIDS. His physicians, Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner), deliver the sobering news, telling their patient that he has only 30 days left to live. And, given that it’s 1985 and in the early days of the epidemic, there are no approved treatments available. He’s advised to get his affairs in order with what time he has left.

As someone who has always seen himself as indestructible, Ron can’t believe what he hears. He’s especially shocked at the AIDS diagnosis, an affliction predominant in the gay community. As an avowed heterosexual (and card-carrying homophobe), he’s in denial at the prospect of having contracted such an illness. And, given his tough guy persona, he refuses to accept the fate his doctors are attempting to saddle him with. He walks out of the hospital, vowing to live.

Ron quickly discovers, though, that his new challenges involve more than his health. All of his one-time “friends” abandon him, contending that he’s been a closet case all along and that he’s now been justifiably subjected to the death sentence that those of his “deviant” lifestyle deserve. No amount of convincing can change their minds, either. So, with plenty of time on his hands, he turns his attention to more pressing matters – like figuring out how to stay alive.

In researching his options, Ron learns that the hospital to which he had been admitted is about to begin clinical trials with AZT, the first drug to be evaluated as an AIDS treatment in the U.S. He meets with Dr. Saks and begs to purchase some of the medication, but she explains that’s not how clinical trials work. She tells him that, even if he were accepted into the testing program, he couldn’t be guaranteed that he’d even receive the drug, that he’s just as likely to receive a placebo. Those terms aren’t good enough for him, so, with his life on the line, he decides to pursue other options.

At first he obtains AZT by clandestine means, but his health soon worsens, landing him back in the hospital. While there, he learns that he’s probably been taking the drug at a dosage that’s too high, causing a toxic reaction that kills healthy cells in the course of battling the disease. He realizes that more drastic – but safer – measures are warranted. He travels to Mexico to meet with an alternative medical practitioner, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who treats his AIDS patients with vitamins, minerals, supplements, injectable proteins and other, less toxic drugs. And, remarkably, when Ron tries these remedies, his health starts to improve.

Needless to say, Ron is pleased with the results. He’s also convinced that the good doctor could make a fortune with his treatments in the U.S. with the right distribution channels. Faced with their respective needs to raise cash to stay solvent and to keep the clinic open, Ron and Dr. Vass agree to partner in setting up a domestic dispensary network. By drawing upon legal loopholes, the cowboy entrepreneur justifies his operation’s legitimacy by claiming that he’s importing unapproved, though not illegal, drugs, making it possible to launch the new venture. With the valued assistance of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual AIDS patient who Ron met during his second hospital stay, the network takes off, with demand far outstripping expectations. To keep the venture afloat and to accommodate the expanding client base, Ron and Rayon establish the Dallas Buyers Club, an operation through which patients purchase memberships that entitle them to stocks of the medications.

The club’s phenomenal success attracts widespread attention, prompting Ron to circle the globe in search of additional sources of supply to keep up with rising demand. However, his operation also draws the scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry and its government lapdogs at the Food & Drug Administration. Concerned that the DBC is cutting into their market (especially given that the products it distributes appear more effective than those offered through official channels), the powers-that-be do all that they can to shut it down. But their retaliatory tactics are hampered when the DBC receives the support of an unlikely ally, Dr. Saks, who comes to share the same conclusions that Ron and his clients have discovered for themselves. These circumstances eventually lead to a showdown in which the needs of sick, desperate people come squarely into conflict with the aims of an industry and a bureaucracy seeking to maintain the status quo, one that’s more concerned with serving their own needs than those of their constituents. It’s unclear how things will shake out, but at least the oppressed have a committed hell-raiser in their corner to make their case and help them get their needs met.

The conscious creation lessons the protagonist seeks to learn should be fairly obvious, particularly those related to thinking outside the box to overcome hindering limitations. With virtually no officially sanctioned options available to him, Ron must get creative to come up with envelope-pushing solutions to address his circumstances. It’s especially important for someone with his condition, which, at its core, is an affliction that embodies the perils that come from personal disempowerment (if you doubt that, look at the nature of the debilitating physical effects this disease causes and the constituencies it initially affected). By refusing to buy into the beliefs associated with the prognosis offered up by the “experts,” Ron confidently chooses to chart his own course. He forms beliefs in line with that thinking to manifest a different outcome, one intended to bolster his well-being.

In doing so, Ron also creates the conditions required to live out his value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept having to do with us becoming our best, truest selves for our own satisfaction and the betterment of those around us. In addition to addressing his own health concerns, he helps many others experiencing comparable challenges, improving their health and restoring their sense of personal empowerment. It’s an unlikely outcome fostered by an unlikely advocate, but, on some level, he obviously recognized his reason for being and didn’t hesitate to act upon it.

It’s particularly ironic that someone so homophobic could find his calling by being of service to those of whom he was once so critical. By becoming subjected to the same sort of discrimination, hostility and disempowerment that he once so freely dished out, he discovers what it’s like to walk in the shoes of those he mercilessly scorned. His outer world reflects back to him the beliefs that he had been holding on the inside, providing him, fittingly enough, with a potent taste of his own medicine. And, fortunately for his sake, he has the presence of mind to realize what he had been doing all along, making it possible to change his ways. That’s truly a prime example of someone being able to overcome acutely limited thinking and attain a previously unenvisioned degree of personal transformation.

Ron’s metamorphosis also illustrates why we sometimes create circumstances of a “negative” nature. At first glance, one might wonder why anyone would intentionally manifest such a horrific scenario for oneself. But gaining the wisdom and experience that come from these kinds of conditions is often essential to be able to transcend such situations, to move past the self-imposed restrictions and become aware that we truly possess reserves of personal power beyond measure. Many of us would probably like to think that we shouldn’t have to resort to such extreme tactics to realize such goals, but sometimes there may be no other way to do so to achieve the sought-after degree of success. As in most situations like this, the greater the risk, the greater the reward, not only for the creators of such circumstances, but also for those who benefit from them.

The inspiration afforded by examples like this is indeed impressive. It shines a spotlight on conditions in need of change, particularly those that are seen as patently unfair or unduly unrealistic. With hordes of deathly ill patients desperately seeking help to ward off the inevitable, concerted action is needed to address their needs. Sympathetic lip service from those in a position to help does little to alleviate suffering, as Ron and his clients discover for themselves. Thankfully, his outspoken, impassioned attitude, backed up by bold gestures, do much to raise public awareness of the need to pursue and develop alternatives that go beyond the limited offerings being made available. Such calls to action can work wonders, fueling the formation of beliefs that lead to manifestations capable of implementing significant, meaningful, effective change.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is a top-notch production all the way around, excellent in virtually every regard. Its greatest strength lies in its performances, especially McConaughey and Leto, both of whom went to the extremes of losing upwards of 30 pounds for their roles (and who have undeniable locks on consideration for awards season honors), as well as Garner, who has significantly upped her game from her more typical lightweight portrayals. The pacing sometimes drags a bit in the second hour, but that’s more than offset by all of the movie’s many other fine attributes. Look for this release to receive a wide range of accolades as the film year draws to a close.

Even under the direst of circumstances, there’s always a way out. Indeed, change is always possible, and “Dallas Buyers Club” drives home that point with remarkable clarity. So the next time you think your life offers you no choices, consider what Ron and his peers went through, and you’ll see that solutions are always at hand, even if not readily apparent at first glance. Under those conditions, don’t be afraid to leave yourself open to the possibilities; after all, your life may depend on it.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My New Ebook Manuscript Is Finished!

I'm absolutely thrilled to announce that yesterday I finished work on the manuscript of my new ebook, Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover's Guide to the Law of Attraction. It's been a long time coming, so you can imagine the sense of satisfaction that comes from this accomplishment.

This ebook is a followup to my first work, Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, which was released in 2007. It follows a similar format, introducing readers to conscious creation concepts (some of which are new to this book, others of which are restatements of principles outlined previously) as illustrated through film. The movies profiled in this text are limited to releases that have come out since the publication of Get the Picture, from 2006 through the end of the 2012 film awards season. I'm very excited with the results, and I hope you'll agree with me.

Work on the ebook production process is about to begin, as is work on a long list of administrative tasks related to cover design, marketing and promotion plans, copyright registration, updating my web site, etc. I'm hoping to get the ebook released in finished form in the first quarter of 2014 (I'm shooting for sometime in February or March), most likely in Kindle format with print-on-demand capabilities. I'll keep you posted on the progress of this project as it moves forward. You can also watch for further updates here and on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

In the meantime, wish me luck, and please tell all your friends and anyone you know who might be interested in this work. I'll be more than happy to answer any questions anyone has about this, too.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Inconsistency hampers uneven ‘About Time’

“About Time” (2013). Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Lydia Wilson, Richard Cordery, Joshua McGuire, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Will Merrick, Vanessa Kirby, Tom Hughes. Director: Richard Curtis. Screenplay: Richard Curtis. Web site. Trailer.

Wouldn’t it be great if we literally had the ability to rewrite our past? Think of all the mistakes for which we’d get a chance to make amends. But would we be the same people we’ve become if we had the opportunity to do so? Would we get the hoped-for satisfaction we seek from such pursuits? And what if the altered circumstances carried unforeseen consequences? Those are some of the questions raised in the new metaphysical romantic comedy, “About Time.”

The men in the Lake family carry a secret about a very special ability, one that Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a bright, young, though somewhat geeky lawyer, is about to learn on his 21st birthday. The messenger of this news is Tim’s kindly father (Bill Nighy), a retired professor who enjoys his days of leisure on the Cornwall seacoast. Despite a few minor eccentricities, dad seems pretty grounded, which is what makes his startling revelation all the more difficult for Tim to accept – the disclosure that the Lake family men have the ability to travel through time.

Tim initially thinks his old man has lost it – that is, until he tries out the idea for himself and discovers it works. As remarkable as this ability is, however, it has its limits. For instance, it’s only possible to travel into the past, not the future. What’s more, one can only go back to incidents in the past where the time traveler in question was actually present. As Tim’s dad explains, it wouldn’t be possible, for example, for one of the Lake men to travel back in time to kill Hitler, no matter how strong the temptation might be. However, there are still ample opportunities available for temporal exploration – and the potential to rewrite the past to make up for prior errors in action or judgment. And so, armed with this powerful new tool, Tim goes forth into an uncertain future, one that’s built on a potentially unreliable past.

Not long after learning of this ability, Tim decides to employ it to find the love of his life. He initially uses it to try and win over the affections of the lovely Charlotte (Margot Robbie), a friend of his sister (Lydia Wilson) who’s visiting for the summer. His preliminary efforts help him grow accustomed to this newfound skill, but they don’t result in the relationship he so hoped for. And so, with summer quickly at an end, the time comes for Tim to embark on writing the next chapter of his life – as a practicing attorney at a London law firm.

Tim’s new life brings plenty of new adventures with an array of colorful characters, such as his snarly housemate Harry (Tom Hollander), a long-suffering middle-aged playwright who hasn’t had a hit in years, and Rory (Joshua McGuire), a likeable but nerdy co-worker. But, more importantly, he meets the woman with whom he believes he’s destined to share his life, the dear, sweet, quirky Mary (Rachel McAdams).

Tim cares deeply for all of the new people in his life, and he so wants for everything to work out for them (and him) that he routinely puts his time travel skills to work to transform those aspirations into eventualities. However, maneuvering through the minefield of temporal mechanics sometimes proves much trickier than anticipated. Events can take unexpected twists and turns, creating new, unforeseen challenges that require even further adjustment, sometimes causing Tim to wonder whether he should have left well enough alone. Getting a handle on managing one’s time traveling ability soon becomes just as much a lesson in getting a handle on managing the overall course of one’s life – and one’s outlook on it – something Tim never envisioned when he launched into this odyssey. But, then, as Tim’s father confides, neither did he (nor would most of us probably for that matter).

“About Time” sheds light on the question of “making things right” when they don’t work out, a prospect enabled by the infinite range of probabilities made available to us through the conscious creation process. In this particular case, the story explores this notion in a temporal context, employing time as the means through which we shift from one quantum probability to another. Making such corrections is often seen as quite a noble pursuit, especially when we sincerely intend for “mistakes” to be “fixed” through the process. Of course, we must be clear and precise in our efforts at this, for, as Tim finds out, changing circumstances also makes it possible to change the variables involved in the scenarios in question. That can give rise to the aforementioned unanticipated conditions and outcomes – and more headaches than we’d likely care to deal with.

This, of course, raises the question of whether we should tamper with what we’ve created in the first place. After all, if a particular situation arises in our existence, it does so because of our conscious creation practices; there had to have been something about the experience in question for us to have drawn it to us. In most instances, these situations usually involve some type of life lesson that we’re in need of getting, teachings that are essential to our personal growth and our spiritual evolution. Efforts aimed at circumventing those circumstances, like creating new situations that avoid any thorny issues at hand, often prompt the emergence of the unexpected variables, giving rise to a whole new set of challenges (and never really resolving the initial issues either).

In light of this, then, one can’t help but wonder whether there are better ways of dealing with life’s challenges than trying to make them go away by simply erasing the past. Maybe a better approach would be to take a hard look at how we conduct our affairs on a day-to-day basis, trusting our hunches that the ways we handle them truly are the best courses for us to follow. The experiences we glean from such behavior may well lead us to effective resolution of the lessons we were meant to get – and the attendant wisdom that comes with them.

The attitude with which we approach this process makes all the difference. The beliefs we employ to manifest our existence color the character of the materializations that result, thereby affecting the outcomes we realize. How we employ our manifestation skills at this stage of the conscious creation process may prove far more revelatory – and far more rewarding – than anything we might be able to achieve through any sort of after-the-fact manipulation, whether through the practice of time travel or any other means of alteration.

Considering the foregoing, it’s important that we understand the real point of power is in the present moment. That is when we can best deploy the beliefs necessary to create what we seek. To make that happen, however, we must trust that the manifestation process will play out as it’s supposed to, allowing things to unfold as they do, without undue interference on our part, no matter how unlikely those events may seem at the time. Theoretically, circumstances should materialize in our favor, given that our divine collaborator has our best interests at heart in creating the conditions required for us to get the lessons – and the outcomes – we need and desire. That prospect ultimately beats anything time travel can offer us.

To be fair, this is not to suggest that intentional alterations never work. Tim successfully manages to turn things to his advantage on a number of occasions, learning from his previous missteps to tweak his conceptions to produce better outcomes. To accomplish this, however, he becomes acutely aware of the need to get specific about how to make adjustments. And therein lies the primary challenge in this – are we willing to be diligent enough to determine the required level of specificity necessary to make this practice work, both in terms of the details and intents involved? That can be a tall order, one for which we had better be properly prepared.

While “About Time” nobly attempts to address the foregoing concepts, unfortunately the picture misses the mark almost as often as it scores. Its story line arises from a clever (if not exceptionally original) premise, but the novelty of that narrative is frequently and regrettably undercut by sloppy execution brought about by a host of glaring inconsistencies.

For example, Tim’s dad tells the apprentice time traveler that he can trek to any time in the past where he had previously been but that he cannot visit prior incidents where he wasn’t present. However, that qualification is inexplicably violated on at least three occasions. And, as the narrative plays out, additional (and seemingly arbitrary) temporal limitations are imposed. Considering how the story ultimately unfolds and given the quantum foundation upon which it rests (one wherein all probabilities are inherently possible), one can’t help but wonder why the screenwriter would unduly corral himself with such unnecessarily restrictive plot devices in the first place.

Inconsistencies also show up in the editing, an aspect crucial to a film with a story line like this. Some of the editing is brilliantly handled, but some of it couldn’t be clumsier. It’s generally quite effective when Tim engages in exploring the various probabilities of time travel. But, when the film follows events between such instances, it often meanders aimlessly, seriously in need of focus (and some judicious snipping). Again, one can’t help but wonder how the film could get some of its elements so right and others so wrong.

There’s an interesting irony when it comes to the film’s performances, revealing yet another glaring inconsistency. The narrative is supposed to be focused on the men of the Lake family, yet it’s the women of this film who generally give the most memorable performances. McAdams is wonderful as the romantic lead, and fine supporting efforts are turned in by Robbie, Wilson, Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mum and Vanessa Kirby as Mary’s best friend. Among the men, only Hollander and McGuire – who aren’t even members of the Lake family – turn in portrayals worthy of merit.

In light of the foregoing, it’s obvious this film is in desperate need of some retooling. Its charming, feel-good qualities and intriguing metaphysical premise aren’t enough to save it. With some work, this could have been a delightfully entertaining and enlightening movie, but, sadly, it largely fails on both fronts.

Time is indeed one of the most intriguing creations we have managed to come up with through the manifestation process. It affords much – far more than we’re readily capable of comprehending, some of which will undoubtedly delight us and some of which we’d be wise to avoid at all costs. How we approach our relationship with it determines what we get out of it, so let us hope that we make the most of it to avoid any regrets later on down the road.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Overstatement plagues excessive ‘12 Years a Slave’

“12 Years a Slave” (2013). Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, Garret Dillahunt, Adapero Oduye, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler, Liza J. Bennett, J.D. Evermore, Bryan Batt. Director: Steve McQueen. Screenplay: John Ridley. Book: Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Web site. Trailer.

Tales of overcoming adversity have long been the stuff of storytellers, from the days of the ancients to the present. Their stories have enlightened legions of listeners and, more recently, in the age of cinema, viewers. Such sagas have profoundly moved audiences, filling them with inspiration, hope and the courage to carry forth under trying conditions. When well told, those stories prove incredibly effective. But, when their recounting doesn’t live up to their subject matter, the result is disappointment, as is the case with the new historical biography, “12 Years a Slave,” based on the memoir of the same name.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was living a good life. As an accomplished violinist, this successful African-American free man enjoyed many of the same privileges as his Caucasian counterparts. He was happily married to his beloved Anne (Kelsey Scott) and the proud father of two bright children (Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler). His reputation as a musician preceded him, so he never longed for work, and he was paid well for his performances. Indeed, he had become so accustomed to his good fortune and to the public’s acceptance of his status as a free man that he never questioned his circumstances – nor envisioned what was coming next.

One fateful day, Solomon had a chance meeting with a pair of circus promoters, Mr. Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Mr. Hamilton (Taran Killam), who proposed hiring him as a musician for their touring company. Overwhelmed at their generous offer, Solomon jumped at the chance. The tour would take him from his home in Saratoga Springs, NY, to Washington, DC, a prospect that excited him and an experience he relished when it came to pass. There was just one problem – Messrs. Brown and Hamilton were not who they said they were.

At dinner in Washington one evening, the alleged impresarios drugged Solomon, causing him to pass out. When he regained consciousness, he was shocked to discover where he was: Instead of the comfort of his guest house, he found himself shackled in a dark basement. Solomon had been kidnapped by the front men for an unscrupulous slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who sold free blacks into chattel servitude.

Thus began a long, horrendous nightmare, one that Solomon couldn’t believe was happening. And, even though he desperately wanted to prove his status, he knew that, without his papers, he didn’t stand a chance. Until he could figure out how to confirm his identity, to stay alive, he chose to quietly accept his circumstances, saying as little as possible and keeping his education and background a secret to avoid incurring the wrath of white slave owners who feared – and wouldn’t hesitate to punish – an intelligent black man.

Not long after his capture, Solomon was transported to New Orleans, where he was purchased by Master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Louisiana plantation owner quickly came to recognize his new slave’s intelligence, giving him work assignments that put his talents to use. Comparatively speaking, Master Ford treated Solomon well, but, by doing so, he frequently angered Mr. Tibeats (Paul Dano), one of his overseers, who believed his authority was being undermined. Tibeats took out his frustration on Solomon, resorting to levels of abuse that even Master Ford couldn’t condone.

Realizing that he could no longer protect Solomon, Master Ford sold him to another plantation owner, Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). But whatever modest benevolence Solomon may have enjoyed under his initial owner vanished in the servitude of his new master, an experience that pushed him to the brink in more ways than he ever could have imagined. With his very survival on the line, Solomon struggled to stay alive, his dream of regaining his freedom seeming to fade with each passing day. Were it not for his personal fortitude and resilience, he never would have been able to get by.

One would think that a movie with a story line like this would salute the triumph of the human spirit and, in conscious creation terms, the underlying faith and beliefs that drive it. However, when it comes to “12 Years a Slave,” nothing could be further from the truth. What should have been the central focus of this film is treated largely as an afterthought. The picture instead focuses on the horrors of enslavement, almost to the point of becoming obscenely exploitative. What a missed opportunity for inspiration.

In essence, this film is little more than a series of gratuitously brutal beatings and incidents of sexual abuse strung together with a combination of protracted close-ups of Solomon quietly emoting and beautiful but pointless landscape shots. Depictions of the protagonist’s will to survive under such trying conditions are, sadly, greatly overshadowed by the relentless on-screen atrocities.

While the film is obviously intentionally uncompromising in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery, it goes overboard in doing so. Viewers get that point clearly in the picture’s first half-hour, but this assault on the senses goes on for over two hours. To be sure, there’s something to be said for cinematic candor, but there’s a definite difference between graphic honesty and visual overkill, and this film, regrettably, falls prey to the latter.

When I see a picture like this, I can’t help but wonder what beliefs drove its creation. What are the filmmaker’s true intents? What kind of message are its producers trying to send? If it’s truly attempting to convey the message that would seem most applicable to a story like this – an uplifting account of one person’s struggle to overcome insurmountable odds – it fails terribly in making its point. Instead, the film lapses into what some observers have sadly but aptly labeled “misery porn.” That’s unfortunate, too, because Solomon Northup’s inspiring story genuinely deserves better than that.

I’ll admit I’m out on a limb about this, but, in my view, there’s so precious little to like about this film that it’s difficult to understand why it is garnering such acclaim (including clout as a heavy favorite in this year’s awards competitions). In addition to its predictable, episodic, poorly constructed narrative, it leaves much to be desired technically and artistically. It often seems like several different directorial styles have been thrown together, creating a hodgepodge of visual styles and pacing. Much of the cinematography is shot far too up close, and the editing is frequently handled awkwardly. As for the acting, several performers (Ejiofor, Dano, Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the perennially jealous Mistress Epps) seriously overact, while others (Cumberbatch, Giamatti, Alfre Woodard as the mistress of a neighboring plantation and Brad Pitt as a sympathetic abolitionist) are severely underutilized.

Those familiar with my writing know that I seldom critique films I seriously dislike. Even though my reviews may include criticisms of a picture’s attributes, the primary intent of my writing is to inform readers about movies that provide excellent examples of conscious creation principles or that enlighten in inspiring ways. As a general rule, I simply don’t believe it’s worth focusing on films that don’t meet these standards. But, when a movie claims to aspire to such ideals and fails, I believe it’s my responsibility to let potential viewers know about it, and that’s very much the case here.

As any avid movie lover knows, there are many fine pictures that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. “12 Years a Slave” is not one of them. If you’re looking for examples of films that inspire without becoming unduly grotesque, consider offerings like “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), “Schindler’s List” (1993) or any of the fine releases chronicling the civil rights movement (such as “The Butler” (2013), “The Help” (2011) or “The Long Walk Home” (1990)) instead. They make their cases without unnecessary overstatement, a far more effective approach than resorting to wanton sensationalism. Heroic figures, especially those lifted from the pages of history, deserve to have their stories told in a frank but honorable way. To that end, it’s indeed a shame that the film has not given Solomon Northup his due.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 25, 2013

‘Fifth Estate’ dissects the clarity of intent

“The Fifth Estate” (2013). Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, Alexander Siddig, Jamie Blackley, Jeany Spark. Director: Bill Condon. Screenplay: Josh Singer. Books: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, and David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. Web site. Trailer.

How clear are we about the motivations driving our actions? Are we sure about the nature of the beliefs we draw upon in creating our reality, or is there some doubt in our minds about the truthfulness of our alleged intents? Getting a handle on the level of clarity we employ when engaging in these practices may perplex and challenge us, even when our motives supposedly appear patently obvious and purely altruistic. But what if they’re not? Such is the conscious creation quandary dissected in the new docudrama, “The Fifth Estate.”

The film, said to be based on actual events, chronicles the rise of the web site WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The site was created to expose questionable, unethical and even illegal activity by corporate and government entities by making it possible for whistleblowers to anonymously leak secret information and documents about such incidents – disclosures that might not otherwise see the light of day. Assange believed that the prospect of anonymity (and, hence, freedom from ramifications) would encourage more would-be whistleblowers to step forward and reveal information that they would not be able to do by more conventional means. He also hoped that the site would unmask newsworthy revelations that mainstream media organizations were unaware of, willfully ignoring or too timid to cover.

The story opens in Berlin in 2008, when Assange first meets his primary collaborator, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), an idealistic computer expert who believes in Assange’s mission. Working covertly and diligently, Assange and Berg (who adopts the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt) soon begin releasing information about various corporate and government bombshells, such as details of the alleged money laundering practices of Switzerland’s Julius Baer Bank and accusations about thousands of extrajudicial killings by the Kenyan police. With these and other revelations, WikiLeaks’ visibility soars and gains valuable support from influential figures, such as Icelandic Parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Carice van Houten). The site even garners the attention of once-skeptical mainstream media outlets, such as The New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel. The London-based newspaper The Guardian takes a particularly strong interest, with editor Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) and investigative reporter Nick Davies (David Thewlis) paying close attention to the upstart organization’s efforts and even seeking to establish a working relationship.

But, as WikiLeaks and Assange gain notoriety, some questions arise, especially for Daniel. For instance, he’s puzzled (and somewhat outraged) when he learns that some of Julian’s investigative tactics don’t match the public pronouncements he makes about them. What’s more, his stated intents for WikiLeaks’ mission appear to change over time, with inflexible dogma slowly, but decidedly, usurping the cause of altruism; Assange becomes more concerned with getting the word out than with the consequences of his organization’s actions, a journalistically perilous course if ever there were one. And then there’s the inscrutability of Assange himself, who is often hard to fathom, even among those closest to him; his statements about his background frequently conflict one another, even about such seemingly simple matters as the truth of how he came to develop his iconic linen white locks.

Questions arise in officialdom, too, especially when the leaked revelations become progressively more damning. Officials in the U.S. State Department (Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney) and Defense Department (Anthony Mackie) place heightened scrutiny on WikiLeaks, especially when fears emerge that the site’s activities may jeopardize sensitive operations and the safety of foreign informants, such as a highly placed Libyan government official (Alexander Siddig).

But those concerns pale compared to what arises in 2010, when WikiLeaks comes into the possession of hundreds of thousands of top secret U.S. government cables through a massive leak executed by Army Specialist Bradley Manning. Suddenly, the stakes for all involved increase exponentially, including operatives throughout the Obama Administration, everyone inside WikiLeaks and the site’s media partners. There’s also a lot on the line in the relationship between Julian and Daniel. And, given the uncharted territory involved, no one is certain how events will play out. But one thing is for sure – the intents behind everyone’s actions will, for better or worse, govern the outcome.

As the foregoing suggests, intent is at the heart of the film’s narrative. What exactly do we wish to accomplish, and are the beliefs underlying those aspirations truly in line with what we seek to achieve? That may not always be as easy to assess as we might imagine, because beliefs can evolve over time, especially when the quest to fulfill their associated objectives becomes progressively more ingrained in our thinking. That can carry unexpected consequences. For instance, as the film shows, when does a just cause quietly transform into a rigid obsession, a fanatical witch hunt or even a reckless smear campaign? In the throes of our fervor, sometimes we can become blinded as to where the line distinguishing those possibilities exists.

The ways in which our beliefs play out as manifested outcomes depend, of course, on the source from which they spring forth (namely, each of us). Our focus ultimately governs the reality we experience since it gives rise to an externalized expression reflective of who we are internally. In Assange’s case, for example, we see an individual obsessed with secrets and their exposure (sometimes no matter what the cost), an ironic circumstance for someone who appears to have plenty of secrets of his own – and who toils to protect their revelation. In a situation like this, one can’t help but wonder what beliefs are driving the fulfillment of these seemingly contradictory – yet very much related – goals. This creates an intriguing conundrum for Julian, as well as for all of the individuals and organizations who work with him – and who try to discern his motives.

Of course, there may be nothing amiss with discrepancies such as this, as they may well be indicators of our intrinsic multidimensional selves. As Assange carries out his “mission” (whatever that might ultimately be), we see the different sides of his character emerge, as illustrated by the foregoing example about secrets and privacy. It’s also apparent in the motives underlying his purposes for establishing WikiLeaks: Are his efforts driven by a desire to expose corruption, or are they about mere self-aggrandizement? Or perhaps it’s some of both, since each aspect is indicative of Assange’s inherent multifaceted nature? If that’s the case (and I’d contend that it is in light of the film’s balanced presentation of the different sides of his character), then he’s at best only partly aware of that nature; he struggles to recognize and reconcile the various sides of himself and the beliefs that each draws upon in creating his reality. It’s a consideration we’d all be wise to heed, given that we, too, each have such an innate multidimensional nature. And, unless we possess a clear understanding of this concept, we might easily find ourselves faced with the same kind of challenge that Julian’s character wrestles with in the movie.

Interestingly (and somewhat ironically), at one point, Assange pleads for “the truth” and not just “someone’s version of the truth.” But, if we each create our own reality, then don’t we each also have our own version of the truth? In making his argument, Julian acknowledges that, to find the truth, one must start with oneself, an observation that would imply that “truth” is characterized by a certain individual relativism. Such a concession would thus seem to contradict the primary basis of his plea. But it also makes clearer than ever the need for each of us to recognize, acknowledge and understand our intents and our fundamental nature if we’re to ever understand ourselves and what we ultimately seek to create.

“The Fifth Estate” is a polished, cleverly directed thriller that serves up more food for thought than what’s apparent in the plot line of its surface story. Director Bill Condon offers up a taut, fascinating picture featuring excellent cinematography, skillful editing, an innovative production design and a terrific soundtrack. The film’s well-written script tells a complicated story about complex issues and characters quite capably, especially in its lucid explanations of intricate concepts concerning Internet technology, international relations and journalistic ethics, all of which are made clear without spoon-feeding the audience or leaving viewers in the dark. The picture is well-paced for the most part, though it has a slight tendency to meander in the second hour, particularly where the U.S. government subplot is concerned. However, considering the high level of intertwined personal, geopolitical, legal and ethical consequences involved, the creative tension is sustained well throughout.

And then there are the performances, which are absolute knock-outs, particularly Brühl and, especially, Cumberbatch. In portraying the protagonist, Cumberbatch turns in a superb, nuanced, award-worthy performance that’s certainly deserving of whatever accolades it earns. I would like to hope the film earns recognition for many of its other fine attributes as well, though, in light of the movie’s tepid performance at the box office and its inexplicably cool critical reception, the picture may unfortunately end up on the trash heap of awards season also-rans.

Given the nature of the characters and story involved, it’s unclear how “truthful” the film is, and we may never clearly know the “real” answer. Assange is said to have assailed the picture as a complete fiction, and it’s possible that the source writers and filmmakers may have their own agendas in telling the story as they have. So, in making up our minds about this picture, maybe we need to recall Assange’s comment about each of us finding the truth by starting with ourselves, a practice that’s at the heart of conscious creation. And, if we do so, we just might be able to successfully dissect our beliefs and clearly discover what’s behind each of our own individual intents. Perhaps that’s the biggest revelation – and the most valuable lesson – to come out of “The Fifth Estate.” Let’s hope we’re all paying attention.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

‘Rush’ reveals what drives us

“Rush” (2013). Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, Christian McKay, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara. Director: Ron Howard. Screenplay: Peter Morgan. Web site. Trailer.

The drive for success is a curious phenomenon. What impels it? And why would anyone pursue it with seemingly unrestrained fervor, especially when the prospect of danger lurks at every turn? Those are just some of the questions addressed in the new, fact-based auto racing drama, “Rush.”

The world of Formula One grand prix racing was abuzz in 1976 with the rivalry between two talented but very different drivers, England’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The devil-may-care Brit drove with reckless abandon, his foot lodged to the pedal to push for whatever speed he could muster out of his McLaren machine. Lauda, by contrast, was the consummate tactician, who believed that preparation was everything when it came to readying his Ferrari for the track, a carefully calculated strategy that helped him earn the Formula One world championship title the year before. But, despite Lauda’s success in 1975, he faced very different circumstances the following year, as this film shows.

The rivalry between Hunt and Lauda actually began in 1970, when the drivers both competed on the Formula Three circuit, a training ground for the big show. They established their personal and professional styles, both on and off the track, at that time. Those styles often clashed, too, yet they formed the basis of the competitive relationship that would grow between them as the years advanced.

Lauda broke into Formula One racing by basically buying his way into it, making a mark that eventually helped land him a spot on the famed Team Ferrari. With the backing of an established racing team financed with the deep pockets of Enzo Ferrari (Augusto Dallara), coupled with his meticulous sense of preparation, Lauda prospered on the track.

Hunt, on the other hand, got into Formula One with the backing of Lord Alexander Hesketh (Christian McKay), a racing enthusiast who bankrolled his team’s effort out of his own pocket without the benefit of corporate sponsorship. With Hunt at the wheel, the team achieved some moderate success, but it wasn’t enough to sustain a continued effort. Faced with the prospect of having no ride for the 1976 season, Hunt approached the head of McLaren Racing, Teddy Mayer (Colin Stinton), pleading his case for being named a team member. Mayer was reluctant, given Hunt’s reputation for recklessness (and for his sometimes-unsavory off-the-track exploits), concerns for some of McLaren’s sponsors. But Hunt convinced Mayer that he could win the title if given the chance, and so he got his ride.

With Lauda still behind the wheel at Ferrari and Hunt now firmly on board with McLaren, the stage was set for the showdown between these two rivals on the 1976 world racing tour. And what a tour it was – a campaign characterized by cutthroat driving, accusations of cheating, life-threatening injuries and personal courage pushed to the limit. The outcome was quite a rush, indeed.

“Rush” expertly illustrates the lengths that our beliefs can push us to in seeking the fulfillment of our goals. Both Lauda and Hunt were so fixated on manifesting a world title for themselves and their teams that they would do almost anything to realize that outcome. And their success during the course of that fateful season showed just how committed they were to the beliefs underlying those efforts.

Of course, a willingness to do anything to win also reveals the potentially dangerous side of our beliefs, specifically how they can be transformed from the engines of dreams into the vehicles of obsession. Such thinking thus illustrates what can happen when un-conscious creation takes hold. This can carry grave consequences, too; such a loss of perspective often results in tragedies that may have dire impact on other aspects of our existence, including our loves and even our very well-being (if you doubt that, just ask the drivers’ wives, Marlene Lauda (Alexandra Maria Lara) and Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde)). Learning how to judiciously temper our beliefs when necessary is crucial under such circumstances, especially when considerations even bigger than winning a world championship are on the line.

It’s also important that we understand the role all of our creations play in the greater scheme of things. A perceived setback, for example, may well prove to be a key motivator. For instance, when Hunt’s wife announces that she’s leaving him to pursue a relationship with actor Richard Burton, the driver channels the energy fueling the beliefs behind his anger into his racing, a move that enabled him to achieve better and more consistent results than he had attained prior to that point of the season. Hunt’s success, in turn, pushed Lauda to boost his efforts, encouraging him to focus his beliefs on achieving victory even more intently than he had before. Ironically, Hunt and Lauda thus ended up becoming not only rivals but also inspirations for one another. (Who would have thought that would happen at the season’s opening?)

In their own ways, Lauda and Hunt each symbolize the elements that go into successful belief formation. Lauda, the gifted technician concerned with materializing the physical means for attaining victory – a fast, finely tuned car – embodies the intellect. This rather cold, mechanical approach to racing didn’t win him many friends, even if it did win him races.

Hunt, by comparison, is more preoccupied with the intangible essence of what makes a successful racer – mastery over speed, a principle to be surmounted, no matter how it’s accomplished – a metaphysical quality symbolic of the intuition. He relished the thrill of racing, despite the danger, in much the same way he embraced all of the other joys life has to offer, an approach that made him wildly popular with friends and fans (not to mention the many racing groupies who flocked to the tracks).

And, while Lauda and Hunt may have each placed their focus on a different aspect of effective belief development, their combined efforts managed to produce a pair of competitors whose pooled results couldn’t have yielded a closer finish in the championship points standings by season’s end. Indeed, it’s quite a story, one that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats until the final checkered flag drops.

“Rush” is a fairly typical offering from director Ron Howard, solid in virtually every respect from start to finish. It doesn’t quite measure up to his more notable works, like “Apollo 13” (1995) or “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), but it certainly is a fine piece of filmmaking. The racing sequences are thrilling, and, as one who was once a grand prix racing aficionado, I can attest that they’re re-created with astonishing authenticity, right down to the paint jobs on the cars. The on-track story clearly works better than the soap opera off-track drama, but the performances across the board are quite capable, especially for the two leads, who bear uncanny resemblances to their real-life counterparts.

Despite the film’s strengths, there has been some debate about how accurately the story portrays the rivalry between the two drivers. Some have suggested the bitterness is overblown, while others have said it captures the Hunt-Lauda relationship perfectly. One thing is for sure, though – there definitely was mutual respect between the rivals, no matter what level of personal dislike may or may not have actually existed between them. Regardless of where “the truth” lies, the story told here is a good one, even if it takes dramatic license.

Achieving a cherished goal is quite an accomplishment. Few feelings outstrip the sense of fulfillment that comes with achieving a desired objective, especially one into which we’ve poured our hearts and souls (not to mention our beliefs). “Rush” depicts this with remarkable clarity, showing us the rewards – and the price – of success. But, most of all, it illustrates what propels us to attain a coveted outcome, a revelation into ourselves that may be the grandest prize of all.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

‘Enough Said’ implores us to follow our hearts

“Enough Said” (2013). Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Tracey Fairaway, Tavi Gevinson, Amy Landecker, Eve Hewson, Toby Huss, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Kathleen Rose Perkins. Director: Nicole Holofcener. Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener. Web site. Trailer.

Even under the best of circumstances, getting a romance to turn out as hoped for can be a tricky proposition. But, when a clear, heartfelt path to happiness is revealed to us, we’d be foolish to ignore it, no matter how unconventional it might seem, what our past tells us or what others may think. Such is the challenge put to the lovelorn protagonists of the delightful new romantic comedy, “Enough Said.”

Life’s transitional periods can be challenging – and full of surprises. Just ask Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The divorced, forty-something masseuse diligently strives to build her client base, and she sincerely loves her craft (even if she isn’t crazy about some of her regulars or their annoying quirks). To seek solace from her career challenges, she immerses herself in her role as the doting mother of a teenage daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway). But, as a hard-working divorcee whose only child is about to leave for college, Eva doesn’t have a lot to look forward to. While it’s true she has her share of friends, like Sarah (Toni Collette) and her husband Will (Ben Falcone), there isn’t much else going on in her life, and she now faces a potentially lonely time ahead.

Circumstances change one night, however, when Eva attends a party with Sarah and Will. While there, she meets Marianne (Catherine Keener), a divorced new age poet who’s in the market for massage services. And then, not long thereafter, Eva is introduced to Albert (James Gandolfini), a middle-aged museum curator with whom she shares a breezy mutual flirtation. All things considered, not a bad evening.

Divorced masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, right) and divorced museum curator Albert (James Gandolfini, left) make for an unlikely pair in the delightful new romantic comedy, “Enough Said.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Like Eva, Albert is divorced and the father of a teenage daughter (Eve Hewson) who’s about to leave for college. He’s also a teddy bear personified, a quality Eva finds very appealing. But, in many other ways, Albert is far different from the men she has typically dated (or even been attracted to). The portly, unassuming everyman is nothing like her previous love interests, so, quite naturally, she wonders whether their relationship will succeed. The lingering hurt from her own divorce and the playful, but sometimes-nasty bickering of Sarah and Will make her a little gun-shy about romance, too. But, despite these concerns, she can’t deny her growing attraction to Albert, so she decides to take a chance and keep seeing him to find out what the future has in store.

Just as things start to progress well, however, Eva’s doubts become unexpectedly amplified. One afternoon, while massaging Marianne, Eva patiently listens to her vent about the irritating traits of her ex-husband. And, based on Marianne’s vividly detailed description, Eva soon discovers that her client’s ex bears an uncanny resemblance to someone near and dear to her – Albert.

New age poet Marianne (Catherine Keener, center) provides masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, left, back to camera) with massage business and an unexpected wealth of information in director Nicole Holofcener’s new romantic comedy, “Enough Said.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Suddenly, Eva has access to a wealth of intimate information about her new beau, unbeknownst to either Marianne or Albert. That realization proves to be a real game changer – one that could lead to a rich, new relationship or a potentially disastrous ending. How matters turn out will depend on what Eva does with that information – and how long she can keep mum about her unexpected knowledge of the truth.

Eva’s dilemma is a tricky one to manage, let alone resolve. She’s very drawn to the idea of having someone special in her life, and that’s evident by Albert’s appearance in it. She’s obviously put forth the intent to create that result, making use of beliefs that clearly support such an outcome (if that weren’t the case, Albert never would have shown up!).

But the challenge Eva has set up for herself goes beyond just attracting a new romantic interest. She’s also created a scenario involving the materialization of a partnership in which she and her significant other can be committed to one another and still seek the fulfillment of their individual needs. A relationship like that demands that the parties be themselves, that their thoughts and actions are governed by beliefs firmly rooted in honesty, sincerity, openness and personal integrity. And that’s where the tricky part comes in.

As events unfold, it’s apparent Albert has already come to that realization; he has no trouble being himself. In fact, his contentment with acting naturally apparently contributed heavily to the dissolution of his marriage; Albert’s laid-back, jeans-and-tee-shirts attitude simply didn’t jibe with Marianne’s pristine, everything-must-be-perfect worldview. And, after that experience, he knew that anyone with whom he became involved would have to accept him as he is or there simply wouldn’t be a relationship.

For Eva, however, being herself isn’t (and apparently never has been) easy. As someone who’s accustomed to catering to others, she’s inexperienced at tending to herself (i.e., at forming beliefs that manifest what she needs). She’s so concerned with pleasing others that she’s quietly – and constantly – afraid she’ll say or do the wrong thing. She also doesn’t want to fail at marriage a second time, and the overriding fear of that prospect significantly colors her beliefs. And then there’s Albert’s appearance and behavior, both of which Eva believes some people might find objectionable, a concern that factors greatly into her thinking about their relationship potential (a consideration incessantly fed by Marianne’s caustic comments, too).

Based on the foregoing, it’s easy to see how Eva might be discouraged from pursuing an involvement with Albert. But what about her undeniable attraction to him? Where is that coming from? Should she ignore it or embrace it? The persistence of such thoughts clearly shows she’s got more to consider than her past experiences or the rules of social etiquette. One would hope she realizes that the beliefs related to those considerations are far less important than those associated with the heartfelt feelings she’s beginning to develop. The big question is, of course, will she honor them? Indeed, will she allow herself to be herself and pursue the relationship her heart is urging her to follow?

This scenario thus raises some significant conscious creation lessons for Eva, such as (1) learning how to listen to one’s own intuition rather than blindly following the dictates of others or the experiences of the past, (2) being willing to think outside the box and move past arbitrary limiting beliefs and (3) giving oneself permission to materialize what one truly wants rather than what one believes one’s supposed to manifest. That’s quite a metaphysical course load, to say the least.

The playful, but sometimes-nasty bickering of married couple Sarah (Toni Collette, left) and Will (Ben Falcone, right) provides an interesting running commentary on the nature of relationships in “Enough Said.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

However, as challenging as these issues might be for Eva, she can also take comfort in the fact that she’s also created the perfect circumstances for trying out these ideas. Albert is a model teacher, Marianne’s inside information provides clues on how (and whether) to proceed, and the relationship-related observations of Sarah and Will and of Eva’s ex-husband (Toby Huss) offer a valuable running commentary on the nature and value of mutually beneficial romantic partnerships. All of these elements combine to give Eva an ideal learning laboratory for this significant life lesson.

It’s an especially crucial time in Eva’s life for addressing the beliefs associated with these issues, too. As a single mother who’s about to embark on the empty nest stage, she’s looking for something to fill the void that will be created by Ellen’s departure. Will this be a time when she finally addresses her own needs, wants and desires? Or will she find herself alone, unsure about how to be generous and nurturing to herself (quite an irony given her vocation)? Or, in yet another option, will she fall back on familiar patterns of behavior and tried-and-true activities, such as becoming a sort of surrogate mother to Ellen’s best friend, Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), once her own daughter has left home? No matter what she decides, Eva has her work cut out for her. But, if she manages her beliefs and creations with metaphysical skill and dexterity, she stands to reap tremendous rewards.

Doting mother Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, right) faces the impending empty nest stage of her life as her daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway, left), prepares to leave for college in the new romantic comedy, “Enough Said.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“Enough Said” is a terrific movie in virtually every respect. Filmmaker Nicole Holofcener has taken a quantum leap in her writing and directorial abilities with this offering, even if it is somewhat more conventional than her fine previous efforts. The picture is a terrific showcase for its excellent ensemble cast, particularly its two leads. Louis-Dreyfus turns in a terrific performance reminiscent of the well-intentioned, though often-clueless lead character she portrayed in her hit TV show The New Adventures of Old Christine, but with a deeper range of emotion than anything she demonstrated through that vehicle. And Gandolfini is positively adorable in a role that shows off the actor in a totally different light than what most viewers are accustomed to. The principals have an amazing chemistry together as well, coming off so naturally that you’d swear they were a couple in real life.

Sadly, it’s unavoidable to speak about this movie without addressing Gandolfini’s untimely passing before the film’s release. While I would like to think it’s possible to evaluate the actor’s portrayal of Albert purely on the basis of his performance, I find it impossible to separate Gandolfini’s depiction of the character from his own tragic circumstances. The off-screen story quietly and “inadvertently,” though nevertheless palpably, makes its presence felt in the film. But this “intrusion” is not entirely unwelcome; in fact, in some ways, it warmly enriches the rendering of the character. In knowing what we do about the actor’s unexpected demise, we can’t help but empathize for Albert more so than we might have ordinarily. Even though mortality is not an integral element of the story line, in light of what happened to the man who brought this character to life, we so want him to experience genuine happiness before it’s too late that we find ourselves pulling for him every step of the way.

I realize I may not be terribly objective or socially correct in saying any of this, but that’s how I felt as I watched this film. I truly applaud him for what he did for movie audiences with this role, and his production crew obviously felt the same way, as evidenced by the appearance of the touching words “For Jim” before the closing credits.

As this picture unintentionally reveals in unexpectedly prophetic ways, life truly is something we’d best not squander. Anytime we find ourselves engaging in pursuits where we fail to follow our hearts – especially in the arena of romance – we had better get our acts (and our beliefs) together as quickly as possible so that we can revel in the blessings that real love has to offer us.

Enough said.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.