Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How'd I Do?

With this year's Academy Awards ceremony behind us, it's time to take a look at how I did on my predictions for the 85th edition of this annual competition, as first outlined in my previous blog, What To Expect Out of This Year's Oscars.

And the result? Well, I did OK, but not as well as in previous years. Out of the six major categories, I'd give myself an overall score of 3.5. Here's how I did:

Best Picture

Projected Winner: "Argo"
Actual Winner: "Argo"
Result: Correct call

This was a slam dunk. Anyone who didn't see this result coming wasn't paying attention. As the best picture winner of every major competition leading up to the Oscars, there was no reason to believe that the result was going to be any different this time. It's regrettable, however, that this picture beat out the best nominee in this category, which was, in my opinion, "Les Misérables."

Best Actor

Projected Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Actual Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Result: Correct call

This was another slam dunk. Day-Lewis swept the best actor category in every major competition leading up to the Oscars, so, once again, there was no reason to believe that the result was going to be any different this time. Thankfully, the right performance came up as the winner in this category; Day-Lewis was very deserving of every accolade bestowed upon him.

Best Actress

Projected Winner: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty" (with the caveat that the award could just as easily go to Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook")
Actual Winner: Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Result: Partially correct call

This was not a surprise by any means, even though Lawrence did not appear to have a solid lock on the award going in. Having split most of the pre-Oscar honors with Chastain, this was a virtual toss-up. I believed that, as is usually the case, Academy voters would have sided with a performer in a dramatic role over one portraying a lighter character. I guess I was wrong. But, having said that Lawrence was just as likely to come up the winner as Chastain, I'll take half marks on this category. As for who should have won, I would have preferred the award go to Emmanuelle Riva for "Amour," even though wins by either Lawrence or Chastain certainly would have been acceptable.

Best Supporting Actor

Projected Winner: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
Actual Winner: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
Result: Missed call

I'll admit that I had considerable difficulty projecting a winner in this category since it was so packed with talent and deserving performances. What's more, the momentum in this category kept shifting during the course of awards season. When it started out, Hoffman was considered the early favorite with his Critics Choice Award win. It later shifted to Waltz with his Golden Globe Award victory and then Tommy Lee Jones with his Screen Actors Guild Award win. So, by the evening of the Oscar ceremony, the winner was anybody's guess, and I obviously guessed incorrectly. I would have been happy with victories by just about any of the nominees in this category, though I'll admit that I was partial to Hoffman, as well as to Alan Arkin in "Argo."

Best Supporting Actress

Projected Winner: Anne Hathaway, "Les Misérables"
Actual Winner: Anne Hathaway, "Les Misérables"
Result: Correct call

This was the evening's third slam dunk. Hathaway captured the best supporting actress award in every major competition leading up to the Oscars, so, once again, there was no reason to believe that the result was going to be any different this time. As with Day-Lewis, thankfully, the strongest performance came up the winner in this category, though wins by either Sally Field in "Lincoln" or Helen Hunt in "The Sessions" certainly would have been worthy of such recognition.

Best Director

Projected Winner: Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"
Actual Winner: Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"
Result: Missed call (big time!)

If there was a major surprise on Oscar night (not only by yours truly but by moviegoers in general), it was the unexpected win by Lee as best director. Given that the best picture and best director winners nearly always go hand in hand, and given that Ben Affleck didn't land a best director nomination for his work on "Argo," the field was wide open. Even though there was no clear-cut frontrunner, most Oscar watchers, like myself, believed that Spielberg would take home the award as a sort of "consolation prize" for his film's failure to capture best picture honors, an expectation that many moviegoers had of this offering before the start of awards season. And, even though Spielberg did not have a lock on the award, Lee's emergence out of left field caught nearly everyone off guard, given that he was arguably the weakest of the remaining challengers. Admittedly, this was not a particularly strong field of nominees, so picking a truly deserving winner was difficult, though, if the decision had been up to me, I would have given the award to Michael Haneke for "Amour."

Maybe I'll do better next year!

In the meantime, be sure to check out my reviews of some of the winners and other nominees at the following links:

"Amour": web site, trailer, review

"Argo": web site, trailer, review

"Les Misérables": web site, trailer, review

"Life of Pi": web site, trailer, review

"Lincoln": web site, trailer, review

"The Master": web site, trailer, review

"The Sessions": web site, trailer, review

"Silver Linings Playbook": web site, trailer, review

Friday, February 22, 2013

‘Surviving Progress’ seeks solutions for a new human paradigm

“Surviving Progress” (2011). Expert Commentators: Margaret Atwood, Colin Beavan, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Michael Hudson, Simon Johnson, Gary Marcus, Kambale Musavuli, Daniel Povinelli, Marina Silva, Vaclav Smil, David Suzuki, Jim Thomas, J. Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Ronald Wright. Directors: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. Writers: Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy. Book: A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. Web site. Trailer.

“Progress,” in all its forms, is something meant to be revered, cherished and worshipped, is it not? After all, where would we be without it? How would we solve our problems? Develop new technologies? Create a better life for ourselves? Indeed, could we even survive without it? But, then again, given the state of things today, might it be possible that we’ve got things backwards, that this same alleged savior is, in fact, the source of our current difficulties? Those are some of the heady questions raised and explored in the thought-provoking documentary, “Surviving Progress,” now available on DVD.

Based on author Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress, the film seeks to define what we believe constitutes “progress” and the ramifications that come with that outlook. Directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks take a hard look at all that entails from a variety of perspectives. And the results are, to say the least, troubling, especially since many of us fail to see what the real issues are, let alone how we might resolve them.

The filmmakers and their expert commentators contend that we’ve led ourselves to believe that “more and more of the same” is an inherent (and desirable) sign of progress, a view that’s held sway since the inception of the Industrial Revolution. Building more, making more and consuming more are the hallmarks of this perspective. And creating ever smarter, ever more clever gadgets to carry out the tasks involved in attaining these goals is one of the chief means of furthering the cause.

Sounds logical, doesn’t it? The problem, however, is that our blind pursuit of this goal has led us to the point of unsustainability, a developmental dead end brought about, ironically enough, by our own success and efficiency, what one expert in the film refers to as “a progress trap.” Evidence of progress traps can be found, for example, in contemporary social, economic and environmental systems that are seriously out of kilter. And, when the impact of such examples is considered collectively, they raise an even larger question: Is modern civilization itself a progress trap?

How did we get ourselves into such a state? According to several experts, it’s because we haven’t evolved much since the days of our ancestors. In the view of cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, “One thing to remember, of course, about the human mind is that it’s not that fundamentally different from, say, the brain of a chimpanzee.” Put another way, despite our ever-growing technological prowess, we’re not as advanced as we like to think we are. Indeed, in the words of author Ronald Wright, “We are running 21st century software, our knowledge, on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years, and this lies at the core of many of our problems.”

This is not to suggest that we’re nothing more than apes in human clothing; we have developed some attributes that separate us from our primate ancestors, most notably the ability to ask “Why?”, especially with regard to problem-solving matters. This skill is a definite advantage, too, as long as we ask the right questions and use our solutions for the right purposes. Regrettably, though, we might just as readily use this ability to ask the wrong questions and implement “solutions” that, wittingly or unwittingly, lead to the destruction of our own species. According to noted primatologist Jane Goodall, “Arguably, we are the most intellectual creature that’s ever walked on planet Earth. So [why], then, [is] this … intellectual being … destroying its only home?”

In large part, the answer lies with our own basic human nature, which, as noted above, several experts claim has not evolved much since the days of our Ice Age ancestors. Like those ancient humans, our outlook is still largely “reactive,” following the fight or flight response. We resort to short-term thinking to resolve the issues at hand, many of which genuinely require long-term solutions. While it’s true, for instance, that short-term solutions can work wonders in many ways (curing smallpox and the pasteurization of milk, for example, significantly reduced the incidence of illness and death), they can also cause unanticipated potential harm in the long run (fewer deaths brought about by the aforementioned solutions can contribute greatly to uncontrolled population growth and subsequent resource strain). And, when the effects of one such unexpected conundrum are compounded with those of others, it’s easy to see how things overall can quickly and easily get out of whack.

We’ve also allowed ourselves to become disconnected from nature itself. We no longer see the forest for the trees. And, in some parts of the world, like the Amazon rainforest, we can no longer see the trees themselves, for they’ve all been cleared by cutting or burning. The devastation wrought in this and other locales around the globe has placed us in serious environmental jeopardy. As author Margaret Atwood puts it, “Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just … keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of [the] planet and how to keep it alive so that we, too, may remain alive.”

Comparable calamities loom in the area of economics, too, resulting in severe imbalances worldwide, as seen in examples like the financial raping of the Congo. Such unchecked exploitation has led to socioeconomic crises, civil unrest and even open revolt in many countries around the world. And former financial world insiders reveal how deliberately impoverishing tactics have been employed in bringing about such results. According to economic historian and former Wall Street economist Michael Hudson, in financial terms, “progress has meant: ‘You will never get back what we take from you.’ That’s what brought on the Dark Ages, and that’s what’s threatening to bring [on] the Dark Ages again.” Or, put more starkly, in the words of geneticist and activist David Suzuki, “Money doesn’t stand for anything and money now grows faster than the real world. Conventional economics is a form of brain damage.”

With the growth of interconnected global systems, the foregoing problems are now seen on a worldwide scale. And, even though globalism has resulted in beneficial advances like better transportation and communications, it has also led to the establishment of a single, unified system of civilization. The problem with that, however, is that, if that single system collapses (as it well could), there’s nothing left to fill the void. This differs from the past, when the collapse of one society wouldn’t lead to the total fall of civilization, because other intact societies still existed to step up to the plate to pick up the slack. These days, that safety cushion is quickly vanishing.

Avoiding such an outcome again brings us back to the questions of how civilization became a progress trap and, specifically, how we allowed our basic human nature to make it so. To overcome this problem, we honestly need to acknowledge that we’ve come to the end of a failed experiment. In turn, we must also reinvent ourselves in order to survive, particularly by tapping into our innate problem-solving ability. This should be entirely possible, too; as Goodall asserts, when it comes to problem-solving, we humans do well when our backs are up against the wall.

However, whatever solutions we develop must of necessity begin with us, and not necessarily with any new technologies we birth, because such material solutions may also prove to be dead ends, just like those we’ve worked with in building our present progress trap. Technologies created with the same intent as those we employ to support the current paradigm will ultimately prove just as unworkable, even if dressed up in new guises. We must first and foremost change our thinking, and it begins with each of us. As Colin Beavan, writer/engineer/director for the No Impact Project, says, “Before I go around trying to change other people, maybe I should look at myself and change myself and keep my side of the street clean.”

Looking for ways to live sustainably is the key, a goal that may be difficult to achieve because we’ve allowed ourselves to become hijacked by the seduction of material culture; our faith in progress, as it has typically come to be defined, has almost become like a fundamentalist religion for many of us. What’s more, we need to realize that living sustainably doesn’t mean adopting a vow of poverty or having to “go back to the land.” Rather, it means changing ourselves so that we’re back in harmony with nature and spirit, a way of being wherein we can lead quality lives without doing ourselves in. In reaching that goal, we need to embrace a moral approach to things, not just a material or technological one.

Thankfully, the world seems to be waking up to these realizations, as evidenced by the growth in pursuits like spiritual quests, an attempt by many of us to re-center ourselves and to find our way back to our true being, one that transcends our current paradigm of living our lives like cavemen in modern garb. That’s encouraging, for the stakes involved in this are quite high: We must look for ways to keep the planet alive if we are to keep ourselves alive. The prospect of failure should be enough to mobilize us in this pursuit, too, lest we be filled with regrets. Indeed, as behavioral scientist Daniel Povinelli astutely – and ironically – observes, “If humans go extinct on this planet, I think what’s going to be our epitaph on our gravestone is ‘Why?’”

From a conscious creation standpoint, it should be plainly apparent that this film impeccably illustrates the philosophy’s core principle – that what we experience externally begins with us internally, namely, our beliefs, intents and overall worldview. These elements serve to shape the reality surrounding us. The fact that they have not changed appreciably in thousands of years is quite revealing, too, shedding light on why human nature has largely stayed stuck throughout that entire time, despite whatever technological progress we might have made in the interim. The directors are to be commended for drawing our attention to this issue, for such awareness is crucial to our evolution, if not our very survival, as a species.

While I agree with most of what the experts have to say, there are times, though, when I believe they overemphasize the notion of “limitation” in their opinions. To be sure, we need to give serious consideration to the question of conservation, especially where resources are concerned. However, by continually driving home the concept of “limitation, limitation, limitation,” the idea can begin to take on a life of its own, and the fallout from this could be the inadvertent promotion of limitations of all kinds – including thinking and vision, resources that we should strive to keep from restriction at all costs right now, particularly since they are likely to be our way out of the challenges we must face and address. Thinking outside of the box becomes much more difficult when we seek to fortify the walls of the box, even if we do so unwittingly. We would be wise to take such suggestions with a grain of salt and look to formulate beliefs that get us the results we want without undue, unintended impediment.

“Surviving Progress” presents its arguments in an orderly fashion, breaking down its core contentions in a logical, well-thought-out manner. Viewers are given concise, well-documented explanations of its principal points, clearly showing how the underlying questions – and not the superficial concerns – are the issues most in need of immediate, concerted attention. The film also features excellent production values, but then I wouldn’t expect anything less from a project on which acclaimed director Martin Scorsese serves as one of the executive producers.

A number of recent documentaries have attempted to do what “Surviving Progress” has done, but, in my opinion, with the possible exception of “I Am” (2011), none of them has accomplished their objectives quite as effectively as this offering has. Directors Roy and Crooks have made a solid case for their assertions, creating a sense of urgency but without fear-mongering. We would be wise to heed their message, too; the fate of our species – and our world – rest upon it.

Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

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

Friday, February 15, 2013

‘Side Effects’ underscores the perils of unintended consequences

“Side Effects” (2013). Cast: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Ann Dowd, Vinessa Shaw, Polly Draper, Sheila Tapia, Michael Nathanson, Andrea Bogart, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, Mitchell Michaliszyn, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Victor Cruz, Haraldo Alvarez. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns. Web site. Trailer.

Scottish poet Robert Burns is perhaps best known for having penned the lines, “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!” Such disappointments can indeed be devastating, but they can be that much worse for those who rely on insincere intentions and artificial means of assistance in seeking to achieve their goals, outcomes candidly depicted in the dramatic new thriller, “Side Effects.”

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) leads a challenging life. With her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), incarcerated on insider trading charges, she struggles to cope with his absence and with making ends meet financially in the often-unforgiving world that is New York, conditions that frequently test her wits, as well as her sometimes-fragile psychological state. At times she lapses into depression, longing for the protected, genteel life of her upbringing in suburban Greenwich, Connecticut. And at other times she thinks about more drastic solutions – like bringing an end to things – even if she doesn’t recall considering such extreme measures after the fact. Martin’s eventual release from prison doesn’t seem to help matters much, either; Emily’s emotional breakdowns, bouts of withdrawal and listless behavior grow more common, as do her unwitting suicide attempts.

After one such incident, Emily’s hospitalized and placed under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who agrees to take on her case to keep her from being institutionalized. In reviewing her clinical records, he discovers that she had been in therapy once before while in Greenwich, a patient of Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Dr. Banks consults his colleague about Emily, learning his new patient’s case history, particularly the antidepressants that Dr. Siebert prescribed for her, many of which seemed to offer little help. As an alternative, Dr. Siebert suggests that Dr. Banks try putting Emily on Ablixa, a new medication for which she’s serving as a consultant to the drug’s manufacturer. Dr. Banks’s curiosity is decidedly piqued, but the new wonder drug is not without its controversies, having been linked to some potentially serious side effects. Nevertheless, Dr. Banks decides to prescribe Ablixa for Emily, a decision that he’ll soon come to regret, especially when a tragedy befalls his patient that sets in motion a chain of events that threatens not only her well-being but also that of many others, himself included.

To say more at this point would reveal far too much about how the film ultimately plays out. Suffice it to say, however, that the pivotal incident in question has serious ramifications for Dr. Banks, his reputation, his practice and even his marriage, not to mention the lives and livelihoods of Emily, Martin and Dr. Siebert. Intrigue abounds as intrepid truth seekers look to reveal what really happened, an investigation that brings to light such dubious considerations as alleged professional misconduct, potential conflicts of interest, drug safety issues, pharmaceutical company profits, premeditated murder, offshore bank accounts and even a covert lesbian relationship. And, in the end, the “side effects” that spring forth in this scenario make those associated with the new drug itself seem trivial by comparison.

For many of us, when bad things happen, we look to retreat from them, hoping they’ll just go away or even actively attempting to deny them. Those efforts are sometimes abetted by mental health care professionals, too, when they over-prescribe medications that effectively squelch the discomfort (by switching off the brain’s sadness mechanism, as Dr. Banks puts it). But do these efforts do much to resolve these issues? Isn’t this just a case of kicking the problems down the road in hopes that they’ll be dealt with later? And, if so, will they indeed be handled at that future time?

Such denial is, in essence, little more than an effort to ignore the issues in question rather than take responsibility for dealing with their causes. From a conscious creation perspective, this essentially involves turning a blind eye to examining and analyzing the beliefs and intents that, for better or worse, prompt their manifestation in the reality we experience. Failing to look at why we create what we create, either out of ignorance or deliberate intention, keeps us locked in place, unable to move forward. And, when counselors primarily use drugs as the core course of “treatment” for their patients’ problems, they effectively abrogate their healing obligations and sanction continued patient disavowal of the issues at hand.

What’s worse, though, is that delays in taking action only tend to prolong the suffering, perhaps even giving rise to unanticipated consequences – or “side effects” – that make these situations even more unbearable. Whether such results come about from simple neglect or from conscious acts of denial (aided by mind-numbing chemical agents that only serve to exacerbate such efforts) is ultimately irrelevant, because the bottom line is fundamentally the same in both instances.

As this aptly titled film shows, the side effects of failing to be honest with ourselves about our beliefs and to actively take steps to address them can be far worse than anything we might anticipate, too. And this grows ever more onerous the more intentionally disingenuously we go about it. Engaging in such continued behavior potentially sets us up for disaster. Ultimately, the outcome of this can be much more devastating than just dealing with the issues in question in the first place, a lesson that some of the characters in this picture learn the hard way.

Getting to the heart of what’s going on with our beliefs is much easier to accomplish for those who understand how we formulate them and what faculties we employ in doing so. In conscious creation terms, this specifically involves learning how we use our intellect and our intuition to birth the beliefs we use in creating our reality. Someone like Dr. Banks is especially skilled at this, not only in analyzing his own motivations but also those of others (which is what essentially makes him such an effective therapist). We’d be wise to follow his lead in coming to terms with understanding who we are, what we create, how we do so and why we experience the existence we live through. By doing this, we’d be much more likely to honestly manifest what we desire, perhaps being able to avoid the potential problems associated with misdirected materializations (and the chemical crutches that can amplify them), not to mention all the unwanted side effects related to both.

From the film’s trailer and marketing campaign, “Side Effects” comes across like a movie that deals head-on with the issue of pharmaceuticals and the unexpected consequences that might arise with their use, a story that has been steadily receiving increased attention of late, especially in the alternative media. And, to be sure, there are some aspects of the film that address this controversy openly, but they’re definitely not as prevalent as one might be led to believe going in. In that sense, then, “Side Effects” isn’t exactly the picture one might expect it to be. Still, despite the movie’s limited direct treatment of this issue, its narrative nevertheless provides a fitting metaphor for this subject, as well as an excellent example of how creation efforts gone haywire can yield “unintended” results. On that score, the film drives home its point well, providing viewers with a potent cautionary tale of what can happen when, for whatever reason, we get sloppy in our manifestation efforts. This message is effectively punctuated by the fine performances of the principals, too, particularly Mara, Law and Zeta-Jones.

However, despite these strengths, “Side Effects” could use some judicious tweaking. It’s at times a tad slow-paced for a thriller, occasionally becoming a little too talky for its own good. The plot sometimes gets a little too convoluted as well, a problem not helped by its pacing issues. Had these drawbacks been shorn up a bit, they would have made for a much better picture. As it stands now, the film is certainly noteworthy, though, arguably, not as memorable as it otherwise might have been.

Years ago, the Rolling Stones cautioned us, “you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” From a conscious creation standpoint, I’d reword that admonition slightly to read “you just might find, you get what you believe,” no matter what those beliefs entail. “Side Effects” capably captures the essence of that reworded sentiment, and it does so by giving us pause to think twice about what intentions we put out there. That’s some strong medicine, metaphysically speaking – but it’s certainly preferable than being left with a hard pill to swallow.

Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of Open Road Films 2012.

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

Friday, February 8, 2013

‘Compliance’ reveals the danger of deference

“Compliance” (2012). Cast: Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Pat Healy, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, Stephen Payne, Bill Camp, Nikiya Mathis, James McCaffrey, Raymond McAnally. Director: Craig Zobel. Screenplay: Craig Zobel. Web site. Trailer.

Think you know how you’ll react when the reputations and well-being of others are threatened by the unproven accusations of those in positions of power? Will fairness and justice prevail? Or will self-serving interests and cowardice take precedence? Those are just a few of the thorny questions examined in the gripping independent film, “Compliance,” now available on DVD.

With the weekend approaching, it promises to be yet another hectic Friday night at the South End branch of ChickWich, a fictitious fast food restaurant located in an unnamed Ohio suburb. In addition to serving the typically large, demanding crowd, the short-staffed crew must cope with rationing certain food items (due to a freezer issue that resulted in spoilage) and preparing for a possible corporate quality control visit by a mystery shopper. The restaurant’s manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), quietly struggles to keep everything together, shuffling staff to meet operating needs and frantically (but professionally) attempting to anticipate the challenges that are almost certain to arise. But those inflated crises pale in comparison to what she’ll have to face when she receives an unexpected call from the police.

Not long into her shift, Sandra’s told she’s wanted on the phone to speak with Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), a detective calling to investigate the alleged theft of money from a customer’s purse while waiting to be served by one of the restaurant’s counter cashiers, Becky (Dreama Walker). Sandra is initially surprised by the allegation, but Officer Daniels makes a case against the teenage suspect that sounds thoroughly convincing. He asks Sandra to sequester Becky for interrogation, an order that she follows dutifully, without hesitation. But what begins as simple questioning over the phone quickly spirals out of control, leading to an embarrassing, intimidating strip search and other acts of humiliation that cause discomfort for all involved, including, eventually, other employees and even outsiders. And, through it all, the officer is never present, issuing his commands completely over the phone – orders that are generally followed to the letter, without question. The detective’s legally dubious dictates grow progressively more demeaning, but the full scope of this exercise in degradation doesn’t become apparent until it’s discovered the call is a prank – and a sick, twisted one at that.

Given the nature of the film’s narrative, viewers might be tempted to dismiss it as patently preposterous. But is it? After all, the story was inspired by actual events. And, while the picture’s plot isn’t a verbatim recounting of any one particular incident, director Craig Zobel observes (in an interview included in the DVD’s Extra Features) that it is an amalgamation of events that transpired during the 70 such instances that have been reported in 30 states across the U.S., a statistic cited at the movie’s conclusion.

Still think it’s absurd?

The big question that this film raises, of course, is “How can something like this happen?” Once again, according to director Zobel in his Extras interview, the picture takes a hard look at our responses to situations involving authority figures. Citing psychological studies conducted in the 1960s, Zobel notes that, when the majority of subjects were placed in circumstances involving representatives of officialdom, they would nearly always capitulate to the authority figures’ demands, no matter how questionable the directives and regardless of how they believed they would have responded to comparable hypothetical situations before the start of the experiments. “Compliance” lends credence to that finding, showing how it might – and indeed can – play out under conditions like those portrayed in the fictitious ChickWich outlet.

This, then, begs the question, “Why would someone respond like that if he or she knew better?” From a conscious creation standpoint, this is where the concept of beliefs, the cornerstone of reality materialization, comes into play.

For many of us, our beliefs about the world are shaped by our early life experiences, many of which are strongly influenced by our responses to various authority figures (parents, teachers, religious figures, health care providers, etc.). Such responses, in turn, come to form a “belief template” that provides the foundation for our worldview and its myriad applications. And one of the beliefs often found in that template is “Don’t question authority figures.” As a consequence, many of us tend to manifest an existence characterized by such attributes as obedience, conformity, deference and, as the movie’s title suggests, compliance.

As we grow older, however, our life experiences often prompt shifts in our beliefs and worldviews, not to mention the realities we conceive. Unfortunately, the incumbent beliefs, which have undoubtedly been in place for a long time, hold on steadfastly in our consciousness, even if they no longer serve us, creating significant disconnects when they come into conflict with the new beliefs attempting to usurp them. The power of the prevailing notions causes us to doubt the validity of the new beliefs, making us hesitant to act upon and implement them. And, when faced with such inherent contradictions, the newcomers are likely to be dismissed. Under circumstances like those found in the film, the original belief that nearly all of the characters abide by – “Obey authorities, no matter what” – will win out over any new conceptions that question that notion, leading to the unfortunate consequences that unfold on screen.

We’ve all likely experienced similar circumstances in various situations in our own lives. Think, for example, of how we typically react to being stopped by a traffic cop, or visiting the doctor, or passing through the security screening area at the airport. In some instances, following the prevailing beliefs described above may be entirely appropriate, while, in others, questioning the circumstances would be the wiser course. But which response is called for under which conditions?

This is where the value of intuition figures into the equation. That nebulous gut feeling we get plays an important role in shaping the beliefs that shape our reality. However, because our intuition tends to be less defined than the other component that factors into belief formation – our intellect – we often ignore it, sometimes out of hand, especially when opposed by potent existing, often-intractable beliefs. But engaging in such behavior can be perilous; our intuition, though sometimes vague, occupies a place in our consciousness for a reason – to provide us with the necessary heads-up in crucial situations, just when we need it most.

Sandra, Becky and their colleagues are tested on this idea repeatedly throughout the film, and it’s readily apparent that they would prefer to respond differently to their circumstances than they actually do. And, were it not for Officer Daniels’ domineering demeanor – even over the phone – they otherwise might have. But, given the alleged detective’s imposing presence, they reluctantly dismiss their untried intuitive feelings and default to the beliefs to which they’re most accustomed. That’s unfortunate, too, since putting forth a little effort to validate those intuitive feelings would have made it incredibly easy to refute Officer Daniels’ claims – and to avoid the regrettable fallout that arises from such failings.

Acting in this way can have huge consequences. It creates a sense of personal disempowerment and leads to an abrogation of personal responsibility. Both of these outcomes, in turn, contribute to an embracing of victim status, a condition that causes many of us to believe we have no choice in how our lives unfold. This limits the range of options that we believe we have open to us, allowing us to see only a fraction of the infinite probabilities that conscious creation makes possible. And the bottom line in all this is that we run the risk of stagnating as the masters of our destiny, never living up to our full potential for personal growth and development. Such is the danger inherent in undisputed deference.

“Compliance” is an excellent, underrated independent production that truly deserved wider recognition than it received in its largely ignored original release. Director Zobel’s highly credible cautionary tale impresses across the board, from its crisp writing to its innovative cinematography to its distinctive soundtrack. What’s more, it clearly depicts the risk associated with failing to follow our instincts, and it does so by creating a taut, almost claustrophobic sense of suspense throughout, the creepy kind that successfully manages to get under one’s skin. It’s the sort of film where viewers might not know exactly what’s going to happen next, but they can be certain that it’s definitely going to be worse than whatever preceded it.

In that regard, then, some viewers may find this picture difficult to watch. You may easily find yourself squirming in your seat. Or you may just as readily feel outraged and infuriated; should this reaction arise, however, just make sure you’re aware of who it is you’re outraged or infuriated at. Remember, as conscious creators, we each create our own reality through the beliefs we hold, no matter what they are, for better or worse.

The film’s performances are especially noteworthy. The superb ensemble cast of mostly newcomers creates a totally believable collection of characters, falling into their roles so effortlessly that it’s easy to view them with the familiarity we likely have of individuals we already know. Dowd, in particular, turns in a stellar portrayal, having won the National Board of Review’s award for best supporting actress, as well as nominations in the recent Golden Globe Award and upcoming Independent Spirit Award competitions. The picture was also named one of the NBR’s top 10 independent films of 2012.

In an age when many are feeling increasing pressure to toe the line in all of life’s endeavors, asserting one’s independence can be difficult, no matter how strong the impulse to do so. Retreating into our protective shells may seem like the path of least resistance, especially when our livelihoods are at stake. But going against the genuine inclinations of our gut can have tremendous implications, perhaps far worse than any personal setbacks we might suffer as a result of being true to ourselves. To that end, the cautions served up in “Compliance” provide a stern warning of what can result when we blindly follow the path of what we believe to be the best of intentions.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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

Friday, February 1, 2013

‘Quartet’ celebrates living in the moment

“Quartet” (2012). Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Michael Byrne, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall, Eline Powell, Luke Newberry, Shola Andewusi, Jumayn Hunter. Director: Dustin Hoffman. Screenplay: Ronald Harwood. Play: Ronald Harwood. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us regrettably spend large parts of our lives chasing ever-elusive impressions of what was or what we hope might be. But, in doing so, we tend to neglect who and where we are in our lives, missing out on the joys of what they have to offer. Learning how to immerse ourselves in that often-ignored present moment is what the delightful new comedy, “Quartet,” is all about.

Life’s aflutter at the Beecham House Home for Retired Musicians. The converted estate in the idyllic English countryside provides a pleasant retirement setting for an eclectic assortment of operatic singers, instrumentalists, conductors and musical comedy performers. The home’s capable staff attends to the residents’ health care needs in their sunset years while simultaneously providing a full program of activities to keep the seniors alert and vital, with a strong emphasis on encouraging them to continue doing what they do best – performing.

At first glance, living at Beecham House sounds like a great booking. But it’s not without its challenges – and its drama. Chief among the challenges are the facility’s finances, which always seem to teeter on the brink of collapse. It’s a prospect the residents seek to offset by putting on an annual gala featuring the ample in-house talent, theatrically coordinated by the home’s pompous, often-befuddled artistic director, Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon). He perpetually struggles to put together a good show, despite frequently getting in his own way and allowing others’ antics or foibles to frustrate him in sufficiently overblown fashion.

But Cedric’s inflated trials and tribulations aren’t the only drama besetting Beecham House. The home’s fragile stability gets seriously upset with the arrival of a new resident, retired vocalist Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a diva of the first order. Her presence makes others uneasy, particularly Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), one of Jean’s former operatic collaborators – and ex-husbands – who received no advance warning of her arrival. But there are also those who are glad to see her, such as two other former colleagues, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). In fact, it’s quite ironic that they have been all reunited under one roof, since this foursome had once achieved tremendous acclaim for their inspired performance of the quartet scene from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Despite the prevailing tension brought about by these unexpected events, the reunion also gives Cedric a flash of inspiration: Why not feature the reunited quartet as the centerpiece attraction of the upcoming gala? Such an artistic coup would undoubtedly flood the Beecham House coffers with much-needed cash. All that’s required is getting the four performers to agree to do it – an outcome that’s far easier said than done. Wilf, for example, battles an array of health issues, while Cissy fades in and out of reality with bouts of dementia. Reggie, meanwhile, is unsure of wanting to have any contact with Jean, let alone perform with her. And, as for Jean, the grand dame accustomed to endless accolades for her magnificent performances, is skittish about stepping onto the stage now that her singing voice has faded from the pinnacle of its past glory.

Will the quartet make its triumphant return to the stage? And, if so, what drama must be resolved in order to get to that point? It’s a spectacle sure to play out as dramatically as anything featured at La Scala.

As noted above, all too often, we go through life focused on what was and what will be instead of paying attention to what is. We allow our lives to be dictated by thoughts of our past or our future, ignoring those of the present. But this can be a serious misstep. Indeed, as conscious creation practitioners are well aware, the point of power is in the present, the only moment over which we have any direct, meaningful control. Rather than seizing the opportunity that working in this instant provides, we instead tend to become preoccupied with beliefs – the driving force in reality creation – related to who we were, what we did, what we think we should have done, who we believe we should be and what we need to do to realize such goals. By doing so, however, we often lose sight of what we have going on for us in the present moment. We may thus overlook seeing where we truly are and what opportunities are available to us. This can lead to frustration, regret and resentment, qualities that can build up substantially over time and potentially lock us into cycles from which escape becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Such considerations should be (but often aren’t) paramount in the minds of those who are in the late stages of life. With the clock running, the number of present moments available to us dwindles, providing fewer opportunities to resolve issues, to learn new skills and/or to grow as individuals. In light of this, then, do we really want to get to the end and look back at our lives with recollections couched in qualifiers of “if only...”?

Given the advancing age of the characters in this film, these considerations weigh heavily on their minds. Each of them approaches these questions depending on their prevailing outlooks, but those who are committed to living in the moment seem to have the best quality of life.

Wilf, for instance, openly admits that he hates the pitfalls of growing old, but he refuses to let them define who he is. He remains a spry, mischievous, flirtatious soul who still loves to entertain (in every sense of the word), seeking to make the most of the time he has left. Reggie also looks to stay vital by regularly teaching classes to young musicians, even seeking to learn as much from them as he hopes to impart to them. As for Cissy, she may suffer from dementia, but she remains ever cheerful; while some may see her condition as sad, Cissy’s creation of her blissfully oblivious demeanor may very well provide her with a buffer against the impending inevitability, allowing her to enjoy her present without the burden of thoughts of an uncertain future impinging on it.

Jean’s handling of her circumstances, however, presents a mixed bag. Upon reconnecting with Reggie, she hopes for a reconciliation, at least as friends, an attempt to make up for the hurt she caused him so many years ago. She even has the wherewithal to recognize that she and Reggie are different people from when they had their falling out, that they’re now more considerate, mature and thoughtful souls in this new present moment, one through which they could create a different life and future together (as long as they allow it).

However, despite her keen awareness of this notion in her personal life, she’s unable to see how it might be applied in her artistic life; the parallels are lost on her. Specifically, she’s terrified of performing, both at the gala or ever again, for fear that she won’t live up to her own expectations – expectations based on personal artistic standards firmly rooted in her past, demanding criteria that are unlikely to be matched going forward. But should this belief-based limitation keep her from enjoying the act of singing, something she obviously loves so much that she was able to build a long and successful career out of it? If only she would employ the same principle in her artistic life that she so readily draws upon in her personal life, then perhaps she might be able to once again freely enjoy what had given her so much pleasure and fulfillment for so many years. Her current performances may not be the same as those of her past, but is that any reason to stop giving them altogether?

If Jean were to follow the lead of her fellow Beecham residents, she might be able to rewrite her beliefs, the intents that enable her to give herself permission to return to doing what she does best. In the process, she just might find that there’s much to be gained from doing the things she loves simply for their own intrinsic enjoyment. It also provides a means for overcoming fears, limitations and loss, including its accompanying sadness. Indeed, Jean would be wise to follow Wilf’s blunt but genuinely heartfelt advice when he says to her, “just f@#king do it!”

By learning to accept and adapt to our changed circumstances – and the fact that we conceived the beliefs that created the altered reality we’re now experiencing – we have an opportunity to embrace our new existence. Rather than feeling reconciled to our fate, we can appreciate the richness of what we’ve birthed. We can value what we have, not lament what we’ve lost, seeing the glass as half full and not half empty. Such a perspective can make all the difference in what we make out of what we’ve already made.

Those looking for a breezy, pleasant, slightly frothy afternoon at the movies will undoubtedly enjoy “Quartet.” It’s enjoyable fare, with excellent production values and a fine soundtrack, in the same vein as pictures like “Enchanted April” (1992), “Local Hero” (1982) and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012). The film marks an impressive directorial debut by acting legend Dustin Hoffman, who has demonstrated here that he clearly knows how to get the most out of a cast, having assembled an awesome ensemble that turns in superb performances across the board with a striking level of chemistry seldom seen. The picture also serves as a fitting tribute to the talent and enduring longevity of England’s veteran musicians, many of whom, such as Dame Gwyneth Jones, appear in the movie.

However, despite these strengths, the picture suffers from some weaknesses in the writing. This is most noticeable in Jean’s character development; Smith does her best to work with what she’s been given (having earned a well-deserved Golden Globe Award nomination for her best supporting actress performance), though the underwritten role keeps her from showing off her considerable talent as much as she might have (she’s supposed to be a diva, for goodness sake, so let her be one!). Also, the picture’s abrupt conclusion doesn’t deliver the hoped-for payoff as well as it might have, cheating viewers a bit out of what might have been. And, with a runtime of only 98 minutes, these shortcomings could have easily been fixed with the inclusion of a little more footage to shore up these failings.

Taking the time to relish our realities before it’s too late is an aim we’d all be wise to pursue. We just might surprise ourselves, too, with what we find – and what we’ve been overlooking for far too long. “Quartet” provides us with a gentle reminder of those truths, nudging us to celebrate the miracle that is life.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

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