Thursday, May 30, 2013

‘Frances Ha’ applauds the virtues of responsibility

“Frances Ha” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d’Amboise, Grace Gummer, Patrick Heusinger, Michael Esper, Christine Gerwig, Gordon Gerwig, Maya Kazan. Director: Noah Baumbach. Screenplay: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Web site. Trailer.

At some time or another, most of us have probably rhetorically observed that we’d like to fulfill a particular objective “someday.” That indeterminate future is something that we all comfortably assume will always be there for us to access. But, as many of us have also probably noted, time can pass us by rather quickly, and the days can get behind us faster than we thought possible. So, in light of that, when, in fact, are we going to start making the effort to realize that nebulous goal? At some point or another, we must take responsibility to concertedly move toward achieving that aim, an idea explored in the quirky new indie comedy, “Frances Ha.”

Frances Halloway (Greta Gerwig) is looking to find herself through her art. The twenty-something would-be modern dancer lives in Brooklyn with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who seeks to scale the heights of the book publishing world. But, despite such lofty aspirations, Frances and Sophie seem most at home when playing at life. They run around New York attending parties, drinking too much and generally having a good time, and, when the mood strikes them, they put in some time on their respective crafts. They’re also halfheartedly committed to their sometimes-boyfriends (Frances to Dan (Michael Esper) and Sophie to Patch (Patrick Heusinger)), though, like most things in their lives, they could just as soon leave them as take them. (And they wonder why they struggle to feel fulfilled, loved and financially stable.)

In fact, about the only thing to which each of them is committed is their friendship, but, when that sours, they’re each suddenly more adrift than ever. Frances moves in with Lev (Adam Driver), a sculptor’s assistant, and Benji (Michael Zegen), an aspiring movie and TV writer, both of whom seem to be able to make their dreams happen (or at least to convincingly convey the impression that they do). Before long, though, Frances finds herself directionless once again. When Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise), Frances’s dance company director, releases her from her apprenticeship, she looks for something – anything – to latch onto. She floats from tangent to tangent, taking time to visit her parents (Christine Gerwig, Gordon Gerwig) in her hometown of Sacramento, spending time with fellow dancer Rachel (Grace Gummer), embarking on an impromptu weekend trip to Paris, and returning to her college to work as a residential advisor and reception server. But none of these adventures provides her with the answers she seeks.

The looming question for Frances thus becomes, “Will she ever find her way?” Or is she forever doomed to wander the creative wastelands? Indeed, can she find the focus she needs to succeed, or will she wind up being yet another failed artist who never lives up to her potential? In the end, it all comes down to what she does to make it, or not make it, happen.

It’s easy to see what Frances needs to do to turn things around – very simply, she needs to settle down and grow up. If she ever wants to get to where she wants to be, she needs to take responsibility for her creations. But that involves more than just “acting responsibly”; it requires her to get in touch with the beliefs she employs in manifesting the reality she experiences. This may be a little easier said than done, but it’s certainly not impossible if she sets her mind to it.

For instance, Frances truly needs to clear out the clutter clogging up her consciousness. She needs to rid herself of superfluous beliefs and focus on the core, essential notions that she draws upon for shaping the existence she materializes. In particular, she needs to wipe away the beliefs related to the many distractions she ends up manifesting, for they take away her focus and detract from the primary aims she hopes to achieve. It’s certainly nice to have good times in one’s life, but, when their pursuit overtakes our primary reason for being, they derail us in our efforts to fulfill our main purpose in life.

Frances even recognizes this to a certain degree. While at a dinner party one evening, one of the guests asks her what she does for a living, to which she replies that it’s rather difficult to explain. When the guest follows up by asking if what she does is complicated, Frances responds by saying “No, [it’s hard to explain] because I don’t really do it.” And that about sums up things in a nutshell where Frances is concerned.

The deeper question here, then, is “Why does Frances create all of the distractions that keep her from accomplishing her goals and living her dreams?” Is it that she simply doesn’t know how to go about this and just creates diversions to fill up her days in the meantime? Or is it that she’s on the wrong path and needs to find a new one? Or perhaps she’s wrestling with a fear of success issue? No matter what the case, though, if she ever wants to move forward with her life, she’ll need to sort out her beliefs about what she’s doing (or isn’t doing) and why.

Distractions, when left unchecked, often can become crutches or excuses for our behavior, both in terms of our daily activities and our conscious creation efforts. Indeed, it can become rather easy to fall back on trumped-up rationalizations for not doing what we could or should be doing, when, in fact, such actions frequently amount to little more than feeble justifications for avoiding more significant issues in our lives.

For instance, when Dan asks Frances to move in with him, she declines, citing the existing lease on her apartment with Sophie. But, when Dan notes that the lease is nearly up, Frances replies that she already had her mind set on renewing their lease and would feel guilty abandoning Sophie if she moved in with him (even though she and Sophie had never discussed the renewal option). While it’s true that Frances is a devoted friend to Sophie, creating the excuse to stay with her out of loyalty is more of an aversion to dealing with her troubled romance with Dan than it is to being faithful companion. (One can imagine where Frances’s relationship with Dan goes from there.)

Frances lives much of life spontaneously, and that can be quite beneficial. Spontaneity is often proof that we’re following our intuitive impulses, those strong, powerful messages that frequently provide sage guidance for helping us achieve our conscious creation objectives. And acting upon them is even more important, for they help to transform those intangible thought forms into corporeal manifestations. This is truly a sign that the creative juices are flowing. However, when we only follow the spontaneity associated with the creation of our distractions, we tend to get further afield from our hoped-for expectations, and, sadly, those are the impulses that Frances most often acts upon. Learning how to temper our spontaneity with wisdom and focus is thus crucial if we ever hope to get the most benefit out of it.

By continuing to pursue such a course of conduct, the inevitable outcome is most likely going to be hitting rock bottom. At that point, it becomes imperative to clear away the clutter and distractions, because our very survival often depends on it. Such severe circumstances force us into “getting real,” setting aside the excuses, the immature behavior and the time wasting. If we don’t, the results could be disastrous and demoralizing. It’s a realization that Frances had better come to terms with before it’s too late.

While the message of “Frances Ha” could benefit anyone in need of getting his or her act together, I believe it’s no accident that the protagonist is a young, upcoming professional in need of imposing some metaphysical and daily living discipline in her life. Contemporaries of the lead character might thus benefit the most from viewing this picture, in large part because they’re the ones most likely to identify with Frances’s circumstances and challenges. To that end, then, I’d heartily recommend this film to the twenty-somethings out there who are looking to find their way and get their lives off the launching pad. Watch and learn from Frances, and don’t be afraid to make some the same mistakes she does (it’s part of one’s learning curve after all); just don’t make a habit of it.

“Frances Ha” is a moderately funny and quirky picture reminiscent of some of Woody Allen’s films, such as “Manhattan” (1979), where the characters create needless distractions while attempting to create their true selves. Like other offerings from director Noah Baumbach, this picture is quite effective in its portrayal of characters in search of themselves in the wake of life-changing events. As in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), where family members struggle to cope with the effects of divorce, and “Greenberg” (2010), where the protagonist attempts to manage his affairs after a mental breakdown, “Frances Ha” depicts the efforts of a character seeking to keep her dreams from slipping away while things slowly but relentlessly fall apart in her life. And, like the characters in the director’s other releases, the protagonist in this film is also the only one who can save herself, provided she’s willing to make the effort to do so.

While the picture is generally well written, its laughs are a little more sparse than I’d like. What’s more, the movie is a little too conscious of its own eccentricity at times, taking its hipster chic attitude, either unintentionally or in an act of intentional self-parody, to an annoying level on more than one occasion. That aside, however, the picture is beautifully filmed in black and white, features a great lead performance by Gerwig, and includes a terrific soundtrack with the likes of David Bowie, Paul McCartney, T. Rex, Harry Nilsson and Hot Chocolate.

Taking responsibility for our actions, both in our beliefs and what arises from them, might not always be the most fun thing to do, but, if we ever hope to fulfill our dreams, it’s essential, especially when launching new and meaningful undertakings. “Frances Ha” provides us with some examples of what to do, and what not to do, as we progress along the path of realizing our dreams. The virtues of such actions are sure to bring ample rewards, especially once we follow through on them to fruition.

Now that’s an effort that’s well worth pursuing.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

‘Here’ maps the human heart

“Here” (2011 production, 2012 release). Cast: Ben Foster, Lubna Azabal, Narek Nersisyan, Yuri Kostanyan, Sophik Sarkisyan, Christina Hovaguimyan, Hovak Gaolyan, Hmayak Hakopyan, Narik Beglaryan, Peter Coyote (narrator). Director: Braden King. Screenplay: Braden King and Dani Valent. Web site. Trailer.

So much of the time, we spend our lives trying to figure out where we’re at. But, in the process, we often focus on the trivial and overlook what’s truly important. Learning how to overcome that tendency can be challenging, but the rewards are certainly worth it, as two unlikely lovers find out for themselves in the absorbing romance, “Here,” now available on DVD.

When satellite mapping technician Will Shepard (Ben Foster) takes a contract to work in Armenia, he’s very much on his own. The American-born cartographer doesn’t speak the language, and he spends most of his time by himself in the field. But, then, given his loner nature, that arrangement suits him well. He can carry out his highly technical work in solitude, unburdened by the distractions of daily life.

That all changes, however, when Will meets Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), a free-spirited art photographer, who has returned to her Armenian homeland after a stint in Paris. She’s back to work on a new project that involves shooting photos in the same region where Will’s work will be taking him. The usually reserved technician quietly takes a liking to his new acquaintance, and Gadarine clearly enjoys his company, so she decides to accompany him on his trip. And, even though the journey may involve a trek into a familiar landscape, the improbable traveling companions are clearly headed into uncharted territory together.

The chemistry between Will and Gadarine is palpable, and their connection grows ever stronger the longer the two of them are together. But Gadarine proves to be more than a source of companionship; she helps Will to change his perspective about his work by acquainting him with the character of the land that he had previously treated merely as the subject matter of his vocation. In the process, she introduces Will to old friends (Christina Hovaguimyan, Hovak Gaolyan) and helps him out of difficult situations with a shady mechanic (Narik Beglaryan) and a punctilious border official (Hmayak Hakopyan) in the disputed Karabakh region. The once-independent cartographer gradually finds himself more attached to and dependent upon someone else for perhaps the first time in his life. It’s territory with which he’s mostly unfamiliar – and decidedly uncomfortable.

However, through his involvement with Gadarine, over time, Will comes to engage not only in the mapping of Armenia but also in that of his own heart. The experience shows him things about himself that he never knew before. He also learns that there’s more to life than work, an ironic realization given that it arose through, of all things, his job. It changes his personal landscape forever and in ways he once never could have envisioned.

“Here” is a deceptively profound film, thanks to the subtle, nuanced approach to its narrative. This is accomplished in a number of ways, such as the inclusion of a storyteller (Peter Coyote), whose voiceover narrations deftly lend philosophical definition to the subject matter. So what may seem like just a love story on the surface is, in fact, much more than that. It’s also a meditation on self-discovery, on finding one’s place in the Universe, a process that ultimately proves to be far more subjective than its objectively minded protagonist once believed it to be. Indeed, as the storyteller relates, the mapmaker learns through his experience that “truth is conjecture.”

The picture is also a metaphysical exploration into the workings of the conscious creation process. As anyone familiar with this practice knows, conscious creation is the process by which we create the reality we experience through the application of our beliefs to the act of manifestation. The beliefs we employ in the materialization process arise from the input we supply them from our intellect and our intuition, a harmonious fusion sometimes known as “the magical approach.” In carrying out its mission, our intellect draws upon qualities like logic, reason and the perceptions of our five outer senses. Our intuition, in turn, makes use of such traits as emotions, gut feelings, impulses and inner knowing. The interaction of the input from these two sources yields the beliefs we form and then turn into the corporeal world we experience around us.

Will and Gadarine symbolically depict how this process plays out. The logical, analytical Will represents the intellect, while the impulsive, creative Gadarine symbolizes the intuition. Like many of us who were brought up to believe that rational approaches to life are everything, Will, by his work, words and deeds, believes that science and technology can be used to answer all questions, to solve all problems and to make the world a better place. Gadarine, by contrast, believes we should trust our hunches and live an intuitive approach to life, for that’s where its genuine richness resides. While each outlook has its merits, however, neither can operate alone. They need each other, just as Will and Gadarine need each other to make their journey work. Their interaction results in the real magic that the magical approach makes possible.

Coming to this realization about how life works is indeed quite revelatory in many different ways. In one sense, it can be devastating, for it shatters all of our preconceived notions about how we think the world works, as Will discovers when he realizes that his rational, mechanistic, scientific approach to life isn’t enough to make it fulfilling or to adequately define it. Becoming aware of the fact that reality is more subjective than objective can be quite disillusioning, especially for those, like Will, who put their faith in the notion that all of life can be characterized in such explicitly definitive terms.

At the same time, this realization can also be rewarding beyond expectations. When Will discovers the “irrational” but heartfelt beauty that life has to offer, the power of such subjectivity transcends whatever certainty an objective outlook on reality can provide. This can be a hard lesson, but it can also be one that’s fulfilling beyond measure. The question that this raises, then, is “Does one have the courage to walk away from old attitudes and embrace such a new, nuanced view of life?” That’s the issue Will must face, and he has Gadarine to thank for helping to make him aware of this possibility – and the choice he has in either addressing it or ignoring it. We can only hope he makes the right choice.

“Here” is a thoughtfully written exploration of the foregoing, as examined through the milieu of romance. While any subject could have conceivably been used for such an exercise, romance is especially fitting, considering the exceptionally intimate, highly personalized nature of the material. The pacing is, admittedly, a tad slow in spots, but that’s deliberate, given that self-discovery is often an unhurried process, an approach that’s essential to the exploration of one’s own psyche and the mapping of one’s own heart. The pace is also slowed somewhat through the inclusion of a number of long, lingering shots of the Armenian landscape (itself one of the stars of the show) that are clearly present for their own sheer visual delight. In fact, the picture’s gorgeous cinematography was rewarded with a 2012 Independent Spirit Award nomination for its achievements in this area.

In an age characterized by extreme technological specificity, we’re often tempted to quantify and qualify everything in our lives to an almost absurdly explicit degree, one where all of the meaning and feeling – the true measures of life's significance – is bled out of them. By doing so, we may gain access to the hard and fast tangible qualities of what we experience, but we lose so much by not taking stock of the intrinsic subjective attributes of our reality. And that’s a shame, for, if we’re to gain a genuine appreciation of our lives, we’d be far better off passing up readouts on the numerical coordinates of our present existence and, instead, focusing more on the “here” of where we are. Will and Gadarine come to learn the value of this through their journey in “Here,” and we can all benefit from their example.

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

Friday, May 24, 2013

‘Star Trek’ boldly goes ‘Into Darkness’

“Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013). Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Noel Clarke, Beau Billingslea. Director: J.J. Abrams. Screenplay: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Source Material: Star Trek TV series, by Gene Roddenberry. Web site. Trailer.

Those seeking an enlightened path for themselves often gravitate exclusively to “the light,” casually ignoring or even actively eschewing “the shadow” side of things. But is this a wise course? Are there things that “the dark side” can teach us? The answer might come as quite a surprise, but that’s what the crew of an intrepid space vessel is about to find out in the action-packed sci-fi adventure, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the twelfth and latest movie installment in this long-running entertainment franchise.

Some days throw us some mighty big curves. Just as Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the brash, young, sometimes-reckless commander of the Starship Enterprise, believes he’s about to be awarded a plum mission assignment, he instead gets a hard lesson in “no good deed goes unpunished.” In the wake of a perilous first contact mission to the planet Nibiru during which he went to extraordinary lengths to save the lives of that world’s primitive inhabitants and of his best friend, First Officer Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk is unceremoniously demoted in rank and stripped of his command. He’s punished for actions that brazenly violated the Prime Directive of the expedition’s authorizing body, the United Federation of Planets, which strictly prohibits interference by UFP representatives in the natural course of a world’s evolution.

But, if that news weren’t bad enough, Kirk becomes even more upset when he learns that the report detailing the Nibiru incident (and prompting his demotion) was written by his First Officer. As a Vulcan, a race of beings whose culture is based on logic and total honesty, Spock is fundamentally incapable of lying, either by intention or omission. And so, despite the consequences, the ever-diligent Starship officer and scrupulously earnest Vulcan feels compelled to tell the truth, even if it places his friendship with Kirk in jeopardy.

However, despite his transgressions, Kirk is not without his allies, such as Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). As the young swashbuckler’s superior officer, Pike is charged with delivering the bad news. But, as Kirk’s former captain, he’s also well aware of his protégé’s command abilities and sincerely seeks to minimize the impact of his demotion. So, in reassuming command of the Enterprise, Pike informs Kirk that he’s appointing his prodigy as his First Officer, with Spock being transferred to a different Starship. Kirk has mixed feelings about this new arrangement, but, if it gets him back aboard the Enterprise, he’s willing to go along with it.

By being named First Officer of the Enterprise, Kirk is allowed to remain in the upper echelon of Starfleet Command, the military and peacekeeping arm of the Federation, a move that proves to be a wise decision. When one of Starfleet’s high-ranking agents, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), unexpectedly goes rogue and masterminds a horrific terrorist incident, the inner circle of officers holds an emergency meeting to investigate the event. Kirk’s keen insights cut through the clutter and get his peers’ attention, most notably that of Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), head of the investigation team. By quickly identifying how and where the fugitive insurgent fled, Kirk is given the go-ahead to devise a plan for apprehending the renegade operative. But launching that endeavor comes at a high price and involves tremendous risk, including the threat of interplanetary war, all of which make Kirk’s adept command skills more valuable than ever.

To say what happens next would divulge far too much about the film’s intricate, engaging plot, but suffice it to say that Kirk and company are indeed propelled “into darkness,” as the picture’s title indicates. In so doing, the Enterprise sets off on a mission filled with intrigue, deception, false pretenses, danger and more than enough thrills to satisfy even the most ardent action-adventure junkie. But the story line also presents a thoughtful narrative characterized by explorations into personal empowerment, growth and development, as well as the rise of maturity, the sharpening of intuition and the expansion of individual capabilities. It’s quite a jam-packed saga, to say the least.

Considering the supremely hopeful view of the future that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned, one can’t help but wonder why this latest installment in this immensely popular entertainment franchise has embarked on such a “dark” journey. Idealistic fans of this body of work might even see this as a betrayal of the originator’s optimistic vision. But I believe there are several sound reasons behind this move that have solid metaphysical underpinnings, notions that effectively complement and expand upon Roddenberry’s original concept.

Whenever we’re on the brink of a major spurt in our personal growth and development, we’re invariably faced with some kind of test, one that usually involves fear and movement into uncharted territory. Such ventures are frequently scary, and we often feel besieged by the circumstances with which we’re presented (or, more precisely, that we inevitably draw to us, be it consciously or unconsciously). We might well be tempted to flee in terror, but, if we genuinely hope to get past such daunting situations, we must face up to them. And this, as anyone who has successfully made it through trials like this can attest, is tantamount to living out the dark night of the soul.

For many of us, the term “dark night of the soul” evokes unsettling, perhaps even hellish images, and the prospect of going through it may seem overwhelming. However, those of us who have successfully maneuvered our way through such experiences know that we emerge from them stronger, wiser and better able to respond to the circumstances that cross our paths. They force us into becoming more creative, more resourceful and more imaginative, pushing us to broaden our horizons and become more effective conscious creators. And the benefits of such developments serve us well as we move forward in life, making us better able to respond to whatever challenges – and opportunities – come our way.

All of the principals in this film go through such personal transformations. Kirk and Spock experience these changes to the greatest degree, growing immeasurably in stature and maturity as effective Starfleet officers and as forthright, courageous leaders of their minions. But other members of the Enterprise crew grow as individuals and professionals, too, including Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana), Helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), Engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg), Navigator Pavel Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) and Science Officer Carol Wallace (Alice Eve). Even Harrison, despite his heinous deeds, grows in unexpected ways, some of them even laudable. But the true measure of success at this ultimately depends on the degree to which we learn how to effectively employ and manage our conscious creation proficiency and the power that accompanies it.

This is where the “darkness” allusion comes into play once again. Those who understand the conscious creation process are well aware that the reality we experience arises from the beliefs and intents we maintain. Our externalized world springs forth from the internal world of our thoughts, an infinite, formless realm in which all possible probabilities reside, one that’s sometimes called “a great shining darkness.” Whenever we tap into it, we plumb the depths of that well of potential manifestation, and the deeper we go, the darker it may seem, especially when we seek solutions for addressing new and thorny challenges. By allowing ourselves to become immersed in such conditions, we enable new ideas to percolate into our consciousness, ideas that we can convert into beliefs for materializing the existence we subsequently experience.

Such expansions of consciousness invariably reveal our innate capacity for flexibility and adaptability, providing us with glimpses of our true multidimensional selves. These qualities promote open-mindedness, as well as a willingness to try out new ideas and to view situations from a variety of perspectives. And this, in turn, enables us to see ourselves for the greater beings we really are. One would hope that the enlightenment afforded by such increased awareness would allow us to see the “preferable” choices open to us, including traits like fairness, justice, mercy and, above all, compassion.

Opportunities to examine such options are presented repeatedly to the Enterprise crew throughout the film. For their sake, we can only hope that they have the wisdom, intuitive insight and courage to recognize and follow through on them when they arise. But, as in any conscious creation scenario, they (and we) must always be cognizant that they (and we) always have choice to draw upon in deciding which beliefs to embrace. While the choices of supremely virtuous characters like Spock should be patently obvious, they may not be as clear-cut for others, like Harrison and even some of the supposedly honorable Starfleet brass. And that’s when matters can get tricky, especially when the darkness factor is once again considered.

The intrinsic nature of the aforementioned great shining darkness represents a tremendous source of power, one that we can draw upon to create virtually anything we wish to experience. And, when that power joins forces with the element of choice, the mix can become quite volatile. Understanding how to properly balance these two potent forces is essential, for they carry tremendous potential – and consequences – depending upon how they’re handled.

Descending deeply into the great shining darkness and tapping the raw power available there can yield impressive results, as well as disastrous outcomes if not tempered by wisdom and insight. Again, in this picture we see characters who pursue both courses, as well as various gradations in between. What they choose and how they manage their power provide us with a wide range of examples of how we can find our own way through the great shining darkness.

Venturing into “the darkness” need not automatically be assumed to be a descent into evil or an ill-fated voyage of the damned. Rather, it can provide a valuable lesson in seeing the true expanse of the choices and power we have available to us – and learning in earnest how to draw upon both of them wisely. In boldly going where we’ve never gone before, it helps to have a lantern to light our way through the darkness, and this film provides us with just such a shining metaphorical torch.

As with the film that preceded this picture, director J.J. Abrams has once again knocked it out of the park – and even better this time. Before the release of “Star Trek” in 2009, longtime fans of the franchise were justifiably skeptical about whether the filmmakers could successfully reboot it. But the cast and crew of that initial outing came through, and they have impressively built upon that success in this latest offering, paving the way for what should be a brilliant cinematic future.

This picture’s mind-blowing action sequences and 3D special effects, coupled with a thoughtful script in the tradition of the time-honored franchise, combine to create a thoroughly enlightening and entertaining movie experience. Its impeccably assembled cast comes through once again, delivering fresh yet reverent portrayals of younger versions of characters that viewers have come to know so well through the original TV series and six theatrical films.

I’m especially pleased that the film continues to build on one of its predecessor’s greatest strengths – its audacious exploration of a new line of probability. At the risk of playing spoiler about this picture’s forerunner, when the filmmakers embarked on rebooting the franchise, they made a very shrewd decision that opened them up to a plethora of new possibilities by making use of a simple but highly effective plot device – they changed the time line of the original franchise, wiping the slate clean of its existing mythology and making it possible to do whatever they want along the new narrative path. In a very literal sense, then, the current keepers of the Star Trek franchise truly are free to boldly go where no one has gone before.

With that said, however, the filmmakers have also wisely chosen not to abandon familiar elements, like character traits, locales and institutions. Fans of the franchise will no doubt recognize references to material from a wide range of Star Trek properties, including the original TV series (1966-1969), “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) and the spinoff TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). But, as familiar as these elements are, they have been tweaked in intriguing ways, giving us delicious new spins on the tried and true. Likewise, references to well-documented events from the original time line have been retained, and some have even been re-created here, but their components have been rearranged in captivating ways, a move that lends considerable credence to a notion that conscious creation (and, to a certain degree, quantum physics) holds dear – that an infinite number of simultaneous, parallel lines of probability exist, all of which are distinct yet accessible to us, depending on where our beliefs and powers of manifestation ultimately take us.

The movie’s reference to Nibiru is an interesting new development, one that draws on material from outside the Star Trek franchise. Those familiar with the writings of investigational mythologist Zecharia Sitchin will undoubtedly recognize the name Nibiru as the mythical planet the author cites in his alternative history of how the Earth came to be populated by humans. While Nibiru’s depiction here differs markedly from Sitchin’s description, it’s intriguing to see the film include a world with such a readily recognizable name. How Nibiru will figure into the unfolding of the franchise’s current line of probability, if at all, remains unclear, but its introduction here – and the salient role it plays in the events of this picture – open up fascinating possibilities for future films.

As conscious creators well know, “everything is in a constant state of becoming,” and so it is with the Star Trek material. While some purists may balk at the direction the franchise is taking, I heartily applaud the new focus. It epitomizes Gene Roddenberry’s iconic motto, and it demonstrably embodies principles that straddle the worlds of both metaphysics and new science.

Indeed, who would have thought that “the darkness” could shed so much light?

Photo by Zade Rosenthal, courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

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

Friday, May 17, 2013

‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ implores us to see ‘the whole picture’

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Gary Richardson, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Sarah Quinn. Director: Mira Nair. Screenplay: William Wheeler. Screen Story: Ami Boghani and Mohsin Hamid. Book: Mohsin Hamid. Web site. Trailer.

In this age of sound bytes and film clips, it’s easy to grow accustomed to seeing our existence in neat, little, compartmentalized snippets. Unfortunately, such conditions also encourage us to increasingly narrow our focus, prompting us to scrutinize individuals and situations as part of ever-shrinking components and, in turn, causing us to lose sight of the bigger picture. But, if we’re to truly understand the world around us, at some point we need to counter this trend and take a broader view of things, an argument eloquently put forth in the gripping new drama, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”

When American university professor Anse Rainier (Gary Richardson) is kidnapped in Lahore, Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and local police are all over the case. They even resort to employing such unconventional measures as calling upon reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to interview a popular Pakistani professor, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), to see if he can shed light on his American colleague’s whereabouts. Changez is targeted because he often addresses provocative topics in his lectures and is thus assumed to be someone who can help authorities find the extremists who are believed to be recruiting students to carry out insurgent acts (like Rainier’s kidnapping) on their behalf. Changez agrees to meet with the reporter on one condition – that he be allowed to tell him his entire story; if not, the deal is off. And so, to get “the story” (i.e., the field intelligence), Lincoln agrees to hear him out.

Changez tells Bobby that, to fully appreciate his current circumstances, one must understand where he came from. The professor grew up in Pakistan, the son of a poet (Om Puri), one whose words and deeds embodied a fairly traditional view of life, an outlook that this “modern” young man respected but found a little behind the times. Changez did not see himself following in the footsteps of his father’s generation; rather, like many young Pakistanis at the time, he aspired to a more contemporary path, one in line with the seductive material trappings of the American dream. To that end, then, he enrolled at Princeton and, after graduation in 2000, landed a job as a Wall Street financial analyst.

Under the wing of his boss and mentor, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), Changez rose up through the ranks rapidly, his razor-sharp analytical skills proving quite useful in assessing high-level business deals. He also became intimately involved with a beautiful young artist, Erica (Kate Hudson), and developed a close circle of friends and colleagues (Nelsan Ellis, Chris Smith, Sarah Quinn). He truly seemed to be living a dream he could once only imagine.

And then came 9/11.

Despite his professional and personal successes, Changez saw his world change drastically in the wake of that event. Even with absolutely no connection to the September 11th tragedy, he suddenly became a perpetual suspect, routinely subjected to intense, often-degrading scrutiny by law enforcement officials, as well as the prejudicial attitudes of others (including one-time friends), simply for being a Muslim. But, if that weren’t enough, disillusionment set in, impacting both his relationship and his work life. The American dream was quickly turning into a nightmare.

The breaking point finally came when Changez was assigned to analyze a business deal where the cold, unfeeling numbers he was accustomed to working with suddenly took on a human face. The callous circumstances associated with that transaction tugged at his heart strings, evoking memories of his roots and speaking to him both as an individual and as a Muslim. He was thus saddled with a quandary in which his personal feelings came into direct conflict with his duties as a representative of his company. It was more than he could bear, and so he resigned.

With no job, Changez was forced to leave New York and return home, where he sought in earnest to reconnect with his culture and with himself. He took a position as a university professor, hoping to learn as much from his students as they could learn from him. In particular, he wanted to better understand the current state of “the Pakistani dream,” one with which he had seriously lost touch. It was also one that, as he quickly found out, involved numerous elements that were far different from what he had grown accustomed to. Changez’s efforts at continuing his own education brought him into contact with a variety of influences involved in shaping contemporary Pakistani society, including its radical fundamentalist factions. His association with such elements thus brought him to the attention of American intelligence officials – and now, a decade later, to his interview with the intrepid reporter.

So who is the real Changez now? Is he a legitimate university professor genuinely curious about reacquainting himself with all facets of his country’s culture? Or is he a jaded radical hell-bent on exacting retribution against those who disillusioned him by actively fostering relationships with jihadists? Or is he something else entirely? And what does all this mean for the fate of Professor Rainier? Answering these questions successfully depends on how closely Bobby and his colleagues look at Changez and how willing they are to attempt to fully understand his story. In doing so, however, they must be aware that things may not be all they seem to be at first glance, a circumstance that can only be made worse by failing to fully examine the whole picture.

Whenever we evaluate a situation that crosses our radar, we’d by wise to examine everything that comes before us, for doing less than that is fraught with perilous pitfalls and potentially disastrous consequences. This is particularly crucial from a conscious creation standpoint, because we draw heavily upon our powers of perception in forming the beliefs we use to manifest the reality we subsequently experience. If we scrutinize circumstances thoroughly, we’re likely to gain an insightful understanding of what’s truly going on and thereby create a reality that takes a broadly encompassing view in response to prevailing conditions. However, if we take only a cursory look at what’s before us, we’re prone to coming up short, formulating faulty, incomplete beliefs that are inadequate for comprehending and responding to existing circumstances.

This is the case that Changez pleads, not only for himself, but for everyone, both on- and off-screen. By taking a superficial view of others and their circumstances, we often end up arriving at skewed misconceptions, leading to misinterpretations of their actions, outlooks and motives. In turn, they’re likely to respond in kind, misinterpreting our actions, outlooks and motives, which subsequently leads to more of the same on both sides, escalating matters toward an out-of-control spiral from which it’s difficult to extricate ourselves. And it’s disheartening to think that it’s all so completely unnecessary, a situation that can be avoided by simply taking a close, thorough look at things from the outset. This is how prejudice is born, that menacing cancer on our society – and on our collective existence – that does little more than fan the flames of manufactured fear, mistrust and hatred.

As laudable as taking a broad view might sound, however, just how do we go about it? Generally speaking, the process is not as difficult as one might think, but there are certain essential qualities that we must employ to make it work. The most obvious of these are time and patience, commodities that, regrettably, are all too rare in today’s instant gratification-driven culture (especially in Western society). It also requires keen powers of discernment, the ability to cut through the noise, fog and camouflage that often shroud circumstances to see what’s really going on. And, in forming responsive beliefs and actions to these conditions, the process further calls upon our aptitude for understanding consequences, the outcomes that flow from our assessments. But, above all, the process demands responsibility and commitment from us, a willingness on our part to sincerely and fully analyze all aspects of the bigger picture.

Employing this process, admittedly, takes some practice, especially if we’ve been remiss about it. Even Changez, who is generally rather adept at it and passionately encourages others to make use of it, has his own blind spots. For instance, during his time as a financial analyst, he was quite skillful at seeing the big picture and cutting through the clutter to identify what needed to be done to make a deal work. However, he also regularly failed to see that individuals’ livelihoods were often tied to the cold, hard statistics he analyzed, losing sight of the fallout on the workers who would be laid off when his proposed mergers eliminated such “unnecessary expense redundancies.” Only when the impersonal numbers that fueled such “objective” decisions were supplanted by the inescapable human faces of those who were affected could Changez see the consequences of the reality he was contributing to creating. Indeed, as metaphysical guru Wayne Dyer is fond of saying, “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”

The aforementioned blind spots speak to a capacity for taking a narrow view of the matters at hand, and the more restricted one’s outlook, the narrower one’s focus becomes, perhaps even degenerating into tunnel vision. When that occurs, fundamentalism is born, a perspective characterized by an inherently limited, often-intolerant, frequently literal interpretation of prevailing circumstances. Such thinking is hindering and unimaginative at best, treacherous and oppressive at worst, regardless of which area of life it’s employed, be it business, religion, politics, relationships or other endeavors. Approaching the creation of our reality from such a constrained standpoint seriously inhibits our ability to function effectively, but it can be made that much worse if we ignorantly and selfishly attempt to impose it on others. For his part, Changez recognizes the intrinsic danger in this, and, having lived in both the East and the West, he’s able to see the potential damage that fundamentalism can inflict on cultures on both sides of the globe.

To help counteract the foregoing, we’d be wise to make the effort to recognize, understand and appreciate the multidimensional nature of our true selves. In suggesting this, I’m not referring to the development of an awareness of the parts of our greater being that extend beyond our localized selves (though such an expanded metaphysical outlook certainly couldn’t hurt); rather, this has more to do with appreciating all of the diverse qualities that make us up as individuals, the many dimensions that comprise our personal character. Developing such an appreciation allows us to see the bigger picture of who each of us is.

Changez, for example, is more than just a professor who discusses radical politics; to see him in such a limited light, as the intelligence officials in the film tend to do, is a gross oversimplification of who he is. Rather, he’s also an educator who talks about society, culture and economics, as well as an astute analyst, a sensitive soul, a devoted son and an open-minded thinker, among other traits. Indeed, he is all these things and more, so failing to see him as anything less than that sells him short, preventing us from viewing all that he is and all that he has to offer. Thus, to avoid the kinds of pitfalls discussed earlier, it would truly be in our best interests to look to one’s multidimensionality; by not doing so, we may only see part of the picture (and a very small portion of it at that).

The benefits of seeing the big picture ultimately outweigh taking a dim view of things. Openly embracing such a mindset may not always be easy, especially if we’ve allowed ourselves to succumb to the peer pressure and prevailing conditions that drive narrower viewpoints. But, if we ever hope to escape the confining chains of self-imposed limitation, we must have the courage to step up to the plate and be willing to adopt an outlook that celebrates open-mindedness and an expanded world view, just as Changez implores us to do. At some point, our future may well depend on it.

While watching “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” I must admit that I initially found it a little slow-moving and meandering. But then, by film’s end, I realized this approach was essential to get viewers to appreciate the movie’s central message – that we need to take the time and have the patience to see someone’s story all the way through in order to grasp the bigger picture of who they are. When everything comes together at the end of this film, just as it does when we faithfully follow the account of anyone’s odyssey through to completion, we’re better able to appreciate the totality of their story – and their being. Indeed, as this picture steams toward its emotion-packed conclusion, it gets better and better as it goes along, stringing together the various threads that weave the tapestry of Changez’s life and philosophy.

On top of its thoughtful script and dynamite finish, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is well acted and beautifully filmed, with a great soundtrack to back it all up. The film is currently playing in limited release at theaters specializing in indie cinema, but it is also accessible through the Independent Film Channel’s IFC Films On-demand feature available from many cable television providers.

The advantages of an expanded view of reality should be patently obvious, but, to make effective use of it, we must follow through on our resolve to actively employ it in our conscious creation efforts. The rewards that come from doing so are almost too numerous to count, but the collective benefit they afford us is what really matters most, for it elevates us to a more enlightened level of existence. And anything that brings us a higher quality of life can only serve to make a better world for all of us who comprise our grand global mosaic.

Photo by Quantrell Colbert, courtesy of IFC Films.

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

Friday, May 10, 2013

‘Kon-Tiki’ successfully navigates the depths of creation

“Kon-Tiki” (2012). Cast: Pål Svere Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Jakob Oftebro, Agnes Kittelsen, Peter Wight, Manuel Cauchi, Kasper Ameberg Johnsen, Edward Kling. Directors: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Screenplay: Petter Skavlan. Web site. Trailer.

Any ambitious undertaking carries the potential for both great risks and great rewards. All too often, however, we back away, playing it safe (and missing out on one hell of a good time). But then there are those courageous souls who don’t shy away from their challenges, reveling in the adventures that await, unexpected escapades and all. Such is the example provided by the fact-based historical drama, “Kon-Tiki.”

Norwegian-born ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Svere Hagen) had always been a risk-taker. Even as a young boy (Kasper Ameberg Johnsen), he took chances that the other children considered foolhardy (assessments that sometimes proved correct, too). But such criticisms never quashed Thor’s sense of adventure, a quality that would come to define him in his adult life.

In 1937, Heyerdahl and his young bride, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), traveled to Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific. There he studied the local culture, with a particular emphasis on the history and origins of the residents. During the course of his research, he made a number of remarkable discoveries that set conventional anthropological thinking on its ear, most notably the idea that the islands very likely could have been colonized by transplants from South America, and not from Asia, as had been widely thought. Local folklore, religious icons and plant life all had striking attributes linking them to Peru and the culture of the Incas, all in stark contrast to what Heyerdahl’s contemporaries staunchly maintained. But the predominant wisdom didn’t keep Thor from daring to think the unthinkable; in fact, it only made him more determined to find a way to prove his theory.

Most ethnologists at the time believed that it would have been impossible for South Americans to settle Polynesia, mainly because the prevailing Pacific Ocean currents would not have been conducive for seafarers attempting to sail from East to West, and this supposition formed the basis for the Asia settlement theory. However, Heyerdahl believed it would have been feasible for South American explorers to make the journey by floating across the ocean on balsawood rafts. Such a trip would have taken some time, but Heyerdahl contended it was not outside the realm of possibility.

After leaving Fatu Hiva, Thor traveled to America to make the case for his hypothesis. He sought funds for an expedition that would replicate the ancients’ seafaring ways to prove his point. But Heyerdahl had no takers, even from organizations as adventurous as the National Geographic Society. Finding a crew was difficult, too, as most candidates saw the proposal as suicidal, especially since it was to be headed by a leader who had a fear of water and couldn’t swim. Heyerdahl held firm, however, eventually finding the means to launch his project. He committed to the adventure, despite the risks, criticisms and high personal costs to his marriage.

Not long thereafter, Thor traveled to Peru to embark on the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, the raft that he would sail across the Pacific. His vessel, named for a Peruvian sun god, was built according to ancient specifications, with his only concession to modern technology being a radio, which was not intended for rescue purposes but for informing the outside world of his expedition’s progress. With the support of Peruvian President José Bustamante (Manuel Cauchi) and the supply arm of the U.S. military, Heyerdahl got his mission under way. He assembled a crew that included his longtime friend and navigator Erik Hesselberg (Odd-Magnus Williamson), radio operators Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), engineer Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), and ethnologist and cameraman Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgård), all of whom were Norwegian except for Danielsson, a Swede.

Amid much fanfare, the Kon-Tiki launched from the west coast of Peru in April 1947. The whole world watched in wonder as the crew embarked on its epic journey. But, even with thorough planning and the best of intentions, Heyerdahl and company soon found that they were in for far more than they had bargained. Their odyssey was fraught with dangers and challenges that repeatedly tested the crew’s resolve and even threatened their very survival. Would the intrepid adventurers succeed, or were they destined to fail? Only time, and the ocean’s currents, would tell.

Those who boldly embrace the practice of conscious creation see the philosophy for the adventure it truly can be. Exploring the myriad options for physical manifestation made possible through the deliberate manipulation of one’s consciousness can be quite an exhilarating, profound, thought-provoking experience, arguably one of the most invigorating possibilities open to those who plumb the various states of existence available to them. It can be so fulfilling, in fact, that author and conscious creation advocate Jane Roberts fittingly titled one of her books on the subject Adventures in Consciousness. Indeed, it’s an idea so potentially exciting that it’s enough to take one’s breath away, both literally and metaphorically.

In many ways, Heyerdahl and his crew epitomized this concept, living it out to the fullest through their audacious exploits. Thor had no reservation about trying the untried, despite such seemingly inherent limitations as his inability to swim. His unwavering faith in his beliefs, the driving forces in the reality he created, kept him on the path (or, in his case, the current) that would transport him to his envisioned destination, again, both literally and metaphorically.

Holding on to that faith was certainly challenging at times, however, given some of the obstacles that stood in the way of the Kon-Tiki crew achieving its objective. Unfavorable steering currents threatened to take the expedition far off course, perhaps even into the hazards of the menacing Galapagos Maelstrom. Waterlogging of the raft’s building materials endangered the craft’s seaworthiness, a problem made worse by rough seas and the battering inflicted by inclement weather. Relentless shark attacks placed the crew in frequent peril. And, if surviving all that weren’t enough, razor-sharp reefs near the journey’s end jeopardized the vessel’s hull, threatening to shred it to pieces just as Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki crew were about to realize their goal.

But, in spite of such difficulties, Thor held firm to his beliefs, confident in his conviction that the voyage of the Kon-Tiki would succeed. In large part this was due to his mastery of his fears, one of the factors that can significantly undercut the viability of the conscious creation process. The fervor he demonstrated in this regard often inspired, but sometimes frightened, his fellow sailors. In fact, his passion was at times almost seen as an obsession, one for which logic and reason were sacrificed on the altar of fixation.

But, again, Thor knew he would triumph, and his commitment to that outcome carried him through the tough times. Whatever setbacks the crew encountered were ultimately blessings in disguise, parts of the plan for getting them to where they wanted to be. The Universe, as our partner in the conscious creation process, always provides, bringing us what we need to reach our destinations and fulfill our goals, even if we don’t always understand the logic behind its veiled, sometimes seemingly questionable manifestations. This is particularly true of those that fail to take the forms that we think they should. In carrying out its role as collaborator, the Universe simply asks us to state our intentions and then to get out of its way as it handles the fulfillment process, bringing us what we need to best realize the materialization of those intentions (even if we don’t always see it that way). In his own way, Heyerdahl understood this and let it serve as his guiding precept for how he conducted himself as leader of the expedition. For their part, the crew was wise to trust his judgment on this matter, and anyone who longs to be an effective conscious creation practitioner should follow suit, too.

Heyerdahl never conclusively proved that South Americans colonized Polynesia, though, because of the success of his expedition, he made a very convincing case for its validity. He furthered those arguments in the best-selling book he wrote about his journey, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (first published in 1948), and in the film he made chronicling the voyage, “Kon-Tiki” (1950), which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1951. His success with the Kon-Tiki mission brought him international acclaim, providing a springboard that helped launch a number of future adventures testing out additional unconventional ethnological theories. (Not bad for an impulsive, nonconformist risk-taker, eh?)

This fictionalized re-creation of Heyerdahl’s journey does tremendous justice to the famous explorer’s odyssey and legacy. It’s a well-made action thriller that fills viewers with a great sense of adventure throughout. (Just wait until you see the shark attack sequences – easily some of the best presented on screen since the standard was set in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975).) On top of that, the film features positively gorgeous cinematography and an inspiring, heroic soundtrack. The picture is currently playing in limited release, primarily in theatres specializing in foreign and independent cinema (though wider distribution may be in the offing), and an upcoming DVD release is scheduled for the near future.

Like its documentary predecessor, “Kon-Tiki” won favor with Oscar voters, capturing a 2012 nomination as best foreign language film, an accomplishment duplicated in last year’s Golden Globe Awards competition as well. Viewers might be a little perplexed about the foreign language film nominations, however, given that North American audiences are being shown an English version of the picture. That’s because the movie’s producers were so sold on this film’s worldwide box office potential that they shot it twice, once in the filmmakers’ native Norwegian and once in English. That’s quite a testament to the faith that co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg placed in their production, but then such confidence shouldn’t come as any surprise; after all, look at whom their film is about.

Heyerdahl’s adventure serves as a shining example of what’s possible when we allow ourselves to freely navigate the rich, creative waters of consciousness and manifestation, and “Kon-Tiki” shows us clearly how to get our feet wet. Prepare yourself for quite a thrill ride if you see this splendid offering. You never know what adventures of your own it just might inspire.

Photo by Carl Christian Raabe, courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

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

‘No’ showcases the power of ideas

“No” (2012). Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Néstor Cantillana, Antónia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Pascal Montero, Jaime Vadell, Elsa Poblete. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Pedro Peirano. Play: El Plebiscito (The Referendum), by Antonio Skármeta. Web site. Trailer.

When an idea takes root, it can spread like a weed, quickly overtaking anything in its path. This is particularly true for political and social movements, which can go viral in the blink of an eye. Such was the case in one Latin American country 25 years ago, when an innovative notion took off and drastically changed the nation’s character, an endeavor compellingly depicted in the unusual, fact-based comedy-drama, “No.”

In 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende and his Communist/Socialist coalition government were overthrown by a military-led, U.S.-backed coup. Allende’s commander-in-chief, General Augusto Pinochet, assumed the presidency, holding on to that post for 15 years. During his time in power, Chile experienced an economic turnaround, eliminating much of the poverty it had once suffered. However, such prosperity came at a high price; to maintain control, Pinochet and his authoritarian regime ruled with an iron fist, resorting to torturing, murdering, beheading, exiling and “disappearing” those who opposed the dictator and his autocratic cronies. But, by 1988, as word of Chile’s human rights violations had spread across the globe, increased international pressure was placed on the despot to clean up his act.

Pinochet’s solution was to call for a plebiscite on the country’s political future. A “Yes” vote would guarantee the dictator another eight years in office, while a “No” vote would signal a call for open elections. The campaign period for the referendum was to last only 27 days, with each side limited to a scant 15 minutes of televised promotion time per day. Opportunities to persuade voters to reject the incumbent power structure were thus extremely restricted.

Many of Chile’s “dissidents” believed the plebiscite was rigged from the outset, that their voices of opposition, even if heard, wouldn’t change an outcome that they saw as a foregone conclusion. Those who weren’t quite so disheartened believed an honest vote truly was possible, but they feared that many of Chile’s voters had either become complacent (lulled to sleep by the country’s newfound economic abundance) or felt intimidated (deathly afraid of retribution from Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA). If the No campaign was to have any hope for success, its backers knew they would have to implement a promotional strategy that would effectively snare voter attention.

As the promotion period ramped up, José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), one of the leaders of the No contingent, called upon René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a hotshot ad agency “closer” (one who seals deals with clients), to take a look at what his colleagues were proposing. René, a soft-spoken, smooth-talking, supremely confident professional adept at selling clients and consumers alike on advertising programs for everything from soda pop to microwave ovens, was initially asked just to offer an opinion on the proposed campaign. But, before long, René became committed to the No coalition’s efforts. Having been personally affected by Pinochet’s atrocities (his father was one of the disappeared, and his activist ex-wife, Verónica (Antónia Zegers), was routinely harassed and arrested by authorities), he couldn’t help but embrace the opposition’s crusade.

Drawing on his years of ad agency experience, and aided by Urrutia, by mentor Alberto Arancibia (Marcial Tagle) and by cameraman Fernando Costa (Néstor Cantillana), René drastically altered the direction of the campaign. The creative team shifted the tone from one driven by fear and loathing (which they believed would only engender more negativity) to one based on optimism for the future, even going so far as to adopt the motto, “Happiness is coming!”, an unconventional, highly simplistic, almost “juvenile” choice for a political campaign slogan. The No camp employed music video-style ads, suggestive humor and even a catchy jingle to promote its message. Celebrities like Christopher Reeve, Richard Dreyfuss and Jane Fonda were also called upon to create public service announcements in favor of “the No.”

The powers-that-be initially scoffed at such efforts, seeing them as silly and frivolous. But that all began to change when it became apparent that René’s unlikely approach was working. In fact, René’s success drew considerable, and sometimes-unwanted, scrutiny, such as from his boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), a supporter of the Yes campaign. It even captured the attention of Minister Fernández (Jaime Vadell), who, like Guzmán, served as a trusted advisor to Pinochet. Before long, René and his peers also became the subject of government-backed surveillance and intimidation, including veiled threats made against René’s young son, Simón (Pascal Montero). And, as the campaign wrapped up, official efforts to squelch public support for the No intensified, resulting in violent crackdowns at organized rallies in favor of the cause. But, come election day, the voters had a hearty last laugh – and all at Pinochet’s expense.

Whenever someone challenges the conventional wisdom, it’s easy to dismiss their thinking out of hand. So it was with René’s proposed plan. Selling a political concept like a consumer product made his strategy an easy target for cynical, close-minded pundits. After all, who could possibly take seriously a proposal for a country’s political future when it’s pitched using the kind of happy talk marketing techniques typically reserved for plugging a breakfast cereal? But, as the detractors found out, those who easily dismiss out-of-the-box efforts like this run the risk of underestimating the inherent power of ideas, especially those that have never been tried before.

Virtually anyone who is genuinely passionate about a particular goal has an unshakable faith in the outcome of the effort aimed at fulfilling that objective. An ardent devotee sincerely believes in its inevitability, thoroughly convinced of its ultimate manifestation. Such is the essence of effective conscious creation – the practice of employing beliefs to materialize the reality we experience (preferably in line with the vision we would hope to achieve for it). So it was with René, whose unwavering confidence and resolute belief in his approach helped catapult his strategy to success. He knew his plan would succeed, and so it did.

So how did René know his plan would work? For starters, he trusted his intuition, one of the tools conscious creators routinely employ in working their magic. Indeed, he was well aware of his proposal’s intrinsic viability. But this inner knowledge wasn’t based on sheer random conjecture; he understood why it would work and, accordingly, fostered beliefs to support such prescience.

For instance, René successfully tapped into the underlying mindset of Chile’s voters at the time, even if that prevalent attitude went largely unspoken publicly. He knew that, if the No campaign were to prevail, he would have to bring that suppressed outlook “aboveground,” raising it from the depths of the nation’s repressed consciousness to the light of day, thereby making it visible for all to see – and accessible for everyone to embrace. To that end, he knew that the population had tired of Pinochet’s fear-mongering and heavy-handed coercion. But, at the same time, he was also aware that “like attracts like,” realizing that, if he fashioned a campaign to attack those harsh government tactics, it would only serve to birth more of the same, both in the minds of voters and perhaps even in the streets of the nation’s cities.

To counter this problem, René devised an approach that would give voters what they wanted but without any unwanted consequences: Rather than focusing the campaign on what citizens didn’t want, he instead chose to focus it on what they did. He knew that Chileans craved a bright, hopeful future, so he structured the campaign to reflect that desire. Placing emphasis on what’s being sought, rather than on what’s to be avoided, significantly bolsters one’s efforts to attain the goal in question (think “love peace” and not “hate war,” and you’ll get the idea here). With the hoped-for outcome thus identified, René and his associates nurtured the concept in the minds of voters through repetition and reinforcement. As citizens grew ever more enamored with the idea, they became empowered by it, forming beliefs to support it, and then to manifest it, en masse. And, the longer this went on, the more confident they became in their conviction that this radical “No”-tion could, in fact, become a reality.

To be sure, some of René’s tactics were a little goofy, but they nevertheless generated the support his effort needed, a particularly important consideration for an undertaking as big as this. A mass co-creation requires ample input from all involved to make it happen; the more backing that can be created for it, the greater the likelihood of success. Using a fresh, novel approach can often go a long way toward furthering such an effort, too (as anyone who has ever explored a sound but untried probability can attest), and René’s strategy indeed qualified on that front as well.

Of course, it goes without saying that the idea never would have sprouted legs had it not been for the steadfast resolve of its co-creators with regard to the beliefs driving its materialization. Besides holding firm to their convictions, the co-creators behind this program also managed to fend off the onslaught of attacks put forth by the Yes campaign’s naysayers, who routinely mocked (and later attempted to bully) their counterparts. However, the proponents of that initiative failed to realize just how out of touch they were with the beliefs of the majority of the Chilean population, so not only did their own efforts flop, but so, too, did their assaults on the opposition. Indeed, as this picture clearly shows, the power of ideas is something not to be messed with.

“No” is a strangely captivating film, very different from what one might expect out of a movie with a primarily political narrative, yet this witty, sometimes-campy, sometimes-cynical, occasionally dark comedy is a refreshing change of pace. Its subject matter is reminiscent of the intensely dramatic works of political filmmaker Konstantinos Costa-Gavras, peppered with the off-beat humor of directors like Bill Forsyth or Michael Ritchie. As unusual as this fusion is, though, it works amazingly well, thanks in large part to its well-written script (adapted from an unpublished stage play by Chilean author Antonio Skármeta) and the skillful direction of filmmaker Pablo Larraín. The pacing in the first 30 minutes is, admittedly, a little slow, mainly due to some dry, overly talky dialogue, but the crisp flow of the story line picks up thereafter, when the protagonists launch into the heart of the campaign, helping the movie overcome its somewhat sluggish start.

The picture also features some intriguing camera work, intentionally filmed using vintage video technology to seamlessly blend the movie’s live action sequences with archival footage from 1980s Chilean TV, making the two look virtually indistinguishable. Some of the movie’s cinema verité work can be a little annoying at times, but this doesn’t detract much from the overall clever nature of the cinematography. The picture’s soundtrack doesn’t always work either, but the inane campaign music incorporated in the film is a certified hoot.

“No” received its share of attention during the 2012 awards season, having earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. It also received the C.I.C.A.E. Award from the International Confederation of Art Cinemas at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The picture is currently playing in limited release, primarily at theatres featuring foreign and independent cinema, and is scheduled for DVD release in late June.

It’s been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” mainly because the former is the means for conveying ideas, those formidable weapons that trump the effects of whatever tangible arms one might deploy in combat, a lesson the Chilean government learned the hard way in its bid to maintain power. Indeed, when an idea’s time has come, there’s little to restrain it, especially when propelled by the beliefs of the masses who fervently get behind it. To that end, then, “No” should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who would attempt to thwart the will of those who would seek to bring such notions into being.

If you doubt that, just ask Augusto Pinochet.

Photo by Tomás Dittburn, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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

Saturday, May 4, 2013

‘42’ celebrates the glory of a hero’s journey

“42, The True Story of an American Legend” (2013). Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Toby Huss, John C. McGinley, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens, Jr., Brett Cullen, Jesse Luken, Dusan Brown. Director: Brian Helgeland. Screenplay: Brian Helgeland. Web site. Trailer.

Our journey through life is often fraught with frustrations, pitfalls and setbacks. These conditions and events may seem so overwhelming that we might easily be tempted to throw in the towel. Under such circumstances, carrying forth with determination and commitment can be quite difficult without a little inspiration, but, fortunately, that’s something to be found in ample quantities in the moving new sports drama, “42, The True Story of an American Legend,” the film biography of baseball great Jackie Robinson.

The U.S. was a nation on the brink of sweeping social change in the wake of World War II. After having successfully defeated Germany’s fascist regime, Americans’ attitudes were slowly shifting in such areas as civil rights and racial equality. The thinking was that, if minorities like African-Americans could be called upon to serve their country in time of war, then they should also be eligible to share in and enjoy the basic rights they helped fight to protect. These changing outlooks were reflected in various segments of society, too, like professional sports, but nowhere did this become more apparent than in America’s pastime, baseball.

It’s not that the sport didn’t have its share of minorities; black players could indeed be found on baseball diamonds across the country, but they were relegated to their own separate ranks, the Negro leagues. There were plenty of great competitors, too, but the sport’s practice of strictly imposed segregation, fueled by deeply entrenched racist attitudes, kept them isolated, preventing them from showing off their talents to mainstream Major League audiences. But that all changed in late 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) made a bold decision that would revolutionize the game forever.

Recognizing the untapped talent present in the Negro leagues, Rickey decided to draw upon it to bolster the Dodgers’ roster. He saw this move as a means to bring new blood on board to help the team capture the National League pennant, as well as a way to attract greater numbers of black spectators (“Dollars aren’t black or white; they’re green,” as he put it). But, most of all, Rickey saw it as the right thing to do, a decision driven by highly personal considerations. He had his eye on one player in particular, a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League named Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). His plan was to bring Robinson on board with the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals of the International League, where he could be groomed for a subsequent move up to the Big Show.

But the courageous GM’s gesture was not without its risks. Rickey knew that prevailing racial attitudes would make Robinson the target of vicious verbal attacks (if not more) from prejudiced spectators. He also knew that his new recruit would face intense scrutiny from the press (some of whom would likely see his signing as a “novelty”), as well as from the managers and players of opposing squads and even from some of his own teammates, like pitcher Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). And then there were the segregationist Jim Crow laws that were still in place in certain parts of the country, the impact of which would affect such basic logistical considerations as what hotels Jackie would be allowed to stay at while the Dodgers were on the road. On top of all that, Robinson had a reputation for his temper, something that Rickey knew Jackie would have to control if he were to be a success as a player, as a representative of the Dodgers and as an inspiration for his peers, both on and off the field.

Despite the inherent challenges, Robinson and Rickey took up the cause. And, once the plan was launched, all of the anticipated concerns revealed themselves. But, if that weren’t enough, Jackie was tested in other ways, such as bad calls from umpires, deliberately thrown wild pitches intended to inflict physical harm while at bat, and relentless taunting from opposing players and managers, such as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), an unabashed racist. However, in spite of everything, Jackie kept his word about keeping his cool, a monumental task in light of everything he faced. Regardless of whatever came his way, No. 42 came through it all, becoming the star he and Rickey knew he could be and paving the way for future generations of ball players who were judged on their skills, not on their skin color.

Trying the untried and exploring the unexplored are two of the most ambitious, but potentially most rewarding undertakings one can attempt as a conscious creation practitioner. Anyone who has ever taken a leap of faith or dared to dream the seemingly impossible understands what this is all about. But the hoped-for outcomes of such endeavors will never materialize unless one holds beliefs that support the desired results. Fortunately, Robinson and Rickey had suitable beliefs in place in several significant areas when they embarked on their epic adventure together:

* Facing fear, cultivating courage and living heroically. Those who stay locked in fear stay locked in place, so anyone seeking to fulfill a cherished goal must be willing to face whatever trepidation might hinder progress toward achieving it. Fostering beliefs that address this concern is a good starting point. But, as effective as that step is, forming and embracing beliefs that promote courage and impel one to live a truly heroic life is even better, a move that takes that first step and puts it on steroids. While the former approach may be comparable to standing one’s ground in the face of adversity, the latter is tantamount to valiantly charging ahead with commitment and heartfelt conviction.

Robinson and Rickey embodied these beliefs and unconditionally drew upon them in addressing their individual and collective challenges. Both were willing to take the heat for their decisions. Both were adept at coming up with innovative solutions for confronting the problems they faced. But, perhaps most importantly, both exuded grace under pressure, letting their actions speak for them and their beliefs. For Rickey, this was apparent in his unwavering managerial resolve; for Robinson, it surfaced through his play on the field; and for both, the result was success.

* Perseverance wins. As any conscious creator knows, developing the beliefs we need to manifest our desires is certainly easy enough to accomplish, but maintaining our focus on them may be considerably more difficult. This is where the value of perseverance comes in, for, without it, our determination may wane, especially if doubt, fear or contradiction become wrapped up in the mix. Such influences can undermine our materialization efforts, no matter how seemingly committed we may be to them.

Robinson was indeed committed to his craft, determined to show the world what he could do, not as a black baseball player but as a baseball player who just happened to be black. But, such principled, steadfast conviction aside, he also knew he had to perform every time he stepped onto the field, and such awareness fueled his resolve – and his results. Even the brutally malicious racial insults inflicted upon him – as painful as they were – ironically served to motivate him, galvanizing him in his beliefs to come through for his team, his peers and himself. That kind of dedicated perseverance wins every time.

* Building support builds success. From a purely theoretical standpoint, it might be tempting to think that our beliefs, applied with conviction, should be enough to see us through in realizing our objectives. However, as physical beings, we seek to manifest physical outcomes, results that, by their very nature, obviously involve elements possessing physical attributes, especially in the solutions we employ. This, of necessity, includes the manifestation of the people, places and things that appear in our lives and contribute to a particular scenario’s ultimate unfolding. But the elements that are arguably the most important are those that we draw to us to help support us in our creative efforts.

With the deck seemingly stacked against him, Robinson might have easily viewed “support” as an elusive commodity in the pursuit of his quest. However, despite such long odds, he was actually quite successful in attracting it. First and foremost, there was Rickey, the most ardent champion of his cause. And then there was his loving wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who saw him through every ordeal he faced. Before long, other allies rallied to his side, such as sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who Rickey hired to help shepherd Robinson through the minefield of professional baseball and who, as a fellow African-American, sympathized with Jackie’s plight, often facing comparable forms of discrimination, such as deliberate exclusion from press boxes at Major League ballparks. But perhaps the support that was most gratifying came from other members of the Dodgers organization, such as manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) and teammates Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken), who stood by his side when so many others would not.

The support Robinson generated enabled him to shine as the star he knew he could be, which, in turn, helped him win over legions of fans who applauded his many on-field triumphs. In his first season with the Dodgers, he helped his team capture the coveted National League pennant that Rickey had so desperately sought. He also opened the door for other black players to join the ranks of the Major Leagues not long after his historic debut. And his example encouraged ball players for generations to come, such as young Ed Charles (Dusan Brown), who, as a child, was so inspired by Robinson that he followed in his hero’s footsteps, eventually becoming a Major League player himself.

Robinson left quite a legacy in the baseball world, but, by his actions, he also had tremendous impact on the civil rights movement. He came to serve as a symbol of so much, arguably attaining the status of an icon. In fact, these days, whenever anyone breaks through an ostensibly impenetrable barrier of some kind, that pioneer is often compared to Jackie Robinson. Now that’s a hero, if I do say so myself.

As is the case with any picture of a biographical nature, the outcome of the story is, of course, never in doubt, so the real trick in captivating audiences lies with how well the filmmakers get viewers to the anticipated conclusion. In the case of “42,” the film is rather typical of comparable sports dramas – the slow motion action shots come up at just the right moment, the triumphant musical score swirls on cue, etc. But, despite the picture’s somewhat conventional approach, it’s well-done formula material, the kind of heart-tugging hero worship yarn that unashamedly moves even the manliest of men to tears. It’s an excellent baseball drama in the same vein as films like “The Natural” (1984) and a fine example of a sports underdog tale, particularly one where the hero competes under extenuating circumstances, as seen in movies like “Glory Road” (2006), “The Express” (2008) and “The Other Dream Team” (2012). Its Mark Isham soundtrack is, admittedly, a little overdramatic (somewhat uncharacteristic for the longtime screen composer), but, given the picture’s subject matter and formulaic approach, I suppose that’s to be expected.

“42” is also a terrific period piece, effectively capturing the look and feel of the time. It was especially gratifying to see its well-written script accurately reflecting the racial attitudes of the period, successfully resisting the temptation to sugar-coat the language or to present a revisionist, politically correct account of the prejudice at the time. The film is capably acted across the board, but Ford is the real standout here. This is easily the best work he’s done in a long time, perhaps because the septuagenarian is playing his first age-appropriate role in quite a while. I sincerely hope he’s not left out of some very deserving supporting actor nominations when awards season rolls around.

In an age that’s often as cynical as ours is, it’s refreshing to be genuinely inspired by the story of a true hero. Jackie Robinson was that indeed, and on so many levels, too. Drawing from his courageous, determined example is something we should all consider when taking on life’s challenges, no matter how great or how small, for, if we do so, success can’t be far behind.

Photo by D. Stevens, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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