Friday, June 28, 2013

‘Shadow Dancer’ exposes the perils of deceit

“Shadow Dancer” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Brid Brennan, Cathal Maguire, Martin McCann, Barry Barnes, Maria Laird, Ben Smyth. Director: James Marsh. Screenplay: Tom Bradby. Book: Tom Bradby, Shadow Dancer. Web site. Trailer.

When we seek to deceive others, we often end up deceiving ourselves, with our intents reflecting back upon us in startling (though not entirely unexpected) ways. The consequences of such actions can be devastating, too, both for us and for those affected by our schemes, results that become all too painfully apparent in the gripping new thriller, “Shadow Dancer.”

Belfast, Northern Ireland was an explosive place in 1973. The long-simmering conflict between the militant Irish Republican Army and British troops deployed to maintain order flared up routinely at the time. Street clashes frequently erupted, often claiming innocent victims caught in the cross-fire. Such was the case for a young boy (Ben Smyth) who was shot and killed while running an errand, one that was supposed to be handled by his older sister, Collette (Maria Laird). Outraged by the tragedy, in ensuing years, the young girl and her two surviving brothers vowed to exact revenge against the British authorities they believed were responsible for their sibling’s death – by becoming IRA operatives.

Flash forward 20 years to 1993, a time when the IRA and British authorities were earnestly seeking to make peace. It represented a major step forward in relations between the two combatants, but not everyone in the IRA’s ranks was satisfied with the peace talks. Fearing that the IRA leadership was conceding too much, some of the organization’s more radical elements were convinced that they should continue their guerilla tactics, carrying out targeted assassinations and terrorist attacks in retribution for what they perceived as ongoing British oppression.

These sentiments are depicted in the film when Collette, now an adult (Andrea Riseborough), is charged with placing an explosive device in a London subway station. But the plot is foiled by the British intelligence agency MI5 before she can carry it out. Once Collette is in custody, one of MI5’s field agents, Mac (Clive Owen), offers his captive a deal – that she act as an informant to spy on the activities of her brothers and fellow IRA operatives, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), in exchange for staying out of prison. As a single mother of a young son (Cathal Maguire) who faces the prospect of not seeing her child once incarcerated, she reluctantly agrees to Mac’s offer. It’s a move that quickly puts her life in jeopardy from those in close quarters who now have suspicions about her, questioning where her true loyalties lie. And, despite Mac’s reassurances, she fears for her safety, not only from the possible reprisals of her “peers” but also because maintaining her cover requires her to continue engaging in the kinds of dangerous activities her spying was intended to prevent.

But Collette isn’t the only one who experiences challenges in carrying out her undercover mission. Before long, Mac discovers that there are others who appear to be working against him, too. He consults his superior, Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson), for guidance, an inquiry that only leads to even more puzzling questions. And so, as events play out, both the spy and the spy master are thrown into a web of intrigue where they’re left to fend for themselves. The question is, though, will they be able to find out enough in time to keep themselves alive?

When we employ conscious creation to manifest the reality around us, we serve ourselves best when we do so from the standpoint of personal integrity and truthfulness. Failing to do so can easily lead to conscious creation gone awry, with “unintended” outcomes and unwanted results bring thrust upon us and, potentially, others who get caught in the cross-fire (not unlike what happened to Collette’s brother at the film’s outset).

But, as obvious as such advice might seem, why don’t we religiously follow it? How do we allow our intents to become twisted or corrupted? Shouldn’t we be able to keep such untoward influences from impacting what we’re seeking to materialize?

Unexpected outcomes can result in several ways. In most cases, we wind up with unwanted results by failing to be clear with ourselves about what we’re seeking to create. Either we’re foggy about the beliefs we employ to manifest our reality, or we allow competing beliefs to conflict with one another during the manifestation process, or we underutilize our intellect or intuition in forming the beliefs we use for materialization purposes. In all of these instances, the results we realize invariably conform to these “faulty” intentions, accurately reflecting what we put into them, even if they’re not what we thought we were trying to achieve.

In other cases, the outcomes we experience can be the result of mass co-creations in which we contribute to what arises, even though we’re only part of the overall equation. We may successfully participate in creating our respective portions of the outcomes, but the overall results stem from the input of numerous contributors, some of whose intents may not align with – or may even blatantly contradict – our own. We might experience some satisfaction with the results in such situations, but we’re just as likely to find fault with at least some of what appears, too.

Collette and Mac both experience such circumstances as their respective stories unfold. To materialize what each of them truly wants, they must scrutinize their creations to discover what beliefs – both those of an individual and of a collective nature – have contributed to producing what they experience. This can be challenging, given that each of them dances in the shadows of the murky worlds of espionage and subterfuge, routinely engaging in actions that are intentionally deceitful. Under such circumstances, then, is it any wonder that things don’t always turn out as hoped for? Collette’s and Mac’s experiences thus offer us clear, concise cautionary tales about the pitfalls we should all seek to avoid if we hope to steer clear of the kinds of difficulties they and their peers ultimately encounter. Indeed, intentional deception can become a trap, both for those who create it and those who are impacted by it.

“Shadow Dancer” is a well-crafted thriller that slowly sizzles to a powerful climax. Its taut, well-written screenplay is subtle (sometimes even a bit too subtle) but effective in telling its compelling story (you have to watch this one very closely to get the full gist of what’s going on). The film features a great collection of performances, especially by Riseborough, who turns in some of her best on-screen work to date. The pacing is a bit slow in the first 30 minutes, and the sound quality (considering the characters’ thick Irish brogues) leaves something to be desired at times, but these shortcomings don’t detract significantly from what is otherwise a riveting time at the movies. The picture is primarily playing at theatres specializing in independent and foreign cinema, but it’s worth searching for, even if it’s not showing at the neighborhood multiplex.

The perils of deception can wreak havoc in our lives and the lives of others. But, if we strive to create an existence based on genuine intents, we stand a much greater chance of avoiding difficulties that can carry significant consequences. “Shadow Dancer” illustrates these principles effectively, bringing to light the importance of employing honesty in all that we seek to create – and the price we’ll pay if we don’t.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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

Friday, June 21, 2013

‘Man of Steel’ shows us how to soar

“Man of Steel” (2013). Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Ayelet Zurer, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Michael Kelly, Rebecca Buller, Christina Wren, Jack Foley, Joseph Cranford, MacKenzie Gray. Director: Zack Snyder. Screenplay: David S. Goyer. Story: David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. Characters Created By: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Web site. Trailer.

Aspiring to become more than what we perceive ourselves to be is a goal that many of us hold dearly. Following through on that undertaking can be a challenging process, though, particularly when we realize everything that’s involved. Nevertheless, those of us who are undeterred won’t allow potential obstacles to hold us back in this pursuit, especially when we avail ourselves of guidance and inspiration on how to proceed, concepts that are superbly showcased in the new summertime action adventure, “Man of Steel.”

The planet Krypton is a dying world. Having served as home to a technologically advanced species for eons, it’s now on the brink of its demise, an outcome attributable to its inhabitants’ mismanagement of the planet’s natural resources. Sadly, the end of Krypton also means the end of its people unless something can be done quickly to evacuate at least some of the population. Leading the argument for evacuation are Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Krypton’s chief science advisor, and General Zod (Michael Shannon), the planet’s military leader. However, with time running short, no meaningful evacuation plans in place and incessant bickering about how to proceed, the prospects of saving anyone or anything of Krypton look increasingly bleak.

Given these circumstances, Jor-El and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), decide to take drastic measures. They plan to evacuate their infant son, Kal-El, by sending him to a new celestial home, his destination being a distant planet known as Earth. But, not long before Kal’s departure, General Zod learns of Jor-El’s plans and the allegedly illegal, morally offensive acts he perpetrated to make his son’s escape possible. With planetary Armageddon looming, one might wonder why someone like Zod would still be preoccupied with matters such as this, but, as the planet’s chief law enforcement officer, he feels compelled to execute his duties right up to the end. Just as Kal’s ship departs, Zod and Jor-El do battle with one another, a conflict that ends in Jor-El’s death and earns Zod a prolonged sentence in interdimensional confinement.

With Kal-El safely on his way to Earth, at least something of his home world’s existence is preserved. His escape was fortuitously timed, too, for, not long after his departure, Krypton’s end at last comes. The planet’s explosion, however, has an additional, and unintended, outcome – it liberates the once-confined general, who’s hell-bent on tracking down the object of Jor-El’s “transgressions,” no matter what it takes or where it takes him.

Kal-El, meanwhile, arrives on Earth. His ship crash-lands in a field near Smallville, Kansas, where he’s taken in by a childless farming couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane), who raise the alien youngster as their own, naming him Clark. But, as Clark grows up, he quickly learns he’s very different from the other children, possessing exceptional strength and remarkable powers that no one else has. Clark’s extraordinary abilities are due to his exposure to the sun, a younger star than the one that illuminated his native Krypton and whose more intense solar radiation amplifies his physical capabilities. Needless to say, those astonishing talents sometimes scare Clark’s peers (as well as Clark himself). But, with the loving guidance of the Kents, as Clark enters adolescence and adulthood (Henry Cavill), he learns to adapt to his differences and to manage how and when to make use of them.

Even with that awareness, though, Clark is still left with the challenge of discovering and understanding his true nature, an odyssey that takes him to many parts of the globe in search of himself. It’s a journey that exposes him to a wide range of experiences and introduces him to a diverse array of people, such as intrepid newspaper reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). It also eventually leads him to discover the truth about his off-world origins.

With the gaps in his background at last filled in, Clark finally feels ready to take up the challenge of finding his own place in the world. And that couldn’t happen soon enough, both for himself and his fellow earthlings, with the arrival of an unexpected visitor – General Zod. This “Super Man,” this “Man of Steel” is thus about to have his potential put to the test at the hands of an old family nemesis – someone who’s obsessively convinced he has a major score to settle with someone he’s never met.

Embracing one’s personal power might seem like something everyone would naturally want, but such is not the case. In fact, we’re often frightfully intimidated at the prospect. As author Marianne Williamson wrote in her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles (HarperCollins, 1992), “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” So it is with Kal/Clark, who struggles to come to grips with what he’s capable of. On more than one occasion he has witnessed “lesser beings” misusing what power they possess, so the prospect of uncontrollably unleashing his considerably superior capabilities frequently stops Clark in his tracks, giving him pause to evaluate what he should do.

This principle parallels what conscious creators often go through as they grow into their own power. Learning how to employ the practice judiciously, tempered by restraint and wisdom, is arguably one of the most important lessons of our conscious creation education. It teaches us how to use our abilities responsibly. It also encourages us to employ these skills in furthering such causes as justice (rather than vengeance), compassion (rather than callousness) and selflessness (rather than selfishness). And, through it all, it also impels us to overcome our fears (in this case, a potentially big one, the fear of success) so that we may move forward in our lives courageously, even heroically.

Possessing as many powers as Kal/Clark does can easily be overwhelming, something else he needs to learn how to handle. This is best illustrated in a flashback to our hero’s childhood, when a 9-year-old Clark (Cooper Timberline) first begins to become aware of his x-ray vision capabilities. He initially freaks out at the prospect of being able to see inside others, a revelation that causes him to flee in fright. He even secludes himself in a closet in a futile attempt to turn off the capability. However, thanks to Martha’s comforting words of reassurance, he comes to appreciate the ability as something “natural” where he’s concerned. By developing focus and tuning out unnecessary distractions, Clark is further able to refine his special skills, enabling him to master those abilities and allowing him to make use of them with proficiency and without hesitation.

As Clark grows as a sentient being, his character evolves (in his case as someone who represents – and embodies – the best of two worlds). He comes to recognize, as practiced conscious creators do, that evolution is a natural state of affairs, that we’re all in a constant state of becoming, and the more freely we embrace that notion, the more we’re able to relish the joys of creation and existence that it affords.

This is in stark contrast to what happens to those who are unwilling to accept this idea, such as General Zod. Life can be frustrating and difficult for such individuals. By failing to recognize that certain lines of probability are meant to come to an end once they’ve run their course, they set themselves up for heartache and agony by trying to hold on to what should be let go. The fallout from such lost causes can become exacerbated, too, when diehard adherents engage in desperate attempts to sustain what’s clearly meant to fall away. And, in the end, no matter what they might do to forestall the inevitable, the inevitable will always win out, a realization that can be a particularly painful lesson for those who let stubborn hubris get in the way.

By recognizing, embracing and practicing all of the foregoing principles, we each have the potential to become our own “super men” and “super women,” at least metaphorically speaking. Kal’s story thus serves as a fable to symbolize our own personal growth and development, a call to rise above our current status and become more of what we’re truly capable of being. Through such experiences, we even have the potential to live out our value fulfillment, the conscious creation principle having to do with realizing our destiny for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Kal certainly understands what it means to live his life in this way, providing us with an exceptional example we’d all be wise to emulate, no matter what context we apply it to.

“Man of Steel” is a flat-out winner in virtually every respect, thoroughly entertaining and extremely thoughtful from start to finish. It features great performances across the board (particularly Shannon), thanks to the picture’s spot-on casting. The numerous action sequences are punctuated by terrific special effects and a wonderful musical score, but they’re only part of the story here. It’s indeed refreshing to see a film of this genre that doesn’t rely exclusively on explosions and fight scenes to carry the narrative, for this movie is as much a showcase for its characters as it is for its mind-blowing high-tech wizardry.

That said, perhaps the film’s greatest asset is its knock-out screenplay, which relates the Superman saga in a compelling new way. Viewers are given a much more thorough treatment of the character’s back story, and, through a series of well-placed flashbacks, the film shows in considerably greater detail how and why Clark Kent and his superhero alter-ego became who they are. The material is also presented with a more mature tone than in previous iterations of the Man of Steel mythology, elevating the story line to a more meaningful and sophisticated level. But, then, that shouldn’t come as any surprise, given that the story and script were developed by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, the driving forces behind the most recent series of “Batman” movies, all of which feature comparable subject matter treatment. Give credit also to director Zack Snyder, who has taken a major step up in his craft with this offering, easily the best work he’s done to date.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, a Superman resides within each of us, but we’ll never realize that unless we allow this archetype’s emergence. Kal’s story thus serves as an eloquent allegory for how we can give life to our own latent superheroes. In an age with as many challenges as we face, we’d be wise to birth that powerful part of ourselves in hopes that doing so can better our planet and all who dwell on it. If we doubt that, we need only look to the fate of Krypton, a catastrophe not unlike one we might face ourselves someday, but one that we also just might be able to avoid if we permit our men and women of steel to step forward to prevent it. To that end, then, may we all have the courage, wisdom and insight to take the necessary measures to save our world – before it’s too late.

Photo by Clay Enos, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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

Friday, June 7, 2013

‘Now You See Me’ works magic on screen

“Now You See Me” (2013). Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Common, Michael J. Kelly, David Warshoksky, José Garcia, Caitriona Balfe, Jessica Lindsey. Director: Louis Leterrier. Screenplay: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt. Story: Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt. Web site. Trailer.

We’re all familiar with such magic tricks as pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing someone in half. These fun little ruses have entertained us for ages, often prompting enthralled onlookers to wonder how such supernatural feats are accomplished. But such simple stunts are nothing in comparison to the grand creative exploits successfully executed by a team of illusionists in the magically enjoyable new release, “Now You See Me.”

There’s magic in the air across the country. In Chicago, card trick master J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) amazes crowds gathered on street corners with feats of creative trickery. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) captivates and surprises tourists with his hypnosis and mind-reading skills. Out west, in Los Angeles, escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) wows audiences with breathtaking stunts. And, in New York, sleight of hand maestro Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) stuns unsuspecting spectators with lightning-fast moves that leave heads spinning. So what do these four practitioners of playfully deceitful legerdemain have in common? They each receive a Tarot card with an invitation directing them to a rundown apartment in lower Manhattan for a meeting with a mystery – one that’s about to change their lives in incredible ways.

A year later, the magicians find themselves on a glitzy Las Vegas stage performing under the name the Four Horsemen. Under the sponsorship of wealthy impresario Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), they work their magic before a packed house, performing feat after amazing feat. But, as mesmerizing as those tricks are, they pale in comparison to their closing routine, one in which they rob a bank – in Paris. With the aid of an audience member (José Garcia), the Horsemen magically teleport their unsuspecting colleague from Nevada to France, where he helps his stateside accomplices steal a stash of 3.2 million Euros. Moments later, the money miraculously appears in the Vegas theater, where it showers down upon ebullient spectators eager to scoop up some of the cash. Talk about finales!

When the Parisian bank officials open their vault and find it empty, they immediately call in authorities in Europe and the U.S. The American side of the investigation is headed up by FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) with the aid of French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). They arrest the Horsemen, who put up no resistance, but, thanks to their deft trickery and unquestionable confidence, they quickly proceed to make the investigators look like fools (and fools who are unable to charge them with any crimes at that). The magicians walk out of jail, accompanied by their grinning benefactor, and head off to their next show in New Orleans, which they promise will include a feat even more spectacular than the one they just pulled off.

Frustrated at the blatant arrogance of the slick thieves, Rhodes and Dray look for whatever assistance they can find to help them nail the slippery crooks. And, remarkably, that help comes to them unsolicited in the guise of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former magician-turned-debunker, who has built a successful career making videos exposing how magicians pull off their tricks. Bradley attempts to strike a deal with the authorities, who reject his offer out of hand, partly because of what it amounts to and partly because of the public relations nightmare that would result if word were to leak out about the FBI’s involvement with someone like him in an official investigation. Before leaving, though, Bradley warns Rhodes and company that they’re fools for failing to appreciate how professional magicians operate – and what they’re really capable of.

Meanwhile, the second act is about to play out in the Big Easy. With the authorities and Bradley in tow, the Horsemen prepare for their next show, which they boast is the setup for their final, and biggest, trick of all, a spectacle of monumental proportions to be carried out subsequently in New York. But, before they descend upon the Big Apple for that ultimate score, the Horsemen have a performance to give in New Orleans, one that’s sure to be full of twists, turns and huge surprises for those still trying to figure them out, as well as those who think they know them best. And what a show it is!

So why would a group of magicians go to all the trouble of robbing a bank only to turn over the fruits of their heist to the audience? In part it has to do with one interpretation of the true purposes behind the origin of magic.

In conducting background research for her investigation, Dray learns that sleight of hand techniques were said to have been developed in ancient Egypt, where high-ranking servants of the pharaohs who were appalled at the slavish treatment of their junior peers discovered how to steal food for them without the royals’ awareness. Dray quietly speculates that the spirit of this practice may be the motivation driving the magicians’ true agenda. After all, the institution they rob appears to be one of those uncaring mega-banks, an organization whose compassion level is about on par with that of the ancient Egyptian rulers. In light of that, then, bringing down such an all-powerful institution in a dramatically impactful way would seem an aptly fitting goal for this eager band of illusionist “activists”; their Biblically inspired apocalyptic name – the Four Horsemen – suits them perfectly as zealous, undeterred vanquishers of a supposedly unassailable giant. Indeed, as seasoned magicians would agree, there really is more than meets the eye going on here.

Regardless of their motivation, though, the magicians ultimately accomplish something even more significant through their actions – they expertly demonstrate what really matters in making the conscious creation process work. In essence, their unshakable faith in their ability to successfully carry out their feats is what makes them happen, no matter how seemingly improbable or miraculous they might appear. Now, some debunkers and naysayers might argue that the performers simply employ clandestine (but explainable) techniques and gadgetry in executing their tricks, thereby negating whatever ‘magic’ might allegedly be involved. However, does it really matter what “mechanics” they draw upon to achieve their goal? No matter what tools they use, they’re utterly convinced they can pull off their implausible stunts and entertain their spectators, all the while making things look effortless and mystical. In the end, it’s their beliefs that ultimately make such results possible; the mechanics of their tricks, while in fact tangible (but discrete), are merely the means of pulling them off.

The example they set through their magic is something we’d all be wise to follow when seeking to achieve cherished goals. If we look to accomplish a particular objective, we should focus on the outcome more than on the methods for getting there, just as the magicians do in carrying off their tricks. All too often, though, we place too much emphasis on how we attain our goals and not enough on the goals themselves. By shifting our attention to the result, however, we significantly increase the likelihood of its fulfillment; the specific means for achieving the outcome will reveal themselves, and, as long as we’re paying attention, we’ll recognize the solutions when we see them.

An admonition often used by magicians in describing their craft – “Don’t look too close or you’ll miss too much” – seems appropriate in this context. Looking too closely is analogous to putting too much attention on the means and not enough on the ends; if we do so, we just might miss the solution we seek, just as spectators often overlook the actual sleight of hand technique at work as a trick is carried out. We ignore this advice at our peril, too. In fact, that’s how magicians (and politicians!) get their audiences (and constituencies) to buy into (i.e., “believe”) the artfully enacted deceit; by getting onlookers to focus their attention on the mechanics of what trick is unfolding, rather than the outcome of what that stunt might be, the illusionist perpetrators are able to create (i.e., get away with) their carefully crafted deceptions. (Now that’s a lesson we should all heed.)

For better or worse, though, working magic is essentially what we do as conscious creators. In fact, the ways in which we employ our intellect and intuition to form the beliefs we use in the manifestation process is sometimes referred to as “the magical approach” to conscious creation. But, regardless of what one calls it, conscious creation is truly the practice of everyday miracles made real. What the Horsemen do is, for all practical purposes, the same thing we do every day, only on a grander scale – but one that serves as a tremendous source of inspiration, both for those in their fictitious audiences and those of us watching the action unfolding on screen.

“Now You See Me” is a raucously fun thrill ride, a wonderful piece of summertime escapist fluff, yet its deceptively subtle, metaphysically rich narrative is surprisingly deeper than the cinematic clothes it wears. I’ll admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed by the trailer, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the outcome (proving my point that even I was guilty of initially looking too closely at the means and not enough at the ends). Watch this movie for its sheer enjoyment, and you won’t be disappointed (the film’s terrific special effects alone are well worth it). But pay attention to the themes underlying its pretext, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

The movie features decent performances across the board, except for Ruffalo, whose over-the-top portrayal is a bit much (even in scenes where it’s called for). The picture also does a great job of explaining how some of the tricks work, but it doesn’t reveal so much that it spoils the fun that magic really is. Nevertheless, don’t spend a lot of time looking for the wires or mirrors that make the tricks work; you’ll only be cheating yourself out of a good time if you do.

Magic is something we often think of as being reserved for a select talented few. But, as this picture reveals, it’s something we can all practice, on scales great and small, as long as we believe in ourselves, employ genuine intents and know where to place our focus. By doing so, the results just may astonish everyone – including ourselves.

Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of Summit Entertainment, LLC.

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