Friday, November 29, 2013

‘Nebraska’ urges us to honor our connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 22, 2013

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ celebrates the power of transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My New Ebook Manuscript Is Finished!

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 15, 2013

Inconsistency hampers uneven ‘About Time’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 1, 2013

Overstatement plagues excessive ‘12 Years a Slave’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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