Sunday, April 27, 2014

‘Transcendence’ plumbs the depths of consciousness

“Transcendence” (2014). Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. Director: Wally Pfister. Screenplay: Jack Paglen. Web site. Trailer.

What makes a human human? Is it our brain and physical self? Or is it our mind, our consciousness, the cosmic software that drives us as sentient beings? And is that consciousness innately restricted to the physical self, or are other configurations possible? Those are just some of the intriguing questions raised in the new science fiction thriller, “Transcendence.”

Artificial intelligence researchers Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall) are on the verge of some astounding breakthroughs in cutting edge computer technology. The professional and life partners are committed to their work and to one another, and they approach both aspects of their lives with heartfelt devotion. They seem to have everything going for them. But then events take an unexpected turn that upends their – and everyone else’s – world.

Shortly after giving a presentation on the astounding potential of artificial intelligence, Will is shot by an anti-technology terrorist at point blank range. As shocking as the incident is, the bullet only grazes him, inflicting injuries that are not considered life threatening. However, in the wake of this attack, Will and Evelyn learn that artificial intelligence labs across the country have been hit by a simultaneous series of incidents in which most of the researchers have been killed and their work wiped out. In fact, the only experts who have apparently survived unscathed are Will’s colleagues Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and Dr. Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman).

The attacks immediately prompt a high-level investigation led by FBI Agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), who consults with Will, Evelyn, Max and Joseph on how to proceed, given that they are among the few AI scientists left alive whose work has not been compromised. Not long after the investigation begins, however, Will suddenly falls seriously ill, a surprise given the presumed nature of his gunshot wounds. Upon further inquiry, though, physicians discover that the bullet that struck Will had been contaminated with polonium, and, given that the substance made contact with his bloodstream, he was exposed to a lethal dose of radioactivity. Will is given only weeks to live.

With certain death looming, Will contemplates how to spend his remaining time. He feels compelled to continue with his work, but he’s so weak that it becomes impossible. And so, at Max’s urging, Will decides to shelve his research in favor of spending quality time with Evelyn. But, given the deflating nature of this forced resignation, he’s restless and ill at ease. So, with his days dwindling, the duo devises a plan where Will can both continue his work and spend time with Evelyn: They explore the possibility of creating a computer interface that will allow Will’s consciousness to be uploaded into cyberspace, enabling his mind’s continued existence even in the absence of his corporeal self, in many ways the ultimate embodiment of the concept of artificial intelligence.

With Max’s aid, Will and Evelyn successfully pull off their plan. But, when word of their exploits reaches the terrorists, the insurgents close in on the researchers to try and prevent Will’s consciousness from being launched onto the Internet, a move that would allow it to have unrestricted access to all of the resources of web – and making it virtually impossible to contain once released. Will and Evelyn move too fast for their would-be attackers, however, and Will’s consciousness successfully makes its transition into cyberspace. And now, with unlimited computing power at Will’s disposal, his consciousness is free to explore possibilities never before dreamed of.

What Will and Evelyn subsequently do with such unprecedented power pushes the envelope of human accomplishment, not to mention the very nature of human evolution. But with such tremendous power also comes a corresponding level of accountability. Can Will and Evelyn effectively manage that newfound responsibility? Will they be able to successfully maneuver the minefield of new ethical dilemmas that such circumstances spawn? Or are they fundamentally incapable of managing such an unimaginable task? After all, suddenly having access to heretofore-unavailable resources may be too much to handle, especially if it gives rise to the temptation to play God. How everything plays out ultimately carries implications not only for Will and Evelyn, but also for the entire planet.

The narrative in “Transcendence” begs the question, what, exactly, is the nature of consciousness? Is it something limited to our biological selves? Or can it be exported onto other platforms, such as the computer technology depicted in the film? And what happens when it’s placed onto an operating system different from what we’re accustomed to? Also, what’s to become of our emotional, feeling-based self when merged with a logic-driven environment with unlimited computational powers? What are the ethics of this? What can we manifest with such power? And what should we manifest (or not manifest) under such conditions?

These are all crucial issues to consider. And, with the advancement of technology that makes such realities possible – something that could happen much sooner than many of us think – we have a host of thorny new questions to contemplate. The transhumanism movement, inspired by the works and philosophies of inventors like Ray Kurzweil, may be upon as sooner rather than later, and we had better start addressing these concerns before the genie is out of the bottle rather than after it’s made its escape.

This is not to suggest that technology is an intrinsic evil (as the terrorists in the film insist). Nor is this film necessarily proposing (as many of its detractors have asserted) that a Luddite approach to life is inherently preferable. However, the picture is nudging us to examine these issues, not only from the standpoint of technology, but also from the perspective of human consciousness and, by extension, the conscious creation process.

The implications in this are potentially staggering. As conscious creators are well aware, the power of our consciousness alone can work miracles, or wreak havoc, on a tremendous scale. But imagine what reality would be like if either of those possibilities is amplified by technology that our consciousness creates. Suddenly, our minds might be able to operate as if they were on steroids. The possibility for change, either positively or negatively, could be almost inconceivable. Indeed, as is even cautioned in the Bible, “in the twinkling of an eye … we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). In light of that, regardless of one’s religious leanings, perhaps we should do our metaphysical homework in advance to assess what beliefs and intents we hold that are capable of invoking such radical transformations – for better or worse and before there’s no going back.

“Transcendence” has been trounced by movie critics and audiences alike for a variety of reasons. Yes, I’ll admit there are plenty of plot holes in the narrative. Yes, I’ll concede the picture has some pacing issues. And, yes, Johnny Depp comes across as so disinterested that he could have phoned in his performance. However, the aforementioned themes this film raises are far more important than any of these flaws, and its examination of those issues is what make this picture worth seeing, even if the production’s overall execution is far from perfect.

Consciousness is something not to be taken lightly, regardless of whether or not it’s enhanced by the power of technology. “Transcendence” draws that notion into sharp focus, a concern we’d all be wise to consider before we unleash it in the creation of whatever reality we manifest.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 25, 2014

‘Heaven Is For Real’ tests the strength of faith

“Heaven Is For Real” (2014). Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Nancy Sorel, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt. Director: Randall Wallace. Screenplay: Chris Parker and Randall Wallace. Book: Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Web site. Trailer.

How truly steadfast are we when it comes to our beliefs? And what are the implications for those of us who harbor doubts about what we claim to believe? Under such circumstances, our faith is sure to be put to the test, a notion explored in the new divinely inspired, fact-based drama, “Heaven Is For Real.”

Life in rural Imperial, Nebraska is good but challenging for the Burpo family. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), the likable pastor of a local church, wears many hats to serve his community and provide for his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), and two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). Todd generally approaches his challenges joyfully, but he nonetheless struggles to cope with his share of financial issues, nagging health ailments and the daily routine of raising a family. Still, whenever he needs a jolt of encouragement, he always has his faith to fall back on to see him through.

That faith gets seriously put to the test when Colton becomes deathly ill from a ruptured appendix. With his son’s life hanging in the balance and doctors scrambling to save him, Todd, Sonja and members of the congregation pray fervently for the young boy’s well-being. Those efforts pay off, too, when Colton pulls through successfully. But, in the course of making his recovery, Colton is party to a miraculous event – a near death experience during which he visits heaven, meeting both a chorus of angels and Jesus (Mike Mohrhardt). And, while Colton regards his experience rather matter-of-factly, his account of that event sends shockwaves through his family and his dad’s parish.

Even though Colton is unfazed by what he went through, the same can’t be said for those around him. Todd struggles to understand what his son experienced, but his doubts frequently get the better of him. Those misgivings are routinely reinforced by the skepticism of others, like Sonja, who attribute Colton’s story to his overactive imagination. So, to vanquish those doubts and counter the contentions of the naysayers, Todd searches high and low for answers, consulting a range of sources, including everything from scripture to the counsel of a psychiatrist (Nancy Sorel). But, when satisfactory answers aren’t forthcoming, Todd finds it increasingly difficult to attend to the needs of his family and his congregation, raising concerns among his relations, friends and church board members, most notably Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church) and Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale). Suddenly, someone who’s accustomed to providing others with guidance and comfort is unable to find any consolation of his own.

Only when Todd consults the source of his doubts is he able to alleviate them. When Colton recounts his experience and provides details about it that he couldn’t possibly know any other way than by actually having gone through it, Todd’s apprehensions dissipate. And, not long thereafter, so do the doubts of others. All it takes is a little faith, a quality that’s reborn in others thanks to the simple but sincere testimony of an innocent young soul.

As should be apparent from the foregoing, faith in one’s beliefs is the central theme of this picture, a notion crucial to one’s devotion to virtually any philosophical system, whether it’s an established religion like Christianity or an alternative metaphysical discipline like conscious creation. In either case, the beliefs held by the followers of these doctrines, as well as the faith they place in them, determine what they ultimately get out of them, for better or worse. Those whose beliefs and faith are unshakable generally benefit most from these disciplines, while those who harbor doubts frequently struggle to reconcile their internal conflicts and reap the rewards offered by these teachings.

The roles of faith and beliefs are especially critical in this story’s context, since they relate directly to some of the most fundamental foundational considerations of Christian theology – the belief in an afterlife and the ability to ascend to it. The key question for many of those in this film is, just how “real” are those considerations? Is the afterlife something that we can experience, return from and recount? Or is it an unfathomable enigma that none of us will truly be able to know about until we make our final (and permanent) exit from physical existence? In short, is it something that we must purely take on faith until we die, or is tangible evidence of it available to us while we’re still incarnate?

It’s rather ironic that the film depicts people of faith having such serious doubts about their own beliefs. Perhaps that’s because the difficulties they’ve experienced in life have made them skeptical of a belief system they claim to so devotedly embrace, and, to a certain extent, that’s understandable. How can they trust the word of a supposedly loving God when that divine entity has also seemingly subjected them to heartache and suffering? Can they freely accept what they’ve been told without reservation, or must they keep their guard up just in case? What’s more, how seriously should they take one of God’s messengers (in this case, Colton) when it comes to the imparting of celestial insights, even if such information appears to be sent sincerely through someone with no apparent agenda or deception in the delivery of those communications?

This is another area where faith and beliefs are particularly significant and, once again, in virtually any philosophical, theological or metaphysical discipline. Indeed, how realistic is it for those of us accustomed to the tangible world of physicality to truly trust abstractions that are so patently vague and inherently intangible? This is why it’s so important to understand and recognize the underlying belief-driven meanings of the elements that manifest in our existence. Rather than automatically doubting the messages of a divinely sent courier, for example, we should instead look to see how accurately those heavenly dispatches align with the beliefs we hold. If they match up, we should feel comfortable putting stock in those convictions, providing us with validation of what we claim to hold dear.

Those of us who practice conscious creation realize that this principle applies to all of the manifestations that are part of our lives, be it in the context of “big issues” (like determining whether there’s an afterlife) or that of lesser questions (such as deciding which green grocer or dry cleaner to patronize). The materializations that appear in our lives provide evidence of the intents underlying their creation, and the more proficient we become in recognizing the relevance and validity of those manifestations, the more we can trust ourselves – and our beliefs – in bringing forth what we ultimately experience.

Perhaps some of the doubt in this story stems from would-be believers trying to comprehend the nature (and very existence) of a state of being far different from what they’re typically accustomed to. If all we’re familiar with is physical reality, then how can we truly appreciate something so seemingly “foreign” as heaven? To answer that question, we can again turn to conscious creation, which maintains that we’re all multidimensional beings capable of experiencing myriad forms of existence, including physical and nonphysical, earthly and celestial, and all manner of other possibilities we likely can’t even begin to conceive of. If one were to view Colton’s experience in this light, it likely wouldn’t seem so strange, because it reflects that principle of multidimensionality.

Those who embrace a conventional view of the nature of reality may find the foregoing notion a bit difficult to accept. However, is this limited outlook accurate? After all, does it not say in the Bible itself that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2)? If this isn’t an explanation for our inherent multidimensionality, I don’t know what is. And this statement again illustrates the importance of recognizing the relevance of the manifestations of our existence – even those that take the form of the written word – in providing clues about the true nature of our beliefs and how they work to shape the reality we experience.

Even though “Heaven Is For Real” manages to raise the foregoing issues, unfortunately it fails to address them thoroughly or effectively. Despite the film’s considerable potential, it frequently falls short of the mark, largely due to a poorly written script and an unfocused approach in presenting its material. For instance, just as the picture seems to be heading down a particularly insightful path, it suddenly and inexplicably veers off in another direction whose nexus is questionable at best (especially in the picture’s first half-hour). This happens repeatedly, making for a meandering narrative that’s often difficult to follow, let alone comprehend.

The film clearly works best when relating Colton’s story, but, regrettably, the picture doesn’t devote nearly enough screen time to it. Instead, the movie focuses more on Todd’s trials and tribulations and the struggles of his family and friends, plotlines that, while moderately interesting, aren’t nearly as compelling as that of the story’s central character. If the film had placed its emphasis on what really matters most, it would have succeeded much more effectively, not only as an entertainment vehicle, but also as a means for conveying spiritual and metaphysical inspiration.

Even though this film is based on actual events, as noted earlier, it’s somewhat surprising to see the level of doubt that its characters harbor. In fact, in my opinion, that aspect of the story receives a disproportionate amount of attention, which dilutes the impact of the narrative’s primary message. Indeed, it’s hard to fathom how and why so many so-called believers have such a difficult time embracing manifestations of their faith’s core contentions when they come face to face with them. And, as arguably understandable as those struggles may be, they don’t make for terribly interesting filmmaking, at least compared to what could (and should) have been the principal focus of this picture.

What’s more, given the considerable attention that has been devoted to the subject of near death experiences in the mass media and other forums in recent years, there’s precious little about them here that’s particularly new or revelatory (despite their effective on-screen treatment). Perhaps my knowledge of the subject matter reflects a personal bias in this regard, but I’m hard-pressed to see anything especially earth shattering here. If the filmmakers’ intent was to shed light on this phenomenon to those unfamiliar with it, then one could argue that they’ve succeeded, but those who are more well-versed in the material will likely view its treatment as a simplistic, lightweight exploration that could be characterized as a course in NDE 101.

Purely as a piece of filmmaking, the movie isn’t particularly ambitious or innovative, either. Its acting and production values are mediocre at best, their quality level about on par with that of a typical made-for-TV movie. To its credit, however, the film’s depiction of Colton’s near death experience is quite good overall, and, thankfully, the picture generally resists the temptation to indulge in schmaltzy sentimentality or heavy-handed sermonizing. But those strengths aren’t enough to save this underperforming title from its many other inherent shortcomings.

The bottom line in all this is, is heaven real? While most of us would probably answer in the affirmative, it all ultimately depends on what we believe and how intently we cling to it. Of course, it always helps to have confirmation of our assumptions, and we’d serve ourselves well to recognize their proof when it makes itself apparent. All we need do is pay attention – and have a little faith.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Wonderful Evening at World Book Night

I had a wonderful time last evening at the Chicago celebration of World Book Night! The official Windy City function was a reception and book reading at the Book Cellar bookstore in Lincoln Square sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference and Chicago Women in Publishing. I had a chance to meet fellow authors and to introduce them to my new book, "Consciously Created Cinema." I even had a chance to swap books with featured presenter Scott Turow! What a wonderful evening and an even more wonderful group of people! And thanks to my partner Trevor for joining me for support (and photography!).

Photos by Trevor Laster

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

World Book Night!

How will you be spending World Book Night? I'll be attending a reception sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference and Chicago Women in Publishing at the Book Cellar Cafe! Here's hoping you're able to enjoy a function in your area celebrating this wonderful event! For more about one of the sponsors of the Chicago event, click here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Back on the Radio This Week!

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be a guest on the Blog Talk Radio show "Padaran" with host Daya Devi-Doolin this Thursday, April 24, at 2 pm Eastern. Tune in for some insightful chat by clicking here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

‘The Great Beauty’ urges us to look at our lives

“The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellazza”) (2013). Cast: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Verdone, Serena Grandi, Carlo Buccirosso, Pamela Villoresi, Luca Marinelli, Giusi Merli, Roberto Herlitzka, Giovanna Vignola, Iaia Forte, Massimo De Francovich, Vernon Dobtcheff, Galatea Ranzi, Giorgio Pasotti, Isabella Ferrari, Luciano Virgilio, Annaluisa Capasa, Flavio Mieli. Director: Paolo Sorrentino. Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello. Story: Paolo Sorrentino. Web site. Trailer.

Taking stock of where we stand in our lives can be a very rewarding – and revelatory – experience. Sometimes we affirm what we already know, but, in other instances, we come to conclusions that come as surprising, if not shocking or perhaps even disillusioning. That’s just the sort of exercise an aging protagonist pursues in the profoundly moving, often hilarious Italian comedy-drama, “The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellazza”).

Celebrating one’s 65th birthday should be a joyous occasion. But, for journalist and one-time novelist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the event evokes mixed emotions. The longtime fixture of Rome’s social scene throws an outrageous party for himself, one where all of the city’s beautiful people and celebrity elite turn out for a full-blown hedonistic bacchanal. It’s not unlike many of the evenings Jep has spent over the years, long, drawn-out nights of debauchery stretching well into the wee hours. But, in addition to their never-ending festivity, those extended evenings of decadence also provided Jep with ample opportunities for making connections, digging up dirt, and witnessing the spectacle of the city’s life and culture in all its profoundly sublime – and superficially tawdry – regards. It’s a lifestyle that has made Jep an icon of Roman high society. But is that truly an achievement to be proud of?

Reaching this chronological milestone gives Jep a chance to evaluate where he is and what he’s done with his life. To be sure, he’s enjoyed the fame, fortune and notoriety that he’s amassed. He has a diverse circle of friends, such as Romano (Carlo Verdone), a perpetually aspiring playwright; Lello (Carlo Buccirosso) and Viola (Pamela Villoresi), a philandering toy manufacturer and his sweet wife; Orietta (Isabella Ferrari), a wealthy, beautiful amateur photographer; and Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), a novelist and outspoken Communist Party activist. He also has a number of trusted colleagues and confidantes, including Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), his fiercely devoted editor; Trumeau (Iaia Forte), his playfully rambunctious housekeeper; Egidio (Massimo De Francovich), the owner of a high-profile gentlemen’s club; and Stefano (Giorgio Pasotti), a gatekeeper to many of the city’s treasured landmarks. Jep enjoys the company – and wisdom – of this colorful array of associates.

Despite this wide circle of contacts, however, Jep is alone, unmarried and childless. He’s also in the process of watching a number of his friends and colleagues make their final transitions, some of whom are considerably younger than he is. These passings, especially the death of a love interest from his youth (Annaluisa Capasa), give Jep even more reason to contemplate his circumstances, particularly with regard to his own mortality and how he has spent – or misspent – his life.

Jep’s introspection proves quite eye-opening. After years of being caught up in a celebrity-filled stupor, he comes to view the current state of Roman culture with growing cynicism and disdain. He increasingly rolls his eyes while watching clueless, would-be artists engage in pursuits devoid of meaning, substance or intelligence, such as a naked performance artist who inexplicably runs headlong into the stone ruins of a Roman aqueduct as part of her art. He rails at the shallow, baseless observations of pseudointellectual pundits who spout allegedly pithy insights about the state of contemporary Italian society. And he grows disillusioned when he sees Rome’s ubiquitous religious leaders, such as papal wannabe Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka), unable to address even the most basic of spiritual questions, instead defaulting to such irrelevancies as recounting the details of one of the many recipes from his extensive culinary repertoire. But what’s even more distressing to Jep is his realization that he’s helped contribute to the formation of that culture. Is this truly the life he wants to continue to lead?

Jep wonders, for example, why he’s devoted his considerable writing talents to penning journalistic pieces about celebrities and contemporary culture instead of more serious undertakings. Why, for instance, did he stop composing literary works, such as his one and only novel, which was a critical and financial success beloved by a devoted following of readers? He also reflects on why he’s settled for passing flirtations instead of more serious romantic relationships over the years. Was it because he couldn’t picture himself so settled, or was there some other reason behind his reluctance to commit?

These realizations slowly prompt Jep to consider more substantive alternatives. Quietly touring Rome’s classic cultural treasures becomes preferable to enduring yet another tiresome evening of purported “art.” Spending time getting to know an aging Catholic missionary in line for sainthood (Giusi Merli) proves more fulfilling than chasing the juicy scoops of the latest headline-makers. And enjoying the company of an aging but elegant companion (Sabrina Ferilli) – even if she is a stripper – is more enjoyable than negotiating his way through the minefield of jaded, self-absorbed courtesans who dot the landscape of Rome’s nightlife.

But will this change of heart provide Jep with the answers he seeks? Can he recapture the wonder and idealism that characterized him in his youth? Indeed, will he be able to find “the great beauty” of life that he has long sought but that has somehow always eluded him or become obscured by his own self-aggrandizement? These are tough questions for Jep, but he’s reached a point in his life where he must at least attempt to find answers to them if he’s to have inner peace for whatever time he has left.

Most think of the concept of “a life review” (like the one Jep conducts) in the context of events like near death experiences. But need we wait until we’re near or past the threshold between the worlds to engage in such evaluations? Indeed, many enlightened souls throughout the ages, such as the ancient Egyptians, have maintained that the time to conduct those kinds of assessments is before we move on, for that kind of introspection can help us prepare for what we experience once we transition. But, perhaps even more importantly, the conclusions we draw from such appraisals can also be used to help us shape our lives for the time in advance of that eventual shift, and that can prove invaluable for helping us make the most of our lives.

At the core of such evaluations is an assessment of our beliefs, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the conscious creation process. These appraisals enable us to see where we stand, where we’ve been and where we’d like to go by spotlighting the outlooks we’ve held and the intents we’ve drawn upon in shaping the various phases of our lives. This makes it possible for us to look at the beliefs we hold and how we might like to change them if they no longer serve our needs.

This is precisely the kind of exercise in which Jep engages. And, thankfully for him, he has the presence of mind to realize this before it’s too late. Many of us never take the time to pursue such evaluations, and even Jep has put it off for a long time. But, as long as we make the effort to do so while we still have the chance (as Jep does), the more likely we’ll create an existence of satisfaction and fulfillment for what time we have left – and even for after we move on.

While conscious creation maintains that all probabilities are equally valid and capable of physical expression, Jep’s personal explorations draw attention to some of those that are, arguably, most worthy of serious investigation. For example, while many of those around him engage in pursuits without apparent meaning or substance, Jep sees the emptiness underlying their manifestations. He tries to understand the beliefs driving those conceptions and sees that even those materializing them are unaware of what they’re doing. Their fundamental lack of self-awareness thus illustrates their engagement in the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default, where they let reality happen to them rather than consciously shape their own destinies. Again, Jep’s efforts are aimed at avoiding that pitfall, helping him evade the unfulfilling futures that many of his colleagues are likely facing. We’d be wise to follow his example.

“The Great Beauty” is an inspired piece of filmmaking in many regards. Its gorgeous camera work, hauntingly beautiful soundtrack and eclectic performances paint an elegant cinematic portrait. Its thoughtful themes and insightful narrative have been brilliantly conveyed to the screen, thanks to the picture’s astute (and often uproarious) writing and its masterful direction by Paolo Sorrentino, one of Italy’s premier contemporary filmmakers (and definitely someone to watch for the future). The style and mood of this film recall the works of Federico Fellini and Woody Allen, paying proper homage to these influences without blatantly copying them and simultaneously giving rise to a celluloid character all its own, quite an accomplishment for sure.

For its achievements, the picture was widely recognized in the movie industry’s recent awards competitions. “The Great Beauty” captured an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award as best foreign language film. In addition, the film earned nominations in the same category in the Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Awards programs, as well as a Palme de’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor.

“The Great Beauty” has been playing in limited release, mostly at film festivals and at theaters specializing in foreign and independent cinema. Thankfully, however, the picture has recently garnered wider attention with its release on DVD and Blu-ray Disk.

Looking at our lives is something most of us should engage in on a regular basis, if for no other reason than getting a handle on where things stand. It can be important not only for the present or the near term, but also for the long run, be it in this world or the one that lies beyond our current physical limitations. “The Great Beauty” provides a road map for this practice, taking us on an affecting cinematic tour of life, one filled with the wonder that we create and the miracle that is each of us.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Trip to the Archives

In case you missed my lively radio interview with Doreen Agostino on Align Shine Prosper this past Sunday, you can still catch it on the Blog Talk Radio archives, available for listening any time, by clicking here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Check out the Conscious Film Reviews Board!

Interested in film reviews with a conscious perspective? If so, then join the nearly 900 Pinterest followers of the Conscious Film Reviews board, available by clicking here. New posts to the board appear weekly. Enjoy!

Friday, April 11, 2014

‘Le Week-End’ scrutinizes the power of choice

“Le Week-End” (2013 production, 2014 release). Cast: Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum, Judith Davis, Olly Alexander, Xavier De Guillebon. Director: Roger Michell. Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi. Web site. Trailer.

We all reach critical junctures in our lives, and those turning points nearly always require us to make some significant (and hard) choices. It’s a process that can become considerably more difficult if we tune out to it, be it intentionally or inadvertently, during the time leading up to those decisions. Such is the lot of a middle class English couple in the bittersweet romantic comedy-drama, “Le Week-End.”

To break the tedium of everyday life, Nick and Meg Burrows (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) decide to celebrate their wedding anniversary with a weekend in Paris, the site of their honeymoon 30 years earlier. But what should be a joyous occasion gets off to a rocky start. Considering the prevailing humdrum of their daily lives back in Birmingham, coupled with the prospect of less-than-satisfying vacation accommodations, they approach their weekend getaway with a decidedly sour attitude. So, given these disappointing circumstances, Meg springs into action. She’s convinced they deserve something better, and, in an act of impulsiveness, she takes off in search of more suitable lodging with a reluctant Nick in tow.

Not long thereafter, the couple throws caution to the wind and checks in to a lavish suite at an upscale hotel with a panoramic view of the City of Light. A simple change in venue thus works wonders to lift their spirits. But that’s just the beginning. Inspired by the uplifting effect afforded by these luxury accommodations, Nick and Meg begin contemplating the notion of pursuing a better life in general. Indeed, they surmise that life may have more to offer them than what they’ve settled for all these many years. And so, as their Parisian weekend plays out, husband and wife each begin to look at themselves and their lives together, wondering what the next chapter holds.

As they launch into this process, Nick and Meg are both conflicted about the future. While they clearly love one another, they also wonder whether they should stay together. Are they continuing their lives with each other out of a sense of genuine passion, or is it merely because of convenience, familiarity and obligation? They also face an array of challenges personally, professionally, financially and with regard to their relationship with their adult children. Now that they’ve reached a crucial turning point in their lives, how should they respond to these issues? And what impact will their responses have on their relationship with one another going forward?

While wending their way through Paris, Nick and Meg each assess their circumstances. Sometimes they’re hopeful about what lies ahead; sometimes they express regrets about what they’ve left behind; and sometimes they fret about what they might be giving up by pursuing uncertain change. Those musings get drawn into sharper focus upon a chance meeting with one of Nick’s old college friends, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum). Even though Nick and Morgan are contemporaries and shared a common past, they’ve each followed very different life paths. While both of them started out their lives the same way, Morgan one day impulsively decided to take a left turn and pursue other interests. His example thus provides even more food for thought for Nick and Meg to consider in making their respective decisions. The question is, of course, what will they each ultimately decide?

In evaluating their lives, Nick and Meg each ask themselves how they got to where they are, a process that’s more difficult than either of them first realizes. They initially try to chalk up their circumstances to such considerations as making sacrifices to meet the needs and expectations of the other. But, as the weekend unfolds, they gradually come to see that their respective situations are the result of their own individual choices. The onus of responsibility thus comes back to rest squarely on each of their shoulders, a realization that can be even more difficult for them to fathom, such as when they see where the true “fault” lies for circumstances not working out as hoped for. But this heightened awareness of the importance of individual choice and personal responsibility also makes it possible for Nick and Meg to realize that the potential for birthing beneficial change in their lives rests with each of them, too.

The key in this is to critically examine the beliefs and intents we employ in manifesting our circumstances. This is at the heart of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize the realities we each experience. And it’s that very process that Nick and Meg become acquainted with as they proceed with their weekend.

Nick, for instance, looks at his life and wonders how it became so settled. The one-time outspoken activist and rowdy party animal is now a philosophy professor living a middle class life who agonizes about such comparatively “ordinary” matters as paying bills and planning for retirement. “Where did that fun-loving rabble-rouser go?” he wonders. And can he get that part of himself back, or is he reconciled to a future burdened by mediocrity and perpetual worry? He’s especially concerned that he may face that prospect alone as well.

Meg, meanwhile, has lived a largely reserved life as a wife, mother and school teacher. Now that her children are raised, she wants to grow in her own ways, perhaps becoming an artist. She also contemplates exploring new romantic and sexual connections, given that her love life has mostly gone dormant (even though she played a significant role in evoking that dormancy, despite Nick’s amorous advances to the contrary). But, even with all these new possibilities running through her mind, she also can’t ignore the fact that she still loves her husband, even if some of his befuddling behavior frustrates her to no end on an almost-daily basis. What is she to do?

Morgan provides a model for each of them to emulate. The once-married former New Yorker chose to abandon his marriage, family and career to follow a different path. He later remarried, this time to a much younger woman, Eve (Judith Davis), and moved to Paris, where he revived his writing career and became involved with a stimulating circle of friends in the arts. He has no qualms about the choices he’s made, either, and, while some might view his actions as entirely self-serving, he sees them as eminently fulfilling. He obviously holds fast to a belief of “why stay trapped in bad circumstances when it’s possible to create more satisfying ones anew?” Morgan hasn’t been cold-hearted in making these new choices, either, as seen in his sincere attempts to maintain an ongoing connection with Michael (Olly Alexander), his son from his first marriage. Morgan’s experiences thus give Nick and Meg much to think about as they come to their own conclusions.

The primary challenge that Nick and Meg need to address is reconciling their seemingly conflicted outlooks. Is it realistically possible to be both devoted and independent at the same time, or must they choose one over the other? Many would likely view these diametrically opposed aspirations as inherently incompatible. But need they be? After all, look at Morgan’s example; he’s managed to strike a balance, and that option – like all the infinite manifestation options that conscious creation makes possible – is just as viable a probability as any of the other more limited choices available. Nick and Meg thus need to decide which options are best for each of them, and clearly there are more choices open to them than they might have considered at first glance.

Perhaps the most important consideration for Nick and Meg in all this is to connect (or, more precisely, to reconnect) with their sense of personal empowerment. It underlies all of the choices they make and all of the beliefs they formulate and embrace, the forces that drive the manifestation process. Somewhere along the line, however, they seem to have lost touch with this concept, allowing their everyday situations to consume their awareness of it. With the previous chapter in their life coming to an end, however, they must now come up with new creations to form the basis of their respective futures, a challenge that has brought them back in touch with a metaphysical principle they have long since forgotten. Indeed, just like the feisty 20-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), Nick and Meg are now tasked with reconnecting to their “muchness,” their sense of inner strength, personal power and self-worth, to make their lives more fulfilling as they move into the third act. Let’s hope that they, like all of us, choose wisely – before the curtain drops.

“Le Week-End” is a charming little film, presenting a “realistic” look at life and love as the years wear on. This bittersweet romantic comedy-drama doesn’t hesitate to raise some of the thorny questions that long-married couples face as they age, particularly at critical junctures like the one the protagonists have arrived at. Their story is effectively conveyed through the terrific performances of Broadbent and Duncan, with Goldblum providing an intriguing comedic counterpoint. Despite some occasional lapses into seemingly inexplicable dialogue tangents, the writing is generally spot-on, crisp and pointed, punctuated with poignant observations and witty one-liners reminiscent of the works of Woody Allen and the “Before...” trilogy of Richard Linklater. And, as with many other pictures in recent years, the film’s superb cinematography showcases Paris beautifully, much like “Midnight in Paris” (2011), “The Intouchables” (2012) and “Before Sunset” (2004), all backed by an engaging soundtrack.

As conscious creators are well aware, we are what we create, and that arises from what we believe. It’s incumbent on us, then, to choose our beliefs wisely. But, before we ever get to the point of making such choices, we must first be cognizant of the existence of this fundamental process and how it works, something that can be easy to lose sight of when life happens. Maintaining our awareness of these principles is essential to create lives of fulfillment – no matter what stage of life we’re in.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Follow Me on GoodReads!

I'm pleased to announce that I now have an author profile posted on GoodReads! By becoming a GoodReads member, you can discover a wealth of information about books and authors of all kinds, a wonderful resource for anyone who loves to read!

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Align, Shine and Prosper!

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be a guest on the "Align Shine Prosper" radio show with host Doreen Agostino this Sunday, April 13, at 2 pm Eastern. Tune in for some lively chat by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Art of Listening

Do you really hear what others have to say? How about the messages sent by your own intuition? If your skills in this area could use some tweaking, check out "The Art of Listening," my latest blog post to Smart Women's Empowerment, available by clicking here.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

'Consciously Created Cinema' now available at the iTunes Store!

Users of Apple devices will be thrilled to know that my new book, Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover's Guide to the Law of Attraction, is now available in ebook format from the iTunes Store! Just click here to take to you the title's listing on the iTunes Story.

Friday, April 4, 2014

‘Noah’ contemplates the power of discernment

“Noah” (2014). Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Nick Nolte (voice), Frank Langella (voice), Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Madison Davenport, Dakota Goyo, Gavin Casalegno, Nolan Gross, Skylar Burke, Mark Margolis (voice), Kevin Durand (voice). Director: Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Web site. Trailer.

Making decisions about ourselves and our future can be a daunting undertaking, especially when we feel we lack adequate information or resources to do so. But, by devoting proper focus to the effort and skillfully employing the practice of conscious creation, we have an opportunity to succeed, perhaps even astounding ourselves in the process. This can be particularly crucial when the stakes are high, as a noble soul discovers for himself when faced with challenges that have global ramifications. Such is the lot of the protagonist in director Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious new opus, “Noah.”

Viewers expecting a faithful re-creation of the Biblical account of the Noah’s Ark legend are likely to be disappointed. While this film is loosely based on that epic saga and includes characters from that time-honored tale, “Noah” offers its own take on the myth, including some events that will seem eminently familiar and others that are completely foreign. Perhaps that’s because the film attempts to fill in what some have observed to be “gaps” in the Old Testament narrative, but it does so with an array of inventive, intriguing twists and turns not included in the original story.

When humanity’s progenitors, Adam and Eve, are banished from the Garden of Eden for defying the Creator by eating of the forbidden fruit, mankind is sentenced to a dismal future. In this dark new world, the earth’s perilous conditions grow progressively worse after Adam and Eve’s son Cain murders his brother Abel, thereby setting in motion a fundamental division in humanity’s ranks. Most people fall under the domination of the wicked Cain, while a virtuous minority struggles to follow a righteous path.

Joining mankind’s splintered factions are the Watchers, a group of angels who descended from heaven to assist humanity after being expelled from paradise. But, by coming to earth, they, too, disobey the Creator’s wishes and are punished for having done so, becoming bound to the earth in the form of creatures of stone.

Under these circumstances, evil flourishes over the earth. The virtuous become targets for persecution and exploitation by the malevolent majority. Even the mighty Watchers become targets of the wicked ones, particularly when their benevolent teachings are perverted for nefarious purposes and used against them. Displeased with this state of affairs, the Creator thus decides to take steps to set matters right, which is where the film picks up the story.

The Creator’s plan for “cleansing” the earth is delivered in a dream to one of the virtuous, Noah (Russell Crowe), who learns that the Divine Master intends to deluge the earth with a great flood to purge it of its wickedness. However, the Creator does not wish for all of the planet’s creatures to perish, so Noah is instructed to build a giant ark to safeguard all of earth’s animals so that they can repopulate the world after the inundation. Noah thus takes up this solemn charge, aided by his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly); his sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll); and his adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson). And, to get the task under way, he receives valuable assistance from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and the Watchers (voiced by Nick Nolte, Frank Langella, Mark Margolis and Kevin Durand).

When word of Noah’s venture spreads, however, he’s challenged by those who would be left behind, most notably the evil king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his legions of followers. What’s more, when it becomes apparent what’s to happen to Noah’s family in the flood’s aftermath, he even faces opposition from within his own ranks. Nevertheless, Noah believes he’s been chosen to carry out the Creator’s will and is determined to fulfill this divine command. The question is, of course, will he succeed? What’s to become of those who oppose him? And what, ultimately, is to be humanity’s fate when the rains stop?

When Noah receives word of the Creator’s will, he’s assigned an enormous and sacred task. But the challenges that accompany it go beyond just the logistics of constructing the ship; there are certain intangible considerations that must be addressed that will determine how successful he is in carrying out his mission. And, because the Creator’s word is sent in a dream, Noah only has his own impressions to draw from about how to proceed; there’s no divine instruction manual to consult.

So what is Noah to believe? The answer to that question is crucial, for, as every conscious creator knows, what we believe is what we ultimately create. This is where the power of discernment comes into play, not only in Noah’s case, but for each of us, in any conscious creation pursuit. When fashioning the beliefs needed to manifest our goals, we must get in touch with the truth that lies within each of us, tapping into our intellect and, especially, our intuition. We must accurately access this inner wisdom so that we can make decisions in line with desired outcomes, a process that may be trickier than expected, as Noah finds out firsthand during the course of his remarkable odyssey. Answers may not always be clear-cut, and solutions may not apply universally. This is where discernment becomes particularly crucial, for its impact can be considerable, especially when invoked in connection with such important concerns as mercy and compassion (a lesson we’d all be wise to heed).

The clarity of thought that underlies the practice of discernment plays a significant role in how effectively (and even how quickly) the conscious creation process unfolds, something that also becomes evident in Noah’s experience. When we’re clear about what we need to do and then formulate beliefs in line with such aspirations, the resources we need for materializing them appear, sometimes almost as if by magic. For instance, when Noah needs building materials for the ark and labor to help him construct it, both appear in sufficient quantities and with lightning speed. Similarly, when Noah needs to assemble his “passengers,” they show up on their own, unprompted and in an orderly fashion, with no special effort or coercion on his part. On these and many other occasions, the protagonist’s divine conscious creation collaborator, the Creator, repeatedly comes through for him and his family, invariably providing the means necessary for achieving their objectives, all in perfect response to their stated intents. These examples thus help to illustrate why conscious creation is sometimes referred to as the law of attraction, a principle on display in full flower here.

At the core of Noah’s story is another conscious creation concept – evolution. In fact, this principle is apparent throughout the narrative both en masse and individually. In its broadest sense, evolution – or a constant state of becoming, as it’s more commonly called in conscious creation circles – is embodied in the Creator’s grand plan to cleanse the earth of its evils and start again, enabling the planet to evolve to something new. And, in a narrower context, such evolutionary transformations occur on a personal level as well. For instance, as Noah’s saga plays out, we witness his own views undergo change. He grows in ways he initially didn’t believe possible, taking him to new places and new ways of thinking he previously didn’t envision. We thus watch him transform personally, gaining new insights into both the human condition and himself.

However, in rescripting earth’s future, the Divine Master doesn’t wipe away all of its existing creations; some are intentionally retained to build anew (hence the very existence of the ark and its inhabitants). By sparing those worthy of survival – especially those who successfully engage in their own enlightening, transformative experiences – the Creator makes it possible for them to start over. This allows them to atone for their pasts and to pursue the act of redemption, again both individually and collectively. Indeed, given that conscious creation provides access to an infinite range of probabilities for the expression of existence, those who survive in Noah’s saga are allowed to redeem themselves and begin again. They have the opportunity to explore new lines of reality. One would hope that they choose their new probabilities wisely considering what they’ve just been through, but they at least have the chance to get matters right the next time around, something we should all contemplate when confronted with opportunities for our own rebirth.

In addition to providing insightful explorations of the foregoing concepts, “Noah” is a visually stunning spectacle with some of the most dazzling and elaborate special effects to have ever graced the big screen. The film’s capable performances and generally solid writing back up these strengths effectively, providing audiences with engaging, enlightening (though certainly not preachy) entertainment.

With that said, however, the picture also comes up short in several regards. Despite its adventure pedigree, the film drags a bit in spots (even in some of its action sequences), a shortcoming that could have easily been addressed with some judicious editing (something that many of director Darren Aronofsky’s could benefit from). But, beyond that, “Noah” also lacks a certain measure of authentic passion at times. The characters occasionally come across like they’re having to sell the audience on their level of conviction, employing degrees of intensity and sincerity that feel a little forced. I wouldn’t attribute this so much to overacting as I would to a sense that the characters don’t always seem to feel as convinced of what they’re saying as they would lead viewers to believe. Maybe that comes with the territory when an avowed atheist attempts to make a Biblically inspired epic. Or perhaps it’s some inadequacy in the writing, acting or direction. In any event, however, even though I can’t precisely pinpoint the cause of this issue, I found it present nevertheless.

Looking within to find the answers we seek to the dilemmas we face is critical if we hope to overcome the challenges in our path. Employing discernment as part of that process is especially important to make the right choices in selecting the manifestation beliefs we embrace. “Noah” sheds light on these concerns, providing a thoughtful examination of the process of introspection that, in the end, we’d all be wise to follow to take us to a new higher ground.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.