Friday, May 30, 2014

‘Belle’ skillfully explores breaking down barriers

“Belle” (2014). Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, James Norton, Tom Felton, Alex Jennings, Lauren Julien-Box, Cara Jenkins, Bethan Mary-James. Director: Amma Asante. Screenplay: Misan Sagay. Web site. Trailer.

Prevailing limitations can be severe impediments to invoking change and righting wrongs. The implications of this are apparent in an array of life’s venues, too, from those that are highly personal to those that affect the entire spectrum of society. But, when individuals of conviction come along to challenge existing limitations, the potential for dismantling those barriers soars. Such are the circumstances at work in the new fact-based historical drama, “Belle.”

When British naval officer Admiral John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) learns of the death of the mother of his young mixed-race daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Lauren Julien-Box), he sincerely wants to do right by her. But, considering his naval career’s seafaring obligations, the Admiral also knows he’s away from home often and incapable of raising Dido properly. As a consequence, he decides to place her in the care of his uncle, William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who also serves as Lord Chief Justice of England’s highest court. While sympathetic to his nephew’s plight, Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) have serious reservations about taking in the young girl. Given the socially accepted racism of 18th Century England, they fret over what their aristocratic peers might think about them raising an illegitimate mulatto child. However, Admiral Lindsay insists that Dido’s bloodline rightfully entitles her to certain privileges, an argument that causes his aunt and uncle to relent and assume responsibility for their grand-niece.

To assuage any misgivings they have about their decision, Lord and Lady Mansfield comfort themselves in the knowledge that Dido would make a welcome companion for another grand-niece in their care, the lonely young Elizabeth (Cara Jenkins), who is about the same age as her newly arrived cousin. The girls quickly become fast friends and confidantes, forging a bond that grows ever stronger as they mature into young adulthood. And, to ensure that they’re groomed as proper young ladies, both girls are entrusted to the tutelage of their refined but spinsterish aunt, Mary (Penelope Wilton).

With the passage of time, Dido blossoms into a beautiful, sophisticated young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). However, despite the privileges to which she’s entitled (such as a generous inheritance from her now-deceased father’s estate), she’s also denied participation in many social customs that others in her household, like her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), are freely accorded (such as joining the family at formal dinner parties). It’s as if Dido lives in a sort of social purgatory, blessed with certain advantages but forbidden from availing herself of some of the most basic common courtesies, a conundrum that puzzles and frustrates her. Even Elizabeth and Lord and Lady Mansfield are uncomfortable with this socially sanctioned hypocrisy, and they struggle to walk the tightrope of proper etiquette, taking incremental steps to “palatably” ingratiate Dido into their world without causing undue offense to their peers’ sensibilities.

Dido’s carefully orchestrated introduction into English high society prompts mixed reactions. Some of the aristocracy, such as would-be suitor Oliver Ashford (James Norton), view her as alluring and charming. At the same time, others, like Oliver’s brother James (Tom Felton), look upon her as “repulsive.” And still others, like Lady Ashford, the squabbling brothers’ calculating mother (Miranda Richardson), size up the young heiress for how she might benefit her family’s social standing and fiscal condition.

While Dido enjoys Oliver’s flattery, her romantic attention is drawn elsewhere – to an aspiring young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid). The idealistic attorney seeks to make his mark in an insurance claim case in which the owner of a slave ship is suing its guarantor for denied reimbursement of its lost “cargo,” a shipload of ill African natives who were intentionally thrown overboard, chained to one another, because their failing health allegedly threatened the welfare of the ship and its crew (not to mention their market value among potential buyers). Mr. Davinier, the idealistic son of a country vicar, believes that a ruling against the claimant would significantly boost England’s growing abolitionist movement, an initiative aimed at outlawing the country’s longstanding (and highly profitable) slave trade, a practice the social activists consider a humanitarian abomination. It’s also a case where the decision rests with Lord Mansfield.

Given her personal experiences and the horrid fate of the real victims in this case, Dido sympathizes with John’s efforts. She quietly but passionately lobbies on his behalf with Lord Mansfield, who struggles to remain objective and avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest. Considering his role as Dido’s guardian, the Chief Justice worries what the public will think if he’s perceived as letting his personal feelings influence his decision, especially if he were to find in favor of the insurers. But, no matter what his current family circumstances might be, Lord Mansfield’s own outspoken views of the slave trade – criticisms he openly wrote about in the past – are already in the public record. So, in making his ruling, he faces a difficult choice: Will he strictly follow the letter of a law that would appear to compel reimbursement? Or will he follow his heart, based on his personal experiences and his own documented idealism? To rule fairly, he requires credible evidence to make an impartial, genuinely informed decision. And, when such evidence surfaces, the good judge issues a ruling that surprises everybody – including himself.

Dido, meanwhile, faces a difficult choice of her own: Will she pursue a relationship with Oliver, a well-heeled admirer who sincerely adores her and whose aristocratic pedigree would “validate” the legitimacy of her social standing (despite the stigma of her minority status)? Or will she follow her heart and seek romance with John, a noble soul who would assuredly provide her the unconditional love she craves but whose “inferior” class status might diminish her place in society?

Both decisions carry huge implications affecting not only the Mansfield household but also society at large. The outcomes in both instances, of course, depend on whatever intents underlie them, just as is the case with anything that manifests through the power of conscious creation.

At its heart, “Belle” explores how to use conscious creation to intentionally break down barriers. This is most apparent in a racial context, but it also applies to expanding the positions women occupy in society, as well as shattering the class rankings “assigned” to everyone, from slaves to the aristocracy. In all of these cases, the rigidity of the existing social structure is designed to purposely keep people in their place, and the persistence of this system is preserved and reinforced by a society in which most everyone willfully buys into beliefs upholding it. These notions are generally supported without question, sustaining its structure and assuring its continued existence. It’s a system that’s virtually immune from alteration.

But then along come individuals like Dido, Admiral Lindsay, Mr. Davinier, Oliver Ashford and Elizabeth, all of whom are capable of envisioning – and believing in – possibilities that go beyond established norms. Suddenly, the unquestionable comes up for scrutiny, especially for the roles of minorities and women. And, even though the changes these courageous visionaries seek to implement may not come to pass immediately, they at least help to initiate the process of reform to a paradigm sorely in need of it.

Of course, getting these changes implemented would never happen if their advocates didn’t zealously draw upon qualities that make their institution possible. Their willingness to embrace traits like courage and integrity, cornerstone elements of the conscious creation process, energizes their efforts by enabling them to form beliefs necessary for their manifestation and by strengthening their faith to see things through to materialization. Those who are willing to think outside the box possess these qualities, and they don’t hesitate to make use of them in furthering their causes and advancing convincing arguments to influence the attitudes of others. Tremendous accomplishments, both personally and in society as a whole, are possible when all of these factors are allowed to hold sway, yielding satisfaction and fulfillment beyond compare.

“Belle” is easily the best film release of 2014 thus far, an engaging Austen-esque tale with a social conscience. It’s a superb period piece, with exquisite production values in such areas as costumes, makeup, set design and art direction, as well as a beautiful soundtrack by Rachel Portman. The picture’s deftly penned script makes its points without becoming preachy, with many of its philosophical discussions skillfully and gently raised through “what if” and “why not” conversations among the protagonists. And the story is effectively brought to life by the excellent performances of its wonderful ensemble cast, particularly Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson. Director Amma Asante has produced a film that is definitely worthy of serious awards consideration, though the timing of its release and an inexplicably weak critical reception thus far may work against it.

Miracles are truly possible if we allow the courage of our convictions to have free reign in their manifestation. Dido and her kindreds discover this for themselves in many ways, a realization that enables them – and countless beneficiaries of their efforts – to reap abundant rewards. The same is true for any of us who have the vision to imagine undreamed-of possibilities and the fortitude to surmount the walls that keep us from them. Indeed, if change can be invoked under restrictions as rigid as those in place in 18th Century England, there’s no telling what can be implemented under the more tolerant conditions in place today.

And who says we can’t learn anything from history?

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

‘Vivian Maier’ searches for meaning, connection

“Finding Vivian Maier” (2014). Directors: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Screenplay and Story: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Web site. Trailer.

It’s mystifying how someone with profound aesthetic insights and artistic sensibilities could also remain a virtual unknown, especially given the prolific nature of her work. But, then, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if the creator of those pieces intentionally commits to shielding them from public view. Indeed, how is it that someone so incredibly talented would purposely choose to keep her work a secret? That’s the conundrum raised in the fascinating new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.”

While working on a book about the Chicago neighborhood where he grew up, photographer John Maloof searched for historic images to accompany the text. During the course of that search, he stumbled upon a collection of old negatives at a public auction house. The collection only cost him several hundred dollars, but what he (and the world) got for such a modest investment was an invaluable treasure.

In poring over the trunk of photographic images he purchased, Maloof found more than 100,000 negatives covering an array of subjects. Many of the pictures were exquisite depictions of everyday life, shot in both black and white and color throughout many of Chicago's neighborhoods during the second half of the 20th Century. But how, he wondered, had these beautiful images gone undiscovered?

The photos turned out to be the works of an amateur shutterbug named Vivian Maier (1926-2009). Maloof had never heard of Maier, nor was he able to find out anything about her through an Internet search. His curiosity was naturally piqued.

Maloof conducted further research by going through some of Maier’s other possessions that were included in his auction house purchase. Through that investigation, Maloof learned that Maier had been a nanny and housekeeper to a number of families on Chicago’s affluent North Shore, including former TV talk show host Phil Donahue. He began contacting the families for whom she had worked and slowly pieced together a profile of a gifted but enigmatic recluse.

Maloof was hoping that his research would help to explain the motivation for Maier’s art. Was she a street photographer? A citizen journalist? An artist in training who did not know how to market her work? Or was she something else entirely?

Maloof’s investigation painted a portrait of an extremely private – almost xenophobic – person whose life was characterized by sweeping contradictions and unexplained motives. In addition to her negatives, Maloof discovered trunks full of undeveloped film, as well as numerous 8-millimeter movies and audiocassette recordings. Besides her street photography (visible at, Maier was prolific at snapping self-portraits and documenting her world travels, including visits to her family’s ancestral home in rural France. But, despite Maloof’s diligence in attempting to learn about his subject, many aspects of Maier’s persona and the reasons behind her work remain a puzzle.

As a consequence, “Finding Vivian Maier” is as much a film about unraveling a mystery as it is about showcasing a little-known artist’s work. It’s an intimate search for meaning and connection, one that ultimately involves the artist, the filmmakers and the audience.

As someone who had virtually no family and few friends, it’s not surprising that Maier would seek to consciously create connection – in almost any way possible – to alleviate the loneliness in her life. Despite the inherent nature of this quality in the fabric of reality, Maier seemed to have difficulty with it and sought, in her own way, to introduce it into her life.

For example, Maier’s work as a nanny brought her into direct contact with families, the very type of social unit that was absent from her own life and background. And her work as a street photographer, depicting even the most ordinary aspects of everyday existence, provided her with an artistic connection to elements of daily life, even if only vicariously. Yet her unwillingness to more actively engage that sense of connection prevented her from greater participation in the web of life. Her reluctance to engage it may also help to explain why she kept her life and her art so private, not letting in others to see who she was and what she was doing.

Maier’s working class background also appears to have influenced her art. She faithfully depicted a world from which she believed she came, thus giving expression to those aspects of life that might not otherwise garner recognition. But her hesitance to commercialize her works, again, kept them from being seen by the world until their “accidental” discovery after her death. Her belief that working class folk are meant to make certain kinds of contributions to life (such as the toil of hard work) and not meant to make other kinds (such as artistic accomplishments) would seem to belie her reasoning for not pursuing commercialization of her photography, a belief that manifested directly in the existence she experienced.

There’s also the possibility that the simple act of creating for its own sake – the joy and power of creation – is what drove her. Perhaps she pursued her art simply because she enjoyed it and didn’t really care what came of it. This is the motivation behind the works of many conscious creators, and, for them, that’s enough. Maybe that was true for Vivian Maier as well. And, thanks to Maloof’s discovery, we can now share in the product of that joy ourselves.

Vivian Maier’s story may not seem like interesting fare for a documentary film, but nothing could be further from the truth. The picture engages on every level from start to finish, telling a fascinating story and doing it in a way that utterly captivates. Viewers will be mesmerized by the mystery as it unfolds, all the while treated to an array of gorgeous imagery.

Comprehending the motivations for doing what we do is often difficult for us, let alone those who are watching us from the sidelines and trying to understand. “Finding Vivian Maier” provides us with a captivating exploration of this subject from a unique individual’s perspective. We might not “find” Vivian through this cinematic odyssey, but perhaps her story will help us to better connect with our own inner being – and find out something about ourselves in the process.

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

‘Locke’ wrestles with choice, responsibility

“Locke” (2013 production, 2014 release). Cast: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman (voice), Ruth Wilson (voice), Andrew Scott (voice), Ben Daniels (voice), Tom Holland (voice), Bill Milner (voice). Director: Steven Knight. Screenplay: Steven Knight. Web site. Trailer.

Coping with the conditions of our lives can be more than a little challenging at times. We often find ourselves faced with circumstances we dread, some of which may carry difficult choices and demanding responsibilities. But, then, in all fairness, we must also ask how we got ourselves into those dilemmas to begin with. Those are the conundrums a beleaguered protagonist must address for himself in the unconventional personal drama, “Locke.”

Construction manager Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is about to go on the ride of his life. On the night before he’s scheduled to oversee the largest concrete pour for a non-military construction project in all of Europe, he unexpectedly sets off on an anguished two-hour drive from Birmingham to London. He abandons all his existing obligations, both to his job and his family, and his impulsive actions perplex those depending on him. But Ivan has his reasons, and they involve concerns more important than any of his prior commitments.

So what’s prompted Ivan’s seemingly irrational actions? He’s making a journey to be present for the impending premature birth of his child, a baby born out of a one-night stand he had with a lonely construction project assistant, Bethan (Olivia Colman), seven months earlier. Ivan had been keeping Bethan’s pregnancy secret for months, but he planned to inform others of it as soon as the concrete pour was complete. Those plans went awry, however, when the baby’s early arrival threw a wrench into Ivan’s schedule. And so, as he sets off on the drive to London, he seeks to square up matters with his family and professional colleagues through a series of phone conversations – calls that herald the collapse of everything important in his life.

Over the course of his journey, Ivan learns from his boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), that he’s being fired for abandoning his responsibilities at such a critical juncture in the project. Despite this dismissal, Ivan feels compelled to follow through on his work commitments and seeks to make arrangements for them to proceed as scheduled with the aid of his assistant, Donal (Andrew Scott). Accomplishing this task is easier said than done, however, when he learns that, per Donal’s usual nightly routine, he’s been drinking, making it difficult to convey detailed instructions for what needs to be done.

Meanwhile, Ivan also must contend with his family, who had been expecting him to join them at home to watch a football match. When he calls them about his change in plans, they’re puzzled, not suspecting a thing about what he’s up to. Ivan’s sons, Eddie (Tom Holland) and Sean (Bill Milner), are understandably disappointed that their dad won’t be joining them. But Ivan’s wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), is positively devastated, not only because this is the first she’s heard of his infidelity, but also because she’s receiving the news in such an impersonal way. Ivan struggles to smooth things over with everyone, but this task proves far more difficult than anything he has to contend with in his dealings with Donal and Gareth.

And, if all this weren’t enough, Ivan also has to cope with the drama of Bethan’s condition. In addition to calming her over the shock of going into premature labor, Ivan must wrestle with Bethan’s emotional neediness. Despite the fact that she’s carrying Ivan’s child, he feels nothing for her emotionally beyond a general concern for her well-being. He has compassion for her fragile state of mind and the circumstances he’s placed her in, but he has no intention of pursuing any kind of romantic involvement with her, because he still loves Katrina, despite their marital difficulties. Complications related to the child’s delivery add more fuel to the fire, pushing Ivan to the brink of his own emotional meltdown.

The issues raised during Ivan’s unplanned road trip also recall painful issues of his own past, particularly those involving his contentious relationship with his habitually irresponsible father. In a series of monologues, Ivan rails at his old man’s unapologetic lack of reliability, lashing out at the lack of concern he showed his family as Ivan was growing up. He even berates himself for having occasionally followed in his father’s footsteps. But, as someone who has sincerely sought to straighten out his life, Ivan affirms his efforts to do the right thing now, no matter what transgressions he may have committed – and no matter what the cost may be to him going forward.

Ivan’s experiences shine an intensely bright light on the issues of choice and responsibility, hallmark principles of the conscious creation process. For some of us, it might be easy to shirk our responsibility for our creations, asserting that “things just happen,” thereby providing ourselves an all-too-convenient justification to walk away from them. However, given that nothing in our lives happens without the choices we make, we can’t realistically disavow our responsibility for their manifestation (and, even if we were attempt to do so, we would almost assuredly pay a higher price for having done so later on). Knowing that, then, it would behoove us to not only carefully consider the choices we make, but also to envision what consequences might arise from the options before us, given that we’ll be responsible for the fallout associated with them, no matter which one we ultimately choose.

To his credit, Ivan recognizes this and makes a concerted effort to rectify his missteps, despite the high personal price he may end up paying for doing so. Not only does this make him accountable for his choices, but it also helps to strengthen his fundamental awareness of how the conscious creation process works, a recognition that, one would hope, will encourage him to act more responsibly down the road. He thus sets an example worthy of emulation, especially for those who would attempt to worm their way out of their responsibilities.

Ivan’s efforts also make clear that we’re not tied to our past or our prior choices. He freely admits that he screwed up, but he also willingly agrees to make up for his transgressions, no matter how painful that restitution might be. At the same time, he also fully realizes that, just because he may have acted irresponsibly in the past, that doesn’t mean he’s locked into a pattern of comparable behavior for the future. He recognizes – and doesn’t hesitate to decidedly avow – that he knows he can choose new beliefs about what he manifests from this point forward (as evidenced in his monologues with his father). He’s aware that he’s not forever shackled to whatever he may have done previously. That’s a very healthy attitude that we’d be wise to follow, no matter how much we (or others) may try to saddle us with views to the contrary. It’s even metaphorically apparent in Ivan’s line of work; regardless of what difficulties may arise, he’s always able to “build anew.”

The ability to reconstruct one’s life is an option that’s always with us, regardless of how daunting the circumstances might seem. This is made possible by the ongoing continuity of existence, a belief in the idea that “life goes on,” no matter what may come up in our everyday reality. This notion, explored in such other films as “People v. The State of Illusion” (2012) and the recently released “On My Way” (2014), is poetically symbolized here by the inclusion of the “journey” element in the picture’s narrative. The road, which provides the backdrop for Ivan’s trip, is also symbolic of the personal journey on which he has embarked, one that involves implications far greater than just getting him from Birmingham to London. It metaphorically chronicles the arc of his learning curve, his individual evolution, and his personal growth and development, all of which are indicative of the conscious creation principle that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. As it is with Ivan, so it is, too, with each of us.

Journeys like this hold tremendous potential, despite their associated difficulties. As dire as these sorts of circumstances may appear, they also frequently carry the seeds of change, often for the better. Indeed, when an old way of life crumbles away, its demise often paves the way for something new to emerge, and, thanks to our manifesting beliefs, we’re the ones driving the process behind what eventually surfaces. This phenomenon can materialize in a variety of ways, from minor alterations to sweeping modifications. Even a complete rebirth is possible, another metaphor that looms largely, both literally and figuratively, in Ivan’s story. Again, if such transformation can happen for him, there’s no reason to believe that it also couldn’t happen for us, especially if we zealously embrace the beliefs that make such outcomes possible.

“Locke” is a surprisingly engaging film despite its rather unconventional format. In many ways its narrative is akin to a one-person stage play, which some might find a questionable storytelling approach. But the writing is effectively enlivened with the film’s dynamic cinematography and editing, which never allow the material to become stale. Admittedly, some of the dialogue could have been stronger and, at times, less technical (you’ll come away knowing more about concrete than you probably ever wanted to know), but the effective explorations of the metaphysical themes examined through the screenplay make up for these deficiencies. Hardy’s performance is generally solid, representing a big stretch over his previous portrayals, though it could have been stronger in spots, especially in the continuity of his accent. As for the supporting cast, whose contributions are entirely vocal, viewers get a mixed bag, with some of the players (like Wilson, Holland and Milner) serving up fine portrayals and others (like Colman, Scott and Daniels) turning in performances that come up lacking at times.

The road of life is filled with twists and turns, many of which take us by surprise. But the more we realize we’re in the driver’s seat, the better we’ll be able to map our own course. Ivan Locke learns this for himself during his lonely drive to his destiny, one that’s both literal and metaphorical. Here’s wishing him – and all of us – a safe trip.

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

‘Fading Gigolo’ urges us to broaden our horizons

“Fading Gigolo” (2013 production, 2014 release). Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, Bob Balaban, Tonya Pinkins, Jade Dixon, Aubrey Joseph, Dante Hoagland, Isaiah Clifton, David Margulies, Abe Altman, Sol Frieder. Director: John Turturro. Screenplay: John Turturro. Web site. Trailer.

For many of us, there comes a time in our lives when we find ourselves stretching in ways we never thought possible. Those instances can be exhilarating, introducing us to talents we never knew we possessed and enabling us to access vast untapped reserves of personal power. Of course, those revelations seldom materialize unless we recognize the opportunities that make such episodes of personal growth possible, which may be tricky if they call for us to venture outside our comfort zones. These are among the challenges posed to a cast of colorful but longing characters in the quirky new comedy, “Fading Gigolo.”

After years of operating a rare books business, Murray Schwartz (Woody Allen) is reluctantly forced to close up shop, the exorbitance of New York’s commercial real estate rents having finally gotten the better of the family-owned operation. Faced with having to find a new income source, Murray considers his options, one of which is more than a little odd: During a routine visit to his beautiful but lonely dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), Murray learns that she’s interested in finding someone with whom she and her flirtatious friend, Selima (Sofía Vergara), can have a ménage à trois, and she asks her stunned patient if he knows anyone who might be able to accommodate them. Though initially astounded by this inexplicable, outlandish request, Murray nevertheless decides to think it over, because he just might have someone in mind.

While packing up his bookstore’s unsold inventory, Murray shares Dr. Parker’s proposition with his longtime friend Fioravante (John Turturro), a reserved, middle-aged everyman who works as a part-time floral designer. The reason? Murray believes Fioravante would make a perfect third for his doctor and her friend.

Fioravante wonders why Murray would consider him for such a strange proposal; after all, he’s not exactly male model material, nor is he experienced in this sort of “work.” But Murray counters that Fioravante’s blue collar good looks, coupled with his sensitive nature and innate ease with women, make him a good candidate. What’s more, considering what “the job” pays, Murray believes the cash will come in handy. Of course, in Murray’s mind, the money will do more than supplement his friend’s paltry flower shop income; it will also earn him, as Fioravante’s “manager,” a handsome finder’s fee. After thinking things over, Fioravante agrees (albeit somewhat tentatively), and an unlikely new joint venture is born.

In the run-up to “the big event,” Fioravante first meets with Dr. Parker and Selima individually, and they both come away from their experiences more than satisfied. The once-reluctant escort enjoys himself, too, and he quickly discovers he’s a natural at this sort of thing, a realization that leads to securing additional clients. Before long, Murray and Fioravante are rolling in dough, something that neither of them saw coming – and that neither of them is willing to walk away from anytime soon.

Circumstances change, however, when Murray connects Fioravante with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a revered Chasidic rabbi and a mother of six who lives in Brooklyn’s orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood. Given that this new “client” hasn’t spent much time in the company of men since her husband’s death, Fioravante’s meetings with her are considerably more chaste than anything he has with his other customers. In fact, Fioravante’s times with Avigal are more platonic encounters than sexual romps, experiences that nonetheless stir long-dormant feelings in each of them. Fioravante’s romantic tendencies, indicative of his inherently sensitive nature, begin to emerge. Likewise, Avigal’s long-repressed sense of passion surfaces, revealing an earthy side of herself that she’s barely aware of, despite years of marriage. But, beyond that, the improbable duo also seems to be falling in love. And so yet another unexpected outcome arises, one that dramatically shakes up Avigal’s life – and that seriously jeopardizes Fioravante’s commitment to his new line of work.

Avigal’s uncharacteristic behavior also gets the attention of others, most notably those in her closely knit community. As the widow of a respected cleric and a doting mother, Avigal comes under considerable scrutiny from her neighbors; her reputation and well-being are sources of community concern, and the locals feel responsible for what she does and whatever happens to her. Leading the pack of those watching over her is an overprotective community security officer, Dovi (Liev Schreiber), who has quietly pined for Avigal since the two of them were children. So, when “questionable events” begin to transpire in Avigal’s life, Dovi doesn’t hesitate to get involved and make his presence felt. But, despite his sincere concern, Avigal nearly always responds by giving him what appear to be polite brush-offs. Appearances, however, may not always be what they seem – both for those who witness them and those who project them.

How everything eventually shakes out will take some profound soul-searching for all involved, not to mention the intervention of a rabbinic council and even Murray’s lawyer, Sol (Bob Balaban). But the efforts that go into resolving these chaotic circumstances have the potential to pay significant personal dividends for everyone, even when they yet again lead to outcomes that no one sees coming. However, wasn’t venturing into the unknown what got all this started in the first place?

Traversing uncharted territory, both literally and figuratively, can be daunting propositions, and virtually everyone in this film must come to terms with the idea. Murray, for example, explores what it’s like to run a new type of “business.” Fioravante shares in this undertaking and, through it, learns about “talents” he never knew he had. Meanwhile, as Fioravante awakens to these new “skills,” Dr. Parker and Selima join him for the journey, venturing into the provinces of their unexplored erotic territories. At the same time, Avigal learns new things about herself, allowing repressed feelings and desires to come forth. The same is true of Dovi, who’s finally willing to let his guard down to make his sentiments known, without any guarantee of success, a truly risky venture for someone so rooted in tradition.

In each of the foregoing cases, however, before any of the characters can proceed with their new endeavors, they must first change the beliefs that foster their realities, for those intents dictate what ultimately manifests through the conscious creation process. In these particular instances, each of the characters must deal with overcoming personal limitations to be able to examine these new probabilities. As noted above, this can be intimidating, but getting past the fear and being willing to take the plunge are crucial to their personal growth and development, enabling them to reap the rewards that come with discovering parts of themselves they never knew existed.

The interactions the characters have with one another are, of course, the means by which these epiphanies become possible. These encounters provide the connections and synchronicities that enable their transformations, showing them not only things they may not have known about themselves, but also things they may not have known about the nature of reality and how it materializes. Such realizations can thus open up them (and us) to even greater possibilities never before considered. Indeed, they (and we) may well wind up thinking, “If I can accomplish that, then what else is possible?”

Discovering (or rediscovering) such “magic” in one’s life can be quite invigorating. This is especially true for those who have reconciled themselves to existences devoid of such wonder. Suddenly they find that life has much to offer – and in ways they may have never before envisioned.

Of course, such an expanded awareness also calls upon us to make sure that the possibilities we bring into being are truly in line with our inherent nature. This thus puts the spotlight on the concept of integrity. Once we’re familiar with what we’re capable of creating, we also often find that we can’t deny the need to be truthful with ourselves about what we manifest, for anything we materialize that rings hollow will become painfully apparent very quickly, another realization that this film’s characters must come to terms with.

However, no matter what risks or pitfalls may accompany this process, the rewards that come from it are more than worthwhile compared to any adjustments or “sacrifices” we must make. Adopting – and acting upon – an expanded view of life (and reality) can bring us joys beyond measure. And that’s a pretty good payoff for what’s often a modest investment. But, then, we must remember that we’re making that investment in ourselves, and I can’t think of a better place to put our personal capital.

“Fading Gigolo” is a generally enjoyable, occasionally uproarious comedy, even if some aspects of the story seem highly implausible. But those who are willing to suspend the limitations of convention (just as the characters themselves strive to do in this story) will come away nicely entertained. Admittedly, most of the characters could have benefited from more fully developed back stories (especially in Fioravante’s case) to better understand their motivations, and a number of obvious plot holes could have been more effectively plugged, but these shortcomings don’t significantly detract from the fun on offer here.

The picture fields an impressive cast, too, especially in the supporting roles. Vergara is an absolute hoot, and Allen serves up some of the best on-screen work he’s done in years (and in a rare acting turn in a film he didn’t write or direct). Turturro’s performance, however, though nicely nuanced at times, is nevertheless a little too understated. In delivering his portrayal, Turturro comes across like an older (and less interesting) version of the character Paulie Carbone he played in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). In light of this, he may have better served his film by casting someone else in the lead and reserving his role to that of writer and director.

Broadening our horizons is an exercise that calls for taking chances and risking loss. But it also holds the potential for tremendous personal benefit, often beyond expectations. It’s ironic that such profound insights arise from a film that might easily be misconstrued as little more than an upscale sex comedy, but that’s one of the unexpected joys that comes from it, a revelation not unlike what the characters themselves experience as their stories unfold. Maybe we should follow the examples set in these amorous exploits – and enjoy the “cigarettes” that come afterward.

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

Tune in to Transformation Talk Radio!

Please tune in this Thursday, May 15 at 11 am Eastern, when I'll be a guest on The Jenn Royster Show on Transformation Talk Radio! Join me and host Dr. Jenn Royster for a lively conversation about conscious creation in the movies, available by clicking here. And, for further information about the show and the host, visit Jenn's web site, available here.

Dr. Jenn Royster

Yours truly!

Friday, May 9, 2014

‘On My Way’ examines the continuity of life

“On My Way” (“Elle s’en va”) (2013 production, 2014 release). Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nemo Schiffman, Gérard Garouste, Camille, Claude Gensac, Paul Hamy, Mylène Demongeot, Hafsia Herzi, Séréphin Ngakoutou Beninga. Director: Emmanuelle Bercot. Screenplay: Emmanuelle Bercot and Jérôme Tonnerre. Web site. Trailer.

It’s easy – perhaps all too easy – to become reconciled about our lives. We convince ourselves that our journeys are destined to follow set, unalterable paths. Yet we also often hope that they’ll take different courses, especially if the directions we’ve become sold on aren’t to our liking. And sometimes we even wind up pleasantly surprised. No matter what the outcome, however, we can always count on life’s inherent continuity, for better or worse and no matter what we choose to manifest, an idea explored in the delightful new French comedy-drama, “On My Way” (“Elle s’en va”).

Life sometimes doesn’t turn out as hoped for. Just ask Bettie (Catherine Deneuve), an aging former beauty queen now in her early 60s. Having grown up an apple-cheeked small town girl, Bettie blossomed into a beautiful young woman, effortlessly capturing the title of Miss Brittany 1969. Almost overnight, she attained unexpected notoriety, even becoming a contender in the Miss France competition. Unfortunately, the fulfillment of that aspiration got derailed by a car accident not long before the finals, her hopes tragically dashed. And, in the ensuing years, after the glory of her past faded, Bettie found herself right back where she started – living with her mother, Annie (Claude Gensac), in the same small town and in the same house where she grew up.

But, if Bettie’s shattered pageant dreams weren’t bad enough, she also experienced her share of other disappointments, including the untimely death of her husband, the heartache of being jilted by a lover, the venomous ingratitude of her estranged, self-absorbed daughter, Muriel (Camille), and the ravaging effects of time on her physical appearance. And, on top of all that, the source of her livelihood – the charming seafood restaurant she lovingly built – is now on the brink of failure. It’s all a bit much to handle.

Feeling overwhelmed by her circumstances, Bettie impulsively decides to take off one day. She walks out of her restaurant at the height of the lunch hour, leaving everyone and everything behind. She goes for a drive to clear her head, but the longer she’s gone, the less interested she is in returning. So she sets off on an impromptu road trip, letting things take their course without any type of set agenda.

As Bettie’s journey progresses, some things go from bad to worse. The severity of her financial woes becomes painfully apparent, and her worst (albeit overblown) fears about what others think of her looks are repeatedly confirmed, even by total strangers. But, at the same time, she also experiences many unexpected pleasures, such as an overnight fling with an amorous young admirer (Paul Hamy), a late night emotional catharsis with a furniture store security guard (Séréphin Ngakoutou Beninga) and a fun-filled gathering with her pageant sisters, including her old friend Fanfan (Mylène Demongeot). Her biggest joys, however, come in a heartfelt reunion with her grandson, Charly (Nemo Schiffman), and a chance encounter with a potential new romantic interest, Alain (Gérard Garouste). There’s even hope of a reconciliation with Muriel. Suddenly, life doesn’t seem quite so bad after all, even if it does require making some adjustments. Indeed, before long, Bettie truly is “on her way.”

It’s been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. However, there’s one more item that belongs on that list: As long as we’re physically incarnate, life itself is a certainty in its own right. It has its own inherent continuity that persists until our final departure from it. Of course, the key question for us in the meantime is, what do we make of it?

How our lives turn out ultimately depends on us and what we do with them. The beliefs we hold serve to shape our perspectives, which, in turn, color the nature of our respective realities. This is the essence of the conscious creation process, which makes it possible to experience whatever probabilities we choose to conceive for ourselves. But, again, the key question for us in this is, what are we to make of those probable choices?

These considerations are at the forefront of what Bettie is now facing. Will she continue to view the glass as half empty, or is she willing to make a leap of faith and see it as half full? Her road trip experiences provide her with a palette showcasing all of these options, but which one will she decide to embrace?

Under such circumstances, many of us fall back on our past to guide us in our decision making for what we experience going forward. Whatever we’ve typically encountered previously is likely to frame our prevailing outlook, and the more we buy into it, the more likely we’ll continue to manifest comparable experiences – unless, of course, we change our minds and choose to explore different options.

In Bettie’s case, she’s lived a life characterized by regrets, disappointments and unexplored possibilities. And, in many ways, she anticipates a future of more of the same. But is that set in stone? And is that what she really wants? The new frustrations she experiences on her road trip would seem to confirm her worst expectations.

But how does such a dour worldview account for the unexpected joys she experiences while on the road? The materialization of those pleasant occurrences gives her hope for fulfilling alternatives to her seemingly hardwired dismal expectations. All she need do is embrace the beliefs that make those other options possible. If she does, she just might find that life can take a very different course from what she’s anticipating.

Rarely are our lives all black or all white; most of us experience some of each, as well as the middle shades of gray. Such circumstances are all part of being human. What’s more, they also make possible the evolution that each of us goes through in our corporeal journeys. In fact, these intrinsic conditions underlie the core conscious creation principle that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. Bettie is just now learning this for herself, but, thankfully, for her sake, better late than never. Indeed, as so many of those around her repeatedly observe, “life goes on” – and in all its myriad forms at that.

I believe the themes explored in this film take on added importance as we age, especially if we’ve never allowed ourselves to evolve much (or at all) over the years. In that regard, Bettie serves as a quintessential tour guide for such an experience. Through her, we get to witness the continuity of life in all its rich, diverse splendor. Simultaneously, Bettie provides us with many examples to draw from when it comes to such crucial considerations as our power of choice, our capacity for change and our ability to tap into life’s inherent (if not always expected) connectedness. And what a rewarding experience it all is! We can only hope that we, like Bettie, manage to fit it all in – while we still have the time to do so.

“On My Way” is a mostly enjoyable, though sometimes-uneven exploration of the foregoing concepts. The picture’s exquisite cinematography brilliantly showcases the simple beauty of rural France in much the same way that “Under the Tuscan Sun” (2003) depicts the idyllic Italian countryside. Deneuve delivers a terrific performance as the beleaguered protagonist, and the film’s colorful supporting cast (featuring many locals making their big screen debuts) adds delicious dashes of whimsy and eccentricity. However, an occasionally meandering screenplay and periodic pacing issues (especially in the first 30 minutes) take the story off track at times, elements that, if tightened up, would have strengthened an already-entertaining picture.

The panorama that is life is something always at our disposal. How much of that beautiful mosaic we choose to view, however, is entirely on us. We can focus on a particular aspect, examine multiple elements or take in the big picture, depending on what interests us and what we choose to experience. But we need never reconcile ourselves to a belief that things are fixed unless we intentionally choose to do so. “On My Way” shows us the options that are open to us for life and its continued unfolding, and it does so with a sense of fun, enjoyment and appreciation – qualities we should all employ in the creation of our own respective realities.

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

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An Evening with 'The Dissolve'

I had a wonderful evening on May 7 when I attended a lively panel discussion about movies and the people who write about them. The event, held at Open Books and sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, featured four staff writers from the Chicago-based movie-related web site Dissolve staffers Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Tasha Robinson and Nathan Rabin read samples of their works, discussed various film-related topics and took questions from the audience. The event also provided an opportunity for me to share Consciously Created Cinema with the speakers (I hope they like it!).

For those who aren't familiar with the web site, check it out -- it's a terrific resource about movies and film-related news. For those not acquainted with the Chicago Writers Conference, check it out as well -- it's an excellent resource for writers, networking and informative programs about publishing. And, finally, those not aware of Open Books should stop by this nonprofit River North used book store, whose proceeds benefit literacy programs in Chicago.

Oh, and by the way, if you haven't picked up your copy of Consciously Created Cinema yet, visit one of the many fine online booksellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo Books) that carry this title in print and ebook formats. (It's a pretty good book, and I can speak from personal knowledge on this -- I know the author!)