Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Promising Trend?

What a weekend at the movies it was! This past weekend marked the release of three titles -- "Lucy," "I Origins" and "Magic in the Moonlight" -- all dealing with topics of a metaphysical/spiritual nature. And, even though their quality levels varied, it was very interesting to see such a bumper crop (relatively speaking) of films come out all at once with subject matter of this nature.

Is this a trend? I would certainly like to hope so! Given the seemingly endless plethora of mindless comedies and explosion-ridden action-adventure flicks being released these days, it's truly encouraging to see movies with more thoughtful, more substantive material making their way into theaters. And, while these thought-provoking pictures may represent only a fraction of new offerings, at least they're getting out there, and, based on this trio of simultaneous releases, such films would appear to be on their way to occupying a more prominent position in the movie marketplace.

But are viewers buying it? Considering the alternative subject matter of such pictures (and the seemingly inherent financial risk associated with them), it's easy to understand why studios and distributors might want to take an arm's-length -- or even hands-off -- approach to these kinds of projects. What if they spend the money on producing or acquiring the rights to these titles and they don't pay off at the box office or other distribution channels? Indeed, will audiences flock to them?

That kind of thinking has sometimes hurt the chances of such projects making it into production, let alone theaters. But is the market potential really being assessed accurately? Are there more would-be viewers for these kinds of films than thought? In my view, the answer to that last question would be a resounding "yes."

A number of developments lend credence to the notion that there's a much larger (and underserved) audience for films of this nature. For starters, despite their still-small numbers overall, there has been a steady increase in the volume of releases with alternative storylines among independent filmmakers and even major studios and distributors. Then there's the success of movie subscription programs, like the Spiritual Cinema Circle, which have demonstrated an ongoing audience for thoughtful entertainment.

But, if that weren't enough, consider the box office results, too. A number of this summer's big-budget blockbusters, for example, have underperformed, falling short of expectations and making hasty exits from the nation's multiplexes. And this past weekend's results were especially surprising. The top-grossing film was "Lucy," one of the titles noted above, which came up an unexpected winner over the highly touted "Hercules" movie by a substantial margin. That's quite a feat: Who would have expected that a metaphysically oriented action-adventure with a female lead (Scarlett Johansson) would top a traditional summer blockbuster with a big-name box office star (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson)? Now, this is not to suggest that "Hercules" is a bad film nor that viewers should avoid it (it actually fared reasonably well with critics), but the ticket sales results speak volumes about what viewers chose to see, and they represent a potentially significant shift in audience choices and priorities.

Let's hope that trend continues.

In upcoming blogs, watch for my reviews of the three films in question. And, with summer only partly over, watch for more new releases with metaphysical/spiritual themes. I'll be sure to review them as well.

A New York City billboard is one of many intriguing synchronicities responsible for drawing together separated lovers in the captivating new sci-fi romance, “I Origins,” one of three new films with metaphysical/spiritual themes that opened this past weekend. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

The mystery of growing up explored in uneven ‘Boyhood’

“Boyhood” (2014). Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal, Barbara Chisholm, Brad Hawkins, Angela Rawna, Jenni Tooley, Tom McTigue, Zoe Graham, Richard Robichaux, Roland Ruiz, Charlie Sexton, Maximillian McNamara, Jessi Mechler. Director: Richard Linklater. Screenplay: Richard Linklater. Web site. Trailer.

Figuring out what makes life work occupies much of our time and attention in our formative years. Coming to understand the world around us and how it emerges into being is a formidable task for our young minds, especially when it doesn’t seem to make sense. A noble attempt at broaching that subject provides the focus of one of the summer’s most anticipated new releases, director Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Growing up is quite an experience, to say the least. It’s a time for learning about the world in all its magic, mystery and wonder. And observing how that process unfolds before us is something we each go through in our own unique way.

For six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), that odyssey begins in a household headed by their divorced single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who struggles to provide for them. But caring for them is indeed difficult, and out of seemingly incessant frustration, she at last resolves to better their circumstances by moving the family from their small Texas town to Houston, where she plans to enroll in a local university to complete her college degree. The move also gives Mason and Samantha an opportunity to reunite with their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a would-be musician and jack-of-all-trades who has recently returned to the Lone Star State after an extended stay in Alaska trying to find himself. The kids are thrilled to have both parents back in their lives, but the likelihood of mom and dad reconciling is almost assuredly too much to hope for.

As Mason and Samantha grow older, their lives begin to change, especially when Olivia remarries, this time to Bill (Marco Perella), one of her professors. In addition to a new father figure, the children also have new step-siblings in their lives, Randy (Andrew Villarreal) and Mindy (Jamie Howard). But this new sense of domestic bliss is quickly shattered when it becomes apparent that Bill is an abusive, alcoholic control freak, a development that leads to yet another disruptive uprooting.

Olivia’s plan to complete her degree program succeeds, and, by the time Mason and Samantha are in their teens, she lands a teaching job at a small university in the college town of San Marcos. And, as Mason enters his adolescence, he begins defining himself as an artist and photographer, one who has a strong observational curiosity about life and all it has to offer. He begins to become his own person, despite the changes his family members go through, such as his mom’s new relationship with a returning Iraq War vet (Brad Hawkins) and his dad’s marriage to a sweet new wife, Annie (Jenni Tooley). He even finds a love of his own through a relationship with his high school sweetheart, Sheena (Zoe Graham). And, before long, he’s ready to leave the nest as an 18-year-old college freshman, completing the cycle of what we call boyhood.

If much of this sounds rather ordinary, that’s because it is. “Boyhood” charts Mason’s personal growth and evolution, illustrating the kinds of experiences we all typically go through by following the protagonist over a 12-year span in his life. We watch the young Mason grow into the adolescent Mason and finally the adult Mason before our eyes. We also witness his parents and sister grow older as they experience their own unique journeys, and they all do so against the backdrop of the events of the times that occurred during the picture’s protracted filming schedule, adding a touch of temporal realism that further serves to define the project’s sense of authenticity.

Mason’s reactions to his circumstances impliedly illustrate his conscious creation skills at work. His reactions to what he draws into his life shape the beliefs he uses to further characterize the reality he experiences on an ongoing basis. He learns lessons and formulates responses to everything from the mundane, such as taking responsibility, standing one’s ground in the face of oppressive intimidation and dealing with consequences of repeating mistakes, to the extraordinary, like staking a claim to one’s destiny. All of this serves to define his personal growth and evolution and his continual exploration of his constant state of becoming, an experience that those around him share as well.

Interestingly, as an observer and documentarian of his existence, Mason creates works of art that reflect what he sees, which, in turn, are reflections of the beliefs he puts out to create those manifestations in the first place. His physical creations thus mirror the mirrors of his inner self, and the film chronicles his journey in coming to understand this concept and how it’s reflected in what he materializes in his life, especially artistically. It’s an intriguing example of art imitating life and vice versa, twice over.

As lofty and ambitious as these notions are, however, unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to its objective (or its hype) as well as it might. In fact, perhaps the picture’s greatest accomplishment lies in its intent to push the boundaries of cinematic creativity, something director Richard Linklater is known for. In doing so, the filmmaker has created a picture unlike virtually anything else (except perhaps Michael Apted’s “Up” documentary series and, of course, the long-running and eminently enjoyable TV series The Wonder Years).

However, the film’s novel approach isn’t enough to overcome its innate episodic nature and its pedestrian performance by a dull, insipid protagonist surrounded by an array of characters who are far more interesting than he is (particularly Arquette and Hawke, who are clearly at the top of their game here). The insights the picture offers come too few and far between and aren’t especially revelatory when they do. All in all, “Boyhood” is an underwhelming effort that leans a little too heavily on its own self-congratulatory nature. It would make a decent option for DVD viewing on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it’s certainly not worth nearly three hours of premium-priced theater time.

The process of self-discovery and the discernment of the meaning of life are grand adventures, to be sure, which is why it’s disappointing those notions failed to receive more engaging treatment in this cinematic offering. Employing an inventive approach to the subject, though laudable, unfortunately is not enough to do justice to a crucial rite of passage we all experience, one that shapes our views, beliefs and outlooks for what the real test that follows – and that will be with us for the rest of our days.

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

‘Snowpiercer’ examines the inevitability of evolution

“Snowpiercer” (2014). Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Ah-sung, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic, Stephen Park, Marcanthonee Jon Reis, Emma Levie. Director: Bong Joon-ho. Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson. Screen Story: Bong Joon-ho. Graphic Novel: La Transperceneige, Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. Web site. Trailer.

It’s been said that there’s no stopping a train. The forward momentum generated by such a potent force is hard to contain, especially when fueled by the power of belief. And it’s even more ironic that a new film drives home this point by way of one of those namesake vehicles. Such is the focus of the thrilling new futurist adventure, “Snowpiercer,” now showing in theaters and on video on demand.

When an atmospheric spraying program aimed at curtailing global warming goes terribly awry, the Earth is plunged into an ice age in which everything freezes over, making life on the planet’s surface impossible. In fact, the only survivors of this calamity are the inhabitants of a massive, specially equipped train known as the Snowpiercer, a kind of Noah’s Ark on rails that endlessly circles the globe powered by a perpetual motion engine. Inside the confines of the train, the passengers are safe from the harsh conditions of the external environment, and some might say they’re the lucky ones. But that all depends on which passengers one asks, because not everyone benefits from everything the Snowpiercer has to offer.

Just as pre-ice age society was segmented into distinct classes, so, too, is the population of the Snowpiercer. But, with survival on the line and resource management a critical priority, the distinctions between the life-styles of the elite and the underprivileged classes of train society are even more pronounced, and those who are unfortunate enough to be reconciled to the back of the train are kept in line with brutal intimidation tactics. While the privileged few at the front of the train dine on gourmet food and live in elegant compartments, the steerage classes must settle for mass-produced gelatinous protein bars and cramped living conditions, with punishment routinely and harshly doled out to those who dare question their circumstances. It’s enough to spark a revolt, and, after 17 years of such deplorable conditions, that’s precisely what’s about to happen.

The rigid class segregation of passengers aboard a post-apocalyptic survival train prompts a revolt of the underprivileged against the power elite, led by insurgent leader Curtis (Chris Evans, center) and his compatriots, Edgar (Jamie Bell, right) and Gilliam (John Hurt, left), in the thrilling new action adventure, “Snowpiercer.” Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC.

Desperate for change, the residents of the tail section plan to move forward to the front of the train to confront those in control, most notably the Snowpiercer’s creator, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris). The looming revolt is led by Curtis (Chris Evans), a charismatic freedom fighter, with the aid of his compatriots Edgar (Jamie Bell), Gilliam (John Hurt) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), who has an added incentive to become involved when her young son, Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), is seized by the authorities without explanation. But, to make their plan work, the rebels must first crack the codes for the locks that keep them trapped in their compartment. And, to accomplish that, they require assistance from the designer of the train’s security system, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), whose efforts were rewarded by the powers-that-be with confinement to the Snowpiercer’s prison car. Namgoong agrees to aid the insurgents, but his help comes at a price. In addition to his own freedom, the master locksmith insists that the rebels liberate his psychically gifted daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung). And, on top of that, he demands that his assistance be rewarded with doses of kronol, a drug made from chemical waste, a substance almost as volatile as the addiction Namgoong has developed to it.

With their team in place, the rebels thus begin their ascent to the front of the train. Their efforts, however, are met with numerous challenges, including resistance from armed guards led by a ruthless commander (Stephen Park), the strong-arm tactics of a pair of sadistic henchmen (Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic), the platitudinous but menacing threats of one of Wilford’s chief minions, Mason (Tilda Swinton), and even the seemingly benign but decidedly deadly acts of a school teacher to the children of the elite (Alison Pill). But the insurgents’ resolve is so strong that there’s precious little that will hold them back. And, as they make their way forward, they discover an amazing world of wonder aboard the train that they never knew existed (and probably never even envisioned). However, the closer the rebels get to reaching their goal, the more one can’t help but wonder, will they attain it? And, if so, then what? Indeed, what ensues will inevitably surprise everybody, including those both on and off the screen.

An unjustly imprisoned security system designer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), comes to the aid of a rebel faction seeking to change the deplorable conditions of daily life aboard a post-apocalyptic survival train in director Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.” Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC.

As anyone who practices conscious creation knows, we manifest the reality we experience through our thoughts, beliefs and intents, and they serve to lead us down a particular line of probable existence, one of an infinite number of possibilities available for expression at any moment. And, given the foregoing, the train provides a fitting metaphor for illustrating how that concept works. The train runs on tracks, following a predetermined “path” created by those who initially conceived of it. It thus symbolically exemplifies the depiction of a specific probability as it transitions from the realm of potential into the world of manifestation – and one that has persisted stubbornly, despite efforts from within to reshape it.

Resilience issues aside, the specific probability that the Snowpiercer embodies nevertheless represents a reality sorely in need of change, for a variety of reasons. For example, considering that the train came into existence in response to the onset of the ice age, its emergence signifies a makeshift solution to a larger, more dire challenge, a sort of bandage on a gaping metaphysical wound (and one whose efficacy at treating that injury is questionable at best). What’s more, the Snowpiercer was intentionally set up to mimic the ways of the society out of which it was born, a probability that seeks to perpetuate the inequalities and divisions that kept its citizens apart in the days before the global calamity – only worse. And it all comes at a time when everyone on board should arguably be pulling together for the common good – indeed, the very survival – of the human race. In short, the Snowpiercer is an attempt to prop up the ways of an old world in a new one in which its inhabitants don’t have the luxury of realistically being able to maintain what they once had. It reflects a way of life whose time has come and gone but whose creators desperately attempt to hold onto, a recipe for the imposition of change if there ever were one.

Rebel leader Curtis (Chris Evans, left) attempts to orchestrate a rebellion to improve living conditions aboard a post-apocalyptic survival train with a ragtag band of followers, including a young psychic girl, Yona (Ko Ah-sung, right), in “Snowpiercer.” Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC.

In that sense, then, the Snowpiercer represents an affront to one of the key concepts of conscious creation, namely, that we’re continually evolving, that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. If the old way of life were meant to die away in the wake of the ice age, its attempted perpetuation through the Snowpiercer is a futile effort to stave off what the masses have collectively created (not to mention what must inevitably happen). The efforts of Wilford and his cohorts to preserve their way of life is thus a sort of metaphysical obscenity, one that seeks to deny the forces of our inherent nature. But artificially maintaining the status quo is unlikely to withstand the tremendous power of impending change, for the beliefs driving the wave of revolution and transformation are far more potent than any of the weapons supposedly designed to oppose it. And, when those forces of change are let loose, they might well unleash powers no one ever imagined, with outcomes exceeding anything that anyone ever saw coming.

In addition to the changes that the rebels seek to invoke for their society at large, they also bring about changes within themselves. The vision they hold for what could be prompts them to push past their own personal limitations. It drives them to stretch, to become more than they could have imagined. But, given the evolutionary nature of conscious creation, that shouldn’t come as any surprise, either. Whether that principle is applied on a macro or micro level, one thing is certain – it ultimately won’t be denied.

Mason (Tilda Swinton, center), a perfunctory minion of the power elite aboard a post-apocalyptic survival train, does battle with a band of rebels led by Curtis (Chris Evans, left) and his compatriot Tanya (Octavia Spencer, right) in their efforts to improve the living conditions of the underprivileged in director Bong Joon-ho’s incredible cinematic thrill ride, “Snowpiercer.” Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC.

“Snowpiercer” is an incredible thrill ride, to say the least, one of the most innovative films to come out in a very long time. It serves up a storyline all its own, yet it also contains elements reminiscent of a number of other familiar offerings, including Battlestar Gallactica, the “Mad Max” movie franchise, and films like “2012” (2009), “The Hunger Games” (2012) and even “The Truman Show” (1998). The picture features great special effects and action sequences, but it doesn’t rely on them to carry the narrative. It also includes ample humor, along with a host of terrific performances, particularly by Swinton, Spencer, Harris and Pill.

In approaching this film, it’s crucial that viewers suspend belief regarding the story since it’s clearly implausible on many levels. However, if you consider the plot metaphorically, you’ll enjoy it immensely. Sensitive viewers should be aware that the film is quite violent at times, but its imagery is never gratuitous, thanks to director Bong Joon-ho’s successful implementation of Hitchcock’s rule of showing the aftermath (but not the actual occurrence) of disturbing events. The picture probably could have benefited from a little editing during the first 30 minutes, which drag a bit in spots, but, once the film gets past that point, it takes off like a shot and never looks back – nor disappoints.

The sudden appearance of a worldwide ice age would undoubtedly be a disaster of Biblical proportions. But, as the Good Book also states in Ecclesiastes 3, “to every thing there is a season,” including all of the probabilities that are ultimately made manifest. “Snowpiercer” serves as a valuable reminder of this wisdom, of knowing when to let go when the time comes to do so. Seeing our plans getting derailed may come as a shock or disappointment, but the doors that open as a result may also hold tremendous promise for fresh new beginnings that bring us – all of us – blessings beyond what we can comprehend.

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ask the Author

Got a question about one of my books or my other writing projects? Well, if you're a GoodReads member, you can now get answers straight from the author's mouth. Visit my profile page and check out the new "Ask the Author" feature. I've already answered a few sample questions, but, if there's something specific you'd like to know, fire me a query and I'll get back to you. Happy reading!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

‘Life Itself’: Ode to a cinematic game changer

“Life Itself” (2014). Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel (archive footage), Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Greg Nava, Ava Duvernay, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Marlene Iglitzen, Thea Flaum, Nancy De Los Santos, Roger Simon, John McHugh, Stephen Stanton (voice). Director: Steve James. Book: Life Itself: A Memoir, Roger Ebert. Web site. Trailer.

It’s a rare occasion when someone comes along who ends up being a genuine game changer in his or her particular field of endeavor. But, when such individuals make their presence felt, they leave an indelible mark on their craft, changing it forever. In the field of film criticism, that distinction belongs to Roger Ebert (1942-2013), who almost single-handedly altered the way we look at movies and whose storied life is now the subject of the engaging new documentary, “Life Itself.”

Based on Ebert’s autobiography, director Steve James’s documentary chronicles his subject’s life story from his teenage years as neighborhood reporter for a self-published newspaper to his acclaimed career as America’s top movie critic to his heartbreaking yet ever-hopeful battle against terminal cancer. In presenting Roger’s story, James serves up a wealth of archival material, coupled with narrated segments from Ebert’s memoir, interviews with family, friends and colleagues, and candid footage of the difficulties his subject faced in his final days. The result is a remarkable and surprisingly forthright depiction of Ebert’s life, something he insisted on before agreeing to be involved in the project.

Ebert’s contributions to the field of film criticism are almost too numerous to mention. His 46-year career included positions as Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, as co-host of several TV series (most notably Sneak Previews, At the Movies and Siskel & Ebert & The Movies) and as the author of numerous books. He was also a regular presenter about cinema at the Conference on World Affairs and even co-wrote the screenplay for the Russ Meyer cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970). And his efforts didn’t go unnoticed, either. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first film critic ever to receive this prestigious award. Then, in 2005, he was honored again, this time with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the only film critic ever so recognized. (Not bad for a middle-class kid from Urbana, Illinois.)

Film critics Roger Ebert (right) and Gene Siskel (left) take on one another during one of their many televised movie review duels in director Steve James’s engaging new documentary, “Life Itself.” Photo by Kevin Horan, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

While the picture covers the entire spectrum of Ebert’s career, much of it examines his famous (some might say infamous) relationship with film critic Gene Siskel (1946-1999) of The Chicago Tribune. As rivals at Chicago’s two daily newspapers, they initially vied for the attention of the Windy City’s moviegoing public. But that was just the beginning. The duo would later go on to host the aforementioned TV series, which often featured spirited – sometimes downright nasty – debates about current film releases. Their colorful arguments made for great television, but those disagreements (and the shows themselves) also changed the way movie lovers viewed the cinematic landscape. They brought film criticism out of the pages of the newspaper and made it more available to a wider audience. In doing so, they became the best known (and some would say most influential) film critics in America, as well as celebrities in their own right. Yet, for all the fame and fortune they built together, they never much cared for one another, their contentious rivalry characterizing much of the nature of their relationship (some of which becomes plainly apparent in outtakes from promos for their TV series and in interviews with Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, and several of their shows’ producers).

The film also focuses heavily on the other significant relationship in Ebert’s life, that of his marriage to his wife, Chaz. Roger met Chaz late in life after years of dating women who, according to some of his friends, were of “questionable character.” But Chaz changed Roger’s life, introducing him to the love that always eluded him in his younger years. She would prove to be his rock in his waning days, too, remaining loyal and upbeat through all of his travails, which were much more taxing than most people knew, despite his very public presence almost right up until the end.

But what’s perhaps most illuminating about this film is its portrayal of the relationship Roger had with himself. He was very much in touch with who he was and how his life unfolded. In fact, he believed that we each compose the script of our own lives, that they’re like our own personal movies in which we’re actor, director and screenwriter all rolled into one. And, even though he was quite outspoken in his criticism of alternative life philosophies (such as New Age thought), his own outlook nevertheless seems remarkably consistent with the principles of conscious creation, the notion that we create our own reality with our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Some might argue that there are discrepancies between his views and those who practice conscious creation, but, in my opinion, I believe any such differences are mostly semantic, particularly given the similarities in the outcomes that each outlook propounds to evoke.

The creations Ebert materialized were quite impressive, to say the least. For instance, through his TV series, he brought film criticism to the masses, and, in doing so, he made it accessible to those who may have previously seen the subject as too high-brow or aloof. In fact, he was so successful at this that industry insiders were initially reluctant to embrace these shows (or even to measure their impact) simply because they were hosted by “Midwestern” film critics, presenters viewed as folksy rubes who couldn’t possibly possess the sophistication and clout of New York or Los Angeles critics like Pauline Kael. How wrong the detractors were, especially when the shows took off and became hits in the ratings.

Film critics Roger Ebert (left) and Gene Siskel (right) screen a picture for review in director Steve James’s “Life Itself.” Photo by Kevin Horan, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

By broadening the audience for serious film criticism, Ebert also helped to broaden the profession itself. This is most evident on his web site,, which became his “voice” after his cancerous lower jaw was surgically removed and left him unable to speak. But, in addition to providing a venue for Ebert’s output, the site also became a platform for upcoming film critics whose words might not otherwise have been given voice. By mentoring a new generation of reviewers, Roger furthered the reach of his calling and those who would take up the gauntlet in his wake. His efforts in this regard are praised in the film, too, in interviews with fellow critics like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss.

Roger’s generosity of spirit was apparent not only in the nurturing of new critics, but also in the development of new cinematic talent. Throughout his career, Ebert was famous for giving press to the works of aspiring or little-known directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Greg Nava and Ava Duvernay, all of whom are interviewed in the film. He was instrumental in helping to make their careers, something that benefitted both those artists and the moviegoing public.

However, despite Ebert’s willingness to support the works of up-and-coming directors (and even to befriend them in some cases), he maintained a scrupulous degree of integrity when it came to assessing their pictures. Scorsese, for example, discusses Ebert’s harsh (and disheartening) criticism of his film “The Color of Money” (1986). Despite four Academy Award nominations (including a best actor win for Paul Newman), Ebert tore into his friend’s picture. Scorsese confesses that he was disappointed at the time, but he also admits how he later recognized that Ebert’s criticisms helped make him a better filmmaker, a “gift” that would prove valuable in his future projects. In being honest, Ebert may have ruffled some feathers in the short run, but his wisdom subsequently helped elevate the art form he so loved, another of his inspired creations, to be sure.

But, for all his professional accomplishments, his personal triumphs were amazing achievements as well. Just ask Chaz and her family, many of whom are interviewed in the film and serve as a topic of discussion in voiceover narrations from Roger’s memoir. Through them, he built a family for himself. And that accomplishment, as fulfilling as it was, wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for another of his achievements – kicking the drinking habit – for it was through his association with Alcoholics Anonymous that he would meet his future bride (and everything that came with that). Indeed, to paraphrase Clarence, the lovable guardian angel from Frank Capra’s legendary Christmas classic, “Roger, you’ve truly had a wonderful life.” And, fortunately for Roger, he recognized this, too, regardless of whatever difficulties may have graced his path along the way.

Film critic Roger Ebert (right) and the love of his life, Chaz (left), smile for the cameras on their wedding day in the engaging new documentary, “Life Itself.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“Life Itself” paints a beautiful portrait of a towering figure, and it does so with sequences that are both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Its selection of archive, interview and recent footage tells a balanced, frank and compelling story, warts and all. There are both ample laughs and touching moments, as well as film clips from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, all combining to create one of the most complete pictures I’ve seen in quite a long time. The film is a sure-fire contender in the documentary categories for this year’s awards competitions.

As a longtime Chicago resident, I became well-acquainted with Roger Ebert over the years through his work as a critic for the Sun-Times, a movie reviewer for the local ABC-TV affiliate and as a co-host of Sneak Previews, the PBS series produced by the network’s Chicago affiliate, WTTW. But, beyond his published and broadcast works, I came to admire Roger’s approach to film criticism, one that was thought-provoking but that never went beyond the audience’s comprehension. And, just as Roger saw himself as the creator of the movie of his own life, I frequently offer comparable observations in my own writings – but, then, I had a good source of inspiration to draw from.

Roger Ebert left an incredible mark on an industry, an art form, even the nation’s culture. He helped transform a casual pastime into something more, something that both entertains and enlightens but that also maintains a certain familiarity we can all relate to. That’s quite an accomplishment, one for which all moviegoers should be grateful.

Take a bow, Roger.

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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Check Out New Age News!

I'm pleased to announce that the July edition of New Age News magazine containing my first article, Conscious Creation and the Silver Screen, is now available from the iTunes Store! Check out this jam-packed issue by clicking here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Two documentaries examine the nature of life’s essentials

“Ivory Tower” (2014). Featured Experts: Richard Arum, Bennet Bergman, Jamshed Bharucha, David Boone, Brooke Brewster, Governor Jerry Brown, Kyrie Byer, Anthony Carnevale, Clayton Christensen, Michael Crow, Andrew Delbanco, Bob Estrin, Drew Faust, Stefanie Gray, John Hennessy, Anya Kamenetz, Daphne Koller, David Malan, Amirah Mitchell, Michael Roth, Lisa Rucinski, Victoria Sobel, Elizabeth Stark, Catherine Stevens, John Stuart, Peter Thiel, Sebastian Thurn, Ben Weeks. Director: Andrew Rossi. Writer: Andrew Rossi. Web site. Trailer.

“Fed Up” (2014). Narrator: Katie Couric. Featured Experts: Kelly Brownell, President Bill Clinton, Senator Tom Harkin, Mark Hyman, David Kessler, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Robert Lustig, Michael Pollan, Michele Simon, Margo Wootan. Director: Stephanie Soechtig. Writers: Mark Monroe and Stephanie Soechtig. Web site. Trailer.

Our everyday existence has many components that we consider essential for our personal growth, if not our very survival. Many times, however, we take these things for granted, giving little thought to them, including why they’ve taken the forms that they have (or that we’ve had a substantial hand in their realization). So, when these creations start to go awry, we’re often befuddled at how they’ve materialized as they have. “Why,” we rhetorically ask ourselves, “have these staples of existence assumed such unsuitable forms?” That’s a heady metaphysical question, one that provides a potent undercurrent in two new documentaries that deal with some of life’s essentials, “Ivory Tower” and “Fed Up.”

Education in America is frequently looked upon as an inalienable right, something to which we’re all entitled to have access, especially since it’s considered central to our development as productive, contributing members of society. At the very least, we assume that we’re entitled to a high school diploma, if not a college degree. That wisdom has occupied a prominent place in our beliefs for decades, too, and, over the years, various public and private programs have been established to further those objectives, noble ventures, to be sure.

However, over roughly the past 35 years, the pursuit of a university education has become an increasingly arduous undertaking, particularly financially. What was once seen as a realistically attainable goal has, in recent years, morphed into a fiscal calamity for many students and their families. Student loan debt, for example, has exploded to the point where graduates often face the prospect of having to pay off their obligations for the rest of their lives, a sort of modern-day form of indentured servitude.

The hallowed halls of Harvard University are one of the featured colleges in the new documentary, “Ivory Tower.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

How did we go from the point where students could pay for their educations by working summer jobs and taking out modest loans to the nightmare of being overwhelmed with debt in near perpetuity? That’s one of the key questions that “Ivory Tower” seeks to address. Through interviews with students, professors, administrators and politicians, coupled with a plethora of statistical data, the filmmakers explore this issue and document the reasons for this debacle, many of which have surprisingly little to do with the actual cost of educating pupils. By focusing on such issues as shelling out huge sums for expensive campus construction programs aimed at luring would-be students (often in an attempt at little more than one-upping competing universities) and paying administrators salaries in excess of what they’re likely worth, the nation’s colleges have unwittingly ballooned tuition and living costs beyond reason. Students, consequently, are saddled with debts they’re likely to have considerable difficulty paying off after graduation (if that even happens), especially since starting salaries have not kept pace with what they owe. In fact, the increasingly dire nature of these circumstances has even prompted a growing number of university candidates to question whether attending college is still worth the investment.

The foregoing concerns thus raise an even bigger question – what exactly do we want out of our educational institutions these days? That’s the issue “Ivory Tower” takes up after addressing the core problem. By examining the educational objectives being pursued by a number of the nation’s colleges – some well known, some not – the filmmakers attempt to examine this question, which has myriad ramifications in terms of what subjects are taught, how those lessons are delivered, what facilities and instructors are necessary for said programs, and what alternatives are possible. With a bloated, overpriced system on the brink of collapse, these are significant considerations that educators seriously need to examine – before it’s too late.

Graduation day should be a time of joy, but, for many debt-burdened students and parents these days, it may be a short-lived joy, as detailed in the new documentary, “Ivory Tower.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

While education may nourish the soul, something that’s even more essential to our sustenance is food, and it, too, is something that has become a problematic staple for us today. That’s the issue explored in “Fed Up.”

How is it that something that’s supposed to sustain us is making us so sick? With childhood obesity at record levels and rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease skyrocketing, the food processing industry has come under serious scrutiny as the chief culprit in these problems, particularly for its products that contain added sugar (roughly 80% of the processed food items on the US market today). These problems have been compounded by a medical profession that has clung to outmoded recommendations for combating these conditions, by food manufacturers who skillfully manipulate and entice the tastes of consumers (especially children), often with deceptive marketing campaigns and disingenuous product offerings, and by complicit government agencies and officials that have apparently turned a blind eye to the reality of these issues to appease corporate interests at the expense of public health.

America’s expanding waistline – and the food industry’s role in that phenomenon – provide the focus of the new documentary, “Fed Up.” Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Through interviews with public health officials, politicians, medical researchers and consumers afflicted by food-related conditions, the film details how these circumstances arose, how they have been perpetuated, their current and projected future impacts, and the reasons why effective solutions have been thwarted or are hard to come by. The revelations offered up provide considerable food for thought for all consumers.

So how is it that we have arrived at this point with regard to our educational system and food supply? It would be easy to point a finger at the providers of these commodities and cite such considerations as incompetence or greed, and those contentions genuinely have some merit. However, as anyone who practices conscious creation understands, we all have a hand in the unfolding of these scenarios, whether or not we recognize it or are willing to own up to it. Given that we each create our reality through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, we have been participants in the emergence of these circumstances as well, even if only as part of these mass-created events. The big question, in light of that, then, is why?

That “why,” of course, is the $64,000 question. As noted in my previous blog, “‘Grand Seduction’ extols the power of co-creation,” in a collectively created mass event (such as the crises depicted here), we each have our own particular role to play, despite our participation in the larger whole. So, in light of that, the beliefs we contribute to the creation of these circumstances are highly individualized (and thus impossible to generalize to the entire group). However, considering the common attributes that pervade these events, it’s possible to speculate about some of the recurring themes in our collective belief contributions.

For instance, in creating our increasingly fast-paced way of life, we have grown progressively willing to abrogate our responsibility for being directly involved in the manifestation of many of our reality’s components. That interest in expediency may enable us to focus more on our own particular contributions to our existence, but it also leaves us “susceptible” to the impact of the beliefs (and motivations) underlying the creation beliefs of others. If we’re dissatisfied with those elements of our existence, then it behooves us to take back the reins of responsibility and become re-engaged in the process that brought those materializations into being. Placing the blame on others only goes so far if we recognize the role of our own complacency and disengagement in the emergence of such conditions.

In a larger sense, realizations about the manifestation of particular aspects of our existence not only alert us to the materialization of those specific attributes, but they also make us more aware of the part we play in the conscious creation of our wider reality. Indeed, when we become aware that we participate in the creation of a portion of our existence, it also sheds light on the role we occupy in the manifestation of its greater totality. Now, this is not to suggest that we should engage in acts of self-imposed penance or flagellation when it comes to those aspects of our existence that require remediation, but it does imply that taking responsibility to stay involved and attuned is crucial if we seek to create the elements of reality that best suits us.

When adverse or unsatisfactory conditions arise, it’s incumbent upon us to change them, a process that often encourages us to think outside the box. It prompts us to think more creatively, to envision never-tried-before possibilities, to seek resolutions not previously explored. That’s reasonable, too, especially since previously untried probabilities to address once-prevailing priorities were what got us into these circumstances in the first place. But, with those “solutions” having run their course and raised new challenges for remediation, it’s time to move on from them – and doing so using the same process that brought them into being initially.

Both films do capable jobs of probing their respective issues, and they both encourage viewer activism to rectify them. Individually, they also each have their strengths and weaknesses. “Ivory Tower,” for example, effectively details its core issue and offers a range of possible solutions (some of which work, some of which don’t and all of which are examined honestly). However, despite the film’s overall candor, its investigative efforts sometimes feel like they don’t probe deeply enough, that the picture doesn’t go for the jugular as much as it could (or should) have with some of its interview subjects.

President Bill Clinton, one of a number of featured experts in the new documentary, “Fed Up.” Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

“Fed Up” is also good at detailing its central problem. In fact, some have even argued that it goes overboard in doing so at times (a contention not without merit), though, personally, I’d rather that a film like this overstate its case than downplay its significance. With that said, however, the picture could be better at proposing solutions; the suggestions offered, though seemingly viable, come too few and far between. This sometimes makes for a film that’s more focused on damning the guilty than encouraging inspired resolution.

Trite though it may seem, it’s often been said that, if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. And, when it comes to the educational system and the food supply, the same applies, as these films illustrate. If we truly want things to be different, we must become involved, both actively and metaphysically, to effect change. In both cases, there’s too much at stake for anyone concerned about them to remain on the sidelines.

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