Friday, January 30, 2015

‘Force Majeure’ wrestles with expectations

“Force Majeure” (“Turist”) (2014). Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Karin Myrenberg, Brady Corbet, Johannes Moustos, Jorge Lattof, Adrian Heinisch. Director: Ruben Östlund. Screenplay: Ruben Östlund. Web site. Trailer.

When different types of everyday circumstances arise, we’d all like to think we know how we and others will react. The expectations associated with such situations offer a degree of predictability and reassurance that we find comforting. But what happens when unforeseen events occur? Do we know how we and others will respond? And what happens if any expectations we hold about such scenarios go unfulfilled? Those are among the many thorny questions raised in the recently released, darkly satirical Swedish comedy, “Force Majeure” (“Turist”).

For those unfamiliar with the term force majeure, it’s a French expression (usually, though not exclusively, used in a legal context) that refers to a superior (and often-uncontrollable) force, such as an extraordinary act of nature, like a flood or hurricane. In other contexts, it can be used to characterize an exceptional man-made action or event, one capable of having profound, perhaps even devastating, impact. In the case of this film, force majeure effects arise from both of these sources, some of which are obvious and some of which are more insidious, but all of which threaten to wreak havoc in many ways.

When a young Swedish family embarks on a skiing holiday in the French Alps, they look forward to a fun time together. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), a successful businessman, is a good, though somewhat-overworked provider for his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren). The hope is that the trip will allow the industrious breadwinner an opportunity to relax and reconnect with his family, and, at the outset, everything seems to go according to plan. However, circumstances change drastically on the second day of the vacation, when events transpire that threaten not only the trip, but also the family’s future well-being.

While enjoying a pleasant lunch at their resort’s outdoor terrace café, the family witnesses a controlled avalanche, one of many routinely triggered by slope managers to prevent more massive snow buildups from forming and potentially endangering skiers. Restaurant patrons marvel at the sight, snapping cell phone photos and admiring the awesome, though potentially catastrophic power of nature unleashed. Still, as a controlled avalanche, the effects are intended to be localized, with no impact whatsoever on anyone safely out of harm’s way.

A pleasant ski vacation in the French Alps threatens to turn into a tragedy for a visiting Swedish family when an avalanche strikes in the satirical comedy, “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

However, as this (allegedly) carefully orchestrated event unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that something may be going terribly wrong. The wall of snow crashing down the mountainside seems to grow larger than anticipated, with its massive white outflow headed directly for the unsuspecting diners. With the avalanche racing toward the terrace, the restaurant’s patrons flee in fright. But not everyone reacts as one might expect they would (or “should”) under the circumstances – most notably Tomas, who bolts for cover, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves.

Despite the frightening nature of this spectacle, the event leaves diners largely unscathed; the snow cloud that overspreads the terrace, though larger than expected, turns out to be mostly harmless powder, not the suffocating mass that spectators suspected was about engulf them. Everyone breathes a heavy sigh of relief. But, even though no one is physically hurt, that’s not to suggest no damage occurs, as Tomas, Ebba and the kids come to discover in the ensuing days.

That damage first surfaces during the evening after the incident, when Tomas and Ebba share drinks with a pair of fellow vacationers, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg) and Brady (Brady Corbet). A casual conversation about the event quickly turns politely ugly when Ebba expresses her anger over Tomas abandoning her and the children during the height of the incident. Tomas claims he doesn’t recall doing so, sparking a controlled argument between the couple. Given that they’re out in public with people they barely know, Tomas and Ebba manage to contain themselves, and the situation seems to dissipate. But what appears to be over is far from settled.

Over the next few days, troubles simmer. In fact, when Tomas and Ebba find themselves in the private company of their newly arrived close friends, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), matters between them resurface and escalate. And, this time, the quarreling spouses’ impact is not limited to the feuding couple; the fallout extends beyond the boundaries of their relationship, with effects spreading far and wide.

As the intensifying story unfolds, questions emerge: Will Tomas and Ebba reconcile their differences? What outcomes will materialize from their contentious discourse? What sorts of ancillary effects will result, and how will they impact those so affected? But, perhaps most importantly, how will everyone concerned respond if comparable circumstances should arise again?

Tomas, a hard-working breadwinner (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, left), seeks to get away from it all on a ski vacation to the French Alps with his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli, second from left), and their children, Vera (Clara Wettergren, second from right) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren, right), in “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

So, if you were faced with the prospect of being overcome by an approaching avalanche, how would you respond? Would you be a noble soul, rushing to protect loved ones? Would you run away in terror to save your own behind? Or would you follow some other course, such as intentionally getting out of harm’s way so that you could be of service to others as a rescuer in the event’s aftermath? Ultimately, whatever course you pursue, it comes down to your beliefs and the choices you make with them, for they will determine what circumstances manifest.

Situations like this often bring our fears to the surface, giving us an opportunity to test ourselves and, more importantly, to examine the beliefs driving those apprehensions. This can prove to be remarkably beneficial going forward, especially among those of us seeking to surmount anxieties that might be preventing us from furthering our personal growth. But, as valuable as those benefits can be, these situations also tend to bring out our beliefs regarding expectations. And, if those expectations go unfulfilled, they also have the potential to shed light on our beliefs concerning judgment.

For example, Ebba feels betrayed that Tomas runs when the avalanche strikes. As a husband and father, she believes, he’s supposed to be a provider and protector in all circumstances, no matter what hazards are involved. When Ebba’s expectations in this regard aren’t met, she believes her husband is shirking his presumed paternal responsibilities. She judges him to be a coward, a view that subsequently puts their relationship in jeopardy.

Such belief-based assumptions thus illuminate our expectations about a host of related matters, like gender roles, which frequently go unquestioned. But is Ebba’s belief about how her husband should respond fixed and absolute? When threatened with a situation where one’s continued existence is at stake, is it wrong to automatically abandon one’s survival instinct, even if it conflicts with long-established expectations regarding gender-based roles? Couldn’t Ebba, as a parent herself, step up to play the role of protector just as readily as Tomas? What’s more, is it acceptable for Ebba to robotically (and conveniently) hide behind the shield of “the fairer sex” under such circumstances? The beliefs the protagonists hold regarding these matters will affect how their resulting reality materializes, for better or worse.

In terms of conscious creation, the means by which we manifest our existence through the power of our beliefs, all options are equally viable, depending on what intents we put forth. So to assume that one belief-based course of action is intrinsically and unilaterally correct at the expense of all others is, naturally, contrary to what the philosophy maintains. Even though it may be true that a particular path is considered preferable or more popular than others, this is not to suggest that it is indisputably the only one that can or should be pursued. Different individuals hold different beliefs, which, of necessity, will produce different expectations and divergent outcomes, and judging others with a tunnel vision view of reality flies in the face of this notion (not to mention being patently unfair).

This is especially important to bear in mind in an age when many of us are seeking to expand the range of what we consider to be acceptable beliefs and behavior. If we cling to a narrower view, the palette of possible outcomes is automatically diminished, leaving many potential probabilities unexplored, something that also runs counter to the basic tents of conscious creation. Those seeking to move beyond traditional modes of behavior, like those associated with conventional gender roles, should keep cognizant of this, especially when it comes to judging the actions and responses of others.

In the wake of a near-tragedy, the marriage between Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, right) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli, left) gets put to the test in director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Those under scrutiny for their behavior should bear the foregoing in mind as well. For example, when the family embarks on their vacation, Ebba hopes that Tomas will use the time to relax and reconnect with her and the kids, something with which he historically seems to have had difficulty; given that he spends so much of his time being a provider for his wife and children, he appears to have trouble winding down to enjoy himself. And that may be particularly problematic for him now, especially if he’s expected to continue playing the same provider and protector role during what is supposed to be a time of enjoyment. How can he realistically be expected to unwind if he’s also supposed to continue being duty-bound? What’s more, how can Ebba realistically be upset with him if he fails to meet her expectations on either of those fronts? It’s a no-win situation for Tomas, no matter what he believes or attempts to manifest for himself. And his prevailing withdrawal response shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, given the myriad expectations being heaped on him (mostly by his wife).

This is where the role of overcoming fears comes back into play. If Tomas truly hopes his circumstances will change, he needs to look at what’s holding him back. This, of course, involves his beliefs, some of which most likely relate to his fears about how to proceed. This consideration ultimately affects not only the reality he experiences, but also how well he manages his sense of personal power, both under these circumstances and others.

It’s quite fitting that all of this comes to light in the wake of an avalanche, an event that metaphorically mirrors the internal beliefs of the protagonists. As is hinted at the film’s outset, and as becomes readily apparent as the story unfolds, it’s obvious that trouble has been brewing in the couple’s marriage for some time, even if it has gone unaddressed. The avalanche, however, is symbolic of the weight of all of these issues coming crashing down on Tomas and Ebba. And these issues, like the avalanche itself, threaten to crush the couple unless they take steps to rectify it.

The implications of this are far-reaching, too. As the film illustrates, these issues affect not only the couple but also their children; on a number of occasions, the kids act out, largely because they sense the growing tension in their parents’ relationship and fear that mom and dad may be splitting up. They also affect the couple’s friends, such as when Mats and Fanni begin to question the status of their own relationship in the wake of Tomas and Ebba’s revelations. Indeed, the unleashed “avalanche” of emotions is difficult to confine to their source, especially when they prompt others to question the nature of their beliefs and realities. What starts out as an individual or joint creation holds the potential to quickly expand into a mass event, with implications that have far-reaching impact.

The arrival of Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a good friend of a married couple experiencing relationship troubles in the wake of a near-tragedy, holds the potential to make a complex situation even more complicated in “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

So how are these potentially dysfunctional circumstances “corrected”? One way is to keep an open mind, to consider untried possibilities and employ beliefs related to their manifestation. This becomes apparent when Tomas and Ebba spend time apart from one another. For instance, in one scene, Ebba converses with Charlotte about alternative relationship options, giving her a fresh perspective about what’s possible. Similarly, the somewhat-henpecked Tomas rediscovers his sense of personal empowerment, not to mention his ability to relax, when he joins Mats for some good, old-fashioned male bonding time. The benefits each spouse realizes from these experiences help to prepare them for dealing with their mutual issues. One hopes they’ll be able to work things out.

“Force Majeure” definitely won’t appeal to everyone. Some may see the film’s bitingly satirical approach to these emotionally charged personal matters as being too dark or cynical. However, like many Scandinavian films, the picture’s razor-sharp insights cut to the core of what’s really going on in the couple’s relationship, exposing the truth for what it is, no matter how much either spouse would like to ignore or deny it. The film accomplishes this with an often wickedly funny script and a narrative that relies more on showing than telling. Credit writer-director Ruben Östlund for a job well done.

Even though this picture may not be widely known, prospective audiences have a variety of options for viewing it. It premiered at a number of film festivals and is still available in select theaters, particularly those that specialize in foreign and independent cinema. It’s also available for instant video streaming and on-demand cable TV viewing, as well as for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray disk.

“Force Majeure” has been recognized in a number of awards competitions, too. It won the Critics Choice Award for best foreign language film, and it earned comparable nominations in the Golden Globe and upcoming Independent Spirit Award contests. The picture surprisingly failed to grab an Oscar nomination, but it did earn accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner and an Un Certain Regard Award nominee.

The expectations we hold of ourselves and of others can be a dual-edged sword. In some cases, they can empower us, giving us the confidence to know how we’ll respond to certain circumstances. In others, however, they can form the bars of a cage that traps us within the confines of personally imposed limitations from which escape can be difficult, if not seemingly impossible. The trick is to know the difference, and “Force Majeure” helps enlighten us about this. And, when we’re able to make the distinction, we just might find that there really are no insurmountable forces – except for those that we allow to hold sway.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

'Get the Picture" Available at Barnes & Noble!

Barnes & Noble fans can now find the newly revised and updated edition of Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies on the bookseller's web site! Both the print and Nook ebook versions are available by clicking here. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

'Get the Picture?!' Now on Kindle!

Great news for Kindle users -- the new edition of Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies is now available for the Amazon reader by clicking here. And for traditionalists, the book is also available in print by clicking here. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

'Get the Picture' on Kobo!

Ebook readers can now find the new edition of Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies available in electronic form from Kobo Books! Check it out by clicking here.

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment (

Friday, January 23, 2015

‘Still Alice’ urges us to live in the moment

“Still Alice” (2014). Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Shane McRae, Stephen Kunken, Caridad Montanez, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll. Directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Screenplay: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Book: Lisa Genova, Still Alice. Web site. Trailer.

Most of us probably go through life expecting it to continue on, almost in perpetuity, without anything ever coming along to disturb that pattern. But the virtual certainty of change generally doesn’t allow this. Sometimes it even violently shakes us out of our sameness and complacency, taking us places we never would have expected and reminding us of what we have – and what we might stand to lose. Those lessons are driven home with stark poignancy in the dramatic new release, “Still Alice.”

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) has been experiencing some unexpected, unexplained lapses of late. The renowned 50-year-old linguistics professor has found herself uncharacteristically lost for words at times, something that she initially chalks up to a nagging embarrassment. However, when these seemingly innocent nuisance moments begin to combine with a pattern of routinely losing or misplacing items, she grows concerned. And, when she suddenly finds herself lost in the midst of what should be familiar surroundings, she becomes downright scared.

After a series of visits with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken), Alice receives some shocking news: She learns she has developed Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, a particularly devastating form of the condition that strikes people in the prime of life, often seemingly out of the blue. Its symptoms tend to progress rather rapidly, too – and frequently with greater speed amongst those of higher intellect. For a university professor like Alice, a diagnosis like that is utterly devastating.

To make matters worse, Alice learns that this form of the disease is genetic and that there’s a chance she may have transmitted the trait to her three children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), all of whom are now adults. This news is especially difficult for Anna, considering that she and her husband, Charlie (Shane McRae), are seeking to start a family of their own – and now run the risk of passing along the gene for the disease to their children.

In spite of this news, however, Alice vows to fight and carry on as best she can. She continues teaching and speaking as long as she’s able to, and she spends a great deal of time with her family, especially Lydia, an aspiring actress whom Alice feels is adrift in her own way. And so, with the support of her children and her adoring husband, John (Alec Baldwin), Alice valiantly does her best to cope with her condition. Unfortunately, no matter how much Alice struggles, she’s facing a future whose outcome is already known.

For those who engage in acts of conscious creation, the means by which we create our reality through the power of our beliefs and intents, one can’t help but wonder why someone would employ the practice in a way such as this. What is to be gained from such a pursuit? In short, why would anyone want to create a reality like this?

Manifestations such as these truly test the resolve of conscious creation practitioners, and the intents underlying their materialization may only be known to those who bring those realities into being. An “outside” observer may be genuinely perplexed about the nature of such creations and question the choices behind them. But those who manifest them ultimately have their reasons, even if the rest of us don’t fully understand their motivations.

It’s often been speculated that all of the creations we realize are related to life lessons we’ve chosen to learn and experiences we’ve decided to undergo before incarnating. If that’s true, such circumstances would of necessity involve the materialization of all elements of our lives, including those we consider both “positive” (such as career accomplishments and domestic happiness) and “negative” (such as illness and heartache). The “wisdom” of those choices may be debated by those looking on from afar, but the reasons behind them can only truly be known by those who birth them. Those witnessing the unfolding of these manifestations would thus be wise to withhold judgment, for they may not be able to appreciate and understand the experiences their creators are seeking. The journeys of our souls take us to many diverse destinations throughout our lives, including those that disappoint, as well as those that delight, along the way.

So why has Alice created the circumstances she’s manifested? Again, her reasons are her own, but some clues related to her own brand of special wisdom are revealed during her odyssey, insights that we could all benefit from.

In the midst of her ordeal, with her mental cognition and concentration fading, Alice manages to work up the gumption to give a presentation at an Alzheimer’s Association conference. In the course of her talk, she waxes philosophically about what her condition has taught her, namely, the art of learning how to live in the moment. It’s a concept whose importance can’t be stressed enough, for the moment at hand is the only thing we have access to at any given time. And, in many ways, Alice’s wisdom thus echoes one of the cornerstone principles of conscious creation, the notion that “the present is the point of power.”

If we lose sight of that principle, we run the risk of losing sight of ourselves. That’s crucial for all of us, but it’s especially critical for someone like Alice, who admits that her condition has made her an expert in “losing things.” And, even though she tries to hold on to those memories that are slipping away, she’ll gladly sacrifice them as long as she can continue to retain her awareness of what really matters most.

The pain of an affliction like this is arguably hardest on those who are left behind. They remember the person who has slipped away, and the loss is devastating. As for the patient, since we don’t have access to his or her consciousness, we can only speculate as to where it has gone. One would hope that whatever new adventures he or she has embarked upon will bring whatever fulfillment is being sought for the soul’s continued growth and evolution. Godspeed.

“Still Alice” is an excellent showcase for Moore, who gives one of the best performances of her career. Her portrayal has already earned her honors in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions, as well as an Oscar nod and nominations in the Screen Actors Guild and Independent Spirit Award contests, all of which she is expected to sweep. But, perhaps just as important, the film is an informative, enlightening vehicle about this condition, shedding light on a subject that has heretofore received comparatively little attention.

However, despite these strengths, much of the rest of the film feels a little underdeveloped, both in its narrative and character development, especially among the supporting players and their relationships. In fact, the only connection that feels fully fleshed out is the one between Alice and Lydia. This is somewhat surprising in light of the picture’s relatively short 99-minute runtime. Taking a little more time to elaborate on these elements might have helped to elevate a good film to the level of greatness to which it aspires.

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell reminded us “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” For those suffering with conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease (not to mention those burdened with the sadness of witnessing their loved ones going through it), we’d be wise to heed those words, especially when it comes to our awareness of living in the moment. The present is a time that will not come again, so we should make the most of it while we have the chance – and the wherewithal to shape it to our liking.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Resolutions Redux

How are those New Year's resolutions working out for you? Time for a belief check? Find out more by reading "Resolutions Redux," my latest Smart Womens Empowerment post, available by clicking here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Madly Chasing Peace

Join me for some lively chat about conscious creation and the movies this Friday, January 23, at 12 pm ET, when I'll be a guest on the Madly Chasing Peace Radio Show with host Dina Proctor. To tune in, click here. And, to find out more about the show and the host, click here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

‘Into the Woods’ leads us on a journey of self-discovery

“Into the Woods” (2014). Cast: Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, Richard Glover. Director: Rob Marshall. Screenplay: James Lapine. Musical: James Lapine, Into the Woods. Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Web site. Trailer.

We all know what we want out of life, right? Or do we? Sometimes we’re thoroughly convinced, with unquestioned clarity, about what we hope to realize from our existence, only to find we may not be as sure about our certainty as we thought we were. Such exercises in self-discovery can be surprising, disillusioning and amazingly revelatory, especially when it comes to what we hope to attract into our lives, a circumstance that becomes startlingly apparent in the cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical fantasy, “Into the Woods.”

Just as in the real world, everyone in the land of fairy tales wants something:

• A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are a childless couple desperately looking to add a bundle of joy to their life. But, alas, success inexplicably eludes them. What are they to do? How can they resolve this painful longing?

• A spunky young girl in a scarlet cape (Lilla Crawford) looks to pay a visit to her grandmother (Annette Crosbie) in the forest. Little Red Riding Hood hopes for a safe journey and an enjoyable time with granny. But will her wish materialize?

• A poor farm woman (Tracey Ullman) unable to cover her debts desperately looks for a way to pay her bills. Her solution is to sell her aging dairy cow, Milky White, who is no longer able to live up to its namesake. She tasks her son, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), to pawn off their sorry bovine asset on anyone who will take her. But the young lad hesitates, feeling as though he’s being asked to rid himself of a beloved family member. Nevertheless, despite Jack’s reservations, his mother sends him on his way to make a sale, hoping he’ll bring home a bounty that will solve their financial problems. The question is, will he succeed? Or will his efforts just amount to a hill of beans?

• A beautiful but lonely maiden (Mackenzie Mauzy) is confined to an inaccessible tower. In fact, the only way anyone is able to see Rapunzel is when she lets down her flowing golden locks, which are so long and thick that they double as a makeshift rope, enabling visitors to climb their way up to her chamber. But Rapunzel longs for more than just occasional itinerant visitors; she wants a more fulfilling life. Will someone come along to rescue her from her solitude?

• A beautiful but oppressed young woman (Anna Kendrick) wants a better life, one that gets her out from under the thumb of her demanding stepmother (Christine Baranski) and self-centered stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch). To that end, Cinderella longs to find the man of her dreams, someone who will take her away from her dreary existence, giving her a life of love, respect, abundance and glamour. But, given all the tiresome household chores she’s endlessly saddled with performing, the poor girl never gets a chance to pursue her dream. Perhaps the spirit of Cinderella’s deceased mother (Joanna Riding), who has always provided for her, can help. But will she? And, if so, how?

The key to the fulfillment (or denial) of all these wishes ultimately lies with a nasty witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door to the baker and his wife. She tells the couple that they’re childless because of a curse she placed on their house years earlier, a fate that jinxed the baker’s father (Simon Russell Beale) and all of his unborn progeny for his alleged commission of a transgression against her. However, the witch says she’s now willing to lift the curse if the couple can produce four distinct items within three days’ time: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold.

The baker and his wife initially believe the witch’s request is unrealistic, one that can’t possibly be fulfilled in time. But, given the stakes involved, they quickly realize they must at least give it a try. Little do they know that fulfilling the request may be easier than they thought; all they need do is find a way to cross paths with all those other characters looking to fulfill their ambitions. And, to make that happen, the baker and his wife – just like all of their fellow wish seekers – head off to a magical place where they believe their dreams have the greatest chance of coming true – into the woods.

Once in the woods, fortuitous synchronicities occur that bring together all of the story’s principals. Their interactions with one another – as well as those with an assortment of other colorful characters, including a wolf (Johnny Depp), a pair of princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) and an angry giant (Frances de la Tour) – lead to the fulfillment (in one way or another) of their aspirations. But do their wishes pan out as hoped for? That all depends on the arboreal experiences they each create for themselves.

For the characters in this story, venturing “into the woods” is akin to venturing into the deep, dark, unilluminated recesses of our consciousness, a metaphorical, physically expressed representation of the place where all potential possibilities for materialization reside and await activation, depending on what manifesting motivations we imbue them with. What we do with such potential, though, determines what outcomes we realize. As a consequence, we must be careful what we wish for, and that all comes down to our beliefs, for they drive the manifestation process that results in the materialization of our reality through the practice of conscious creation.

In that regard, the woods in this film are almost a character of their own, acting as a repository of our hopes, fears, wishes and dreams, all of which ultimately derive their existence (and subsequent physical manifestation) from the beliefs that underlie them. In some cases, things work out precisely as hoped for. In others, they come close to the mark but don’t hit the target exactly. And, in others still, they’re totally off base. So, if we wonder why the results come up as they do, we need to look at the beliefs driving the process, an assessment that may reveal to us that those intents aren’t always what we think they are, a conclusion that may prompt us into rewriting those beliefs as needed to better realize our hoped-for outcomes. It’s an exercise in self-discovery that can be quite revelatory, to say the least.

Interestingly, an evaluation like this may rely heavily on the role of synchronicity. When seemingly significant “coincidences” occur, they provide us with important clues as to whether we’re on the right path and, in turn, whether our hopes will be realized. For instance, as the baker and his wife search for the items requested by the witch, even skeptics would likely agree that it’s more than a little coincidental that they “just happen” to run into Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella in short order during their trek into the woods. The fact that they encounter just what they need just when they need it should tell them (and us) something about the effectiveness of their belief formation abilities and their adeptness as conscious creators. Their experience thus provides an excellent example for all of us.

No matter how we emerge from “the woods,” however, our experience of them will almost assuredly change us forever (one would hope for the wiser), and, in all likelihood, we’ll never go back to being who we once were. And, regardless of whether or not we need to tweak our beliefs to fulfill our goals, we must be sure to remember that we always have the ability to make our dreams come true – as long as we believe we can and as long as we’re true to ourselves.

Those who have followed my writings over the years know all too well that I’m not a huge fan of musicals in general (on the screen or otherwise) or of Stephen Sondheim’s material in particular. Nevertheless, this is a surprisingly entertaining film, probably because the movie’s special effects wizardry makes it possible to give life to this production in ways that a stage setting can’t. Its clever fusion of multiple fairy tale story lines in one narrative is indeed fun. The use of big name screen and stage talent shows wise casting decisions, and the performances are all generally quite capable (especially Streep and Baranski). However, even with the elimination of an assortment of musical numbers from the original stage production, the saga here still goes on a bit too long, especially in the last 45 minutes, which can become tedious at times. However, given the generally fun-filled nature of the story and the picture, I believe the length is tolerable (though I don’t know if I would have been able to say the same if the cuts hadn’t been made).

The picture has received its fair share of recognition in this year’s awards competitions. In completed contests, it earned three Golden Globe Award nominations (best comedy/musical film, best comedy/musical actress for Blunt and best supporting actress for Streep) and five Critics Choice Award nods (best acting ensemble, best supporting actress for Streep, best art direction, best costume design, and best hair & makeup) but took home no statues. In competitions yet to come, the film has received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for best supporting actress (Streep) and three Oscar nods (best supporting actress for Streep, best production design and best costume design).

A visit to the woods – be it literal or metaphorical – can be quite intriguing, a venue wherein we can lose ourselves, or find ourselves, or rediscover ourselves, sometimes all in the same journey. But, regardless of what happens, what we bring back from our personal odyssey may amaze us in ways we never imagined. The storybook notions we hold about our lives and our selves may be forever shattered by the experience, but the new insights we glean could be more fulfilling than any of the alleged promises held out by even the rosiest of fairy tales.

Copyright © 2014-2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 9, 2015

‘Selma’ expounds the power of ideas

“Selma” (2014). Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Omar J. Dorsey, Colman Domingo, Nigel Thatch, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tessa Thompson, Jeremy Strong, Keith Stanfield, Henry G. Sanders, Charity Jordan, Stan Houston, John Lavelle, Dylan Baker, E. Roger Mitchell, Niecy Nash, Tara Ochs. Director: Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Paul Webb. Web site. Trailer

Bringing a concept to life can be an exceedingly challenging exercise, especially when dramatic change is involved. But, when success at last arrives, the rewards can be immeasurable. So it was in the days of one of the nation’s most turbulent social movements, circumstances brought to life in the gripping new historical drama, “Selma.”

In early 1965, Selma, Alabama became the focal point of the American civil rights movement. In a community where only 2% of African-Americans were legally registered to vote, local Black residents (aided by activists from elsewhere) began making a push to abolish the obstructionist registration policies that kept them from lawfully casting ballots. The implications of this extended far beyond the ability to vote, too, since voter registration impacted who got elected (and, consequently, who passed legislation, set public policy and enforced the law), as well as who could sit on juries (and, by extension, the means by which “justice” was dispensed). Such policies thus served to perpetuate state and local government administrations dominated by White segregationists hell-bent on continuing long-standing prejudicial practices. It also didn’t help matters that the State of Alabama was led by Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), who defiantly vowed during his initial inauguration to champion “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Under conditions like these, Selma was ripe for change, and the leading civil rights activist of the time, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), stepped up to the plate to address the issue. He proposed to lead a protest march from Selma to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery to draw attention to the voting rights issue. However, despite the popular appeal of his proposal, there were many obstacles to overcome.

For instance, local sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), with the blessing of Gov. Wallace, vowed to block the marchers’ path, declaring their actions an unlawful public assembly. What’s more, despite a general pledge of support for King’s civil rights activities, President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) tried to discourage the reverend’s plans, fearing that they would lead to civil disturbances and potentially undermine LBJ’s war on poverty program, a cherished Presidential initiative aimed at bettering the lives of the poor (particularly minorities). On top of all that, King also had to contend with internal squabbles within the civil rights community, most notably differences of opinion about how to proceed between groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and among coalitions of nonviolent advocates (led by the likes of King) and more militant factions (led by the likes of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch)).

Still, despite these challenges, King was not deterred. He was determined to move ahead, thanks to his own efforts and the aid of his many supporters, including Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (André Holland), James Bevel (Common), James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), along with SNCC organizer John Lewis (Stephan James) and civil rights attorney Fred Gray (Cuba Gooding Jr.). A number of citizen protesters lent valuable support, too, such as former suffragette Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) and would-be voting registrant Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), who tried to join the ranks of the electorate many times, all without success. Even officials and appointees at the federal level had impact, most notably District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. (Martin Sheen) and Presidential advisor Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi).

But, even with such support, King’s efforts faced new obstacles as he sought to move forward, such as attempts at destabilization of his sometimes-rocky marriage to wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) through a character assassination allegedly orchestrated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). Matters were subsequently made worse by the killing of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) while he was attempting to protect his mother (Charity Jordan) and grandfather (Henry G. Sanders) from state troopers using excessive force to disperse a public protest. And, through it all, King’s attempts at seeking federal assistance for his efforts met with increasingly harsh criticism and growing animosity from the Commander-in-Chief.

Challenges aside, however, word of what was happening in Alabama could not be kept quiet, thanks to the reporting of journalists like Roy Reed (John Lavelle). But what ultimately broke the story wide open was nationwide television coverage of what transpired on Sunday March 7, 1965. As 600 protesters made their first attempt to launch a march from Selma to Montgomery, they were brutally beaten and tear-gassed by police in riot gear as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way out of town, an event that was broadcast around the world and came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The public outrage over this abuse of power birthed a wellspring of new support for the protesters, prompting a huge influx of additional marchers for the cause, including people of many faiths and racial backgrounds who made the journey to Selma, often from great distances, to become involved. Thus began a tremendous turnaround in the fortunes of the protesters, a momentum shift that would lead to a successful march and eventual passage and enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The civil rights movement was, of course, a much larger phenomenon than just the events that transpired in Selma, but those that occurred in that small Alabama town in that fateful winter and spring of 1965 were among some of its most significant, mainly because of the reach of the ramifications involved. The fruits those events bore, however, never would have materialized were it not for the ideas that inspired them – ideas that arose through the power of beliefs. And, as those who practice conscious creation know all too well, none of the sought-after outcomes that result from it would manifest without them.

The movement in general, and the experiences in Selma in particular, clearly show the power associated with our beliefs, especially when they’re employed en masse. To be sure, the power associated with an individual’s belief can be substantial, but, when it’s amplified many times over by the input of like-minded masses, it becomes an unstoppable juggernaut. Such is what happened in Selma; as the push for voting rights grew, the initiative took on a life of its own as it drew upon the belief power of locals, and then activists, and eventually supporters from far-flung corners of the country. Even with the complications posed by the aforementioned obstacles, the central idea driving these events (and the manifesting beliefs underlying it) simply could not be stifled, especially once word of what was happening spread across the nation and growing numbers of participants began contributing their energy and support to the cause.

In pursuing a goal as noble as this, one might legitimately wonder why its proponents would manifest a scenario that included such obstacles to begin with; why not create suitable circumstances without such challenges in the first place? Yet the emergence of those impediments, as difficult to contend with as they were, helped galvanize the thoughts and intents of the movement’s participants, thereby making it possible for them to “keep their eyes on the prize,” as King often termed it. Focus, it seems, sometimes benefits from adversity, counterintuitive though that may initially appear.

Of course, the masses would not have had an idea to get behind were it not for the visionary beliefs of the initiative’s leadership, most notably Dr. King. He knew that changing the voting rights issue would subsequently change many other aspects of his constituents’ lives, so his belief in furthering this cause only grew stronger with the passage of time, even as the stakes were raised. His commitment inspired many, giving birth to the initiative and fostering its objectives. As King’s example thus shows, the power of an individual’s beliefs is nothing to be dismissed or minimized.

A key quality characterizing the beliefs of this movement was the notion of pushing through barriers, specifically the dissolution of prevailing limitations that kept a significant portion of the population from being able to exercise a fundamental civil right. Breaking down this wall was by no means easy, as becomes readily apparent on many occasions, such as during the depiction of one of Annie Lee Cooper’s failed attempts at registering to vote. Yet, despite the arbitrary and capricious restrictions imposed on would-be voters, those committed to securing this right were so determined to see it through that they were willing to employ whatever manifesting beliefs were necessary to reach their goal. And the proof of their success lies in what they ultimately achieved. Staying hungry, it would seem, can truly pay off, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The impact of mass-created events like this is substantial not only on the group as a whole but also on the individuals participating in them. One need only look at how the events in Selma shaped the beliefs, lives and accomplishments of those who lived through it. Many of King’s key supporters were so empowered by their group experiences that they went on to materialize impressive creations of their own: Andrew Young would go on to become Mayor of Atlanta and US Ambassador to the United Nations; John Lewis became a long-tenured member of the House of Representatives; and Amelia Boynton ran for Congress, the first African-American woman ever to do so. Indeed, as these experiences show, the beliefs that underlie untried possibilities can produce remarkable results, whether applied collectively or individually.

“Selma” has so much going for it that it’s difficult not to gush about this film. In my opinion, it’s easily the best picture of 2014, just about perfect in nearly every respect. The outstanding cast features superb performances by Oyelowo, Wilkinson and Roth, as well as a fine ensemble of supporting players. Moreover, filmmaker Ava Duvernay impeccably shows off her directorial skills, clearly demonstrating her talent as one of the industry’s rising stars.

But what perhaps impresses me most about this film is its dedication to authenticity. It’s not afraid to present events realistically, both in its portrayal of the indignities inflicted on the protesters and in its depiction of the civil rights community’s internal squabblings, such as the conflicts between King and Malcolm X, the tension between King and LBJ, and the infighting between the SCLC and the SNCC. It’s also frank in its portrayal of the principal players in this drama, showing them as human beings who are just as capable of materializing fears and flaws as they are of enlightened insights (King’s doubts about what actions to take at times, as well as his alleged infidelities, for example, are presented just as candidly as his many inspiring achievements). In taking this approach, the picture successfully avoids the traps of unwarranted political correctness or unrealistic monodimensional characterizations. Much of the credit for this goes to screenwriter Paul Webb, who has penned an excellent script here.

“Selma” is also more than a period piece picture; its relevance to contemporary events is particularly noteworthy. As society debates the current state of relations between the police and the public, for example, the issue of alleged use of excessive force by today’s peace keepers eerily echoes comparable tactics employed in Alabama 50 years ago. This is especially true with regard to recent high-profile incidents like those in New York and in Ferguson, Missouri involving White officers and alleged minority perpetrators. The picture thus reminds us that, no matter how much progress we may think we have made in these matters, we still have a long way to go before these issues are no longer relevant.

In addition to the praise critics have lavished on this film, the picture has already received considerable recognition in this year’s awards competitions. Thus far, “Selma” has earned four Golden Globe Award nominations (best dramatic picture, best director, best original song and best dramatic actor for Oyelowo), five Critics Choice Award nods (best picture, best director, best original song, best acting ensemble and best actor for Oyelowo) and recognition in five Independent Spirit Award categories (best picture, best director, best cinematography, best actor for Oyelowo and best supporting actress for Ejogo). Given the current momentum behind this picture, it’s almost certain to pick up a fair share of Oscar nominations as well.

The glaring inequities that prevailed in the early days of the civil rights movement impelled the emergence of the changes that eventually followed. Overcoming those imbalances, however, required decisive, concerted action, both in the realm of our beliefs and in the world of our actions. Indeed, as Dr. King so eloquently observed, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” The importance of this in circumstances such as these can’t be overstated, especially given our intrinsic human connectedness and our tremendous capacity for invoking relevant, much-needed change. Regardless of whether one assesses these issues practically or metaphysically, their impact cannot be denied. Or, as Dr. King so aptly put it, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 2, 2015

‘Big Eyes’ spotlights the importance of integrity

“Big Eyes” (2014). Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, James Saito, Madeleine Arthur, Delaney Raye, Jon Polito, Guido Furlani. Director: Tim Burton. Screenplay: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all no doubt been advised that “Honesty is the best policy.” Trite though the expression may be, it often rings true, especially if we try to pull a fast one, because the ramifications can be staggering. Indeed, it’s a lesson that comes home to roost in huge ways in director Tim Burton’s new fact-based comedy, “Big Eyes.”

In 1958, housewife, mother and aspiring artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) decides to flee her abusive marriage in search of more tranquil surroundings and a fresh start. With her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, Margaret abandons her life in suburban northern California in favor of San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood. With the aid of her friend Dee-Ann (Krysten Ritter), the soon-to-be-divorced single mom quickly gets a new job and a new apartment, while spending her weekends promoting her paintings at local art shows.

To call Margaret’s paintings distinctive would be an understatement. She specializes in portraits of mostly sad, often-crying waifs with disproportionately enormous eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. The style is certainly singular, to be sure, albeit a bit kitschy. Yet, despite the portraits’ homespun look, Margaret paints from her heart, and her works slowly catch the eye (fittingly enough) of a growing number of fans.

At the same time, Margaret also catches the eye of a smooth-talking admirer, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a silver-tongued real estate broker and would-be artist. He woos the object of his affection, quickly capturing her heart – and her hand in marriage. Before long, Walter and Margaret Keane begin building a new life together.

Walter is quick to spot the popular appeal of Margaret’s work. As a natural salesman, he looks for ways to get exposure for her paintings. He first shops her works to a gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) who specializes in upscale modern art – and who quickly rejects such low-brow efforts out of hand. So, as an alternative, he then seeks to get the paintings featured in a local jazz club, the hungry i, one of San Francisco’s hippest nightspots. With the assistance of club owner Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito), the high-profile promotion of newspaper gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) and the blessing of patrons like Dino Olivetti (Guido Furlani) of Olivetti Typewriter fame, the Keane name quickly rises to prominence in the commercial art world. There’s just one catch – the Keane claiming credit for the work is Walter, not Margaret.

Needless to say, the artist is dumbfounded when she witnesses her husband gleefully and unapologetically lap up the accolades for her paintings. However, after successfully arguing that people don’t buy “lady art,” in light of the portraits’ enormous success, Walter convinces Margaret that keeping quiet about the real identity of the artist is a small price to pay for their newfound fame and fortune. That burgeoning success comes not so much from sales of original works as it does from reproductions of the paintings sold as prints, posters and postcards, which quickly and ubiquitously find their way into supermarkets and other commercial venues. The Keane brand becomes an overnight retail sensation, forever transforming the commercial art marketplace.

In almost no time, Walter and Margaret are rolling in dough. But, as the years pass, Margaret grows increasingly uneasy with the deal she’s struck with her husband. She’s distraught that her efforts go unrecognized, especially when called upon to produce an ever-growing number of pieces. Even worse, though, she’s troubled that she has to lie about her works to those she cares about, most notably Dee-Ann and her now-teenage daughter (Madeleine Arthur). She itches to confess the truth, an urge that Walter swiftly squelches, citing the tremendous fallout that will result if their fraud is revealed. What’s more, Walter’s especially insistent about keeping up the front he’s so carefully crafted when “he” lands a commission for a mural to be displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, an opportunity he sees as “his” crowning achievement.

As with any house of cards, however, the pretense cannot stand. When “Walter’s” mural is summarily panned by New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp), he has a near meltdown, blaming Margaret for his failure. With their lives now in jeopardy, Margaret and Jane flee in fright, relocating to Hawaii. While seeking to put her life back together, Margaret is introduced to the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She’s particularly inspired by the Witnesses’ message that one should never allow oneself to be taken advantage of by others. That lesson subsequently proves to be the spark Margaret needs to take her life – and her power – back, prompting her to take steps to set matters right. The big question, of course, is, will she succeed?

One need not be a conscious creation practitioner to see the chief message of this film – the importance of living life with integrity. However, when this principle is viewed through the lens of this philosophy, its relevance becomes ever more apparent. As anyone who ascribes to conscious creation knows, it’s essential that we operate from the standpoint of integrity as it’s crucial to effective implementation of the practice. To do otherwise is to invite calamity, as Walter and Margaret come to discover.

By not operating with integrity, the Keanes need to develop an elaborate program of covering their tracks. This involves everything from lying to others to keeping Margaret’s studio a secret, not even allowing those closest to her to have access to the space where the paintings come to life. In that sense, then, the impact of integrity (or the lack thereof) quickly spirals out of control, having effects on aspects of the couple’s lives that extend far beyond just those associated with fostering and perpetuating their art fraud scheme.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise, however, because, as conscious creators know all too well, when we manifest the reality we experience, we materialize the totality of it. The beliefs, thoughts and intents we employ for this thus stretch out across the expanse of our existences, impacting all aspects of them. And this occurs because, ultimately, all elements of our realities are inherently connected, whether or not we recognize that fact – or like it.

If Walter and Margaret were to follow their truest intents and approach the creation of their realities with unfettered integrity, it’s likely that they would have been able to achieve equal, if not greater, degrees of success, and they almost assuredly would have been happy with themselves and their efforts. In Margaret’s case, for example, this would have involved her painting her portraits and claiming full credit for them without hesitation. She would have been able to take pride and joy in her work, and the perks of success almost certainly would have followed.

As for Walter, he should have abandoned his unrealistic pipe dreams of becoming the artist he never was (nor would be). Instead, he should have whole-heartedly embraced his salesmanship skills, for he was a natural at it, as became evident even when carrying out his ruse. As it was, thanks to his innovative promotional tactics, he revolutionized marketing in the commercial art world, an impressive accomplishment in itself (no matter what one might have thought of Margaret’s paintings). But imagine what he might have been able to achieve if he had been totally up front about matters right from the start; he might not have died a broken and penniless soul, as he eventually did.

Such outside-the-box thinking is one of the chief aims of conscious creation, to surpass previously established limitations and push the envelope of manifestation, regardless of the milieu of materialized expression. In their own ways, Margaret and Walter did just that. But imagine what might have resulted if they had employed integrity as part of the mix. Their results just might have been even more astounding than what they achieved. In that regard, their story should serve as a cautionary tale to us all in terms of how we create our realities. Integrity wins the day in this practice, and we’d be wise to heed the wisdom of this advice.

“Big Eyes” is a fun cinematic romp from start to finish, with witty writing, terrific period piece production values and wonderful performances (especially Waltz in yet another of his superbly played Jekyll and Hyde roles). It’s also gratifying to see director Tim Burton produce a film that’s whimsical without being excessively manic, an approach he successfully used in such earlier works as “Ed Wood” (1994) and “Big Fish” (2003); it’s not essential to always go over the top in creating an enjoyable film, and it’s pleasing to see the director employ this formula once again (something he should do a little more often).

The film has fared well in this year’s awards competitions, earning Adams and Waltz Golden Globe Award nominations, respectively, for best comedy actress and actor. For its writing efforts, the picture’s script has earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best original screenplay. And, in the best original song category, the movie’s title cut has received nominations in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award contests. Admittedly the film faces stiff competition from a number of other strong contenders, but it’s heartening to see the picture capture the accolades that it has, regardless of whether or not it wins.

When we ponder the notion of integrity, we should bear in mind just how integral it truly is to the success of our manifestation efforts. The experience of Margaret and Walter Keane illustrates this idea with sparkling clarity, too. And, if Margaret’s contention that the eyes indeed are the window to the soul, then there’s no denying that fact when we gaze into the faces of her creations – or those of ourselves.

Copyright © 2014-2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.