Thursday, April 30, 2015

‘Age of Adaline’ examines the nature – and quality – of life

“The Age of Adaline” (2015). Cast: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Anthony Ingruber, Peter J. Gray, Hugh Ross (narrator). Director: Lee Roland Krieger. Screenplay: J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz. Story: J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz. Web site. Trailer.

As our population ages, quality of life issues have come under increased scrutiny. What makes for an acceptable existence? Does our reality measure up to our expectations? And who is ultimately responsible for what makes a good life? These sorts of questions are in the forefront of the minds of many seniors, but what happens when they preoccupy the thoughts of someone considerably more youthful? That’s one of many such issues raised in the new metaphysical romance, “The Age of Adaline.”

Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) has led a long and interesting life – a very long and interesting life. Having been born in 1908, the San Francisco native grew up in the Bay Area, eventually marrying Clarence James Prescott, a talented, handsome young architect (Peter J. Gray) and giving birth to a daughter, Flemming. Regrettably, Clarence was killed in an accident during construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving Adaline widowed at a young age. But, being the determined soul that she was, she carried on, raising her daughter as best she could as a single mother. However, nothing could have prepared her for what came next.

While driving to her parents’ country home through the wilderness of Sonoma County, Adaline encountered a freak snowstorm. As beautiful as this sight was, however, this unusual inclement weather challenged the California native’s driving skills. She quickly lost control of her car, which crashed and became submerged in water. With the life draining out of her body, Adaline was near death when, even more unexpectedly, a bolt of lightning struck from out of the blue, hitting her vehicle and sending a jolt of electricity through her body that shocked her back to life. Amazing as that was, though, Adaline became the recipient of something equally miraculous – she completely stopped aging. From that point forward, she was spared the physical ravages of time, destined to be 27 forever.

Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) lives a long and interesting life, and carries a big secret about herself, in the new romantic fantasy, “The Age of Adaline.” Photo by Diyah Pera, courtesy of Lionsgate.

As enviable as many might find this attribute, Adaline soon learned it was also a curse. With others around her aging normally, she continually had to devise excuses to explain her perpetual youthfulness. And, over time, rumor of her condition eventually made its way to the authorities, who seized Adaline to subject her to experiments to discover the nature of her secret. Fortunately, she managed to escape, but that forced her to go on the run, necessitating periodic makeovers and the adoption of new aliases to keep her true identity safe. She told no one about herself or her whereabouts except her daughter, though their encounters were inherently brief, infrequent and clandestine.

Such was how Adaline spent the next 60 years. Her life was rather lonely. She watched Flemming age into a senior citizen (Ellen Burstyn), and she kept most attachments (especially those of a romantic nature) at arm’s length, knowing that, because of her condition, she could never truly grow old with someone. But, after so many years living in the shadows, such thinking is about to change.

While preparing for yet another move and another new alias, Adaline has a romantic encounter with a handsome young philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). As much as she resists becoming involved, she can’t help but fall for his charm, kindness and good looks. And, at Flemming’s urging, she decides to at last take a chance on love. But Adaline’s resolve for this uncharacteristic behavior gets put to the test when she and Ellis attend the 40th wedding anniversary celebration of his parents, William (Harrison Ford) and Kathy (Kathy Baker). Circumstances arise that threaten the exposure of her long-held secret. How she responds – and what comes from it – will change her life (and her outlook about it) forever.

Despite her resolve to avoid romantic attachments to protect a personal secret, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively, right) can’t help but fall for the charms of a handsome young philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman, left), in “The Age of Adaline.” Photo by Diyah Pera, courtesy of Lionsgate.

From the standpoint of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest our existence through our beliefs, thoughts and intents, Adaline’s reality is quite an intriguing materialization. Many of us would no doubt like to experience an existence in which we never age. Consider the upside of remaining youthful, healthy and attractive all of our lives; the temptation behind that is certainly formidable. But consider the downside as well – having to watch those we love and care about age, grow old and die while we stay permanently stuck at a fixed age. It might be more palatable if everyone else were to create the same type of existence as us, but such is not the case for Adaline; she must endure a reality that’s both a blessing and a burden.

Under circumstances like these, many often ask why would someone want to create a reality like this? As is usually the case, such challenging forms of existence generally have to do with learning particular types of life lessons, teachings and experiences that might not be attainable under other conditions. One can only speculate as to Adaline’s reasons, but some possibilities include learning what it’s like to have seemingly perpetual youth and everything that comes with that, for better or worse. Another option is that it affords an opportunity to amass the equivalent of multiple lifetimes’ worth of experience entirely within a single life span, something that others might only be able to obtain through a number of reincarnational existences. Or there could be yet other reasons known only to Adaline herself. But, no matter what emerges, the outcome always stems from whatever beliefs the creator holds in the first place.

As I see it, one of Adaline’s chief lessons in this little experiment in reality creation has to do with learning how to live as opposed to just existing. Despite having gifted herself with unending youthfulness, Adaline is rarely able to fully enjoy it. She must expend considerable effort maintaining an impenetrable façade, one that prevents her from truly relishing the joys that life has to offer. Simple pleasures that many of us take for granted, like falling in love for life, aren’t feasible for her, because the logistics just won’t work. What’s more, the pressure of always having to look over her shoulder to safeguard the secrecy of her identity can’t be any fun, especially when the effort needs to be maintained in perpetuity. A reality made up of experiences like that, to me at least, seems more like existing than living, and maybe Adaline manifested an existence like this to help her distinguish the difference – so that she can create something new, fresh and fulfilling for herself going forward.

A perpetually youthful Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively, right) must sit back and watch her daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn, left), age and grow old before her eyes in “The Age of Adaline.” Photo by Diyah Pera, courtesy of Lionsgate.

If the foregoing is indeed true, how would Adaline proceed? Very simply, she needs to learn how to exercise her power of change, one of the cornerstone principles of conscious creation. Given the fact that this philosophy affords us access to an infinite number of probabilities for existence at any given moment, we can always change the direction in which we head if we dislike what we’ve materialized for ourselves.

Of course, we must first realize that we possess this power, something that we may not recognize, that we may take for granted and fail to exercise, or that we may fundamentally disbelieve. If we allow any of these impediments to get in our way, our ability to invoke change won’t happen, and our existence will continue on as it has. Only when we’ve tired of what we’ve manifested and discern that there must be other options available to us will we become aware of our power of change and our ability to rewrite our beliefs to create a new reality more to our liking. For her sake, we can only hope Adaline comes to that realization and brings into being the conditions necessary to make desired changes possible.

Despite its intriguing premise and thoughtful metaphysical themes, “The Age of Adaline,” unfortunately, suffers from a variety of execution problems that keep it from living up to its potential. To its credit, this modestly enjoyable romantic fantasy features capable supporting performances by Ford, Baker and Burstyn and fine production values spanning multiple decades. However, the film falls short with a meandering, underdeveloped script, an excessive amount of voice-over narration that grows progressively more annoying as the story unfolds, and a pair of leads who are clearly not up to the demands of their roles. While the picture might work well as a lightweight date movie or a fun option for a night out with the girls, viewers shouldn’t expect much more than that.

William Jones (Harrison Ford), a long and happily married man, grows understandably confused when presented with a seemingly unfathomable conundrum in the new metaphysical romance, “The Age of Adaline.” Photo by Diyah Pera, courtesy of Lionsgate.

We’ve all no doubt heard the expression “Life is what you make of it,” and that simple statement effectively summarizes the essence of conscious creation. Much of the time, however, we lose sight of that sentiment, especially as we become preoccupied with the minutiae of daily existence. That’s particularly true when we feel like we constantly have to scramble to prop up the appearances of a reality sorely in need of alteration. We need to take a wider view, to embrace our capacity for change and our ability to rewrite our beliefs for manifesting a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. It would be in Adaline’s best interests if she learned from those lessons. And, in many cases, the same could be said for the rest of us.

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

'Talking Story' on New Consciousness Review

Healing is a journey, one that can be both literal and metaphorical. Find out more by reading my review of the documentary "Talking Story," my latest post to the New Consciousness Review web site, available by clicking here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

‘Ex Machina’ probes creative responsibility

“Ex Machina” (2015). Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno. Director: Alex Garland. Screenplay: Alex Garland. Web site. Trailer.

Nothing in life comes without responsibility – or consequences. This can be especially crucial to bear in mind when manifesting the previously untried. Without adequate forethought, the results can carry far-reaching ramifications, some of which may be highly beneficial and others of which could be devastatingly difficult. That’s one of the significant lessons to emerge out of the new sci-fi thriller, “Ex Machina.”

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is thrilled when he receives some good news at work. As the winner of an internal company competition, the young computer coding whizz for an Internet search firm is the recipient of a much-coveted prize – spending a week with the brilliant, elusive, enigmatic founder of his organization, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But that elation soon turns to trepidation when he embarks on his journey to Nathan’s secluded mountain retreat and personal research facility. The well-intentioned, idealistic young programmer quickly discovers he may be in way over his head.

Upon arrival at the remote sanctuary, Caleb learns that he’s basically alone with his boss, the only other person on the premises being Nathan’s non-English-speaking personal assistant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). He also finds that his boss is not what he expected. The wunderkind-turned-billionaire proves to be an arrogant, smarmy, often-inscrutable wise-ass who routinely spouts cryptic, disjointed statements and asks leading questions when he’s not being a hard-drinking party animal. In short, Caleb doesn’t quite know what to make of him.

That concern becomes compounded when Caleb learns the reason why Nathan has brought him to his retreat. As it turns out, Nathan has secretly developed a state-of-the-art robotic being named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Caleb must figure out whether “she” has truly developed her own sentience. To make that determination, Caleb is charged with putting Ava through a Turing test, a line of inquiry proposed by pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing (the subject of the recently released biopic, “The Imitation Game”) for assessing whether a machine can think for itself. Caleb thus has one week to determine whether Ava is a bona fide form of artificial intelligence.

At the outset of the test, Caleb is impressed with Ava’s capabilities and Nathan’s accomplishment. But, as his daily sessions with Ava and his debriefings with Nathan unfold, Caleb becomes anxious about what he’s gotten himself into. Caleb’s interactions with inventor and invention grow progressively strange, and, just when he thinks he’s figured things out, a new misdirection comes along to throw him off the path. These exasperating conditions are further complicated by surprise developments, such as a series of disturbing discoveries and a string of unforeseen power outages that result in a complete lockdown of Nathan’s facility. And, as the week wears on, Caleb is torn between wanting to see how things turn out and looking to make a hasty escape. Like the audience, however, he’ll have to be patient and let matters play themselves out, which may end up being even more unpredictable than expected.

When we engage in the practice of conscious creation, the means by which we manifest our respective realities through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, one of the most important considerations we must bear in mind is the notion of responsibility. When we bring something into being, it’s ours, for better or worse, because its very existence originates with us.

Accepting responsibility for a creation is relatively easy when it turns out well and when we and others are generally pleased with the results. But, when the outcome turns out differently than hoped for – particularly if it’s imbued with qualities we find disappointing, seemingly unintended or even undesirable – being accountable for it can be far more problematic. We may want to disavow our involvement in the wayward manifestation and seek to place blame for it elsewhere. However, no matter how much we might try to distance ourselves, the responsibility still rests with us.

The disappointment that comes from a materialization that doesn’t end up as hoped for can be debilitating. That being the case, the most effective solution to this dilemma would be to avoid creating it in the first place. But how?

As conscious creation practitioners well know, the process begins with our thoughts, beliefs and intents, so, if they’re “faulty” from the outset, what they yield will manifest in kind. For example, if we claim that we’re seeking to create something noble in nature but the beliefs we employ in doing so are tinged with less than honorable elements, should it come as any surprise if the results turn out to be different from what’s supposedly intended? It shouldn’t. In fact, the outcome will be an accurate reflection of the specific beliefs used in the manifestation process, warts and all.

This becomes all too apparent in the film. Nathan, for example, likes to think he’s creating something inventive and groundbreaking that will take mankind into a brave new era. However, in doing so, it’s also painfully obvious that he’s allowed his manifesting beliefs to become “compromised” by aspects of a personal agenda, elements reflective of his own selfish interests. Consequently, if he expects the outcome of his efforts to faithfully reflect the supposedly unblemished attributes he thinks he’s creating, he’s in for a rude awakening.

Likewise, as a trusting, honorable soul, Caleb would like to believe that others (like Nathan) operate from the same principled sensibility that he does. He’s willing to overlook the existence of unsavory aspects involved in the process, even when he senses their presence, because they don’t jibe with the approach he would use. Turning a blind eye, however, doesn’t erase his beliefs associated with his awareness of the objectionable elements, and these qualities work their way into the outcome, no matter how much he’d rather not see them materialize. The result, again, is disappointment, even if it dependably (and predictably) mirrors the intents that brought it into being.

The bottom line in this is that we must be careful what we create, and the effort starts with us and the beliefs we hold. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, one would hope we spot the pitfalls before they take shape. Eliminating them up front avoids unpleasant issues later on, an effort that should spare us considerable grief.

Should we choose to ignore this consideration, however, we run the risk of suffering the perils of un-conscious creation. When we create with no regard for the consequences, we must be prepared for what comes with that, the essence of practicing un-conscious creation. This can be especially true with the development of new technologies, where we may be so focused on the outcome that we lose sight of everything that potentially accompanies it. This can be particularly problematic for things like artificial intelligence, where we may purposely intend to abrogate our responsibility for its proper operation after its creation. In that regard, unless we employ “foolproof” beliefs from the outset (which may not be nearly as easy as imagined), we shouldn’t be surprised if circumstances don’t work out as hoped for. Once again, care and caution are the watchwords here, for, no matter what results, the responsibility for its creation rests squarely on our shoulders.

“Ex Machina” is a generally suspenseful thriller about the beauties and dangers of artificial intelligence, with a strong cautionary tale for all of us. Despite some occasional pacing issues, the film is well-written, with distinctive production values, beautiful cinematography and an engaging soundtrack. But what stands out most here are the picture’s excellent performances, with Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander all turning in some of the best work they’ve ever done on screen. Director Alex Garland has distinguished himself in his directorial debut, serving up one of this year’s best releases thus far and one of the finest, most credible science fiction offerings to come along in some time.

We’re all well aware of the notion of being careful what we wish for. In an age where rapidly changing technological advances make the seemingly once impossible wholly plausible with relative ease and speed, it’s particularly incumbent upon us that we bear the foregoing in mind. Should we do anything less, we may well pay a heavy price. Embracing our creative responsibility is thus essential to avoid unpleasant surprises to wind up with the results we seek.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

‘Desert Dancer’ reveals the undeniable power of creation

“Desert Dancer” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Reece Ritchie, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Marama Corlett, Neet Mohan, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Makram Khoury, Nazanin Boniadi, Simon Kassianides, Gabriel Senior, Fadoua Lahlou, Inen Nuiga. Director: Richard Raymond. Screenplay: Jon Croker. Story: The life story of Afshin Ghaffarian. Web site. Trailer.

Some forces simply won’t be denied. The power of creation, for example, is so persistently potent and relentlessly determined that it’s nearly impossible to hold it back. It seeks expression, no matter what impediments may stand in its way. That fact becomes all too apparent – particularly to those who would restrict it – in the new fact-based biopic, “Desert Dancer.”

Being artistically inclined in a country run by a regime that discourages – even punishes – certain forms of self-expression can be frustrating at best, dangerous at worst. Coming to terms with such circumstances proved a hard lesson for Iranian-born dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who, in his youth (Gabriel Senior), had to reconcile his love for his art form with a reality in which this activity was banned by a fundamentalist government that considered it immoral. Concerned about her son’s welfare, Afshin’s mother (Nazanin Boniadi) warned him of the consequences for defiance of this dictate, citing the strong-arm tactics of the Basij, the country’s often-brutal volunteer militia responsible for suppressing rebellious activities and dissident gatherings under orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But, despite the danger, Afshin had difficulty containing his enthusiasm; clearly he needed a safe outlet to practice his artistry.

Before long, Afshin made his way to the Saba Art Center, a sanctuary for budding creatives of all types run by a kindly, avuncular mentor, Mehdi (Makram Khoury). Within the center’s walls, young artists could be themselves, zealously shepherded under Mehdi’s devoted tutelage and fierce protection. It was here that Afshin’s talents began to blossom. It was also here that he learned about the art and life of his idol, famed Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nuryev, a virtuoso performer who, like the impressionable neophyte, grappled with political oppression issues of his own under the Soviet system. With the benefit of such inspiration, Afshin vowed to carry on with his art, which he sought to develop while enrolled as a university student in Tehran.

At the time a now-older Afshin (Reece Ritchie) attended college, Iran was undergoing some turbulent internal political changes. With the 2009 Iranian presidential election approaching, many students and social activists took to the streets, protesting the hardline tactics of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and throwing their support behind the progressive initiatives of challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Under this aura of renewed hope, reformers began pushing established boundaries in many areas of life, from cultural to political to artistic.

For his part, Afshin decided to form an underground (i.e., illegal) dance company with fellow students Ardi (Tom Cullen), Mona (Marama Corlett) and Mehran (Bamshad Abedi-Amin). But, even with their newfound sense of empowerment, this band of artistic rebels nevertheless grew leery when they were unexpectedly approached by a mysterious stranger, Elaheh (Freida Pinto), at their makeshift clandestine studio. However, they quickly let down their guard when they learned that she was merely seeking an audition. She proceeded to mesmerize her tiny audience and immediately became a member of the troupe.

As the daughter of a former Iranian ballet star (Fadoua Lahlou), Elaheh had been dancing since she was a child (Inen Nuiga). Like her peers, she had to express herself exclusively in private, within the confines of her family home. But, having the benefit of a gifted instructor to teach her – her mother – Elaheh became a prodigy in her own right, and now she was ready to share what she learned with Afshin and company.

Thanks to Elaheh’s coaching, the company’s skills flourished. As a result, though, Afshin grew impatient with “performing” only in private. He wanted to dance before an audience, a notion his colleagues viewed as patently impossible. Nevertheless, Afshin was convinced there had to be a way, a conviction that led him to an innovative solution – conducting a performance in a remote desert location before a select and trusted crowd.

Organizing the event took meticulous planning, yet, even with such prudent care, the troupe still came under scrutiny, primarily from Mehran’s brother, Sattar (Simon Kassianides), a Basij operative. The consequences of such a performance, coupled with Afshin’s ongoing political activism, would cause circumstances to quickly spiral out of control, prompting him to take more drastic measures to protect his art – and his life. The prospect of having to flee his homeland to save himself suddenly became a real possibility.

As this film clearly illustrates, the power to create is a truly potent force, one that isn’t easily stifled, even in the face of severe opposition. This inherent birthright pervades our being and forever seeks expression, no matter what obstacles may block its path. This is especially true for a land like Iran, long famous for its poetic heritage (and, ironically enough, as the originator of one of the world’s first human rights codes, as noted in the film’s opening credits).

Afshin’s love of dance would similarly not be denied, even in the face of others fervently trying to squelch his enthusiasm. Through his many trials and tribulations, he firmly believed in the viability of his art and that its materialization would, in fact, come to fruition in one way or another. And, to that end, he found the means to make it possible.

In true conscious creation form, Afshin held true to the beliefs responsible for manifesting the outcome he envisioned. The results may not have always taken traditional forms, but they faithfully fulfilled the spirit of his intentions. In that regard, he actually elevated the art of dance to new heights, bringing the previously untried into being. By exploring such uncharted probabilities, he broadened artistic horizons both for himself and for those who would follow his lead. But, then, as anyone who practices conscious creation understands, we each have an infinite range of options available to us at any given moment. Fortunately, Afshin realized this and brought it to bear through his craft.

Afshin drew inspiration on this point from Elaheh, who observed that dance can be anything one wants it to be, from a traditional ballet routine to the simple gesture of raising one’s fist in an act of defiance, a sentiment that echoes the infinite probabilities concept. Afshin abided by her wisdom and infused it in his dancing, using it to both express himself and to make a statement. This became most apparent in the political protest aspects of his art, an act of creativity that produced both a thing of beauty and drew attention to an issue in need of remediation.

So, if the power to create is something so cherished, one might legitimately ask, why would anyone manifest conditions that make its unfolding so incredibly difficult, such as those depicted here? Again, as noted above, all avenues of expression are equally valid and capable of materialization, including those under circumstances like those seen in this film. But why these particularly onerous conditions? There could be a variety of reasons.

Perhaps the principals in this story wanted to explore issues related to fighting for one’s creativity. Maybe they wanted to see how precious the gift of artistic license truly is. And, to that end, perhaps they wanted the experience of having to defend its right to existence under dire circumstances. Maybe the satisfaction that would come from succeeding at such an endeavor would yield a whole new appreciation for what is being sought, something inherently unattainable under “easier” conditions. Or maybe the reasons involve entirely different considerations. In any event, the scenario at work here is as viable and valid as any other, and its exploration is worthy of investigation, even if we wouldn’t make the same choices or agree with the underlying purposes of such an undertaking.

Of course, being true to our creative vision, no matter what prevailing circumstances may accompany it, requires the development and utilization of certain personal qualities, all of which help support the beliefs we use for manifesting what we desire. Such efforts need to make use of traits like diligence, commitment, courage and integrity, elements that bolster the creative outcomes being birthed. These are all attributes that Afshin called upon in creating his dance routines. But such characteristics are crucial in yielding any hoped-for materialization, not just the kinds of grand expressions of creativity on display here. We should all bear these notions in mind when we set out to manifest our heart’s desires, no matter what form, scope or nature they might involve.

“Desert Dancer” is a reasonably well-made fact-based biopic. It features well-choreographed dance sequences, beautiful cinematography and capable performances (especially Pinto), though its direction is somewhat pedestrian at times, and its writing is rather heavy-handed on occasion. The picture also has as a strong tendency to play fast and loose with the facts of Ghaffarian’s life story, with dramatic license pushed to its limits, including a largely fictionalized ending (not unlike what happened in another film about Iran, “Argo” (2012)). What’s more, the film could have done a better job of exploring the story’s political backdrop, which is obviously significant but often reduced to vague, simplistic terms, especially in its examination of Iran’s pivotal 2009 presidential election (for a better exploration of these events, see “Rosewater” (2014) instead).

The act of creation is a force that pervades all of reality, one that refuses to be rebuffed, especially when infused with the energy and spirit of its collaborative advocates. Under such circumstances, it becomes almost like a juggernaut, unstoppable in its quest to seek expression and fulfillment. And those who stand in its way had better be prepared for what comes at them. What seems like something that can be easily dismissed or dissipated may prove to be anything but. Just ask Afshin Ghaffarian.

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Two New Web Sites

I'm pleased to announce the release of two new web pages dedicated to each of my books! To find out more about Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, click here. And, to learn more about Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover's Guide to the Law of Attraction, click here.

Cover Designs by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment (

Check Out The After Show

Join me this Wednesday, April 15, at 11 am ET, when I'll be a guest on The After Show with host Justice Putnam on NetRoots Radio. Tune in for some lively chat about conscious creation and the movies.

Friday, April 10, 2015

‘Woman in Gold’ chronicles the search for one’s calling in life

“Woman in Gold” (2015). Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Tom Schilling, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Nina Kunzendorf, Alma Hasun, Nellie Schilling, Milica Bogojevic, Justus Von Dohnányi, Olivia Silhavy, Ben Miles, Ludger Pistor. Director: Simon Curtis. Screenplay: Alexi Kaye Campbell. Story: The life stories of E. Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann. Web site. Trailer.

Taking a stand is something most of us will eventually find ourselves doing with regard to some aspect of our lives. It may not be especially easy, frequently taking us out of our comfort zones, nudging us to face our fears and ultimately prompting us to embrace our sense of self. The effort, however, could prove tremendously rewarding, making it possible to find our reason for living. That’s one of many remarkable personal revelations to emerge out of the experiences of the principals in the excellent new fact-based historical drama, “Woman in Gold.”

At the age of 81, many of us might be content to settle in and get comfortable for the remaining days of our lives. But not Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren). Despite her advancing age, she embarked on one of the most arduous, yet satisfying, undertakings of her life.

As a Jewish refugee who fled her native Vienna at the time of the Nazi annexation of Austria – the Anschluss – in 1938, a youthful Maria (Tatiana Maslany) made a harrowing escape to America with her husband, Fritz (Max Irons). In doing so, however, she left behind everything, including most of her family and virtually all of her belongings. And, not long after fleeing, the family’s possessions were looted by the invading Germans, who confiscated a wealth of jewelry, artwork and other items of value.

Chief among the stolen items was a portrait of Maria’s Aunt Adele (Antje Traue) by famed Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (Moritz Bleibtreu). Even though German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was not a fan of Klimt’s work, his Nazi minions nevertheless saw the value of the painting and readily added it to their stockpile of plundered artworks. Of course, given Adele’s Jewish heritage, the Nazis deemed a name change necessary for the painting, so what was originally titled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I became Woman in Gold.

However, once World War II ended, the painting – like so many others that were stolen – was not returned to its rightful owners. Instead, it remained in the hands of Austrian authorities, becoming one of the prized items in the collection of Vienna’s famed Belvedere Gallery. The portrait eventually came to be known as “the Mona Lisa of Austria,” and, because of that, Austrian authorities were not about to part with it, even in the wake of a legally sanctioned art restitution program launched in the late 1990s to make amends for past misdeeds.

Despite the resistance of Austrian authorities, Maria refused to be deterred. After a brief conversation with longtime family friend Barbara Schoenberg (Frances Fisher), Maria contacted Barbara’s son Randy (Ryan Reynolds), a lawyer struggling to put his career back together after a failed attempt at launching his own practice, to see if he could help her. Although initially reluctant to become involved in Maria’s case, Randy had a change of heart when he learned that the painting had an estimated value in excess of $100 million. But, all financial considerations aside, there was another reason behind Randy’s decision to pursue the matter: As the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who also fled his homeland during the rise of the Third Reich, Randy had a personal stake in this crusade. Before long, the unlikely duo set off on a quest to retrieve the lost portrait – and to seek justice.

Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, left) and struggling attorney Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, right) make for an unlikely duo in taking on the Austrian government over a controversial art restitution issue in director Simon Curtis’s engaging new drama, “Woman in Gold.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

At the outset, the deck seemed heavily stacked against Maria and Randy. But, even with the odds against them, they soon found themselves in the company of helpful allies, most notably investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), whose intrepid reporting exposed the Nazi past of former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and inspired passage of the country’s art restitution law. As a concerned citizen committed to seeing Austria’s history of fascist complicity exposed, Hubertus helped Maria and Randy cut through the bureaucratic red tape to formulate a strategy for taking on their opponents. Their solution was, to say the least, unique, one that would eventually land them before the U.S. Supreme Court and Chief Justice William Rehnquist (Jonathan Pryce). And their efforts ultimately set the worlds of art and international diplomacy on their ear.

So much for underestimating the underdog.

When it comes to incidents of the distant past, some of us may want to overlook them, dismissing them by simply saying “That was so long ago, just let it go.” However, when the events in question are painful or leave strong, lasting impressions, it may not be so easy to turn a blind eye. Given the circumstances under which Maria fled Vienna and what happened to her family subsequently, both at the hands of the Nazis during the war and Austrian authorities afterward, it’s understandable how she would want to seek justice. This is especially true when legal mechanisms, such as the art restitution program, and knowledgeable allies, such as Randy Schoenberg and Hubertus Czernin, become available. The desire to see matters set right is thus energized, a phenomenon that quickly takes on spirited momentum, even a life of its own.

Such suitable conditions typically emerge when we focus our attention on achieving desired ends through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest our existence through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. In this instance, Maria and her colleagues have done exactly that. They sought justice and then materialized the means to make it possible.

In her younger days, Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany, right) and her husband, Fritz (Max Irons, left), flee their native Vienna in the days leading up to World War II with the advance of Nazi occupying forces in the inspiring new historical drama, “Woman in Gold.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

But, in this scenario, objectives other than exacting justice were involved, some of which had ramifications extending beyond the issue at hand. For Randy, for example, taking on Maria’s case was crucial to finding his purpose, a career that has since focused on the legal aspects of art-related matters, something that was not part of his career previously. However, at the time he agreed to pursue this matter, Randy did so somewhat hesitantly, partly because he knew little about the subject and partly because he was just starting a new job under a boss (Charles Dance) who wasn’t especially enthusiastic or encouraging about the idea. Through this experience, though, coupled with the impact of his own emotional connection to the circumstances, Randy found a new vocation, as well as a new calling in life, something that conscious creation practitioners call value fulfillment.

Maria and Hubertus discovered their own brands of value fulfillment, too. For both of them, seeking restitution was about more than just recovering a wrongfully obtained piece of artwork; it was also about drawing attention to a cause that had affected many families during and after the war and that had previously received comparatively little fanfare. Their efforts helped raise the profile of this issue, making it possible for others similarly situated to seek reparation.

In fleshing out their new callings, Maria, Randy and Hubertus all needed to develop certain aspects of their conscious creation skills. For starters, they discovered the importance of listening to (and acting upon) their intuition, one of the elements that contributes to the beliefs we form to create our respective realities. Intuition is something many of us readily dismiss, because it lacks “logic,” the quality we typically use to characterize the overarching nature of our existence. Faced with staggering odds stacked against them, this trio of champions might have easily abandoned their cause before they ever got started if they had followed a purely “rational” approach. But, instead, they chose to acknowledge their intuitional impulses in convincing themselves what was truly achievable, a skill that invariably helped make them more effective conscious creators.

Attorney Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, right) faces some tough career choices in determining how to provide for his pregnant wife, Pam (Katie Holmes, left), and young family in “Woman in Gold.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

One of the benefits that comes from being a more effective conscious creator is the ability to envision a wider range of probabilities for materialization. Thinking more broadly allows ideas to emerge that might not have been considered previously, and that was the case in the team’s legal strategy. By employing a never-before-tried approach, they explored new territory in the world of jurisprudence, testing the waters of possibility to see if it could yield the desired result. If successful, not only would it benefit their cause, but it would also set a precedent that others could draw upon in future litigation, a creation that had wider implications – and the potential to help others facing similar circumstances at a later time.

Facing fears was another skill that the protagonists honed through this creative experience. Randy, for example, needed to face the fear of taking on a risky cause at a time when his career was in a precarious position, not an easy decision for a young father whose wife (Katie Holmes) was expecting their second child. Meanwhile, Maria had to address her fear of returning to Vienna, something she vowed she would never do after her perilous flight to freedom. And, as for Hubertus, he needed to become involved to exorcise the demons of his family’s past, setting matters to right for the honor of his future relations and his country. These issues were challenging for each of them, but they rose to the occasion, thanks to the development and deployment of beliefs that would allow them to do so.

Through their efforts, Randy, Maria and Hubertus succeeded in exposing the truth, an undertaking they pursued with integrity, a crucial consideration for bringing desired results into being. This is essential for achieving satisfaction and fulfillment in our conscious creation initiatives, and it’s obvious that these crusaders were wholly earnest in their approach. They clearly set an example for all of us to follow.

Attorney Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, left) and refugee-turned-activist Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, center), aided by investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl, right), take on the Austrian government to seek restitution for an improperly acquired work of art in the inspiring new docudrama, “Woman in Gold.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

“Woman in Gold” tells its story capably, deftly mixing present-day and flashback sequences, with another great performance by Mirren and a surprisingly good (though sometimes uneven) portrayal by Reynolds. The film’s production values (especially in the historical sequences) are top-notch, and its cinematography and soundtrack lend themselves well to the finished product. The picture also does a great job of outlining and explaining some rather complicated legal concepts, not an easy feat to pull off.

However, despite these many strengths, the movie has come under a fair share of criticism. Some have contended that its approach is overly sentimental, perhaps even Pollyanna. Others have said that its underdog-against-the-odds narrative featuring an unlikely dynamic duo is rather formulaic and unoriginal, mimicking the story lines found in such films as “Philomena” (2013) and “Erin Brockovich” (2000). And others still have claimed (and, admittedly, not entirely without merit) that the script is too heavy-handed and self-righteous at times. However, this is a story that needs to be told, and, given its subject matter, there’s not a lot of room for subtlety, something for which the filmmakers should have no need to apologize. The picture sheds light on this topic more effectively than others that have attempted to do so, such as the highly touted but ultimately disappointing comedy-drama, “The Monuments Men” (2014).

Finding our way in the world may take us down some unfamiliar (and seemingly unlikely) paths. Yet, if we follow the impulses leading us in those directions, we might find ourselves reaching degrees of fulfillment never before considered. In even greater terms, however, we also could discover that our creations serve a greater purpose, one that benefits both us and those around us in the true spirit of value fulfillment. And that would be work of art if there ever were one.

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

Friday, April 3, 2015

‘Kumiko’ maintains ‘never lose sight of your dreams’

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuke Katsube, Kanako Higashi, Yumiko Hioki (voice), Ichi Kyokaku, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Brad Prather, Lucy Luu, Phil Hall, Steve Buscemi (archive footage). Director: David Zellner. Screenplay: David Zellner and Nathan Zellner. Web site. Trailer.

Dreamers often possess a special sensibility that sets them apart from others. They dare to envision what many would consider unfathomable, and they generally pursue the fulfillment of their aspirations with quixotic determination, usually in spite of what others say. They have faith in their convictions, moving ahead to flesh them out at all costs, even in the face of the worst odds. Such is the kind of resolve on display in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.”

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is bored by her life. As a twenty-something Tokyo “office lady,” she sees herself stuck in a dead-end job. She quietly detests the demands and intrusiveness of her condescending boss, Mr. Sakagami (Nobuyuke Katsube), and the incessant phone calls of her nagging mother (voiced by Yumiko Hioki). She’s even loath to address such everyday activities as keeping up her apartment, collecting her mail or spending time with a onetime acquaintance, Michi (Kanako Higashi). In fact, the only things that seem to give Kumiko any pleasure are caring for her pet rabbit, Bunzo, and her pursuit of an unusual hobby – treasure hunting.

Treasure hunting?

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a Tokyo “office lady” bored with her life, sets off to seek her fortune a world away in the quirky new comedy-drama, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” Photo by Sean Porter, courtesy of Amplify Releasing.

As unconventional as this rather anachronistic diversion might seem to many, it thoroughly captivates Kumiko. She devotes much of her free time to it, because she believes she’s destined to make great discoveries at it one day. And that commitment grows even stronger when she stumbles upon what she considers to be her greatest find – an old videotape that she’s convinced will lead her to a stash of untold wealth.

The video plainly states at its beginning that the story it’s about to relate is true, even if the names of those involved have been changed. As the film plays out, it clearly depicts someone burying a briefcase full of American money in a desolate Midwestern snowbank, its location marked with a small red ice scraper stuck in the endless mass of white. Tremendous riches obviously await.

So what’s the source of this miraculous revelation? It turns out to be a copy of the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award-winning movie, “Fargo” (1996), which is based on a true story but is, in fact, a fictional re-creation. Unfortunately, Kumiko mistakenly believes the film is a documentary because of its opening statement. She’s convinced the briefcase really is buried somewhere in the Midwestern landscape, and she spends hours trying to figure out exactly where.

As Kumiko’s obsession with finding the treasure grows, so, too, does her dissatisfaction with her everyday life, prompting her to eventually abandon everything in an effort to seek her fortune. Armed with her boss’s company credit card, a map of Minnesota and a steely resolve, she takes off on her quest. Like a Spanish conquistador, she heads for the New World – and an appointment with destiny.

Caring for her pet rabbit, Bunzo, is one of life’s few pleasures for Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a would-be fortune hunter bored with her existence, in the Zellner Brothers’ unusual new release, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” Photo by Sean Porter, courtesy of Amplify Releasing.

Upon her arrival in Minnesota, Kumiko is clearly out of her element. She speaks almost no English. She hasn’t packed suitable clothing for surviving one of the region’s infamously frigid winters. And she has only the vaguest of notions about where the alleged treasure actually might be buried (presuming, based on the film’s title, that it must be somewhere in the vicinity of Fargo). But those hindrances don’t deter her; she single-mindedly embarks on a trek into the Minnesota wilderness.

While on her journey, Kumiko encounters an array of colorful characters seeking to help her. Among them are a pair of dubious tourism guides (Nathan Zellner, Brad Prather), a kindly older woman who shelters Kumiko from the cold and is anxious to show her the Mall of America (Shirley Venard), a sincerely helpful though somewhat clueless sheriff’s deputy (David Zellner), a Chinese restaurant owner (Lucy Luu) and a deaf cab driver (Phil Hall). Despite their help, though, Kumiko must find her own way. It’s an odyssey she’s determined to see through – no matter what it takes.

Many might view Kumiko’s journey as a lonely one, but then that’s because it’s in the nature of what she seeks to materialize for herself through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. As a would-be treasure hunter, Kumiko’s ambitions aren’t exactly mainstream, so the likelihood of her openly sharing this interest with others isn’t high. What’s more, given her disinterest in the everyday aspects of life that others so willingly embrace, it’s easy to see how she would eschew her peers and their concerns. Considerations like marriage and children, which are obviously important to Kumiko’s cohorts, just don’t matter to her, which is why she doesn’t devote time, energy or attention in drawing them into her life; those things would only get in the way of her trying to seek her fortune in other ways.

In light of that, Kumiko serves as a shining example of someone not being afraid to hold on to her dreams, no matter what others may think or how outlandish those aspirations might seem. As long as we have faith in the validity of our beliefs, as Kumiko does, anything is possible. And, as anyone who has achieved success under comparable circumstances can attest, realizing goals under such conditions can ultimately be transformative, even transcendent.

Upon her arrival in Minnesota, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, left), a would-be Japanese fortune seeker, encounters an array of colorful characters as part of her journey, including a pair of dubious tourism guides, Robert (Nathan Zellner, middle) and Brad (Brad Prather, right), in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” Photo by Sean Porter, courtesy of Amplify Releasing.

Of course, maintaining resolve is essential in taking on such pursuits, and seekers chasing such goals shouldn’t be afraid to reject outsiders’ calls for conformity or the criticisms of naysayers. Again, Kumiko shows us the way. She dismisses these considerations without reservation, remaining true to her vision as she forges ahead.

Given the foregoing, it’s obvious that pursuing our dreams requires effort and dedication, sometimes even sacrifice. Indeed, if we want to see such goals fulfilled, we must often let go of what no longer serves us or what holds us back. For things we dislike, such as unsatisfying relationships or possessions that weigh us down, letting go can be comparatively easy, even providing a welcome sense of relief. But realizing our aspirations may also occasionally call upon us to release things we hold dear, as becomes painfully apparent when Kumiko must decide what to do about Bunzo when preparing for her journey. Such heartrending experiences truly test our tenacity, but they’re often essential in determining the strength of our commitment and the degree of faith we place in what are supposedly our most cherished beliefs.

In that regard, proceeding without fear is crucial. When faced with the pressures of those who try to dissuade Kumiko from her course, such as her boss, her mother and even the well-meaning deputy, she remains steadfast, moving forward, no matter what impediments or forms of intimidation they try to place in her path. Onward she goes, rejecting these metaphysical speed bumps as little more than inconveniences along the way.

Ironically, by drawing such task masters into her life, Kumiko may actually have created an intriguing means for galvanizing her courage and her faith in her beliefs (even if she’s unaware of having done so). In fact, these are just a few of the many unconventional yet useful items she’s amassed in her metaphysical toolbox, which also includes such skills as the ability to think quickly and live by her wits, a strong sense of personal intuition, and receptivity to hidden meanings. (Even her choice of a rabbit as a pet reflects these qualities, as it’s an animal that is said to embody these wisdom teachings, according to the web site

When Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, right), a would-be Japanese fortune seeker, finds herself out of her element in the wilds of Minnesota, she receives help from a sincere yet clueless sheriff’s deputy (David Zellner, left) in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” Photo by Sean Porter, courtesy of Amplify Releasing.

Keeping an open mind about the nature of the goal being sought is imperative, too. When we use our beliefs to create something, we should pay attention to the qualities that characterize the finished manifestation, not necessarily the form it takes. By failing to do so, we may not realize we’ve attained our objective when, in fact, we have. Treasures imbued with certain attributes can take a variety of forms, and, for her part, Kumiko fortunately realizes that. We’d be wise to follow her lead on this, especially when assessing the effectiveness of our own materialization skills. If we don’t, we might miss out on the wealth the Universe has in store for us.

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is one of the most unusual yet thoroughly enjoyable theatrical releases to come along in quite some time. The picture’s gorgeous cinematography and its ethereal soundtrack by the Octopus Project provide a beautiful, dreamy backdrop for a narrative that seamlessly blends gentle humor, touching moments and profound thoughtfulness. The film incorporates a variety of moods, from the homespun folksiness reminiscent of the picture that inspired Kumiko to the exaggeratedly noble campiness frequently found in contemporary samurai movies to the reflective sense of wonder often seen in spiritual cinematic offerings. But, as impressive as these elements are, it’s the Zellner Brothers’ superb writing and Kikuchi’s excellent performance that make the film work so brilliantly. And, despite a few easily overlooked pacing issues, few recent films capture and hold viewer attention as well as this one does.

The frozen Minnesota landscape can be a lonely place, as would-be fortune seeker Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) discovers for herself in the offbeat new Zellner Brothers’ comedy-drama, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” Photo by Sean Porter, courtesy of Amplify Releasing.

The film has received some notable recognition for its efforts, too. It deservedly earned nominations in the best director and best female lead performance categories at the recent Independent Spirit Awards competition, as well as a number of accolades at various film festivals. The picture is currently showing in theaters specializing in independent and foreign cinema.

In a world where all too many are willing to aimlessly follow convention, it’s refreshing when nonconformists like Kumiko make their presence felt – and their wishes known. Were it not for enlightened spirits like her, there’s no telling how much “smaller” our world would be. So thank goodness for the dreamers out there – and the hope that they all might help to inspire the rest of us.

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