Thursday, May 28, 2015

‘Tomorrowland’ asks, ‘What kind of world do we want?’

“Tomorrowland” (2015). Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Shiloh Nelson. Director: Brad Bird. Screenplay: Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Story: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird and Jeff Jensen. Web site. Trailer.

Is the world we live in something that we create, or is it something that’s capriciously thrust upon us? Consequently, should we look upon our circumstances with supreme optimism or eternal pessimism? Indeed, what are we to make of it all? In the end, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers to these questions, for it all ultimately depends on what we believe. And that’s where the story begins in the new summertime action-adventure, “Tomorrowland.”

In 1964, aspiring young inventor Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) attends the New York World’s Fair in hopes of winning a prize in an inventors’ competition. He stakes his claim on his creation of a personal jetpack, a novel idea that, though fun and whimsical, doesn’t quite work. Even though he makes an impassioned case for the merits of his device, the head of the inventors’ contest, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), summarily dismisses the brainchild of the young Edison.

But, despite the flaws in Frank’s contraption, he and his device are not without fans, most notably a bright-eyed, articulate young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who seems to have some special sort of influence with Nix. Although she’s unable to secure an appeal for Frank’s case, she does possess the power to offer him something better – an introduction to a magical place where his sort of inspired thinking is celebrated (and where he just might be able to get his jetpack to work). Athena points the way to a special transporter that whisks away Frank to the miracle of Tomorrowland, a sparkling, awe-inspiring world where technologies beyond belief abound and where all of the hopes of a starry-eyed, dream-filled generation are fulfilled.

But is Tomorrowland too good to be true? And what of the world Frank left behind? That’s where the next phase of this story comes in.

Skip ahead to the present day, where a bright, high-spirited teen, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), sees a world of potential in a world beset by despair. Despite a constant barrage of predictions involving everything from environmental degradation to global war to economic collapse, Casey views a future full of wonder, one where the promise of technology and enlightened thinking can turn around all of the world’s ills, provided its inhabitants make an effort to bring it into being.

In many ways, Casey is very much unlike those around her, especially since she’s one of the few who’s willing to take action to see her dreams come true. This sets her apart from most of her peers and captures the attention of someone who can help her realize her aspirations, a bright-eyed, articulate young girl named (you guessed it) Athena, the same mysterious facilitator who worked her magic 50 years earlier (and who apparently hasn’t aged a day since).

With the aid of a special Tomorrowland lapel pin, Athena provides her newest protégé with a glimpse of this magical place. Casey is initially bewildered but ultimately captivated and wants to see and experience more. Athena is pleased at Casey’s response, but this time there’s more at stake than just nurturing a prodigy’s scientific curiosity. The fate of two worlds hangs in the balance, and Casey holds the key to solving the problems of each. The question is, will she get an opportunity to prove herself?

To complicate matters, getting into Tomorrowland is considerably more difficult now than it was in 1964. Attaining this goal won’t be easy; in fact, it’s an undertaking that requires the technical expertise of someone who knows how to break through the seemingly impenetrable barrier between the worlds. That’s where the help of a now-grown up former visitor, Frank Walker (George Clooney), comes into play.

Convincing Frank to return to Tomorrowland may be easier said than done, however. His experience didn’t quite turn out as hoped for. With the promise of Tomorrowland falling short of expectations, he was forced to return to the world from which he came. And, with his view now sufficiently jaded, he has little desire to go back. But, when his own existence becomes threatened, he has no place to hide and no choice but to return. And so, before long, Frank, Athena and Casey are on their way to an appointment with destiny – and with an old nemesis, David Nix – an encounter with implications far beyond anything that any of them can believe. But, ironically enough, it’s their beliefs that may well prove to be their – and everyone else’s – salvation.

Most of us are no doubt familiar with the expression “Life is what you make of it.” That sentiment is, in essence, a simplified way of explaining the functioning of the practice of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest our existence based on our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s a concept that works both individually, with regard to the materialization of our personal realities, and collectively, when it comes to the creation of our shared experiences. And, when the philosophy is understood in these terms, it’s easy to see where the central narrative of “Tomorrowland” is coming from.

In a nutshell, the film asks us, “What kind of a world do we want to create for ourselves?” We clearly have a choice in the matter. We can either choose to manifest one in which we saddle ourselves with seemingly unsolvable challenges, or we can create one in each we take action to address our problems and see our most cherished dreams realized. So which one will it be? The answer rests with us. But, whichever option we select, we will get the reality we concentrate on – and the one we deserve.

Some might take issue with this idea, insisting that there are elements outside of our control. But, as one of the film’s principals so astutely points out, our beliefs dictate the reality that arises, no matter what form it may take. This is even true for those who believe they have no say in the matter, and, though they may attempt to absolve themselves from the process of how their existence arises, they ultimately can’t. A reality characterized by seemingly unsolvable challenges inherently stems from beliefs that make such an existence possible, regardless of whether or not we choose to accept or deny the veracity of that notion.

One could legitimately ask why anyone would want to manifest an existence that operates along those lines. While a number of answers are possible, it most likely has to do with learning a valuable life lesson, one associated with the concept of responsibility. Indeed, when the deck seems irretrievably stacked against us, it’s easy to roll over and say, “There’s nothing I can do to fix this.” But a disavowal like this, no matter how strongly felt, fails to acknowledge who manifested this reality in the first place. And, when anyone who attempts to deny such involvement comes to realize otherwise, it’s quite an eye-opening experience. With responsibility suddenly staring us squarely in the face, we’re forced into changing our outlook (and, one would hope, our manifesting beliefs) to correct the problem before it’s too late.

That can be a very hard, but highly significant, lesson, one that can set us on a more beneficial path for the future. One would hope that such an enlightened awareness would not only help us fix the problems at hand, but also prompt us into not creating those issues in the first place.

“Tomorrowland” drives home that point loud and clear. When we look at our own world through the lens of its depiction in this film, it’s easy to see how we’ve allowed our beliefs to paint us into the corner in which we now find ourselves. It’s a perspective that’s continually reinforced, too, through our media reports, our government pronouncements and even our entertainment vehicles. If we realize that, then the question for us is, “Do we want to keep doing that?” If so, as stated before, we get a reality based on what we concentrate on. But, if not, then perhaps following another path would be preferable, one in which the concept of solution, not surrender, is celebrated. In either case, though, whatever we experience originates with us and our beliefs.

Surrender poses other problems, too. By engaging in this practice, we give away our power and thus run the risk of allowing others to take advantage of the situation. They’re free to further their own belief agendas, potentially placing us in even further jeopardy, perhaps under an accelerated timetable. Such a scenario reveals itself in “Tomorowland,” strongly cautioning us to take back our power while we still have the chance.

In the end, we need to ask ourselves, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” Whatever answer we come up with will determine the results we get when it comes to our manifestation efforts. And, for its part, “Tomorrowland” nudges us in the ribs to clue us in to the correct response.

If it sounds like “Tomorrowland” is all heavy-handed moralizing, don’t be misled; it’s not. In addition to its insightful message, the film provides a fun-filled romp from start to finish, with lots of subtle and laugh-out-loud humor. It also sports superb special effects, surprisingly good acting for an action-adventure movie and great period reproductions, especially in its faithful re-creation of the 1964 World’s Fair. The overall package is very much in the tradition of old live action Disney films, and it’s refreshing to see the studio getting back to doing something it once did so exceptionally well.

The film is currently in wide distribution, including in a number of IMAX® theaters. If you have an opportunity to see it in this format, do so. The mammoth screen and surround sound system make this picture pop, greatly enhancing the moviegoing experience. It engenders the kind of wide-eyed wonder that its subject matter so effectively embodies, making it possible for even the most mature among us to leave the theater feeling like giddy little kids again. What fun!

As someone who attended the World’s Fair depicted in the film, I clearly recall the sense of hope and optimism that pervaded the exhibition. It was a time when nearly everyone looked forward to the future with a sense of infinite possibilities. But, somewhere along the line since then, many of us seem to have lost our way, gradually descending into an ever-widening chasm of despair and cynicism. Our previous experience, though, aptly demonstrates that it need not be that way. No matter what we may decide, it all comes down to our beliefs and what we do with them. We can manifest a destiny that will assuredly dash all our dreams. Or we can create a future full of whatever promise we imbue it with. Take your pick. But, for my money, I know what I want to experience, and “Tomorrowland” does much to help light the way.

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

‘Madding Crowd’ celebrates choice, independence, discernment

“Far from the Madding Crowd” (2015). Cast: Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden. Director: Thomas Vinterberg. Screenplay: David Nicholls. Book: Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us are favorably impressed by those savvy individuals who exude confidence and have a knack for self-assuredness. Their independent spirits make them objects of emulation. Indeed, who wouldn’t want to be like them? Regrettably, a good many of us look upon them in intimidation or envy, wishing we could follow their leads (and frequently believing that we can’t). But looking to their experiences is exactly what we should do if we ever hope to change our own circumstances. One particularly inspiring example is more than amply set by the Victorian heroine in the classic Thomas Hardy novel, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” recently released in a beautiful new cinematic adaptation.

Anyone who thinks they can “tame” Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is in for a rude awakening. Even though the independent, self-confident, charismatic young woman’s approach to life is rather uncommon for 19th Century England, she makes it perfectly clear that she will do as she will, no matter what others may say or think (especially men). She particularly enjoys challenges, and, when she inherits a sizable though somewhat-rundown farm from her uncle, she gets her chance to prove to everyone just what she can do. As the mistress of her estate, she vows to reverse the farm’s fortunes – and to expand upon those she’s already amassed.

Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, right), mistress of a large though somewhat-rundown farm, seeks to reverse the manor’s fortunes with the aid of her trusted confidante, Liddy (Jessica Barden, left), in the latest cinematic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic Victorian novel, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

But, even with that said, there are those who would like to see Bathsheba bend to their charms (if not their wills). Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a kindly, albeit socially awkward neighboring farmer who comes to work on Miss Everdene’s manor, would welcome the opportunity to make Bathsheba his wife. However, Mr. Oak is not without competition in this pursuit. William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the reserved, middle-aged owner of a prosperous neighboring estate, also seeks Miss Everdene’s hand, though he mostly winds up frustrated, quietly pining for her from afar. And then there is Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a handsome but somewhat reckless young soldier who believes he was jilted by his fiancée, Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), who, because of a miscommunication, accidently left him standing at the altar; he now seeks a new path in life and believes he’s found it through a seemingly chance encounter with Miss Everdene.

Estate owner Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, left) routinely seeks the advice of farmhand and would-be suitor Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, right) in director Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Bathsheba is quite taken with all the attention, and, to some degree, she seems to relish the flattery. She’s also quietly pleased to have so many courtship choices available to her. But then there’s the matter of preserving her independence, which she values tremendously. She often wonders what would happen to that if she were to take a husband. Would marrying be worth it? Would she have to subvert her natural tendencies and sacrifice her freedom simply because she’s become someone’s wife? What should she do?

As Bathsheba attempts to sort out her options, she seeks the advice of others, most notably her trusted confidante, Liddy (Jessica Barden). But, ironically enough, she also finds herself increasingly consulting Mr. Oak, whom she discreetly comes to regard as much a friend as a potential spouse. At the same time, Gabriel grows more at ease in his dealings with Bathsheba, which allows him to become more comfortable in freely speaking his mind, letting her know what he really thinks, whether in matters of farm management or in those of the heart.

Mr. Oak’s candor occasionally strikes a nerve with Bathsheba, causing her to become uncharacteristically defensive, revealing a hitherto unseen vulnerability. And, when she informs him that her romantic inclinations are veering in other directions, their relationship turns decidedly tense, even confrontational. But, to her credit, Miss Everdene also recognizes the sincerity of Gabriel’s advice, prompting her to carefully consider it when making decisions and taking action (sometimes in the moment but at other times in hindsight), all of which carry profound implications for her future. What will she do?

Estate owner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, right) warily courts the favor of the owner of a neighboring manor, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, left), in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Thankfully, Bathsheba has a strong sense of self. She has a firm handle on what she believes about herself, which stands her in good stead when it comes to exercising her conscious creation skills, the means by which she manifests the reality she experiences. Indeed, knowing oneself in this way is crucial for mastering one’s personal power, which is essential for creating an existence sufficiently in line with one’s hopes, wishes and dreams.

Knowing ourselves also means knowing that we have the power of choice at our disposal at any given time. Bathsheba unreservedly exercises that power, too, as evidenced by the arrays of options she routinely draws into her reality. For instance, she has three would-be suitors vying for her hand, and she could easily choose any of them – or none of them – depending on what she believes ultimately best suits her. We should all be so fortunate to possess such prescience (especially given how many of us fail to recognize these fundamental capabilities in the first place).

However, even with an awareness of the foregoing, we may also allow our beliefs to become inflexible, perhaps even dogmatic. This could easily interfere with our sense of discernment in evaluating the possibilities available to us. That can even happen to someone as self-aware as Bathsheba, who is so invested in her sense of independence that it might blind her to some of her options. She thus runs the risk of summarily ruling out opportunities that involve interaction with others that may well work to her benefit. In circumstances like this, knowing when to distinguish one’s beliefs from one’s dogma is critical in finding one’s destiny.

Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge, right), a young soldier who believes he was jilted by his fiancée, seeks a new start in life by wooing the fair Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, left) during a chance encounter in the latest cinematic remake of the classic Thomas Hardy novel, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Fortunately, Bathsheba has the good sense to seek counsel when the need arises. She might not always like what she hears, but she at least allows herself to be open to the advice. Whether she acts upon such guidance – by incorporating it into her existing beliefs – is another matter, however, and one that’s obviously up to her. But, as an adept conscious creator, she’s well aware that, to achieve the results she wants – those that further her sense of personal well-being – she must assess all of the intellectual and intuitive input available to her to formulate suitable beliefs with that goal in mind.

For someone as headstrong as Bathsheba, some might view her reliance on such “outside” advice as a weakness, a deficiency in her capability to make her own decisions. But, as anyone who truly leads a life as a self-actualized conscious creator knows, being able to admit that we do not have all the answers, and leaving ourselves open to all available information to make astute decisions, is actually a sign of personal strength. The capability to honestly acknowledge the strength (and extent) of our self-awareness ultimately allows us to more effectively pursue our sense of personal happiness and satisfaction. If you need proof, just ask Bathsheba.

This latest adaptation of “Far from the Madding Crowd” (having previously been made as a theatrical release in 1967, a silent film in 1915 and a made-for-TV movie in 1998) is a sumptuously beautiful production. The picture features excellent period piece production values, fine acting, a grand, swirling soundtrack, and exquisite cinematography (though, admittedly, there is some peculiar camera work in several sequences). The story is generally faithful to the source material, with only minor variations that do not substantially alter the original narrative. All in all, this release is yet another fine offering from director Thomas Vinterberg, who consistently proves himself time and again to be one of today’s most skilled (and underrated) filmmakers.

Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), the fiancée of a handsome young soldier, meets an unexpected fate on her way to the altar in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Even though awards season is still months away, it’s not too early to start looking at contenders for possible consideration, and “Far from the Madding Crowd” presents multiple possibilities in that regard, particularly in the technical categories. However, its performances are also worthy of note, especially Mulligan, who easily gives one of the best female lead portrayals so far this year, and Sheen, whose subtle depiction of the lovelorn Mr. Boldwood is full of nuance and emotional power. Here’s hoping these performances are not forgotten when the nominating ballots are mailed out.

In William Shakespeare’s classic opus Hamlet, wise old Polonius counsels “To thine own self be true.” That is undoubtedly astute advice, and it’s particularly relevant when we engage our conscious creation skills. By keenly scrutinizing our sense of self, judiciously exercising our power of choice and robustly employing our discernment skills, we have an opportunity to manifest an existence that brings us the satisfaction and contentment we so earnestly desire. This film beautifully illustrates how such conditions arise, showing us the way to live lives that place us in circumstances that foster and nurture our personal growth and well-being – and that take us far from the madding crowd.

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

Friday, May 15, 2015

‘Welcome to Me’ probes the awakening of self-awareness

“Welcome to Me” (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, Loretta Devine, Thomas Mann, Alan Tudyk, Mitch Silpa, Kulap Vilaysack, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace. Director: Shira Piven. Screenplay: Eliot Laurence. Web site. Trailer.

Becoming self-aware is something we each do in our own way. Much depends on what we feel we need to discover about ourselves in the first place, which obviously varies – sometimes considerably – from person to person, based on the circumstances we’ve each created in our respective existences. This task can be especially daunting when those circumstances are characterized by particular types of challenges in need of resolution, as evidenced by the experience of a lost soul in search of herself in the hilarious new dark comedy, “Welcome to Me.”

What would you do with your money if you suddenly found yourself the recipient of an $86 million lottery prize? Many of us would likely buy a nice home, spring for an expensive car or travel the world in style. But, when Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) comes up a winner, she has some rather unusual ideas for how to spend her fortune. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, because Alice is by no means typical – and in almost every way.

Alice, a divorced former veterinary nurse, is obsessed with watching television talk shows (especially Oprah reruns) and self-help informercials. She has plenty of time for it, too; as a patient undergoing treatment for borderline personality disorder, she’s on state-sponsored psychiatric disability and receives counseling from a kindly (and extremely tolerant) therapist, Dr. Daryl Moffet (Tim Robbins). Despite these circumstances, Alice aspires to do “something big” with her life, yet her condition has forced her into a rather limited, low-key existence. That all changes, however, when she learns of her newfound wealth.

The freedom afforded by an $86 million windfall allows Alice to at last follow her dreams. She decides she wants to be on TV and approaches an infomercial production company about creating her own reality/talk show, a two-hour daily broadcast entirely devoted to her, titled Welcome to Me. Needless to say, the production staff is initially baffled by her strange request. Gabe Ruskin (Wes Bentley), one of the company’s co-owners, and two of its staff members, producer Deb Moseley (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and director Dawn Hurley (Joan Cusack), have reservations about airing a vanity program like this. However, when Alice announces that she’ll bankroll the entire project – for a tidy sum of $15 million – attitudes quickly change.

Given the production company’s financially strapped status, the sudden infusion of a huge pile of cash holds a lot of appeal, particularly for the organization’s other co-owner, Rich Ruskin (James Marsden), Gabe’s brother. And so, despite some obvious challenges with show content, Welcome to Me quickly gets the green light. But, production issues aside, there’s another even bigger problem that everyone will have to contend with – Alice’s revelation that she’s gone off her meds.

Those who care about Alice, including her parents (Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace), her gay ex-husband (Alan Tudyk) and his lover (Mitch Silpa), and her best friend, Gina (Linda Cardellini), are dismayed by her recent behavior. Dr. Moffet is especially troubled by her decision to cease taking her medication. But, as impulsive and irrational as these actions might seem, they pale in comparison to what happens when the show goes into production. And, no matter how wacky or outlandish Alice’s on- and off-air antics may be, she’s able to continue doing as she pleases as long as there are enablers – and money – to make her whims happen.

Welcome to Me quickly becomes an exercise in hilarious, bizarre, unrestrained behavior, full of riotous rants, unconventional on-air segments and even reenactments of incidents from Alice’s past. And, thanks to the show’s circus-like atmosphere, the program even begins to develop a modest following. But how long can this go on? What’s more, how long should it be allowed to go on? Indeed, when will the alleged “humor” stop being funny? Those are troubling concerns. But, not unlike a program of psychiatric care, Alice must let the process run its course to its eventual outcome – whatever that may ultimately be.

Superficially speaking, the scenario playing out here is undoubtedly one of the oddest narratives ever put to the big screen. But, when one looks beneath the surface, there’s clearly a lot going on, much of which may not be readily apparent at first glance. This is particularly true from the standpoint of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience based on our beliefs, thoughts and intents.

For instance, it’s obvious that Alice fundamentally grasps this concept, even if she can’t cogently put it into words or doesn’t fully understand its implications. Nevertheless, by her own admission, she’s positive that the circumstances of our lives aren’t a matter of luck but a consequence of something that intentionally arises from within each of us. She doesn’t quite have the mechanics right, but she certainly has the essence correct. And, for many of us, coming to that basic understanding is more than half the battle.

Of course, even with an understanding of the process, a general awareness of its existence can’t overcome a failure to realize the ramifications involved in it, a shortfall that can carry serious consequences. And, to a great degree, that becomes readily apparent through what Alice and her TV colleagues create.

For example, Alice says she wants to do something big with her life, and, inspired by all the television she has watched over the years, she sees her show as the medium to accomplish that goal. But, given her state of mind, with its jumbled assortment of beliefs, and her ensuing erratic behavior, does she fully realize everything she’s doing? How do cooking segments involving recipes for meatloaf cake with sweet potato frosting or public service spots featuring uncensored on-air pet neutering equate to doing “something big”? Is the greater good really being served when the show presents re-creations of seemingly trivial incidents from Alice’s teenage years, such as when someone supposedly rifled through her makeup bag without her permission? Yet such enigmatic incidents regularly constitute the content of Welcome to Me. Such manifestations, bizarre though they may be, are all Alice’s brainchildren, all of which originate from the beliefs that reside in her consciousness and subsequently spring forth into materialization. And, because she’s created the means to bring them into being (i.e., by conjuring up enough money to produce a show permitting such antics and to hire a complicit production staff to execute her wishes), there’s nothing stopping her from seeing her beliefs through to realization, no matter how off the wall they may be.

So how did such patently absurd manifestations become unleashed? It most likely happened when Alice decided to go off her medication, which Dr. Moffet had prescribed to stabilize her moods. With those moods stabilized, however, Alice also stifled her inner impulses. The beliefs she had been harboring for years were thus denied expression – that is, until she allowed their release with the removal of the impediment that had long suppressed them.

The question, of course, is, why did Alice decide to do this now? A number of explanations are possible. In one regard, the money provided her the means to make all this happen. But, in another respect, perhaps Alice saw a deeper purpose, a need to manifest an alternative “treatment” to the mind-numbing therapy she had been going through for years without any meaningful, tangible results. By having allowed herself to be medicated into submission – and, consequently, not being able to address the underlying issues that were the source of her emotional discomfort – Alice was prevented from tackling the beliefs that triggered her condition and put her into counseling in the first place.

However, with the medicinal barriers removed, and by having access to a milieu for giving expression to those long-suppressed beliefs, Alice now has an opportunity to try a different approach for working out the issues that conventional therapy failed to rectify. Alice most likely isn’t consciously aware that she’s doing any of this, and not all of her efforts may bear fruit. But, despite such shortcomings, she nevertheless has a medium at her disposal to explore different avenues for resolving her issues and to use (and hone) her manifestation skills for creating a more satisfying reality. And, if this approach gets results that other more traditional efforts couldn’t, then why not try it (unconventional though it may be)?

As Alice works her way through this process, it becomes clear that she’s wrestling with some personally painful issues. Some of them may be somewhat overblown, but others have definitely caused her anguish for a long time, primarily due to a lack of resolution. Alice now has a chance to change that. And, by doing so publicly, she also has an opportunity to draw attention to (and to raise awareness and support for) an issue that may well affect others similarly (and, if that’s not doing “something big,” then I don’t know what is).

With that said, however, the foregoing doesn’t absolve anyone involved in the creation of this scenario from their responsibility for its materialization (and all of its attendant ramifications). That’s especially true for the production company staff. They quite clearly see that there’s something wrong with Alice, yet, rather than take her off the air, they let her carry on with whatever tantrums and eccentric behavior she wants, all because she pays them to let her do it. While the money may provide a short-term fix for their cash flow problem, it comes at a cost. This becomes painfully apparent when the company’s attorney, Barb Vaughn (Loretta Devine), notifies the staff about a growing stack of defamation lawsuits filed against the organization for allegedly slanderous accusations made by Alice during her reenactment sequences in which she names the names of those who supposedly wronged her. While all the parties in this scenario may have firmly bought into the belief that “money talks,” at least some of them may not be aware that such “chatter” often carries consequences, some of which may require the creation of a lot of cash to keep the conversation going. Adopting a more responsible stance from the outset often costs less, but that’s a lesson Rich and his money-hungry colleagues might have to get the hard way given the beliefs they’ve employed in creating these circumstances.

From a responsibility standpoint, some might believe the filmmakers have abandoned their sense of it by using a humorous approach for addressing a topic that isn’t inherently funny. But it’s important to recognize that the picture isn’t laughing at the issue of mental illness but laughing about it in making its point. Humor is often a highly effective way of drawing attention to issues of noteworthy concern, and it has been employed quite successfully many times in addressing the mental health question, as seen in films like “King of Hearts” (1966), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “What About Bob?” (1991) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). “Welcome to Me” is merely the latest offering in that vein, and it does its job well, even if it pushes the envelope considerably further than most of its predecessors. It may make some viewers squirm a bit at times, perhaps even prompting them to question the appropriateness of their laughter during certain sequences. Yet, by reading between the laughs, there won’t be any doubt where the filmmakers are coming from.

Overall, the picture hits the mark in almost every regard. It features a stellar performance by Wiig, who’s really showing her chops as a versatile actress and not just as a formula comedienne (much like she did in “The Skeleton Twins” (2014)). The film is also an excellent showcase for the inventive work of first-time screenwriter Eliot Laurence. Admittedly, the story meanders a little at times, with some story lines that don’t feel fully fleshed out, such as those involving Alice’s friendship with Gina and her budding romantic relationships with Gabe and with an impressionable college student (Thomas Mann). However, despite such drawbacks, the film never fails to entertain while delivering insights from which we can all benefit. The picture is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in independent cinema, as well as on various video streaming services, and DVD and Blu-ray disk preorders are available from major online retailers.

The route to self-awareness can take many different paths. What’s most important, though, is that we follow through on reaching our destination, no matter how we may choose to get there. If that means intentionally manifesting physical representations of the sources of our frustrations and purposely plunging ourselves into them to bring about resolution and personal understanding, then so be it. It’s certainly not the only option for achieving that goal, but, if it works, then more power to it – and to all of the other possibilities that ultimately help us to better know ourselves.

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

Thursday, May 7, 2015

‘Tangerines’ indicts the perils of belief entrenchment

“Tangerines” (“Mandariinid”) (2013 production, 2015 release). Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Mikheil Meskhi, Raivo Trass. Director: Zaza Urushadze. Screenplay: Zaza Urushadze. Web site. Trailer.

We all get stuck from time to time. Whether it’s the funk of a rut or something more debilitating, the feelings it engenders are often quite strong. That can be especially true when elements of spite work into the mix, producing emotions that take on a life of their own and often prevent us from seeing our way clear of it. Such is the case in the gripping Estonian wartime drama, “Tangerines” (“Mandariinid”).

Set in 1992 in the Abkhazia region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the film follows a trio of principals caught up in a bitter civil war. Abkhazian separatists, backed by Russians and mercenaries from Chechnya, sought to take control of the area and thwart the efforts of Georgian peace keepers charged with quelling the rebel uprising. Initial skirmishes escalated into full-scale battles, and many were killed. Caught between these warring factions were communities of ethnic Estonians, whose ancestors immigrated to the region nearly a century earlier and lived peaceful lives as farmers for generations. By the time the war began, many had fled to their Baltic homeland, but a few brave souls remained behind, including the pivotal character in this story.

Despite the conflict going on around him, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) strives to continue leading the quiet life he always has. Even though most of the aging farmer’s friends and relatives have fled to the safety of their native Estonia, Ivo has chosen to remain behind for personal reasons. He spends his days tending his land and building wooden shipping crates for his neighbor, Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a tangerine farmer who has opted to tough it out long enough to harvest his crop before retreating to his homeland. But, as much as the two holdouts try to maintain their normal routines, they can’t escape the impact of a war that has now come to their doorstep.

Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an aging Estonian farmer living in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, seeks to maintain a normal life in the face of a growing civil conflict in the Academy Award-nominated drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The relative peace of Ivo’s existence is abruptly shattered when a small but nasty firefight takes place between rebel and Georgian forces at the edge of his property. Most of the combatants from each side are killed, but two of them – one from each faction – somehow manage to survive. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechan mercenary, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian soldier, suffer serious injuries, but care is at hand. With the aid of Juhan (Raivo Trass), the local physician, Ivo takes in the survivors, tending to their wounds and slowly nursing them back to health.

However, despite Ivo’s good intentions, his humanitarian efforts quickly get put to the test. When the survivors learn of each other’s identity, they threaten to kill one another, but Ivo will have none of that; he insists that there be no bloodshed inside his home. Ahmed and Niko begrudgingly agree to their host’s terms, but they vow to make good on their threats once they’ve recovered.

Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze, right), a Chechan mercenary fighting for rebel forces in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, holds highly fixed views of his cause in director Zaza Urushadze’s gripping war drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

In the meantime, the enemies struggle to abide by the uneasy truce Ivo has brokered. Tensions bubble inside the home while growing ever stronger on the outside. But, at the same time, something else unexpected happens: The sworn foes begin to communicate, and they learn they may not be as different from one another as they’ve allowed themselves to believe. Attitudes start to change, especially when perilous circumstances arise that place everyone in the house in jeopardy, regardless of their political or ethnic affiliations. In fact, what begins to emerge has the potential to transform all concerned – provided they manage to survive.

Beliefs are marvelous metaphysical tools, and they can work wonders, as anyone who practices conscious creation – the philosophy that maintains our reality arises from those beliefs, thoughts and intents – can attest. They’re especially useful in an existence like ours, one based on physicality, which requires “substantive” (i.e., strongly held) beliefs to supply the ample “density” needed to materialize a reality that operates according to such ground rules. However, when our beliefs become so entrenched that we lose sight of why we developed them in the first place, they can blind us in our manifestation efforts, turning our thoughts into rigid, inflexible dogma. That can be especially troublesome in connection with beliefs related to conflict.

Some may wonder why anyone would even want to create combativeness, though it can serve a useful purpose for working out certain issues and learning certain life lessons that may not be attainable in other ways. However, the beliefs associated with such manifestations can pose a real danger when we allow them to grow so powerful that we can’t see our way out of them or why we allowed their formation in the first place. We lose sight of the larger context into which they were introduced and see only the highly charged aspects of what they’ve wrought. It’s as if we develop a sort of metaphysical tunnel vision that we can’t look beyond.

Needless to say, such outlooks are incredibly limiting. They prevent us from being able to see options or to comprehend our ability for adopting change. And, when they’re viewed solely in terms of achieving a particular goal, we run the risk of engaging in un-conscious creation, the practice where we pursue specific outcomes at all costs, with no regard for the consequences or our responsibility in the matter.

Margus (Elmo Nüganen, left), an Estonian citrus farmer in the war-torn former Soviet republic of Georgia, aided by his neighbor, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak, right), hopes to tough out his circumstances long enough to harvest his crop before fleeing to his homeland in the Oscar-nominated drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

These kinds of issues litter the metaphysical landscape in “Tangerines.” Ahmed, Niko and their colleagues (all of whom are now deceased, by the way) have allowed themselves to become prisoners of their own beliefs. They’re so invested in personal hatred that they don’t even know why they’re angry at each other. Their constricted viewpoints threaten to suffocate them, and to what end? If they ever hope to get themselves out of these paralyzing circumstances, that’s the question they must begin to ask themselves.

That’s where Ivo’s presence comes into play. By dictating terms that the antagonists will not kill each other while under his roof, he opens up a space for Ahmed and Niko to reconsider their stances. And some part of them must have wanted that to happen, too; otherwise, they would not have drawn Ivo and his conditions into their presence. Their host serves as a de facto mediator in their conflict, forcing them to think about what they’re doing and why, as well as whether they want to carry through on their stated intents.

The experience of the three principals in this story demonstrates that change (and even transformation) are indeed possible – if we allow it. Of course, for this to happen, they must realize that they always have choices available to them (even under circumstances where they believe they don’t) and then be willing to act on them. Whether they (or we) follow through under these conditions depends on their will and desire to make it happen.

A shift in perspective can lead to a shift in beliefs, which, in turn, can lead to a shift in outcomes. There are many instances where this can breathe a breath of fresh air into existences that have grown stale and stagnant. But, in my view, it’s especially crucial for bringing about resolution in matters of warfare, where beliefs can become almost irretrievably fixed, leading to profound and prolonged suffering, simply because we can’t see (or won’t allow ourselves to see) our way out of our circumstances. Yet, if we’re willing to take those tentative but courageous steps toward adopting a wider view, we just may be able to see our way clear, to embrace new beliefs that are more beneficial to both us and those with whom we interact.

One would hope that the end game in all this is a realization that we’re all fundamentally connected, no matter how seemingly separate and distinct we may appear to one another. Such awareness might be exactly what it takes to help us realize that, when we attack one another, we’re essentially attacking some part of ourselves. Why would we want to do that? If we’re unable to come up with a compelling reason for doing so, then maybe we won’t be so quick to do it again (goodness knows we’ve certainly been doing it long enough). This would free up our consciousness to use it for other more interesting, more productive pursuits. Let’s hope we’re able to follow through with that.

The strain of war weighs heavily on Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak, right), a peace-loving Estonian farmer living in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in director Zaza Urushadze’s gripping war drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

“Tangerines” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, a movie that’s taut, suspenseful, absorbing and deeply affecting. Zaza Urushadze’s superbly crafted atmospheric direction effectively creates a tense, claustrophobic edginess, punctuated by a strong underpinning of melancholy that comes with the heartache of war. The picture’s excellent ensemble cast features outstanding performances across the board, especially those of Ulfsak and Nakashidze. These elements, along with the film’s haunting soundtrack, make for a moving cinematic experience that one won’t easily forget. And, for its efforts, the picture deservedly earned Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations for best foreign language film. The picture is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in foreign and independent cinema, and DVD preorders for the film are already being taken by major online retailers.

Seeking resolution to our self-imposed stalemates can be an arduous process, especially if we can’t even identify their existence. But taking a step back to get a bigger picture of things can help us break the logjams and find ways to move forward. And, as “Tangerines” shows, in matters of warfare and conflict, such realizations can’t come soon enough.

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