Friday, October 30, 2015

Wrapping Up the Chicago Film Festival

Once again this year, I had the pleasure of attending the Chicago International Film Festival, which has come a long way in its 51 years. With its more than 125 film offerings, the two-week event has become a premier cinematic celebration for movie lovers in the Windy City and around the world.

Given the Festival’s extensive schedule, it’s truly difficult to decide what to see. Some of its features will go on to general release (such as Todd Haynes’s “Carol” and Michael Moore’s “Where To Invade Next”), so those pictures can always be seen later. But many other films don’t get picked up by distributors and only screen at festivals like this (which means see it here or not at all). This, combined with the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, means that selecting a Festival watch list usually calls for making some rather hard decisions.

For this year’s Festival, I screened 13 titles, many of which were quite good and well worth seeing. What follows is a summary of the pictures I saw, along with my scores using the Festival’s 1-5 audience rating scale:

“The Surprise” (Netherlands). This hilarious dark romantic comedy successfully fuses several seemingly unrelated genres into a unique movie-going experience. When a wealthy aristocrat (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge) disappointed with life stumbles upon a company that will do him in for a fee, he jumps at the chance. He even gets to select the method of his demise, for which he chooses the “surprise” option – one in which he won’t know beforehand how or when it’s going to happen. There’s just one catch: Once he signs a contract, there’s no going back, a condition that becomes complicated when he unexpectedly meets a new romantic interest (Georgina Verbaan), who, ironically enough, has chosen the surprise option for herself. What to do? Their story thus plays out with a series of hilarious, unanticipated developments, twists and turns that keep viewers guessing right up until the end.

Director Mike Van Diem’s highly original, well-written offering takes viewers on a whirlwind journey that, as the title suggests, continually surprises. With its polished production values, a terrific cast, and an overall style resembling the movies of directors like Hal Ashby and Peter Weir, the film thoroughly satisfies from start to finish. Unfortunately, even though this production has garnered wide overseas support and earned rounds of applause from Festival audiences, the picture has yet to find a US distributor; I hope it succeeds at that, as this is a fine, funny picture that discriminating American audiences are sure to enjoy. (In English and Dutch with subtitles) Rating: 5/5.

“Creative Control” (US). This smartly written, beautifully filmed, superbly acted independent comedy-drama about modern technology, what we’re doing with it and what it’s doing to us presents a scathing indictment of modern culture and its questionable effects. When an ad agency is hired to come up with a campaign for computer eyewear with interactive capabilities, the organization puts its best man, David (Benjamin Dickinson), on the account. To learn about the product, David tries it out, but the technology’s capabilities are so compelling that he quickly loses his capacity for distinguishing what’s “real” and what he’s created using the product. This creates big issues in his relationships with his girlfriend (Nora Zehetner) and a co-worker (Alexia Rasmussen) with whom he’s become obsessed.

The film’s wry but relevant metaphysical underpinnings give us pause to think about what we’re creating and what we’re becoming as a result of it. Actor/writer/director Benjamin Dickinson, a bona fide rising star, offers up an insightful picture whose thoughtful messages are delivered with incisive humor in a gorgeous, ironic package that definitely deserves wide exposure. (In English) Rating: 5/5.

“The Homecoming” (Iceland). This charming, crowd-pleasing comedy-drama entertains with wit, understatement and raucous surprise from start to finish. When an author of self-help books (Hilmir Jensson) becomes bored with writing the same trite titles over and over again and a marriage to a wife he barely knows (Harpa Arnardóttir), he desperately looks for a way to reinvent himself. He gets that opportunity when his son (Hilmir Jensson) comes home with his new fiancée (Þórunn Arna Kristjánsdóttir), a development that shakes up everything about his life – and in more ways than he bargains for.

Director Björn Hlynur Haraldsson’s feature film debut knocks it out of the park through its ironic humor, heartfelt emotion and stellar writing. The superb ensemble cast delivers at every turn, with the performers getting ample mileage out of gestures as modest as simple facial expressions. This film made its US premiere at the Festival, and it truly deserves a US distributor (I sincerely hope it gets one). (In Icelandic with subtitles) Rating: 5/5.

“Umrika” (India). This touching, funny, slice-of-life feature follows the lives of two brothers (Suraj Sharma, Prateik Babbar) from a small, rural Indian village who are obsessed with making something of themselves in “Umrika” (America). But getting there may not be as easy as they think, especially when clues emerge suggesting that everything is not what it seems. The quest for the truth thus sets one brother and his best friend (Tony Revolori) on a journey full of twists, turns and surprises.

Director Prashant Nair’s cross-cultural comedy-drama presents an intriguing look at two worlds, offering viewers insights into them without spoon-feeding the material to audiences. A thoroughly enjoyable, heartwarming offering well worth seeing. (In Hindi with subtitles) Rating: 4/5.

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” (US). Seventeen-year-old Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is celebrating his birthday with a pool party for friends and family. But the festivities feature more than just cake and presents; the celebration also nudges a number of secrets out into the open, such as Henry’s growing awareness of the need to acknowledge himself as gay, a rather daunting challenge in a household headed by a dad (Pat Healy) who just happens to be an evangelical preacher.

Director Stephen Cone’s insightful coming of age comedy-drama entertains with subtle wit, a degree of suspense and fine performances by an excellent ensemble cast. Despite a slight tendency toward monodimensional character development, the film follows through on its objective nicely. A well-received, award-winning offering at this year’s Festival. (In English) Rating: 4/5.

“Embers” (US). This haunting meditation on memory and the different ways we relate to it follows the experiences of a group of characters afflicted with amnesia in a post-apocalyptic world. In doing so, the film offers a variety of views on this subject in a diverse array of settings and locales. Director Claire Carré’s debut feature makes use of incisive writing and editing, coupled with a number of fine minimalist performances, excellent cinematography and a captivating score. A great choice for thoughtful viewing. (In English) Rating: 4/5.

“Carmin Tropical (Mexico). When Mabel, a Mexican muxe cabaret singer (José Pecina), learns of the murder of one of her longtime friends, she returns to the small resort town where she grew up to investigate. While there, Mabel engages in a profound examination of her own life and considers her options for the future, some of which surprise her – and the audience.

Director Rigoberto Pérezcano’s unconventional murder mystery effectively captures a variety of moods from that of an atmospheric noir-esque tale to a kitschy gay comedy to an offbeat, unlikely romance, all rolled into one. Despite a slight tendency to drag (no pun intended) in the last half hour, this multifaceted movie is like curling up with a good book, one that features one of the most effective closing sequences I’ve ever seen in a film. A delightful, emotive surprise. (In Spanish with subtitles) Rating: 3/5.

“A Perfect Day” (Spain). Director Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest offering presents an uneven but mildly comic look at the seat-of-the-pants misadventures of a group of ragtag aid workers (led by Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro) serving in the waning days of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The story is somewhat episodic, with some sequences that pop, some that try too hard and others that crawl at a snail’s pace.

The film, reminiscent of “M.A.S.H.” but with an Eastern European accent, gets better as it goes along, making up for a somewhat slow-paced and often-forced opening 40 minutes. The chemistry of the ensemble cast and the solid performances of the leads do a lot to help shore up the material, which could have used some judicious pruning and snappier dialogue. Overall, not bad, but, if you have better viewing options, take those instead. (In English, Serbian and Spanish with subtitles) Rating: 3/5.

“Tag” (Japan). This campy, Tarentino-esque, Japanese horror film about the surreal adventures of a schoolgirl (Reina Triendl) is easily one of the strangest, most whacked-out releases to come along in years. Director Shion Sono’s latest features a narrative that’s part metaphysical meditation, part over-the-top shock value thriller, part outlandish comedy, part feminist manifesto and part Ninja adventure.

This quirky tale takes viewers on quite a rollercoaster ride, with ample exaggerated laughs along the way. Pacing and editing issues, unfortunately, cause the picture to drag somewhat between action sequences, but, when the film works, it’s utterly hilarious (though definitely not for the squeamish). (In Japanese with subtitles) Rating: 3/5.

“Rams” (Iceland). Two sheep herding brothers (Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson) live next to each other on neighboring farms but, because of a long-standing feud, haven’t spoken in years. That animosity grows even worse when accusations arise that one brother’s flock may be harboring an incurable disease that threatens their livelihoods and those of their neighbors throughout the surrounding valley. Tensions mount as the brothers wrestle with the authorities – and each other.

Regrettably, director Grímur Hákonarson’s latest offering can never quite make up its mind what it wants to be. What had the makings of being a hilarious absurdist comedy never quite lives up to its potential, with its comic turns spaced too far apart (and generally coming off as a little too incongruently dark when they do so). In turn, its dramatic elements aren’t especially compelling enough to keep viewers riveted at their unfolding. Despite some gorgeous cinematography and an engaging soundtrack, the picture largely misfires in all the areas where it really counts. (In Icelandic with subtitles) Rating: 2/5.

“Full Contact” (Netherlands). What starts as a promising, thought-provoking drama about the moral conflicts of a military drone operator (Grégoire Colin) unfortunately goes off the rails about 30 minutes into the film, never quite recovering. Regrettably, a picture that could have addressed some significant moral, social and personal issues degenerates into a somewhat-overlong exercise in excess and self-indulgence. Director David Verbeek’s effort represents a real missed opportunity, despite the picture’s receipt of the Festival’s Silver Hugo Award for best actress Lizzie Brochere. (In English and French with subtitles) Rating: 2/5.

“Neon Bull” (Brazil/Uruguay). Ironically, director Gabriel Mascaro’s would-be character study fails miserably mainly because of a lack of effective character development. The film’s episodic story line follows the unusual life of Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a rodeo hand who longs to be a fashion designer. Unfortunately, the picture never gets inside the protagonist’s head and spends considerable time irrelevantly focusing on the lives of others.

The inclusion of gratuitous, irrelevant and unnecessary imagery (especially of a graphic sexual nature) and bizarre, surrealistic cinematography intrude on what appears to be the intended narrative, quickly eroding whatever interest one might have in the film. Save your time and money on this epic failure. (In Portuguese with subtitles) Rating: 1/5.

“The Abandoned” (US). A dull, obvious horror film with virtually nothing scary about it. Despite some beautiful location shots and a decent original score, this weak offering follows the classic formula of characters making unbelievably bad decisions and winds up with an allegedly startlingly twist, all of which is handled badly and easy to predict long before events unfold. And, if all that weren’t bad enough, it’s topped off with laughable acting and lame inside jokes. Skip this one for sure. (In English) Rating: 1/5.

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

‘The Walk’ tests the limits of personal resolve

“The Walk” (2015). Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Steve Valentine, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Soleyman Pierini, Yanik Ethier. Director: Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne. Book: Philippe Petit, To Reach the Clouds. Web site. Trailer.

When we set our minds to accomplishing something, there’s usually nothing to stop us except for the roadblocks we place in our own way. But, in the absence of such hindrances, we’re generally free and clear to proceed with fulfilling our objectives, no matter how unlikely they may seem to others. That point is driven home with dramatic flair and heart-pounding thrills in director Robert Zemeckis’s exhilarating new historical drama, “The Walk.”

In August 1974, crowds of open-mouthed New Yorkers were captivated when a little-known French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) undertook and achieved the unthinkable – stringing a cable and successfully traversing the space between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, 110 stories (1,350 feet) above the ground. The illegal, unauthorized feat (which Petit called “le coup”) became an immediate sensation, catapulting the daredevil to worldwide fame and inspiring an Academy Award-winning documentary, “Man on Wire” (2008), that chronicled the event. It’s that saga and the back story behind it that inspired this dramatic re-creation.

The story, narrated by the protagonist, opens in Petit’s childhood in rural France, when a young Philippe (Soleyman Pierini) is mesmerized by the high-wire feats of a touring circus company. He soon begins emulating his heroes and subsequently befriends the troupe’s curmudgeonly leader, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), to learn the tricks of his craft. Later, as a Paris street performer, Philippe stages impromptu demonstrations of his abilities (all the while trying to outrun the local gendarmes seeking to collar him for his unlawful shenanigans). However, despite the fun of these mischievous little stunts, Philippe craves greater attention and longs to pull off bigger exploits. And then, while sitting in a dentist’s office waiting room one day, he gets the inspiration he’s been looking for.

While leafing through a magazine, Philippe sees an article about the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, which are still under construction at the time. He immediately becomes infatuated with the gleaming structures, imagining a high wire strung between them – and envisioning himself perched atop it. He thus vows to make it happen.

Shortly thereafter, Philippe begins seeking accomplices to assist him with his undertaking. In addition to Papa Rudy, Philippe recruits Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), an art student, fellow street performer and prospective romantic interest, and Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), an aspiring photographer eager to document his accomplishments. Jean-Louis, in turn, enlists the support of his friend Jean-François (a.k.a. “Jeff”) (César Domboy), a willing collaborator anxious to join the team despite his fear of heights.

Philippe also prepares for his high-wire feat by conducting dry runs in other locations. Even though these venues are no match for the World Trade Center, they provide good opportunities for practice – and for attracting spectators. The most notable of these locales is Notre-Dame de Paris, where Philippe draws a small but enthusiastic crowd to watch him walk a wire between the Gothic cathedral’s two bell towers.

With the initial planning complete, Philippe and Annie cross the Atlantic to New York, where they get their first in-person glimpse of the nearly finished towers. Philippe is utterly awestruck, and suddenly he seems unsure about being able to pull off his stunt. However, despite this initial trepidation, doors open (quite literally) for Philippe, so he decides to push ahead with his plan. He’s soon joined by Jean-Louis and Jeff and then proceeds to look for additional local accomplices. Through a pair of unexpected but fortuitous synchronicities, two new recruits join Philippe’s team: Jean-Pierre (a.k.a. “J.P.”) (James Badge Dale), a French transplant turned Gothamite, and Barry (Steve Valentine), a rascally New Yorker who witnessed Philippe’s Notre-Dame performance and is anxious to see him do for the Big Apple’s skyline what he did for that of the City of Lights. Barry also just happens to work on one of the WTC’s upper floors, enabling easy access to the rooftop, a huge logistical break for planning his high-wire caper.

As the date for the walk draws near, Philippe and his collaborators work on ironing out the last-remaining details. But are all the contingencies sufficiently accounted for? What if unexpected complications arise? What’s more, Philippe has serious reservations about the commitment and competency of two additional last-minute colleagues recruited by J.P. (Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel), one of whom endlessly worries about the legality of the plan while the other is perpetually stoned. If there’s any benefit in all these complications, though, it’s that it leaves little time for Philippe to worry about the stunt itself.

When the day of the event arrives, Philippe and his accomplices set about their respective tasks. But, even with all the team’s planning, things don’t go entirely as expected, in some ways for the better, in some ways not. The hours before the walk are full of surprises, some amusing, some scary and some necessitating eleventh-hour adjustments. And, once it’s time for the performance, the real magic begins. What was initially envisioned turns out to be even more spectacular than what anyone might have imagined – including Philippe himself.

When mountaineer George Mallory was asked about why he was attempting to climb that imposing rock known as Mt. Everest, he replied with his infamously pithy response, “Because it’s there,” an expression that has since come to justify attempts at taking on the unimaginable. Some might see such a comeback as the height of arrogance, a conclusion some would say was predictably borne out by the outcome of Mallory’s third (and fatal) assault of the mountain. Yet, were it not for such a fearless, unflappable attitude, many of mankind’s most daring achievements, such as visiting the Earth’s Poles, going to the moon and even subsequent successful climbs to the top of Everest, may well have gone unattempted, let alone attained. So it was also with Petit’s stroll through the clouds.

That adventurous spirit of trying the untried is a hallmark of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest our reality through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. By pushing the limits of our imagination, we’re able to accomplish the truly remarkable. This applies not only to engaging in daredevil stunts, but also to successfully realizing anything thought to be out of reach, like landing a plum job, writing a book or finding the love of one’s life. The example set by Petit thus provides us with a potent jolt of inspiration, one that we can draw from in overcoming our fears and doubts and in galvanizing our belief in ourselves.

Taking on audacious feats, no matter what they may entail, presents us with a prime opportunity to test our degree of faith in our beliefs. This is crucial, because the level of resolve we place in our intentions plays a significant role in our likelihood of success. The more certain we are about what we can accomplish, the more we can clearly envision succeeding at our personal triumphs, the greater our faith in being able to rise to such occasions. Philippe’s experience illustrates this with extraordinary clarity.

When we have such supreme confidence in our vision and capabilities, the pieces of the manifestation puzzle begin to fall into place. This is where synchronicities enter the picture. These helpful, meaningful “coincidences” are signs from our divine collaborator that we’re on the right track, that our beliefs are on their way to becoming realized. They show that we’re successfully using our power of attraction to draw into our lives exactly what we need to reach our goals, to bring the intangible out of the world of potential and into the realm of the tangible. Again, Philippe’s experience exemplifies this phenomenon remarkably, proving to himself – and us – that he’s mastered this aspect of the conscious creation process, making it possible to draw him ever closer to the achievement of his objective.

Of course, none of the foregoing would happen were it not for our ability to envision desired outcomes. This is made possible in large part by tapping into altered states of consciousness – some might even say different dimensions – that enable us to see and feel what we’re striving for. The more adept we are at being able to imagine such probabilities, the more likely we’ll bring them into being. Philippe makes use of this ability routinely, both in his planning and during the execution of his performance. This ability, when applied skillfully and inventively, allows us to realize results that amaze others – and sometimes even us – as the wire walker proves time and time again.

“The Walk” is an entertaining re-creation of a remarkable, envelope-pushing event with fine special effects and a solid lead performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film is admittedly a little thin on character development (especially among the supporting players), and some of the setup to the main event seems padded to fill out the runtime. But, those drawbacks aside, the picture is a genuine crowd pleaser, especially in its gripping, breathtaking climax.

The film is also a loving tribute to the buildings that Petit helped make famous. The Towers are re-created in all their glory, coming to life almost as much as their counterpart human characters. As they’re portrayed here, they have a soul of their own, one that Petit is said to have helped give them. His high-wire feat helped to humanize a pair of structures that many New Yorkers initially found cold, ugly and impersonal, buildings that were initially perceived as looking like “two enormous filing cabinets,” as one character dismissively observes before Philippe’s walk. But, through this story, viewers see how the Towers are given life, both at the time of their inception and again in this cinematic rebirth.

Would-be viewers should heed a word of caution, however: Those who have a fear of heights may want to carefully weigh their decision to screen this film. The picture’s concluding sequence is so convincing that you feel like you’re on the wire with the protagonist, an impact heightened by the film’s stunning 3D visuals. Director Robert Zemeckis serves up a truly visceral experience, but it’s one that could make the faint of heart a little queasy (which might account in part for the film’s underwhelming box office performance thus far, despite its widespread critical acclaim).

All too often, we unfortunately allow excuses to interfere with the pursuit of our most cherished desires. Fears, doubts and undue worries about perceptions, logistics or other considerations frequently intrude upon our dreams, keeping us stuck on the launching pad and never getting off the ground. That need not be the case, however, if we trust in ourselves, our resolve and the personal beliefs that underlie them. With unswerving faith and a clear vision, there’s no telling what we can achieve. Like Philippe, we, too, may find ourselves with our heads in the clouds.

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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

See Me at the CIFF!

Attending the 51st Chicago International Film Festival? Then be sure to look for me! I'll be attending 13 screenings over the next two weeks, and you might even spot me on the red carpet!

Photos by Trevor Laster

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

‘The Martian’ pushes the boundaries of creation

“The Martian” (2015). Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko. Director: Ridley Scott. Screenplay: Drew Goddard. Book, Andy Weir, The Martian. Web site. Trailer.

When circumstances arise where we find our backs up against the wall, it’s time to take action. But what action? What if the conditions appear insurmountable? It’s at times like that when brains (or imagination) are just as important as brawn. Learning how to push the boundaries of our creative capabilities is essential in such scenarios, a prospect explored in detail in director Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi adventure, “The Martian.”

The tightly knit crew of the Ares III mission to Mars truly seems to be enjoying its adventure. Their good-natured approach to life and work on the Red Planet makes their task look like fun, despite the inherent risks involved with being in a hostile, unfamiliar environment roughly 50 million miles from home. But that joviality quickly evaporates when a severe windstorm approaches, threatening the crew’s habitat – not to mention the viability of the mission itself. Before long, howling winds and thick dust clouds inundate their settlement, and the crew is suddenly faced with having to abort their mission.

However, as the astronauts hastily prepare to make their escape, tragedy strikes when a large piece of flying debris strikes crewman Mark Watney (Matt Damon). In an instant Watney is swept away, out of sight. With his stunned colleagues looking on in horror, the crew frantically scrambles to find him. But, with their visibility totally obscured and the emergency launch window rapidly closing, mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced into a difficult decision: Presuming that there’s no way Watney could have survived the accident, and with no time to mount a concerted search effort under the prevailing conditions, Lewis issues the evacuation order.

The surviving members of the Ares crew (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) thus blast off and head for home, profoundly sad over having to leave their fallen colleague behind. But, as that tragic realization sets in, an even greater one is about to surface: The friend they left for dead – though injured – somehow managed to survive.

Watney is now alone to fend for himself. True, he has some supplies to get by, but they’ll only last a matter of months, far short of the four years it will take to organize and implement a rescue mission (an undertaking that may not even happen since everyone believes him to be dead). What is he to do?

Watney’s first priority is to tend to his injuries. Then he must address such crucial survival issues as how to generate enough breathable air, how to recycle and condense sufficient water, and how to raise crops on a planet where nothing grows. Thanks to his wealth of scientific knowledge and a dash of ingenuity, he manages to successfully tackle these issues to keep him going long enough to confront an even bigger challenge – figuring out a way to contact Earth to let his peers know that he’s still alive.

With the aid of some old school technology and some clever communications techniques, Watney is able to inform his terrestrial colleagues about his fate, who are, needless to say, stunned. But, while they’re happy Mark is alive, they’re also unsure how to proceed. Those questions are left to NASA Administrator Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars Mission Director Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and a team of specialists at Mission Control and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis). And then there’s the public’s perception to be managed, a task left to NASA media coordinator Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig).

The bottom line in all this is, can Mark Watney be saved? Can a rescue mission be mounted in time (or at all)? And what happens if (or when) unexpected challenges arise? In the end, will the stranded explorer be able to make it home, or will he be left to live out his days on Mars? All of those questions hang in the balance as this odyssey plays out on two worlds and the space in between.

The story in this film presents a textbook scenario for experimentation of all kinds. Superficially speaking, it’s ideal for trying out various solutions to tangible challenges. But, on a deeper, metaphysical level, it also affords an unparalleled opportunity to test the principles of conscious creation, the means by which we create our reality through our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

In particular, the complex, multifaceted challenges Watney and his earthbound colleagues must address present all concerned with a model exercise in learning how to overcome limitations. Solving the issues at hand unquestionably requires pushing boundaries and trying the untried. One might even look upon this as a program of metaphysical calisthenics, one that calls upon Watney and company to flex the strength and stamina of their personal manifestation muscles.

One way to accomplish this is to employ all the skills in one’s conscious creation toolbox. Specifically, this means formulating beliefs that make the impossible possible, no matter how seemingly unlikely. Accomplishing this requires drawing upon – as fully as possible – the elements that shape our beliefs, namely, our intellect and intuition. And, as becomes apparent in the film, Watney and his colleagues do just that when they tap their scientific knowledge and ingenuity, components of the materialization process that symbolically represent their respective underlying intellectual and intuitive counterparts.

Another key consideration that Watney draws upon in his conscious creation efforts is the faith he places in his beliefs, particularly those related to his survivability. His confidence and self-assurance are so strong that virtually every task he undertakes succeeds. He even keeps a video diary of his experience, convinced that it’s information that will be shared one day (and that may be helpful to others who find themselves in comparable circumstances in the future). That steadfast commitment to those beliefs comes through loud and clear in Mark’s video log entries, where he routinely – and boldly – asserts that he won’t die on Mars, that he will, in fact, survive.

Of course, none of this would be possible were it not for the power of co-creation, the practice of working together for successful resolution. As the story unfolds, the efforts of both Watney and his NASA peers (like “orbital dynamicist” Rich Purnell (Donald Glover)) take on added importance. In fact, as events play out, even more collaborators become involved in the process, including some unexpectedly helpful Chinese peers (Chen Shu, Eddy Ko). This joint effort thus takes on broader ramifications than simply bringing home a stranded American.

When all of these conscious creation tactics are considered collectively, it’s easy to see the many elements that go into making this practice work and the countless ways it can be put to use. The film shows us the myriad possibilities open to us for addressing our problems, that solutions to even seemingly unsolvable issues are accessible if we put our minds (and hearts) to the process. This is the sort of “can-do” attitude that typified NASA in its glory days of the Moon Race, an outlook that set a shining example and captivated the imagination of an impressionable, wide-eyed generation. But such a viewpoint is applicable to more than the exploration of space; it’s also just as pertinent to investigating the avenues of existence.

“The Martian” is easily one of director Ridley Scott’s best cinematic efforts. It offers viewers a highly entertaining story with impressive special effects and a surprising amount of humor. Admittedly, the film is slightly overlong and somewhat predictable, and nitpickers could probably point to a few plot devices, scientific elements and 3D effects that don’t work quite as well as they should. But these drawbacks are compensated for by the picture’s strengths, as well as a solid performance by Matt Damon. Despite its minor faults, the film is definitely a cut above many of 2015’s other sci-fi releases and most of the high-profile (and highly overrated) space adventures of recent years (such as “Prometheus” (2012), “Gravity” (2013) and “Interstellar” (2014)). The picture is already garnering a fair amount of awards buzz, especially in the technical categories, as well as for Damon’s lead performance.

It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and Mark Watney can certainly attest to that. But even the most difficult challenges we face can be addressed successfully with the right outlook and approach. That’s where our understanding of, and faith in, the conscious creation process can pay off tremendously. And, by drawing upon the example set in “The Martian,” there’s no telling what we might be able to overcome.

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

Thursday, October 8, 2015

‘Coming Home’ examines the lengths we’ll go to for love

“Coming Home” (“Gui lai”) (2014 production, 2015 release). Cast: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen, Guo Tao, Yan Ni, Zhang Jiayi, Ding Jiali, Chen Xiaoyi, Liu Peiqi, Zu Deng, Xin Baiqing. Director: Zhang Yimou. Screenplay: Zou Jingzhi. Book: Yan Geling, The Criminal Lu Yanshi. Web site. Trailer.

How far will you go for the one you love? How deep do your feelings run? Are you prepared to go to the wall for your beloved? And do you have what it takes to make it happen? Those are among the questions raised in the affecting new love story from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, “Coming Home” (“Gui lai”).

Life during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) inflicted many hardships on the country’s population. As an attempt by Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) to purge the nation of any remnants of capitalism and traditional culture, this oppressive sociopolitical movement sought to impose the Party’s ideology on virtually all public and private aspects of Chinese society. To ensure citizen compliance with these objectives, the Party placed operatives and informants seemingly everywhere to quietly but affirmatively ensure conformity. Those who served the fulfillment of official goals were richly rewarded, but those who ran afoul of the Party line were subjected to stringent enforcement measures. Citizens accused of “dissident” behavior were often sent to remote prison camps for re-education, a practice that resulted in great personal anguish and the fragmentation of many families.

The agony of one such family provides the central narrative of “Coming Home.” In the early days of the Revolution, Lu Yanshi (Lu) (Chen Daoming), a professor accused of being a radical, is sent to a prison camp, leaving behind his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu) (Gong Li), to raise their young daughter, DanDan (Zhang Huiwen). As a single mother who works as a teacher, Yu manages to get by and, over time, she watches DanDan grow into a talented, aspiring ballerina. However, the stigma of Lu’s internment hangs heavily over them, placing mother and daughter under routine surveillance – and even harsher scrutiny when Lu escapes.

When interrogated by authorities, Yu claims no knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts. DanDan, now a teenager, concurs, adding that she wouldn’t even be able to recognize her father, because he was taken away when she was a mere child. But, despite her official plea of ignorance, Yu is well aware of Lu’s tenacious character, knowing that, if he has been fortunate enough to successfully escape, he will make an attempt to contact her, a prospect she views with a volatile mix of rapturous anticipation and all-consuming fear.

Not long thereafter, Lu manages to slip a message to Yu, instructing her to meet him the following day at a nearby train station. However, in doing so, he encounters DanDan, who, in fear of her own safety, clandestinely informs officials of her father’s return. And so, when Yu and Lu attempt to meet the next day, the authorities are waiting for them. As the long-separated lovers desperately run toward one another, Lu is captured, and Yu is forcefully restrained. Lu is taken away while Yu looks on in panic, emotionally distraught as she struggles to break free. In fact, Yu’s protest becomes so vehement that authorities wrestle her to the ground, the impact causing a serious head injury.

Three years later, with the Cultural Revolution now over and conditions in China beginning to change, Lu is released from detention. He anxiously awaits a reunion with his beloved. But, when he arrives home, he receives quite a shock: Even though Yu was informed of Lu’s impending release, she doesn’t recognize him when she sees him, believing him to be someone else. Lu is understandably confused – and then devastated – but he’s determined to find a way to connect with her.

After consulting Yu’s doctor (Zhang Jiayi), Lu learns that his wife is suffering from a severe case of amnesia. Unfortunately, no medications, treatments or procedures are available to address Yu’s condition, so, if Lu hopes to reach her, he will have to look for other ways to do so. With the aid of DanDan, with whom he has now reconciled, and others (like longtime friend Gong Suzhen (Chen Xiaoyi)), Lu begins employing a variety of innovative measures to try and jog Yu’s memory.

Will Lu succeed? Only time – and the power of belief – will tell.

If Yu and Lu are so devoted to one another, one can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t recognize him upon his return. Why, for example, does she believe him to be someone else? Indeed, isn’t it a stretch to think that she would utterly fail to recognize someone whom she supposedly loves? And how did her amnesia arise? As a result of the head injury she sustained during her failed reunion three years earlier? Or was something else at fault?

The key word in the foregoing paragraph is “believe.” What Yu believes is what matters, for it dictates what she experiences, shaping the nature of her reality through the conscious creation process. But, if that’s true, why, then, has Yu created circumstances where she doesn’t recognize her husband, especially if she is so committed to him?

As becomes apparent, Yu endured a number of hardships during the many years of Lu’s absence. First there’s the pervasive loneliness of her daily existence. How she was able to bear such sadness is truly hard to fathom.

Then there’s the difficulty of raising a child on her own. Even though Yu did a commendable job with her daughter’s upbringing, DanDan willingly bought into many of the Cultural Revolution’s teachings, a necessity for aspiring talents to get ahead in a repressive society. What’s more, in light of Lu’s absence (and the official reasons given for it), DanDan developed quite a resentment for her missing father. These developments quietly trouble Yu; as someone who grew into adulthood before the Revolution, her outlook is somewhat more open-minded than that of her daughter. She’s also heartbroken that DanDan has come to despise the father she barely knows, a man whom Yu knows to be very different from the way others have portrayed him.

On top of all this there’s the ever-present threat of state scrutiny. Whenever questions arise about Lu – be it his whereabouts, his political views or other considerations – Yu and DanDan are subjected to intrusive, intimidating interrogation by Party officials. What’s worse, however, authorities may have coerced Yu into acts even more shocking, humiliating and degrading in an attempt to get the answers being sought.

Most everyone would probably agree that bearing up under such conditions would be difficult, if not impossible. In fact, what if they truly were more than what one could successfully withstand? How would one cope?

One solution would be to escape. But, if that weren’t physically possible, then one might attempt to do so psychologically to get away from the pain. By creating circumstances that enable such a state of mind, one could block out the agony and dodge its effects. And, as in manifesting any type of creation, the key lies in one’s beliefs.

If Yu were to believe that her pain was more than she could bear, then perhaps she chose to embrace beliefs that allowed her to block out the anguish, an act of self-protection (even if not consciously acknowledged as such). This is not to suggest she no longer loves Lu; quite the contrary, as evidenced by the anticipation she exhibits when she receives official word of his return. However, if the act of loving her husband has caused her so much despair for so many years, then perhaps she may have decided that she could bear no more, even after his return, possibly out of fear that her sorrow would continue, despite his presence and the emergence of changing social conditions. Hence her failure to recognize Lu when he returns home.

Some would argue that Yu’s amnesia resulted from the head injury she suffered, and that might be true to an extent, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. In my view, the injury could have been the trigger for the amnesia, but that wouldn’t have occurred if Yu hadn’t already embraced beliefs that drew those circumstances to her in the first place. By employing intents that bring about the conditions that make the sought-after outcome possible, Yu thus manifests physically what she needs to realize the intended results.

Some might also argue that this would seem to be a rather extreme solution. But, then, weren’t Yu’s prevailing circumstances rather extreme as well? Maybe it takes a lot to get a lot, and that’s quite possibly what Yu did.

Of course, Yu isn’t the only one employing extreme measures in this scenario; Lu does, too. In an attempt to get his wife back, Lu realizes he must resort to some drastic – and innovative – measures. Since he’s dealing with an amnesiac, the key is to try things that might jog Yu’s memories. By engaging in acts that he believes will reach Yu, Lu seeks to prompt the re-emergence of the woman he once knew. Of course, since this is a co-creation between two partners, both must agree to its manifestation if it’s ever to be realized.

For Lu, this is an exercise in pushing the limits of his beliefs to seek the outcome he desires. This involves formulating ideas and intents that require thinking unconventionally and trying the untried. It also includes making use of resources not previously considered. For instance, Lu understands he has a better chance of succeeding if he recruits DanDan’s assistance in the process. Given their long-standing estrangement, that prospect may not seem likely at first. But, thanks to the successful reconciliation Lu brokers with his daughter, he’s able to win over a valuable ally, providing himself access to a source of support he might have once thought impossible to draw upon.

Under conditions as difficult as these, however, it would be wise to prepare for contingencies. This is yet another instance in which beliefs play a crucial role. Changes in circumstances frequently necessitate altered courses of action (and the beliefs that underlie them). As Yu, Lu and DanDan maneuver through their collective odyssey, they should consider the possibilities open to them to come up with solutions amenable to all concerned. What they end up choosing to do may well come as a surprise to viewers and characters alike. In the end, though, it all comes down to the beliefs they hold, particularly those associated with matters of the heart.

“Coming Home” is a profoundly moving romance set against a backdrop of difficult conditions, with superb performances by Gong Li and Chen Daoming as the perpetually thwarted lovers. The film’s sets, costumes and art direction – all dark and virtually devoid of color – reflect the despairing mood of the narrative, but these bleak elements are effectively offset by the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists, as well as a beautiful soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography. Somewhat surprisingly, the picture presents a remarkably candid portrayal of the impersonal callousness of the Cultural Revolution, a truly astonishing feat for a Chinese production.

The power of love frequently drives us to great lengths. Given the potency of the beliefs that underlie it, we feel compelled to follow through on those intents to see our heart’s desires fully realized. And that’s a good thing, for few endeavors are more deserving of our efforts and attention. But then that’s because few ventures offer us rewards nearly as gratifying.

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