Monday, December 19, 2016

‘Collateral Beauty’ explores the wonder of existence

“Collateral Beauty” (2106). Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Jacob Lattimore, Ann Dowd, Kylie Rogers, Mary Beth Peil, Alyssa Cheatham. Director: David Frankel. Screenplay: Allen Loeb. Web site. Trailer.

Reality can be a funny thing. We can be going along just fine when something suddenly comes out of left field to totally disrupt everything. What’s that all about? And how are we supposed to cope? Much depends on how we view the fundamental functioning of existence – and the role we play in it. Those are the issues that play out in the wondrous new holiday offering, “Collateral Beauty.”

When successful New York ad agency owner Howard Inlet (Will Smith) loses his child (Alyssa Cheatham) to a rare illness, his life falls apart. He becomes withdrawn, abandoning virtually all of his personal and professional relationships and disposing of most of his material possessions. He rarely eats, sleeps or speaks, and he spends most of his office time pointlessly setting up elaborate domino arrangements that he takes little joy in when he finally activates them. In fact, about the only contact he has with outsiders is occasional attendance at the meetings of a support group for parents who’ve lost children, sessions moderated by a sensitive facilitator named Madeleine (Naomie Harris).

Needless to say, Howard’s business begins to suffer seriously, largely because he’s no longer putting any time or attention into the company’s most lucrative accounts, many of which are based on the personal relationships he’s cultivated with client contacts over the years. This worries three of his partners, Whit Yardsham (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Peña), who are helplessly watching the agency racing toward financial ruin. Thankfully, there’s a possible solution to their fiscal woes – a potential buyout. However, for the deal to go through, Whit, Claire and Simon need Howard to vote his majority shares in favor of the deal, and, given his state of mind, it’s unclear he’s even competent enough to grasp the nature of the transaction, let alone see through his part of the plan.

In assessing the situation, Whit, Claire and Simon conclude that their only hope is to somehow get Howard declared mentally unfit to participate in the share vote. They dislike the idea, but they also believe they don’t have any other option. So, to build a case against him, they reluctantly hire private detective Sally Price (Ann Dowd) to follow him in hopes of gathering evidence indicative of his state of mind.

After skulking about behind Howard’s back, Sally collects some intriguing information about her subject. Howard, it seems, is writing letters to vent his feelings, though he’s not penning them to anyone in particular. Rather, he composes (and even mails) missives to abstract concepts – love, time and death. His pointedly critical screeds venomously attack these notions, which is ironic, given that he once credited the impact of these principles with the growth and development of his business.

But are these letters enough to demonstrate the instability of Howard’s mental state? As Claire observes, such writings could be construed as a form of therapy. If she and her collaborators hope to make a case, they need something more substantive, something that can be documented to prove their partner’s allegedly delusional behavior.

Nothing immediately comes to mind, but, one night, while Whit is at home caring for his aging mother (Mary Beth Peil), a stroke survivor, he gets an idea that he shares with Claire and Simon. In the time he has been looking after his mother, Whit has come to realize that her mental state sometimes becomes a bit wonky. He initially tried communicating with her based on his perceptions of reality, but that often became frustrating for both of them, mainly because she couldn’t understand where he was coming from. So, eventually, rather than trying to force her to relate to him on his terms, he began trying to relate to her on her terms, a decision that seemed to solve most of the communications and interpersonal relationship issues.

In light of that, then, Whit proposes that they employ a comparable approach in handling their investigation into Howard’s behavior. After a chance encounter with a trio of talented stage actors, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Lattimore), Whit suggests hiring them to portray the concepts to whom Howard writes his letters. By talking to Howard on his level, the actors can engage in esoteric exchanges with him, conversations not unlike those that Whit has with his mother. To turn such dialogues into “proof” of Howard’s delusional state, Whit proposes that they be held in very visible, highly public places, with Sally surreptitiously recording the “evidence” in the background. And, to further bolster the strength of their case, Whit recommends making the recordings appear one-sided – by deleting all visual and audio references of the actors. It’s a tactic that no one is especially comfortable with, but, again, Whit, Claire and Simon believe they have no choice if they’re to make their case stick.

Not long thereafter, Brigitte (portraying death), Amy (depicting love) and Raffi (playing time) begin meeting with Howard, carrying out the partners’ plan as envisioned. Interestingly, these dialogues begin drawing Howard out of his self-imposed shell, getting him to address the issues that helped cocoon him in the first place. But what’s even more intriguing is that Whit, Claire and Simon unexpectedly find that they each benefit from their interactions with the actors, too. All of which raises the question, who are these people anyway? Convincing thespians? Benevolent spirits in human guise? Something in between? Or something even more cryptic than that? Such is the mystery that plays out as the story moves toward its conclusion, taking viewers on a journey full of feeling, inspiration and wonder.

“Collateral Beauty” is a profoundly engaging – and largely misunderstood – film, one that explores life’s big issues and how we relate to them. In plumbing the depths of those subjects, the picture makes it quite apparent that how we view such concepts as love, death and time depends greatly on our beliefs about them. That’s a crucial point, too, for our beliefs play a pivotal role in the manifestation of the reality we experience. This is the cornerstone concept underlying the functioning of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize the existence around us through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, in many ways, this picture offers audiences a primer on this philosophy as seen through the experiences of characters in need of grasping these principles to create more fulfilling lives for themselves.

What matters most here is how we react to what we’ve manifested. In particular, do we see our circumstances from the perspective of a half-full or half-empty glass? Are we focused on the collateral damage of our existence? Or do we see the collateral beauty that comes out of it, even from circumstances that otherwise appear devastating? It all depends on the beliefs we employ as the lenses through which we perceive our reality. We can view our losses with utter devastation, as Howard does. Or we can look at everything that comes out of such situations, an analysis that might provide us with meaningful and even joyful insights into them, an approach Madeleine takes in coping with her tragedy.

There are no right or wrong answers in this – only choices. Do we want to choose perpetual disappointment? Or are we willing to choose to cherish the joy we experienced, no matter how fleeting? That’s the key question here.

Choice also figures largely into the lives of Whit, Claire and Simon. Collectively, they feel as though their backs are against the wall where the business is concerned, and they’re decidedly uncomfortable with the choices they make for how to resolve it. They’re convinced that they’ll lose a good friend when they present the evidence against him at a competency hearing before the buyout share vote. But is that a faît accompli? Or is another outcome possible? Given the personal feelings that the partners share for Howard, they clearly care about his well-being. And, considering the opportunities he helped make possible for them, the reverse is true as well. So, in light of that, is it guaranteed that the seeming betrayal they’ve orchestrated against him will necessarily result in ill will? Again, it comes down to the beliefs they all share about the nature of their relationships with one another – interactions that are based on belief choices just as much as those employed in the manifestation of virtually any other type of situation.

Choice also looms large in the beliefs governing the private lives of the various partners. Whit, for example, is divorced from his wife after having had an extramarital affair, an incident that has severely strained his relationship with his young daughter, Allison (Kylie Rogers). Claire, meanwhile, has devoted her life to her career, and, with her biological clock now ticking, she’s concerned she’ll never become the mother she’s always dreamed of being. And Simon, whose health is failing, wrestles with disclosing his condition to his family and co-workers, fearing that such an announcement will cause them great emotional harm.

In all three of these cases, the characters can’t see any way out of their circumstances. They feel locked into positions from which they can’t extract themselves. But, again, as conscious creation provides, there are always choices, even if they aren’t easy ones to make. Given their respective circumstances, they could choose to stay stuck in their mindsets; or they could select alternate paths, following courses of dealing that lessen their loads and make their journeys more rewarding in unimagined ways.

From the foregoing, choice is obviously a key component in belief formation, one that’s inherently highly personal in nature. We need not surrender ourselves to the dictates of philosophical, religious or scientific dogma in shaping our own views of reality. Some might even say conscious creation, as a metaphysical philosophy of its own, is fair game for such criticism. However, in its defense, it at least offers us a comparatively broader range of choices for the beliefs we adhere to and the realities we create. We can certainly choose those other options if we believe they best suit us, but we needn’t do so, either, following our own hearts and minds instead.

In his search to find meaning, Howard is coming to understand this. He attempts to explain himself on this point in an impassioned dialogue with Brigitte in which he runs down the flaws of a litany of philosophical, religious and scientific disciplines, schools of thought that offer the promise of figuring out how life works and why it unfolds as it does but that ultimately come up short. On some level, he knows his happiness and well-being come down to the belief choices he makes, but, as this is a comparatively new concept to him, he’s unclear what to do with it or how to proceed. However, those are precisely the lessons he must learn if he hopes to bring himself out of his imprisoning depression – choosing to be happy and on his terms, based on his choices and beliefs, an option that conscious creation makes possible.

To a great degree, this is where Howard’s interactions with Brigitte, Amy and Raffi prove so valuable. Their dialogues help him unlock his pent-up feelings, bringing his intangible inner beliefs to the surface, manifested as tangible, physically expressed materializations. The actors ostensibly speak to him on his level, just as Whit predicted they would when he came up with the plan to hire them. Brigitte, Amy and Raffi provide Howard with the means to transform his thoughts into actions (even if it’s just talking), something that was not (or that he had not allowed to be) available to him previously. They afford Howard a chance to express his most heartfelt feelings about love, time and death, making themselves available as corporeal sounding boards for expressing his thoughts about these notions. In turn, they also provide Howard with a safe opening for giving life to his beliefs, a sheltered starting point for exploring how he wishes to actively employ them in manifesting his reality going forward.

This principle is reflected in the partners’ relationships with the actors, too. Whit, Claire and Simon are each wrestling with their own issues, and their respective interactions with Amy, Raffi and Brigitte enable them to explore their challenges on their levels. Just as Howard manifested the sounding boards he needed, the partners have done the same, even if they weren’t aware they were doing so at the time they were hired. But then, considering their individual circumstances, who better to deal with a broken heart than love? Who better to address a biological chronometer than time? And who better to reconcile our response to a potentially fatal disease than death?

Some have seen this film’s exploration of the foregoing principles as preposterous, absurd and implausible. But, given the standpoint from which its central narrative springs, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s spot-on when it comes to its examination of conscious creation concepts, and it does so quite elegantly and succinctly. In light of that, in my view, the issue here doesn’t lie with the movie but with those who are criticizing it; maybe they’re having trouble appreciating what the picture has to say because, like Howard and his partners, they, too, are mired in their intractable beliefs about how reality works and unable to envision alternate possibilities. It would indeed be wonderful if they could muster the courage, vision and imagination to open up their perspectives just a bit to see what’s on offer here, to genuinely appreciate the collateral beauty of “Collateral Beauty.”

Admittedly, this offering is somewhat manipulative and more than occasionally sappy, yet it effectively redeems itself with its heartfelt earnestness, clever premise and stellar ensemble cast. To be sure, the writing could have been crisper (especially in the first 30 minutes), the sentimentality could have been turned down a few notches and a stronger lead would have made a better casting choice, yet the film also provides viewers with ample thoughtfulness about how to view life’s big issues.

Given the Christmas backdrop for this story, I’d like to hope that it could eventually become a new holiday classic in the tradition of enchanting and heartwarming pictures like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “A Christmas Carol” (1951) and “The Blind Side” (2009), though it may take some time for the impact of this film’s message and meaning to sink in and become appreciated. In an age of rampant smugness and cynicism (and even more smug and cynical film critics), it’s refreshing to see a movie come along that doesn’t apologize for its own forthright emotionalism or its willingness to rely on a little out-of-the-box magic to make its point. (Remember, no one liked Frank Capra’s Christmas fable when it was originally released either.)

Life’s tragedies can surely knock us down. The question is, do we stay down once we’re there? Do we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by despair over the loss of a loved one, or do we choose to bask in the glow of having had the opportunity to share part of our lives with someone we so adored? It all comes down to what we choose to believe and where we decide to place our focus. We can lament the collateral damage that befalls us, or we can rejoice in the collateral beauty we were so privileged to experience. The choice is ours, and, in the end, that’s the essence of the wonder of existence.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 16, 2016

‘Jackie’ profiles grace under fire

“Jackie” (2016). Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Caspar Phillipson, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Sunnie Pelant, Aiden Weinberg, Brody Weinberg, Georgie Glen, Gaspard Koenig, Craig Sechler, Rebecca Compton, Vivienne Vernes. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim. Web site. Trailer.

How would we cope when tragedy strikes? Would we rise to the occasion or fall apart? What would our priorities be in handling it? And would we allow ourselves to be overcome by the circumstances, getting caught up in rhetorical ruminations about why events have unfolded as they have? Those are among the questions faced by a high-profile public figure wrestling with unspeakable grief in the audacious new biopic, “Jackie.”

November 22, 1963 is a date most of us will never forget, even all these many years later. The nation and the world were sent into a collective shock with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) while his motorcade was traveling through the crowded streets of downtown Dallas, Texas. Many of us felt the pain of this tragedy deeply, so much so that it became personal. But no one was more devastated than his wife, Jackie (Natalie Portman), who was sitting beside him when the fatal gunshots rang out, her now-infamous pink designer suit spattered with the blood of her husband.

Jackie’s life changed in countless ways in an instant, and this newly released biopic attempts to examine the myriad conflicted feelings she was experiencing at the time. In many ways, the film is more of a psychological exploration of a turbulent time in her life than a straightforward recounting of her personal history.

The picture opens a week after the President’s storied funeral, an event whose images have become indelibly seared in our memories (especially for those of us of a certain age). Jackie is in seclusion at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, attempting to sort out what’s next for her and her children, Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden Weinberg, Brody Weinberg). In light of what just happened, she seeks the shelter that isolation provides. But, with rampant speculation swirling about what she must be thinking, her firsthand view of the tragic events and how posterity would view the late President’s legacy, she’s compelled to speak out, to let the public know her thoughts and feelings. And so she invites a journalist (Billy Crudup) to visit her at the compound so she can tell her side of the story.

The grace and elegance of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) became known around the world, as depicted in director Pablo Larraín’s new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Through Jackie’s conversations with the journalist – a writer modeled after LIFE magazine scribe Theodore H. White, who met with Jackie at Hyannis Port in the wake of JFK’s assassination – viewers are let in on the most intimate thoughts of the widowed First Lady. Jackie and the journalist touch on a wide array of subjects, ranging from her personal feelings to her concerns for how history would view her husband’s abbreviated presidency, a term in office that lasted a mere two years and nine months, far short of the eight years that many believed he ultimately would have served.

Intercut with these conversations is a series of flashbacks, beginning with Jackie’s televised 1962 tour of the White House after its extensive restoration, a sequence designed to show the poise and grace of the First Lady, qualities that would later come to serve her well when providing a source of inspiration and solace to a grieving public. Flashbacks of the fateful day in Dallas follow, covering everything from the shooting to the swearing in of incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) to Jackie’s lonely return to the White House. These depictions are followed by a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the planning of the President’s funeral, a grand public memorial patterned after that of another fallen leader, Abraham Lincoln, an event that Jackie researched thoroughly while under the pressure of a significantly compressed time frame.

On their arrival in Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, left) and First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) greet a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers in the new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by William Gray, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Public events aside, Jackie also had much to contend with personally; after all, her husband had just been brutally murdered, and she needed to sort out her emotions, largely on her own and under an umbrella of quiet desperation. But, if that weren’t enough, she also had the unenviable tasks of explaining to her children what had happened to their father and hastily having to prepare to move out of the White House (and on to an uncertain future) to make way for the new President.

Fortunately, she had remarkable support from her longtime friend and confidante Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). However, even their ample compassion and encouragement weren’t enough to help Jackie resolve her many emotional and spiritual questions, the kinds of issues that only one skilled in guidance and counseling could offer. That’s where Jackie’s meetings with a priest (John Hurt) proved invaluable. Views of those intimate talks are thus woven into the narrative, intercut among the conversations with the journalist and the flashbacks. These dialogues are quite engaging in that they don’t dissolve into spoutings of empty platitudes. Jackie speaks pragmatically, uninhibited in candidly expressing herself and freely touching on everything from her husband’s infidelity to the horror of his killing to her love and devotion for him in spite of everything.

Incoming President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch, center) is sworn into office as successor to assassinated President John F. Kennedy as incoming First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant, left) and widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) look on in “Jackie.” Photo by Bruno Calvo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Taken together, the film paints a portrait of a complicated individual, an enigmatic, larger-than-life public figure who also happened to be a real person with genuine human thoughts, feelings and emotions. We witness the strength she demonstrated publicly during the solemn yet highly visible events in the aftermath of her husband’s death, as well as the private vulnerability she struggled with in her personal seclusion. We thus come to see Jackie as a complete person, one not that very different from the rest of us, in her attempt to hold everything together under phenomenally extraordinary circumstances.

Like many of us who lived through that tragic period, Jackie desperately sought to understand why events played out as they did. Having been raised a devout Roman Catholic, she placed considerable faith in her religion and its teachings. But, given everything she endured during the fateful days of November 1963, not to mention the frustrations, trials and tribulations she experienced prior to that (such as the loss of two children and her husband’s less-than-veiled dalliances), she wondered how a supposedly loving God could allow such incidents to occur.

Her faith in her fellow countrymen was tested in the wake of JFK’s death, too. The President made his trip to Texas in part to help shore up his support in the state with the 1964 election looming, But Texas was unfriendly territory in many ways, too. Some of his progressive policies were vehemently opposed, with some detractors even going so far as to create “Wanted” signs with Kennedy’s image emblazoned upon them. She wondered how this could be in a country that supposedly adhered to the notion of everyone being created equal with liberty and justice for all.

Upon arriving back in Washington, widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) is joined by her grieving brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, left), in director Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

What’s more, as noted earlier, Jackie was also concerned with how posterity would view her husband’s time in office. She saw the tremendous potential JFK possessed as a leader, one who was capable of accomplishing great things but who barely had an opportunity to scratch the surface of what he hoped to achieve. Would the public remember him for his civil rights initiatives and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, or would his legacy be characterized by events like the Bay of Pigs incident?

In short, Jackie struggled with trying to understand why she was burdened by all this, as well as how she was supposed to respond to it. And that must have been devastatingly difficult; after all, these events affected her personally, not just by extension as a constituent. In planning the funeral, for example, her thoughts regarding the staging of a grand memorial vacillated between seeing it as a fitting tribute to a fallen leader and something indulgent that she was doing for the benefit of her own emotional needs. Under circumstances like this, one could argue that it’s entirely feasible to legitimately view the grandeur of that event from either of those perspectives. But what was it really?

In situations like this, our perceptions are colored by our beliefs, which are ultimately responsible for the manifestation of the events as they unfold. That’s the essence of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize (and subsequently interpret) the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, as implausible as it might be to examine circumstances such as these from a philosophical standpoint, the principle nevertheless validly applies here just as much as it would with any other materialization.

Jackie’s role in the manifestation of this very public drama was pivotal. As devastated as she was personally, as the now-widowed First Lady, she also realized she needed to serve as a symbol of public strength to a grieving nation. She poured her energy into the creation of events that allowed her fellow Americans, as well as the citizens of the world, to adequately express their despair and to suitably show their appreciation and gratitude to a leader whose time at the helm was cut short. In doing so, she made it possible to realize the manifestation of a tribute befitting someone of presidential stature, an event that went a long way toward helping to frame the legacy for JFK that she hoped to cultivate.

Jackie also assumed the role of a pillar of strength in her personal dealings. She did what she could, for instance, to reciprocate the support her brother-in-law Bobby showed her (after all, he had just lost his brother and was grieving himself at the same time he was trying to console her). And then there were the children, both of whom were quite young at the time; she needed to break the news of their father’s death to them tactfully but in a way that they would understand what had happened. She even tried to preserve as much of a sense of normality as possible, as evidenced by the party she hosted for John Jr.’s birthday, which fell in the middle of the tragic events.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) presides over her late husband’s casket in preparation for transport to the Capitol rotunda in “Jackie.” Photo by Bruno Calvo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

At the same time Jackie was trying to be the face of courage for the nation, she also took symbolic steps to make her personal feelings known publicly. When Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office, for example, she attended the ceremony aboard Air Force One wearing the same blood-stained outfit that she wore at the time of her husband’s shooting. Despite encouragement from others to change her clothes for an event that was certain to be documented photographically, Jackie refused. She wanted those who openly wished ill will toward JFK to clearly see the quiet anger and the personally devastating fallout that emerged from the violent act that took him down. Some may have seen this purely as an act aimed at generating sympathy, but Jackie saw it differently. She knew what she was doing, firm in her beliefs that her actions would send a message that would significantly shape public perceptions.

Still, despite Jackie’s admirable responses to all of these challenges, the underlying question that kept arising through them was trying to understand the meaning of it all. Jackie certainly did her best to look inward and find the answers – only to find that they were elusive. Those sentiments were even echoed back to her by the priest, who told Jackie during one of their conversations that “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers.”

In light of that, then, what is one to do under such conditions? From a conscious creation standpoint, this is where learning to have faith in our creations becomes vitally important. Since our manifestations mirror our beliefs, then the materializations that arise from them originate from us. That, in turn, means that there’s something that comes out of them that we’re meant to learn or experience, even if we can’t fully appreciate the essence of the creation at the time of its appearance. Indeed, Jackie probably never heard of conscious creation, but, through her acts and deeds during those difficult days, we can see the impact she and her beliefs had at the time (and subsequently) through what they manifested. Even in the midst of her profound personal grief, she still served as a source of strength and inspiration to those who witnessed her efforts and gestures at that time.

Given Jackie’s circumstances, audiences may not view some of the priest’s advice as especially compassionate or even appropriate. However, just as Jackie tried to reassure her kids that everything would be alright, the priest tried to do the same for her, gently nudging her to recognize that, despite the recent tragedy, she still had much of her life ahead of her, that she could start anew and reinvent herself. But, in coming back, she would have to take things one step at a time, living in the moment as she moved forward into the future.

When widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman, right) seeks solace over her loss, she confers with a priest (John Hurt, left) for comfort and guidance in the new biopic, “Jackie.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

That’s a cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the notion that the point of power is in the present moment. And, to a great degree, Jackie grasped this idea in her own way, especially when looking back upon her days in the White House with Jack. During her conversations with the journalist, Jackie speaks fondly of how she and her husband would often listen to the phonograph before going to sleep at night, their favorite record being the Broadway cast soundtrack of the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. The couple identified with the music and the story it told, the epic days of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere during the Knights of the Round Table era, a glorious time, brief though it may have been. Jack and Jackie saw many parallels between their days in the White House and those of the residents of Camelot, a period when would-be heroic figures sought to accomplish great things and make the most out of each moment in which they lived. They relished the promise of their age in the same way that Arthur and Guinevere did in theirs.

Unfortunately, Jack and Jackie didn’t envision the brevity of their golden days, an irony that also paralleled the experience of their fictional counterparts. Still, in looking back on her White House years after JFK’s death, Jackie saw the splendor of those brief shining moments that she and her husband shared during that time. She relates these memories to the journalist, even seeing her time in Washington as a modern-day Camelot, a notion that would come to define the nature of the Kennedy presidency – a heritage that has lingered to this day. Even if such a view wasn’t necessarily accurate, as many observers have come to see since then, the image nevertheless persists. Crafting that legacy was chiefly Jackie’s creation, because she believed in its veracity. We can thus thank her for this fond recollection of a strong leader and a storied time in American history, images that still inspire those who aspire to their own personal greatness today. And that’s Jackie’s legacy, the gift of someone capable of elevating us about our own ambitions, even in the face of adversity, allowing our own grace under fire to emerge and blossom.

From the foregoing description, it’s obvious that “Jackie” is far from a typical biopic. The film features a stellar performance by Portman, who supremely captures the protagonist’s look, mannerisms and vocal inflections, right down to Jackie’s distinctive lilting manner of speech. In delivering her portrayal, she’s backed by a first-class supporting cast (with the exception of Sarsgaard, who, regrettably, is very much out of his league here). The picture’s meticulous re-creation of historic events, combined with superb production values in all of its technical areas (costumes, hair and makeup, production design, cinematography), make for an elegant look on the screen, one that captivates in many ways.

Considering the unique approach taken in telling Jackie’s story, the film effectively shows the many sides of its subject, both privately and publicly and in both her positive and less-flattering moments. However, at the same time, this alternate take on the biographical genre sometimes feels like it’s lacking something, especially when it comes to pulling in viewers emotionally (something that should have been easy to accomplish given the story’s subject matter). Audiences may find themselves coming away from the film realizing what a complex individual Jackie Kennedy was, though we never get as close to her as many of us might have thought we would going into the theater. The film’s uneven soundtrack – sometimes sublimely fitting, at other times comically jarring in its dissonance – and its somewhat-jumbled handling of the seminal events and their aftermath don’t always work, either, occasionally leaving viewers a bit confused about the timeline.

Despite the unevenness of director Pablo Larraín’s finished product, the picture has garnered its share of accolades. In the recent Critics Choice Awards, the film took home three statues (best lead actress, costumes, hair and makeup) on six total nominations. It has also earned its share of honors in upcoming awards competitions, including four nods in the Independent Spirit Awards program (best picture, female lead, director, editing), as well as best actress nominations in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award contests.

When misfortune strikes, the mettle of our character is sure to be tested. But, based on the magnitude of such calamities, coupled with our beliefs and experience in such matters, it’s hard to know how we’ll respond until we find ourselves in the thick of things. That’s where sources of inspiration, like that demonstrated by Jackie Kennedy during her own unthinkable tragedy, can prove valuable in helping us cope. We can only hope that we’re able to muster the same grace under fire that she did when a family – and a nation – needed her most.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Check out Reviewers Roundtable!

Join me and fellow reviewers Miriam Knight and Cynthia Sue Larson this Wednesday, December 14, when we’ll get together to discuss some of the latest book and movie releases on the quarterly Reviewers Roundtable broadcast of New Consciousness Review radio on the OmTimes Radio Network. Tune in at 2 pm ET by clicking here, or listen to the podcast on demand thereafter. Join us for some lively chat!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mea Culpa

My apologies to those expecting to see my latest Movies with Meaning post on the Blog Page of The Good Radio Network. Regrettably, the network's web site was senselessly hacked, preventing new entries from being posted and, even more disturbingly, wiping out all of the existing posts. Events like this just make one wonder what's to be gained from such pointless acts.

In any event, network creator Frankie Picasso assures me that a new web site is being constructed, and new Movies with Meaning entries will resume once it's available. As for the archived entries, I'm afraid they're probably gone for good, but, if there's anything in particular that anyone would like information about, please feel free to contact me at, and I'll see what I can do.

The good news is that the network's archived podcasts, including Frankie's own Mission Unstoppable and Frankiesense & More radio shows, are unaffected by this unfortunate attack, since they're hosted on a separate site. This includes the latest Frankiesense & More podcast with this month's Movies with Meaning segment, which originally aired on Thursday December 8 and is now available for on-demand listening by clicking here.

Once again, my apologies for this inconvenience, but I look forward to the web site's return, bigger and better than ever!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

On the Radio This Week

Because of the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, this month’s Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio is being moved up two weeks to this Thursday, December 8 at 1 pm ET. Join host Frankie Picasso and me as we examine several new film releases. Tune in live or listen to the on-demand podcast for some lively movie talk by clicking here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Keeping Ourselves Honest

When life doesn’t turn out as hoped for, we often scratch our heads in bewilderment. “Why did that happen?” we ask ourselves. It's at that point when we should probably take a look at the integrity of the beliefs that manifested such experiences. Find out more by reading "Keeping Ourselves Honest," my latest article in the Conscious Cinema series of New Consciousness Review magazine, available by clicking here.

In addition, this latest edition of the magazine features the HAPI Guide, a valuable resource that lists the profiles and contact information of professionals whose practices focus on Happiness, Awakening, Purpose and Inspiration. The listings cover professionals working in a wide range of services and disciplines. (You just might find a profile for someone you know, too.) And, as always, there's an array of articles covering many topics from spirituality to healthy living, so be sure to check it out to find everything it has to offer!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Judges Have Spoken

My thanks to the judges of the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards competition for their thoughtful analyses of my books, Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies and Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover’s Guide to the Law of Attraction, both of which I entered in the contest. Their kind words and generous support of my work are truly appreciated, and I wanted to share their insights with the readers of this blog.

Both books were entered in the Inspirational category and were judged on the following criteria: Structure, Organization, and Pacing; Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar; Production Quality and Cover Design; and Voice and Writing Style. Each area of evaluation was graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “needs improvement” and 5 meaning “outstanding.” And I’m pleased to announce that both books scored 5 across the board.

As for the specific comments of the judges, here’s what they had to say about each title:

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment

GET THE PICTURE?! CONSCIOUS CREATION GOES TO THE MOVIES by Brent Marchant is a superb book that amazingly combines two disparate topics: movies and metaphysics, for an excellent read. This book will especially appeal to students of metaphysics, and will enlighten and entertain movie aficionados as well.

“Interesting that the title uses an interrobang sentence. I’m sure that will get attention! The cover is well done. I like the colors, and the eye in the lens. Very creative. The back cover copy is well done and tells what the reader can expect. The author photo is nice, and the information on the author is wonderful. I like how the author gives his readers several ways to contact him on the Internet. In this age when readers want to stay in touch with their favorite authors, this is a great marketing tool.

“The author chooses excellent movies that are well known to ardent movie lovers. Those who keep up with movies and want to explore their deeper meaning will love this book. Reading this book is akin to taking a college course in cinema – but without the high price tag. Believe me, I know. I took two courses in cinema in college – one in European film and the other in American film. I never looked at films the same way again – and neither will the readers of GET THE PICTURE?! Nice work.”

Source: Judge, 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment

CONSCIOUSLY CREATED CINEMA: THE MOVIE LOVER’S GUIDE TO THE LAW OF ATTRACTION by Brent Marchant is an excellent book for those who want to see the deeper meaning behind many popular movies. A fascinating book for cinema lovers and those who want to know more about the Law of Attraction.

“The cover is amazing. Very creative. I like the colors and how the eye’s pupil is a camera lens. The back cover copy is excellent. The blurb tells the reader the book’s purpose. The author photo is great, and the author biography tells the reader why Brent Marchant is uniquely qualified to write this book. I like that he also shares where to find him online, and even his email address. I hope he doesn’t get too overwhelmed by his IN box!

“Inside, page after page of endorsements really are impressive. I like that the chapters are well laid out, showing the reader which movies are being covered. The reader can choose to read the book in sequence, by the movie, or by the subject such as “Perspective” and “Change.” I thought the entry on “The Social Network” under The Power of Belief was especially good. This is a great book to present as a gift to the movie lover. The unique and thoughtful perspective will be appreciated.

“All in all, a great book that skillfully covers the topics. Nice work.”

Source: Judge, 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

It’s always gratifying to hear such positive feedback about one’s work. I hope my readers share the judges’ opinion. If you would like to find out, you can learn more about these titles by clicking here and here. Happy reading!

Cover designs by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

‘The Innocents’ contemplates faith and the mystery of creation

“The Innocents” (2016). Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Anna Próchniak, Klara Bielawka, Pascal Elso. Director: Anne Fontaine. Screenplay: Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial. Story: Philippe Maynial. Dialogue and Adaptation: Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine. Web site. Trailer.

It’s been said the Lord works in mysterious ways. In fact, in some cases, those mysteries are so cryptic that it’s difficult to fathom what could possibly be behind them. That’s where one’s faith can be seriously tested, as a group of Polish nuns discover for themselves in the days shortly after World War II in the gripping historical drama, “The Innocents,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

In December 1945, the sisters of a Benedictine convent near Warsaw are perplexed when they begin falling ill in severe pain. However, true to form, the strict Rev. Mother (Agata Kulesza) wants to address the matter internally, keeping outsiders at bay. But, recognizing that the sisters are ill-equipped to handle the situation, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), a member of the order who frequently gets into trouble for taking matters into her own hands, seeks medical help. She sneaks out of the convent and asks some of the local street kids to help her find a doctor. They lead her to a field hospital run by the French Red Cross, which is on a mission to treat the last of its country’s survivors from the German concentration camps in Poland. Though initially told to seek help from local medical practitioners, Maria pleads her case to Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), who reluctantly agrees to pay a visit to the convent.

Upon examining the sisters, Mathilde makes a shocking discovery – the “ill” nuns are actually pregnant and about to give birth. During the Soviet liberation of Poland months earlier, the convent was apparently overrun by Russian troops who raped the inhabitants. The sisters tried to disavow what happened, hoping to put it out of their memories, especially since many believed they were being unfaithful to their vows. But, try as they might to ignore what happened, those acts of savagery are about to come to fruition.

Needless to say, Mathilde is shocked at her discovery, but, as a medical professional (and a religious non-believer), she keeps a level head, treating the sisters as she would any other patient. She does her best to deal with the situation in practical terms, which isn’t always easy, given that it violates her obligations to the French Red Cross. At the same time, the sisters don’t see things quite so pragmatically, making Mathilde’s efforts even more difficult. Many view their circumstances with shame and are reluctant to be examined, despite their physical agony and even though what happened to them was not their fault. The Rev. Mother is particularly anxious to keep matters hushed up, fearing what others might think and concerned that she and her flock have irretrievably violated the sanctity of their commitment. It’s a difficult scenario for all concerned.

French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge, left) and Polish Benedictine nun Sister Maria (Agata Buzek, right) make an unlikely duo in trying to unravel a medical mystery at a convent near Warsaw in the days immediately after World War II in the thoughtful historical drama, “The Innocents,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

As the story unfolds, the sisters wonder how their God could have allowed such an atrocity to happen. Meanwhile, Mathilde questions her professional obligations, too, especially given the flak she draws from her unit’s commanding officer (Pascal Elso) and one of her trusted colleagues (Vincent Macaigne) when it becomes apparent what she’s doing. Mathilde also must ask herself if she wants to continue with this mission of mercy when she has her own troubling encounter with Russian troops at a checkpoint located between the convent and the field hospital. But, as events play out, a purpose for it all is eventually revealed – and a miraculous one at that. It’s circumstances like this that truly test one’s faith – and show what it means to have it in the first place.

In light of the foregoing, it’s not out of bounds for even the reasonable-minded among us to question how such events can transpire. But, for those who understand the mechanics of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, such incidents are within the realm of possibility. The trick is grasping why.

In the materialization of some manifestations, the path to an outcome may take some very strange and unexpected twists and turns, many of which may defy logic. But, given that our beliefs are governed by more than just intellect and reason, including less “rational” qualities like faith and intuition, the route they take us in reaching the ultimate destination may be full of detours and apparent left turns, even though they prove indispensible in getting us to where we’re meant to be. In fact, it’s under circumstances like this when the faith component is particularly crucial, even if we don’t understand the meaning or purpose of the specific elements that determine our course.

For those who are committed to a life of contemplation and introspection, such as the sisters of this convent, it might be easy to tune out, or even become detached from, the conditions of the real world. When we allow our thoughts and beliefs to become preoccupied with the loftier issues of life, we might become unconcerned with, perhaps even unaware of, the everyday considerations that the majority of us deal with. For some of us, spending our days musing about life’s noble issues might be enough. But, as individuals who have chosen to experience life in physical reality with everything that entails, the unfettered pursuit of such a purely reflective existence may not be enough. Some of us might need a more tangible connection to our chosen physical existence.

Grateful members of a Benedictine convent thank a French Red Cross doctor, Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge, center), after helping them with their mysterious illness in director Anne Fontaine’s moving historical drama, “The Innocents,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Determining the nature of that connection could be rather obvious to some of us. But, in other cases, we may lack the direction necessary to find a purpose. We might have a vague sense of a need to fulfill some kind of tangible calling even though its particulars are undefined. If we put forth an intent to help us achieve such a goal, even if we don’t fully understand it or what it involves, we may well see results commensurate with that idea come flooding back to us, especially if we have faith that the outcome will be realized.

Of course, in scenarios like this, when we put forth such altruistic but nebulous intents, the events that emerge from them may take puzzling forms that leave us perplexed, perhaps even appalled. This can cause us to question our beliefs, as well as our faith, maybe even prompting us to go back on our originally stated intents. However, if we understand that such materializations are all part of the plan, that they’re integral to helping us reach our goal, no matter how incongruent or bizarre they may seem, we’ll realize later how such seeming anomalies led to the fulfillment of our objective.

So why does our divine collaborator take us down such unexpected paths? As our partner in this process, God (or the Universe or whatever other word best suits you) knows the best way to fulfill our stated intent, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. However, when we reach our goal, we often look back with an entirely different perspective; the so-called “silver lining” and “blessing on disguise” metaphors are highly apropos in such circumstances. These kinds of outcomes, in turn, often serve to reinforce the depth of our faith in the process and in our divine collaborator.

Knowing that, then, it would probably be in our best interests to abide by such thinking up front. By doing so, we might be able to avoid much of the anguish that arises when seemingly unexpected manifestations appear along the path to reaching our ultimate goal. Admittedly, this may not be easy, but, if we adjust our mindset accordingly, we might be surprised at how much more easily matters seem to progress. The result would be less stress, more trust in the process and greater fulfillment in the outcome. We would come to appreciate the wisdom of the notion that the Lord works in mysterious ways – and we’d be okay with it, too, just as the sisters discover for themselves at film’s end.

French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge, right) frequently runs afoul of her colleague, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne, left), in her attempt to treat a group of pregnant nuns in director Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

“The Innocents” captivates from start to finish. Director Anne Fontaine has crafted a gripping drama featuring superb performances, gorgeous cinematography and an ethereal soundtrack, all of which suit the picture well, lending an otherworldly quality to this fact-based saga. Viewers will no doubt wonder how it will ultimately play out, a fitting tribute for a film that has the question of faith at its very heart.

Sometimes our lives may appear as though they’re unfolding at random. However, if we look to our beliefs and the intents we put forth, we might find that there are definite purposes and directions to them, even if they don’t superficially make sense. The rewards that come from abiding by such notions may fill us with satisfaction beyond imagination. And, in the end, all it takes is a little faith.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

‘Manchester by the Sea’ wrestles with redemption, forgiveness, choice

“Manchester by the Sea” (2016). Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, C.J. Wilson, Tom Kemp, Anna Baryshnikov, Kara Hayward, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Jami Tennille Mingo, Heather Burns, Susan Pourfar, Ruibo Qian, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ben O’Brien. Director: Kenneth Lonergan. Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan. Web site. Trailer.

It’s been said we can never go home again. But what if circumstances arise that force us into doing just that? How will we respond? Can we handle it? And what will the fallout be? Those are among the questions raised in the new domestic drama, “Manchester by the Sea.”

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a rather unassuming life. As an apartment building custodian in Quincy, Massachusetts, he tends to the everyday repairs of tenants and the upkeep of the common areas while leading a quiet existence in a one-room basement unit. It might not seem like much, but it seems to suit his needs just fine.

However, Lee’s routine undergoes a major shock one day when he receives word that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away from congestive heart failure. Even though Lee knew that his brother was living with the condition, the news still comes somewhat unexpectedly, especially since Joe’s death occurred while he was doing his usual, everyday work stint on his fishing boat in the tiny seaport of Manchester-by-the-Sea. Lee immediately sets everything aside and makes the 90-minute trip to the town where Joe lived and where he grew up. It’s a trip Lee’s not looking forward to making, not only because of his brother’s passing, but also because of his own tragic memories of the place, incidents that prompted him to move away to start a new life.

Once in Manchester, Lee is left to confront many of his ghosts, depicted through a series of flashbacks. He gets to relive his brother’s troubled relationship with his wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), an irresponsible spouse and mother known for her drinking binges, an issue Lee struggles with somewhat himself. He also must face the bitter memories of life with his own ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), a woman he adored but whose heart he tragically broke. It’s a lot for him to take in at the time of this latest loss.

But, on top of all that, Lee learns upon his arrival that he’s been named the legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a decision Joe never discussed with him nor informed him about. Despite his concern for Patrick’s well-being, Lee is reluctant to take on this responsibility for a variety of reasons; some of his reservations are tied to his past, while others relate to his present and future, such as the possibility of having to relocate back to a town that has been the source of so much pain and in which he’s seen by many as something of a pariah.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, left) struggles with whether he wants to become the legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, right), in director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest offering, “Manchester by the Sea.” Photo by Claire Fogler, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

What is Lee to do? How will matters work out between him and Patrick? And can he bring closure to the issues of his past (especially those related to his relationship with Randi, who is now remarried and expecting)? Lee has opportunities for redemption and forgiveness, but will he avail himself of them? Or is he unable to move past what he sees as irreconcilable self-imposed limitations?

“Manchester by the Sea” delves deeply into what it means to get second chances – and whether we can handle them when we do. In situations like this, there are seldom any inherently right or wrong answers, only choices. But how do we choose? That’s the crucial question, and it all comes down to what we believe about ourselves, for those beliefs will determine the outcome, just as they do in any of our manifestations. This is the cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

In this story, Lee clearly has some difficult choices to make. Some of them could heap more pain on an already-wounded soul. But others could potentially provide him with big payoffs, some of which he may not even be able to envision at this point. In either case, the decision rests with him, so he must take stock of where he is and what he wants.

In confronting the ghosts of his past, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, right) wrestles with his feelings about his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, left), in the new domestic drama, “Manchester by the Sea.” Photo by Claire Fogler, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

As noted above, Lee’s circumstances have provided him with major opportunities for redemption and forgiveness. This is significant because he need not be permanently saddled with his past. He can start anew, putting his previous creations to rest in favor of a fresh start – if he chooses to do so.

Because one of conscious creation’s chief aims is making it possible to learn significant life lessons, it does so in myriad ways. Some of them may put us through the ringer, while others offer us the chance for renewal. But, in either case, the impact of those lessons is never unchangeable. We can learn from our experiences and decide to move forward from them in new directions. That’s the essence of redemption, and beliefs in that notion and in forgiveness are what help to make it possible.

However, such an outcome is far from automatic, especially if we doubt or don’t believe in the possibility. If we reconcile ourselves to the idea that we can never be redeemed nor forgiven – or, worse yet, that we can’t forgive ourselves – then redemption simply won’t happen. That’s unfortunate, too, since it need not be that way.

Circumstances like this naturally raise the question, why can’t we do this? In most cases, it’s a matter of self-imposed limitations, usually driven by an inability to envision alternate possibilities. By locking ourselves into such belief positions, we can’t get past our own metaphysical tunnel vision, and, in doing so, we artificially cut ourselves off from portions of the infinite range of options that the conscious creation process makes possible.

One way to combat this is to recognize that the point of power is in the present moment. It is the only time at which we have any direct control over what we create. We have no power over a past that is behind us or a future that has not yet occurred. However, we do have the option to let those time frames have power over us. By adhering to beliefs that let the ghosts of our past or worries about our future determine how we act in the now, we intentionally invite personal stagnation. But, by being willing to shift our thinking, we have an opportunity to become unstuck.

These are the choices Lee now faces. What will he do? That all depends on how well he’s able to navigate through the foregoing principles. No matter the outcome, his experience provides us a valuable example to draw from should we be faced with comparable circumstances ourselves.

In a bittersweet flashback sequence, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, foreground) bids a painful farewell to his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, background), in “Manchester by the Sea.” Photo by Claire Fogler, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is a moderately entertaining, sometimes-moving character study with relatively profound explorations of redemption, forgiveness and understanding one’s limitations. But the film is also occasionally an exercise in taking itself far too seriously, with more than a few pregnant pauses, lingering shots of mugging emoting, throwaway slice-of-life sequences and tangents that aren’t fully developed. Affleck and Hedges turn in capable but somewhat overrated performances, though Williams steals the show with what should be an Oscar-winning supporting portrayal. Enjoy this one, but don’t get taken in by the hype.

Still, despite the production’s shortcomings, the film has earned five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best feature, best male lead, best supporting male, best screenplay and best editing. It’s likely to pick up additional nominations in a number of other upcoming competitions as well.

In witnessing stories like those portrayed on the screen here, we may be tempted to ask ourselves, why must life be so hard? Difficult though such circumstances may be, they’re all part of the human experience, in all of its permutations, for better or worse. Let’s hope we learn the lessons that come from our explorations in adversity so that we can put them behind us and move forward on to bigger and better things. In doing so, though, we must remember that the power to decide how we proceed always rests with us, especially in terms of what we choose and what we believe. And, in light of that, we should be sure we choose wisely.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Meaning behind Movies

Are movies just entertainment, or are there messages we can learn from them? Tune in to the next Positive Vibrations Roundtable podcast on Self Discovery Radio, where I'll discuss the subject with author Sam Hawksmoor and show host Sara Troy. The broadcast will be available for the next week by clicking here and from the show's web site for on-demand listening thereafter. Join us for some fun and thoughtful movie talk!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

‘Christine’ struggles with integrity, ambition

“Christine” (2016). Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw, John Cullum, Morgan Spector, Jayson Warner Smith, Kimberley Drummond, Lindsay Ayliffe, Ritchie Montgomery. Director: Antonio Campos. Screenplay: Craig Shilowich. Web site. Trailer.

Staying on top of things when we’re under constant pressure to perform can be challenging enough, even under the best of circumstances. But, when we add to that issues of unresolved ambition, the pursuit of integrity, personal problems and health concerns, we might easily be pushed over the brink. Such is the case for a troubled television reporter seeking to do worthwhile work and make a name for herself in the disturbing new biographical drama, “Christine.”

Based on actual events, the film follows the life of 29-year-old Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a struggling TV reporter in Sarasota, Florida, at a time (1974) when broadcast news was undergoing a number of changes, both technologically and in terms of content, even at the local level. Sensationalization of the news was fast gaining a foothold, giving rise to the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy still in use today. For stations like the one Christine worked at, such exploitation was seen as a way to increase ratings, a particularly important concern for those that needed to bolster ad revenues.

Needless to say, this radical new outlook was quite an adjustment for many veteran reporters, especially those accustomed to doing more conventional work. For someone like Christine, who believed that news should go beyond just presenting facts, this meant educating viewers on issues of public interest, especially those that might not otherwise receive much attention. Unfortunately, the kinds of stories Christine wanted to cover, like those associated with zoning issues, were about as interesting as watching paint dry. Her reports did little to help ratings, and, consequently, she began to be marginalized by the news director (Tracy Letts), who was under pressure from station owner Bob Andersen (John Cullum) to boost income.

Even though Christine railed at the new exploitative approach, she also wanted to make a name for herself, especially when she learned that Andersen was looking to recruit staff from Sarasota for his recently acquired station in Baltimore. She vacillated between doing the kinds of “thoughtful” pieces she had been reporting and embracing the “juicy” stories the news director was urging her to do. This often left her confused when trying to determine what would make worthwhile copy, a major frustration for her and a source of bewilderment for her colleagues who were trying to understand her.

Local TV reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) contemplates her career, her ambitions and her responsibilities as a journalist in the gripping new drama, “Christine.” Photo by Joe Anderson, courtesy of The Orchard.

Off-air, Christine had her share of challenges, too. She began experiencing health issues, which she initially chalked up to stress but later discovered were more serious. She struggled with her love life, which often left much to be desired, especially in her romantically ambivalent involvement with a colleague, anchorman George Ryan (Michael C. Hall). And then there was her strange relationship with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), with whom she shared an apartment, as well as many an argument over seemingly trivial or even imagined issues.

This combination of factors left Christine a woman constantly on edge. Who was she? What did she want to become? What did she really think about her work and the responsibilities associated with being a journalist? It proved to be a lot for her to handle.

It’s difficult to talk about this film without playing spoiler, something I’m highly reluctant to do. Even with the relative notoriety of this story, which is widely known and in the public record, to preserve the picture’s impact (particularly for those unfamiliar with Christine’s history), I won’t divulge what happens, other than to say it’s indeed tragic. The film aptly depicts what it means to wrestle with multiple, seemingly overwhelming challenges simultaneously, circumstances that many of us can probably relate to these days. Christine’s experience provides a poignant cautionary tale for anyone who seems destined for their own descent into madness.

Circumstances like these naturally raise the question, how could this have happened? In many ways, Christine comes across as a bright, organized consummate professional, sincere about what she hopes to accomplish through her work. But, then, at other times, she seems out of touch, inept and overly emotional over seemingly inexplicable issues. Given her goals, however – the simultaneous pursuit of ambition and integrity – the combination proves a volatile mix, one in which the individual objectives aren’t always compatible with one another. And, when these get added to the pressures of her personal life, it’s almost more than she can bear.

Sarasota TV anchorman George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) struggles to understand an enigmatic colleague in director Antonio Campos’s new biographical drama, “Christine.” Photo by Joe Anderson, courtesy of The Orchard.

Situations like this illustrate the importance of getting a handle on not only what we want to achieve, but also how we see ourselves. And this requires us to get a handle on our beliefs, the means by which we manifest what we experience through the conscious creation process, the mechanism that brings our reality into existence.

When we’re clear about what we hope to accomplish, our reality tends to reflect such lucidity, resulting in an existence full of creations that suit our expectations. However, when we’re unfocused about our hoped-for achievements, the result is usually chaos and confusion. This is particularly true when our beliefs encompass inherent contradictions. The beliefs tend to cancel one another out in these scenarios, or they lead to the materialization of highly distorted outcomes. In either case, the results are far off the mark from what we hope to attain.

In Christine’s case, for instance, she’s big on doing work characterized by integrity and high-mindedness. She wants her work to be a shining reflection of herself, and she hopes that her audience will get something meaningful out of the experience. But, given the largely boring nature of much of her work, it’s hard to imagine her viewers getting much out of them beyond 40 winks.

At the same time, though, she also has big aspirations about being a reporter in a top 30 market, like Baltimore, but that’s a position she’ll attain only by getting noticed. And getting noticed means doing the kinds of “sexy” stories that her news director (and, most likely, audiences) want to see.

So how does a reporter make a story about zoning issues captivating? That would be quite a trick, even for the most creatively minded journalist. For someone like Christine, who struggles with creating on-air stories that reflect either of the traits she aspires to, let alone both, the process must ultimately become utterly maddening. The end products come out being “distorted” from fulfilling their true, underlying intents. They fail to satisfy audiences and the powers that be, which, in turn, lead to the dissatisfaction and frustration of their creator. Under conditions like this, is it any wonder that the protagonist is left puzzled, exasperated and, in the end, angry?

No matter what aspect of existence we work on creating, Christine’s story offers us a valuable cautionary tale about how to proceed and the pitfalls to avoid. If conditions like those she experiences are allowed to persist, the outcome could prove devastating for us, as well as those we serve and who care about our well-being. We would be wise to take the necessary time to look within, to sort out what we most dearly want to achieve and to focus on the materializing beliefs that are most likely to make such outcomes possible. To do otherwise may well prove to be an exercise in disappointment, vexation and tragedy.

TV journalist Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) struggles to balance issues of integrity and ambition in the riveting new biographical drama, “Christine.” Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

“Christine” provides a riveting, albeit troubling portrait of an ambitious but disturbed woman’s attempts at reconciling the challenges of her life. Rebecca Hall gives a phenomenal, Oscar-worthy breakthrough performance, one that has already earned her the best actress award at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Director Antonio Campos’s latest is definitely not an easy film to watch, but it’s one that’s difficult to take your eyes off of – not unlike the work the protagonist seeks to create for herself.

Despite its many strengths, the film is not without its faults, such as a concluding sequence that goes on entirely too long and employs an overly derivative ending that’s a little too obvious in its dramatic irony. Nevertheless, the film has much to offer, and, for its efforts, it has earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best first screenplay.

Reaching for the top is certainly a laudable ambition, but, if we can’t be ourselves when we engage in its pursuit, we may find ourselves wanting, even longing in desperation, an outcome sure to leave us even worse off. Getting clear about what we really hope to achieve – and how to go about doing it – could well help us stave off such frustrations. But can we realistically achieve that? Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

‘Doctor Strange’ urges us to reach the peak of our potential

“Doctor Strange” (2016). Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Umit Ulgen. Director: Scott Derrickson. Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Comic book source material: Steve Ditko. Web site. Trailer.

Even when we think we’ve reached the pinnacle of our success, there’s always another summit to be surmounted. That new peak may not be what we’re expecting it to be, taking us in a totally different direction from what we’re accustomed to, but the accomplishments we fulfill when we reach it could be far more fulfilling than we ever imagined. Such is the case for an arrogant know-it-all who embarks on a new life path in the riveting action-adventure, “Doctor Strange.”

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a supremely accomplished New York neurosurgeon – and he knows it. He makes sure everyone else knows it, too. In fact, he’s so enamored with his own abilities that he believes there’s virtually nothing he can’t do. And that may be true – that is, until he’s gravely injured in a horrendous car accident that leaves him clinging to life. It appears he’ll survive, but the tools of his trade – his hands – are so severely damaged that it’s unlikely he’ll regain full use of them for even everyday tasks, let alone performing surgical procedures.

Strange is determined to get back to where he was and vigorously pursues every therapy available to him. But the treatments he tries are all conventional and, given the extent of his injuries, can only take him so far. His colleagues, such as friends and fellow surgeons Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and Dr. Nic West (Michael Stuhlbarg), try encouraging Stephen to make peace with his circumstances, but he won’t hear of it. He’s convinced there must be some way to get back to where he was before the accident. And, just when he’s about to give up hope, he learns of a treatment that helped turn around the life of a comparably injured patient (Benjamin Bratt). With nothing to lose, Stephen decides to pursue it – even if it means spending the last of his resources on a long shot that involves a journey to Nepal.

Once in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, Stephen searches high and low for Kamar-Taj, an enigmatic enclave that supposedly houses providers of the little-known healing treatment. When he finds it, with the assistance of a mysterious stranger named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), it proves to be nothing like what he expected. In fact, he learns that the healing “treatment” is not something that he’ll receive from someone else but, rather, that it’s something he’ll perform on himself – that is, after he’s properly trained in how to do it by a mystical master simply known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).

Upon learning what that training involves, Strange is ready to pick up and leave. As someone trained in the rationale of science and reason, he’s not about to buy into anything that he considers airy fairy New Age nonsense. But, when he sees demonstrations of what’s possible when these special powers are harnessed, he’s amazed and agrees to go along with the program.

Progress comes slow at first, in large part because Stephen needs to get past his own ego. He even doubts whether any of this training is going to work. But, when pushed to the brink, he’s forced into tapping into his powers just to survive. It’s at that point that Strange begins to realize his full potential and what he can do with his newfound abilities.

In particular, Strange learns about a range of powers he never knew existed. In essence, he discovers the secrets of what most of us call the law of attraction (otherwise known as conscious creation), as well as the nature of multiple dimensions of existence. And, just as he became adept in his surgical skills, he becomes so proficient in these new abilities that he quickly masters them. He’ll need them, too, especially when he, Mordo and the Ancient One are forced into matching wits with an evil nemesis, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to corner the use of these powers for his own self-serving purposes.

Will Dr. Strange and his cohorts succeed in their quest? Like what happens in most action-adventure releases, that, of course, is the key question here, too. But, given his newfound abilities, how he proceeds is what’s most important. His tactics may prove particularly enlightening, especially to audiences new to conscious creation/law of attraction philosophy, the means by which we manifest our existence through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. By seeing these ideas put into action through specific, tangible deeds, viewers thus have an opportunity to learn about them in a meaningful, powerful way. This may allow the concepts to resonate with them profoundly, leaving an impact on them that they can take out of the theater and employ in their everyday lives.

The film is especially commendable for its accurate presentation of these notions. All too often, these metaphysical principles are explained in ill-serving vague, inaccurate or biased ways. In particular, these concepts are frequently presented only in terms of their “positive” attributes, their “negative” traits summarily dismissed as if they didn’t exist. However, as conscious creation practitioners are well aware, this philosophy treats its concepts as “neutral,” that they can be employed for either “good” or “bad” purposes, depending on the intents backing them.

A knife, for example, can be used as a life-saving surgical tool or as a murderous weapon. Likewise, certain chemical substances can be used for medicinal purposes or as deadly poisons. And then there’s the power of the atom, which can be harnessed to power a city or to destroy it. Countless other examples can be cited to illustrate this point, and all of them make clear the power of the beliefs and intents that go into the creation and deployment of these manifestations, for better or worse.

“Doctor Strange” makes clear that we can employ the conscious creation process for serving the greater good or for dastardly deeds. It all comes down to what beliefs underlie it. The film makes the distinction clear and shows us how we can use the practice in our own lives.

As the film shows, if we’re intent on using this process for altruistic purposes, we need to realize that we’re part of a larger whole, an individual voice in a greater chorus. And, to appreciate that, we must also get past our own ego. As the movie opens, Stephen clearly has his work cut out for him on this point. But, as he learns how to embrace a sense of humility and detach from self-serving outcomes, he’s able to move forward with his quest. This is in stark contrast to Kaecilius, who obviously wants to use this process only for his own selfish ends, largely because he hasn’t learned the valuable lesson that his opponent has. The examples set by these two characters in this regard provide us with significant insights to consider should we wish to tackle comparable challenges of our own. We should pay attention, too, because the consequences at stake in situations like this may be far greater than we realize.

While clothed in the form of an action-adventure film, “Doctor Strange” is actually, in many ways, a metaphysical treatise on the foregoing principles. It illustrates what it means to be a master of our own destiny, particularly when it comes to changing circumstances we believe unalterable, tackling challenges thought to be insurmountable and becoming the individuals we never envisioned we could be. The picture adeptly explains these points in easily understood layman’s terms and does so through a fun, rollicking rollercoaster ride. Those who like some substance with their fluff will certainly enjoy this well-executed fusion of meaningful teachings with a highly entertaining good time. Admittedly, some of the fight sequences go on a little long, there are some pacing issues in the last 45 minutes and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s hammy overacting becomes progressively tedious as the story unfolds. But a well-written script, superb special effects (especially in the 3-D version) and fine performances by all of the other principals make this worthwhile viewing.

Exceeding our limits is something many of us would like to achieve, even if we’re unaware of this aspiration. Sometimes it just takes getting out of our own way and letting our natural abilities flow through us. It can be a hard lesson, but as the good doctor’s experience shows, the effort in the end is well worth it. After all, the world may depend on it.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.