Wednesday, October 26, 2016

‘Anesthesia’ explores our attempts at escape from reality

“Anesthesia” (2015). Cast: Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Kristen Stewart, Gretchen Mol, Richard Thomas, K. Todd Freeman, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Hecht, Hannah Marks, Ben Konigsberg, Jacqueline Baum, Ekaterina Samsonov, J. Bernard Calloway, Rob Morgan, Scott Cohen, Gloria Reuben. Director: Tim Blake Nelson. Screenplay: Tim Blake Nelson. Web site. Trailer.

The struggles of everyday life can be overwhelming. They may even be more to cope with than we can handle. And, because of that, many of us may seek avenues of escape from the pain and hardship through various means. But, in doing so, we may unwittingly cut ourselves off from sources of support, comfort and guidance. Such are the themes explored in the engaging multifaceted drama, “Anesthesia,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

In the tradition of films like “Grand Canyon” (1991), “Crash” (2005) and “Disconnect” (2013), “Anesthesia” features a series of seemingly disparate story lines that all eventually become interwoven. In this case, the various narratives revolve around Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston), a popular New York philosophy professor on the verge of retirement. He looks forward to spending his golden years with Marcia (Glenn Close), his wife of many years whom he positively adores.

Longtime spouses Walter and Marcia Zarrow (Sam Waterston, left, Glenn Close, right) look forward to spending their golden years together in “Anesthesia,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo by Anna Kooris, courtesy of IFC Films.

Despite the challenges of urban living and years of intensive personal soul-searching, Walter’s upbeat outlook has endeared him to many. Even those who don’t know him personally somehow end up in his world, perhaps because he’s willing to face life head on and appreciate its virtues rather than looking for ways to anesthetize himself to deaden the pain of daily living, attributes that ultimately encourage others during their tribulations when they hadn’t considered such possibilities. The inspiration he exudes provides an array of lost souls with new hope for living, including those caught up in the following scenarios:

• Walter’s son Adam (Tim Blake Nelson) struggles to deal with a largely dysfunctional family. His teenage children, Hal (Ben Konigsberg) and Ella (Hannah Marks), routinely smoke pot to drown out the seemingly perpetual, overbearing bitching of their mother, Jill (Jessica Hecht). Adam attempts to play mediator, but even his patience gets tried when things become overly strained. And, if that weren’t enough, Adam faces a new challenge when he learns that his wife may have cancer.

• Sophie (Kristen Stewart) is a troubled college student who has considerable difficulty dealing with others. She’s especially bothered by the mindless, self-serving, materialistic attitudes of her peers, as well as the world at large. She feels so overwhelmingly numbed by it all that she desperately looks for ways to feel anything to remind herself that she’s still alive, a search fraught with potentially serious pitfalls.

• Having traded a successful career in New York for the alleged storybook contentment of life in an upscale New Jersey suburb, Sarah (Gretchen Mol), a housewife and mother of two (Jacqueline Baum, Ekaterina Samsonov), is bored by her daily routine. Having sacrificed the things she loved for the good of her family, she now regrets her decision but avoids dealing with it by drowning herself in drinking binges. She may not yet be a bona fide alcoholic, but the handwriting is clearly on the wall. And Sarah runs the risk of things getting worse now that she suspects her husband, Sam (Corey Stoll), may be having an affair, despite his ostensibly spurious claim of embarking on regular, prolonged business trips to China.

• Joe (K. Todd Freeman) had much promise in his life at one time. Unfortunately, the pressures of daily living and subsequent drug addiction derailed his plans, leaving him struggling just to get by. Joe’s childhood friend, Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams), seeks to help him through an intervention aimed at getting him into rehab. But will Jeffrey be able to help Joe in time? Will Joe cooperate? And what will happen if the plan fails?

Troubled college student Sophie (Kristen Stewart) desperately looks for ways to remind herself that she’s still alive in an oppressively indifferent world in the engaging drama, “Anesthesia,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo by Anna Kooris, courtesy of IFC Films.

As these situations illustrate, there are plenty of ways to deaden the pain associated with life’s difficulties. But are these really the best courses to follow? When inundated by such challenges, it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing else we can do, that there are no other options and that no one’s in our corner. However, that’s seldom the case, and assistance is available as long as we’re willing to make an effort to overcome our adversities. Indeed, in the long run, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to attempt to address our issues rather than sweep them under the rug in futile hopes that they’ll go away on their own? That can be a very empowering experience, one that can bring new meaning to our lives at a time when it seems entirely devoid of it.

The starting point for this is our beliefs, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the conscious creation process. When we hold fast to a particular outlook, the existence around us will reflect those intents, and, if we buy into a mode of thinking that there’s no hope, our world will faithfully mimic it. If it becomes daunting enough, we’re likely to want to escape it, as many of the characters in this film attempt. But, given how conscious creation works, wouldn’t it be preferable to change the prevailing reality by altering the beliefs that manifest it rather than simply trying to deny it through “artificial,” substitute means?

Bored suburban housewife Sarah (Gretchen Mol, left) discusses the possibility that her husband may be having an affair over one of many drinks with her friend Meredith (Gloria Reuben, right) in the engaging drama, “Anesthesia,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo by Anna Kooris, courtesy of IFC Films.

That’s the possibility that Sophie, Sarah, Joe, and Adam and his family must weigh as they wrestle with their individual challenges. Whether or not they succeed at this is obviously up to them, particularly when it comes to their ability to envision alternative paths for their lives. And that’s where the importance of inspiration comes into play, as well as their willingness to avail themselves of it. Given that they’ve each drawn a source of encouragement into their lives, as evidenced by Walter’s presence, it’s apparent that they’re looking for something (or someone) to help them chart a new course. The key question, of course, is, “Will they follow through on it?”

Walter’s presence in the characters’ lives also spotlights the inherent connectedness among all of us, and that can prove critical when we go in search of solutions. The inspiration he offers may be just what his peers need to resolve their circumstances, and, because he becomes involved with them to one degree or another, they thus have access to those potentially crucial insights. In the end, drawing upon our connections could be precisely what’s needed to help us turn our lives around and get things back on track. Again, however, if we’re to avail ourselves of this resource, we need to be aware (or to become aware) of the existence of this innate linkage and what it has to offer.

The foregoing considerations effectively illustrate the immense power of story, particularly as it’s portrayed through the movies, as a means for helping us address the issues in our lives. The characters in this film serve as models for the quest we’re all pursuing to seek enlightening paths of guidance. If we can see how this is presented through the experiences of this film’s principals, then perhaps it will become easier for all of us to do the same when we look for ways to make comparable adjustments to our own existence.

“Anesthesia” is a little-known gem that deserves far more recognition than it originally received. I stumbled upon it when viewing its trailer on the DVD of another film, having never heard of this title. After a little research, I learned that this picture premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015 and had a limited theatrical run before being made available for home viewing. Thankfully, it’s available in a variety of readily accessible formats and is well worth a look.

Joe (K. Todd Freeman) reluctantly awaits admission to rehab to treat his drug addiction in “Anesthesia,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand. Photo by Anna Kooris, courtesy of IFC Films.

The strength of “Anesthesia” is its performances, especially Waterston, Stewart and Mol. The film’s insightful writing is punctuated by a great deal of thoughtfulness and eloquent literary references, something few contemporary pictures handle as well as this one does, especially in Walter’s farewell lecture to his class. Admittedly, the picture wraps up a tad abruptly, but this shortcoming is more than made up for by its many other strengths. Those looking for a contemplative viewing option should give this film serious consideration.

No matter how difficult our circumstances may become, there’s always hope. All is not lost, regardless of how much we may have convinced ourselves of that. By drawing upon the metaphysical resources at our disposal and making appropriate changes in our viewpoints, we can turn things in our favor, as long we’re willing to make the effort to do so – and to believe that it’s entirely possible.

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

On the Radio This Week

Join me and host Frankie Picasso this Thursday, October 27 at 1 pm ET, for an extended edition of this month's Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio. We'll discuss a number of new movie releases, as well as a wrap-up of the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival. Tune in by clicking here for some lively movie chat! And, in the meantime, to read more about the Festival, click here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Wrapping Up the Chicago Film Festival

The 52nd annual Chicago International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and I’ve spent much of the past two weeks screening a number of its many fine offerings. Here are brief looks at the pictures I saw, scored on the basis of 1 to 5 (worst to best), the voting system used by Festival attendees to rate the movies shown.

“Kills on Wheels” (“Tiszta szívvel”) (Hungary) (trailer)

This highly entertaining dark comedy focuses on the exploits of two disabled young men (Zoltán Fenyvesi, Ádám Fekete) who fancy themselves graphic novel artists but who, for economic reasons, are forced to become accomplices to a disabled fireman-turned-hitman (Szabolcs Thuróczy) in helping him carry out the orders of a mob boss (Dusán Vitanovics). In many ways, it would seem that the odds are stacked against the trio of reluctant assassins, but, when pressed, they manage to rise to the occasion, showing how to overcome disabilities that might stop others in their tracks, no matter how dubious the objective.

With its offbeat humor, imaginative cinematography, intriguing mix of photography and animation, terrific soundtrack, and excellent performances by disabled actors in their screen debuts, “Kills on Wheels” truly fires on all cylinders. For its efforts, the film was named the winner of the Festival’s Roger Ebert Award in its New Directors competition.

The clever intersection of two disparate worlds works remarkably well, somewhat reminiscent of the unique fusion presented in “The Crying Game” (1992). This one may be a little graphic for more sensitive viewers, but the violence is always in context and never becomes gratuitous. Look forward to the film’s US DVD release from Kino Lorber next April. Those who appreciate the offbeat will genuinely enjoy this one, so don’t miss it. (5/5)

Rupaszov, a disabled fireman-turned-hitman (Szabolcs Thuróczy, top), and his accomplice, Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi, bottom), make an unlikely duo of contract assassins in the new Hungarian dark comedy, “Kills on Wheels” (“Tiszta szívvel”).

“The Teacher” (“Učitelka”) (Slovakia/Czech Republic) (trailer)

This scathing, bitingly satirical look at how Communist Party leaders (including those in seemingly mundane, low-level positions) used their power to manipulate and intimidate others for wholly self-serving purposes in Czechoslovakia in the days before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The film focuses on the schemings of a conniving grade school teacher (Zuzana Mauréry) who abuses her power to obtain favors from the parents of her students in exchange for good grades – or the opposite for lack of compliance. And, if left unchecked, she just might get away with it, too – that is, until students and parents begin speaking up.

With a well-structured narrative, crisp writing and a superb lead performance by Mauréry, this thoroughly entertaining production reveals the hypocrisy and rampant corruption of a supposedly egalitarian system and what happens when the justifiably disgruntled fight back. An inspiring tale of what it means to reclaim one’s power from those who unreasonably try to steal it. (5/5)

In Czechoslovakia before the fall of the Iron Curtain, a self-serving teacher and low-level Community Party official (Zuzana Mauréry) abuses her power to get what she wants from the parents of her students in the bitingly satirical new comedy, “The Teacher” (“Učitelka”).

“Like Crazy” (“La pazza gioia”) (Italy) (trailer)

This offbeat dark comedy with a heart is a real gem. Chronicling the exploits of two mental patients (Micaela Ramazzotti, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) who slip away from their institution, the film follows the pair on a wildly funny adventure through Tuscany, telling a story that’s part “Thelma & Louise” (1991), part “King of Hearts” (1966), part “Welcome to Me” (2015), part “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and part “Forces of Nature” (1999). It also shows that what we think of as mentally challenged may not always be as clear-cut as most of us – including the experts – might think.

The picture is smartly written, well-acted and beautifully photographed, with lots of interesting twists and turns. Despite a slight tendency to wander a bit (understandable given the nature of the protagonists), the film is otherwise spot on in virtually every respect. Enjoy this one! (4/5)

Escaped mental patients Beatrice (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, left) and Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti, right) take off on a wild road trip in the smartly written Italian dark comedy, “Like Crazy” (“La pazza gioia”).

“Arctic Heart” (“Le secret des banquises”) (France) (trailer)

This delightfully offbeat French comedy illustrates the lengths some of us might go to in fulfilling unrequited love – even if it means injecting ourselves with penguin DNA. When a young research associate at a pharmaceutical company (Charlotte Le Bon) tries to catch the eye (and heart) of her handsome but oblivious workaholic boss (Guillaume Canet), she takes drastic measures to capture his attention, with funny, smart, romantic and entertaining results.

Despite its decidedly commercial nature and a closing half-hour that’s a little stretched out, “Arctic Heart” is a real crowd pleaser in virtually every respect. Hilarious bouts of lunacy in the grand tradition of prototypical French farces make for ample laugh-out-loud viewing. A great date movie for those interested in romance that’s not punched out of a cookie-cutter. (4/5)

When a young research associate at a pharmaceutical company (Charlotte Le Bon, center) tries to catch the eye (and heart) of her handsome but oblivious workaholic boss (Guillaume Canet, not pictured), she takes drastic measures to capture his attention in the French romantic farce, “Arctic Heart” (“Le secret des banquises”).

“Zoology” (“Zoologiya”) (Russia) (trailer)

This whimsical comedy about a woman who’s “different” – she has a tail! – examines how the qualities that set her apart from mainstream Russian society affect her interaction with family, co-workers, a prospective love interest and various official institutions, like the church and the medical establishment. In making its statements about conformity, individuality and celebrating our defining characteristics, the film conveys its message while maintaining a mostly light and fun attitude, except when a stronger touch is absolutely called for.

Even with its slight tendency toward uneven pacing, the picture’s a winner on all other fronts. Clearly you won’t see anything like this coming out of American production houses! (4/5)

Natascha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a middle-aged, often-ostracized Russian woman who’s “different” – she has a tail! – experiences firsthand how the qualities that set her apart from mainstream society affect her interaction with family, co-workers, a prospective love interest, the church and the medical establishment in the satirical comedy, “Zoology” (“Zoologiya”).

“One Week and a Day” (“Shavua ve Yom”) (Israel) (web site, trailer)

When a middle-aged Israeli couple (Shai Avivi, Jenya Dodina) loses their twenty-something son to illness, they struggle to cope with the meaning of the tragedy. But, with this being such unfamiliar territory, they’re not sure how to proceed, prompting them to try out a number of solutions, from the traditional, like sitting shiva, to the unconventional, including imbibing in their son’s leftover medical marijuana with a goofy neighbor (Tomer Kapon).

This noble attempt at capturing the feelings associated with grief (and the denial of it) showcases an array of mood swings, alternating from the ridiculous to the sublime, in its attempt to capture the range of emotions exhibited by grief-stricken souls struggling to deal with loss. Unfortunately, many of those moods are depicted through sequences that go on a little too long and that, consequently, cause them to lose some of their effectiveness. Some judicious editing and better transitions would have improved this ambitious, well-intentioned effort markedly. With that said, however, the film has been well-received, winning the Cannes Film Festival Gan Foundation Distribution Support Award, as well as nominations for the Festival’s Golden Camera Award and Critics Week Grand Prize. (3/5)

Grieving father Eyal Spivak (Shai Avivi, second from right) struggles to cope with the loss of his son with the aid of his goofy neighbor, Zooler (Tomer Kapon, second from left), in the new Israeli comedy-drama, “One Week and a Day” (“Shavua ve Yom”).

“The Confessions” (“Le confessioni”) (Italy/France) (trailer)

Director Roberto Andò’s subtly satirical look at contemporary politics and economics centers on the mysterious death of an IMF manager (Daniel Auteuil) at a G8 conference after he gives his confession to an enigmatic Italian monk (Toni Servillo). As the story unfolds, revelations emerge about secrets kept by the deceased, as well as those harbored by the other ministers in attendance, many of who feel uneasily compelled to confess in the wake of the summit’s unexpected events. Matters become further complicated by the presence of other unexpected guests, such as a highly successful children’s book author (Connie Nielsen) who seems to know more about what’s going on than anyone is aware of. The implications of those revelations have potentially far-reaching consequences, extending far beyond the lives of those present.

The film’s unusual premise, its intriguing storytelling approach and its multilayered narrative offer viewers a unique moviegoing experience. However, the picture periodically gets bogged down in ideas, imagery and allusions that never feel fully fleshed out (some of which, ironically enough, the director himself was unable to explain during the film’s post-screening Q&A session). A little ambiguity goes a long way, but, when left unchecked, the result is often more muddle than riddle. With a little tidying up, this could have been a remarkable film, but, unfortunately, its shortcomings keep it from reaching its full potential. (3/5)

Chaos reigns when an immensely successful author of children’s books (Connie Nielsen, center), an invited guest to a G8 conference, stumbles into an array of secrets, deceptions and international economic intrigue in the Italian-French co-production, “The Confessions” (“Le confessioni”).

“The Commune” (“Kollektivet”) (Denmark) (web site, trailer)

The latest offering from director Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt” (2013), “Far from the Madding Crowd” (2015)) takes a sometimes-serious, sometimes-comic look at one family’s experiment in communal living in 1970s Copenhagen. What starts out with the best of intentions undergoes a number of unforeseen twists and turns that disrupts long-standing relationships in both favorable and unfavorable ways. The film probes what it means to explore both our universal connectedness, as well as the need for healthy boundaries.

Despite the film’s compelling performances and inventive premise, the story occasionally stretches credibility, requiring viewers to make substantial leaps of faith as the narrative reaches to make its points, some of which seem incongruent with the basic plot line. The result is a somewhat-satisfying, somewhat-disappointing effort from a director who’s clearly capable of better work. (3/5)

Husband and wife Erik (Ulrich Thomsen, right) and Anna (Trine Dyrholm, left) find themselves in over their heads when they engage in an experiment in communal living in 1970s Copenhagen in director Thomas Vinterberg’s latest offering, “The Commune” (“Kollektivet”).

“Crosscurrent” (“Chang jiang tu”) (China) (trailer)

This gorgeously filmed journey in search of the head waters of China’s Yangtze River presents a beautiful metaphor of the nation’s political, economic, cultural and spiritual history, reflected through the encounters of a young boat captain (Hao Qin) with a series of female apparitions. In doing so, the picture attempts to fill in some of the knowledge gaps of Chinese viewers (especially younger ones) who may not be aware of much of their country’s heritage prior to the Communist revolution.

Unfortunately, the film’s rather poetically cryptic narrative – as beautiful as it might be – misses the mark in fulfilling its intent of promoting historical and cultural understanding, often leaving viewers more baffled than enlightened. Still, it’s nice to look at, so enjoy the cinematography and the picture’s emotive soundtrack, which are arguably worth the price of admission alone. (3/5)

When a young boat captain (Hao Qin) seeking the head waters of China’s Yangtze River has a series of encounters with mysterious female apparitions along the way, he comes to realize he’s traversing more than just a waterway in the beautiful, enigmatic fantasy, “Crosscurrent” (“Chang jiang tu”).

“Raw” (“Grave”) (France/Belgium) (trailer)

Is it a macabre romp? A feminist manifesto run amok? Sibling rivalry taken to the extreme? Well, it seems this graphic horror offering is trying to be all these things but, regrettably, fails to come together as a complete package.

When a young vegetarian veterinary student (Garance Marillier) tastes meat for the first time as part of a college hazing ritual, she quickly develops a taste for flesh – of all kinds. In attempting to understand her circumstances, she consults her older sister (and fellow student) (Ella Rumpf), who only confuses matters even more, with gruesome consequences.

The film works best when it plays to its self-avowed sense of campy twistedness. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down in too many unsatisfactorily resolved tangents and attempts at seriousness that detract from its principal strengths. A lost opportunity for a scream classic. (2/5)

When a young vegetarian veterinary student (Garance Marillier, foreground) tastes meat for the first time as part of a college hazing ritual, she quickly develops a taste for flesh – of all kinds – in the macabre horror flick, “Raw” (“Grave”).

“Panamerican Machinery” (“Maquineria Panamericana”) (Mexico) (trailer)

When the magnanimous owner of a Mexican machinery company that’s arguably the happiest workplace on the planet suddenly dies and leaves his operation bankrupt, the employees are lost to figure out how to carry on, pursuing a variety of options from outright denial to unrestrained hysteria to utter debauchery. But what starts out as a lighthearted, whimsical comedy quickly turns into a heavy-handed, though often-unfocused religious/spiritual satirical commentary whose message becomes increasingly lost in its utter preposterousness. The film goes off the rails as it becomes progressively more ridiculous with each passing frame.

Taking a creative approach to subjects like this is certainly laudable. But, when that creativity morphs into unmitigated absurdity focused more on symbol and metaphor than a cogent narrative, the point becomes lost rather quickly. (1/5)

Faced with the prospect of having to fend for themselves, the employees of a bankrupt Mexican heavy equipment company try different solutions to get by in the overwrought satire, “Panamerican Machinery” (“Maquineria Panamericana”).

“The Darkness” (“Las tinieblas”) (Mexico) (trailer)

This cinematic attempt at allegory between today’s increasingly fearful culture and the world of a family trapped in a forest cabin under constant threat from an unseen monster unfortunately falls flat from tedious pacing, a meandering narrative, pointless red herrings and an overall lack of focus.

Despite beautiful cinematography and a well-created foreboding overall look and feel, this snoozer never gets on track, leaving viewers waiting for the end. Even diehard horror flick fans would be well advised to pass on this dismal offering. (1/5)

A family tormented by a mysterious woodlands creature takes tentative steps to survive in the atmospheric but ultimately tedious Mexican horror film, “The Darkness” (“Las tinieblas”).

The CIFF features an extensive array of independent, foreign and documentary films in a wide variety of genres, as well as special retrospective screenings and tributes to leading movie industry performers and directors. More than half of the 140+ pictures presented conclude with Q&A sessions with their creators and/or stars after the screenings. It’s quite the event for the serious movie lover, so, if it’s not on your calendar for next year, mark it down now. See you on the red carpet!

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

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Anesthesia," "The Teacher" and "One Week and a Day," as well as a radio show preview, are all available in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the Blog Page of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Friday, October 21, 2016

‘Birth of a Nation’ delivers a potent cautionary message

“The Birth of a Nation” (2016). Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Tony Espinosa, Justin M. Smith, Allen Scott, Griffin Freeman, Kai Norris. Director: Nate Parker. Screenplay: Nate Parker. Story: Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin. Web site. Trailer.

When pushed to the breaking point, there’s no telling how any of us might react. Some may walk away, but others may lash out, perhaps even violently. That’s particularly true for those subjected to an egregious injustice (or, worse, a series of injustices). Retribution often results, frequently with dire consequences, both for the perpetrators of those wrongs, as well as those looking to right them. Such is the case in the new film adaptation of the legendary cautionary tale, “The Birth of a Nation.”

In 1809 Virginia, the Turner cotton plantation was a thriving operation, in large part because of the hard (but coerced) work of its African slaves. However, while many of the area’s other plantation owners routinely treated their slaves brutally, the Turner family took a comparatively progressive approach. Even though they had their prejudices and condescending attitudes and didn’t hesitate to dole out punishment when deemed necessary, the Turners also realized they depended on their slaves for their fortune. Consequently, they tended to treat them somewhat more fairly than many of their neighbors, and they even sought to develop the skills of some of their more adept field hands. They also allowed their own children, such as young Samuel (Griffin Freeman), heir apparent to the family fortune, to play with the children of their slaves, such as young Nat (Tony Espinosa). Their camaraderie led to a friendship of sorts (at least as much as such relationships were allowed).

Plantation owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, left) and slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker, right) explore the intricacies of their complex relationship in the new historical drama, “The Birth of a Nation.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

It became apparent early on that young Nat was also remarkably gifted. For example, he possessed a natural affinity for reading, a talent that Turner family matriarch, Miss Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), sought to develop. Even though she refused to teach him about material in the books “that his people wouldn’t understand,” she nevertheless instructed him in the teachings of the Bible, training that qualified him to serve as a preacher to his fellow slaves. And, after years of such tutelage, an elder Nat (Nate Parker) routinely ministered to his peers. With Miss Elizabeth’s encouragement, he even gave occasional scripture readings at the local parish, drawing moderately receptive reactions from White members of the congregation, a response not lost on the resident pastor, Rev. Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr.).

Despite the plantation’s past success, drought and rising costs caused the operation to fall on hard times once an elder Samuel (Armie Hammer) assumed the reins. He needed a way to supplement his income, and Rev. Zalthall came up with a proposal that he believed might fill the financial gap. Given the comfort that Nat seemed to offer his peers, Rev. Zalthall suggested that maybe he could do the same for the slaves at neighboring plantations, many of whom had begun to grow increasingly “restless.” Rev. Zalthall suggested to Samuel that perhaps he could offer Nat’s services to nearby plantation owners for a fee, an arrangement that the Reverend believed would allow everyone to benefit.

Samuel was a bit reluctant to embrace this idea at first, but he eventually agreed, a decision he grew comfortable with once he saw the money begin to roll in. Nat, meanwhile, was pleased for the opportunity to do what he loved, but the experience was an eye-opener for him, especially when he saw firsthand how harshly other plantation owners treated their slaves. This, along with a series of other incidents, led to a simmering ire. When Nat was confronted with the unprovoked beating of his wife (Aja Naomi King) at the hands of bounty hunters, Samuel’s forced prostitution of a fellow slave (Gabrielle Union) to appease one of his financial backers and, eventually, a thrashing of his own for daring to debate scripture with Rev. Zalthall, he reached his limit and decided to strike back, supported by a cadre of peers from his own and surrounding plantations, a response with devastating and bloody consequences.

Field hand and occasional preacher Nat Turner (Nate Parker, left) marries his longtime love, Cherry (Aja Naomi King, right), in the haunting new historical drama, “The Birth of a Nation.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

When events like this occur, many enlightened, reasonable souls look upon them and wonder how they could possibly happen. However, if the causes behind such incidents are examined closely, it’s understandable how they arise. This, of course, raises the questions, “Can they be avoided? And, if so, how?”

In scenarios like this, both sides of the conflict need to take a serious look at their actions, which, in turn, means that they also need to examine the underlying beliefs, thoughts and intents that manifested them. This is at the heart of the conscious creation process, the means by which we materialize the reality we experience. Unfortunately, all too often in situations like this, those at the heart of these incidents neglect to take this step, leaving them perplexed, faced with circumstances that are difficult to resolve and often characterized by reactions ranging from challenging to downright harrowing, as was the case here.

Since conscious creation makes it possible to realize all things conceivable – for better or worse – it comes with the territory that even the unconscionable is capable of being made manifest, no matter how unthinkable such creations might seem to many of us. In light of that, one would also likely hope that, once such materializations are given tangible expression, their inherent deplorability becomes so self-evident that any inclination to re-create them would simply vanish without a second thought. Regrettably, however, that is seldom the case, and we fall back into patterns of repetitive creations and behavior.

This is where the power of example – particularly as illustrated through the power of story – can make a difference. By witnessing the impact of such manifestations, we have an opportunity to change our thinking, making it possible to embrace different sets of beliefs and, subsequently, to materialize different outcomes. They truly give us pause to think, “Do we really want to go down that road again?” And, in the case of this story, that question should be pertinent to those on both sides of the conflict portrayed here.

As history has repeatedly shown, inhumane treatment can’t go on forever; a backlash will eventually result, a reaction many would see as understandable. But, in the long run, does retribution really solve anything? It may lead to some reforms in the short term, but does it really get to the heart of the matter? In the case of the race relations issue, nearly 200 years have passed since Nat Turner’s uprising, and yet we’re still dealing with some of the same prejudices and injustices that prompted this incident in the first place. True, they may not be on the same scale as before, but they persist nonetheless. Indeed, if meaningful change is to come, we must address the underlying questions that have caused these issues to begin with. If we ignore the issue and fail to change our beliefs, we may regret our decision.

Rebel slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker, center) leads an armed uprising against Virginia plantation owners in “The Birth of a Nation.” Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

While “The Birth of a Nation,” on its surface, is a historical drama, it’s also a powerful parable with a strong cautionary message for us today. Its impact is obviously strongest with regard to the race relations issue, but the film’s significance is just as applicable to other contemporary conflicts. Given the current polarization in areas like economic status and political leanings, it’s easy to see the potential for conflict bubbling up from the collective consciousness and into physical existence. We’d be wise to take the picture’s message to heart and take appropriate measures while we have the chance to do so.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a beautifully filmed, well-acted, well-told rendition of Nat Turner’s legacy, even though the historical accuracy of the uprising’s brutality is somewhat downplayed. The picture profoundly depicts the harshness and indignities of slave life in a graphic (though, thankfully, never gratuitous) way, effectively showing viewers only what they need to see and letting their imaginations do the rest (unlike the often-nauseating portrayals wantonly showcased in the highly touted, excessive and cinematically inferior “12 Years a Slave”). Although somewhat episodic at times, the haunting narrative offers a potent, moving message that’s particularly relevant for today’s emotionally charged society.

The film also represents a breakthrough accomplishment for writer-actor-director Nate Parker. His efforts prove quite revelatory, especially since his prior pictures, like “Beyond the Lights” (2014), did more to showcase his physique than his talents. “The Birth of a Nation” has established Parker as a bona fide rising star, someone whose work is worthy of serious merit, perhaps even awards consideration.

We all have our limits, and we should seek to reconcile the differences that push us toward them before reaching them. “The Birth of a Nation” offers us a valuable cautionary tale on that point. And, for the sake of our future, we’d better listen to it.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Denial," "Operation Avalanche" and four Chicago Film Festival offerings are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the Blog Page of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, October 17, 2016

‘Operation Avalanche’ asks ‘What do you believe?’

“Operation Avalanche” (2016). Cast: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Jared Raab, Andrew Appelle. Archive Footage: John F. Kennedy, James Webb. Director: Matt Johnson. Screenplay: Josh Boles and Matt Johnson. Web site. Trailer.

From time to time, it’s not unusual for each of us to stand back, take a look at our existence and ask ourselves, “What are we to make of our world?” When we ponder that idea, many of us invariably turn to deciphering our beliefs in an effort – sometimes successful, sometimes not – to make sense of our reality. That’s the conundrum faced by a pair of naïve, idealistic neophytes in the quirky new thriller, “Operation Avalanche.”

This new “found footage” offering takes the genre in an inventive new direction, going beyond the cheesy horror flicks that have long typified it. Set in 1967, the picture follows the sometimes-comical, sometimes-sinister exploits of a pair of fresh-faced college grads (Matt Johnson and Owen Williams playing “themselves”) recently recruited by the CIA as part of its effort to mine American universities for the best and brightest young minds. The newly arrived nerdy, clean-cut novices look to find their way within the agency. But, no matter what work they’re assigned, more than anything else, they fancy themselves would-be filmmakers seeking opportunities to put their skills to use in an official capacity.

When word leaks out that a Soviet spy may have infiltrated the US space program, potentially threatening NASA’s efforts at being first to the moon, Johnson and Williams make a pitch to be named to the CIA team charged with exposing the mole. They propose posing as filmmakers producing a documentary about the Apollo program, a ploy that would give them virtually unfettered access to Mission Control, as well as a credible cover for their true intents. Before long, the duo sets off for Houston, convinced that they’ll be able to find their man and have some fun doing it along the way. If only they knew what they were getting themselves into.

Once on assignment, Johnson and Williams soon find that there’s much more going on than they ever anticipated. Besides the Soviet spy threat, they also learn, through clandestinely recorded phone conversations allegedly involving NASA Administrator James Webb, that there may be big problems within the US space program that have nothing to do with espionage. With the US and the USSR at the height of the Cold War, their respective space programs carry tremendous propaganda value, and American officials express grave concerns about what a foul-up would mean, both scientifically and, more importantly, geopolitically.

Once again, Johnson and Williams step up with a solution. Given the nature of their proposal, their mission quickly changes, taking their work in directions they never envisioned. But, since the changes in their assignment still involve filmmaking, they happily go along with the program, especially when it affords them an opportunity to meet and interact with one of their directorial idols, Stanley Kubrick.

However, the deeper Johnson and Williams get into their assignment, the more ominous it becomes. The fun and games approach they started off with disappears, placing their mission, as well as their lives, in serious jeopardy, especially when it becomes apparent they no longer know who to trust. What’s more, when they begin to consider the implications of what they’re being tasked to do, they each begin wrestling with their conscience, especially if what they’re working on is allowed to proceed to completion. Indeed, can they truly live with what they’re doing, considering the ramifications involved? Of course, that will all depend on whether they’re able to keep themselves alive in the first place.

When we look at how our lives unfold, we’re often left with our heads spinning, especially if events don’t transpire as planned or hoped for. However, when we realize we’re at the center of the events we’re experiencing, we can’t deny the role we play in their manifestation. Recognizing that we’re responsible for what’s occurring gives us a new perspective on our world. Such an awareness is the starting point for understanding the existence of, and our role in, the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, if Johnson and Williams are to make it through their challenges, they had better grasp the concept sooner rather than later.

The biggest issues the filmmaking duo faces involve figuring out the true nature of what’s happening and who to trust. To do that, they need to get their beliefs in order, particularly those related to their power of discernment. By paying attention to the input provided through their intellect and intuition – the chief influences in belief formation – they have an opportunity to incisively sort out their thoughts and, one would hope, use them to turn them to their advantage.

Discernment is especially crucial here, given the many forces at work in the manifestation of this story. All of those involved in the co-creation of this scenario have their own agendas – some at odds with one another – even if they’re all ostensibly part of the same larger event. Thus the ability to truly understand the nature of circumstances like these is essential if we want our contributions to them to work to our benefit. For Johnson and Williams, the stakes in this couldn’t be higher.

The race to the moon, with all its attendant fallout, comes under serious scrutiny in the quirky new thriller, “Operation Avalanche,” the latest offering in the “found footage” genre. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

Interestingly enough, even those with nefarious intents can play a valuable role in affairs like this. Manifestations at cross-purposes with those of would-be heroes keep them on their toes, forcing them to get creative and to push past preconceived limitations to come up with solutions (and the beliefs that materialize them) that counter efforts driven by questionable intent. Challenging circumstances prompt the need for creative solutions, and pushing the envelope in that regard is one of the hallmarks of conscious creation theory.

The foregoing also draws attention to the role integrity plays in the conscious creation process. When we don’t make allowances for it in how we form our beliefs, results can become distorted, creating new and potentially bigger challenges (and the need for yet more boundary-pushing creativity). However, when we seek to manifest our existence in line with this principle, the results can be rewarding, fulfilling and spot-on in terms of its authenticity.

Of course, for those with inherently questionable agendas, integrity may take on a “different” appearance. Indeed, it may seem to be wholly absent when, in fact, it’s actually present, even if it takes a form most of us either wouldn’t recognize or sanction. Those who genuinely believe in the need for things like secret wiretapping and other dubious undercover tactics will likely get the results they seek, no matter how appalling others may view such measures. Ultimately, however, such steps may end up yielding bigger issues down the road, so attempting to envision the long-term consequences may prove the prudent course overall.

This once again spotlights the importance of discernment. By employing it when assessing integrity-related matters, we can better pinpoint the character of our beliefs in this regard. This is particularly crucial when the implications are substantial. Johnson and Williams should heed this caution as they proceed, as should the rest of us.

“Operation Avalanche” is arguably one of the most clever offerings ever to emerge from the found footage genre. The cinematography is particularly noteworthy, effectively mimicking the look of old, crumbling, faded 8-mm film, with its crackly images and jarring hand-held camera work. The picture’s intriguing story line, authentically re-created look of the ʼ60s, hilarious sight gags, offbeat humor and ample suspense make for an unusual mix, breathing new life into a style of filmmaking that has grown progressively stale. Space helmets off to the creators of this fun and poignant little offering.

Taking a hard look at our world requires us to take a hard look at ourselves, usually from multiple standpoints. But, if we’re to make sense of it, we must be hard on ourselves, deftly employing our discernment skills, particularly when it comes to assessing the degree of authenticity we bring to the manifestation table. To do otherwise invites potentially serious consequences, both for ourselves, those with whom we interact and perhaps even others with whom we have no perceived connection. That’s a tall order to satisfy, but it’s one truly worthy of serious consideration given what’s potentially at stake.

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

‘Howards End’ extols the virtues of kindness, compassion, integrity

“Howards End” (1992, original release; 2016, re-release). Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Samuel West, James Wilby, Adrian Ross Magenty, Nicola Duffett. Director: James Ivory. Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Book: E.M. Forster, Howards End. Web site. Trailer.

A little kindness goes a long way, sometimes much further than any of us might expect. That’s a meaningful lesson for those who need some gentle nudges in that direction, and it’s an imperative for anyone who brazenly puts self-interest before all else. Such is the message of the 1992 award-winning screen classic “Howards End,” recently released in theaters in a digitally restored 25th anniversary edition.

Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, the story of this engaging drama is rather involved, but it basically concerns the relationship of two sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter), with members of early Twentieth Century London society at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Margaret befriends Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), the kindly but dying matron of a wealthy family who adores the sanctuary of her country home, Howards End. Ruth so appreciates the compassion that her new friend shows her that she seeks to bequeath the estate to Margaret, a decision looked upon askance by Ruth’s husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), her son, Charles (James Wilby), and her daughter-in-law, Dolly (Susie Lindeman). The Wilcoxes’ efforts to thwart Ruth’s wishes, though, take a number of unexpected twists and turns after her death, especially when Margaret becomes close to those who initially oppose her.

Helen, meanwhile, befriends an economically troubled clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), desperately seeking to support himself and his wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett). Over time, the relationship between Helen and Leonard grows progressively more intimate, a development viewed disdainfully by the Wilcoxes – that is, until unsavory secrets about their own connection to the Bast family are unexpectedly revealed. These revelations complicate matters all the more for everyone involved, leading to a stormy climax with wide-ranging implications, as well as more than its fair share of irony.

Kindly, wealthy matron Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave, left) befriends kindred spirit Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson, right) in the screen classic, “Howards End,” recently released in theaters in a new, digitally remastered edition to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Given the intriguing story line of this film, it’s interesting to see how matters play out, with developments driven principally by the intents underlying them. The nature of those intents is important, too, not just here, but also in general, since they form the basis of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience – in all its aspects – through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

The beliefs that characterize the principals’ prevailing outlooks are especially crucial in this story, because they affect all of the particulars of their daily existences. Ruth and the Schlegel sisters, for instance, obviously believe in compassion and kindness, and their lives unfold with qualities and events reflective of this mindset. Outcomes may not emerge immediately nor without hitches, but the power and integrity driving the beliefs underlying them ultimately won’t be denied, no matter what obstacles may pop up. Prospective impediments inevitably can’t hold sway, because they inspire the creation and implementation of metaphysical workarounds aimed at dissolving whatever obstructions may appear.

In contrast to the beliefs of Ruth, Margaret and Helen, the self-serving worldview of Henry, Charles and Dolly yields results commensurate with their thinking. Their attempts at using beliefs to manipulate circumstances prove particularly telling, especially when they come into conflict with those driven by sincerity and altruism. The impact of these concocted intents essentially becomes thwarted, because those who put them forth know that they’re operating contrary to the stated wishes of others (and the inherent power of the beliefs that drive them). Gaming the system like this will only get someone so far, because the tainted nature of such manipulative beliefs can’t overpower those that emerge from genuine origins.

As stated above, this illustrates the significance of integrity in belief formation and implementation. If we work against this, we introduce contradiction into the mix, which, as with fear and doubt, throws a major wrench into the manifestation process. Results either don’t materialize or manifest in “distorted” forms, conditions that won’t change until genuine, full-fledged sincerity is introduced or reintroduced into the process. We should all bear that in mind if we think we can get away with swaying matters in directions that we know aren’t authentic. To attempt to do so will surely result in disappointment.

Sisters Helen and Margaret Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter, left, and Emma Thompson, center) confront Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins, right), widower of their deceased friend Ruth, when the wishes of her last will and testament are placed in jeopardy in the screen classic, “Howards End,” recently released in theaters in a new, digitally remastered edition to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Acts of empathy – and acts of deliberate deception – come with consequences, both good and bad, and “Howards End” showcases them beautifully. This is elegant, masterful filmmaking at its best in virtually all respects, but then such scrupulously high standards are to be expected from the famed direction-production team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. The performances, cinematography and period piece production values are top notch and made all the more glorious by the picture’s remastering for the big screen.

“Howards End” was widely acclaimed at the time of its original release, and it was lavishly honored in awards competitions at the time. The film earned three Oscars, including for Thompson’s lead performance and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay adaptation, on nine total nominations, including nods for by best picture, director, cinematography and supporting actress (Redgrave). It also captured a Golden Globe Award for Thompson’s lead portrayal on four total nominations, including nods for best picture, director and screenplay. The Cannes Film Festival bestowed further honors on the picture as the winner of the event’s 45th Anniversary Prize and as a nominee for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor.

At a time when disparities between the haves and have-nots grow ever wider and when compassion and kindness seem to be in increasingly short supply, films like “Howards End” mean a lot to us, helping to restore our faith in our capacity to care. Let us hope the message is not lost on us.

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

‘Miss Peregrine’ validates the ‘peculiar’ found in each of us

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2016). Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Terence Stamp, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffielle Chapman, Pixie Davies, Aiden Flowers, Nicholas Oteri, Helen Day, Philip Philman, Jack Brady, Scott Handy, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Director: Tim Burton. Screenplay: Jane Goldman. Book: Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Web site. Trailer.

In an age where many of us feel like we’re being coerced into various forms of social homogenization, it can be difficult for those who are “different” – perhaps even downright unconventional – just to get by. The pressure to conform can be unbearable, maybe even perilous, especially when confronted with the intolerance of the powers that be. Thankfully, though, there are those who are not afraid to stand up for themselves – or who are willing to protect those who are unable to do so – to keep dastardly influences at bay. That’s the drama that plays out in the delightful new Tim Burton fable, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”

Based on the book of the same name, this colorful adventure’s plot is too involved to detail here, but the picture essentially involves the exploits of Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), a somewhat geeky teenager who’s thrust into investigating the murder of the doting grandfather (Terence Stamp) he so dearly adores. His inquiry quickly leads him into a supernatural adventure involving time travel, protected temporal sanctuaries, and a host of unusual characters, including a home full of specially gifted youngsters (Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffielle Chapman, Pixie Davies), their loving protector, Miss Alma Peregrine (Eva Green), and a cabal of evildoers (Helen Day, Philip Philman, Jack Brady, Scott Handy) seeking to undermine the children’s efforts to be themselves, led by their nefarious mastermind, Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). The result is a rollicking, sometimes-frightening, sometimes-wondrous, sometimes-hilarious jaunt across time and alternate dimensions.

Geeky teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, left) befriends Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell, right), one of a number of unusually gifted youngsters, in director Tim Burton’s delightful new cinematic fable, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Photo by Jay Maidment, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Much of the narrative in “Miss Peregrine” deals with our willingness to keep limitations from holding us back. That’s particularly true for the children in this story, who possess remarkable powers, such as the ability to control the air (Purnell), the ability to project dreams as visual images (Keeler-Stone) and superhuman strength (Davies). Their protector, Miss Peregrine, has comparable talents of her own, like the ability to shape-shift, transforming herself into a bird (hence her name) at will. These talents are far from mainstream capabilities, abilities that easily might intimidate those who don’t possess them. The kids and Miss Peregrine recognize this, too, freely referring to themselves as “peculiars.” But they also don’t let these unconventional skills inhibit them from being themselves. They’re unafraid to make use of their faculties when warranted.

So how have the peculiars come to have these abilities? It’s because they believe they possess them, and those beliefs, in turn, shape the reality they experience. This principle is the cornerstone of conscious creation philosophy, the means by which we materialize the existence we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, based on the powers that the children and their protector wield, it’s apparent they’re quite proficient at it, too.

The beliefs that are most important here are those having to do with pushing boundaries and exceeding the kinds of limitations that tend to hold most of us back. When we open ourselves up to new possibilities through the power of our thoughts, unimaginable new vistas open up. The peculiars set a valuable example in this regard, and the one who benefits most from that in this story is Jake. His involvement with his newfound friends exposes him to possibilities he hadn’t considered before, a notion that will serve him well as he becomes aware of previously unknown abilities of his own.

Those who possess talents like this, however, often come under attack from others who would either seek to steal their powers or thwart them from exercising them. Challenges like this are often difficult to handle, but they also push us to affirm our beliefs and what they are intended to manifest. That’s the role of the evildoers in this story; they help to galvanize the strength of Miss Peregrine’s, Jake’s and the children’s convictions, as well as everything that come with them. Such situations may be frustrating in the short term, but they ultimately make everyone stronger in the long run, perhaps even opening up further possibilities that hadn’t been previously considered.

Miss Alma Peregrine (Eva Green), protector of unusually gifted youngsters, matches wits with a cadre of nefarious evildoers in the whimsical new fantasy adventure, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Photo by Jay Maidment, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Curiously, even though the peculiars aren’t afraid to be themselves, they’ve also intentionally chosen to sequester themselves for the most part in specialized temporal milieus known as “loops.” One might legitimately wonder what underlies such a withdrawal. But, when we become practiced at creating our own reality, doesn’t it make sense to manifest an existence specifically tailored to our liking, even if it means separating ourselves from much of mainstream society and everyday life? In many ways, this is just a further extension of the peculiars’ conscious creation skills. And, based on what they’ve been able to create for themselves, they’ve materialized a pleasant sanctuary, one in which most of us would probably feel right at home. To live under circumstances we enjoy with peers we find compatible is the best of all worlds, and the peculiars show us how to achieve it.

The story line of this film delves into a number of other themes as well, such as questions about life, death and aging, and it offers an intriguing parable about historical events. Given everything that’s going on in the picture, some have criticized it for being needlessly complicated, even undecipherable. However, I prefer to think of it as offering a banquet of intriguing and thoughtful ideas, many of them intricately intertwined, all wrapped up in one neat little package. Decide for yourself, but, if you go in with an open mind – pushing past conventional limitations (the central point of the film) – you’re likely to come away with having had an entertaining cinematic experience.

Though a little slow to start, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is full of macabre fun, splendid visuals and subtly effective metaphors. It’s also a celebration of what it means to be different yet to demand the acceptance and recognition to which we’re all rightly entitled. Admittedly, the pacing in the first hour needs a little quickening (which could have been accomplished with some astute editing), and the screenplay could stand a little tidying in spots, but overall there’s much to like here, especially in the highly inventive areas in which director Tim Burton traditionally excels. Have fun with this one, and don’t forget to closely inspect the details – you just might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Rejoicing in our differences should be cause for celebration. But, as author Caroline Myss has observed, those who announce their intent to stand out from the crowd are often shot on sight, metaphorically speaking, by less adventurous peers who are afraid that they themselves may one day be forced into comparable circumstances of their own. Yet, if we’re to be true to ourselves, we must not be afraid to recognize and embrace the qualities that distinguish us and then act on them in creating the reality we experience. To do less is to deny ourselves and to obstruct the expression of our true being, and fewer tragedies are greater than that. No matter how “peculiar” each of us may be in our own right, in the long run, it’s better to let those qualities shine than to keep them from ever seeing the light of day.

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