Thursday, July 27, 2017

On the Radio Today

Join host Frankie Picasso and me today, Thursday July 27, at 1 pm ET for the next Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio. We’ll talk about several current film releases and other movie news. Tune in live or listen to the on-demand podcast by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

‘Dunkirk’ reminds us of our power of choice

“Dunkirk” (2017). Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jochum ten Haaf. Web site. Trailers.

The horror of war is difficult to fathom by anyone who hasn’t lived through it, though movies have made earnest attempts to capture it, documenting what is, arguably, mankind at its worst. But imagine what it might be like if a film set during wartime were to take on the challenge of depicting humanity at its best under those same conditions. If you can envision that, then you have an idea of what transpires in director Christopher Nolan’s new World War II epic, “Dunkirk.”

In an attempt to stave off an aggressive German military advancing across Europe in 1940, British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops launched an assault on northern France involving 400,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, the effort proved to be a massive miscalculation, a strategic error that became all too apparent when Allied forces suddenly found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Based on orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the military’s top brass (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) began organizing an evacuation to bring the troops home to Britain, with the soldiers assembling on the beaches and in the harbor of the French port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the English Channel. Before long, however, the Allies became trapped, penned in by enemy ground forces and battered by ongoing attacks from the Luftwaffe, the formidable German air force. With nowhere to go, the soldiers became sitting ducks, and the Allied evacuation ships were easy targets for the persistent German assault.

The situation quickly appeared hopeless. But, miraculously, the tide turned when help arrived from an unexpected source: With word of the impending disaster spreading throughout Britain, everyday citizens came to the rescue. The owners of boats of all kinds – from yachts to fishing vessels to lifeboats – formed an impromptu armada, ferrying across the Channel to bring the boys home by any means possible.

“Dunkirk” tells the story of this seemingly improbable evacuation from three perspectives – the experiences of the soldiers on the beach (Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard), the heroic boat owners coming to their rescue (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) and the courageous Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) caught up in dramatic dog fights with their German counterparts seeking to destroy vessels making their escape. Through these various story threads, audiences witness the nearly constant peril in which the Allies found themselves. At the same time, the film also depicts the many hard choices the troops and citizen rescuers often had to make to save their colleagues and, in some cases, just to survive. But, despite these ever-present dangers, there was also the valiant campaign of the citizen heroes to defy the odds and see their goal realized.

In telling its story in this way, “Dunkirk” thus shows humanity at its worst and its best. In doing so, the film simultaneously shines a bright light on the power of choice, one of the cornerstone principles that drives the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

As the scenario depicted here clearly shows, as human beings, we have a choice in how we conduct ourselves, based on the beliefs we hold. We can sink to the level of savagery that is war, or we can choose more reasonable paths to settle our differences. Likewise, we can follow a course of compassion and support to rescue those in peril, or we can save ourselves and leave those in danger to fend for themselves. Either way in either case, the decisions rest with us and the intents we hold that bring our materializations into being.

At the time of these historic events, the powers that be may not have been aware of, or purposely chose to disregard, our ability to choose. Instead of making reasonable, civil choices, those calling the shots opted for the pursuit of their own self-serving ends, regardless of the consequences, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. And perhaps we needed to go through these experiences to learn the folly of our ways for future reference (although some might argue we’re still sorely in need of learning that lesson). In any case, by presenting both sides of the coin here, we’re provided with clear depictions of each option. What we decide to choose going forward depends on how well we distinguish the options available to us – and ultimately which one we choose. Let us hope, based on the experiences showcased in this film, that we make the right selection.

Tackling this message in a picture like this is a rather tricky tightrope to traverse, but one it’s expertly executed here. “Dunkirk” carries this off through a superb, ever-suspenseful narrative that’s masterfully backed up by excellent cinematography, editing, special effects and sound technology, as well as an edgy, skillfully applied original score by Hans Zimmer. These elements are effectively combined to tell an epic cinematic thrill ride that truly knocks it out of the park.

Admittedly, I was a little reluctant to screen this picture. I’m generally not a huge fan of the war movie genre; older offerings (particularly classic World War II films) tended to glorify the subject, while more recent releases (such as those chronicling the Vietnam Era) have graphically and gratuitously addressed the issue with their far from subtle “war is hell” messages. “Dunkirk,” however, successfully manages to avoid those pitfalls. It’s relentlessly intense, to be sure, but it never becomes wantonly explicit. Director Nolan wisely leaves many of the unseen narrative gaps to be filled in by the minds of his viewers, a skillful use of one of the hallmark techniques of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who innately knew that his audience members’ imaginations could concoct images far more affecting than anything he could possibly show on screen. That’s smart filmmaking from a director who, after many noble attempts, seems to have finally pulled together all of the elements that go into the making of a great picture.

Those looking for movies with deeper meaning might not think this a likely candidate for such a designation. But, unless you’re an exceptionally sensitive viewer, don’t let the subject matter of this film unduly scare you off. There’s much to be said here about what it means to rise to our own greatness as a species, especially in the face of inexorably harrowing circumstances. It’s also comforting to see that, no matter how atrocious our behavior can be, we always have the capacity to make up for it through our power of choice and our wherewithal to opt for acts of heroism, altruism and compassion when confronted with the onslaught of tyranny. And that’s perhaps the aspect of the miracle at Dunkirk that’s truly most worth celebrating, one that we should make an everyday practice in everything we create.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Dunkirk," "Under the Sun" and "Snowden," as well as a radio show preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

‘A Ghost Story’ explores the challenges and opportunities of the afterlife

“A Ghost Story” (2017). Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Will Oldham, Liz Cardenas Franke, Kenneisha Thompson, Rob Zabrecky, Sara Tomerlin, Margot Tomerlin, Sylvie Tomerlin, Savanna Walsh. Director: David Lowery. Screenplay: David Lowery. Web site. Trailer.

What happens after we die? Some might say that’s the ultimate mystery. There has been much speculation on the subject, and, because of increased attention to such phenomena as near death experiences and after-death communications, a variety of views have emerged. Some see the afterlife traditionally, while others view it as a different state of existence that operates according to a different set of rules. In light of that, then, perhaps a more appropriate inquiry than what happens might be what does it mean to be dead? That’s a question wrestled with in the intriguing new mystical drama, “A Ghost Story.”

As a young composer (Casey Affleck) and his significant other (Rooney Mara) debate the future of their living arrangements, the songwriter is tragically killed in a car accident just steps from his home driveway. His stunned, grieving partner is left even more uncertain about what now lies ahead for her, but she tries to carry on despite the unexpected circumstances. However, as bewildered as she is, her deceased counterpart is even more baffled, unsure how to proceed now that he’s on the other side of life. With no clear idea what to do, the now-sheet-covered spirit leaves the morgue where he was pronounced dead and returns to the residence he shared with his other half, a place he obviously loved, in part for the sense of history he felt was associated with it.

Upon arrival at “home,” the wandering spirit watches what unfolds there in his absence from corporeal existence. He witnesses his beloved struggle to get her life together, an effort that proves difficult given the “ghosts” that figuratively haunt her and keep her from moving forward. In fact, it becomes so difficult that she eventually decides to move out, seeing it as the only way to make any personal progress. This gesture, however, leaves her dearly departed alone and confused, not sure what to do next.

Before long, the house has new residents, a single mother (Sonia Acevedo) and her two children (Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez), a development that troubles its apparitional occupant. He feels possessive of what he considers his space and resents sharing it with strangers. In fact, in pure ghostly fashion, he switches to haunting mode and quickly drives them from the house. However, even though his efforts force them from the premises, it doesn’t keep others from moving in. The resident spirit discovers this when a new set of tenants arrives and throws a big party, a celebration with more guests than the house phantom can possibly scare off.

However, in a curious way, the party proves to be an enlightening, catalytic moment for the event’s noncorporeal guest. He listens intently as a prognosticating partygoer (Will Oldham) pontificates about his views on the nature of life, death, legacy, remembrance and a whole host of other related topics. It gives the unseen visitor pause to contemplate where he is, why he’s there and what lies ahead, launching him into an odyssey across a variety of temporal and dimensional realities and raising all sorts of possibilities involving considerations as diverse as choice, self-awareness and personal destiny. At this point, the key question begins to turn from “what does it mean to be dead?” to “what does it mean to be ourselves?”

As the disembodied spirit comes to discover, the key consideration in this is the matter of choice, one of the principal concepts associated with the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. He learns that choice is not something limited to the living; it’s just as available to the deceased, and all the departed need do is recognize and make use of it. In fact, given the different rules under which the afterlife operates, it would seem to be in the protagonist’s best interests to avail himself of this capability, since more options are available (and easier to bring into existence) here.

A songwriter (Casey Affleck, right) and his significant other (Rooney Mara, left) contemplate the future of their living arrangements – and eventually of existence – in the new mystical drama, “A Ghost Story.” Photo by Bret Curry, courtesy of A24.

So why does it take so long for our ghost to figure this out? As in any conscious creation scenario, it all comes down to beliefs. If he chooses to manifest a particular outcome, that’s what will follow. But first he must recognize that he has the power of choice available to him and formulate beliefs in line with that notion. As for what he does with that power, that depends on the particular beliefs he chooses to embrace. If he’s convinced that his reality is imbued with qualities like those he experienced in physical existence, then his afterlife experience will follow suit, unfolding in accordance with the beliefs that govern its manifestation despite his presence in a different dimension from whence he came. But, if he were to seek something new, he could bring that about, too, simply by changing his beliefs. And, as noted earlier, since these manifestation efforts appear to come into being more easily in this reality compared to physical existence, bringing about such change through a deliberate exercise of his power of choice should be a piece of cake.

Considering the limitations of physical reality, many of us would probably be envious of the removal of creative restrictions that existence in the afterlife seems to afford. Knowing that, then, one might wonder why the protagonist chooses such a “conventional” path to launch his afterlife experience. But, given that he went through a seemingly unexpected demise, his attachment to his corporeal residence and his uncertainty about what to do after his passing, he falls back on his prevailing beliefs, returning to the place where he believes he belongs, despite having an infinite range of other possibilities. This is significant from a conscious creation standpoint, because it effectively illustrates how stubbornly beliefs can persist, in this case even beyond the boundaries of one reality and into the next. Those who wonder why it’s sometimes difficult to change belief tracks can look to this as evidence of how strongly they may hold on, staunchly resisting change despite our power of choice and the range of options open to us.

As our afterlife explorer moves toward embracing his power of choice, he begins to see what’s behind the beliefs to which he’s so strongly been adhering. He comes to understand why he’s so preoccupied with staying in place, despite moving into a new reality in which to experience it. This provides him with an opportunity to assess whether it’s what he still wants – and makes him aware that he has the power of choice to select something new if he so desires.

This is a lesson not only for the departed; it’s a message for the living, too, especially for those of us who feel we don’t have any say over our circumstances. We do have the ability to choose otherwise as long as we’re willing to recognize, accept and exercise it. And, as should be apparent from the nature of this story, if we hope to pursue a different course in our physical existence, we’d be wise to do so before it’s too late.

A lost spirit seeks to find its way through the afterlife in director David Lowery’s new mystical drama, “A Ghost Story.” Photo by Bret Curry, courtesy of A24.

I struggled a bit in evaluating “A Ghost Story.” It’s the kind of movie that, if you’re well-versed in philosophy, spirituality and metaphysics, you’ll probably love it. In addition to its exploration of the question of choice, the film’s presentation of such concepts as simultaneous time, detachment from outcomes (and, conversely, the disappointment of attachment), free will, spontaneous manifestation, eternal recurrence, the materialization of beliefs and many others is deftly handled, effectively shown rather than told in a manner that’s almost poetic thanks to its atmospheric production design, minimalist dialogue, inventive cinematography, skillful editing and ethereal soundtrack. There are also cinematic and narrative homages to a number of other films, such as “What Dreams May Come” (1998), “The Tree of Life” (2011) and “Always” (1989), and filmmakers, including the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick.

However, if you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, you’ll likely come away from this one with a decidedly puzzled expression. Now, while it’s certainly laudable that the director has aspired to make a picture that appeals to an intellectual and enlightened audience, the finished product could also be seen as an exercise in viewer frustration, one that capably preaches to the choir but fails to make new converts. What’s more, despite the film’s aforementioned strengths, it also suffers from a few weaknesses, such as several grossly overlong sequences (a fast forward remote would come in handy at times) and a pair of leads whose allegedly “subtle,” “nuanced” performances are euphemisms for bland portrayals that are often about as appealing as a bowl of cold porridge.

So, with that said, I give “A Ghost Story” a highly conditional, much qualified recommendation. If you’re well read on the subject, enjoy this one and relish everything it has to offer. On the other hand, if you’re not up to snuff on the subject matter, give this one a pass – or pick up a good philosophy book and start reading.

What we make of our afterlife, it would seem, is just as important as what we make of our life. But, to do that, we should strive to become aware of how those realities operate and the role we play in their functioning, for that will dictate the experiences we have. In doing so, we should choose wisely, especially when it comes to the beliefs we embrace, for they will dictate the outcomes that unfold – both here and in the hereafter.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Introducing The Cinema Scribe

I’m pleased to announce the launch of my new Internet radio segment, “The Cinema Scribe,” on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, a production of Project Bring Me 2 Life, a multifaceted web organization presenting a variety of information about metaphysics, philosophy, spirituality, music and art. A preview of the segment will air this Wednesday, July 19 at 12:30 pm ET, with new episodes beginning on August 2. The Cinema Scribe will then run twice a month on the first and third Wednesday.

So what is this new feature about? Unlike my continuing “Movies with Meaning” segments on Frankiesense & More radio and “Reviewers Roundtable” on New Consciousness Review radio, which present reviews of a variety of films and other movie-related information, each episode of “The Cinema Scribe” will focus on a single release, either in theaters or on one of the on-demand viewing options, probing the featured offering in depth.

For details on upcoming segments, visit the Project Bring Me 2 Life web site, or follow the organization’s posts on Facebook. Details will also be featured here and on the Facebook pages of my books, Get the Picture and Consciously Created Cinema. Tune in for some insightful movie talk!

Monday, July 17, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "A Ghost Story" and "Flowers" and a radio show preview are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

‘The Journey’ analyzes the art of consensus

“The Journey” (2016 production, 2017 release). Cast: Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Freddie Highmore, John Hurt, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Mark Lambert. Director: Nick Hamm. Screenplay: Colin Bateman. Web site. Trailer.

Bridging a gap is often quite a challenge, especially when it involves opposing parties who are philosophically miles apart. How can these adversaries be successfully brought together? And will the efforts aimed at that ultimately bear fruit? Those questions loomed large when warring factions sought to make peace in the wake of one of the world’s longest-running bloody feuds, the subject of the new speculative historical drama, “The Journey.”

For 40 years, Northern Ireland was caught up in a gruesome conflict known as “The Troubles” between those seeking to preserve its affiliation with the United Kingdom and those looking to unify it as part of the Republic of Ireland. Though framed largely as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, the ongoing battle was essentially political in nature, pitting Unionists loyal to the British crown against the separatist Irish Republican Army. The embittered enemies had tremendous hatred for one another, with vitriolic rhetoric and terrorist activity underscoring their mutual animosity.

However, after decades of carnage, the parties sought to make peace in 2006. Through negotiations conducted at St. Andrews, Scotland, Unionist leader Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and IRA political leader Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) came together to reach an accord. That was a tall order, though, given that the two men had never met nor spoken before. Could peace be achieved? Or would Northern Ireland be plunged back into civil war? Nervous onlookers, such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (Mark Lambert), had their fingers tightly clasped and were willing to do whatever they could to help facilitate the process.

Before the process even began, however, a potential glitch arose that threatened to derail the entire process. The start of the talks coincided with Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He planned to attend by flying to Belfast from Glasgow, Scotland, but bad weather led to a closing of the airport. To accommodate his needs, UK officials arranged for an alternate flight from Edinburgh, Scotland, but this new proposal required approval from both Paisley and McGuinness to make it happen. Paisley naturally agreed, but McGuinness placed a stipulation on his concurrence – that he be allowed to travel with his adversary.

One might wonder why someone would willingly want to accompany his mortal foe. But there was a certain logic to this request: If opposing forces seeking to make peace traveled together, there was less of a chance of an assassination attempt on either of them. And, given that McGuinness was motivated to achieve peace, he was willing to join his enemy if this would help increase the chances of that result.

It’s against this factual backdrop that the story of “The Journey” is set up. What follows, however, is an exercise in historic speculation.

Longtime adversaries Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall, right) and Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney, left) find themselves in uncomfortably close quarters during an unexpected road trip in the new speculative historical drama, “The Journey.” Photo by Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of IFC Films.

To get from St. Andrews to Edinburgh, Paisley and McGuinness are chauffeured in a government minivan, forcing the longtime adversaries together for the first time – and into uncomfortably close quarters at that. So, under circumstances like that, what might the antagonists talk about during the course of their journey – if at all? That’s what the film seeks to explore.

Seeing this as an opportunity to assess what’s on the minds of the opponents, British Intelligence official Harry Patterson (John Hurt) assigns one of his operatives, Jack (Freddie Highmore), to drive his subjects to the Edinburgh airport. The vehicle is clandestinely fitted with audio and video equipment to capture the conversation between Paisley and McGuinness, and Jack is charged with finding ways to instigate a dialogue between his passengers.

What follows is perhaps one of the most unusual road trip stories ever committed to film. The conversation is slow to start and challenging to sustain, but, thanks to Jack’s inventive tactics to get Ian and Martin talking and a series of happy accidents that prolong the trip (and the dialogue), a number of intriguing revelations emerge. These disclosures present significant insights into the mindsets of the two leaders, offering clues as to how their summit will proceed – and what it will take to get results at the negotiating table.

Given the history of The Troubles, it’s almost miraculous that the 2006 peace talks came into being. Each side was so entrenched in its views that it was almost inconceivable that they could ever come together in agreement. But, thanks to the possibilities afforded by conscious creation – the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents – the futility that so many contended was immovable slowly melted away.

The key to this was the beliefs held by those seeking to make peace. Outwardly they may have appeared intransigent, but the fact that they agreed to hold the talks and willingly showed up for them revealed their desire to change the status quo. Their actions were a reflection of their true intents – that of ending the strife and ushering in a new era for the war-torn country. In fact, one might easily argue that getting to this point was more than half the battle; all that remained now was figuring out a way to make it work.

That’s where conscious creation again comes into play. To achieve a lasting peace, the negotiators needed to formulate beliefs that would make it possible. Admittedly, this was not an easy feat given their personal and national histories. But, since conscious creation makes all options possible, a solution was indeed feasible; it just meant coming up with the right combination of beliefs to bring it into fruition.

Formulating those beliefs required Paisley and McGuinness to go through a process of analysis: Why did each of them believe as they did for so long? What were the points of contention (and the beliefs that supported them) that kept them apart? What impact did their personal experiences have on getting to this point? Likewise, what influence did their constituencies’ experiences have on the process? And, perhaps most importantly, knowing all that, what would it take to get beyond those hindrances to move forward?

Foes in the Northern Ireland conflict, Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall, left) and Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney, right), engage in a series of profound and heated dialogues in anticipation of peace talks in director Nick Hamm’s speculative historical drama, “The Journey.” Photo by Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of IFC Films.

Answering those preliminary questions may not have been easy, since it called for resurrecting some long-simmering painful memories. But doing so was nevertheless entirely achievable. The more difficult task was coming up with an answer to that final question, because it challenged the conditions of the prevailing paradigm and would mean moving into uncharted territory. That can be tricky for even the most proficient conscious creators, since it means coming up with something workable that neither exists nor has ever been tried before.

This is where the importance of honing one’s envisioning skills comes into play. Successfully picturing an equitable solution involves knocking down all the obstacles and limitations that have kept the desired outcome from materializing previously. This, in turn, may call for making significant changes to, perhaps even sacrifices of, long-held and likely cherished notions, replacing outmoded beliefs with viable new ones aimed at bringing about the sought-after results. And, knowing how stubbornly beliefs can persist, this may require considerable metaphysical wherewithal, ample personal fortitude and an abundance of sincere goodwill, qualities that could be difficult to tap into for longstanding enemies. But, once the possibility is imagined, examined and embraced, real magic can begin to happen, and that’s what Paisley and McGuinness start to see for themselves through their series of dialogues.

As their conversations unfold, viewers witness the remarkable evolution of these individuals, both personally and as representatives of their respective causes. From a conscious creation standpoint, though, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that one of the philosophy’s central premises is that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. As our beliefs change, so, too, does the existence around us. Indeed, to quote metaphysical luminary Wayne Dyer, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Adopting such an outlook is crucial not only in our personal affairs, but also in our collective dealings. That undoubtedly weighed heavily on the minds of Paisley and McGuinness, since the peace process called upon both of them to work through their own views while acting as spokespersons for their constituencies. What would have happened, for example, if they had allowed personal grudges or prejudices to unduly cloud their thinking, inhibiting their envisioning and belief formation processes? Had this occurred, they could have held themselves back and potentially jeopardized the fate of their country.

This draws attention to the considerable responsibility involved in conscious creation. To attain the results we need for both ourselves and our peers, we must consider our beliefs carefully in light of the potential consequences involved. Thankfully, Paisley and McGuinness came to understand the wisdom in this, largely by talking out their issues and seeing how they and their beliefs had to evolve if they were ever to achieve the outcome that brought them together in the first place.

Though admittedly fictional, this film’s narrative hypothetically explores what it means to resolve conflict and what it takes to reach consensus, using the particulars of an actual conflict as the basis for discussing how these theoretical notions can be put into place. (Think of it as a modern-day equivalent of one of Plato’s dialogues, and you get the idea.) Strict historians might take issue with an approach like this. But, if we’re willing to suspend the need for authenticity, we have an opportunity to consider these questions from a “what if” perspective, something that we might be able to use in our own conflict resolution efforts. Granted, our personal disputes may not carry consequences as significant as the fate of a nation, but the underlying principles we can draw upon for working through them might easily be similar in nature – and just as applicable for reaching settlement.

Undercover government operative-turned-chauffeur Jack (Freddie Highmore) is charged with stirring up conversation between his two high-profile passengers in the new speculative historical drama, “The Journey.” Photo by Aidan Monaghan, courtesy of IFC Films.

What “The Journey” lacks in fidelity to fact is more than made up for by its thoughtful debates of conflict resolution issues, using the Northern Ireland peace process as a template for examining these issues. It answers such questions as why the dispute took so long to address and the remarkable steps required to bring about a workable solution. If we resist the temptation to take its narrative literally, we stand to learn a lot that has applications that extend well beyond the geopolitical community. Add to that the sizzling, award-worthy performances of Spall and Meaney, and you’ve got a riveting series of dialogues that, in lesser hands, might easily have come off as a dry, plodding history lesson.

While I usually have issues with films that take such blatant dramatic license, and even though the writing occasionally goes wildly off the rails, this imaginative take on this subject matter satisfies immensely without ever becoming tedious or pretentious. There’s more here than many of the dismissive accounts contend, and, in my view, this is material well worth watching – and perhaps applying when circumstances warrant.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

‘The Big Sick’ celebrates our power of choice

“The Big Sick” (2017). Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Shenaz Treasury, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Rebecca Naomi Jones, David Alan Grier, Jeremy Shamos, Vella Lovell, Linda Emond, Ed Herbstman, Myra Lucretia Taylor. Director: Michael Showalter. Screenplay: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Web site. Trailer.

Being oneself isn’t always easy, especially when we’re pressured to conform by others from both our culture and our own immediate family. The implications of this can be wide-ranging, too, including everything from our vocations to our romantic life. Those are among the challenges a would-be stand-up comedian from Pakistan must confront after he and his relatives immigrate to the US in the charming yet edgy new fact-based romantic comedy, “The Big Sick.”

Aspiring comic Kumail Nanjiani (portraying a fictional version of himself) longs to make it big doing stand-up. It’s a fulfilling though difficult path to follow, so, to keep a roof over his head in the meantime, he drives for a ride sharing service. But, when he’s not busy chauffeuring passengers, he spends his nights honing his craft at Chicago comedy clubs with fellow comics Mary (Aidy Bryant), CJ (Bo Burnham) and Chris (Kurt Braunohler), hoping to earn a slot at the prestigious Montreal comedy festival.

Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, portraying a fictional version of himself, seeks to build his career amidst a variety of challenges in the charming yet edgy romantic comedy, “The Big Sick.” Photo by Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures and Amazon Studios.

While doing his routine one evening, he’s playfully heckled by a plucky young woman in the crowd whom he chats up after his set. An almost-instantaneous connection develops between Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan), one that leads to a rather unconventional but undeniable romance. But maintaining this fledgling relationship has its challenges, especially since Kumail’s parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) keep trying to set him up in a traditional arranged marriage with a Pakistani wife, a far cry from the all-American girl he’s now dating.

To keep matters as simple as possible, Kumail’s intentionally evasive when his family presses him for his views about the many spousal prospects they introduce him to. What’s more, he tells them nothing about Emily, confiding only in his brother (Adeel Akhtar), who urges him to break off the relationship and get with the program. But Kumail feels compelled to follow his own course, despite the potential pitfalls.

As the couple grows more serious about one another, talk of a more lasting commitment begins to stir, especially when Emily tells Kumail she wants to introduce him to her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), when they visit from North Carolina. However, when Kumail makes no attempt to reciprocate, Emily grows suspicious, and, when she learns that he hasn’t told them about her, she’s furious. The budding romance quickly comes crashing down in what appears to be a fiery conclusion.

Aspiring comic Kumail Nanjiani (left), portraying a fictional version of himself, recounts the story of his own unconventional courtship with his eventual wife, Emily (Zoe Kazan, right), in director Michael Showalter’s new romantic comedy, “The Big Sick.” Photo by Sarah Shatz, courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures and Amazon Studios.

Not long thereafter, however, Kumail receives a frantic late night phone call from one of Emily’s friends (Rebecca Naomi Jones), informing him that she’s been hospitalized with a serious but unexplained illness. Given that Emily’s parents have not yet arrived, she asks Kumail to go stay with her in the emergency room. Considering their breakup, he hesitates initially but soon relents, a gesture that Emily rebuffs without hesitation as soon as she sees him.

Matters take a quick turn for the worse, however, when Emily’s doctors inform Kumail that her illness is much worse than thought and that she must be placed in a medically induced coma to stabilize her condition. Despite their recent past, he decides to hang in with her, a situation that becomes even more trying when Beth and Terry arrive to meet the man who broke their daughter’s heart.

These precarious circumstances thus set the tone for what follows. A number of story strands are left to play out, such as the state of Emily’s health, the future of Kumail’s professional stand-up career, his enduring challenges with his meddling family, and his relationship to a woman and her family with whom he no longer has any seemingly substantive connection. It’s a lot to work out, but it’s also a profoundly meaningful exercise in what it takes to truly become and be oneself.

Feeling family pressure to bow to the prospect of an arranged marriage, Pakistani stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani (right) is routinely cajoled about the idea by his father (Anupam Kher, second from right), brother (Adeel Akhtar, second from left) and sister-in-law (Shenaz Treasury, left) in “The Big Sick.” Photo by Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures and Amazon Studios.

But how exactly does one do this? It all comes down to what we believe about ourselves and what we want, because the beliefs underlying those notions will dictate what results. This is the product of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Of course, the key in this is getting clear about what those beliefs are in the first place. If we’re unsure or conflicted about the nature of our character or what we hope to achieve, we’ll likely wallow in a sea of indecisiveness and lack of focus. In Kumail’s case, for example, should he capitulate to his family’s wishes and marry a Pakistani bride, or should he follow his heart and courageously pursue his relationship with Emily? Likewise, should he stay committed to his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian, or should he give in to his mother’s wishes and become a lawyer? In both instances, only he can decide. But, whatever courses he follows, he needs to put the beliefs in place that make his choices possible.

To come up with appropriate beliefs, Kumail must take a number of factors into consideration. First, he must be honest with himself, giving license to his personal sense of integrity. Then he must recognize that he has a choice in the matter, that he’s not limited by what others want for him. Exercising that choice, though, may compel him to face fears and live heroically, overcoming whatever apprehensions that might be holding him back and limiting his options.

Should Kumail successfully draw upon these notions, he must then formulate suitable beliefs to manifest the existence he desires. This requires him to look to the input of his intellect and intuition, both of which feed into the belief formation process. Like many of us, he may be tempted to let his intellect dominate, because it’s seen as logical, rational and practical. However, if he relies on it too much, he might well exclude the less tangible, though more heartfelt influences that affect his decision-making process, a scenario that would most likely see him end up as an attorney in a traditional arranged marriage. By contrast, if he gives equal time to the impact of his intuition, he may realize just how much he loves Emily and stand-up comedy, leading him to a relationship and a vocation that give him the genuine satisfaction and fulfillment he seeks.

Troubled parents Beth (Holly Hunter, left) and Terry (Ray Romano, right) take a break from worries about their gravely ill daughter by attending a comedy club in the charming but edgy new romantic comedy, “The Big Sick.” Photo by Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures and Amazon Studios.

Much of this might seem like common sense, yet it’s astounding how often we downplay or ignore our true feelings. And, when we do that, the beliefs needed to attain the results we truly want don’t stand a chance. Is that what we really want? If not, we should consider our beliefs carefully, following and adhering to the wisdom of our inner selves. We may truly regret it if we don’t, and “The Big Sick” draws that into sharp focus.

This delightful romantic comedy brilliantly breathes new life into a genre that has grown progressively tiresome and stale. Based on the protagonist’s own unusual courtship experience, the film takes chances (and succeeds beautifully) that movies of this ilk are seldom willing to do. Despite a slight tendency to drag a bit in the final 30 minutes, this fresh, lively offering features fine performances all around (especially by Hunter and Romano in strong supporting roles) and raucously funny bits not typical of rom-coms. Anyone who’s ever had experiences with an unconventional relationship or the challenges of staking one’s own ground will certainly appreciate the wit and wisdom of this offering, as will those looking for something more out of the tried-and-true romantic comedy format.

It’s been said that those nearing the end of their lives often have more regrets about the things they didn’t do than the things that they did. Kumail’s experience shows us what it means to perch on the precipice of decision and indecision. For his sake, let’s hope he comes away from his dilemma on the right side of the fence.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Aspiring stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (right) and fellow comics CJ (Bo Burnham, left) and Mary (Aidy Bryant, center) seek their fortunes in director Michael Showalter’s new romantic comedy, “The Big Sick.” Photo by Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures and Amazon Studios.

‘Letters from Baghdad’ celebrates the life of a visionary

“Letters from Baghdad” (2016 production, 2017 release). Cast: Tilda Swinton (voice), Adam Astill, Tom Chadbon, Michelle Eugene, Andrew Havill, Eric Loscheider, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Helen Ryan, Pip Torrens, Rose Leslie (voice). Directors: Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl. Web site. Trailer.

Making one’s voice heard amidst a thunderous throng of opposing viewpoints can be difficult, especially in the face of an entrenched consensus and when expressed by someone who possesses qualities that might tempt others to downplay the significance of those divergent opinions. Yet making the effort to get those views heard is important, particularly when the stakes are high. So it was for an incredibly insightful woman seeking to be heard in the geopolitical arena, an area where others often tried to drown her out, an experience outlined in the engaging new documentary “Letters from Baghdad.”

British-born diplomat Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) is far from a household name, yet her influence was significant in the early 20th Century, even if she wasn't always taken seriously by some of her peers. As a longtime explorer of the Middle East, she became an accomplished scholar of the complex culture of the region, penning a number of books and papers about it. She thoroughly understood the nuances that characterized the tribal societies of the region, as well as the significant impact that occupying forces had on those cultures. She had much to offer to those who would listen to her; the trick, of course, was getting them to listen.

The life story of British-born diplomat Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) provides the basis of the inventive new documentary, “Letters from Baghdad.” Photo courtesy of Between the Rivers Productions.

In the male-dominated world of international politics, it wasn’t easy for a woman to be taken seriously. But those who took the time to listen to her could see and appreciate the depth of her knowledge, and they heartily embraced and endorsed her views, even if they put themselves in the minority for doing so. This earned Bell a number of prestigious diplomatic assignments with the British government, including being named the only female delegate to the Paris Peace Conference that formally ended World War I. Those who valued her opinions, like T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Winston Churchill and Sir Percy Cox, appreciated her input with various matters, most notably drawing the borders and setting up the government of post-war Mesopotamia (now Iraq). She would also go on to become the driving force behind the establishment of the world-famous National Museum of Iraq.

Yet, for all of her accomplishments, Bell also had her share of disappointments. For instance, in helping to set up the Iraqi government, she was discouraged by some of the ways it was mishandled. In particular, she was disappointed that what should have been an Iraqi government with British advisors had turned into a British government with Iraqi advisors. She could see the dangers in the imposition of Western ways on a traditions-based culture not accustomed to such practices, a prescience that would prove to be uncannily accurate years later.

Still, her accomplishments are noteworthy, and she overcame a number of obstacles to fulfill those goals. Much of that success can be attributed to her mastery of the principles of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that she was familiar with this line of metaphysical thought, but, through what she accomplished, it’s apparent she knew how to employ its principles.

British-born diplomat Gertrude Bell was one of many emissaries, such as Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, who traveled to Egypt to help determine the future and fate of the Middle East after World War I, one of her many diplomatic undertakings chronicled in the new documentary, “Letters from Baghdad.” Photo courtesy of Between the Rivers Productions.

For instance, Bell’s success as a woman in what was predominantly a man’s world at the time was a remarkable achievement. And she did so because she created that outcome. On some level, she believed that gender was irrelevant to understanding and shaping the workings of international politics. To that end, she successfully envisioned herself as a contributing member of the delegation that stepped to the forefront of such endeavors, one who earned the respect of colleagues, made her voice heard and even managed to silence some of her critics.

Of course, Bell was astute enough to adequately prepare herself for forming the beliefs that would underlie her manifestation plans. Her formal education and her experiences in the field richly served her intellect, while her observations of the lands and cultures she visited fed her intuitive understanding of those societies. That was significant, given that the intellect and intuition are the chief sources of input that fuel belief formation, a skill at which we should all become proficient as means to master our materialization efforts.

With such knowledge in hand, Bell was able to envision outcomes that went beyond the norms of the day. This enabled her to look past the constraining Western views of many of her colleagues, prompting her to come up with proposals that suited the region’s prevailing conditions, circumstances very different from what most of her peers were accustomed to. It’s unfortunate that some of her ideas weren’t taken to heart; they may have helped to save us considerable difficulty years later.

Years of studying and exploring the Middle East made British-born diplomat Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) an expert on the region’s culture and antiquities, as outlined in the new documentary, “Letters from Baghdad.” Photo courtesy of Between the Rivers Productions.

It’s astounding how someone who had achieved so much – having even become known as the female Lawrence of Arabia – has come to be a virtual unknown today. Thankfully, “Letters from Baghdad” brings her back to life, drawing exclusively upon her own words and those of her contemporaries, including personal letters, diaries, writings and official documents. Bell’s words are enlivened through the voiceover narration of Tilda Swinton, and those of her colleagues are expressed through re-created actor impersonations. Intercut with this material is a wealth of archival footage, many of it never seen before, depicting the Middle East of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl have assembled a remarkable documentary that provides a comprehensive view of its subject both personally and professionally, a rare fusion indeed. Its inventive cinematography, blending black-and-white and colorized footage, makes for intriguing viewing, bringing the images to life in a variety of ways. Admittedly, the narrative would have benefited from some additional historical context to better inform viewers who are less studied on the subject matter of the period, but, this shortcoming aside, the film presents a candid look into the life of someone who wielded considerable influence – and may have been able to accomplish even more were it not for the archaic prejudices of her day.

The successes of a visionary inspire us all, especially one who overcomes significant challenges to see his or her objectives realized. Gertrude Bell was one who possessed – and made use of – such prophetic insight. It’s indeed fortunate that her achievements have been resurrected through this film, providing us with the kind of inspiration we can all draw from in seeking the fulfillment of our own endeavors.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 10, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Journey," "Jim: The James Foley Story" and "The Lobster," all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Big Sick," "Letters from Baghdad" and "Embrace of the Serpent," as well as a radio show preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.