Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Counting Down the Top 10

Join host Frankie Picasso and me for the next edition of Movies with Meaning on The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More broadcast on Thursday, January 31, at 1 pm ET. In this special edition, we’ll talk about the Top 10 Movies of 2018. For the video version, tune in on Facebook Live by clicking here. And, for the audio only podcast edition, check out The Good Media Network’s home page by clicking here. Join us for a fun look back at the year’s best!

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Destroyer" and "Cold War," as well as a radio show preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.




Friday, January 25, 2019

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Capernaum," "An Acceptable Loss" and "Stan & Ollie" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

‘Capernaum’ chronicles the creative struggle to survive

Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ) (2018). Cast: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Haita ‟Cedra“ Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nadine Labaki, Elias Khoury, Nour El Hosseini, Joseph Jombazian, Farah Hasno, Joe Maalouf, Tamer Ibrahim. Director: Nadine Labaki. Screenplay: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojelly, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz and Khalid Mouzana. Web site. Trailer.

Survival can be a challenging proposition. The more difficult the circumstances, the harder it can be to get out from under. However, the more we can call upon our powers of creativity to come up with innovative solutions, the better our chances of succeeding – which can be critical when we have our very existence on the line. So it is for a young man up against trying conditions in the new, award-winning Lebanese drama, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ).

Growing up as a poor child in Beirut is tough enough. But growing up as a poor child in Beirut to parents who are pathologically neglectful and have had more kids than they can possibly afford is a challenge just to stay alive, let alone to hold on to even the slightest shred of personal dignity. Such is the life that Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) faces every day. His parents, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Yousef), have birthed so many children that they don’t even know how old their son is (estimates are that he’s 12 to 13). In fact, there are times when it seems like they don’t even know how many kids they have.

[caption id="attachment_10450" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Lebanese street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) struggles to survive against incredible odds in the heart-tugging new drama, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Christopher Aoun, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.[/caption]

Conditions like these force young ones to grow up fast. Zain, for instance, has developed a sharp streetwise sensibility at a tender age, much sooner than most other youngsters usually do. He’s learned how to protect himself, how to call things as he sees them, how to swear like a sailor and how not to take any guff from anyone. But, while it’s fortunate that he’s become savvy enough to deal with these circumstances, it’s a shame that he’s being left out of many of childhood’s joys.

To make matters worse, when Beirut’s street kids are deemed old enough, they’re expected to go to work to help support the household, even if they have to forgo school. For Zain and his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), this means helping out a local store owner, Assaad (Nour El Hosseini), son of the family’s landlord (Tamer Ibrahim). Zain does odd jobs around the shop and delivers groceries to neighborhood residents. But, as for Sahar, Assaad has other plans in mind. He’s lecherously smitten with her, routinely plying her with little indulgences like ramen and licorice.

Zain is incensed with Assaad’s leering ways. So it comes as no surprise that he loses it when he learns that his parents are looking to trade Sahar’s hand in marriage to Assaad in exchange for rent concessions from his landlord father, a questionable practice but one that’s not unknown in the community. In a fit of anger, Zain lashes out, incurring the ire of his parents in return. He now knows these circumstances are intolerable, so he leaves home without notice to chart a new path for himself.

[caption id="attachment_10451" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Beirut street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, left) does his best to protect his younger sister, Sahar (Haita ‟Cedra“ Izzam, right), against their unscrupulous parents and a lecherous store owner in the award-winning new Lebanese drama, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Christopher Aoun, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.[/caption]

Zain initially plans to relocate to his grandmother’s home. But, while traveling there, he changes his mind when he comes upon an amusement park. The colorful, lively attractions captivate him, given that they’re so different from what’s he accustomed to. He decides to explore what it has to offer, abandoning his original plan. He lives by his wits and begins looking for work from the local vendors, but no one is willing to hire him.

But all is not lost: Zain captures the attention of Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal alien from Ethiopia who works at the park under an alias using falsified immigration papers that are about to expire. Rahil has her hands full as the single mother of a toddler, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), so she’s limited in terms of how much help she can provide to Zain. However, given that she now has access to a potential babysitter, she can leave Yonas at home while she works, an option preferable to dragging him to her job and hiding him in a bathroom stall during her shift. And, in exchange for Zain’s services, Rahil provides him with food and a place to stay. It’s an arrangement that works relatively well, too – that is, until Rahil is picked up and incarcerated by authorities for immigration violations. To make matters worse, her arrest takes place without Zain’s knowledge. Suddenly the adolescent youngster is left to care for himself and a toddler all on his own.

[caption id="attachment_10452" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a single mother and illegal alien from Ethiopia working in Lebanon, does what she can to make ends meet for a growing toddler in director Nadine Labaki’s ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.[/caption]

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that Zain’s circumstances grow progressively more challenging, particularly when he’s forced into dealing with assorted shady characters, such as a crooked flea market vendor (Alaa Chouchnieh), to get by. His survival skills serve him well under these conditions, but eventually even they get pushed to the limit. A course of events is set in motion that require him to make hard choices and take drastic measures that have the potential to land him in trouble. But, with courage and some inventive thinking, he’s determined to have his say – even if it means doing so in court against unlikely opponents.

Capernaum,ˮ which translates as “Chaos,ˮ couldn’t be a more fitting title for this film. The deplorable conditions depicted here are something no one should have to endure, especially someone as young as Zain. Between the irresponsibility of his parents, the street life of Beirut and the circumstances of being thrust into becoming a caretaker for a young child who isn’t even his own, Zain has his hands full coping with the chaos around him. Yet somehow he manages to survive, because he believes he can. This is an outcome made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And the beliefs that Zain staunchly holds onto are precisely what he needs to stay afloat.

As becomes apparent from the film’s outset, Zain is a survivor because he needs to believe that he is one in order to get by. He has an unshakable faith in his abilities to somehow find a way to contend with the challenges facing him. And, with each new obstacle, he must continually steel his resolve in those beliefs and that faith, especially since the stakes get upped every time.

[caption id="attachment_10453" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Runaway street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, background) becomes an impromptu babysitter for Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, foreground) when the toddler’s mother goes to work in ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Christopher Aoun, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.[/caption]

Some might see the creation of such conditions as intolerable. However, as difficult and insufferable as they may seem to many of us, what better way is there to build up one’s fortitude, a crucial life lesson that we must all face at some point in our personal growth and development? It forces us to toughen our shells, as well as to think more creatively, outside the box and beyond conventional limitations. It requires us to build up our reserves of courage, to cast aside fears that might otherwise hold us back. And it’s essential considering the alternative.

Zain does all of this during his remarkable journey, and he does so on multiple fronts. That routinely calls for him to gather his wits and summon up whatever wherewithal he can muster to address the many issues he encounters. We can all learn a lot from his example, both in terms of our coping skills and our inventiveness. He simply doesn’t have the luxury of throwing up his hands and quitting. We should follow his lead when we face crises of our own.

[caption id="attachment_10454" align="aligncenter" width="300"]To address past transgressions, runaway street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, left), represented by his attorney (Nadine Labaki, right), takes on unlikely opponents in court in the award-winning new release, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.[/caption]

It’s a rare feat that a film is able to simultaneously warm and break your heart at the same time, but this intense, involving offering does just that. Director Nadine Labaki’s heart-tugging saga of children being left to fend for themselves by unfeeling parents and an unfeeling bureaucracy evokes genuine emotion through a story that’s presented with stark realism and not narrative manipulation. The performances of the two children are indeed impressive, making you feel as though you’re right alongside them in their harrowing odysseys. Because of that, you’ll want to keep the hankie handy for this one; you’ll need it for when the film touches your heart and for when it nearly rips it out of your chest.

Capernaum” has been widely recognized in awards competitions – and deservedly so. The film captured three honors at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, including the Jury Prize, the Ecumenical Jury Prize and the Prix de la citoyenneté (Social Responsibility Award), along with a Palme d’Or nomination, the event’s highest award. More recently, the picture was named a nominee in the foreign language film category in the upcoming Academy Award and BAFTA Award contests. Comparable nods were also bestowed on the film in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions, though it took home no statues in either contest.

It’s tragic that anyone should have to experience the kinds of circumstances that kids like Zain endure. Thankfully, though, we should be grateful for the creative resources that are available to us all to overcome such situations. They’re there when we need them, and all we need do is avail ourselves of them. The outcomes that result from doing so may truly surprise us, enabling us to ultimately turn things around in the end.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

‘An Acceptable Loss’ grapples with responsibility, redemption

“An Acceptable Loss” (2019). Cast: Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters, Rex Linn, David Eigenberg, Carmen Roma, Tim Hopper. Director: Joe Chappelle. Screenplay: Joe Chappelle. Web site. Trailer.

In an age when it’s become all too easy to abandon responsibility, especially among those in positions of authority, it’s refreshing to see those who are willing to own up to their mistakes and even seek to redeem themselves for their oversights and misdeeds. But even those who genuinely attempt to make up for these shortcomings may face a difficult time of it and through no fault of their own. So what is one to do under such circumstances? That’s one of the central questions raised in the intense political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.”

Former National Security Advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), once a powerful and influential counselor to the President, has become something of a reclusive enigma since her resignation four years ago. Even though she had attained an enviable status with the former chief executive (Rex Linn) and the current commander-in-chief, former VP Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), Libby has a cloud hanging over her head. She rarely makes public appearances, and, when she does, she’s usually met with derisive looks or outright hostility. Because of that, she tends to keep to herself. She’s even cut herself off from most outside means of contact, having no cell phone, email address or social media connections. Why the secrecy?

[caption id="attachment_10440" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Former National Security Advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter, right) confers with her onetime boss, President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis, left), regarding matters of global importance in the taut new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

Libby’s efforts at keeping an intentionally low profile become more difficult, however, when she accepts a teaching position at a major university in Chicago. Suddenly she’s in the spotlight again, perhaps not as much as before, but any visibility is more than what she’s experienced for quite some time, and it makes her conspicuously uncomfortable. Libby’s department chairman (Deanna Dunagan) tries to make the new arrival feel as welcome as possible, but the pall hanging over her always seems to cause embarrassment, difficulty or distress. Libby’s assigned assistant (Ali Burch) is anything but hospitable, and, at a faculty reception in her honor, she encounters loud and spiteful criticism from a fellow professor (David Eigenberg). Life in her new profession isn’t going to be easy.

About the only person in Libby’s corner is her father, Phillip (Clarke Peters), a newspaper publisher. He does his best to try and offer support to his daughter, but even his reassurances aren’t enough to silence the whispers and stifle the pointed fingers directed straight at her. She’s even concerned about how much contact he has with her for fear that guilt by association may harm his reputation.

So, under these circumstances, Libby goes to her job every day, followed by a neighborhood jog and then a return home to work on a lengthy document that she writes out in long hand on legal pads. She’s exceedingly intent in her work on the document, sometimes spending hours on end at it. And, upon finishing her writing each day, she locks up her papers in a sturdy antique safe. Whatever it is she’s working on, it must be pretty important if she’s willing to go to such lengths as to compose it without the aid of a computer and then to secure it so secretively.

As all of this unfolds, another issue arises as well. Unbeknownst to Libby, she’s being followed by a mysterious stalker who turns out to be one of her pupils, Martin Salhi (Ben Tavassoli), a foreign exchange grad student. What exactly does he want? Is he a would-be romantic interest? An obsessive fetishist? Or is he something else entirely? His methods and motives are unclear, but, as his actions grow progressively more cryptic and questionable, he begins raising suspicions among others, most notably his roommate, Jordan (Alex Weisman). What’s Martin up to?

[caption id="attachment_10441" align="aligncenter" width="300"]President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis, left) knows she can count on the loyalty of her fiercely devoted Chief of Staff, Adrian Little (Jeff Hephner, right), in the taut new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

And, if that weren’t enough, Libby starts receiving visits from ghosts of her past, most notably now-President Burke and her fiercely loyal Chief of Staff, Adrian Little (Jeff Hephner), Libby’s onetime romantic partner. The visits are contentious, to be sure. Libby is told that she’d be warmly welcomed back into the fold if she chose to return to the President’s service. But she’s also sternly cautioned that there would be serious consequences if she doesn’t toe the line if she fails to conduct herself as expected now that she’s back in the public spotlight. She’s obviously carrying potentially explosive secrets around with her, but what could they be? And what consequences would their revelation involve, both for Libby personally and the country (and world) at large? What’s more, what role does the stalker play in all this? Indeed, why is everyone pursuing Libby?

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that what lies ahead for all concerned – including the nation itself – carries implications of staggering proportions. How everyone fares will depend on how prepared they are to weather the storms coming their way – and whether those preparations are truly adequate.

So the question that naturally gets raised here is, how did Libby and everyone around her end up in these circumstances? The answer rests with the characters themselves and what they wrought, outcomes driven by their beliefs, the building blocks of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, given what’s at stake, the creators at work here are obviously dealing with some incredibly powerful notions.

[caption id="attachment_10442" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Tensions rise between Former National Security Advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter, right) and her onetime boss, President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis, left), in director Joe Chappelle’s taut new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.[/caption]

As becomes apparent in the film, both through the main narrative and a series of flashbacks showing how these conditions arose in the first place, there are some very driven characters materializing what’s happening around them. They’re quite singularly focused, determined to bring about the results they want at seemingly any cost. Such conviction can be a valuable asset to a conscious creator’s efforts, but it can also be a tremendous liability when it’s let loose without consideration for the ramifications. When we seek to elicit what we want without concern for the fallout that can accompany such outcomes, we engage in un-conscious creation or creation by default, a dangerous practice that can yield far more than we bargain for.

Such a practice also tends to show a disregard for the responsibility that’s inherent in conscious creation. We can’t legitimately take credit for certain manifestations and claim that others “just happen.” Since we’re the ones who produce what results, what ultimately materializes originates with us, making us the responsible parties for what arises. This is something we can’t abrogate as long as we engage in the process.

When “unintended” or “unwanted” outcomes result from our manifestation efforts, we must own up to them, regardless of their nature. For those who do, there may be feelings of regret or remorse that accompany the acknowledgment of such missteps. Yet, as difficult as accepting these circumstances may be, we can always make amends for the errors of our ways. We’re not perpetually saddled with such a fate; we can redeem ourselves, though we must be clear about our intents in doing so. And, as this story reveals, there’s certainly an effort being made to make that happen.

Of course, for redemption to occur, we must take certain steps first. For starters, we must overcome whatever fears or apprehensions that might hold us back. Then we must formulate beliefs necessary to implement the actions required to make redemption possible. This may call upon us to think creatively in terms of the measures we take, sometimes instituting means that are outside the box. None of this may be easy, but it is always possible, given that conscious creation enables the materialization of anything conceivable. And, considering what’s at stake here, that’s an outcome everyone would like to hope for.

“An Acceptable Loss” positively blew me away. Filmmaker Joe Chappelle knocks this one out of the park, presenting us with a taut political thriller that dispenses its secrets in exactingly measured doses, careful not to expose too much all at once but always maintaining enough viewer interest to stay hooked. This technique, reminiscent of the work of director Roman Polanski, thus makes it possible for the big reveal to have maximum impact when it’s finally exposed, walloping the audience with a revelation that will easily leave one agasp. On top of this, the performances are all solid, though special recognition goes out to Curtis, who turns in what is arguably the best on-screen portrayal of her career, giving us a character who is a cleverly crafted fusion of Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney. All of the elements of this offering conspire to give us a picture that none of us will soon forget.

It’s indeed unfortunate, though, that this film has received such unfairly negative reviews, assessments that have been downright criminal in my view. I’m shocked at the petty criticisms that have been leveled against this picture, including some that have come down on it for daring to have a point of view (what movie doesn’t have a point of view?). Pay no attention to the naysayers behind the curtain and see this one, whatever way you can (either in its limited theatrical release or via online streaming). It’s a well-made film, and it imparts an important message that every American should heed.

Given the prevailing social and political climate, finding those who behave honorably has become an increasingly challenging task. So when there are those who willing step to the fore who exhibit such behavior these days, it’s almost inconceivable that they would do so. Thankfully, the examples set in this film provide us with hope and inspiration that such individuals still exist. Let us hope that we see them on places other than the movie screen.

Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

‘On the Basis of Sex’ levels the playing field

‟On the Basis of Sexˮ (2018). Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz, Francis Xavier McCarthy, Ben Carlson, Angela Galuppo, Callum Shoniker, Holly Gauthier-Frankel, Moira Wylie, Lily Mitchell, Violet Mitchell. Director: Mimi Leder. Screenplay: Daniel Stiepelman. Web site. Trailer.

Patently unfair circumstances ultimately hurt everyone. Allowing the perpetuation of double standards harms those who are innately disadvantaged, but the damage seldom stops there; at some point, those who seemingly benefit from those arrangements can ironically be undone by them, their advantages wiped out by a fate that they likely view with incredulity as some kind of weird, unfathomable joke. Which is why everyone is better off with a level playing field, one in which we each get an equal shot at available opportunities with no arbitrarily imposed constraints holding us back. However, bringing such conditions into existence may prove challenging and time-consuming, especially for those on the outside looking in. And that’s where the role of the fervent advocate comes into play, one whose story is detailed in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.”

Anyone seeking to build a career – of virtually any type – in 1950s America had to face a fundamental truth: For better or worse, it was indisputably a man’s world. That may have been a sweet deal for men, but it seriously frustrated women looking to earn college degrees and enter the professional work force. What’s more, these circumstances often had the force of law behind them; legally sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sex was a fact of life, one that reinforced a view that men were the breadwinners and women stayed home to raise children and run their households, an outlook widely considered “the natural order of things.” Needless to say, breaking out of this mold was a tall order for any woman who wanted more than a conventional lifestyle.

[caption id="attachment_10432" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Harvard law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, standing) seeks to make a name for herself in what has traditionally been a profession for men only as seen in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

This was the world that Harvard University law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) faced as she began her pursuit of a legal career. She looked forward to the opportunity to prove her worth and live up to her potential. But, despite the impressive credentials that enabled her acceptance into this prestigious program, Ginsburg and her female colleagues routinely faced openly antagonistic discrimination toward them. This included chiding from Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who outwardly challenged the women to justify why they deserved slots in law school that he sincerely believed rightly belonged to men. Such gender-based prejudice rankled Ginsburg to no end, so much so that it pushed her that much harder to excel.

But, in spite of her efforts to focus on her studies and career advancement, Ginsburg found herself having to take on a more traditional role when her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), a law student one year ahead of her, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Suddenly the young wife and mother found herself having to care for an ill husband, along with her toddler daughter, Jane (Lily Mitchell, Violet Mitchell), while attending to her coursework, as well as aiding Martin in completing his studies. It was quite a full plate, but a steadfast Ruth was determined to succeed.

Thankfully, Martin was cured of his illness, graduating on schedule with a job awaiting him as a tax attorney at a New York law firm. But, with Ruth still having a year of school remaining, to avoid being separated from her husband while finishing up, she completed her education at Columbia University, from which she graduated first in her class. However, even with such a formidable academic pedigree to her credit, Ginsburg faced more frustration when she sought to secure a position with any number of New York law firms. For all of her accomplishments, potential employers simply couldn’t bring themselves to hire a woman, including those that readily recognized her talents. Even Martin’s enthusiastic recommendations went ignored. The legally sanctioned sex-based discrimination that held back so many women did the same to Ginsburg, despite her abilities and accomplishments.

[caption id="attachment_10433" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer, left) encourages his wife, Ruth (Felicity Jones, right), a passionate advocate for eliminating legally sanctioned gender-based discrimination, to take on an unlikely case to make her point, an inspiring fact-based story brought to life in director Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

Given her lack of success in securing work with the New York firms, as a “fallback,” Ruth reluctantly took a position as a professor at the Rutgers University law school, teaching civil procedure with an emphasis on the discriminatory aspects of the legal code. She was less than enthusiastic about having to “settle” for this position. She would have preferred to serve as a full-time practicing attorney, as well as an advocate for equal protections for women under the law, a cause championed by one of her idols, pioneering lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates). Little did Ginsburg know, however, that this position would be the springboard to her greatest accomplishments.

After years of teaching at Rutgers, much of it spent with quiet regret that she was not living up to her aspirations, Ruth got the break she was waiting for. Martin came upon a case that he suggested she should take on, one that could change everything, both for her personally, as well as for the cause of eliminating legal prejudice on the basis of sex. It was an unusual case, one rooted in tax law (not one of her specialties) but one that also had gender-based discrimination written all over it.

In essence, the case involved an instance where a male plaintiff (Chris Mulkey) was denied a tax benefit that was otherwise readily available to women. The strategy involved here was to argue that discrimination based on sex fundamentally violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, hurting both men and women, regardless of gender. If she could convince the court to rule in her favor, it would set a precedent that could open the door to potentially knocking down all of the other laws on the books that legally sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sex.

[caption id="attachment_10434" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Working with American Civil Liberties Union colleague Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, left), activist attorney and law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, right) takes on a court case with the potential to set a precedent for eliminating legally sanctioned gender-based discrimination in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

While preparing for the case, Ginsburg began to see the profound impact of what a victory would mean. The implications would not only change the law, but would also potentially help to change the culture, something that could be a major benefit to an upcoming generation of women, like Ruth’s now-teenage daughter (Cailee Spaeny), a feisty idealist cut from the same cloth as her mother. Because of this, Ginsburg could see the tremendous weight she was placing on her own shoulders. But, if successful, she could also envision the tremendous influence a favorable ruling would have in reshaping the country and setting it on a new path for the future.

Working with longtime colleague Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as husband Martin, who would argue the tax aspects of the case, Ruth went to court to take up the cause. And, just to make things even more interesting, opposing her in court would be a team led by attorney Jim Bozarth (Jack Reynor) backed by one of her old foes, Dean Griswold (who had now become Solicitor General of the United States), and one of her former Harvard law professors (Stephen Root), who recognized though was reluctant to acknowledge her abilities. The showdown was thus set, with a lot riding on the outcome.

This film, a dramatized account of incidents described in the documentary “RBG” released earlier in 2018, shows what it means to passionately advocate for change but doing so in a well-reasoned manner, one that evokes results that ultimately make much possible through small, measured steps. What’s more, it demonstrates how it’s possible to fundamentally change the nature of something as sweeping as a nation’s culture by means that convincingly persuade and don’t call for browbeating others into submission. Thankfully, we have brave souls like Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the helm to help make such changes possible. And, given her success in the wake of these efforts, eventually becoming associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s obvious her impact has been considerable.

[caption id="attachment_10435" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Seeking advice from pioneering rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, right), law professor and would-be litigator Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, left) seeks to take on a landmark case that she hopes will inspire a new generation of women, such as her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny, center), as depicted in the new fact-based drama, “On the Basis of Sex.” Photo by Jonathan Wenk, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

In looking back on Ginsburg’s life and career, we see a visionary who has tenaciously fought to bring her outlook into being. This is directly attributable to her beliefs, the cornerstone of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s not clear whether she had ever heard of this concept, but she obviously made (and continues to make) effective use of its principles.

For starters, Ginsburg possessed an unshakable faith in her beliefs regarding fair and fundamental equality, given that it was written directly into the Constitution itself. Because of that provision, any form of legalized discrimination was, in her view, a direct violation of the parent document. Nevertheless, due to widely held culture-based notions about “the natural order of things,” those concepts crept into the law and became established, despite what the Constitution said. To Ginsburg, this was unacceptable.

Therefore, to bring about change, Ginsburg believed that both the culture and the law needed to be amended to produce the desired results. This necessitated the introduction of reformers (like her) into the system that drew up the rules so that the rules could be amended. This began with her entrance into law school (still quite a rarity at the time) and becoming part of what had traditionally been an all-male sanctuary. And then, once on the inside, she had an opportunity to start implementing plans aimed at instituting change. As the film indicates, this was an uphill battle, to be sure, but, considering her tenacity, she was not about to give up, despite the obstacles.

Fortunately, she had the foresight to realize that the system could not be changed overnight; given the longstanding traditions involved, it simply wouldn’t happen that fast. However, by laying a solid, precedential foundation, the groundwork could be put into place to make it possible to steadily chip away at the laws that discriminated based on gender. Those statutes simply could not withstand the challenges against them in the face of prior decisions that maintained such arbitrary distinctions were unfair and illegal. As society became used to these changes, Ginsburg’s belief in the viability of such a gradually unfolding scenario proved valid, bringing about the change she sought, both in the law and, ultimately, the culture.

The beliefs employed in this process were ingeniously devised. To begin with, they mowed down established limitations, exposing their inherent weaknesses and pushing them aside in favor of a new view. But a big part of why they worked had to do with the fact that they arose out of a blending of intellect and intuition, the two elements that feed into belief formation. On an intuitive level, Ginsburg and her supporters knew their outlook was intrinsically more fair than the status quo. And the method by which they ultimately sought to implement it was brilliantly reasoned out, drawing upon the logic that drives the intellect. By fusing these intuitive and intellectual elements, Ginsburg came up with the perfect marriage of influences to formulate her manifesting beliefs.

Taking such a stand, however, was anything by a mainstream position at the time. Even though we may take these views for granted now, they were still generally considered fringe notions when she made her case. Arguing for them took great courage, moving past whatever fears and apprehensions she might have had and living heroically, quite a feat for a woman facing a judiciary and legal opposition that was solidly all male. But, armed with the power and conviction of her beliefs, Ginsburg had formidable weapons at her disposal, something that obviously stood her in good stead.

The impact of her beliefs and actions has been, to say the least, immensely impressive. She established a legacy that has carried on to this day, summoning up legions of followers to carry on the work she began. And, as noted before, this army of advocates has changed the way the culture addresses these issues, no longer looking at them through outmoded blinders based on passé subjective traditions but rooting them firmly in fundamental fairness and equality. Now that’s quite a creation.

This somewhat formulaic but nevertheless inspiring biopic about the early days of Ginsburg’s career is one of those feel-good offerings that has natural audience appeal. With fine, underrated performances by Jones and Bates, the film capably walks viewers through the complexities of the litigious landscape without resorting to excessive legalese while simultaneously putting a human face on the central issues in question, both in the lives of the protagonist and those for whom she served as advocate. To be sure, the pacing sometimes gets bogged down, and the screenplay tends to unfold in a safe, tried-and-true, somewhat predictable manner. Nevertheless, the inspiration “On the Basis of Sex” affords and the ideas it champions are well worth the play they get here, something that should prove uplifting to those who seek fairness, equal opportunity and even-handedness in all of their endeavors. It’s particularly appropriate for impressionable young minds, such as those of an upcoming generation of women looking to make their mark on the world – and the culture at large.

But, then, that’s what heroic figures make possible when they take on their causes. They trap those who would hold others back by using their opponents’ own weapons against them, a clever strategy that frequently leaves them holding all the cards while their vanquished adversaries cower in utter defeat. They set an example not only for their followers to embrace, but that also fundamentally changes the attitudes of those who try to stifle them. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of those iconic figures who did just that, opening new doors – and new vistas – for both her immediate constituency as well as everyone else. She has spent decades showing us what it means to play fair – and the rewards that such noble conduct is ultimately capable of bestowing on us all.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Mary Poppins Returns," "On the Basis of Sex" and "Shoplifters" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Cinema Scribe Is on the Move!

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio at a new day and time, Tuesday January 15 at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

‘Shoplifters’ redefines the nature of family

‟Shopliftersˮ (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ) (2018). Cast: Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Maya Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi, Miya Sasaki, Kirin Kiki. Director: Hirokazu Koreada. Screenplay: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Story: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Web site. Trailer.

What makes a family? Some would say it’s strictly a matter of blood relations. Others would contend that it’s based on emotional bonds, the kind that form through birth, adoption or matrimony. But others still might claim that such considerations are irrelevant, that being a family stems from other less common and less tangible but nevertheless significant connections, ties that keep everyone together for everyone’s benefit. These are questions raised and explored in the unusual new Japanese comedy-drama, “Shoplifters” (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ).

Making ends meet in modern-day Tokyo can be difficult, as the Shibata family would readily attest. Everyone has to contribute, but even those combined efforts barely keep the family off the streets. As the principal breadwinner, father Osamu (Lily Franky) provides as best he can by working as a day laborer on construction sites. Meanwhile, mother Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) tries to earn her keep by pressing clothes in a commercial laundry. Then there’s sister Aki (Maya Matsuoka), who contributes her share through the money she clears working at a “hostess club.” Together they share a meager residence with the family matriarch, Grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), and her adolescent grandson, Shota (Jyo Kairi).

[caption id="attachment_10419" align="aligncenter" width="300"]The Shibata family (clockwise from top left, Sakura Andô, Miya Sasaki, Maya Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi) struggles to make ends meet in modern-day Tokyo in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest offering, “Shoplifters” (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.[/caption]

But, even for all their efforts, the Shibatas merely scrape by, living in a ramshackle inner city home in a rundown neighborhood. So, to stay afloat, they supplement their respective incomes through a questionable and unconventional means – shoplifting.

As the leader of this petty crime ring, Osamu has the practice down to an art. Working with Shota, the crafty team routinely succeeds at clandestinely swiping much of what they want and need from a variety of unsuspecting shop owners. Nobuyo, meanwhile, has become an expert at rifling through the clothes that come into the laundry, skillfully finding – and taking – whatever items of value that unsuspecting customers may have inadvertently left in their pockets. Even Grandma Hatsue gets in on the game by running a grifting scam in which she effectively – and routinely – uses guilt to fleece a young married couple for cash. Everyone has an angle, it seems, but their combined efforts all play a part in helping to sustain the household.

The Shibatas’ “shoplifting” is elevated to an entirely new level, however, one cold evening as Osamu and Shota return from one of their latest orchestrated heists. While walking through the back alleys on their way home, they find a young girl, Yuri (Miya Sasaki), alone on the street. The shivering, malnourished child appears to have been abandoned, and she offers little information about her circumstances other than the fact that she comes from a home in which her parents spend a lot of time engaged in heated arguments. Unsure how to return Yuri to her family (and whether they even should), Osamu and Shota take her in.

[caption id="attachment_10420" align="aligncenter" width="300"]The shoplifting duo of Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky, left) and son Shota (Jyo Kairi, right) demonstrate their expertise at ripping off shop owners for all kinds of goods in the new Japanese comedy-drama, “Shoplifters” (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.[/caption]

This act of compassion is met with somewhat mixed feelings when the small-time crooks return home. Clearly everyone can see that the child is in need of help, but, at the same time, Yuri’s also quietly looked upon as yet another mouth to feed in an impoverished household where resources are already stretched thin. The family nevertheless agrees to take her in, at least temporarily, but, with little to go on regarding the whereabouts of Yuri’s parents, that arrangement soon becomes permanent. And, after a time, the Shibatas come to warmly welcome the newest member of the tribe, though Osamu and Nobuyo frequently look over their shoulders in apprehension, worried that, if found out, they might be accused of kidnapping.

In no time, Yuri settles in with her new family. But joining her adoptive relatives comes at a cost – literally. So, to help her earn her keep, before long, she’s taught how to participate in the Shibatas’ supplemental income program. She becomes a valued participant in the shoplifting scams organized by Osamu and Shota. And she proves to be a natural at it, quickly learning the ropes and becoming proficient in the art of successfully ripping off retailers. Yuri makes it look easy, all the while artfully maintaining the appearance of supreme innocence. She fits right in.

[caption id="attachment_10421" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Family matriarch Grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) comes up with a clever scheme to make money to help support her family in “Shoplifters” (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.[/caption]

However, given how the family struggles to get by, one can’t help but wonder how long they’ll be able to keep getting away with their tricks without getting caught. Even they grow quietly concerned, especially since the stakes are now higher with Yuri in their midst, a secret that, if discovered, could land them in jail. It’s a threat that’s always with them. So, when one of their scams goes awry, it opens an enormous can of worms, not just to the caper of the moment, but also to a host of other secrets whose implications for the family’s future are staggering. What was thought to be a ring of petty thieves actually turns out to be something much more nefarious (at least in the eyes of the law). The Shibatas may see themselves as a family merely living an alternate type of existence, but authorities come to view them as something else entirely.

When faced with such trying circumstances, it takes some creativity to survive, and the Shibatas have become adept at devising alternative solutions. That’s because they’re willing to think outside of accepted conventions and push past limitations, abilities made possible by their committed belief that such outcomes are indeed attainable. This is a hallmark principle of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Even if the Shibatas have never heard of this concept, they’re clearly practiced at making use of its principles. They're able to envision what they seek to achieve and then come up with the means to make it happen. This usually calls upon them to consider options that are far from typical, but they’re routinely rewarded for their creative thinking, receiving the inspiration they need and ultimately attaining the hoped-for results. And, as becomes apparent through the film, this applies to more than just how they meet their basic material requirements; it has applications in a wide range of areas, including some that clearly fulfill the family’s emotional needs.

[caption id="attachment_10422" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Doting parents Nobuyo (Sakura Andô, left) and Osamu (Lily Franky, right) spoil the latest addition to their family, their adoptive daughter, Yuri (Miya Sasaki, center), after finding the abandoned child on the streets of Tokyo in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.[/caption]

Of course, if the Shibatas are so clever at drumming up these inventive solutions, one can’t help but wonder why they don’t use their beliefs to create more favorable conditions in the first place, an existence free of the hardships they deal with on a daily basis. That’s a legitimate question, but perhaps there are other, less obvious considerations involved here, such as learning particular life lessons. For example, even though shoplifting and grifting help the family cover their basic needs, such actions are generally viewed as unethical and immoral, not to mention illegal. Can poverty be used to justify criminality? Admittedly, it’s an expedient solution, but what of the risk and responsibility? What message does such activity send to the younger members of the family? Are there options available that would help the family escape its conditions that don’t rely on such dubious tactics?

Those well versed in conscious creation realize that beliefs can be used to resolve such conundrums. However, doing so takes some innovative thinking that pushes the envelope a little more than what has been employed thus far. The answers may not be as convenient or expedient, but there’s a good chance they might be legitimate, helping the family avoid the potential liabilities associated with their current beliefs and actions.

Despite these problematic circumstances, one area in which the Shibatas have succeeded is in building a loving and mutually supportive family. Such an undertaking can be difficult under conditions as daunting as what they face, but they know they have one another to count on, and that kind of bond can help them weather adversity surprisingly well. They know the true meaning of family, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

After what is a sometimes painfully slow first hour, “Shoplifters” manages to redeem itself in its second half, with heart-tugging moments and stunning revelations that evoke genuine emotions without becoming sentimental or manipulative. While the film’s first half contains subtle hints of what’s to come in its back end, the pacing of the opening act, unfortunately, tends toward tedium at times. As with many of his other pictures, director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells a story that occasionally feels like it wasn’t fully fleshed out at the time it was filmed, despite an intriguing premise and an array of ideas for insightful exploration. It's truly regrettable that the picture lacks the consistency it needs to make it a better offering overall.

Despite these shortcomings, however, “Shoplifters” has been showered with praise at film festivals and in awards competitions over the past year. Early in 2018, the picture captured the Cannes Films Festival’s Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. Later in the year, the film was named one of the National Board of Review’s top five foreign language offerings. And since then it has earned nominations in the foreign film categories of the Independent Spirit Awards and the BAFTA Awards. It received comparable nods in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions, but those nominations failed to translate into wins.

Those who face life from a different perspective than those in mainstream society frequently must contend with conditions and challenges that others don’t have to address. The need for support in those circumstances thus becomes crucial, yet, in many cases, it’s also often harder to come by. That’s where the need to manifest one’s own customized circle of kindreds comes into play, and the importance of succeeding at this can’t be emphasized enough, as one’s very survival may depend on it. But, in doing so, we must consider the questions of responsibility and consequences that accompany such efforts, for they’ll determine how well we get by – and who we rightly get to call family.

Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

‘Mary Poppins’ affirms the power of magic

“Mary Poppins Returns” (2018). Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jim Norton, Noma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Suda Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Chris O’Dowd (voice), Edward Hibbert (voice). Director: Rob Marshall. Screenplay: David Magee. Story: David Magee, Rob Marshall and John DeLuca. Source Material: P.L. Travers. Web site. Trailer.

Children frequently delight in the power of magic. They appreciate the wonder it engenders, and they often look on in wide-eyed awe at what it can produce. But, somewhere along the line, many of us lose that sense of amazement as we age, believing that such notions are little more than foolish, childish fantasies. What’s worse, due to the difficulties of prevailing circumstances in many of our lives, some of us may never discover the joys of this endearing aspect of life to begin with, denying us one of the tremendous pleasures of childhood. And, unfortunately, in either case, we often end up divorced from the skills and mindset that a genuine belief in magic affords us, separated from valuable tools that can help us achieve happiness and fulfillment in life. When this happens, we need something to help us discover or rediscover what we’ve lost or never found, the kind of fun-filled intervention offered by a specially gifted miracle worker in the long-awaited sequel to a Disney musical classic, “Mary Poppins Returns.”

Times are tough in Depression Era London, and even those who were once relatively well off are experiencing the financial pinch of “the Great Slump.” So it is for the family of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a middle-aged aspiring artist and temporary bank employee who struggles to make ends meet for himself and his three children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). But monetary worries are the least of his troubles; he’s also wrestling with the grief of the recent loss of his wife, as well as the chaos of living in a home that’s gradually becoming run down. He gets some help from his housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Walters), and his social activist sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), but the ever-growing list of challenges weighs heavily on him.

If all that weren’t bad enough, though, an even bigger setback occurs when the bank holding the mortgage on Michael’s home announces that it’s about to foreclose on the property. The beleaguered Mr. Banks has less than a week to make good on his delinquent payments or risk losing the house. To cope with this, Michael and Jane appeal their case to Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), the chairman of the bank, who appears to sympathize with their plight but doesn’t offer any particularly special accommodations, despite the longstanding relationship that he and the institution have with the family (three generations of Bankses have been employed by the organization).

[caption id="attachment_10410" align="aligncenter" width="200"]Wondrous and whimsical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) makes a return engagement to a family in need of her own special brand of help as seen in the long-awaited sequel to the 1964 Disney classic, “Mary Poppins Returns.” Photo by Jay Maidment © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.[/caption]

Needless to say, these challenges make for pretty glum conditions in the Banks household. As world-weary adults, Michael and Jane have lost much of the happy-go-lucky spunk that they relished when growing up. And the children, who, by their own initiative, have commendably stepped up to take on more responsibilities, are nevertheless missing out on many of the joys of youth that all kids should be allowed to experience. Something clearly needs to be done to turn things around, but, considering what the family is up against, it’s obvious that a miracle is what’s really needed.

Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), the whimsical, wondrous nanny who helped raise Michael and Jane. She arrives out of the blue, apparently not having aged a day in 30 years, to help with the upbringing of a new generation of Banks children, as well as to help Michael and Jane recover some of the joy that they once had but have since lost. Together with an old friend, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a kindly lamplighter, her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep), and an assortment of colorful live and animated cohorts, Mary introduces Annabel, John and Georgie to an array of extraordinary experiences that provide them with fun times and a host of valuable and practical life lessons. At the same time, Mary helps her former charges rediscover what they had forgotten, easing their burdens and restoring their faith in the magic that makes life worth living.

[caption id="attachment_10411" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Wondrous and whimsical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, left) provides her own brand of wit, wisdom and child-rearing skills to the lives of the Banks children, Annabel (Pixie Davies, second from left), John (Nathanael Saleh, second from right) and Georgie (Joel Dawson, right), in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Photo by Jay Maidment © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.[/caption]

While Mary has retained many of the charms she possessed from her previous go-round (as seen in this film’s predecessor, “Mary Poppins” (1964)), there are some new subtle differences in her character. For instance, given the hardships of the 1930s and the challenges the Banks family faces, Mary is more of a “realist” this time out, recognizing the seriousness of the circumstances and bringing a practical attitude along with her, one focused on solving problems yet never losing sight of the quaintness, eccentricity and creativity that helped to distinguish her personality, outlooks and methods. What’s more, Mary is also a bit “saucier” this time, a bearing more reflective of the times (and the sensibilities of contemporary movie audiences) and less unrealistically saccharine encrusted. The result is a Mary Poppins who’s readily recognizable but more in step with the times during which the story is set (and for the time that the film is being released).

What hasn’t changed is Mary’s fondness for working her magic through song. In a series of skillfully orchestrated musical numbers involving singing, dancing and animation, Mary, Jack, the children and an assortment of kindreds including everyone from Topsy to a kindly balloon lady (Angela Lansbury) joyfully convey their messages and work their magic for the benefit of one another as well as those watching from the audience. (It’s good to see that some things don’t change.)

The messages that come through are valuable ones, too, especially for impressionable young minds and those who can use a fresh new perspective. In virtually every instance, Mary and company stress the magic attainable in life – provided we allow it. Outcomes like that may seem unlikely to some but wholly plausible to others. The difference lies with one’s beliefs, the cornerstone of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we use those metaphysical building blocks to manifest the reality we experience. And, even though Miss Poppins may not use the term “conscious creation” to describe what she professes, the intent behind this philosophy and her teachings are essentially identical.

[caption id="attachment_10412" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a kindly London lamplighter, helps out an old friend, a wondrous and whimsical nanny, in director Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” Photo by Jay Maidment © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.[/caption]

On a number of occasions during the film, Mary makes it plain that anything is possible as long as we believe in the outcome. To accomplish such ends, she encourages us to take such steps as adopting new perspectives, envisioning what we want, breaking through limitations that hold us back, and confidently and playfully facing our fears. All of these principles are core elements of Mary’s personal point of view, but they’re also key concepts for making conscious creation work.

Inherent in all of the foregoing notions is the idea that we’re each innately responsible for what we create – and that it’s up to us to come up with the solutions we need to resolve our challenges. Unfortunately, this is a crucial life lesson that many of us have tried to disavow (with varying degrees of success) or that we may have never learned in the first place, leaving us without an important coping skill for navigating our way through our existence. In light of that, then, it’s heartening to see a picture that encourages its viewers – especially young ones – to embrace these concepts. The messages may come dressed up in a pretty, colorful package, but the information they impart is undeniably important, lessons that will undoubtedly prove useful on our respective journeys (and the sooner we learn them, the more ingrained they’ll likely become as part of our mindset for life). Way to go, Mary!

[caption id="attachment_10413" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Aspiring middle-aged artist Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, right) and his social activist sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer, center), plead for leniency on the pending foreclosure of the family home from the chairman of the bank holding the mortgage, Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth, left), in the long-awaited sequel to the 1964 Disney classic, “Mary Poppins Returns.” Photo by Jay Maidment © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.[/caption]

In the interest of full disclosure, I was skeptical about this one and wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing it. I must admit, however, that I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting, especially since remaking classics or creating sequels to them is very risky business (and something that often makes me cringe). This offering does justice to the original, thanks to its excellent production values and many fine performances. Its enjoyable soundtrack isn’t quite as memorable as its predecessor, but, unlike many contemporary musicals, it’s far from forgettable. Emily Blunt pays perfect homage to the legendary character and is worthy of whatever acclaim that comes her way, and kudos are definitely due its fine cast of supporting players. The film is, unfortunately, somewhat episodic, using the sometimes-thin narrative between musical numbers mostly as a bridge to link the songs to one another. Otherwise, though, this is a capably made and surprisingly delightful release.

Though critical acclaim for this film has been a little soft, the picture has nevertheless fared well in awards competitions. Both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute have named “Mary Poppins Returns” as one of their top 10 films of 2018. In the recently announced Golden Globe Awards competition, the picture picked up four nominations, including best comedy picture, best comedy actress (Blunt), best comedy actor (Miranda) and best score, though it took home no statues. In the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards, Blunt earned a nomination for best leading female, and, in the BAFTA Awards contest (the British equivalent of the Oscars), the picture has captured three nominations for original score, costume design and production design. The film’s greatest haul of nominations, though, has come in the Critics Choice Awards program, earning nine nods, including best picture, actress, actress in a comedy, score, visual effects, production design and costume design, as well as two nominations for original song.

[caption id="attachment_10414" align="aligncenter" width="200"]Topsy (Meryl Streep), the eccentric cousin of a nanny known for working her own brand of magic, helps others get a new view on life (and vice versa) in the whimsical new musical comedy, “Mary Poppins Returns.” Photo by Jay Maidment © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc.[/caption]

Finding satisfaction in life can often be challenging enough in itself, but, without a belief in the power of magic, one of the forces than can help to bring it about, the process can be that much more problematic. Thus it’s in our best interest to keep sight of this force for good and cultivate it whenever we can. Considering the alternative, it’s really not too much to ask of ourselves; indeed, we truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The magical Mary Poppins reminds us of this, and, if we know what’s good for us, we had better listen to her.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

‘Beale Street’ celebrates the power of love, community

“If Beale Street Could Talkˮ (2018). Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Dave Franco, Finn Wittrock, Emily Rios, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Teyonah Parris, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Ed Skrein, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Pedro Pascal, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Kaden Byrd. Director: Barry Jenkins. Screenplay: Barry Jenkins. Book: James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk. Web site. Trailer.

Much goes on in a neighborhood that comes to define its character. It’s as if the community takes on a life and personality of its own, one that frequently persists and comes to distinguish the area in question, including its residents, often for generation after generation. It’s a phenomenon that essentially becomes a way of life for all concerned, a circumstance examined in the moving new screen drama, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

As the film opens, a cinematic epigraph references Beale Street in New Orleans, a place where writer James Baldwin, author of the book on which this picture is based, contends that every Black person born in America comes from, even those who don’t call the Big Easy home. Baldwin says there’s a version of Beale Street, the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and jazz, in every urban African-American neighborhood, a place from which the community at large has its collective roots. It’s a noisy place, one with an array of qualities, including the love of family and the ugliness of injustice. And it’s just such a place that provides the backdrop of this story, in this case the iteration found in New York City’s Harlem in the 1970s.

[caption id="attachment_10402" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Childhood friends and adult lovers Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, left) and Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne, right) face an uncertain future together in director Barry Jenkins’s latest offering, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures © 2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC.[/caption]

Nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) have known each other since childhood. Having grown up as friends and playmates, they have since come to be lovers as they enter young adulthood. The connection between them is undeniable, as if they were destined to be together. And, for the most part, their bond is supported by their families, who have also been acquainted with one another for years. Tish’s parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), adore Fonny and are so pleased that their daughter and sibling has found such a genuinely good man to love. However, the Hunts don’t share that enthusiasm; while Fonny’s dad (and Joseph’s drinking buddy), Frank (Michael Beach), likes Tish, the same can’t be said for his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and sisters (Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne). They look upon Tish with disparagement and condescension, a belief that she’s not good enough for their son and brother. And the gap between them is about to widen as Tish prepares to reveal some big news about herself and Fonny.

Tish’s big announcement is that she’s carrying Fonny’s child, a revelation that utterly appalls Mrs. Hunt. As a self-proclaimed (supposedly) good Christian woman, she’s revolted by the news, especially given that Tish and Fonny aren’t married. She berates the mother of her grandchild for her “sin,” even going so far as to say that she hopes the child is never born. But her scorn doesn’t stop there; she also chastises Tish for being the source of all the trouble that has befallen Fonny of late, including blaming her for his incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish and her family know that Fonny has been wrongly jailed, and they’re working tirelessly to help secure his release with the assistance of a lawyer (Finn Wittrock) seeking to overturn the erroneous racially motivated charges. But, as these circumstances quickly reveal, the only meaningful help Tish and her family will get from the Hunts will come from Frank, who angrily lashes out at his wife’s tactless and hypocritical behavior.

Faced with the prospect of having to raise a child as a single mother, at least for now, Tish does her best to carry on. She continues to work at her job as a cosmetics salesgirl in an upscale department store to earn money to cover living expenses and legal bills. She regularly visits Fonny in jail in an attempt to lift his spirits while he awaits trial. And she and her family routinely meet with Fonny’s lawyer to coordinate strategy on how to get his case thrown out. It’s a full plate for someone who has a new life steadily – and rather actively – growing inside her.

[caption id="attachment_10403" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Concerned mother Sharon Rivers (Regina King) does her best to help out her daughter and son-in-law-to-be in the screen adaptation of author James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures © 2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC.[/caption]

Despite hopes for the best, it gradually becomes apparent that securing Fonny’s release may be more difficult than thought. His alibi is likely to be looked upon as suspect, given that it involved spending time in the company of his old friend, Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry), who had himself just been released from prison. To complicate matters, the arresting officer (Ed Skrein) turns out to be someone with whom Fonny had had a previous (and rather contentious) encounter, one that clearly revealed his obvious racial prejudice. And, on top of all that, the victim who made the accusations (Emily Rios) – which included serious charges involving rape and other depraved atrocities – has fled New York, disappearing to her native Puerto Rico. With these elements working against Tish and Fonny, the prospects of his release before the birth of his child – and possibly even at all – grow progressively dim. Sadly, even the love that runs through their families and permeates the version of Beale Street where they grew up and live may not be enough to overcome the injustice that also resides there. One can only hope that it’s enough to sustain all concerned as they work through their respective trials and tribulations and look forward to the hope of a brighter future.

The rollercoaster of emotions that is “Beale Street” examines what it means to address both life’s joys and its challenges. Through its depiction of the love of a family, it shows what makes life worth living. At the same time, though, it also shines a bright light on the ugliness and unfairness that can unduly unravel the happiness we would all like to enjoy. But, perhaps most importantly, it aptly depicts the resilience of the human spirit to deal with such trying conditions, that the love that brings us into being can help to sustain us through our hardships and, one would hope, help us find a way to carry on and make the best of things. That’s certainly difficult for characters like Tish and Fonny, but, when one sees the depth of the bond that joins them, it’s obvious they’ll figure out a way to move forward, no matter what may befall them.

[caption id="attachment_10404" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Hard-working father Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo) goes to the wall to help out his troubled daughter and future son-in-law in the dramatic new release, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures © 2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC.[/caption]

Carrying on under such circumstances can benefit tremendously from an outlook built on convictions that give the protagonists hope, a result that’s possible thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s unclear whether Tish, Fonny and their families are aware of this philosophy, but, based on how their story unfolds, it’s apparent that they know how to make use of it.

For example, the love that binds Tish and Fonny, as well as Tish’s parents and the members of her family, is truly palpable, an outcome that’s a direct outgrowth of their belief and faith in the concept. That’s important, too, given the strength it provides in helping them address their respective challenges. It enables them to face their fears and emboldens them with the mutual support they need to get by. Indeed, those are potent forces whose benefits should never be underestimated when it comes to the formation and establishment of our beliefs.

When this notion is applied on a wider scale, such as to an entire community that intentionally seeks to collectively hang tough in the face of adversity, we witness the power of co-creation come into being. And, considering what the principals here – and the residents of all the nation’s Beale Streets – are up against, employing this notion can prove invaluable.

[caption id="attachment_10405" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Former inmate Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry, right) addresses the hardships of incarceration in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures © 2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC.[/caption]

Of course, if conscious creation can be used to manifest whatever we want, then one might legitimately ask, “Why would anyone use it to materialize the kinds of difficulties that the characters are experiencing here?” As I have written before, this contention has merit, but, as I’ve also stated, the reasons behind why we create what we create are highly individual matters, choices that we’re not meant to question given that they’re designed to fulfill personal purposes. But, that said, one might yet wonder, “What kinds of personal purposes could possibly be served by circumstances like these?”

In many cases, the challenges we manifest for ourselves are intended to address particular life lessons, even those that many of us would consider essentially negative. Such situations, daunting though they may be, are part of our personal growth and development, providing us access to all aspects of life and what it means to be human.

In other instances, circumstances like those faced by Fonny – and many similarly situated peers, I might add – are often meant to draw attention to such plights, injustices in serious need of correction. A similar case can be made for the harsh, judgmental treatment that Mrs. Hunt inflicts upon Tish when she learns of her pregnancy, a proclamation that draws the ire of Sharon and Frank, both of whom don’t hesitate to make their feelings known about such a close-minded attitude. These “protest” manifestations are often difficult to endure, but, once the unfairness and hypocrisy associated with them are recognized, they frequently spur on much-needed reforms.

Creations that might cause us to scratch our heads thus do serve a purpose, but it requires us to look beneath the surface and examine the beliefs that brought these materializations into being. Once we understand the reasoning, we might well look at these situations in an entirely new light, one that fundamentally changes prevailing opinions. And that’s where the impact of co-creation comes back into play, particularly when it’s fueled by beliefs driven by noble sentiments, the power of love and the strength of the collective. With such conditions in force, it might be possible to change the nature of the neighborhood – and make Beale Street an even better place to live.

[caption id="attachment_10406" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Rape victim Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios) flees bad memories of New York and heads home to her native Puerto Rico, making life difficult for a wrongly accused inmate in director Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures © 2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC.[/caption]

In making the first James Baldwin novel ever to be adapted for the big screen in the author’s native voice, writer/director Barry Jenkins has undertaken quite a task with this venture. That’s quite a tall order, too, given that it’s coming on the heels of the filmmaker’s much acclaimed Oscar-winning masterpiece “Moonlight” (2016), itself a formidable accomplishment. And, in many regards, this offering shines on many levels, coming close to matching its lavishly praised predecessor. With fine performances, beautiful cinematography, genuinely evocative emotion, a sumptuous background score and a skillfully crafted ambiance, “If Beale Street Could Talk” effectively draws viewers into the world of 1970s Harlem, one characterized by a mix of heartfelt love and ugly injustice. However, despite its many attributes, the film is somewhat bogged down by excessively lingering imagery and protracted dialogue that both go on a little too long, needlessly slowing the narrative’s pace. Some of that comes with the territory in a picture that’s driven more by character development than plot, but what’s presented here still could have used some tightening up. What’s more, in an attempt to avoid being too heavy-handed, the director at times uses a little too much restraint in his storytelling, keeping the picture from having an impact that isn’t as viscerally potent as it could (and should) have been. In all, Jenkins’s offering is a fine effort in many respects, though one that I wish could have been a little better. But, then, considering what Jenkins had to live up to, that would have been quite the challenge for any filmmaker.

Nevertheless, “If Beale Street Could Talk” has been wowing critics and earning numerous accolades in this year’s awards competitions. The picture earned three Golden Globe Award nominations for best dramatic picture, screenplay and King’s supporting actress performance, an honor for which she came up the winner. These accolades came on top of those presented by the National Board of Review, which named the picture one of the year’s top 10 films and bestowed it with awards for best adapted screenplay and King’s portrayal. In upcoming contests, the film is vying for five Critics Choice Awards, including best picture, screenplay, score and cinematography, as well as King’s supporting performance. In addition, the picture is up for best feature, director and supporting actress in the Independent Spirit Awards competition.

As trite or sentimental as it might seem, the belief that “love will find a way” often turns out to ring true more than not. It’s difficult to see the veracity of this when things get tough, but, when we come through our turmoil and look back on how we turned matters around, we frequently find that this intangible force is what usually gets us back on our feet. If we have faith in it and adhere to our convictions, we just might find that our ordeals can turn around more quickly and smoothly than we thought possible. When faced with significant difficulties, it could be all we have to draw upon. And, if that happens, why not give it a chance? After all, what do we have to lose? If we successfully draw upon it and manage to reverse our circumstances, that would certainly give us – and our own version of Beale Street – a lot to talk about.

Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "If Beale Street Could Talk" and "Vice," along with 2018's 10 best and worst, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.