Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Movies Galore on Frankiesense & More

With theaters reopening and the awards season in full swing, film fans have more new viewing options than they have had in a long time, either from home or in moviehouses. Find out about some excellent new selections and leading awards contenders on Thursday, February 25, on the latest edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and host Frankie Picasso. Tune in at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live by clicking here for a lively discussion of new releases worth seeing (and some worth avoiding). And, if you don’t see it live, catch it later on demand!

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ assesses responsibility, boundaries, discernment

“Hillbilly Elegy”(2020). Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos, Stephen Kunken, Keong Sim, Morgan Gao. Director: Ron Howard. Screenplay: Vanessa Taylor. Book: J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. Web site. Trailer.

How far should we go when it comes to helping others? Many of us would probably say that we should do as much as we can. But what happens when those in need aren’t willing to help themselves? And how can we assess whether their needs are genuine or they are just being irresponsible? There are many fine lines to be addressed in those questions, and that process can be difficult without an adequate degree of scrutiny. Those are among the issues raised in director Ron Howard’s new, memoir-based domestic drama, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Yale University law student J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) has led a colorful, if challenging life. Having grown up in Middletown, Ohio, he watched his community deteriorate from a once-thriving industrial center to an all-too-typical example of Rustbelt decline. But J.D.’s challenges have involved more than just the slide of his hometown’s economic conditions; he’s also endured life in an often-dysfunctional family, an upbringing full of highs and lows. And, by 2011, on the verge of his graduation, those domestic ordeals have reached a crisis point.

Much of the distress in J.D.’s life has come from his turbulent relationship with his mother, Bev (Amy Adams). As a single parent to J.D. and his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), Bev has struggled to get by. To her credit, she managed to put herself through nursing school and land a job at a local hospital. Thanks to that position and the support provided by a string of suitors, she has been able to provide the essentials for her family. But that came with a catch: While working at the hospital, she developed an addiction to prescription painkillers, leading to an ongoing problem with substance abuse and an array of unpredictable psychological issues. She frequently launched into out-of-control tantrums, often taking out her frustrations on J.D. and Lindsay.

Bev’s efforts at getting clean over the years have been met with mixed results, largely due to her inability to get over her past. As the daughter of Appalachian hillbilly parents who moved to Middletown from Kentucky for work, she has long believed that she was held back from attaining the kind of success she felt she was capable of. She was an astute high school student, but she came to believe that a lack of family support to further her education kept her from fulfilling her potential, her nursing training notwithstanding. The frustration that arose from this led to her addiction issues and emotional outbursts, many of them directed at J.D.

Despite the pain J.D. has endured on the home front, he has had allies in his corner, most notably his grandparents, Papaw (Bo Hopkins) and, especially, Mamaw (Glenn Close). They would step in as needed, despite problems of their own, to care for their grandson when his mother got out of line, especially when J.D. was an adolescent (Owen Asztalos). In fact, J.D. has fond memories of summer visits to the family homestead in Kentucky, an opportunity to help him get in touch with his hillbilly roots and the ways of his people.

Yale University law student J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso, center) receives a desperate phone call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett, left), about getting their mother, Bev (Amy Adams, right), into rehab after she suffers a heroin overdose in director Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Netflix.

But, even with Mamaw’s assistance (particularly her signature brand of tough love), J.D. still didn’t have it easy. His colorful, crusty grandmother had her share of bad habits, behavior that led to her failing health. J.D. also often angered when Mamaw would back his mother, even when she blatantly misbehaved. He wondered how she could possibly sanction such unruly conduct. But, under those circumstances, Mamaw would pointedly remind J.D. that they were hill people and that they take care of their own when the need arises, no matter how frustrating or infuriating it might be.

It’s from this background that J.D. arrived at the family’s current crisis. While in the midst of interviewing with law firm recruiters at Yale’s New Haven campus, he receives a phone call from Lindsay that Bev has been hospitalized as a result of a heroin overdose. Lindsay begs J.D. to come back to Middletown to help out, a request that places him in a precarious spot. How can he justify a lengthy road trip from Connecticut to Ohio when his future is on the line, especially since, given Bev’s history, she’s unlikely to appreciate the effort? However, with the admonition Mamaw gave him years ago now hanging over him in a time of crisis, he reluctantly makes the journey, hoping that it will do some good.

J.D. thus embarks on his trip, providing him with an opportunity to reflect upon his past. Through a series of flashbacks, he recalls an array of incidents from his upbringing. These sequences are intercut with the unfolding of his current circumstances, many of which echo the ordeals he went through with Bev over the years. At some point, he realizes he’ll have to make a crucial choice: Can he continue to support his mother, bad behavior and all? Or will he reach a point where he’ll finally have to cut the cord, despite the lessons that were impressed upon him in his upbringing? With the future of his law career on the line with the recruiting interviews he’s scheduled to attend, can he afford to pass up that opportunity to care for someone who doesn’t appreciate his assistance? That’s what J.D. is up against, with clocks ticking simultaneously on two different fronts.

Frustrated single mother Bev (Amy Adams, right) frequently takes out her anger on her adolescent son, J.D. (Owen Asztalos, left), in “Hillbilly Elegy,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Netflix.

No matter how we may lead our lives, one thing is for sure – we’re each responsible for what happens to us, no matter how much we may dislike some of what occurs. Some of us might find that difficult to accept and look for ways to pass the buck onto other people or circumstances. However, regardless of the degree we attempt to do that, there’s no escaping that the conditions in which we find ourselves begin with us, for better or worse. That’s because what we believe is what we become, the core concept behind the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our beliefs in manifesting the reality we experience. And, given the power and persistence of those resources, the creations that stem from them can arise and hang on relentlessly and with tremendous impact until we make an effort to change them.

Some might contend that’s an unfair assertion since we may not be aware of this or of the specific beliefs that give rise to the outcomes in such situations. That’s particularly true when our beliefs yield results that seemingly don’t suit us. It’s an argument that even has some apparent merit. Nevertheless, however, disavowing our involvement in this process only delays how and why we manifest these circumstances in the first place. In many instances, this is related to learning particular life lessons, and one of the most common of these is, interestingly enough, learning how to take responsibility for ourselves, our beliefs and our creations, whether or not we approve of what results.

Given the dynamics of what transpires in this story, responsibility obviously plays a crucial role, especially where Bev is concerned. She feels as though life cheated her in her quest to see what she might have become, and her seeming inability to change that led to the despair that prompted her escape into addiction. She believes her life “happened” to her, which she believed gave her an out when it came to matters of responsibility, her own brand of justification for her substance abuse issues. And anything of an irresponsible nature that arose from that behavior, in turn, could be blamed on the addiction that left her out of control.

When faced with potential issues at home, teenager J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos, right) takes refuge in the arms of his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close, left), in director Ron Howard’s latest, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Netflix.

Ironically, circumstances like these are ideal for learning a lesson in responsibility, even if it may not seem so at the outset. The setbacks are aimed at forcing the creator (in this case, Bev) to see how, why and from whom those results arose. Of course, the speed at which lessons are learned in these scenarios depends on how quickly their creators are able to recognize their source, especially when it comes to identifying the manifesting beliefs involved. If one were to repeatedly deny the source, one would have to experience the lesson repeatedly until the message sinks in. And, in all likelihood, the intensity of each subsequent iteration would grow to help increase the chances of the situation being successfully recognized for what it is. It’s as if the ante is continually upped until the word gets through, which is precisely what Bev experiences with her own trials and tribulations.

It’s curious to see how Bev has failed at this over the years, especially in light of the teachings dispensed by Mamaw and, later on, by J.D. As Bev’s irresponsible behavior continues unabated, both her mother and son don’t hesitate to point out what’s going on – and the message still doesn’t sink in. Bev’s unwillingness to recognize this ultimately prompts repeat incidents, which, in itself, illustrates just how powerful and persistent our beliefs can be. They can hold on for dear life, even if they result in outcomes that are not in our best interests. That’s how badly they’re intended to convey the lessons we were meant to get. For our own well-being, we’d be wise to take the time to listen to ourselves and analyze what our circumstances (and the beliefs that created them) are trying to tell us – and teach us.

When a dose of tough love is needed, Mamaw (Glenn Close, left) doesn’t hesitate to serve it up to her misbehaving daughter, Bev (Amy Adams, right), in “Hillbilly Elegy.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Netflix.

Bev is not the only one who’s learning a responsibility lesson in this story. J.D. is going through a similar process by learning how to take responsibility for himself when it comes to establishing healthy boundaries with others. Indeed, as frustrated as he may become with Bev’s behavior, he has difficulty pulling back when she’s in trouble, no matter how much her actions may affect him as circumstances play out, even as an adult. He’s obviously taken to heart the lesson he learned in his youth about caring for those around him, but does he know when to draw a line in the sand, even when it involves a close relation? If he continues to put others’ interests before his own, isn’t it possible that he may be doing a disservice to himself at some point? And, even if he were to recognize that, can he truly let go when the time is right for him to do so? How long is he going to allow his beliefs to hold on when they start to threaten his welfare?

One of the ways we can address issues like this is to hone our powers of discernment, particularly when it comes to seeing our situations for what they are and the beliefs that spawn them. This may take some practice to develop, but, once we become proficient at it, we can spare ourselves considerable anguish, frustration and disappointment. It might also play a vital role in helping us to better refine our own beliefs, especially when it comes to responding to circumstances that we find questionable, unproductive or potentially damaging. It could indeed go a long way toward addressing many of the questions raised in the preceding paragraph.

Discernment often benefits from sharpening our intuitive skills, a capability in which many of us could use improvement. That’s certainly true for many of the principals in this story. They, like the rest of us, could learn a lot from Mamaw. At many points in the film, she has a laser-sharp handle on her intuition, able to size up situations in a heartbeat and respond accordingly. She’s capable of spotting frauds at 50 paces and doesn’t hesitate to call others on their shit when necessary.

Single mother Bev (Amy Adams) seeks to resolve an array of psychological and emotional issues in the new domestic drama, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Netflix.

Intuitive proficiency can go a long way toward forging better beliefs and better outcomes. However, we must be careful not to become trapped by our own blind spots – beliefs that we hold onto at all costs, no matter how beneficial or detrimental they might be. Should we avoid that pitfall, though, there’s no telling what we might accomplish. If someone with J.D.’s background, for example, can create with the kind of skill that leads him to become a Yale law school graduate, there’s no telling how far we can go. Those who come from the hills just might find themselves able to climb mountains.

“Hillbilly Elegy” may have its flaws, but director Ron Howard’s domestic drama with a twist is far from the cinematic debacle that many reviewers have labeled it, making me wonder what film they watched and/or what agenda they may have. The film has been unfairly called boring (far from it) and clichéd (something that’s hard to imagine, given that it’s based on a fact-based memoir), attributes that are sorely misplaced. To be sure, the melodramatic dialogue and occasionally choppy editing could have been handled better in spots, and the “hillbilly” aspect of the story could have been better developed. However, there are heartfelt sentiments aplenty here, not to mention the outstanding performances of Adams and, especially, Close. Don’t buy into the bashing that’s been happening with this release; it’s patently undeserved. The film is available for online streaming.

Despite the many criticisms that have been leveled against this picture, thankfully the excellent performances have not been unduly overshadowed. The performance by Glenn Close as Mamaw has been richly recognized thus far, earning best supporting actress nominations in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions. Not to be outdone, Amy Adams received a Screen Actors Guild Award nod for best lead actress. In addition, the film picked up a Critics Choice Award nomination for best hair and makeup.

It’s been said that “I am my brother’s keeper.” That’s certainly a noble sentiment, one that succinctly and eloquently sums up our need to show compassion for one another. But aren’t each of a “brother,” too? Don’t we have needs to be addressed, the kind that involve calling upon others to assist us? Yet can we be assured that such support will materialize when required, especially if we’re busy attending to the keeping of others? This is something that calls for balance, the kind that arises from all of us collectively being responsible and discerning toward one another. Those are qualities we can all benefit from, no matter where we hail from and no matter who we call family.  

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Seeking Redemption on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, February 23, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand, now available on Sound Cloud and Amazon!

Saturday, February 20, 2021

‘Sound of Metal’ walks the path of redemption

“Sound of Metal” (2019 production, 2020 release). Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric, Chelsea Lee, Shakeem Sanchez, Rena Maliszewski, Tom Kemp. Director: Darius Marder. Screenplay: Darius Marder and Abraham Marder. Story: Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance. Web site. Trailer.

When we stumble in life, getting back on track can be difficult, but, when we do, the feeling can be quite gratifying. However, if that reawakening is intruded upon by some kind of new setback, we may be left discouraged and disheartened. All that work may have seemingly gone for naught. But what if this new development is intended to take us to an even higher level than what we’ve achieved through our initial comeback? We’ve likely already seen that our first turnaround brought us redemption we probably never thought we’d attain, so why couldn’t it happen again – and this time on an even grander scale? That’s the challenge faced by an artist looking to walk the path of redemption in the compelling new drama, “Sound of Metal.”

After years of struggling to get clean, recovering addict Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) finally seems to have found himself. As a drummer for a heavy metal duo with his girlfriend, Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke), Ruben and his significant other tour the country in their RV, mostly playing one-nighters at small venues trying to make a name for themselves and generate some cash along the way. They seem relatively happy, thanks to their romantic and artistic collaboration. But there’s more to their relationship than this: They’re recovery partners. Lou helped Ruben kick his addictions to an array of substances, while he helped her break the habit of intentionally hurting herself. It’s an arrangement that has proved fruitful on so many fronts.

Which is why what happens next is so demoralizing. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, Ruben notices a dramatic hearing loss. At first it seems intermittent, but it deteriorates severely not long thereafter, reaching a point where a specialist, Dr. Paysinger (Tom Kemp), measures his hearing capacity at just a few notches above 20 percent – and failing fast. Ruben desperately asks the doctor about treatments, but he offers little hope, delivering the news that he’s on the fast track toward deafness. The only solution Dr. Paysinger offers is the possibility of surgery involving cochlear implants, devices designed to help restore at least some of the patient’s lost hearing. However, he notes that the procedure and equipment are quite expensive – usually in the range of $40,000 to $80,000 – and that insurance rarely covers the cost.

Needless to say, Ruben is devastated. He sees this development as the end of his music career – and with that, a fundamental loss of his new identity. The stress of the situation troubles him so much that the thought of going back to using crosses his mind. Lou tries to offer comfort, but, given her own history, she’s placed in jeopardy of backsliding as well. Given these conditions, as well as the fact that Ruben is in no position to afford the implant surgery, a specially tailored solution to these circumstances is warranted. But what?

After contacting Ruben’s manager, a possible answer surfaces. He puts Ruben in touch with Joe (Paul Raci), manager of a rehab community for the deaf. The Vietnam veteran, who lost his hearing (and virtually everything else in his life) in an accident, meets with Ruben at the community’s idyllic rural facility to explain what’s involved in his treatment. And, as the plan’s details are explained, Ruben is less than enthusiastic.

Heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) faces a daunting future when the musician suddenly finds himself going deaf in director Darius Marder’s debut narrative feature, “Sound of Metal.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

In essence, Joe tells Ruben that he will teach him how to be a deaf person, a revelation that comes as a shock. It goes against everything that Ruben is hoping for, namely, finding a way to come up with the funds to pay for the surgery that he’s obsessed with getting to restore his hearing. But, as Joe further explains, he wants Ruben to come to see himself in the same light as the rest of the members of the community – as people who view their condition as a difference, not a disability. Joe also stresses that, if Ruben is willing to follow the plan and adapt to these circumstances, he will likely find his life as fulfilling – if not more so – than what he experienced prior to coming there.

Given Ruben’s unsettled past, as well as his troubled present, both of which are characterized by keeping a tight lid on his feelings, the prospect of potentially finding inner peace appeals to him. But can he achieve it? It means moving into the community, giving up his RV and cell phone, and, perhaps most troubling, saying goodbye to Lou, at least for the near future. He’ll also need to learn American Sign Language and find ways to integrate himself into a community of strangers, all of whom seem to feel quite differently about their hearing loss from the way he does. And, all the while, thoughts of getting that surgery and raising the money for it linger just below the surface of his consciousness.

At first, Ruben struggles to fit in. He finds communication challenging. He views the restrictions placed upon him with frustration. He even looks for ways to circumvent the rules. What’s more, he’s worried about Lou, fearing that she’ll fall off her own wagon without his presence. But Joe will have none of it. He gives Ruben a series of assignments to come to terms with his situation, most notably journaling his feelings – not just about recent events but about everything that brought him to this point in his life. He stresses that the silence that has recently been imposed upon him could actually prove to be an ally in that process; without the audio distractions of the hearing world, he might be able to tune in to aspects of himself that have long gone ignored, showing him a way out of his current challenge and providing him with a path for his future. Of course, quite ironically, the question here is, “Will he listen?”

Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke), half of a heavy mental duo, grows concerned when her artistic collaborator and romantic partner learns he’s going deaf in the stirring new drama, “Sound of Metal,” now available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

As Ruben spends more time among community members, he begins to adapt, finding a sort of extended family that he’s never really had before. They appreciate him, and he sees that, making it possible for him to return the favor. He even learns that he’s able to teach others how to play the drums, showing him that music can still be a part of his life. Indeed, everything that Joe had said would emerge appears to be coming true. But did Ruben really hear the message? And what will his response mean for the future that awaits him?

It’s disheartening when life doesn’t work out as planned. That’s especially true when it takes a drastic left turn, moving in a direction far removed from what we hoped for. But sometimes those seeming missteps unexpectedly usher us toward enviable goals, some of them more rewarding than originally imagined. Of course, that may not always be easy to see at that point, but, if we take the time to analyze the circumstances, we might end up pleasantly surprised.

The analysis process requires going within and taking a good hard look at ourselves, particularly our beliefs. And that’s important because our beliefs are the driving force in the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality we experience, for better or worse, in all its aspects. That includes those aforementioned left turns. As much as we may dislike those developments and try to distance ourselves from them, they nevertheless originate with us and our beliefs, and, as unlikely as it may seem, we all create them for a purpose, even if that’s not obvious at first glance.

Such is the kind of frustration that Ruben experiences. Indeed, one might legitimately wonder why a musician would create going deaf, especially by the individual at the center of such a scenario. Given the many trials and tribulations Ruben apparently experienced prior to becoming a drummer, it seems unfair that he would develop a potentially crippling impairment just as he’s found his calling in life. So what’s behind this? That’s what he needs to discover for himself, and that’s where the analysis process comes in.

As manager of a rehab community for deaf recovering addicts, hearing impaired Vietnam veteran Joe (Paul Raci) takes a firm approach in helping his patients heal themselves in “Sound of Metal.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Ruben is slow to embrace the process, however. He lets his fears get in the way. He doesn’t allow himself to see a way out by considering alternatives and/or unconventional responses. And he’s still gravitating toward distractions that keep him from addressing the task at hand. Under those conditions, it’s no wonder he initially makes little progress. His resistance is far too great to enable much, if any, forward movement.

However, as he settles in to his new environment, circumstances and routine, he begins to shift his focus. These transitionary elements, brought about by subtle changes in his beliefs (even if he doesn’t recognize them), allow him to adapt to his life as a deaf person. As Joe told him, he begins to see his lack of hearing as a difference, not a disability. In fact, it enables him to feel part of a community that he hadn’t previously known, one that has its own culture and way of looking at the world. He discovers that it can offer him a new direction in life, one that he hadn’t anticipated when he launched into this process.

As eluded to above, he starts to move past the fears that were holding him back. But this involves more than just his apprehension over losing his hearing. He begins to see the deep-seeded fears that have dogged him much of his life, including those that prompted him to escape into addiction as a coping mechanism (as well as all the fallout that came from that and from getting clean). This removes some of the seemingly impenetrable barriers that have blocked his progress.

Overcoming fears, in turn, opens up new doors, such as the ability to think outside the box. He’s able to envision new courses of action that he was previously unable to see. Discovering that he can teach drumming to other deaf persons, for example, was a path he once thought inconceivable. This may take him in a direction different from what he had once known as a musician, but this venture still involves music. It may even be one that he finds more fulfilling since it surpasses limitations that he believed couldn’t be overcome, providing him with the satisfaction that comes from stretching as an artist, one of the most gratifying achievements that can arise from a creative endeavor.

These developments can then lead to something even more profound – redemption. Starting over might not be easy, especially when it seems like we’re beginning at square one. However, when we see how it enables us to overcome fears and exceed limitations, it shows us that we can become more than we thought we could be, particularly when we’re seeking to make up for what we perceive as past shortfalls. It helps us better understand recent events, as well as those that led up to them, including the beliefs we held and the decisions we made in selecting the path we chose. That puts an entirely new perspective on things. Under these circumstances, we truly can redeem ourselves.

Hearing impaired heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) faces an uncertain though potentially rewarding future in director Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

This is perhaps best achieved when immersing ourselves in our innate inner silence. The stillness of that contemplative space allows us to focus entirely on who we are, how we became that way and the beliefs that led us to it. Of course, it’s difficult to make use of that resource if we’re constantly being distracted by outside influences. They draw our attention away and prevent us from concentrating on the task at hand.

This last phase of reawakening is something Ruben struggles with. While he may have addressed his fears and the limitations that hold him back, he has trouble going the final mile. He may say he seeks redemption, but he has difficulty taking the last steps – of allowing himself to sit in his inner stillness and let the silence wash over him to reveal what he needs to see. He must ask himself why that intimidates him and trust the process that Joe has outlined for him. If he fails to do so, though, he may never find what he’s looking for. So will he? That’s what he and viewers must wait to find out. Should he do so, however, that elusive stab at redemption just might be fulfilled.

When our dreams and the life we know evaporate in an instant, we may find it next to impossible to adjust, as is the case in this engaging debut drama from director Darius Marder. While this offering has a little trouble finding its footing at times, it nevertheless takes audiences through the challenges associated with hearing loss and a recovering addict’s struggle to maintain sobriety in the wake of profound change. The film also skillfully delves into matters of adaptability and self-acceptance, as well as learning how to see “disabilities” as differences, not handicaps, qualities with the potential to give us new and unconsidered perspectives on our existence. All of this is brought to life through the fine performances of Ahmed, Cooke and Raci, as well as an inventive sound design that truly makes an impact on viewers. “Sound of Metal” is indeed one of the year’s best, available for streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

“Sound of Metal” has been widely praised in critics’ circles and has been lavishly accorded nominations in this year’s awards competitions. The picture has been named the American Film Institute Movie of the Year, one of the year’s Top 10 Films by the National Board of Review and a best first feature nominee in the Independent Spirit Awards competition. It has also earned a best picture nomination in the Critics Choice Awards competition, where it also captured nods for best editing and best original screenplay. The film’s performances have not gone without recognition either, with Ahmed and Raci being named best lead and supporting actor, respectively, by the National Board of Review. Both have also received Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Award nods for their respective performances, with Ahmed also earning nominations in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award contests.

We’ve all no doubt heard the expression “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s a saying that many of us readily take to heart in moments of inspiration, but it’s also one that gets put to the test when we incur some kind of seeming adversity. What then? The question of why invariably surfaces, the answers to which are nearly always elusive. However, if we take the time to examine where we’re at, who we are and how we got there, all without distraction, the solutions frequently emerge with startling clarity, opening our eyes to possibilities we hadn’t expected, considered or even envisioned. The redemption and rewards to come out of such situations are often beyond what we may have imagined, setting us on new and enlightening paths that allow us to discover newfound blessings – and to see them for the miracles of creation that they truly are.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Pieces of a Woman," "There Is No Evil" and "Mr. Nobody," as well as a web site update, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, February 15, 2021

‘Pieces of a Woman’ looks for silver linings

“Pieces of a Woman”(2020). Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Ilza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Gayle Garfinkle. Director: Kornél Mundruczó. Screenplay: Kata Wéber. Web site. Trailer.

Can something good come out of something bad? It may seem unlikely, but it is possible, provided we’re willing to make the effort to look for it and to recognize the meaning behind the circumstances that gave rise to the situation in the first place. The process may not be easy, and there could be considerable anguish as the process plays out. But those proverbial silver linings do exist, even under the most dire conditions, as examined in the bittersweet new domestic drama, “Pieces of a Woman.”

Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner, Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf), are about to have a blessed event. The couple is expecting the arrival of their first child, a girl, to be delivered through a home birth at Martha’s request. As the film opens, Martha has gone into labor, and she and Sean await the arrival of their midwife. However, unexpectedly, the midwife calls to advise them that she’s been detained on another delivery and is sending a replacement, Eva (Molly Parker), to handle the birth.

Upon Eva’s arrival, Martha is getting close to delivery, and her intermediary immediately springs into action. By all indications, everything seems fine – that is, until the child begins its journey down the birth canal. Complications set in, and Eva frantically instructs Sean to call for an ambulance. Within minutes, what should have been a joyful event turns tragic.

In the wake of this calamity, Martha and Sean look to pick up the pieces. They’re left with no easy answers, especially since there are no easy answers to explain exactly what happened. Virtually everyone the couple knows steps in to offer their opinions, regardless of whether or not those views are asked for. The most vocal among them is Martha’s overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who zealously insists on making sure that someone pays for this tragedy. She vigorously pushes Sean and Martha to file a malpractice lawsuit against Eva, a matter to be handled by Martha’s cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a high-powered, high-profile attorney with a prestigious law firm. And, before long, word of the case spreads far and wide, becoming a sensational story on the local news with tabloid-esque coverage about the evil midwife who is labeled an incompetent and deserves to do time.

As she’s about to give birth, mother-to-be Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby, right) consults with her midwife, Eva (Molly Parker, left), in the new domestic drama, “Pieces of a Woman,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

Needless to say, the prevalence of such lurid media coverage is not exactly what Martha wants to see and hear, especially since it’s her child at the center of the story. She’s having enough trouble struggling with her grief as it is, let alone having her feelings trodden upon by such distractions and the imposition of others’ opinions on her. That’s particularly true in her dealings with Elizabeth, who constantly tries to tell Martha that she knows what’s best, an attitude that apparently has been present in the mother-daughter relationship for quite some time. In response, Martha tends to withdraw, with many of her actions defying explanation. She shuts down and leads what appears to be a numbed, joyless existence riddled with questionable, inexplicable behavior.

That withdrawal includes her relationship with Sean, who struggles to be comforting and supportive, usually to no avail. But, the more he’s shut out, the more demanding he becomes to be let back in, especially where their sexual relationship is involved. Frustrated, he pursues other avenues of gratification. But, even worse, he falls off the wagon; as a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for years, he tosses his progress aside, especially when he sees his efforts go unappreciated, feelings fueled by some of the long-standing animosity that Elizabeth holds against her daughter’s “inferior” choice of a partner.

It should be obvious that a tragic situation is allowed to turn toxic. But are things truly as bad as they seem? Could it be possible that there may be some silver linings deeply buried amidst this morass of sadness and negativity? And what would it take to unearth it? That may take a miracle even greater than that of birth. But, if the principals are able to see their way clear, there’s no telling what they might find – for better or worse.

In the wake of a personal tragedy, businesswoman Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) returns to work in an effort to get her life back together in director Kornél Mundruczó’s latest, “Pieces of a Woman.” Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

Years ago, I heard a story about a couple who lost their firstborn under circumstances not unlike those in this film. The young parents, needless to say, were devastated and had difficulty overcoming their grief. How could such a tragedy befall them, especially when they took every precaution to safeguard the well-being of their child?

After a prolonged period of despair, they finally consulted a counselor, who attempted to reframe their situation and put it into a new perspective. He observed how the tragedy brought the couple closer together, perhaps more so than at any prior point in their relationship. It also brought them closer to other family members and to friends, as everyone rallied around the couple in mutual support. However, in the midst of their grieving, the parents were so overcome that they hadn’t taken note of this change, despite being the beneficiaries of it. And, now that they had it pointed out to them, it was as if a bell went off, their mood changing dramatically. Suddenly they felt lighter and even blessed. Although their child lived only briefly, they could feel the love she left them with, as if a tangible blanket of grace had been placed over them. This gift may have come from someone who couldn’t overtly recognize its impact, and it arrived in the wake of her departure, but it was palpable and had a lasting effect. The couple’s gratitude prompted their love for one another to grow stronger than ever, and they went on to become the happy parents of three children.

Even though the conditions of this couple were somewhat different from those of Martha and Sean, the meaning behind the child’s passing here could be seen in a comparable light. Martha and Sean’s tragedy was not without purpose, as difficult as that may be to see and accept. What it served, though, would not have been possible were it not for the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our beliefs to manifest the reality we experience. But, many might rightfully contend, what could possibly be gained by using our beliefs in the realization of such a tragedy?

Overbearing mother Elizabeth Weiss (Ellen Burstyn) seeks to control virtually every aspect of her daughter’s life in “Pieces of a Woman,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

For instance, consider the partners, their attributes and the nature of their relationship going in to this situation. Sean indeed seems to provide the kind of care and nurturing that Martha needs at the time of the child’s birth. But, as his behavior in the wake of her death shows, he occasionally exhibits selfish and intolerant tendencies. Likewise, Martha is walled off from those around her, even those who might like to help. It’s an attitude that almost makes her appear cold and aloof, even though it’s more likely a stoic front to conceal the grief she’s unwilling or unable to deal with. If these qualities are emerging now, isn’t it possible they might reappear during their time as parents? Don’t these attributes need to be addressed before they consider having children again? Moreover, don’t they need to examine them before even considering whether they want to stay together as a couple? What child would want to willingly be a part of such a dysfunctional family? In many regards, the child’s death could be seen as forcing their hand, prompting Martha and Sean to deal with their unresolved issues before moving on to bigger undertakings like staying together for the long term or considering the possibility of becoming parents again.

But the issues don’t stop there. Martha also must deal with her relationship with Elizabeth in a variety of areas. For instance, it appears that Martha has a history of backing off from her mother’s constant nagging about being perfect in everything she does. Rather than confront Elizabeth’s niggling control freak tendencies, Martha appears to brush them off, despite the fact that the mounting pressure they create is obviously getting to her.

What’s more, Martha also appears bothered by Elizabeth’s incessant penchant to find scapegoats for her daughter’s troubles, be it Sean, Eva or whoever is most readily available to blame for things gone wrong. Elizabeth’s ruthless, cut-throat attitude and quiet but ravenous desire to go for the jugular to obtain “satisfaction” and “compensation” at a critical time such as this, when Martha is seeking to reconcile her feelings about her child’s death, are inappropriate at best, if not wholly reprehensible at worst. Yet Martha generally keeps mum, something that, again, she appears to have been doing for quite some time.

High-powered, high-profile attorney Suzanne (Sarah Snook, standing) seeks to prosecute a malpractice lawsuit against a midwife whose actions are called into question in a tragic home birth in “Pieces of a Woman.” Photo by Benjamin Loeb, courtesy of Netflix.

Again, the central event in this story could be seen as a springboard for pushing Martha into addressing these unacceptable circumstances, conditions that she has allowed to persist for far too long. The various “pieces” that constitute Martha’s being have been seriously damaged (and by more than just her child’s death), leaving her in danger of falling apart. To survive, though, she must find a way to reconstitute herself in a healthy way. It’s a shame that it has taken a tragedy such as this to prompt that process. But, if we refuse to listen to our hearts and take the steps needed to bring about such a resolution, sometimes drastic measures are called for. In such cases, we must thus be sure to show gratitude to those who help us to make such outcomes possible, no matter how young or old they may be.

Losing a loved one is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when parents watch a newborn slip away in the first few minutes after birth, an event fraught with all manner of fallout. While the film’s opening 27-minute single-shot birthing sequence is captivating, the picture fails to consistently maintain the same levels of intensity and depth thereafter, sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating and sometimes meandering. The film’s explorations into the psychological issues that should have provided the focus for the balance of the picture never quite reach the depth that they probably should have, despite having a suitable pretext to make that happen. These drawbacks are nevertheless compensated for by the fine performances of Kirby, Burstyn and LaBeouf, as well as some of the film’s intriguing subplots. In all, though, director Kornel Mundruczó’s finished product leaves viewers somewhat wanting for something more substantive given the project’s profound subject matter. The film is available for online streaming.

“Pieces of a Woman” has earned its share of awards season buzz, especially in the acting categories. Thus far it has captured lead actress nominations for Kirby in the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Award competitions. In addition, Burstyn has received a Critics Choice Award nomination for supporting actress. The film seems destined for further accolades as awards season plays out.

It’s often been rhetorically asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s a perfectly valid question, and there are no easy answers. But, in many instances, there’s something about the scenario that’s pertinent to the individuals in question, and they must be the ones to sort out the situation. It may involve some kind of life lesson. It might lead to the resolution of a long-standing unaddressed conundrum. It could even relate to the exposure of one of those famous silver linings. But, no matter what may be behind such situations, we must never give up hope and our belief in it. It could spell the difference between catastrophe and a new beginning.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 8, 2021

On the Next Cinema Scribe...

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, February 9, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand!

‘There Is No Evil’ struggles with matters of conscience

“There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”)(2020). Cast: Ehsan Mirhosseini, Shaghayegh Shoorian, Kaveh Ahangar, Darya Moghbeli, Alireza Zareparast, Salah Khamseh, Pouya Mehri, Mohammad Valizadegan, Mahtab Servati, Baran Rasoulof, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Shahi Jila. Director: Mohammad Rasoulof. Screenplay: Mohammad Rasoulof. Web site. Trailer.

Listening to our conscience often proves challenging. In many instances, we know in our heart of hearts what we should and shouldn’t take part in. But saying no isn’t always easy, especially if our necks are on the line if we refuse to play along. Indeed, it can be difficult to stick to our guns when we have one pointed at our head. At the same time, though, dismissing our convictions can carry consequences far more onerous than those that come with failing to comply with the dictates thrust upon us. Those thorny questions provide the basis for the controversial but revealing new Iranian drama, “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”).

“Remorse,” “regret” and “defiance” are words most of us would not readily associate with executioners, but they’re more than apropos when it comes to the characters in director Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest. This collection of four vignettes about the lives of executioners – many of them ordinary citizens who have been conscripted into the military and involuntarily forced into situations bigger than themselves – examines how these individuals cope with their circumstances, revealing feelings that those in this grim profession generally aren’t believed to possess. Taken together, these segments paint a picture quite different from the cold, unfeeling personas that most of us probably assign them without a second thought. This is not to suggest that they should be exonerated for what they do (even though the responsibility for killing the “guilty” is often imposed on them), but it is a reminder to the rest of us that situations like this are often far more complicated than how we typically characterize them.

In the film’s opening sequence, which carries the same title as the picture itself, viewers are introduced to Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), who comes across as a middle class, middle-aged everyman. He lives with his wife, Razieh (Shaghayegh Shoorian), and their young daughter, and they spend their days on the sort of routine tasks that most families do – running errands, paying bills, visiting relatives and doing housework. Heshmat seems like a thoughtful, gentle soul in many ways, going out of his way to help people with things like freeing a pet cat trapped under equipment in his apartment building’s parking garage. And he seems generally agreeable, willing to do what others ask of him and even going out of his way to look for ways to spoil his daughter.

But there’s another side to Heshmat that seems a bit off. Much of the time he appears quietly preoccupied, almost withdrawn, staring off into space and even zoning out occasionally, a potentially precarious hazard at times, such as when he’s stopped at traffic signals and fails to notice the lights change. He’s also on medication of some kind, one that Razieh sometimes has to remind him to take.

So what’s Heshmat’s story? For much of this segment, viewers seem to be watching little more than an average Joe going about his ordinary, everyday routine. Even when he finally goes to his job, his workplace looks rather nondescript, an innocuous, Spartan control room in which he makes himself coffee and perfunctorily carries out several administrative functions. But it’s also here where audiences learn what he does for a living, a chilling revelation that suddenly sheds new light on much of what came before. That’s particularly true when it comes to his removed demeanor and need for prescription drugs. If any of us were to do what he does for a living, we’d probably find ourselves in the same boat.

In the film’s second sequence, titled “She Said, ‘You Can Do It,’” we meet Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar), who has just begun his mandatory two-year military service. He’s anxious to get it over with and receive an honorable discharge so that he can apply for a passport that will enable him to move overseas and live with his girlfriend. Pouya’s a gentle, sensitive sort, far different from the grizzled, hard-edged band of roughnecks (Darya Moghbeli, Alireza Zareparast, Salah Khamseh, Pouya Mehri) he bunks with in his barracks. This difference becomes acutely apparent when, during a troubled bout of insomnia, he expresses his reservations about having to carry out one of his first orders – executing a prisoner.

Everyman Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) often seems preoccupied and employs various relaxation measures that keep him centered in anticipation of going to work in director Mohammad Rasoulof’s soon-to-be-released “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Given Pouya’s sensibilities, he’s convinced he can’t bring himself to kill someone. He discusses his hesitancy with the others, all of whom offer different suggestions about how to handle the situation. But all of the proposed solutions come up short in one way or another, and Pouya is still left with his dilemma.

But is all lost? Well, that depends on what happens when another option emerges. It seems that the old adage “When there’s a will, there’s a way” has more viability than we might have thought, especially when it comes to removing ourselves from activities we believe to be inherently wrong. The meaning of “You Can Do It” thus takes on new meaning – and unexpectedly so.

The film’s third segment, “Birthday,” takes matters in a decidedly different though tragically bittersweet direction. Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), a young military man, has been given a three-day pass to pay a surprise visit to his girlfriend, Nana (Mahtab Servati). It’s her birthday, and a big celebration is planned. And, to top off the festivities, Javad plans to give her what he hopes will be the best present she receives – an engagement ring.

However, much to Javad’s disappointment, he learns upon arrival that the festivities have been cancelled. That’s because Nana and her family have just received word that a close, longtime friend has died. The birthday party that had been in the works is now in the process of being transformed into a memorial service.

Nana is particularly sad, given that she was close to the deceased family friend. Javad tries to offer comfort, though he holds back somewhat, because he has questions about the nature of the relationship that existed between Nana and the “friend” about whom he previously knew nothing. Circumstances grow increasingly tense, especially when more information about the friend’s death by execution surfaces. And, as the details of that killing come to light, it starts to strike a nerve that makes the situation ever more uncomfortable.

How will matters play out? And what will it mean for the future? The birthday is already anything but happy, but will that sadness linger on afterward? Indeed, the pain of execution can carry consequences that extend outward far from those most immediately affected, as this scenario so painfully depicts.

Military neophyte Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar, center, standing) asks his bunkmates for advice on how to get out of orders to carry out an execution to which he consciously objects in the soon-to-be-released Iranian offering, “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The film’s concluding sequence, “Kiss Me,” tells the story of Darya (Baran Rasoulof), a young Iranian expat raised in Germany. Even though she has spent much of her life in Europe, she still has relatives in the family homeland whom she has never met. To make up for that, Darya’s father arranges for her to visit her Uncle Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr) and Aunt Zaman (Shahi Jila), who live in the remote Iranian countryside, where they raise honeybees and Bahram informally serves as the community’s de facto physician.

As someone who is preparing to become a doctor, Darya is curious about her uncle’s folk medicine practices. But she grows concerned when she sees that Bahram could use some healing himself, the kind that goes beyond what his brand of home care can provide – and that he refuses to get. This disconnect, along with other issues, such as Darya’s unwillingness to go hunting with Bahram (“I refuse to kill a living thing,” she boldly proclaims), set off tension between niece and uncle. That condition worsens when Bahram and Zaman continually and perplexingly refuse to engage with the ways of the modern world. Darya begins to suspect that they are hiding something from her and announces her intention to return to Germany if they don’t come clean. She soon sets that process in motion, but it isn’t complete until revelations finally emerge that confirm her suspicions – and in more ways than she imagined.

Although these four stories are vastly different from one another, they all ultimately deal with the notion of reluctant executioners and the dilemmas they face in connection with their work (if one could even legitimately call it that). The expressions of this concept ultimately take myriad forms, yet they all circle back to the same underlying notion. And they manifest as they do because the beliefs underlying them – all originating from the same common roots – are what drive the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these resources in materializing the reality we experience.

The beliefs in question here, of course, are those dealing with matters of conscience. In particular, the story explores how individuals who are uncomfortable with, or who outright object to, such extreme acts respond to them when ordered to carry them out. Indeed, the regime that mandates such actions may have no problem with them, but those charged with their fulfillment clearly do, even if the specific ways they react differ from individual to individual. And their emotional reactions, in turn, affect how they respond to what they’ve been ordered to do.

While on a three-day pass to pay a surprise visit to his girlfriend, military man Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan) embarks on a journey that will change his life in director Mohammad Rasoulof’s “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Heshmat, for example, responds by withdrawing, distancing himself from his actions by manifesting various escape mechanisms. Pouya, by contrast, looks for options to extricate himself from what he’s been mandated to do, a seemingly impossible undertaking but one that he pursues with the same fervor that fuels his disapproval of executions. No matter what course the executioners may follow, though, their efforts at dealing with their circumstances all originate with the beliefs that manifest their particular responses. And, even if they’ve never heard of conscious creation, it’s apparent that its principles guide them in their intents and subsequent actions.

In most of these cases, their reactions are driven by a strong sense of responsibility, particularly when it comes to the consequences that arise from their actions. They cringe at what results (or could result) from those actions, prompting them to ask themselves, “Do I really want that weighing on my conscience?” and “Can I live with myself if I do what I’m told?” They obviously possess a strong sense of personal integrity and place tremendous value on their beliefs associated with it. They’re not content to toe the line and fall back on an excuse as flimsy as “I was just following orders.”

Yet, in attempting to escape such circumstances, they face great peril, with far-reaching repercussions that could potentially lead to their own executions for failure to comply. So, to get past such conditions, they must forge beliefs and use manifestation skills that enable them to overcome their fears and the limitations that stand in their way. That’s no easy feat considering what they’re up against, but that’s where the importance of creativity and the power of their beliefs comes into play.

This is evident not only in the actions of the principals in the film, but it also played a key role in how the picture itself was made. Director Rasoulof, a longtime outspoken critic of the Iranian government, has faced various restrictions on practicing his craft over the years, including a year’s imprisonment. But, despite such hindrances, he has felt compelled to find ways to keep working and spreading his messages. For instance, he has endeavored to make sure his pictures get seen, even if they’re banned from being screened within Iran itself. He has also made adjustments to his filming procedures, primarily working on scenes having indoor settings and assigning location and outdoor shots to assistant directors. And, in the case of “There Is No Evil,” he managed to circumvent some of the restrictions placed on him by essentially making the production a collection of four short films instead of a single narrative feature, something upon which Iranian authorities focus more of their attention.

Iranian expat Darya (Baran Rasoulof, right), who has spent much of her life in Germany, visits relatives she’s never met, including her Uncle Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr, left), in the family homeland in the soon-to-be-released drama, “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”). Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

That kind of passion for the power of creativity pervades this film, not only in terms of how it was made, but also among the solutions the characters devise for dealing with their circumstances. The responses in each case may not be “perfect,” but they illustrate a desire and effort to push boundaries, to break through the barriers that would otherwise prevent the characters from achieving their accomplishments and, by extension, from keeping their film’s message from getting out. That’s a truly inspiring example for those who dare to question the status quo, no matter how much dominance and control those who manage it may appear to wield. Indeed, when there’s a will, there’s a way.

While the film admittedly suffers from some occasional pacing issues and a slight tendency for the filmmaker to wear his heart on his sleeve, these minor drawbacks are easily overlooked in the wake of the picture’s many other strengths, particularly the power of its core message. Rasoulof is a master at delivering a punch when it’s called for, especially when it’s not seen coming. The stunning impact such gestures leave on us is often considerable, not unlike the lingering scare that often overwhelms us after we’ve escaped some kind of terrible accident when the realization of what could have happened finally sinks in. This is an impressive, important and meaningful offering that needs to be seen. The picture has primarily been playing the film festival circuit thus far, but a theatrical and streaming release program is in the works for later in 2021.

Capital punishment is a controversial subject worldwide, especially when the intents underlying it are questionable and driven by political agendas rather than legitimate, established guilt. Opinions on its merits and criticisms vary from country to country and from individual to individual. And the same would appear to be true even with those responsible for carrying out the deed. That naturally begs the question, “Why would someone opposed to the practice engage in such acts?” This film sheds some new light on that, revealing that answers to the question may not be as simple as assumed. What’s most important, though, is that, no matter how we might feel about it, we should strive to be authentic with ourselves, listening to our conscience and abiding by our sense of integrity. Should we fail at that, we could be saddled with quite a burden – one that might dog us for the rest of our lives.

Copyright © 2020-2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Cult classic ‘Mr. Nobody’ challenges our notions of existence

“Mr. Nobody” (2009 production, 2013 release). Cast: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh-Dan Pham, Rhys Ifan, Juno Temple, Natasha Little, Toby Regbo, Clare Stone, Audrey Giacomini, Thomas Byrne, Laura Brumagne, Léa Thonus, Anaïs Van Belle, Allan Corduner, Daniel Mays, Harold Manning, Noa De Costanzo, Michael Riley, Benjamin Mansfield, Chiara Caselli. Director: Jaco Van Dormael. Screenplay: Jaco Van Dormael. Web site. Trailer.

Is the life we lead the one (and only one) we’re meant to live? Or are there other possible paths that we could choose, alternatives that are different but potentially just as viable, even though not actively pursued? However, if those alternate existences do indeed exist, how would we know about them? Could we, in fact, grasp anything about them if they remain off our radar, “dormant” in an unmanifested state? But suppose we were to possess the ability to peer into those other realities to see what they’re like. That could be quite intriguing and revealing. Yet wouldn’t that become confusing, conflicting with what we think we know about the nature of existence? What would our “real” reality be then? Those are among the many questions raised in the sci-fi/fantasy cult classic, “Mr. Nobody.”

Nemo (Jared Leto) has lived a long and interesting life. In the year 2092, at age 118, he is the last mortal human left alive on earth. Thanks to advances in telomere research and life prolongation, humanity has attained a de facto form of immortality, making someone like Nemo quite the scientific and cultural curiosity. But now, with his health failing and death looming, the public has become fascinated with him, wanting to know how someone could let his condition slide to such a depleted state. What’s more, everyone is consumed with learning about life before the onset of technologically induced immortality, especially since the last witness to it is now on his death bed. After all, when he goes, so does knowledge of that time in humanity’s existence, never to be retrieved again (or so it’s believed).

So what do humans of the future want to know about their species’ disappearing and increasingly mysterious past? Well, for example, now that humanity has attained virtual immortality, there’s no real need any more for procreation, which means there’s also no longer any real need for sex. Consequently, those future descendants of ours are innately curious about such practices now that they’ve fallen out of everyday life. They want to learn as much as they can before the knowledge disappears forever.

Because of this, there’s a big push to learn as much as possible while Nemo is still alive, especially now that his own recollections are beginning to fade. For starters, he’s questioned about his memories through a series of hypnosis sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Feldheim (Allan Corduner). Then he becomes the reluctant subject of a pop culture TV show emceed by a wide-eyed manic host (Harold Manning), a program where viewers have an opportunity to “vote” on Nemo’s fate. But the person who develops the most intimate, most intense, most meaningful bond with the unwitting geriatric celebrity is a young journalist (Daniel Mays) who sneaks into Nemo’s hospital room and conducts a lengthy impromptu interview with his subject.

Nemo initially wonders why anyone would want to know so much in-depth information about his life. But, the more Nemo talks, the more details he reveals. And, as the discussion progresses, he ends up telling a captivating tale, one that engages, fascinates and confounds all at the same time, leaving his interviewer’s head spinning with each passing revelation.

As Nemo tells it, he underwent an unusual experience during the time before he began his current incarnation. According to Nemo, all children remember their future at the time of their conception until angels come along and erase their memory before birth. In Nemo’s case, however, the angels missed him, and he was born with this knowledge intact, an awareness that would come to be both a blessing and a curse.

When Nemo makes his terrestrial arrival in England, he becomes the son of a mother (Natasha Little) and father (Rhys Ifan) who appear to be blissfully happy. But, by the time he becomes a youngster of five (Noa De Costanzo), he witnesses something that shatters that myth: He sees his mother kissing another man, Harry (Michael Riley). He keeps mum about the incident at the time, but, four years later, a nine-year-old Nemo (Thomas Byrne) finds himself on a train platform with his parents politely but insistently pressuring him into making an impossible decision: leaving with his mother, who is resettling in Montreal with Harry, or staying in England with his father.

Nemo (Jared Leto), the last mortal human alive on earth in 2092, tries to explain life in the time before technologically created immortality in the sci-fi/fantasy cult classic, “Mr. Nobody.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The choice is overwhelming. It becomes the first of three key decision points he’ll face in his life, the next one coming as a 15-year-old adolescent (Toby Regbo) and the third arriving as a 34-year-old adult. The basic decisions he’s faced with having to make at each of those times are far from easy, and they then become further complicated by the many subsequent decisions he’ll have to make in the wake of those initial choices. And that’s because he, like all of us, is presented with an infinite range of possibilities that arise during each of those succeeding moments in time, new choice points that each have the power to take us in myriad directions depending on which option we choose.

What’s perhaps most interesting about all this is that Nemo “remembers” all of the different permutations he chose in his “life,” relating each of them to an increasingly perplexed questioner anxious to find out which of those various pasts is the “right” one. Nemo confuses his interrogator even further with the answer he gives to that question, one that would likely stretch credibility for virtually anyone lacking Nemo’s ability (even though it's a capacity that's perfectly reasonable and “normal” to him).

The first big decision Nemo must make sets him off in two vastly different directions. In the reality where he chooses to go with his mother, he finds himself becoming bitter and resentful, even though there are compensating factors that help to make up for much of his displeasure. By contrast, in his existence with his father, he experiences a generally contented home life, though various disappointments and setbacks intrude upon that happiness. These diverse outcomes reveal just how difficult making that initial decision really was.

Many of the choices that Nemo makes in conjunction with the next two big decisions carry wide-ranging implications for the unfolding of his life, particularly in matters of romance. In each of those scenarios, Nemo is faced with having to make decisions about his love life involving three women, Anna (Laura Brumagne), Elise (Léa Thonus) and Jean (Anaïs Van Belle), all of whom he meets in childhood. As a teen, he experiences his first meaningful romantic encounters with each of them. In Canada, while living with his mom, he reunites and embarks on a torrid romance with Anna (Juno Temple), who, ironically, turns out to be Harry’s daughter. It’s a relationship doomed to fail, however, when his mother and her beau split up, with Harry and Anna relocating to New York. Meanwhile, back in England with dad, Nemo develops a steamy but volatile infatuation with Elise (Clare Stone), who callously breaks his heart and sends him rebounding into the arms of Jean (Audrey Giacomini), an adoring young woman he doesn’t really love despite her undying heartfelt devotion for him.

Star-crossed lovers Nemo (Jared Leto, left) and Anna (Diane Kruger, right) struggle to make their torrid romance work despite the constant intervention of cruel fate in director Jaco Van Dormael’s 2009 sci-fi/fantasy cult classic, “Mr. Nobody,” available for streaming online and on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Years later, Nemo finds himself still involved with all three women to one degree or another. Despite many years of separation, a seemingly chance encounter reunites the now-adult Nemo and Anna (Diane Kruger) a second time for another passion-filled romance that, despite the best of intentions, is again doomed when fate intercedes. But this isn’t Nemo’s only heartache-filled romance. In another line of existence, he finds himself married to Elise (Sarah Polley), a relationship he strives desperately to salvage but that is fraught with frustration brought on by his wife’s numerous insecurities and bouts of deep depression. And, in yet another reality, Nemo, an eminently successful businessman who lives on a palatial estate, is married to Jean (Linh-Dan Pham), who adores him despite his silent and growing indifference toward her.

The unfolding of these various lines of existence is told through a series of intercut segments. In addition to Nemo’s romantic experiences, the film explores other aspects of his “life,” including his careers as a swimming pool maintenance worker, a science fiction writer, a narrator of scientific and metaphysical television shows, and a wealthy businessman, as well as how he arrived at the decisions to pursue these endeavors, the synchronicities and foreknowledge that drew him to make these choices, and the mitigating factors that contributed to their materialization. The combination makes for a kaleidoscopic view of “a life” in all its various iterations.

Upon relating these experiences, Nemo’s interrogator is left more bewildered than ever. How could someone have possibly experienced all these different events, especially given their apparent simultaneous nature? Is Nemo senile or insane? Or is something even more astounding taking place here? That’s what the intrepid journalist and viewers are about to find out. The answer may indeed seem improbable, but, if true, it could prove to be more revelatory and wondrous than any of us ever could have imagined. It might even win over a few skeptics in the process. And wouldn’t that be something?

For many of us, the ability to live overlapping existences seems wholly implausible. How can someone experience multiple life paths simultaneously? Doesn’t that suggest a certain inherent incongruity that’s impossible to resolve? But, upon further consideration, couldn’t the same argument be made about someone who concurrently possesses seemingly contradictory attributes or abilities? How do we account for those situations?

Depressed housewife Elise (Sarah Polley) struggles to overcome feelings of inadequacy as a wife and mother despite her family’s loving support in “Mr. Nobody.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

As those versed in quantum physics and various metaphysical doctrines are well aware, at any given moment, we have an ability to experience an infinite range of outcomes, depending on what we choose and where we focus our attention. Each individual moment is a choice point, and the decision we make will dictate how events unfold. Because of how our consciousness is wired, we typically make one choice in each of those moments, which accounts for why our lives play out in what appear to be singular lines of probability. That’s what makes reality seem like it’s unfolding in a purely linear fashion.

But what if we possessed the ability, as Nemo apparently does, to experience more than one line of existence simultaneously? Many of us might find the prospect confusing, which is why we generally choose to experience lines of probability one at a time. However, if such a multidimensional option is available to us, isn’t it possible that some of us may be able to experience it, to see what it’s like to explore and discover the intricacies of our multidimensional selves? If so, though, how could that occur?

Realizing such a manifestation is indeed possible if we allow it, and that’s where the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents comes into play. By drawing upon them through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we tap into these resources in materializing the reality we experience, we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the existence of our choosing – even one of a multidimensional nature. And that is what Nemo does, even if he’s not consciously aware of how or why he does so and the specific beliefs that make such an outcome possible.

Because all probabilities are possible, there’s an inherent validity in each of them. Whether they’re single lines of existence or multidimensional in nature, they each have an intrinsic legitimacy, for better or worse. And the thoughts, beliefs and intents we choose to embrace make their manifestation happen, aided by various belief-inspired tools that help to facilitate the process, as Nemo comes to discover for himself. For example, Nemo draws upon the innate foreknowledge that the angels failed to deprive him of. Then there are the numerous synchronicities he experiences, “coincidental” clues that help to point him in the direction of his goals. He’s even impacted by the phenomenon commonly known as “the Butterfly Effect” in which widely removed, seemingly unrelated events play a role in the ultimate unfolding of what are generally considered to be wholly disparate occurrences. Who would think, for example, that the act of a man boiling an egg in Brazil would eventually have an effect on the outcome of Nemo’s relationship with Anna in adulthood?

These influences lead to how Nemo’s existence plays out, because his beliefs in them (even if subconscious in nature) enable their manifestation and the subsequent roles they fulfill in shaping the tangible character of his everyday reality. And, because he experiences existence from a multidimensional perspective, there are specialized influences that are part and parcel in its particular unfolding. For instance, because he experiences overlapping lines of probability concurrently, he needs to create conditions that make such an outcome possible, namely, the existence of simultaneous time. Such a concept may seem foreign, if not wholly impossible, to those of us who are bought into the notion of reality unfolding exclusively in singular fashion. But, for someone like Nemo, who takes a multidimensional approach, his created existence wouldn’t be feasible were it not for simultaneous time to enable the parallel life paths to manifest concurrently. Suddenly, what seems to be a paradoxical notion to most of us doesn’t appear to be quite so far-fetched, provided we allow ourselves to believe in the manifestation of such an unconventional possibility.

Psychiatrist Dr. Feldheim (Allan Corduner, left) conducts hypnosis sessions with 118-year-old Nemo (Jared Leto, right), trying to retrieve disappearing memories before they’re lost forever in director Jaco Van Dormael’s sci-fi/fantasy cult classic, “Mr. Nobody.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The bottom line in all this for Nemo (and the rest of us for that matter) is that we can live lives full of richly rewarding experiences, including some that would even seem to defy what we think of as the unbending laws of probability. That’s possible thanks to the ability to use our beliefs to surpass limitations. Of course, in order for that to happen, we must believe that the limitations can be surpassed in the first place, a possibility that’s also entirely possible, again as long as we allow ourselves to believe in it. That might appear difficult at first glance, but, when we consider what such a choice could yield, we might well reconsider our decision. When we see what it can do for someone like Nemo, whose life is characterized by a panoramic range of life’s experiences, we may want the same for ourselves – and seek the means to make it happen.

I have to wonder how this superb 2013 release slipped under my radar, but I’m certainly glad I found it. This ambitious attempt at answering many of the big questions about the meaning of life, love and what matters does a tremendous job of exploring these topics and in a way that’s entertaining, enlightening and informative. Fans of the metaphysical, like yours truly, are sure to feel sufficiently nourished after watching this one, as it provides a cogent, accessible treatise on these subjects, effectively incorporating them into a thoroughly captivating narrative. Admittedly there are a few stretches in the middle where the pacing lags a bit, but that’s more than compensated for by the film’s inventive visuals, brilliant production design, excellent soundtrack, clever editing, and fine performances by Leto, Kruger, Polley and Byrne. Think of this offering as a fusion of “What the Bleep Do We Know” (2004), “Cloud Atlas” (2012), “What Dreams May Come” (1998), “The World According to Garp” (1982) and additional offerings, and you’ve got an idea what this one is like. However, if you’re unwilling to open your mind to some of the cutting-edge thinking presented here, then skip this one, as it probably won’t be to your liking. But, if you enjoy the unconventional and thought-provoking, this one will be right up your alley. If nothing else, this cult classic is definitely a refreshing change from all of this year’s mediocre and tedious awards season offerings that are undeservingly being passed off as “masterpieces.” The film is available for online streaming, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

Deciphering the mystery of life is an endeavor to which many of us devote our entire earthly stays, often arriving at incomplete, unsatisfying or muddled answers, if any at all. We keep searching for definitive explanations that will sum it all up for us in neat, tidy little packages, assuming, of course, that some kind of one-size-fits-all solution is indeed available and universally acceptable. But, unless someone out there is harboring a very well-kept secret, such an animal simply doesn’t exist. In fact, as Nemo’s experience shows, the answers are likely even more elusive than we realize. So, given the absence of an airtight, all-encompassing explanation, perhaps the most viable answer we can come up with is to simply accept that “Life is its own answer.” To some, that may seem like a glib cop-out. But, in the end, in light of our current understanding of the nature of existence, this may be our best option. Sitting back and enjoying the ride, making tweaks where we’re able to, may ultimately prove more fulfilling than any futile attempt at dissecting the nature of our being only to arrive at an explanation that’s innately unfinished, inadequate and imperfect. We would miss out on so much by staying such a wayward course. And, as Nemo’s example illustrates, there’s so much to be experienced and enjoyed that we have never envisioned and that we’re just now beginning to discover. It would be a shame to pass that up in favor of chasing illusory phantoms that can’t possibly deliver to us what only life itself in all its mysterious glory can.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.