Thursday, April 29, 2021

‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ examines the paradoxes of compromise

“The Man Who Sold His Skin”(2020 production, 2021 release). Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdoh, Christian Vadim, Marc de Panda, Rupert Wynne-James, Husam Chadat, Najouna Zuhair, Nadim Cheikhrouha, Patrick Albenque, Montassar Alaya. Director: Kaouther Ben Hania. Screenplay: Kaouther Ben Hania. Web site. Trailer.

When we seek to fulfill a goal that’s so compelling we can practically taste it, we may be willing to do anything to savor the sweetness of success. Sometimes, though, we might be tempted to go too far, compromising our virtues in questionable and even troubling ways, actions that result in dubious consequences and vexing paradoxes. What are we to do then? That’s the exasperating challenge facing an exile looking to escape his circumstances in the unsettling new social satire, “The Man Who Sold His Skin.”

Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) has quite a full plate to handle. The young, working class Syrian is madly in love with Abeer (Dea Liane), a beautiful young woman from a wealthy, upper class family. However, it’s not the kind of relationship that her family envisions for her, so they’ve taken the liberty of recruiting a more “suitable” future husband, Ziad (Saad Lostan), a man she clearly doesn’t love. And, to compound matters, Ziad is in the process of making arrangements to move himself and his bride-to-be to Belgium, away from his wartorn homeland, taking Abeer away from Sam permanently.

During one their clandestine encounters, Sam pleads with Abeer to marry him, despite the circumstances and consequences. His pledge is surprisingly far from discreet, however, pouring out his heart in public and proclaiming his desire for the freedom to wed the love of his life. Unfortunately, his plea for “freedom” is misunderstood, and he’s soon rounded up by authorities as a possible dissident opposing the rigid, autocratic Syrian state.

Fortunately, guardian angels are looking out for Sam’s welfare, and he’s surreptitiously allowed to escape confinement, though it’s up to him to find his own way of staying free. He knows he needs to flee Syria, and, ideally, he would like to find his way to Belgium to somehow rejoin Abeer. To his credit, he manages it to make it as far as Beirut, but he doesn’t picture himself becoming a permanent resident of Lebanon.

For the time being, Sam takes a low-paying job and moves into a small flat with his roommate, Hazem (Jan Dahdoh). And, to keep himself fed, he sneaks into art gallery receptions to partake of the free food and drink. All generally goes well with that until one night when he’s caught crashing the event. Still, despite the infringement and subsequent embarrassment, Sam manages to meet the artist whose works are being featured at the opening, Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen De Bouw), an eccentric, wealthy, somewhat creepy creator of contemporary abstract works who unabashedly compares himself to Mephistopheles.

Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) makes a deal with a questionable artist to become part of his latest exhibition in exchange for safe passage to Europe in the engaging and creepy new social satire, “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Sam and Jeffrey briefly discuss the evening’s awkward incident and the nature of his art works, but the conversation soon turns to the young refugee’s situation and his hopes of relocating to Europe. Jeffrey says he may be able to help Sam with that, provided he’s willing to agree to his conditions. Intrigued, Sam listens to the artist’s proposal, which involves him becoming a human canvas for a work of tattoo art to be emblazoned on his upper back. In return for access to Sam’s skin, Jeffrey agrees to help his subject relocate to Brussels. He’ll be required to put himself on display for a number of hours every day in Jeffrey’s newest exhibition, which will open soon in Belgium and later in other locations. While Sam is part of this project, Jeffrey will provide him accommodations in one of the finest hotels in Brussels, along with all of the amenities that accompany his stay. And, as the cherry on top of the cake, Sam will once again be close to Abeer, an opportunity to get their relationship back on track, one that he hopes her family will find more suitable now given the income he’ll receive from participating in Jeffrey’s exhibition.

With the basic plan set, Sam meets with Jeffrey’s hyper-efficient handler, Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci), who presents him with a contract outlining all of his obligations. Sam begins to suspect that he may be getting himself into an arrangement wrapped up with more strings than he originally realized. In fact, one could say that Sam is on the verge of embarking on a Faustian deal whose implications he has not yet comprehended. But, if this transaction helps him realize his dream of relocating to Europe and reuniting with his beloved, he’s willing to go along with whatever conditions Jeffrey dictates (and that Soraya promises to enforce). Little does he know that he’s in for a rude awakening, one in which he soon finds himself being treated as little more than a commodity. It forces him to ask himself, “Is this any way to live?” And, before long, he faces the prospect that even managing to stay alive might itself prove more onerous than he ever thought when he launched into this questionable venture.

When we have a cherished goal we’d like to see fulfilled, sometimes we’re willing to do virtually anything to make it happen. The passion driving such endeavors can be quite potent – and seductive – almost to the point where we develop tunnel vision about them. Our attention becomes so focused that we can’t see the larger picture. We believe so strongly in the outcomes that the consequences of achieving such results are cast aside with nary a second thought. And that’s important to recognize, because our beliefs, thoughts and intents drive what we experience. Such is the nature of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these resources in manifesting the reality around us.

As a human canvas, Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni, back to camera) provides the “material” for a work of tattoo art in director Kaouther Ben Hania’s second narrative feature, “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

It should be noted, however, that this is true for better or worse, and, when the practice is employed as described above, the outcome can be fraught with unintended side effects. When we’re so obsessed with realizing a particular result at all costs, we tap into a variant of this philosophy known as un-conscious creation. This all-out exercise in absolutist materialization can indeed yield what we want, but it can also become a tinder box of unforeseen difficulties, some of which can be extremely challenging to rectify. Then what?

As Sam’s odyssey plays out, he begins to see this very scenario unfold. He’s so desperate to leave the Middle East that he’ll do virtually anything to achieve that goal. Given the conditions he’s living under and the objective he’s seeking to fulfill, that position is entirely understandable. And, to his credit, he’s to be commended for devising beliefs that help to, at least superficially, make those eventualities possible. He thus demonstrates a proficiency as a conscious creator that many of us might find enviable.

Nevertheless, despite some of the successes he realizes, he’s soon faced by unforeseen circumstances that raise new issues to be addressed, and that’s attributable to the un-conscious approach he takes to the manifestation process. He may be bewildered by what transpires, but, if he were truly astute about this practice, he’d realize that he is just as responsible for the hiccups he experiences as he is for his triumphs. That’s because those ancillary outcomes arise from his beliefs just as readily as those that resulted in his successes. They’re part of the belief mix that contributes to the overall array of manifestations that emerge.

When this occurs, we naturally might ask ourselves, “How did this happen?” As a general rule, such outcomes arise from beliefs that creep into the implementing mix without our awareness (hence the “un-conscious” element). In Sam’s case, for example, even though he has a strong sense of clarity about what he wants to achieve, coupled with an intense faith that it will result, he’s also stirred into the mix a hefty dose of desperation, a willingness to do whatever it takes to see his results materialize. And, as most of us are aware, desperate people will employ desperate measures to see their objectives come to life. Is it any surprise, then, that his hoped-for outcome is somewhat distorted in its final form?

Had Sam not incorporated desperation into his belief recipe, then he likely would have achieved a different result. That’s where taking stock of the entirety of our intents becomes crucial. When certain beliefs remain undetected below the surface, quietly lurking about in our subconscious mind, they may go unnoticed, but their impact could be significant nonetheless. It thus becomes imperative for us to take all contributing factors into account in our conscious creation efforts.

To enforce compliance with the terms of a dubious business contract, Soraya Waldy (Monica Bellucci, right), the hyper-efficient handler for a famous but eccentric artist, reminds the subject of that artist’s latest work, Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni, left, back to camera), of his obligations in “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

This is especially important when dealing with questionable collaborators like Jeffrey. When one transacts business with someone who freely compares himself to Mephistopheles, it should quickly become apparent that the devil is in the details of such an arrangement – literally. And, in scenarios like this, one can be fairly certain that those looking to assure compliance with the stated terms will come up with the means to make that happen, as evidenced here by Soraya’s ever-diligent presence. Being as specific and thorough as possible in these situations is thus critical to protect our own interests.

Admittedly, the failure to adhere to these self-protective notions could be attributed to an opportunity for learning a valuable life lesson, which could have some valuable merit in itself. However, to avoid unwanted difficulties, it’s best to scrutinize the circumstances as thoroughly as possible to account for all of the beliefs involved in such undertakings and to plan for as many contingencies as can be accommodated. By doing so, the results may end up quite different – and more to one’s liking.

To avoid unintended side effects in our materializations, it helps immensely to get creative in our approaches – overcoming fears that would hold us back, seeking to push limitations that would serve as barriers to our progress and so forth. That can lead to truly inspired manifestations. What’s more, this practice can help to extricate ourselves from particularly troubling situations. For instance, Sam obviously employed inventive measures to get himself out of Syria and to sustain himself while in Beirut, so he obviously has a certain aptitude for this ability. The question is, however, will he be able to do the same when he finds himself caught up in circumstances where the ante has been upped significantly? That’s an ability that will be put to the test once he arrives in Belgium. Will he be able to successfully escape this frying pan without landing in the fire?

A key practice to help minimize the foregoing is to tap into our sense of personal integrity, to be our true, authentic selves. By doing so, we lessen the likelihood of distortions appearing in our beliefs and, subsequently, our manifestations. It helps us avoid having to compromise our principles, reducing the possibility of maddening paradoxes arising in our existence and confounding our efforts to realize the results we seek.

When Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), the subject of an experimental art exhibition, is treated like a tradeable commodity, he begins to question his involvement in the project in the Oscar-nominated international feature, “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Sam’s failure to do this inevitably leads to the disillusionment he experiences. To be sure, he may have escaped the turmoil he underwent in Syria, but is binding, enforced confinement – even if luxurious – fundamentally any different from the more brutal form he endured back home? Is the price of his freedom truly worth being treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold on the open market? And are his new living arrangements in Brussels genuinely an improvement over the company of the loving family he left behind in Syria, a bittersweet revelation to come out of video phone conversations with his mother (Darina Al Joundi) and sister (Najouna Zuhair)? It might be easy for us to lose sight of the answers to questions like these – and to the integrity that goes into addressing them – when our backs are seemingly against the wall, but we should make every effort to avoid this if we hope to dodge the disappointing and disillusioning outcomes that can arise from our failure to do so.

Chilling, satirical and full of irony, this contemporary drama about compromising our virtues and selling our soul for an illusory sense of freedom only to find ourselves more restrained than ever spins a captivating and thought-provoking tale. Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s second narrative feature serves up an array of intriguing and incisive insights and observations on a variety of social, political and economic issues, particularly the treatment of individuals more as goods than as living beings. The script’s deft mixture of macabre, witty and profound elements provides an entertaining and engaging combination that will keep viewers glued to the screen right up to its twist-filled conclusion. This multinational production, a well-deserved Oscar nominee for best international feature, is available for streaming online from a variety of outlets.

When we pursue new opportunities in life, are we doing so because we truly want something better, or are we merely attempting to escape our current circumstances? That’s the question we must ask ourselves, and, to attain the results we want, we need to be brutally honest in our answers. If we attempt to fudge matters in ways in which we’re less than truthful with ourselves, we might well end up with disappointing outcomes, ones that may spawn new difficulties that we hadn’t expected and that could potentially be more arduous to resolve than those we started with. If we’re truly to have skin in the game – as Sam does literally in this scenario – we had better know what we’re getting ourselves into before we’re left with a situation that leaves an indelible mark – and for which there’s no adequate resolution.

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

Monday, April 26, 2021

How’d I Do on This Year’s Oscars?

The older I get, the more the Academy confounds me. When this has happened in the past, I’ve generally been pleased with most of the surprises that arose. This year, however, I was dumbstruck when the winners were announced in a few of the categories, and not necessarily in a good way. Perhaps it was due to the nature of how and when movies were distributed this year because of the pandemic. Perhaps it was due to wishful thinking clouding my judgment. In any event, with this year’s Oscars behind us, it’s time to take a look at how I did on my predictions for the winners in this annual competition, as first outlined in my previous blog.

So how did I do? Regrettably, this is my worst prediction performance since I began doing these blogs – three out of six correct calls. Here are the details:

Best Picture

The Field: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal,” “The Father,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Projected Winner:  “Minari”

Actual Winner:  “Nomadland”

Result:  Missed call

I admit it – I went out on a limb, and I was wrong. As I noted in my predictions blog, even though I recognized that the smart money was on “Nomadland,” I was sensing a shift in the direction of “Minari.” I felt this intuitively, and maybe it was occurring but didn’t attain enough momentum in time. However, “Nomadland” maintained its mojo and managed to come out on top.

While I thought “Nomadland” was a capably made film, I didn’t feel it merited the top prize. That honor truly should have gone to “Minari,” a superb production that, unfortunately, underperformed throughout awards season and never captured the degree of attention it truly deserved. I also believed (and still do) that it has the message the country needs right now – one of hope, love, tolerance and healing, a far more endearing and inspiring than the one the victor sent.

Best Actor

The Field: Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”; Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Gary Oldman, “Mank”; Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”; Steven Yeun, “Minari”

Projected Winner:  Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Actual Winner:  Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”

Result:  Missed call

I was shocked when Hopkins’s name was announced. While he certainly gave an excellent performance, and even though he pulled out what appeared to be a surprise win at the BAFTAs several weeks previously, I was convinced that the Academy would honor Boseman, not only based on the strength of his performance and his wins earlier in awards season, but also because this would be the last opportunity the Academy would have to recognize him. Voters dropped the ball.

The Academy’s failure to honor Boseman in the past – even with nominations – was a glaring oversight. But its failure to do so this time is inexcusable. Such slights weren’t allowed to pass, for example, when it came to the Oscar wins for Peter Finch for “Network” (1976) or Heath Ledger for “The Dark Knight” (2008), so how it was allowed to happen here – especially for such a gripping performance – is mind boggling. Shame on the Academy.

Best Actress

The Field:  Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”; Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”; Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”; Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”; Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Projected Winner:  Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”

Actual Winner:  Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”

Result:  Missed call

As with the lead actor category, I was shocked when McDormand’s name was called. Odds makers believed, as did I, that Mulligan had the best chance of taking home the award. While this category was essentially up for grabs given the results in prior awards season competitions, McDormand was widely regarded by prognosticators as the second least likely candidate to capture this prize, despite her recent win at the BAFTA Awards, a contest in which most of her competitors here weren’t even nominated. The skepticism about McDormand’s chances stemmed from her awards season track record thus far, her recent (and deserved) Oscar win for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), and the fact that this was one of her more underwhelming performances, not only compared to those of her fellow nominees, but also in her storied career.

This result baffles me. It was a weird category to call all season long. In all truthfulness, I believed the award should have gone to Andra Day, as evidenced by her win at the Golden Globe Awards, but I didn’t think it likely that she’d emerge as the winner (and handicappers concurred, placing her in the middle of the field). I’m glad to have predictions for this field behind me.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field:  Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”; LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”; Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night in Miami…”; Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”; Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Projected Winner:  Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Actual Winner:  Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Result:  Correct call

Kaluuya was a clear-cut winner, having run the table in all of the season’s other awards competitions. No surprise here – a deserving victory for a fine performance.

Best Supporting Actress

The Field:  Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”; Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”; Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”; Olivia Colman, “The Father”; Youn Yuh-Jung, “Minari”

Projected Winner:  Youn Yuh-Jung, “Minari”

Actual Winner:  Youn Yuh-Jung, “Minari”

Result:  Correct call

This was another category that was not difficult to predict, given that Youn’s momentum had been steadily building, winning in virtually every competition in which she was nominated leading up to the Oscars. Again, this is another example of the right performer winning for the right performance.

Best Director

The Field:  Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”; David Fincher, “Mank”; Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”; Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari”; Thomas Vinterberg, “Another Round” (“Druk”)

Projected Winner:  Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Actual Winner:  Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Result:  Correct call

Again, no surprise here. Zhao has claimed the directorial award in every contest this year, despite the fact that Lee Isaac Chung was the more deserving candidate. Hollywood has been wanting to honor Zhao for some time, and now the Academy has followed through on it.

Oscar® and Academy Award® are registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

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

Sunday, April 25, 2021

‘Love and Monsters’ chronicles the path to personal evolution

“Love and Monsters” (2020). Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, Ariana Greenblatt, Dan Ewing, Ellen Hollman, Tre Hale, Melanie Zanetti (voice). Tandi Wright, Andrew Buchanan, Pacharo Mzemba, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Hero the dog, Dodge the dog. Director: Michael Matthews. Screenplay: Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson. Story: Brian Duffield. Web site. Trailer.

Stagnancy can be a drag, not just in terms of the boredom factor, but also for the detrimental effects it can have on our personal growth and development. It leaves us stuck, watching time pass without any meaningful diversions, insights or hope for the future. But doldrums like these need not remain a fixed, unalterable state; we can transform, becoming more than we were and, perhaps more importantly, more than we thought we could be. Such is the case for a lonely, lovelorn young man in the delightfully entertaining new sci-fi comedy, “Love and Monsters.”

When the earth is beset by an environmental and evolutionary disaster, much of humanity is wiped out. That’s because many of the planet’s animals – especially reptiles, insects and crustaceans – undergo radical mutations that turn them into enormous monsters with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. As a consequence, the remaining survivors are forced into makeshift underground bunkers, many of them far removed from one another. And about the only time that the survivors go aboveground is to forage for supplies, the leftover untouched scraps of their former lives available for the taking, a decidedly risky pursuit given the potential perils that await them on the surface.

While the bunkers generally provide a good degree of safety, life inside them can grow relentlessly tedious. It’s not entirely unbearable for those who successfully manage to couple up with romantic partners, but, for those left out of such fun and frolic, like twenty-something Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), the solo life can become little more than an exasperatingly frustrating series of cold showers. About the only diversions Joel has are his artwork and access to a ham radio through which he’s able to converse with Aimee (Jessica Henwick), his love interest from the days before going underground. However, as time goes by and Joel finds himself as just about the only unpartnered resident of his bunker community, he realizes that something has to change. He decides to risk the journey to join Aimee at her compound, despite the many dangers he’s likely to face along the way.

Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) embarks on a perilous cross-country journey to reunite with his long-separated love interest in the enjoyable new family fare offering, “Love and Monsters.” Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Netflix/Paramount Pictures.

When Joel announces his intention to leave, his fellow residents encourage him to stay, saying they need him to help keep the bunker community afloat. They also discourage this venture by tactfully but frankly noting that Joel isn’t exactly the most adept or street smart among their ranks; they wonder how he’ll be able to contend with challenges like huge man-eating frogs and slugs, among other perils. But, convinced that he has to make the attempt at reuniting with Aimee, he embarks on the 80-mile hike into the unknown.

As Joel treks across this foreign terrain, he encounters all of the menacing creatures he was warned about, but he somehow manages to protect himself, quickly learning how to draw upon his wits to keep himself alive. He also chances upon a number of guides to accompany him on his trip, including a loyal canine friend, Boy (Hero the dog/Dodge the dog); an experienced surface dweller, Clyde (Michael Rooker), and his pint-sized companion, Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt); and a damaged but still functional domestic robot, Mav1s (Melanie Zanetti), all of whom offer valuable suggestions for how to get on in the wild and how to maintain faith in his goal despite the many obstacles he faces.

Through this experience, Joel evolves in much the same way as the creatures around him – not so much physically, but certainly in terms of his personal capabilities. He becomes so proficient at survival that he just might make it to Aimee’s bunker. But, in seeking to fulfill his dream, he’ll have to face additional challenges of a different and totally unexpected type, as well as the exploits of a trio of new strangers (Dan Ewing, Ellen Hollman, Tre Hale), all of whom claim to be trustworthy but merit caution. How will it all turn out? Stay tuned.

In the days before their protracted separation, budding romantic partners Joel (Dylan O’Brien, right) and Aimee (Jessica Henwick, left) say goodbye in hopes of meeting again in the face of a global calamity in “Love and Monsters.” Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Netflix/Paramount Pictures.

Embarking on a potentially life-changing venture can be fraught with challenges, pitfalls and uncertainty. At the same time, it can also be filled with hope, inspiration and opportunity. The question is, how do we approach such an undertaking? That’s significant, because how we launch into something as audacious as this can have a tremendous bearing on how it pans out. It shapes our frame of mind, which, in turn, forms the basis of our beliefs about the endeavor. And those beliefs provide the foundation for its manifestation, a consequence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible building blocks provide the basis for the materialization of the reality we experience.

Considering the odyssey that Joel is commencing, it would be in his best interests if he approached it with an outlook rooted in achieving success. But, if that success is to be realized, he needs to clear the path ahead of him, making a conscious effort to remove any roadblocks that might impede him. And first and foremost among them are the fears and limitations that would hold him back.

If fears are allowed to hold sway in the conscious creation process, they could easily prevent the sought-after outcomes from materializing. They would essentially stop Joel in his tracks, because fear-based beliefs inherently keep us from moving forward with our plans, no matter how well thought out and meticulously orchestrated they may be. If such notions are present in our belief mix, we realistically have to ask ourselves, why would we intentionally apply the brakes to our ambitions before we even get out of the starting gate? Quite simply, they need to go, no matter how tall an order that might represent.

Man’s best friend, Boy (Hero the dog/Dodge the dog), lives up to that reputation when he joins a lovelorn twenty-something, Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), on a dangerous journey to reunite with his girlfriend in director Michael Matthews’s entertaining new release, “Love and Monsters.” Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Netflix/Paramount Pictures.

The same is true of any limitations that might block our way. Limitations are often propped up by excuses, which, in turn, are frequently governed by fears, all of which again illustrates the need for those beliefs to be eliminated. But, when that’s not the case, the perception of limitations as impediments can have the same effect as a fear blocking us from forward progress. In situations like this, then, we must make a concerted effort to devise solutions that allow us to overcome whatever is holding us back. That takes getting creative, considering options to which we may not have previously given any thought. It involves purposely thinking outside the box or pushing the envelope or whatever other motivational speaker cliché that one can draw from. These expressions may be a little trite, but the recommendations behind them are solid in cases like this. After all, if this work involves the conscious creation process, then we’d better get busy and think creatively to come up with workable solutions.

In Joel’s case, he accomplishes this by drawing guides to him who can help show him the way to overcome his limitations. Boy, Clyde, Minnow and Mav1s all offer ideas that he can embrace and adapt to suit his needs. He may not get things right on his initial attempts at employing their suggestions, but that’s how he learns to hone his skills, not only in a tangible sense, but also in refining the beliefs he needs to bring about the results he seeks. And, in his circumstances, that can mean the difference between life and death.

As a corollary to this, Joel also affords himself an opportunity to learn about hidden skills and talents that he never knew he possessed. The circumstances in which he finds himself prompt the need for solutions, frequently of an innovative nature. All of which lends further credence to the notion that necessity truly is the mother of invention. And, besides presenting Joel with answers to his dilemmas, they make him aware of parts of himself that previously went unseen and unexplored. That’s quite a bargain when it comes to matters of our personal growth and development.

On a grander scale, the amalgamation of a number of such experiences enables the advancement of one’s personal evolution. Just as the world around Joel has transformed itself, so, too, does he as he goes through this wondrous adventure. That’s significant, for it affords him an opportunity to exceed his limitations and his expectations (as well as those that others hold of him). By allowing himself to grow and evolve through this venture, he has an opportunity to become more than he was, to transform himself into someone different from when he began his journey. It’s a development very much in line with the spirit of conscious creation, one of whose core principles maintains that we’re all in a constant state of becoming. And, given Joel’s experience, that’s certainly the case here, a shining example of personal evolution that serves as an inspiration to the rest of us.

A cross-country hiker making a perilous journey receives valuable support and guidance from an experienced surface dweller, Clyde (Michael Rooker, right), his pint-sized companion, Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt, left), and a loyal canine friend, Boy (Hero the dog/Dodge the dog), in “Love and Monsters.” Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Netflix/Paramount Pictures.

With wild and deadly creatures all around him, intrepid hiker Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) must defend himself by any means possible in “Love and Monsters,” now available for streaming and on home media. Photo by Jasin Boland, courtesy of Netflix/Paramount Pictures.

When we take this principle to its highest expression, we have an opportunity to fulfill our destiny. As expressed in conscious creation terms, this is the embodiment of living out our value fulfillment, the concept of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Indeed, as Joel’s story unfolds, he comes upon circumstances that provide him with an opportunity to realize this for himself and the others he encounters. It’s his chance to leave a lasting legacy, one that’s beneficial to many, including those in need and some whom he has never met before. That’s quite a change for someone who once spent all his time doing sketches and just thinking about a better future.

It’s always a real treat when a film from which one might not expect much turns out to be a pleasant surprise, and so it is with this charming, fun, entertaining sci-fi/comedy/road trip/young adult romance tale set against the challenges of a crushing but comical monsterpocalypse. This genre-fusing evolutionary saga serves up a delightful story in which the concept of transformation is reflected in more than just the creatures of nature. Though occasionally somewhat predictable, the film is nevertheless filled with many delicious plot twists and developments that are augmented by colorful supporting characters (some of them human, some not), genuinely laugh-out-loud humor, and even a few touching moments that are truly heartfelt but without ever becoming sappy. Then there are the picture’s superb visual effects, which very deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for their clever, inventive, eye-popping designs. While “Love and Monsters” may not have a particularly compelling title, it has much to offer in terms entertainment value and engaging insights, even for younger viewers, qualities that are often hard to come by in fare aimed at such audiences. Even though this release has been quietly flying below the radar for a while, director Michael Matthews’s second feature outing deserves wider attention than it has been getting in light of everything it has going for it.

Sitting on the sidelines, waiting for life to happen, gets us nowhere. If we want our lives to change, we have to be agents of that change, taking steps to nurture and encourage that evolution in hopes that it fulfills our dreams and brings us the reality we want. It’s attainable, but we have to invoke it, with confidence and resolve and without reservation. If someone like Joel Dawson can understand that and make the effort to attain it, then we should be able to as well. And, even if we don’t succeed at it, at least the attempt sure as hell beats being stuck in a bunker all day.

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Quo Vadis, Aida?" and "My Octopus Teacher," a pair of blog links, and a podcast preview are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

‘My Octopus Teacher’ shows us how to become ourselves

“My Octopus Teacher” (2020). Cast: Craig Foster, Tom Foster. Director: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed. Screenplay: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed. Web site. Trailer.

Discovering ourselves is often a challenging process, especially when we feel lost and have no idea where or how to look for answers. However, if we remain open to options – including those that appear to be coming to us from unlikely sources – we may just find the guidance we seek. So it was for a lost soul searching for himself as depicted in the beautiful and moving new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.”

At the opening of this highly personal documentary, South African director and cinematographer Craig Foster confesses to feeling lost and severely burned out. While he doesn’t elaborate on the details, he admits to a lack of motivation for taking on new projects. He also laments that, as the father of a young son, Tom, who was beginning his approach to adolescence, he didn’t feel up to the task of providing the paternal guidance that someone at such an impressionable age generally requires. As a result, Craig says he was spending most of his time adrift, looking for the spark to get himself and his life back on track.

Having grown up on the South African seacoast, Craig says he was always strongly influenced by his proximity to the ocean. And, given his love of nature, the subject of many of his previous film projects, he felt a tie to the environment and all its wonders. So, after an extended period of time contemplating how to proceed, he began to sense that a return to the natural world would be just what he needed to revive himself. Little did he know at that point how right he would be.

Craig decided to go snorkeling in the thick kelp forest in the cold ocean waters just off the shore of where he lived. He was in awe of the rich and diverse animal and plant life he encountered. But what captivated him most was an encounter with a small octopus, one that was cautiously defensive at first. However, the longer he interacted with the little mollusk, the more he could see that the octopus was as curious about him as he was about the octopus. Thus began an unusual but heartfelt “relationship” between Craig and his new underwater friend.

As a result of this encounter, Craig says he wanted to know more, so he decided that he would go snorkeling every day to seek out this fascinating creature. And, the more time he spent in the company of the octopus, the more intimate their relationship became, one that would become characterized by qualities that he never expected would arise between a human and an undersea animal.

Director Craig Foster discusses how his ongoing encounters with an undersea creature helped change his life in the heartwarming new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.” Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

While some may contend that this is nothing more than a case of anthropomorphism, skeptics would have a hard time convincing Craig otherwise. As the film illustrates, the octopus demonstrates traits like curiosity and trust in ways that are far too humanlike to be dismissed as purely coincidental but unintended animal behavior. That’s particularly true in light of their repeat occurrence; if it happened only once, it might be easy to chalk up the experience to the contentions put forth by the skeptics, but, since such attributes became apparent over and over again, it’s hard to argue with Craig’s observations.

The more time Craig spent with the octopus, the more he could see just how startlingly intelligent it was. For example, when it came to matters of protecting itself, the octopus proved to be a master of camouflage and escape tactics, especially in safeguarding itself against the waters’ native predatory pajama sharks. The same was true of the creature’s hunting technique, coming up with clever means of stalking its prey. From these observations, Craig concluded that the intelligence and inventiveness of the octopus has been grossly underestimated. Indeed, it could be one of the most sentient beings on the planet, though we’ve never noticed that before due to a lack of such up-close interaction.

On top of that, though, Craig observed that there was more to this creature than just its surprising intelligence. He came to find that there was much that we could learn from the octopus, lessons in intangible qualities that many of us would be reluctant to admit could be attributed to an undersea animal. He found that especially helpful to him given what he was going through personally at the time, attributes that he discovered he could make use of in his own life in areas like compassion, acceptance, love and connection. In particular, he drew upon this experience in fostering a stronger relationship with Tom, whom he eventually invited to join him in his daily snorkeling adventures. Through this ongoing odyssey, Craig came to discover that this fascinating little creature would indeed become his octopus teacher.

With his new undersea friend by his side, filmmaker Craig Foster embarks on an undersea odyssey that changed his life forever, as seen in the inspiring new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher,” available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

Fortunately for Craig, he got exactly the teacher he needed at exactly the time he needed it. But that’s no surprise considering this manifestation arose as a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we materialize the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. This doctrine maintains that our outer world mirrors our inner selves, bringing into being what we focus upon. Whether or not the film’s protagonist is aware of this philosophy, it’s apparent he’s developed a certain mastery over its principles, enough so that he freely admits to recognizing that the appearance of the octopus and its behavior at that time were reflections of his inner being. And, given his unspoken but nevertheless definitive need for a teacher to help him turn his life around, the octopus – as unlikely as it may seem – fulfilled this requirement.

In observing the animal’s behavior, Craig notes its adaptability to its environment and the circumstances affecting it. He says he learned much from this experience from a pragmatic standpoint, particularly in matters of improvisation and devising solutions to overcome limitations, hallmarks of conscious creation proficiency. But, over time, as he began to more fully understand the nuances of the creature’s actions, he noted the surfacing of more intangible qualities, traits that he previously never would have believed an octopus could possess or exhibit. These were the same qualities that were beginning to surface in Craig himself, reinforcing his observation about his undersea friend serving as a reflection of his own inner being.

To his credit, Craig recognized the parallels and saw how he could apply these notions in his own life. The experience thus became an opportunity to learn important life lessons, particularly in matters of allowing his true self to emerge. This enabled him to take ownership of his personal integrity and make it manifest in his everyday existence, not only in his dealings with the octopus, but also in his experiences on dry land. There’s much to be said for this, even if it came about in a most unexpected way.

An octopus living off the coast of South Africa provides an interesting study, both personally and professionally, for a filmmaker and naturalist in “My Octopus Teacher.” Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

As noted above, Craig says that he learned much about such concepts as connection, love and compassion. And those principles, in turn, translated into significant developments in his daily life, altering his future in important ways that he never saw coming. Perhaps the most significant of these was his establishment of the Sea Change Project, an initiative aimed at promoting greater awareness of oceanic-related considerations, particularly the beauty, sustainability and ecological importance of South Africa’s kelp forest and the creatures that inhabit it. The passion that came out of Craig’s personal undersea odyssey has thus yielded an organization with an earnest mission whose implications are far greater than anything he might have imagined when he began his snorkeling adventure. Who would have believed when this all started that something so seemingly small could lead to something so notably grand in scale?

Through these developments, Craig and the octopus have thus taught many of us how to relate to our world in new, innovative and unexpected ways. That likely was not the seeming intent when this all began, but that is what has grown from it. While Craig was seeking to find himself, he did, but in ways that he probably did not consider as part of his original plan. Nevertheless, when he launched into his effort to find himself, he laid the fundamental foundation for what would emerge, even if he wasn’t aware of the form it would eventually take at that time. The seeds of what ultimately would surface were planted at that point, blossoming into the impressive creation that would one day be born, a product of both his own inventiveness and his personal evolution. This progression of events thus elegantly illustrates the conscious creation notion that we’re all in a constant state of becoming.

The thick kelp forest off the South African seacoast provides a beautiful backdrop for the life-changing experience of a burned out filmmaker in the heartwarming new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.” Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

In line with the foregoing, Craig thus came to discover his destiny, which, in conscious creation terms, is referred to as his value fulfillment, the principle that maintains we seek to be our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Considering what has emerged from this experience, the outward, tangible manifestation of this concept should be obvious, with wide-ranging implications affecting both humanity and our kindreds in the plant and animal kingdoms. But, on a more personal level, it has also enabled Craig to live out his value fulfillment for himself, to become his own best, truest self for his own personal betterment. We should all hope that we can bring ourselves to attain that, considering who and how many of us stand to benefit from it.

Who would have thought that we could learn anything meaningful from an undersea mollusk? Yet, if we’re willing to devote the time and effort to studying the miracles of nature, there’s no telling what we might glean from the experience, both about our subject and ourselves. Such is the remarkable experience of Craig Foster, whose story is beautifully and meaningfully told through this superb documentary. Gorgeously filmed and warmly narrated, this moving offering from directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed shows us a world seldom seen, with insights never imagined about a creature we know of but know virtually nothing about. It also profoundly touches us in heartfelt ways, drawing out an array of emotions that might include the shedding of a tear or two. This BAFTA Award-winning release and Oscar nominee is truly a cinematic labor of love, one richly deserving of all the recognition and accolades it has received. The film is available for streaming online.

If one ever had any doubt about the undeniable connections between us and everything in our existence, “My Octopus Teacher” certainly dispels that uncertainty. As this film so beautifully illustrates, it’s quite remarkable how such an outcome can result. We should be grateful for the opportunity to have experiences like this. But, considering how and where they arise from in the first place, we should thank ourselves for having the wherewithal to create them. When we understand that – and when we understand ourselves – we have an opportunity to appreciate who we are and what we’re capable of. And what a miracle that is.

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

Go to the Oscars on Frankiesense & More!

With theaters back open and awards season wrapping up, it's an exciting time for movie fans. Find out about some excellent new selections and my predictions for the winners in the top categories in this weekend's Oscars on Thursday, April 22, 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 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, April 20, 2021

‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ chillingly instructs us in life’s hard lessons

“Quo Vadis, Aida?”(2021). Cast: Jasna Djuričić, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrovic, Johan Heldenbergh, Raymond Thiry, Boris Isakovic, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Reinout Bussemaker, Teun Luijkx, Juda Goslinga, Jelena Kordic Kuret, Ermin Bravo, Rijad Gvozden, Edita Malovcic, Alban Ukaj, Adi Hrustemovic. Director: Jasmila Žbanić. Screenplay: Jasmila Žbanić. Web site. Trailer.

Some life experiences can involve truly hard pills to swallow. In fact, they can be so arduous to undergo that we may wonder why we’re having to endure such ordeals, especially when they involve elements we find unthinkable. Getting through that kind of torment might seem unbearable, and discovering the “reason” for it could be unfathomable. Under such circumstances, we can only hope that some aspect of clarity reveals itself, as is apparent in the chilling new historical drama, “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić) is experiencing an ordeal that no one should have to endure. The Yugoslavian civil conflicts have been raging for several years, spilling from one constituent republic to another as the now-fragile union implodes and dissolves. By 1995, as this story begins, strife has made its way to the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Aida lives with her husband, Nihad (Izudin Bajrovic), and her two adult sons, Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrovic). She works as a translator for the United Nations peacekeeping force assigned to help protect the region’s citizens from aggressive incursions by invading forces from the neighboring State of Serbia. It’s a stressful job in many regards, but it’s about to get worse – much worse.

Aida and her family reside in the largely Muslim community of Srebenica in eastern Bosnia, not far from the border of Serbia, whose population consists of mostly Orthodox Christians. Srebenica is an area that the UN has declared a safe haven, one that its forces have vowed to protect, a promise that the local mayor (Ermin Bravo) has extreme reservations about. After a number of incidents, community officials have become skeptical about the “assurances” offered by Col. Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), commander of the predominantly Dutch troops assigned by the UN to handle this task. And, unfortunately, that skepticism soon proves correct when Serb forces under Gen. Ratho Mladić (Boris Isakovic) invade Srebenica, savagely plundering the community and killing residents (especially men) at will.

As Serb forces brazenly stake their claim to their newly conquered territory, troops and local residents flee to the UN military compound outside of town to seek safety. However, there are far more refugees than the compound can handle. Aida, as a UN official, is protected and allowed to remain with the troops and the refugees who successfully managed to arrive before the compound’s gates were closed. However, with the compound’s capacity reached, her family and many of her friends are left to wait outside, their future uncertain. Aida makes a plea with Col. Karremans to allow her husband and sons to enter, but he explains that, unlike her, they are not official UN representatives and cannot be given preferential treatment. And, with Gen. Mladić’s troops now advancing on the compound, the uncertainty of that future grows ever more precarious.

UN translator Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić) looks out upon an uncertain future during the 1995 siege of Srebenica during the Serbian attack on Bosnia-Herzegovina in director Jasmila Žbanić’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

With circumstances threatening to spiral out of control, Col. Karremans and his aide, Maj. Franken (Raymond Thiry), desperately contact UN officials for instructions, requests that go unanswered. Given the size of the crowd inside the encampment (with not nearly enough facilities and provisions to address the need), as well as the growing masses assembling outside the compound and the encroaching Serbian troops, the situation is a disaster waiting to happen. With no help forthcoming from above, the UN delegation is forced into negotiating an agreement with Mladić, who has a notorious reputation for not keeping his word.

Mladić promises to provide safe passage for all of the refugees, those both inside and outside the compound. Fleets of buses and trucks soon begin arriving to transport the weary exiles out of the region. However, given Mladić’s track record, there’s ample doubt that he’ll abide by his assurances, especially when he and his brutal enforcer, Joka (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic), begin separating the men from the women and children. And perhaps no one has greater concern about this than Aida, given that her men are in the midst of that human culling.

As the situation grows ever more tense and UN forces are increasingly concerned about their own ability to safely escape, Aida scrambles to find a way to have her family included in the official delegation. She experiences a series of letdowns as each attempt at securing their welfare falls through. One can feel the fear pervading her being as she desperately seeks to protect Nihad, Hamdija and Sejo. But, with time running out, can she do this before it’s too late?

The siege of Srebenica was one of the most devastating incidents of the Yugoslavian civil conflicts, if not the 1990s overall. With the end of the Cold War, the abolition of South African apartheid and any number of other groundbreaking world events, it seemed at the time that the planet was becoming a more peaceful and civilized place. And then this happened – an outpouring of madness at a time when all indications were pointing to humanity heading in a different – and far preferable – direction.

Col. Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh, right), head of the UN peacekeeping force pledged to protect the Bosnian safe haven of Srebenica, addresses the throngs of refugees seeking safety with the assistance of his translator, Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić, left), in the gripping new historical drama, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

So why did this occur? That’s difficult to ascertain, yet one thing is for sure – it was an event through which both personal and collective dramas played out, much like what happened during other significant group conflicts, such as the world wars, the civil rights movement and a variety of other mass events. This film aptly illustrates how this unfolded in Bosnia, on both levels, with results that impacted individuals directly and group affiliations collectively.

As horrific as these incidents were, it’s nevertheless vital that we recognize how they were brought into being – through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience. To be sure, one might legitimately wonder why anyone in his or her right mind would employ this philosophy in such a way, but, as its practitioners understand, it’s a doctrine that works no matter how we apply it, for better or worse. And, as this incident illustrates, the process can yield devastating consequences when implemented recklessly. In fact, what happened here could very well have resulted from a fundamental lack of awareness of that process; those who carried it out were focused solely on the outcome with no regard for how it came into being, particularly the mix of inciting beliefs responsible for its creation, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. That’s no excuse for what occurred, but it does help to explain why it may have happened.

Becoming conscious of this philosophy may have been one of the principal aims involved in this incident, one of many life lessons to be learned both personally and collectively as a result of this experience. Admittedly, this was an abhorrent and painful way for those lessons to be learned, regardless of the scale and intent through which these events occurred. However, for what it’s worth, and as difficult as this may be to accept, sometimes it takes events of great magnitude for messages like this to sink in. It’s a way of shocking and scaring ourselves so thoroughly that it slays the temptation to want to repeat such practices – or so it’s hoped. Based on how matters have unfolded in our world since 1995, however, it would appear we still have our work cut out for us on this front.

The Srebenica incident also provided an opportunity for a lesson in integrity, both for the UN forces and the Serbian troops, particularly when it comes to matters of keeping one’s word. As events unfold in the film, it’s apparent that both sides need schooling on this subject. The UN delegation, for example, learned a hard lesson about making promises that can’t be fulfilled, an experience essential for future undertakings of this nature. And the invading forces came face to face with what stems from outright lying, as evidenced by the fallout that came in the world’s reaction to the incident. Through conscious creation, we can get our lessons in either the hard way or one that goes easier on us. Based on what transpired here, it’s obvious to see which choices the principal players in this scenario made.

Col. Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh, right), head of the UN peacekeeping force pledged to protect the Bosnian safe haven of Srebenica, and his translator, Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić, center), meet with Joka (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, left), chief enforcer of advancing Serbian troops, in director Jasmila Žbanić’s gripping new historical drama, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

The life lessons explored here, though, have to do with more than just the foregoing issues. The mass event described above deals largely with lessons for the collective consciousness, as well as an attempt at the education of the uninformed. However, it also provides an opportunity for significant individual lessons. In Aida’s case, for example, this experience offered her a chance to face fears – big ones – to see if she could overcome them. It also allowed her to test her abilities to push limits, to seek the means to help herself and family out of a desperate situation, one where life and death are clearly on the line. These may not have been the best circumstances to explore these capabilities, but, if they offer the opportunity to push our boundaries, we may eventually look upon them differently as we make our way through the experience.

Some of you reading this may think that this is all hogwash, and good arguments could probably be made for that viewpoint. However, if nothing else, this event nevertheless unfolded for a reason, and I suspect it was to make a statement – that such atrocities are patently unacceptable, no matter what justification might be offered up for them. In the wake of the Holocaust, a clarion call went out proclaiming “Never again.” And, while Srebenica was certainly not on the same scale, the driving forces behind this incident were eerily similar to those that sparked its predecessor. Obviously, we as a species didn’t learn our lesson the first time through, so it took another such incident to draw attention to the inhumanity of these beliefs and actions. Given what’s happened in the time since 1995, it’s apparent that we still don’t get it, either. Until we do, there’s a good chance that these brutalities will continue to occur. How many will it take before the message sinks in? How many times must we manifest events that make statements like this until we at last see that they’re not serving us and that our energies are better put to other uses? From that standpoint, we can only hope that the victims of Srebenica will not have sacrificed themselves in vain.

While awaiting word about the fate of her family, UN translator Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić) anxiously considers options for securing their safety in the Oscar-nominated international feature, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

The Srebenica Massacre was one of the most horrific incidents of the Bosnian War, and the chilling events that led up to it are presented in unsettling detail in this superb, if troubling, historical account. Told largely from one individual’s perspective, the film follows her ordeal with palpable anguish and a desperate desire to find a way out of harrowing circumstances. Director Jasmila Žbanić’s latest puts viewers in the middle of the unfolding genocide, re-creating the horror and agony experienced by those caught up in it, but it does so without ever becoming graphic or gratuitous, unnerving though much of the narrative may be. The excellent ensemble cast, led by the award-worthy performance of Jasna Djuričić, sells this story so effectively that one can’t help but feel what the victims are going through on a gut level. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” will undoubtedly leave audiences uncomfortable and heartbroken, but it brings to light the unspeakable atrocities that occurred during this conflict in hopes that we never experience them again.

While this offering may not have been released with much fanfare, it has been deservedly lauded by critics. It has also been building an impressive list of accolades, including BAFTA Award nominations for best foreign language film and best director, an Independent Spirit Award nod for best international film, and, most importantly, an Oscar nomination for best international feature, an honor it truly deserves to win. It’s indeed heartening to see a film receive the praise it so richly deserves.

Remembering the past can be a painful experience. Yet the memory of such events generally lingers to remind us of what we went through in the hope that we never have to experience them again. The indelible mark left by such incidents is designed to send us in new directions, a future full of hope, enlightenment and compassion for ourselves and mankind. Let us hope we learn from those experiences and indeed follow those new paths.

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

Monday, April 19, 2021

An Activist's Saga on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, April 20, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars?

It’s that time of year again – time for my predictions of the winners at the upcoming annual Academy Awards. While several of the likely winners have come into view, a few are still up for grabs. So, with that said, here are my picks for who will take home statues in the top six categories this year:

Best Actor

The Field:  Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”; Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Gary Oldman, “Mank”; Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”; Steven Yeun, “Minari”

Who Will Likely Win:  Chadwick Boseman. This is a fairly solid lock. Boseman has won virtually every honor during this year’s awards season, and, despite his upset loss to Anthony Hopkins at the recent BAFTA Awards, his status as favorite should hold on Oscar night. So why will Boseman win? For starters, it’s the best performance in this category. It’s also the best performance of Boseman’s career. And, lastly, this is the final opportunity the Academy will have to honor him, something that should have happened a long time ago (especially for his portrayal of soul singer James Brown in “Get On Up” (2014), a performance for which he was inexcusably ignored). Ironically, this is the first Oscar nomination Boseman has received, and it’s likely Academy voters will not only want recognize a fine performance, but also attempt to atone for past oversights.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Chadwick Boseman, though good cases could be made for both Riz Ahmed and Anthony Hopkins (but don’t expect that to happen).

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Chadwick Boseman, for the reasons cited above.

Possible Dark Horses:  Riz Ahmed and Anthony Hopkins. These are the only performers to have bested Boseman this year – Ahmed in the National Board of Review competition and Hopkins at the BAFTA Awards. It would take a lot for either of them to slip in as the winner at the Oscars, though, and it’s highly unlikely that will happen.

Also-Rans:  Anyone who isn’t Chadwick Boseman.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  No one in my view, though some have said Steven Yeun. However, I can’t say I agree with that assessment.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  Several other noteworthy performances were deserving of consideration here, most notably Delroy Lindo for “Da 5 Bloods,” who was excluded for virtually every other awards competition this year, much to the consternation of many moviegoers. Others who merited attention include Tahar Rahim for “The Mauritanian,” Mads Mikkelsen for “Another Round” (“Druk”), Hugh Jackman for “Bad Education,” Louis Gossett Jr. for “The Cuban” and Rob Morgan for “Bull.”

Snubs:  Delroy Lindo, without a doubt (and that goes for all of the other awards contests this year, too). Some have said that the exclusion of Mads Mikkelsen was a snub as well, an observation that I believe is up for debate, even though his performance was worthy of consideration.

Best Actress

The Field:  Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”; Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”; Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”; Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”; Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Who Will Likely Win:  Pick someone! This is a field up for grabs. Each nominee except Vanessa Kirby has won an award in this year’s previous competitions, most of which featured diverse candidate fields that didn’t match up actress for actress from contest to contest. If I had to venture a guess (and it is indeed a guess), I’d probably give the edge to Carey Mulligan, who turns in the best performance of her career (despite the questionable nature of her film’s character). Viola Davis and Frances McDormand are both recent winners, which likely rules them out, especially since these performances weren’t quite up to the level of their most recent victories. And Andra Day and Vanessa Kirby – though both stellar in their portrayals – probably don’t have enough clout with voters to pull off a win (though they’ve certainly made significant down payments toward future recognition). That leaves Mulligan, who’s likely to slide in as winner, albeit somewhat by default. Interestingly, Mulligan was considered the frontrunner coming into awards season, even though her campaign to take home hardware hasn’t lived up to expectations, winning only the Critics Choice Award thus far (and not even earning a BAFTA nomination in her native homeland). Nevertheless, she may end up having the last laugh on Oscar night. Of course, given the wide open nature of this category, I could be completely wrong about all this.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Andra Day. This was arguably the most demanding of the performances, requiring solid singing and acting, and Day certainly rose to the occasion. And, even though the same could be said of Viola Davis in her role, Day won the day in this contest.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  There were many viable candidates for this prize, including a number of performers who weren’t nominated, most notably Radha Blank for “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Rosamund Pike for “I Care a Lot,” Sophia Loren for “The Life Ahead,” Barbara Sukowa for “Two of Us” (“Deux”), Michelle Pfeiffer for “French Exit,” Susan Sarandon for “Blackbird” and Jasna Djuricic for “Quo Vadis, Aida?” I’d still include Andra Day in this group, as well as Vanessa Kirby, though I can’t necessarily say the same for their other fellow nominees.

Possible Dark Horses:  Given the nature of this category’s field, this could conceivably include virtually anyone.

Also-Rans:  Again, virtually anyone.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Frances McDormand. As dynamic an actress as she is, McDormand’s performance here was something a let-down. Her character’s low-key nature didn’t mesh well with her typical spitfire style of acting. Thus this is a case where an experiment in playing against type just didn’t work, and this portrayal should have been excluded from the field.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:   In addition to the aforementioned performances by Radha Blank, Rosamund Pike, Sophia Loren, Barbara Sukowa, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Jasna Djuricic, other worthy candidates included Pamela Mendoza for “Song Without a Name,” Tsai Chin for “Lucky Grandma,” Graciela Borges for “The Weasels’ Tale” (“El cuento de las comadrejas”), Katja Herbers for “The Columnist” (“De Kuthoer”), Sally Hawkins for “Eternal Beauty,” Kara Hayward for “To the Stars,” Eliza Scanlen for “Babyteeth,” Lena Olin for “The Artist’s Wife” and Bukky Bakray for “Rocks.”

Snubs:  There were no obvious snubs in this category, but those who weren’t nominated were certainly just as deserving as those who were.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field:  Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”; LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”; Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night in Miami…”; Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”; Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Who Will Likely Win:  Daniel Kaluuya. As far as the major category races are concerned, this is about as solid a lock as any of them can get. Kaluuya has won in this category in every major contest this awards season, and I don’t see that changing on Oscar night. I can only envision one possible scenario where this wouldn’t happen, but I believe it to be highly unlikely (see the Dark Horse discussion below).

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Daniel Kaluuya. While there are many impressive performances in this pool of nominees, Kaluuya is the cream of the crop and deserves to win.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Kingsley Ben-Adir. Even though there are strong performances in the field of candidates, there are many other portrayals that were worthy of nominations, and that’s certainly the case for Kingsley Ben-Adir for his role as civil rights activist Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami….” I sincerely believe he gave the strongest male supporting performance of the year, and his exclusion from the field of nominees is an oversight and a disappointment. He should be in the field and the winner of the award.

Possible Dark Horse:  Leslie Odom Jr. At the start of awards season, prognosticators labeled Odom the prohibitive favorite, but that prediction has not materialized. And, in all likelihood, that will hold true again here with the exception of one possible scenario that might allow him to slip in as the winner. This is the first competition in which Kaluuya is opposed by his co-star, LaKeith Stanfield. Should Kaluuya and Stanfield split the vote – a possibility, though remote – that could open the door for Odom. Don’t look for this to happen, but it can’t be completely ruled out.

Also-Rans:  LaKeith Stanfield, Paul Raci and Sacha Baron Cohen. They should consider their nominations their awards.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Leslie Odom and LaKeith Stanfield. In Odom’s case, the performance was good, though I don’t believe that he was as strong as his co-stars (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree); I would have much rather seen his nomination go to one of his other cast members or to one of the many other performers in other films. As for Stanfield, my reason for excluding him here has nothing to do with his performance per se but because it’s the wrong category for him; if he were to have been nominated, it should have been in the lead actor category, not supporting, an outcome that, regrettably, he had nothing to do with.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  There are many other candidates deserving of consideration here. Obviously they all could not have been included, but it certainly was a strong year for supporting actor performances, as evidenced by this list of noteworthy portrayals: Ralph Fiennes for “The Dig”; Peter Y. Kim and Reed Birney for “The Forty-Year-Old Version”; Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi and Ben Whishaw, all for “The Personal History of David Copperfield”; Alan Kim for “Minari”; Peter Dinklage for “I Care a Lot”; Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Eli Goree, all for “One Night in Miami…”; Ibrahima Gueye for “The Life Ahead”; Glynn Turman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Brian Dennehy for “Driveways”; Charles Dance and Arliss Howard for “Mank”; Bruce Dern for “The Artist’s Wife”; William Hurt, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris and Samuel L. Jackson, all for “The Last Full Measure”; Chadwick Boseman for “Da 5 Bloods”; Frank Langella for “The Trial of the Chicago 7”; and Ben Mendelsohn and Toby Wallace for “Babyteeth.”

Snubs:  There were no obvious snubs in this category, but the exclusion of Kingsley Ben-Adir was indeed disappointing.

Best Supporting Actress

The Field:  Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”; Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”; Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”; Olivia Colman, “The Father”; Youn Yuh-Jung, “Minari”

Who Will Likely Win:  Youn Yuh-Jung. Though her momentum was slow to start this awards season, Youn has been gaining steam in the most recent competitions and appears to be pulling away – and deservedly so. Though she has some serious competition in this category, she should prevail on Oscar night.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Youn Yuh-Jung, though good cases could be made for Glenn Close and Amanda Seyfried (but don’t expect that to happen).

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Youn Yuh-Jung, though good cases could be made for Glenn Close and Amada Seyfried, as well as for un-nominated Ellen Burstyn for “Pieces of a Woman.”

Possible Dark Horses:  Glenn Close and Maria Bakalova. Having been nominated eight times and never won (and having lost at the wire for her performance in “The Wife” (2018)), Close may be seen as something of a sentimental favorite who could pull it out of the fire, though it’s somewhat unlikely. And Bakalova, winner of this year’s Critics Choice Award in this category, can’t be ruled out either, though Academy voters may take issue with her character as being an inappropriate choice (i.e., one that sends the wrong message and doesn’t fit the Oscar image).

Also-Rans:  Olivia Colman. While her performance here is capable, it really isn’t Oscar caliber, especially when compared to her award-winning performance in “The Favourite” (2018). I believe her nomination resulted largely from being swept up in the hype for this film.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Olivia Colman. Again, even though this is a solid performance, this is a slot that would have been better opened up to a more qualified candidate.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  There were many performances in this category worthy of nomination, most notably Ellen Burstyn for “Pieces of a Woman.” Others worthy of consideration included Jodie Foster for “The Mauritanian,” Dianne Wiest for “I Care a Lot,” Allison Janney for “Bad Education,” Valerie Mahaffey for “French Exit,” Martine Chevallier for “Two of Us” (“Deux”), Helena Zengel for “News of the World,” Tilda Swinton for “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” Essie Davis for “Babyteeth,” and Kristen Scott Thomas and Ann Dowd for “Rebecca.”

Snubs:  Ellen Burstyn, without a doubt.

Best Director

The Field:  Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”; David Fincher, “Mank”; Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”; Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari”; Thomas Vinterberg, “Another Round” (“Druk”)

Who Will Likely Win:  Chloé Zhao. This Hollywood favorite has won virtually every major directorial award so far this year, and this trend should hold on Oscar night. Zhao has been a much-applauded rising star for several years, and the Academy has been aching to honor her accordingly, which should happen this time out.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Lee Isaac Chung. “Minari” is handily the best picture of the year, and its director deserves the accolades that go with that. Unfortunately, he’s likely to be bested by frontrunner Zhao, who is widely regarded as one of the best filmmakers in the business these days, a reputation that I find somewhat exaggerated. To be sure, “Nomadland” is her best work to date, though I don’t feel it’s up to the level needed to capture this award. Chung, however, meets the standard and truly deserves to win.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Lee Isaac Chung, for the reasons stated above.

Possible Dark Horses:  Lee Isaac Chung, again, for the reasons stated above. I sense a growing groundswell of support for this film, and Chung could pull an upset here (though it’s a long shot).

Also-Rans:  David Fincher, Emerald Fennell and Thomas Vinterberg. They should consider their nominations their awards. The works of Fincher and Vinterberg are a bit too fringe to garner the requisite support they need to win, and Fennell’s film doesn’t rise up high enough to meet the standard for this award.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Emerald Fennell, David Fincher and Thomas Vinterberg. From my standpoint, Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” is one of the most overrated offerings of the year and, except for Carey Mulligan’s fine performance, isn’t worthy of the praise or nominations that have been heaped upon it, including in this category. Fincher’s “Mank” is certainly a well-crafted period piece, but viewing it requires so much pre-existing knowledge of its subject matter that many find it inscrutable, not an especially considerate accommodation to awaiting audiences. And Vinterberg’s “Another Round” (“Druk”) is in many ways just plain weird, inventive in some regards but not up to the standards of his best work. These three slots would have been better reserved for other filmmakers.  

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  There are several directors who should have easily made the cut in this category, most notably Regina King for “One Night in Miami…,” Aaron Sorkin for “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and Darius Marder for “Sound of Metal.” Other lesser known candidates include Radha Blank for “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Ital Tal for “God of the Piano,” Christos Nikou for “Apples” (“Mila”), Mohammad Rasoulof for “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”), J Blakeson for “I Care a Lot,” Filippo Meneghetti for “Two of Us” (“Deux”), Kim Yong-hoon for “Beasts Clawing at Straws” (“Jupiragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeul”) and Jasmila Žbanić for “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

Snubs:  Regina King and Aaron Sorkin. They really deserved to be included.

Best Picture

The Field:  “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal,” “The Father,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

What Will Likely Win:  “Minari.” I know I’m going way out on a limb with this prediction, but something is intuitively telling me that this will walk away with the statue in an upset. The smart money at this point is on “Nomadland” in light of its track record throughout awards season, and that prophecy could indeed be fulfilled. However, I feel as though “Minari” has not yet received the degree of kudos it deserves based on previous competitions, and I’m sensing a breakthrough here, especially if Chloé Zhao picks up her Oscar in the director category, leaving the door open for “Minari” to snatch away the top prize. This film has the message that the country needs right now, and I’m sensing that Academy voters are quietly beginning to pick up on that. It offers a message of hope, unlike “Nomadland,” which delivers a message of reconciled despair, the wrong signal to send at this time and not in line with the image-conscious leanings of many Oscar voters. Upsets and splits in the best director/best picture mix have become more common in recent years (“Moonlight” defeating “La La Land,” “Green Book” defeating “Roma,” “Parasite” defeating “1917”), so they’re not without precedent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again here. My only hope is that this predicted outcome is based more on a genuine gut feeling and not wishful thinking.

What Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  “Minari.” Flat out, hands down, no questions asked, this is the best and most deserving release of 2020, and it should be regarded as such by the Academy.

What Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  “Minari.” Need I say more?

Possible Dark Horses:  “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Given the battle for the hearts and minds of Academy voters, the two top contenders could conceivably cancel out one another, leaving the door open for another candidate, and “Chicago 7” could be it. The picture’s chances received a potent boost when it won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble cast, often a strong indicator of which film will take home the top prize on Oscar night, given that a huge percentage of Academy voters come from the acting camp. However, I believe this is still a long shot.

Also-Rans:  “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal” and “The Father.” None of these offerings has enough gas in the tank to come out on top.

What Should Have Been Left Out: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” “Promising Young Woman,” “The Father,” and, despite its frontrunner status, “Nomadland.” Except for “Promising Young Woman,” which is only marginal at best, these four other releases are good films but not great ones – and, in my view, not material for this category.

What Else Should Have Been Considered:  “One Night in Miami…” and “The Forty-Year-Old Version” are better than many of the other nominated contenders and should have been included. Others that merited attention include “Blackbird,” “Two of Us” (“Deux”), “God of the Piano,” “Apples” (“Mila”), “There Is No Evil” (“Sheytan vojud nadarad”), “I Care a Lot” and “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

Snubs:  “One Night in Miami….” This inspiring and enlightening offering deserved a nomination, and its exclusion was a definite snub.

The Oscars will be handed out in televised ceremonies on Sunday April 25. I’ll post my report card on these predictions thereafter. Enjoy the show!

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