Thursday, May 27, 2021

New Movies on Frankiesense & More

Find out about some excellent new movie selections on Thursday, May 27, on the latest edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live, available by clicking here, for a lively discussion of new releases worth seeing in theaters or via streaming. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

‘Kubrick by Kubrick’ profiles the work of an enigmatic genius

“Kubrick by Kubrick” (2020). Cast: Archive Footage/Recordings: Stanley Kubrick, Michel Ciment, Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sterling Hayden, Malcolm McDowell, Shelley Duvall, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Marisa Berenson, Arthur C. Clarke, Ken Adam, Garrett Brown, Christiane Kubrick, Roger Ebert. Director: Gregory Munro. Screenplay: Gregory Munro. Web site. Trailer.

True geniuses in cinema are indeed rare, despite the tremendous inflationary hype that has occurred in bestowing such an esteemed degree of recognition in recent years. It’s a title that should be reserved for those who have brought their brilliance to the art and advanced it in ways that had not been previously dared or even envisioned. These filmmakers are the groundbreakers, the audacious artists who have opened doors not only for themselves, but also for those who succeeded them. And, in doing so, they have taken moviemaking to an entirely new level, as profiled in the excellent new documentary, “Kubrick by Kubrick.”

Few will disagree that one of the giants among these inspired innovators was director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). The New York native who spent much of his professional life in England wasn’t one of the industry’s most prolific filmmakers, often spending years between projects, but his output is some of the most memorable and inventive in movie history. And Kubrick’s work provided the inspiration for many who followed, influencing the development of others who later would go on to their own greatness, such as Steven Spielberg.

Because Kubrick’s innovations were so cutting edge, his work wasn’t always understood or appreciated to the degree it deserved to be at the time of its release. The auteur’s tendency to be something of an enigmatic recluse added to that mystique. He seldom granted interviews and engaged only minimally in publicity efforts for his productions. Yet, despite his unconventional ways of working, his films were nearly always awaited with eager anticipation, with moviegoers anxiously curious to find out what he would come up with next. As a result, Kubrick became an atypically charismatic figure, one who developed a loyal, almost cult-like following, one that has only grown in the years since his passing.

Even though Kubrick was largely withdrawn when it came to his dealings with reviewers and journalists, he nevertheless established an ongoing relationship with French writer-editor Michel Ciment, who wrote a major overview of the director’s repertoire in 1968. Kubrick subsequently contacted Ciment, and thus began a 20-year dialogue between the two. Through a series of audio interviews, Kubrick opened up about his art, offering insights into his method, his outlooks and how his projects came together.

The contents of those interviews form the basis of director Gregory Munro’s documentary. Through numerous sound bites from Ciment’s recordings, Kubrick comes back to life for viewers. He speaks extensively about cinema theory, as well as his individual film projects in an array of aspects, from casting to thematic elements to filming techniques. It’s a revelatory experience to be sure.

The audio segments are augmented with a wealth of clips from most of Kubrick’s films, including “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Spartacus” (1960), “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Barry Lyndon” (1975), “The Shining” (1980), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). It also includes incisive archival interview footage with those who worked with him, including actors Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sterling Hayden, Malcolm McDowell, Shelley Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Marisa Berenson and R. Lee Ermey, as well as collaborators like writer Arthur C. Clarke, production designer Ken Adam and cameraman Garrett Brown, noted film critic Roger Ebert, and Kubrick’s wife of 41 years, Christiane.

“Kubrick by Kubrick” reinforces some of the signature elements characteristic of the director’s offerings, such as the look of impersonal yet captivating detachment often present in the camera work of many of his pictures. It also addresses Kubrick’s meticulousness for perfection, particularly how virtually all aspects of his works were deliberately constructed down to the smallest detail. Yet, surprisingly, the film also reveals Kubrick’s appreciation for improvisation (especially from his cast members) and his willingness to incorporate such inventiveness into his finished products when he believed it enhanced the production, a quality unexpected from someone who had a reputation for being one of the industry’s most notorious control freaks. Examples include Malcolm McDowell’s macabre rendition of Singin’ in the Rain in “A Clockwork Orange” and Peter Sellers’s comically uncontrollable Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove.” Kubrick indeed recognized cinematic pots of gold when he saw them and never shied away from making use of them when appropriate.

Kubrick’s films are known for their stellar acting, but those portrayals often came about by way of unconventional means. The director employed some unusual (some would even say merciless) techniques to coax his cast members into delivering performances that he knew they were capable of giving, even if they didn’t. In recounting their experiences in working on “The Shining” and “Dr. Strangelove,” Shelley Duvall and Sterling Hayden, respectively, spoke of how Kubrick had them perform some scenes so many times that they were on the verge of losing it, coming to believe that the filmmaker was a sadistic tyrant incapable of being satisfied. Yet it was in those later takes that Kubrick would usually find what he was looking for out of them. The release of raw emotions that he wanted would finally surface, but it never would have happened until he drew it out of them through such debilitatingly exhausting practices.

Those who knew and worked with Kubrick acknowledged that he was often drawn to the darker elements of existence, and directorial tactics like those just described would seem to suggest that his captivation with life’s menacing aspects was even capable of surfacing through him and his behavior to a somewhat questionable degree. But, at the same time, Kubrick’s sidelong cynical outlook and its depiction through his work is what made his films so compelling – and memorable. Without a doubt, Kubrick frequently dealt with ominous and troubling subject matter, but, in doing so, he put a spotlight on it, exposing it for what it was and pushing us to recognize the warnings he was imparting in these important cautionary tales. In his own way, it was as if he was asking us how willing we are to tolerate atrocities like the hell of war so vividly captured in “Full Metal Jacket” or the decadent, intrusive, intimidating invasiveness of the power elite depicted in “Eyes Wide Shut” or the potential dangers of artificial intelligence chillingly chronicled in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” all of them serving as quiet but powerful calls to arms.

Just as Kubrick worked to move the art of cinema forward, his films thus encourage us to move forward personally, both individually and collectively, even if that message is delivered in a somewhat backhanded way. The question is, will we rise to the challenge? It probably depends on how closely we’re watching – and how well we’re paying attention. Maybe we need the kind of eye-opening inventiveness that characterizes Kubrick’s work to get the message.

Given the themes of Kubrick’s films, many moviegoers have developed the impression that the director was a pained artist, one who harbored a tortured soul. But, considering the brilliance of his work, he was a profound thinker. It’s also apparent that he saw his pictures as labors of love, vehicles for expressing the love of creativity for its own sake, a celebration of the joy and power inherent in it. It’s a principle at the very heart of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the inner resources of our thoughts, beliefs and intents to manifest the reality around us. And, when we look at what Kubrick accomplished, he truly was a master of its concepts, even if he had never heard of or studied this empowering and imaginatively fertile doctrine.

Kubrick certainly made the most of this philosophy and practice in his work. In groundbreaking films like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the director pushed the limits of creativity, giving us an epic that broke all the rules, a gesture that was a lasting gift to cinephiles and generations of moviemakers to come. More than 50 years after its release, this cinematic milestone has held up tremendously, having set new standards in camera work, special effects, soundtrack scoring and narrative content, a story so rich and sublime that it continues to prompt profound discussion even today. But, then, that should come as no surprise when one embraces what conscious creation has to offer.

In employing this philosophy in his work, Kubrick drew upon a number of its key concepts. For example, despite the deliberate construction of his films, Kubrick engaged his intuition often. While intuitiveness may seem a somewhat intangible resource to employ in a definitive context, his use of it often produced cinematic gems. His willingness to draw upon improvisation and his unconventional practices for prompting cast members to dig deep within themselves to yield their best work typify his intuition at work. He may not have been able to quantify the value of this resource, but he trusted it, believing in its veracity and its ability to give him exactly what he needed when he needed it.

His penchant for pushing the envelope also reflected conscious creation at work. His inspired vision “enlarged” the art of filmmaking and, in so doing, expanded our consciousness about what is possible cinematically. This is true both for those who make and watch films, raising our expectations and the state of the art. And this, in turn, mirrors the philosophy’s notion that everything is in a constant state of becoming. While each of Kubrick’s offerings were distinctively his, they were all distinctively different from one another, taking him in new directions with every release, both in his own filmography and in the collective catalog of cinema. Few directors can lay claim to this as definitively as Kubrick could.

In the 20+ years since Kubrick’s passing, fascination with the director’s legacy has grown, especially in the past decade. A number of documentaries have been released, such as “Kubrick Remembered” (2014), “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes” (2008), and the excellent and insightful offering about the director’s devoted assistant, Leon Vitale, “Filmworker” (2017). Even a comedy about one of the filmmaker’s works, “Color Me Kubrick” (2005), a send-up of the making of “Eyes Wide Shut,” has found its way into the movie marketplace. But, as films about Kubrick go, this release is handily the best.

“Kubrick by Kubrick” not only does justice to the life of the artist, but it also does justice to itself as a tremendous piece of filmmaking. This superb French-Polish co-production made for European TV is impeccably assembled, both in its selection of audio and video clips and in its clever production design, which features a re-creation of the iconic bedroom set from the closing sequence of “2001” through which segments on the director’s various films are introduced by way of strategically embedded pieces of Kubrickiana culled from those pictures. The use of these iconic props enhances the look and feel of the film, allowing viewers to become visually immersed in the subject matter. The picture’s taut editing tells a mesmerizing story in an economical 73 minutes, never allowing the narrative to become needlessly bogged down by extraneous detail or tedious, irrelevant padding. Director Gregory Munro pays a fitting tribute to his subject’s work, reverently echoing Kubrick’s style and reinforcing the themes and perspectives that made his films so original and unforgettable. For fans of the filmmaker, this is absolute must-see material.

As good as this film is, however, moviegoers may have some trouble finding it. As noted above, “Kubrick by Kubrick” was originally made for European television, and it has since been primarily playing the film festival circuit. Distribution deals are being sought, but no definitive word on this front has been forthcoming. This fine offering truly deserves a wider release; let’s hope it receives that opportunity.

Being able to witness a genius live up to his or her potential is an uplifting sight indeed. Their accomplishments are something to marvel at, filling us with a sense of awe and, one would hope, the inspiration to follow suit. Icons like Stanley Kubrick provide us with examples worth emulating, showing us the satisfaction that comes from realizing our aspirations and the fulfillment that arises from helping to motivate others in their ventures, no matter what field of endeavor they might encompass. That’s true genius at work.

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

Monday, May 24, 2021

Redemption and reconciliation on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday May 25 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.

‘Queen Marie’ chronicles the fulfillment of a vision

“Queen Marie” (originally titled “Queen Marie of Romania”) (2019 production, 2021 release). Cast: Roxana Lupu, Daniel Plier, Richard Elfyn, Patrick Drury, Caroline Loncq, Ronald Chenery, Adrian Titieni, Anghel Damian, Maria Muller, Philippe Corait, Emil Mandanac, Robert Cavanah, Nicholas Boulton, Karen Westwood, Adrian Damian, William Michael Roberts. Directors: Alexis Sweet Cahill and Brigitte Drodtloff. Screenplay: Gabi Antal, Alexis Cahill, Brigitte Drodtloff, Ioana Manea and Maria-Denise Teodoru. Web site. Trailer.

The realization of a vision can be one of the most rewarding experiences of life. Fulfilling such an undertaking may be challenging, but, if we’re true to ourselves as we move through the process, we’re likely to find it eminently satisfying and often on many levels, both for ourselves and those who stand to benefit from our efforts. So it was for a determined monarch who helped bring about dramatic changes in her country in the wake of a devastating conflict, as seen in the new Romanian historical drama, “Queen Marie.”

In 1916, two years after the start of World War I, previously neutral Romania entered the conflict on the side of the Allied Forces of France, Russia and the United Kingdom, which were later joined by the United States. It was believed that this move would help to give the country some protection against the advances of German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman forces. It was also thought that this affiliation would help to unify ethnic Romanians, whose population was spread out across the adjacent lands of Bukovina, Bessarabia, Transylvania, Banat, Crişana and Marcmureş, an initiative that might eventually lead to the creation of “Greater Romania.”

However, in 1917, in the wake of the overthrow of the ruling Romanov family and the unleashing of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russians withdrew from the war, leaving Romania virtually defenseless against advancing German troops. This development led to the deaths of many Romanian soldiers and civilians and forced the war-torn nation to negotiate an unpopular peace treaty with Germany, a desperate diplomatic effort that the country’s leadership believed might help it buy some time in the waning days of the conflict. And, by the time the war ended in 1918, Romania never signed the treaty with the vanquished Germans.

In 1919, as peace talks formally ending the war began in Paris, Romania was considered one of the victors and sent a delegation to the conference to represent its interests. In addition to seeking aid relief for the nation’s citizenry, the country also pled its case to establish the aforementioned Greater Romania as the map of Europe was being redrawn. Romanian interests were advanced by Prime Minister Ion Brătianu (Adrian Titieni), but his arguments were largely ignored by the conference’s indifferent lead negotiators, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Richard Elfyn), French Prime Minister George Clemenceau (Ronald Chenery) and American President Woodrow Wilson (Patrick Drury). And, when Minister Brătianu reported back to Romania’s King Ferdinand (Daniel Plier), it became apparent that a different approach would have to be considered if the country’s aims were to be furthered and addressed.

The ruling monarchs of Romania, King Ferdinand (Daniel Plier, left) and Queen Marie (Roxana Lupu, right), struggle through a variety of issues in their personal and public lives in the new historical drama, “Queen Marie.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The French minister to Romania, Count de Saint-Aulaire (Philippe Corait), suggested changing or augmenting the country’s delegation to get the attention of the conference’s leadership. The first name that came to mind was the charming and eminently popular Queen Marie (Roxana Lupu), a compassionate humanitarian who worked tirelessly to support her people during and after the war. The Queen was not to become actively involved in negotiations given that Romania, like many other European nations, was a constitutional monarchy in which diplomatic matters were addressed by politicians and not the ruling royalty. However, monarchs like Queen Marie were not without influence, and, considering her reputation, she was seen as a tactful yet forthright representative for her people.

Marie was seen as the logical choice for several reasons. She was well-liked by many, especially those who benefitted from her kindness and compassion during and after the war. She volunteered to serve as a nurse in field hospitals during the conflict. After the war, she personally oversaw the delivery of food and supplies to those in need. And, as a witness to the plight of the suffering, she became a vocal advocate to secure more supplies. What’s more, given her strength of character and willingness to fight for the needy, she became an unofficial but nevertheless charismatic symbol of the emerging women’s rights movement, not just in Romania, but internationally, one who could stand toe to toe with her supposedly unshakable male counterparts.

Delivering much-needed supplies to war-torn Romania became a high priority for the nation’s ruling royalty in the wake of World War I, as depicted in the new historical drama, “Queen Marie.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Marie was also chosen in part because of her heritage. As the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, the English-born monarch was well-acquainted with Europe’s elite power brokers and the ways of court diplomacy. Given this royal status, she had family ties to the crown heads of the continent, such as her cousin, England’s King George V (Nicholas Boulton). This background and her blood ties thus helped to bolster her image as a refined and formidable woman of power and not just the consort of a head of state from some obscure European cultural backwater. This pedigree, it was thought, might enable her to call in favors, if needed, with the ruling elite of other more highly placed participants in the peace talks.

On top of these attributes, Marie was skillful in courting the support of valuable allies who could help to effectuate deals and concessions behind the scenes. This was particularly true of her relationship with Canadian-born adventurer Joseph Boyle (Robert Cavanah), who would later become an entrepreneur in England with ties to highly placed officials in government. He would subsequently become a trusted advisor to the Romanian government, as well as a confidante to Queen Marie. She came to value his advice and never hesitated to draw upon his influence in furthering her causes.

Still, even with these assets in her favor, Marie had doubts about her ability to succeed in her mission to Paris, partly because her role wasn’t clearly defined. The King cautioned her not to unduly interfere in the work of the country’s official delegation, urging her not to “improvise” when it came to her efforts. What’s more, though, Marie was unsure of her ability to pull off this assignment in light of the difficulties she was experiencing inside her own family. She pondered how she could manage the affairs of state when she couldn’t even manage affairs within her own family. She was most concerned about the contentious relationship that existed between her and Ferdinand with their eldest son, Prince Carol II (Anghel Damian), heir apparent to the Romanian throne. Carol’s “reckless” behavior troubled Marie and Ferdinand, particularly when it came to his tawdry relationship with a commoner, Zizi Lambrino (Maria Muller), whom the Prince planned to marry against his parents’ wishes. Marie became so concerned that she threatened to revoke his right of ascendancy and replace him with his younger brother, Nicolae (Adrian Damian), as heir apparent, a decision that threatened to tear the family apart.

King Ferdinand of Romania (Daniel Plier, right) seeks resolution to the plight of his nation’s people in the wake of World War I in director Alexis Sweet Cahill’s latest, “Queen Marie.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Marie had her own relationship issues as well. Her marriage to Ferdinand was largely an arranged affair; the couple barely knew one another when they wed. And, even though they had been together many years, they were often personally estranged from one another, despite their close-knit bond on matters of state. To offset this, Marie quietly engaged in an affair with Prince Barbu Stirbel of neighboring Wallachia (Emil Mandanac), a polished gentleman who often served as an informal and unofficial advisor to the Queen. This relationship appeared to be a happy one, but the marital issues with Ferdinand nonetheless remained.

Despite her doubts, Marie embarked on her journey to Paris. She was warmly received upon arrival, becoming the new toast of the City of Lights. However, when she met with Prime Minister Brătianu, she discovered that the agenda planned for her was largely ceremonial – attendance at memorial unveilings, flower shows and other such frivolous events. She could see that, if she was going to have any impact, she would have to work behind the scenes to arrange meetings with the conference’s big players. And thus she did, coordinating efforts through contacts like Joseph Boyle, King George V and American First Lady Edith Wilson (Caroline Loncq) to arrange audiences with Lloyd George, Clemenceau and President Wilson, events that proved Queen Marie was indeed no one to be trifled with. Romania’s future was on the line, and Marie was not willing to see her efforts go for naught.

When a crucial need emerges and requires fulfillment, it’s inspiring and comforting to see individuals who are willing to step forward to address them. That’s particularly true when the need is great and affects many who aren’t able to effectively help themselves. The leadership exhibited by such dynamic and courageous souls can work wonders, attaining results thought impossible. So it was with Queen Marie. She saw what was needed and made it happen.

Upon her arrival at the 1919 Paris Peace Talks, Queen Marie of Romania (Roxana Lupu, center) becomes the toast of the City of Lights in the new historical drama, “Queen Marie,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

While it’s true that the monarch had many resources at her disposal to assist her in her efforts, none of what she accomplished would have happened were it not for her vision, specifically her belief in the notion that her sought-after goals could be attained. She had tremendous faith in her convictions based on thoughts, beliefs and intents that were firmly grounded in her consciousness, the principal driving force in the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of these intangible tools. And, even if she never heard of this philosophy, based on her track record, she obviously developed quite a mastery over its principles and what they could achieve.

Marie’s success was driven in large part by the fact that her beliefs were heavily infused with her personal strength of character, her sense of integrity and her authentic self. When our intentions are characterized by these qualities, it galvanizes their potency and staunchly imbues their authenticity. That’s quite a winning combination, especially when the tasks at hand represent Herculean undertakings. It’s perhaps best seen in the success of her humanitarian ventures, accomplishments wrought from her inherent sense of profound compassion. Indeed, the emergence of her true self won the day.

In bringing about these results, Marie employed a number of conscious creation principles and practices to see her vision fulfilled. For instance, she was willing to make use of multiple resources and tactics, particularly when conventional means didn’t hold much promise. Such creative thinking helped open doors that might have been otherwise remained locked tight. She looked past the limitations that blocked her path and routinely became innovative in her methods to get her way. It was an approach that worked exceedingly well.

Queen Marie of Romania (Roxana Lupu, left) discusses protocol for her country’s delegation at the 1919 Paris Peace Talks with her nation’s lead negotiator, Prime Minister Ion Brătianu (Adrian Titieni, right), in “Queen Marie.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Marie also understood the power of connection, tapping contacts and relationships – some of them less than obvious – in making her case and finding her way to those who could be of the greatest help. Because everything in our existence is fundamentally interwoven, the ties that intrinsically bind all of those elements can’t be ignored. In fact, when approached with the right frame of mind, they can be accessed to great advantage in realizing the reality we seek to forge. Marie’s relationship with Joe Boyle, for example, helped her secure the ear of her English cousin King George V, who, in turn, leaned on a previously indifferent Prime Minister Lloyd George to urge him to give attention to Romanian interests. Similar results came from Marie’s relationship with First Lady Edith Wilson, who helped facilitate a meeting with her husband Woodrow, an often-reclusive participant in the peace talks who was previously reluctant to give Marie the time of day. And, once she made those connections, she made the most of the opportunity to exert her influence and to tap into theirs.

In tackling these tasks, Marie faced a significant personal challenge to overcome, namely, her doubts about her ability to accomplish what she set out to do. As conscious creation practitioners are well aware, doubt can significantly undercut our manifestation efforts, preventing our hoped-for creations from materializing, and Marie had concerns in this area. Her uncertainty was driven by the turmoil in her family life and her frustration in achieving what she sought, most notably in her relationships with Princes Carol and Nicolae. She was troubled by Carol’s rampant irresponsibility, afraid that he would bring shame on the royal family, potentially damaging its relationship with Romanian citizens. She was also hurt by Nicolae’s staunch unwillingness to step into the role of replacement heir apparent if needed, preferring instead to formally eschew his royal obligation and remain in England where he was attending university. However, she knew if she was going to succeed on her mission to Paris, she would have to set such thoughts aside and keep doubt at bay, preventing it from interfering with her other plans.

The Queen’s myriad accomplishments, from humanitarian efforts to European political maneuvering, speak volumes about her aptitude in conscious creation efforts. It’s as if she were living out her destiny, practicing her own form of value fulfillment, being her best, truest self for the betterment of herself and those around her. Considering what the Romanian people had been through during and after the war, not to mention the new threat posed by the Bolsheviks on the country’s northern border, she significantly helped strengthen the country’s position in the new Europe. That represents quite a determined and dedicated effort, especially since she was working tirelessly for the future and well-being of a nation that wasn’t even her native homeland. When one considers the lengths she went to in serving her people, she obviously epitomized the principles she championed, making them real and not just engaging in political hot air.

While some elements of this somewhat complex story are admittedly a little underdeveloped, as are the nature and background of some of the film’s supporting characters, director Alexis Sweet Cahill’s latest nevertheless provides intriguing insights into a little-known historical saga and the life of a formidable humanitarian. The superb lead performance by Roxana Lupu as the storied sovereign and the picture’s impeccable period piece production values make for an engaging watch, even for those who might not usually find such tales particularly captivating. On balance, this offering is indeed one fit for a queen. The film is available for streaming online.

When many of us think about royalty, the image that often comes to mind has to do with capricious, aloof, self-absorbed individuals who indulge decadent whims to suit their personal desires. And, in some instances, that might very much be the case. But, as this film shows, not all monarchs are cut from the same velvet robes. Some, like Queen Marie, aren’t afraid to put themselves on the line for their people, rolling up their sleeves and getting down to the work of looking after their subjects’ welfare. We could use more leadership like that these days, and this film provides us with an excellent role example, someone who is capable of truly crowning achievements.

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

Sunday, May 23, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Hope," "Straight Up" and "In Silico," as well as 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.

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Hope," "Straight Up" and "In Silico," as well as 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.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

‘Straight Up’ pushes us to face our personal truths

“Straight Up”(2020). Cast: James Sweeney, Katie Findlay, Brendan Scannell, Dana Drori, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Brandt, Randall Park, Josh Diaz, Grace Song, Logan Huffman. Director: James Sweeney. Screenplay: James Sweeney. Web site. Trailer.

Blissful ignorance may pacify us when the truth seems to be too painful to face. But is it a suitable solution for the long term? When we see what we’re missing out on, can we realistically keep up a front pretending that what’s absent from our lives isn’t all that important? So it is for a sexually confused young man as he struggles to find himself and grow comfortable with his true nature in the rapid-fire role-switching comedy, “Straight Up.”

Todd (James Sweeney) is having some troubles sorting out his life. The twenty-something Angelino computer coder and house sitter is pervasively dissatisfied with his circumstances, and he’s not exactly sure what to do about it. The loquacious, fast-talking, persnickety, hyperactive critic of virtually every aspect of daily living is beset by a host of OCD-driven neuroses that constantly leave him feeling unsettled, unsure of himself and unclear about what his future holds. And, to top it all off, he’s quite obviously gay, something that troubles him deeply, his relentless OCD tics having caused him to become uncomfortable with many aspects of the gay male lifestyle, from its cultural trappings to the mechanics of its sexual components.

To address these issues, Todd regularly sees a counselor, Dr. Larson (Tracie Thoms), to help him sort out these matters, with somewhat mixed results. He also occasionally socializes with his friends Jerry (Brendan Scannell) and Meg (Dana Drori), his only close companions, who often serve as confidantes and sounding boards for his troubles. Once in a while he also begrudgingly visits his wealthy, somewhat eccentric, highly opinionated parents, Topanga (Betsy Brandt) and Wallace (Randall Park), who generously foot the bill for his therapy sessions. Beyond that, however, Todd is a loner who seems most comfortable when in his own company, despite the fact that loneliness nearly always sets in if he adheres to that routine too rigorously.

While visiting with Jerry and Meg over coffee one day, Todd makes an important announcement. After having given his circumstances much thought, and considering his ongoing hesitancy to embrace the gay lifestyle, he proposes the notion that perhaps his rampant discomfort is driven by the fact that he’s really a latent heterosexual at heart. Jerry, who is himself gay, and Meg, who has a bevy of gay male friends, are more than a little skeptical. They want to be supportive of their friend, but they politely scoff at this idea, trying to convince Todd that he’s deluding himself and that he should discuss his idle speculation with Dr. Larson. But Todd counters that, since he’s never dabbled in the courting rituals of the straight world, maybe he has yet to discover something about himself that he’s never had the opportunity to explore. And, with that realization (or is it rationalization?), he decides to give heterosexuality a whirl to see where it takes him.

Todd soon takes his first tentative steps toward this goal by paying a visit to a dance club frequented by single women, an adventure that doesn’t go well, especially when they introduce him to their gay male friends. And, when he does meet women who are interested in him, the experiences don’t turn out as hoped for; in fact, they only serve to reinforce some of his neuroses about the mechanics of sex, driving him even further away from pursuing episodes of intimacy.

Not long thereafter, however, circumstances take a dramatic turn. Through a chance encounter in a library, Todd meets Rory (Katie Findlay), an aspiring actress who’s having little success advancing her career and is forced into taking unsatisfying jobs just to keep a roof over her head. This lack of success is driven in large part by her quirky persona, one that turns off directors during auditions and casting calls (not to mention those employers who hire her for those stop-gap money-making gigs). And, as a Tinsel Town transplant who has few friends and almost no regular professional colleagues, she’s by herself a lot.

The unlikely relationship between a single woman, Rory (Katie Findlay, right), and a gay man who suspects he might be a latent heterosexual, Todd (James Sweeney, left), leads to interesting developments in the role-switching comedy, “Straight Up.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

That changes when Rory meets Todd. In many regards, the eccentricities that characterize Rory’s personality, but that also tend to isolate her, are carbon copies of Todd’s traits. They begin incessantly chattering away with one another almost from the moment they meet, completing one another’s sentences and seamlessly conversing about an array of obscure, esoteric and intellectual topics. In short, they’re a perfect match for one another, even when it comes to their preference for companionship over sexual interaction.

Before long, Todd and Rory are an item, even if they bring new meaning to the notion of “odd couple.” Needless to say, this development baffles Jerry, Meg and Dr. Larson while delighting Topanga and Wallace. They move in together and appear blissfully happy – or is it blissfully ignorant?

As time passes and Todd and Rory begin to talk themselves out, the growth of their relationship begins to stall. Their attempts at exploring new horizons, such as the once-avoided sexual components, don’t go well, either. And, when situations arise where the true nature of Todd’s sexual orientation get put to the test, they cause stress for both partners. Quarrels ensue, and Rory begins questioning their future. Are they indeed a couple or just two people playing house? Is there enough to maintain this connection going forward, or will Todd and Rory have to address some difficult decisions and adjustments? What’s more, if changes become necessary, what would that do to each of them as individuals? Much is at stake, and it’s unclear how that will play out or what the consequences will be.

Facing the truth is sometimes difficult. We may not like what we see, and we might go out of our way to dodge it, perhaps even devising elaborate justifications for such avoidance. In the short term, these rationalizations might even work. But, over time, stifling the truth often grows considerably more difficult, its containment proving to be increasingly problematic as it seeks to escape. That’s particularly true when matters of a highly personal nature, like sexuality, are involved. They simply hit too close to home to be ignored.

Moments of awkward discomfort aren’t uncommon for aspiring actress Rory (Katie Findlay, left) and “latent heterosexual” Todd (James Sweeney, right) in the quirky comedy, “Straight Up,” available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

So why does this occur? It has to do with the strength of the underlying beliefs driving such considerations. Those beliefs struggle to find expression, because they reflect the nature of our true selves, and, eventually, they almost always will. Such is the mechanism that drives the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience. The power of these resources is so significant that they seek to surface no matter what stands in their way, even less formidable beliefs – those that are rationalized into being but don’t inherently ring true.

Such are the circumstances that Todd finds himself up against. Despite his reservations about some of the particulars of the gay male lifestyle, it’s still quite a stretch to believe that he can truthfully think of himself as a latent heterosexual. Some justifications just don’t hold water, and this one is quite a glaring example. Even though he may have convinced himself that this is indeed his story, the beliefs required for manifesting such an outcome just don’t have sufficient weight behind them to make that outcome stick. And, deep down, he knows that, too.

A similar argument can be made where Rory is concerned. Even though she may have convinced herself that a relationship with Todd would ultimately be satisfying, she’s put on blinders to what she truly wants. A partnership based on witty repartee and intellectual discourse may be satisfying for a while, but it can only go so far. Sooner or later the truth will kick in (often in the form of unleashed pent-up hormones), but, no matter what form it takes, it will eventually emerge, and there’s no holding it back.

In both of the foregoing cases, the need to satisfy the expression of one’s personal integrity is what’s at stake. This is a measure of our true, inner selves, and it seeks reflection in our existence. Trying to prevent this ultimately proves to be an almost impossible task; in fact, if pushed too hard, such intentional squelching can have devastating effects. Is this really what any of us wants for our lives?

Todd (James Sweeney, left), a single twenty-something unsure of his sexuality, has his orientation put to the test when confronted by his gay friend, Jerry (Brendan Scannell, right), in “Straight Up.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Experimenting with alternative lifestyles, as Todd and Rory do, could be considered admirable in some regards. But, when we can see that such experiments aren’t working, it’s time to abandon them in favor of what really needs to surface. To be sure, the truth can be painful, and the emergence of certain aspects of it can be difficult to deal with. However, when we consider the benefits that are being held back, is it worth constraining them for whatever drawbacks might accompany them? As many find out after the fact, the perceived hindrances are frequently disproportionately overblown in our minds (and beliefs), giving us pause to consider why we hesitated in letting the truth come forth in the first place.

Allowing self-delusion to persist carries a cost, given that our beliefs end up manifesting an existence whose outcomes are distorted from what was intended. That’s evident in what happens when we assume that our rationalized beliefs will materialize as hoped for. The pain of these unintended side effects is often worse than what can happen when we allow the discomfort of what was holding us back to manifest. And sometimes the effects aren’t limited just to us; it might well have an impact on others. In those cases, we have to ask ourselves, is that really fair? The irresponsibility associated with that – even if not overtly intended – is palpable nevertheless, and sometimes making up for it can be difficult if not impossible.

Still, all need not be lost, either, if we act in all earnestness. Redemption and forgiveness are possible. The trick is to know when to shift our beliefs, doing so in time and contrition, to evoke the necessary changes to move forward. Can it be achieved? It depends on our willingness to act accordingly and to see brought into being what should have happened in the first place.

The world gets turned upside-down for a pair of quirky Angelinos, Rory (Katie Findlay, left) and Todd (James Sweeney, right), when they experiment with an alternate form of dating in writer-actor-director James Sweeney’s second feature, “Straight Up.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Living our lives as we were meant to is sometimes challenging in unusual ways. Such is the premise of writer-actor-director James Sweeney’s hilarious role-switching farce. Even though the film was released about a year ago, it recently garnered attention as an Independent Spirit Award nominee for best first screenplay, and it’s an excellent viewing option for the upcoming Gay Pride month. This modern-day throwback to the rapid-fire screwball comedies of the past is a refreshing change from many of the other contenders that try but fail to lay claim to this storied cinematic tradition. While it’s a little hard to fathom that any real life individuals could flawlessly deliver unrehearsed, content-rich, machine gun-paced lines with the ease that these protagonists do, their dialogue is nevertheless smartly peppered with witty, side-splitting observations (as well as a few one-liners that don’t quite stick their landings), making for generally good fun under highly unexpected circumstances. The pacing moves so quickly that viewers may be left a little exhausted by film’s end, but, in light of the funny yet thoughtful message this release serves up about being oneself, that’s easily overlooked. This one will definitely tickle the funny bone in big ways more than a few times. The film is available for streaming online.

Sensitive viewers should be cautioned, however, that “Straight Up” may not be for you. The language is often quite explicit, especially when it comes to matters of a sexual nature. Some may also find that the characterizations are somewhat stereotyped at times. In light of that, this could be an offering on which you might want to take a pass. However, if taken in the light of what this film is seeking to say, you might wish to give it a look in the spirit of its message.

Stepping forward to accept ourselves when we know there are challenges to be overcome may not be the easiest course to follow. However, when we realistically assess the pros and cons, we might well discover that we’ve overestimated some aspects and underestimated others, and that evaluation may prompt us to pursue a different path., one better suited our needs, our lives, our futures and the fulfillment of our personal truths. No lie. Straight up.

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

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

‘In Silico’ probes the brain, consciousness and reality

“In Silico”(2020 production, 2021 release). Cast: Henry Markram, Zachary Mainen, Sebastian Seung, Christof Koch, Noah Hutton (narrator), Garry Kasparov (archive footage) Kai Markram (archive footage). Director: Noah Hutton. Screenplay: Noah Hutton. Web site. Trailer.

Unlocking the mystery of existence is an exacting, enigmatic, and, at times, exasperating study that often leaves us with more questions than answers (especially when any answers we find lead to more questions). Many of us don’t even know where to begin our investigations, either, though, over time, we’ve come to find that our brains and/or consciousness generally provide good starting points. But, even if we make any progress in these areas, we usually discover that the process is bigger and more complicated than we ever imagined, as a visionary scientist and his team of associates found out for themselves in the captivating new documentary, “In Silico.”

The brain is a truly remarkable phenomenon of nature. But how much do we really know about how it was created and how it functions? We’ve been able to identify which areas of the brain deal with particular kinds of bodily and consciousness functions, but what sparks this extraordinary organ into action, creating the various manifestations that result? And how did it come into being in the first place?

Filmmaker Noah Hutton, a longtime student of neuroscience, always wondered about these questions and wanted to make a movie about the subject. He eventually found his inspiration after seeing a TED Talk in 2009 given by visionary Israeli scientist Dr. Henry Markram of the Swiss research institute l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). After years of investigating brain architecture, Markram’s studies took a drastic turn, addressing questions of how and why the brain works as it does. In particular, he was curious about why the behavior exhibited by his young autistic son, Kai, differed so markedly from those unafflicted by that condition. What was causing his brain to operate so differently from everyone else? Indeed, what triggers in Kai’s head were prompting his neurons to fire in ways unlike the rest of us?

As Markram pondered these questions, he wasn’t necessarily looking for a cure for autism but for an understanding of the way that brain comes up with its signals and how they are then transmitted to produce the various behaviors that they’re intended to yield. To grasp this, Markram believed he could uncover the answers by constructing a computer model that would mimic the functioning of a brain, providing insight into how specific behaviors resulted from various kinds of triggering inputs. He would begin by creating a simulation of a rodent’s brain as a stepping stone to doing the same later for more advanced animals, like man. This represented quite an audacious undertaking, but Markram was convinced he could achieve his primary objective in 10 years. And that’s when an impressionable and fascinated Hutton signed on to document the progress of the project.

Studying brain function from this standpoint was largely uncharted territory. Traditionally, neuroscience had been considered a purely biological undertaking using one of two available investigatory methodologies: in vivo studies, in which nerve cells in living beings were examined (an unacceptable option where human brains were concerned), or in vitro studies, wherein cells were cultured and researched on petri dishes (an inadequate approach for these purposes). Given what Markram was hoping to achieve, he needed a new approach to neuroscientific research, one that examined the principles of biology in a computerized environment, a technique that would come to be known as in silico.

Launching an endeavor like this called for the establishment of a significant infrastructure of its own, both in terms of funding and staffing. Working through the Brain and Mind Institute, an organization founded by Markram at the EPFL, the researcher went on to establish a new investigatory body, the Blue Brain Project, which introduced the digital element of this initiative. (“Blue” in the project’s name refers to “Big Blue” – IBM – the company that created the computer equipment for the venture, much of it based on “Deep Blue,” the supercomputer that took on Russian chess master Garry Kasparov in a match in 1997.) Generous funding was provided by the Swiss government, and a team of collaborators in areas ranging from biology to computer science to ethics was assembled.

In 2013, after several years of work, it became apparent that this initiative was going to be a bigger project than originally thought. To secure additional financial resources, Markram and his team submitted a bid for a €1.3 billion flagship research grant from the European Union. Although considered something of a long shot to win this prestigious endowment, Markram’s new venture – the Human Brain Project (HBP) – was named one of two winners from a pool of six applicants vying for funding. Markram’s compelling case, coupled with a growing interest in brain research studies around the globe at the time, helped secure the award for HBP.

Like glass patterns in a kaleidoscope, vibrant and colorful computer-generated simulations of brain neurons are helping researchers build a model of what makes this remarkable organ such a miracle of nature as explored in the captivating new documentary, “In Silico.” Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

However, even with such generous backing and apparent validation, the study soon came under criticism. Skeptics questioned the viability of the project, a process that was already under way before the awarding of the grant but that gained steam afterward. For example, considering how many different ways that humans behave, would it indeed be possible to identify the brain waves responsible for triggering each of them? Given the breadth of human consciousness and the myriad permutations of its expression, attempting to categorize such a broad range of behaviors based on brain wave functions, they contended, was akin to trying to quantify infinity. Skeptics also questioned what they saw as an unrealistic timetable. Even though the 10-year timeline was reset with the awarding of the 2013 grant, attaining the sought-after goal by 2023, they claimed, seemed woefully inadequate.

Before long, even those who had initially enthusiastically supported Markram’s proposal were beginning to pull back, primarily because of this emerging criticism. One of the most vocal skeptics was neuroscientist Zachary Mainen of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, who contended that Markram was attempting to build a composite working model from individual components whose specific functioning wasn’t completely understood, analogizing the process to assembling a watch from parts that might ultimately resemble a time piece but that would be incapable of telling time. Adding to this, former MIT multi-disciplinary scientist Sebastian Seung speculated that, even if computer-generated brain waves could be created, how could anyone tell if these simulations were right or wrong for what they were supposedly intended to achieve? Could brain waves thought to be associated with the creation of a painting actually result in a finished portrait, or would they manifest something wholly divergent?

Such criticisms put quite a damper on the project. Markram chalked up the disparagements to neuroscientific traditionalists not fully appreciating the value of this new approach to brain research. He was also upset that Hutton had spoken with the critics. And, as time passed, he came under increasing pressure to make concessions on how HBP would proceed, requests that he resisted. As a result, Markram began to be viewed as inflexible, holding fast to aspirations that couldn’t possibly be attained but that he would not let go of. He continued to champion his cause publicly, even beginning work on his own film about the project. As claimed by another of his critics, Christof Koch, president of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, Markram “has two personalities. One is a fantastic, sober scientist…the other is a PR-minded messiah.”

Discovering the construction and functioning of neurons is the objective of the Human Brain Project and the Blue Brain Project as depicted in director Noah Hutton’s new documentary, “In Silico,” a film 10 years in the making. Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

These issues culminated in the publication of an open letter signed by 800 neuroscientists globally, calling for a restructuring of the project. By 2016, Markram had been removed as leader of the initiative he created, and priorities were rearranged. He continued to claim that his goal was achievable, even though he was taken less seriously than before.

As for Hutton, he admits to being torn about how matters ultimately played out. After all, he had just invested 10 years of his life to the making of this documentary. Part of him was still enthralled by the wide-eyed idealism that launched this film project, yet another part had become weighed down by the contentions of the critics (credible though they may have been), a splash of cold water on the enthusiasm he once so heartily embraced. He thus had to reconcile that youthful fervor with the setting in of a discouraging but undeniable reality.

One might find it disillusioning that something so noble and ambitious as this project could get derailed by considerations as comparatively mundane as management and money. However, anything that hypothetically seeks tangible manifestation must contend with the practical matters associated with such implementation. So it was here. But that’s not to say this is the end of it, either. Given the conceptions that the human brain has been able to devise, there’s no telling what else it might accomplish down the road. Sometimes all it takes is asking the right questions or putting forth the right notions to get the ball rolling toward such an eventuality. And, for what it’s worth, Henry Markram may have done just that, even if the current state of the logistics needed to accomplish that haven’t yet evolved to the requisite state.

When we embark on a new endeavor, we often start out with boundless enthusiasm and a cheerful bravado. That’s especially true when we launch into new ventures that hold the promise and potential of breaking new ground, leading to revelatory discoveries and exciting, never-before-imagined prospects. But, many times, once we start digging into the nitty gritty aspects of such undertakings, we often run into snags, particularly unanticipated obstacles that slow the process and sidetrack us from our principal objective. We might well become dismayed at having to set aside our primary efforts to address seemingly ordinary considerations. We may be frustrated at having to invest time, energy and other resources on matters we view as trivial or distracting, despite their necessity to the project. And, if we’re not careful, we could become ensnared by these issues, stalling much, if not all, of our forward progress, perhaps even causing us to lose sight of our original goal and becoming distressingly discouraged. Such is what Henry Markram came up against the further he got into his project.

The beauty and wonder of neurons is surpassed only by the beauty and wonder of the organ of which they’re a part, the human brain, as seen in “In Silico,” now available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

So what’s to be done? That’s not an easy question to answer. Perhaps the best solution is to try to accommodate such considerations up front, at the start of a new undertaking. However, it can be difficult, perhaps even deflating, if we dilute our enthusiasm and divert it into comparatively menial concerns. Who would want to dampen one’s visionary zeal by having to devote time to pondering trivial matters like the fine points of logistical planning, administrative oversight or financial management when potentially exciting, groundbreaking developments await?

Nevertheless, as anyone who has ever undertaken an endeavor like this knows, the devil truly is in the details, and they can’t be ignored, no matter how much we might like to. Which, once again, reminds us of the importance of trying to accommodate such considerations as much as possible from the outset. This can best be accomplished by envisioning what we hope to achieve, preferably in detail, and then formulating beliefs on how we might accomplish it. Such is the nature of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience – in all of its aspects – by drawing upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Ironically, the launch of Markram’s venture in many ways mirrors the essence of conscious creation itself. He sought to understand how the mechanics of the brain lead to the manifestations that emerge in our existence (be it our behavior, the products of our vocations and so forth) and then to construct a computer model to simulate the workings of that process. In many ways, this was essentially a tangible reflection of the mechanics involved in the unfolding of an intangible metaphysical protocol. It was also an embodiment of several key conscious creation principles, such as thinking outside of the box and pushing through limitations. At its core, this project was aimed at advancing our knowledge and understanding of how the ideas that appear in our heads arise in our existence as tangible materializations, perhaps giving us new perspectives on how reality works and a new appreciation of the role of consciousness in the unfolding of this process.

The foregoing illustrates the audacity of Markram’s vision. But, considering how events played out, the boldness of that undertaking was at least partially undercut by the challenges associated with more pedestrian issues. This naturally raises the question, why did this happen?

Definitive answers on this point may well be elusive. However, in all likelihood, the focus on the project’s primary goal was so strong that the other considerations weren’t factored into the overarching manifesting beliefs as thoroughly as they likely needed to be. In all fairness, it’s unclear whether Markram was even aware of the conscious creation process and its functioning, let alone how they played a role in this venture. But, from a speculative standpoint, while his beliefs were apparently driven principally by the project’s scientific elements, the other aspects were ultimately just as important, because they supported its tangible unfolding. The failure to address them to the requisite degree thus led to this deficiency in the belief mix responsible for bringing the project into being.

Fully formulating the belief mix in any manifestation is crucial to its successful realization. It involves making allowances for all of the factors involved in a fleshed out materialization, including elements that may seem unrelated to its fulfillment. The visibility and presence of these aspects may not be obvious, but, like the framing of a house or the infrastructure of a community, these elements are important parts of the project, providing the necessary foundation to support its existence. Thus it’s critical to consider the interconnection of these components, and the beliefs that bring them into being, to see how they make up the complete whole.

The criticisms that emerged in the wake of this project’s unfolding illustrated some of the venture’s “underdeveloped” aspects. This occurred not only in the logistical matters, but also in some of the project’s technical considerations. For example, the notion that it might be possible to identify all of the conceivable brain wave patterns responsible for all forms of behavior, creation and other brain-driven activities seems somewhat implausible in light of the breadth of the field of permutations involved and the proposed timetable. Perhaps the research team should have considered pursuing a more modest, more manageable goal instead, one that might have engendered wider support. That, in turn, might have fostered more amenable acceptance in other areas related to the project’s backing and objectives.

Dr. Henry Markram, founder of the Human Brain Project, has faced a rollercoaster ride of discoveries and setbacks in his attempt to create a computer-generated model of the brain in director Noah Hutton’s new documentary, “In Silico.” Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

As the film observes, the brain is a complex organ that’s not always well understood, and its functioning – particularly how it interfaces with something as intangible as consciousness – is even more enigmatic. And trying to understand the entire range of its operation is nearly impossible given our current level of knowledge. So, if we’re trying to determine how we can get a better handle on this, Hutton suggests, perhaps we should draw from our experiences in studying other elements of human anatomy, such as the heart. He notes that, as our cardiac investigations advanced, we came to amass quite an understanding of the organ’s functioning. With that information in hand, researchers were thus able to identify which qualities were most sought after in the promotion of a healthy, efficiently functioning heart, traits that are integral to the principles underlying modern cardiac care. Hutton says that, if we could comparably narrow the focus for the brain, we might be able to get a better handle on the organ’s functioning and management – or at least a start on that process.

Still, there’s no guarantee that such scaled-back or derivative proposals would work. As Hutton observes at several points in the film, there have been many instances in planetary biological evolution where advances have occurred as a result of “happy accidents,” incidents where unexpected and/or unlikely events have transpired that brought about miraculous new developments, including, apparently, in the structure and operation of the human brain. One might legitimately ask how such seemingly “random” occurrences could result in light of such an apparently deliberate process as conscious creation, and, admittedly, the answer to that question might not be readily forthcoming. Perhaps our knowledge and awareness have not advanced to the point where we can understand or appreciate how such phenomena unfold, but that doesn’t mean they can’t evolve further at some point, either. Maybe, if we attempt to intentionally expand our cognition in these areas, the answers will be revealed, and the aforementioned developments won’t be seen as accidents at all.

In reaching that point, though, the process has to start someplace. By opening the door to new possibilities, we have an opportunity to advance our knowledge and understanding, perhaps even to the point where we unlock the mysteries of those happy accidents. Markram’s project could be one of those openings. Even if he didn’t or hasn’t come up with the definitive answers he sought when he launched his venture, that doesn’t mean the endeavor is without merit. He might very well have helped pave an avenue of exploration for subsequent researchers who will eventually come up with workable solutions and meaningful answers. BBP and HBP could be the baby steps that lead us to profound depths of knowledge about the brain and consciousness that aren’t currently known or understood. Should those developments arise, not only will it silence the critics, but it will benefit us all with a greater awareness about our world, ourselves and how our reality comes into being. That’s quite a prospect, even if we can’t or aren’t yet ready to see it.

What we expect to find may not always end up being what we ultimately do find, and so it is with this eminently engaging documentary. What seemingly starts out as a chronicle of mindful scientific exploration takes an unexpected turn as it delves into an analysis of the behind-the-scenes workings of that discourse. Nevertheless, despite such “detours,” the film always comes back to the science that inspired it, presenting an array of highly technical topics in an easily relatable way. At the same time, though, director Hutton’s offering also paints a candid portrait of the highly competitive (and sometimes less than civil) world of bidding for research funding. In addition, the film examines “the big questions” of whether the study of these issues rightfully falls within the scope of science or philosophy (or some combination of the two) and whether such ethereally tricky conundrums can even be quantified or properly evaluated given our current level of knowledge and understanding. Hutton, Markram and other commentators give us all much to think about, and they do so in plainspoken terms, bringing the relevance of these sophisticated scientific subjects down to an everyday level and not letting them linger in the realm of abstract, inaccessible theoretical speculation. The result is an impressive cinematic work, one befitting this ambitious decade-long film project. “In Silico” is available for streaming online through the film’s web site.

While it may be tempting to want to know how all of the foregoing works, perhaps we’re not ready for it yet, which is why the mysteries remain hidden. That’s not to say we won’t be prepared for the answers at some point; with every new discovery, we learn a new piece of the puzzle, ever increasing our understanding and moving us closer to a deeper awareness. Until then, we should enjoy the journey that’s taking us there, relishing the wonders of the brain, consciousness and reality as they are revealed to us. And, for the time being, that gives us plenty to marvel at, showing us just how captivating and fulfilling the study and appreciation of existence can be.

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

‘Hope’ gives us courage in the face of despair

“Hope” (“Håp”) (2019 production, 2021 release). Cast: Andrea Bræin Hovig, Stellan Skarsgård, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Daniel Storm Forthun Sandbye, Alfred Vatne Brean, Einar Økland, Steinar Klouman Hallert, Eirik Hallert, Dina Enoksen Elvehaug, Gjertrud L. Jynge, Alexander Mørk Eidem, Johannes Joner, Per Gørvell, Kristin Voss Hestvold, Hala Dakhil, Jacob Berg Thomassen. Director: Maria Sødahl. Screenplay: Maria Sødahl. Web site. Trailer.

When all seems lost, we’re left with little to hold onto. Whether we faced with dilemmas in romance, finances, vocation or health, we can easily become despondent when the problems appear overwhelming with no way out. At times like this, we have to grasp for anything that will help anchor us in the face of such despair, as seen in the new Norwegian domestic drama, “Hope” (“Håp”).

The holidays are supposed to be a time of hope, joy, and fellowship with family and friends. And most of us look to that time of year to see those aspirations fulfilled. However, when an unexpected crisis intrudes, it can send shockwaves through the celebration, affecting all involved. So it is for the blended family of long-time partners Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård).

When Anja begins having recurring headaches and vision problems, she visits her doctor (Kristin Voss Hestvold), who orders tests that, regrettably, come with a devastating diagnosis. From all indications, Anja appears to have developed a malignant, incurable brain tumor, one that metastasized from the lung cancer she was treated for (and thought cured) a year earlier. And, given her physician’s preliminary prognosis, she has little time left – not the kind of news one wants to receive at any time, but especially during the Christmas season.

Needless to say, Anja is distraught, as is Tomas, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. Even though the couple has been together for many years and are bonded as the biological parents of three of the blended family’s six children (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Daniel Storm Forthun Sandbye, Alfred Vatne Brean), a pronounced distance has been opening up between them for quite a long time. As a talented choreographer, Anja has established a noteworthy reputation for herself, having recently put on her first international production in Amsterdam. Tomas, meanwhile, has built a notable track record as a theatrical producer, with works staged all over Europe, a slate of projects that has kept him on the road and away from his native Oslo much of the time. Their careers have thus come first, leading to a marked detachment between them.

Given this growing separation between them, Anja can’t help but wonder how that will figure into the new crisis they now face. Will Tomas be there for her? What’s more, considering how things have been going, does she even want him there for her if his heart’s not in it? The last thing she wants to deal with is some semblance of forced, guilt-driven pity on his part.

Despite having been together for many years, long-estranged couple Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, left) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, right) are drawn together to face a dramatic health crisis in writer-director Maria Sødahl’s latest, “Hope” (“Håp”).Photo by Manuel Claro, courtesy of KimStim.

Tomas, by contrast, realizes that he hasn’t always been as supportive as he could have been, letting work take precedence over his relationship. But now, as an awareness of what he’s about to lose sets in, he begins to feel a sense of regret, both for his failings as a devoted partner and for past infidelities. He thus sees this development as an opportunity to try and make up for oversights – that is, if she’ll let him. That’s perhaps most challenging when he suggests that they take the one step that they’ve been putting off during their time together – getting married.

Perhaps Anja’s biggest concern is how to broach the news of her illness with the family, especially during what is supposed to be the most festive time of the year. She wrestles with how to address the subject, torn between shielding the children’s feelings and being able to unburden herself of a secret that she has increasing difficulty containing. And, as much as she would rather not admit it, she also struggles with guilt over the varying degree of concern she holds for her own children compared to her three stepchildren from Tomas’s former marriage (Steinar Klouman Hallert, Eirik Hallert, Dina Enoksen Elvehaug). She clearly has a preference for comforting her own offspring, despite the undeniable care she feels for the others. How can she be expected to resolve circumstances like this with so much else that’s going on?

And then there’s her declining health, something she obviously can’t escape. She struggles with the side effects of her new medication (most notably insomnia and intense nervousness), her growing anxiety about the severity of her condition as the reality sinks in, and the inconsistent treatment she receives from a bureaucratic health care system that subjects her to ever more tests and sometimes leaves her in limbo as she awaits word on what comes next. This, combined with all of the other challenges she’s facing, leave her with a plate full of worry and uncertainty at a time when it’s unclear how much time she has left and what that time will be like. Under conditions like this, it’s hard to have any hope, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got.

Having just received a terminal cancer diagnosis, middle-aged mother Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, center) tries to keep a happy face on a family holiday celebration in the new domestic drama, “Hope” (“Håp”), available for online streaming. Photo by Manuel Claro, courtesy of KimStim.

Situations such as this are often characterized as being those where everyone involved hopes for the best but prepares for the worst. That can be a rather tall order to satisfy, given the disparate nature of the possible outcomes that could result. Accommodating such extremes calls for thinking outside the box, given that what could eventually happen goes beyond the range of expectations typically associated with most health-related matters. Indeed, extreme outcomes call for extreme measures to deal with them.

Devising the means for addressing these circumstances requires us to conceive such measures using all of the wherewithal at our disposal. But bringing them into being calls for more than just designing what we need; it also necessitates believing in the ability to do so. Such is the core concept behind the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience and everything that goes into its composition. And, in an existence characterized by extreme conditions, as here, we often have to expand the range of resources we employ in materializing the measures for addressing them.

That’s where thinking outside the box comes into play in this scenario. It applies to everyone involved, too – the doctors providing care, Tomas as a compassionate and sincere caregiver, Anja as the patient seeking the means for healing her circumstances, and Anja’s family and friends as providers of loving support. What’s more, all of the potential survivors in this situation must prepare for what might happen if Anja should succumb to her illness, as the nature of their reality would be radically shifted in her absence. It would seem everyone has his or her work cut out for them.

This health care crisis is further complicated by the ancillary circumstances associated with it, namely, the emotional meltdown going on between Anja and Tomas. While that situation has been unfolding for some time, its severity has certainly been exacerbated by this latest development. The time table for the couple achieving closure has suddenly drastically shrunk, and, if they hope to reach resolution, they’ll need to move fast – and at a time when their plates have suddenly been loaded up with much more than they’ve previously had to contend with. What’s more, the weight of emotions involved in this has also swelled dramatically in light of the magnitude of the circumstances now prevailing. In many ways, Anja and Tomas are being asked to multi-task their efforts at coming up with solutions for dealing with all of the various conditions they now face. Their requisite belief work is about to go into overdrive.

At a loving but tense family meeting, terminal cancer patient Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, center) breaks the distressing news to her three children and three stepchildren in “Hope” (“Håp”). Photo by Manuel Claro, courtesy of KimStim.

To their benefit, Anja and Tomas have ample support available to them. This truly is a co-creative endeavor, with each participant playing a vital role. By focusing their attention on the beliefs necessary to fulfill their respective obligations in this scenario, they have a greater chance of bringing into being what’s required to make this situation work out for the best. For example, the team of doctors (Per Gørvell, Hala Dakhil, Jacob Berg Thomassen) can play their part by devising the most efficacious treatment plan for their patient. Anja can best help her cause by plugging into beliefs related to healing, in all its forms, a lead that Tomas should follow, too. And the couple’s children, as well as good friends like Vera (Gjertrud L. Jynge), Arthur (Alexander Mørk Eidem) and Frans (Johannes Joner), can most effectively aid Anja by sending her warm, supportive vibes for her recovery. In collaborations like this, individuals might not always believe they’re making meaningful contributions, because their input might seem small and insignificant. However, when all of that input is combined, it creates a powerful force, one capable of working wonders greater than any of them can fathom by themselves. And that’s what fuels hope.

Still, even when armed with an optimistic outlook, the parties involved in a scenario like this must maintain a realistic perspective as well. Even if one is able to “fix” a dire situation, there’s no guarantee that the solution will be permanent. Of course, even if the repair is only fleeting, that’s still something to be proud of. Successes may flicker out of existence as quickly as the glimmer of a firefly, but they nevertheless embody the brilliance of creation, even if only temporarily. It’s in those momentary instances when we see the power of manifestation revealed, and that’s something we should never lose sight of. The point of power is in the present moment, and we must remember that, whether we’re seeking to create something as simple as an evening meal or as grand as a cure for a terminal illness. And that, too, should give us hope that what we seek can indeed be made possible, no matter how enduring or transitory it might be.

Despite many trying years together, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, left) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, right) try to determine what kind of future they might have together under highly uncertain circumstances in the engaging new drama, “Hope” (“Håp”). Photo by Agnete Brun, courtesy of KimStim.

A crisis can change a relationship overnight, as is the case for the couple depicted here. The ordeal offers them an opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, but, most of all, it affords the possibility for the rebirth of much-needed hope. In this case, it’s a difficult process, full of revelations, the surfacing of brutal honesty and the rekindling of romantic feelings that have long been sidelined by other priorities, but it somehow finds a way. Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl’s third feature explores what this couple undergoes when faced with such trying circumstances, a story effectively brought to life by the film’s insightful screenplay and the fine performances of Hovig and Skarsgård. While the picture can be a heartbreaking watch, it also illustrates that, when there’s life, there’s hope, a sentiment aptly and succinctly reflected in this offering’s simple but appropriate title. The film is available in limited theatrical screenings and for streaming online.

Nothing lasts forever. Or, as the Buddhists might put it, there is impermanence in everything. But, for every moment of existence, there is an inherent viability in what manifests in that point of power, one marked by an intrinsic beauty of its own. It can occur at any time, too, even when the likelihood of successful materialization seems less probable. However, as long as hope remains, coupled with the faith we place in it, there’s no telling what might arise. And the possibility of that is worth pinning that hope on – especially when one considers the alternative.

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

An Inspiring Relationship on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, today, May 11, 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.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Introducing Life Quote Journal

I’m thrilled to announce that I have been named a contributing writer for the new online magazine, Life Quote Journal. Dubbed “Inspiration for the Modern Warrior,” this uplifting new publication features an array of enlightening articles on a wide range of subjects, drawing heavily from the power of story and the experiences of its distinguished team of contributors.

As for my role, I will be submitting survey pieces about inspiring films that offer readers examples of how movies illustrate the principles of conscious creation (also known as the law of attraction). This powerful approach to examining how cinema can aid in our personal growth and development puts an enlightening and entertaining spin on this subject, showing how we can both learn and enjoy ourselves at the same time. The specific topics covered in these articles are tied to the issues’ inspiring themes, all of which are sure to move and motivate readers in myriad ways. My first submission, “The Power of Story Told Through Film,” appears in the magazine’s May issue.

Life Quote Journal’s 10-issue annual publication schedule launched in April, and both that edition and the May issue are now available online. For subscription information, click here. Enjoy these jam-packed issues of uplifting and entertaining reading!

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Man Who Sold His Skin," "Love and Monsters" and "Farewell Amor," as well as a new magazine article preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.