Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Wrapping Up the 2021 AFI DOCS Festival

With the 2021 American Film Institute Documentary Film Festival (AFI DOCS) now in the books, it’s time to sum up the 12 offerings that I screened, some of which will be released in theaters, online and on television on the very near future. A number of excellent films are coming out of this festival, and I encourage viewers to catch them when available. Some of these titles will be featured in full reviews in the coming months.

The scoring for these pictures is on a 1-5 scale (5 being must-see, 1 being should-skip). I have adjusted the scores here slightly from those listed on my Quick Cuts page summaries in order to more accurately reflect my views of the films in question (the Quick Cuts scores match how I voted in the festival’s audience ratings, the scoring for which is somewhat more restrictive than what I’ve posted in this blog).

This is the first time I have attended (i.e., streamed) releases from this festival, and I must say that, for the most part, I was indeed favorably impressed. It was a well-run, highly affordable event, and I recommend it highly. My only criticism would be that the length of the festival was a bit short for the number of titles being presented. For those who love documentary films and enjoy binge watching them and their accompanying Q&A sessions (as I do), five days is pushing it for avid cinephiles to fit in everything they might want to see. If a comparable number of films will be presented in the future as were screened this year, I’d like to see the organizers extend the length of the event by several days so viewers can more comfortably fit in everything instead of having to cram them into a tight time frame and hope they get to all the titles on their watchlists.

So, with that said, here’s what I saw and what I thought.

“Pray Away” (5/5)


Web site  Producers’ Discussion  Video Clip

One of the most noble endeavors that documentary filmmaking can pursue is the exposure of reprehensible behavior. So it is in director Kristine Stolakis’s debut feature, a damning indictment of the practice of conversion therapy, a largely Christian-based program created by mostly undereducated “counselors” aimed at “helping” gay individuals renounce their orientation in favor of a “preferred” traditional heterosexual lifestyle. In depicting the psychological damage inflicted on therapy participants by so-called former gays (many of whom later abandoned their own counseling and later resumed their homosexual lifestyles), the director holds little back in shining a bright light on this horrific and unenlightened way of looking at life. Watching this film should rightfully infuriate anyone – gay or straight – for the unspeakable emotional atrocities perpetrated by this movement, which is neither helpful nor effective nor even Christian. The film will premiere as a streaming selection on Netflix in August, and a detailed review will appear in a future blog.

“Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (5/5)


Web site  Trailer

During the summer of 1969, at the same time as Woodstock, another event took place in New York City of nearly equal magnitude, the Harlem Cultural Festival, a celebration of Black and Latino music, comedy and culture. And, like Woodstock, it, too, was filmed. Unfortunately, after the festival concluded, it was promptly forgotten, the film was stashed away, not to be seen, due to a lack of interest by distributors and television networks to make it public. Fortunately, that footage, which has been preserved in remarkable condition, has been resurrected, and the festival has been brilliantly brought back to life by this entertaining, educational and moving documentary. In this film, director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson has assembled an extraordinary selection of musical performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, the Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly & the Family Stone, David Ruffin, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone, the Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson, as well as the comedy of comic Moms Mabley and ventriloquist Willie Tyler & Lester, to name a few. The performances are augmented by commentary from a number of attendees and performers, as well as contributors offering their insights on the festival’s social and cultural impact, including Chris Rock, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sheila E. and Charlayne Hunter-Gault. The film is more than just an entertainment vehicle, though; it’s a time capsule into the period, examining the impact that the summer of 1969 had on Black culture, activism and empowerment. Questlove presents viewers with a tribute to the festival and the times, while simultaneously reawakening us to issues that still deserve attention all these many years later, pointedly reminding us that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it – and that we had all better be listening to more than just the music. The film opens in theaters and will begin streaming on Hulu on July 2, and a detailed review will appear in a future blog.

“The Lost Leonardo” (4.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

When a missing masterpiece allegedly surfaces, the announcement is generally accompanied by tremendous celebration and supreme doubt. Is it legitimate or phony? That’s the question that was raised when Leonardo da Vinci’s believed-lost Salvatore Mundi (Savior of the World) surfaced in 2005, raising the possibility that a work by one of the world’s masters had been miraculously resurrected. But there was considerable skepticism about the authenticity of the portrait of Jesus. And, once it was believed to be genuine, a firestorm erupted over its future ownership, one that was riddled with shady monetary considerations and even concerns related to its exploitation as geopolitical capital. Such are the dynamics of director Andreas Koefoed’s superb documentary chronicling the events associated with this artistic find, told in the form of a mystery/thriller with intriguing twists and turns, along with an ante that’s continually upped and an auction price that fetched the highest amount ever paid for a work of art. Lovers of fine art and cinematic intrigue will no doubt enjoy this engaging and thoroughly entertaining work, scheduled for release in August. A detailed review will appear in a future blog.

“The Neutral Ground” (4.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

Aptly subtitled “A Film About Sore Losers,” this superb debut documentary feature by director C.J. Hunt draws upon a modern-day Battle of New Orleans – one centered on a city council vote approving the contentious removal of four statues glorifying the Confederacy. The move was initiated as a means to set the historical record straight behind what these landmarks actually commemorated, namely, the celebration of a failed social system based on sanctioned slavery, institutional racism and White supremacy. In exposing the false narrative that has kept this myth alive for over a century (sentimentally known as “The Lost Cause”), the filmmaker tells a story that’s both stunningly comic and utterly tragic. Hunt’s skillful tongue-in-cheek questioning and editing techniques effectively blow the lid off the ignorance, cynicism and hypocrisy of those who still believe in the virtues of losers of the Civil War and how their public symbols, such as the statues in question, have perpetuated the values of a system that treated fellow humans as property and inferior beings. As the premiere episode of the upcoming season of the PBS series “POV” on July 5, this excellent offering is a fine choice, both as a work of filmmaking and as an enlightening and educational vehicle that every American should see.

“The One and Only Dick Gregory” (4/5)


Web site Trailer

Comedian/activist/health advocate Dick Gregory (1932-2017) lived quite an amazing life, as depicted in this detailed new biographical documentary. With a wealth of archive footage of Gregory’s standup performances, his civil rights activism and his efforts to promote healthier living, backed by an array of interviews with those who knew him and performers whom he inspired, director Andre Gaines’s debut feature presents an in-depth look at this prescient icon’s storied life. In addition to appearances by Gregory’s wife, children, publicist and biographer, the film also includes insightful conversations with actor/comedians Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes, Rob Schneider, Nick Cannon and Harry Belafonte. While the picture provides a thorough treatment of Gregory’s activism, it nevertheless could have placed a little more emphasis on his comedy, given that the clout he built up as a successful entertainer was what made his later, more meaningful work possible. That aside, however, this excellent offering provides viewers with a fitting tribute to a remarkable talent and an impressive human being who brought true meaning to the word – and practice – of integrity. The film premieres on the Showtime cable TV network on July 4.

“Daughter of a Lost Bird” (3.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

Finding oneself can be a challenging enough process under the best of circumstances. But, for Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, a Native American woman adopted into a White family as part of a program aimed at intentionally obliterating the existence of American Indian culture, that process has been more complicated than usual as she seeks to find her birth family as a means to find herself. At more than seven years in the making, director Brooke Swaney’s highly personal film depicts her subject’s emotional journey to discover her roots and to find a part of herself that has long been missing, an offering that’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming. A must-see for supporters of Native American interests, as well as anyone looking to see who they really are – and to discover what they need to make themselves whole.

“No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics” (3.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

Though they may have once been considered fringe – even subversive – gay comics have evolved over the years from underground publications sold in head shops and erotic bookstores to respected, albeit provocative, works of art. Director Vivian Kleiman’s excellent new documentary takes a detailed survey look at the history of this genre of comics, some of its notable artists, and the private and public influences that inspired them. What’s most revealing is the diverse range of subjects addressed in these works, from all forms of homoeroticism to gay causes like equal rights and the AIDS crisis to the impact of transcendent social, political and cultural influences on the LGBTQ community. This offering may not be for those outside its core constituency, but comic book fans and members of the gay community are sure to find it entertaining and informative.

“President” (3.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

This impeccably detailed, though somewhat overlong, chronicle of Zimbabwe’s contentious and violent 2018 presidential election provides an inside look at a systemically corrupt regime willing to do virtually anything to thwart reform and hold on to power, despite public claims to the contrary. Director Camilla Nielsson’s excellent offering exposes a crooked government that grew out of a prior crooked government and has made a practice out of continuing its self-serving ways, policies that have been characterized by empty promises and the exploitation and endangerment of its own people. The film provides an up-close look at the populist campaign of beloved opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa in his attempt to unseat unscrupulous incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa and the incessant roadblocks put in place by an autocratic ruler who pledges a fair and free election with no evidence (or apparent sincerity) to back up the claim. While the picture sheds light on the ways of what many would consider a third world nation, the issues presented here nevertheless will seem uncannily familiar to those who live in places where such practices are publicly denounced and denied yet allowed to flourish. This release should thus serve as a wake-up call to all of those who profess to champion democracy, even in instances where its presence may be noticeably questionable or lacking.

“Storm Lake” (3.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

In an age of ever-growing media consolidation and agenda-driven corporate journalism, it’s comforting to see that good old-fashioned reporting is managing to stay alive in small town newspapers like The Storm Lake Times, the subject of this endearing documentary. As publications of this type continue to disappear in droves, the public is losing the kind of personalized local coverage that we all need to stay informed about our communities. But, fortunately, periodicals like this family-owned, Pulitzer Prize-winning, twice-weekly Northwestern Iowa newspaper are sustaining the tradition, despite the deck being heavily stacked against them. Directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius document the challenges and joys associated with keeping an operation like this alive, as well as the range of big and small stories that the paper covers, from the foible-filled 2020 Iowa caucuses to the COVID outbreak at a nearby meat packing plant to the crowning of grade school pig festival queens and grandma’s favorite recipes. As a former journalist, I must admit to being somewhat partial to material like this, but its heartwarming tone is genuinely engaging, presenting a slice of Americana that may be disappearing but that can still be savored through a cinematic experience like this. This film was the winner of the event’s Audience Award for best feature as voted on by festival attendees.

“Fathom” (2.5/5)


Web site  Trailer

As fascinating as its premise is, this documentary about researchers investigating the intricacies of humpback whale song communications fails to follow through on its mission. Director Drew Xanthopoulos’s second feature outing has lofty goals in its exploration of a subject that seeks to mix science, philosophy and even metaphysics, but the picture’s execution is mishandled, causing many of the film’s more engaging aspects to become obscured by excessive (and largely unexplained) tech speak, as well as uninteresting extraneous material that does little more than pad the content. To its credit, this offering is beautifully shot in the ocean wildernesses of Alaska and French Polynesia, backed by an ethereal score, and it truly shines when it delivers its profound conclusions through insightful voiceovers. Unfortunately, there’s too little of what works best and too much of what distracts viewers from the core narrative, and that’s regrettable considering that these wondrous creatures truly deserve better – and so do we. The film is currently screening on AppleTV.

“White Coat Rebels” (2.5/5)


Web site

Despite an intriguing premise, director Greg Barker’s latest documentary feature about medical professionals and med students seeking to reform the American health care system is a disappointingly unorganized offering in which its many insightful ideas are presented in a somewhat scattershot fashion, preventing them from being suitably developed as the narrative jumps around from topic to topic. Clearly this is a film that seeks to showcase the passionate efforts of committed idealists in exposing the impact that issues like poverty, racism and an uncontrolled profit motive have had in negatively affecting the quality of care that patients receive, not to mention the exorbitant costs involved as well. However, it seems that, just as one of those subjects is being introduced and developed, the thrust of the picture abruptly skips off in another direction, creating a less than coherent storyline. What’s more, due to the documentary’s shooting schedule (which began in 2019), the narrative does something of a left turn with the onset of COVID in 2020, changing the direction even further from how the film began, making for an even greater sense of overall discontinuity. This project is sorely in need of going back to the editing room for retooling to let the ideas raised in this production stand out better so that they receive the unfettered attention they truly deserve.

Nous” (“We”) (1/5)


Web site  Trailer

There are slices of life, and then there are slices of life. Director Alice Diop’s attempt at capturing one such slice is the stuff of this new documentary that, unfortunately, is little more than contrived exercise in trying to metaphorically translate “Fanfare for the Common Man” into a cinematic experience. This offering seeks to elevate the everyday and ordinary to an exalted level of grandeur, but the subjects the filmmaker chooses are, for the most part, patently mundane and largely uninteresting. The link connecting them (and only marginally at best) is a train line that runs from north to south through the City of Paris. However, there’s precious little tangible connection between the subjects and the glue that supposedly binds them other than a few depot shots and periodic glimpses of train cars whizzing by in the background. The result is a failed, disjointed release that makes one long for when the credits will finally roll.

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Dead Pigs," "Supernova" and "Land" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

New Movies on Frankiesense & More!

Looking for new and different movie viewing options? Find out about some excellent selections on Thursday, June 24, 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 by clicking here. And, if you don't see the show live, catch it later on demand!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

‘Land’ restores hope where it’s lacking most

“Land” (2020 production, 2021 release). Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bechir, Sarah Dawn Pledge, Kim Dickens, Warren Christie, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Brad Leland. Director: Robin Wright. Screenplay: Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam. Web site. Trailer.

When beset by an unspeakable calamity, it can be nearly impossible to regroup. Those who care about us will undoubtedly try to lift our spirits and help us get our bearings back, but that may not be enough, especially if our heart and spirit are not in it. So what are we to do under such circumstances? That may not be an easy question to answer, but we always have choices to restore hope, a notion examined in the heart-tugging drama, “Land.”

For Edee (Robin Wright), life undoubtedly seems pretty unfair. Having experienced a heartbreaking personal tragedy, the Chicago native is unsure what to do. Edee’s sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), recommends that she see a counselor, but that seems to provide little comfort. In fact, Edee is so distraught by her circumstances that she has trouble coping with everyday life, frequently lapsing into bouts of uncontrollable hysteria. She also unreservedly lets others know that she doesn’t want to be around them, feeling as though she doesn’t belong in their company – or anywhere for that matter. She’s so utterly overcome with grief and lacking in hope for the future that it sometimes seems like she’s not even sure if she wants things to work out.

With no plausible plan in place, Edee decides to get away from it all – and everybody. She relocates to the mountainous wilderness of Wyoming to be by herself, moving into a remote cabin with no amenities (even running water) and no source of transportation to make a getaway if needed. She professes that she’ll be fine, despite being inexperienced when it comes to the challenges of surviving in the woods. But, then, that doesn’t seem to bother her, either, because she has no apparent reservations about failing at this venture. Given her frame of mind, she seems to believe that she couldn’t feel any worse than she already does, her outlook resting on the notion that, if she dies, she dies.

As Edee’s adventure plays out, she repeatedly fails at virtually everything she undertakes. She’s on the brink of a breakdown, emotionally proclaiming that her “plan” isn’t working. From losing her water bottles to an unforgiving swift current when collecting supplies from a nearby stream to being trapped in an outhouse with an adult black bear aggressively pawing at the rickety structure, she quickly finds herself fighting a losing battle. She’s ready to give up, a decision that would appear to be reliably unfolding when she loses consciousness in her cabin during a severe winter storm. Indeed, it could all be over quite soon.

Devastated by a personal tragedy, Chicago native Edee (Robin Wright) relocates to the Wyoming wilderness on her own to attempt to rebuild her life in the heart-tugging drama, “Land.” Photo by Daniel Power, courtesy of Focus Features.

Much to Edee’s surprise, however, she finds herself revived and in the care of a pair of passing Samaritans, Miguel (Demián Bechir), an accomplished tracker and hunter, and Miguel’s friend, Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), a nurse. Alawa tends to Edee’s health matters, while Miguel handles chores around the cabin and secures much-needed supplies. Edee’s condition is serious, and Alawa recommends transferring her to a hospital, though the recluse will have none of that, unsure that she wants to recover. As Edee starts to feel better, though, she slowly starts to back off from her depressive stance.

As Edee’s condition stabilizes, Alawa steps aside, leaving Miguel to care for the patient’s needs on his own, frequently with his beloved pooch at his side. The more time Edee and Miguel spend together, the more she warms to his presence, albeit slowly. She’s still in a fragile state, and Miguel is astute enough to recognize this, making sure not to pressure her too much. She even makes her request for privacy about her past plainly known, though she has no reservations about accepting whatever help Miguel is willing to provide. That’s especially true when he instructs her in the ways of surviving in the wilderness, such as how to become a more effective tracker and hunter.

With her physical strength restored, Edee grows more confident at living off the land. Her emotional state improves, too, even growing comfortable at spending more time in Miguel’s company, something she never would have considered when she first moved to Wyoming. Their relationship is far from romantic, though it grows increasingly intimate over time, firmly rooted in a foundation of compassionate friendship. Indeed, Edee would appear to be coming back to life.

All is well until one day when Miguel pays a visit that’s different from what Edee has grown accustomed to. His characteristic warmth and compassion are still present, but there’s also an atypical distance between them. They chat briefly before Miguel announces that he’s going away for a while but doesn’t know when he’ll be back. His announcement may be a little vague, but it doesn’t come across as especially alarming, particularly when he asks Edee if she wouldn’t mind caring for his canine friend in his absence, a request to which she agrees. Given the profound bond between Miguel and his dog, Edee can’t envision him abandoning his loyal pet or being gone permanently, but she’s left with an odd feeling that she hasn’t experienced before, one that only grows stronger as time passes with no sign of Miguel’s return in sight.

Miguel (Demián Bechir), an accomplished tracker and hunter, comes to the rescue of a woman overcome by the elements in rural Wyoming during a winter storm in actress Robin Wright’s feature film directorial debut, “Land,” now available for streaming online. Photo by Daniel Power, courtesy of Focus Features.

What does this new development mean? Can Edee survive on her own without Miguel’s help? Is there a future for their friendship? And what impact, if any, will his absence have on Edee’s emotional well-being? Those are the questions to be resolved as Edee’s odyssey runs its course.

Starting over is seldom easy, especially when we’re burdened by the weight of profound sadness. Working up the ambition to even consider what to do next may be more than we can bear, let alone actually getting on with our lives. In fact, sometimes we might feel like it’s simply easier to give up than to attempt to move forward. These are circumstances that Edee can no doubt relate to.

Nevertheless, it’s not realistic to stay stuck in limbo either, and that’s where Edee currently resides (and likely has for some time, with no sign of implementing any kind of meaningful change). On some level she knows she needs to do something different, but what?

This is where the importance of our power of choice comes into play. And that, in turn, is governed by what we believe about the nature of the existence we’re experiencing, as well as what we would like to experience, for that drives what ultimately unfolds in our reality. Such is the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our thoughts, beliefs and intents are responsible for manifesting the world around us. This is true for better or worse, and it’s something that Edee has become all too familiar with, especially in its negative aspects, regardless of whether or not she’s aware of how they originated.

At this juncture in Edee’s life, even if she doesn’t know how to proceed, she has a distinct choice open to her – does she look for the means to reshape her existence, or does she give up? As the story opens, it’s apparent that she doesn’t know the answer to that question; she’s so numb from her experience that putting any thought into a particular course of action is beyond her current capabilities. She knows she’s not able to be around others, but that’s about all; she has no clear idea where she herself belongs, and she’s unable to choose a new direction. That’s tragic, too, given that our power of choice is such a precious birthright, and she’s intentionally casting it aside. It’s as if she’s willing to let the chips fall where they may, no matter what that may involve.

A tentative friendship between Edee (Robin Wright, left), an emotionally wounded transplant to the Wyoming wilderness, and Miguel (Demián Bechir, right), an accomplished tracker and hunter, in the heart-tugging drama, “Land.” Photo by Daniel Power, courtesy of Focus Features.

As Edee soon discovers after relocating, willfully evading making a decision isn’t working for her, but she’s still not prepared to change that, despite the difficulties associated with that “choice.” Clearly she needs guidance, direction, and, above all, help. This is where the assistance provided by her “unexpected” Samaritans comes into play. While Edee may not have been consciously aware of their existence before their arrival, on some level, she nevertheless has managed to draw them into her reality, hoping that their backing will help her make a decision one way or another.

Miguel and Alawa clearly want Edee to pull through; they don’t want her to give up, even if they’re unfamiliar with what she went through. It’s in their nature to offer compassion and nurturing, regardless of what prompts it. Their primary concern is whether Edee will accept it, hoping that they’ll be able to convince her that rebuilding her life is worth the effort. And they apparently make a good case for it, especially when Edee shows signs of responding to them positively.

In essence, Edee gets what she needs most – friendship, empathy and support. Slowly but surely these gifts enable her to begin taking back control over the direction of her life and future. She assumes the reins over her power of choice and begins drawing upon it to chart a new path. It may be a tentative course, and progress may come at a snail’s pace, but at least it’s a sign of something, an indication that she’s coming out of her long dark night of the soul.

The appearance of Alawa and Miguel at a time when their presence is so dearly needed demonstrates that “the Universe provides,” a notion common to many metaphysical disciplines, including conscious creation. As our collaborator in the manifestation process, the Universe (or God, Goddess, All That Is, Source or whatever other term best suits you) works with us to give us what we need when we need it. By making our intentions known and putting forth beliefs aimed at materializing what we require, we can quickly find ourselves equipped with what suits us.

Tracker and hunter Miguel (Demián Bechir, left) instructs inexperienced wilderness transplant Edee (Robin Wright, right) in the ways of living in the woods in “Land,” now available for online streaming. Photo by Daniel Power, courtesy of Focus Features.

That’s certainly true where Edee and Miguel are concerned. In many ways, Edee is in need of the services of a guardian angel, a savior who will help her turn her life around. But their interaction is more than just a celestial handout; together Edee and Miguel forge a working partnership, a mutually beneficial collaborative effort aimed at fulfilling their needs. As a consequence, Edee starts to get her life back, while Miguel the caregiver lives out his destiny, a practice that conscious creators refer to as value fulfillment, the act of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. There’s so much to be said for exercising our value fulfillment, especially the role it plays in helping to collectively uplift us all and to restore hope where despair has held sway. It’s something we could use more of in these challenging times, and there’s no telling what it might birth when we allow ourselves to be inspired by it. It just might even be powerful enough to move Edee to begin practicing it herself. And, considering where she began, that would be quite a miracle to be sure.

“Land” is indeed a moving and inspiring story, one that personifies hope in the face of extreme adversity. Actress Robin Wright’s feature film directorial debut tells this heart-tugging tale capably, even if somewhat conventionally at times and with character development that could have benefitted from supplemental strengthening. Nevertheless, thanks to Wright’s strong lead performance, stunning cinematography, nicely sustained pacing and a solid finish, this offering certainly shines in the areas where it truly matters most. This may not be earth-shattering filmmaking, but it’s certainly an impressive start to a budding career. The film had a brief theatrical run earlier this year and is now available for streaming online.

When Pandora’s Box was opened and all of the furies were unleashed, it seemed like humanity was doomed, saddled with an array of horrors that couldn’t be reversed or overcome. But those who remember the myth will also recall that the last of the entities to emerge from the artifact was one completely different from the others – the spirit of Hope. This being may have been vastly outnumbered by the others, but this did nothing to diminish the power she possessed, the ability to give mankind encouragement and a positive outlook in the face of all the travails let loose. It may not seem like much to hold onto, but, when it’s all we’ve got, we should grasp it with all our might, for it just may provide us with the answers we need in the face of our troubles – and help to lift us up out of them.

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

In Honor of Pride Month

In celebration of Gay Pride Month, join my partner, Trevor Laster, and me for a fun and insightful interview about the dynamics of same-sex relationships on the Bring Me 2 Life radio podcast with host Selo Closson, beginning June 22. To listen, click here and select Episode 206. And, for a preview, click here. The broadcast will also be available on these additional formats: Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Swine Before Pearls on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, June 22, 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.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

‘Dead Pigs’ connects the dots of daily living

“Dead Pigs” (2018 production, 2021 release). Cast: Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Meng Li, David Rysdahl, Zazie Beetz, Cao Kefan.  Director: Cathy Yan. Screenplay: Cathy Yan. Web site. Trailer.

There’s more that binds us than meets the eye, and the strings that connect us may take some surprisingly unexpected forms. It may not be possible to anticipate the impact they’ll have, either, but we should nevertheless make an effort to remain conscious about their existence, for the developments that arise from them can be quite striking – and startling. So it is for a collection of seemingly unrelated parties in the recently released fact-based Chinese comedy-drama, “Dead Pigs.”

In 2013 near Shanghai, China, thousands of dead pigs were found mysteriously floating down the Huangpu River, a phenomenon that eventually spread nationwide. The cause? No one knew initially, but the story created a sensation that captivated the public’s attention and dominated the headlines of various news organizations. This strange incident prompted an array of related events, some of them seemingly removed from this enigmatic source, but all of them ultimately tied to the perplexing aquatic swine. And those ancillary tales provide the basis for the interrelated stories in this quirky comedy-drama:

  • Pig farmer Old Wang (Haoyu Yang) is feeling quite pleased with himself. He fancies himself part of the “new China,” one who’s eager to get in on the money grab going on throughout the country. Having done well for himself in his farming operations, and with a little money borrowed on the side, he feels confident enough to invest in a new business venture and to go on a spending spree of sorts, purchasing an expensive virtual reality system. However, he soon comes to realize that the investment was a scam, leaving him out of the money, the repayment of which he now owes to shady lenders. And, to make matters worse, like many other farmers, his pigs are now beginning to die. He’s become so destitute that he doesn’t even have the funds to properly dispose the porcine carcasses, so, like many of his peers, he begins dumping them in the river. Unfortunately, he now has “creditors” breathing down his neck, and their collection practices aren’t exactly borrower-friendly.
  • Old Wang’s sister, Candy (Vivian Wu), lives in the middle of what appears to be a landfill. She occupies the family home, a property that has been the Wang homestead for three generations and the only building still standing in what was once a thriving residential neighborhood. The reason the structure stands alone is that all of the neighboring buildings have been torn down to make way for a new property development being constructed by the Golden Happiness real estate group. Unlike all of the other homeowners who have vacated the neighborhood, Candy has refused to sell, despite ever-increasing offers from a developer eager to get on with construction. However, that may be about to change as Golden Happiness places increasing pressure on her to leave, a campaign ramped up when the organization contacts Candy’s cash-strapped brother, who apparently has title rights to the property on par with his stubborn sister. Will the siblings be able to reach an amicable agreement?
Holdout homeowner Candy Wang (Vivian Wu, center), accompanied by her brother, Old Wang (Haoyu Yang, left), and her nephew, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee, right), watch as an aggressive demolition crew seeks to tear down her property for development in the quirky Chinese comedy-drama, “Dead Pigs.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

  • Old Wang’s son, Wang Zhen (Mason Lee), has his share of challenges. He works as a busboy at an exclusive club with many demands placed on him. And it’s a job where his attention is distracted by one of the regulars, a beautiful young rich girl, Xia Xia (Meng Li), who is dating (albeit somewhat reluctantly) a wealthy, middle-aged businessman, Liu Jun (Cao Kefan), head of the Golden Happiness group. Xia is quietly smitten with Wang Zhen, too, though their differences in economic and social status make for a tentative involvement, despite the mutual attraction.
  • In addition to his romantic issues, Wang Zhen has trouble with his dad. The relationship has always been one-sided, with Old Wang making many demands on his son, particularly financially, a situation that has made Wang Zhen somewhat resentful, despite the obligations he feels compelled to fulfill. Wang Zhen has tried to compensate for this by purposely deceiving Old Wang about his economic status, making himself appear to be far more successful than he actually has been. Of course, now that Old Wang is cash poor, he doesn’t hesitate to ask his allegedly wealthy son for more money, funds that Wang Zhen doesn’t have. To help make up for that deficit, Wang Zhen embarks on a practice of staging phony traffic accidents to extort cash from the unsuspecting drivers. But, despite sending more money to his father, Wang Zhen is in line to become an unwitting target from Old Wang’s lenders, a move aimed at forcing the old man to pay up – and one that increases the tension between dad and his sister.
  • The Golden Happiness group is pleased to avail itself of the services of architect Sean Landry (David Rysdahl), an American expat looking to make a name for himself in Chinese real estate. His charismatic nature wins over the locals, helping his star to rise within the organization. This, in turn, helps him catch the eye of Angie (Zazie Beetz), a model groomer who recruits Sean to pose as “an exotic foreigner” at high-profile corporate events, making him even more visible in the Chinese business community. In fact, his employer taps this charisma to aid in negotiations aimed at closing on an important piece of property – the Wang family homestead. Will Sean be able to finally convince Old Wang to transfer the family property – for an extremely lucrative price – that his sister has long refused to sell?
With demolition equipment at arm’s length, homeowner Candy Wang (Vivian Wu) climbs atop the roof of her generations-old family home to make a stand against an aggressive work crew in director Cathy Yan’s 2018 debut feature, “Dead Pigs,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Such are the intertwined storylines that play out as pigs continue to float down the river. How will they be resolved? That depends on how the players live out their respective roles. But one thing is for certain – the connections that unwittingly bind them all can’t be ignored, as they all contribute to the resolution of each scenario.

It’s often quite baffling to see how seemingly disparate events can be connected to one another. People, places and things far removed from one another by qualities like time, distance or relevance shouldn’t be tied to one another – or so it would seem – yet somehow they are, and a number of films in recent years have shown how that’s indeed possible. Consider the examples set in movies like “Grand Canyon” (1991), “Short Cuts” (1993), “Magnolia” (1999), “American Beauty” (1999), “Crash” (2004), “Babel” (2006), “Disconnect” (2012), “Cloud Atlas” (2012) and “Monsters and Men” (2018), and it becomes much easier to see how connections arise and emerge, tying seemingly unrelated elements to one another. Interestingly, in some ways, these films artistically reflect the scientific principle of quantum entanglement, which maintains that removed and seemingly unrelated atomic particles can indeed operate in unison when one might think they probably shouldn’t, a concept Albert Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” And so it is for how events unfold in “Dead Pigs.”

However, when considered philosophically, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many metaphysical doctrines maintain that everything in reality is innately connected, like the threads of a tapestry. Indeed, one can’t pull on one of those strands without all of the others being inherently affected in some way or another. That’s especially true when it comes to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the existence we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, when those notions become intertwined, connections among them develop, yielding co-creations that have wide-ranging effects. This would thus help to explain how the flotilla of dead pigs wending their way down the Huangpu River can ultimately have effects on a holdout homeowner, a financially destitute farmer and a lovesick busboy seeking to impress his often-disapproving father.

Busboy Wang Zhen (Mason Lee, left) seeks to impress his stern, often-critical father, Old Wang (Haoyu Yang, right), as being more successful than he really is in “Dead Pigs.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Because of these connections, it’s important for us to recognize how the manifestations associated with them come into being. No matter how much we might like to disassociate ourselves from some of these materializations, they still all originate with us, reaching out from our inner being and into the physical world, where they interact with their fellow manifestations. And understanding this is crucial, for it places an intrinsic responsibility upon each of us to create with accountability and integrity. Should we fail to do so, we end up witnessing the kinds of snafus that appear in this film.

This is especially important where the creations impact our well-being in sensitive areas, such as finances, and it’s true both individually and collectively. In many regards, the various story threads in this picture – which are indeed rooted in fact – illustrate the economics of life in the new China, both on the microcosmic and macrocosmic level. The experiences of the well-to-do and those looking to become part of the well-to-do are represented here, and their illustration through this film reflect what the citizens of the People’s Republic are experiencing. The haves vs. the have-nots may be a well-worn cinematic narrative, yet its persistence in art demonstrates how persistent the template is in real life as well. The disparities are indeed troubling, too, which should prompt us to ask ourselves, why do we keep creating them? If the moral and ethical impact is so upsetting, how can we allow it to continue, even if it’s new to this venue? Why don’t we simply change the beliefs to change the outcomes? And, if we don’t or won’t, what does that say about us?

American expat architect Sean Landry (David Rysdahl, center) seeks to make a name for himself in real estate development in a burgeoning Shanghai in the fact-based comedy-drama, “Dead Pigs.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

It’s ironic that this story originates with the death of pigs, too. In Chinese astrology, the pig is the sign associated with wealth and abundance. Yet here the pigs are dying in huge numbers. What does that say symbolically about the ability of the average citizen to live “the Chinese dream”? With so much opportunity seemingly available, one might assume that there’s plenty to go around for everybody, but does the reality really match the aspiration? One might say apparently not, which brings us back to the beliefs we’re collectively putting out there. If we want the aspiration to ring true, the beliefs that make it possible need to be put in place to start with. And, when the cause of the pigs’ deaths is at last revealed, there’s an even greater irony at work here, especially when it comes to the present course of the accumulation and distribution of wealth, not only in China but indeed in the entire capitalist world.

In reaching that point, we must, of course, assess what works and what no longer does. That means making astute decisions about what to hold onto and what to let go of. And that, in turn, means going back and taking another look at the beliefs aimed at manifesting what materializes, both individually and collectively. That may be a tricky process, to be sure, but when one looks at what China has been able to achieve so far in such a short time, there’s a clear will to succeed. Making sure that the process continues as desired, though, may take some more work – efforts that stem from the origins of what’s envisioned in the first place and then following through accordingly.

When a holdout homeowner is confronted by a demolition crew sent by aggressive real estate developers, the standoff draws a crowd and becomes a major news story in director Cathy Yan’s “Dead Pigs.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

The delightful narrative of this fact-based comedy-drama is loaded with whimsical twists and turns, hearty belly laughs and just the right amount of understated campiness, combining to make a thoroughly entertaining mix. It also gives viewers much to ponder in terms of fairness, change, and the welfare of both individuals and society at large. Director Cathy Yan’s recently released debut feature admittedly sags at a few points in the second half, but that’s a small price to pay for everything else this charming and quirky picture has to offer.

“Dead Pigs” was well received when it debuted at film festivals in 2018, but it failed to receive a distribution deal until only recently, prompted in large part by the success of director Yan’s subsequent feature, “Birds of Prey” (2020). Fortunately, the film is now available for streaming online.

Life can appear to throw us some pretty odd curves at times, but sometimes they’re necessary to get our attention, particularly when it comes to addressing matters requiring long overdue restitution. We might not like what happens nor what these materializations are attempting to show us, but they are often vital to help us set things to right. We had better hope we’re paying attention, too. If not, we may be saddled with a slurry of deceased swine – and an even bigger mess to clean up.

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

‘Supernova’ debates holding on vs. letting go

“Supernova” (2020 production, 2021 release). Cast: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Pippa Haywood, Peter MacQueen, Nina Marlin, Ian Drysdale, Sarah Woodward, James Dreyfus. Director: Harry Macqueen. Screenplay: Harry Macqueen. Web site. Trailer.

Knowing when to hold on and when to let go can be a frustrating, anxiety-ridden exercise, especially under highly charged conditions. The feelings involved might even leave us emotionally paralyzed, unable to make a decision in either direction, simply because we’re left overwhelmed and locked in place. But doing nothing is not a viable option, either; decisions have to be made to address what we’re up against. So it is in the affecting romantic drama, “Supernova.”

Longtime gay couple Sam (Colin Firth), an accomplished English concert pianist, and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a transplanted American novelist, have led a happy and fulfilling life together in the UK.  In many ways, the partners have lived a storybook existence replete with material comfort, professional success and personal satisfaction. And, as they enter their sunset years, they look forward to more contented times together in retirement. But life, it seems, has other plans for them.

When Tusker begins experiencing memory-related issues, a visit to the doctor confirms the couple’s worst fears – he’s suffering from the onset of dementia. Although he appears to be in reasonably good control of his faculties, looks can be deceiving. He soon comes to realize that his old astute self is beginning to slip away and at a quickly accelerating rate, circumstances that trouble him deeply. For instance, when he experiences difficulty in tasks as simple as donning and buttoning a shirt, he grows worried that his ability to care for himself – and even to recognize what that entails – is disappearing far faster than he ever would have imagined.

But Tusker is not the only one who is worried; Sam is profoundly concerned that the love of his life is vanishing before his eyes. He vows to do whatever it takes to provide proper care and support to his life partner, though, admittedly, that commitment is somewhat rooted in denial and wishful thinking. The effort becomes increasingly arduous for him, both in terms of the caregiving requirements and the need to willingly set aside his own interests, such as continuing to give public performances. And that, in turn, further troubles Tusker; as the recipient of such devoted assistance, he can’t bear to see his beloved make such a significant sacrifice, believing it to be a noble though futile exercise given the future that he knows lies ahead.

To help alleviate the difficulties associated with their circumstances, Sam and Tusker embark on a road trip in their aging recreational vehicle to tour the English lake country. Their excursion takes them back to some of their favorite old haunts, giving them a chance to relive fond memories and to partake in cherished pursuits, such as star gazing. The trip also includes a stop at Sam’s childhood home, which is now under the care of his sister, Lilly (Pippa Haywood), her husband, Clive (Peter MacQueen), and their daughter, Charlotte (Nina Marlin). The visit to the family homestead provides an opportunity to spend time with friends and relatives and serves as a stopover on their way to an intimate recital engagement that Sam considers to be his farewell performance.

The trip ostensibly seems like a pleasant enough diversion, an opportunity for Sam and Tusker to share warm, loving times and to reflect on their relationship and life together. However, the journey is not without its share of tension as well. For example, there’s always the possibility that Tusker may inexplicably wander off and become lost, unwittingly subjecting himself to the untamed conditions of the English wilderness. And then there are some heated discussions between the partners about the handling of their current crisis, most of which emerge during the recording of taped conversations aimed at chronicling the progression of Tusker’s condition.

As their trip unfolds, the viewpoints of each partner become ever more polarized. Sam digs in, committing himself to a course of action that will become increasingly demanding and stressful; his love for his partner governs his convictions, no matter how difficult their fulfillment will inevitably become. Tusker, meanwhile, does all he can to try to spare Sam’s feelings, to keep him from pursuing a path that he knows will be emotionally draining and physically exacting, all in the name of an unavoidable eventuality that could very well leave him a broken man with little hope for the future. What’s more, Tusker has little interest in biding his time waiting for that scenario to play out, especially if it’s going to leave him in a depleted state, one far removed from the vibrant and vital individual he used to be.

This seemingly irreconcilable conflict increasingly intrudes on what is supposed to be a happy time together. But, as the stalemate escalates, circumstances take an unexpected turn, one that threatens to worsen conditions further, perhaps even to the point of jeopardizing whatever remaining future the relationship might have. How will that unfold? That’s what Sam and Tusker will have to find out for themselves.

The onset of an ordeal like a health crisis is never easy. Such situations leave us wondering why they happen and, even more puzzling, how to respond to them. They often represent a disruption to the routine and circumstances we’ve long known and grown accustomed to, throwing us into uncomfortable uncertainty. And they leave us wondering how to proceed into an unclear future.

So it is for Sam and Tusker. They’re at a point where they need to decide what to do, a time of choosing where the answers are far from easy or obvious. To search for resolution in a scenario like this, they must examine their beliefs, for those thoughts, feelings and intents will shape what unfolds. Such is what results from the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our reality emerges from these intangible roots.

Keeping sight of the foregoing notion is crucial in a situation like this, given the gravity of the circumstances and the emotionally charged nature of the beliefs involved. But devising solutions is frequently difficult because of the overpowering degree of the feelings involved. In fact, they may be so powerful that we can’t readily identify or sort out our beliefs, leaving us unable to make clearly defined decisions. Our power of choice is indeed one of our most precious birthrights, but, when it becomes compromised by considerations that significantly hinder our ability to make effective use of it, we may find ourselves foundering in murky manifestation waters. This can leave us without direction at a time when it’s needed most.

The uncertainty that Sam and Tusker face affects them in multiple ways. For starters, there’s the uncertainty associated with the progression of Tusker’s illness: How will it unfold? What time table is involved? What effects will he experience, and how will they impact his day-to-day existence and his relationship with Sam? Then there’s the uncertainty that Tusker will face as he sees himself slip away, losing sight of the person he had been and the radically changed individual he will become: How will he be able to cope with that? What effects will that have on his awareness of the person who he becomes? And what will that do to him emotionally, intellectually and physically? Finally, there’s the uncertainty regarding the future of their relationship: What will become of it? How will it affect each partner? And, in particular, what impact will this scenario have on Sam as the likely survivor? What kind of future will he have without his partner, and will he be able to carry on by himself in all of the various aspects of his life?

Despite the many uncertainties they face, there are some identifiable considerations that Sam and Tusker must bring themselves to face. Most important among them is the question of knowing when to hold on and when to let go, as the progression of Tusker’s illness will inevitably force a resolution to it. The question becomes, how do the partners want to address it? Ultimately there are numerous options here, but which one will they mutually agree upon as being acceptable?

At the film’s outset, Sam wants to do everything he can for his partner, no matter how difficult it may be. Tusker, meanwhile, is reluctant to put his significant other through something so draining and demanding and to put himself through such a deteriorating ordeal. And, as noted previously, that’s essentially a stalemate – not the kind of stressful circumstance that a couple might want to put themselves through at a time when the number of their days together appears to be dwindling. So what’s the next step?

This is where the question of holding on or letting go becomes especially relevant. Both partners must take a hard look at their beliefs about what they want for themselves both individually and collectively. What will work best for them all around? Again, there are many options to choose from, and they must not be afraid to exercise that power of choice, no matter how difficult it may be.

Considering how events are unfolding, it’s certainly difficult to make elaborate plans for the future, especially since it’s highly uncertain how matters will play out. This is where Sam’s wishful thinking needs to be addressed. His hopes that life will somehow continue on as he and Tusker have always known it reflect the role that denial plays in his beliefs, an unrealistic outlook given what he’s up against. He needs to realize, understand and accept the direction in which circumstances are headed and make adjustments in his beliefs as necessary. But will he?

One way in which both Sam and Tusker could make things easier on themselves is to focus on what’s going on in the present moment, for that is the true point of power. Just as we cannot control a past that has come and gone, neither can we control a future that has yet to arrive. However, in the present, we can direct how we want our existence to materialize through the power of our beliefs, and that may be what matters most, especially in charged situations like these.

This is important when loved ones can see that their remaining time together is growing short. One would think that they’d like to make the most of it, savoring the moments over which they’re able to have direct control in how it unfolds. Those moments can thus end up being some of the most memorable and cherished times together, especially since they’re the ones on which they can have immediate impact. The blessings that emerge in these precious interludes should be given top priority, without regard for what may or may not result in the time to follow.

Of course, this is not to suggest that we should ignore the future either. Sam needs to give some thought to what he’d like to do when he’s by himself, even if only in terms of general principles. Given the sorrow he feels over Tusker’s deterioration, it would appear that he’s already making plans to shut himself down when he’s on his own, as evidenced by his declaration that his upcoming recital will be his farewell performance. Those feelings are certainly understandable, but are they realistic? After all, Sam appears to be in reasonably good health and could well have many years yet ahead of him, and reclusive isolation doesn’t seem to be a worthy option. Even Tusker is troubled by this outlook; he loves Sam’s musical virtuosity and is saddened by the prospect of his partner giving it up for good just because of a loved one’s death.

In light of that, then, Sam must be careful about the groundwork he puts into place while Tusker is still alive. There’s no reason for him to give up on living just because of his partner’s passing. That, of course, depends on what Sam starts to do now. And that, in turn, depends on what both he and Tusker do now as well, since those plans and actions will govern what plays out over time. We can only hope that they make the right choices and employ their beliefs judiciously.

The storyline in this film is, admittedly, a somewhat tried and true formula, though it has some new life infused into it here with its same-sex couple protagonists and its gorgeously filmed road trip backdrop. To be sure, the film’s heartwarming and heartbreaking narrative feels a bit too restrained at times and somewhat stretched out in the final act, but it always comes across as sincere and eminently moving. What stands out most, though, are the stellar performances of Firth and Tucci, who deliver magnificent portrayals and exhibit a remarkable, heartfelt, amazingly genuine chemistry throughout. It’s also refreshing to see a gay-themed film that addresses the kinds of everyday issues that the rest of the world deals with and not just relying on storylines drawn from a handful of familiar subjects that have been endlessly overdone. “Supernova” may not be everything that it could have been, but it certainly is an engaging, heart string-tugging offering that’s well worth the time.

The film had been considered a strong contender at the start of the 2020 movie awards season, but it never lived up to expectations, capturing honors and nominations only at a few film festivals. Its theatrical release date was also delayed due to the COVID-related closure of moviehouses last fall. However, it did have a brief theatrical release earlier this year, followed by an aggressive online streaming program on multiple platforms, where the film can be found currently.

When a star reaches the end of its life, it frequently flares up and goes out in a brilliant blaze of glory known as a supernova before being extinguished forever. A similar analogy can be made for how many of us exit the physical plane, metaphorically mimicking the demise of those solar orbs. In many ways, it’s a fitting conclusion given that we’re essentially made up of elements that originated in those celestial bodies. However, unlike those blazing globes of light that seem to so freely and naturally enter into their end stages, we may not be as acutely aware of when our time has come, which can make our transition difficult. Yet, if we’re willing to tap into our consciousness and examine the beliefs that are directing the course of our events, we, too, may be able to follow the examples set in the heavens and go out in our own blazes of glory. And what a brilliant sight that would be.

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

Monday, June 7, 2021

'Straight' Talk on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, June 8, 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.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Queen Marie" and "Kubrick by Kubrick," as well as a 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.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Become a Modern Warrior!

How do we create the life we want? Find out by reading "Movies for Developing and Living Life Your Way" in the latest issue of Modern Warrior magazine. For more about this uplifting new online publication, click here.