Thursday, July 28, 2022

Hot Times at the Movies in July!

Join special guest host Ishita Sharma and yours truly for the July movie review broadcast of The Good Media Network's Frankiesense & More video podcast! We'll talk about nine new movies, as well as two new releases on home media, beginning Thursday July 28 on Facebook or YouTube.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Thor: Love and Thunder," "Fire in The Mountains" and "Voodoo Macbeth," 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.

‘Fire in The Mountains’ ignites a feminist manifesto

“Fire in The Mountains” (2021 production, 2022 release). Cast: Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Harshita Tewari, Mayank Singh Jaira, Sonal Jha, Lalit Pandey, Mukesh Ghasmana, Uma Shanker Madi, Monaj Kumar, Madan Mehra. Director: Ajitpal Singh. Screenplay: Ajitpal Singh. Web site. Trailer.

To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, it takes a spark to light a fire. But sometimes such blazes don’t take on the first strike, because there’s not enough initial energy behind it to catch flame. In fact, it may take multiple sparks before a conflagration erupts. And it’s a concept that’s applicable both literally and metaphorically. But, when things finally come alive, watch out – a message delivered home with hard-hitting force in the new Indian drama, “Fire in The Mountains.”

India is a land at a cross-roads in terms of embracing modernization while preserving tradition. It’s an often-uneasy mix that struggles to find a suitable balance. And, while one might think that the efforts aimed at modernizing are designed to benefit everybody, not everyone does, especially with the tug of traditionalism fighting against progressive change in certain segments of society, particularly among women.

These conditions are especially prevalent in the nation’s rural areas, such as the State of Uttarakhand in the country’s north, a beautiful region often compared to Switzerland with its scenic Himalayan backdrop. In the village of Munsiyari, a popular tourist spot for adventurous travelers, married couple Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) and Dharam (Chandan Bisht) run a home stay facility for visitors while supplementing their household income from a number of other sources. But, for various reasons, it’s often a difficult, frustrating and volatile way of life.

As the pragmatic voice of the household, Chandra bears the brunt of these conditions. She suffers under the tremendous weight of responsibility for keeping things afloat at home and in the family business, despite Dharam’s constant empty contentions that he’s the one in charge simply by virtue of being a man. She frequently must deal with his abusive alcoholic ways, his irresponsible behavior, and his traditional religious beliefs and practices, many of which she sees as bordering on foolish superstitions. His obsessions with obtaining spiritual dispensations from a local guru (Lalit Pandey) and participating in the traditional Jagar ritual – activities that drain precious funds from the household coffers – leave Chandra scrambling to figure out how to make ends meet, especially paying for the expensive medical care of their physically paralyzed and psychologically withdrawn young son, Prakash (Mayank Singh Jaira).

But these aren’t the only household challenges Chandra faces. She also struggles to deal with her intelligent and self-reliant but flirtatious teenage daughter, Kanchan (Harshita Tewari), who’s smitten with an “eager” neighbor boy, Neeraj (Monaj Kumar). Kanchan possesses a curious mix of personal attributes, some of which are indeed admirable, but others of which are decidedly exasperating – and that only add to Chandra’s burden. Then there’s Kamla (a.k.a. Didi) (Sonal Jha), Chandra’s unappreciative, scheming widowed sister-in-law, who has come to live with the family at Dharam’s invitation. Being that Kamla is Dharam’s sibling, there’s little Chandra can do about the situation except put up with her, something that frequently and seriously tries her patience.

Challenges from outside the household are formidable, too. For quite some time, Chandra and her neighbors have been attempting to get a road built connecting the main highway that runs through their village to their hilltop homes, residences that are otherwise only accessible by a treacherous footpath that’s been etched out of the steep, rough terrain. Chandra has made many appeals to the local village chief (Mukesh Ghasmana) about this project, asking him to take this request to the federal government, which claims to be supportive of such infrastructural improvements in underserved areas. But no matter how often she asks, the proposal falls on deaf ears. The patriarchal attitude and inept, self-serving ways of the chief keep the project from moving forward. And his dismissive, condescending approach to dealing with the “little lady’s” request not only leaves the proposal unaddressed, but is also personally insulting.

Chandra receives the same kind of treatment from Prakash’s doctor (Madan Mehra), as well as from the owner of a competing home stay business (Uma Shanker Madi). However, given the prevailing nature of the local culture, that’s to be expected. It hits Chandra from all directions, including at home and in the outside world. And it constantly places her in a position of having to fight for the fulfillment of her needs, wishes and sometimes even her own personal safety. The feeling of continually being beaten down angers and frustrates her, ever prompting Chandra to have to fight to maintain her sense of personal power.

Devoted mother Chandra (Vinamrata Rai, foreground) carries her piggybacked paralyzed son, Prakash (Mayank Sigh Jaira, background), down a treacherous footpath from their hilltop home to take him to his medical treatments in the new Indian drama, “Fire in The Mountains.” Photo courtesy of Jar Pictures.

Moreover, the path to Chandra finding and preserving that sense of personal power is far from clear. Because she’s often on her own in this regard, she has no handbook or role models to draw from. Knowing how to proceed can even be baffling and conflicting at times, such as when this strong-willed woman seeks to rein in her own free-spirited daughter, seemingly squelching the valued sense of independence that one might think she should be proud of Kanchan so courageously and freely exhibiting. But fight on she must, exercising her determination to be herself and to press her case when the need arises.

The result is the emergence of a personal feminist manifesto, one given life in an environment where its leanings have rarely been afforded such free expression. Chandra is serious about seeing those intentions fulfilled, too. In fact, there’s a part of her that’s determined to see that those who have wronged her (and those like her) will have to pay for their transgressions, thereby opening up space for a new society and the creation of a new world. And, in a land like India, with its well-known tradition of the Mother Goddess Kali, whose violent trembling so shook the world that she destroyed it, there’s no telling what might happen if Chandra and her kindreds suddenly decided to comparably let loose their power on an otherwise-unsuspecting world.

Considering how Chandra is routinely treated, her confrontational reactions are entirely understandable. She knows that she deserves better than what she typically receives, and she sincerely believes that attaining such respect is possible, an outcome achievable through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our thoughts, beliefs and intents manifest the reality we experience. She may not know exactly how to go about this, and she might not even know of this school of thought’s existence. Yet she appears to have a handle on its basic principles and never hesitates to employ them when needed to pursue what she wants.

However, because this all seems to be new to Chandra, she’s still finding her way through it, which accounts for the variability in the results she realizes. Sometimes, for example, she’s quite adept at manifesting what she needs, such as sufficient cash to cover the most important household expenses despite Dharam’s woeful financial management skills. At other times, though, she meets with less satisfying outcomes, such as her interpersonal dealings with men, including everyone from her husband to Prakash’s doctor to the village chief, all of whom inflict their own forms of abuse on her, ranging from disrespect to outright physical harm. Such mixed results show she still has much to learn, an outcome that can only come with more practice and experience.

So what accounts for Chandra’s uneven performance? As noted above, she still seems to be new at this. And, having been raised in a culture steeped in traditions that still persist, she may likewise have some difficulty getting past the notions she was raised with and subsequently embraced and internalized. This illustrates the power and endurance of our beliefs and how difficult it can be to rid ourselves of them, particularly when we’re not as aware of them as we need to be to rewrite them into more suitable forms. Thus this accounts for what makes this metaphysical undertaking a work in progress for Chandra.

This becomes apparent, for example, in her dealings with Kanchan. Theoretically speaking, Chandra should be proud of the independence that her daughter asserts as it makes for a valuable life skill and serves as a model for what Chandra is trying to achieve for herself. But, when Kanchan seeks to follow her own inclinations, she’s often met with ridicule from her mother – evidence that those old belief tapes are still playing in Chandra’s mind and still emerge when she thinks they’re relevant to the circumstances at hand. This might appear counterproductive to some, but, when persistent outmoded beliefs surface in knee-jerk reactions like this, they can be hard to get past.

Besieged by challenges on many fronts, strong-willed wife and business owner Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) makes a potent statement on the virtues of personal power in director Ajitpal Singh’s debut feature, the Indian feminist manifesto, “Fire in The Mountains,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Jar Pictures.

In light of this, Kanchan’s presence could be seen as a source of inspiration to nudge Chandra into another way of thinking, one that helps implement the beliefs she needs to put in place to move forward with the fulfillment of her ambitions. The same could even be said for Kamla to a certain extent, even though the example she sets is not exactly the best compared to Kanchan. Nevertheless, in both instances, these influences are in place to help show Chandra that she needs to eliminate what no longer serves her in order for more beneficial beliefs to fall into place. This principle should help Chandra find her way more effectively when it comes to attaining what she seeks to achieve, both in terms of the beliefs she needs to implement and the outcomes that ultimately result.

It’s important to heed such advice, too, for if we willingly or unwittingly fail at this, our goals and the beliefs behind them can become “stuck” inside us. This can lead to them building up to an “unhealthy” level. And, when they finally emerge, they can manifest in an exaggerated, almost fanatical form. When we witness Chandra’s initiatives continually stifled, we can also see the frustration building within her, leading to her attempted manifestations taking on an almost toxic quality. Is that what we really want? Indeed, is that what she really wants? It’s at times like that when we need to look for ways to liberate those stagnant beliefs, not only to attain what we want, but also to prevent them from emerging in ways that could potentially do more harm than good. We all know what kind of fury can be unleashed by a woman scorned, and we’d be wise to do our best to keep such an eventuality from coming to pass.

Director Ajitpal Singh openly avows that his debut feature is based on experiences that he witnessed with relatives who were subjected to the kind of treatment Chandra undergoes. In that sense, then, this is a film intended to make a strong social and personal statement about the unacceptable nature of such circumstances. This picture often packs quite a punch and seldom holds anything back, making for a sometimes-difficult watch (sensitive viewers beware), thanks in large part to the authentically convincing lead performances of Rai and Bisht. Admittedly, some of the narrative’s story threads don’t feel as fully fleshed out as they could have been, making it difficult at times to see exactly how everything connects, no doubt a shortcoming attributable to the film’s scant 84-minute runtime. Nevertheless, for a first-time outing, the filmmaker has laid down an otherwise-impressive and noteworthy cinematic gauntlet, an admirable start to what one can only hope will be a promising movie career. The film is available in a limited theatrical run and for streaming online.

Simmering embers can be ignored for only so long. At some point, they’ll spring to life, spreading over everything in their path and wiping out all that they encounter. And it’s a concept that’s as applicable metaphorically as it is literally. But, either way, when it’s fueled by a massive amount of pent-up energy, the impact can be sweeping. That can yield positive results in the long run but not before putting everything in its way through tremendous turmoil. This thus begs the question, “Which is preferable – a wildfire or a controlled burn?” Choose wisely – the character of the outcome and the quality of the future rest on it.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Preserving Freedom on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday July 26, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ shows us how to become our own gods

“Thor: Love and Thunder” (2022). Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi (voice), Russell Crowe, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Jaimie Alexander, David Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Kieron L. Dyer, Carly Rees, Ben Falcone, Stephen Curry, Idris Elba (uncredited), Matt Damon (uncredited), Luke Hemsworth (uncredited), Sam Neill (uncredited), Melissa McCarthy (uncredited), Brett Goldstein (uncredited). Director: Taika Waititi. Screenplay: Taika Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. Story: Taika Waititi. Source Material: Stan Lee and Jason Aaron, Marvel Comics. Web site. Trailer.

Oftentimes in life we’re presented with turning points that put us in a position of having to make some crucial decisions, including those involving hard choices. They represent significant developments that will likely affect us for a long time to come in myriad profound ways. We may feel as though we’re out of our league in these instances, unable to proceed because the choices seem to be too big for us to make. Yet the power of choice in these matters rests with us, essentially making us the masters of our destinies. And, if we examine and embrace that capability sufficiently enough, we’re likely to discover that we can effectively chart our own paths, no matter how daunting they might seem, as a disillusioned god and pair of mortals learn for themselves in the surprisingly thoughtful new summertime blockbuster action-adventure, “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

After abandoning a directionless retirement in which he grew fat, lazy and despondent, Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), has toiled to shed his dad bod and regain his statuesque physique. He’s also resumed his mission to partake in heroic deeds, such as helping King Yakan of Indigarr (Stephen Curry) liberate his world from evil forces with the aid of his friends and fellow Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, with whom he sought refuge in the early days of his retirement. And, for his valiant assistance, Yakan rewards Thor with a pair of enormous, powerful chariot goats, an unusual but impressive and valuable gift. However, to get back the personal autonomy he needs to be truly independent once again, Thor amicably parts ways with his Avenger colleagues and returns home to New Asgard, the settlement he and his followers established after the destruction of their ancestral home.

As Thor has worked to get his life back on track, his onetime romantic interest, astronomer Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has done the same. In the eight years since they broke up, Jane has made a name for herself as a scientist and author. However, in more recent times, she has, sadly, been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and her conventional treatment regimen hasn’t been working. With her days dwindling and nothing to lose, she decides to pursue an alternative therapy – tapping into the power of Thor’s magic hammer, Mjolnir, which is said to possess tremendous healing capabilities. And so, with that objective in mind, she heads to New Asgard to find Mjolnir to see what she might be able to make it.

Meanwhile, as Thor and Jane pursue their respective agendas, a troubling new development arises that threatens the entire pantheon of the gods. When Gorr (Christian Bale), a devout, contrite follower of the gods, tragically loses his beloved young daughter to a fatal illness, he’s consumed by sorrow. And, when he stumbles into a chance encounter with the deities to whom he once so diligently prayed for his child’s recovery, he learns of their self-centered indifference toward the supplications of mortals, including those he so sincerely made. He becomes enraged and, when he unexpectedly acquires the ability to do in those who betrayed and mocked him, he vows to brutally and indiscriminately slay all of the gods in the Universe. This thus poses a tremendous threat to gods of all stripes – Thor included.

In waging his war against the gods, Gorr eventually makes his way to New Asgard, where he attacks the settlement, a way of getting Thor’s attention. But, in the midst of this battle, an unexpected development occurs – the sudden appearance of a substantially rejuvenated Jane, who has assumed the name Mighty Thor and has successfully learned how to wield the power of Mjolnir. Needless to say, Thor is stunned at the reappearance of his former love interest. Yet, as glad as he is to see her, it distracts him enough for Gorr to kidnap all of New Asgard’s children. Thor and Jane are now confronted with the dual challenges of retrieving the kids and keeping themselves alive in the face of Gorr’s determined plans to do them in – along with all of their divine peers.

Undeterred, Thor and Jane begin making plans to rescue the children and stop Gorr. They learn that he is on the verge of gaining access to a powerful force on a distant planet that could readily enable him to carry out his threats, presenting Thor and Jane with a daunting task. They believe they need help to combat the god slayer, so they decide to seek assistance from the pantheon of deities, a divine sanctuary housed on a world en route to Gorr’s stronghold. And so, with their plan set, Thor, Jane, Mjolnir, the chariot goats, and their colleagues King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi) begin their heroic journey.

Their stop at the pantheon proves disappointing, however. To their dismay, they find that the gods who reside there, under the rule of Zeus (Russell Crowe), king of the deities, are just as self-centered as those Gorr encountered after the death of his daughter. Zeus and his cohorts offer no assistance and even challenge the powers of Thor and his colleagues, forcing a heated confrontation and hasty retreat. But Thor’s skirmish is not without its rewards, as he makes off with the powerful lightning bolt that Zeus uses as a weapon against his enemies. It’s an acquisition that could prove helpful in Thor’s impending encounter with Gorr.

Upon resuming their journey, Thor, Jane and company embark on a quietly anguishing voyage. They’re uncertain they have enough firepower to carry out all of the aspects of their mission. But, on top of that, there are other issues hanging over them, such as the uneasy, unresolved romantic feelings between Thor and Jane, conflicting signals over who actually controls Mjolnir, and Jane’s wavering health status, a definite source of distraction for Thor. Will they succeed in their quest and resolve all of their other outstanding questions? Whatever the outcome, the results are sure to be epic, heartfelt, and, above all, surprising.

The odyssey that Thor and Jane experience is one that we all undergo at some point in our lives. They’ve each reached significant turning points, and they’ve come through them having to decide where they want to go next. Such decisions may not come easily, either, given that we may not be ready to give up what we already have for an uncertain future. In other instances, we may be ready to move on, but we’re not sure to what, given the myriad choices we have. And, in yet other cases, the potential changes could be so large and significant that we might not feel ready for them, perhaps even afraid of the consequences.

So what are we to do in these situations? That’s when we need to look to our beliefs, for they characterize what we think and feel and what’s about to unfold, an outcome of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these powerful intangible resources in manifesting the reality we experience. Being presented with such free rein over our choices represents a tremendous opportunity, for our beliefs can conceivably make virtually anything possible. However, we must be careful in how and what we choose, because the beliefs we select will be faithfully reflected back to us through what we experience.

In the case of Thor and Jane, their reunion represents an opportunity for repairing their relationship and moving forward into the future together. At the same time, though, given that they’ve been apart for some time and have started down different paths, that option may not be feasible, and this act of coming together once more could instead be an opportunity to achieve closure with one another, a chance to resolve issues that were left unaddressed and unfulfilled. Which will they choose? That remains to be seen, but both possibilities are attainable, along with a host of other hybrid alternatives that incorporate elements of both scenarios, depending on the specific beliefs they each hold individually and collectively.

The same could be said here for Gorr. He’s been devastated by the loss of his daughter, but that development also represents a potentially significant turning point in his life. In his case, that has to do with his understanding of his personal power and with his relationship with the divine. For years, he believed the gods determined his fate, but now he’s come to realize that it’s in his own hands, that he, too, can operate with the power of a god. But what will he do with it, and how will that impact his relationship with those he once so devoutly worshipped? Will he use this newfound ability for the betterment of his circumstances (and possibly those of the world at large), or will he employ it in acts of petty retribution? Again, it comes down to his beliefs and what he chooses to do with them. But, before acting, he should take a close look at his options, given that some things won’t change – like bringing back the child he lost – no matter which path he selects. Does he want to commit himself to a future of unrelenting bitterness that fundamentally won’t change anything, or would it be preferable to pursue something more meaningful, perhaps a course that reflects the feelings he held for his daughter and that he can now share with others?

Obviously there are some significant choices to be made here, and they may represent hard ones. But such is what comes from life, and judiciously exercising our power in making them is a big part of what makes us human – or, apparently, gods – which, in its own right, might be one and the same, even if we’re only functioning at the apprentice level. When we consider what it takes to stridently engage in such a practice, it shows us just what heroes we innately are, and we shouldn’t be scared in making use of an ability that is inherently part of our own birthright. This film helps us to see that, and we should follow its guidance if we hope to make the most out of this experience we call existence.

These are not the kinds of questions one typically expects a movie like this to address, which is what helps to set “Love and Thunder” apart from many other superhero offerings, particularly those that come out of the Marvel Universe. Indeed, in an age when many of the films in this genre are becoming predictable and cookie-cutter in nature, it’s refreshing to see one of its franchises pulling away from the pack and distinguishing itself as something fresh and different. Following up on its charming breakout predecessor, “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), this latest installment in this series further defines and delineates the franchise’s character, presenting a work that’s thoughtful and touching, but it does so with an approach that’s whimsical, funny and often delightfully silly without being stupid. Much of the credit for that goes to writer-director Taika Waititi, who has successfully crafted an identity for this series that’s distinctively all its own, one that incorporates elements different from its cinematic cousins, doesn’t rely exclusively on action sequences to be entertaining, isn’t needlessly overlong and doesn’t take itself so damned seriously.

“Love and Thunder” truly establishes Thor as both the lovable goofball and bona fide rock star of the superhero universe, setting the God of Thunder apart from his many stoic, bland, uber-noble counterparts. The picture’s impressive all-star cast (including an array of hilarious uncredited cameo appearances) provides an excellent vehicle for actors to show off comedic talents that they don’t often display in other works. And the primary rom-com storyline will pull at the heartstrings while simultaneously providing more than its fair share of laughs. Several sequences stretch on a tad too long, but there are so few of them that it’s hard to notice. While this may not be the “Thor” or Marvel movie that many hard-core diehard fans are expecting, that doesn’t matter. Like the “Deadpool” movies, it serves up something that breaks the tedium of a genre that has been growing progressively stale and tiresome, and any film that does that is certainly OK in my book. This is without a doubt the class of the summertime action-adventure theatrical releases to come out thus far.

Some may look on the prospect of becoming our own gods as overly audacious, perhaps even sacrilegious or heretical. However, if we truly are the masters of our own destinies, doesn’t it stand to reason that, if we’re to rise up to that challenge, we must take charge of the direction our lives will go? And isn’t that what an empowered god would do? Why should it be fundamentally any different for us, especially since, as so many spiritual traditions maintain, we’re made in the image of our gods? That being the case, we should start acting like them and not cowering in fear of our own personal power. Of course, we must be prudent in our exercise of these abilities, as the disappointing self-serving examples set by Zeus and his pantheon of cohorts so demonstrably illustrate. It may indeed be acceptable to make use of a little thunder at times when it’s warranted, as long as we temper our beliefs and actions with a whole lotta love, examples that Thor and Jane so aptly demonstrate. After all, what better kinds of gods could we possibly ask to be?

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

‘Voodoo Macbeth’ extols the virtues of cooperation

“Voodoo Macbeth” (2021). Cast: Inger Tudor, Jewell Wilson Bridges, June Schreiner, Jeremy Tardy, Daniel Kuhlman, Wrekless Watson, Ashli Haynes, Gary McDonald, Hunter Bodine, Ephraim López, Isaiah Frizzelle, Kelsey Yates, Skyler Yates. Directors: Dagmawi Abebe, Victor Alonso-Berbel, Roy Arwas, Hannah Bang, Christopher Beaton, Agazi Desta, Tiffany Kontoyiannis Guillen, Zoe Salnave, Ernesto Sandoval and Sabrina Vajraca. Screenplay: Agazi Desta, Jennifer Frazin, Morgan Milender, Molly Miller, Amri Rigby, Joel David Santner, Erica Sutherlin and Chris Tarricone. Web site. Trailer.

Pulling together for the sake of a common objective is undoubtedly a worthy ambition. The spirit of cooperation that goes into such ventures can be tremendously satisfying, especially upon fulfillment. With challenges and obstacles melting away, everyone involved comes one step closer to attainment. But remaining committed to the mutual nature of the endeavor is essential as a group of would-be theatrical professionals discovered for themselves in the staging of a landmark production, the subject of the engaging new historical docudrama, “Voodoo Macbeth.”

The hardships of the Great Depression hit Americans hard. To help compensate for this, under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt, the government established the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency charged with stimulating the economy and creating jobs for the unemployed throngs looking for work. It was a broad-based initiative that launched a wide array of undertakings, including in the arts. One of the most ambitious of these efforts was the Federal Theatre Project, whose wide-reaching scope sought to provide opportunities for many segments of the acting community, including minorities. And it was through this effort that the Project’s Negro Theatre Unit was established in 1935, a program aimed at promoting stage productions featuring African-American casts, a notably progressive venture for the time.

The Unit was formed by esteemed actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) with the collaboration of seasoned producer/director John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman). To give the Unit respectability, they were committed to staging quality productions featuring talented casts and crews and distinctive works with innovative elements. And it was with these ideas in mind that they came up with the idea to launch an all-Black version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The narrative was to be roughly the same as this classic work, but the setting was to be switched from Scotland to a mythical Caribbean island (presumably Haiti), one with a long tradition of voodoo, mirroring the witchcraft element present in the original work. This premise thus gave rise to the nickname often attributed to this production, Voodoo Macbeth.

Twenty-year-old directorial prodigy Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges) tackles the ambitious project of staging an all-Black cast version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the new historical drama, “Voodoo Macbeth.”  Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

The film chronicles the many diverse challenges that went into the creation of this auspicious piece of American theater history. Much of it centers on the play’s aspiring but inexperienced director, 20-year-old drama prodigy Orson Welles (Jewell William Bridges), who had established quite a name for himself through his radio theater work, quickly becoming one of Houseman’s favorite rising young talents. Welles was initially skeptical of accepting the offer, concerned that it would cut into his emerging (and lucrative) broadcast career, but he was coaxed into taking the job by his wife, Virginia (June Schreiner), who saw it as a tremendous opportunity. However, as Welles found out, the hard work of pulling off this project was just beginning.

Even though the Negro Unit was established to help provide opportunities for Black actors, few classically trained performers were available, even in New York, where the play was to be staged. This meant Welles had to get creative to fill out his cast. He began his search by looking for individuals who were accustomed to performing in front of various types of audiences, such as nightclub singers and boxers, a plan that proved remarkably successful.

But, even with success in finding his share of suitable performers, Welles still had to deal with cast issues, such as the rapid and unexpected departure of the actor who had been selected for the title role, Juano Hernandez (Ephraim López), who left the production to take a radio drama job. Then there was the unreliability of the director’s substitute protagonist, Jack Carter (Gary McDonald), an alcoholic and petty criminal, who would often vanish during rehearsals. Welles also had to find a replacement to play the pivotal role of Lady Macbeth, a part that was supposed to be portrayed by McClendon but that she had to forego due to serious illness. The role was recast with Edna Thomas (Ashli Haynes), an under-confident actress who was unsure she could convincingly play the part. As a single mother, Thomas also had concerns about raising her young daughter, Clarisse (Kelsey Yates, Skyler Yates), while devoting herself full time to a commitment as demanding as this.

Esteemed actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor), head of the Depression Era Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit, oversees the production of an all-Black cast version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the new historical drama, “Voodoo Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

Not all of the problems Welles faced were of a theatrical nature, either. He and Houseman came under pressure from Texas Congressman Martin Dies Jr. (Hunter Bodine), who railed against the government spending precious monetary resources on a project that he saw as “Communist propaganda.” It also didn’t help that the play was an undertaking that involved minorities, a prejudicial attitude that was clumsily veiled but nevertheless all too obvious. The potential withdrawal of federal funding thus constantly hung over the production, leaving Welles and Houseman wondering if the rug was going to be unceremoniously pulled out from under them. Some residents of New York’s Harlem neighborhood took issue with the play, too, contending that Welles made his cast members look like insultingly comical versions of Shakespeare’s characters, a claim that led to public protests.

The strain of these issues, coupled with his lack of theatrical production experience, weighed heavily on Welles. He often sought refuge in the false comfort of a bottle, a problem that grew progressively worse over time. That, in turn, led to marital problems with Virginia, adding more fuel to an already-blazing fire. And it didn’t help that his own ego kept getting in the way, the source of frequent feuds with McClendon, the cast and the crew. But, with the April 1936 opening at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre looming, Welles would need to pull it together quickly if he hoped to avoid interminable embarrassment and disappointment. And, thanks to a no-nonsense sick bed conversation with McClendon in which she extolled the virtues of cooperation and setting aside one’s ego, Welles had the tools to turn things around – provided that he would allow that to happen.

Of course, few things in life would come together successfully were it not for cooperation, and the staging of this production illustrates that. So many elements must gel when tackling a project of this magnitude, but this venture was particularly challenging in light of the many unknowns and uncertainties associated with it. Black theatrical presentations of this scale were unheard of at the time, especially when it came to source material so different from the African-American experience as William Shakespeare. Add to that an untested director, shaky funding arrangements, casting difficulties and outside pressures, and you’ve got a mix that could have easily toppled the show before opening night.

Directorial prodigy Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges, second from right) and Federal Theatre Project Negro Theatre Unit director Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor, right) stand with the cast of their all-Black version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the new historical drama, “Voodoo Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

Yet, for all these challenges, the show went on. All of the interested parties came together to make it work. And that’s because they believed it could work, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our reality manifests from the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Moreover, when the power of the beliefs of numerous participants is aggregated, as here, it tends to be amplified, creating a potent force for use in an act of mutual co-creation. The collaborators on this production probably never heard of this school of thought, but they certainly made effective use of its principles.

Given the many hurdles that Welles and company faced, success truly seemed far from guaranteed. And, if one were to ask why these impediments materialized in the face of such an apparently sincere, heartfelt effort, understanding their presence may indeed be baffling. However, when we seek the fulfillment of an ambitious goal, sometimes it helps to have challenges in place that steel our resolve, to galvanize our beliefs and passions to ultimately triumph. In instances like this, if success came more easily, it may not be imbued with the kind of satisfaction and sense of achievement that would result otherwise.

Believing in ourselves and our collective efforts often benefits from the need to employ a little exertion, be it physical, mental or emotional in nature. And that hard work and determined discipline are apparent in the finished product, as evidenced by archive footage filmed during the original production, part of a 1937 WPA documentary titled “We Work Again” that’s been incorporated at the end of this picture. The project was not only a triumphant moment in American theatrical history, but it also solidified Welles’s reputation as a directorial icon. In addition, it launched the careers of numerous African-American performers who may not have had such opportunities were it not for this production. Quite a collective effort, to be sure.

That spirit of cooperation also played a significant role in the back story of this movie. As a project of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, “Voodoo Macbeth” was penned by a team of eight student screenwriters and shot by a directorial crew of 10 top graduate students. Collaborations of this nature are often viewed as potentially problematic, given possible clashes of vision and differing agendas that can lead to the proverbial “design by committee” issue. However, the seamless integration of the work of this team of contributors has resulted in a fine finished product. Admittedly, some of the writing is a bit over the top at times, and some of the acting is rather hammy (and not in the Shakespearean sequences, where one would most likely expect it), but the casting overall is quite solid, as are the period piece production values. It’s gratifying to see a student project turn out as polished as this one has.

The Lafayette Theatre set of an all-Black cast version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth serves as the site of dramatics that extend beyond the play in “Voodoo Macbeth,” the new historical drama produced by students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

Considering the quality of this release and the highly favorable critical reception it has received, as well as 15 competitive film festival awards, the picture genuinely deserves a wide audience and a shot at some form of general distribution. However, at the moment, finding this offering may take some effort, as it has been limited to the film festival circuit and select special screenings. There has been some talk that it may make it to one of the streaming platforms at some point, though nothing formal has materialized as yet. The impact of the COVID crisis, which has seriously interfered with movie distribution schedules, and the potential confusion posed by the 2021 theatrical release of the similarly titled “The Tragedy of Macbeth” have been offered as possible explanations behind this film’s limited release thus far. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, as some pictures made as far back as 2019 are just now coming into circulation as the movie industry seeks to return to normal (or, perhaps more precisely, new normal) operating conditions. Keep your eye out for it.

Teamwork is one of those concepts that sometimes receives a bad rap, generally because of its overuse in such endeavors as trite, vapid corporate employee training programs. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with working together, but there’s more to genuine cooperation than simply paying it empty lip service and spouting vacuous platitudes. It’ involves the shared beliefs and acts associated with sincerely striving to attain a mutually agreed-upon goal. Welles’s production of Macbeth embodies the spirit of such undertakings, one in which everyone pulled together for the good of the venture. We could learn a lot from this example, and, with its principles applied, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.

Copyright © 2021-2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 18, 2022

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Official Competition," "Endangered" and "Nude Tuesday" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Friday, July 15, 2022

‘Nûde Tuęsdäy’ spotlights the importance of communication

“Nûde Tuęsdäy” (“Nøken Tĩsdøĝ”) (2022). Cast: Jackie van Beek, Damon Herriman, Jemaine Clement, Ian Zaro, Charlie Preston Crayford, Byron Coll, Yvette Parsons, Chris Bunton, Chris Parker. Director: Armağan Ballantyne. Screenplay: Jackie van Beek. Story: Jackie van Beek and Armağan Ballantyne. Subtitle Writers: Ronnie Chieng, Celia Pacquola and Julia Davis. Web site. Trailer.

It’s been said that talk is cheap. And, unfortunately, when it’s treated as such, its value is often weakened and, consequently, undermined. That can prove problematic, even fatal, in significant applications, such as self-expression and the conveyance of important or meaningful information. The implications of this can carry tremendous impact, especially when it comes to things like relationships, particularly those of a high personal nature, as is the case in the raucous new sophisticated silly sex comedy, “Nûde Tuęsdäy” (“Nøken Tĩsdøĝ”).

When things go south in the bedroom, maintaining a relationship can be challenging, even for those who have been together for a while. So it is for longtime married couple Laura (Jackie van Beek) and Bruno (Damon Herriman), a suburban working class duo with two kids. Laura is preoccupied with her job at an advertising agency, keeping up the household and attempting to treat a chronic female problem that has caused her to lose virtually all interest in sex. Bruno, meanwhile, goes about his business as a salesman at a plumbing fixture retailer and doing his best to be a good dad, but those responsibilities have done nothing to diminish his libido. His wife’s lack of desire, however, thwarts him at every turn, leading him to partake in one cold shower after another.

Because of these opposing attitudes, Laura and Bruno seem to keep talking past one another, not really hearing what the other has to say, especially when it comes to their love life. This is reflected in the film’s dialogue, which is spoken, quite literally, in gibberish, with English “translations” shown in subtitles. This clever linguistic element thus serves to reinforce the frustration the spouses are feeling. Laura believes she’s being pestered for something for which she has no time, energy or desire. Bruno, in the meantime, feels he’s being deprived of something that should be a normal part of a healthy relationship. Of course, as these circumstances demonstrate, that relationship has become anything but healthy.

So what are Laura and Bruno to do? There are solutions out there, but they don’t appear to have explored any of them, given their respective lack of interest and effort. But one possible remedy emerges when they receive an anniversary gift from Bruno’s unapologetically outspoken mother – an all-expense-paid visit to an erotically focused couples retreat in the wilderness. Laura and Bruno are initially unsure about whether to avail themselves of this unexpected present, but they soon relent and decide to give it a shot for what it’s worth. Little do they know what they’re getting themselves into.

Upon arrival at the retreat, Laura and Bruno feel like the proverbial fish out of water. They meet an array of colorful couples who are involved in all manner of different relationships. They find heterosexual, bisexual and gay partners who have teamed up in various commitment configurations with differing numbers of participants. They’re all generally enthusiastic about their participation in the event, thanks in large part to the facilitation of an enigmatic but self-absorbed, whacked out sex guru, Bjorg (Jemaine Clement). But Laura, and, to a lesser extent, Bruno, are reluctant to join in the activities, given their highly unconventional nature, such as a series of outlandishly hilarious exercises that positively slay libidinous group encounters and esoteric New Age gatherings. The uptight couple is even asked to select a farm animal mascot to provide them with sensual “inspiration” to help them get their sex life and relationship back on track.

Longtime married couple Bruno (Damon Herriman, foreground) and Laura (Jackie van Beek, background) seek to revitalize their stagnant sex life by attending an erotically focused couples retreat in the sidesplitting new comedy from Down Under, “Nûde Tuęsdäy” (“Nøken Tĩsdøĝ”). Photo courtesy of Madman Films.

As time passes, Laura and Bruno begin to warm to their circumstances, a process in which they learn new things about themselves and their marriage. Inhibitions fall away, but not necessarily in expected ways, again, often with sidesplitting outcomes. But what will this mean for their future? That remains to be seen, particularly in light of their participation in the retreat’s marquee event, Nude Tuesday. Clarity may at last be possible – or so they hope.

Communication is fundamental to the success of any relationship, be it of a creative, business or romantic nature. Yet all too often this is where these affiliations begin to suffer and break down. Ideas aren’t expressed as clearly as they could be – or at all – leading to an assortment of problems. Frustration frequently emerges, leading to a distancing that’s not entirely unexpected. And, before the partners to these arrangements are aware of it, things dissolve, an often-regrettable (and avoidable) outcome.

So what causes this breakdown in communications? It frequently rests with the partners not being able to adequately express themselves. At the heart of this is an inability or unwillingness to sufficiently put their beliefs into words. And that underlying failing carries bigger implications, because our beliefs form the basis of the reality we experience thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources produce those results. When our beliefs are inadequately conveyed to those we depend on in such collaborations, they become innately misinterpreted, leading to disconnects that can set us on the path to problems and eventual dissolutions. How sad is that, particularly when such outcomes can be prevented?

Such situations are characterized by the aforementioned act of talking past one another. When each partner in a relationship is ill equipped to articulate what he or she wants, misunderstandings of the beliefs underlying them result, producing circumstances that the parties are likely to find unsatisfactory. As noted above, this can lead to frustration and, eventually, animosity and resentment.

This naturally begs the question, “Can these scenarios be avoided?” The answer, thankfully, is a resounding yes, but it takes a concerted effort to bring it about. Key to this is finding the means to express our beliefs as clearly and effectively as possible. But, before that can happen, we must first make an attempt at precisely identifying what those beliefs are to begin with, a capability at which many of us may be deficient, particularly if we’re unaware of the conscious creation process and its ramifications. Thus making ourselves aware of this school of thought and its basic principles is a good starting point. And, with such an awareness in hand, we can then move on to identifying the specific beliefs we hold and what they’re intended to manifest.

Once these steps are put in place, the relationship parties can then compare notes. With each collaborator making his or her wishes plainly known so that the other understands what’s being sought, the partners can then move toward devising a solution that meets both of their needs and desires. This makes possible successful acts of co-creation, where everybody has the potential to come up a winner.

Couples retreat sex guru Bjorg (Jemaine Clement, center) leads event participants through a series of hilarious, unconventional exercises to help them reinvigorate their stalled sex lives in the outrageously funny new comedy, “Nûde Tuęsdäy” (“Nøken Tĩsdøĝ”). Photo courtesy of Madman Films.

This process probably seems self-evident to most of us, as it essentially outlines the means to reach effective compromise. However, it’s astounding how often we fail to attain such a result. In most of these cases, failure is usually attributable to not putting the foregoing groundwork into place. Instead, we look on in confusion, unable to fathom how our fellow collaborator doesn’t seem to grasp where we’re coming from or what we want. Again, this prompts the aforementioned frustration, animosity and resentment, qualities that lead to breakdowns in communication and, ultimately, the undertaking in which we’re mutually engaged.

Laura and Bruno epitomize this scenario. Given Laura’s mindset with everything she has going on in her life, she’s unable to understand why Bruno is insensitive to her needs and can’t control his testosterone-driven urges. By contrast, Bruno is unable to fathom Laura’s unwillingness to engage in an activity that he sincerely believes is supposed to be an integral aspect of a healthy relationship. Their needs and the beliefs that underlie them apparently aren’t being expressed well enough so that the other can understand them, producing the fundamental disconnect that the couple is experiencing, an outcome that illustrates what can result when our beliefs are not given adequate articulation.

In its own way, the retreat is an attempt to compensate for the failure of previous efforts at reaching compromise. Unconventional though it may be, the event could be seen as a manifestation designed to draw out the beliefs that Laura and Bruno have not adequately expressed through more typical means. And, to an extent, that proves to be true, though, somewhat surprisingly, the retreat sheds light on revelations in the couple’s respective beliefs that they were unaware of going in. This raises the specter that what Laura and Bruno each thought they knew about their beliefs at the outset was intrinsically flawed, that they were clinging to assessments that did not provide them with a clear picture of their actual beliefs.

When such revelations emerge, we may be dumfounded at what we discover. However, if we’re to truly get what we want out of life, we have to operate from a position of truth, especially where our beliefs are concerned, given their power and function. These developments may knock us for a loop, and we might lament some of the consequences that come from them. But, if such a venture leads us to a place of happiness and fulfillment that potentially exceeds our expectations, isn’t that worth it?

That’s what Laura and Bruno could be preparing to discover for themselves. Getting there may take them out of their comfort zone, but, considering that their situation hasn’t been terribly comfortable for quite some time, then one could argue that the process represents time and effort well spent. And who knows what that could yield!

The foregoing is not meant to suggest that this film is all seriousness and heavy-handed psychological drudgery. Far from it. However, it’s heartening to see a film with subject matter like this making an effort to provide viewers with something more than what they typically find from movies in this genre. That’s why I have termed this offering “a sophisticated silly sex comedy.” To most, that might sound like a contradiction in terms, yet that’s precisely what this hilarious release from Down Under is all about. Director Armağan Ballantyne’s second feature follows the raucously funny misadventures of a sexually stagnated couple as they attempt to revive the erotically amorous aspect of their marriage, and it does so with inventive touches in the dialogue and sight gags, setting it apart from many other contemporary comedies, particularly those of this kind. Admittedly, the film starts to run out of gas in the final half hour, and its otherwise-frenetic pacing sags a bit when the narrative starts to turn more serious and sentimental. However, there’s a lot more going on with this ambitious offering than one might expect, especially in the laughs department. It’s quite a feat to take material that might ordinarily be considered crass or low brow and make it funny with a surprising degree of style and sophistication. Give this one a chance; you just may walk away with a sore funny bone.

With the assistance of an enigmatic but self-absorbed, whacked out sex guru, Bjorg (Jemaine Clement, background), sexually starved married couple Bruno (Damon Herriman, left) and Laura (Jackie van Beek, right) look to spice things up in director Armağan Ballantyne’s second feature,  “Nûde Tuęsdäy” (“Nøken Tĩsdøĝ”). Photo courtesy of Madman Films.

“Nûde Tuęsdäy” deserves special recognition for its imaginative linguistics, using gibberish as the basis of the dialogue. To the ear, the “language” of the film sounds like an amalgam of various European tongues, most notably Dutch and Scandinavian dialects. But the humor behind this fabricated language comes out strongest in the subtitles, which are positively uproarious. The impact of their humor benefits tremendously from the split-second delay that comes between hearing the lines spoken and reading their content, providing an ongoing series of “aha!” moments as the translations appear on screen. Of course, it certainly helps that the subtitles are brilliantly written. Moreover, they play such a vital role in the character and success of the film that their writers have been deservedly given their own writing credits, something I’ve never before seen accorded to the creators of screen captions. According to director Ballantyne and actor-writer van Beek, the subtitle crew was given tremendous leeway in coming up with their material, and that unfettered creativity shows in the boundary-pushing result.

Incidentally, the use of gibberish in the film is so pervasive that it even turns up in the “lyrics” of cover versions of several musical numbers. Viewers are sure to chuckle when they hear the gibberish versions of songs like the Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere (itself a wryly fitting choice in light of the picture’s subject matter), the Zombies’ Time of the Season and the Phil Phillips romantic standard Sea of Love. Indeed, budding screenwriters and soundtrack composers could learn a lot from the innovation at work in this offering.

Finding this film may take a little effort, at least at the moment. It’s currently playing theatrically Down Under, and it’s showing up on the film festival circuit elsewhere. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a North American release come along at some point given the highly favorable response this picture has received from movie critics. That could go a long way toward eventually getting this worthwhile offering onto screens and/or streaming services in the US and Canada, something well worth waiting for.

“We have a failure to communicate” is frequently trotted out when situations calling for cooperation begin breaking down. How ironic it is that we’re often able to identify the source of this problem without being able to rectify the source of the trouble itself. And that’s where these matters can fall apart – and needlessly so. However, with some effort to better express ourselves and articulate the beliefs that underlie where we’re coming from, this so-called failure needn’t be an issue at all, and such an adjustment could help us to forestall difficulties in areas like our dreams, wishes, relationships and – dare I say it – sex lives. And, if that’s not something worth making an effort for, I don’t know what is.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

‘Endangered’ pinpoints threats to our freedoms

“Endangered” (2022). Cast: Sáshenka Gutiérrez, Carl Juste, Oliver Laughland, Patrícia Campos Mello, Joel Simon, Enrique Tarrio. Archive Footage: Omar Jimenez. Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Web site. Trailer.

The freedoms that a democracy enjoys depend heavily on having watchdogs on duty to protect and preserve those precious liberties. And, in many instances, that responsibility typically falls to the press, particularly one that has been imbued with the ability to operate freely and without interference. This is most notably true in the US, where the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees this right. It’s a principle that has consequently inspired media organizations in other countries, too, especially those located in nations where those outlets have had to struggle to do their jobs under the thumb of severe government scrutiny and restrictions. But now this institution has increasingly come under fire, threatening its existence and, by extension, much, much more, as the incisive new HBO documentary “Endangered” so poignantly illustrates.

Because of its sacred charge, journalism has long been regarded as a noble profession, particularly when its practitioners have performed stellar jobs in uncovering crime and corruption that threaten the public’s well-being, as was the case, for example, with the Washington Post investigation in exposing the Watergate scandal. It’s a profession that has typically been regarded in high esteem, especially for those who toil away at it for underwhelming recognition and often-substandard pay. But those who do this work generally feel compelled to forge ahead with it in order to get to the truth, a passion that transcends these measures of worth.

In recent years, however, that has all begun to change, for a variety of reasons. Declining revenues and the rising costs of doing business have caused many media outlets (especially newspapers) to close down or consolidate, leaving the public with fewer (or sometimes even no) such organizations in their geographic areas, as happened, for instance, in Youngstown, OH, with the closure of its daily newspaper, The Youngstown Vindicator. And, with fewer sources of news and information overall, that has meant less diversity and breadth in the coverage of everyday events, with some stories going completely unaddressed and others being presented with decidedly singular perspectives. Some media organizations have even pounced on these conditions as an opportunity to tinge their reporting with their own particular slants, be they left-leaning or right-wing, thereby intentionally skewing the principle of objectivity that’s supposed to be the media’s guiding mantra. This, in turn, has led to the proliferation of pontificating and even so-called “fake news.” It’s left the public increasingly wondering who to trust.

Given this shift, journalists are increasingly no longer looked upon in the same respected light that they once were. This has been exacerbated by the rampant polarization that has been simultaneously occurring in society at large, with many in the public gravitating to support media outlets that agree with their point of view and vociferously shunning those that do not. It’s as if the media are prompting the public to rally around those organizations that serve as echo chambers for their points of view in blind disregard for the accuracy of what’s being reported. This, needless to say, is not good for democracy.

Longtime Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste faces very different working conditions in the wake of a changing media market, as depicted in the new HBO documentary, “Endangered.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

“Endangered” shines a bright light on these troubling developments. In addition, it shows the increasingly difficult conditions under which journalists have been forced to work, including genuine threats to their livelihoods and personal safety. Public opinion of reporters has noticeably eroded, and many have faced increased harassment from authorities, as seen in archive footage from the on-air arrest of CNN journalist Omar Jimenez, who was escorted away by police simply for doing his job in covering a public protest. So much for the First Amendment.

The resources made available to journalists to do their work have also been scaled back. For example, photographer Carl Juste and his peers at The Miami Herald have had to learn how to get along without access to a news room, a significant adjustment for a major daily newspaper such as this. Imagine trying to do your job without a central location to confer with fellow professionals on matters essential to its execution, especially something as critical as getting out the news. Working remotely is one thing, as the post-pandemic world has shown us, but collaborating on this kind of team effort without the benefit of a central resource hub is something else entirely.

The decline in respect for reporters has also made it more difficult for journalists to cover their assignments. Sources such as government officials have resorted to practices like answering the questions they want to answer rather than answering the questions they’ve been asked, if not completely ignoring such inquiries entirely, an experience Oliver Laughland of the British newspaper The Guardian has undergone in his coverage of American politics. Such tactics aren’t exactly new, but they have become standard operating procedure to such a degree these days that it’s hard not only to get to the truth, but even to get to the gatekeepers of it.

These challenges have had a major impact on the coverage of some of the major news stories of recent years, as documented by frontline footage of these events, some of which has been incorporated in the film. Reporting on incidents like Black Lives Matter protests in response to the George Floyd killing, the handling of the COVID pandemic, the 2020 US presidential election and the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol has routinely been hampered by the presence of defiant anti-press demonstrators, aggressive special police forces, and extremist groups like the Proud Boys and their incendiary chairman, Enrique Tarrio. It’s almost enough to make the average citizen wonder why anyone would want to engage in a seemingly insane line of work like this.

Oliver Laughland, who covers American politics for the British newspaper The Guardian, often faces sources who intentionally stonewall him in his efforts to get the story, as seen in “Endangered,” the new HBO documentary about troubling shifts in the world of journalism. Photo courtesy of HBO.

These issues are by no means limited to the US, either. Such hindrances have long been in place in other countries, but the impediments on what journalists in those nations can do have been skyrocketing, with harassment and questionable detention becoming the norm for silencing them. Death threats, for example, have become routine against Mexican journalists like photographer Sáshenka Gutiérrez of the Spanish news organization Agencia EFE, who has been courageously covering protests about the country’s spiraling violence against women. Elsewhere, politicians like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have resorted to blatant retribution and outright libel to discredit reporters like Patrícia Campos Mello of the São Paolo newspaper Folha de S.Paolo for her scathing coverage of his corrupt campaign for office.

Such developments have made the work of activist organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that much harder. In daily phone conferences with reporters from around the world, from India to South Africa and everywhere in between, the organization has learned of growing atrocities committed against journalists. However, as now-former CPJ director Joel Simon explains in the film, these incidents reflect the need to remain diligent in the face of such outrageous tragedies. If we fail to act in the face of such growing violence and intimidation, it’s more than just journalists who stand to lose.

What’s perhaps most important in this is what we as a society have come to believe about the nature of the media, for our beliefs shape what unfolds, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents determines what ultimately manifests. This raises some important questions, such as how much value do we place on the continued existence of an unfettered, objective press? Do we really need it as a channel for covering stories that have meaningful impact on our daily lives and the health of our economics, politics and culture? Or is it something to which we devote little thought, perceiving it as merely an outlet for sports scores, weather forecasts and celebrity gossip? Think of what kind of world we would have if we believe in that last question. Where would our democracy be then?

Then there’s the question of media bias, another area affected by the impact of our beliefs. Do we really believe, for example, that the press should be nothing more than a source of parroting what we already think? Or do we want a fair and impartial institution that’s going to enlighten us to what we don’t know – and that could potentially affect us in negative ways? Are we truly that unconcerned and apathetic?

Mexican photojournalist Sáshenka Gutiérrez, who works for the Spanish media organization Agencia EFE, faces an uphill battle in documenting protests about violence against women, as seen in “Endangered,” the new film from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, now streaming on HBOMAX. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Bias also raises the matter of sensationalism and tabloidization, qualities that have been increasingly infiltrating the media for several decades, a topic that, unfortunately, is touched upon only by way of implication in the film. These aspects of the media shouldn’t be overlooked, however, as they, too, are driven by the beliefs we collectively hold about what we expect out of the press. In many ways, these characteristics have arisen out of our desire for media that reflect our views, again often of a polarized nature. The trumped-up dramatics associated with sensationalism and tabloidization are designed to get our attention and draw readers, listeners or viewers to those outlets that embody the exaggerated viewpoints they hold. And it’s another regrettable development in the evolution of the press as it has turned up the shrillness factor in the reporting of the news (if it can even be called that any more). The result is a loss of a reasoned perspective, something else that threatens the preservation of a fair, free, objective press (and, potentially, the freedoms it’s meant to help protect).

“Endangered” primarily focuses on what’s been happening (and likely could happen) in the mainstream press, a longstanding sizable segment of the media community. It depicts the efforts that such outlets have invested in covering the aforementioned major news stories, journalistic undertakings that chronicle the work of reporters who are still genuinely committed to doing their jobs in the time-honored tradition that has long characterized this institution. It’s indeed gratifying to see the film incorporate such material, for it provides a much-needed sense of balance given the increasing bashing that the mainstream press has been subjected to in recent years (and, in some cases, deservedly so, especially in instances where some media outlets have given in to sensationalism and tabloidization).

The news stories that the film has chosen to focus on generally show sincere efforts by the mainstream press in trying to cover them fairly, professionally and responsibly, though I feel that these media outlets got something of a pass when it comes to their reporting on the COVID crisis. What’s shown of that coverage here illustrates the same kind of sincere commitment that was employed in the reporting of the other news stories. But, sadly, the picture largely ignores much of what I believe was exaggerated, fear-mongering coverage that the mainstream press engaged in when reporting on the pandemic, one of the film’s disappointing aspects, in my view. Moreover, that oversight, from my perspective, illustrates just how insidious some of these emerging developments in the journalism community can be. If something so glaring as this can be essentially disregarded, then that means we’re losing sight of what’s going on in the media. The failure to address changes like these could potentially carry serious implications for us all – and not just in the press, but also in society at large.

Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello of the newspaper Folha de S.Paolo is the subject of harassment, retribution and libel orchestrated by President Jair Bolsonaro for her scathing coverage of his campaign for office, as depicted in the new HBO documentary, “Endangered.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

Considering the immense scope of this subject, it’s admittedly difficult to devote coverage to all of the issues involved in a single film. Among those that receive little or no attention are the rise of corporate influence and agendas on media organizations, the impact of consolidation of media outlets in fewer hands, the rise of alternative media (and the dual-edged sword it represents), and the emergence of media celebrities versus true journalists. Like the aforementioned issues, these developments all have potential impact on what is and what might happen to the press. They merit scrutiny, not only in terms of what manifests, but also in terms of what we expect from them, something that’s a direct result of what we believe the press is supposed to do in providing us with information and in living up to its responsibility as a valiant guardian of the liberties of our society. How will it turn out? A lot depends on us and the value we place on these considerations. To see what transpires, stay tuned – while we still have the opportunity to do so.

Being a journalist isn’t what it used to be, as directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady clearly show in this compelling new documentary. The filmmakers present an unflinching look at what media professionals are increasingly up against in simply doing their jobs and what we all stand to lose if the Fourth Estate is allowed to be further compromised. The compilation of frontline footage of major news stories and the experiences of the four featured journalists paint a distressing picture for the future of this once-noble profession, something not to be overlooked or ignored. To be sure, some of the material could stand to be better organized and more fully developed, and the film’s use of split screen imagery definitely should have been scaled back. However, as a college-trained journalist who worked in the field for years, I find it sad to see what’s become of the profession I so loved – and disheartening to witness how little most of society cares about its decline. Let’s hope this film educates us to this issue so that we don’t live to regret it. The film is available for streaming on HBOMAX and other online platforms.

A longtime fellow journalist and friend of mine wryly observed not long ago that “We no longer have journalism anymore; we have ‘media’ instead.” How profound and incisive those words have unfortunately become. In a society where newspapers, for instance, have come to be regarded more for their value as packing material than as sources of vital news and information, it’s troubling to think about where we might well be headed. Indeed, I’d assert that the value of a free and fair press is essential to the health and well-being of society. But I’d like to take things a step further. While there should be no doubt that the media have an obligation to fulfill the public’s right to know, there should be a corresponding responsibility on the part of the public to ensure this institution’s continued right to exist. To do any less runs the risk of following a truly perilous course, one from which there may be no return.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Dangers of Rivalry on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday July 12, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

‘Official Competition’ wrangles with rivalry, self-deception

“Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”) (2022). Cast: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez, José Luis Gómez, Manolo Solo, Nagore Aramburu, Irene Escolar, Pilar Castro, Koldo Olabarri, Juan Grandinetti. Directors: Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. Screenplay: Mariano Cohn, Andrés Duprat and Gastón Duprat. Web site. Trailer.

To thine own self be true. It’s solid, sage advice we’d all be wise to heed, especially if we lose sight of it and fall prey to the perils of self-deception, something that can get us into trouble with both ourselves and others. Yet it’s astounding how often we ignore this wisdom and stray off into dangerous territory, full of pitfalls with serious consequences. Such is the case with a trio of self-important rivals struggling to work together on the same project, as seen in the wickedly funny new Spanish dark comedy, “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”).

Aging pharmaceutical company executive Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) knows that his remaining days are numbered. At age 80, he waxes philosophically about his life, musing particularly about how he wants to be remembered. He’s eager to be thought of as someone who contributed more to life than just becoming a wealthy capitalist. He believes it’s important to leave a meaningful legacy, and so, with his trusty aide, Matías (Manolo Solo), he mulls over some ideas. Perhaps he could do something to benefit the public, like finance the construction of a bridge, one that would ultimately bear his name for his selfless generosity. But then he decides that’s not lofty enough. Instead, he conjectures, maybe he should do something in the arts, like bankroll a film, a project that would undeniably elevate his profile. And so, with that in mind, he sets out to become a movie producer, an undertaking sure to cement his reputation as an esteemed patron of the arts.

After a lengthy and expensive negotiation to acquire the movie rights to a popular and well-respected novel, Humberto and Matías begin assembling a team to make the picture. Heading up the venture is iconic arthouse filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), an enigmatic artiste who has developed a reputation as one of the most revered and sought-after, if somewhat inscrutable, directors in the business. When the flamboyant auteur meets with Humberto, she lays out her vision for the project, one that captivates her benefactor the more she tells him about it, especially when he acknowledges that he hasn’t read the book on which the film is based. She then discusses her plans for casting the movie’s two fraternal protagonists, a pairing consisting of actors Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez). This duo that has never worked together before, but, as two of the hottest and most distinguished actors in the industry, she’s convinced they’re perfect to play the lead roles.

Sitting under a suspended enormous boulder is one of many “bonding” exercises to which iconic director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, standing) subjects cast members Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, left) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, right) in preparation for filming her new movie, as seen in the new Spanish dark comedy, “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”). Photo courtesy of AccuSoft Inc. and IFC Films.

Lola believes Félix and Iván are ideal to play the parts of two rival brothers, in large part because they have different temperaments that suit them perfectly to portray these characters., who are likewise opposite in temperament. However, she doesn’t quite realize how significantly those differences will impinge on their working relationship with one another. Félix is a big, popular movie star, while Iván is a serious actor. Félix relishes attention and unhesitatingly leaps into the limelight, while Iván eschews the rewards of fame and willingly shuns anything that might cheapen the caliber of his work. These polar opposite qualities make for a pairing that is undoubtedly destined to clash – and even more so than the roles themselves call for. And, as rehearsals play out, the conflict between the two actors becomes ever more apparent as they constantly try to one-up one another.

Of course, Lola is not without the means to counteract this rivalry. In fact, some of her methods for shaping the personas of her characters are so bizarre and outrageous that they routinely baffle – if not frustrate and infuriate – her cast members, giving them, in an oddly backhanded way, a point of common interest. This may not be Lola’s primary intent in implementing these practices and exercises, as she believes they’re integral elements of her artistic process. But, if they help to keep Félix and Iván in line and get her the results she wants, she’s not going to protest, either.

And so the process begins – and what an unusual one it is. The film takes viewers through a series of hilarious scenarios where the true natures of these three egocentric personalities come to the fore. Lola presents herself as an allegedly erudite creative who regularly employs cryptic tactics to hone her craft, mold her cast, express herself and pontificate about the essence of art, unaware that much of what she says amounts to vacuous nonsense. Félix comes across as a brazen, self-serving, self-absorbed show-off who likes to believe that he’s capable of doing work better than what he has typically done but who also doesn’t hesitate to set aside that ambition if he can get his needs for fame, money and sex fulfilled more expediently via available shortcuts. And Iván personifies (or so he thinks) the notion that he’s an impeccably serious thespian who doesn’t need all of the trappings of success – and would even go so far as to self-righteously turn down well-earned accolades – if that’s what it takes to preserve such a noble reputation (despite the fact that he secretly craves all of those perks and honors that have repeatedly eluded him). Together they embark on an array of bits that shine a bright light on their true colors, their dysfunctional relationships with one another, and a host of other incidents that skewer the often-self-important character of the arthouse cinema and film festival communities.

Eccentric auteur Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) seeks to ground herself through unusual personal exercises in the new Spanish dark comedy, “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”), now playing in theaters. Photo by Manolo Pavon, courtesy of IFC Films.

And what’s Humberto to make of all this? Well, he has the “privilege” of sitting back and watching how his investment plays out. He’s often stunned by what he sees, such as when he arranges for his daughter, Diana (Irene Escolar), to be cast in a supporting role in the picture, an experience that proves to be eye-opening in more ways than one. But, then, that comes with the territory with this picture, one whose dark humor and satirical narrative tickle the funny bone in myriad sidesplitting ways.

Oh, to be a revered film industry artist! It affords so many opportunities for meaningful creative expression – even if one is full of oneself, as is the case with the trio of collaborators on this new movie project. Lola, Félix and Iván genuinely believe in the veracity of whom they think they are and what they embody as unquestionable, bona fide talents, when, in fact, they are better characterized as the epitome of self-importance and pomposity. It’s unfortunate that they cling to such false views of themselves, given that they all probably possess a modicum of innate talent somewhere deep down inside themselves. The question here, though, is how sincerely do they represent what abilities they actually have? Indeed, are they being authentic or merely posing?

Based on what they’re showing here, it’s arguably more of the latter than the former. Nevertheless, they’re able to get away with this so convincingly because they’ve bought into beliefs about themselves so thoroughly that they have enabled themselves to successfully come across the way they do in the eyes of others. This is the result of the conscious creation process at work, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Their “acts” are so well-rehearsed that virtually no one questions them; onlookers perceive them as fully clothed emperors. And, to their benefit, Lola, Félix and Iván get away with it, even with someone as savvy as Humberto.

Filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, right) puts actor Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, left) through his paces in preparation for filming a new movie, as seen in “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”), the new Spanish dark comedy from directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. Photo by Manolo Pavon, courtesy of IFC Films.

Audience members of this film, however, are unlikely to see them in the same way as other characters in the picture do.  That’s because viewers are armed with the power of discernment, which enables them to cut through the clutter and camouflage to see the posers for who they truly are. While members of the entertainment industry press, fans of the characters’ films and even Señor Suárez are unable to pierce the obvious artifice, those watching from the comfort of their theater seats or home living rooms can tell right away that they’re being bombarded with carefully crafted piles of bull. It’s indeed a shame that the others can’t do the same. They’re apparently willing to accept what’s being fed them without question. Even Humberto, who has a sizeable financial stake involved here, is content to accept what they say and do at face value, without hesitation.

Because of this charade, Lola, Félix and Iván run the risk of being caught at some point. They have been engaged in their behavior for so long that they no longer even recognize it, having become second nature to them. As long as it gets them what they want, that’s all that matters, regardless of the unforeseen consequences, unintended side effects or lack of self-awareness, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. At times, though, achieving the desired results may be more difficult than expected, at which point they may have to willfully employ these kinds of tactics, even on one another, something they do repeatedly as their story unfolds. That’s verging on potentially disastrous turf. Healthy competition is one thing, but what could potentially happen here is something else entirely.

In the long run, the trio might actually find that they needn’t engage in such calculated bluster or deception. By tapping into their sense of personal integrity and overcoming their penchant for self-deception, they increase the chances of being true to themselves, particularly in the manifestations they seek to create. This would require them to examine their beliefs (especially those related to self-absorption) to set them on a new path, but that’s not impossible, given that such notions can be quite malleable and open to alteration. As creative types, this should come quite readily to them, too, given their inherent ability to envision new possibilities. After all, if they can do that in front of a movie camera, they should be able to do it in everyday life as well.

Actors Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, left) and Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, right) get wrapped up in their work – literally – by filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, standing) in preparation for her new movie project in “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”). Photo by Manolo Pavon, courtesy of IFC Films.

Of course, bringing this about would also require Lola, Félix and Iván to take responsibility for their intentions and actions. And, given that they’ve long ducked this obligation, doing so could prove challenging. Are they up to the task? That’s hard to say, especially when faced with incidents when it’s called for, as happens at a critical juncture in the film. How will that unfold? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

As Lola, Félix and Iván are thrown together for this project, they seek fulfillment in their respective milieus, even if it means stepping on one another’s toes and pulling scams to achieve their desired ends. And, as they go about this, viewers are treated to the principals’ innocuous, pseudo-profound wisdom about creativity, life, humility and hubris. Writer-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, along with screenplay colleague Andrés Duprat, have cooked up a deliciously wicked dark comedy/satire that skewers the movie industry with wry, hilarious wit and sight gags, splendidly played out by Cruz, Banderas and Martínez, all of whom turn in some of their best-ever work here. The masterfully written script delivers the goods with perfect understatement and just enough believable insincerity yet raucously nasty bits to make everything work just about perfectly. There’s a slight tendency for the pacing to drag at the outset, but, in light of everything else it offers, who cares? For those who enjoy their comedy with a sharp edge accompanied by hefty doses of unbridled comeuppance, this theatrical offering is for you.

Most of us would probably agree that there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition. But, when jealousy, rivalry and self-deception become caught up in the mix, we’re asking for trouble, and it’s a development to which we’re often blinded by the foregoing. This may not be much of an issue in seemingly innocent circumstances, but it can easily become devastating when the stakes rise and the competition morphs into something wholly unhealthy. Lola, Félix and Iván unwittingly provide us with a noteworthy cautionary tale on this score, one to which we’d be wise to pay attention.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.