Thursday, September 29, 2022

New Movies with Meaning on Frankiesense & More!

Join yours truly, Good Media Network Movie Correspondent, and podcast show host Frankie Picasso for five new movie reviews on the next Movies with Meaning edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing on Thursday September 29 at 1 pm ET, will also feature a recap of “How We Spent Our Summer Vacation,” a quick look at new releases we watched while we had our feet up on the beach sipping margaritas. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "McEnroe," "The Good Boss" and "Olga," along with three film festival previews and first look at a podcast, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

‘Olga’ spotlights the essential power of choice

“Olga” (2021 production, 2022 release). Cast: Anastasia Budiashkina, Tanya Mikhina, Sabrina Rubtsova, Caterina Barloggio, Théa Brogli, Alicia Onomor, Lou Steffen, Jérôme Martin, Alexander Mavrits, Roger Jendly. Director: Elie Grappe. Screenplay: Raphaëlle Desplechin and Elie Grappe. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us face times when we’re presented with seemingly impossible decisions. The choices open to us may appear fundamentally unpleasant across the board, or they may give us options that have both upsides and downsides that might tend to cancel one another out. These conditions can make it difficult for us to know what to do, potentially leaving us locked in a state of stalemate. However, that need not be the case if we can hold on to our awareness of our innate power of choice, a capability showcased in the new political thriller/sports drama, “Olga.”

Gymnast Olga Budiashkina (Anastasia Budiashkina) is torn. The 15-year-old daughter of a Swiss father and Ukrainian mother has spent her life in Kyiv, training and competing in events in her homeland. Over the years, she’s become a big deal in gymnastics circles, but, if she wants to live up to her potential, she needs to find better coaching and training facilities to help her develop, resources available in Switzerland. And, given her parentage, she’d qualify to train with and compete for that country’s national team, but that would also mean she’d need to relocate – and become a Swiss citizen. She would have to renounce her Ukrainian citizenship, because the country does not recognize dual affiliations. It’s a tough decision for someone so young, but there are other considerations as well.

For starters, it’s 2013, and Ukraine is in a period of internal turmoil. Even though the now-independent country is no longer under the thumb of Soviet rule, its leadership is nevertheless beholden to the nation’s strong-arm Russian neighbors, who are seeking to exercise undue influence in Ukraine’s affairs, especially in its economy, which has become rife with corruption. It’s a tense time in light of a growing opposition movement, which has become a frequent target of those who have something to lose. The criminal element routinely seeks to manipulate and inflict brutal retaliation against anyone who poses a challenge. That includes Olga’s mother, Ilona (Tanya Mikhina), an investigative reporter seeking to expose the racketeers, circumstances that threaten not only her, but also her daughter.

What’s more, relocating to Switzerland would represent a huge change for Olga. It would mean having to leave behind both her mother and her friends, like fellow gymnast Sasha Robtsova (Sabrina Robtsova), a spitfire competitor and an outspoken supporter of the opposition, at a time of rising upheaval at home. Such a change would also require her to learn a new language and culture and to attempt to forge new relationships with new colleagues (many of them gymnastic teammates suspicious of the outsider’s arrival), as well as relatives she’s never met before. That’s a lot to take in on top of the rigorous training she’d undergo in preparation for the upcoming 2014 European gymnastics championship in Stuttgart, Germany. But, if Olga wants to become a stand-out at that competition and be taken seriously as a viable candidate for the 2016 Olympic team, she’ll need to make the sacrifice to help prepare her for that destiny.

Gymnast Olga Budiashkina (Anastasia Budiashkina, foreground) loves her teammates and loves to compete but faces pressures most of us could barely handle, as seen in the thrilling new sports drama, “Olga.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Once in Switzerland, Olga begins working on her adjustment. It isn’t always easy, though: She must get used to speaking French instead of Russian; she has to adapt to the training regimen of a new coach (Jérôme Martin); she struggles to become acquainted with teammates (Caterina Barloggio, Théa Brogli, Alicia Onomor, Lou Steffen) who don’t always have her best interests at heart; and she’s perplexed by some of the ways of unknown relatives, such as her inexplicably ornery grandfather (Roger Jendly). But that’s just the start of it.

Olga’s biggest test comes when the Maidan Uprising begins in Kyiv’s Independence Square in November 2013. The protests, which begin when the Ukrainian government chooses to abandon its plan to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement in favor of even closer ties with Russia, quickly leads to an ongoing string of violent street protests. And, before long, the Uprising soon expands its scope, calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and an end to human rights violations. The tension has everyone on edge – and not just in Ukraine.

Despite being located hundreds of miles away, Olga is far from unaffected by the conflict. She worries about the well-being of her mother, who aggressively continues with her reporting, now from on the ground in Independence Square itself. She’s also fearful about Sasha’s safety, who has taken to the streets to join in the protests. She’s livid when she learns that her former coach (Alexander Mavrits) has abandoned the Ukrainian team in favor of a more lucrative position training Russian gymnasts. And, to complicate all of this, these developments emerge just as she’s approaching the European gymnastics championship.

This all prompts a major decision for Olga: Should she follow through on her plan to compete in the tournament she’s been so diligently training for, or should she return to Ukraine to join the fight and be with her people, most notably those she’s closest to? That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, but that’s especially true for an adolescent with big expectations placed on her shoulders (and much of it of her own making). It remains to be seen how matters will unfold, particularly when additional developments arise making the decision even more difficult. Suddenly even the most challenging piece of gymnastics apparatus doesn’t seem nearly as daunting.

The rigors of training are a big challenge for gymnasts, but, for those competing under the political conditions in Ukraine in 2013, they’re just the beginning, as seen in director Ellie Grappe’s thrilling new sports drama, “Olga.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Clearly, Olga has a tough choice to make, with benefits and drawbacks associated with each option. For example, if she returns home, she can join the fight, support a noble cause, and be with her mother and friend, but she also risks life and limb, as well as her future, in doing so. On the other hand, if she stays in Switzerland, she can continue to train and compete, potentially earning accolades and opening up opportunities for the future, despite running the risk of being branded a self-serving coward by those back in Ukraine. Which is the better choice? Of course, only Olga can decide, but how does she go about that given the extraordinary circumstances involved and her limited life experience?

Regardless of which path she chooses, Olga should remain cognizant of the fact that she inherently possesses the power of choice, a power that’s always at her disposal, even if there are complications involved that make coming to a decision difficult. And the one clue that can help her sort out what to do rests with examining her beliefs, the foundation underlying how her existence unfolds. This is the outcome of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we employ the power of these intangible resources in shaping the nature of our reality, for better or worse. Like all of us, Olga can draw upon this school of thought in helping her to decide which path to follow, even if this practice comes with innate challenges that make identifying which option to pursue more than a little dicey.

In assessing those beliefs, it’s imperative to be honest with ourselves to identify exactly what they are. This, in turn, calls for drawing on our sense of personal integrity, as well as our ability to clear away any belief clutter or camouflage that might obscure our vision and keep us from seeing the truth. This can be challenging if we’re having to wrestle with conflicting or contradictory beliefs, as well as notions driven by fear, doubt or limitation, all of which can dilute our views and prevent us from isolating the essential beliefs we need to identify. What’s more, we may find that our beliefs might not seem to make rational sense, causing us to question the accuracy of our assessment of them.

So what are we to do in situations like this? If we’re able to successfully whittle away the flotsam and reveal the beliefs associated with our true selves, we should have faith in what we come upon, not to mention the process that helped us get there. Instilling this kind of conviction in ourselves goes a long way in making and embracing the choice we need to implement. Doing so will enable us to see the validity behind these beliefs and the decision that accompanies them, and it significantly increases the likelihood of attaining an outcome that suits us best, both for ourselves and anyone else who might be affected by our actions.

The weight on the shoulders of 15-year-old gymnast Olga Budiashkina (Anastasia Budiashkina) is nothing to be envied, as seen in the engaging new sports drama, “Olga,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

This might sound like an exercise in mental and metaphysical gymnastics (no pun intended), but, given Olga’s ability to focus, concentrate and channel her energies into such grand undertakings, she’s eminently capable of doing the same when it comes to making the right choice, even if she doesn’t possess a wealth of experience in matters like this. Putting the foregoing process into place can thus bring her (and us, for that matter) a step closer to the destiny she (and we) are meant to live out. For someone like Olga, who has so many factors to consider and ultimately so much at stake both personally and vocationally, this consideration is especially crucial. With what’s on the line, she must proceed diligently, concertedly and forthrightly under circumstances like these to optimize the results she seeks to achieve. To do less could yield outcomes filled with frustration, disappointment, ridicule and even devastation, so getting her priorities straight is essential. In cases like this, let’s hope that Olga – and we – are up to the task.

What’s one to do when caught between the fulfillment of personal achievement or taking a stand for a larger cause? Such is the conundrum for the talented 15-year-old protagonist in writer-director Elie Grappe’s debut feature, a gripping tale that walks a perilous, tension-filled tightrope in telling a taut, compelling story that successfully fuses the political thriller and sports drama genres. The superb lead performance by former Ukrainian gymnast Anastasia Budiashkina is a real stand-out, successfully capturing the pressure, indecision and overwhelming emotion of someone who must rise to the occasion of everything she faces without collapsing under the weight of it all. Admittedly, there are a few under-explained gaps in the narrative that detract from the flow of the story, and some of the atmospheric cinematography definitely could have been improved upon with simple lighting adjustments. However, when it comes to the elements that matter most, it’s easy to see how this offering captured the SACD Prize at the 2021 Cannes Critics’ Week along with nominations for the film festival’s Golden Camera Award and Critics’ Week Grand Prize. “Olga” may not have attracted a lot of attention in its initial theatrical release, but it definitely deserves to do so now that it’s available for streaming online.

The power of choice is an innate birthright that we all possess, even if we don’t always recognize it as such. When faced with a difficult decision, it may seem like too much to handle, one that frequently prompts us to pivot into surrendering, proclaiming “I didn’t have a choice in the matter.” And, given the adversity in these situations, prevailing conditions may indeed make us feel that way. But, before we abandon hope, we should pause, breathe and take stock of the circumstances, after which we should strive to remember our fundamental capability to choose, no matter how arduous doing so may be, for it just might provide us with the insight we need. If we lose sight of that, there may be no turning back. But, if we hold onto it, even in the darkest of times, we just might come out of these scenarios with an answer that addresses all of our questions and provides us with the resolution we require.

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

Monday, September 26, 2022

Battling Perfectionism on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday September 27, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

‘The Good Boss’ wrestles with questions of integrity

“The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”) (2021 production, 2022 release). Cast: Javier Bardem, Manolo Solo, Almudena Amor, Óscar de la Fuente, Sonia Almarcha, Fernando Albizu, Tarik Rmili, Rafa Castejón, Celso Bugalla, Martín Páez, Mara Guil, Yael Belicha, Nao Albet, Francesc Orella, Daniel Chamarro, María de Nati, Eva Rubio, Dalit Streett Tejeda, Nicolás Ruiz. Director: Fernando León de Aranoa. Screenplay: Fernando León de Aranoa. Web site. Trailer.

Nobody wants to look bad. So we frequently go to great lengths when it comes to making a good impression, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what happens when we start crossing lines that, in an attempt to preserve our image, begin negatively affecting others? How can we legitimately justify such actions, despite whatever intent might be behind them? Those are the questions raised in the new satirical Spanish dark comedy, “The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”).

For Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem), image is everything. As the owner of Basculas Blanco, a Spanish manufacturer of precision industrial scales that has been in his family for years, he oversees an operation that he views as one big happy family. He’s the proud “parent” of a staff of “children” whose welfare he cares about deeply (or at least so he says, particularly if he can milk good publicity mileage out of such claims and resulting impressions).

In looking after the well-being of his employees, Blanco gets involved – really involved – in their affairs, be they personal or work-related. But what some might view as concern others are likely to see as meddling – and intrusively so. He tries to come across as profoundly well meaning when, in fact, much of what he does is aimed at trying to preserve the image he has so carefully crafted for the company, an appearance that he hopes will translate into good PR for the business.

That’s especially important to him now that Basculas Blanco has been named one of three finalists in the running for a prestigious regional business award. As a company that has won many such honors over the years, Blanco wants to do everything he can to capture this latest prize. And, to help ensure that, he’s fixated on creating the proper public impression for the operation, one that he believes is essential to winning over the judges. So, in addition to giving his usual highly visible pep talks to the staff and courting favorable media coverage, he also ramps up his efforts to see that his employees’ needs are attended to – and that anything potentially damaging to the firm’s reputation be squelched, regardless of whether those issues are of a public or private nature.

In the run-up to the judges’ evaluation visit to the company’s headquarters, several employee-related matters arise that Blanco tries to tamp down before they grow into full-blown crises. In the week leading up to the judges’ appraisal, Blanco finds himself intervening in the following scenarios:

Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem, left), owner of Basculas Blanco, a Spanish manufacturer of precision industrial scales, walks the factory with Rubio (Rafa Castejón, right), his trusty aide, in the new business world satire, “The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”). Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
  • Blanco’s childhood friend and longtime production manager, Miralles (Manolo Solo), has been fouling up repeatedly of late, creating major problems for the assembly and delivery of product to the company’s customers. He promises to get better, but the situation doesn’t improve, so Blanco decides to get involved. When questioning his compadre and colleague, he learns that Miralles has become seriously distracted. He believes that his wife, Aurora (Mara Guil), is having an affair, and this suspicion is affecting his job performance. Blanco thus teams up with
  • Miralles in setting up an undercover spying operation to discover the truth and even goes so far as to visit Aurora at her job to talk to her about her husband’s hunch, a decision that doesn’t go over well with her. It also unearths some additional revelations that further complicate the situation, making Blanco’s involvement even more problematic, both in his attempts to resolve the issue and in the nature of his relationship with his old friend and associate.
  • Meanwhile, Miralles’s work performance issues are having a ripple effect in other parts of the operation, most notably those supervised by one of the floor managers, Khaled (Tarik Rmili), one of Blanco’s immigrant employees. The mistakes are causing growing friction between the two staffers, especially when Miralles imposes himself on Khaled’s efforts at correcting his colleague’s errors. At this point, however, little does Miralles understand just how strained his relations with Tarik are about to become.
  • It’s never easy letting go of an employee, but Blanco tries to make the process as painless as possible. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the dismissal of one of the members of Blanco’s accounting staff, José (Óscar de la Fuente). He’s distraught when he gets the news, because it’s an added burden to his already-strained domestic situation. But, since José is no longer part of the “family,” Blanco feels his former employee is no longer his responsibility. This outlook backfires on the boss, especially when José refuses to go quietly. He sets up a makeshift encampment on a piece of property across the road from the factory, where he relentlessly heckles his former employer with a bullhorn and a colorful assortment of homemade derogatory placards, frequently with his two young children (Nicolás Ruiz, Eva Rubio) in tow. Blanco tries to have authorities remove the protestor, but, since he’s encamped on land not owned by the company, there’s little they can do. Blanco also appeals to his front gate security guard, Román (Fernando Albizu), for assistance, but the buffoonish lout often ends up unwittingly siding with the picketer, often for ridiculous reasons. This is obviously an intolerable situation that won’t go away on its own (and one that Blanco can’t bear for the judges to see), so it soon becomes apparent that more drastic measures are necessary to resolve matters. But will they truly resolve things?
  • In an effort to help new arrivals feel comfortable on the job, Blanco often takes a personal interest in making them feel welcome. That’s especially true with the female interns (particularly those who are young, attractive and eager to make a name for themselves in the company). It’s apparently a long-standing practice with Blanco, one that’s been revived yet again with the arrival of Liliana (Almudena Amor), a new staffer in the marketing department. Blanco’s interest quickly goes beyond just being a good boss. But his personal touch this time carries unforeseen consequences that have serious ramifications, particularly if he wants to avoid making waves that could cost the company its coveted award. Indeed, if one truly wants to be a good boss, it’s best to keep one’s hand out of the cookie jar.

And, with all that in place, Blanco now has a plate that’s become fuller than he probably ever envisioned. Can he pull everything out of the fire successfully and in time? If so, will he be able to avoid any embarrassing or inconvenient fallout? And will he win the award he so craves? He’ll need to be a really good boss if he hopes that all of that will happen.

Liliana (Almudena Amor), a new staffer in the marketing department of Basculas Blanco, a Spanish manufacturer of precision industrial scales, is made to feel more than welcome in the organization by the company’s “concerned” owner in writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest, “The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”). Photo courtesy of TriPictures.

Of course, being a really good boss depends greatly on one’s degree of personal integrity, something that’s questionable at best where Blanco is concerned. To his credit, he’s a great actor when it comes to presenting himself as someone who has ample reserves of integrity to draw upon. But his words and deeds don’t always align; he acts on what best serves his own interests, and, if others benefit from such gestures, so be it. What ultimately matters most, though, is how things turn out for him in the end.

That approach is borne out of Blanco’s beliefs, what he draws from in manifesting the existence he experiences. This is the product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains this is how our reality comes into being, a direct reflection of what each of us believes deep down inside. However, to bring about what we want – or what we think we want – we need to have a good handle on exactly what those beliefs are. If our assessment is off or if we try to fudge our beliefs to manipulate our reality into existence, we’re potentially setting ourselves up for trouble.

This is where the importance of integrity comes into play. In many regards, integrity is a core belief, one upon which all of our other intentions rest. If this component is missing or “adjusted” to meet certain ends, the beliefs that depend on it for their fulfillment have the potential to become comparably compromised, putting the materialization of our hoped-for creations in jeopardy. Indeed, if we want our beliefs to bear fruit as intended, we must have an unfettered sense of personal integrity in place, both where we and others are concerned. To do less is playing a loaded game of roulette, something that Blanco must contend with as his story unfolds.

Blanco gets himself into trouble here by blindly doing whatever he believes is necessary to achieve the outcome he desires. On the surface, that may sound ambitious, even admirable. However, when carrying out that mission involves veering into questionable territory, the possibility of encountering unexpected consequences or side effects enters the picture, potentially growing ever more problematic the more he detours from an integrity-based course. And, try as he might to set things right by coming up with increasingly jerry-rigged solutions, the further he strays from staying on track. In a bid to win the award he so ravenously covets, he continually sinks further into a morass of metaphysical quicksand from which escape grows ever less likely.

If you doubt that, consider the fallout that emerges out of each of the aforementioned scenarios: His relationship with Miralles suffers, potentially undoing personal and professional connections that have taken a lifetime to forge; once-harmonious working relationships on the floor of the Blanco plant deteriorate, creating chaos in a business whose inherent mission is achieving precision; interfering in Adela’s boutique strains his marriage and potentially undermines the operations of her business; and efforts aimed at silencing a disgruntled employee get ever more out of hand, leading to “solutions” with wider and more serious consequences. Then there’s Blanco’s self-serving personal ambitions with Liliana, acts of self-sabotage with the potential to ruin his life on so many fronts; it’s a venture he foolishly believes he can get away with free of complications as long as he applies enough finesse and tends to her needs. Where is the integrity in any of that?

The upshot of all this is that Blanco’s in line for a hefty dose of comeuppance, even if, ironically enough, he stands to get his way. Acts of un-conscious creation or creation by default like these don’t automatically cancel out achieving our goal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with all sorts of qualifications or caveats. This, however, may be almost as problematic (if not more so) than not getting what we want. We should consider that as we move forward with our plans as well. As the old saying goes, sometimes getting what we want is just as bad as not getting what we want.

In an attempt to create a company that feels like “one big happy family,” Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem, left), owner of Basculas Blanco, a Spanish manufacturer of precision industrial scales, routinely seeks to foster a sense of camaraderie among his workers, as seen in “The Good Boss” (“El buen patrón”). Photo courtesy of TriPictures.

It should also be noted that the foregoing notions are not only applicable to individuals like Blanco, but also to organizations. In that sense, then, “The Good Boss” is as much a satirical treatise about the ways of the business world as it is about the buffoonery of a specific CEO. Companies may be collective entities, but their operations are governed by individuals who work together in agreement to achieve certain goals, all of which are, again, belief-based. And, like people, they’re just as capable of carrying out their initiatives in the same way as individuals do once they reach consensus on their intents. This includes bending the rules on their sense of integrity when they believe it best suits them in fulfilling their objectives. Given the power that these entities wield, the implications of such ventures can be far more wide-reaching, too, potentially having seriously negative consequences for a broad range of affected parties. This narrative thus serves up a powerful cautionary tale, not just to those implementing these measures, but also to those who could be impacted by them once in place.

It's ironic, too, that this all takes place in a company that manufactures scales, devices whose innate intent is to achieve balance. From what’s going on here, balance is a trait that’s notably lacking, just as it is in many businesses, regardless of what they make or what service they provide. While some might say this aspect of the narrative is a little too on the nose, it nevertheless helps to drive home the point of the film. We can only hope that the business world and those who make its decisions are paying attention if they know what’s good for them – and us.

It might appear comforting that there are still companies out there that genuinely care about the welfare of their employees, treating them like members of a big, loving family. But we must also be on guard that looks can be deceiving in this regard, both to us and to those in the driver’s seat. Writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest serves up a biting satire about the business world and the extremes to which companies will go to present squeaky clean, politically correct portraits of themselves to an easily gullible public, tactfully burying the compromises and questionable tactics they often must employ in realizing that goal. This offering is a perfect vehicle for Javier Bardem as the oily protagonist, playing the part with just the right amount of insincerity to be convincing without looking cartoonish, in a role backed by a superb ensemble of supporting characters. It’s regrettable that the picture gets off to a painfully slow start during much of the first hour, but the film more than makes up for this shortcoming in the second half, turning wickedly funny and occasionally disquieting in the end run. Be patient with this one, giving it ample time to develop; you won’t be disappointed with the payoff.

“The Good Boss” has been showered with honors and nominations at film festivals and in early awards season competitions thus far, achieving 30 wins on 50 nominations, many of them for Bardem’s outstanding lead performance. Look for more to follow as awards season heats up. Catch the film in theaters, where it’s currently playing, while you have the chance.

Bosses have traditionally been people we’re supposed to look up to. However, in recent times, they’ve often been the subject of justified ridicule due to their questionable, self-serving behavior, all the while trying to portray themselves as pinnacles of honesty, sincerity and compassion. And, oddly enough, many don’t learn from the examples set by their scandalized peers, continuing to carry on until caught, believing themselves to be hermetically insulated against criticism and allegations of wrongdoing or unethical behavior. So, with that in mind, “The Good Boss” should serve as a wake-up call to them (or to anyone purposely seeking to act deceptively) when it comes to matters such as those depicted here. Failing to do so could result in having to pay a high price, one greater than any award might afford.  

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

‘McEnroe’ surveys the perils of perfectionism

“McEnroe” (2022). Cast: Interviews, Voiceovers and Current Footage: John McEnroe, Patty Smyth, Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Chrissie Hynde, Keith Richards, Peter Fleming, Phil Knight, Mark McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe, Kevin McEnroe, Emily McEnroe, Ava McEnroe, Anna McEnroe, Ruby Smyth Meyers-McEnroe, James “Jimbo” Malhane. Archive Footage, Photos and Voiceovers: John McEnroe Sr., Kay McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, Ilie Nästase, Ivan Lendl, Arthur Ashe, Bud Collins, Tatum O’Neal, Ryan O’Neal, Carlos Santana, Meat Loaf, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Dick Clark, Margaret Thatcher, John Chancellor, David Hartman, Diane Sawyer, Howard Cosell, Tom Brokaw, Sean McEnroe. Director: Barney Douglas. Screenplay: Barney Douglas. Web site. Trailer.

When we think about sports, we usually tend to consider the game in question and the competition involved. Yet rarely do we think about the participants engaged in such contests – the individuals who are taking part and what drives them to compete. Considering the dynamics of these scenarios, there are often powerful motivations at work, mindsets reflective of the drives, aims and goals of the competitors, and they play a role just as vital as the athletic skills involved. But which beliefs serve them best – or, alternatively, worst? Those are among the questions addressed in a profile of an iconic tennis legend, the new sports documentary, “McEnroe.”

Despite not being able to recall a time when he didn’t play tennis, John McEnroe says he never had much interest in participating in the sport when he was young, strange as that may sound. He lived only a block away from a tennis club in his childhood neighborhood of the Douglaston section of Queens, New York, so he could conceivably hit the courts just about any time he wanted. However, it wasn’t until something significant happened when that changed. In the early to mid 1970s, tennis became the fastest growing sport in America, and its leading players, like Jimmy Connors and Björn Borg, were looked on in the same light as rock stars. McEnroe became intrigued by that and wanted to be a part of it. And, given his penchant for wanting to be the best at whatever he did, he threw himself into the game, seeking to become a superstar in his own right.

As fate would have it, McEnroe’s ambition was fulfilled and rather quickly at that. By the late ʼ70s and early ʼ80s, he had risen to the top of the sport, competing in the same ranks as Connors, Borg and his good friend Vitas Gerulaitis, quickly capturing titles at such tournaments as the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He, too, managed to secure rock star status for himself. Quite fittingly, he even learned to play the guitar and soon found himself in the company of a group of high-profile music industry friends at elite venues like Studio 54, including Keith Richards, Chrissie Hynde, Meat Loaf, Tina Turner, Carlos Santana and David Bowie. It was quite a ride.

Over the course of his 15-year professional career, which continued until 1992, he captured 155 singles and doubles titles, making him history’s most successful male tennis player in the game’s modern era. Yet, for all his achievements, McEnroe says he felt unfulfilled, that his accomplishments didn’t measure up to his expectations or seem like such a big deal. Considering that viewpoint, outsiders might readily ask themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture?” And, ironically enough, McEnroe did the same with himself.

This is the central question that writer-director Barney Douglas’s documentary seeks to answer. How could someone so accomplished feel so inherently unsatisfied? While the film chronicles McEnroe’s attainments on the court with ample competition footage, it places much of its emphasis on the foregoing conundrum, delving deeply into his character and how it impacted his professional and personal life.

As noted above, from childhood onward, McEnroe was obsessed with being the best at whatever he attempted. It so pervaded his personality, in fact, that one could say he was the epitome of perfectionism, a trait that verged on becoming toxic, especially where tennis was concerned. This quality, combined with the incessant success-driven prodding of his father, John Sr., turned the junior McEnroe into an almost-robotic presence in the tennis world. He was truly a force to be reckoned with on the courts. Unfortunately, the same was true off the courts as well.

In hindsight, McEnroe now recognizes the perils, pitfalls and drawbacks of having lived his life that way. Approaching his existence from the standpoint of “all tennis, all the time” took its toll, leading to an undercurrent of unrecognized, unaddressed frustration. He developed a reputation for being the sport’s argumentative bad boy, frequently calling out umpires and referees when he disagreed with calls that went against him on the court. He also became isolated from those supposedly closest to him, such as his first wife, actress Tatum O’Neal, with whom he began experiencing marital difficulties. The same was somewhat true of his relationship with his father, who had become his manager; their interaction with one another revolved almost entirely around tennis, keeping them from developing a more typical – and, one might say, healthier – father-son relationship. McEnroe also became a regular user of recreational substances, which he claimed didn’t affect his performance on the court, but could he say the same for other aspects of his life?

McEnroe says he probably hit bottom in 1994, two years after he retired, when his friend Vitas Gerulaitis died as a result of an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning incident. The event was something of a wake-up call, one that prompted him to look inward and profoundly examine his life and character. He began asking himself the questions that he had long put off. He looked at areas of his life that he had previously largely ignored. And he sought help, both professionally and personally, particularly through his relationship with the woman who would become his second wife, musician Patty Smyth. He turned corners that he hadn’t broached before, becoming a person far different from the one that the public knew best.

Today the tennis great introspectively looks back on his life with new insights about himself. He realizes there are many things he could have and should have done differently. But he also understands that there’s nothing he can do about them, that he can’t change his past, and that he must accept them for what they are and move on. The future is a blank slate with which he can do whatever he wants. And, as someone who wants to be the best he can be, that prospect provides him with opportunities to apply such thinking in areas that he may have missed out on earlier in his life – but that he has a chance to make up for going forward. It’s something he eagerly anticipates, perhaps even more than what winning yet another championship might do.

Beliefs are tremendously powerful tools, intangible resources that can be put to virtually any use. On the one hand, they can lead us to the fulfillment of tremendous goals, particularly those that relate to the attainment of our personal potential. On the other hand, however, they can be the seeds of destructive behavior, especially when they become obsessive. In those instances, they can quickly turn into undermining influences that lead us astray, taking us down paths we’d be better off avoiding. In either case, though, it’s crucial that we recognize their presence, their impact and the role that they play in how events unfold in our lives. Such is how they function as part of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our existence is determined by these integral influences, for better or worse, and, if left unchecked, with phenomenal persistence.

Whether or not John McEnroe recognized the role that beliefs played in how his life progressed, it’s nevertheless quite apparent from this film that they have long occupied an important place in his life. He even seems to have had some sense of the particular beliefs he held and an awareness of what they yielded, especially with the passage of time. Indeed, with age has come wisdom (as it often does for most of us). As he looks back on his life, however, even if he had been able to recognize some kind of a connection between his beliefs and the outcomes he experienced, he nevertheless found himself stuck in a loop from which he had trouble escaping.

In particular, McEnroe wrestled with this notion when it came to beliefs related to perfectionism. He was so singularly focused on being the best that he couldn’t envision outcomes that failed to live up to that expectation. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to succeed, but a desire to do so at any cost can put us on a fast track to obsession, a state of mind that often spawns all manner of side effects, many of them unpleasant or even unhealthy. And, as McEnroe looks back on his life, he can now see what happened and how such thinking became a trap.

Fortunately, he’s come to understand how he became who was at that point in his life. And he’s accepted the fact that there’s nothing he can do to change it. But he also now knows that such a mindset need no longer keep him ensnared. He has the power to choose to be different, specifically when it comes to deciding on which beliefs he wants to embrace. That realization can be incredibly liberating, not only in terms of becoming unstuck, but also in giving ourselves permission to open up to possibilities we may have never experienced or even envisioned. There’s a wide world out there to be explored, and this approach provides a gateway for us to step through to examine and enjoy them.

It's somewhat unusual for a sports documentary to take viewers down a path like this, but that’s one of the tremendously surprising and valuable attributes of this film. Writer-director Barney Douglas’s new release poignantly examines the intense soul-searching that McEnroe engaged in, prompting him to examine the entire spectrum of his life, not just his performance on the tennis court. Through frank monologues by the tennis great and incisive commentary by myriad family members, wife Patty Smyth, peers Billie Jean King and Björn Borg, and friends Keith Richard and Chrissie Hynde, this engaging profile presents an insightful, in-depth portrait of one of the most captivating and controversial sports figures of the 20th Century. Admittedly, some aspects of the storytelling are presented in somewhat awkward, occasionally overly pretentious ways, but, fortunately, these elements don’t unduly impinge on the overall narrative, and this shortcoming is compensated for by the picture’s ample archival footage and its telling interviews. The result is a production that goes far beyond what many offerings in this genre achieve, let alone attempt. The result: Advantage viewers. The film is currently available for viewing on the Showtime cable network and the Showtime Anytime streaming service.

Wanting things to turn out perfectly is only natural and completely acceptable, but, when we become so preoccupied with the idea that we lose perspective, we’re headed down a slippery slope. But are we able to recognize such a scenario when it begins to develop? Given what’s potentially at stake, we’d be wise to hone our discernment skills to stave off problems before they arise. Failing to do so could lead to anguish and, ultimately, regrets if the problem is allowed to persist. That can result in lost opportunities, wasted time and effort, and even prolonged sorrow. Do we really want to go down that road? Even those of us who seem to have it all together can fall prey to such circumstances as long as the beliefs that enable them are allowed to stay in place. Assessing our thoughts, beliefs and intents can help to avoid problems like these, provided we take the steps and make the effort to keep them from emerging, a practice that assuredly represents time well spent, an outcome we don't have to wait a lifetime to experience.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Breaking," "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." and "Costa Brava, Lebanon" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Vanquishing Justice Denied on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday September 13, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

‘Costa Brava’ compares engagement vs. escape

“Costa Brava, Lebanon” (2021 production, 2022 release). Cast: Saleh Bakri, Nadine Labaki, Ceana Restom, Geana Restom, Nadia Charbel, Liliane Chacar Khoury, François Nour, Yumna Marwan, Mehyeddine El Karra, Dimitri Saba. Director: Mounia Akl. Screenplay: Mounia Akl and Clara Roquet. Web site. Trailer.

Staying engaged with the pulse of life is arguably the best way to get the most out of our existence. However, there are times when the pressures of everyday living can wear on us, making us feel as though we have to get away, especially if we believe that it’s placing our health, sanity and well-being in jeopardy. Retreating from such conditions can be rejuvenating and put us on a happier and more fulfilling path. But such isolation also has the potential to become a trap, despite the ostensibly pleasant circumstances associated with it, a conundrum examined in the new domestic/ecological drama, “Costa Brava, Lebanon.”

There are times when life stinks – literally. Such is what happened in Beirut beginning in 2015, when a huge landfill closed and the government made no contingency plan to replace it, causing garbage to spill out onto city streets unchecked. The incident prompted the formation of a civil uprising movement that began with the trash and later expanded to include protests over civil representation, corruption and government inefficiency. Subsequently, the problems worsened with a national financial crisis, the COVID pandemic and what turned out to be the world’s third largest explosion. Needless to say, Lebanon had become a problematic place to live.

For the free-spirited Badri family, they saw the handwriting on the wall before any of these developments emerged. They tired of the increasingly difficult way of life in Beirut with its increasingly toxic pollution and social unrest. So, to escape these conditions, they decided to pick up stakes and move to a remote mountain sanctuary that they painstakingly created themselves. Over the course of a decade, they gradually built what they came to see as their own little utopian paradise, one premised on sustainable living, healthy environmental conditions and freedom from the stresses of the urban lifestyle.

Spearheading this effort were activist Walid Badri (Saleh Bakri) and his wife, famed musician Souraya Marwan (Nadine Labaki), who met during the many political protests Lebanon experienced years earlier. They eventually married and had a daughter, Tala (Nadia Charbal). However, after years of struggling with the difficulties in life in Beirut, they decided to begin anew in the wilderness. They relocated with Walid’s mother, Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury), and, once settled, gave birth to a second daughter, Reem (Ceana Restom, Geana Restom), eight years younger than her sister. While Tala had had some experience with urban living, Reem was exclusively a child of nature. And Zeina, though glad to have a roof over her head and caretakers at her disposal, never fully embraced the neo-hippie lifestyle, accepting it begrudgingly and definitely missing some of the ways of city life.

Seeking refuge from urban life in Beirut, Lebanon, the idealist Badri family moves to a wilderness sanctuary of their own design, including parents Walid (Saleh Bakri, second from right) and Souraya (Nadine Labaki, right) and daughters Tala (Nadia Charbel, left) and Reem (Ceana Restom, Geana Restom, second from left), as seen in the new domestic/environmental drama, “Costa Brava, Lebanon.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Despite these differences in experience and outlook, the five family members have spent the past 10 years making a new life for themselves. But, just as they have come to believe that this existence has finally and firmly become established, a huge new wrinkle has emerged: The government has begun work on building an enormous, supposedly green landfill and recycling center, a complex that borders directly on the Badris’ doorstep. It’s opened with much fanfare, including a nationally televised speech by the Lebanese president (Dimitri Saba) and the arrival of a glad-handing manager, Tarek (François Nour), whose presence is intended to help establish good relations with the facility’s neighbors.

However, the family is anything but pleased. To begin with, no prior notification of the construction appears to have been provided. But, perhaps more importantly, they don’t believe the government’s claims that the facility will indeed be environmentally friendly, given its longstanding track record to the contrary. Officials contend that, because the center is being built with international financial backing, it must comply with green management practices, but, as the family soon discovers, those promises ring hollow. Trash that’s supposed to be processed for recycling is simply buried as is, and garbage that’s supposed to be buried is burned to make room for greater volumes of waste, sending ash in the direction of the Badris’ property.

The family is outraged, to say the least, but they each react differently to these developments, threatening to tear the household apart. Ever the activist, Walid, who has a reputation for being a loose cannon, seeks to file lawsuits against authorities, though it quickly becomes apparent that these initiatives are destined to go nowhere, further fueling his temper and his obsessive behavior. Harmony within the household is quickly jeopardized, especially in his relations with Souraya, who urges Walid to take a more realistic, less isolationist view of their circumstances. Meanwhile, the sisters become divisive in their support of their parents, especially when Tala’s adolescent curiosity veers into areas that draw varying degrees of disapproval from virtually everyone, but most notably her father. And Zeina, whose age is beginning to get the better of her, grows increasingly complacent about the landfill situation and shows more concern about being able to obtain a travel visa to visit her daughter, Alia (Yumna Marwan), Walid’s younger sister who has been working as a financier in Colombia for the past 15 years.

With a new supposedly green landfill now bordering their mountain sanctuary property, the Badri family seeks to cope with its improper practices, like illegal trash burning, as seen in director Mounia Akl’s new domestic/environmental drama, “Costa Brava, Lebanon.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

This scenario thus serves as a microcosm of what’s been happening in Lebanon’s citizenry at large – the discrepancy in attitudes between those who want to remain actively involved in the nation’s everyday life and those who want to retreat into obscurity and be left alone. Who will win out? And what impact will it have for both the country’s environmental status and its social cohesion? That remains to be seen, both for the family and the population in general. It’s a precarious position for both entities to be in – and one that carries serious implications for each.

Given the conditions that the Badri family (and many like them) have experienced, it’s understandable why they’d opt to get away from it all. Indeed, we’ve all felt the need to retreat into our own seclusive bubbles from time to time. But, as the social beings that we naturally are, how realistic is it that we can expect to stay there indefinitely, separate and apart from our peers? Is this truly a case of finding a space that will bring us unadulterated bliss, or are we deluding ourselves, merely going into hiding and cutting ourselves off from the living world? Good arguments can be made in support of both paths, and they each have their own intrinsic validity, but their viability ultimately comes down to what we do with them. And this is dependent on the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our beliefs, the underlying foundation of each of the foregoing options.

The Badris are certainly to be commended for taking a chance in intentionally going off the grid. They’re committed to living out their idealism, something most of us only dream about but never act upon. And they set an example for the rest of us to follow, whether it’s figuring out how to make sustainable living work or to just muster up the courage, commitment and conviction to successfully pursue a cherished goal. Those kinds of affirming beliefs are certainly laudable and worth emulating.

Sisters Tala (Nadia Charbel, left) and Reem Badri (Ceana Restom, Geana Restom, right) become divisive in their support of their quarrelling parents in director Mounia Akl’s new domestic/environmental drama, “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

But at what point do they become hallmarks of obsessive, potentially impractical behavior? For years, Walid has endeavored to create an environment for his family to help them thrive without the hindrances of stressful urban living, a noble pursuit, to be sure. He’s been especially diligent about this where it comes to his daughters’ development, teaching them honorable values and giving them the freedom to create what they will. However, these virtues have come at a cost by coercing them to function within the restrictions of this alternative lifestyle, one that gives them little appreciation of or exposure to the wider outside world. The allegedly protective shell he’s built for them has, in its own way, become a sort of naïvely idealistic cage, one whose bars have become ever more reinforced with the encroaching intrusion being erected next door. The landfill is thus symbolic of the world at large seeking to burst the bubble and bring itself into the lives of the family, something that all of them (but especially Tala and Reem) will need to know how to deal with if they hope to survive in the greater existence of which they’re a part.

The more Walid tries to keep the outside world at bay, the more strain it places on the household. His idealistic beliefs are thus starting to reveal their innate shortcomings, aspects that could undermine the harmonious paradise that they were designed to manifest. Indeed, when someone becomes so fixated on the purity of his or her principles to the detriment of everyday practicality, impending trouble becomes a real possibility.

The presence of the landfill is undoubtedly a genuine nuisance, especially given the circumstances under which the facility has been constructed and operated. However, it has its purpose. Perhaps it’s to help keep the idealists grounded, to help keep them from losing sight of the conditions of the wider reality. Perhaps it’s to reinforce the family’s idealism, prompting them to engage in activism aimed at pointing out and subsequently overcoming the problems of such institutions. Or perhaps it’s intended to help the family address long-simmering issues that have been quietly overlooked and have finally reached a boiling point. Any or all of these scenarios could be plausible, but whatever the actual purpose might be, its very existence proves that it’s something not to be ignored. In this story, it’s something that the family needs to examine and deal with if they hope to preserve paradise going forward, no matter what form it may take.

With tension in their household heating up, Walid Badri (Saleh Bakri, left) and his wife, Souraya (Nadine Labaki, right), seek to hold their marriage together when confronted by the challenges of a new landfill being built on their doorstep in “Costa Brava, Lebanon.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

With society collapsing around us financially, ethically and environmentally, there may be a strong desire among some of us to escape these conditions in an attempt to find hope, health and happiness in an idyllic sanctuary, one free of negative influences and built on principles of fairness, freedom, creativity and sustainability. But is such an idealistic exodus truly realistic, especially when the world’s ills are still capable of intruding on such a utopia? And how will such an imposition affect those well-meaning social refugees? Will they be able to cope, or will they collapse under the weight of their own inflexible idealism?

Those are the questions raised in this domestic/ecological drama, the second feature offering from director Mounia Akl. Set in the near future but based on the issues of Lebanon’s recent past, the film provides prime examples of “out of sight, out of mind” solutions on both sides of this issue, game plans that ultimately have their own inherent strengths and weaknesses. It’s truly illuminating in its depiction of the parallels between what’s going on in the household and what’s happening next door, though sometimes their subdued treatment makes them feel somewhat underdeveloped and not entirely clear, particularly in the picture’s occasional satirical and surrealistic sequences. Nevertheless, the filmmaker’s attempt to serve up a distinctly different type of story with sublimely engaging psychological and sociological aspects makes for a noteworthy cinematic experiment, one that will likely appeal to those with eclectic sensibilities. And who said trash couldn’t be interesting?

The picture has been a favorite on the film festival circuit, winning a number of awards, and had a brief theatrical run. It’s now available for streaming online.

How wonderful it would be to live in a perfect world. It’s something mankind has dreamed of throughout much of our collective existence, and there’s nothing insurmountable preventing us from working toward achieving that goal. But, given the current state of our development, we still have challenges to overcome, and running away from them is far from an effective solution. Striking an optimum balance between active engagement and tempered recouperation, when needed, would appear to offer us a wise course to follow, helping us realize our objective while preserving our personal welfare. And there’s no trash talking in that.

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

Sunday, September 11, 2022

‘Honk for Jesus’ satirizes a fool’s pursuit

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (2022). Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Nicole Beharie, Conphidance, Austin Crute, Devere Rogers, Robert Yatta, Greta Marable Glenn, Selah Kimbro Jones, Crystal Alicia Garrett, Perris Drew, Olivia D. Dawson, Tairat Baoku, Elle Young, Andrea Laing (voice), Marcus Martin (voice). Director: Adamma Ebo. Screenplay: Adamma Ebo. Web site. Trailer.

Sometimes, no matter how sincere we may appear in taking on a cherished task, we might easily come across looking like buffoons – and not even realize it. Yet somehow we saunter on, striving to reach our goals, despite the obstacles and the odds being innately stacked against us. So what will become of such fool’s pursuits? It might help to take some guidance from the hilarious new mockumentary-style comedy, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his ever-devoted wife, Trinitie (Regina Hall), used to have it all. As the founders of Atlanta’s Wander to Greater Paths Baptist megachurch, the preacher and his “first lady” amassed a huge following – not to mention a vast personal fortune. They lived high on the proverbial hog, with an ostentatiously huge home, a fleet of high-end cars, and a wardrobe of designer clothes and shoes that would make Imelda Marcos green with envy. They even accumulated enough cash to pay off the county’s outstanding debt, a bona fide example of their civic magnanimity. But everything they stockpiled evaporated virtually overnight when allegations of improprieties surfaced allegedly involving the pastor’s questionable behavior with young men, prompting an unending exodus of parishioners – along the funds they contributed. In fact, were it not for a number of out-of-court settlements, things could have potentially been a lot worse.

But, after several years of laying low while quietly drafting agreements with the aggrieved parties, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie now want to get back on top. Having not admitted to any official wrongdoings, they believe they’re well positioned for a comeback, one slated, fittingly enough, for launching on Easter Sunday. They’re convinced their effort will bear fruit in abundance, once again allowing them to successfully save souls. However, in carrying out this mission, they must first answer a key question: Can they save themselves?

To chronicle the course of their institution’s rebirth, they hire a documentary filmmaker (Andrea Laing) to chart their progress. And the making of that film thus provides the narrative basis of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” The result is a classic mockumentary offering in the same vein as movies like “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003), with the fundamentalist megachurch community as the hapless target for ample loads of justified comical comeuppance and scathing skewering.

After a prolonged hiatus, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown, left) and “First Lady” Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall, right) anxiously await the return of their departed throngs of parishioners to their Baptist megachurch in the biting new satirical mockumentary, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” Photo by Steve Swisher / © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC, courtesy of Focus Features.

As the film progresses, viewers bear witness to a series of hilarious bits that mercilessly satirize the often-ludicrous nature and blatant hypocrisy of these institutions, the kinds of scandals often found in tabloid headlines and that eventually make their way into the mainstream media. The holier-than-thou attitudes that permeate the over-the-top screeds of these glamorized, supposedly sanctimonious evangelists are exposed for their often-two-faced messages, revealing their messengers as the second-rate conmen that they truly are. And much of it is delivered with adept comic flair, although some decidedly dramatic sequences are thrown in for good measure to heighten the impact of the picture’s overall intent.

Along the way, viewers are treated to an array of colorful supporting characters, such as Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance, Nicole Beharie), the polite but schemingly insincere co-pastors of a rival parish that siphoned away much of the WTGP flock in the wake of Pastor Childs’s scandals – and that’s now also planning to celebrate the opening of its new home on the same day as its would-be-resurgent peers. Then there’s the core five (Robert Yatta, Greta Marable Glenn, Selah Kimbro Jones, Crystal Alicia Garrett, Perris Drew), a quintet of clueless, hopelessly devoted members of the WTGP congregation who have chosen to stand by their preacher no matter what anyone else has said. And, of course, there are the ever-so-genteel church-going ladies, like Sister Danetta (Olivia D. Dawson), who flash their plastic smiles and skillfully display their phony façades to avoid doing anything that might suggest they’re even the least bit un-Christian-like. Viewers even meet the source of the most reliable church gossip, Yvet (Elle Young), the hairdresser at the local mall.

Naturally, in scenarios like this, everything that could conceivably go wrong eventually does, with all of it faithfully caught on film, making the challenges of resurrecting the parish in line with its timetable that much more difficult. It thus prompts the implementation of increasingly desperate measures, such as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie standing by the side of a nearby busy highway and waving signs to promote the reopening of the church, all of which carry messages parroting the title of this film. But will those plans work? Wait till Sunday rolls around to find out.

Perched upon their humble thrones, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown, right) and “First Lady” Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall, left) discuss their plans for a comeback after a fall from grace in writer-director Adamma Ebo’s sidesplitting new comedy, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” now playing theatrically and online. Photo by Steve Swisher / © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC, courtesy of Focus Features.

Getting back what we’ve lost can be difficult, if not impossible. That’s especially true when those losses are attributable to circumstances of our own making, those that subsequently raise questions about trust, accountability and worthiness of redemption. In fact, in many instances, it may be better to simply let go and strike out in a new direction. But, for those who can’t bear the thought of giving up what they’ve lost, such a step may be just as challenging as walking away. That certainly seems to be the case with Pastor Childs, but what is he realistically to do?

It would seem that the preacher needs to take stock of his beliefs and assess them for what they are and what they portend, for they will shape what unfolds going forward. Such is the nature of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of these intangible resources. He may not have heard of this school of thought, but it would certainly behoove him to learn about it and put it to use in his life, particularly if he doesn’t want to get caught going in circles that will take him nowhere – not back to where he was nor on to anything better.

Consider the position he’s operating from. He steadfastly insists that he wants to get back to where he was, but look at what that ultimately got him. It left him disgraced, untrusted (save for Trinitie and the core five) and out of the limelight he once so relished. And, if he now thinks he can just snap his fingers and somehow be magically transported back to what he had, he’s seriously deluding himself, no matter how earnestly he may hold on to that notion. And, what’s worse, he can’t even see how the beliefs he clung to in the past brought him to where he is now.

To begin with, as flashback clips from the pastor’s sermons reveal, he was a hypocrite par excellence. His bombastic tirades against the evils of same sex relationships, for example, may have effectively stirred up the emotions of his predominantly conservative congregation, yet he was himself accused of inappropriate behavior with young men (a scenario not unlike what happens all too often in real life, I might add). And, even though the signing of his settlement agreements may have officially absolved him of anything untoward, the accusations cast enough doubt to keep him from being trusted to the same degree he once was.

Keon and Shakura Sumpter (from left, Conphidance, Nicole Beharie), the polite but schemingly insincere co-pastors of a rival parish to the recovering Wander to Greater Paths Baptist megachurch, discuss their plans for the future of their organization in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” Photo by Steve Swisher / © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC, courtesy of Focus Features.

What’s more, despite the Herculean efforts he went to in trying to protect his name and reputation, he obviously didn’t learn his lesson, either. That becomes apparent in one scene where he attempts to less than subtly (yet ultimately unsuccessfully) proposition one of his documentarian’s assistants (Devere Rogers). He obviously still seems to think that he can get away with anything and not incur any retribution, just as he did in the past. Does he really believe he’s that untouchable? It takes a stern warning from Trinitie to remind him of where is he now and how he got there, as well as what repeating his past behavior could do in derailing any of his hopes and dreams for the future. It’s a sentiment further echoed in a tense confrontation between the pastor and one of his accusers (Austin Crute), who unreservedly observes just how “irrelevant” the preacher has become during his prolonged absence from the public eye.

Yet Lee-Curtis fervently believes that he can do no wrong, that he can get away with anything, that he can indeed operate from a position of God-like status. On top of that, he believes he can ostensibly rise from the dead and resume where he left off, as if nothing happened. He’s so focused on attaining his goal that he’s convinced himself he can willfully ignore the ramifications of what happened and what could very well happen as he moves ahead, a practice commonly known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. His penchant for seeing things from this standpoint represents an inherent disregard for the responsibility that comes with using one’s beliefs to materialize one’s existence. And that can be fraught with consequences far more impactful than any of us can possibly imagine.

The pastor also fails to recognize that, when we stumble and fall by the wayside, others will often step up and take our place. Case in point – the rise of co-pastors Keon and Shakura Sumpter. Even though they may be inherently almost as sleazy as Pastor Childs, they’ve successfully managed to fill a void with their ministry. And, even if the comeback cleric were to be impeccably squeaky clean, he would still have to overcome the rise in popularity that his rivals have attained. Can he accomplish that? Moreover, can he do so without resorting to underhanded or vindictive ways, measures that could potentially taint his image even further?

As becomes apparent the further the film progresses, the odds truly are stacked against Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, no matter how hard they work at fulfilling their objective and regardless of how contrite they are (or appear) in doing so. While everybody is deserving of forgiveness – particularly when one toils sincerely to earn it – that doesn’t mean it’s going to pan out as hoped for or to the degree being sought. In the meantime, such a fool’s pursuit can lead to the needless expenditure of energy and resources that could be put to better use in other more promising endeavors. What’s more, engaging in desperate measures aimed at recouping what was lost can make one look ridiculous, particularly those that call for gimmicky behavior and the donning of garishly hideous outfits, such as the alleged designer finery that the pastor and first lady often sport in the film. Indeed, sometimes one is truly better off to let go and let God, advice that the woeful protagonists might be better off heeding themselves.

To drum up interest in the resurgence of his parish, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) urges motorists on a busy highway to “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” in writer-director Adamma Ebo’s sidesplitting new mockumentary of the same name. Photo by Steve Swisher / © 2021 Pinky Promise LLC, courtesy of Focus Features.

Nobody likes hypocrites – unless, of course, they make good fodder for laughs, and such is the case in this hilarious new comedy, one that genuinely evokes ample chuckles, even in the face of its underlying serious subject matter. This mockumentary-style offering about a religious power couple as they attempt to rebound from a fall from grace pulls no punches in its critically biting humor and in its periodic forays into dramatic material, moves meant to draw attention to the innate insincerity of its protagonists (and some of its parishioners). In doing this, the film admittedly straddles a fine line between comedy and drama, presenting a carefully concocted mix that works much of the time but that occasionally becomes a little too heavy-handed for its own good. And, all joking aside, some viewers might easily become offended by this material, so they should carefully consider their decision to screen this offering. Nevertheless, “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.” makes an impact with its fine performances by Sterling K. Brown, Regina Hall and its excellent supporting cast, as well as its wickedly delicious wit and ample sight gags, elements that will have viewers delightfully giggling with glee. This one might not have you on your knees, but you might easily fall over laughing. The film is currently playing theatrically and for streaming online.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with practicing our spirituality and allowing our connection to the divine to flourish within us. Whether we do this in quiet devotion or a group setting, it’s all good as long as it’s pursued with heartfelt, genuine sincerity. But, when ecclesiastical charlatans intercede and insist that they must speak on our behalf, especially when it comes to determining the course of our personal and spiritual well-being, we should consider switching on our skepticism radar, particularly when their recommendations are accompanied by imposing caveats and disquieting qualifications. Our celestial connections are our own, and our decisions to honk for Jesus and to save our souls should rest squarely with us as well.

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

Saturday, September 3, 2022

‘Breaking’ exposes the tragic consequences of neglect

“Breaking” (formerly known as “892”) (2022). Cast: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Michael Kenneth Williams, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, London Covington, Jeffrey Donovan, Robb Derringer, Kate Burton, Miriam Silverman, Kelli Hancock, Carmine Giovinazzo. Director: Abi Damaris Corbin. Screenplay: Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah. Source Article: Aaron Gell, “’They didn’t have to kill him’: The death of Lance Corporal Brian Easley,” (April 9, 2018). Web site. Trailer.

When our needs go unduly neglected, frustration and the prospect of dire consequences can set in. That’s especially true when we must rely on others to come through for us, particularly when they make promises that are vital to our well-being. A failure to come through on our behalf can get out of hand quickly, with potentially explosive results, an outcome depicted in the troubling new fact-based drama, “Breaking” (formerly known as “892”).

It’s 2017, and Iraq War veteran Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is angry and frustrated – and with good reason. The honorably discharged Marine, who willingly and dutifully served his country, has been railroaded by the US government, specifically the Veterans Administration (VA), the agency charged with looking after the welfare of soldiers after completion of their service. His feelings of desperation, in turn, have evolved to desperate acts, all in an attempt to have his voice heard by an inept, discompassionate bureaucracy.

In short, Easley wants his $892 disability check, which he contends was wrongly confiscated from him by the VA. The Atlanta resident depends on that money to live, since he, like many veterans, is on the verge of homelessness. He was seriously affected by his wartime experience, having developed PTSD and other psychological issues, making it difficult for him to remain stable enough to hold down a job. His severe mood swings have also left him without his base of support – his family – specifically his now-ex-wife, Cassandra (Olivia Washington), and their young daughter, Kiah (London Covington), whom he positively adores. In many ways, these circumstances have left him a broken man, and now, he believes, authorities have conspired to break him even more, conditions callously thrust upon someone whom others have freely and repeatedly said would never hurt a fly.

Why does Easley believe the government has wrongfully taken his money? It’s because the funds were transferred and applied to an outstanding education loan debt, a practice allowed by law. According to Easley’s VA case worker (Miriam Silverman), whenever anyone owes money on such debts, repayment of the loan can be secured by any means available, including everything from wage garnishment to the seizing of benefit checks, like the veteran’s disability payments. The case worker feebly tries to assuage Easley’s disappointment by informing him that the transfer of these funds settles his outstanding debt obligation, but that’s small comfort, since it still leaves him with no money to support himself. She recommends that he try applying for VA benefits specifically aimed at staving off homelessness, but, when he sees the endless line of applicants awaiting assistance – one long enough to stretch across the expanse of downtown Atlanta – he loses it and is forcibly escorted from the VA office.

With seemingly nothing left to lose, Easley decides to take action. In an effort to make his case known and his voice heard, he walks into a suburban branch of a Wells Fargo Bank armed with what he says is a homemade bomb, threatening to blow up the facility if his demands aren’t met.

Quite surprisingly, however, in many ways, this isn’t what one would typically think of as a holdup. To begin with, he lets all of the bank customers and all but two of its employees leave peacefully. And, as for the two “hostages” he takes – bank branch manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) – he tells them that they won’t be harmed, that they’ll be released safely, even if he decides to detonate the device. He treats them respectfully and politely, never seriously threatening them and giving them a surprising degree of freedom to move about the building while in his “custody.” His politeness even extends to taking a message during an incoming customer phone call. But, perhaps most striking, he makes no demands for any of the bank’s money; he insists that any funds meant to come his way must originate with those whom he believes stole it in the first place – the VA.

Still, despite the unconventional circumstances in place here, the situation is nevertheless quite tense, conditions made worse by the foot-dragging of authorities in getting a negotiator in place to speak with Easley. It eventually prompts him to contact a local television station to try and get his story on the air. He calls WSB TV producer Lisa Larson (Connie Britton), telling her his story in hopes that the public will hear it. But Larson is torn about how far and wide to go with this conversation; she seeks a balance in covering a legitimate news story while not unduly interfering with authorities attempting to defuse the standoff.

With the tension ramping up, an array of police units from surrounding areas (including carefully positioned snipers) and throngs of news media conducting live remotes (including Atlanta-based CNN) descend on the area surrounding the bank. Recently appointed Police Chief Jack Quail (Robb Derringer) also arrives on the scene to confer with SWAT team coordinators like Major Riddick (Jeffrey Donovan) about the unfolding of operations. But the one who really stands to make a meaningful difference is negotiator Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams), an experienced mediator whose personal background mirrors Easley’s, theoretically making him the ideal candidate to speak with the perpetrator. And, to his credit, he’s able to cut through much of the bureaucratic red tape to get the negotiation process moving.

As Bernard holds talks with Easley, he endeavors to gain his trust, drawing parallels between what they have in common. He tries to smooth over matters as much as possible to bring about a peaceful conclusion to the standoff. He contacts Easley’s family to try to bring them into the resolution process. And he offers Easley modest incentives to draw down the tension. Meanwhile, the hostages attempt to provide solutions of their own. Like Bernard, they sympathize with Easley’s situation and sincerely want to make things right quickly and easily to prevent the situation from blowing up out of control.

But others in charge don’t appear to share the reasoned, compassionate approach employed by Bernard and the bank employees. Instead, they’re looking to bring the situation to a close in short order, without notifying the others working toward negotiating a peaceful solution. Can a moderated outcome result? Or will everyone’s worst fears be realized?

What are we to do when we feel we have nothing to lose, especially when it comes to making our stories known and our voices heard? That’s a tricky question, to be sure. The frustration that prompts such situations often causes us to act impulsively and from a standpoint of desperation. Superficially speaking, one might easily say that’s what drove the beliefs and motivations behind Easley’s actions (though, since no one was ever able to definitively get inside his consciousness, no one can say for sure). What unfolded in suburban Atlanta in July 2017 reflected what he believed at the time, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of these intangible resources, for better or worse. It’s unlikely that Easley had ever heard of this school of thought, but his beliefs and actions nevertheless materialized what happened at the bank on that fateful summer day.

When we hold onto such impulsive and desperate beliefs, we walk a treacherous path, regardless of how justified we may feel about those emotions. And, based on what led up to the event, Easley certainly had good reason to feel that he had been jerked around by an uncaring system. The problem in that, however, is that such thinking can lead to the kind of fanatical behavior that occurred at the bank. When we become so irrationally focused on achieving an objective like getting heard under conditions where everyone seemingly turns a deaf ear, the outcome can be devastating – and tragic.

It’s not that Easley didn’t take steps to ameliorate his circumstances in advance of this incident, either. He sought assistance through supposedly proper channels. He struggled to preserve his composure. And he pleaded his case honestly and thoughtfully. Indeed, he did everything that was expected of him, and yet he still felt (and, arguably, rightly so) that those who were supposed to be looking after his welfare had seriously let him down. Indeed, how would you feel under such conditions?

Understandable as those feelings might be, however, they can lead to clouding one’s judgment, prompting irrational beliefs that spawn irrational acts. Why, for example, did Easley seek to hold up a bank to get his voice heard, especially one that had no particular nexus to his circumstances other than being the institution into which his disability checks were deposited? What did he hope to gain by that? Regrettably, this reflects what can happen when we become so focused on the outcome that we lose sight of the consequences associated with it, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default, one that often yields results like those that unfolded in this story.

This is by no means intended to fault what Easley did. His situation, unfortunately, mirrored that experienced by many veterans upon returning home from war and trying to reintegrate into mainstream society, a process often fraught with myriad difficult adjustments. And that’s important to recognize, given that the responsibility for what transpired involved not only what Easley did, but also the actions taken by those who prompted him to do what he did – the caretakers of a system so focused on achieving what they wanted that they, too, lost sight of the consequences that accompanied their actions. They believed so fervently in attaining their objectives that they fell prey to their own brand of un-conscious creation, including everyone from those managing Easley’s benefits to those overseeing his loan repayment obligations to those handling the standoff as it unfolded. Indeed, considering the responsibility at stake here, there’s plenty of accountability to go around, particularly in terms of how events ultimately played out.

This points out the perils of beliefs associated with inflexibility. There can be seriously inherent dangers associated with such thinking, as evidenced here. It’s another permutation of un-conscious creation gone awry, a scenario in which little good can come out of what happens.

But was nothing learned from this incident? While the outcome certainly had its tragic elements, one could argue that Easley brought his own brand of heroism to this situation by making the plight of veterans more widely known, by exposing the uncaring, bureaucratic nightmares that they often face in receiving the benefits to which they’re rightfully entitled – and promised. They served when called upon, and they should be treated in kind when their service is done, and Easley pled their case through his actions, heartbreaking though they may have been.

While many may disagree with what Easley did – and with what the system did to him – there was a certain quality of destiny associated with his standoff. As becomes apparent in the film, there’s a fateful quality to what he did, something he seemed to sense as events unfolded, almost as if he was reconciled to what was about to occur. But, before the conclusion was reached, he managed to get the word out about what happened to him and his fellow veterans. It’s sad that it took something so drastic to make these matters known. We can only hope that his sacrifice was not made in vain – and that others won’t have to endure what he went through. 

Justice ignored is indeed justice denied. What’s more, it’s an open invitation to things easily getting out of hand as the tension behind such situations is dialed up to an exaggerated level. That’s precisely what happens in director Abi Damaris Corbin’s second feature outing, an offering reminiscent of the film classic “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). This scrupulously faithful retelling of the story of Brian Brown-Easley is a riveting, albeit disturbing, watch from start to finish, casting a long shadow of shame on those who lack the decency and humanity to care for those who made the effort to care for us. The picture’s stellar ensemble cast, which captured the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Award in this category, is superb across the board, featuring some of this year’s best acting, including the best portrayal ever turned in by Boyega (who has come a long way from his “Star Wars” outings) and an excellent performance by the late Michael Kenneth Williams in one of his final roles. This Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize nominee is by no means an easy film to screen, but it’s one that anyone interested in seeing justice served should watch – and take action about to see that it’s not denied again. The film originally played on the festival circuit and is now available theatrically.

Neglect is rarely, if ever, acceptable, especially when an individual’s welfare is at stake. And those who cite rules and regulations in a flimsy attempt to absolve themselves are merely falling back on excuses to cover their backsides. As Brian Brown-Easley’s experience illustrates, such failings carry dire consequences, not only individually, but collectively as well. If there’s any good to come out of situations like this, fortunately, they expose the shortcomings of a broken system in serious need of reform, one urgently requiring strong infusions of compassion, understanding and remediation. Such is the bare minimum we should take away from this story in hopes that nothing like it ever happens again.

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