Sunday, December 31, 2023

For better or worse addressed in ‘American Symphony’

“American Symphony” (2023). Cast: Jon Batiste, Suleika Jaouad, Anne Jaouad. Archive Footage: Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Questlove, Stevie Wonder, Billie Eilish, James Taylor, Louis Cato. Director: Matthew Heineman. Web site. Trailer.

The now-famous opening line of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – has become virtually synonymous for describing situations that are simultaneously both joyous yet difficult. In many ways, this is a scenario that seems almost unfathomable, one whose very existence is hard to imagine, let alone endure. Yet many among us have nevertheless experienced such challenging, ironic and contradictory conditions, circumstances that ultimately push us to find the means to survive and to overcome the ordeals posed to us so that we can truly enjoy the best of what life has to offer while putting the worst behind us. Such is the situation faced by an eminently successful, exceptionally creative, deeply enamored power couple in the moving, intimate and captivating new documentary, “American Symphony.”

Life in 2022 was a decidedly strange and mixed bag for musician-composer Jon Batiste and his wife, best-selling author Suleika Jaouad. They indeed experienced the best and worst of times. It was a landmark year for Batiste. Coming off Oscar, Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA Award wins in 2021 for co-writing the best original score for the animated film “Soul,” he went on to capture five Grammy Awards the following year (including record of the year), all the while serving as band leader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The multi-talented, multifaceted, New Orleans-born artist also worked on completing an eclectic, ambitious composition aimed at reflecting the breadth of our national music, diversity and culture, American Symphony, drawing upon his expertise in an array of musical genres. It was the kind of year that most artists dream of.

However, in the midst of this success, the couple underwent one of the greatest challenges they’ve ever had to face. Jaouad suffered a relapse of the cancer she experienced in 2011, a case of acute myeloid leukemia, an illness that doctors gave her only a 35% chance of surviving at that time. Despite these odds, though, Jaouad pulled through and began writing a column titled “Life, Interrupted” for The New York Times. She went on to become a contributor to Vogue, Glamour and Women’s Health magazines, as well as National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. And, in 2021, she penned The New York Times best-selling memoir Between Two Kingdoms, an account of her battle with cancer as a young adult. How ironic that what helped her become a successful author would come back to haunt her again, just as she and her husband were attaining such tremendous personal and creative achievements. Instead, she was now facing the prospect of a risky bone marrow transplant to survive.

Then there was the matter of their relationship, a deeply loving, eminently attentive, fully committed devotion to one another. They met as teenagers in band camp and became involved romantically in 2014. And, as this movie shows, rarely has there ever been an on-screen depiction of two partners more dedicated to one another than what is shown here. Their feelings for one another quite obviously run deep, although those emotions are genuine and realistic, never storybook nor sugar-coated, especially under the circumstances they faced with Jaouad’s troubling diagnosis.

Given these diversely contrasting conditions, it almost seemed like life was dealing Jon and Suleika a cruel joke. How could they enjoy their success with a cloud like this hanging over them? Indeed, how could fate be so relentlessly punishing? And, what’s more, what were they supposed to do about it? Those are huge questions, to be sure. But how can they be effectively answered?

The weight of these circumstances was crushing. And, even though Jaouad was receiving top-notch care, there was only so much that she and Batiste could do tangibly. Because of that, they consequently had to turn inward and tap into their thoughts, beliefs and intents to encourage the emergence of a positive outcome. This meant meditating upon that result, as well as drawing upon the power of prayer to bring it about. In essence, this is a form of the conscious creation process at work, the philosophy that maintains these intangibles can be employed to manifest the means and conditions for realizing what we seek. It’s unclear whether the couple had heard of this way of thinking, but, based on their actions and practices, it’s apparent they believed it could be tapped to yield their hoped-for outcome.

As the film illustrates, there were many times during this ordeal where both partners turned reflective on their circumstances, undoubtedly pleading for a way out of it. But there was more to it than taking such proactive steps to achieve this objective. They also turned to various forms of support, like counselors and family members, to bolster them at times when it was deemed necessary. This provided them with encouragement and coping mechanisms to get through the most critical times. This tactic thus took the form of a collaboration, an empowered act of co-creation that lends added energy and backing to the attainment of a mutual goal.

In a similar, if not more significant vein, there was also the undeniable love between Jon and Suleika. This, too, is a form of mutual support and another form of collaboration. It might even be argued that this was perhaps the most effective “medicine” at work in this scenario, more potent than any form of chemotherapy could provide. Add to that the beliefs in health and recovery that they’re each emitting, and those are some powerful vibes at work.

Of course, even with these potent intangible forces at work, one probably can’t help but wonder how and why this illness manifested in the first place. In all honesty, we may never know, and the same might possibly be said for both Jon and Suleika. Their reasons are their own, and it’s not our place to question them. But there are several theoretical possibilities to consider.

For instance, it’s often been said in metaphysical circles that illness can be a tremendous teacher. There are things we can learn about life and ourselves under those circumstances that we might not be able to explore under any other conditions. Ill health can prompt us to examine alternate modes of healing, something we can engage in more readily in scenarios like this in light of the fact that our consciousness is likely focused almost exclusively on getting well and uncovering the means to achieve it. What’s more, this kind of downtime may afford us an opportunity to partake of other types of creative endeavors, much as Suleika does in the film when she tries her hand at painting. And, as Suleika’s previous experience with illness illustrates, it could open doors to future opportunities, such as the successful writing career that grew out of her first bout with cancer. But, perhaps most importantly, an introspective time like this can prove quite revelatory, showing us qualities of ourselves we never knew we possessed, such as strength of character, resilience and the will to overcome adversity.

For Jon’s part, there are additional possibilities to consider. For instance, as much and as long as he and Suleika have long been in love, the depth of their feelings for one another only deepened through this experience, drawing them closer together than ever before. As seen here, the emotions they feel for one another are palpable, reaching a point where their status as soul mates is impossible to ignore. As for Jon individually, this experience could also be said to be something that keeps him grounded, immersing him firmly in what’s most important in life and preventing him from letting his success get away from him. That’s not to suggest that would happen even if conditions were different, but circumstances like these have a way of helping us keep our heads, particularly with what matters most to us.

For all of the artistic achievements on display here, though, the most beautiful creation is the love between Jon and Suleika, for better or worse. They have taken an intangible concept and made it real, for all to see, something that many of us should hope to emulate in our own romantic endeavors. If nothing else, this is the takeaway we should embrace – and, in the end, make our own.

Creating a heartfelt, loving relationship is much like producing a great work of art. Both take effort and commitment, both in good times and bad. The challenges involved in learning how to successfully maneuver through them can be difficult, but the rewards can be incalculable, as documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s latest so deftly illustrates. These are attainable goals, outcomes that can provide tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment, the prevailing highs and lows notwithstanding. The polar opposite fates that befell Batiste and Jaouad may have been a struggle to get through, but they vowed to keep their love and art alive, putting their personal and professional successes and setbacks into perspective in light of what they were up against. This intimate, heartstring-tugging documentary gives viewers a candid, up-close look at what a truly loving couple can experience under such diverse, trying and bittersweet circumstances, but without becoming manipulative or melodramatic. This beautifully photographed story provides an unfiltered depiction of the range of emotions that each partner goes through, particularly when it comes to its musings of the philosophical insights observed by each of the spouses. It also showcases Batiste’s wide-ranging musical styles, both in his performances and in his composition process. Admittedly, a few of this offering’s sequences meander a bit, but the overall production is skillfully edited and sensitively portrayed, reinforcing what makes life worth living, during both good times and bad, as long as we have each other to make our way through it, bringing new meaning to what our marriage vows are ultimately all about.

“American Symphony” was widely recognized in 2023 film festival and movie critic association competitions. Most notably, the picture captured two Critics Choice Documentary Awards for best music documentary and best score, along with four nominations for best documentary feature, director, editing and cinematography, all noteworthy accolades for a film that’s well worth your time. This offering is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

In good times and bad, it’s always comforting to have a companion along for the journey. That’s more than apparent in “American Symphony.” Jon and Suleika set an inspiring example for what it truly means to be a loving couple, one that anybody seeking to find for themselves should follow and make their own – undoubtedly the best of times.

Copyright © 2023-2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

‘Monster’ seeks to arrive at the whole truth

“Monster” (“Kaibutsu”) (2023). Cast: Sakura Ando, Soya Kurokawa, Eita Nagayama, Hinata Hiiragi, Yuho Tanaka, Shido Nakamura, Mitsuki Takahata, Akihiro Kakuta. Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu. Screenplay: Yûji Sakamoto. Web site. Trailer.

Is it possible to know the real truth behind a particular situation? It’s often been said that, as outside onlookers, we only see a fraction of what’s involved in the unfolding of a specific scenario. And, because of that, we might well piece together an incomplete view of things, based primarily on what we believe about them, given that they shape our perspective and, subsequently, the materialized existence that emerges. The outcome may present us with a somewhat accurate depiction of those manifested notions, but how on target is that picture? That’s the core question raised in the engaging new Japanese drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”).

Revealing too much about the nature of this film would ultimately expose too much about it. Suffice it to say, however, the picture presents its narrative in several overlapping, interconnected segments, all of them related but each nevertheless distinct in its own right. Collectively, they explore the same scenario from a variety of perspectives, but each only presents a portion of the overall story, something that isn’t fully revealed until film’s end, when all of the pieces are at last drawn together. It’s a storytelling technique that was first, and perhaps best, presented in director Akira Kurosawa’s innovative screen classic, “Rashômon” (1950), and has been eloquently replicated here by a new generation Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda Hirokazu.

The picture’s opening sequence focuses on the exasperating challenges that single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) faces with her preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), who has developed a reputation for acting out. She witnesses some of this behavior firsthand, but much of what allegedly happens comes her way as a result of after-the-fact evidence, much of it delivered by way of the unreliable word of others. In light of that, she must often ask herself, how much can she trust what she hears or finds? Minato is her son, after all, and she wants to protect him against unfounded or unfair accusations, some of which appear to lack credibility or adequate explanation. That’s particularly true when Minato’s teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), is accused of excessive discipline in response to one of the youngster’s outbursts against another student, Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), an incident cryptically explained away by the school’s principal, Mrs. Fushimi (Yuho Tanaka), herself a figure of questionable character. Still, given Minato’s behavior, many are quick to paint him with broad brush strokes as a devious little monster. But is he?

Single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando, right) faces her share of behavioral challenges with her preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa, left), in the multi-segmented new Japanese drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), the latest from director Kore-eda Hirokazu. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

In the second segment, the focus shifts to Mr. Hori, who, as viewers discover, is a new teacher at Minato’s school. He’s eager to be starting this new job and looks forward to making a favorable impression on the students, their parents and the administrators. He’s also starting a new relationship with Hirona (Mitsuki Takahata), with whom he’s quite taken. However, not long after beginning work at the school, he notices that Yori is apparently being picked on bullies, something the teacher believes must be difficult for the small, sweet young boy to handle. He takes an interest in the student’s well-being, even going so far as to visit the youth’s family, where he finds him being raised by a drunken, seemingly intolerant father (Shido Nakamura). So, in light of these factors, Hiro quietly assumes the role of a de facto protector, and, when he witnesses the aftermath of an apparent incident involving Yori and Minato, he steps up and takes action. But is his response appropriate? And what do the school administrators like Mrs. Fushimi and Mr. Kumiaki (Akihiro Kakuta) think about it, particularly in light of the impression his actions might leave on skeptical parents, including both Saori and others? In the wake of these developments, Hori is quickly on his way to becoming a pariah, and his life begins falling apart, both personally and professionally. Indeed, is he the monster here?

In the final sequence, the narrative shifts to the relationship between Yori and Minato, which is not at all what others have been led to believe it is. It seems that Mr. Hori is not the only bodyguard that Yori has. But that’s because there’s more to the boys’ relationship than anyone knows. And, when they mysteriously disappear, their absence raises more questions than ever before. Add to that several other cryptic developments that impact the overarching storyline, such as the breakout of a major fire at a nearby high-rise gentlemen’s club and the landfall of a typhoon, and the mystery deepens further. From this, it immediately becomes apparent that no one could possibly have had a clear picture of what’s been going on all along, that the pieces of the puzzle are simply that – pieces of a larger whole that nobody understands.

Single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) seeks answers from those who allegedly impose excessive discipline on her troubled preteen son in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

Only when all of the pieces are assembled – providing a coalescent view of the whole that goes beyond the postulated beliefs of individual onlookers – can anyone know the whole truth of this scenario. Whether anyone is able to reach such a realization, however, depends on being able to envision the accumulation of all of the situation’s separate parts. And that can happen only when we leave ourselves open to such a possibility, one specifically driven by beliefs that allow it. While that may sound implausible to some, it’s not, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s unclear how many of us may have heard of this school of thought, but a lack of awareness of it doesn’t rule out its validity for attaining such an outcome.

The implications in this can be staggering. That’s particularly true in the area of judgment (or, more precisely, in the area of judgmentalism). If we were to judge a situation based entirely on our beliefs with little or no hard evidence to back up such conjecture (especially if the speculation only relates to one aspect of the overall scenario), we could be making harsh, irrational or erroneous assessments of the circumstances. And that, in turn, could lead to dire ramifications for those most affected by these ill-informed conclusions.

Recently hired teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama, right) comes under harsh scrutiny from school administrators like Mr. Kumiaki (Akihiro Kakuta, left) for allegedly dispensing excessive discipline against a troubled preteen in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

Think of the impact that could be leveled against those falsely accused (and convicted) in these situations. Is Minato truly the little monster that many contend he is? Or is he simply a misunderstood young man whose actions and behavior have another unseen or mistaken intent underlying them? Conversely, consider the fallout that can result when our beliefs inadvertently lead to us giving a pass to those deserving of deeper scrutiny. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like getting away with murder, the absence of corpses notwithstanding. And, as this story shows, there are several potential culprits in the narrative whose actions and behavior merit a closer look, their deeds coming close to appearing somewhat monstrous themselves.

There are concerns for the accusers in scenarios like this as well. Consider the consequences for those making and pressing incorrect and unfair claims against the supposed suspects. Think of the guilt and potential liabilities that could stem from inflicting such misplaced suspicions. The impact might readily boomerang against those making such accusations, and where would that leave them then?

This is not to suggest that our beliefs don’t have merit in these instances. After all, they’re the building blocks of the reality we create for ourselves. However, we should recognize that they’re the starting point, not the end point of this process in any of our endeavors, including discovering the truth behind a particular scenario. The role they play here is in pointing us toward the evidence needed to back up our contentions, not the means to verify and validate the innate truth behind them. Is it any wonder, then, that our judicial system calls for the revelation of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” It would seem that this is a wise outlook not just for a court of law, but also for the court of public opinion – not to mention the internal courts of our beliefs.

Grade school classmates Minato Mugino (Soya Kurokawa, right) and Yori Hoshikawa ((Hinata Hiiragi, left) are at the center of a widely misunderstood scenario with far-ranging implications in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s multi-segmented new drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The perspective from which we view a situation infallibly provides us with a clear, irrefutable picture of its truthfulness, right? But what happens if we encounter someone who witnesses the same incident and comes away from it with a totally different interpretation? Both views can’t be “right,” can they? Or is it possible that none of us can see the totality of a scenario and claim to know everything about it? That’s the core takeaway from this captivating dramatic feature, an ambitious, skillfully crafted tale told from multiple vantage points, all of them “correct” in their own right, despite the myriad differences that distinguish them from one another. Director Kore-eda’s cinematic homage to his famed countryman Kurosawa carefully spins a web combining the picture’s various story threads, reminding us of the old adage of not judging a book by its cover, poignantly illustrating that, no matter how much we may think we know about a particular situation, there’s a good chance we’ll never get a complete picture of it. Kore-eda serves up an eye-opening tale, one that gives us pause to think about our impressions and preconceptions in an age when many of us are all too quick to superficially judge what we see – and in a frequently flawed framework at that. The picture could stand to be a little more swiftly paced at times (especially in the final act), but this is arguably the director’s best and most sensitive work to date, one that, we can only hope, will have the kind of profound impact we need in an age where open-mindedness and tolerance are traits we could all stand to develop to a much greater degree – particularly when pieces of the puzzle are missing.

“Monster” has earned its share of accolades, especially at this year’s film festivals. At the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, the picture took home the Queer Palm Award and the trophy for best screenplay, as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. It was later recognized with the Gold-Q Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. While this offering has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, it has recently been distributed in limited theatrical release, primarily at arthouse cinemas.

Getting to the truth of a matter is something we shouldn’t take lightly. We may never know what’s involved until we take a good hard look at all of the elements involved, particularly those that go beyond the beliefs we hold, no matter how comprehensive we might think they are. Not only will doing so get us to the meat of such matters, but it can also tell us something about ourselves, revealing prejudices, blind spots and aspects of who we are and what we believe when it comes to our dealings with others. We might discover that we possess assumptions that we automatically and unhesitatingly employ, without question or analysis, giving us distorted pictures of the situations and people we face. And one can hardly say there’s any truth in that.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Reinvention on The Cinema Scribe

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

‘Poor Things’ surveys the process of reinvention

“Poor Things” (2023). Cast: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, Hanna Schygulla, Kathryn Hunter, Vicki Pepperdine, Margaret Qualley, Suzy Bemba. Director: Yorgos Lanthimos. Screenplay: Tony McNamara. Book: Alasdair Gray, Poor Things. Web site. Trailer.

When the circumstances of our lives don’t suit us, it’s time to reinvent ourselves. However, that may be easier said than done in some instances. It’s a process that can be helped along with some assistance, but the root of such a transformation still arises from within us. And, thankfully, the hoped-for outcome can result from a variety of approaches, nearly all of which can sprout in their own unique, individualized way, with no inherent restrictions holding them back. Such is the case in the outrageously quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance, “Poor Things.”

Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) leads something of a dual life. Outwardly, the Victorian Era scientist lives a somewhat unorthodox but mostly respectable life teaching med students about anatomy and surgical techniques at a London college. In his private life, however, he’s considerably more eccentric and outlandish, conducting controversial experiments in animal cross-breeding and other highly taboo subjects, stitching together body parts in a manner not unlike that found on his own craggy, patchwork face. To most, he would probably be likened to a peer of Dr. Frankenstein, though, considering the degree of deliberate seclusion he has established for himself, most people would likely never know anything about that side of his persona. And, for his sake, that’s prudent in light of his most outrageous project, one that night overwhelm the most fertile of imaginations – not to mention the civil and moral sensibilities of much of society.

While strolling through London one day, the doctor came upon an apparent suicide victim floating in the Thames at the base of one of the city’s bridges. He found the young, anonymous pregnant woman near death. She appeared to have no brain function, but her vital signs were clinging to life, a condition he believed he could work with in saving her from passing. His plan? Dr. Baxter decided to perform a brain transplant, removing the undamaged organ from the woman’s unborn child and placing it in the mother’s skull, subsequently enlivening it with a device to reanimate the victim.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the product of a questionable but bold scientific experiment, comes of age as she discovers the world around her in the quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance from director Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

As it turns out, the procedure worked, and thus Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) was “born.” There was just one hitch – even though Bella possessed the body of a full-grown woman, she had the brain of an infant. This combination left the doctor’s latest “creation” with a dearth of language and motor skills, as well as a fundamental lack of maturity and virtually no understanding of the wider world, conditions exacerbated by her existence being restricted to Baxter’s home. He was eager to see her grow and develop, but progress was decidedly slow. What was he to do?

As the film opens, the doctor comes to the conclusion that he might be able to further her development by compiling data about her skills, abilities and learning curve. But such an ambitious undertaking would require assistance, so he hires one of his students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to collect the information. When Max learns about the true nature of the task, though, he’s stunned. He’s both appalled and intrigued by what he finds, but he has trouble withdrawing from the assignment when he begins developing an attraction for his subject.

Bella’s progress initially continues slowly, even with Max’s observation and guidance. But the pacing accelerates markedly when she makes a discovery that astonishes her – an awareness of her own sexuality. It triggers something in her, prompting rapid advances in cognition, articulation and creativity. It also gives her tremendous pleasure, and that sense of arousal makes her ever more attractive to the young med student.

Godwin – whom Bella now calls “God” – notices the attraction between Bella and Max, even going so far as to suggest that they wed, provided they both agree to live in his home as Bella’s personal development continues. Despite the fact that she has made some progress, the doctor doesn’t believe she’s ready to venture out into the real world yet, even with Max to guide her. So, to ensure that his wishes are complied with in this venture, Baxter hires an attorney, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), to draw up a contract spelling out the terms.

Victorian Era surgeon/scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, right) and his trusty med student assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef, left), attempt to manage a questionable but bold experiment in the quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance, “Poor Things,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

But, just as matters seem to be falling into place, the arrival of the unscrupulous lawyer changes everything. Mr. Wedderburn, it seems, is quite a lusty, oily lech, taking an obsessive liking to Bella, who willingly returns those feelings in kind now that she’s discovered the libidinal side of her life. Bella and Duncan experience an explosion or carnal passion, and she readily accepts his invitation to join him on a trip to Lisbon. She promises Max that she’s still committed to him but that she wants an adventure in the real world before settling down with him for good. And, despite efforts by Godwin and Max to prevent her from leaving, she takes off with Duncan anyway.

Once free from her life of seclusion, Bella blossoms like a flower. She begins discovering her true self, growing ever wiser, more observant and more uninhibited in expressing herself and her singular view of the world. Unfortunately for Duncan, Bella’s growing sense of independence causes him frustration and distress he wasn’t prepared for. She wears him out sexually. She behaves in ways he finds embarrassing, particularly in public and in the company of others. And she frequently goes on unannounced adventures, leaving him alone and wondering where she is.

To rein Bella in, Duncan decides to book passage for the two of them on a Mediterranean cruise, believing that being aboard ship will keep her from straying. But this strategy backfires; she meets new and interesting people, such as Harry (Jerrod Carmichael) and Martha (Hanna Schygulla), an alternative couple who broaden Bella’s horizons, introduce her to philosophy and encourage her not to give in to the conventions of society, all of which nudge her further along her own path of personal exploration – and further away from Duncan.

That becomes particularly apparent when the couple – now in unexpected financial difficulty – is in Paris, where Bella takes a job as a working girl in a brothel run by a wily but insightful house mother, Mme. Swiney (Kathryn Hunter). It’s a place where the free-spirited traveler learns more about personal and sexual sovereignty from her peer and new best friend, Toinette (Suzy Bemba). In fact, as her journey continues, Bella comes into her own even more, leading her to become an astute, independent individual, a far cry from the person she once was and someone who now bows to no one. This developing attribute strengthens her capacity for personal growth and provides her with the common sense and street smarts she needs to get by, especially in a surprise confrontation with an old nemesis (Christopher Abbott).

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone, left), the product of a questionable but bold scientific experiment, attempts to manage a lusty but stormy relationship with attorney Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, right) in the quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance, “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

But where will all this lead? What will happen to Bella’s relationship (such as it is) with Duncan? And what will become of Godwin and Max back in London as their subject continues to roam about freely on her own? Is Bella’s experience something to be concerned about or celebrated? Indeed, will Dr. Baxter’s “experiment” prove to be a failure or a success beyond his wildest dreams? That all remains to be seen as this remarkable odyssey plays out.

Reinvention is a process that can ask much of us, and that’s especially true for someone like Bella given the unique circumstances under which this transformation began and emerged. Despite the beneficial assistance she receives from Godwin and Max, her experience shows us just how much of this change rests with us in our acts and deeds, as well as – most importantly – our beliefs, for they shape the existence that results. Such is the outcome of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these resources form the basis of each of our respective individual realities. It’s hard to say whether Bella or any of her cohorts have heard of this school of thought, but, as events unfold, it becomes apparent how much she puts it to use in defining herself and generating the new life she leads.

Bella’s experience in working with her emerging beliefs is, admittedly, something of an exercise in trial and error. Some initiatives work, while others need to be revamped. But what’s most impressive is that, like the innate nature of her overall self, she’s not afraid to experiment, to try out new things to see where they take her, all in the belief that the experiences will ultimately serve her well as she hones the path she wants to pursue, no matter how unconventional some of her notions may seem. This is a perspective that would likely prove valuable to anyone seeking to retool, even if matters take some time to sort out and refine. In this regard, Bella essentially becomes an unlikely teacher for all of us in this regard.

Lecherous lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) bites off more than he can chew when he embarks on a passionate but frustrating relationship with an independently minded partner in the latest from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

I find it intriguing that her greatest growth spurts come about as a result of her discovery of her own sexuality. Some may find this strange or unduly provocative, yet it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us when we think about the underlying nature of one’s erotic side. Sexuality, at its core, is an inherently creative act, one designed to give us pleasure, new experiences, and, perhaps eventually, the creation of new life. Even if some or all of these are not the desired intent, the practice of exploring this part of ourselves could (and, in fact, often does) inspire us to pursue our overall capacity for creativity, regardless of the particular areas of our lives in which it’s employed. It can potentially encompass everything from the creation of artistic works to the way we live our lives and everything in between. What matters most, though, is that we freely exercise this aspect of ourselves as intrinsically creative beings in the exploration and/or reinvention of our existence, no matter what aspect of reality we may choose to investigate.

Bella is not the only one who engages in this endeavor, either. The same could be said, for example, of the good doctor, whose experiments – while not for everyone – embody the notion of belief-driven creative exploration. Max, in his own way, follows suit, as he comes out of his shell and begins adopting a more open-minded approach to his life, his career and his capacity for romance. And, of course, similar outlooks are more than apparent in the lives of Harry, Martha, Mme. Swiney and Toinette, all of whom are not afraid to chart their own courses with their own brands of creativity and singular insights. Given these charismatic influences, it’s easy to see why Bella is so drawn to them and away from those – like Duncan and his friends – who are more innately conventional in their mindsets, expectations and lifestyles.

While the creative exploration of our beliefs and personal selves should be of paramount importance to us under any circumstances, it’s particularly crucial in this story in light of its historic time frame and the individuals involved. The Victorian Era was not especially welcoming to innovative thoughts and deeds, nor was it particularly accommodating to women. In an age where men ruled virtually everything and women were typically treated more like property than people, Bella’s determined, almost defiant acts of finding herself, exploring her individuality, and, accordingly, openly expressing her true being are remarkably courageous and inspiring undertakings to be commended. One could hope that the example she set would rub off on others, too, setting the stage for them to follow in her footsteps as reinvented, empowered individuals. That’s especially true for women eager to unapologetically be themselves, those who are unwilling to capitulate to others and refuse to be relegated to the status of “poor things.”

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) seeks to be a woman who comes into her own in “Poor Things,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

The process of reinvention is something that happens both literally and metaphorically in this latest offering from director Yorgos Lanthimos. But the way that result comes about here represents a truly inspired fusion of genres, including comedy, romance, social commentary and sci-fi, making for one of the most inventive, unusual and hilarious releases of recent years. This offbeat feminist fable, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, pushes the envelope of convention, exposing viewers to a wide range of ideas and outlooks for fulfilling the aforementioned goal and serving it up with hefty doses of absurdist humor. While the film’s pacing could use some shoring up in the middle, this offering nevertheless entertains with alternative insights and uproarious laughs throughout, even when the narrative turns more thoughtful and substantive. The superb performances by Stone, Dafoe and Ruffalo are undeniably top shelf, all of them earning well-deserved awards season accolades, with more undoubtedly to come. The film is also visually stunning in its cinematography and editing, as well as in its spectacular and whimsical production design, filled with vibrant images reminiscent of the movies of Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam while sustaining a look all its own. Admittedly, this release features a good deal of explicit sexuality, both visually and in the dialogue, so sensitive and easily offended viewers should take note. However, as one of the most anticipated pictures of this year’s awards season, “Poor Things” never disappoints, serving up a solid offering that consistently tickles the funny bone while giving audiences much to think about – and there’s nothing poor in any of that.

For its efforts, “Poor Things” has earned seven Golden Globe Award nominations for best picture (musical or comedy), director, actress (musical or comedy) (Stone), supporting actor (Ruffalo and Dafoe), screenplay and original score. On top of that, the film has also captured a whopping 13 Critics Choice Award nominations for best picture, comedy picture, director, actress (Stone), supporting actor (Ruffalo), adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, production design, original score, visual effects, costume design, and hair and makeup. In addition, this release has garnered three honors from the National Board of Review for best supporting actor (Ruffalo) and adapted screenplay, as well as one of the year’s Top 10 Films. “Poor Things” is currently playing theatrically in general release.

Coming into our own is difficult enough, even under the best of circumstances. But shifting to something new and more acceptable after we thought we had things sorted out can be considerably more exasperating, especially if we have no clue what to do next. However, by keeping an open mind, having the courage to experiment and being willing to freely express ourselves, we just might find the process to be easier to manage, perhaps even becoming an amusing and gratifying adventure. There’s much to be experienced and enjoyed in this paradigm we call existence, and a good deal of it could suit us when looking for new ways to live our lives. Bella clearly understands that, so, if we’re dissatisfied with where we’re at, perhaps we should consider following her lead. After all, what do we have to lose but a whole lot of unhappiness and discontent? And, in light of what we stand to gain, that sounds like quite a bargain indeed.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 15, 2023

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Dream Scenario," "Rustin" and "El Conde" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

‘El Conde’ metaphorically skewers a dictator’s life

El Conde” (“The Count”) (2023). Cast: Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro, Paula Luchsinger, Stella Gonet, Catalina Guerra, Amparo Noguera, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Diego Muñoz, Clemente Rodriguez, Sofia Maluk, Marcelo Alonso, Daniel Contesse, Daniela Seguel, Jaime McManus. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Guillermo Calderón and Pablo Larraín. Book: Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, A Journey Through Life: Memoirs of a Soldier. Web site. Trailer.

In the wake of the recent 50th anniversary of the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat that resulted in the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende, an effort led by the country’s military and backed by the US government, a number of film projects (both documentary and narrative features) have been released looking back on this event. These projects have come in a variety of forms, and one of the most unusual (and creative) among them has been a production that takes a metaphorical and wickedly satirical look at the life of Allende’s successor, dictator Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), portraying him in a surreal but fitting milieu, as seen in the hilarious but insightful allegorical biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”).

This “biography” of Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) employs an alternative approach to telling his story, one that’s decidedly more metaphorical than literal. Considering the dictator’s brutal nature during his reign (1973-1990) and the relentless drain his tactics placed on Chilean civilians and society during that time, director Pablo Larraín has chosen to quite fittingly portray him as a vampire. And, to that end, the filmmaker tells Pinochet’s story in the style of director F.W. Murnau’s black-and-white silent film classic, “Nosferatu” (1922), with all its cringeworthy creepy Gothic trappings.

The story focuses on Pinochet’s time after he’s no longer in power, a sad, old, lonely man living in destitute conditions in a remote, decrepit compound. But, to put the autocrat’s life in context, the film presents his back story as told by an unseen, eminently articulate English-speaking narrator (Stella Gonet). She begins by speaking of the immortal protagonist’s birth in 18th Century France as Claude Pinoche (Clemente Rodriguez), a viciously unruly youth who was abandoned by his mother (Sofia Maluk) and came of age as a heartless royalist soldier during the French Revolution. It was during this time that he discovered his vampiric nature and adopted his penchant for vehemently supporting established, reactionary regimes. He carried these qualities forward during what appeared to be a series of “lifetimes,” ever fighting for archaic causes on the brink of collapse. He did his duty well, at least in the eyes of those he was supporting, but always as a soldier and never anything more.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell, center) assumes power over the country after the 1973 ousting of President Salvador Allende, as seen in director Pablo Larraín’s metaphorical new biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

By the mid 20th Century, however, Pinoche had tired of always fulfilling the role of a fighting man. Through his many years of combat, he had grown aware of what works and what doesn’t during the turmoil of struggling military and political campaigns. And so, with this outlook, he decided to change tracks, launching himself onto a path in which he sought to acquire leadership powers, an opportunity he found in Chile, a nation wrestling with finding a direction for its future. After rising through the country’s political and military ranks, the young, ambitious renamed would-be autocrat (Daniel Contesse) was poised to move ahead with his plans. That opportunity finally arrived in 1973, when he helped lead the overthrow of President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected leader who rose to power three years earlier but who was an avowed Communist, the antithesis of Pinochet’s ideological leanings and someone whom he saw as a scourge on the nation. With the coup successful, Pinochet finally had what he had been seeking.

By the late ’80s, however, Pinochet had fallen out of favor, and a national referendum saw him ousted from office in 1990, but not without having amassed tremendous wealth in plundering the country and collecting a fortune in kickbacks from lackies and opportunists. Still, though, what is a former all-powerful dictator supposed to do with himself under conditions like these? In addition to possible threats of prosecution and the lingering animosity of the Chilean people, it certainly wouldn’t be in his best interests to maintain any kind of a public profile akin to what he had while in office. As a consequence, he chose to slink away into obscurity, a protected but unfulfilling life option. And, for someone who’s immortal, it doesn’t hold much promise for the future, despite having the capability to start over anew at any time of his choosing.

However, after having lived a life where he attained everything that he thought he wanted – and the eventual disappointment that came from that – he had to ask himself whether he wanted to rejuvenate himself and begin another new life with another new identity. Moreover, having allowed his program of regular feedings to lapse, he began falling prey to the ravages of time, including the effects of physical aging that typically afflict most mortals, such as failing health and lost memory. It grew so extreme, in fact, that he forgot where most of his wealth was hidden and how to access it. In light of that, from his standpoint, would it thus be worthwhile to start over without the financial resources he had accumulated to make his standard of living possible? Indeed, could he build the kind of new life he would require without the means to do so, even if his health were restored?

When a nun (Paula Luchsinger, center) is assigned to pose as an accountant to audit the books of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, she’s secretly charged with carrying out a more clandestine task, as seen in director Pablo Larraín’s satirical new film biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Such are the conditions in place as Pinochet’s story begins. He weighs his options about whether to start over or just allow himself to die. As noted, he doesn’t know where the money has gone. At the same time, he has lost interest in his wife, Lucia (Gloria Münchmeyer), a once-lusty, provocative beauty who, with age, has transformed into the embodiment of a ruthless, conniving crone. And then there is Pinochet’s best friend and butler, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), and the Count’s five children (Catalina Guerra, Amparo Noguera, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Diego Muñoz), all of whom are actively seeking to discover what happened to the cash, all of them driven by their own selfish motivations. In fact, the children are so anxious to get their hands on their father’s wealth that they’ve hired an accountant, Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), to audit his books to see if the funds can be found. What the kids and their dad don’t know, however, is that the auditor is secretly a nun charged with exorcising Pinochet’s demons and, if possible, retrieving the lost funds and turning them over to the cardinal to whom she reports (Jaime McManus).

As all this is playing out, Pinochet still wavers about his future, although his head is certainly turned by the young accountant’s arrival at the family compound, especially now that Lucia is carrying on a less-than-clandestine affair with Fyodor in the wake of Augusto ignoring her and openly flirting with the nubile new visitor. And, in the nearby Chilean capital of Santiago, the city is being plagued by a string of new vampiric killings, making everyone wonder whether Augusto is returning to his old ways, rejuvenating himself perhaps as a prelude to secretly launching a new life for himself – and possibly absconding with the allegedly missing money, leaving everyone else high and dry. But, as matters continue going awry, none of these conditions can compare to the chaos and lunacy that emerge when the mysterious narrator at last appears in person, taking the story in an outrageous and even more unexpected direction.

Considering how everything has played out in Pinochet’s life, is the existence he envisioned for himself lived up to his expectations? If it hasn’t, his ennui and disillusionment are certainly understandable. But, if it has, then why has he grown so despondent and seriously considering ending everything? Needless to say, these are circumstances that should prompt him to look inward and do some serious soul-searching. But is such a thoughtful capability even possible for a vampire – or a dictator? By all rights, Pinochet has made his bed, but, as an immortal, need he lie in it? And, if not, what other options are open to him, especially with everything that’s unfolding around him?

Based on how events have unfolded here, it would appear Pinochet has some difficult choices ahead of him. Ironically, however, that power of choice could also prove to be his salvation with so many different possibilities available. What matters most in this, though, is what he believes, for those beliefs play a pivotal role in how his reality unfolds, an outcome made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy governing the manifestation of his existence. It’s unclear whether he’s ever heard of this line of thinking, but, if employed skillfully, it could be essential to get the result he wants.

A series of mysterious vampiric killings occur in the shadows in the Chilean capital of Santiago, raising many questions of what’s behind them, as seen in the satiric new dark comedy, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

However, Pinochet is up against many factors as he sorts things out. For instance, he has many people trying to influence his choices, including Lucia, Fyodor and his five children. There are also the beliefs and opinions of groups and institutions trying to have their say, whether or not he’s aware of it, including the Church and the Chilean people, constituencies heavily impacted by the deplorable actions of his past. They detest him so much, in fact, that their scorn is largely responsible for having driven him to live in seclusion, an existence that has caused him to lose touch with the outside world and even the possessions he once so zealously adored, such as the now-missing fortune he amassed while in power. All of this has left him directionless, unable to decide which beliefs to embrace for himself.

It could be also argued that his indecision is further driven by an assessment of his past. Having lived so many lives filled with reprehensible behavior, perhaps glimmers of guilt and disillusionment have finally caught up with him. In addition to those many lifetimes where he brutally did the bidding of heinous autocrats as a loyal foot soldier, he’s most recently experienced the kind of unbridled power that his sovereigns did previously. This unchecked lust for control led him to engage in unspeakable practices that could only be described as “vampiric” in every sense of the word. And, despite whatever momentary level of gratification they may have given him while in charge, he was ultimately removed from that position of power by those whom he most sternly controlled, leaving him without what he so jealously craved, as well as any meaningful kind of respect or admiration once out of office, not to mention a satisfying lifestyle in retirement. He can’t help but ask himself, was all the effort that went into creating that life worthwhile in the end, especially since everything he coveted has now gone away? What’s more, despite the ability to re-create those conditions in a new life for himself, does he want to go through that potential disappointment once again or just slip away and die? Regrets can carry considerable weight as beliefs, and they can make it easy to give up and look for a new path to follow, especially when heavily tinged with such pervasive discouragement.

Then again, maybe it is worth taking another stab at it, particularly when “incentives” emerge, such as the presence of the lovely Carmencita. Pinochet’s attraction to her is obvious, and, over time, she begins returning the lustful admiration, despite her vows and supposedly sacred mission. And then there’s the influence of the mysterious narrator, who offers some startlingly attractive propositions upon her arrival. Given Pinochet’s nature, these inducements might easily prompt him to change course and begin craving the old ways once again.

What will he decide? Will he sincerely follow a path of atonement and redemption by choosing a new course? Or will he slip back into his old self, returning to a life of self-serving avarice? The choice – and the beliefs behind it – are his, just as they are for any of us. We might like to hope he chooses wisely, but that decision is on him – one that he won’t be able to make until he’s ready to do so, a circumstance that’s as true for him as it is for us, no matter how patently obvious the choice may seem. Until that time, though, he’ll have to put up with whatever ancillary consequences accompany his choice, for better or worse.

When a vampire takes flight for a night of hunting, there’s no telling what will transpire in the wickedly funny biography, “El Conde” (“The Count”), available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Fusing cinematic genres can be tricky, especially if the mix doesn’t mesh. But the latest from writer-director Pablo Larraín successfully pulls off a brilliantly original blend and does so just about perfectly in this metaphorical account of the life of the onetime-Chilean strongman as a vampire a la Dracula (hence the title and the character’s nickname, “the Count”). As the elderly former dictator assesses his options for the future, many story threads emerge and become intertwined, satirically invoking wry observations about despotism, greed, power, lust, immortality and religion. On top of all this, there’s the hilarious appearance of the faceless narrator whose unexpected appearance late in the film takes things in an entirely new uproarious direction with deliciously twisted plot developments. Add to all this the film’s stunningly gorgeous monochrome cinematography, superb production design, fine performances and positively sparkling screenplay, along with just enough restrained campiness in the dialogue and special effects to make viewers giggle with delight without becoming silly, and you’ve got one finely crafted production, perfectly integrated and nicely balanced. Admittedly, the pacing drags a smidge late in the second act, but that’s easily dismissed considering how well everything else works together. Also, the film is quite graphic in a number of sequences, so squeamish and sensitive viewers would be wise to avoid this one. But, if you’re not faint of heart and have an appetite for the macabre, give this Netflix exclusive a look. Director Pablo Larraín’s pictures keep getting better and better with every outing, and this is the latest in a string of releases that have firmly established him as one of the finest auteurs in the business these days. Tune in and see for yourself.

It’s no secret that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and Pinochet certainly proved that during his 17 years in office. By the same token, it’s also been said that “what goes around comes around,” as this offering so deliciously illustrates, leaving one destitute, disillusioned, indecisive and morally bankrupt in light of a legacy of unspeakable transgressions. This is one hell of a cautionary tale for those who seek personal gratification at any cost, those who blindly ignore the impact on those around them, as well as themselves. Our vast creative powers can indeed be put to many valuable uses, but we must choose our options wisely, no matter how many chances we may get – or how many lifetimes we may live.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Cancel Culture Probed on The Cinema Scribe

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

Sunday, December 10, 2023

‘Dream Scenario’ wrestles with social fanaticism

“Dream Scenario” (2023). Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Paula Boudreau, Dylan Baker, Krista Bridges, Dylan Gelula, Kate Berlant, Marnie McPhail Diamond, Cara Volchoff, Joshua Richards, Jordan Raf. Director: Kristoffer Borgli. Screenplay: Kristoffer Borgli. Web site. Trailer.

Remember when times were simpler, when you didn’t need to worry about expressing yourself without first having to weigh the long-term ramifications for yourself and the seven generations of progeny that followed? What’s more, recall what it was like to be able to have an opinion without running the risk of oppressive social ostracism from the overly zealous political correctness police force imposing its herd mentality on everyone everywhere? Somewhere along the way we lost our bearings – and ourselves – to a code of conduct that can easily (and unnecessarily) get one canceled for even the slightest misstep. And what a shame that has been for society and our freedom of expression, a situation in which tolerance has gone out the window in favor of some excessively inflated concept of enlightened conformity that, in many ways, flies squarely in the face of the supposed acceptance and open-mindedness that it so ironically claims to celebrate. Such are the ideas explored in the hilarious, insightful and biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.”

The life of middle-aged, mild-mannered university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) has just taken an unexpected left turn. The father of two (Lily Bird, Jessica Clement), who’s happily married to his second wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and tenured in his job, learns that he’s appearing in the dreams of countless people, including a long-separated ex-girlfriend (Marnie McPhail Diamond), many of his students and countless other people he doesn’t even know. In virtually all cases, he’s present as a mere observer to what’s going on in these nighttime ruminations, never getting involved as events transpire. But this phenomenon is so widespread that he soon becomes the object of public attention, including as a media sensation and potential pitch man for various commodities.

Needless to say, Paul is completely baffled by these developments. “Why Me?”, he wonders. He’s not exactly a highly visible public person, content to be living out his life in relative solitude. It’s true that he’d like a little more notoriety for his research work, but it’s not something he obsesses about by any means, though he sometimes gets perturbed that his ex-wife, Sheila (Paula Boudreau), shows him up and steals his thunder. Nevertheless, he’s modestly excited by the prospect of being onboarded by a cutting-edge brand development company, Thoughts?, founded by an empty-headed young social media influencer and marketing whiz kid, Trent (Michael Cera), backed by his two trusty associates, Molly (Dylan Gelula) and Mary (Kate Berlant).

Paul is hopeful that the Thoughts? crew can help him get his admittedly esoteric research findings published in a book, but he’s quickly disappointed when he discovers that Trent, Molly and Mary don’t understand the first thing about what he’s seeking to accomplish. Instead of trying to help Paul realize his dreams, they work on trying to convince him to become the new spokesperson for Sprite, featuring him in commercials mirroring the appearances he makes in other people’s dreams. It’s another development that puzzles him – and one that proves disappointing when it doesn’t lead to the fulfillment of his aspirations.

Mild-mannered middle-aged university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage, left) enjoys a pleasant life with his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson, right), until all hell breaks loose in the biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

The unexpected developments don’t stop there, though. After a prolonged period of what has been basically a series of benign appearances in the dreams of others, they suddenly begin moving in a new direction, taking a decidedly violent turn. The onetime-observer now becomes an active participant in the dreams, frequently engaging in grotesque and gruesome acts toward the dreamers. What’s that all about?

Paul is again mystified by what happens. As with his initial appearances in others’ dreams, he didn’t initiate or ask for this, either. This time, however, the reactions to his intrusions are different. People are scared of what’s unfolding in their dreams. His students turn against him, engaging in acts of defiant solidarity of what he represents, an initiative that not only affects their reactions to his presence in their dreams, but also in their everyday lives, including refusals to participate in his classroom instruction. It strains his relationship with the university’s dean and his longtime friend, Brett (Tim Meadows), who tries to be understanding and helpful but has his own career and future to think of in his management of these new guilt by association concerns.  What’s more, prospects with Thoughts? quickly dry up, and Paul’s home life becomes rocky at best. Suddenly he’s the object of an orchestrated cancel culture campaign, one that increasingly frustrates him, especially since he never asked for any of this and is fundamentally incapable of controlling how any of it plays out.

In relatively short order, Paul goes from being a happily contented man to someone whose life is falling apart on all fronts. The degree of frustration is maddening as he sees his life being torn apart. And the worst part of it is that he didn’t see any of it coming. But, then, as any victim of cancel culture can attest, he’s not alone on this by any means. Moreover, the effects are so pervasive that he’s unable to figure a way out of this. Indeed, what is he to do?

When he becomes an unexpected media sensation under unusual circumstances, university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is approached by a brand development company, Thoughts?, to be a possible pitch man for products unrelated to his field of study, as seen in writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest, the biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Considering the volatile fallout that Paul must contend with, one might legitimately observe that no one should have to be subjected to such abuse. And that insight is indeed spot on. Yet why did it happen? What’s more, why does it repeatedly continue to happen in real life? Do those inflicting such scorn not care? Have they lost their perspective? Are they so anxious for retribution that they’ll pursue any avenue to attain it, no matter how trivial or unforeseen the infraction might be? Are they willingly buying into herd mentality without thinking or taking the time to examine and assess the consequences of their actions? Or is it some of all of the foregoing?

Regardless of the cause(s) involved in this, what’s most important to recognize is what its instigators believe, for our beliefs play a key role in what manifests in our existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy driving such materializations. It’s unclear how many of us are aware of or have bought into this school of thought, but, based on what unfolds in this picture, it’s obvious that there are a good many of us who don’t have a clue about it, especially when it comes to what they’ve created.

There are several inherent problems in this. To begin with, by being unaware of the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, we may well end up manifesting outcomes over which we have no awareness, even though their impact is clearly undeniable. This is known as un-conscious creation or creation by default, a practice in which we’re so focused on the result that we give no consideration to the implications involved, including unintended side effects. One need only look at what comes from the initiatives of Paul’s students to see that.

Second, un-conscious creation often carries with it a huge degree of irresponsibility. Recognizing that is crucial in light of the fact that we’re the masters of our own creations, no matter how much awareness we may have of this. The fates that befall Paul – from all sources – are a direct result of what others manifest, only he’s the one left to pick up the pieces from these circumstances. (So much for our sense of personal responsibility.)

Trent (Michael Cera, center), owner of a cutting-edge brand management company, confers with his two trusty associates, Molly (Dylan Gelula, left) and Mary (Kate Berlant, right), on how to make best use of a new client, an unexpected, unlikely overnight media sensation, in the biting new social satire, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Third, the materializations Paul’s left to endure come about as a result of the joint efforts of others, a co-creation, as it were. One of the qualities that characterize such collaborations is that they’re infused with the collective power of the beliefs of all of their creators. This amplifies the impact – often significantly – when a vast number of participants are involved in these scenarios. And, in this case, they overwhelm Paul, not just because of the number of those involved, but also because of the degree of passion infused in their manifesting beliefs. They have tremendous faith in their efforts, truly convinced that they’re doing the right thing for themselves and others like them.

Of course, one might argue, doesn’t Paul play a part in this scenario? If indeed we each create our own existence, aren’t his beliefs involved in how matters unfold here? To an extent, that’s true, but what could he possibly stand to gain from getting caught up in such a toxic situation as this? There could be a variety of answers, and his reasons (and resulting beliefs) are genuinely his own business. But, if we were to speculate about possible intents, perhaps it’s because he’s volunteered to step up to the plate and show others what kind of impact their beliefs and actions might have on someone in a scenario like this. He might like to hope that the personal sacrifice he unwittingly makes can help the others see the errors of their ways, giving them food for thought to consider in whatever they undertake in future ventures. That could be a lot to hope for in light of their intransigent way of thinking, of course, but, then, someone has to get the ball rolling when it comes to something like this. And, given Paul’s intrinsic thoughtfulness and sensitivity, maybe he believes that he’s the one who should try to attempt it in hopes of bringing about meaningful change. What a noble gesture, to be sure.

I find it intriguing that Paul may be seeking to accomplish this by inserting himself into others’ dreams. It seems like an ideal way to “get into someone’s head.” On a metaphorical level, his insertion of himself into the dream state of others is akin to showing up in the newsfeeds of social media platforms, a somewhat comparable way of injecting oneself into the everyday lives of an array of individuals, including some we may not even know. And, like those newsfeeds, even though his initial appearance may seem somewhat benign – as evidenced by his presence primarily as an observer – once he’s established himself there, he takes on other distinguishing qualities with which others may agree or intrinsically find fault (and we all know from social media experiences what can result when that happens).

When university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is confronted by his students, he becomes a pariah who’s no longer welcome on campus, as seen in writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

While Paul’s later dream appearances take on what seem to be violent tendencies, those actions can be interpreted metaphorically, too. For instance, if, after his period of initial observation, he discovers that the fulfillment of his adopted mission calls for him to point out the aforementioned manifestation pitfalls (lack of awareness, irresponsibility and the potentially disruptive power of joint efforts), he might well encounter strong opposition from those who resist such changes in perspective, prompting them to lash out at attempts at removing them from the comfort zones of their prevailing and established beliefs. The backlash could be considerable, depleting him of his enthusiasm and leaving him to sort matters out from a seriously weakened and vastly overwhelmed position. Martyrs, it would seem, seldom have it easy, particularly when faced with the force of an organized cancel culture campaign. His only hope under circumstances like these is that a seed gets planted for the future, one that viably takes root and successfully sprouts down the road.

For everything that “Dream Scenario” has to say about the foregoing, it has much more to impart in other areas as well, such as the nature of fame and the downfalls that can come with it. Likewise, the film addresses the nasty ongoing intergenerational feuds occurring between Baby Boomers and the combined forces of Millennials and Gen Z, a situation most notably pointed out in the confrontations between Paul and his students. These factors don’t receive quite the same level of attention as the cancel culture considerations, but they’re present nonetheless, especially since they factor into the picture’s primary insights. Collectively, they weave a troubling tapestry of contemporary society, holes and all, showing us what a precarious path we’re currently on – and what could happen if we don’t soon take out our fabric repair kits to fix things before they completely unravel.

When the incessant frustration of cancel culture gets the better of him, mild-mannered university professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) fights back when he sees he has no other recourse in the new dark comedy/cautionary tale, “Dream Scenario.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Packing a lot of material and ideas into a single film can result in a muddled, confusing mess, no matter how well-meaning a filmmaker’s intentions might be. However, in his third feature outing, writer-director Kristoffer Borgli succeeds for the most part when it comes to tackling such an imposing task. This offbeat fable takes viewers on a wild ride through the diverse realms of fame, metaphysics, cancel culture, unrelenting group think, and unexpressed, underpursued desire, along with the downside consequences of each. The curious oneiric anomaly that sets things in motion quickly transforms the protagonist into an overnight viral media sensation, one that starts off with a generous showering of attention and lustful admiration but that almost as quickly leads him to become a scorned put-upon pariah, a scenario not unlike what can happen to anyone in the public eye for even the slightest of transgressions. From the foregoing description, it might sound like the filmmaker has tried to overstuff this vehicle with far too much material for viewers to process and comprehend, and there are points in the story (especially in the last half hour) where a good case could be made for that argument. However, in telling this allegorical tale, the director manages to keep the narrative’s ideas distinctly sorted and in context to drive home his message, a powerful cautionary tale about the point we’ve collectively reached as a society. These are notions that we all need to hear but seldom do because of all the noise surrounding us that prevents us from hearing the music because of all the notes.

For all its seriousness, however, “Dream Scenario” is loaded with absolutely hilarious, laugh-out-loud humor and fine performances all around (especially Cage and Cera), complemented with skillful film editing and carefully selected incidental shots that effectively punctuate the mood of many scenes. The script is generally solid, too, though it begins to stray somewhat from the material that works best in the final act, and there are a few graphically violent sequences that sensitive viewers should be wary of. On balance, though, this is the kind of production that should be made in greater numbers in an age where so many of us have lost touch with reason, our existence and ourselves. Maybe watching an offering like this could help us all sit up, think and get back on track while we still can. The film is playing theatrically.

So many have said that there is something fundamentally out of whack when it comes to our society – if not our entire world – these days, and it often feels like the time to fix it may be quickly slipping away from us. “Dream Scenario” shines a bright light on this sentiment, and it does so with unrelenting, in-your-face candor. It’s an urgent wakeup call for those who are currently sleeping through their lives and don’t seem to care. One can only hope that the alarm is loud enough to have its intended effect before the opportunity to have an impact is gone for good.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

New Movies for November

Join yours truly and show host Frankie Picasso for looks at six new films on the upcoming November movie review edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast, to begin airing Thursday November 30 at 1 pm ET. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Fingernails," "Nyad" and "After Death," 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.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Determination, Flexibility on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday November 28, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Podchaser, Audible, Deezer, Podcast Addict and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

‘Rustin’ champions the power of determination

“Rustin” (2023). Cast: Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Aml Ameen, Johnny Ramey, CCH Pounder, Jeffrey Wright, Gus Halper, Michael Potts, Maxwell Whittington-Cooper, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Adrienne Warren, Audra McDonald, Lilli Kay, Jordan-Amanda Hall, Carra Patterson, Rashad Demond Edwards. Director: George C. Wolfe. Screenplay: Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black. Story: Julian Breece. Web site. Trailer.

Fighting against a system determined to hold individuals back requires as much determination as the opposition puts forth. It can be frustrating to the activists taking on such a challenge, especially when progress moves along at a snail’s pace. However, when inspired, committed, fervent leaders step forward to address those issues, it’s remarkable how much momentum it can generate to move things forward, yielding tremendous backing and prompting surprising rapidity. One such advocate’s efforts in this regard illustrate these outcomes with sparkling clarity and zealous inspiration, as seen in the uplifting new film biography, “Rustin.”

As the film opens in 1960, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) (Colman Domingo) has developed quite a reputation for getting things done. The often-outspoken civil rights activist spent years working on various initiatives, and, in 1956, he became a trusted aide and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Amil Ameen), who was emerging as the preeminent leader of the movement. In particular, Rustin taught King about the nonviolent resistance tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi, a strategy that would come to define King’s subsequent protest efforts. Rustin also worked with King in establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, one of the most highly visible organizations involved in the civil rights movement.

For the upcoming 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Rustin and King began work on plans for a civil rights march in conjunction with the event. However, influential Black leaders at the time – most notably Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY) (Jeffrey Wright) – had reservations about Rustin’s involvement, particularly when it came to how much visible he would be. The reason? Rustin was open about being gay – a rarity at the time – and had a 1953 sexual misconduct arrest on his record. At one time, he had been affiliated with the Young Communist League (a connection he later rejected). And he was also an avowed conscientious objector to military service, a decision that prompted many to view him as a draft-dodger. Powell and others did not believe Rustin was a suitable representative for African-Americans seeking to make their equal rights case to a still-often-reluctant public, even in some of the country’s more open-minded regions. So, to assure that he would get his way on this matter, Powell said he would circulate rumors of a fictitious, albeit convincing gay love affair between Rustin and King, a threat that prompted King to back down on his plan.

Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, faces a variety of challenges in pulling together this landmark civil rights event, as seen in the inspiring new biopic, “Rustin,” now available for streaming on Netflix. Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

With plans for the Los Angeles march called off, King and Rustin parted ways. Rustin took a job in which he maintained a low profile while he assessed what his next step would be. He kept in contact with his activist peers, but he was less involved than he had been previously. But, as plans for a proposed 1963 March on Washington were heating up, Rustin was approached to play a key role in organizing the event, largely with the backing of labor union and civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) and Ella Baker (Audra McDonald). And, when Rustin and King reached an agreement to reconcile their differences, they managed to make peace with one another and recommit to the alliance they had so successfully forged years earlier.

Inspired by the potential for the march and with significant pieces of the puzzle in place, Rustin decided to get behind the effort. But, once committed, he again ran into opposition from community leaders like Powell and NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), citing the aforementioned reservations about the propriety of Rustin’s appointment. However, with the firm backing of staunch allies like Randolph, labor organizer Cleve Robinson (Michael Potts), activist/writer/educator Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder) and Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman John Lewis (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Rustin was given the mandate to coordinate plans for the event. But the downside in this was that he was operating on a tight time frame – eight weeks – with a long list of fundraising and logistical considerations to address, and some wondered whether he would be able to meet the deadline and the demands being placed on him.

Rustin’s enthusiasm and charisma proved to be infectious. Not only did he garner the support, assistance and cooperation of the movement’s notables, but he also won over a team of dedicated, hard-working volunteers, like 22-year-old Rachelle Horowitz (Lilli Kay), who coordinated transportation for thousands of marchers traveling to the nation’s capital. Like him, the volunteers believed in the cause and put in long hours to make sure the march would come off as hoped for. And, when they saw Rustin’s diligence at work in solving issues related to safety, security, first aid, the supply of basic necessities, and recruiting marchers from far and wide, they doubled their efforts to pull everything together.

The 1963 March on Washington, which was expected to draw 100,000 participants, attracted approximately 250,000 individuals, including such notables as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen, fourth from left) and NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock, fifth from left), as seen in director George C. Wolfe’s inspiring new film biography, “Rustin.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

As events played out, though, there were incidents that threatened to derail Rustin’s efforts. For example, he became embroiled in a somewhat less-than-discreet affair with a young, married, sexually curious minister, Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a composite fictional character based on several of Rustin’s romantic partners at the time. It was a relationship that, if exposed, could blow the top off of his efforts. The affair also placed strain on Rustin’s on-again/off-again involvement with his roommate, Tom Kahn (Gus Halper), one his most trusted aides and occasional bed mates. There were also strong public criticisms from politicians like Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC; later R-SC), who openly denounced Rustin for his homosexuality, onetime-Communist leanings and conscientious objector status. What’s more, as Rustin’s organizing success began to snowball, he again faced opposition from Powell, who took an almost-perverse glee in wanting to see him fail, especially now that Rustin was beginning to draw attention away from the influential Congressman. But Powell’s scheming and skepticism soon placed him in the minority when it came to his view of Rustin; he and other detractors soon became marginalized when they saw how much the activist had accomplished in such a short time.

With things in place as much as they were going to be, the time came in August 1963 when the event was to take place. For all of his hard work, though, Rustin still couldn’t help but wonder whether the march was going to succeed, observing on the day of the event that he “hope[d] people would show up.” Those fears proved unfounded, however. While he and his peers had hoped that the march would draw 100,000 participants, it ended up attracting approximately 250,000, making it the largest peaceful demonstration ever to be held on the Washington Mall. It featured appearances by such noteworthy performers as vocalist Mahalia Jackson (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and it became famous as the event that showcased King’s now-famous “I have a dream” speech.

Not a bad outcome for someone who was reviled for speaking his mind, being himself and making the world aware that it was indeed time for a change.

These qualities, of course, played a vital role in Rustin’s success, primarily because they were at the core of the beliefs he held most dearly. And that’s important given the part they play in the manifestation of the existence we experience, the result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in the materialization of our reality. It’s unclear whether Rustin was familiar with this way of thinking, but, based upon the results he achieved, it’s apparent that he was well versed in its principles and how to apply them.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen) delivers his now-famous “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, an event organized by activist Bayard Rustin, as seen in the new Netflix biopic, “Rustin.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

From how Rustin is portrayed in the film, it’s obvious he believed in the ideas behind the equal rights, civil rights and gay rights movements. They were part of who he was, and he naturally wanted to see them implemented for everyone in the wider world. His enthusiasm, faith in the process and hope for the future were visible to all, and he made no efforts to conceal these feelings and beliefs, no matter how unpopular they may have been in some quarters, including, ironically, among those who themselves would have benefitted most from their acceptance and implementation. His fervor was compelling, and others who agreed with his perspective couldn’t help but be impelled to follow suit and take action because of it.

Rustin’s belief in his determination was too strong to be denied. Even when he was attacked and criticized by the likes of Powell and Wilkins and experienced his falling out with King, he recoiled, coming back stronger than ever after taking time to regroup, alter his beliefs and rework his strategies. That willingness to reinvent himself when necessary carried the day and enabled him to step forward and fulfill his objectives. And those objectives were indeed crucial to his being, for they represented the destiny he was meant to live out, a practice in conscious creation terms often known as exercising his value fulfillment.

Rustin’s achievements were indeed significant in many endeavors, including in those not addressed in the film. He played an active role in the Freedom Riders movement and would later go on to be a vocal advocate in the gay rights movement. Even though this picture focuses primarily on one aspect of his accomplishments, it nevertheless gives viewers a clear look at who he was, what he believed and the kinds of accomplishments that came to characterize him, attainments that, in the end, we should all be grateful for.

Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY) (Jeffrey Wright) sternly expresses his opposition to the appointment of openly gay Black activist Bayard Rustin as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, believing him to be an unsuitable representative of the African-American community, as seen in the new Netflix biopic, “Rustin.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

Unsung heroes often don’t get their day. Fortunately, however, for Rustin, he finally gets his due in this new biopic. The flamboyant, outspoken activist shines in this feature from director George C. Wolfe, showing Rustin as the determined champion that he was. The film presents an informative period piece biography, even if the approach is somewhat conventional and, admittedly, gets off to a rather rocky start in the first half hour. However, that’s made up for by a strong second half and the picture’s powerhouse cast, including Domingo (a strong Oscar nominee contender), Wright, Ameen, Turman, Pounder and Ramey in fine supporting performances. While this offering may not be everything it could have been, “Rustin” nevertheless reminds us of what so many people fought so hard to achieve – and why it’s so important that we strive to protect those accomplishments against backsliding and those who might seek to undermine the fulfillment of those much-cherished attainments. The film is available for streaming as a Netflix exclusive.

At times when things seem bleak, it’s all the more important that we have committed leaders who can step up, take charge and rally supporters to their causes, especially when so much is on the line. Lethargy, ambivalence and disinterest get us nowhere in the face of such issues, which is why the kind of uplifting enthusiasm generated by someone like Rustin is so important to furthering these initiatives. In an age where it’s become all too easy to step back, watch and remain uninvolved, it’s become crucial that we have films like this to ignite the flames of activism to address the injustices that remain and are allowed to continue unabated. Bayard would undoubtedly have been pleased with what’s become of his efforts – and be the first one to stand up and tell us we need to get back to work to finish the job.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.