Thursday, July 27, 2023

‘Oppenheimer’ wrestles with the torment of moral dilemmas

“Oppenheimer” (2023). Cast: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Tom Conti, Benny Safdie, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine, Jason Clarke, Alden Ehrenreich, James D’Arcy, David Krumholtz, Macon Blair, Josh Zuckerman, Jefferson Hall, Dane DeHaan, Dylan Arnold, David Dastmalchian, Emma Dumont, Matthias Schweighöfer, James Remar, Christopher Denham, Danny Deferrari. Director: Christopher Nolan. Screenplay: Christopher Nolan. Book: Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus. Web site. Trailer.

Working through conflicted feelings can be difficult, if not unfathomable. And the greater the stakes involved, the more maddening the process can be. It may be so daunting, in fact, that it might not be overstating things to liken it to psychological and emotional torture. So how does one live with oneself under conditions like these? That’s one of the thorny questions addressed in the gripping new film biography, “Oppenheimer.”

Theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) (1904-1967) could arguably be considered one of the most influential individuals in the history of mankind. At the very least, he could be looked upon as having been one of the most preeminent figures in shaping the course of world affairs in the second half of the 20th Century, impact that has carried forward to the present day. As the director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer oversaw development efforts that led to the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapons during World War II, an undertaking that earned him the dubious distinction as “the father of the atomic bomb.”

While writer-director Christopher Nolan’s biographical opus chronicles the events that were part of this epic venture, it goes much deeper, exploring the complex character of the man who led it. The film not only details the work of a brilliant scientist, but it also examines the complicated views of the man who was seriously torn about what he was doing. Oppenheimer understood the need to develop the bomb, given that Nazi Germany was already doing the same and that he couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen if an enemy as perversely evil as the Third Reich got its hands on such a weapon first (feelings no doubt stirred by his own Jewish heritage). At the same time, though, he was also cognizant of the massive destructive power that could be unleashed on humanity if the device were to be used as part of an active combat engagement, raining death and devastation down upon both military forces and innocent civilians. That left him with a profound quandary: How do I resolve these feelings for myself?

To understand where these sentiments came from, the film opens by exploring Oppenheimer’s background, revealing him to be a multifaceted thoughtful humanitarian. His interest in science was undeniable, having extensively studied the work of celebrated peers like Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Niels Bohr (Kennth Branagh) and Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), particularly with regard to such cutting-edge subjects as quantum theory and the nature of black holes. But Oppenheimer also had a significant philosophical side, especially when it came to using one’s talents to make things better for mankind, an initiative he believed was not limited to technological advances and the use of scientific principles and practices. This inclination inspired a strong interest in what he saw as progressive politics and social movements, such as the work of labor unions and the American Communist Party. He was also an unapologetic donor to the left-wing rebel forces who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

While heading up the Manhattan Project, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right) conferred with celebrated physicists like Edward Teller (Benny Safdie, left) on the design and construction of the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest opus, “Oppenheimer.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
While heading up the Manhattan Project, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right) conferred with military figures like Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, left) on the design and construction of the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest opus, “Oppenheimer.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Because of these somewhat unconventional and contradictory leanings (for the time), Oppenheimer was often seen as an enigma, a wild card who officialdom didn’t feel it could completely trust. This suspicion was fueled not only by his political and social views, but also by the fact that he studied overseas in the 1920s, earning his doctorate at Germany’s University of Göttingen, and by his circle of associates, including Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), with whom he was having an indiscreet affair while still married to his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt).

Nevertheless, despite the doubts that swirled around him, Oppenheimer developed quite a reputation for his expertise, especially at the University of California, Berkeley, where his theoretical physics work attracted considerable widespread attention and a full professorship in 1936. This pedigree made him the leading candidate to head the Manhattan Project when it was launched in 1942. But, given his background, he was placed on a short leash by the military under the auspices of Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), a no-nonsense commander who was responsible for the construction of the Pentagon. Groves was seen as someone who could keep Oppenheimer on track and under surveillance, fully aware of the physicist’s questionable background.

As Oppenheimer launched into this venture, he surrounded himself with many of the brightest minds in the physics community, such as Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz) and Edward Teller (Benny Safdie). He was given relatively free reign to explore various possibilities at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the principal research and development facility for the Manhattan Project. But, as work proceeded, he began to have doubts about the implications of his efforts. He was also skeptical about certain areas of research, such as Teller’s advocacy for the development of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon believed to be many times more powerful than the uranium- and plutonium-based devices that were being built at the time.

Needless to say, Oppenheimer’s mixed feelings caught the attention of government and military officials, prompting Groves to crack down on the project leader. In turn, Oppenheimer made his feelings known to the General, suggesting alternative proposals, such as conducting a demonstration of the weapon’s power on a neutral target, one specifically aimed at sparing the lives of military figures and civilians. And, later, as the war in Europe began drawing to a close, he even suggested not using the bomb at all, given that there would no longer be a need for it. But Oppenheimer’s reservations fell on deaf ears; after all of the money that had been spent on the bomb’s development and the desire of the US to become the world’s leading military force in the post-war era, the powers that be wanted to proceed as planned, using the weapon to end the war in the Pacific by dropping it on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer was particularly troubled by this decision, given that Japan had no nuclear ambitions or corresponding weapons programs in place, making the use of the bomb there little more than a case of military-based premeditated murder, regardless of the fact that such a move would assuredly bring an end to the war.

Throughout his career, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right) consulted with many noteworthy figures active in the scientific community, including celebrated scientist and philosopher Albert Einstein (Tom Conti, left), as depicted in the new biographical blockbuster, “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Throughout his career, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, left) consulted with many noteworthy figures active in government and academia, including Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., right), as depicted in the new biographical blockbuster, “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Despite being hailed as a hero for his accomplishment, Oppenheimer was uneasy with the emergence of the new nuclear age. He actively advocated for international cooperation in the regulation of this new technology, especially in military applications, hoping that such mutual efforts would help to curtail nuclear proliferation and the beginning of an arms race, especially with the Soviet Union. But those hopes were dashed as the USSR developed its own weapon and the US proceeded with its plans for building the hydrogen bomb. He hoped to counter these developments by becoming director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and by being named to the General Advisory Committee of the newly created Atomic Energy Commission.

Through these new positions, Oppenheimer became acquainted with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a relationship that started out well but became strained in the early 1950s. Because his views about nuclear technology ran afoul of official sentiments during the rise of the Cold War, combined with his past associations with “radical” political and social movements, Oppenheimer came under increasing scrutiny, even raising questions about his patriotic loyalty and whether he was entitled to retain his government security clearance. He was subjected to intense interrogation by an investigatory committee, enduring hours of unceremonious grilling by “prosecutor” Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) while desperately being defended by attorney Lloyd Garrison (Macon Blair).

The hero celebrated for bringing an end to World War II thus suffered a devastating fall from grace. And, as this process was playing out, Oppenheimer’s colleague Strauss was undergoing a Congressional confirmation hearing with respect to his proposed Cabinet posting as Secretary of Commerce in the new Eisenhower Administration. Ironically enough, these two proceedings soon collided with one another, revealing an array of dirty little secrets about how that fall from grace came about – and how one man’s conscience was distorted all out of proportion simply because he adhered to views that were publicly out of favor at the time.

Despite all of the foregoing, in the end, Oppenheimer still had to wrestle with his ghosts, thoughts that were never far removed from his everyday life. They lingered like a haze that would never lift, no matter how his fortunes ebbed and flowed for better or worse. He had significantly changed the course of history, forever haunted by the chilling words of a passage from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Those words have echoed in the global consciousness since 1945, when the bombs were dropped on Japan. And, with the nuclear genie now out of the bottle, threats to the safety and security of the globe escalated, leaving us all on the precipice of annihilation at any given time. Oppenheimer felt responsible for this, and it was a concern that he could never shake. Like Prometheus giving mankind the gift of fire, Oppenheimer, too, was comparably tortured for the deed he carried out, tormented every day for the rest of his life – only this time, the punishment doled out to him was not that of a divine being but by that of his own hand.

Women played a pivotal role in the life and career of celebrated scientist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right), including his wife, Kitty, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Women played a pivotal role in the life, career and reputation of celebrated scientist and director of the top secret Manhattan Project Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, right), including his mistress (and suspected security risk), Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, left), an openly avowed member of the American Community Party, as seen in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest feature presentation, the superb biographical drama, “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Moral dilemmas – even of a comparatively minor scale – can be hell to deal with. But, when the magnitude is upped to the level that Oppenheimer was facing, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to contend with it. And, for Oppenheimer himself, he had to wrestle with the reality that it involved his creation, that he was at the center of the predicament and that there were no easy, readily available answers to help him find his way out of it.

Like virtually every American at the time, Oppenheimer wanted to see an end to the war. Simultaneously, though, he also had to ask himself, “At what cost?” Use of the weapon would undoubtedly bring the conflict to a close, but what consequences would that carry? How many would die? In particular, how many innocents would be killed? And what about afterward – would the bomb’s deployment set off a chain reaction prompting further use of nuclear weapons by the US and the development of comparable devices by other nations, both friends and foes? There were also chilling doubts that lingered during the prototype’s development, such as the possibility that some theoretical calculations showed a nuclear explosion might lead to an unending, uncontrollable reaction capable of burning off the earth’s atmosphere, leaving the world with a cure more deadly than the disease it was meant to treat.

To resolve this conundrum, Oppenheimer had to engage in some profound soul searching, examining his heartfelt beliefs to devise a solution. That’s crucial given that our thoughts, beliefs and intents play a crucial role in the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in the manifestation of our existence. It’s not clear whether or not Oppenheimer was aware of this school of thought, but, considering his in-depth knowledge of related scientific subjects like quantum physics and his familiarity with analogous metaphysical studies like those found in ancient Hinduism, there’s a good chance he might have been cognizant of this discipline’s principles and their implications.

If that were the case, then why did he struggle so much with his conflicted feelings? There are several possibilities that come to mind. To begin with, Oppenheimer was genuinely attempting to reconcile contradictory beliefs, and that’s important to remember, given that such paradoxes are one of most significant impediments to our creations materializing as desired. Contradiction can cause our desired manifestations from being realized in their hoped-for forms (frequently tainted by unexpected and often-devastating side effects), or it can even prevent those creations from appearing at all.

While directing the Manhattan Project in the New Mexico desert during World War II, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) inspects the tower on which the first atomic bomb was positioned prior to the device’s initial test blast in July 1945, as seen in “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.
While directing the Manhattan Project in the New Mexico desert during World War II, theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) inspects “the gadget” (as it was called) prior to the device’s initial test blast in July 1945, as seen in “Oppenheimer,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

On top of that, Oppenheimer had to contend with the fact that this undertaking was a joint effort, an act of co-creation in which all of the participants had a stake in how things turned out, each of them seeking the fulfillment of their own respective agendas. Even though Oppenheimer headed the Manhattan Project, there were thousands of collaborators working under him, most of whom were unaware of what their peers were doing, a product of the rigid compartmentalization that had been implemented to maintain the secrecy of the endeavor. Then there were the “outsiders” who had a vested stake in the project – those who made up the emerging US military industrial complex, most of whom already had their sights set on how they could benefit from the development of nuclear technology after the war, even before the current conflict was over.

Despite Oppenheimer’s considerable influence, he was only one voice in this chorus. What’s more, he had his past clinging to him like a millstone, something that those with agendas could use as a weapon against him if necessary. He thus often found himself manipulated into making compromises – despite what his conscience was telling him – in order to stay in the game in hopes that he could make his views known and, in turn, a difference.

But, as Oppenheimer’s story played out, as this film shows, he continually had to wrestle with the many challenges that arose out of this scenario, often manifesting in ways that went against his fundamental humanitarian views, especially during the Red Scare and Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s. It was an unenviable position, to be sure, one that truly mirrored the story of Prometheus (and, in some ways, that of Sisyphus, too). His odyssey could thus be seen as simultaneously heroic and tragic. He gave the world his own version of the gift of fire, but this one was – as the Irish rock band U2 once wrote – truly unforgettable.

With the detonation of the atomic bomb over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagaski, World War II was brought to an end, and the credit for this was given to celebrated scientist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, center), who was hailed as a hero, a label with which he was noticeably uncomfortable, as seen in “Oppenheimer.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Telling the story of a larger-than-life individual truly calls for a larger-than-life film, and that’s precisely what writer-director Christopher Nolan has come up with in his latest feature outing, handily the best work of his career. Nolan’s three-hour opus provides viewers with a comprehensive biography of this brilliant and thoughtful yet often-inscrutable and surprisingly naïve physicist who took on a patently dangerous venture that left him morally conflicted about the nature of his creation. The story, which spans several decades of the scientist’s life, chronicles his development of “the gadget” (as it was called) and the fallout he suffered as a consequence of his left-wing pacifist political leanings and his efforts to keep the released nuclear genie from getting out of control. The film is admittedly a little overlong and probably could have used some editing in the opening and final hour, but, in the interest of telling the whole story of Oppenheimer’s journey, its length is understandable (and, consequently, justifiable).

The picture’s production values are all top shelf, especially its brilliant cinematography, stirring original score and superb sound quality, an element that truly leaves audiences with a bona fide visceral experience. Moreover, the narrative is skillfully and eloquently brought to life by this offering’s outstanding ensemble cast, including Murphy, Damon, Conti, Safdie, Blunt, Pugh, and, especially, Downey, who delivers a stellar, award-worthy supporting performance showing acting chops that I never knew he possessed. “Oppenheimer” is easily the best film of the summer movie season, if not all of 2023 thus far. It packs a potent punch and delivers a message that we can all never hear too often, poignantly reminding us all of the importance of not falling prey to the same Promethean burden that Oppenheimer was forced to shoulder.

Oppenheimer’s circumstances could readily be looked upon as intolerable, a task that virtually all of us might have been unwilling to take on, and it certainly took a toll on him, especially when his voice was effectively drowned out. However, despite these difficulties, perhaps his efforts were meant to get the ball rolling on a larger, long-term discussion that has carried on to this day – the dangers of mankind’s reckless inclination toward wanting to destroy itself. Throughout history, we as a species have often blindly allowed ourselves to head down a variety of self-destructive paths, all of which we’ve managed to successfully stave off thus far. But how many times must we continue doing this? When are we ever going to stop? And what will it take for us to come to that realization? Perhaps the potency of the nuclear threat may finally end up being the last straw in this regard. But, to reach that conclusion, we must first be collectively convinced of the deadly ramifications of pursuing this possibility so that we can at last dispense with the prospect of self-annihilation as a viable path to follow. For his efforts, it could be argued that Oppenheimer got that ball rolling, even if it came at a terrible cost to himself. But, if it eventually achieves the sought-after result, then perhaps it can viewed as worth it in the end. Let’s just hope it’s the end we need and not the one we’re trying to avoid.

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

Monday, July 24, 2023

Addressing Dysfunction on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday July 25, 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, July 19, 2023

‘Rock Hudson’ explores life in two worlds

“Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” (2023). Cast: Current Interviews and Voiceover Observations: Armistead Maupin, Linda Evans, Mark Griffin, Piper Laurie, Peter Kevoian, Howard McGillan, Illeana Douglas, Allison Anders, Lee Garlington, Paul Garlington, Ken Jillson. Archive Interviews, Footage and Voiceover Observations: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Doris Day, Tony Randall, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Jane Wyman, Tab Hunter, Robert Stack, Liberace, Truman Capote, Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Dean Rusk, Carole Cook, Kathleen Hughes, Joan Rivers, Rona Barrett, Joe Abrell, Ross Hunter, Douglas Sirk, Tom Santopietro, Beatrice Arthur, John Schuck, Claude Akins, Henry Willson, Phyllis Gates, , Jim Nabors, George Nader, Mark Miller, Tim Turner, Wes Wheadon, Ken Maley, Randy Shilts, Yanou Collart. Director: Stephen Kijak. Web site. Trailer.

Living one’s life in two disparate worlds can be quite a challenge, perhaps even perpetually confusing to some making the attempt. Having one foot firmly planted in one existence and the other ensconced in another means always having to be “on” and aware of which reality one is in at any given time. That can be particularly demanding if the differences between them are significant, especially if one of them involves harboring and maintaining a potentially volatile secret. But, with practice and a dedicated commitment to keeping up appearances, it’s entirely possible to pull off such a feat successfully, as was the case with one of Hollywood’s most noteworthy celebrities, a story captured in the new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed.”

For four decades beginning in the 1950s, actor Rock Hudson (1925-1985) personified the image of Hollywood matinee idol. As the prototypical tall, dark and handsome leading man, he embodied everything that most women craved – a strong, sexy, attractive, heroic figure who could turn heads on a dime and make everything work out right in the end. At the same time, men admired him as the charismatic role model they wanted to emulate, someone whose exploits they could mimic and someone with whom they’d readily ride off into the sunset. He launched his career with a string of Westerns, crime dramas and war pictures playing cowboys, detectives and military heroes. He then moved on to more serious fare, like director Douglas Sirk’s romantic dramas “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Written on the Wind” (1956) and filmmaker George Stevens’s grand, sweeping epic, “Giant” (1956), for which Hudson received his only Oscar nomination. And then he became the leading man in a trio of successful wispy romcoms with co-star Doris Day, “Pillow Talk” (1959), “Lover Come Back” (1961) and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964). And, all the while, Hudson’s handlers, like agent Henry Willson, and the Tinsel Town movie machine carefully cultivated his persona to live up to the image of a pristine, well-mannered gentleman, both onscreen and off. But there was just one problem with that strategy: While Hudson may have lived up to it in the characters he played, he was a very different individual in his personal life.

To put it simply, Rock Hudson was gay, and, in those days, coming out about it publicly would have destroyed him professionally. For the sake of his career, Hudson had to keep his personal life a secret, and his handlers worked diligently to keep it under wraps. They carefully shielded his offscreen life from public scrutiny, advising him not to engage in activities that could expose him and even going so far as to discreetly arrange companionship for him. At the same time, his managers made a point of setting up public appearances with Hollywood starlets to reinforce the impression of his supposedly heterosexual orientation. This grew increasingly important as he approached 30 and was still single, prompting tabloids to speculate about the validity of his eligible bachelor image. It ultimately led to an alleged cover marriage with Phyllis Gates, the secretary of Hudson’s agent Henry Willson. And, as implausible as it might seem by today’s standards, Hudson’s cover story was never officially compromised, despite a number of whispers among skeptics and widespread knowledge about the truth of his lifestyle throughout much of the movie industry.

Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson led a dual life – one public, one private – for many years as one of the movie industry’s biggest celebrities and a closeted gay man, as chronicled in the new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” currently playing on cable TV and streaming online. Photo by Photofest, courtesy of HBO.

As a consequence of the foregoing, little was publicly known about the truth behind Hudson’s personal life. His handlers never hinted at what was going on, and a number of the actor’s co-stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Piper Laurie and Doris Day, never divulged a word about it, staunchly defending him and his privacy throughout his life. Yet, considering how much speculation swirled about Hudson’s private life (particularly after his marriage ended in divorce after less than three years), many have long wondered what his private life was really like.

That’s where this film comes in. It chronicles the two worlds in which Hudson lived – his carefully crafted public life and his intensely private personal life. Through interviews with friends like author Armistead Maupin and former partners, such as Lee Garlington, viewers learn about the “hidden” side of Hudson’s life and how well he was able to step back and forth between it and the public side of his existence. It’s the kind of life that, thanks to increasing tolerance of alternative lifestyles, has become less common (and less “necessary”) than it was in the past, especially for high-profile individuals like artists and entertainers.

While Hudson may not have been able to bring himself to enjoy the freedom of being “out,” he nevertheless appears to have enjoyed a fulfilling personal life, despite it being kept secret. He enjoyed the company of many good friends and companions, and he relished his sizable comfortable home, a hacienda-like residence commonly referred to as “the Castle.” And those who knew him often said that Hudson was one of the kindest, nicest, most loyal and most generous persons they had ever known.

However, meticulously managing the two sides of his life also had its drawbacks. In addition to his inability to open up about his personal life, Hudson’s professional image had become so ingrained in the public’s mind that fans often couldn’t bring themselves to envision him outside of the roles that had so solidly become associated with his persona. For example, when Hudson opted to star in director John Frankenheimer’s sci-fi thriller “Seconds” (1966), he delivered what many now regard as his best screen performance. But, given that this was a type of role that the actor was not accustomed to playing, fans and critics summarily rejected the picture and the portrayal, primarily because it didn’t come across as a typical Rock Hudson part. Because of that, he became principally relegated to roles more like those he had been playing throughout his career, both in movies and, increasingly in later years, on television.

As time passed, though, Hudson’s physical appearance slowly began to deteriorate. He lost weight and his signature good looks started to vanish, and, by the early 1980s, the public took note of the change. And then, in 1984, he was officially diagnosed with AIDS, again significantly fueling speculation about Hudson’s personal life. Despite the diagnosis, however, no official declaration about his sexuality was divulged. His illness raised considerable concern, though, when he appeared on the prime-time soap opera Dynasty, where he engaged in a kissing scene with co-star Linda Evans. Because so little was known about the transmission of this new illness at that time, there was much public furor over what was perceived as Hudson’s irresponsible behavior, given that he went ahead with the scene knowing that he already had the disease. (It should be noted, though, that Evans observes in the film that she knew Hudson was trying to keep her safe during the scene, considering that the kiss lacked passion, not the kind of embrace that would have been necessary to prompt transmission of the virus.)

Actor Rock Hudson (left) enjoys a vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with former partner Lee Garlington (right), as seen in director Stephen Kijak’s new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

Hudson’s appearance in nine episodes of the TV series were to be his final ones as an actor. His health slid quickly thereafter, leading to his passing in October 1985. However, before his death, Hudson’s illness drew widespread attention to the disease, which had largely been ignored by the Reagan Administration at the time (an irony given that Hudson and Ronald Reagan were longtime friends). As one of the first high-profile individuals to contract AIDS, Hudson unwittingly became the face of the illness. When his diagnosis went public, research funding skyrocketed, in large part thanks to a sizable Congressional allocation and Hudson’s inaugural $250,000 donation to the nonprofit organization amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Even though Hudson may have never openly stepped forward about his personal life, he nevertheless contributed significantly to the LGBTQ+ community, even if in an unintended way. The tragedy of his illness helped bring AIDS out of the closet and put it front and center on the stage of public dialogue. It’s unfortunate how that came about, but it made a mark, one whose contribution to the well-being of society is as noteworthy as any of those he made to the arts. This film pays homage to that contribution, showing us that Hudson was more than just a pretty face. In his own way, his efforts proved even more heroic than any of the characters he ever played.

I find it truly amazing what we can come to believe, yet that’s important since our beliefs directly impact the reality we experience, an outcome of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that explains how these intangible resources manifest the existence surrounding us. Many of us, including Rock Hudson and his friends, companions and associates, may have never heard of this school of thought, yet it nevertheless could have contributed significantly to the unfolding of his most unusual life.

Given how Hudson’s life played out, he followed a truly unconventional path. But it’s the one he needed to pursue to fulfill the objectives and experiences he felt he needed to get out of his existence, both professionally and personally, even if that meant making some difficult choices and compromises that many of the rest of us may have been unwilling or unable to make.

Matinee idol Rock Hudson (left) enjoys a rare beach outing with friends, as depicted in director Stephen Kijak’s new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” currently playing on cable TV and streaming online. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Consider the actor’s professional accomplishments. He created the conditions to make him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after celebrities for decades. Granted, he may have so expertly materialized an image that kept him from straying too far afield from the well-defined persona he manifested (an outcome reinforced by the beliefs of his handlers, fans and studio colleagues), but what he managed to create ended up bringing him fame and fortune, outstripping that of many of his peers. And, personally speaking, as this film reveals in depth for the first time, he apparently did the same in his offscreen life, amassing an array of friends, companions and experiences, even if he couldn’t be open about those relationships and pursuits. To be sure, the dichotomy that emerged from having to straddle those two separate worlds may have called for making some significant concessions and shuffling of priorities on his part, but, as this picture indicates, he appears to have adjusted to these conditions relatively successfully.

But, the foregoing successes aside, one can’t help but wonder how and why he drew AIDS into his life. As many conscious creation practitioners are well aware, illness can often be a profound, insightful teacher, despite its often-debilitating consequences. Also, it can frequently serve as a means of drawing attention to an issue in dire need of it. And, in its own way, those qualities were very much associated with AIDS at the time.

This naturally raises the question, “Were these reasons behind how Hudson became afflicted with the illness?” No one can really know for sure except the actor himself; whatever reasons were behind his experience with the illness were his own, and it’s not our place to question them. However, when we look at what came out of Hudson’s experience with AIDS, it’s easy to see how his diagnosis could conceivably be looked upon as a reflection of the notions raised above. The attention that his illness achieved in raising recognition about the condition was far greater than what virtually anyone else had attained prior to that time. The increase in research funding alone was truly significant. It’s indeed unfortunate that it took something like this to make that happen, but the importance of the silver lining to emerge from this cloud can’t be denied.

In this context, it’s also interesting to note the nature of AIDS as an illness – a condition affecting the immune system that leaves its victims powerless against a host of other diseases. And, when one considers the four target groups that were initially most readily affected by the illness – hemophiliacs, IV drug users, Haitian immigrants, and, most notably, male homosexuals – the one trait they all had in common was that they came from groups whose constituents often felt they had had their personal power taken away from them. What more drastic way is there to draw attention to their plight than to contract an illness that itself embodies the concept of powerlessness? It’s regrettable that it may have taken something so severe as this to make that point, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, especially when one considers the beliefs that might readily underlie the emergence of a development such as this.

Actor Rock Hudson enjoys life at his palatial home, “the Castle,” a hacienda-like residence at which he frequently entertained friends and guests, as seen in the new HBO documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed.” Photo courtesy of HBO.

The existence of an illness like this could thus be seen as a form of social protest. The fact that the initial target groups were communities that were often ignored or looked upon with disdain by the rest of society illustrates how they may have had to resort to such drastic measures to get attention for their needs, such as funding for their care and recognition of their social and civil rights. In that vein, it’s curious how both of the foregoing concerns received far greater attention than they had previously. And, to a great degree, the appearance of high-profile victims like Hudson did much to help achieve that.

So was Hudson part of this protest? That’s hard to say, but, given the developments that emerged in the time after his diagnosis and death, it could be argued that he may have been an unwitting, unconscious participant in this initiative. He may not have been able to bring himself to come out during his lifetime, but that also doesn’t mean he didn’t have some degree of care, compassion and interest in veiled activism for his community. In his own way, he was thus able to give something back. It may not have been an open or overtly visible contribution, but it had impact nevertheless. In a sense, it could have been Hudson’s way of at last bridging those two separate worlds in which he dwelled, even if he hadn’t been consciously aware of it himself. And who says gay folks can’t be heroes?

Clean-cut All-American Boy Roy Scherer Jr. probably never envisioned the life he would eventually lead when he was growing up in Winnetka, IL. But, once he transformed into rugged, handsome matinee idol Rock Hudson, it all came together, even if it was not how and what he imagined. Director Stephen Kijak’s new HBO documentary presents a comprehensive look at Hudson’s professional and personal life, with ample film clips and interviews with those who worked with him and those who knew him privately. The film’s previously undisclosed insights about his personal life mark a significant change in how the actor is viewed. And, to bolster those impressions, the filmmaker has incorporated considerable irony in the choice of movie and TV clips included here, with many of them serving as quietly telling observations about the actor’s personal life. When viewed in this new light, these video segments represent muted but informative inside revelations about Hudson at the time these works were made. In fact, some of the content (particularly in the interviews about Hudson’s private life) could be seen as sexually explicit (though not gratuitous), but sensitive viewers should take heed nonetheless. In all, though, this insightful, respectful look at Hudson’s life as both a gifted entertainer and as an unlikely hero delivers a well-rounded biography of a man who toiled to strike a delicate balance in his two worlds, both for his fans and for those who shared his secret, an effort that ultimately yielded a lot of good in both areas.

We can be thankful that the days of having to keep up the kind of façade Rock Hudson felt compelled to maintain are largely behind us now. The threat of exposure and the career-ending disgrace that would inevitably follow must have been maddening to cope with, prompting one to constantly look over one’s shoulder. However, Rock Hudson believed that he could carry off this way of living and make it look comparatively easy, so much so that he was never convincingly outed to the public. But, despite this, in the wake of his passing, he nevertheless made his own signature contributions to his community and his people, helping to enable the wave of changes that arose in the years that followed – and that we’ve all benefitted from as a result. Here’s to Rock – and all that he allowed.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2023

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny," "Somewhere in Queens" and "Monica" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.


Wednesday, July 12, 2023

How to walk one’s talk ‘Somewhere in Queens’

“Somewhere in Queens” (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Ray Romano, Laurie Metcalf, Jacob Ward, Sadie Stanley, Tony Lo Bianco, June Gable, Dierdre Friel, Sebastian Maniscalco, Franco Maicas, Adam Kaplan, Jon Manfrellotti, Danny Garcia, Jennifer Esposito, P.J. Byrne, Geoffrey Owens, Erik Griffin, David St. Louis, Seth Barrish. Director: Ray Romano. Screenplay: Ray Romano and Mark Stegemann. Web site. Trailer.

It’s one thing to talk a good game, but it’s something else entirely to back it up with authentic action. Indeed, it’s a definitive example of being able to walk one’s talk, a practice that can be difficult to carry out, especially if preceded by exaggeration, deception or flat-out fabricated bragging. But, for those who are able to live up to their words, tremendous heartfelt satisfaction often results, particularly if our efforts benefit those we care about. Such are the questions explored in the delightful new domestic comedy, “Somewhere in Queens.”

The Russo family of Queens, NY is an honest, proud, hard-working, courageous lot (well, for the most part; at least that’s what they’d like to think). The family patriarch, Dominick “Pops” Russo (Tony Lo Bianco), runs a construction business employing his son, Frank (Sebastian Maniscalco), and his grandsons, Luigi (Franco Maicas) and Marco (Adam Kaplan), all of whose attitudes, perspectives and outlooks are more or less cut from the same street-smart, wise-cracking, rough-and-tumble cloth as Pops. Joining them in the business is Dominick’s other son, Leo (Ray Romano), a genuinely nice, sensitive man whose temperament and sensibilities are somewhat different from his dad, brother and nephews. And, because of this, Leo is often the target of ridicule and mocking from his relatives, but no one can question his work ethic, sincerity or concern for others, even if those qualities set him apart from other family members.

Thanks to his diligent efforts, Leo has managed to build a modestly comfortable life for his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Angela (Laurie Metcalf), and his reserved 18-year-old son, Matthew (a.k.a. “Sticks”) (Jacob Ward). He’s worked hard at achieving what he’s accomplished, even if the outcome hasn’t been especially glamorous, ritzy or flashy. But his compassion and concern for his family has truly been undeniable, even if not always understood or fully appreciated.

In particular, Leo has long been sensitive to Sticks’s needs given his terribly shy nature. Indeed, as Sticks has gotten older, Leo’s grown wary that his son’s inherently withdrawn character could end up inhibiting his access to promising life opportunities once he graduates high school, saddling him with an underwhelming future, one not unlike what Leo himself has experienced. Likewise, Leo’s also worried about Angela’s happiness and peace of mind. As a recent cancer survivor who’s been declared disease-free, she nevertheless worries her doctors may have missed something. It’s a lot for Leo to handle, but he does the best he can under the circumstances.

Proud parents and longtime spouses Leo and Angela Russo (Ray Romano, left, Laurie Metcalf, right) lead a modestly comfortable life amidst their share of challenges in the delightful new domestic comedy, “Somewhere in Queens,” available for streaming online. Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Thankfully, there have been some positive developments of late. Sticks has managed to find one activity that has helped bring him out of his shell – his love of basketball. He’s become a stellar performer on the court, too. In fact, a college recruiter (P.J. Byrne) informs Leo that his son may have a good shot at a sports scholarship – not at a big name school that could lead to professional aspirations but one that will at least provide an opportunity to cover the cost of Matthew’s education. Leo also learns – much to his surprise – that Sticks has taken up with a vivacious new girlfriend, Dani (Sadie Stanley), who appears to have significantly bolstered his personal confidence and self-esteem. Indeed, things could be looking up.

More good news comes when Angela learns through her most recent wellness screening that her latest cause for concern turns out to be a false alarm – scar tissue and not something more serious. It allows Leo to shower her with comfort and reassurance, the kind of support she so desperately needs at this time, especially when faced with the possibility that her only child may be moving away from home, leaving the house a little more empty than she’s accustomed to, Leo’s presence notwithstanding.

For the first time in a while, Leo looks upon the future more optimistically than he has in ages. But, just when it seems that he and his family have turned a corner, Sticks announces that he’s dropping his plans to pursue the scholarship. The reason? He’s devastated by the heartache of his breakup with Dani (one that she initiated), a sudden, unexpected development that has completely dowsed his enthusiasm. Needless to say, Sticks’s decision also devastates Leo, so he desperately seeks to make things right. He secretly approaches Dani and pleads with her to pose as Sticks’s girlfriend until his scholarship tryouts are complete, hoping that this will lift his spirits enough to motivate his performance. She reluctantly agrees, and Sticks reverses his decision. His practice sessions improve markedly and makes plans to resume his pursuit of the scholarship. Through it all, though, Leo and Dani are both on edge, hoping that their little plan succeeds, providing they can keep it under wraps. But will it? And what will it mean for everyone if it doesn’t?

Meanwhile, as this primary story thread plays out, a number of additional subplots unfold involving other members of the Russo family, such as the ongoing search for romance undertaken by Rosa (Dierdre Friel), Leo’s bubbly, plus-sized, unattached sister. Then there are the less-than-veiled flirtations of Pamela (Jennifer Esposito), a widowed client of the Russo family construction company who has bedroom eyes for one of its employees (i.e., Leo). And, of course, there are the uncertainties and insecurities that Angela and Leo wrestle with in light of the impending changes their household may soon experience.

Painfully shy high school senior Matthew “Sticks” Russo (Jacob Ward) may not have much to say but lets his performance on the basketball court do his talking for him, as seen in the debut feature of writer-actor-director Ray Romano, “Somewhere in Queens.” Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Of course, none of the foregoing is meant to suggest that “Somewhere in Queens” is all seriousness and heavy-handed drama. Quite the opposite. While the film has its profound, thoughtful moments, the story is peppered with delightful humor, much of it reminiscent of genuinely funny domestic comedies of the past. It especially brings to mind “Moonstruck” (1987), with its wickedly funny portrayal of Italian-American family life in the Big Apple, much of which factors into how matters eventually turn out.

But, just because seemingly good intentions underlie what’s transpiring in this story, that doesn’t mean there won’t be issues to resolve. And those intentions are rooted in the characters’ beliefs, an important consideration given the role that our beliefs play in the manifestation of the reality we experience. Such is the outcome of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources give birth to the existence around us. It’s not clear whether the Russos have ever heard of this school of thought, but its principles are certainly reflected in how their lives unfold.

If we hope to achieve the reality we want, it’s crucial that we operate from a standpoint of honesty and authenticity. And, even though the family likes to think it does so, there’s definite evidence to the contrary. For instance, in the interest of helping out his son, Leo is willing to go to great lengths to do so, a quality many of us would probably see as admirable. But is he really being caring and supportive by launching his clandestine plan to have Dani pose as Sticks’s girlfriend after their breakup? Because there’s an element of a lack of integrity imbedded in this scheme, Leo’s good intentions are being tainted by the absence of this critical component. It leaves the door open for his plan to potentially become compromised. The plan could become derailed by unforeseen, unintended side effects. Worse yet, it could fail completely, collapsing in a pile of disastrous consequences. Indeed, how is that helping?

But, to understand what’s afoot in this scenario, it’s important to recognize what’s really going on, and that requires an examination of the beliefs involved here – all of them. As becomes apparent, Leo engages in this plan not just for Sticks, but also for himself. He’s worried that, upon graduating high school, Sticks may be facing a fate not unlike his own. Leo fears that Sticks won’t be able to live a life of satisfaction and fulfillment, something he’s had to endure himself, and he doesn’t want to see his son subjected to such a future. It’s possible that Leo may also feel like something of a failure in terms of how he raised Sticks, not providing him with sufficient guidance to overcome his shyness and to set him on a path aimed at a greater degree of achievement. In essence, Leo’s fear of these eventualities have prompted him into taking more drastic measures.

Life can serve up some pleasant surprises, as longtime spouses Angela and Leo Russo (Laurie Metcalf, left, Ray Romano, right) find out for themselves in the delightful new domestic comedy, “Somewhere in Queens,” available for streaming online. Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

By its nature, fear is itself a form of belief, one that can seriously undercut one’s manifestation efforts. Its presence often contradicts one’s creative intentions, thwarting their materialization in part or in totality. That in itself could thus sabotage anything Leo hopes to accomplish through his questionable collaboration with Dani.

In a scenario like this, it’s important to remember that the efforts of multiple parties are at play. Consider those of Sticks, for example. For whatever reason, he’s chosen to be painfully shy and bought into beliefs that have made it happen. It may not be readily apparent why he has done so, either; his reasons are his own, and it’s really no one else’s business why he chose to do so. Perhaps there was some vital life lesson he wanted to learn through this creation. Or perhaps there was something else behind his manifestation efforts. Or perhaps his withdrawal was driven by his apprehensions about the world around him, especially growing up amidst intimidating, often-outspoken relatives. In any event, though, his behavior was his creation, and there may have been nothing that Leo could have done to prevent it – or to overcome it. Leo’s fears in this regard could thus be patently unfounded.

Considering the fun-loving, freewheeling attitude that seems to pervade life in the extended Russo family, it could be that no one wants to admit having any perceivable apprehensions about anything. Such outlooks might be viewed as going against what’s expected of being a Russo. After all, Leo has experienced firsthand what can happen when a family member acts differently from everyone else. That treatment could inspire its share of anxiety – and go a long way toward shaping the beliefs, behavior and outlooks of other family members similarly situated.

In addition to the aforementioned beliefs underlying the perspectives of Leo and Sticks, consider the case of Angela. She, too, has her share of fear-based beliefs in her consciousness. Admittedly, she has legitimate cause for feeling that way given her recent health scare and her worry whether she is truly in the clear. But there’s more to it than that; she’s quietly apprehensive about Sticks getting the scholarship and going away to college, emptying the house of her only child. She almost feels as if she’s trading one ingrained fear for another. And, even though she dearly loves her husband, given his low-key demeanor, perhaps she’s uncertain whether or not he possesses the capability to make her feel secure in the face of these uncertainties.

The Russo family frequently gathers to celebrate its Italian-American pride as seen in the charming debut feature of writer-actor-director Ray Romano, “Somewhere in Queens.” Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

In light of the foregoing, one might legitimately wonder whether there are solutions to these issues, and that concern arguably merits consideration. However, answers may well be available, provided we take certain steps with respect to our beliefs. Specifically, solutions based on honesty, authenticity and integrity can go a long way toward resolving these matters. Because manifestations based on such beliefs aren’t tainted by considerations that could undermine them, they have a greater chance of unfettered success, yielding appropriate solutions without caveats or strings attached to them. That being the case, then, Leo, Sticks and Angela would all be best off by owning up to what they really feel and believe, putting those elements into practice in creating the outcomes they want. That’s essentially an act of walking one’s talk and, if employed correctly, could genuinely reflect the honest, proud, hard-working, courageous beliefs that the Russos hold about themselves – and truly mean it.

Genuinely funny family comedies – those without rampant silliness, obnoxiously cynical, smart-mouthed kids, and saccharine-encrusted coatings – have become a rarity in recent years, but, fortunately, this debut feature from actor-writer-director Ray Romano has breathed some new life in this genre. This film about the lives of a middle class, blue collar family in one of New York’s outer boroughs is a delightful though far from sappy offering very much in the mode of pictures that don’t get made much any more. It’s chock full of hilarious one-liners from a smartly written script executed with snappy direction, steadily paced editing and fine acting, especially in the award-worthy performance of Laurie Metcalf as the athletic prodigy’s mother. The picture also presents one of the best-ever send-ups of traditional Italian-American family life, raucously funny without becoming riddled with stereotypes. To be sure, a few story threads would have been better cut out or scaled back, but, on balance, “Somewhere in Queens” serves up a charming, entertaining offering with a number of unexpected twists and turns to keep the material fresh and lively. The film may not have received much fanfare with its limited theatrical release earlier this year, but, thankfully, it’s available for streaming online and more satisfying than a big bowl of pasta. Abbondanza!

There are times when we care so deeply about others that we’re willing to do almost anything to help them out, even if we end up engaging in dubious ventures. But those intentions – no matter how good they may be – could wreak havoc if employed in less-than-honorable practices. It’s at times like that when we must weigh the consequences of our beliefs and actions against what can potentially result from them and then act in a principled manner. To pursue another course may yield outcomes more damaging than what we can imagine. And there’s no honor in that.

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

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Legend's Destiny on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday July 11, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

‘Indiana Jones’ dials up his destiny one last time

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” (2023). Cast: Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Toby Jones, Karen Allen, Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, Mads Mikkelsen, Ethann Isidore, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Boyd Holbrook, Thomas Kretschmann, Olivier Richters, Alaa Safi, Nasser Memorzia, Martin McDougall, Holly Lawton. Director: James Mangold. Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp and James Mangold. Story Source Material: George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Web site. Trailer.

All things eventually come to an end, whether we’re ready for it or not. We may not like what we see, either, especially if we’re troubled by what’s on the horizon. We might even feel like there’s more that we could or should have done to forestall what’s unfolding while we had the chance, opportunities that slipped through our fingers and are unlikely to come again. But sometimes destiny has a way of intervening, giving us another unexpected shot at realizing our aspirations and perhaps even making a meaningful difference. Such are the possibilities posed to an iconic screen legend in the final chapter of a long-running movie franchise, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

Intrepid archaeologist Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has lived a full and adventurous life in his quest to retrieve famed antiquities and to educate America’s future. He’s spent years lecturing attention-rapt university students at revered institutions and scouring far-flung historic sites in search of exotic relics. But, in 1969, with retirement looming, he’s on the brink of an uncertain and less fulfilling future. As it is, he struggles to teach archaeology to bored, disinterested undergrads at a less prestigious college, an unrewarding step down from what he’s accustomed to academically. And, outside of work, he lives by himself in a cramped, disheveled Manhattan apartment, conditions considerably less desirable than what he’s used to. He’s also engaged in divorce proceedings from his wife, Marion (Karen Allen), and attempting to recover from a personal tragedy, circumstances that have taken virtually all of the joy out of his personal life. With prospects like these, what does he have to look forward to? Have the elements that made life worth living vanished from his existence for good? Or is it possible to somehow turn things around and give him hope for a new future? Indeed, will destiny intervene to change his fate?

Flash back to 1944, when Indy was at the height of his game. While in Europe during World War II, Jones and his esteemed Oxford colleague, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), search for the Lance of Longinus, the sword said to have been used to pierce the side of Jesus Christ while on the cross during the crucifixion, an artifact believed to possess magical powers. As the duo looks for the relic, however, they face competition from their longtime foes, the Nazis. The Germans desperately want to add it to their collection of ancient objects believed to possess supernatural capabilities, tools that Führer Adolf Hitler has become obsessed with acquiring as a supposed means to defeat his enemies. And, in the race to find the artifact, it appears that the Nazis have come up with it first. Chief investigator, astrophysicist Dr. Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), hands over the lance to German military leader Colonel Weber (Thomas Kretschmann), who has it loaded onto a train filled with other antiquities bound for Berlin for a heroic presentation to the Führer. There’s just one problem – the relic is a fake, and Voller knows it.

When Voller makes this revelation to the Colonel, he adds that he has found something more valuable than the counterfeit artifact – a portion of the Antikythera, an enigmatic dial mechanism believed to possess tremendous powers that was allegedly created by the ancient Syracusan mathematician Archimedes. In fact, legend has it that the special powers of the Antikythera in its complete form played a crucial role in protecting the Sicilian City of Syracuse during a siege by the Romans in 212 BC. But the Colonel isn’t interested in Voller’s substitute discovery, especially since it’s incomplete. He dismisses it as a useless mechanical device, dismissing it from the train’s inventory and leaving it in Voller’s hands.

Meanwhile, as all of this is playing out, Jones and Shaw are hot on Voller’s trail, and, when they discover he’s aboard the train bound for Berlin, they secretly stow away to track him down. They also quickly discover that the lance is a phony and that the train carries all of the other stolen relics – including the remnant of the Antikythera. And, once they find Voller, a battle ensues for its possession, a rollicking struggle that lands the relic in Shaw’s hands, who took possession of the device for further study.

For the most part, the story behind the Antikythera subsequently went cold. But, in 1969, it gets revived when Basil’s adult daughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), also an archaeologist, pays a visit to Jones. She expresses an interest in picking up on her late father’s studies and seeks Indy’s help. That’s because he now secretly possesses the device, and she is the only one who knows.

So how did Jones acquire the relic? Not long before Basil’s death, he gave it to Indy, asking him to destroy it. It seems that Shaw’s studies of the device took a toll on him, and he insisted that its destruction was the only way to prevent anyone else from experiencing a similar fate. Jones agreed and took possession of the device, but he couldn’t bring himself to destroy it, choosing instead to hide it in the archives of the college where he taught.

And that’s where the story picks up again. Indy retrieves the relic from the archives to help Helena launch her study of the artifact, but it quickly becomes apparent that she’s not the only one interested in it. Before long, a host of other players seek to get their hands on the device, including a deep cover US government agent (Shaunette Renée Wilson) and Indy’s old Nazi nemesis, Dr. Voller (who now works for NASA under the alias “Dr. Schmidt”), backed by a trio of notorious henchmen (Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters, Martin McDougall). To complicate matters, Helena’s intentions soon prove to be less than honorable, particularly when she absconds with the device and seeks to sell it on the black market to the highest bidder, aided by her street smart teenage accomplice, Teddy (Ethann Isidore), all the while striving to steer clear of her hotheaded former fiancé, Rahim (Alaa Safi), who aggressively tries to win her back with the help of his mob family associates.

Through it all, Jones tries to keep his scorecard up to date with regard to who he can trust, who has the device, where the other half of it is and what everyone’s intentions are. He also tries to keep on top of where to look, a journey that takes him from New York to Tangier, then to the Greek waters of the Aegean Sea, and then to Sicily, an odyssey filled with plenty of twists, turns and misdirections. Of course, Indy also has his share of allies to back him up throughout this ordeal, including his old friend, Renaldo (Antonio Banderas), a seasoned Mediterranean frogman, and longtime relic-hunting colleague Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who helped Jones in his quests to find the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail (as chronicled in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), respectively). He also has his famous wits about him that help him out of tight spots and provide him with the intuitive guidance he needs in determining what to do next, something he has to do frequently as this story plays out. But, then, that should come as no surprise, given that this has always been his destiny.

As the title suggests, “destiny” truly proves to be the key theme that runs through this story. It makes its presence felt in a variety of ways, both big and small, but always in important regards, at least where Indy is concerned. He experiences the myriad ways in which it can be dialed up, yet it always allows him to be its master, too. That’s crucial for all of us to bear in mind if we want to go out on top.

“Destiny” is one of those elusive, enigmatic concepts that many of us believe in but find hard to describe in words. It’s often couched in terms like “what was meant to be,” as if it’s somehow intrinsically tangible to the point where its materialization is predetermined and inevitable. But how do such manifestations come about? A capricious act of the Universe? An action of our own making? Some combination of the two? Or is there some other factor at work, such as an entrenched belief in their unfolding? Then again, maybe it’s some of all of the foregoing.

For Indiana Jones, that last explanation seems most likely, but, in my view, the lynchpin element rests with our beliefs. They serve as the catalyst for launching the manifestation process, the trigger for initiating the practice of conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains our thoughts, beliefs and intents are responsible for realizing the existence we experience. It’s unclear whether Dr. Jones adheres to or is even aware of this school of thought, but, considering how many times he’s witnessed magical phenomena and how frequently he’s seen his desired outcomes materialize as reality, it seems unlikely that these happenings can be chalked up to mere coincidence or random chance. It’s as if they were meant to be, the fulfillment of his destiny. It’s a practice in conscious creation terms known as value fulfillment, and he seems to be a master of it, whether he realizes it or not.

Jones has experienced a lifetime of such experiences, as seen in the four films that preceded this offering. It’s something that he would probably like to see go on indefinitely, too (as would the fans of his cinematic adventures). But, as conscious creation philosophy also maintains, everything evolves and changes, as if it’s in a constant state of becoming. And, as the looming changes in his life emerge, it’s something that Indy can’t escape, either, something that’s meant to be, his destiny as it were.

However, the manner in which that destiny is fulfilled is nonetheless somewhat open to interpretation. There are a number of paths available to reach that destination, and it’s Indy’s choice as to which one he wants to pursue. And, given how he’s lived his life, it’s pretty obvious how he’d like to proceed – following the same sort of route he’s always traversed, going out in a proverbial blaze of glory no matter what may happen, just as he always has. After all, at the risk of sounding repetitive, that’s his destiny, and he’s dialed it up once again, even if for the last time.

Many critics and viewers have been disappointed with the approach taken in this installment of the franchise. They claim that it lacks “the spark” of previous offerings, that it’s more of a downer than its predecessors. And, as the first film in the series not to be directed by Steven Spielberg and not to feature a story by franchise creator George Lucas, it’s understandable to see how one might feel that way. However, given that this is the finale of the series, it required a different treatment than what was employed in the prior pictures. This one reflects the onset of conditions that many of us face as we age, and they may not always be pleasant or give us much to look forward to. If you doubt that, just look at the life Indy leads as he’s on the verge of retirement.

What’s more, unlike the other pictures in this series, “Dial of Destiny” does not suggest that there will be further Indiana Jones adventures to come. It’s the end of the line and needed to be treated as such. The reason: the characters have gotten old, as have the actors portraying them (Harrison Ford was 77 when the picture was filmed in April 2020). As much as viewers may enjoy these films and as much as they may want to see more of them, there’s only so much that these performers can do with encroaching age. And so, to give these actors and these characters a proper degree of dignity, they have been provided with a fitting, appropriate, credible send-off – hence the narrative and ambiance chosen for this story. This is nothing new in filmdom, either; we’ve seen it before in other long-running movie franchises, such as with the James Bond series, the “Star Wars” franchise, “Star Trek” and, most recently, even “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Capt. Jean Luc Picard. And now the time has also come for Indiana Jones.

Another criticism leveled against this film is its use of de-aging CGI technology in the 1944 flashback sequence, making Harrison Ford look considerably younger than his present-day offscreen age. Purists and cynics have called it “cheating.” But, as Ford responded to the criticism, how is de-aging CGI any different from any other cinematic tool used to create a specific look for an actor portraying a particular character? What about makeup? Costumes? Prosthetics? Motion capture technology, such as that used to create the character Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” series? Couldn’t they be considered “cheating” as well? This is specious argument and an empty criticism.

What’s more, it seems these days that it’s become all too easy to blast popular, commercial fare simply because it is popular, commercial fare. Granted, some offerings of this type genuinely deserve whatever grief they get, but others, such as this offering, don’t merit the unfair potshots fired at them just for innately being mainstream offerings. In many ways, “Dial of Destiny” is very much cut from the same cloth as its box office blockbuster predecessors, but there are enough distinctions, new developments and lesser-known elements (such as the choice of the somewhat obscure Antikythera relic for the story’s focus) to keep it fresh and interesting throughout. Now, this is not to suggest that this final entry in the series is without its faults – it’s overlong, some of its action sequences could have been easily pared back (despite being expertly crafted) and the storyline tends to sag somewhat in the middle. However, Indiana Jones has once again given moviegoers a rollicking good time with a captivating narrative, an intriguing assortment of twists and turns, clever humor, and an array of colorful characters all vying for their piece of the pie (if not the entire pie itself). The film also provides fans of the franchise with deftly handled touches of nostalgia and nuanced efforts at achieving closure for the series, without dangling obvious or ambiguous carrots of there being more to come or any kind of impending reboot. Director James Mangold successfully puts the series to bed and tucks it in nicely while rounding off any remaining edges, something that it and its fans deserve. So, to all those cynics out there who are shamelessly bashing this release to be fashionable or hip, all I can say is “Pipe down and lose the attitude already.” This is good, solid filmmaking, even if it’s not exactly on par with what preceded it. The film is currently playing theatrically.

In November 1970, not long after this story takes place, singer-songwriter George Harrison released the song “All Things Must Pass,” the title cut to an album by the same name, his first after leaving the Beatles. It’s a bittersweet melody, one that reverently honors what has passed but warmly welcomes what is to be, a mixture of sadness for what’s gone and optimism for what lies ahead. Those sentiments are something we all face in our lives, sometimes in small, everyday ways, sometimes in big, often-dramatic transformations. It’s an inherent part of our reality, and, in this film, we see how it’s part of Indiana Jones’s existence, despite the seemingly timeless nature of his character and his exploits. This, too, is destiny playing itself out, and tears are almost certainly involved as it unfolds. But they need not be tears for what we have lost but tears of thankfulness for what we had, wisdom to which we should all adhere when it comes to looking back on our lives and what it brought us.

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

Monday, July 3, 2023

‘Monica’ examines acceptance, forgiveness, choice

“Monica” (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close, Adriana Barraza, Graham Caldwell, Ruby Fraser, Brennan Pittman, Leland Pittman, Chelo Acosta-Conley, Bobby Easley. Director: Andrea Pallaoro. Screenplay: Andrea Pallaoro and Orlando Tirado. Web site. Trailer.

When it comes to the notions of acceptance and forgiveness, it’s always important to remember that they’re beliefs that come with another inherent quality – the power of choice. Indeed, in both cases, we’re free to choose to either embrace or ignore these virtues, regardless of what others may think of us or how the perspectives we adopt might make us look. At the same time, though, we must also consider the consequences that come with either of these choices, some of which we find difficult to live with, especially if there’s no chance of us being able to go back and make amends for them later. Such are the thorny questions that the members of a family in crisis must examine for themselves in the new domestic drama, “Monica.”

When an adolescent expresses his belief that he would like to undergo the transition as a transgender female, his family is appalled, kicking him out of the house. His mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), is especially outraged, dropping him off at the bus station and leaving him with the parting words, “I am no longer your mother.” And so, with those cold, terse sentiments, he leaves behind his life in Ohio to start anew in California.

Scroll ahead to a time many years later. Having proceeded with her transitionary plans, Monica (Trace Lysette) now lives her new life. The process has been far from easy, and it’s not particularly perfect, even now. She has her share of issues to work out, especially where relationships are concerned. But, despite these challenges, she carries on, continuing to find herself and to live life on her terms, something in which she appears to take considerable satisfaction.

Events soon take an unexpected turn, however. Monica receives a phone call from her sister-in-law, Laura (Emily Browning), someone she’s never met in person. Having not been back to the Midwest since her unceremonious departure, she’s been out of touch with her family and the events that have transpired during that time, conditions that have left her unaware that she even has a sister-in-law. In any event, when Monica asks Laura about the reason for the call, she learns that her mother is terminally ill, suffering the devastating effects of a malignant brain tumor. Laura recommends that Monica return home, partly because her help as a caregiver would be greatly appreciated and partly because it may be her last chance to achieve any sense of closure, the pain of the past notwithstanding.

Monica (Trace Lysette), a transgender woman thrown out of her childhood home as a teen, reluctantly returns home to care for her terminally ill mother in the moving new domestic drama, “Monica,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

At first, Monica is unsure what to do. But, after giving the matter some thought, she decides to make the trip back east, not certain what the visit will be like, what impact it might have on her, how she’ll be able to handle herself under the circumstances and whether it will provide her with answers to so many unresolved questions.

So what does Monica find? For starters, she meets family members previously unknown to her – Laura and her three children, Brody (Graham Caldwell), Britney (Ruby Fraser) and Benny (Brennan Pittman, Leland Pittman). Monica is initially unsure what to make of these relatives she’s never met, but she’s welcomed warmly and sensitively, treatment that she finds comforting under the circumstances.

Laura then outlines what Monica can expect when she meets Eugenia, the first time she’ll be in her mother’s company since undergoing her transition. Laura explains that, given the advanced state of Eugenia’s condition, she often experiences trouble with mobility, as well as memory-related issues. And, because Eugenia has never met her child as Monica, it’s unclear whether she’ll even recognize her own offspring. That wrinkle makes the situation even more unsettling for Monica; how should she introduce herself to her own mother?

Laura lends a helping hand with this. When she and Monica arrive at Eugenia’s house – Monica’s childhood home – they’re greeted by Leticia (Adriana Barraza), the patient’s doting caregiver. She leads them to Eugenia’s bedroom, where Laura introduces Monica as an additional caregiver, someone who’s going to provide her and Leticia with much-needed assistance. Laura later explains that she did this without further elaboration so as not to intrude on whatever plans Monica may have in mind to let Eugenia know who she is, a conversation whose nature Monica herself has yet to work out.

It soon becomes apparent to Monica that her visit will likely end up lasting longer than she may have originally anticipated. So, until she decides how to handle “the talk” with her mother, she chooses to maintain her ambiguous identity. In addition to buying her time to figure what she wants to say to Eugenia, it allows Monica an opportunity to get reacquainted with this person who has become a virtual stranger to her after all these years and in the wake of the onset of her illness. It proves to be a wise move, too, given that Eugenia doesn’t exactly warm up to the appearance of “strangers” in her life under these trying conditions unless they prove themselves worthy of her acceptance, which, thankfully for her sake, Monica manages to win over.

For the first time, terminally ill Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) meets the transgender daughter she doesn’t know or recognize when she returns home after a long estrangement to care for her in her final days, as seen in the new domestic drama, “Monica.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

As Monica works toward winning over Eugenia’s approval, she needs to do the same with her brother, Paul (Joshua Close). Through their conversations together, it’s apparent the siblings were quite close when they were younger, but they’re not entirely sure where they stand now. Paul was devastated when his then-brother suddenly vanished, and, when he meets his sibling for the first time since her transition, he openly admits that he wouldn’t have recognized her as his relative if he were meeting her independent of this situation. Paul seems to want a return to the closeness he once shared with Monica, but how does he go about achieving that? Monica is likewise unclear on this point, despite a desire to attain it, especially since her brother may soon be the only immediate family member she has left. The ups and downs of this part of the process further complicate this family reunion, with no clear-cut answers in sight.

Meanwhile, as all of these various relationships evolve, Eugenia’s condition continues to deteriorate. Will matters be successfully resolved before it’s too late? What form will they take? And what will that mean for the future? While it’s true that there’s a lot to be made up for, there’s also an opportunity for much good to be carved out as everyone heads down the road together. Here’s hoping that things turn out better than when Monica was still a teenager.

Situations like this really test our beliefs. What are we to make of what happens going forward in light of what transpired in the past? Can we accept what happened and move on from it, or are we destined to forever hold an unshakable grudge? What will each course of action produce as a result? Will the mitigating circumstances of a scenario like this (i.e., Eugenia’s memory loss) make a difference in terms of how we proceed? Or will we be stuck, unable to make a decision? These are all important considerations to address, for they will impact what we ultimately choose to believe, how we act as a result and what will occur as a consequence.

Such are what emerges as a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s unclear whether Monica has ever heard of this way of thinking, but she should nevertheless be prepared for it and what it can produce based on the beliefs she adheres to – and puts out there.

After years of painful separation, transgender woman Monica (Trace Lysette, foreground) seeks to reconcile with her brother, Paul (Joshua Close, background), in writer-director Andrea Pallaoro’s engaging new domestic drama, “Monica,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

This scenario is potentially perplexing, given that Monica has a range of options available to her. So the key question she must address is, “Which one should I choose?” She could stay mired in bitterness. She could embrace forgiveness. But will opting for forgiveness provide a sense of satisfaction considering what happened in the past? At the same time, will passing up an opportunity to bestow it leave her feeling fulfilled given that time may be running out for being able to avail herself of that option? And, in light of the fact that Eugenia doesn’t even know who Monica is, will either choice even matter in the end?

Given the circumstances, the key consideration Monica must bear in mind is that, no matter what she does, the decision is hers because the power of choice involved in it is hers. It’s a birthright that resides in her consciousness and is always available to her to do with what she wants – and, in this case, what she believes is best. But, again, what will she choose?

Perhaps looking within would provide some valuable clues in making her decision. Maybe she needs to ask herself, “What do I want most out of this situation?” In particular, she might want to consider examining what she wanted to come out of this scenario when she first approached her mother in announcing her intent – acceptance of her desires, her wishes and her nature.

When an adolescent young man tells his mother that he yearns to make the transition to become the woman inside him and that heartfelt revelation is rejected, he experiences a blatant dismissal, one that truly hurts given that it comes from one’s own parent, someone who supposedly loves him. The lack of acceptance is hurtful in a way that cuts very deep and leaves a lasting, undeniable impression. But now that this individual has become the woman she so dearly longed to be, is it right for her to respond the same way her mother once did, to willfully deny her acceptance of who she is? Isn’t that somewhat hypocritical? Can she live with herself by buying into such beliefs, especially since she may soon no longer have the chance to change things?

Fortunately, Monica has tools at her disposal that may prove helpful in making her decision. In addition to her innate power of choice, she also has access to circumstances that she can draw upon to test the waters with Eugenia. For example, she can explore various possibilities for how to handle her relationship with her mother through her reassessment of her relationship with Paul, which has also undergone more than its share of strain over the years, including in the current time frame. She can ask herself, “What do I want from the situation with my brother for the future?” What’s more, can she draw from those discussions and transfer those insights into her assessment of her circumstances with her mother? And, if so, what?

Transgender woman Monica (Trace Lysette, back row, far right) reunites with the family she hasn’t seen in years, meeting some of them for the first time (clockwise from top left, Joshua Close, Brennan Pittman/Leland Pittman, Emily Browning, Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Graham Caldwell, Ruby Fraser), in writer-director Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Monica is not the only one who has an opportunity for such an exercise. Paul has the option to do the same, both in his relationship with his sister and in his marriage to Laura. As becomes apparent, he’s been experiencing issues with his wife for some time, and he’s having trouble identifying the cause. But perhaps he need only look to himself; indeed, isn’t it possible that he may have internalized some of the toxic beliefs from what appears to have been a volatile upbringing and he’s now projecting them into his feelings for Laura (and possibly Monica)? Perhaps it’s true when they say that some of our beliefs stem from learned behaviors in our youth that we consequently repeat by projecting them outward in the existence around us? If Paul manages to recognize and understand this, he may have an opportunity to rewrite his beliefs and repair his relationships with his wife and sister. Maybe some of that might even rub off on Monica, too.

Perhaps the most important point to recognize in all this is that these circumstances are not intractable. Change is truly possible, provided we recognize what’s at the heart of what needs to be fixed. By employing our powers of choice and our ability to alter what’s not working, we have an opportunity to strike out in new directions and to shift the future in ways that aren’t determined by a damaged past. The question is, “Do we have the courage and fortitude to make that happen?” For Monica’s sake, let’s hope she does.

Acceptance, reconciliation and forgiveness are arguably among the hardest feelings for many of us to deal with, but coming to terms with them is by no means impossible. That’s the choice being given to an estranged mother and daughter in this thoughtful new meditation from writer-director Andrea Pallaoro. The filmmaker’s third feature outing presents a deftly nuanced, sensitively handled story of a family painfully torn apart trying to put itself back together again under trying circumstances and while there’s still time. The pacing comes across as somewhat slow (undoubtedly by design), so those expecting material that moves along at a brisk, breezy clip may not find it to their liking, but, given the profound nature of the subject matter, it suits the narrative perfectly. There are admittedly a few plotline gaps here and there, but they’re more than adequately compensated for by the film’s superb ensemble cast, razor-sharp writing and gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography. “Monica” may not have received much fanfare upon its theatrical release earlier this year, but this fine streaming offering is well worth the time, providing viewers with a moving cinematic experience that many of us can probably relate to – and whose wisdom should be thoughtfully considered should the need for drawing upon it arise in one’s life.

It might be tempting to want sweep difficult situations (like those depicted here) squarely under the rug, especially when no easy answers present themselves. But, to be truthful, little is served by doing so; the difficulties remain and will probably only grow worse by failing to address them. So, in situations like these, it’s up to us to work on solutions, putting on our thinking caps to figure out what we believe and move from there. As hard as it might seem to believe, the answers are present; all we need do is look within to find them and put them into action. And, by following Monica’s lead, we just might succeed and transition to a new level of understanding.

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