Monday, February 26, 2024

Biting Satire on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday February 27, 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, February 18, 2024

‘Upon Entry’ tests our resolve to live up to our contentions

“Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”) (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Alberto Ammann, Bruna Cusí, Ben Temple, Laura Gómez. Director: Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. Screenplay: Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. Web site. Trailer.

Questions related to immigration have been asked with increasing frequency in recent years. This has been particularly true where illegal entry has been concerned, providing considerable fodder for widespread public debate. But what of legal immigration – is that a benign subject, one worthy of little attention or recognition? Indeed, if would-be immigrants are doing everything by the book, there shouldn’t be any concerns, right? The answer to that might not be as simple as it seems, as illustrated in the gripping Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”).

Diego (Alberto Ammann), an urban planner, and Elena (Bruna Cusí), a contemporary dancer, have gone to great lengths to change their lives. The couple lives in Barcelona, Spain, but they have meticulously made extensive arrangements to relocate to the US to begin again, primarily to advance their careers and join family members who have already made the move. They look forward to this new opportunity, confident that they have done everything necessary to ensure a smooth transition. And, as they head off to New York for a connecting flight to Miami, their eventual destination, they’re optimistic about what lies ahead.

Upon arrival in New York, however, they’re in for a rude awakening. While they sincerely believe that all of their immigration papers are in order, they’re nevertheless pulled aside as they’re processed through customs. Diego and Elena are escorted to a secondary screening room, where they’re told to have a seat and await further instructions. They ask questions that go unanswered and are often met with gruff, terse responses as authorities bark out commands to them. Needless to say, they’re perplexed by what’s unfolding and concerned about what it might mean.

Before long, Diego and Elena are taken to a private interrogation room, where they’re met by Agent Vásquez (Laura Gómez), a no-nonsense inquisitor who asks hard-edged questions, often giving them little time to provide answers and virtually no time to offer explanations or elaboration. There’s also little indication of where this questioning is heading or what’s behind it, leaving Diego and Elena even more confused. And, when they note that they’re running out of time to make their connecting flight, they’re summarily told that they should forget all about that.

Would-be immigrants Diego (Alberto Ammann, left) and Elena (Bruna Cusí, right) face harsh and unexpected scrutiny from authorities after landing in New York, as seen in the edgy Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), now available for streaming on Tubi TV. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

Not long thereafter, Agent Vásquez is joined by a colleague, Agent Barrett (Ben Temple), another tough-as-nails official who tag-teams his partner in asking additional questions, either individually or collectively with Diego and Elena. The inquiries grow progressively more intrusive, as if the agents are prying into the duo’s private life to validate the truthfulness of their responses. For example, Diego is grilled about the sincerity of his feelings for Elena, a line of questioning aimed at determining whether his relationship with her is as genuine as he contends or a matter of convenience for preferential treatment regarding their immigration status. Authorities are especially interested in this because of how quickly the couple became romantically involved after he broke off relations with an old flame, a relationship that Diego never discussed with Elena, an eye-opening revelation for her. And, thanks to these interrogation tactics, it’s not long before the trust between Diego and Elena appears to begin eroding.

There’s also the question of Diego’s Venezuelan heritage, having left his troubled homeland before relocating to Barcelona. Diego’s desire to now come to the US through Spain raises skepticism among the agents in light of the strained relations that currently exist between America and Venezuela. Is Diego legitimately pursuing a lawful course to immigrate to the US, or has he concocted a questionably clandestine scheme to accomplish his goal by way of a trumped-up romantic relationship with a Spanish woman (someone who, on her own, would come under less scrutiny than someone partnered to an individual of his background)? Indeed, should Diego be discovered to be pulling off a fast one, he could be deported directly back to Venezuela (not Spain) and denied any future chance at filing an immigration claim to come to the US. This naturally raises further suspicions in the minds of the agents, not to mention additional doubts in the heart of Elena.

To make matters worse, as the interrogation wears on, the couple grows increasingly reluctant to cooperate, particularly when the agents aren’t forthcoming about their intents or any clear basis for their line of questioning. Diego and Elena are pushed to the brink, refusing to cave in to the pressure but reaching the point where they can’t help but wonder whether their dream is going to be fulfilled. They’re clearly drained by this ordeal, but they’re in doubt about what’s going to transpire with their plan – and with each other.

Immigration Agents Vásquez (Laura Gómez, left) and Barrett (Ben Temple, right) subject a pair of new arrivals to unduly harsh questioning, trying to identify the intents behind their immigration plans, as seen in the edgy Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), now available for streaming on Tubi TV. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

So what exactly is going on here? Do the agents have concrete evidence to question the sincerity of the couple’s intentions? After all, when it comes to their immigration preparations, they appear to have nearly everything solidly nailed down; except for the failure to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s, all seems in order, and they’ve substantially proved that it in their completed paperwork. So does that mean authorities have other means of confirming their suspicions, or are they on some kind of fishing expedition? Indeed, what’s prompting them to believe that something is truly amiss? No matter what underlies their actions, it hasn’t stopped their brutal interrogation, with their leading questions, accusatory tone and inferences that plant nagging seeds of doubt in the minds of Diego and Elena.

The key to understanding this, of course, rests with the beliefs of those asking and answering the questions, for those notions play a central role in how events play out, the outcomes that emerge from the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the manifestation of our existence. It’s unclear if any of the principals in this drama are aware of this school of thought, but the means driving it clearly have a pivotal role to play as evidenced by how matters unfold here.

So what beliefs are at work here? That’s hard to say, because the intents aren’t completely clear. Are the agents asking questions based on their beliefs in some kind of concealed evidence? Or are they following some kind of standardized interrogation protocol used in situations where they have suspicions about what could be transpiring without hard evidence to back up such speculation, a tactic designed to draw out potentially hidden truths? If it’s the former, the responses would likely validate whatever evidence they have. And, if it’s the latter, the answers would either confirm or dismiss their suspicions, but the questions will have helped them arrive at such conclusions either way.

As for those being interrogated, the questions would either enable them to remain resolute in their truth or expose any attempted hidden deception, the results, of course, reflecting what they believe in their hearts. In addition, the questioning could also be seen as a sort of litmus test for the veracity of the partners’ relationship, specifically the faith and trust they place in one another. For instance, is Diego being square with Elena about the sincerity of his intentions, both as a romantic partner and as someone who’s sincerely seeking to make a new life with her (as opposed to using her as a means to an end)? Scenarios like this can be difficult to endure, but sometimes they can help to reveal strengths – and weaknesses – in relationships, even if the subject matter of the interrogation bears no direct connection to the partnership itself.

Would-be immigrant Diego (Alberto Ammann) faces tough questions from authorities about his Venezuelan heritage and his romantic relationships after landing in New York, as seen in the gripping Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), recipient of three Independent Spirit Award nominations. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

However, the foregoing considerations aside, there are some additional concerns to bear in mind here, specifically with regard to policies regarding the process of immigration. As noted above, illegal immigration is a subject of great debate these days, and good arguments exist on each side of the issue as to what we should believe about it and, hence, how we should proceed in handling it. But, also as noted earlier, what about legal immigration, the subject at the heart of this story? Is it really necessary for would-be immigrants to be subjected to such intense and intimidating scrutiny, especially if they appear to have done everything correctly? Indeed, if there were red flags that needed to be investigated, shouldn’t they have been looked into before the couple arrived in New York? In light of that, then, these practices raise the question, what exactly do we believe about the nature of immigration in the first place? Are we truly walking our talk on this matter, or are we being hypocrites? Do we genuinely believe what we claim, or are these contentions some kind of window dressing, smoke screen or camouflage?

Let’s consider the facts. As a nation, the US generally has a history of welcoming immigrants who follow the proper legal protocols. They have played a vital role in the growth and development of this country, providing us with rich cultural, artistic and technological contributions. The diversity this practice has afforded American society has made the US a model for other countries to follow. It’s been a win-win situation all around.

However, when we see incidents like this play out, all of those ideals and aspirations get thrown into doubt. Do we mean what we say? If so, however, then why are individuals who are acting in good faith subjected to unsavory practices like this (which, by the way, aren’t necessarily recent developments, either)? And, if that’s how we really feel, then why are we sending out mixed messages to those wishing to come here? Given the track record of immigrant contributions, as well as current issues related to labor shortages in a wide array of employment sectors, why would we make these circumstances so needlessly difficult, especially when they appear to fly in the face of everything we supposedly claim?

This is not to suggest throwing caution to the wind. It’s certainly reasonable to diligently employ prudent security precautions in immigration and customs practices. But, as events unfold here, we can’t help but observe that the US might be a nation moving from a standpoint of legitimate suspicion to one of rampant paranoia. If we’ve truly reached a point where we have inherent doubts about not only illegal but also legal immigration, we need to step back and assess our beliefs about this practice. Do we want it to continue? Do we recognize the benefits it can afford us? And, if we don’t believe that the advantages outweigh the risks, then what are we going to do about it? Can we be honest with others – and ourselves – about what we truly believe about this subject? And, if so, can we make the appropriate adjustments in our policies and protocols with regard to it? Implementing such changes may not be easy if we decide to adopt them, but the toughest part may come up front where the core of this issue rests – in our beliefs.

Would-be immigrant Elena (Bruna Cusí) learns previously undisclosed secrets about her partner during questioning from government authorities in “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), the gripping debut feature from the writing-directing duo of Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

Welcome to America, land of the free and home of the brave, a sanctuary for the world’s poor, tired and huddled masses. Or is it? That’s the question uncomfortably raised in this gripping, edgy debut feature from the writing-directing duo of Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. It begs the question, is this the America we want? And, if so, then why would anyone want to come here in the first place, even when making a diligently concerted effort to follow all of the legally sanctioned protocols? This film sends a powerful message, spotlighting issues disturbingly brought to light by the film’s meticulously scripted writing, which keeps characters and viewers alike guessing about what’s playing out. Although crafted very much like a stage play, the film never comes across as stilted or stagey, thanks in large part to the superb performances of the four principals, who effectively convey the anguish and fright being wrought on screen. This Tubi TV offering is highly deserving of its three Independent Spirit Award nominations for best first feature, best first screenplay and best editing, even if it’s also the kind of picture that makes audiences uneasy – but, then, maybe that’s the point behind it, too, a goal at which it succeeds brilliantly.

What we believe, either individually or collectively, can have wide-ranging implications, sometimes extending far beyond our immediate surroundings, even affecting individuals we don’t know or have never met. For what they’re worth, though, those beliefs may have impact – and may even potentially inflict harm – on others. We may not be aware of this, but, as members of a society to whose policies we may tacitly consent, we could be just as responsible for them as those who devise and enforce them in the first place. This behooves us to stay informed of what’s going on and providing our feedback when these policies and practices don’t jibe with our beliefs, as may be the case with incidents like those depicted in this film. Looking the other way won’t make these issues go away, something we must never lose sight of if we profess to be citizens of a society that holds itself out as everything it claims to be.

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

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Zone of Interest," "The Teachers' Lounge" and "When Time Got Louder" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

‘The Teachers’ Lounge’ charts a molehill’s evolution

“The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”) (2023). Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Kathrin Wehlisch, Sarah Bauerett, Rafael Stachowiak, Uygar Tamer, Özgür Karadeniz, Can Rodenbostel, Vincent Stachowiak, Elsa Krieger, Padmé Hamdemir, Oskar Zickur, Lewe Wagner, Lisa Marie Trense. Director: Ilker Çatak. Screenplay: Johannes Duncker and Ilker Çatak. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all no doubt heard about the proverbial molehill unwittingly being made into a mountain. The inconsequential somehow manages to become overly (and unnecessarily) inflated, taking on undeserved significance. This usually comes about as a result of undue attention paid to it by those who have self-serving agendas that they want to see escalated and addressed to resolve petty or trumped-up grievances. And the result is a chaotic maelstrom characterized by overhyped shrieking and misplaced ridicule, often directed at the wrong parties or the wrong issues. Such scenarios, unfortunately, have become far too commonplace these days, frequently blowing matters all out of reasonable proportion. If you doubt that, it’s possible to see an example of such lunacy at work in the satirical new German comedy-drama, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”).

Middle school is one of those few remaining environments thought to be safe, secure and free of troubling incidents, but such is not the case at a facility in the German city of Hamburg. A rash of petty thefts involving student possessions has been occurring, and administrators like Principal Bettina Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) want to get to the bottom of the issue. Several teachers have also become involved in the investigation, such as recently hired Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), one of the school’s most liked instructors, to help make possible student witnesses feel at ease during questioning. While officials are eager to find out what’s going on, they also want to create a comfortable environment for those who may be apprehensive but have important information to share.

But, even when a suspect is supposedly identified, the situation is still unresolved, only this time it involves the theft of teacher property, specifically items that go missing from the faculty lounge, to which no students have access. One of those affected is Ms. Nowak, who has money pilfered from her jacket pocket when she leaves it unattended on the back of a chair. She catches a break, however, when an image of the perpetrator’s distinctively patterned clothing is caught on her laptop camera, which was placed opposite the aforementioned chair and had been left on at the time of the theft. And, even though the thief’s face was not captured in the recording, it was easy to identify the individual in question given the outfit she was wearing – the culprit being one of the front office administrative aides, Frederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau).

Recently hired teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) reaches the end of her rope when a minor incident gets blown all out of proportion and lands an unexpected motherlode of fallout squarely on her, as seen in the new German satire, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”). Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

When Carla identifies Frederike as the offender, she confronts her but is immediately met with outrage and indignation. Frederike is insulted and incensed, throwing a fit. The mild-mannered Carla, meanwhile, calmly tries to defuse the situation, even going so far as to say that she would be willing to overlook the matter as long as Frederike returns the stolen money. But that solution falls flat when Frederike escalates the situation, necessitating Bettina’s involvement. And, when that doesn’t work, the principal mentions that this may become a matter for the police.

But this is far from the end of things. Frederike’s son, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), is one of Carla’s students, and he quickly gets drawn into the fray. It causes a strain in his relationship with his teacher, with whom he had previously gotten along well given the attention and recognition she gave him as one of her class’s best students. He goes through a change in attitude, becoming noticeably more belligerent and subsequently winning over the support of his classmates, who grow progressively more untrustworthy of and confrontational toward their teacher and even amongst themselves. There’s also a growing sense of racial, ethnic and social prejudice emerging in the classroom and at the school overall, a reflection of issues arising in contemporary German culture with the increasing arrival of immigrants and refugees from places like Eastern Europe and the Middle East. And word of all this, of course, eventually makes its way home to the parents of the pupils, who also grow skeptical about who’s teaching their kids, especially when physical harm surfaces.

Carla then learns that she may be in hot water with the faculty for having left her laptop camera running and recording them without their consent, an invasion of privacy issue. Needless to say, the staff becomes infuriated when word of this surfaces, even though nothing of consequence was filmed, making Carla a pariah among her peers. Suddenly the victim of a crime may be guilty of committing one herself. And the police – who were supposed to be investigating what happened to her – remain out of sight throughout all of this. So much for justice.

If all of that weren’t enough, Carla comes under further attack in the student newspaper. When interviewed for a previously scheduled article profiling the newly arrived instructor, she’s ambushed by the student journalists, who ask leading questions and make unsubstantiated accusations that end up in print as misleading reporting with quotes taken out of context. Like so many others in the public eye these days, Carla is charged, tried and convicted in the court of public opinion based on biased journalism, a victim of brutal character assassination. This development, coupled with everything that preceded it, leads to frenzied circumstances in which an individual who tried to quietly bring about an equitable, discreet solution to a containable incident is pushed to the edge. The molehill is now long since gone, with the mountain on view for all to see.

Gifted student Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch) has a change in attitude toward the teacher he once liked when she levels damning accusations against his mother, one of the school’s administrative aides, as seen in the Oscar-nominated German comedy-drama, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”). Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

However, some viewers might look at this story and wonder why a film was built around it. In the greater scheme of things, the narrative here could be viewed as somewhat inherently … unimportant, insignificant or negligible, and good arguments could be made in favor of that perspective. At the same time, though, also in the greater scheme of things, such an outlook might be viewed as selling this tale short in terms of its metaphorical nature, particularly when, sadly, it comes to depicting conditions found to be present all too often in the wider world these days. In that sense, it’s a cautionary fable for our times, illustrating just what we’ve come to, and where we’re at, nowadays. And that’s especially true when showcasing the state of our individual and collective beliefs, an important consideration in light of the role they play in shaping the nature of our existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that accounts for how these intangible resources influence the emergence of the reality we experience.

As I’ve noted many times before, it’s unclear how many of us are aware of this school of thought. However, even if we’ve never heard of it or made use of it, we may well sense its presence in our lives on a subconscious level. And, if we don’t like what we see in our existence, we might find the notion unsettling. To a certain extent, this may likely be the case where this story and this film are concerned, a possible explanation for why this picture has not been warmly received in many circles. Nevertheless, that may also account for the impact of this offering: It makes viewers uncomfortable because it hits a little too close to home. The result is that some audience members might find themselves squirming in their seats, making them feel as though this release is cutting through a lot of carefully layered camouflage and exposing us for who and what we believe – and are – in many respects, a response that reinforces the view that we don’t like what we see, particularly since it’s coming from us.

The exposure of underlying beliefs that yield the kinds of outcomes depicted here is a theme that has been – thankfully – gaining momentum in recent years, as evidenced in movies like this, as well as such other productions as “Don’t Look Up” (2021) and “Dream Scenario” (2023). They shine a bright light on us, serving as a mirror of ourselves, reflecting what’s really going on deep down inside us at the core of our beings. “The Teachers’ Lounge” shows how pervasive the impact of this can be, too, both on the grand stage of our world and in the little, everyday events that characterize our respective lives. Whether themes like those explored here are incorporated into big picture events or the small-scale happenings of daily existence, their effects are the same in each case, and we should be cognizant of that when it comes to the reality we manifest and subsequently experience.

The relationship of recently hired teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch, left) and one of her once-favorite students, Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch, right), turns sour when extenuating circumstances put undue pressure on them, as seen in the satirical new German comedy-drama, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”), Oscar nominee for best international feature. Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It may be tempting for some of us to dismiss this notion, especially when we see things about our existence that we don’t like – particularly about ourselves and what we materialize. However, given that these initiatives originate with us, we can’t realistically abrogate our responsibility for them and what unfolds from them as a result. There are many areas in which this is true in this story, many of them disturbing, especially when it comes to revealing aspects of ourselves and our beliefs that we find unflattering or intrinsically troubling. Hence the viewer discomfort with this title.

This film provides us with a look at how this all plays out both individually and collectively. In many regards, there are individual agendas at work that unfold over the course of the narrative. At the same time, these individual belief threads combine to form the essence of the larger, collectively generated scenario. And, considering the often-inflammatory nature of the various agendas, it becomes easy to see how and why they jointly grow into something larger and more troubling, with consequences that appear in myriad ways. Put another way, it’s easy to see how the molehill becomes a mountain.

We see scenarios like this popping up more often than ever before these days, again, whether on either grand or minor scales. Situations that start out small take on lives of their own, often with multiple components that each carry potentially significant implications and that, collectively, combine to make for unwarranted high drama. Circumstances that seem like they should be able to be handled with relative ease and simplicity swell into major confrontations, with emotions that run hot, heavy and adversarial over matters that are far from deserving of such attention and treatment. In this film, we see that occur with respect to not only the original criminal accusations, but also with a host of ancillary concerns that aren’t part of the initial conditions and somehow become wrapped up in the course of the overall story.

For example, what do elements like racial and national prejudice, the incendiary role of the media, the impact of unsubstantiated innuendo, the protection of personal privacy, the indulgence of contemporary youth, and the sway of fake news in shaping public opinion have to do with the petty theft of cash from someone’s jacket pocket? As all of this comes to light, the individual at the center of this scenario – Carla – is judged by those around her, including by some who have no direct bearing on the outcome of the seminal event, generally with distorted views and without all the pertinent facts, a situation similar to what unfolds in the recently released Japanese offering, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). And, as all these sideshow matters come front and center, the person whose needs are most crucial of bring met – the aggrieved teacher – go unattended by those one might think would help her: her peers and the officials responsible for resolving this situation. Is that fair? What’s more – and perhaps more troubling – doesn’t this sound like something we hear about on an almost-daily basis these days? And to think it all begins with our individual and collective beliefs. Is that the way we truly want things to be?

Recently hired teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) gets beaten up – literally and figuratively – by multiple parties when she gets caught up in an exaggerated school conflict, as seen in writer-director Ilker Çatak’s latest offering, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”), now playing in theaters. Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Our beliefs are powerful tools for shaping the world we experience. They can be employed to manifest virtually anything we can envision, for better or worse. Consequently, though, it’s incumbent upon us to use that power carefully, because, as this film illustrates, it can quickly get out of hand, becoming inflated in ways with wide-ranging and potentially damaging ramifications. After all, those mountains can be difficult – if not impossible – to dispense with once they emerge. Remember that the next time you’re quick to unduly raise a fuss or erroneously point fingers at someone else.

In recent years, we’ve all seen examples of incidents that start out comparatively small but that rapidly get blown all out of proportion – and perversely so at that. As developments emerge and explode under these conditions, they often lose all sense of reason, expanding into tangential and seemingly unrelated areas that have virtually nothing to do with the event that spawned them. And, in the end, we’re left with outcomes that seem inappropriate and ill-suited to what launched these insane scenarios in the first place. That’s what writer-director Ilker Çatak explores in his latest offering, a microcosmic metaphor for what’s happening on a wider scale in society at large today. While some may fervently contend that the outcomes depicted here are somewhat exaggerated in nature, they nevertheless collectively draw attention to undeniably troubling issues desperately in need of attention in our increasingly out-of-control world, global concerns that obviously transcend national borders, all punctuated here with more than a few hefty infusions of wickedly absurdist humor. “The Teachers’ Lounge” might not appeal to everyone, but, for those who enjoy films that aren’t afraid to present biting social commentary, this should be added to your watch list. As the picture so regrettably shows, even supposedly civil environments aren’t immune from the kind of social nonsense depicted here, a troubling teaching for all of us who are looking for a return to sanity in an increasingly crazy existence.

“The Teachers’ Lounge” has played widely on the film festival circuit, but it is now available in limited general release. As one of the National Board of Review’s Top 5 International Films for 2023, it’s a worthwhile watch that will make viewers think and, even more importantly, laugh. It’s such qualities that have also earned this release a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best international film. But, as you’re watching it, try to keep your composure and not let emotions take over if it starts to make you feel uncomfortable. That’s the lesson we should all strive to take away from this insightful offering – and apply it when called for.

Molehills can indeed be annoying nuisances, but, when kept in check, they’re generally manageable, seldom assuming mountain form. However, like a nagging hangnail, sometimes we can’t resist the temptation to relentlessly pick at it, needlessly making it worse until it blows up into a full-fledged infection. Is that really called for? That’s a question we should ask ourselves more often when we see minor quibbles pointlessly become transformed into full-fledged conflicts that ultimately leave us decidedly worse off. If this film teaches us nothing else, it should be that. Let’s hope we take the lesson to heart.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

‘When Time Got Louder’ asks, ‘Who cares for the caregiver?’

“When Time Got Louder” (2023). Cast: Willow Shields, Lochlyn Munro, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jonathan Simao, Sharon Taylor, Ava Capri, Piper Curda, Aias Dalman, Ava Grace Cooper, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Bronwen Smith, Milo Shandel, Wyatt Cameron, Sindy Lau, Benita Ha, Barry W. Levy, Sean Robert Muik. Director: Connie Cocchia. Screenplay: Connie Cocchia. Web site. Trailer.

Caring for those with special needs is certainly a noble, commendable pursuit. The patience, diligence, compassion and dedication required in attending to these individuals is often substantial, and providing the necessary care in line with those qualities is indeed laudable. But, given the commitment called for in such undertakings, one can’t help but wonder, how far should such conscientiousness extend? Is there a limit to the expectations, or is the obligation open-ended? Such persistent efforts can take a toll either way, at which point the question naturally arises, “Who cares for the caregiver?” That’s a central theme of the moving new domestic drama, “When Time Got Louder.”

Mark and Tish Peterson (Lochlyn Munro, Elizabeth Mitchell) are the proud parents of two teenage children, Abbie (Willow Shields) and Kayden (Jonathan Simao), both of whom are very close to one another. Abbie is a high school senior who has been accepted into a prestigious out-of-town art school, a program in which she looks forward to enrolling. Her younger brother is also a talented illustrator, but he suffers from autism, requiring a great deal of care from both his parents and older sister. Kayden is reasonably high functioning, but he’s prone to uncontrolled emotional outbursts and communicates mostly nonverbally, sometimes making his needs quite challenging to understand and fulfill. And, despite the genuine love and affection that Mark, Tish and Abbie feel for Kayden, they’re also well aware of how difficult it can be to tend to his needs.

The family has sacrificed much in caring for Kayden. Tish gave up her successful career as an interior designer to become a stay-at-home mom for her son. Mark, a construction contractor, has taken on extra work to earn enough money to pay for all of the care Kayden requires, as well as Abbie’s impending schooling. But it’s a decision that has led to Mark being absent more often than many typical husbands and fathers, placing greater strain on the emotional well-being of the household. Meanwhile, Abbie has also made her share of sacrifices, having foregone many of the activities that her high school peers readily enjoy just so that she can dutifully spend time with her brother.

Considering the pressure and anxiety that all of this has placed on the family, one can’t help but wonder how long they can keep this up. Their efforts in caring for Kayden are certainly praiseworthy, but what about their needs? The relationship between Mark and Tish is obviously becoming frayed. And, out of a sense of guilt, Abbie is even considering abandoning her plans to go off to school to stay home with her brother. But are these workable solutions? Are Tish, Mark and Abbie realistically to be expected to put their lives on hold? Are they supposed to willingly sacrifice their hopes, wishes and dreams for Kayden’s sake? Is that fair to them?

Abbie Peterson (Willow Shields, left) cares deeply for her autistic brother, Kayden (Jonathan Simao, right), as a committed caregiver, as seen in the new domestic drama, “When Time Got Louder.” Photo courtesy of Lucky Lab Photos Inc.

There are no easy answers to questions like that. Kayden obviously has a great many needs that must be addressed. But so do Tish, Mark and Abbie. What could they be missing out on in an effort to be dutiful to their son and brother? Even if they were to move forward in meeting their own needs, what kind of an impact would that have on Kayden and his continued well-being? And how would they be looked upon if they did this? Would they be perceived as providing themselves much-needed self-care, or would they be summarily judged as being selfish and “unconcerned”?

Situations like this obviously call for getting creative, particularly when it comes to considering the full range of solution options on the table. But can all of those options truly be envisioned and/or implemented? And, even if so, can those drumming up such possibilities believe in their viability? That’s especially important given the role that our beliefs play in the manifestation of what we experience, the outcome of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that governs the employment of these intangible resources in shaping our existence. It’s not even clear how many of us have heard of or bought into this school of thought, but, if we hope to come up with inventive means for addressing tricky circumstances like those depicted in this film, we had better give them some serious consideration if we hope to find feasible ways to move forward.

Obviously the caregiver’s needs must be addressed if he or she wants to remain effective in that role. After all, if the caregiver becomes frustrated or worn out, what kind of impact will that have on the care recipient? For everything to work out all around, there must be a goal of striking a proper balance, where the needs of both provider and receiver are both adequately met. But, again, how is an equilibrium to be struck when the seemingly available means for achieving it are limited, vanishing or missing?

Mark and Tish Peterson (Lochlyn Munro, left, and Elizabeth Mitchell, right) wrestle with finding suitable caregiving solutions for their teenage autistic son, as depicted in writer-director Connie Cocchia’s debut feature, “When Time Got Louder,” available for streaming. Photo courtesy of Lucky Lab Photos Inc.

This is where the aforementioned envisioning capabilities come into play. Under the conditions present here, it’s apparent that the tried-and-true, readily available solutions have become insufficient, and hopes for them improving significantly and expediently are slim. This is not to suggest that those practices weren’t sufficient at one time, but, as circumstances have changed, new solutions are now called for. Some of these possibilities might not be obvious, or they may have us riddled with doubt about their viability. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for them or summarily rule them out.

By freeing ourselves of self-imposed limitations, we can expand the range of possibilities open to us. Allowing our imagination to flow without restriction opens up our minds to visualize options never before considered. And, when we infuse those conceptualized ideas with the power of our beliefs, they take on a life of their own, as evidenced by their manifestation right before our eyes. This is what the Petersons must now put to work to come up with the solutions required to fill everybody’s needs.

While it would be ideal if such brainstorms could come to us directly, some of us might need a little help with the envisioning process. In these cases, the wisest course may be to seek out the guidance and insights of specialists with the required expertise. Their experience can prove valuable in devising suggested solutions, providing us with a sense of possibilities we hadn’t considered and can now start focusing on to bring into being. This becomes particularly apparent in the family’s meetings with Claire (Sharon Taylor), a social worker well versed in long-term caregiving options for autistic patients. Some of her suggestions are well met while others are summarily dismissed, but seeking out the possibilities, no matter what they may be, must be done if resolution is ever to be achieved.

In Kayden’s case, Tish, Mark and Abbie need to examine those long-term approaches for reasons other than just what they’re experiencing at the moment. To put it simply, they’re all getting older. Kayden is nearly fully grown, a young man who has the bulk of his life ahead of him. Abbie wants to attend school to develop her talents and career, ventures that are going to require increased time, effort and commitment from her, leaving her with less of each when it comes to caring for her brother. And Tish and Mark are already middle-aged, making it likely that they’ll become less able to carry on with Kayden’s care as they have as they age. While Kayden’s needs can’t be ignored, neither can those of his other family members, as these collective circumstances make clear. The caregivers must be attended to as well.

Autistic teen Kayden Peterson (Jonathan Simao) attempts to learn how to become more independent for himself in the sensitive and engaging new domestic drama, “When Time Got Louder.” Photo courtesy of Lucky Lab Photos Inc.

As this film illustrates, there are myriad benefits to come out of expanding our consciousness through creative exercises like this. For starters, devising unexpected, unconventional solutions can be the best approach for handling challenging situations, like those examined here. Beyond that, though, this practice can also help us build up our “manifestation muscles,” strengthening our capabilities for envisioning favorable outcomes overall, making us more adept at coming up with answers for an array of materialization challenges.

Abbie seems particularly proficient in this regard, especially once she leaves for school. In addition to placing herself in an immersive creative environment that’s ideally suited to her talents, it provides her with the freedom to explore aspects of herself that she couldn’t do as readily when still living at home. Most notably, she begins examining her personal life more than she had, especially when it comes to taking part in same-sex dating with a new love interest, Karly (Ava Capri). Giving herself some breathing room, while still being about to regularly communicate with Kayden by video phone, she’s found a balance that comfortably suits everyone’s needs.

While some of the foregoing might seem patently obvious, it’s important to remember that it’s easy to see that as an outside onlooker. For those ensconced in the midst of such scenarios, the solutions – and how to arrive at them – may not be as apparent. We may be too close to the circumstances, which could cloud our judgment and keep us from seeing a way out. But, by taking a step back and assessing these situations from an enhanced perspective, employing the notions discussed here, and leaving ourselves open to the options, there’s no telling how creative and effective we might become in our problem-solving skills.

Told largely through flashbacks, including during the childhoods of younger versions of Kayden (Aias Dalman) and Abbie (Ava Grace Cooper), this little-known gem sensitively but candidly presents viewers with an up-close look at what families like the Petersons go through to keep life in their households functioning and balanced. Writer-director Connie Cocchia’s heartfelt debut feature examines the loving but hard choices that must be made to take care of everyone’s needs under stressful conditions. Beautifully filmed, skillfully edited and backed by a deftly compiled soundtrack, this tale is effectively brought to life by its superb ensemble cast. The film evokes genuine emotions and does so with an organic authenticity, never becoming schmaltzy, clichéd or manipulative, quite a coup for a first-time feature filmmaker. “When Time Got Louder” is one of those releases that has largely flown beneath the radar, primarily playing the film festival circuit, but, thankfully, this Canadian production is now available for streaming – and a well-worthwhile viewing choice at that.

When close to circumstances like these, it can be difficult to know where to place our boundaries without allowing guilt or emotions to get in the way. How much hands-on involvement is too much? When does a sincere, compassionate sense of obligation become an unhealthy involuntary fixation? And how do we break a cycle that threatens to break us? Keeping our minds open and our intentions balanced is the key, even if learning how to attain it seems overwhelming. But, by letting our consciousness lead us to the answers, we have the opportunity to let everyone win – and what better outcome is there than that?

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

Monday, February 12, 2024

The Power of Love on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday February 13, 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.

Friday, February 9, 2024

‘The Zone of Interest’ weighs the cost of indifference

“The Zone of Interest” (2023). Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Johann Karthaus, Luis Noah Witte, Nele Ahrensmeier, Lilli Falk, Anastazja Drobniak, Cecylia Pękala, Kalman Wilson, Imogen Kogge, Stephanie Petrowitz. Director: Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer. Book: Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest (2014). Web site. Trailer.

Given humanity’s tremendous capacity for compassion and benevolence, it’s somewhat hard to believe that we’re also capable of qualities at the opposite end of the spectrum. When we consider the magnanimity we often exhibit in times of crisis, it’s difficult to fathom how we can also demonstrate troubling degrees of callous, uncaring indifference toward our fellow man. Yet, if we examine the scope of human history, we can’t willfully ignore the many instances of cruel disregard and unspeakable atrocities we’ve inflicted on others during such times as the reign of the Third Reich. And, despite what progress we may have made, we even see it today in places like the North Korean regime. It makes one wonder whether we’ve learned anything along the way. That’s why we need to pay attention to our history and ourselves, as depicted in the unnerving but affecting new historical drama, “The Zone of Interest.”

Without a doubt, Nazi Germany was one of the most horrendous times in human history. Under the authoritarian rule of sadistic dictator Adolf Hitler, this maniacal autocratic state inflicted unrelenting terror across Europe, particularly in the implementation of its “final solution” to systematically eliminate what it considered to be the region’s undesirables, most notably the continent’s Jewish population. Through its network of nefarious death camps, the regime executed 6 million Jews, as well as a nearly equal number of individuals from other religious, cultural and ethnic persuasions. And this was accomplished through a highly orchestrated program of rounding up the targeted victims and sending them to their deaths at these notorious facilities.

The most infamous of these concentration camps was located at Auschwitz in occupied Poland. With no offense intended here, the facility was run like a factory, where “efficiency” was considered an exalted objective. This was a goal overseen by the camp’s commandant, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), who resided with his family in a compound immediately adjacent to the facility, separated by a dividing wall. There was a tremendously ironic dichotomy in this setup; while unrelenting death and revolting inhumanity characterized life in the camp, the residential compound was the seeming epitome of normality. In fact, the commandant’s wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), saw the residence as the ideal place for the family, including the couple’s five children. Hedwig looked on it as the home she always wanted, her own version of paradise. She took pride in the garden she established, complete with flower beds, vegetable plantings and a greenhouse, along with a wading pool and play sets for the children.

How ironic it is for such an idyllic setting as this residential family compound to be located directly next to the Auschwitz concentration camp facility, as seen in director Jonathan Glazer’s latest offering, the unsettling historical drama, “The Zone of Interest.” Photo courtesy of A24.

In adopting this attitude, however, Rudolf and Hedwig were oblivious to what was transpiring just beyond the compound’s wall, despite the recurring sounds of gunshots and the incessant billowing smoke coming from the camp’s mass crematoriums. What’s more, they intentionally ignored smoking gun evidence of the camp’s atrocities that they encountered during their daily routines. In fact, Hedwig and the children matter-of-factly took pleasure in whatever valuable possessions they were able to acquire as a result of confiscations from camp victims, such as a full-length fur for mother and extracted gold teeth for the youngsters to play with.

Indeed, it’s astounding how the members of the Höss family could be so deliberately indifferent about what was going on around them. It’s truly mind boggling how they could so thoroughly compartmentalize their thinking and place their own needs, wants and desires before all else. Yet there they were, living their lives as if nothing untoward was unfolding in their midst.

In telling this story, the film is not focused so much on its narrative as it is on conveying the prevailing attitudes of its characters. In that sense, then, “The Zone of Interest” relies more on presenting a series of events reflective of those individuals’ perspectives, an approach that could be seen as somewhat episodic. Nevertheless, that tactic works, as those individual events collectively combine to paint a picture of the outlooks of its principals, one that’s quite chilling for viewers to witness. On top of that, the film never incorporates imagery that’s graphic or gratuitous of what’s unfolding in the camp; instead, the audience is shown preludes to, or evidence of the aftermath, of those events, a technique designed to further enhance the disturbing impact of what’s transpiring over the dividing wall.

Because of this, much of this release presents depictions of everyday events in the lives of the family. While some might see this as rather mundane, it’s nevertheless quite telling and keeps in line with the film’s central message. Certain incidents are particularly compelling, such as the reaction of Hedwig’s mother (Imogen Kogge) to what she witnesses when she comes for a visit, especially when the truth of what’s happening sinks in. Then there’s the indignance of Hedwig when she learns that her husband is about to be transferred to another Nazi facility in Oranienberg near Berlin, a move she strongly protests because she doesn’t want to leave the home she so dearly loves, even prompting her to defiantly stay behind despite her husband’s relocation. Again, one can’t help but wonder how people could behave in such an unfeeling manner.

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, shows her youngest the residential compound flower garden of which she’s so proud in director Jonathan Glazer’s latest offering, the unsettling historical drama, “The Zone of Interest,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of A24.

Yet, the film’s unconventional approach notwithstanding, that’s precisely the point behind this picture. With so much brutality and barbarism taking place, it’s unfathomable that people could so easily look the other way and place their own interests ahead of those of the victims. That’s a powerful message that we should all take to heart, no matter what the circumstances and regardless of how great or small the consequences might be.

Of course, how we react to conditions like these depends greatly on what we think about them, specifically when it comes to our beliefs. And that’s crucial considering that our beliefs play a pivotal role in the manifestation of our existence, a result of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that governs how such materializations come into being. It’s not apparent how many of us are aware of this school of thought, but its impact can be substantial, for better or worse, particularly when viewed in light of the deliberately disregarded beliefs exhibited by the characters in this story.

The themes examined in this film naturally raise the question, “Why do the characters adhere to these beliefs in the first place?” Indeed, how can they be so intentionally cruel and indifferent? That’s hard to say, and only they can definitively answer a query like that. However, their thoughts and the actions that follow from them are tied to some significant life lessons. For example, it’s obvious they’re placing themselves first, regardless of whatever consequences may befall others, and that attitude is driven by some pronounced beliefs in self-centeredness. When Hedwig fawns over her new fur cost, for instance, she shows no concern for the fact that it was stolen or for the welfare of the individual from whom it was taken. Likewise, her preoccupation for preserving the state of her compound, when compared to her willful ignorance of what was happening right next door, illustrates the intensive self-absorption that defines her nature, one that’s a direct product of the beliefs she holds about herself, a mindset of which she might not even be aware. Moreover, that outlook doesn’t even end where the camp’s proximity and residents are concerned: When Rudolf phones her from Berlin late one night to impart some “good” news about the future of his career, she’s bothered that he called her at such an inconvenient hour – a totally dismissive attitude coldly directed at her own husband. What a vile person she is – and she’s only one of many in this scenario.

As “congratulations” for his performance at Auschwitz, camp commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is celebrated at a grand reception in Berlin as seen in director Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of A24.

Such shocking behavior and the beliefs that drive it reflect another significant consideration – an unwillingness to accept responsibility for what’s transpiring. In essence, by employing our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience, we’re also inherently responsible for what emerges. However, given what unfolds here, it’s apparent that the characters have completely abrogated any accountability they might have in connection with such developments. In fact, there’s evidence of the exact opposite, such as when Rudolf meets with contractors on ways to make the functioning of Auschwitz more “efficient.” That speaks not only to an innate lack of responsibility, but also to a deliberate attempt at bringing about the despicable outcome that arises. How positively horrific. And that’s something we all need to bear in mind when we seek to create what our beliefs are aimed at manifesting.

One might wonder how individuals like Rudolf and Hedwig can simultaneously be so cruel and indifferent, on the one hand, and yet so lovingly and caringly devoted, as seen in their interaction with their family, on the other. It’s as if the various beliefs they hold are somehow deliberately walled off from one another in their consciousness, a means to bring about such incredibly divergent thoughts and manifestations at the same time. This kind of compartmentalization takes work to put into place, but they’ve managed to find ways to bring about such an outcome. It’s also difficult to imagine how they can manage to maintain such intentional separation of their various thoughts and beliefs. That takes tremendous energy and effort to pull off, sustaining a façade that even they must find difficult to support, especially in dealings with others, as evidenced by Hedwig’s interaction with her mother when she realizes the truth about what’s occurring next door. This is clearly a case of trying to play both sides of the fence – literally and metaphorically – and, in the end, it’s cowardly, ghastly and unconscionable.

Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) tries to create as “normal” a life as possible for himself and his family in their residential compound adjacent to the infamous Polish concentration camp in the unsettling new historical drama, “The Zone of Interest,” nominated for five Oscars, including best picture. Photo courtesy of A24.

Again, one can’t help but wonder how anyone could rationalize such thinking. The answer to that lies with the attitudes of many Nazi operatives during the war, who, after the conflict, attributed their behavior to the notion that “I was just doing my job,” as if that could somehow justify their actions. This concept perhaps became best known with the 1963 publication of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by philosopher and political observer Hannah Arendt. The author drew upon and subsequently popularized the expression “banality of evil” to describe how Third Reich authorities like Adolf Eichmann – one of the architects of the Holocaust – explained their role in this atrocity. When Eichmann was put on trial for war crimes in Jerusalem in 1961, his defense was primarily based on the foregoing assertion, the same kind that many of his colleagues – like the characters in the film – would use to justify their actions, a contention that prompted Arendt to use her now-famous phrase for encapsulating its nature.

In her book, Arendt observed that Eichmann (and individuals with his mindset) weren’t fanatics or sociopaths. Rather, they were average individuals who fell back on this “banal” reasoning to describe the nature of their intrinsically evil actions. Incredibly, that’s what viewers witness in this film when it comes to the perspectives of individuals like the commandant and his wife, among others. And “The Zone of Interest” provides a poignant and chilling illustration of the beliefs and thinking behind the banality of evil at work, an observation that has been widely noted in many discussions about this film. Most of us would undoubtedly consider this attitude a feeble excuse for rationalizing such despicable behavior, yet these actions nevertheless arose out of the beliefs that these characters held – beliefs that ultimately became all too real for all concerned, especially the victims.

Despite the horrendous nature of what was manifested here, these unspeakable materializations nevertheless illustrate the sheer power of our beliefs and what they can be employed to do. One would hope that we would put such power to use in far more benevolent endeavors, such as the acts of compassion described earlier. But, for whatever reason, there may still be some among us who must see for themselves just how horrifically our beliefs can be employed just to see how powerful they truly are. It’s heartbreaking that such incidents have – and, in some cases, continue to be – brought into being for such unaware individuals to witness that notion in practice. We can only hope that we collectively learn that lesson sooner rather than later so that we can finally and genuinely proclaim “Never again.”

Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel, center, back to camera) hosts a birthday party for one of his children in his residential compound located adjacent to the infamous concentration camp in director Jonathan Glazer’s latest, the unsettling historical drama, “The Zone of Interest.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Some movies just have to be seen, even if they make for a difficult watch, and writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s latest is one of those pictures. While this offering is at times a bit uneven, when it’s on, it’s on, leaving a powerfully indelible mark on viewers, one that you feel in your gut and your heart and can’t get out of your mind. Mercifully, Glazer doesn’t resort to unwarranted grotesque imagery to make his point here, yet the subtly depicted outcomes of such savagery are just as quietly disturbing, a profound implementation of “Hitchcock’s rule” in which the filmmaker allows the audience’s imagination to take over and leave an impression more haunting than anything that can be captured on celluloid, a tactic widely employed in the films of the famed auteur. As troubling as this is, however, it’s the kind of imagery that has to be seen for its full impact to sink in. “The Zone of Interest” richly deserves the attention it has garnered, even if it’s an inherently disturbing watch (sensitive viewers take note), in many ways eerily on par with other films about the Holocaust, such as “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “Schindler’s List” (1993). To be sure, there are some pacing issues that could stand to be rectified, and a few story threads could use better clarity, but the picture’s superb cinematography, production design, original score and performances by its excellent ensemble cast (especially Hüller, who deserves greater awards season recognition for her portrayal in this film than in her more widely nominated role in “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’une chute”)) are undeniably noteworthy. This might be a film that no one wants to screen – but that everybody nevertheless should.

As unsettling as this film may be, though, its cinematic achievements are extensive and have been lavished with praise during the current awards season. For starters, it’s the recipient of five Oscar nominations for best picture, international feature, sound, director and adapted screenplay. Likewise, it has garnered nine BAFTA Award nods for best British film, international film, director, adapted screenplay, supporting actress (Hüller), cinematography, editing, production design and sound. This release also captured accolades from the National Board of Review (Top 5 International Films), the Critics Choice Awards (best international film nominee), the Independent Spirit Awards (best international film nominee) and the Golden Globe Awards (nominations for best dramatic picture, international film and original score). Perhaps its greatest recognition, however, came at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a nomination for the Palme d’Or (the event’s highest honor) and won four awards (Grand Prize of the Festival, the FIPRESCI Prize, the CST Artist – Technician Prize and honors for best soundtrack). That’s quite an impressive resume for a film with such a difficult but affecting message. “The Zone of Interest” is currently playing theatrically.

It may be impossible to undo the past, but that doesn’t mean it should dismissed, either, and events like the Holocaust are among those that we must not forget. Films like this make that possible, but, perhaps most importantly, they shed valuable light on how and why they may have occurred, particularly when it comes to the attitudes that helped sanction them. And, when we examine the outlooks depicted here, it reminds us of our need to remain cognizant of what they were and how they arose. Diligence in the face of indifference is critical to prevent such horrors from recurring and sparing mankind from what should never have happened in the first place – and that certainly should never happen again.

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

Thursday, February 1, 2024

New Movies in Review

Join yours truly and show host Frankie Picasso for looks at six new films, as well as a few surprises, on the latest movie review edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast, beginning Thursday February 1 at 1 pm ET. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "All of Us Strangers" and "Memory," along with a podcast preview, year-end movie lists and a note of thanks, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

‘Memory’ examines what we believe we recall

“Memory” (2023). Cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Josh Charles, Jessica Harper, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Tom Hammond, Elsie Fisher, Blake Baumgartner, Jackson Dorfmann, Alexis Rae Forlenza. Director: Michel Franco. Screenplay: Michel Franco. Web site. Trailer.

How we remember our past is something we can all bank on, right? Or is it? For instance, what happens when mitigating influences impact our memory, potentially causing it to become fallible and untrustworthy? Can we truly rely on our recall then? Those are among the questions raised in the new unconventional romantic thriller, “Memory.”

Life hasn’t been easy for Sylvia (Jessica Chastain). She has had to struggle to put her life back together after an apparently very troubled past, something she quietly keeps to herself but that is always with her. The recovering alcoholic diligently keeps it all in balance, though, working as a staff member at a New York City adult day care center. As a single mother, she also attentively tends to the needs of her teenage daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), and regularly attends AA meetings, a tremendous source of comfort and support. She doesn’t have much of a social life, but that helps to keep her focused on what matters most, particularly those aspects of her routine that draw her attention away from what she’s left behind.

Things change one evening, however, when Sylvia goes to her high school reunion, an event she has obvious mixed feelings about attending. Once there, she feels somewhat out of place, especially when she witnesses her onetime peers celebrating their successes with various forms of imbibing that she can’t partake of for fear of undoing all the progress she’s made. Being in their company also reminds her of the difficulties she dealt with in her youth, prompting her to largely keep to herself. The stress eventually reaches a point where she feels she has to leave. But that’s not the end of the discomfort.

Upon heading home from the reunion, she finds herself being followed by one of her former classmates. Her uneasiness grows as he continues to pursue her, first on the streets, then on the subway platform and eventually to her destination. He makes no threatening moves, but his pursuit is persistent, following her right up to the front door of her apartment building. Sylvia hurriedly heads inside, slamming the door shut to prevent his entry. But, despite the safety provided her by being indoors, the stranger remains outside, eventually falling asleep and spending the night on the sidewalk. Sylvia’s creeped out by the experience, but at least he couldn’t get to her inside. Nevertheless, when morning comes, she still has to deal with the aftermath of the incident when she heads out for the day.

Once outside, Sylvia confronts the middle-aged man, whose name is Saul (Peter Sarsgard). She asks him if there’s someone she should contact on his behalf, which she soon discovers is his brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), an apparent caretaker for the troubled man. When Sylvia reaches Isaac, she learns that Saul suffers from early onset dementia, a condition that seriously affects his memory and actions. It’s so severe, in fact, that he can’t even explain why he chose to follow Sylvia home from the reunion. But, with no apparent ulterior motive, he doesn’t seem to be threatening, a development that helps put Sylvia’s mind at ease – that is, until they begin talking further about their past.

While discussing their high school days, Sylvia has an apparent epiphany about their onetime involvement. The growing comfort she had begun developing with Saul quickly evaporates when memories begin flooding back to her about the sexual abuse she believes he inflicted upon her as a teen, a revelation that awakens tremendous ire in her. The cordial arm’s-length relationship that was beginning to emerge between them vanishes in an instant when she chastises him for what she’s convinced he did to her.

However, that’s not the end of it. While discussing the situation with her sister, Olivia (Merritt Wever), Sylvia learns that the incidents she “remembers” couldn’t have happened, given that she and Saul didn’t attend their alma mater at the same time. And, when confronted with proof that their tenure didn’t overlap, Sylvia is shocked and mystified, not only at this revelation, but also that her memory is faulty on this point. Does this mean she’s suffering from dementia, too? Or is her flawed recall the result of blocked memories from her own past that she’s not ready to address?

While returning home from her high school reunion, Sylvia (Jessica Chastain, left) is followed by a former classmate, including onto a New York City subway platform, leading to an uncomfortable experience, as seen in the latest from writer-director Michel Franco, “Memory,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment.

Sylvia seeks to make amends for her erroneous accusations with Saul, a difficult but noble effort at rectifying the charges she mistakenly leveled against him. And, somewhat to her surprise, she finds him to be graciously forgiving, probably because he understands all too well what can arise from issues related to faulty memory. Consequently, they grow unexpectedly closer given the unusual commonality they share. And, at the behest of Saul’s niece, Sara (Elsie Fisher), Sylvia even takes a job as his daytime caretaker, given that she’s ostensibly the one person to whom he responds favorably. Thus begins an increasingly intimate relationship among two individuals who share a connection, one based on mutual compassion and, apparently, the ability to help heal each other where their respective conditions are concerned. Who would have thought that a bond like this could emerge in light of how things started out?

This naturally begs the question, how could a relationship like this have arisen? As their story shows, they have qualities in common, namely, those related to memory. And they prove to be crucial to the development of their connection, because they allow them to interact on a level that only they can understand. The fact that memory is involved is particularly relevant, given that memories are rooted in beliefs and that beliefs form the basis of our respective realities, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that enables the manifestation of our existence. It’s unclear whether the protagonists are aware of this school of thought, but it’s also apparent that they both need to draw upon it if they ever hope for circumstances to change in their lives.

Specifically, both Sylvia and Saul have issues related to memory that need to be resolved, and what better way to make that happen than to have a loving, caring partner to help guide one another through the process, a kindred spirit who truly grasps what the other is going through and needs to reconcile in order to begin moving forward in life once again. In their own unique way, they’ve made that happen by drawing each other together to enable such an outcome. The manner in which they’ve made this happen may seem more than a little unconventional to most of us, but, considering the unconventional circumstances they have to deal with, it’s not all that surprising for this to occur in light of the specific issues they’re up against. Unique conditions call for the materialization of unique solutions, including those related to the means to make this happen.

Then there’s the question of mistaken recall. Saul is well acquainted with this, given the onset of his dementia. But that perspective, in its own singular way, is helpful to Sylvia, who suffers from a similar condition, regardless of whether or not dementia is involved. She firmly believes in a memory that doesn’t hold water, but coming to terms with that erroneous recollection is key to unlocking the truth – the actual memory that she’s willfully chosen to disbelieve and not act upon. Saul’s condition and his insights related to it are thus essential to helping Sylvia understand this for herself, something she needs to do if she wants to clear this blockage.

That concealed memory also helps to explain why Sylvia’s life has unfolded as it has to this point. Something about that hidden truth and her unwillingness to believe in its nature could very well have been too painful for her to live with, a circumstance that, in turn, led to the alcoholism and other troubling behaviors she engaged in during her youth. These conditions were so devastating to her, in fact, that they apparently kept her locked in place for a long time, necessitating a slow and arduous process to recover from them. The progress that she made through her involvement with AA certainly helped her a great deal, but, even though this enabled her to get her life back on track from a practical standpoint, it wasn’t enough to get over the beliefs that were ultimately unnerving her most.

After an uncomfortable start, high school classmates Sylvia (Jessica Chastain, right) and Saul (Peter Sarsgaard, left) reminisce about their youth, a conversation that leads to unusual revelations, as seen in “Memory,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment.

That’s where Saul comes in. He provides “a customized solution” to help her address her own particular challenges, something that could only come about as a result of the specific beliefs she put forth to make it happen. It’s clear proof that, if we want results tailored to what we need, we must tap into beliefs that are equally tailored to what we hope to achieve.

The relationship between Sylvia and Saul is also an excellent example of co-creation at work, a collaboration between the two of them to achieve outcomes that serve them both. This pooling of energies and efforts illustrates what can arise when we work together for the betterment of one another, an initiative that can benefit each other in so many ways (and simultaneously at that). It truly is a case of slaying multiple birds with one stone – and setting us on a vastly improved course for the future, all at the same time, no matter how unusually such an endeavor might begin.

“Memory” is one of those films that takes viewers to unexpected destinations while simultaneously enlightening us to surprise insights that we can draw upon in our own lives if we choose to believe in and embrace them. Writer-director Michel Franco has created an engaging, subtle but impactful story here, one that sheds light on the power of belief behind our memories and how those recollections can shape the existence we experience as a result, for better or worse. All of this is brought to life through a skillfully crafted narrative, effectively fleshed out through the superb performances of Sarsgaard and Independent Spirit Award nominee Chastain. Admittedly, the picture’s first half could benefit from some stepped-up pacing, most notably the elimination of some sequences that are occasionally redundant and moderately tiresome. However, the intrigue and engagement ramp up significantly in the picture’s back end, some of which is ironically accomplished through deftly handled nuance rather than the overly subdued understatement more prevalent in the opening half. Clearly, this is one of those releases that requires viewers to give it some time to develop, but the payoff for doing so is worth it in the end. If nothing else, “Memory” provides us with a fresh perspective on its central theme while showing us how “like can cure like” in a psychological therapeutic process, an approach that can yield rewards beyond measure.

As this film illustrates, memory can be a funny thing. However, its underrecognized pliability can prove useful in helping us understand ourselves and our circumstances more fully and clearly. That can also work wonders in helping us clear the clutter in our consciousness that’s holding us down, holding us back and keeping us from enjoying what life genuinely has to offer us. A little effort in this area can pay big dividends – and even bigger and happier memories that we can carry forward with us into our futures.

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