In Theaters

Fundamentally we all share a rather common view of reality, don’t we? But what accounts for those who possess a singular, atypical outlook? Doesn’t this suggest the possibility of disconnects? And, in light of that, how do we relate to them, and how do they relate to us? Those are some of the basic questions addressed in the quirky yet heartfelt new comedy-drama, “Brigsby Bear” (web site, trailer).

Twenty-five-year-old James Mitchum (Kyle Mooney) leads what most of us would see as a rather unusual life, but, for him, it’s all perfectly normal. He lives with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), in a partially submerged biodome-like structure in the Utah desert. He spends virtually all his time indoors, protected from the harsh atmospheric conditions in the outside world, where wearing a special breathing mask is required to avoid becoming sick. The quarters are cramped, and the home is equipped with technology that’s about 30 years out of date. But, not knowing any differently, James seems relatively content, as long as he gets to watch the latest episodes of his favorite TV show, Brigsby Bear, a sort of low-budget combination educational and superhero show featuring the title character battling various evildoers.

James Mitchum (Kyle Mooney, left) has a heart-to-heart chat with his alleged father, Ted (Mark Hamill, right), in their desert biodome home in the quirky, heartfelt new comedy-drama, “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

James’s routine undergoes a radical shift late one night when his remote home is unexpectedly raided by police. James is understandably terrified as he watches his parents being handcuffed and taken into custody. But that fright pales in comparison when he’s led away from his home by the newly arrived strangers, especially when he’s taken outside without a breathing mask. Officials try to assure him that there’s nothing wrong with the air and that he’ll be fine, especially now that he’s being removed from the company of Ted and April.

As it turns out, the people who have claimed to be James’s parents all these years are actually kidnappers who snatched the youngster from the hospital where he was born, leaving his biological parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins), distraught and ever searching to find their lost son. Now reunited, thanks to the help of a genial and compassionate police officer, Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), Greg and Louise are thrilled that their years of perseverance have paid off. The Popes, along with their daughter Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), hope for a new beginning.

However, James’s transition to the outside world goes anything but smoothly. Given his years of isolation, he has come to see life from a very different perspective than what most of us are accustomed to. Many aspects of daily living that we take for granted are outside of his realm of experience and awareness. Elements that are part of our everyday existence are totally foreign to him and vice versa. He’s somewhat lost that elements of life that he took for granted in his sheltered existence are no longer part of his new reality. He’s especially upset that he hasn’t received his latest episodes of Brigsby Bear, something that none of the outsiders have heard of. It makes him sad that he no longer has access to the only companion who had been with him all those many years.

When reunited with his biological parents, Greg (Matt Walsh, left) and Louise (Michaela Watkins, right), childhood kidnap victim James Mitchum (now James Pope) (Kyle Mooney, center) has trouble adjusting to his new life in director Dave McCary’s “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Considering the impact Brigsby’s absence has on James, Greg and Louise and Detective Vogel investigate the situation further. They discover that Brigsby Bear was Ted’s creation, an educational tool and entertainment vehicle that he came up with as a gift to his “son.” As a once-successful toy designer, Ted filmed the show in a makeshift studio and gave James new episodes weekly. But, with Ted now arrested and all of the show’s production materials impounded as evidence, Brigsby Bear would seem to have come to an end.

Given James’s preoccupation with Brigsby and his despondency over the apparent demise of his favorite character, his parents become concerned about his emotional well-being and call upon psychiatrist Emily Larson (Claire Danes) to help him talk through his troubles. But James won’t settle for such an unceremonious end to his beloved bear; when he learns the truth about the show, he’s convinced that Brigsby’s story needs to be completed – and he vows to be the one to finish it by making a movie depicting the bear’s ultimate adventures.

With the assistance of a helpful police detective (Greg Kinnear, left), childhood kidnap victim James Mitchum (now James Pope) (Kyle Mooney, right) seeks to embark on an ambitious creative project in the quirky, heartfelt new comedy-drama, “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Seeing how much Brigsby means to James, his parents quietly indulge him, especially when he develops a fervor for filmmaking, something that could help him set a new direction for his life. With the help of others, like Detective Vogel (himself a onetime aspiring actor), Aubrey, and newfound friends Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Meredith (Alexa Demie) and Logan (Chance Crimin), James finds an enthusiastic cast and crew for his film. And, with clips of the original series uploaded to the Internet (thanks to Spencer), the would-be auteur is able to launch a successful crowd sourcing campaign. James, it seems, is on his way.

Of course, given the nature of the director’s early life, there are still many things about the world he doesn’t understand, and that carries over into his filmmaking efforts. James experiences his share of logistical production issues, as well as narrative questions involving Brigsby that prove to be quite telling about his own early life experiences. And, when some matters threaten to get out of hand, “concerned” parties seek to intervene in ways that may threaten the very nature of James’s aspirations and his adjustment to everyday life. Will he be able to see through on his mission, allowing Brigsby’s – and his own – destiny to be fulfilled? That’s what remains to be seen.

Aided by his new friend, Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., right), childhood kidnap victim James Mitchum (now James Pope) (Kyle Mooney, left) seeks to make a movie featuring the title character from his favorite TV show in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Brigsby Bear.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

As one of the most creative, thoughtfully written comedy-dramas to be released in recent years, “Brigsby Bear” takes viewers on quite a journey, one that has to do with the formation and perpetuation of our worldview, the path to creative fulfillment, the process of healing and forgiveness, the search for closure, and the process of rebirth. That’s quite a full plate for one film, especially one with a relatively short runtime. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how well it addresses all of these themes as effectively as it does. It provides a search for meaning in all of these areas and does so with ample heartfelt feelings, a wealth of surprisingly fine performances, and lots and lots of laughs. And, the closer you pay attention to this one, the more you’ll see, a truly gratifying moviegoing experience. At the same time, the film also offers compelling homages to several previous pictures, such as “Being There” (1979), with its enigmatic protagonist, and “Room” (2015), with its unusual take on how we view the nature of our existence (though considerably lighter here than in its dramatic predecessor).

After watching “Brigsby Bear,” you may well come to a new appreciation for what’s behind the experience of your own unique reality, seeing and savoring it in ways you hadn’t previously considered or thought possible. But, then, that’s one of the joys of coming to understand what it means to be you, and we can thank James and Brigsby for helping to show us the way. Hooray for the bear!

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Acting While There’s Still Time

The world is changing, to be sure. But the degree of that shift is more radical than most of us probably realize, and, if we don’t take steps to deal with it, we may all be in for a very rude awakening – and much sooner than most of us probably think. That’s the message to come out of the new documentary, “Normal Is Over” (web site, trailer).

The subject of climate change has been prominent in the minds of the public for some time now. And, while debates have raged about the exact cause of the phenomenon, the fact remains that change is nevertheless occurring – and rapidly. The implications of this are staggering, from shifting weather patterns to species extinction to all manner of unforeseen fallout, such as social unrest, food and water shortages, economic chaos, and runaway mayhem. But what can we do about it?

That’s what Dutch documentary filmmaker Renée Scheltema has tackled in her latest production. In telling this story, Scheltema delivers her message directly and to the point but does so without resorting to hysterical scare tactics. Instead, she lays out her arguments in a reasoned manner, with a deftly mixed combination of statistics and opinions from experts in a variety of pertinent disciplines. More importantly, though, the film goes beyond just presenting the problem by showcasing a host of practical solutions that can be drawn upon to counter this issue. Most of the suggestions involve questions of sustainability, showing us highly pragmatic (and often surprisingly simple) means for helping to slow and possibly reverse current trends.

What’s most intriguing about this film, though, is its take on what really needs to be done to address these issues. And that, surprisingly enough, has more to do with human nature than it does with developing and deploying new technology. To be sure, the practical measures the director outlines are undoubtedly important, but the underlying reason behind how we’ve gotten to where we are has more to do with our outlooks and attitudes. That’s especially true in how we view the nature of our reality and the beliefs we’ve embraced about it, for they have come to shape our behavior in myriad ways, from economic policies to interpersonal relations to even our spiritual views. In many ways, one could say that the climate change and related effects we’re experiencing are, at their heart, merely symptoms of these more fundamental considerations, outgrowths of the basic assumptions about life and our world that have produced them. So, if we’re to get to the real cause of these problems, we need to look underneath – and to ourselves – to find meaningful solutions while we still have time.

As for the attitude shift that needs to take place, a number of changes need to occur, such as seeking to build a society based more on cooperation than competition and implementing economic policies that promote a more equitable world. Ridding ourselves of outmoded notions and myths that simply aren’t true – like having more stuff automatically equates to greater happiness and fulfillment – is also essential. If we don’t make such changes, we could all pay dearly.

“Normal Is Over” is quite obviously a labor of love for the filmmaker, both in terms of imparting its practical information and as an expression of the director’s personal feelings, experiences and sensibilities. Viewers can sense both of these qualities as they screen the film, a quality that helps to get its message across at both the collective and individual levels. This heightens the impact while delivering useful ideas at the same time. In this sense, “Normal Is Over” shows us what it could mean to change our world – for the better. However, we must act while we still have time – and an opportunity to make it happen.

The film is currently playing primarily at special screenings. For information about dates and locations, as well as how to set up a screening, visit the film’s web site.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Reviews All Around!

Looking for some good new thought-provoking movies and books? Then check out this quarter’s installment of New Consciousness Review radio’s Reviewers Roundtable, available by clicking here, here or here. Join me and fellow reviewers Miriam Knight and Cynthia Sue Larson for reviews of some great new materials!

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “Queen of Katwe”

What does it take to beat the odds and rise above our challenges? That can be a rather tall order, especially when things seem stacked against us. But, when we put our mind to it, it’s possible to achieve almost anything. One need only look to the inspiring example set by a determined young woman from the Ugandan slums and her dreams to achieve greatness, a fact-based story told in the heartwarming biopic, “Queen of Katwe” (web site, trailer), available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand.

Teenager Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) leads a life of few prospects in the ghettoes of Katwe, Uganda. As one of four children being raised by a widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona spends her days selling maize in hopes of raising enough funds to keep the family afloat, a seemingly perpetual struggle. In fact, things are so tight financially that Phiona’s mother can’t afford to send her children to school, leaving them without such basic skills as the ability to read.

But, almost as if by chance, Phiona makes an interesting discovery one day. She stumbles upon a ministry-sponsored outreach program aimed at involving underprivileged children in something far removed from their typical everyday experience – the game of chess. The program is run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who took the job to help support his family while trying to land a position in his field. He might not seem like the right choice for a position like this, but he’s actually an ideal candidate, given his proficiency for the game and his remarkable ability to instruct others in how to play it. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he’s about to meet his star pupil, someone who will change his life, as well as her own.

Phiona proves to be a natural at chess, able to predict how a match will unfold eight moves ahead. Needless to say, Robert is astounded by her ability, not only for how quickly she picks up the game, but also for what a sound strategist she is. But, then, as Robert routinely imparts to his students, such foresight is essential to success at the game – and at life. And, as someone who regularly must rely on her wits just to get by, Phiona fits right in.

Aspiring chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga, right) learns the game from mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, left) in the inspiring new biopic, “Queen of Katwe.” Photo by Edward Echwalu, courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.

Given Phiona’s astounding ability, Robert seeks to enter her in tournaments, something that the organizers of these meets don’t take seriously. How can an illiterate girl from the slums possibly understand, let alone successfully compete, in contests involving such a noble and scholarly game? But that’s where Phiona defies the odds – and the skeptics – especially when she shows what she can do.

“Queen of Katwe” aptly illustrates what we can accomplish when we apply ourselves and don’t give in to ill-considered criticism. This can mean a lot to those who lack hope and have doubts about their future. But, with the right mindset and a little support and encouragement from the right backers – those who can genuinely see what someone is capable of – the results can easily come to speak for themselves, as Phiona so eloquently demonstrates.

Chess champion Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga, left) shares a moment of triumph with her single mother (Lupita Nyong’o, right) in the inspiring new biopic, “Queen of Katwe.” Photo by Edward Echwalu, courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.

“Queen of Katwe” is a thoroughly heartening and inspirational offering, perfect for impressionable young minds. The writing is occasionally heavy-handed, wooden and formulaic, coming across as a little too ennobling and schmaltzy for its own good.  However, the film’s fine performances, especially Nyong’o and newcomer Nalwanga, resonate warmly with viewers, though the platitude-laden script and sometimes-inconsistent pacing periodically undercut the efforts of the protagonists. Enjoy the picture for its feel good attributes, even if it’s not groundbreaking cinema.

Seeking and fulfilling our destiny may take us down some unexpected paths, including those that we might have once never considered pursuing. However, the meaningful outcomes of such efforts can prove rewarding beyond measure, both to those who travel them and to those who encourage us to traverse them. Phiona and Robert show us the way – and find their own in the process. 

A full review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.