In Theaters

For many of us, certainty and stability have a definite comforting appeal. We enjoy the predictability and reliability, a soothing reassurance that life will go on as we’ve known it. However, such an existence can also become a stifling trap, one that suffocates us, often without us becoming aware of it until it’s almost too late. This is where the value of change and pushing past established limits becomes desirable, if not essential, to our happiness, concepts explored in the new character study, “The Land of Steady Habits” (web site, trailer).

Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn) feels lost. The recently divorced, recently retired former financial professional seeks the happiness that eluded him in his former life. But, no matter how hard this middle-aged suburbanite looks, he never seems to find it. Of course, it doesn’t help that he makes more than his share of bad decisions along the way (more on that later).

As Anders pursues a new life in earnest, he professes what appears to be a sincere desire to be a better person than he was in his old existence. For instance, he claims to have given up being a financial advisor because, in his view, the profession is built on principles of inherent greed with no moral compass, all designed to simply feather the nests of its practitioners, many of whom don’t realize or care what they may be doing to their clients. What’s more, he looks back on his old life – one not unlike that of many of his fellow Westport, Connecticut residents – as an endless exercise in mindless tedium, full of daily conscience-numbing ordeals designed to pursue illusions of happiness that never quite pan out and that do nothing to help shape or improve one’s personal character.

So, having come to these realizations, Anders decided to chuck it all. In addition to abandoning his profession, he divorced his wife, Helene (Edie Falco), an attempt to escape an empty marriage and an overstuffed house filled with materialist comforts that became more constraining than liberating. He also left behind many of his former friends, most of whom remain blindly stuck on the treadmill of their conventional conformist lifestyles, such as his onetime close companions Sophie and Mitchell Ashford (Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Gaston). In fact, about the only connection to his past that he has deliberately tried to maintain is his relationship with his son, Preston (Thomas Mann), a twenty-something college graduate recovering from substance abuse issues who’s now working dead-end jobs to stay clean and make ends meet.

However, having purged himself of so much, Anders now has a lot of space to fill up in his life. He spends most of his time decorating his new townhouse, but, beyond that, there’s little to occupy his days. Consequently, he ends up becoming embroiled in those aforementioned bad decisions. For instance, he pursues a string of meaningless sexual encounters, most of which end up disappointing (for various reasons). But, more troubling than that, Anders has a knack for landing himself in the middle of some highly questionable situations, such as an unlikely (and some would say unhealthy and enabling) friendship with the Ashfords’ drug-abusing teenage son, Charlie (Charlie Tahan), who desperately looks for a way to escape an impending stint in rehab after an overdose incident. And then there’s his involvement with Barbara (Connie Britton), a woman whom Anders meets in a strip club men’s room after she binges on liquor, presumably to ditch the date who brought her there in the first place.

Given these situations, one might understandably question the protagonist’s judgment. But, in spite of these highly problematic circumstances, Anders genuinely seems to want to do the right thing; he just doesn’t know how. And, because of that, his handling of these incidents rarely turns out for the best. Are these matters that simply get out of hand? Or is Anders just ignorant?

What’s more, despite his contention of wanting to escape his old life, there are times when Anders seems drawn back to it, almost as if he regrets his previous decisions. But a desire to go back solves nothing, especially since the conditions of his former existence have now changed. For example, in a moment of weakness (some might say stupidity), he pays a drunken, impromptu late night visit to his old home, a move that nearly gets the uninvited intruder’s head bashed in by Donny (Bill Camp), a former professional colleague who has now become Helene’s new live-in love interest. Indeed, it would seem there really is no going back.

So what is Anders to do? That’s what he needs to sort out, not only in terms of how to get these particular situations resolved, but also for what he wants to do with himself and his life going forward. Having courageously freed himself from the shackles of his former life, he has a clean slate at his disposal. And, with a potentially brave new future in front of him, he faces the prospect of brighter days ahead and becoming the better person he wants to be. The trick, though, is figuring out how to get there.

Starting over in life is often fraught with challenges. Breaking away from those “steady habits” and searching for meaning can be liberating, but, when the pillars holding up our lives disappear from beneath us, we find ourselves grasping for whatever means of support we can find to keep us from going under. For many of us, we become so accustomed to our lives following set, predictable patterns that we don’t know what to do when all of the familiar, readily recognizable signposts are removed. As a consequence, we desperately search for solutions to build a new foundation.

But, as Anders’s experience illustrates, how do we proceed with that? In essence, it comes down to what we believe constitutes the basis of our existence. And it’s through those beliefs that we need to make our start. However, with no practice at creating a life that diverges from what he has long known, Anders fumbles about trying to find his way. And, given this lack of experience at thinking outside the box, he has trouble getting things right. He doesn’t know what to create for himself, because he’s not entirely sure what he believes. That muddled uncertainty is thus reflected in the chaotic outcomes that arise.

To be sure, Anders knew enough that he needed to get out of his previous existence, a realization for which he should be heartily commended. However, with no clue what to implement as a replacement, it’s no wonder that his life is such a jumble. As a consequence, some may look upon Anders’s actions, choices and beliefs with disapproval, disdain or even contempt. But such assessments are patently unfair. After all, how many of us get things right on the first try, especially when we lack experience in these areas? We all make “mistakes” as part of our learning curves (goodness knows I’ve made some beauties along the way). However, this is a process of trial and error, of testing out different options, helping us rid ourselves of what doesn’t work and, one would hope, moving us closer to what ultimately does. We should all wish him well.

Despite a slight tendency to meander at times, “The Land of Steady Habits” provides an atmospheric look at the illusory joy that necessarily comes from living a life of routine and conformity, damningly skewering many widely held misconceptions about what it takes to be and stay happy. This sometimes-humorous, sometimes-melancholic exploration features excellent performances (especially Mendelsohn) and characters who are more real than what audiences typically see on screen, something that some viewers may find distressing. But such affecting reactions are a telling tribute to the impact of the filmmaking. Indeed, director Nicole Holofcener again proves that she’s one of the most insightful auteurs in the business today, delivering yet another fine offering in her excellent repertoire.

Those interested in seeing this picture may have to do some searching to find it. As a Netflix release, the film’s current theatrical run is limited and likely to be short before the production transitions to the company’s streaming service, an approach employed in the distribution of such previous titles as “Beasts of No Nation” (2015) and “Mudbound” (2017). So, if you want to see this offering on the big screen, act fast!

Change can be a scary prospect, but it’s often one of the best and healthiest experiences we can have. It opens up new vistas and provides us with opportunities to explore aspects of life that would otherwise escape us. But, even more importantly, pushing past limitations reveals elements of ourselves that we never knew existed, giving us a shot at all manner of new adventures, a practice well worth making a habit.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

How Did This Happen?

For many Americans, this is the principal question on their minds when it comes to the current political landscape. With the polarizing election of Donald Trump in 2016, many have been left scratching their heads, wondering how we’ve ended up with such a divided nation with a President whose actions and policies often baffle the members of his own political party. What really happened? That’s the seminal question that controversial filmmaker Michael Moore attempts to answer in his latest work, “Fahrenheit 11/9” (web site, trailer).

If the title of this film sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it’s a variation on the director’s previous work, “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), Moore’s take on the Iraq War and policies of President George W. Bush. That title is a reference to both the 9/11 terrorist incident and to the novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by author Ray Bradbury, in which books are purposely burned by the state to squelch independent thought, a trend that Moore believed was coming into being at the time under Bush’s leadership. The filmmaker’s latest work, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” is a reference to the date in 2016 on which Trump was declared the victor in the presidential election – and what he saw as the beginning of an administration whose policies are built upon the same principles addressed in his previous film. As Moore contends, though, there’s a big difference between what happened in 2004 and what is happening now, chiefly that the heat at present has been turned up considerably, making the “Fahrenheit” reference all the more significant – and ominous. It gives us all pause to think about what this all means for the future.

Through the film, Moore examines how we’ve arrived at this point – the political developments, the social developments and, most importantly, the behind-the-scenes maneuverings that have led to our current situation. And the answers to the picture’s central question are eye-opening, revelations that show there’s plenty of blame to go around, some of it from sources that might not be readily apparent, especially to those most ardently opposed to the Trump presidency.

In telling this story, Moore addresses a number of other subjects, such as the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the West Virginia statewide teachers’ strike. However, these ancillary issues, as important as they are, tend to take the focus off the picture’s central thrust and cloud matters somewhat, creating a scattershot  narrative that’s disjointed at times.

Ironically, though, when the director stays on point, he turns out what is arguably some of his best work. Unlike his other projects, this time the diehard liberal filmmaker doesn’t hesitate to criticize the real source of the problems with the current American political system, the system itself – not right nor left, Republican nor Democrat – but the whole stinkin’ system. The Trump election, in his view, is a symptom of a larger problem, and that’s what needs to be addressed. In this regard, then, it’s heartening to see a picture that finally say what’s really wrong with things, to unequivocally say that the emperor is indeed naked, no matter what color cloak people might like to believe he’s wearing. Because of that, this is a picture sure to offend viewers on both ends of the political spectrum, but then maybe that’s what needs to be done to get the ball rolling toward meaningful change instead of incessant rounds of futile and unproductive finger pointing.

Some might see this assessment as depressing and hopeless. But such is not the case. Moore offers solutions that can work, but admittedly they’re suggestions that require significant efforts that some may see as quite daunting. In essence they call upon us, everyday citizens, to take the reins and fix things for ourselves, simply because we can’t rely on those in whom we’ve been traditionally placing our faith and trust to do so. He offers examples of initiatives that have had significant impact, showing us that change is indeed possible. The question, of course, is, are we up to the challenge?

That’s a crucial matter for us to consider, and we’d better take it seriously. If we don’t, we risk a lot, including having to ask the key question posed by the film all over again.

The Evolution of a  Controversial Artist

Appreciation of an artist’s work is a highly subjective exercise. What some may find to be a masterpiece others may see as utter trash. But no matter what others may think, it’s the artist’s assessment of his or her own work that ultimately matters most. Finding that aesthetic may take some effort, though, especially when it involves taking chances to explore creations of a nature never before tried. So it was in the evolution of a highly controversial photographer who broke new ground – and plenty of rules – on the way to finding his own means of expression, a story explored in the new biopic, “Mapplethorpe” (web site).

In the early 1970s, artist Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) was seeking to find his creative spark, largely unsuccessfully. However, through a chance meeting, he befriended an aspiring poet and musician named Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) who unconditionally believed in him and his work. Through their relationship and romance, as well as Smith’s generous support, Mapplethorpe’s confidence grew. Over time, he gradually met others who helped him, which was no easy feat, given the unconventional nature of his art. However, their appreciation enabled Mapplethorpe to become more comfortable in his aesthetic, something that continued to evolve into ever-more avant-garde and eclectic forms. And, when the artist traded the mixed media with which he had been working for a camera, he was about to bust loose – in ways that he and others never saw coming.

Parallel to Mapplethorpe’s artistic evolution was his personal transformation, most notably the emergence of his gay sexuality, thanks in large part to his involvement with model David Croland (Thomas Philip O’Neill). This development led to changes in his relationship with Patti, but it opened doors to other connections, such as his partnership with wealthy patron and romantic interest Sammy Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), that allowed Mapplethorpe’s career to explode. With sufficient backing and the freedom to explore his art creatively, Mapplethorpe became a cutting-edge sensation in the realm of erotic art photography.

However, as Mapplethorpe pushed the envelope of his creative vision, he also pushed the limits of living. He turned his artistic expressions into real-world experiences, and, given the provocative nature of his aesthetic, he began traveling down avenues of sexual exploration that few traversed, obsessions that simultaneously aroused and troubled him. And, in an age with the emergence of AIDS, he routinely played with fire.

Along the way, Mapplethorpe also experienced his share of rocky relationships, most notably with his parents (Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick), one of his favorite models and lovers (McKinley Belcher III), and his younger brother (Brandon Sklenar), an aspiring photographer in his own right who became the artist’s assistant. There were also issues with authorities, some of whom tried to censor Mapplethorpe’s public exhibitions for work that they considered obscene.

All of this weighed heavily on the artist, especially when his own health began to fail. But, despite everything, Mapplethorpe remained true to his singular vision, regardless of what others may have thought about it. He knew what it meant to struggle to express his creative vision, and he never hesitated to pursue it, no matter what obstacles may have been placed in his way.

While the film’s script could use some work in its back story and sequence transitions, this biopic nevertheless does a capable job of telling the life story of the photographer, warts and all. Featuring a superb performance by Smith in the lead role, the film courageously takes chances – big ones – in bringing Mapplethorpe’s story to life, especially in its uncompromising presentation of the highly charged eroticism of the photographer’s work. This unreleased offering, currently playing at film festivals, may not be perfect, but it’s certainly bold in its approach and deserves a shot at public screenings. Sensitive viewers should take note, however, that the film is sexually explicit and not for the easily offended.

Realizing our creative vision is a journey of exploration, one that may take us to places never imagined. We need not agree with the results an artist comes up with, but we should honor the artist’s freedom to explore them, a right to which we’re all entitled, regardless of the milieu in question. “Mapplethorpe” provides a provocative example of this, one with which many of us may disagree but one that we should all respect. 

Movies with Meaning Returns to the Airwaves!

Join host Frankie Picasso and me for the return of Movies with Meaning on The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More broadcast on a special day and time, Tuesday, September 25, at 1 pm ET. We’ll discuss a number of new movie releases and other film-related news. For the video version, tune in on Facebook Live by clicking here. And, for the audio only podcast edition, check out The Good Media Network’s home page by clicking here. Join us for some fun movie chat!

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.