In Theaters

Crossing the line from passion to obsession is a dangerous step. One need only look at the many high-profile examples found in our world these days. But this phenomenon is by no means limited to the events we see on the nightly news; it can crop up anywhere, even in seemingly innocuous places, a troubling subject explored in the edgy new dark comedy, “The Art of Self-Defense” (web site, trailer).

Thirty-something office worker Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) could seriously stand to grow a pair. The easily bullied milquetoast cowers in fear about nearly everything, but, considering how often and how readily he’s picked on – by virtually everyone he encounters, from co-workers to coffee house patrons to strangers in parking lots – his reaction is understandable. And what’s worse is that he keeps taking it. But that all changes one night; while walking home after running out to buy dog food for his pet dachshund, he’s mugged by a renegade motorcycle gang, leaving him seriously injured.

While recuperating, Casey decides he needs to do something to protect himself. He opts to buy a handgun, but, as he fills out the background check paperwork, he begins having reservations. He leaves the store ambivalent about the idea and goes for a walk, stumbling upon a karate studio. He enters and watches a class in session – and is instantly captivated.

Frequently bullied office worker Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg, foreground) decides to learn how to protect himself by enrolling in karate school, a move that gets him more than he bargained for, as seen in the new dark comedy, “The Art of Self-Defense.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

When class is over, Casey approaches the dojo’s ultra-cool Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), expressing a keen interest in learning the ancient art. He professes that he wants to become one of the people who routinely taunt him, a revelation that prompts the Sensei to assertively court the wannabe student. Casey eagerly agrees to enroll, but with no idea of what he’s about to get himself into.

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that Casey is steadily overwhelmed by his circumstances. While he appears to have quite a knack for karate – a proficiency that empowers the new student and impresses the Sensei – he soon finds himself embroiled in a dark and sinister situation. The uber-masculine, quasi-misogynistic, testosterone-dripping Sensei carries his attitude, practices and instruction more than a little too far, leading the gullible, impressionable Casey down some very questionable paths involving his personal behavior, his professional life and his home life. A macabre and tangled web of deception gradually emerges involving an off-limits equipment room, a female brown belt instructor regularly passed over for advancement to black belt (Imogen Poots) and the aforementioned motorcycle gang. And, as the story unfolds, Casey has a lot more to worry about than just protecting himself from being bullied.

The enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) of a karate studio practices more than a few unconventional tactics in the offbeat new dark comedy, “The Art of Self-Defense.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Most of us would agree that there’s nothing wrong with being passionate about something, be it a hobby, a sport or some other innocent endeavor. But, when we carry things too far, when we venture into the realm of fanaticism, we could face a number of problems, some potentially serious. That can be compounded, too, if we drag others along with us, spreading the possibility of pain and anguish to unwitting accomplices.

But how do such matters get out of hand? In essence, it comes down to how we view these undertakings and what we come to believe about them. There can be a fine distinction between diversion and obsession. But, in both cases, they’re fueled by the power of the beliefs that underlie them. And that is what ultimately makes things materialize as they do.

In a situation like the one portrayed here, one might wonder how a fervent but benign interest in martial arts can transform into something much more menacing. To understand this, we need to look not only at the interest in karate, but also any associated beliefs related to it – its defining characteristics, its intended purpose, how and why we put it to use, and so forth,  the particular traits that come to distinguish how each of us practices the sport and for what reasons. On the surface, it all may just look like karate, but, upon closer examination, we might see one person practicing a competitive activity while someone else is engaged in something clandestine with a frightening agenda. And, when scenarios like the latter one take root, we run the risk of fanaticism taking over.

Brown belt karate instructor Anna (Imogen Poots, left) regularly gets passed over for elevation to black belt status, a source of frustration for the accomplished practitioner, as seen in the absurdist dark comedy, “The Art of Self-Defense.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

As this story plays out, viewers witness the Sensei’s true nature emerge. It becomes apparent that he’s not teaching a noble martial art but, rather, preaching a gospel of intimidating hyper-masculinity, modestly tinged with veiled homoeroticism and an undeniable hostility toward weakness or anything feminine. These ancillary aspects of his own particular brand of instruction are far from the traditional teachings of the ancient masters, yet there they are, firmly rooted in his class sessions, fanatical lessons that he seeks to pass along to his students.

This naturally begs the question, “Why?” Author Jane Roberts explains that fanaticism often arises from experiences in which an individual believes in a need to make a point while simultaneously attempting to make up for personal failings, frequently by overcompensating in the process. When applying that principle to the Sensei’s efforts at extolling his macho, chauvinistic dogma, it’s not too hard to figure out where the “inspiration” for his current actions may have come from. And the fact that his teachings focus more on punishing one’s enemies rather than practicing self-defense speaks volumes. Whatever experiences he may have had that prompted this outlook, they were obviously significant enough to establish intents that have become firmly entrenched and are now freely materializing, questionable though they may be.

Given Casey’s personal experiences, it’s not too difficult to imagine how he might be intrigued by the Sensei’s charisma. In many ways, the Sensei is who Casey wants to be – at least initially. However, when he begins to see the Sensei for who he really is, he realizes that he may be dealing with yet another bully, especially as the nefarious nature of his schemes is revealed. How Casey responds to this scenario is his new challenge, and that response will depend on his beliefs. Can he succeed at becoming who he claims he wants to be?

Interestingly, while the film focuses on the relationship of the two principals, in many regards the story is a microcosmic metaphor for the wider world. Given the current sociopolitical situation of the nation (some might say the entire world), many of us are being intimidated, or even attacked, by a plethora of bullies. Those doling out the threats and injuries are not unlike the Sensei, a chilling symbol representative of the individuals and institutions who are trying to put us under their thumbs. Will we succumb to the pressure? Or do we believe in ourselves enough to rise to the occasion, even if it means having to take on those who falsely claim they want to help us? That’s a tall order, for sure, but, as Casey discovers for himself, that may be just what we need to do, too. Ironically, he may end up being an unlikely role model not only for himself, but also for the rest of us.

As the relationship between karate student Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg, left) and his Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, right) becomes strained, the tension between them grows significantly as seen in “The Art of Self-Defense.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Of course, everything depends on whether we believe we can accomplish our aspirations. That goes for Casey, as well as the rest of us. If we look deeply enough, though, there’s a good chance we’ll find the inner strength and fortitude needed to realize those goals – provided we give them a chance to reveal themselves. Along the way, though, we must also heed the message of this cautionary tale and keep ourselves from employing the same kinds of tactics in taking on the fanaticism that confronts us.

This rivetingly funny but edgy dark comedy, reminiscent of “Fight Club” (1999), is certain to make viewers both laugh – and squirm – in their seats. Eisenberg and Nivola are perfect foils for one another, each turning in fine performances in which they serve up ample helpings of neuroticism and creepiness in their respective roles, an intriguing combination that never disappoints. The picture’s extensive use of deadpan humor evokes frequent unexpected laughs, getting plenty of mileage out of intrinsically absurd situations and not having to rely on one-liners alone. The film admittedly has a few plot holes and requires leaps in believability along the way, but they also add to the somewhat surreal quality of this satire, which doubles as both an intriguing story of its own and a less-than-veiled social-political commentary. Director Riley Stearns’s second feature offering is definitely one of the funniest, strangest and most decidedly twisted offerings of the year.

No one likes bullies, but, in facing them down, we must be careful not to inadvertently become who we oppose. This calls upon us to take a good, hard look at the beliefs – all of them – that play a role in a venture like this. We don’t want to fall prey to that which we detest. That calls for us to get creative in our approaches to addressing these matters, using whatever we have at our disposal, including in unheard-of ways, forms of self-defense that truly are an art.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

An Icon’s Quest for Creativity, Redemption

It’s amazing how someone can embody both the best and worst of what we’re capable of. These qualities, polar opposites to be sure, seem incompatible with one another, yet, on occasion, they sometimes wind up residing within a single individual. Learning how to reconcile these extremes can thus prove to be quite a challenge for those of us who want to do our best but find that there are times when it’s difficult to control ourselves. Such is the experience of a legendary musician as seen in the enthralling new documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name” (web site, trailer).

Singer-songwriter David Crosby has led quite a storied life. Over his decades-long career, he’s been both a golden boy and a bad boy of the music business. And now, after years of living large, partying hard and burning more than his share of bridges, he’s come into the home stretch of his life with many accolades and numerous regrets.

Legendary singer-songwriter David Crosby pays a visit to Laurel Canyon, his old stomping grounds and home to many up-and-coming musicians during the 1960s, as seen in the revelatory new documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Photo by Edd Lukas and Ian Coad, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

So how does one deal with such a curious mixture of high praise and heavy baggage? That’s what the 76-year-old musician is attempting to do these days. There’s a sense of quiet urgency associated with this, too, given Crosby’s failing health. Having experienced several heart attacks, the implantation of eight cardiac stents, a liver transplant and the onset of diabetes, he realizes he could depart this world at any time. Which is why he’s trying to make sense of his life (and himself) with what time he has left.

“David Crosby: Remember My Name” is more than just a nostalgic stroll down memory lane. To be sure, the film does cover the many diverse aspects of his career, including his often-stormy stint with the 1960s rock band the Byrds, his phenomenally successful collaborations with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, and his legendary appearance at the Woodstock Music Festival. It also explores his professional and personal relationships with other high-profile musicians of the ʼ60s and ʼ70s, such as Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Cass Elliott and Jimi Hendrix. And it looks at his many romances, including those with Mitchell, with longtime girlfriend Christine Hinton (who was tragically killed in a traffic accident) and with his current wife, Jan.

Guitarist David Crosby rocks out during a concert featuring Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) as seen in director A.J. Eaton’s new documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Photo by Neal Preston, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

But, despite his many successes, Crosby has also had his share of downfalls. In addition to his health problems and his long-lasting despair over Christine’s death, he has undergone serious bouts of addiction and prison time. He got himself fired from the Byrds for his unpredictable, unreliable and irresponsible antics, a number of them occurring while on stage and involving highly inflammatory political messages at the height of the social turbulence of the 1960s. And then there were his very public disputes with former collaborators like Byrds founder Roger McGuinn and all of his CSNY bandmates.

But, then again, Crosby has achieved accomplishments few others have attained. He’s been inducted into the Rock ʼn Roll Hall of Fame twice, first as a member of the Byrds in 1991 and then as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1997. And then, at age 72, when many of us begin kicking back and settling down, he launched head first into a prolific creative resurgence, producing four solo albums over four years, with more apparently to come.

To many of us, such extreme contrasts probably seem incongruous. By Crosby’s own admission, they even seem that way to him. He’s not even sure how he’s managed to live as long as he has, given the passings of so many of his contemporaries, including some who lived less recklessly than he has. However, he’s made every attempt to be honest with himself about his behavior, acknowledging his shortcomings and realizing that his failings are of his own making and no one else. While he hopes that reconciliations with his former collaborators might be possible – an accomplishment he’s been able to achieve with most of his family members – he’s also cognizant enough to realize that such reunions are unlikely and that he’s the cause for that. In light of that, he accepts his feelings and responsibilities, hoping for redemption but nevertheless moving on, continuing to concentrate on what he does best – making music.

Musician David Crosby (center) performs with longtime collaborators Stephen Stills (left) and Graham Nash (right) in the new documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Photo by Henry Diltz, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

For better or worse, creative expression is something that often requires acquiring a range of experiences, both positive and negative. Were it not for that, artists might well not be able to produce their best work. While that certainly involves the heights of elation, it may also call for firsthand knowledge of painful despair, something most of us would rather eschew but that may be unavoidably integral to the successful unleashing of our inner muse.

That may help to account for Crosby’s experience. For what it’s worth, having gone through such ups and downs could help to explain his creative success. When looking at Crosby’s creative output in conjunction with the events of his life, one can see parallels between his personal experience and his artistic expressions. The “inspiration” provided by such incidents helped make that possible, both positively and negatively and in both his individual and collaborative efforts. Would that have happened if he had not had those experiences? That’s hard to say with certainty, but we have seen it with an array of other artists (including in a number of recent films) involving everyone from painters to musicians to actors. By having something to draw upon, these creatives have tapped into source material that helped them manifest their works, developments that might not have otherwise happened.

On stage at the peak of their career (from left) Neil Young, Graham Nash, David Crosby and Stephen Stills (CSNY) appear before a packed stadium audience as seen in the candid new documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Photo by Joel Bernstein, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Music has been Crosby’s destiny ever since he learned to sing and play the guitar, and, fortunately for him (and us), he was perceptive enough to recognize this ability and to make the most of it. His inventive melodies, blissful harmonies and thoughtful lyrics have given us much to savor, creations that in many ways have truly made the world a better place for him having been a part of it. One need only look, for example, at his involvement with the stirring protest song “Ohio,” a composition written by CSNY collaborator Neil Young in response to the 1970 Kent State University shootings, to see the impact his contributions have made on the national culture and psyche. His art helped unite us at a time when we needed it, leaving a legacy that has lasted ever since.

With that kind of impact, it’s easy to see how one’s influence on the culture can extend far and wide. The often-outspoken Crosby, for instance, helped shape the social and cultural landscape of the 1960s. He even unwittingly left an imprint on the art and politics of the time, as seen in a post-Woodstock appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in which he made his views as plain as day, helping bring radical new ideas to the mainstream. He even had impact on fashion and style, as evidenced by the looks, mannerisms and attitudes exhibited by the character played by Dennis Hopper in the radical cinematic epic “Easy Rider” (1969). When one can wield that kind of wide-ranging influence, it’s possible to reshape the world, even in matters of critical importance and individual style.

With wife Jan (right), guitarist David Crosby (left) shares a private moment in the new documentary, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Photo by Edd Lukas and Ian Coad , courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Given where Crosby is now, however, he’s most focused on certain goals, using his creative powers to fulfill as many of them as he can with the time he has left. Most of them center on the concept of redemption, both personally and artistically. It’s commendable that he recognizes this, too, for it’s a healthy approach to try to rectify our missteps. All too often we feel reconciled to our failures, convinced we’ll never be able to redeem ourselves. But, as the saying goes, nobody’s perfect, and we all make mistakes in the course of our individual journeys.

Oftentimes these missteps involve valuable life lessons that don’t always go perfectly on our initial attempts. But we don’t get only one attempt; we can always start anew if we allow ourselves to do so. It’s possible to try again, invoking different approaches, new and improved initiatives that, one hopes, will work. That certainly seems to be what Crosby is doing now. Let’s wish him the best.

Hands down, this is one of the best music/celebrity biographical documentaries I have ever seen. In many ways it’s a personal confession, providing an unflinchingly candid look at someone who wants to bare his soul, make reparations for whatever he can and leave the world with as much of his gift as he’s able to create. Through uncensored interviews with the artist and those who know him, as well as a wealth of archive photos and footage, viewers are treated to an honest, introspective look at one of the most influential musicians of the ʼ60s and ʼ70s. Director A.J. Eaton and executive producer Cameron Crowe have put together one helluva picture here, a Grand Jury Prize nominee in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. Don’t miss this one.

Time passes us by quickly with no regard for how we feel about that. As a consequence, it’s up to each of us to manage this resource as best we can, making the most of it and certainly not squandering it. But, should we screw up, all is not lost; we always have a chance to make up for our errors, even when the clock is running out. The key, though, is taking charge of our efforts and invoking intents that will bring about what we hope to achieve while we have time left. David Crosby provides us with an excellent example of how to go about this, showing that it’s never too late to make amends – or a little music.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

A Screen Classic Returns – in IMAX

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of director Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War opus, “Apocalypse Now,” the filmmaker is releasing a remastered version of the epic, “Apoclaypse Now Final Cut,” for IMAX screens. According to Coppola, this edition’s 182-minute runtime is somewhat longer than the 147-minute original 1979 theatrical release and slightly shorter than the 196-minute director’s cut version, “Apocalypse Now Redux,” released in 2001.

Often regarded as the ultimate Vietnam film, one that gives new meaning the horror of war, is based on the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, in which an American gun boat crew (Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms) travels up river into Cambodia to investigate the disappearance of a renegade general (Marlon Brando) believed to be the orchestrator of a series of unspeakable atrocities. Along the way, the crew experiences a variety of incidents that typified the conflict, including encounters with a reckless American colonel (Robert Duvall), a raucous Playboy Playmate USO show and a drugged-out photojournalist (Dennis Hopper). Yet what the crew finds when they reach their destination is beyond anything what they might have imagined before they set out.

“Apocalypse Now” in any of its versions can be a difficult film to watch. However, it truly brings home the madness of war, giving us all pause to consider why anyone would want to support such efforts. For its efforts, the picture earned two Academy Awards on eight total nominations (including a nod for best picture), three Golden Globe Awards on four total nominations (including a nod for best dramatic picture), and the Cannes Film Festival’s FIPRESCI Prize and Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor.

I can only imagine what this film must look like on a movie screen that’s several stories tall. For a preview, check out the trailer by clicking here.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.