How many of us are living truly fulfilled lives? Do we approach our existence with all-out gusto and a willingness to pursue our dreams? Or are we restricted by rules, regulations, fears and regrets – many of our own making – that keep us from fulfilling our potential? Sometimes it takes breaking out of rigid, ingrained patterns of thought and behavior that prevent us from getting the most out of our time in this reality. Such are the themes that underlie the story line of the charming new comedy-drama-road trip movie, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (web site, trailer).
Have you ever been in a situation where there was something you wanted to do but were prevented from doing so by those who thought you were incapable? That’s the problem faced by Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year-old affected by Down syndrome. Having been abandoned by his family, Zak became a ward of the state. But, given the lack of adequate residential facilities for individuals with his condition in his eastern North Carolina community, he’s been forced to live in a senior citizens’ home. And he hates it. As the only resident in his age range and with his condition, he feels isolated. He wants out.
Zak has a plan, too. As a huge fan of professional wrestling, he dreams of escaping to enroll in a school run by his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), to learn how to become a grappler. His enthusiasm for the sport is obvious, and physically he’s certainly strong enough for it. All he needs to do is figure out a way to get out.
After a failed escape attempt, Zak is labeled a flight risk by his case worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). She realizes he’s unhappy, and she’s doing everything she believes she can to make his life as satisfying as possible. Even with that, though, she has bars placed on his windows to prevent a repeat episode. However, given Zak’s desire to pursue his dream, he vows to escape, and, with the assistance of his elderly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), the would-be wrestler finds a way to get out, fleeing in the middle of the night. When Eleanor learns of his getaway, she goes in pursuit of the escapee, but finding the clever fugitive proves to be easier said than done.
After hours on the run, Zak comes upon a fishing boat harbor. Tired and in need of sleep, he takes refuge under a tarp on one of the boats. But that rest is soon interrupted when trouble arises for the boat’s skipper, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a rogue crab fisherman who’s been poaching catches from waters claimed by a licensed but vindictive peer, Duncan (John Hawkes). After setting fire to Duncan’s gear in response to strong-arm threats, Tyler looks to make a hasty getaway from the harbor to avoid the retribution of Duncan and his chief muscle, Ratboy (Yelawolf). He jumps into his boat to take off, unaware that he has an unwitting passenger onboard.
A high-speed boat chase ensues, but Tyler manages to escape detection by successfully hiding in a patch of tall aquatic reeds. It’s only then that he discovers Zak. Tyler’s not entirely sure what to do, but, realizing that Zak needs help, he quickly, albeit somewhat reluctantly, finds himself developing a sense of responsibility for his young companion.
Responsibility is something that Tyler has never taken to readily. For example, his recent poaching activity illustrates his limitations in this area. But, more than that, he deeply regrets how his lack of this attribute contributed to the death of someone near and dear to him. Helping Zak find his way to wrestling school, then, just might help him to make up for some of these past oversights.
And so, with their destination of the Salt Water Redneck School of Wrestling in mind, the unlikely duo sets off on a quirky, eventful road trip. Along the way, Tyler and Zak have a number of memorable experiences, such as nearly being overrun by an enormous shrimp boat, encountering a blind, aging evangelist (Wayne DeHart) hell-bent on baptizing them, and sailing aboard a makeshift raft. Tyler also provides Zak with some impromptu training as a wrestler, both physically and attitudinally, including the adoption of his ring name: the Peanut Butter Falcon.
The road trip is not without its challenges, though. Both Tyler and Zak are hotly pursued by others (i.e., Duncan, Ratboy and Eleanor), and they clearly don’t have much patience for the vagabonds’ antics. But, through it all, the duo considers their journey an adventure, one that’s akin to a modern-day version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The question is, though, will they reach their destination? And, if so, will it live up to their expectations? For those driven by their dreams, there’s no telling what’s possible.
Those dreams, of course, are largely made possible by our beliefs – beliefs in what we would like to achieve but, more importantly, in what we consider attainable. The trick, though, is figuring out how to formulate the beliefs required to bring those ideas into being.
A key starting point in this process is being able to envision the desired outcome. As metaphysical author and teacher Gregg Braden has often observed, an effective way of accomplishing this is by picturing the end result as if it’s already happened. In that way, the notion takes root in our minds and in the possible existence we would like to pursue. And that places us one step closer to the outcome’s realization.
In this story, Zak is so sold on becoming a professional wrestler that coming up with beliefs and plans to see it happen are almost second nature. He thus serves as a powerful influence to those around him, most notably those in need of getting their acts together and their lives on track. Tyler most readily comes to mind here, given that he appears to have been aimlessly drifting for some time. But, in her own way, this also applies to Eleanor, someone who appears to have more gifts to offer others than merely serving as a mid-level administrator in a nursing home. While there may be nothing inherently wrong with that, it seems that it’s below her capabilities and potential. Perhaps Zak can inspire both of them to find their callings by helping instill in them the ability to envision their future in the same affirmed way he does.
Zak is able to accomplish this in large part by not letting limitations hold him back. He doesn’t see his condition as a disability; it’s merely who he is, something he has to work with, but it’s by no means something that intrinsically deters him from following his dreams. In that regard, he’s not only an inspiration to his fellow travelers, but also to anyone who all too easily allows personal crutches from getting in the way of living our lives.
In essence, such an attitude reflects the concept of living heroically, moving past our fears and apprehensions to see our aspirations come into being. Again, Zak is an inspiration in this regard, refusing to allow those elements to get in his way, be it an approaching shrimp boat, a vindictive crabber pursuing him and his travelling companion, or a social welfare system seeking to hem him in and keep him from what he wants out of life. That’s powerful stuff, again, not only for those close to him, but also to anyone who’s approaching life timidly and needs to break out of that pattern.
Many of us may find this difficult, but it’s far from impossible to overcome. By envisioning, forming and embracing beliefs that make this possible, we can remove the baggage that makes it easier for us to begin the process of getting on with our lives.
Despite some occasionally sluggish pacing and a narrative that’s more than a little predictable, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt feel good comedy-drama-road trip offerings to come along in years. LaBeouf and Johnson turn in some of their best work here, but newcomer Gottsagen is the real stand-out, a natural on screen who charms and surprises at seemingly every turn. This may not be epic cinema, but it’s certainly satisfying, well-crafted, crowd-pleasing entertainment, the kind of endearing story we could certainly use more of these days.
If we’re unsatisfied by the world around us, we should seek to alter it. As Mohatma Gandhi famously observed, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” That’s good advice, and we should draw from inspirations that embody it, no matter what source they come from. Zak provides us with a good example to follow, both in the wrestling ring and on the playing field of life.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Burning Through the Nonsense of Needless Drama
We’ve all experienced situations where the drama meter unfortunately gets turned up way beyond manageable levels. We stand by in shock (and sometimes horror) as events spiral to a fever pitch on their way to careening out of control. In fact, all we need is a Greek chorus to drop in and fan the flames of the emerging spectacle. Woe, oh dreaded woe. But must we really head down that path? Perhaps there are better ways to resolve such matters, a suggestion proposed in the new celluloid satire, “Tel Aviv on Fire” (web site, trailer).
Fan loyalty notwithstanding, soap operas are often easy targets for ridicule. Their frequently exaggerated, over-the-top story lines and melodramatic acting regularly draw criticism from those who prefer their entertainment outlets to be “more realistic.” But, given the bona fide, often-overinflated drama of everyday life, with developments that are far more absurd than anything script writers can concoct, these shows may not be as out there as many might think.
So it is with Tel Aviv on Fire, an immensely popular Palestinian soap set during the 1967 Six-day War. The show follows the exploits of Manal (a.k.a. Rachel) (Lubna Azabal), a Palestinian resistance fighter sent undercover to infiltrate Israeli Defense Forces by her lover/colleague, Marwan (Ashraf Farah). Posing as an Israeli assistant to Gen. Yehuda Edelman (Yousef “Joe” Sweid), “Rachel” is charged with seducing the general to gather secret military information and siphon it back to her peers, a task that, when successfully completed, will enable Manal to return to her beloved Marwan to marry and live happily ever after.
At least that’s what’s supposed to happen.
As a Palestinian production, Tel Aviv on Fire is filmed in Ramallah in the West Bank territory, but not everyone who works on the show lives nearby. Tala, for example, the actress who portrays Manal/Rachel, is actually from France, although most of the cast and crew don’t have a commute nearly as long as hers. Some live comparatively closer, such as Salam Abbass (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian production assistant who resides in Jerusalem. Having grown up in Israel, he’s well versed in Hebrew and has been hired by the show’s producer, his Uncle Basam (Nadim Sawalha), to help the actors with their pronunciations, given that Hebrew is not their native tongue.
As part of his daily commuting routine, Salam crosses through the heavily militarized border checkpoint on his way back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem. While returning home one day, the docile, subservient, somewhat bumbling amateur linguist makes a statement that a checkpoint guard interprets as potentially threatening. He’s ordered to report to the security officer in charge of the border crossing, Capt. Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), an egotistical, self-important military operative who, for what it’s worth, probably has more discretionary authority to handle such situations than he genuinely deserves.
During his interrogation with the captain, Salam mentions that he works on Tel Aviv on Fire, giving himself a promotion from production assistant to staff writer in the process. Assi freely admits his dislike for the show, seeing it as nothing more than anti-Zionist propaganda, but he adds that his wife, Maïsa (Laëtitia Eïdo), like many Israelis, is a big fan. Assi then says that, if Salam could tell him what’s going to happen on the next episode (something that he believes would really impress her), he just might consider letting him go on his merry way. Salam hesitates, realizing that the captain’s request is unreasonable in a number of ways. But Assi asserts that, as a writer for the show, who better than Salam to spill the beans about what’s going to happen next?
Realizing that, if he’s ever to get back home, Salam will have to tell Assi what he wants to hear, a gesture that secures his release – but that will also require the clandestine insertion of some unexpected, anonymously written edits into the script of the next episode. Needless to say, Assi’s prescience about these new story elements impresses Maïsa when the show airs, but it also confounds the Tel Aviv cast and crew, most notably its actual writers, Sarah (Ula Tabari) and Nabil (Amer Hlehel). How did this happen?
However, things don’t end there. As Salam again attempts to cross the border, Assi orders him to make a plot change in which Rachel/Manal falls in love with Yehuda for real, spurning Marwan in the process. What’s more, Assi insists upon the alteration if Salam hopes to be able to make his daily border crossing unimpaired. So, to avoid future commuting hassles, Salam realizes he now must become a writer to carry out his marching orders.
With a stroke of remarkable luck and Tala’s fortuitously timed assistance, Salam successfully lands a writer’s position. He’s relieved that it will enable him to implement Assi’s plot change. He’s also hopeful that this promotion will bolster his image to help him get back on good terms with his ex-girlfriend, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi). But Salam’s optimism is short-lived: His plot revisions run into opposition from his uncle and other members of the crew, placing him squarely between the proverbial rock and hard place. He’s now forced to scramble to meet the needs of both Assi and the Tel Aviv crew, a challenge that only becomes increasingly compounded as he struggles to serve two masters, neither of whom inherently like one another very much.
So how will it turn out? As they say in the TV business, stay tuned for the next exciting episode.
In the world of soaps, things always seem to have a way of working themselves out in the end. But can that happen in real life, too? Well, given that the two are often mirrors of one another, it’s entirely plausible. Why not? After all, in their own respective ways, they’re each milieus backed by their own scripting. When it comes to soaps, the staff writers draft what happens, while in real life, it’s up to each of us and what we seek to manifest for ourselves.
As noted earlier, many see the events of soap operas as utterly silly and preposterous, but can’t the same be said about real life? Look at the drama that so many of us put ourselves through, scenarios straight out of any daytime serial. In fact, many would contend that the decades-long political drama that has unfolded between the Israelis and Palestinians is right on par with situations found in the soaps. The stakes may have been higher, but much of the drawn-out drama and many of the manipulative machinations are worthy of almost anything seen in Tel Aviv on Fire.
And that, I believe, is the point of this film – to shine a satirical light on an overwrought situation that has gone on too long with entirely too much unnecessary drama. In some ways, it almost gives viewers an overdue opportunity to exhale, to even suggest to themselves, “Gee, it may actually be OK to laugh at this situation at last.” That, of course, depends in large part on how effectively audiences get the message and are willing to act on it to bring about lasting, meaningful change. And that begins with the beliefs we hold about what we hope to manifest.
In its own way, the film reveals the source of the problem, as well as its solution. In many respects, the characters in both the film and the soap opera within it are determined to see their goals fulfilled at any cost, no matter what consequences may arise: Assi wants to see his plot elements incorporated into the show’s scripts, a program in which its characters are determined to have their objectives met. At the same time, the producers have their agendas, too, some of which may be at odds with the other sought-after goals that are in play. These are instances where we do whatever it takes to materialize what we seek, regardless of whatever fallout may come from our efforts. Unfortunately, such efforts are also often rife with disaster. One need only look at the long and bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian situation to see this.
The key to resolving such seemingly intractable matters is to break through the barriers that hold us back. Getting past the limitations that restrict us and keep us from implementing (or even envisioning) creative solutions is crucial, whether it’s resolving the story line of a soap opera – or ending a war – neither of which may be too far apart from one another, as this film clearly shows.
But how do we move past those limitations? That depends in large part on the factors that feed into their establishment, but, as this film shows, it typically involves such issues as relinquishing fears that hold us back, being willing to shed attitudes of control at any cost and other similar impediments. These stumbling blocks frequently interfere with efforts to put new plans in place for a host of new conceptions, but they need only get in the way as long as we allow them to. If we’re willing to take the bold steps of pushing them out of the way, we could well open doors for ourselves that make truly inspiring opportunities possible.
That approach can be seen in the tact that filmmaker Sameh Zoabi took in birthing this picture. By using humor, particularly the kind we often find in fables, the director makes his point by busting an exceedingly overinflated balloon and letting viewers see the completely ludicrous nature of the prevailing situation. By picking on soap operas, he’s able to lampoon a readily available target and take some of the edge off the real world situation, even though closer scrutiny obviously reveals a harder-hitting agenda, one we’d be wise to pay attention to if we hope to avoid repeating the same kinds of mistakes as we move forward.
However, as much as I admire the inventiveness of what “Tel Aviv on Fire” attempts to do, the picture doesn’t quite hit the mark as squarely as it could. Its potentially funny premise, regrettably, doesn’t always rise to the level of that potential. Had it been treated more as a campy screwball romp instead of a comparatively safe satire overloaded with overly talky, quasi-philosophical sequences that water down its narrative, this could have been a much, much better film. The picture’s sometimes-tepid, kid gloves handling of its material not only squanders whatever inherent zaniness it had to work with, but it also unwittingly blunts the impact of the underlying sociopolitical commentary, especially in its satirical punchline. While modestly amusing, this offering unfortunately missed an excellent opportunity to present a refreshingly different, completely irreverent, totally unexpected take on a subject that has typically been addressed with relentlessly serious heavy-handedness – and that might be better for everyone with a little lightening up, both on and off the screen.
It always amazes me that we feel the need to get so caught up in the Sturm und Drang of life. While it’s true that conflict can sometimes help us attain wisdom in ways that might not otherwise be possible, there can also be too much of “a good thing.” Sometimes the drama becomes so entrenched that we have difficulty seeing ourselves breaking away from it, largely because it may be all that we know and the uncertainty of the unknown is seen as an even scarier prospect. However, if we take the time to consider the ludicrous nature of this viewpoint, the uncharted territory may seem a lot less intimidating, perhaps even preferable.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Compulsion To Create
Some of us just have to create. The compulsion is so strong that we can’t ignore it, as if it’s an itch that must be scratched. And, if that need goes unfulfilled, it can drive us crazy – literally. So it is for an exceptionally talented woman on the brink in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (web site, trailer).
Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) leads a rather unusual life. The eccentric middle-aged Seattle wife and mother spends most of her time tending to her family, husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), a high-level Microsoft engineer, and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), an intelligent, multi-talented adolescent. Bee is so gifted, in fact, that her excellent grades all throughout middle school earned her a reward of her choice, a promise made to her by her parents. And, as the ambitious, adventurous sort that she is, Bee chose big: a family vacation to Antarctica.
Bee’s choice, needless to say, comes as something of a surprise, more than what her parents expected. The prospect is especially daunting for Bernadette, given that she’s something of a neurotic recluse. She suffers from severe insomnia and is noticeably uncomfortable around people other than her family. She particularly cringes when having to deal with her nosy, persnickety neighbor, Audrey (Kristin Wiig), who’s managed to elevate political correctness to an art form. Because of these issues, Bernadette seldom leaves home. She doesn’t work (even though she once did as a brilliant, innovative architect), instead devoting much of her time and attention to the renovation of the family’s vintage manor house, a project that sometimes seems more trouble than it’s worth. And now that she’s facing the possibility of having to travel far outside of her comfort zone to a strange land on an excursion where she’ll be among throngs of strangers, she’s more high strung than ever. She doesn’t want to disappoint Bee, but she’s far from certain that she’ll be able to comply with her daughter’s wishes.
As Bernadette attempts to prepare for the trip, her behavior becomes even more unpredictable. She’s accused of being responsible for inflicting injury to Audrey and causing extensive damage to her property. She’s suspected of seeking to acquire dangerous prescription drugs through her physician, strong medication that she claims she needs to help her cope with the extreme sea sickness she anticipates suffering aboard the ship she’ll be taking to Antarctica. And she becomes embroiled in an FBI investigation involving foreign hackers who’ve infiltrated her virtual assistant in an attempt to steal her identity. What’s going on here?
Elgie is naturally concerned, so much so that he believes it’s time for an intervention with a psychiatrist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer). The duo thinks it may be time for Bernadette to check herself into a mental health facility to find out what’s really going on. And, as her story unfolds, there are hints as to what might be wrong. But will Bernadette cooperate in this effort? She initially seems reluctantly willing to go along with the recommendation – that is, until she makes a hasty exit out of a bathroom window, disappearing into the outside world, not to be seen, prompting everyone to ask the question that gives this film its title.
Bernadette’s bizarre behavior poses a major puzzle to those who care about her. Those who have known her for a long time are truly baffled. They can’t help but ask, “How did someone who once had it all together slip into such a state of personal disarray?” What’s more, given that it appears matters are only getting worse, worried onlookers can’t help but wonder where things will go from here.
To unravel this situation, everyone involved – most notably Bernadette herself – must determine the elements driving such strange conduct. And a good starting point for this is a thorough examination of her outlook, the foundation of her worldview. Clearly, though, she has her work cut out for herself.
A key task in undertaking this analysis is determining what “creation” means to her. Many would argue that, given Bernadette’s life of late, she’s not really creating very much. To be sure, she has cultivated a strong relationship with Bee, whom she positively adores. But, beyond that, what does she have to show for her time and effort?
That lack of creative output is surprising, too, given Bernadette’s background. Twenty years earlier when she was living in Los Angeles, Bernadette was a legendary architect, having come up with inventive designs not only for her structures, but also for many of their internal elements, such as inspired furniture creations. She became one of the leading women in her field, even capturing a prestigious MacArthur Grant. She was sought after for her revolutionary thinking, daring to design and construct buildings that no one else could even begin to envision.
All of this comes out through an obscure but revealing online video about her career, as well as a lengthy chance conversation with one of her former architecture associates, Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne). But, despite her impressive track record, all of a sudden, she mysteriously dropped out of sight. She abandoned her career, attempting nothing more noteworthy than the renovation of the family residence, an uphill battle for which maintaining her enthusiasm is often quite a challenge. Why did she vanish?
To say more would reveal too much. However, suffice it to say that, considering Bernadette’s boundless capacity for creativity, there can be tremendous consequences when a talent like that becomes stifled. And, as becomes apparent, that suppression stems directly from events of her past and the beliefs that stemmed from them, most notably a lack of desire to create in the face of plans going awry or becoming distorted. When this happens, it becomes all too easy to embrace the idea “Why bother?” At the same time, though, when one’s creative impulse is curtailed, even when seemingly undercut by countervailing thoughts of futility, it nevertheless seeks to become unleashed, like a wild mustang seeking to break out of a holding pen.
That’s where Bernadette is at, and it’s a conundrum that impacts her creation efforts in all areas of her life, not just in her talents as an architect. But her inability to see and grasp this problem, as well as her blindness to finding an effective solution, have her stuck in place and quickly sinking into a morass of frustration of her own making. When a creative sort wants to create and can’t, fewer situations are more maddening. If Bernadette hopes to get her life back on track, not to mention save her sanity, she’ll need to clearly see these circumstances for what they are – and find a way to fix them.
Should she do this, however, the results can be miraculous. Recharging our creative batteries by implementing beliefs that enable this can produce powerfully rejuvenating outcomes, not only in the tangible manifestations they yield, but also in the outlook of the creator. Such an effort can wipe away the frustration that blocks our creative output while restoring stability to our overall thought processes. Imagine what such a change could do for someone like Bernadette.
The importance of all this goes beyond just coming up with pretty things to look at. It can also have significant impact on one’s overarching psychological health, particularly for those who are meant to create. For some individuals, like Bernadette, creativity is their calling, their destiny. But, when such impulses become chronically obstructed, the result can be more than just a temporary case of artist’s block; it can become something more debilitating, a condition that has far-reaching ramifications not unlike those seen in this story. To avoid that, we had better make sure we keep the creativity flowing – and as abundantly as possible.
While somewhat ambling in its approach, this offbeat comedy-drama nevertheless delves into a number of profound notions, especially in the areas of creativity and fulfillment and what can happen when they aren’t satisfied. Blanchett and newcomer Nelson deliver fine performances as an outspoken and unusual mother-daughter duo in a quirky tale that’s sporadically overwritten and sometimes verges on losing control of the room. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, director Richard Linklater’s latest is far from perfect (or even adequately developed for that matter), but it’s certainly not the unmitigated train wreck that some have made it out to be. The overall uplifting tone of someone clawing her way back from the edge is indeed inspiring, especially to anyone who has seemingly lost hope that it can happen.
Creativity is like a muscle – the more we use it, the stronger it gets. By contrast, if we fail to draw on it, we can run into a serious case of atrophy, making it especially difficult to get back on track if it falls into disuse. As Bernadette’s experience shows, the consequences of that can be far greater than just not producing one’s latest novel or painting; it can affect our very survival. But, then, if we all essentially live to create, there’d be no survival without it.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.