Category Archives: Comedy

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

In the Talmud there is a discussion of intention when it comes to the recitation of blessings. In pronouncing a blessing before partaking of food, for example, one must have in mind the particular fruit or cake one is about to eat. A problem arises when a person at the first part of the blessing has in mind the wrong food that fits the blessing, but when he recites the last part of blessing, he thinks of the correct food. The general conclusion of the Talmud is to consider the last part of blessing as its defining section. Therefore, the blessing is valid based upon the speaker’s intention while reciting the second half of the blessing.

In attempting to review The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a very unconventional western, which includes six stand-alone narratives, I thought of this Talmudic dictum and realized that my review of the film has to consider the last story as a coda explaining the other five.

The stories are framed within an imaginary novel of the 1870s. Within it are a host of literary conventions of the mythical West: the singing cowboy, the bank robber, the traveling showman, the man prospecting for gold, the pioneer heading to the frontier in search of a better life, and the stagecoach passengers.

All of the segments happen in beautiful outdoor settings except the last, which takes place almost entirely within the stagecoach. The travelers include an animal trapper, a blase Frenchman, and the very parochial wife of a clergyman. They have discussions about the nature of life, and it becomes clear that they are on a trip with a final destination from which there is no return. The essential takeaway from their conversation is that life is uncertain and unpredictable, and we never really know what is in another’s heart in spite of what we think might be there. It is a mournful view of the human experience.

The notion that life is unpredictable is underscored in the story entitled “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Alice Longabaugh discusses a perspective on life with Billy Knapp, one of the leaders of the wagon train heading West. Speaking about her deceased brother, Gilbert, she observes: “He had fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed. He would upbraid me for being wishy-washy. I never had his certainties. I suppose it is a defect.” Billy responds: “I don’t think it’s a defect at all. Oh no. Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch. It is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty is the easy path.”

The Jewish approach to life also posits an element of uncertainty; for, after all, how can finite man, whose very intellectual DNA is uncertain, comprehend the ways of the infinite, all knowing God? We humans can never understand why things happen. The only thing we can do is choose how we respond to life’s uncertainties and ambiguities.

The Sages tell us to envision every day as possibly one’s last. This is not to encourage a morbid mindset, but to spur us on to productive living, to make every day count. If today is my last day, then I should think about how I spend my time today. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not provide easy answers to life’s insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, but it does remind us that living with uncertainty is part of being human.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

 

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The Old Man and the Gun (2018), directed by David Lowery

When I moved to Israel, I realized I could no longer be a synagogue rabbi or a school principal. Why? My command of Hebrew was only fair and I was in my 60s. Even though I felt I was at the top of my game, I was viewed by others as part of the past, not the future. So what to do?

For five years, I taught Anglos who were in Israeli schools, both middle school and high school. Most of the time, I prepared students to pass the matriculation examinations that they needed to get into college. I mixed in some poetry to make it more interesting for me as well as for the students. Every year I taught, the school had to get permission for me to teach since I was over the official retirement age.

After five years, the Ministry of Education ruled that they would no longer grant me permission to teach even though the school wanted me to continue. The bottom line: I had to find other employment outside of the school system, which brought me to “Kosher Movies.” I began writing film reviews in newspapers and on the Internet about movies that had something meaningful to say about life, movies that could help us navigate life no matter what our age.

Whenever I visit the States to visit family, I set up trips to synagogues, adult study groups, and schools to speak about the potentially positive influence of cinema on adults and teenagers. Watching The Old Man and the Gun reminded me of why I am now writing and lecturing on film. I simply wanted to be relevant, especially in a world, which, generally speaking, marginalizes the elderly.

The Old Man and the Gun is based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a career criminal who escaped from San Quentin Prison at age 70. Once back in society, he commits a number of bank robberies that both mystify the police and fascinate the public. Trying to catch him is Detective John Hunt who is enthralled by Tucker’s soft spoken and gentle way of staging a heist.

Whenever Hunt investigates the crime, all the victims mention how polite and disarming Tucker was during the robbery. In one scene in which Tucker flees the crime in a cab with a mother and child aboard, he decides to stop the taxi so the mother and child can get off rather than be frightened by his fugitive status.

Forrest has a feeling of self-esteem when he is robbing banks. He sees himself as a good person who does not want to hurt others, but he desires to steal to reaffirm his lifelong talent for crime. Old age for him is not a time of retirement.

Indeed, old age is potentially a time of great blessing if one fills it with achievements. This is what the patriarch Abraham did as he advanced in years. Scripture states: “he grew old and came along in days.” The commentators interpret this to mean that in his senior years he continued to be productive and accomplish great things.

The question is how does one measure a life? Is one’s physical strength the only measure of a man’s ability to be productive in life? In truth, we know that physical strength wanes as we get older, but wisdom can grow.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe raises the question of a person’s value as he progresses through life. Is value only seen in terms of a person’s physical prowess or is it determined by the quality of one’s wisdom and insight. The Rebbe observes that behind the notion of retirement is the idea “that life is composed of productive and non-productive periods. The first 20-30 years of life are seen as a time of little or no achievement, as a person acquires knowledge and training in preparation for the productive period of life. The next 30-40 years are the time in which his or her creative energies are realized. Finally, as he enters his twilight years, he puts his period of real achievement behind him; he has worked hard all his life, so he now ought to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the creative urge still agitates his aging body, he is advised to find some harmless hobby with which to fill his time. Indeed, time is now something to be filled and gotten over with as he whiles away his days on life’s sidelines, his knowledge and abilities filed away in the attic of old age.”

Furthermore, the Rebbe states: “Torah, however, recognizes no such distinction between life’s phases, for it sees productivity as the very essence of life: the words a non-productive life-period are an oxymoron. Retirement and the passive enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor also have their time and place—in the World To Come. In the words of the Talmud, Today is the time to do; tomorrow, to reap the reward. The very fact that God has granted a person a single additional day of bodily life means that he has not yet concluded his mission in life, that there is still something for him to achieve in this world. “

Forrest Tucker chooses to break the law so that he can feel relevant at a time when elders are being pushed to the sidelines of life. The Old Man and the Gun reminds us that the drive for self-esteem and relevance remains with us all our lives, and is not limited by age.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Intern (2015), directed by Nancy Meyers

Someone recently asked me why I am still teaching when I am way past conventional retirement years. The answer: I want to be relevant. Anonymity is good at times, but a senior citizen often wants to be noticed. Unfortunately, he is frequently invisible to those around him. He simply does not exist in their world by virtue of his age.

Indeed, it is a challenge to still make a difference in people’s lives when you are no longer young or working as a rabbi of a synagogue or school principal. So I feel fortunate to be teaching, still able to influence future generations, still able to share whatever wisdom or knowledge I may have.

The Intern is about a senior citizen who still wants to relevant. Ben Whittaker’s wife has died and he has retired from his full time executive-level job. He yearns to be productive and stumbles upon a poster advertising positions for senior interns at a dynamic start-up company called About the Fit.

The entrepreneur behind About the Fit is Jules Ostin, who in only 18 months has grown her online clothes retailing company from an obscure beginning in her kitchen to a financial juggernaut with over 200 employees. The key to her success has been good products plus sterling customer service.

Ben becomes her intern. At first he is given no work to do; but over time, his mature, helpful, and kind approach to all the employees who are much younger than him makes him an indispensable part of the company. Even Jules comes to depend on him for support in rough times. And Jules has her share of them.

Investors in About the Fit are concerned that the company is growing too fast and they want Jules to consider hiring a CEO with more experience. Moreover, she is stressed at home with a stay-at-home dad who feels neglected because of his wife’s total immersion in her growing business. At critical moments of decision, she looks to Ben, now her best and most trusted friend, for advice on navigating the major challenges she faces.

Jewish law and lore expresses great reverence for the elderly. In the Ethics of the Fathers, the elderly are compared to fine wine, which gets better as it ages. The senior years are years of blessing, for they are years when man is devoted more to spiritual affairs than material matters. The Bible describes Abraham, the great patriarch, as one who “grew old and came along in days.” The commentators observe that this expression refers to the fact that even though Abraham was old in years, he made each day count. Each day was filled with learning and achievement. He did not retire until God retired him.

The Talmud tells us “Today is the time to do; tomorrow to reap the reward. (Eruvin 22a).” The Sages explain that this means that while you have life, God is informing you that you have not yet completed your mission in life. Every day that you live presents an opportunity to do something positive for the world either on the micro or macro level. The challenge is to discover your mission at each stage of your life.

The Ethics of the Fathers outlines the mission of man throughout his life. The age of 30 may be the time of physical strength, but at the age of 80, spiritual strength asserts itself. Ben Whittaker discovers, as a senior citizen, that he can make a difference in the lives of many young men and women. It is wise when people seek the wisdom of such seniors.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

Midnight Run (1988), directed by Martin Brest

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that we should not judge a person by appearances. The classic text is “do not look at the container but at what is inside.” Yet this is what we often do.

I made a mistake many years ago when I initially judged a high school student to be a problem because his long hair flowed down to his shoulders and a scraggly beard adorned his young face. At the time, his appearance telegraphed a student who did not want to conform, a rebellious teenager who enjoyed breaking conventions and who was not interested in his studies.

In truth, I was 100 percent wrong. It turned out that once I engaged the young man in conversation, he emerged as sweet, witty, and academically serious.

The initial inability to see beyond surface appearances is at the core of Midnight Run, a buddy road comedy about a bounty hunter, Jack Walsh, played by Robert DeNiro, and an accountant, Jonathan Mardukas, played by Charles Grodin, who has embezzled 15 million dollars from the Mob.

Here is the set-up. Mardukas has jumped bail. His Los Angeles bail bondsman, Eddie Moscone, hires bounty hunter Jack Walsh to bring Mardukas back from New York, where he is hiding, to Los Angles by midnight Friday so that he will not forfeit $450,000 in bail money and face bankruptcy. To get the job done, he employs Walsh for $100,000 to bring him in on time.Competing with Walsh to bring in Mardukas is another bounty hunter and the FBI, led by Special Agent Alonzo Mosely. The FBI wants Mardukas because he can provide information about Jimmy Serrano, a mob boss involved in a plethora of illegal activities. Serrano also wants Mardukas, but he wants Mardukas dead so that he cannot testify against him.

Problems begin to occur after Walsh quickly captures Mardukas in Los Angeles. Mardukas is petrified of flying and causes a disturbance on the plane before take-off. The airline refuses to take him, leaving Walsh with the unenviable task of driving cross country with Mardukas to bring him into custody.

Their eventful trip, punctuated by constant life-threatening situations, brings the two adversaries together emotionally. Shared adversity breaks down barriers between them. The outcome: they become friends. Jonathan Mardukas learns why Walsh became a bounty hunter and why he left a post as a Chicago undercover policeman. Jack Walsh discovers why Mardukas stole the money from the mob and what he intended to do with it.

The Torah instructs us to judge our fellow man justly (Leviticus 19:15). This means giving other people the benefit of the doubt and interpreting their actions for the good. Moreover, the Talmud tells us: do not judge another man until we are in his position (Avot 2:4), until we understand the motive for their questionable actions. Jonathan and Jack ultimately do this. They give each other the benefit of the doubt and are not judgmental about the other.

Sara Yoheved Rigler, a Jewish educator, makes some helpful suggestions about how to judge people favorably taken from real-life situations: “Instead of faulting a friend for not calling you back when she said she would, you could think that she may have tried to call me back, but my line was busy, or she may have received an important call just when she was about to dial my number. Instead of faulting your spouse for being late (again!), you could think that I’m not time-challenged like he is. Instead of faulting a repairman for not coming when he said he would (leaving you sitting at home all afternoon waiting), you could think that his previous client may have had a more complicated job than expected, or that when he went to phone me that he’d be late, he couldn’t find my number or his cellphone battery was low.”

When we judge others fairly, Rigler continues, “We cultivate a positive, sympathetic attitude towards others. We do not jump to conclusions. We do not condemn people who may be suffering circumstances far beyond our ken.”

This epiphany of understanding comes to Jonathan and Jack who, through shared adversity, come to like and respect the other, foreshadowing a happy resolution that began as a tumultuous relationship. Midnight Run offers an example of people going beyond stereotypes and viewing people as they really are.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Breakfast Club (1985) directed by John Hughes

breakfast clubI have learned over the years both as a parent and as a school principal that it is good to withhold judgment when forming an opinion about teenagers. They are works in progress and often what you see is only a brief snapshot in time that does not reflect who they really are.

A case in point. Daniel was a rebellious teenager. He challenged authority every day and made the lives of teachers very unpleasant. He was one of the few students I was happy to see graduate. Twenty years later, I received a phone call from Daniel in which he apologized for his behavior in high school and asked me to forgive him. He was now married with children and had a totally different perspective on life. As an adult, he was “born again” as a normal human being and a productive member of society.

In The Breakfast Club, five students in a public high school in Illinois in 1984 discover who they are as they reveal themselves to each other in the course of a nine-hour Saturday detention. The cohort of students include John Bender, “the criminal,” Claire Standish, “the princess,” Brian Johnson, “the brain,” Andy Clark, “the athlete,” and Allison Reynolds, “the basket case.” The students rarely socialize with one another at school, but now they interact with one another because there are no other people to talk to.

In the course of their tense and profanity-laden conversations, it becomes clear that they all have dysfunctional relationships with their parents. When they finally open up to one another, they realize they have more in common than they thought. They no longer see others in terms of stereotypes, which is the way adults often perceive them. Rather they see themselves as complex human beings with a variety of conflicting traits, all of which help define them as unique human beings.

Jewish tradition provides guidance for parents who want to stay connected and be relevant to their children during their teenage years, who want their children to develop into good citizens who achieve and who are respectful of others. Joanne Doades, a Jewish educator, reminds parents to be good role models of consistency, honesty, and clarity. Moreover, parents need to build mutual trust with their children. To do this, it is wise not to have unrealistic expectations of children, and to speak to them with respect, acknowledging and accepting their individuality. Furthermore, although one should chastise kids when they do something wrong, one should be sure the rebuke is a reflection of a parent’s love, not his anger.

Doades emphasizes that “positive interactions should outweigh negative ones.” She references the Torah and Talmud: “If parents are always chastising their teens about the more annoying aspects of teen behavior (messy room, inattention to schoolwork, issues about money, laziness, loud music, to name a few), there will be little opportunity to normalize the relationship. The Torah warns against being vengeful or bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18) because such behavior can cause us to continuously view another through an overly negative lens. The advice of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) is to discipline with the left (weaker) hand and to reach out with the right (stronger), so that reconciliation is possible. Relationships between today’s parents and teens can deteriorate quite quickly unless parents deal with difficult issues and move forward in a constructive way.”

The key to successful parenting is to aim not for control but for consultation. You should not want to control your kids; you should want them to desire to consult you, to glean your parental wisdom, as they navigate life’s challenges.

The Breakfast Club was made in 1985. I viewed a DVD version billed as “the 30th anniversary edition” of the film. Frankly, I had forgotten about the movie until one of my Facebook fans asked me why I did not review what he considered an important film in the annals of “coming of age” movies. That motivated me to revisit this classic, which I now realized had timeless messages about parenting.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig

Lady birdFriends of mine have a daughter poised to enter her senior year in high school. Their relationship with her is challenging. She wants to attend an out-of-state Ivy League school, but they are not wealthy and prefer that she attend a more affordable state university. The daughter also feels that her local high school is intellectually claustrophobic, and she yearns for a more stimulating educational environment in college, one that will allow her to dream and think out-of-the-box.

Her parents asked me for advice. I had no simple answers and said I would think about their questions. I reminded them that parenting is a lifelong journey. Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. What they were experiencing was a normal part of the real life struggle of teenagers to define themselves as adults, to attain a level of independence without becoming alienated from the adults who love them.

This struggle is at the center of Lady Bird, a coming of age comedy/drama about Christine McPherson, also known as Lady Bird. Lady Bird is enrolled in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, that she finds narrow-minded and repressive. She desires to attend a cosmopolitan university far away from her small town roots. She wants like-minded friends who are more intellectually sophisticated than her high school buddies.

Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, is not an ogre. She tries to be helpful in enabling her daughter to be successful in the world; but Lady Bird still sees her as lacking understanding of her creative spirit and not recognizing her for the unique person she is. In one interchange, Marion tells her that she wants Lady Bird to be the “very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Lady Bird responds: “What if this is the best version?”

Lady Bird wants her mother’s approval and yearns for her praise. Marion, however, feels she must be honest in her comments to her even if it risks alienating her. For example, Lady Bird asks her: “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Marion answers: “Okay, I’m sorry. I was telling you the truth. Do you want me to lie to you?” Lady Bird needs affirmation. Marion needs honesty. Sometimes the two conflict and there is no reconciliation.

Marion shares life wisdom with Lady Bird, hoping to give her tools to navigate life. In one encounter, she states: “Money is not life’s report card. Being successful doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. It just means that you’re successful. But that doesn’t mean that you’re happy.”

Lady Bird hears her and is bright enough to appreciate her counsel. But it is not until she enters college that she acknowledges the profound influence of her parents. In a poignant phone call from college, she tells them: “Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom. Hey, Mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you.”

Adina Soclof, a social worker and Jewish educator, provides some tips to enhance communication between parents and teens, to preserve the ties that bind them since birth. She writes: “Teens are egocentric. They often only think about themselves because they’re experiencing so much inner turmoil. Their emotions overtake them; they are dealing with their hormones, school, peers and other pressures. They don’t have the experience and maturity to handle their problems on their own.” Therefore, “Try to overlook this behavior. It is critical to keep the lines of communication open. All your effort should be directed to this goal.”

Lady Bird is an unsettling view of a teenager’s coming of age. In the end, her story is hopeful because Lady Bird, in spite of her arguments with her mother, still keeps the wisdom of her parents in her mind as she navigates her adult life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Menashe (2017), directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein

menasheWhen my wife passed away over 25 years ago, my world fell apart. After a year of parenting my six children by myself, it became clear to me that I needed to remarry to provide a semblance of a normal home life for my kids. It would never be the same. The past could not be replaced; but in some meaningful way, my kids would have a sense of family restored.

Menashe is an unusual film in that most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with a few English words thrown in. The story is about a recently widowed Hasidic man who is struggling to parent without a wife and mother at home. He faces many trials in trying to rear his only son, Rievin.

In the Hasidic community in which he lives, a child must be reared in the home where there is a father and mother. Menashe faces social pressure to remarry as soon as possible. But there is a problem. Menashe’s first marriage was unhappy and he is not interested in remarrying quickly, even though he knows that this may mean that he will be separated from his son.

Menashe works in a grocery store where he is a cashier and occasional salesman. He earns a low wage and has little money for extras. Eizik, his late wife’s financially well-off brother, offers his home to Rievin until Menashe can remarry and get his life in order.

Menashe resents his take-charge attitude, even when he knows that Eizik’s home is more stable than his. He feels Eizik looks down on him and treats him with disrespect. Menashe consequently is unwilling to accept criticism from him. Low self-esteem plagues Menashe.

Things come to a head when the anniversary of the death of Menashe’s wife approaches. Eizik wants the memorial in his home; Menashe wants it in his apartment even though he knows it will be less aesthetically pleasing.

To make the memorial service and the ensuing meal special, Menashe decides to cook a potato kugel. Unfortunately, he allows it to burn and it is barely edible. What is instructive is the way the various guests respond to the burnt kugel. Most take a small bite and quietly express their disappointment at the kugel’s taste. The revered rabbi who is present praises the food and encourages everyone to eat. More important to the rabbi than food is not embarrassing someone who falls short of community expectations.

The rabbi’s comments linger in Menashe’s mind. In his comment, there is a profound implicit message; namely, that you have to focus on the positive. When life brings disappointments, you have to accept them and move forward. You cannot wallow in what could have been or what should have been. For Menashe, this means accepting responsibility for his behavior and deciding to find a wife, even if she is not perfect. It will be a journey of self-discovery for Menashe as he tries his best to lead a normal life.

At the end of the movie, Menashe immerses in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Jewish tradition tells us that this act is symbolic of being born again. It is often done before the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, days when we want to shake off the sins of the past and turn over a new leaf.

Menashe may not be the most punctilious in his religious observance, but he definitely defines himself as a religious Jew who takes the words of God and the instructions of his rabbis seriously. His story reminds us that even when life deals us a tragic blow, God wants us to pick ourselves up and make the best of what we have.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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