Category Archives: Comedy

Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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Logan Lucky (2017), directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a school principal, I am sometimes faced with parents who, no matter the evidence, refuse to admit the shortcomings of a child. I recall one occasion when a student was caught plagiarizing a paper. At the subsequent meeting in which the teacher, the parents, and I were discussing what should be the consequences of this dishonesty, the boy’s father proclaimed: “My son never cheats.”

It was a troubling comment because it revealed an inability to accept truth and the consequences of lying. A similar inability to accept truth is evidenced by a prison warden in Logan Lucky, a humorous heist movie. No matter what the evidence, the warden denies he has a problematic prison population even when it is clear to the viewer that the prisoners are engaged in nefarious activities.

The narrative begins in a rural county in West Virginia when Jimmy Logan gets fired from his physically demanding job because he has a pronounced limp. The origin of his injury is a football injury sustained during his high school days when he was a star player. Now he is out of the limelight and working hard as a laborer to survive.

Desperate for cash, he enlists his brother, Clyde, and sister, Mellie, to assist him in robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. There is one problem: they need the help of a safecracker, Joe Bang, who is presently incarcerated. Jimmy’s plan is both crazy and straightforward, and it depends on lots of uncertainties. First, they have to get Joe Bang out of jail surreptitiously. Then they have to break into the racetrack vault. They then have to abscond with the cash. They then have to return Joe to prison without anyone realizing he was gone. Finally, Jimmy has to arrive at his daughter’s beauty pageant on time. How all this works out is the stuff of movie magic. It involves a very willing suspension of disbelief.

The conceit that enables the robbers to succeed is the fact that the local authorities who are charged with finding the culprits and recovering the stolen money are not willing to accept criticism. It is easier for them to plead ignorance or to lie outright than to recognize and accept the stark reality of the crime with all its attendant consequences. Because of this desire on the part of the establishment to cover up incompetence and to avoid public ridicule, they inform the news media that the money has been recovered when they actually do not know if it has been or not.

In contrast, Judaism accepts the reality of sin and requires man to atone for bad behavior. There are no excuses and there is accountability. Unlike my high school parent who refused to acknowledge his son’s cheating, and unlike the establishment authorities who see the robbery as only hurting the insurance companies, Jewish law mandates candor, sincere regret for past indiscretions, and teshuva, repentance.

Repentance involves several steps: regret, ceasing the harmful behavior, confessing to God, and resolving not to do it again. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a noted Jewish educator, shares a thoughtful analogy that illustrates how we should view the mistakes of a child: “Imagine a new child taking his first steps in front of the proud parents. He gets to his feet, takes a few steps ― and falls flat on his face. The parents clap with excitement and joy. But if you analyze the scenario, shouldn’t the parents be upset? After all, the child fell down! The answer is obvious. A parent doesn’t judge a child based on whether he walks or falls, but rather on whether he took a few steps in the right direction.” That mindset perhaps should have guided the parents in my school who, by protecting their son from the consequences of failure, taught him to avoid accountability at all costs.

Logan Lucky makes no moral pronouncements and the protagonists of the story do not necessarily walk in the right direction, but the film does provide an example of what can occur when people rationalize bad behavior.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Coco (2017), directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

One of my children was recently visiting me in Israel and I decided to peruse with him some old photo albums to review our family history. In the albums were images of family members, close and distant relatives, and friends from different communities in which we lived.

Much to my surprise, I could not identify many people in the pictures. Out of sight for a long time, they were also out of mind. I could not remember them; it was as if they no longer existed. The theme of memory is central to Coco, an animated feature about a young boy whose memory of the past provides a gateway to understanding his future.

Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy and a budding musician. For some unknown reason, his family has placed a ban on all music, which conflicts with his desire to make a career out of music. Things come to a head when, through a serendipitous event, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead, a place where the dead continue to live if they are still remembered by the living. Here Miguel can meet his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz and discover for himself the reason for his family’s ban on music.

In the Land of the Dead, Miguel meets Hector, a skeleton with musical talents, who will assist Miguel in his search for his family’s secrets. Hector takes the job as Miguel’s guide when Miguel promises to take his photo back to the Land of the Living to give to his daughter so that he can, in some mystical way, be reconnected to his daughter and prevent her from forgetting him. He implores Miguel to carry out this mission so that his daughter’s love for him will survive eternally: “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”

Along the way, Miguel learns that Imelda Rivera, his great grandmother, was abandoned by her husband who left her and her 3-year old child Coco to pursue a career in music. Music was the root cause of the family’s disintegration and Imelda opened a shoe-making business to enable her family to survive financially. These memories animate the past and create a living legacy for Miguel, who finally discovers secrets and misunderstandings that led to his family’s ban on music. Hector reminds him: “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life, in the stories they tell about us.”

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, reflects on the purpose of memory: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Jews on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, recite the Yizkor prayer, the memorial liturgy for those who are no longer with us in this life. Its recital evokes in our minds and hearts the memories of all those family members who were close to us and who now dwell in the uncharted beyond. By preserving their memory, we can emulate their positive behaviors and incorporate their attributes into our own lives. Saying Yizkor reminds us that the good deeds a person performed when he was a vibrant human being have a ripple effect on those who remain alive after his death. Yizkor, indeed, opens a door leading to eternity, a link between generations.

Coco is more than a typical animated feature. It is a meditation on death and on the connections between the living and the dead that survive and transcend the end of life. Miguel keeps the memory of his ancestors alive, and in so doing creates a happy future for himself, a future grounded in the rich history of the past.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Shtisel (2013), created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky (A Netflix Series)

Shtisel (2013), created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky  (A Netflix Series)

Close to my neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, there is a haredi (ultraorthodox, for want of a better word) community. I attend prayer services three times a day; and when it is late at night and I have missed the prayer in my local synagogue, I travel to the haredi enclave where I can always find the requisite quorum for prayer no matter how late the hour.

Mostly everyone is dressed in Chassidic garb, and I stand out in my baseball hat, casual cargo pants, and colored shirt. I realize that I probably have little in common with them from a social perspective, but I know that we speak the same language of faith. We pray to the same God and utter the same prayers. Watching the Netflix series Shtisel reminds me that, in spite of our different dress and lifestyles, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Shtisel is the story of a haredi family living in Jerusalem. Its patriarch is Shulem Shtisel, a person of much wisdom and life experience, but who has trouble navigating parenthood when the outside world intrudes on the traditional lifestyle in which he was reared.

Challenges come and go in the Shtisel family, and I will only mention a few of them. The central plot line concerns Shulem Shtisel and Akiva, his son. Akiva likes to draw. Working as a teacher in a haredi school is not what he wants to do for the rest of his life. People who see some of his drawings recognize that he has artistic talent. But what will he do with it?

 Akiva respects his father greatly, but feels confined by a worldview that sees art as childish, not something a grown man would do to make a living. Akiva’s talent, however, is fortuitously recognized by the owner of a Jerusalem gallery, who arranges for Akiva to receive a stipend and to use a studio where he can continue to develop his artistic skill. Moreover, the owner sets up an exhibition of Akiva’s work with plans for a subsequent trip to the United States to meet the patron who is sponsoring his exhibition. This, as expected, creates tension in the father-son relationship.

Akiva’s sister, Gitti, has problems on the home front. Her husband leaves the family for work in a foreign country. While there, he shaves his beard and abandons his Chasidic lifestyle. Within a short time, he regrets his action and returns home. How his wife and family react to his return after abandoning them is a complex emotional question for everyone.

Shulem’s elderly mother finds relaxation by watching television, which is considered an anathema to haredi Jews. How her relatives handle this without hurting their mother is a challenge. They want to please her, but pleasing her means bringing her and parts of the family into an orbit of immorality and foolishness from the family’s perspective.

Many, though not all, of the family issues depicted in Shtisel deal with the conflict between modernity and the traditional haredi way of life. There are no simple answers offered to any of the questions that the show raises. Life turns out to be a mix of joy, sadness, contradiction, and satisfaction in a world that is changing both without and within.

Rabbi Mordechai and Nina Glick, veteran Jewish educators, discuss the lure of this one-of-a-kind television program: “Shtisel leaves us with the feeling that we are all the same. We might look different, but this series definitely instills in us the feeling that the same insecurities and doubts, happy moments and family dynamics exist everywhere. There is no perfect world, and for that reason we always speak of the need to continue striving to make it better.”

Watch this series on Netflix.

Green Book (2018), directed by Peter Farrelly

I have seen many “road movies.” The basic plot concerns two characters who do not like one another, but who make a journey together. In the process of spending lots of time with each other, they learn to like each other and often discover a new insight about life.

Many, many years ago, I was a camp counselor and I recall that, at the beginning of the summer, certain kids in the bunk did not get along with one another; but forced to live with one another, they overcame their initial negativity about a particular camper and wound up being fast friends. This narrative arc is at the core of Green Book, a road movie featuring a white driver who, in 1962, must transport a black concert pianist for an eight-week concert tour in the Deep South.

Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer at the prestigious Copacabana nightclub in New York City, is temporarily out of work when the club is forced to close for renovations. To make money during the two months the club will be closed, he looks for employment. An unusual offer comes his way: to drive Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist, for a concert tour in the Deep South. Shirley wants a driver who can protect him in case they encounter trouble on the trip.

Tony accepts the job and is given The Negro Motorist Green Book, a listing of motels and hotels that will provide safe lodging in a part of the country that is racially segregated.

From the outset, Tony and Don clash. They have different lifestyles, different ways of speaking, and different goals in life. Things begin to change when, forced to stop on the road, they witness blacks working in cotton fields. Tony gazes at them and they gaze at him and his black passenger. It is an incongruous picture that blacks have never seen: a white man in the employ of a black man, and the white man is doing the work of a chauffer while the black man is dressed to the nines in a suit.

As they progress on their tour deeper into the South, they encounter problems. White men threaten Don’s life. Don experiences discrimination in restaurants and hotels, and he is assaulted by white patrons in a segregated bar. Tony rescues him repeatedly and grows to have a great respect for Don as a man of principle and as a brilliant musician. At the same time, Don admires Tony’s loyalty to family and his worldly experience.

Time spent together also gives them an opportunity to express their different views of the world. In one telling exchange, Don heatedly tells Tony that Tony is unwilling to better himself. Tony responds that Don always is making things worse by not being flexible and that Don, indeed, does not fit in anywhere. Don yells at Tony, revealing his sense of isolation in a white man’s world: “if I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, I’m not man enough, then what am I?” In spite of such emotional outbursts, they eventually realize that there is more that unites them than divides them, and the friendship begins to flower.

Jewish tradition has much to say about friendship. King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor; for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up (4:9-10).”

Rabbi Noah Weinberg defines friendship in an innovative way. It means having “the emotional pleasure of identifying virtues in another person,” looking for the good in another human being.

In Green Book, two disparate personalities come to understand the other traveler on a road trip that gives Tony and Don life lessons about friendship. They embody the words of Solomon, for each is there to lift up the other. Moreover, they personify Rabbi Weinberg’s definition of friendship, for each one finds good in the other. Together, they achieve an epiphany of understanding that can serve as a guide for navigating relationships with those who are different from us.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Climb (2017), directed by Ludovic Bernard

When I entered Yeshiva University as an undergraduate, I thought I might join the basketball team since sports has always been an important part of my life. At the time, Yeshiva University had no gym of its own, so the practice was at a distant public high school. This required us to take a long subway ride before an intense practice. I journeyed to one practice and quickly realized that I was not ready to play college ball. I lacked the skills and the drive to make it a priority.

I then turned to wresting and I went to a few practices, which took place late in the evening. I was very tired and took caffeine tablets called No-Doze to stay awake. Here too, I soon realized that participating as a member of the wrestling team was beyond my level of competence.

I then decided to focus completely on my studies where my self-esteem was high and where I could define myself in a singular and satisfying way. The Climb describes a young man’s journey to find self-esteem through attempting a feat far beyond his level of competence, and we follow his arduous and sometimes frightening path to self-knowledge.

Samy Dhiakate has no job and lives in a low-income neighborhood in Paris. He falls in love with Nadia, a childhood friend, but Nadia refuses to date him because of his seemingly aimless life without clear goals and a plan for occupational success. In jest, Nadia tells Samy to climb Mt. Everest to prove his mettle and to convince her that he is capable of completing a task.

Samy takes her request seriously and finds sponsors to support his trek to the Himalayas. But there is a problem. Samy has no mountaineering experience. Samy cons Jeff, the tour leader, into thinking that he has hiked Kilimanjaro, and Jeff accepts him for the trip. Fortunately, Samy’s Sherpa Johnny, his mountain guide, teaches him how to climb in return for which Samy reads Johnny a romance novel that intrigues him.

One of Samy’s sponsors is a local radio station that broadcasts updates on Samy’s progress. Soon his journey attracts a national following in France, all of whom support Samy’s grand, and perhaps foolish, gesture of love.

The trek is filled with tension as Samy has breathing problems the higher he goes on the mountain. Moreover, the terrain is unstable in spots, and Samy is in danger of falling and perhaps dying. Everyone at home is both exhilarated and worried about Samy’s adventure and they want to see him safely home.

For Samy, the trek is his way of earning esteem in the eyes of others and building self-confidence. He tells his Sherpa guide before the final ascent that he has learned that self-esteem is the key to success in life: “What’s important is that before you love someone else, you first have to love yourself.”

Jewish educator Arye Ackerman writes: “What you believe about yourself and your abilities serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your self-image is not an objective reality. It is based on who you think you are and what you are like. It is based on messages you received from your parents, brothers, sisters, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors, and everyone you met in your life.”

If, indeed, your self-image is not an objective reality, then what is important is how we think of ourselves in the present without the baggage of the past. If we think of ourselves as competent and as possessing infinite value, then we can develop healthy self-esteem. Ackerman suggests an innovative way to view self-esteem: “Think of self-esteem as the immune system of consciousness. If you have a healthy immune system, you might become ill, but you are less likely to; if you do become ill, you will likely recover faster, your resilience is greater.”

Samy, through accepting the task of summiting Mt. Everest, becomes the success he always dreamed he could be. The Climb is testimony to what one can achieve when one views himself as a winner.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

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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