Category Archives: Crime

Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg

I recently gave a talk on “kosher movies” to seniors in a New Jersey high school. In the Q&A after my presentation, one student asked why I did not discuss any superhero movie. The question reminded me that the cinematic points of reference in my talk were before the superhero craze in moviegoing. I was thinking of the past; the kids were thinking of the future.

Ready Player One is a story of the future, but rooted in the past. By exposing oneself to both past and future, our heroes learn that what links the generations is the human connection, not the artificial game, no matter how immersive it many be. Let me explain.

The story opens in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, in a place called “The Stacks.” It looks like low-income housing, constructed by using trailers stacked on top of one another, but separated by staircases and poles.

Wade Watts has no living parents and resides with his Aunt Alice in this run-down neighborhood. In this dystopian world, Wade, along with many others, escapes his dreary reality by entering the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people can find entertainments of all sorts and where they can be avatars, fictional representatives of themselves capable of extraordinary feats. Wade’s avatar is Parzival, a super cool dude who does not physically resemble Wade, who in real life is a brainy nerd.

This virtual reality of the Oasis world spans time. Once in it, a person can uncover the past as well gain insight into the future. These time shifts are both clever and humorous. There are memorable characters and scenes from cinema classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Moreover, a plethora of other pop culture iconic images and references inhabit the Oasis.

We learn that the Oasis was created by James Halliday and his friend and fellow scientist, Ogden Morrow. At his death, Halliday proclaims the ultimate challenge for his fans. He informs them that he has hidden an Easter egg, a secret, within the game that will be revealed after someone successfully completes three challenges. The reward: half a trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis.

Wade’s main competitor is Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of a nefarious high tech company that wants to sabotage Wade’s efforts to meet Halliday’s challenges. Sorrento wants to commercialize the Oasis and claim the reward money for himself.

After a number of visually immersive chases and battles, Wade and Halliday express their profound belief that the real world is more important than the escapism that the Oasis provides. That is the legacy they want to endure. Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the LA Times perhaps sums up the movie’s message best: “While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world.”

Mem Bernstein, a philanthropist, articulates this perspective in a message she delivered to a group of donors. To her, the legacy of real-world accomplishments is what really matters. She paraphrases the Ethics of the Fathers: “you are not expected to complete the task, but you should insure that there are others who will continue to work on it.” This is essentially what Halliday and Wade desire for the future of the Oasis in Ready Player One. It is okay to enjoy the fantasy world of the Oasis in the short term; but, in the long run, one should always remember to nurture the human connections that underpin it.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Accountant of Auschwitz (2018), directed by Matthew Shoychet

Every summer, the Jewish people observe three weeks of mourning. The three weeks begin from the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz until the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, during which time traditional Jews commemorate and think about the destruction of the First and Second Temples and why those catastrophes occurred. This time period in the yearly Hebrew calendar is devoted to remembering those past calamities and those holy souls whose lives ended prematurely in the cauldrons of anti-Semitic violence. The Accountant of Auschwitz raises the important question of how long we should remember these kinds of events.

Oskar Groning was one of the last living members of the SS to be implicated in Nazi crimes against humanity. He was known as the “Accountant of Auschwitz.” In 2005, he appeared in a BBC documentary about the Holocaust. On that program he spoke matter-of-factly about his duties as a member of the SS who served at Auschwitz.

His responsibilities at the concentration camp included counting and sorting the money taken from prisoners and being in charge of the personal property of arriving prisoners. On a few occasions, he witnessed the procedures of mass killing in the camp and the indiscriminate killing of babies. He admitted to seeing an SS soldier grab a crying baby by the legs and smashing its head against the iron side of a truck until the baby was silent.

Groning was discomforted by such viciousness; but, after a while, such horrific actions became routine to him, especially when his superiors reminded him of the pernicious influence of the Jews who were considered enemies of the German people.

The television program on which he appeared brought him to the attention of the German judiciary, who decided to charge him with the killing of 300,000 Jews. His trial in 2015, when he was 94 years old, made worldwide headlines.

There was much controversy about his trial. One segment of the population felt that he was a witness, and, therefore, complicit in the crimes. Another segment thought it was pointless to target a frail man in the twilight of his life.

Interestingly, Groning decided to go public on television with his story because he was incensed by Holocaust deniers who claimed the Holocaust never happened. Groning was there at Auschwitz and he felt obligated to speak the truth, in spite of incriminating himself.

On July 15, 2015, he was found guilty of being an accessory to the crime of murder of 3000,000 Jews. Ironically, he died before serving one day in prison.

Survivors who testified at the trial felt it was important for the world to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. There should be no statute of limitations when it involves prosecuting someone for murder. One survivor reflected on the historical significance of keeping memories alive: “Without history, there is no memory. Without memory, there is no future if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, writes: “We are what we remember.” He suggests that three basic questions of life relate to memory: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These questions compel us to revisit the past in order to chart a future life path. It involves using our individual and collective memories to shape our personal and group identities. Our collective memory of the Holocaust reminds us of the unpredictability of life and the evil of which men are capable. Accepting that reality prepares us better to deal with life as we travel through it.

As survivors pass away, it becomes even more important to conserve the legacy of memories that they leave us. The Accountant of Auschwitz reminds us that bringing Oskar Groning to trial was important because it means we never totally forget the past.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), directed by Sidney Lumet

 Somewhere I remember a teacher saying the following line: “If you think education is experience, try ignorance.” I thought of this maxim as I watched Dog Day Afternoon, a true story about two men who attempt to rob a small bank in Brooklyn. Neither of them has any criminal record. One of them needs a few thousand dollars to help a friend; the other comes along for the ride. Both have some street smarts but are incredibly ignorant and naïve when it comes to understanding the dire consequences of their unrealistic plan.

Their ignorance is dramatically brought home when they are arranging for a plane to fly them to a foreign country. Sonny wants to fly to Algeria but is clueless about what would await him there. Sal confesses he has never flown on a plane before and wants to fly to Wyoming. To this New Yorker, Wyoming is a foreign country, and it is this kind of ignorance that dooms these would-be robbers from the outset.

Sonny and Sal, two down-and-outers, attempt to rob a bank, but things fall apart very soon after they realize that the cash for the day has already been picked up. Only about $1000 remains in the till. When Sonny tries to burn some traveler’s checks to prevent them from being traced, the business across the street sees the smoke coming from the bank and soon policemen surround the building. In a panic, the robbers decide to go ahead with the robbery and hold the employees hostage. Sonny tells the police detective in charge that he will kill the hostages if anyone tries to enter the bank.

Things get very complicated as TV cameramen and bystanders crowd around the bank, where Sonny has become a minor celebrity in his stand-off with the police. Realizing his situation is deteriorating, he requests a jet and safe passage to a foreign country in return for the lives of the hostages. A limousine arrives taking everyone to Kennedy Airport and it is here where the story ends sadly and violently.

As we watch events unfold, it is clear that Sonny will not kill anyone. Life’s challenges have simply overwhelmed him and his bank robbery is a desperate act. In the midst of the robbery, he refers to his Catholic faith that still sustains him and is solicitous about the condition of his hostages. Before leaving for the airport, he even dictates his last will and testament to a bank employee, revealing the simplicity of his motives. He is not robbing the bank to get money for himself. He wants the money so that he can help another person in distress. When he departs, he does not want to leave a mess.

Jewish tradition reveres education and acquiring knowledge. The commandment to teach one’s children goes back to Biblical times and is set forth in the first paragraph of the credo of the Jewish faith, the Shma. Moreover, the concern for transmitting wisdom throughout subsequent generations is echoed in various books of the Bible including Proverbs, written by the wise King Solomon. Although the verses primarily relate to religious education, they have a ripple effect in secular learning as well.

The great sage Maimonides, who excelled not only in Torah learning but in medicine as well, maintained that wisdom comes not only from holy text, but from careful observation of nature as well. Learning is a supreme value, and not to learn puts one at great disadvantage. Dog Day Afternoon, a gritty, profanity-laced, New York story of two small men in the big city, dramatically reminds us of the perils of ignorance.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Triple Frontier (2019), directed by J.C. Chandor (a Netflix film)

One of the important lessons I transmitted to my children over the years was never to make the acquisition of money the sole reason for one’s actions. Make important decisions in life based on Torah wisdom, not based on acquiring more stuff. Stuff has limited shelf life. Good character does not.

Another related life lesson for my children is based on an aphorism in the Talmud: “Attempting to grab too much will lead to grabbing nothing (Yoma 80a).” The expression is found seven times in the Babylonian Talmud.

The consequences of making money the main motivation behind one’s decision-making and the consequences of grabbing more than you need is depicted in the thriller Triple Frontier, a heist film with a message about the perils of compromising one’s integrity to acquire more riches. Five ex-special forces soldiers are tested both physically and morally when they decide to raid the compound of a Columbian drug lord, Gabriel Martin Lorea, whose cartel is responsible for the destruction of many individuals and families.

The film opens with an assault by a private military outfit on the Lorea cartel. Santiago “Pope” Garcia, an ex-special forces soldier, is employed by the company to help stop the flow of drugs into America. While on his mission, Yovanna, an informant, gives him a tip about Lorea’s whereabouts and the amount of money he has stashed away in his home. In return, she wants Santiago to smuggle her brother, whose life is in danger, out of the country.

Santiago travels to the United States to recruit his old Delta Force friends to join him in a job to steal the money from Lorea. The cash prize will be more than 75 million. His buddies include Tom “Redfly” Davis, a realtor; William “Ironhead” Miller, a motivational speaker; his brother Ben Miller, a mixed martial arts fighter; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales, a former pilot.

Redfly is regarded as the leader since he was the one who successfully led them on missions in the military. Initially, he is only willing to do reconnaissance and is reluctant to participate in the venture. However, once he learns how much potential reward there is, he decides to join.

At the initial meeting of the group, he emphasizes that what they will do is illegal and they have no military support. The job is only for personal gain. Everyone understands the ground rules and Redfly’s plan is put into action.

When scouting Lorea’s compound, they learn that Lorea goes to church every Sunday with his family, leaving his home with only minimal security for about an hour. This is the maximum time for Redfly and his companions to steal the loot and disappear into the surrounding jungle.

Things begin well, but then there are complications when they discover close to 250 million dollars hidden in the walls of the house. Greed overwhelms Redfly’s normally cautious approach, and precious seconds are lost with dire consequences.

Moreover, their troubles mount when their plane, weighted down by the excess money, has trouble flying over the Andes Mountains. Additionally, they are confronted with unforeseen moral dilemmas when they have to decide to continue with their original mission when it involves the killing of innocents.

Alan Morinis, a Jewish ethicist, in his book, Everyday Holiness, discusses the importance of leading a life of simplicity not based on acquiring more money. He writes: “The mindset of acquisition can leave us constantly feeling great pangs of need. Of desire, the Talmud says, Satisfy it and it becomes ravenous; Starve it and it becomes satiated.”

The Talmud tells us in several places to be happy with what one already possesses: Ben Zoma says: ”Who is happy? He who is content with his lot.” Morinis amplifies this: “No matter how many or few your possessions, you will actually feel the reality of your riches only if you have an inner contentment with what you have. To devote ourselves exclusively to the stuff of the world is to be left with nothing.”

The heroes of Triple Frontier are not initially greedy men. They have served their country admirably and are now in civilian life leading ordinary lives. But they have little financial security. The attraction of being in a better situation economically appeals to them and they rationalize their heist of a drug lord’s wealth to be a good thing, a boon for society as well as for them.

It is only in the crucible of real life experience that their lofty goals are compromised. Triple Frontier reminds us not to abandon our moral sensibilities no matter what the temptation.

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.

The Highwaymen (2019), directed by John Lee Hancock

In the 1960s, I saw the classic Bonnie and Clyde. It was part of a group of films that changed my view of cinema. Others films in the group were The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All of those movies took a conventional story and stood it on its head. The Graduate dealt with love that was complicated when the young man was in an adulterous affair with his girlfriend’s mother. Butch Cassidy glorified the bad guys, and Bonnie and Clyde, robbers and murderers, were depicted as amiable friends and champions of the common folk. The Highwaymen seeks to correct that image.

The good guys are the Texas lawmen who brought down Bonnie and Clyde. Before they arrive on the scene, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, thinks that new forensic technology will lead to the capture of the criminals. But when the crime spree intensifies and Bonnie and Clyde are still at large, two former Texas rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, are recruited out of retirement to get the job done. They use basic low-tech detective work to track them down.

Hamer and Gault possess dissimilar temperaments. Hamer simply wants to kill Bonnie and Clyde. His is sick and tired of the public romanticizing their exploits and not recognizing the barbarity of their killing of innocents. Gault is also bothered by their notoriety. When he sees a poem by Bonnie in a local newspaper, he remarks: “Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.”

Gault agrees with Hamer’s assessment of Bonnie and Clyde for the most part, but he would prefer to capture them. He is very much concerned about the collateral damage of ambushing them. Memories of past deadly encounters with criminals in which bystanders were killed still haunt him.

Hamer and Gault are not interested in publicity. They only want justice. They are humble men who take pride in serving the law-abiding public.

Humility is a classic Jewish virtue, especially when it is manifest in Jewish leaders. Moses, the greatest prophet in the Bible, is referred to as the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Moreover, Abraham, the Patriarch, refers to himself as nothing but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).

The great deciders of Jewish law in contemporary times gained acceptance by the masses for their erudition and knowledge and also for their good character. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik, Torah luminaries of the twentieth century, were not scholars who sought the limelight. People simply sought out their wisdom and they did their best to respond.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares an insight about why Jews generally value genuine humility and do not seek out recognition or notoriety: “Appearances deceive. The Hebrew word for garment, begged, comes from the same Hebrew word as to betray – as in the confession Ashamnu bagadnu, We are guilty, we have betrayed.”

The text indicates that we should not posture nor see ourselves as powerful and influential people. Rather we should view ourselves as modest, seeking to complete our mission as human beings on this earth. We should not yearn for recognition for the deeds that we do, especially when the deeds we perform are clearly the right things to do even without recognition.

Bob Diener, founder of Hotels.com and a motivational lecturer, examines Talmudic sources and concludes that a successful life involves promoting the welfare of others, not just gaining accolades and fame for oneself: “Success is not just what we have done personally, but what we have done to pass on Jewish values and wisdom to the next generation. Did you have children and raise them to continue the mission of improving the world around us?”

The Highwaymen reminds us that the good that we do is more important than any recognition we can receive. Frank Hamer and Maney Gault did their job well; any public recognition of their completed task was not the motivator for their good deeds. Their humble work ethic is worth thinking about.

Heat (1995), directed by Michael Mann

We are blessed with many friends. Being in the synagogue rabbinate and serving as a school principal, we have always had many guests at our table and it has always been a joyous experience, for it afforded my family and me the opportunity to make many friends.

However, I have had few close friends. My immediate family has always been my best friend. They were the people with whom I wanted to spend my free time.

But once I made aliyah and redefined myself as a teacher, not the man in charge, our guest list in Israel shrank. Instead of inviting congregants, students, and their families, we now mostly invite friends. At first this was strange to me since I perceived myself as a community figure whose mission it was to connect with congregants, parents, and students and encourage them to move further along the path to religious observance. Now I just had to be a good friend. It was as simple as that.

My wife, Meryl, helped me make this transition when she reminded me that being a friend means more than having a person for dinner. It means developing a relationship, getting to know the other person well and sharing in his joys and sorrows. Friendship means connection in a deep sense.

I thought of this as I watched Heat, a crime thriller in which a career criminal, Neil McCauley, avoids connection. He does not want to foster any lasting relationships because they will make him vulnerable and perhaps get him killed. It is a sad, lonely, and solitary existence, but a necessary one for a criminal whose success thrives when people cannot identify him or know him well. Early in the narrative, he remarks to a confidante: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” McCauley leads a life of disconnectedness because attachments and friendships expose him to risk.

Pitted against McCauley and his team is Police Lieutenant Vincent Hanna who doggedly perseveres in hunting him down. Hanna also leads a solitary life because of his utter devotion to his job. His all-consuming goal is to catch his man, even if it is at the expense of taking time to nurture his relationship with his wife and step-daughter.

In one mesmerizing scene, McCauley and Hanna meet over a cup of coffee in a restaurant and commiserate about their respective and all-consuming occupations. Hanna shares his concern for his depressed stepdaughter and reveals how his third marriage is headed for disaster because of his obsession with work: “My life’s a disaster zone. I got a wife. We’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” McCauley opens up how his relationship with his girlfriend is fraught with peril because at any moment he may have to leave her. The meeting concludes on an ominous note as both men acknowledge they may have to kill one another if the situation requires it.

Jewish tradition values connection with others. The Sages implore us not to separate from the larger community. Joining with the community affirms our connection with others; it stabilizes and nurtures us. In Hebrew the word for friend is chaver and the word for connection is chibur. Both words share the same root, which means staying connected. When man is by himself, it leads to self-centeredness, selfishness, and gratification of self. That is not the Jewish way, for it is through the crucible of relationships that our life is enriched and character is refined.

The obsession-driven characters in Heat remind us of the perils of being a loner. We may get what we want, but it is an empty victory when there is no one with whom we can share our happiness.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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