Category Archives: Drama

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.

Advertisements

All the Money in the World (2017), directed by Ridley Scott

The older I get, the more of my possessions I want to give away. Our Sages tells us that the only thing we take into the next world are our good deeds, so I am not interested in accumulating more stuff at this time in my life. For example, I have begun giving away treasured parts of my book collection to my children, grandchildren, and friends because I know that, after 120 years, I will not be able to designate who will receive which books.

All the Money in the World deals with John Paul Getty, one of the wealthiest men in the world, who is fixated on possessing as much money as possible believing that wealth will give him financial security and happiness. In a revealing conversation with Fletcher Chace, his top advisor, Fletcher asks, “What would it take to make you feel secure?” Getty Sr. answers: “More.” His response evokes King Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes: “He that loveth money shall not be satisfied with money (5:9).”

In 1973, Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, is kidnapped in Rome. The kidnappers demand a ransom of 17 million dollars. The boy’s parents are divorced because of Getty Jr.’s drug addiction. His wife Gail declined any alimony in exchange for full custody of her children. In truth, she has no money to pay the ransom.

Gail travels to her son’s grandfather to ask him to pay the ransom, but he refuses citing the fact that, if he pays, it will encourage other very bad people to kidnap more family members. In the interim, Getty Sr. asks his trusted advisor and former CIA operative, Fletcher Chace, to see what he can do to secure the boy’s release and reduce the ransom. Months go by and the ransom amount is reduced to four million, but the boy is still captive.

Getty finally decides to pay the ransom, but he limits his payment to only one million since that is the maximum he can give and have the sum considered tax-deductible. Chace and Getty Sr. argue about strategy, but eventually come to a meeting of the minds, all while the boy’s fate is uncertain.

Although he is mesmerized by his own riches, his intellect reminds him of the downside of wealth: “When a man gets wealthy, he has to deal with the problems of freedom. All the choices he could possibly want. An abyss opens up. Well, I watched that abyss. I watched it ruin men, marriages, but most of all, it ruins the children.” Sadly, he does not translate this wisdom into the way he parents his own offspring.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, describes the truly contented man: “Who is rich? He who is content with what he has.” The Sages tell us that all wealth comes from God. We are only stewards for what the Divine grants us.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, author of The Handbook of Jewish Thought, writes: “a minimum of one-tenth of one’s income belongs to God, and should be used for charity or other religious purposes. This is a measure handed down from the Patriarchs, as Jacob himself said to God, Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth to You (Genesis 28:22). Similarly, the Talmud learns that we must give one-tenth of our income to charity from the verse, Honor God with your wealth, and with the first fruits of all your produce” (Proverbs 3:9).

John Paul Getty, Sr. is a self-made man who became the wealthiest man in the world during his lifetime. The kidnapping of his grandson and his response created a media frenzy, which highlighted the perils of wealth. In hindsight, we see that an abundance of material possessions can desensitize us to the things that really matter, such as family and friendships. All the Money in the World reminds us that money cannot buy happiness.

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 Resistance Banker (2018), directed by Joram Lursen

I recently had a discussion with a family member about how I am conducting my life now that I am in my mid-70s. He asked if I have made any changes in my daily routine. I told him I certainly have.

Health challenges over the past several years have made me very sensitive to the passage of time. I am driven to make sure that I use my time wisely in the service of God. Instead of learning one page of Talmud a day, I now study two. I am very careful about my interactions with other people, greeting everyone I meet with a pleasant countenance and doing my best not to get angry at anyone.

Moreover, I am very meticulous about meeting my film review writing goals on time. Inwardly, I feel the reviews are Mussar lessons, ethical instruction, not just film reviews. They are a legacy of Torah sensibilities, not an evaluation of mere entertainments.

I have a sense that any day could be my last and I want every day to count, for time cannot be retrieved.

This focus on making the most of every day is on display in The Resistance Banker, the true story of banker Walraven (Wally) van Hall, who uses every moment to work on behalf of Dutch citizens persecuted by the Nazi regime. In his eyes, his job is never completed. He feels he can always do more. What is his mission? To bankroll the Dutch resistance to the Nazi regime during World War II.

Wally did not start off as a banker. He first worked at a New York Wall Street stock brokerage, a job secured by his brother Gijs van Hall, who later became the mayor of Amsterdam. When Wally came back to the Netherlands, he worked as a banker and stockbroker. This experience proved invaluable after the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

In the beginning, Wally’s efforts were directed to helping merchant-sailors and their families manage when many husbands and breadwinners were stranded abroad. Wally secured guarantees from the Dutch government-in-exile in London that enabled him to get funds to the Dutch sailors.

When the Germans started to enact anti-Jewish measures, Wally’s abhorrence of the Germans intensified, and he began fundraising for a whole array of resistance groups. So pervasive were his efforts that he became known as the banker of the resistance.

Wally raised money for the resistance through circuitous means. He and his brother arranged for the forgery of valueless bank bonds and exchanged them for valuable bank bonds. These bonds were used for the collection of authentic paper money. They also borrowed money from wealthy Dutch people with the understanding that the lenders would get their money back at the end of the war.

Wally was obsessive in his work, knowing that every day people counted on him financially for survival. He also knew that on any day he might be caught and killed by the Germans, but he could not rest as long as the job was not finished. It is said that in today’s currency, the money he collected would be over a half billion Euros.

Wally van Hall intuitively understood two statements of the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. The first is that when it comes to good deeds, one should always begin the task even if the outcome is in doubt. Outcomes are in God’s hands, not ours.

Secondly, one should also consider the possibility that every day might be one’s last day, and, therefore, one should make every day a masterpiece of righteous living. Knowing that time is short should be a motivator for performing good deeds now.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

Divergent (2014), directed by Neil Burger

I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me how difficult it was to be the youngest brother in a family of five boys. All his siblings were clear-eyed about the future and had a career path in mind when they were teenagers. One wanted to be doctor, another a lawyer, another a college professor of English Literature, and another a high tech entrepreneur. Amazingly, four of the brothers achieved success in their chosen fields. My friend, the fifth and youngest, however, although very talented in many areas, had trouble deciding on a major in college. His indecision remained with him for many years.

Although he graduated college with a history degree, he was unable to make any career commitment until he reached 30 years of age. For most of his formative years, he felt that he did not fit in. He was divergent from the rest of his family.

Trying to fit in was important to me as a youngster as well, and this is the dilemma faced by the teenagers in Divergent, a science-fiction story that takes place in a future dystopia where kids, at age 16, have to choose which of five groups they want to join. The five factions are described by Beatrice Prior, the heroine of Divergent: “The smart ones, the ones who value knowledge and logic, are in Erudite. Amity farm the land. They’re all about kindness and harmony, always happy. Candor value honesty and order. And then there’s Dauntless. They’re our protectors, our soldiers, our police. Brave, fearless and free. My faction is Abnegation. We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others. Because we’re public servants, we’re trusted to run the government. It all works. Everyone knows where they belong. Except for me.”

Joining a faction means committing oneself to that group for the rest of one’s life, assuming their social identity, and meeting society’s expectations for that cohort.

In order to determine what faction you are suited for, teenagers are required to take an aptitude test to see where one’s proclivities lie. Beatrice’s test results are inconclusive, suggesting she may be a good fit for Abnegation, or Erudite, or Dauntless. In brief, she does not fit only one category. She is divergent.

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts for Dauntless and goes through an intensive training program in combat and control of fear, all the while doubting her choice. In the course of her training, she meets Four, another secret divergent, who is part of the Dauntless leadership. In the course of their training, they discover that one faction is planning to get rid of another. Will Beatrice and Four be able to stop them from attaining their nefarious goal?

Divergent is essentially about having the courage not to conform to the expectation of others, but rather being true to oneself. Jewish history is bound up with the story of non-conformists. Abraham is the most notable example. God tells him to leave his land, his birthplace, and journey to the land that God will show him. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power—for that is what idols really were and are. To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods.” Abraham was called ha-ivri, which in Hebrew means the side, because he was philosophically on one side and the entire world was on the other.

There is a folk saying that “dead fish go with the flow, but live fish swim against the current.” As it was with Abraham, so it is with Beatrice and Four, who challenge the status quo by asserting their individuality in the midst of powers that desire conformity. Their fight represents an actualization of the famous lines of poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled on/ And that has made all the difference.”

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper

In my early years in the rabbinate, fresh out of rabbinical school, I tended to view Reform and Conservative Jews as the enemy of my pristine Orthodox ideology. When I saw a newspaper article that expressed what I felt to be erroneous ideology, I wrote to the letter’s author criticizing his remarks and informing him of my correct view of things. My behavior in retrospect was childish, and fortunately was corrected after a few months of immature and insensitive venting.

What changed? I asked myself: did my letters accomplish anything? The answer: Nothing, except create more ill will between people. The ability to let go of anger and begin a relationship anew is at the core of Hostiles, a western throwback to the John Wayne classic, The Searchers.

The story takes place in 1892. After years of fighting the Apache, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians, the United States embarks upon a strategy of relocating the Indians to their ancestral home in Montana. Joseph Blocker, a war hero and US Calvary Captain, is ordered to escort Yellow Hawk, an Indian who has taken the lives of many white men and who is now suffering from cancer, to Montana. This is no easy task because Blocker despises Yellow Hawk. It is only when Colonel Biggs, Blocker’s superior, threatens him with the possible loss of his pension that Blocker agrees to escort Yellow Hawk and his family.

Along the way, they encounter Rosalie Quaid, who has just witnessed the death of her husband and her three children at the hands of savage Indians. Without a protector, Blocker decides to take her with his group. In the evening, the Indian women in the entourage, in a gesture of compassion for her loss, offer clean garments to her since Rosalie’s clothes are stained with the blood of her children.

Yellow Hawk warns Blocker that the Comanches will attack them, white and Indian alike, and it would be wise to unchain him and his son so they can help fight them. His warning is at first unheeded and when the Comanches attack later that day, several soldiers are killed. When Yellow Hawk and his family fight off some of the attackers, Blocker’s view of Yellow Hawk begins to change. He unchains Yellow Hawk and his son so they can help ward off future attacks.

As they continue on their journey, more raids come; and with each raid the white soldiers and their Indian charges rely more and more upon one another for safety. Slowly their ingrained hate for one another lessens, and they begin to understand that past hatred will get them nowhere.

After arriving in Montana, they are confronted by white men who do not want Indians on their land. That confrontation makes Blocker and Yellow Hawk realize their common humanity.

Jewish tradition encourages us to abandon our propensity to hate those who do us wrong. When people do us wrong, it is hurtful, but we do not always have to respond in kind. We should not allow hatred to determine our future actions.

Aaron, the brother of Moses is the archetypal model of good interpersonal behavior. In The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, Aaron is described as a lover and pursuer of peace. When he saw people responding to one another with ill will, he would be proactive and speak to each of the feuding parties, telling each that the other party was remorseful over the breakdown in communication with the other. His intervention in the service of peace was successful. The people loved his peacemaking efforts, and the Bible records that the children of Israel mourned more for Aaron than they did for Moses.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk ultimately understand that hate only breeds more hate. They arrive at this epiphany late in their lives, but this wisdom remains with them for the rest of their lives.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: