Category Archives: Drama

Robot and Frank (2012), directed by Jake Schreier

A friend of mine recently wrote a book about his move to Israel and the many challenges he faced as a senior citizen in transitioning from one culture to another. As a senior, he felt a need to be productive, but his body told him that he could no longer function as a young man. However, he could use his memory and imagination to document his recent experiences, which he felt would be useful to seniors contemplating aliyah, emigrating to Israel.

I, too, found myself in a similar position. After teaching in Israel for five years, the Ministry of Education said I could teach no longer since I was well past the official retirement age. I was compelled, therefore, to find another way to earn money. And so I became a film critic, writing reviews for print media and on the Internet that connected Torah and secular culture. My role models were Abraham and Moses, biblical heroes who never retired, and twentieth century Torah luminaries like Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Moshe Feinstein, who never stopped teaching Torah.

Robot and Frank deals with the same issue that my friend and I experienced: how to be relevant as a senior citizen when you are no longer working a traditional job. Frank is a retiree living alone. His son, Hunter, who lives in a different city, tries to take care of him long distance, but it is difficult; so Hunter gives his dad a gift of a robot caretaker as a full-time companion who will serve both an aide and as a friend of sorts.

At first Frank does not want the robot; but over time they become buddies and Frank recognizes its value to him, particularly in regard to giving him an opportunity to use a skill set that he used as a young man. Frank, in fact, was a cat burglar who served prison time. Stealing gave him an emotional high and now he wants to experience this feeling again. He convinces the robot, who has no independent sense of morality, to assist him in his nefarious plans. For the robot, helping Frank regain a sense of self is technically therapeutic.

Things get more complicated as Frank begins to show signs of dementia. Interestingly, the book he enjoys reading at this time of his life is Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, a story of a man out of touch with reality. It is only Quixote’s loyal companion, Sancho Panza, who enables him to function in a world that sees him as an anachronism. So it is that Robot enables Frank to remain meaningfully connected to the modern world.

As his robberies become more bold, the authorities begin to investigate and Frank becomes a suspect because of his past criminal record. Whether he goes to prison or a nursing home facility ultimately depends on the police retrieving information from the robot, who, although only a machine, has become humanlike, so much like a human that Frank is reluctant to wipe out his memory even when Robot reminds him, “I’m not a real person, Frank.”

Robot and Frank is a comedy, but it is also a serious meditation on aging. How will we deal with the inevitable transition from youth to old age, when our bodies will no longer work like they did when we were young? With what will we occupy our time? How will we find a sense of meaning and purpose when society marginalizes the elderly? The film provides no answers, but suggests that it is important to stay busy, to find an outlet for our creativity, and to use our imagination and our memory to inspire us as we get older.

 

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Sun Dogs (2017), directed by Jennifer Morrison

My oldest sister, Carol, had Downs Syndrome. She was always smiling and willing to help around the house. When she spoke, there was not a trace of artifice. She could never lie and whatever she said came from the heart.

From time to time, I would wonder what was Carol’s mission on earth? She obviously was very limited mentally, yet she had a knack of bringing out the best in others. I thought that perhaps, from the aspect of eternity, her mission was to make better anyone who had the good fortune to know her, to make that person more sensitive, more caring about other people, and more grateful for their own mental health. An encounter with Carol left the other person feeling blessed and appreciative about leading a normal life.

Finding one’s mission in life is the subject of Sun Dogs, a dramedy about Ned Chipley, a mentally challenged young man who wants to join the Marines. He sees his mission in life as saving lives, but he lacks the intellectual ability to actually serve in the armed forces. When he visits the Marine recruiting office, Master Sgt. Jenkins is reluctant to tell Ned that he does not qualify for soldiering. Instead, he tells Ned that he is needed on the home front to search for secret terrorists cells in civilian locations. In this way, Ned will function as a secret operative. Ned takes this charge very seriously.

Sgt. Jenkins gives Ned a deck of cards with pictures of the leading terrorists in the world. This becomes Ned’s “to-do” list as he searches out suspicious individuals who look like people depicted in his deck of cards.

Although Ned’s behavior is strange and idiosyncratic, he does listen to people who offer advice. He may be intellectually slow, but he does pay attention to the voice of others and gleans wisdom from them. For example, after he tells a friend that he feels his life’s mission is to save lives, the friend gives him mathematical proof that, over a span of ten years, 3000 people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Ned may have an opportunity to prevent those tragedies. It is a story he does not forget.

Almost all the characters in the film are decent. There are no villains, and most of the people are kind and sensitive to Ned’s disabilities and his mistakes in judgment. They, too, are flawed, but not in a terminal sense. They are on their own journeys to figure out the purpose of their own lives. They are good people who simply want more out of life. A seminal line, repeated at several points in the narrative, is that “everybody needs a purpose.” In Sun Dogs, we witness the decisions people make to define for themselves a worthy mission in life.

Jewish teachings encourage people to consider what is their mission in life. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks astutely observes that there is a difference between what we are good at and what we are called upon to do: “We can be good at many things, but what gives a life direction and meaning is a sense of mission, of something we are called on to do.” He continues: “Each of us is different. Therefore, we each have unique talents and skills to bring to the world. The fact that I am here, in this place, at this time, with these abilities, is not accidental. There is a task to perform, and God is calling us to it. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”

Michael Novak, an American Catholic philosopher, suggested asking yourself three questions to discover your calling: is it unique to you; do you have a talent for it; and does it give you a sense of enjoyment and renewed energy? Moreover, it is important to realize that you may not discover your purpose immediately. You may have to make many mistakes before you find your true mission in life.

Indeed, God gave each of us a task. There is specific work for us to do, kindness to share, loneliness to abate, pain to assuage, and broken spirits to lift. In Sun Dogs, Ned Chipley ultimately discovers his life’s purpose; his story is worth contemplating.

 

Instant Family (2018), directed by Sean Anders

I know a little bit about adoption because of information I have picked up from family and friends. I know nothing about foster parenting, which is why I was interested in seeing Instant Family, a film which depicts both the process of becoming a foster parent and the reality one faces once one becomes a foster parent. I realized that gleaning information from a Hollywood version of foster parenting is not totally reliable; but, nonetheless, it would give me an idea of the complexities that people face in the foster parenting world.

Pete and Ellie Wagner have been married for several years and have no children. They feel a void in their lives and, after some soul-searching, decide to explore foster parenting. Foster parenting may lead to adoption or may just be a temporary way to provide at-risk children with a stable and safe environment.

Two social workers, Karen and Sharon, introduce the Wagners, along with other parent wannabes, to the world of foster parenting, which considers diverse parent models including, among others, a gay couple, an interracial couple, and a very religiously devout couple.

After attending a fair where they can meet kids whom they may want to adopt, Pete and Ellie decide to provide a home for Lizzie, a teenager from a broken home. But there is one catch: Lizzie has two younger siblings, Juan and Lita, so the Wagners would have to foster parent three kids, not one.

In spite of the potential problems about which they are warned by Karen and Sharon, Pete and Ellie decide to give it a try. Very soon, things get hectic and Pete and Ellie begin to rethink their decision. Being part of support group for foster parents helps, but it does not solve the daily problems that occur.

Just when life at home is settling down, the Wagners receive word that the children’s birth mother, Clara, may again assume custody of her kids. Pete and Ellie, who are interested in adopting the kids, now have to come to terms with their mission as foster parents; namely, their goal is to provide a safe and stable environment for the children even if it does not lead to adoption.

Judaism places high value on taking care of the physical and educational wellbeing of children, especially if the kids are not one’s own. It is one of the highest forms of chesed, loving kindness.

Nowadays, in the contemporary therapeutic milieu, the ideal goal is to keep kids in the parental home if at all possible. However, if the child is at risk of severe bodily harm, sexual abuse, or other violent behavior, then foster care is appropriate. The operative word here in Hebrew is rodef, pursuer. Shelley Berger, director of Ohel, a Jewish foster care institution in New York City, states: “a threat to a child is paramount. It’s a case of rodef, a pursuer of life that must be stopped.”

Ohel does its best to place each child in a home that matches the needs of the child. The primary reasons kids go into foster care is because their parents are involved in substance abuse or the parents are teenagers, too young to care for children of their own. Within the Jewish community, the prime reason for foster parenting is parent mental illness, where parents can’t care for their children and wind up neglecting them. Foster care provides a chance for the child to be in a stable, caring environment while parents have an opportunity to get their own lives back on track.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, head of a Jewish outreach organization in Arizona, is the founder of Yatom, a Jewish foster care initiative. Yatom means orphan in Hebrew, and Yatom attempts to bring more families into the foster care orbit, its raison d’etre being to protect children, those most vulnerable in society.

Yanklowitz and his wife have four biological children and have fostered six kids. I asked him about his own experience with foster parenting and this is what he said: “Without a doubt, being a foster parent is a feeling unlike any other. There is a special, intimate, spiritual bond that you create with a child who is not biologically your own, yet, in many ways, is an irrevocable part of the family. My family has been fortunate enough to foster vulnerable children and, though the process has its challenges, we have come away knowing that we’ve made a difference in a child’s life even if they won’t remember us.”

Instant Family is both a serious and hilarious look at foster care in America. While its depiction is cartoonish at times, it does reveal major challenges in the foster parenting world. It is a film worth seeing and worth thinking about.

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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.

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Arctic (2018), directed by Joe Penna

One of the key skills I nurtured as a high school principal was to remain calm in the midst of stress and chaos. I recall the time when, on a class trip to New York, a student got lost at Rockefeller Center for over a half hour or the time students on a subway in New York gave money to a panhandler who responded by shouting that the money given him was not enough and began to threaten them. Thankfully, calm prevailed and both incidents ended happily. The ability to remain calm in the face of adversity is one of the key elements in Arctic, a survival story about Overgard, a cargo pilot whose plane crashes in a desolate Arctic wasteland.

As he waits for rescue, we see he is a problem-solver, not prone to panic. For example, he digs holes in the ice into which he places fishing lines to catch arctic trout. He also runs a distress beacon powered by a hand crank dynamo. Moreover, he clears away snow to create a gigantic SOS sign that can be seen by a plane flying overhead.

When a helicopter appears on the horizon to rescue him, tragically it crashes because of sudden strong winds. The pilot dies; but his passenger, the pilot’s young wife, survives badly injured and unconscious. Overgard carries her to his plane and attempts to provide rudimentary first-aid.

Soon he has to make a choice: stay with the plane and wait for rescue or leave the plane and try to find succor on foot? In the downed helicopter, he finds some food, a propane cooker, some medical equipment, a sled, and a map of the area. He then decides to make the trek to a refuge that appears to be only several days away. He secures the young woman to the sled and begins his journey, motivated by the knowledge that if he does not leave, the woman will surely die without proper medical attention.

Along the way, he faces several challenges. A polar bear terrorizes them, the map is inaccurate and forces him to take a longer route because he cannot surmount a rocky hill while pulling the sled, and he falls into a deep crevasse injuring his leg. Throughout the entire ordeal, he continually reassures the woman that help is only a matter of a day or so away, even though he knows it is not. He also assuages her fear by reiterating that she is not alone. At every step of the journey, Overgard is torn between being cautious and taking a courageous risk, between taking care of himself and altruistically taking care of his injured sled passenger, whom he encourages by telling her she is not alone.

Knowing that someone is with you at a time of crisis is a powerful antidote to despair. I recall an encounter I had during my early years as a synagogue rabbi. While visiting a hospital, I serendipitously met Aaron. He was 89 years old with no family, alone in the hospital. He told me he did not mind dying, but the staff at the hospital does not leave him alone. They insist on doing all they can to keep him alive. He asks me to send a message to mankind: people essentially love one another. He is so impressed with the goodness of other human beings that he breaks down in tears and thanks me for being with him.

Judaism offers several responses to adversity, which are highlighted by Breindy Lazor, a Jewish educator, on the Aish HaTorah website. They include the following: When faced with stark choices, always choose life over death. Help others who are less fortunate than you. Become better, not bitter. Focus on the positive. Take responsibility for your future.

Overgard in Arctic understands these Jewish responses to adversity. In spite of focusing on his own survival, he takes the high ethical road and does his best to save the other as well as himself. His altruism is worthy of emulation.

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Tomb Raider (2018), directed by Roar Uthaug

 A friend of mine who recently lost his mother shared with me an interesting vignette. When he was a guest at someone’s home, he very much enjoyed the soup that the hostess served. He then asked her for the recipe so that he could share it with his mother, forgetting for the moment that she had died a few weeks before.

The incident reminded me that parents and children possess a powerful bond with one another that emotionally transcends the physical. Even when they are no longer in this world, we still feel connected to them. The powerful connection between parent and child is at the center of Tomb Raider, an adventure in which a child embarks on a treacherous search for a long lost parent, whom most considered dead.

When we first meet Lara Croft, she is working as a bike courier in East London while simultaneously taking college classes and often not making it to the lecture. Although she is the heir to her father’s global wealth, she is fiercely independent and wants to make it on her own.

We soon learn that her father, Richard Croft, was an adventurer who disappeared seven yours before, and Lara is not reconciled to the narratives suggesting he is dead. She is not ready to mourn for him or to move on with her life because she secretly senses he is still alive. When confronted with the opportunity to control all of his wealth, she passes on it and decides to undertake a perilous journey to the site of her father’s last known destination, a mythical island off the coast of Japan.

Her father’s disappearance is connected to the legend of an ancient sorceress named Himiko, who is reputed to be a source of evil and destruction. Her burial plot is on the island; and the legend is that anyone who opens her tomb will unleash a torrent of destruction on the world. Hence, Richard Croft traveled to the island to insure that Himiko’s evil would not spread by getting into the wrong hands.

He bids farewell to his daughter reluctantly, only because he feels that his intervention can prevent a world catastrophe. They part from one another; but the ties between father and daughter, which are rooted in blood and a similar disposition to help the unfortunate, run deep and they survive absence from one another.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a well-known Jewish educator, sheds light on the nature of enduring love in the face of physical separation. He observes that the Biblical Jacob refused to be comforted for Joseph even after he heard that a wild beast killed him and after he saw his son’s bloodied cloak. Jacob, indeed, intuited that Joseph was still alive: “A Midrash gives a remarkable explanation. One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living, it says. In other words, Jacob refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Joseph was still alive. That, tragically, is the fate of those who have lost members of their family (the parents of soldiers missing in action, for example) but have as yet no proof that they are dead. They cannot go through the normal stages of mourning because they cannot abandon the possibility that the missing person is still capable of being rescued. Their continuing anguish is a form of loyalty; to give up, to mourn, to be reconciled to loss is a kind of betrayal. In such cases, grief lacks closure. To refuse to be comforted is to refuse to give up hope.”

Tomb Raider reminds us that the relationship between parent and child is unique and can withstand many challenges. Separation may test that connection, but the love between parent and child endures.

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What They Had (2018), directed by Elizabeth Chomko

From 1967 through 1970, I taught English in the evening division of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. It was an introductory course that included both literature and composition. On one evening, I took my mother with me so she could observe me as a teacher for the first time. Since most of my students were adults, my mother’s presence would not be noticed.

It was a special moment that I treasure. She had invested so much in my education that it gave me much pleasure to display my talents as a teacher to her. She never told me to be a teacher, but she always spoke in positive terms about the teaching profession. To her, it was an honest and dependable way to make a living.

I thought of that memory as I watched a scene in What They Had in which a parent finally sees his child as a competent adult, and that moment changes the entire relationship between them.

What They Had is the story of family that has to come to grips with what to do with their mother who is entering the stage of dementia. Ruth has Alzheimer’s, walking out of her home on Christmas Eve in spite of a blizzard outside in the windy city of Chicago. Fortunately, she returns home safely, but the incident is a catalyst for the family to make a decision about whether Ruth should be placed in an assisted-living facility or remain at home under the loving care of her husband.

Nicky, the son who lives in Chicago, is dealing with the day-to- day issues that come up and is functioning as the local caregiver. He is very tired and wants very much to place his mother in an assisted-living facility where they can take care of her properly. To make that decision, he needs his father to sign an authorization form and he needs his sister, Bridget, to approve the arrangement as well. He calls her and asks her to come from Los Angeles to Chicago, and she readily travels. Moreover, he wants Bridget to help him convince their father of the wisdom of moving their mother into a supervised residence.

Burt, their father, has been in love with Ruth for a veritable lifetime and feels he can provide the best care for Ruth, not an impersonal health care facility. Bridget is supportive of Nicky’s plan to move their mother, but she is also dealing with her own family issues that distract her. Her daughter, Emma, is uncommunicative and has stopped attending college classes, and Bridget feels emotionally distant from her husband.

Tempers flare as the family tries to sort out conflicts that have been dormant for many years, but now re-emerge because of the family dilemma that is consuming them. Things are messy, but there are moments of tenderness that surface and help ease moments of crisis. One such interlude occurs when Burt spontaneously visits his son Nicky for the first time at the bar that he owns. Nicky makes a “Manhattan” for him and his dad tells him it one of the best he has ever tasted. This small bit of praise by a father for his son does much to reduce the tension between father and son and alters their relationship.

The scene reminds us of how important it is to promote self-esteem in our children. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, a noted rabbi and psychiatrist, gives some practical advice: “God in His great mercy distributed various talents among people in the world. Everyone has some special talent. Be sure to point out to your child where his talents lie. This will enable his self-esteem to grow. Do not let a day go by without giving some praise to your children. This will help them to grow and to be a source of pride to you.”

One wonders how Nicky and Bridget would have turned out if Burt had consistently given praise to his children instead of constant criticism. Although it is clear that affection exists between parents and children in What They Had, it is evident that for it to grow and be strong, it needs to be planted in a garden of love, nourished daily with words of praise.

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