Category Archives: Drama

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.

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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.

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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.

The Mustang (2019), directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

I have met a few angry people in the course of my life. One stands out. He was a Civics teacher in my junior high school who played pick-up basketball games with his students. If a student missed a critical shot, he would forcefully slap him on the head. Of course, this was in the 1950s and such behavior was often overlooked by the administration. I played ball with him on occasion; but once I saw him slap the student, I stopped playing with him for fear I might be his next target.

Anger is a dangerous emotion because an angry person is not in control of his emotions and can do some very bad things. The Mustang is about a very angry man who does terrible deeds, but who is given a chance to change his behavior and redeem himself.

The film opens as a herd of wild horses is galloping through the prairie. Suddenly a helicopter’s whirring blades is heard over the quiet landscape. The helicopter is prodding the herd to enter corrals and trucks that are part of a roundup of mustangs by the US government. We are informed that more than 100,000 horses are roaming the countryside, but the government can only manage a small number of them.

In order to determine which horses will find a home, prisoners are given an opportunity to train them for conventional uses. An auction is held at the end of a 5-week training period. The training time serves as therapy for the prisoner who, like the horses, is wild and difficult to tame.

Roman Coleman has been in prison for 12 years after leaving his domestic partner permanently brain damaged in an act of uncontrollable violence. Guilt overwhelms him, and he resists being reintegrated back into society, arguing that “I’m not good with people.” He makes no effort to leave the confines of prison, even though it means his daughter will be left parentless.

While working in a prison maintenance detail, rancher Myles, who runs the prison’s rehabilitation program, assigns Roman to train one of the wild mustangs. Initially, Roman has problems, but slowly he learns to control his own aggressive nature and make progress with his horse, whom he names Marcus.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about the trait of anger: “In general, Maimonides, like Aristotle, believed that emotional intelligence consists in striking a balance between excess and deficiency, too much and too little. Too much fear makes me a coward, too little makes me rash and foolhardy, taking unnecessary risks. The middle way is courage. There are, however, two exceptions, says Maimonides: pride and anger. Even a little pride or anger is wrong.”

Moreover, he quotes Talmudic sources that speak about the terrible consequences of anger: “One who yields to anger is like one who had worshipped idols (Shabbat 105b). The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life, they said (Pesachim 113b). Resh Lakish said, When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b).

Rabbi Sacks continues: “What is dangerous about anger is that it causes us to lose control. While in its grip, we lose the ability to step back and judge the possible consequences of our actions. The result is that in a moment of irascibility we can do or say things we may regret for the rest of our lives.”

Roman Coleman, by learning to be sensitive to the behavior of a wild mustang, learns to be sensitive to other human beings. Anger no longer dominates his personality; and he desires his future relationships to express forgiveness and love. He is repentant and repentance for him is the gateway to personal salvation.

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019), directed by Chiwetel Ejiofer

One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the library with my mother. She would bring me there regularly for story hour. I think it was there that I developed an appetite for reading. We would always take out several books and I eagerly anticipated reading them at home.

Those visits are remembered fondly because they were exciting and enjoyable, often introducing me to places and people far away from my provincial hometown. Books catapulted me to the world of imagination, a world that was nurtured throughout my academic career.

Moreover, my mother was an avid reader herself, and I remember that she bought a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens for the home. Raised in an environment where books were treasured, reading classic literature became an aspiration even at a young age.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a bright boy born in Malawi, Africa, for whom the library is a magical place where his curiosity about science can be explored and satisfied. William has his roots in a family of farmers. The family lives a meager life dependent upon crops that may or may not be harvested. The possibility of famine always exists because of the lack of rain or an abundance of rain, making their economic future always uncertain.

William has a hobby of repairing radios for his friends and spends time in junkyards looking for electrical components. While figuring out how things work, he discovers an idea whereby windmills can create energy to bring up water from underground wells.

But there is a problem. He is asked to leave the school because his parents cannot pay the tuition. Denied access to the school’s library, he privately asks a teacher for a key to the library. Indeed, he needs its resources in order to develop his windmill theory. He surmises that building an electric water pump will enable people to transport underground water to the surface.

After constructing a prototype, William wants to build a larger windmill. This requires cannibalizing moving parts from his father’s bicycle, which essentially will destroy the bicycle. Father and son love one another, but their love is tested when William requests his father to give him the bicycle, his only means of transportation. Both understand that it will not be returned to his father as William has found it.

The library is key to William’s acquisition of knowledge. It gives him access to books, which give him the know-how to build the water pump, thus avoiding famine and giving the gift of life to his family and his neighbors.

The library with its storehouse of books encourages problem-solving and curiosity. Moreover, in the view of educators, the school library is the center of the cultural and social life of the school, providing reading of all kinds, access to information, knowledge building, and opportunities for deep thinking.

Jews throughout the ages have understood the value of book learning and the supreme importance of the beit midrash, the communal study hall and library where books are stored and studied. Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes: “ We are known as the people of the book. We were the first people to mandate literacy for every child and lifelong study for every adult. Jews didn’t get the genius from their genes; they made study a central feature of their faith and passed on their love of learning to their children.”

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a testament to the value of book learning and what it can do to enhance the lives of those who use the acquisition of knowledge to improve society. The film reminds us that in the midst of despair, knowledge and wisdom can help us transcend an unpleasant reality.

 

Captains Courageous (1996), directed by Michael Anderson

Herman, a student at the high school where I was the principal, was difficult to like. He viewed all school rules as unnecessary and constantly challenged my administrative decisions. He did not like the school’s dress code and he was unhappy when I required the basketball team to wear a kippah (head covering) when seated on the bench. Moreover, he arrived late to the school’s daily prayer services and exerted minimal effort in all his classes.

So it was with great surprise that I saw him many years later, wearing a kippah, fully observant, and interacting with me and others who knew him in high school with respect and sensitivity. What happened? In truth, I did not know. What I did know is that he matured in ways I could not have anticipated and the change in him was remarkable and greatly welcomed.

In Captains Courageous, Harvey Cheyne, Jr., an orphaned and extremely wealthy boy, undergoes a metamorphosis; but in his case we understand why it happened. Traveling on an ocean liner from America to England, he accidentally falls off the boat. He almost drowns but is saved by fishermen off the Great Banks of Newfoundland.

The fishing boat will be at sea for three months and cannot change course at the whim of a young boy. Harvey is not used to hard labor nor is he used to not having his way. He is angry when the captain of the boat tells him he cannot return to the port from which he departed. Moreover, the captain tells him that if he does not work like others on the boat, he will not eat.

After initially maintaining his attitude of privilege, Harvey, with the aid of the captain’s son, Dan, gradually learns to be a skillful fisherman and sailor. For the first time in his life, Harvey senses he has a true friend. Experiencing challenges together at sea, their friendship blossoms and both boys see one another as comrades for life. When Harvey finally returns to port, he is a changed person.

The main agent responsible for this change is his new-found friend Dan, who sees the potential for goodness within Harvey. With good will and patience, he watches as Harvey matures into a bright young man who is no longer concerned only with himself, but with significant others as well.

Everybody needs a friend. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes Moses’s need for friendship and support. Sacks observes that when Moses is feeling overwhelmed by what he has to do, God does not tell him to cheer up. Instead He tells him to do something: “Gather for Me seventy of the elders of Israel. I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” In essence, God is advising Moses not to go it alone. Do not be isolated. Make friends.

Sacks writes: “at the moment of Moses’ maximum emotional vulnerability, God Himself speaks to Moses as a friend. This is fundamental to Judaism as a whole. For us God is not (merely) Creator of the universe, Lord of history, Sovereign, Lawgiver and Redeemer, the God of capital-letter nouns. He is also close, tender, loving: He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3). He is a friend and friends matter. They shape our lives.”

The Sages who authored The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, advise us to “acquire for yourself a friend.” It is not good for people to be alone. We all need companionship; we all need people who help us endure the vicissitudes of life.

Harvey Cheyne in Captains Courageous learns that through friendship his own life becomes more meaningful. Learning to think and care about others makes you a better human being.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLMsd1IsNJ0

FULL MOVIE AVAILABLE ONLINE ON YOUTUBE AND NETFLIX.

 

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.

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