Category Archives: Movie review

Life of Pi (2012), directed by Ang Lee

life of piI enjoy and respect the company of people of faith, as long as they are not functioning as missionaries. Let me give you an example. When I was principal of a Jewish high school, I learned that one of our very fine Jewish general studies instructors was living with someone other than his wife. It was a private matter until I discovered he was hiring our students as babysitters for his paramour. At that point, I asked myself: if I were a parent, would I want my child to be exposed to a situation which was contrary to my own value system by a teacher in a school that shared my value system. Flash forward to another teacher in the school, the Christian mother of five children who was an outstanding science teacher. In her spare time, she wrote poetry about the details of God’s creation and always emphasized the renewal of God’s sustaining powers on each day of a person’s life, a message very much consistent with the ethos of our Jewish day school.

I realized then as I do now that faith transcends religious boundaries. One can be a serious person of faith and that particular faith does not have to match yours. This is the thinking than permeates Pi Patel, the central character in The Life of Pi. Pi, an immigrant from India now living in Montreal, Canada, is approached by a local writer who has heard that Pi has an unusual life story that would make a great book, a story that will make him believe in God.

Pi’s religious faith is eclectic, developing over time. He begins life as a Hindu, then finds meaning in Christianity, and connects to Islam as a teenager. He even has an interest in the Jewish Kabbalah but has not yet embraced it as a personal doctrine. His religious faith is very much part of him as he moves through his unconventional childhood and adolescence.

We learn that his father owns a zoo, affording Pi an opportunity to feel comfortable with animals from early boyhood. In particular, he is fascinated with a tiger whose name is Richard Parker due to a clerical error when the animal was acquired. When his father decides to close the zoo and move to Canada where there are more financial opportunities, the family sets sail on a Japanese freighter. They bring the animals with them to sell them in North America. Tragically, they encounter a fierce storm which capsizes the ship and Pi’s family is killed.

Pi, who was on the deck when the storm erupted, is miraculously saved by being thrown into a lifeboat in which there is an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How Pi manages this situation is an arresting survivalist adventure in which Pi’s strength, intelligence, and emotions are tested.

After many days at sea, Pi is rescued and insurance agents visit to get his account of what happened. When his initial story is dismissed as too hard to believe, he offers a second, more plausible account. When at the close of the conversation with the novelist, he asks him which story he believes is true, the writer cites the story with the tiger because it is a better story. Pi cryptically responds: “And so it is with God.”

It is a fitting end to a narrative that defies reality. In a profound sense, Life of Pi is about accepting God in one’s life. The specific religion to which one subscribes is not important. What is relevant is the overall acceptance that things happen with a divine providential hand. Pi wisely tells the writer that “faith is a house with many rooms with doubt on every floor.” Furthermore, “doubt is useful; it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”

When all seems lost, Pi still senses that God is watching over him. Pi observes in retrospect that “even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching and when I was beyond all hope of saving, He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” Speaking as a sincere man of faith, he says in his moment of extremity: “God! I give myself to you. I am your vessel.” This is a Jewish sensibility: to try our best and then to acknowledge that the outcome is in God’s hands.

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The Accountant (2016), directed by Gavin O’Connor

accountant posterMy son-in-law is a special education educator focusing on autistic students. He helps kids and their families cope with a disability that manifests itself in different ways depending upon many idiosyncratic factors such as age and family background. Therapies that work in one situation may not work in another.

Although we don’t see the actual therapies that work in The Accountant, a thriller about an autistic man who cooks the books for a number of criminal elements, we do see him as a child manifesting autistic behaviors. At the beginning of the film, we visit Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire, a place where parents go for help with their autistic children. Christian Wolff, a young boy, is there with his parents to consult with a psychologist.

The father, a military man, sees the problem one way, his mother another. When the therapist discusses the boy’s sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, the father suggests exposing his son to more light and noise since this will better prepare him for a world that will not accommodate his son’s needs. The mother prefers to leave him at the institute where her son can learn how to cope with excessive light and noise and where he can be in calm environment, learn how to make eye contact with people, and make friends.

Flash forward to the present day in which Christian has a small accounting practice and derives his primary income from serving as an accountant for some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. Ray King, director of financial crimes at the Treasury Department, launches an investigation to discover the identity of this man who enables the bad guys to avoid tax liability and to launder large amounts of cash.

It is fascinating to watch Christian behave as a high-functioning autistic. His home is devoid of luxury and there are no decorations. His behavior is strongly ritualized as we see him prepare dinner. He owns only one fork, one knife, and one spoon and every movement reveals an attention to detail. In a storage facility nearby, he has a trailer in which are valuable paintings, cash, multiple passports, and lots of weapons of all types.

Things change for Christian when he accepts a job for a company presumed to be legitimate. Having heard of Christian’s special accounting expertise, the CEO of Living Robotics, a high tech company specializing in advanced prosthetics, hires him to discover a huge financial discrepancy in the business. When he is on the verge of discovering that 61 million is unaccounted for, he is fired. But Christian cannot just abandon his work. His autistic sensibility drives him to finish the job, and the denouement involves lots of twists and turns before we find out the truth.

Although Christian Wolff is a fictional character, he still represents the general profile of a high-functioning autistic individual. His social interaction skills are weak, he has problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, and is at times obsessive about his routines and interests. But he ultimately makes a valuable contribution to the world, albeit in an unconventional way.

Judaism regards the autistic person, or any disabled person, as created by God in His image. The Sages tell us that only one man was created to send a strong message that all men come from the same mold, yet each person is unique as God is unique. Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers observes that we should not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Everyone has something to contribute to the totality of society, even the disabled.

Tammy Ruggles, mother of an autistic child, observes that the Passover Seder is an evening of inclusion. There is a section in it known as “the four sons.” Here four different sons are described, one of which is the son who knows not how to ask. The son is emblematic of the autistic child who needs patience and love from a supportive family in order to function.

The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) shares the vignette of Rav Preida, a great sage, who repeated his lesson to his young student 800 times in order to be sure he understood the material. For that effort, God rewarded him with long life and life in the world to come. The story reminds us we have to be patient and be diligent in our efforts to help the autistic child and any child whose disability prevents them learning and integrating into the larger world.

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Becoming Warren Buffet (2017), directed by Peter W. Kunhardt and Brian Oates

becoming warren buffetAs I have gotten older, I have less and less interest in acquiring things. I remember that as a young man, I had a serious interest in cameras and in audio systems. I no longer possess such interests. I am guided by what the great Jewish Sages have said about how to conduct one’s life; namely, that the only thing we take with us to the after-life is our good deeds; and so I spend my time learning Torah, trying to make the world a better place through my writing both on the Internet and in books, and doing acts of kindness. This mindset made me very receptive to the inspiring documentary about Warren Buffet entitled Becoming Warren Buffet.

Warren Buffett is a billionaire, yet he does not live like one. He resides in a modest residence in Omaha where he was born and drives to work every day to his company Berkshire Hathaway, the fifth largest public company in the world. He is now 86 years old and still retains the energy and curiosity of a much younger man.

His ambition to become a millionaire began when he was a teenager. He sold papers and started to sell stocks not long after. He was very good at calculations and developed two important rules as he accumulated wealth: (1) never lose money and (2) never forget rule number 1.

Buffet was not guided by passing investment fads. He always looked for value. Ultimately, value will be recognized even if a stock at present seems not worth much. For that reason, he began his career searching for undervalued stocks that might one day be more valuable.

Most noteworthy is the fact that throughout his career he conducted himself with a deep sense of morality. If there ever were a conflict between monetary profit and retaining one’s good name, he chose to protect his good name and the integrity of his company. Here are three of his most famous quotes: (1) “We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money.  But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation. We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.” (2) “As a corollary, let me know promptly if there’s any significant bad news.  I can handle bad news but I don’t like to deal with it after it has festered for a while.  A reluctance to face up immediately to bad news is what turned a problem at Salomon from one that could have easily been disposed of into one that almost caused the demise of a firm with 8,000 employees.” (3) “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.’”

As the film describes his boyhood and the powerful influence of his father among many others who shaped his future, we see how Buffet arrives at a point in life when all he wants to do is leave a legacy of good things for the future. He wants to make the world a better place, and allies himself with the foundation of Bill and Melinda Gates to make his largest ever charitable gift of nearly 2.8 billion dollars.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us there are several ways to achieve spiritual greatness, but one way supersedes all others: “Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns–the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty–but the crown of a good name surmounts them all.” The crown of Torah represents Jewish learning as a way to become holy. The crown of priesthood represents getting close to holiness through Temple service and prayer. The crown of sovereignty represents occupying public office, which enables you to improve the plight of your subjects. However, the crowning achievement is maintaining a good name, which represents being able navigate life in a way that brings credit to you and to God. Becoming Warren Buffet is a testament to the wisdom and satisfaction of leading a life that inspires and benefits the world around you.

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The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

incredibles posterMy oldest son, Rabbi Daniel, has recently written a book entitled What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Much of the book emerges from eulogies that he has delivered during the past 25 years as a synagogue rabbi. A consistent theme over the years is the good that people do anonymously, without any recognition or fanfare. Such good deeds done, below the societal radar, testify to the essential goodness of the deceased. Doing good without being recognized for it is at the heart of The Incredibles, an imaginative animated film that deals with superheroes who want to do good without receiving accolades. They just want to be helpful and do the right thing.

The main superheroes in the film are Mr. Incredible, who possesses super strength, Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like flexible rubber, and Frozone, who has the ability to create ice instantly. The opening scenes depict the heroes in a series of events where they are called upon to use their superpowers to catch criminals. They are almost entirely successful except in one case when they are foiled by Buddy, an enthusiastic fan of Mr. Incredible, who wants to be his ward like Batman’s Robin. It is his interruption that prevents Mr. Incredible from capturing the culprit.

After the excitement, the superheroes return to their alter egos and lead normal lives. Mr. Incredible is Robert Parr, Elastigirl is is Helen Parr, Robert’s wife, and Frozone is Lucius Best, Parr’s close friend.

Their lives are turned upside down when an avalanche of lawsuits are filed against the superheroes because of civilian injuries and collateral damage. Eventually, the superheroes conclude that they have to turn in their super suits and live normal lives away from the limelight, and assume their secret identities permanently. The Superhero Relocation Program provides ex-superheroes with new jobs and homes and amnesty for past actions.

The narrative continues 15 years later with Robert working for an insurance company, leading a life focused on his wife and children. However, he still dreams of his superhero years when he saved many people from disaster.

Soon an opportunity arises for him to return to his calling as a superhero. For a hefty sum, he is asked by Mirage, a mysterious woman, to destroy a rogue robot who is wreaking havoc on the residents of a remote island. However, Mr. Incredible soon discovers that his job is a ruse simply to get him to the island where Mirage’s anonymous employer terminates the lives of all the existing superheroes. The race to save himself and other superheroes makes for a tense and exciting denouement, in which Elastigirl, Frozone, and Mr. Incredible’s children play key roles.

A character trait that stands out among all three superheroes is their lack of interest in public acclaim. None of them is seeking recognition of any kind. They only want to help other people. This is a Jewish sensibility. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Jews are instructed to serve God, to do the right thing, without any intention of receiving reward. Moreover, Maimonides, in describing the eight levels of charity, writes that giving anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.

It is significant to note that Mr. Incredible’s adversary is motivated primarily by a strong desire for recognition. He purposely destabilizes the world so that he can arrive on the scene and put it back together again in front of a large audience. He is a villain who thrives on the aphrodisiac of fame. The Incredibles reminds us that doing good things is more enduring than transient fame.

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Breach (2007), directed by Billy Ray

breach posterIn the course of my career, I have occasionally met people who are morally inconsistent. One example comes to mind. He was a synagogue attendee and very charitable towards the institutions I represented, but he gained his wealth by selling drugs, a fact I only learned some time after my friend was incarcerated. Jewish law is very clear: you cannot accomplish a good deed by committing an immoral action. However, in the woof and warp of daily life, many people make ethical compromises to justify an affluent lifestyle and the good deeds that one performs through charitable giving.

Breach, a political thriller based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, describes the banality and paradoxical nature of a man who counts the rosary every day and at the same time betrays the country for which he works.

The story begins as Eric O’Neill, a young FBI employee, is recruited to work undercover as a personal assistant to Robert Hanssen, a 56-year-old veteran FBI agent, who is suspected of giving highly classified information to the Russians, even causing the death of several agents. Their relationship is cool, but over time, Hanssen warms to Eric and sees himself as Eric’s friend and mentor. Moreover, Hanssen is a devout Catholic and encourages Eric to reconnect to the Church. His behavior in the public and private spheres is conflicting and complex, but that is the nature of many people living on the edge of morality and sin.

Although the FBI has enough evidence to send Hanssen to prison, they prefer to catch him in the middle of an act of espionage. In that way, they can use the threat of the death penalty for treason to motivate him to reveal the information he has given to the Russians. They charge Eric with facilitating the sting. A cat and mouse game ensues as Eric tries to lure Hanssen into making a mistake worthy of a major arrest. Even though we know at the outset that Hanssen will be caught and convicted of espionage, and serve life imprisonment for his treason against the state, we still watch with fascination as Eric works to find evidence to imprison him for a long period of time.

A subplot of Breach is Eric’s relationship with his wife, Juliana. Eric is sworn to secrecy, so all Juliana sees is her husband under stress and acting in strange ways. Their marriage is tested when Eric cannot freely communicate with her and share his work with her.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, in a thoughtful article on the importance of husband-wife communication in marriage cites the Chazon Ish, a revered Jewish scholar, who writes: “Treat your wife as a left hand protecting the right one … and not an independent limb.” What this refers to is the Talmudic notion that the body of the husband and wife are joined metaphorically. It is a symbiotic relationship in which one nourishes and supports the other. For that ideal to be fulfilled, spouses must talk to one another and actively listen to each other. In spite of provocations, Eric and Juliana happily do listen to one another and overcome the challenges of the present moment.

Breach is a brainy thriller. There are no car chases, explosions, or fight scenes. It is a well-painted portrait of a complex man willing to sacrifice his country to satisfy his own needs. What specifically those needs were remains unclear. Perhaps money was his key motivation or perhaps he was motivated by his own ego, a desire on his part to show how flawed was the intelligence community of the United States. No matter what his motivation, his story reminds us that even outwardly good people sometimes do very bad things.

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Dark Horse (2015), directed by Louise Osmond

dark horse posterDark Horse is a horse story, but, in my book, a horse story is always a human story. In the case of Dark Horse, it is a documentary about a barmaid, Jan Vokes, in Wales who decides to breed a racehorse. She enlists the aid of other villagers for advice and to raise the money to breed a champion racehorse. The simple folk who help Jan are not interested in monetary rewards, although they would welcome them. What drives them is friendship and the desire to do something extraordinary that will forever be worthy of remembrance.

The group’s first challenge as investors in the racehorse is to find a mare for an affordable price, and then to find a stud horse to impregnate her with the goal of producing an exceptional racehorse. The result is the foal, which they name Dream Alliance. The next task is to find an experienced trainer to train a horse with no experience on the track, a formidable challenge.

The horse wins and loses races; but the townsfolk never give up on him. They identify with him and feel the joy of winning as well as the disappointment of defeat. When Dream Alliance has a physical problem, they do not abandon him. Rather, they seek ways to protect him even if it means he will race no more. When he wins the prestigious Welsh Grand National Race, an elite race on the horse racing calendar, they celebrate his victory, aware that Dream Alliance represents them, ordinary people who, through an extraordinary series of events, have emerged as true winners in life.

One of the joys of the film is its depiction of the camaraderie of the simple Welsh owners. They are in the horserace business because it allows them to dream of a life beyond the mundane. Being the owner of racehorse, from a psychological and sociological perspective, gives them a temporary way out of the humdrum life they lead, allowing them to experience something new and exciting. They don’t mind losing. They just want to enjoy the ride and the company of friends as they bask in the experience of racing horse ownership.

Against the background of this horse story is a narrative about status and class. The lower class owners of Dream Alliance, plagued by a bleak economic reality, encounter a cool reception from the upper crust echelons of “the sport of kings,” horse owners who devote vast financial resources to producing world-class racehorses. Only when Dream Alliance shatters all expectations do they grudgingly acknowledge the presence of these local yokels who are making race history.

In Jewish history there are a plethora of underdog stories in which the weak vanquish the strong. In modern times, the Six-Day War is the paradigm of unlikely heroes changing the course of history. No one expected the Israelis to win a battle against an array of Arab nations bent on destroying Israel, but they did.

Another classic underdog story is the narrative of Chanukah in which the Jews vanquish the superior military force of the Seleucid Greeks. On paper, the Jews had no chance of winning; but the Jews banded together and possessed a clear vision that enabled them to succeed despite the odds.

Winning battles over physically stronger opponents is one of many themes embedded in Dark Horse. But there are more things about which the film makes us think. It reminds us of the value of friendship, of the great things that can be accomplished when average people band together to achieve an uncommon goal, when egos are submerged for the good of all.

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Ricki and the Flash (2015), directed by Jonathan Demme

ricki-and-the-flashThere often is a price paid for celebrity, especially for family members. I read of Hollywood movie stars who have dysfunctional kids getting into all sorts of trouble and trafficking in drugs.

Nothing is simple and we know life is complicated, but the suggestion clearly exists that parents who make their personal fame a priority are often not available for their own children. As a result of their frequent absence, these kids find other role models and succumb to negative influences.

Ricki and the Flash depicts this kind of conflict. We see Ricki as a middle-aged rock star who has made a choice between fame and family. She has chosen fame.

One telling exchange between her ex-husband, Pete, and her reveals her thinking at the time she left the family. He observes: “I thought we were your dream.” She responds: “I can’t have two dreams.”

What brings Ricki into contact with her ex is a phone call from him informing her that their daughter, Julie, is having a nervous breakdown after being abandoned by her husband. Pete feels that at this moment of crisis, she needs her mother’s presence.

Ricki, who has very little money, immediately scrapes up the necessary funds to fly from her California home to Indianapolis to be with Julie. Julie at first is not happy to see her estranged mother, but the relationship soon warms and Julie begins to come out of her depression.

While with Julie at the family home, Ricki also reunites with her two other children, sons Daniel and Josh, both of whom barely have a relationship with their mother. Moreover, Pete’s current wife Maureen is upset at the upheaval in the home caused by Ricki’s arrival. Maureen and Ricki’s first meeting is fraught with tension and ends with Maureen asking Ricki to leave.

Things turn for the better, however, when Maureen writes a letter of apology to Ricki and invites her to Daniel’s upcoming wedding. The wedding becomes the occasion when Ricki and her kids finally understand and appreciate one another in spite of Ricki’s being absent from their lives for so many years. Ricki cannot make up for the years of absence; but her abiding love of her children, especially manifested in times of crisis, enables mother and child to still love one another irrespective of past disappointments.

Jewish law is very clear on parent child relationships. Parents have an obligation to teach their children morality and ethics, to give them an opportunity to learn a vocation, and to teach them how to swim, which means how to swim through life and navigate all the challenges that confront a child growing up.

I remember great Torah teachers of mine who would spend time every week studying with their children in the evening, even though the kids were being taught in school. The parent desired face time with his child, and did not want to delegate all of his child’s education to the school.

Moreover, there is a custom in Jewish homes of blessing the children on the onset of the Sabbath on Friday nights. The parent stands in front of the child, utters the priestly blessing showering Divine protection over his offspring, and at the blessing’s conclusion embraces the child and plants a kiss on his or her face. The ritual is a reminder that there is no substitute for face time with a child.

Although it is sad to observe Ricki’s dysfunctional relationship with her kids, there is some comfort in knowing that parents and children can have a rapprochement even after many years of neglecting their relationship. Ricki and the Flash reminds us that even though family ties never break, they weaken when a parent is absent. There is no substitute for a warm embrace.

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