Category Archives: Movie review

Creed (2015), directed by Ryan Coogler

I have a rabbi friend who shared with me his pain and disappointment over his son not being on the same page with him in matters of faith. He clearly loves his son no matter how far he has drifted away from traditional family values, but he longs for a time when spiritual reconciliation can take place, when father and son can reunite in a shared spirit and common direction of faith.

The Bible records instances where sons and fathers are very different from one another. For example, we do not hear much about the sons of Moses. We know their names but are unaware of their accomplishments. When Moses seeks to pass on the mantle of his leadership to the next generation, he chooses Joshua, his student, not his sons. In truth, it is not easy to be the son of a famous father, and it is not surprising that the sons of great men often have trouble establishing their own, independent identity. This scenario is played out in Creed, a further sequel in the Rocky film odyssey.

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the former boxing champion who fought a classic bout with Rocky Balboa many years before. Donnie wants to be a prizefighter, but he wants to succeed on his own, not because he is the son of a great fighter. Moving to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, he asks Rocky to train him. Rocky at first refuses, but he relents and even invites Donnie to live with him as they begin their training regimen.

Donnie has early fighting success, and it is soon discovered that he is the son of Apollo Creed. The name brings notoriety and gives him an opportunity to fight against the current champ Ricky Conlon, who is on the verge of retirement and looking for one last major financial windfall. While Donnie appreciates the opportunity that his name gives him, he has self-doubts and questions whether he will be worthy of his father’s legacy. Rocky gives him the courage and confidence he needs at his hour of reckoning.

Jewish tradition reminds us that not only can there be material legacies, but spiritual and intellectual ones as well. These legacies are not automatic. The Ethics of the Fathers tell us that even when it comes to Torah study, the fact that one’s father is an intellectual giant does not mean his son will also be one. The Rabbis state: “Prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance for you.” You have to earn your own credentials and not rely on the credentials of others, even parents.

Indeed, being the child of prominent parents is not a simple matter. Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations that frustrate children who want to do well. Unfortunately, they discover that whatever they do is never enough because it does not measure up to the achievements of the parent. Moreover, at times prominent parents are so busy with their own lives that they have little quality time to spend with their children. The bottom line: for children of famous parents to achieve, they must exert much toil and effort. There is no shortcut.

Creed reminds us that being born into a family of greats can be a good thing, but it is no guarantee of future success. It takes concentrated effort and fortitude to persevere in the face of obstacles to ultimately accomplish one’s goals. Sometimes success will come when you have a mentor, a Rocky, standing beside you who will be there to help you navigate the many challenges you will face as you try to make your own mark in the world.

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The Winning Season (2009), directed by James C. Strouse

Many years ago, I saw a very funny sports movie called The Bad News Bears starring Walter Matthau as the coach of a boys’ baseball team composed of untalented misfits. The narrative arc in The Winning Season is similar. The team is mediocre. The coach is a loser, and somehow he becomes a better person by working with the youngsters who bring out the best in him, all of this leading to a winning season. The concept is stale, but the treatment of this conventional story is warm and satisfying if you can tolerate the abundant profanity in the film that seems to be geared for a teen audience.

The Winning Season takes place in a small Indiana town where basketball is the main focus of the community. The girls’ team encounters challenging times when it has to find a new coach. The school principal desperately recruits his old friend Bill, a former athlete and high school coach, to coach the team.

But there are problems. Bill has a drinking problem. He also lacks people skills and offends almost everyone he meets. Moreover, he is not motivated to coach girls in spite of the fact that he presently has a lowly job bussing tables at a local restaurant. Reluctantly, Bill agrees to coach, but he is dismayed when he sees that only six girls attend practice and one has her foot in a cast.

Their first game reveals all their weaknesses. Bill accepts that reality, and proceeds to mentor them. They respond to his unconventional style and slowly begin to improve. They begin winning and advance to the sectional finals, where the girls are tested emotionally as well as physically. When one girls misses an important shot, Bill is there to remind her that the shot she missed will not be her last shot and that she still is a worthy person and athlete: “l’ve been where you are, you know? And this isn’t your last shot. Come on, l want you to get up now. Everybody come here. You played great. l want you to go in there and shake their hands, okay? Keep your chin up. There’s gonna be a lot of adversity, you know? lt’s only gonna make you stronger. You guys played a great game. Each and every one of you. l want you to feel good.”

Bill’s encouraging words reflect a Jewish approach to dealing with adversity. Rabbi Jonathan Feldman shares a story about a mother helping her daughter cope with hard times. The mother takes her daughter to the kitchen where she fills three pots with water and places them on a high flame. When the water is boiling, she puts carrots in one, eggs in another, and coffee beans in the last pot. After twenty minutes, she turns off the burners, and removes the carrots, the egg, and the coffee bean from their respective pots. She then asks the daughter what she sees. The daughter says she sees carrots, eggs, and coffee.

Her mother then explains: “Each of these objects faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld asks us to think about this: “Which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after some trial, have I become hardened and stiff?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.”

The Winning Season reminds us that adversity can bring out the best in us.

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), directed by Dan Gilroy

Unbeknownst to me, a dear friend was involved in selling drugs. He was donating some of his profits to the school of which I was principal, trying to assuage his conscience for his criminal behavior. My friend was caught and spent several years in prison. For him, incarceration was a wake-up call; and when I visited him, I saw that he resolved not to let his moral lapse define him for the rest of his life. He was contrite, and realized that he could redeem himself by leading an ethical life and performing good deeds.

For Roman J. Israel, rectifying a wrong is more complicated. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a dramatic thriller about an attorney who makes a decision that undercuts everything he stands for and creates an excruciating dilemma for himself.

Attorney Roman J. Israel is an eccentric person. He lives alone, listens to classic jazz through antiquated headphones, and eats lots of peanut butter sandwiches. When he speaks, he often says things that are inappropriate and people tend to shun him. However, he has an amazing memory and inquiring intellect, which enables him to do extraordinary research and recall legal cases of many years past. He also possesses a strong moral sense of what a just society should look like. This sensibility animates his intense and comprehensive legal work for his employer, William Jackson, the firm’s owner and a well-respected law professor.

Roman’s life suddenly changes when William Jackson suffers a sudden heart attack. Now Roman has to move from the private confines of the law office to the public courtroom to plead on behalf of his clients.

He is instructed to simply ask for continuances, but Roman, motivated by a desire for justice, lobbies for lower fines and argues for his clients to be tried for lesser offences. The judge, irritated by Roman’s challenging and combative remarks, finds him in contempt of court. All this leads to a dramatic confrontation with Jackson’s daughter, who apprises him of the precarious financial state of the firm and informs him that the remaining cases and subsequent closing of the firm will be handled by George Pierce, another attorney. The end result: Roman is out of a job.

To eke out a living, Roman tries to revive his practice in the civil rights arena, but, because of his age, he is perceived as being out of touch with the contemporary civil rights movement. George Pierce comes to the rescue and hires Roman, recognizing his past experience in the litigation of social justice cases. Roman, not used to working in an office where money flows freely, has trouble finding his niche, but he does. Problems surface, however, when, in a moment of ethical weakness, he loses his moral compass and makes a decision that has catastrophic implications for his career.

Roman intellectually and emotionally comes to terms with his ethical lapse and focuses on the positive: “Each of us is better than the worst thing we ever did.” In a moment of self-revelation, he says: “We are formed of frailty and error. Let us pardon reciprocally each other’s follies. That is the first law of nature.” He acknowledges his crime and observes: “The only thing left is forgiveness and I grant that to myself. An act doesn’t make the person guilty unless the mind is guilty as well.”

The film raises an important question: when a person commits a sin, can he be forgiven? Jewish tradition answers with a resounding yes. Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg offers a nuanced perspective on this matter: “I am very resistant to the idea of any sin being beyond forgiveness. I would like to think that given God’s loving nature and compassion for all of God’s creatures (Psalms 145:9), no bad action is beyond being overcome by God’s infinite goodness. However, in sins between one human being and another, the Talmud says that God won’t forgive unless/until the sinner regrets and repents, returns what was stolen or damaged and wins forgiveness from the victim. For murder, there can be no forgiveness, because the victim cannot be made whole or asked for forgiveness.”

Roman J. Israel Esq. deals with the complexities and consequences of making decisions in morally ambiguous situations. The outcome of the story reminds us that it is never too late to do the right thing.

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1917 (2019), directed by Sam Mendes

There was a time when I thought that if I spoke to someone in order to correct his behavior, he would see the wisdom of my remarks and improve his behavior. As I have gotten older, I realize that my speaking to someone rarely will effect change unless that person is ready to hear what I have to say.

My conversation may relieve me emotionally, but it does not move the other person to act differently, unless, of course, it is a matter of life and death. This is the dilemma that is at the core of 1917, a war film depicting the efforts of two British soldiers during World War I to deliver a message deep inside German territory to prevent 1600 Allied soldiers from walking into a deadly trap.

The narrative begins when General Erinmore briefs two young British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, about aerial surveillance revealing that the Germans are not in retreat as some generals think. Rather, the Germans are setting a trap for the British soldiers.

A message needs to be sent to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to call off their planned attack scheduled for the next day. It is a perilous mission for Schofield and Blake. In addition to the possibility of encountering enemy soldiers, there are trip wires and explosions along the way that jeopardize the soldiers’ mission.

An officer whom they meet in their journey gives them a piece of advice; namely, that when they transmit the message, they need to make sure there are witnesses because sometimes people just want to fight even in the face of conflicting evidence that one should retreat. This advice motivates the soldiers, entrusted with the task of telling a battle hungry commander to retreat, to make sure that the officer accepts their message and saves the lives of the soldiers. This will require the commander of the 2nd Battalion to abandon his own view and adopt his superior’s, which, as a good soldier, he will do in spite of his own objections.

The question is: will the soldiers deliver the message in time? Their tension-filled trek across a dangerous landscape forms the dramatic crux of the film.

The Torah informs us that we have to do whatever we can to prevent someone from making a clearly bad decision: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor “ (Leviticus 19:16). If a person knows that someone is in danger, he must try to prevent harm to that person. This especially applies when the failure to change someone’s mind will lead to certain loss of life. Schofield and Blake understand that the successful completion of their mission will save lives, and that is the catalyst for their supreme efforts to transmit the message.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons observes that the most effective way to convince someone to change his perceptions is through presenting him with obvious proof, not by rebuking him or arguing with him, or cleverly persuading him. Rabbi Simmons writes: “Nobody likes to be told what to do. Therefore, it is the act of self-realization that eliminates the defensive reaction… and produces effective change. For example, Joseph got the brothers to realize the internal contradiction of their own argument. He did not rebuke them. No doubt this is what King Solomon meant when he said, Give rebuke to a wise personand he’ll love you (Proverbs 9:8).” This, in essence, is what happens when the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion sees incontrovertible evidence that his troops are in mortal danger.

Indeed, we are all part of the family of man. If we have the ability to save others from harm, or to influence them positively, then we should try our best to do so. The Sages of old tell us that if a person has the ability to help others and does not help, then he is in part responsible for the outcome. We share responsibility for one another. The lesson is central to the emotions and thoughts of soldiers Schofield and Blake, who comprehend that the success of their mission will save the lives of others.

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The Irishman (2019), directed by Martin Scorsese

As I get older, I occasionally look back on my life and realize that from time to time I did not always make the best decisions in my rabbinic and educational careers. In the early years, I often consulted one particular mentor, Rabbi Shmuel Scheinberg, of sainted memory, and he always offered me sound advice grounded in rich Torah perspectives. Of course, there were other rabbis whom I consulted on various issues in the course of life, but Rabbi Scheinberg was the “go-to” sage whose advice I sought.

After he passed away and I had many years of work experience, I tended to rely on my own evaluations to make professional judgments. In a few instances, I realize I could have made wiser decisions if I had consulted others, but it is what it is and I cannot dwell on matters I cannot change.

That statement ”it is what it is” is a mantra in The Irishman, a riveting and brutal portrayal of mob violence that culminates in the murder of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa. The phrase reminded me of the classic rejoinder in The Godfather, in which Mafia boss Vito Corleone tells people, “I will make you an offer you can’t refuse.” The comment essentially means that if you do not do what I say, I will hurt you and maybe even kill you.

The film opens with Frank Sheeran, a former Mafia hitman, in a nursing home reflecting on his life of crime. A veteran of World War II, serving multiple tours of duty, Frank learned how to kill and not to feel guilty about it. He becomes the hitman of choice for the Bufalino crime family, who see him providing an answer to many of their territorial enemies.

In particular, Frank forms a strong friendship with Russell Bufalino, the head of the Northeastern Philadelphia crime family, who uses Frank to solve many his problems with brute force. In the course of their relationship, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union providing drivers for trucks that transport goods all across America. Hoffa has financial connections to Bufalino and is hostile to Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, the rising star of the Teamsters Union. Russell assigns Frank to be Jimmy’s bodyguard in these tumultuous times.

Hoffa’s situation within the Teamsters deteriorates when Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, becomes Attorney General and makes Hoffa’s arrest a focus of his investigations. Interestingly, a cousin of mine was a Teamsters driver and had only positive things to say about Hoffa’s union leadership. However, his view was not the prevailing public opinion. Because of pressures Hoffa faces both from within and from outside the Union, he becomes vulnerable.

Russell now views Hoffa’s tirades against those who malign him as a liability for the Bufalino family. He confides in Frank, telling him “it is what it is.” This means that Russell has reached a point of no return with Hoffa and wants him dead.

In the nursing home where Frank currently resides, he reflects on his past, acknowledging that he was not much of a father. In fact, his daughter Peggy rejects all contact with him. In his loneliness, he begins seeing a priest who regularly visits the nursing home as Frank tries to make some sense out of his chaotic and immoral life. But, there is no equanimity for him. It is what it is and Frank simply has to come to terms with this reality and the confrontation with his own mortality.

A Chabad rabbi once pointed out how a person needs to confront things he cannot easily change and uses the recovering addict’s famous Twelve-Step Program as an analogy. This program begins with the assumption that you have to accept life on its own terms. What is in past cannot be changed, but you can influence the future in some way. As King David says in Psalm 118, “This is the day that God has made. Celebrate and rejoice in it.” In essence, you have one day before you. How will you approach it? With a repetition of the destructive behavior of the past, or with new life-affirming behaviors?

To achieve recovery from addiction, or from any negative experience, one has to accept that you are not in control of outcomes in your life. Indeed, Twelve-Step meetings often begin with the Serenity Prayer, which expresses the best way to approach life’s challenges: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Once a person understands this, then he can slowly come to trust in God. Frank Sheeran, facing his own mortality, begins to think of God. He has no illusions about what that confrontation with the Almighty might be, but he feels that connection with God is the only way he can leave this world with some measure of peace. He is not yet a believer, but the Irishman has opened an emotional door to the divine sanctuary.

The Two Popes (2019), directed by Fernando Meirelles

I began my serious study of Torah when I entered Yeshiva University in 1960. I had no intellectual baggage and so was willing to listen to all points of view that I heard in the classrooms of the university, perspectives that represented a variety of different approaches towards leading the religious life.

The two voices that were most influential were my History professor and my Talmud instructor. Interestingly, both were rabbis and both possessed PhDs from Harvard, one in History and one in English. I had never before met rabbis with those kinds of academic credentials. Simply being in their classrooms was inspirational.

The History professor over the years espoused an increasingly liberal approach to Jewish law and its application in the twentieth century; the other presented a more conservative approach, more traditional in its commitment to Jewish law but still valuing what the secular world had to offer.

The above narrative greatly simplifies a complex and ongoing discussion in contemporary religious circles, but it touches on the main dilemma in The Two Popes, a film depicting the intellectual conflict between two serious, but divergent, religious thinkers who have vast influence on their disciples.

The film focuses on one of the most significant transitions of power in the twentieth century, namely the changing of leadership of the Papacy in 2013 from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis, formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

The film opens as Cardinal Bergoglio requests permission from Pope Benedict to retire in 2012. The Cardinal is disturbed by the current direction of the Church and wants to spend his senior years away from the limelight and Church controversy.

Pope Benedict, troubled by instances of scandal within the Church and by personal self-doubt, summons Bergoglio to Rome. Bergoglio, who is the Pope’s polar ideological critic, is unsure why he was summoned. In a series of personal meetings, the inner thoughts and spiritual struggles of both men are revealed. They both have past secrets that continue to haunt them to the present day, yet both are men of great spiritual accomplishment in the public arena. Discussions come to a head when Benedict reveals to Bergoglio that he plans to resign the papacy and that he wants Bergoglio to stay within the Church hierarchy in order for him to be considered as his successor.

Their conversations touch on major theological issues such as morality, tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, the role of God in the world, the mission of the contemporary Church, and the degree of change necessary to continue to be relevant in the modern world to millions of people who believe in the sanctity and integrity of the Church.

Bergoglio’s point of view about the low esteem in which the Church is presently held is caustic and painful for Benedict to hear: “We have spent these last years disciplining anyone who disagrees with our line on divorce, on birth control, on being gay. While our planet was being destroyed, while inequality grew like a cancer, we worried whether it was alright to speak the Mass in Latin, whether girls should be allowed to be altar servers. We built walls around us, and all the time, all the time, the real danger was inside. Inside with us.”

Benedict’s counter position is expressed in his comment about the value of building walls to preserve the Church’s purity: “You talk about walls as if they are bad things. A house is built of walls. Strong walls.” Bergoglio responds: “Did Jesus build walls? His face is a face of mercy. The bigger the sinner, the warmer the welcome. Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls.”

This debate persists in religious circles: how to reconcile and accommodate the illustrious and sacred traditions of the past with an ever-changing future. Referencing Jewish tradition, a Talmud teacher of mine, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, said that a rich and holy tradition can accommodate itself to the changing contemporary world as long as the parties to the debate share basic assumptions, such as belief in God and His Torah, and living by His commandments. Once there is such basic agreement, then there is room for alternate approaches. Thankfully, Popes Benedict and Francis share common assumptions, and so they find a way to work together for the common good.

 

The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), directed by Simon Curtis

A friend of mine has two dogs. What is unusual is that as a child, he was petrified of dogs. Yet now he is an adult and dogs are an integral part of his life. I am not sure why his attitude towards dogs changed, but it is clear every time I visit him that the dogs provide unconditional love for him, his wife, and his kids. Indeed, the dogs are a genuine part of his family.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a dog story, but we know that every dog story is really a story about people. The title of the film is a term used by Denny, an auto racing teacher and a race driver, to describe the particular skill of controlling the car when the surface of the road is wet and unpredictable. The term is a metaphor for being able to manage the unpredictability of life. Denny says it best: “The best drivers only focus on the present.” They do not let the burdens of the past or the uncertainties of the future prevent them from moving forward.

The film opens as Enzo, an old Golden Retriever, is near death and is waiting for his owner, Denny, to come home. Denny arrives and carries Enzo out of the house. As he does so, the film’s narration begins as Enzo begins to tell the story of his life.

Denny buys Enzo as a pup and the two bond strongly. A year later, Denny marries Eve, and Enzo’s life is disrupted for a short time until he gets used to sharing Denny with his beloved Eve. Eve’s parents, Maxwell and Trish, express misgivings about Denny’s career choice, and worry when Denny and Eve start a family.

Their daughter, Zoe, gives great joy to Denny and Eve and to her parents as well. Denny, Eve, and Zoe lead idyllic lives until Eve develops brain cancer. Her love for Denny and Zoe enables her to survive for a short time, but then she succumbs to her illness.

Denny is at a crossroads. He has left his racing career to care for his cherished wife and now he has to care for his daughter. Eve’s parents go to court to gain custody of Zoe, feeling that Denny is often absent from home and unfit to take care of her. The custody battle turns ugly when Denny inadvertently knocks down Maxwell, his father-in-law, causing him to break a rib.

Throughout all of this family turmoil, Enzo stays with Denny, serving as his quiet and loyal friend. Although Enzo cannot talk, his presence is comforting to Denny, and Enzo looks forward to time after death when he thinks that he will be reincarnated as a human being.

Enzo’s thought processes are given expression in his very human observations of his owner and the world around Denny. Judaism generally considers dogs as not having a soul like that of a human being; but, according to some Kabbalistic sources, dogs do go to “heaven,” and live some kind of afterlife.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “while they are different from humans, animals too have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea presents us with an enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s elevation in the afterlife can be dependent upon our positive interactions with it.”

Enzo probably would have a great life in the hereafter because of his interactions with his loyal and kind owner Denny. Their easy rapport with one another underpins a deep relationship between human and dog, a relationship in which Enzo gives emotional support to his owner who has endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for dog is kelev, which is a contraction of the words kol lev, meaning “a full heart.” The good dog is the one who is loyal, serving us with a full heart, reducing our stress and supporting us through tough times.

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