Category Archives: Movie review

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Ford v. Ferrari (2019), directed by James Mangold

A rabbinic colleague once confessed to me that he disliked one of his synagogue board members. Feeling that the board member was always out to get him, he had to control his anger whenever he spoke to him.

I cautioned my friend never to lose his cool when speaking with this person. In spite of his negative feelings for him, it was important to maintain cordial relations, not only because of the many Jewish sources frowning upon anger, but also because he may need his support in the future to accomplish the Torah goals of his rabbinate. I told him: do not antagonize people that can hurt you. In Ford v. Ferrari, Carroll Shelby, an American car designer, and Ken Miles, a superb race car driver, are tested in the crucible of life experience to maintain calm when everyone around them wants to interfere with their jobs.

Carroll Shelby, a professional racer, is compelled to retire early because of a heart condition. Realizing he no longer can race, he develops his other interest, designing race cars. In the course of his work, he meets Ken Miles, a race car driver and an exceptional mechanic who follows his own inclinations as he runs his car repair shop.

Customers admire Miles’ attention to detail, but bristle at his brusque demeanor. Customers dwindle and he finds himself unable to support his wife and child.

While all this is happening, Henry Ford II is struggling to improve Ford’s bottom line in the face of sagging sales. Lee Iacocca, a Ford executive, suggests that Ford field a race car at the celebrated 24-hour Le Mans race in France to change Ford’s image in the minds of the many young people ready to buy new cars.

Ford then hires Carroll Shelby to design and test cars for the race. Shelby asks Ken Miles to be his driver, and Miles accepts knowing that the corporate powers at Ford are worried about his unpredictability as a spokesman for Ford. Throughout the car’s development, Shelby and Miles are second-guessed by Ford management who view the entire initiative as a public relations project, not as a test to prove Ford’s racing dominance over Ferrari, the winner of Le Mans for many years. Ken is angry when his desire for excellence is countermanded by Ford’s desire for expediency and immediate results. Ken becomes so disillusioned with their interference that he wants to quit, but Shelby convinces him to stay the course, and not allow anger to control his responses to Ford’s interference.

The Talmud tells us, “The life of those who cannot control their anger is not a life (Pesachim 113b). Moreover, “when a person gets angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b). The great Maimonides writes that when someone becomes angry, it is as if he worships idols (Hilchot Deot 2:3). The Sages caution us not to be angry, for when we are angry we do not see the consequences of our actions and often do things we regret later on. When it comes to the trait of anger, Maimonides says there is no middle way (Hilchot Deot 2:3). We should avoid it at all costs. It may be necessary to appear angry at times, but we should not actually be angry.

The Orchot Tzadikim, a 15th century ethicist, observes that anger destroys personal relationships. People do not like to be around angry people; therefore, angry people often end up isolated, apart from friends and even from family. Furthermore, anger often drives out positive emotions like forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity.

Ken Miles in Ford v. Ferrari begins as a quick-tempered man, prone to anger. Through real life experience, he learns that by controlling his emotions and his responses to provocations, he can lead a more satisfying life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), directed by Marielle Heller

It is not easy to find a film that is “kosher” in the ultimate sense, but I think It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood qualifies. I define a “kosher movie” as one that has something meaningful to say about life, that can help us navigate our own lives; and this story of the friendship of celebrated children’s show host, Fred Rogers, with investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel has much Torah wisdom to offer.

The narrative begins as Mr. Rogers shows a photo of Lloyd Vogel with a bloody nose. He tells the audience that Lloyd has lots of anger and has much to learn about forgiveness. Lloyd’s backstory reveals that he and his wife Andrea have just had a baby and they plan to attend the wedding of Lloyd’s sister Lorraine.

Lloyd’s mood sours when he learns that his estranged father, Jerry, will be attending the wedding. At this special family celebration, Lloyd gets into an altercation with his father; and in the melee following the argument, someone punches Lloyd on his nose. This is the picture Mr. Rogers shows us at the beginning.

Lloyd’s editor, Ellen, asks him to write a profile of Mr. Rogers as part of a series on contemporary heroes. Lloyd regards it as a puff piece and is reluctant to do it, but he acquiesces. For the interview with Mr. Rogers, he travels to Pittsburgh to meet him on the set of his TV program.

Lloyd is taken aback by the kind demeanor of Mr. Rogers, who treats him with great respect. Inwardly, he wonders whether his kindness is just a show or is it genuine. As Lloyd interviews him, Mr. Rogers interrupts with questions of his own for Lloyd, in which he probes reasons for Lloyd’s black eye. Lloyd eventually tells him about his fight with his dad.

Soon after, Mr. Rogers invites Lloyd to spend a day with him when he will be in New York. Lloyd meets Fred’s wife, Joanne, who reinforces the notion that her husband is the real deal when it comes to being a person with great empathy and compassion for others. When Fred asks him questions about his childhood with his father and mother, Lloyd becomes uncomfortable, defensive, and abruptly leaves.

His dysfunctional relationship with his father, who abandoned his mother when she was ill, is too great a character failing for him to overlook. Lloyd’s anger towards his father does not abate and he allows it to live rent free in his head.

When his father suddenly has a heart attack, Lloyd is compelled to revaluate his relationship with his father. Mr. Rogers’ friendship during this period of emotional turmoil becomes a force for reconciliation.

Here are two pieces of wisdom that Mr. Rogers gives to Lloyd not by giving him direct advice, but by engaging Lloyd in conversation. When he and Lloyd are speaking on the phone, Fred asks him what is the most important thing in the world that I could be doing now? Lloyd has no answer but Fred does: “The most important thing I could be doing is talking to you.” The message for Lloyd: be present in the present. Do not allow yourself to be distracted when you are engaged with another human being. From a Torah perspective, this means to recognize the image of God in every man. If every man has divinity within him, then I must pay attention to the significant other that is speaking to me.

Another instance: When Jerry is dying, Mr. Rogers makes a private request of him. Lloyd wants to know the request. Fred tells him that he asked Jerry to pray for him. Why, asks Lloyd. Fred’s answer: “when a person is close to death, he is close to God.” This is a very Jewish response. The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers encourage us to think of death each day not in a morbid way, but to stimulate us to lead more meaningful lives. Experiencing crisis is often the catalyst to more focused use of our remaining time on earth and the rabbis want us to make every day a spiritual masterpiece.

These are only a small portion of the life lessons embedded in the thoughtful narrative of It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It is a “kosher movie” to savor and worth viewing more than once.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Biggest Little Farm (2018), directed by John Chester

p15996893_v_v8_abJewish law requires one to recite a blessing before eating. But it is not the same blessing for all foods. Each food has a unique blessing reflecting the reality that God created an abundant variety of foods to eat, not just one type of food. Indeed, we appreciate God more when we realize that He provides more than just nourishment for his creations. He also provides variety, and that is a testament to the divine complexity within nature. The Biggest Little Farm is a fascinating documentary that highlights this message.

John and Molly Chester make a decision to move out of the city and purchase 200 acres in the foothills of Ventura County, one hour north of Los Angeles. They plan naively to build a farm in harmony with nature, where they can grow a large diversity of crops and raise a wide range of farm animals.

Their initial problem: the land they bought is devoid of nutrients and suffering the effects of a long-term drought. The Chesters, however, are optimists; and, in spite of the challenging reality they face, they plant 10,000 orchard trees, over 300 different kinds of plants, and provide a home for an assortment of animals.

As time moves on and the ecosystem begins to reawaken, they realize that they need more knowledge to achieve their utopian vision. The teacher of that wisdom is Alan York, a guru of plant biodiversity, who teaches them that nature is cyclical. His message: what seems destructive today will, over time, be positive and enhance the harmony within nature.

Under his guidance, the land comes back to life. However, the Chesters’ experience of living in their self-made utopia comes to a standstill two years into their project. The rude awakening came in the form of pests. Birds eat fruit, causing a huge loss in farm revenue, snails eat tree trunks, gophers attack tree roots, and coyotes prey on chickens. Much of the farm labor spends time cleaning up the mess that is left, thus reducing time for crop tending and harvesting. When the Chesters begin questioning the practicality of their project, guru York is there advising patience, informing them that the ecosystem, like life, is cyclical and will eventually find its balance. York terms it “the rhythm of things.”

When York dies of cancer in the middle of the Chesters’ idealistic initiative, the Chesters have to figure out for themselves how to deal with the unpredictable vicissitudes of farming. Rain and wind do not come gently into farming life, and sometimes the consequences of rain and wind create major problems for harvesting crops. Over the long haul, however, their dreams are realized, perhaps not in the total way they envisioned; but their dream is basically actualized in the real world of sustainable, regenerative farming.

In The Biggest Little Farm, there are many life lessons. All the well known patriarchs of Judaism, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the greatest prophet of all, Moses, experienced failure of one sort or another in their lives, yet failure was not terminal for them. They learned from these mistakes, and grew to be better leaders because of them. So, too, is it with farming. Failure is a teacher, not the end of learning and growing and realizing one’s goal.

There is a lot to learn from farming failures. At the end of the day, the Chesters leave a legacy for the future for children, born and yet unborn. Here are some of the messages implicitly articulated for the next generation. There is a dance of co-existence in nature. For example, coyotes kill chickens, which seems to be a bad thing, yet when coyotes kill gophers, it seems to be a good thing. The key in nature is balance, which expresses a complicated web of life, representing a divinely ordained diversity measured over a very long period of time. Our planet and its ecosystem work with a comfortable level of disharmony, which creates a complex world with infinite possibilities.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com. Or watch it on Hulu.

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.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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