Category Archives: Movie review

The Last Dance (2020), directed by Jason Hehir

As a teenager, my sport of choice was basketball. Not only could I play it with friends, but I could shoot hoops by myself if no one else was around. My most memorable Bar Mitzvah gift was a basketball given to me by my friends Kenny and Marilyn Beaman.

Because of my preoccupation with basketball, I asked my father to put up a backboard that would hang down from the roof of the garage in the back of my house, which he did. But there was one problem. The garage had glass windows close to the top of the garage door. With some regularity, windows were broken by an errant shot. It became more of a problem when the missed shot hit the glass of my neighbor’s garage door. But we persisted in playing.

I share this story to give you an idea of my long-standing interest in basketball and why I watched The Last Dance, a ten-part series on ESPN, documenting the six championship seasons of the Chicago Bulls, with specific emphasis on the trajectory of Michael Jordan’s career. I generally do not watch any series on TV because it is too time-consuming. My professional focus is on writing film reviews, which involve less of a time commitment. But watching Michael Jordan in his prime was a temptation I could not resist.

The Last Dance is a riveting documentary. It not only depicts the basketball prowess of Michael Jordan, but also portrays the thinking of management in dealing with a high profile athlete who is literally an icon to millions of fans. Moreover, I came away with a new appreciation for the other Bulls players who were a part of the Jordan years and who played important roles as supporting players. Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and Dennis Rodman, each made meaningful contributions to the winning team. Additionally, Phil Jackson’s unusual out-of-the box coaching style was fascinating to observe, especially with the special farewell ritual he revealed at the close of the last championship season.

What was most impressive about the entire series was the complete focus of Michael Jordan on basketball. Nothing distracted him from his goal of winning a championship. He did not play to gain anyone’s approval. He worked hard at his craft simply because he wanted to be the best and he wanted his team to be successful. He set high standards for his teammates because he set a high bar for himself and he wanted his team to play at their absolute best.

In the world of Jewish learning, there are singular personalities who are known for their total focus on their mission as Torah scholars, as devout Jews, and as servants of Hashem. In my own experience, the figure of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein looms large. He was my Talmud teacher and the head of the Yeshiva University Kollel when I was a member of that august group in the late 1960s.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was a person from whom I gleaned many Torah values and insights about life. He was a living model of what a Torah personality should be, always studying, always a model of good behavior, and always conscious of the value of time. I would watch him walk quickly or run between classes or to the lunchroom, so as not to waste a moment. Even in the university cafeteria, he was not a schmoozer. He ate quickly and then returned hastily to the study hall. Every moment was precious.

Because of his single-minded focus on his studies, he was a giant role model. Students recognized his intellectual power and often posed questions to him outside of class to obtain his views on a variety of contemporary subjects.

I remember vividly a student asking him whether a particular budding Torah scholar in the Kollel should attend a Soviet Jewry rally. Rav Lichtenstein responded that for some students it was important to attend this worthwhile rally; but for this individual to develop his Torah learning skills to the maximum, he should not attend a rally that would take a substantial amount of time away from his Torah learning. The implicit message: to achieve greatness requires total focus.

Study of Torah demands this because study is a divine commandment, optimally done both day and night. Moreover, as Rav Lichtenstein writes: “First, study provides knowledge requisite to halakhic living, even as it deepens halakhic commitment. Second, since talmud Torah enables a person, within limits, to cleave unto God, it has moral, passional, and pietistic repercussions.” In the view of the Talmudic Sages, study of Torah is the equivalent of all other commandments; therefore, if one wants to achieve greatness in Torah learning, one must be completely focused on the task to the extent that he has the intellectual ability to do so.

In the world of sport, Michael was given the divine gift of a body that could be trained to enable him to be the ultimate basketball warrior. Because of his total focus and commitment to the game, we, the fans, can enjoy his athleticism on display in The Last Dance.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

My sister Carol had Down Syndrome so I know a little about relating to people with that affliction. As a youngster, I would go with my mother and Carol to a Thursday night gathering for what was then referred to as “retarded” teenagers.

The event was called “Teen Town,” and there I met Carol’s friends, and, in particular, Carol’s boyfriend Sam. They were very warm and friendly and socially normal. I felt comfortable with them because their conversation was about the same things I talked and thought about. Topics included, among others, upcoming social events, sports, who was dating whom, and the movies they saw.

It was easy for me to relate to The Peanut Butter Falcon, a Huck Finn-type journey that two outsiders take, and who, in the course of their experience together, become better people in one way or another.

Zak is a 22-year-old with Down Syndrome, and an actor who actually has the Syndrome portrays him; thus, his portrayal resonates with authenticity as we observe him interacting with people of all types. He resides at an assisted living facility in North Carolina where he is cared for by Eleanor, a sensitive social worker. Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, obsessively watching wrestling videos featuring his hero, Salt Water Redneck.

On one particular night, he escapes the facility with the help of Carl, an elderly resident, who feels Zak needs to be in the real world, not in an elder care environment with little stimulation of any kind. Overnight, Zak stows away on a small fishing boat belonging to Tyler, a hot-headed thief and crab fisherman, who hangs around with an assortment of lowlifes. In an argument with a couple of them, he decides to burn their fishing gear. As a result, they vengefully pursue him as he tries to elude them on his old motorboat.

Tyler does not realize that Zak is on board until they reach harbor, after which he instructs Zak to leave him. However, when Tyler witnesses a young boy taunting Zak to jump in deep water while Zak protests that he cannot swim, Tyler changes his mind about leaving Zak to fend for himself. Instead, he commits to taking Zak with him as he travels to his destination in Florida. It is an easy decision since Zak’s wrestling school destination is in the same direction.

Along the way, the pair encounters a variety of eccentric locals, one of whom baptizes Zak and gives them supplies for a rafting trip they take down a river. Throughout their journey, Tyler encourages Zak to have self-confidence, relating to him as a regular friend, not as a disabled person.

Robin A. Meltzer, parent of a Down Syndrome child, writes about the importance of relating to such a child as a person first, and as a disabled person later. Underlying her approach is the mantra: My daughter is a unique individual, not a diagnosis.

At the Passover Seder, there is the classic story of the “four sons,” all of whom can learn, but in different ways. “The son who does not know how to ask” may be emblematic of the Down Syndrome child who needs more attention than the others. The famous account of Rav Preida in the Talmud provides a vivid example of the extent to which a teacher has to extend himself for a student who has trouble comprehending things. The sage had a student who needed his lessons repeated 400 times. On one occasion, it took 800 repetitions, yet Rav Preida did not lose his patience. For such perseverance, God rewarded him with long life and life in the World-to-Come.

Moreover, it is recorded that one of the great Torah scholars of the twentieth century, the Chazon Ish, would rise in the presence of a person with Down Syndrome, considering such a person to possess an elevated soul.

Meltzer observes: “It is true that a person’s value is not determined by his or her capabilities, and that we need to appreciate the intrinsic worth of one’s soul. But at the same time, if we really valued people regardless of their limitations, we would do all we could to include those with Down Syndrome into community life. Because that is the Torah way.” The relationship between Tyler and Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon reminds us that the friendship between the able and the disabled can be robust, satisfying, and enduring.

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), directed by Steven Spielberg

Mt. Vernon, New York, was my home until I got married at age 22. I then moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City and Manhattan became my home. I then moved to Atlanta in 1970 for my first real job and stayed there for 27 years. Atlanta became my home and I thought my moving days were over. But they were not. After Atlanta, I moved to Columbus, Denver, and Dallas for three to four years each, and then my wife and I moved to Israel where we wanted to arrive vertically.

After living here for a few months, my wife and I both felt that we had finally arrived at our life’s destination, the ultimate homeland of our people. As Jews we felt truly at home here. All the other places we lived were nice and we enjoyed living there, but we never felt truly at home until we took up abode in Israel.

The desire to come home is a central theme of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the story of an alien from a distant planet who finds himself lost on earth when the spaceship which brought him here precipitously departs and unintentionally leaves him here.

ET wanders through a suburban housing development and is discovered by Elliot, a young boy who, after initially being frightened of the unknown, befriends the creature from another planet. Sharing the secret of ET’s presence with Michael, his older brother, and Gertie, his younger sister, they resolve to help ET and promise to reveal his existence to no one else.

In a short time, they learn that ET has special powers, is highly intelligent, and can even communicate with them in English. This enables ET to enlist their aid in assisting him to find a way to return home. Under his guidance, they help him find materials to contact his compatriots from space.

Regrettably, ET’s health deteriorates, and there is a race against time to save ET before he dies or is too sick to take the voyage home. Parallel to their efforts is the pursuit of ET by a scientific governmental agency that wants to find him in order to further scientific research. The kids, truly concerned about his welfare, know that ET must return home to fulfill his own destiny. In spite of the fact that people on earth love him, they understand that ET belongs elsewhere.

The notion of going home to fulfill one’s purpose in life echoes the commandment given to Jews to live in the land of Israel. In spite of possessing creature comforts and friends in the Diaspora, the ultimate homeland is God’s chosen land, Israel, where His holy presence is more acutely felt. The Bible tells us that it is a commandment of God to live in Israel based on the verse in Numbers 33:53: “you shall possess the land and dwell in it.” Moreover, the Talmud tells us that the very air of Israel makes one wise. Merely living in a holy environment and walking on its holy soil connects us to our ancestors and to our history as a nation.

ET’s yearning to return home is a metaphor for everyone to return home to their historic roots. When we are away from our true home, we may be fascinated by our new surroundings and we may make good friends; but, in the final analysis, there is no place like home to nurture our souls and to fulfill our spiritual destinies.

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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 thoughtful narrative of It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It is a “kosher movie” to savor and worth viewing more than once.

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Knives Out (2019), directed by Rian Johnson

Telling the truth is a value that I grew up with. My parents did not use hyperbole in their speech. When they spoke, I knew I could rely on what they said and “take it to the bank.” Which is why, at the beginning of my educational career, I was very unsettled when a parent at the school of which I was principal confronted me with a lie. Let me elaborate.

A stellar teacher on my staff informed me that a student in her class had cheated on an examination and that she was going to give him an “F.” After seeing the incontrovertible evidence, I endorsed her action. The day after the student received the failing grade, I received a call from his mother asking for a meeting with me the following day. She informed me that her husband and her son would be attending the meeting.

The next day, the father opened the meeting with a line I cannot forget: “My son never lies.” I knew immediately that the meeting would “go south” from there on. From my years dealing with high school students, I knew that sometimes even good kids do very bad things. I initially surmised that the father was extremely naïve or extremely stupid. The teacher broke out in tears when she saw that the father believed the boy and not her. It was an affront to her professionally to be accused of fabricating the cheating episode. I obviously sided with the teacher and we did not change the failing grade.

Several weeks later, the father confessed to me that he knew his son cheated. Regrettably, he had been away from home on a business trip when the incident occurred; and he wanted his son to feel that his father unreservedly trusted him, no matter if the facts suggested otherwise. The entire event was very sad because he implicitly taught his son that lying for the protection of one’s image is justified. Truth was sacrificed.

In Knives Out, the key plot device that unravels the mystery behind the death of noted crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is the compulsive truth telling of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s long time caregiver. Benoit Blanc, the sleuth who is charged with ferreting out the killer, tells Marta after she pukes when uttering a falsehood: “You have a regurgitative reaction to mistruths.” Marta cannot tell a lie, and so for her truth always prevails.

Here are the circumstances surrounding the murder. Harlan has just celebrated his 85th birthday, after which he is found dead at his home. It looks as though he has committed suicide by slitting his throat, but has he? Many stand to profit from his demise, specifically, his dysfunctional family members and people who have worked for him for many years.

The police investigate the case, and they are assisted by world renowned Detective Blanc, who has a reputation for solving the most impenetrable of crimes. By interviewing all family members and household employees, Blanc discovers they all have motives for murdering him. Marta Cabrera’s compulsion to tell the truth becomes the means by which Blanc finds out the identity of the real murderer.

Rabbi Shlomo Jarcaig writes about how critical is truth telling to the Jewish character. The Torah and Talmud tell us more than simply not to lie. There is a further commandment: “Distance oneself from a false word” (Exodus 23:7). This means we have to actively distance ourselves from falsehood.

Rabbi Jacaig makes a fascinating observation based upon the very shape and form of the Hebrew letters for truth. He writes: “When describing the difference between truth and falsehood, the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) notes that the three letters that spell the Hebrew word for truth, emes, are the first, middle, and last of the Hebrew alphabet, and all have two legs upon which to stand (like a capital A). The letters are far apart from each other because the truth is not easily found in this world; nevertheless, truth, like the letters that comprise its name, stands forever strong and unwavering.”

Knives Out is a riveting whodunit in the tradition of Agatha Christie mysteries. Beneath the surface theatrics is an important message about the value of truth in human discourse.

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Ad Astra (2019), directed by James Gray

As I write this review, the world is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Many emails and much of the Internet are filled with important messages to take away from this world crisis. One of the most meaningful is an essay entitled “Coronavirus: Is It Good?” written by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.

Here is an excerpt: “to our utmost dread, we have fallen into the hands of one tiny virus that forces us to our knees, causing us not only to be aware that we’ve lost our certainty, but to realize that we never had it to begin with!

And this wake-up call is actually an enormous blessing, enabling us to become genuine realists. This tiny virus forces us to admit that our self-assured sense of health is a farce, and that our certainty of being able to breathe, walk, speak and think, come what may, is all wishful thinking.”

Rabbi Cardozo goes on to remind us that the great sages of old composed blessings for almost every human experience, including eating food, seeing the beauties of God’s creation, and something as mundane as visiting the bathroom.

For the rabbis in the Talmud, nothing was taken for granted. They walked around in a state of “radical amazement” says Cardozo, appreciating all of God’s gifts. He continues: “All of this is in fact very liberating. It creates new space in our minds and souls and offers us opportunities that we forgot existed.

The mask has fallen, and reality has confronted us as never before.

What a marvelous opportunity to make a new start! We suddenly become aware that life is a gift that is unearned and it may be a little dangerous to feel too much at home in this world. We are offered the chance to make a distinction between the vital and the futile; the trivial and the important; what needs to inspire us (and we should cling to) and what to drop.”

I share Cardozo’s comments with you because they relate to the central theme of Ad Astra, a science fiction cerebral thriller that deals with the change of attitude one might adopt when confronted with mortality.

It is sometime in the near future, and the world is being hit by strange power surges, the origin of which is unknown. As the surges increase in frequency and intensity, the U.S. Space Command contacts Major Roy McBride, son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride, to inform him that the source of the surges is the “Lima Project,” an initiative begun 26 years earlier to search for intelligent life beyond earth, a mission led by his father.

Signals from the mission ceased 16 years before when the project was orbiting Neptune, and there is lingering suspicion that Clifford McBride is still alive. Roy’s task is to fly to Mars and from there to Neptune to establish contact with his father.

Once on Mars, he meets Helen Lantos, the director of the space station, who shares with Roy the classified videotapes that show the crew of the Lima Project mutinying against his father, Clifford McBride. The crew wants to return to earth and McBride wants to continue with the mission, regardless of the human cost. Roy now is faced with deciding whether to save civilization or his father if he cannot do both. The isolation of space provides the background for his soul-searching, which takes a toll on his normally dispassionate decision-making process.

When we first meet Roy at the outset of his journey, he articulates his mental state: “I am focused only on the essential, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is unimportant. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.” That certainty ebbs away as Roy meditates on the human cost of his father’s devotion to science.

His isolation and the reality of his father’s all-consuming obsession with the pursuit of scientific inquiry compel Roy to reconsider how he is living his own life. He reflects: “So many times in my life I screwed up: I’ve talked when I should’ve listened, I’ve been harsh when I should’ve been tender.” His relationship with his wife suffered from his emotional detachment. He finally recognizes his aloneness and looks forward to the time when his solitude will end and he can return home.

At the end of his journey, he meditates on his current mental state and is ready to embrace human connection: “I’m steady, calm. I slept well, no bad dreams. I am active and engaged. I’m aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I am focused on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I’m unsure of the future but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and I will love.”

Our Sages tell us not to separate from the community. They understood that a life lived in isolation is not a life. To appreciate what we have means to live with others, in a community that shares its loves and losses. To paraphrase the Psalmist, when we experience the agonies and ecstasies of human experience together with others, we will rejoice in song together with the family of man.

 

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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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