Category Archives: Romance

Their Finest (2016), directed by Lone Scherfig

their finestWhen I was about to enter college in 1960, I thought I was going to be a high school teacher. Somewhere along the way, my Judaic studies at Yeshiva University became my academic focus and I resolved to be a pulpit rabbi. My professional career began in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was the assistant rabbi at a large Orthodox synagogue.

In 1976, I began searching for a rabbinical post where I would be the head rabbi. But God intervened in my career path. Even though I had no experience running a Jewish day high school, I was offered the position of principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

How and why that occurred is not the subject of this film review, but how one chooses a career is. What are the factors that make one choose a career for which one does not prepare?

Their Finest tells the story of Catrin Cole, who in 1940 is requested to interview with England’s Ministry of Information to write scripts for short documentary films about the war effort. While researching a story about twin sisters, Lily and Rose, who are reputed to have sailed their father’s boat to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, she discovers that their boat had engine trouble and never reached Dunkirk.

Instead of abandoning the story, Catrin, together with co-script writers Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, convince their superiors to continue with the movie as inspirational fiction rather than as a documentary. And so, Catrin finds herself as a scriptwriter not for documentaries but for major theatrical productions. She did not plan this career, but once given the opportunity to spread her intellectual wings, she soars above the rest of her scriptwriting colleagues.

As the shoot continues, Catrin and Tom develop affection for one another as they successfully produce a film that inspires the British nation who are suffering from war fatigue. Tragedy intervenes, however, in the relationship between Catrin and Tom, compelling her to rethink her newfound success as a scriptwriter, a vocation for which she did not prepare, but which ultimately gives meaning and direction to her life.

Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport, referencing Duties of the Heart written by Bachye Ibn Pakudei around 1040, provides some questions to help one find the right career. Here are four of them: Does it attract you? Does it match your resources? Are you willing to invest? Do you have a passion for it?

Catrin Cole at first does not affirmatively answer these questions, but after she is baptized in the crucible of scriptwriting as a career, she truly discovers her life’s calling. She senses her writing will enable her to make a better world, or in Jewish terms, to do tikun olam, to improve and fix the world.

There is another valuable life lesson that Catrin learns about her career. Sometimes your career choice requires you to see the world differently. In particular, working in the arts might force you to see truth not objectively, but as artistic truth. Tom Buckley explains this to Catrin: “Film is real life with the boring parts cut out. Don’t confuse facts with truth, and don’t let either of them get in the way of the story. Why do you think people like films? It’s because stories are structured, have a shape, a purpose, a meaning. And when things go bad, they’re still part of a plan. There’s point to them. Unlike life.”

Their Finest ends on an optimistic note. After personal tragedy, Catrin resolves never to write again. However, Ambrose Hilliard, a veteran actor, reminds her that if she turns her back on opportunities that come her way, even when she has suffered great loss, “wouldn’t that be giving death dominion over life? “ Catrin understands the power and significance of his words and returns to her chosen craft of scriptwriting, where she can continue to influence the world for good.

 

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A Dog’s Purpose (2017), directed by Lasse Hallstrom

dog's purposeWhen I was around ten years old, my father took me to the office of a veterinarian and we came home with a dog. It had the face of Lassie, but it was mixed breed without a distinguished lineage.

Where the dog came from was irrelevant to me. I did not have lots of friends and the dog, named Shep, was the friend I had always wanted. He was always there to greet me at the end of the school day, overlooking all of my faults and giving me unconditional love no matter what stupid things I might have done during the day.

Regrettably, over a year or two, I did not take care of the dog as I should have and my mother gave the dog away. It was a sad day for me and I cried inconsolably.

A Dog’s Purpose is both a clever and touching film about the strong connections between dogs and their owners. It is told from the dog’s point of view over several generations as the dog is reincarnated into the pets of several owners and tries to discover his purpose in life.

His first owner is Ethan Montgomery, who, along with his mother, rescues him from a heated car where he is in danger of dehydration. Ethan names him Bailey, and over the course of several years affection grows between Ethan and Bailey. In high school, Ethan is his school’s starting quarterback and has a devoted girlfriend, Hannah, who will attend Michigan State on an academic scholarship while Ethan attends the same school on a football scholarship.

Tragedy strikes when Todd Logan, a student jealous of Ethan’s success, places a large firecracker in Ethan’s home starting a fire that almost kills him and his mother. Fortunately, Bailey comes to the rescue by alerting Ethan to the raging flames giving them time to escape.

In the second vignette, Bailey is reincarnated as Ellie, a female German shepherd working as a police dog in Chicago. His owner, Carlos, uses Ellie to track a girl who has been kidnapped. Using her super-sensitive ability to detect smells, Ellie successfully finds the girl and rescues her from near death as she almost drowns in the waters of a turbulent dam.

In the final section of the film, the dog wakes up as Buddy, a mixed breed St. Bernard puppy, who finds his way, after several reincarnations, to his former owner Ethan, now a middle-aged adult. Sensing Ethan’s existential loneliness, he miraculously orchestrates a reuniting of Ethan with his former love, Hannah.

Bailey sums up what he has learned over this reincarnation journey about a dog’s purpose in life: “So, in all my lives as a dog, here’s what I’ve learned. Have fun, obviously. Whenever possible, find someone to save, and save them. Lick the ones you love. Don’t get all sad-faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could. Just be here now. That’s a dog’s purpose.” Although spoken by a dog, it also is a significant life lesson for humans. As humans, our purpose is to enjoy the world God gives us and be of help to others. Be positive about life. Love our fellowman as ourselves and be present in the lives of others.

Many Orthodox Jews own dogs, “man’s best friend.” But the Talmud reminds us that before acquiring an animal, you must be certain that you can properly care for it. King Solomon states: “a righteous person considers the life of his animal.”

Jewish tradition tells us we have to imitate our Creator, and so we must take care of the needs of our animals and alleviate their suffering. Provocatively, the Sages observe that dogs are sensitive to metaphysical matters that humans cannot understand.

A Dog’s Purpose, a heartwarming story of the love between humans and dogs, makes some important observations about how humans should relate to one another. The life of a dog functions as a metaphor for human interactions and there is much from which we can learn.

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Maudie (2016), directed by Aisling Walsh

maudieMy wife is an artist. She has perfected a technique called fabric fusion. She starts off with a gray scale photograph and then overlays it with acrylic paints and hand-dyed silks. She has had exhibits of her work at the Tel Aviv Opera House and at the Jerusalem Theatre, both prestigious locations to show art. She sells her work, but she primarily paints because it satisfies her creative urge.

What is important is not the money she earns through her art, but the creative experience of producing art that people can enjoy. She regards her artistic work as part of her divine mission.

Occasionally, she asks me to critique a painting, but I feel inadequate to the task. I very much feel that art is in the eye of the beholder. I cannot predict what someone will like.

In the final analysis, enduring art can spring from anywhere, even from a remote country village in Nova Scotia. This is what happens in Maudie, the true story of Maudie Dowley, a woman with severe arthritis who develops an iconic ability to paint flowers and birds that appeal to a broad cross-section of people that appreciate her simple but powerful expressions of nature’s beauty.

Rather than live with her highly judgmental Aunt Ida, Maudie decides to strike out on her own and find a job that will enable her to support herself and live independently. Serendipitously, she meets Everett Lewis, a coarse and laconic fish peddler who is seeking a cleaning lady for his home in return for providing room and board and a meager salary. Maudie applies for the job and Everett agrees to try her out.

While employed at his home, Maudie begins to paint parts of the house including shelves, walls, and windows with decorations of flowers and birds. One of Everett’s customers, Sandra, who lives in New York City, is fascinated by Maudie’s art and offers to pay her money for her cards and paintings. Her patronage of Maudie’s art leads to more and more commissions, eventually reaching the eyes of Richard Nixon, who purchases one of her works.

Eventually, Everett and Maudie marry and learn to love one another even though they have totally different temperaments and worldviews. Their marriage is stormy, but in the end it is satisfying to both. Maudie’s ability to see beauty in the ordinary cycle of nature sustains her as she manages her tumultuous relationship with Everett.

In the daily Jewish liturgy, God is described as renewing the creation every day. The message of the prayer is to understand that the beauty of nature manifests itself in ordinary days. It is not a special event. Each day is an opportunity to proclaim the significance of daily miracles, which inform our lives all day long. The challenge is to view nature with fresh eyes. Maudie is able to do this especially when she sees nature through a window. She reflects: “How I love a window. It’s always different. The whole of life. The whole of life already framed. Right there.”

The great medieval sage Maimonides viewed the natural world as a testament to God’s grandeur. In discussing the foundational principles of the Jewish faith, he writes that we can get close to God not only by studying holy words, but also by observing holy works, the everyday miracles that present themselves through natural phenomena. A mountain, a flower, a river, a tree can remind us of the inherent beauty in the world and bring us close to God.

Maudie, a simple soul, is able to transcend her physical limitations when she sees nature in a multi-faceted way. Nature for her is never random or chaotic. Rather it reflects a divine beauty hidden in the flora around us.

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Baby Driver (2017), directed by Edgar Wright

 baby driverI remember hearing about the incident. I learned that two young boys were playing around with each other and one of them had a stick with a nail on the end of it. In the course of their “playing around,” the boy with the stick hit the other child in the eye. Blood gushed out and the boy was in great pain.

It was an accident. The boy with the stick never meant to do harm, but he did. The victim lost one of his eyes; but, thankfully, he was a boy of great inner strength and he went on to lead a relatively normal life and had professional success as a dentist as an adult.

From the Jewish perspective, the act of taking out the eye of another child may have been unintentional, but there is culpability. The fact that one does not intend to do harm does not free him from Divine accountability.

Baby, the central character in Baby Driver, an over-the-top heist film with an adrenalin rush and a strong musical motif, does some terrible things. Although he does not intend to hurt people either physically or financially, he does, and that makes him accountable to law enforcement authorities.

The story begins as Baby drives a getaway car for three robbers who rob a bank. His driving is extraordinary and he is able to evade the police chasing them. As he drives, he listens to loud music on his iPod. We learn that as a child he had an accident that left him with tinnitus, a constant humming in his ear, and listening to loud music drowns out the humming. Moreover, it inspires his driving skills.

Baby is a getaway driver because he owes money to Doc, a crime boss. It is Baby’s intention to quit the life of crime as soon as his debt to Doc is paid. The problem is that Doc needs Baby to continue driving for other heists he has planned.

When Doc threatens Baby with possible harm to Debora, Baby’s girlfriend, he is compelled to drive even though he knows that the thieves he is working with have no scruples and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

The next heist goes south when Bats, one of the robbers, kills a security guard. Baby, unnerved by Bat’s brutal behavior, figures out a way to leave his unsavory cohorts, but an intense cat and mouse game ensues between them and Baby, ending in explosive violence.

The police also pursue Baby and there is a moment of reckoning. Will Baby surrender to them in the hope that the authorities will understand that his sins were unintentional or will he continue to run?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the traditional Jewish approach to unintentional sin: “Unintentional sins stand midway between intentional sins (where you knew what you were doing was wrong) and involuntary action (ones, where you were not acting freely at all: it was a reflex action, or someone was pointing a gun at your head).” Such is the dilemma of Baby.

Yet, in Jewish law, even unintentional sins require atonement. Why? Rabbi Sacks, quoting several Jewish sages offers some answers. For example, Nachmanides, a medieval scholar, opines: “Sin, even without intention, defiles.” Moreover, “sins committed unwittingly produce a stain on our souls and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.” A person cannot simply say, “I did not mean it” and expect God to forgive him. There has to be genuine contrition if there is to be forgiveness from on High.

Once he is apprehended, Baby’s response reflects his mature understanding that there must be consequences for a life of crime, even if all the bad stuff was not his fault. This recognition of past mistakes and accepting responsibility for them paves the way for a bright future in which his mistakes are forgiven. Baby Driver’s denouement is a reminder of the power of atonement and the corresponding power of forgiveness.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Paterson (2016), directed by Jim Jarmusch

paterson posterAfter five years of teaching English in Israeli schools, I now have no official job. The school in which I worked cannot hire me because I am beyond retirement age. What do I do now? I learn Torah every day and I exercise every day. Additionally, I write almost every day. Mostly, I write film reviews that appear on the Internet and, when I visit the States, I lecture on “kosher movies,” films that have something meaningful to say about life and the subject of my recent book, Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema. Such writing compels me to think, to remember certain aspects of my life, and to formulate life lessons to impart to the reader. Writing keeps me engaged with the world.

I think of my old friend, Charlie, who owned a grocery store in Atlanta. We would study Jewish texts together and one day I asked him about his grocery business. Did he like it or was he in it only because it was his father’s family business? His response: I am in it because it is pleasant and affords me a livelihood, but my real interest is in Torah study. I may be in the grocery store, but my creative intellectual juices are focused on Torah study, not on my grocery inventory.

Reflection on these two experiences makes me appreciate Paterson more. Paterson is an unusual slice-of-life film about a bus driver named Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey. His regular job is driving a bus, but every day he finds time to write poetry. The subject of his poetry is his wife, Laura, and the varied people he meets in the course of the day, both on the bus and at a local bar where he stops each evening as he walks his dog Marvin. He carefully observes the world around him because he is interested in other people and because the scenes he sees and the people he meets provide poetic inspiration for him.

The film covers a week in his life. Every day starts out the same, but there are minor variations. In a sense, the movie is a visual poem with themes being repeated and visuals that are doubled into what might be considered as internal rhymes in poetry; these visual rhymes underpin the thoughts of Paterson as he drives his bus during the day.

Paterson is extremely sensitive to details and inspired by little things in life. For example, a simple matchbox motivates him to write a love poem. Life for him is filled with poetic possibilities. The film gives the viewer a window into the creative process. As Paterson closely observes the world around him, we hear him articulating his poetry and the poetry simultaneously appears as squiggly writing on the screen.

Although Paterson is a man of routine, at times life intervenes and he does something extraordinary. It may be just writing a poem or it may be as serious as saving someone’s life. Whatever happens, he remains peaceful in the midst of chaos.

Even when Paterson is faced with tragedy, he finds comfort in the contemplation of nature’s beauty and in his private thoughts. Serendipitously, when he is trying to come to terms with a personal loss, he comes upon a Japanese stranger. The stranger is also a poet, who, after a brief but cryptic conversation, presents Paterson with an empty notebook, implicitly suggesting that Paterson’s creative instincts are alive and well and they will enable him to see new poetic possibilities.

Patterson maintains his routine outer life because he lives an exciting inner life of intellectuality and creativity. Interestingly, the rabbis of the Talmud lived their lives in similar fashion. They intellectually rejoiced in Torah study and in matters of the mind and spirit, while possessing mundane jobs enabling them to survive financially. It is recorded that the occupations of the Sages included woodchopper, builder, field laborer, businessman, gravedigger, launderer, shoemaker, tanner, winemaker, blacksmith, and physician.

Patterson reminds us that no matter what our life’s profession, we can still lead intellectually creative lives. All we have to do is live small but dream large.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

La La Land (2016), directed by Damien Chazelle

la-la-land-posterI live life as it unfolds in the present moment. I do not recall saying to myself “What if I had done this rather than that.” Yet I have friends who continually ask themselves “what would my life be like if I had made this decision rather than that decision.” The reality is that we cannot turn back the clock and decisions we made years ago cannot be changed. Those decisions affect our lives many years later.

This dilemma is the subtext of La La Land, a one-of-a-kind musical in which the protagonists arrive at a moment when the past is all too present in their minds, but it is too late to make midcourse corrections.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and describes the efforts of two talented people to succeed in the entertainment industry. Mia is an actress working in a coffee shop while she goes to endless auditions looking for a part in a movie or play. Rejections for her are both routine and emotionally painful. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who wants to open his own jazz club. For him, jazz is exciting, unpredictable, and innovative. He revels in the great jazz musicians of the past and wants to continue their legacy of musical innovation. The problem, however, is that he has no money and barely survives financially.

Mia and Sebastian meet serendipitously over several months. They bicker, make jokes, and slowly begin developing a serious rapport with one another. As love blossoms, they share their professional aspirations with each other. Each is the other’s muse, and they inspire one another to fulfill their dreams. When Sebastian hears how demeaning the auditions are, he suggests that she write her own material and present herself as a writer as well as performer. Mia encourages him to open his own jazz venue.

What happens next is the stuff of fantasy. They watch the classic film, Rebel Without a Cause, with its pivotal scene at the Griffith Observatory, and then actually visit the site and dance among the stars at the planetarium.

Recognizing their strong affection for one another, they share their goals again, measuring how far they have come to actualizing them. Mia is in the midst of writing a one-woman show and Sebastian has been offered a job with a touring band that is led by his old friend, Keith. The job will provide him with financial stability. They both realize that the pursuit of their individual careers may not permit their love to continue.

Judaism believes that it is important to set goals, to have dreams. In fact, once a year on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, Jewish law requires us to take inventory of our lives. What did we accomplish in the past year? How can I do better in the year ahead? What are my goals for the coming year? Azriel Hirsch Friedman, a Torah teacher and motivational lecturer in Jerusalem, writes: “Failure is the building block of success. Even with a promise of success from God, Moses failed miserably when he first tried to take the Jews from Egypt. To get out of the place you are stuck, you will unquestionably fail. Don’t worry. It’s often just God’s way of testing how much you believe in your own dreams, helping you to clarify, re-evaluate and perfect them. We are judged only on our effort and never on our success. Jewish success is to be able to know for yourself.”

Mia and Sebastian ultimately come to know themselves as they work to define their talents and strengths. That does not mean that the outcome will always be satisfying. La La Land reminds us that outcomes are not in our hands. Nonetheless, we still have to try our best as we navigate the challenges we face in our own lives.

Ushpizin (2004), directed by Gidi Dar

ushpizinA friend of mine and his wife occasionally have discussions about whom to invite for Friday night Sabbath dinners. She favors inviting old friends. He prefers inviting new faces because he wants to know those who are unknown. He prefers the unpredictability of new faces and feels that the good deed of inviting people to one’s home is better fulfilled when one does not know the guests beforehand.

Jewish tradition requires us to be hospitable, especially to those is need. Is this ethos of extending hospitality represented by inviting people we know or people we don’t know, or are there other criteria to keep in mind? The Israeli film Ushpizin, which means guests in English, suggests an approach to an answer.

It is the festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood. The holidays require Jews to build a temporary shack and to live in it for seven days. There is also a commandment to wave a palm branch and a citron, together with a myrtle and willow, during the holiday liturgy. Moshe and Mali Bellanga, however, are impoverished and do not have money to buy a sukkah or to purchase the four species. And then “miracles” occur. A friend finds an abandoned sukkah for Moshe and an anonymous donor slips $1000 under their door.

These miracles, however, become tests. Moshe uses part of his money to purchase a citron at an extravagant price, upsetting his wife Mali, who wanted to use to money to pay off debts. Moshe knows that the truly happy person is the one who is content with little, yet he succumbs to his desire to acquire a citron far beyond his means when, in fact, he is not required to do so according to Jewish law.

Another test for them comes when two escaped convicts from Moshe’s past show up at this door. They apparently know Moshe from his previous life before he became religious, and Moshe and Mali debate whether they should welcome them as guests for the holiday. There are disadvantages. They are unsavory characters and their presence in the home may strain Moshe and Mali’s relationship. There will be no privacy and the guests may introduce a foreign lifestyle into their holy home. Moshe and Mali are people of deep faith, however, and they decide that these two men have been sent to them by God, creating a wonderful opportunity for Moshe and Mali to share the holidays with people less fortunate than them.

With each passing day of the holiday, the convicts bring more chaos into the Bellanga home, but Moshe and Mali continue to see each problem as a test of their religious faith. Their rabbi advises Moshe never to get angry, even when anger may seem justified. The life lesson that he imparts to him is to remain calm in the knowledge that all tests come from God. Facing a test and overcoming it refines our character and, by doing so, makes us better people.

Ushpizin depicts people living on the edge of poverty and not succumbing to negativity. Mali and Moshe do have arguments, but their different opinions do not shatter their abiding love for one another. They both recognize that whatever happens is ultimately the result of God orchestrating events from afar. Mali and Moshe always say “Thank God,” even when events seem to turn out badly. Moreover, they control their anger, allowing them to see things from the aspect of eternity. Their daily expressions of thanksgiving to God and their control of anger remind us of what it takes to truly be a holy person.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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