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The Twilight Zone: The Silence (1961)
Rod Serling inspired by Chekhov?
I remember how I was intrigued by this episode when I first saw it on TV at the age of 12. It had the classic twist at the end -- the "comeuppance" that I came to expect of great Twilight Zone episodes. But it also struck me as similar to a Chekhov short story I had read only a couple years earlier in my parent's library. So today, I checked the internet and found the short story online at www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1255/. The Bet by Anton Chekhov - about a banker and a young lawyer who make a bet with each other about whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. You can find it other places and on Wikipedia. Was this Twilight Zone episode inspired by the Chekhov short story? Don't know. Don't really care. In my humble opinion, both tales are fascinating; but the 30 min TV episode seems to be less compelling than Chekhov's very thoughtful excursion into the meaning of life. The former is very good TV; the latter is great literature. For fans of the Twilight Zone, I highly recommend reading The Bet by Anton Chekhov. It will take you less than 30 min.
A Walk on the Moon (1999)
What it was like
I was 20 in 1969. I wasn't at Woodstock. I was on a Road Trip from New York to Denver and then SF - finding myself - selfishly, just like the people in this movie. The movie encapsulated many experiences in that one summer. Looking back, it took me several years to experience what was covered in this movie. For me, that occurred between 1967 and 1972 -- between Sgt Pepper and Jackson Browne -- between Chicago and Berkeley -- from college, through marriage and divorce, to California freedom. I remember being the guy whose wife needed and found someone else. I remember being the young free spirit dating the divorcée -- or the almost divorcée. Yes, these could have happened to anyone else at any other time. And generational conflicts that marked 1969 - rebellion, loose morals, iconoclasm, etc - did occur at other times in history. But this movie accurately portrayed what I did experience: listening to those songs, attending those kinds of concerts, dating those kinds of girls, just being young, free and ... yes ... selfish. I learned a lot from those experiences. And this movie did an excellent job presenting many of those conflicts, moral choices and learning experiences.
Constantine's Sword (2007)
A personal statement about a lot of ideas
Carroll's exceptional book - Constantine's Sword - is a comprehensive exploration of the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. However, because this relationship extends over 2000 years, no single book or single volume could adequately cover the details of this history. So one should not expect this excellent documentary to even come close to the detail and depth needed by the subject matter. On the other hand, this documentary succeeds in at least introducing people to this bloody and embarrassing history of intolerance and hatred. As noted in one of the DVD "extra scenes," a majority of college students incorrectly stated that Jesus was a "Christian," when he actually was a Jew. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that most people have little or no knowledge about Christian persecutions of the Jews before and during the Crusades, through the Spanish and Italian Inquisitions, as well the "blood libels" raised from 1144 to before World War I. A film like this one is needed to challenge ignorant and disingenuous expressions like Mel Gibson's inflammatory "Passion of the Christ" and the Pope's recent assertion that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of "neo-paganism" that took root in Germany.
Carroll's personal anguish in this film, I believe, mirrors the conflict that every viewer should feel in intellectually considering the myths of one's religious beliefs. For example, in one of the DVD "extra scenes," a Jewish activist commiserates with Carroll about his concern that his religion often holds itself up as being holy, perfect, and infallible. How unrealistic. I thoroughly appreciated hearing about Carroll's internal struggles with his faith and his religion - as well as his conflict with his father. Lofty philosophical and religious ideas do not exist in a vacuum. A religion is not just principles of faith. It is also the people who express that faith, whether Haggart, Constantine or the Pope, and the actions they take or fail to take.
Carroll's focus on attempts by evangelicals to proselytize at the Air Force Academy, and to use Academy cadets to proselytize non-Christians is, in my opinion, a perfect example of one of the core issues raised in his book: A religion that can sometimes be a force for good, kindness and compassion can also be a force for intolerance, hatred, and holy war. Also, another core issue is that some "true believers" -- e.g., those who proselytize their faith to convert non-believers -- are blind to the harm that they cause, are ignorant of the myths they assume are true, and some are -- e.g., in Haggart's case -- just plain hypocrites. And I find this to be true of the intolerant fundamentalists in my religion - Judaism - from my own personal experience. Carroll's film might focus on Constantine, the Air Force evangelicals, and Catholicism, but it raises universal issues of myth-making, ignorance, intolerance and xenophobia applicable to other faiths and other circumstances.
I do not fault this film in any way. It is an excellent introduction to all the issues. It is intended to make some people uncomfortable and to encourage many people to study the issues in greater depth.
For those who want to read more about the Air Force Academy and the evangelicals, I recommend the article "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military" by Jeff Sharlet in the May 2009 Harper's Magazine.
Those who want to read more about antisemitism, the myth of Jewish "deicide" (i.e., killing Jesus), the Crusades, the Inquisition, the blood libels, and other examples of Christian acts against Jews, there are many volumes in your library or available by inter-library loan. Unfortunately, these books don't get checked out much, which seems to support another point raised by this film: some people prefer to believe the myths and remain ignorant of the facts.
Sixty Six (2006)
So true ... so true
OK, perhaps my perception is biased by the fact that my Bar Mitzvah was in 1962, albeit Chicago. But this movie rang true on every count: the family business, the distracted (worried) father, the overprotective mother, the domineering brother (just like mine), and the exaggerated importance that (we) twelve year old boys desired of our "coming out party." The movie made me laugh out loud, and even audibly groan at the pathetic human foibles. Bernie's family was (almost, but not quite) as crazy as my own. But the central theme of the film was neither the craziness of family nor the anticipation of disaster. It was how Bernie and his family got through it all and learned core and timeless values. I do not want to spoil it, so I will just say that the ending was incredibly fulfilling. Every Rabbi should see this film. Every parent should see it with their twelve year old -- boy or girl, Jew or Gentile.
Sworn to Silence (1987)
True story of the lawyer's professional duty of confidentiality
It was shocking to see the violent reactions of the townspeople to the defense attorneys. But this film is based on a true story, and I understand that the film does not exaggerate the facts.
According to an article in the 2007 ABA Journal: The defense attorneys, Armani and Belge, "received widespread support from the legal profession, but in the court of public opinion, they didn't fare much better than their client." They were widely reviled by non-lawyers. Their law practices withered. They received hate mail and death threats. Longtime friends stopped speaking to them. They had to move out of their homes. Belge eventually gave up his law practice. Armani suffered a heart attack. A grand jury investigated both lawyers and indicted Belge. The case against Belge was dismissed in 1975. Finally, a New York State Bar ethics committee upheld the lawyers' conduct, explaining that client confidentiality promotes proper representation by encouraging the client to fully disclose all relevant facts including the commission of prior crimes. In 2006, Armani received a distinguished-lawyer award from the Onondaga County (N.Y.) Bar Association.
It would be unfair to compare this film (and the book it is based upon) to Harper Lee's artistic classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But the comparison is unavoidable. To the film's credit, this film accurately portrays the public pressure, condemnation, hatred and violent reaction to the lawyers' representation of their awful and thoroughly unredeemable client. And to Armani's and Belge's credit, they were the real-life "Atticus Finch." Their painful ordeal, but heroic conduct, will be studied in law schools for many years.
Very personal and very revealing
This documentary follows Norman Salsitz as he returns to his birthplace of Kolbuszowa in Poland. Salsitz, who passed away recently, authored several non-fiction books about growing up in Poland before World War II, surviving the Kolbuszowa ghetto and the German concentration camps, escape and insurgent activity during the War, trying to return home after the War, and later moving to Israel and eventually the US. In addition to becoming a very successful businessman, he dedicated his life to Holocaust education and honoring his Jewish roots in Poland. This film documents his return to visit his parents' home and business, his search for property and friends, his visit to the Kolbuszowa Jewish Cemetery and his recollections of his incredible and horrifying experiences during the War. His daughter and his grandsons accompany him, and their insights and reactions are enlightening. My family is also from Kolbuszowa, and one of my uncles was a good friend and classmate of Norman Salsitz. Another uncle of mine also returned to Kolbuszowa (around 2001) and had very similar experiences feeling alienated by the Polish residents, feeling the loss of the abandoned synagogue, and feeling the despair of visiting the cemetery where his mother (my grandmother) is buried. I visited Kolbuszowa in the summer of 2006. So I am naturally inclined to be sympathetic to this material and emotionally involved in the images. On the other hand, the direction and the cinematography (by the outstanding Albert Maysles) are compelling. What some people might not appreciate is the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s Kolbuszowa's 4,000 citizens were evenly split, half Jews and half non-Jews. The town crest contained the Christian Crucifix, the Jewish Star and two hands shaking. Now sixty years after the War, there are many Jews who cannot bring themselves to even think about their Polish homeland without feeling intense anger and there are many Polish people who feel the need to justify the War time extermination of the Polish Jews as well as their continued expulsion from Poland. This film contains many uncomfortable images, discussions and confrontations, but they educate and illuminate.
Robin and Marian (1976)
Romance, tears, humor, humanity
This is one of my personal all-time favorite movies. If you read the "Memorable quotes," you will see a few reasons why. It has some wonderful expressions of love. It has pithy moments of humor. The legendary Robin Hood -- I admit that I grew up watching every episode of the TV series with Richard Greene -- was always larger than life for me. By 1977, I had been settled in career, divorce, some success and some failures -- just like millions of baby-boomers -- and it was enlightening for me to see a more real and human imagination of my "hero:" A Robin Hood humbled by his failures, his false hero, his lost love, and the ordinary aging process. Of course, the acting by Hepburn & Connery is outstanding. So I believe that this film -- not well known and rarely shown on TV - will stand the test of time.
The Pianist (2002)
A missed opportunity
I should explain why I did not rate this film higher. I think it a good film. I think Adrien Brody did an incredibly good job. I think the film more than adequately portrayed the protagonist's near-death experiences. It is dramatic and life-affirming. Many scenes are memorable. Also, as an amateur musician, I can attest to how music can provide purpose, sanity, and sustenance in times of deprivation, pain and fear. Wladyslaw Szpilman was a truly remarkable man whose story of survival was worthy of honoring. But he did little to help others. He observed and suffered from the horrors of the ghetto, but he did little to confront them. Polanski singularly exalted Szpilman's personal survival, when he could have explored other aspects of Szpilman's story. For example, Szpilman's conduct of protecting himself -- and not joining with others, assisting others, or joining the Warsaw ghetto resistance -- was similar to the conduct of the Polish Resistance groups who refused to help the Jews in the Ghetto in spite of the fact that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was at the time the more successful anti-Nazi effort being waged in Europe.
I don't fault Polanski for not exploring so many of the other issues that he could have raised -- just as I do not criticize Szpilman for not doing more to help others. But I think that the movie could have been better. It could have at least raised the question of selfishness and survival.
Of course, the film made the Holocaust more accessible and more palatable to a wider audience -- particularly to a non-Jewish audience. Szpilman seemed more like a Polish gentleman than the kind of "alien" Jews -- by that I mean the rural, shtetl-based Orthodox Jews -- that the many Poles hated and discriminated against, sometimes just as violently as the Nazis. I suppose that Polanski identified with Szpilman and was particularly horrified that the Holocaust would threaten the lives of cultured, assimilated Jews who were no different than their Polish neighbors. Of course, it is his prerogative to select what Holocaust story to tell. His film is similar to some of the films about Bonhoeffer and other Christians arrested by the Nazis. I just think that other films on this subject -- even those about non-Jews -- were much more illuminating, complex, and dramatic -- like "Schindler's List," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Amen," and "The Grey Zone."
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Style over substance
Quentin Tarantino's film is very dramatic and engaging. The acting -- especially by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson -- is outstanding. The slicing of the time line is awkward at times, but it demands attention and makes a repeat viewing valuable, if not necessary. Nevertheless, in the end I ask myself: What I have learned? Where has this film taken me? It is like taking a wild roller coaster ride. It is worth riding again. But I cannot put it in the same category of great films that raise important issues or dramatize a moral dilemma. It does not have the philosophical dimension of great cinema like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Seven Samurai," or "Monsieur Verdoux." On the contrary, it's near glorification of gratuitous violence -- not matter how cinematic -- is ultimately offensive.
Intelligent sci-fi adventure with the right blend of humor
For sophisticated and jaded 21st century movie audiences, this film has the appropriate blend of action, sci-fi, comedy and anti-authority to make it fun and keep my attention every minute. There is a lot of predictability, but the thrill is seeing HOW the plot plays out. There is a core mystery that keeps you intrigued until the last twenty minutes -- and then the fight scenes are enough to carry the film to the end. The characters are iconic and slightly thin -- but the acting is believable and empathetic, with a quip now and then to show a side to a character that you'd like to explore in -- dare I say - a sequel. There are noticeable moments of profundity, like the brief discussions about who gets saved and the villain's obsession with "falling on one's sword." Fortunately these deep issues are raised subtly and never resolved. One pleasant surprise is the humor -- at times deadpan, insulting, risqué, subtle and/or quick. This film is worth repeat viewings -- especially on the big screen where the action and outer space scenes enhance the experience.