The Master

What to make of The Master? I had been so looking forward to this (NOT) based Scientology (well, sort of) drama from a great director and some of the best actors in the game. Here’s what I walked away with:

Paul Thomas Anderson is a challenging director. He doesn’t take an easy path to his films, pushes you as a viewer, gets incredible performances out of everyone, and has no desire to make anything comfortable or ordinary.

The film has a compact story. Very little happens – and what happens isn’t of much substance. This isn’t a movie to find out how it ends. It essentially comes to a conclusion of little surprise and then the credits roll. Paul Thomas Anderson films dn’t typically stick to standard film arc or character development. If it wasn’t for the acting in some of these dialogue driven scenes, the film could easily have lost me. Film will surely be nominated for the Oscar in Picture, Writing, and Director. But The Master isn’t a masterpiece. It is about its parts. And the acting is chief among them.

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#BlogElul via the Movies – Movie List Wrap-Up

Although Elul is history, the baseball stat kid in me was curious about all the different movies I used in the 29 #BlogElul via the Movies posts.

Whether in passing or extended discussion, I referred to 87 different movies. No movie was mentioned more than twice – although 9 did get a double dose.

The oldest movie was The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The most recent was The Hobbit which comes out December 14, 2012. I tried to use more familiar and more recent films a a general rule.

To my surprise, I used only 1 Godfather movie – and it was Part III. I found a way to use all six Rocky movies including the first two twice.

I only used Indiana Jones and the Kingdom the Crystal Skull (in a disaparaging manner) and none of the other Raiders films (Want to buy this blogger a gift? The trilogy + the bad 4 th one just came out on Blu-Ray)

Not counting Dredd and The Hobbit, which haven’t been released, I have not seen only one of the films I used (Guesses?)

Best film I used: The Princess Bride

Worst film I used: Patch Adams (but Rocky V is close)

What’s the best film on this list in your opinion?

What’s the worst film on the list?

Here’s the full list:

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#BlogElul via the Movies 29 – Justice Justice

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

This Torah verse from Deuteronomy 16:20 is the inspiration for the name of the synagogue that I am honored to lead through the High Holidays starting tonight. They chose the name Congregation B’nai Tzedek (Children of Justice) inspired by that verse noting, “Our sages pointed out that the word tzedek is repeated in the verse to show us that justice must be our goal and that our means of achieving that goal must also be just.”

The United States is certainly no stranger to the challenge of doing justly while seeking justice. The amazing George Takei’s musical Allegiance, which premiers this month in San Diego, tells the shameful story of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Abu Ghraib torture, Guantanamo, and even the arguments to enter in the war in Iraq are all examples of the striving to balance justice, the challenge of the end justifying the means. America – who has rightly been a champion and model of justice in its history – is also confronted by the huge lapses in it to this day – our dealings with people unlike those in power – race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, country of origin, etc. – are littered with attempts to make a difference, but often fall short of doing so justly.

Such is the theme, obvious or underlying, of most every courtroom drama ever made. I cannot type these words without hearing Al Pacino shout, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” from …And Justice for All. But outside the court and its structure, justice gets even murkier.

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#BlogElul via the Movies 28 – Responsibility

“With great power comes great responsibility.” – Uncle Ben (Click for video)

When the topic is “responsibility” and the vehicle is “movies,” this is the inevitable outcome. Uncle Ben cautions his nephew Peter with this famous phrase without even knowing the incredible burden or power that secretly Peter struggles with. Then Uncle Ben is killed as a direct result of Peter’s inaction and apathy. And thus Spider-Man is born.

The meta-source of the quote is unknown although some speculate where Stan Lee might have have been influenced.  But for Jews, we recognize that we all have great power. While Spidey-Sense and super strength are one kind of power, the influence we hold over others, the example we set, the opportunity to do mitzvot, and the power we hold over own selves are all tremendous responsibilities.

The High Holy Days are a time to reflect on that innate power and do something with it. Hopefully our inaction, apathy, or poor choices will not result in someone’s death. But it will result in our own soul being trapped from blossoming and thriving.

You have great power. Now use it to make a difference in your life and others.

#BlogElul is the brainchild of @imabima who blogs at For the 30 days of Elul, the spiritual preparation before the Jewish High Holy Days, many Jews will be reflecting on the themes of the season. My posts will all be through the lens of movies. You can see all the themes in the graphic. Follow all the other excellent postings through Twitter at #BlogElul along with related items #Elulgram and #PopCultureElul.

#BlogElul via the Movies 27 – Good vs. Evil

It’s never as easy as “Good” vs. “Evil”. Cable news and the movies (and even the Bible) often want you to divide the world that way. From our individual perspective, it sure sometimes looks like that. But good and evil are much broader and deeper concepts than most of us think.

The Horror Movie portrays Evil as particularly simple – a soulless killing machine that deserve to be destroyed (usually multiple times in the same movie). One of the best takes on both horror movies and the nature of hero/villainy is the recent original comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. The plot is that of any horror film: Young adults go into the woods only encounter two creepy hillbillies and the death that follows. But that isn’t this film at all as it is told from the perspective of those two country boys, Tucker and Dale. It is brilliant, funny, original, and will perhaps make you reevaluate evil from other films. (See the 1st #BlogElul entry discussing Darth Vader, for example).

I think this becomes personally important at the High Holy Days. The liturgy of services can lead you to villify yourself. But you are much more than the sum of your failings. There is no need to try and improve yourself if you are simple “Evil”. So don’t spend time on broad labels, but on positive possibilities for growth. Make this year less about being good than doing good. And the rest will follow.

#BlogElul is the brainchild of @imabima who blogs at For the 30 days of Elul, the spiritual preparation before the Jewish High Holy Days, many Jews will be reflecting on the themes of the season. My posts will all be through the lens of movies. You can see all the themes in the graphic. Follow all the other excellent postings through Twitter at #BlogElul along with related items #Elulgram and #PopCultureElul.

#BlogElul via the Movies 26 – Readiness

I’m not ready. Then again, I am never ready right before the Holidays. I always do things in big bunches as we get closer. Most of the time it works, but it does make for a very stressful couple weeks before the High Holy Days. The muse of writing strikes when it wants. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always hit me when I have to get some sermonizing done. But you need to be in the right moment to be ready.

Look at When Harry Met Sally. Although both Harry and Sally were searching for relationships of different sorts and kept running into each other at moments they were available, it wasn’t until that New Year’s Eve at the end of the film that presented the moment. It was only then Harry found the courage, the words, the emotion, the recognition that they were to perfect to be together.

Or as Harry says, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

The moment has to strike and then we are ready.

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#BlogElul via the Movies 25 – Forgiving

The Descendants was one of those films that captivated you or not. It wasn’t Alexander Payne’s finest film. I still think Election is an unappreciated masterpiece (If you haven’t ever seen that – and you probably haven’t – give yourself a gift a go see that). But The Descendants was really quite fantastic. The Best Picture nominee tackled a wide range of subjects normally glossed over in a big budget film. As one web site wrote, it was about “love, loss, death, betrayal, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”

Ultimately though, it was about forgiveness. George Clooney’s character had to forgive his comatose wife (that was in the trailer – not a spoiler), his kids, and especially himself. His breakdown scene got him an Oscar nomination. The film is full of rich, more fully realized characters (especially for an ensemble cast) and I think deserved all the praise heaped upon it.

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Remembering 9/11

This is what I wrote for Congregation B’nai Tzedek‘s weekly email:

It was also a Tuesday. I remember because it was my day off and I was in my home in Dallas, Texas working on a Rosh Hashanah sermon when someone called from Temple in a panic. The rest of the morning is a blur interrupted by very clear searing moments that I will never forget.

Whether you were in California, Texas, New York, or anywhere on Earth, September 11, 2001 is a day that sticks with us of one of pain, shock, and that changed our country and our lives.

I spent the morning on the phone. My brother was working at a school on the Upper West Side, so I knew he wasn’t near the Twin Towers. But I still wanted to hear his voice. He was unavailable as the school was being evacuated and parents were coming to get their children. We didn’t talk until later in the day. My parents were on a trip to New Jersey. I watched TV in Texas talking with my dad, the architect, in New Jersey as he tried to comprehend the forces that could bring down these massive skyscrapers.

We hastily put together a service for the Temple community in Dallas. It was the largest attendance at a service that wasn’t a High Holy Day. Everyone’s first response was the need to be together, to form community, to find a caring face. Prayers felt more significant. Patriotic songs and symbols had new meaning. Interaction with other human beings had strength and intensity. For all of us, whatever our story, of the many lessons of 9/11, the power of another person came sharply into focus.

This year, as recognize the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, we remember those who fell. We commend our first responders, our sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines, and all those who give of their own being to defend protect, and serve.

This Sunday night, we get a chance to gather together in our greatest numbers. We’ll welcome the New Year and look ahead with hope that the future is still bright and that we can best move forward when we stand with each other.

I am honored to share these days with you. In sadness, in strength, and in hope, we reflect back today, and we march ahead towards the best of tomorrow – together.

#BlogElul via the Movies 24 – Giving

If you haven’t seen The Artist, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of last year, then you really need to see more movies. It was best picture and everyone (just about) loved it. So I don’t feel bad referring to the end of the movie assuming 95% have seen it and the other 5% aren’t much of a mover goer. But you can click “Continue Reading” below  if you really don’t want to know the end of the film.

As his career and finances drain away in the wake of sound films, silent film star George grows depressed and irrational. When he ends up injured after a fire, a series of generous actions are revealed to him. At first they are all anonymous: George is recovering in a beautiful home. All his possessions that were sold at auction are stored in a downstairs room of the house. His faithful butler, whom he let go well after his money ran out, is now working for for this same mysterious benefactor. These acts of giving have been done without the recipient, George, knowing who is helping – and without even knowing they are taking place. On Maimonides famous ladder of giving it would be number 6 – or right near the top.

Soon it is revealed the giver is the world-famous actress Peppy, a dancer that George helped get her break in show business. After a brief near suicide attempt by George, Peppy’s generosity continues as she gives him much needed strength and support and then helps him get a job in new Hollywood.

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#BlogElul via the Movies 23 – Awakenings

Do you remember the film Awakenings? If you were a teen or older in 1990, you recall it was based on Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book of the same name. It recounted the true (Hollywood adjusted) story of a miracle drug that woke catatonic patients after decades. It was a moving and sad film (I won’t spoil the plot turns) and was a critical success.

I think we often live like those patients in Awakenings. We hope and wait that one day a magic moment will occur and we will behave differently from then one. We love to set false starts to our personal awakening. “I’ll start the diet on Monday.” “If she says she’ll go out with me, I’ll start hitting the gym.” “If the boss treats me badly one more time, I’ll quit.” We defer our own life to time and action outside ourselves. We refuse to be masters of our own destiny, but victims of circumstance and pretenders to our fate.

Movies make these awakenings seem natural. In the recent comedy Cedar Rapids, the main character is challenged to change his life by his interactions with the “wacky” people at an insurance conference who challenge his quiet demeanor. By film’s end, of course, he has grabbed hold of his own future and (because it is a comedy) will live happily ever after. While unrealistic, it can be inspiring. Look at the advice of Sen. Robert F. Bennett: “Your life is the sum result of all the choices you make, both consciously and unconsciously. If you can control the process of choosing, you can take control of all aspects of your life. You can find the freedom that comes from being in charge of yourself.”

So don’t put it off. Don’t wait on others. Find some dormant part of your soul and being and wake it up. Own your own life.