SoCS: cheek to cheek

“Heaven. I’m in heaven and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak, and I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.”

This has been running through my head every since I read Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week. [Note: Given that this is running through my head, I may have made a mistake in the text. I also am not sure of the composer and lyricist, but it is one of the Great American Songbook sort.]

I also have a black-and-white movie version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing around in my head. Again, I’m not sure if there is a movie that meets this description. I don’t know if this is memory or imagination.

It reminds me that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, backwards and in heels. Somehow, he gets more credit than she, though.

I wonder if, now that I have written this, the song and dance in my head will stop…
*****
In case you didn’t guess, Linda’s prompt this week is “cheek.” Follow this link: https://lindaghill.com/2020/02/14/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-feb-15-2020/ to learn more and join us!

 

 

Review: Just Mercy

Knowing that a film is portraying real people and the situations they face immediately increases its impact for me. Just Mercy is based on a book by lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who, after graduating from Harvard Law School moved to Alabama to offer legal defense to those who could not afford representation and to those wrongly convicted.

One of his early cases involved Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, movingly portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who was on death row for a murder that he did not commit. Having just arrived in Alabama, Bryan Stevenson, played earnestly by Michael B. Jordan, delves into the case and finds ample evidence that shows Johnny D could not have murdered the 18-year-old young woman. It also quickly becomes apparent that race was a huge factor in McMillian’s conviction. The victim was white and McMillian is black.

It also quickly becomes apparent that Attorney Stevenson, who is also black, will encounter racial obstacles in his professional life and harassment by law enforcement officers and the legal establishment, but he continues to do all he can to seek justice for his clients, their families, and their community.

I have long been opposed to the death penalty. I remember writing an essay against it when I was still in grammar school. While my opposition centered around the moral belief that killing a person is wrong and the Constitutional grounds that the death penalty constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” this film illustrates some of the other reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as systemic racism in the legal system, incompetent defense attorneys, and lack of recognition and treatment of mental illness.  There is also the horrible possibility of executing an innocent person.

One of the most moving things about the film for me was the support that the men on death row gave one another. Even though they couldn’t often see each other because the walls between them were solid, they would shout to each other to exchange information and offer words of comfort. They would use the bars at the front of the cell and a metal cup to let another man know they are thinking about him.

The film is rated PG-13 and would be too emotionally difficult for children. There are sequences that I found emotionally difficult, especially the one execution that is shown. While the execution itself is not shown on screen, the lead-up to it is heartbreaking.

I always stay to watch the credits of films. Even if you usually do not, you will want to stay through the first part of the credits which gives updates on the people that we meet during the film. It is a final reminder that we are dealing with the lives of real people, what happened to them, and the implications of those events that continue into our present and future as a country.

A note from Joanne:  This is the fifth(!) film I have seen this month. I have never been to a theater so many times in a two week-period. Those of you who are new to Top of JC’s Mind should know that this is not usually a movie review blog. You just happened to catch me at a time when movies are swirling in my mind.
*****
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Review: Bombshell

As part of the mini-sabbatical I am taking, I decided to see three movies:  Little Women, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Bombshell.

One of these things is not like the others.

I don’t often go to R-rated movies. Usually, it is because they are too violent or scary and I am prone to nightmares. Bombshell, however, is R-rated due to language and sexual harassment, both real-life things with which I am acquainted.

Bombshell is based on the story of how Roger Ailes, then chairman and CEO of Fox News, was forced to step down after a lawsuit filed against him for sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, who had been a host on the network, unleashed similar claims from other women who worked with Ailes over a span of decades. Many of the characters portrayed in the movie are real people who worked at Fox News, although conversations and some other characters are fictionalized.

The movie employs archival clips of Fox News footage within the movie. It is stunning how much Nicole Kidman, as Gretchen Carlson, and Charlize Theron, as Megyn Kelly, sound like the women they portray. They also resemble them physically, but, as anyone familiar with Fox News knows, most of the women on-air at the network are young, blond, and wearing skirts, so that viewers can see their legs. Ailes’s emphasis on women’s looks was often the first shot in his sexual harassment campaign. It appears that he went on to use his control over these women’s careers as leverage to get them to engage with him sexually.

John Lithgow, who portrays Ailes, is transformed to look like him. As a woman watching the film, I was repulsed by his creepiness and his manipulative behavior. Lithgow makes the real threat Ailes posed to women unmistakeable, while also showing him to be perplexed about how his behavior was wrong. While the incidents in the film took place before the #MeToo movement became well-known, we have often seen this pattern when powerful men are forced to accept responsibility for their harassing behavior. They seem to feel that they are entitled to demand sexual favors from women and that these women are freely choosing to engage with them, rather than seeing how they are using their positions of power to manipulate women who are afraid of losing their careers. In the film, we see how Gretchen Carlson was demoted and, finally, fired from Fox News when she rejected Ailes’s advances.

The film also portrays the culture at Fox News as one of misogyny. Many of the other men at the network are shown to be dismissive of women. Others, in the aftermath of Ailes’s departure, also are forced to resign due to covering up for Ailes or for their own harassment of women on their staffs.

Some of the women around Ailes come to his defense. Some, such as Ailes’s wife, don’t want to believe he is capable of such despicable behavior. Some may have been motivated by self-interest, not wanting to see their own careers derailed by opposing their powerful boss.

Because the women who worked at Fox News all had to sign non-disclosure agreements and binding arbitration, we may never know the full story of what happened to them. Gretchen Carlson was only able to file suit against Roger Ailes because a state law in New Jersey allowed her to sue Ailes personally, rather than having to sue Fox News, which was impossible due to the arbitration clause. She is currently fighting to be released from the non-disclosure agreement so that she can publicly tell the specifics of what happened to her.

There is an unknown number of women who had their lives and careers damaged by Roger Ailes. Bombshell tells part of that story, although other parts had to be fictionalized. Perhaps someday, the non-disclosure agreements will be overturned so that all these women can tell the truth about what they experienced.
*****
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Review(ish): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I may have made a mistake in my quest to catch up on movies.

Because I admire Tom Hanks as an actor and Fred Rogers as a loving and generous soul, I wanted to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I had appreciated the 2018 documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and wanted to see what more this fact-inspired fictional movie had to say. I knew that it was about a journalist who had written a piece about Fred Rogers, but little else, other than that Tom Hanks had been nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor.

I found the juxtaposition of the much darker story of the journalist, Lloyd, played by Matthew Rhys, with the gentle, caring, spiritual depth of Fred Rogers to be jarring. I also hadn’t known that the death of a parent is a major theme in the movie; while the situation in the film is very different from my own recent experience, that aspect of the story was still upsetting for me.

My reaction reminded me of my response to the film Julie & Julia, another film about an unlikely pair of protagonists in which I reacted positively to the elder and negatively to the younger. An aside: the link in the prior sentence is to a blog post I wrote in 2014 about my reaction to the film and blogging. Re-reading it just now was… an experience – and a chance to look back at a post from early in my blogging and poetry days and reflect on where I am now as opposed to where I thought I might be. At any rate, I think it still stands up as a decent piece of writing, so, if you have the time and are so inclined, check it out.

When my daughters were young, PBS was a mainstay in our house. I admit that I had a more enjoyable time watching Sesame Street with the girls than Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I wasn’t a fan of the slow pacing and I was not at all a fan of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Every time someone said, “Correct, as usual.” to King Friday the XIII, I cringed. Over the years, I’ve learned to think about it more from the child’s viewpoint and understand that the show was built to give children the time and space to deal with their whole range of emotions. This was not readily apparent to me as a young parent.

There is one episode that has always stayed with me. Yo-Yo Ma was Mr. Rogers’ guest and was playing a movement of one of the Bach cello suites. Fred asked him if he played it differently after he had had children and Yo-Yo Ma said that he did play it differently after he became a parent, that the emotions underlying his interpretation were changed because of his children. As a musician myself, this resonated with me and has stayed with me over the (many intervening) years.

Some of the most emotionally resonant moments in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for me were ones where something Mr. Rogers was saying reminded me of my own family. For example, there is thread in the story about Mr. Rogers’ attachment to his puppets, like Daniel Tiger, even though they were getting worn. In an attempt to draw him out, Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd about his own childhood “special friend”, which turned out to be a stuffed toy called Old Rabbit.

My mind immediately flashed to a story of childhood toys that take on larger meaning. When my daughter E and her spouse L had to spend major amounts of time on different continents while doing research or while waiting for the visa process to finally complete, they would exchange their favorite stuffed toys. E’s cow “Kuh” and L’s duck “Pineapple” made quite a few transoceanic flights and are now ensconced in London permanently with E, L, and their daughter ABC. To show you the extent to which Kuh and Pineapple were connected to E and L’s love story, here is the wedding cake topper that a friend made for them:
Beth and Larry's caketopper

Back to the movie. When the journalist Lloyd finishes his piece, his spouse reads it, saying that it is brilliant but not really about Mr. Rogers. I feel the same way about this blogpost, which is why I said in the title that it is “review(ish)”. Fred Rogers’ greatest gift was caring about each person he met on a deep level, meeting them where they were and helping them connect with and express their own feelings. It is all to the good that this film, the documentary, the vast archives of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the non-profit organization he founded, re-named Fred Rogers Productions after his death, which now produces Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, serve as continuing reminders to accept ourselves and care for others.

Mr. Rogers often said or sang, “I like you just the way you are.” That message to me is part of the call, expressed in Christianity and held by those of many other spiritual paths, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who taught by his example. I appreciate those who are carrying his message in the present and into the future.

The world needs to hear that message now more than ever.
*****
This post is part of Linda’s Just Jot It January. Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/01/09/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-9th-2020/

Review: Little Women

As part of my “sabbatical”, I decided to see some movies that I have been wanting to see. The one I most wanted to see was Little Women, so I started there.

This is the best film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book that I have ever seen. Director/screenwriter Greta Gerwig made some interesting choices. She begins the film with scenes that happen much later in the story of the March sisters, then moves back seven years to show us what had led to these opening scenes. The moving back and forth in time continues throughout the film, but without the onscreen warning of the first switch. Having read the book several times as a child and having seen numerous adaptations over the years, I could easily follow the timeline switches, but they could momentarily confuse those new to the story.

The cast was superb. I especially enjoyed Saoirse Ronan’s nuanced portrayal of Jo and Florence Pugh’s spirited portrayal of Amy, who is ages 13-20 in the film.

I especially enjoyed the settings. Most of the action in Alcott’s book takes place in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1860s and 70s. I grew up in the still-rural northwestern part of the state and the outdoor scenes with woods and fields reminded me of home. The architecture was also very appropriate to New England in that era. I made a point to watch for shooting location in the credits and was thrilled to see that it had been filmed in Massachusetts. No wonder the trees looked familiar!

At 2 hours 15 minutes, it is a relatively long movie by current standards, but it did not feel long because there is so much happening. I congratulate Greta Gerwig on her excellent sense of storytelling and pacing. It is a beautiful film which I hope many people will see, in theaters and in other formats, for years to come. It is a timeless classic.
*****
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A Wrinkle in Time

T and I finally got to see the new movie version of A Wrinkle in Time this week. Bonus: we were the only two in the theater for a Tuesday morning showing.

I appreciated the way the film updated the Madeleine L’Engle classic, setting it in the present day. I also appreciated the diversity of the casting among the leading roles and the smaller roles/extras. Many of the themes in L’Engle’s book – bullying, the role of science, love of family and friends, the strength of community in overcoming evil – feel fresh and pertinent in contemporary America. Though the story had to be condensed to fit into a movie-length timeframe, the core of L’Engle’s message remained strong.

I loved the vibrancy of the film and the richness of the color palette, especially when visiting other worlds. I also enjoyed the performances, bringing to life L’Engle’s sometimes enigmatic characters. I especially enjoyed Storm Reid’s portrayal of Meg.

I hope that the film will inspire a new generation of young people to read L’Engle’s novel and the rest of the Time Quintet.

Review: “The Post”

Most of the plot of “The Post” takes place over a few days in 1971 when the Washington Post released parts of the  Pentagon Papers, detailing what was going on behind the scenes in the government and military before and during the Vietnam War.

Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the paper’s publisher, with great sensitivity and nuance. She conveys so much with a slight raising of an eyebrow or trembling of fingers. Tom Hanks plays the hard-driving Post editor Ben Bradlee with appropriate business-like bluster, although letting his personal feelings show in some scenes when he is alone with Graham or his wife.

I was a child living in rural New England when the Pentagon papers were released. We were somewhat sheltered from the protests and intrigues about the war, but there were certain things about that time that I remember and that resonated for me while watching the film.

First was how much I admire Katharine Graham, who was a woman in a position of power in a field dominated by men and also dealing with the overwhelmingly male realms of finance and government. There are several scenes in the film that accentuate the uniqueness of her position in that timeframe. After the death of her father and her husband, she inherited the job of publisher of the Post and succeeded in bringing the paper from being a local Washington one to national prominence.  The Pentagon Papers story was a major part of that rise in stature, which continues to this day. The Washington Post has been breaking major stories on the inner workings of the current White House and on the Russian influence investigation.

Second was where my brain jumps every time I hear the name Daniel Ellsberg – to the phrase “Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.” I remember news coverage after the Papers came out about efforts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had been the source of the secret study to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist had been broken into by an FBI and a CIA agent to try to find materials with which to blackmail Ellsberg and this was covered in the news media.

I hope that no one is breaking into offices in the present day, but it is a stark reminder of how chilling it is to have the government try to interfere with the freedom of the press. Toward the end of the film, there is a quote from the 6-3 majority Supreme Court decision that allowed the Times and the Post and other papers to continue to publish stories from the Pentagon Papers. [What follows is probably not the exact quote from the movie, but it is taken from the concurrence of Justice Black. The Supreme Court document can be found here.]

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

I hope people will think of this every time the President denigrates the press or says that a member of the press is lying when they are actually reporting or says that the press is the enemy.

The United States needs a free press today as much as it always has. It is an absolute necessity for the health of our nation and our democracy. I thank director Stephen Spielberg and everyone involved in “The Post” for the timely reminder.
*****
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Star Wars history

aka a way to write about my spouse and me going to see Star Wars without there being spoilers in the post…

When we were in our mid-teens, B and I saw the first Star Wars movie at the Mohawk in North Adams, the last remaining downtown theater surviving from the age of weekend double features with newsreels.  We both loved the characters, the story, the larger-than-life look with the special effects, the music, and the humor mixed in with the old-style good-versus-evil dichotomy.

It was puzzling that the opening sequence announced it as Episode Four, but it was understood as a nod to the serials that would use that technique to update viewers who may have missed an episode on the backstory of what they were about to see.

We never imagined that, forty years later, we would be seeing Episode Eight with some of those same actors reprising their roles.

Earlier this week, we saw the latest Star Wars movie at the Regal multiplex in Binghamton, New York, although our showing was delayed for a few minutes due to technical difficulties. All the things we loved about the original are still there, albeit with more advanced sound and effects than in 1977. It was poignant to see Carrie Fisher in her last performance as Leia, especially knowing that Episode Nine had been planned to center on her.

B and I still tend to call each movie “Star Wars” with an episode number if needed for clarity, but, technically, I should refer to this film as The Last Jedi. 

The Last Jedi was not shown at the Mohawk. The building is still there on Main Street with a restored marquee. The building has been stabilized and is under the ownership of the City of North Adams, but plans for a full restoration have yet to be realized.

Maybe sometime in the 2020s…

 

The Big Sick

Back when it was in theaters this summer, B and I went to see The Big Sick. It was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, based on their real-life courtship – which involved Emily being in a coma. This is not a spoiler; it was well known before the movie came out, so I thought I would be able to handle it.

I was looking forward to going to the theater with B because we hadn’t gotten out much on our own, as we are in a major sandwich generation phase. It seemed like a good choice because the movie is a romantic comedy. Not only do we know that the couple get together in the end but it is also about a comedian (Nanjiani plays himself in the film) with lots of jokes in the show.

I did like the movie and think that it was well done. It was hard for me to write about it at that time, but it is now coming out on DVD, so this seemed a good time to revisit it and put out a post.

As I said, I knew the basic storyline, but there were things that were jarring to me. The first time we saw Emily on a ventilator reminded me of the last time I saw a family member with a tube.

Seeing Emily’s parents dealing with the doctors and trying to find the best care for their daughter brought back memories of dealing with past medical problems with my daughters. Emily’s parents are told that the doctors know what is going on and the treatment will work – and then it doesn’t. I know what that feels like. I know how desperately you want to protect your child and find the right person to help them get better. I know how little power you have in that situation.

Although the details are very different, I could also relate to the themes of family tensions around the experience of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants, religious differences between generations and spouses, and bi/multiracial families.

Erma Bombeck wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” The Big Sick walks that line in a very human and meaningful way.

 

Hidden Figures

Yesterday, B, E, T, and I went to see the film Hidden Figures. We all loved it.

Hidden Figures is based on the story of a group of African-American women who were “computers” in the early days of the US  space program. That is computers, as in those who carry out mathematical computations.

As sometimes happens, there are some connections between aspects of the film and our area and family. B, early in his career, worked for Link Flight Simulation, which made simulators for NASA. He then went to work for IBM, which, like Link, was founded in our area. IBM plays a role in the film, with a 1961 computer filling a large room. IBM used to have a museum in Endicott which had components from that era, as well as equipment, such as time clocks from IBM’s early years.

The film shows the rampant sexism and racism that the women faced in segregated Virginia. It was sobering for B and me, being reminded that this was happening in our lifetime, although we were only toddlers at the time and living in rural New England, which was neither segregated nor diverse at the time.

It was also sobering for all of us to realize that, as far as our country has come on matters of race and sex, there is still quite a distance to go to reach real equality and equity.

The long and fruitful careers of the main characters in the film are encouraging to all the younger women who follow, despite the obstacles that they still face. Thank you to everyone involved in making the film for bringing this important story to all of us.
*****
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