Summer’s Lackluster Blockbusters, Replaced

One of the big stories this month reflects the failure of the 2017 summer movie season. By all accounts, it was dismal. Nobody made much money, one measure of success. Critically, Rotten Tomatoes records splat after splat after splat beginning in May and ending August 25. The Emoji Movie, which sounds like it shouldn’t have even been made, clocks in at 8% Fresh with critics. Only six movies were over 90%. Wonder Woman and Spider Man: Homecoming had 92%; four others, 93%: Dunkirk, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Logan Lucky. The figures I think most interesting are the viewers’ likes. Often, perhaps usually, there is a discrepancy. Critics liked the Captain Underpants movie at 87%; viewers didn’t at 63%. Even more dramatic: 78% vs 48% for An Inconvenient Sequel. Critics hated The Dark Tower at 16%. Viewers were kinder at 54%.

I liked Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy, and I didn’t think The Dark Tower was too bad. My favorite exchange was between Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) and Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). They’ve conquered evil and returned to Earth for a respite. On the streets of New York, Jake wants to introduce the Gunslinger to its wonders so treats him to a hot dog: “Savages! What breed?” comes the reply. It was funny in context. Sort of. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) says to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), “I can save today. You can save the world.” Sigh. Sniffle. On we go.

So for your viewing pleasure, I have four movies to watch not associated with this summer. The first, Collateral Beauty, scored 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, but its audience rating was 64%. The plot, ah yes, the plot. Saying anything about it is problematic. The word that comes to mind is “coping,” which is what each member of the impressive cast—Will Smith, Naomie Harris , Helen Mirren, Michael Pena, Ed Norton, and Keira Knightly—does in his or her own way. Without talking about the plot, I can say perhaps that the story dismisses easy answers with feeling and shows a way past them. (On another note, please do not watch Will Smith’s Seven Pounds. One reviewer says it has the worst ending of the decade. It took me a week to get over it.)

Hacksaw Ridge, an insomnia-inspired exception to my no-R-rated rule, is based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) and his willingness to serve in a war, at the battlefront, without a weapon. A Seventh-day Adventist, he would not kill, so he became a medic. The story has its complexities, including his father who fought in World War I. The brutality of war results in the deserved R-rating. Hard to watch, but good to learn about the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The event that David Paterson, then governor of New York, called The Miracle on the Hudson seemed an unlikely topic for an entire film. Yet in Sully, Clint Eastwood manages to come up with a believable, moving story when we know, after all, that the pilots landed the plane safely. The administrative part of the story takes hierarchy and bureaucracy to a new level. An exception to my critics versus audience observance, this movie has identical marks for both sides. Luckily, I’m not afraid to fly.

To find a negative review for Hidden Figures, you have to go Hindustan Times or Cinegarage (in Spanish). Audiences also loved this movie. On one hand, there were a number of historical inaccuracies that made me uncomfortable. One scene I would have thought inaccurate wasn’t: John Glenn really did ask that Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) calculate his trajectory manually, although she had a few days instead of a few minutes to do it. On the other hand, the most understated moments involved the characters Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). John Glenn’s heat shield has problems, and he must return early. They are clearly seen praying for his safety. Tiny, but remarkable.

Having considered all these, I have to note that three of the four are based on true stories, not my usual sub-genre. All have to do with different kinds of heroism, three of the four involving work, not usually so interesting. One late night in Rome last November, one of my grandson’s couldn’t get to sleep and asked me for my favorite movies. I hadn’t seen these then. Three of the four I’d recommend even to a 10-year-old. War can wait. Of course, I have other favorites, but really, I’d rather you tell me yours.



My cousin, William Shakespeare

Yes, it’s true. First cousins no less. Perhaps you’ll see some resemblance in this old family pic. Removed by 13 generations, Will and I share the same set of grandparents in Robert and Mary Arden. Their daughters, Margaret and Mary Arden, were then our respective aunts. We see the generations unwind—daughter Margaret to son Robert to daughter Mary in a progression that looks like this: MFMMMFFFFFMMFMF. All the while there sits Will as my family winds down through the ages on my mother’s father’s mother’s side. That great-grandmother, Olive St. John, died the year I was born; she herself was born in 1871. Now the family line has a long history in this country, leaving Merry Olde England in 1627. No opportunities for family gatherings with the Shakespeares apparently.

Only three kinds of questions are possible: What are the facts? What do they mean? How do you feel about them? The facts you have, and probably too many of them. Implications of said facts? Harder to say. Although I didn’t know my great-grandmother, I knew her sister Maggie quite well. She tried to teach me piano but had a degree in piano herself from Baylor University, a fact I didn’t know until I googled her name looking for her first husband. Once she decided we must have cow brains and eggs for breakfast, so I spent a sleepless night waiting for the horror, which I could not eat. She was disappointed. I rather liked her turnip soup, which seemed old-fashioned even then. On the modern front, she kept Tang, a treat we kids liked to sneak. The meaning of all this has nothing to do with soup or brains: The past is not so far off as we imagine. If I knew someone born in 1879, she could well have known someone born in the 18th century. That 13 generations begins to look smaller. One of the grandparents whose people had come from England is buried in Lynchburg, Tennessee, about an hour from where we saw the eclipse. Time and space narrow. The great man and I are not so far apart after all.

How do I feel about this news? First, I’m not bragging. I can’t write like WS, or act. But I can enjoy his work, most recently The Tempest at (insert shameless plug for a talented daughter-in-law) Shakespeare in the Bar.

Second, you almost surely have some cool cousins too. The website I’m using is called It connects to my genealogy via Both are free. It’s not new, launched in 2011, but computer science people being what they are, the connections now match you up with famous people, with categories such as Authors and Poets (I’m guessing Bob Dylan would be here if we’re related, per the Nobel committee. Quoting John Donne, he said this:  “I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.” His Nobel lecture is here though I’m not sure he explains his win. But I digress.) Famous Americans, presidents, Declaration signers, and so on. While I am not totally convinced of the accuracy of all this, it does make for some fun.

Third, the interconnectedness of everything comes around again. My husband, with his profound brain injury, lost the ability to filter subtleties. After watching Cloverfield, he announced that the monster was obviously a baby and Manhattanites are most frightened of babies. Well, maybe so. In Sunday school, as we were starting the Old Testament begots, he announced several times that we were all cousins, right? Well, right. We are. As it happens, we are related to 37 of the 45 American presidents. Not the current one, but the last two. Amazing, when you think about it.

Nelson Rockefeller, 41st Vice-President, had a catchphrase that was so much used the press had an acronym for it: The brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God (BOMFOG). Regardless of your belief system, this is just a fact. Its implications and your feelings? Right.

Badge of Honor

Today is one of those anniversaries that we’d rather not have. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, we remember what we were doing when we heard the news. I was walking onto campus that Tuesday when a colleague told me about the airplane striking the first tower. A serial denier, I supposed it was fake news (yes, we’ve had that a long time). Once inside, of course, I saw the truth on televisions set up everywhere. The heart-sickness associated with watching the deaths of so many innocents remained for days. My students were puzzled and didn’t understand how such a thing could happen: one asked, “Why didn’t the anti-aircraft missiles get them?”

I thought, too, about my own three young sons. One was serving a mission in Oregon; those in charge there would make sure he was safe. The next was working on an assignment in St. Louis. Cell phones were somewhat new, so we could keep in touch as he struggled to get home. The youngest was in junior high; I took him out of class on Friday to hear a performance of Brahm’s Requiem. All I could think of was that war was coming, and they would have to go.

In the years since 2001, many have tried to make sense of it all. This writer worked in Tower 1 and wrote about baseball on the side. Importantly, the homeland has not seen anything of that magnitude since, nor has the largely faceless enemy made major inroads on the security of the Western world elsewhere. The war I assumed would come did, but not the draft into service that I feared. Professional armed services defend the world now, not just here but everywhere. Attacks continue, killing dozens and sometimes hundreds, and all our lives have changed. The war itself remains largely in the Middle East, however. The government commission that concluded in 2004 published a detailed and articulate report that outlined recommendations for moving forward.

The phrase that came to mind this morning was “badge of honor.” Sixteen years out from those horrific events, we are polarized and angry in this country. Masked people are taking to the streets to beat people whose speech they deem unworthy of protection by a government they do not trust. Senators feel free to attack a court nominee for her faith; this Los Angeles Times op-ed writer thought lines were crossed. Name-calling prevails, but too many examples prevent their inclusion. So what is this badge of honor?

Of all the wonderful countries in the world, none has our Constitution. With a lower case c, the word has to do with what principles something is based on, what fundamentals make an organization. Ours has stood since 1789. It is short, readable in one sitting, and much of it simply sets up the government. The Preamble, just as important, outlines its purpose:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That 19 militant attackers would target us, the US, then, marks what is here with pain and horror but also with purpose and a recognition: What we have sets us apart. Yes, we have struggled with many difficulties, and yes, the phrase American exceptionalism is out of favor. Still, it is worth remembering that on this date in 2001, a group of the world’s enemies decided to single us out. The reading of the names at the memorial in New York began this morning. Billy Collins, poet laureate, wrote about them here. We’re good at that kind of thing too. A badge of honor, perhaps, that we came together then and can again.

Dear John

Dear John,

I meant to write sooner, but you up and died on me. The doctors placed 14 stents in your heart, and you on the transplant list. That seemed encouraging. I thought I had what we laughingly call “time.” Not that I had anything profound to say, but what little there was, I wanted you to know. Your funeral was last Friday, the obituary succinct but eloquent. Your ashes now at sea, iridescent, cohesive, close that chapter.

We didn’t have a lot in common, really. You loved fast things: cars and racing planes. You were restoring a 1963 Porsche 356B. Talk about design! We once had a Karmann Ghia, not quite in the Porsche’s class, but you were pleased we’d had the good sense own it. You liked a good joke. I think you’d laugh at the irony of my title. Sometimes you liked to pull the proverbial leg. As one of the most gullible people in the world, I was your target more than once, but sometimes it was too much like shooting fish in a barrel. In Alaska, we were observing a totem pole out in a reserve. You explained that it wasn’t the real thing but a resin substitute. The real one was too precious to be out in the elements, so this reproduction took its place while it was safely stored in the museum’s vault. The more details you gave, the deeper I believed. Finally, you’d had enough: I wasn’t getting it. “No, my dear, this is the real thing. Don’t believe everything you hear.” But John, you were so convincing!

You were one to think ahead. Teaching a 3-year-old boy to pee in the backyard or suggesting parents tattoo blowholes on their babies’ heads to discover when their hair was gone in old age—yes, that’s funny. Teaching your niece and nephew to respond “Uncle John!” when asked “Who’s the best?” is also amusing, but, let’s just say, some of your relatives wish they’d thought to do it first.

So I am left with those whom you loved. Am I to comfort them? I think not, for that’s well beyond my ability. Am I to learn something? Perhaps, but that seems disingenuous. “Tell people you care for them just in case.” Obviously, we don’t do it well enough. So I will defer to another, better writer.

Your eulogy would have delighted. Trying to find a way to begin, the speaker quoted what you might have said: “You know, Kate, if it were me, I’d open with a joke!” Which, of course, is its own best example of humor—remembering the lightness, neglecting the “Do not go gentle” grimness that it could be. The eulogy then recounted the gifts you gave. A masterful idea, especially noting that the family had long ago decided not to give gifts at Christmas, instruction you completely ignored by giving everyone the same wonderful, inspired things. She talked about gifts of knowledge, friendship, altruism, secrets of manhood (see pee reference above), commitment, love.

Taking that lead, I’ll offer what you gave me: a sense of welcome, an example of someone with real empathy, real passions, real living of a beloved life. They say you died of a bad heart. Odd, isn’t it, how we say that? In fact, you had one of the best hearts I ever knew. Thank you for sharing it.