Archive for Movies

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Some Thoughts on Finally Seeing the Film

After months of following press coverage and whetting my appetite with trailers and snippets, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” adapted from the John LeCarre novel of the same title, has finally arrived in my local theater.

It is the early 1970’s, in the midst of the Cold War, and the head of British Intelligence, “Control” (John Hurt), has stepped down after a failed operation in Budapest, Hungary. Control suspects that one of four senior British agents has been acting as a Russian agent—”The Mole”—and that the operation in Hungary was an attempt to identify him. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who retired after Control’s resignation, is asked to investigate a claim by agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) that a mole does in fact exist. Smiley’s investigations—aided by the young and ambitious Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) lead him down a twisted trail of deception to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), an agent believed to have been killed in the failed Hungary operation who is at the center of the fiasco and holds the key to the identity of the mole.

Boasting a cast including Gary Oldman and Colin Firth as well as promising, young talent like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, this is a film that seems at times to call more attention to showcasing the skill of its actors than on plot detail. Gary Oldman and Colin Firth are as usual on top form; Oldman in particular is the perfect fit for George Smiley. With a quiet, understated authority, he has the bearing of a man both accustom to and weary of living in a world where mistrust and suspicion are the order of the day, and betrayal often comes at the hands of those you thought you knew. Firth’s characterization of Bill Haydon yet again displays his mastery of the ability to capitalize on very little screen time to create a character who, despite flitting along the outskirts of the story, maintains a mysteriously pervasive presence. Haydon is a character whose casual machismo and wily charm readily lend themselves to the aura of intrigue that surrounds his absence from much of the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Peter Guillam was especially rewarding to witness, as seemingly enamored of Oldman as Guillam is of Smiley, and yet holding his own alongside his seasoned co-stars. Given Cumberbatch’s oft-quoted claim in an interview in The Observer that the call sheet for Tinker Tailor is one he will frame and keep forever, he plays that acknowledged admiration to his advantage to cultivate the relationship between hero and hero-worshiper that exists between Smiley and Guillam. The film also boasts strong performances by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, as well as Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs and Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina.

For viewers who’ve read LeCarre’s novel, the film sustains the basics of the suspenseful plot with a few minor departures, and some of the more poignant scenes—particularly those that lingered on facial expressions and wordless but heavily coded gazes did homage to Lecarre’s fluid, descriptive writing. To those unfamiliar with the original story, the plot is summarized concisely, if confusingly at times—mostly due to the challenge of adapting such a complex story into a two-hour film—but the frequent flashbacks and oft-jarring scene shifts lend themselves well to the air of suspense. The real enjoyment, however, comes from watching a selection of talented actors conquering a cast of complex characters.

Film synopsis partially taken from IMDB, and thanks to for posting the article in The Observer


Comments (3)

December 16, 1775- For Unto us was Born this day: an Austen Addict’s Tribute

On this day in 1775, was born in Hampshire one of the most captivating and enduring novelists of English Literature: the one and only Jane Austen. Austen was one of eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen; of her siblings, Cassandra was most notably the closest to Jane, and her brother Henry served as her literary agent.

Among Austen scholars and biographers, she is well-known for rarely straying outside the boundaries of home and family life. Her education was completed largely at home after a brief stint under the care of Mrs. Ann Cawley, during which period she and her sister Cassandra caught typhus and returned home. the sisters briefly attended a boarding-school between 1785 and 1786, returning home when the family could no longer afford to keep both girls in school.

Austen began writing in 1787—a series of poems and short-stories later collected into what is referred to as “The Juvenilia”. During her lifetime, Austen published four novels:/Sense and Sensibility/ (1811), /Pride and Prejudice (originally written in 1795 under the title /First Impressions/), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). /Persuasion/ and /Northanger Abby/ were published posthumously by Henry and Cassandra in 1887. She died on July 18. 1817 after a prolonged illness, and aside from a twelve-year period between 1820 and 1832, her novels have never been out of print.

As Robert Urvine writes in his introduction to /Pride and Prejudice/, “Austen is one of few nineteenth-century novelists who have entered popular consciousness as genre screenwriters”. Her work captures, for her contemporary readership and modern audiences alike, a “fantasy of Englishness,” particularly in her depiction of pre-industrial England. Such literary escapism is clearly evident in novels like /Pride and Prejudice/ which, though originally penned in the midst of French-revolutionary turmoil, deals not with the social and political issues at the forefront of social consciousness, but offers a comical and satirical treatment of “polite society”. Austen’s novels have been the subject of numerous adaptations, from Emma Thompson’s “Sense and Sensibility” and the now legendary BBC/A&E “Pride and Prejudice” to the modernized version of Emma in “Clueless” and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels (/Bridget Jones’ Diary and /The Edge of Reason/, also adapted into film). Not to mention Seth Grahame’s horrifyingly humorous /Pride and Prejudice and Zombies/: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” If not for the fact that Jane Austen is well-known among her adoring readers for her sense of humor, the earth might have felt the tremors emanating from Winchester Cemetery as she turned in her grave.

I adore Austen for her quick wit and satirical sense of humor; for her comical yet thoughtful treatment of issues of social mobility, gender politics, and sexuality; for creating a rich cast of characters as familiar to readers as our own families and friends. I can never resist—rascal though I know him to be—falling in love with Frank Churchill, and witnessing Darcy’s reformation is as rewarding to me now as when I first read /Pride and Prejudice/. As a graduate school professor of mine so rightly put it, we don’t read Austen novels to find out what happens; we know already who’s going to wind up together. The magic of Austen isn’t finding out what happens in the end. It’s discovering how we get there.

Leave a Comment

Don’t Look Now, but I Think it Just Moved: Welcome to the Wax Museum, Part 2

Back in October, I wrote in “Don’t Look Now, but I Think it Just Moved: Welcome to the Wax Museum about the report that Madame Tussauds was in the process of completing a wax-work of none other than Colin Firth, and the fierce internal dialogue that raged in my brain over this news, given my irrational fear of wax-works in general: “I’m terrified of wax-works.”
“But it’s Colin Firth. You’ve loved his work for years. You should be thrilled he’s being given such an honor…immortalized in effigy forever.”
“But they look so uncanny. You expect they’re going to move, or become suddenly animated in the manner of a zombie and go off on a brain-eating rampage in the dead of night.”
“OH well, if you can’t get over your fears, take comfort in the fact that you won’t ever have to look at it. One of the few benefits of being blind.”

At the time, the statue was unfinished, and so to avoid traumatic dreams about being set upon in the dead of night by a headless zombie in Mark Darcy’s reindeer jumper, I mentally shelved the news…until this morning, when The Telegraph reported that Madame Tussauds had unveiled the completed Colin this morning. (Side note: to the writer of the above article, that would be King George VI, not King George IV; inadvertent Roman numeral reversal=historical inaccuracy, just FYI). According to the lovely Livia Firth, wife of Colin, the result is “cool”. I suppose, given that she has the pleasure of viewing the live specimen in all his glory, that she would be the best judge, and if she’s given it her approval, I suppose that ought to be good enough for the rest of us—especially someone who isn’t really in a position to make an assessment of its accuracy and esthetic elegance.

This article includes a few images of wax-and-real Colin respectively for convenient comparison. The idea of “robot real Colin” it suggests is a bit much—even for me, though admittedly I’m now contemplating the benefits of the remote-control operated boyfriend.
Finally, according to a reliable source (translation: a friend with properly functioning eyeballs) they did in fact get the dimples right, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re getting the legitimate, full Firthian effect. Phobia notwithstanding, I almost wish I could actually see it (almost).

Side note: my spell-checker refuses to acknowledge that Firthian is in fact a word. I have seen it used. I have used it myself. It is a legitimate adjective in academic discourse, so note to spell-checker, don’t argue with me about this when my temper has already been tried today by sloppy student errors.
And with that charming thought, I leave you.

Comments (5)

Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!: Charity Cash for Colin!

The following is another moment of hilarity brought to you by the lovely and talented Colin Firth, to whom I am eternally grateful for ensuring that my life never experiences a shortage of smiles.

Yesterday in the midst of the holiday rush of clearing work off of my desk and packing for my trip, I stumbled across a post on Twitter by the lovely Livia Firth, wife of a certain Oscar-winning actor, stating the following: “My husband is for sale! He is not cheep I warn you.” This message was accompanied by a link to EBay and a chance to bid on a night with Colin at the L.A launch party for the soon-to-be released film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” to raise money to benefit Oxfam. There followed some lighthearted banter between a friend and I about going halvsies on the bidding and my registered amusement that beneath “item condition” there appeared only a series of dashes. To whomever is lucky enough to have been the highest bidder, the Colin Firth fan community (and I’m sure his lovely Livia) begs you to please not damage the merchandise and return him to the shelf when the rental period has expired. (I’ve blogged a lot about both my enjoyment and my academic interest in Colin Firth’s work, but I have no qualms admitting that I also find him strikingly handsome. What do you think of that, Mr. Firth? Even blind women are dazzled by your dimples).

It might interest you all to know that when I last checked, the current U.S market value of a night with Colin Firth was exactly $5200. Not exactly a red-ticket item, is he? I was hoping for a black Friday deal. Perhaps the good folks at EBay could put him on layaway while I search my couch cushions for spare change (or a handful of cookie crumbs). They always say you get what you pay for, and considering the quality of the merchandise, it’s still quite a bargain.

Kudos to Mr. and Mrs. Firth for being good sports for such a worthy cause and for your continued dedication to promoting the spread of justice and an end to poverty. On today of all days, we’re thankful for such as you!

Comments (4)

Mama Mia! I am Screwed Again!

Today marks probably the 500th time (just a rough guestimate) of the number of times I have had the following conversation with someone:

Acquaintance: So, I read your blog, and I noticed that you like Colin Firth films.
Me: Yes, I do (delivered in a would-be calm voice while trying to arrange my face into the expression of a dignified, mature adult female and resist the temptation to squee like a prepubescent girl).
Acquaintance: So, let me ask you: what did you think of Mama Mia?

Why is it that non-Colin Firth fans seem to judge one’s feelings toward Mama Mia! as the ultimate test of loyalty?

There are, as I have learned, three ways one could respond to this question, any or all of which have the potential of branding one a social outcast.
Response 1: admit to hating the movie more than oral surgery and risk having your loyalty to Colin cast in serious doubt.

Response 2: Lie through your teeth, claim you enjoyed the movie, and that Colin’s performance was adorable. On the one hand, you save face in the eyes of Colin Firth fans (if you lose sleep over that sort of thing, that is); on the other, you run the risk of having your taste in cinema questioned–something that I usually try to avoid, especially in high-brow academic circles.

Response 3: Admit to adoring the movie, singing the score at the top of your voice in the shower, and having “Our Last Summer” as a ringtone. Consequently you are dragged off to Intervention for your obsession and suffer the pangs of social ostracism for the remainder of your natural life.

Catholic-guilt plagued creature that I am, I generally respond with the truth, and the truth, I must confess, is response # 1, though perhaps it’s overstating things to claim that I would rather have my wisdom teeth pulled without pain relief. I do own the movie, since we’re telling the truth; I also did think it was marginally cute, and the cast did appear to genuinely enjoy working on it. It was clear, at least to me, that they were all doing it purely for the laugh factor. The music is catchy and lends itself readily to alcohol-induced rounds of “Rock Band” at parties with friends. That, however, is about the best I can say–though yes, I did in fact think Colin was precious in the film.

And because I can’t resist, I leave you with this 🙂

Comments (1)

I’d Kill for That Reflection: the Vampire and Body Image

Several weeks ago, I asked the students in my Writing through Media course to view this video on youtube and comment upon it in their course blogs. While the video—a tutorial on how to look like a vampire, ostensibly for Halloween—claims to pay homage to the vampires of Anne Rice, the fact that it was posted only a year ago clearly suggests an attempt to capitalize on the current resurgence of interest in vampires popularly dubbed the “Twilight Phenomenon”. I asked them to consider such issues as the motivation behind the video’s creation, the video’s intended audience, how it draws upon and/or responds to our archetypal image of the vampire, etc. I’d hoped that such guiding questions would encourage them to interrogate the cultural fascination with the “vampiric look”, and while the majority of the class leaned, rather predictably, toward the opinion that this was merely a fun video intended for anyone wanting to dress as a vampire for Halloween, several students pointed to a deeper motivation that I confess I’d overlooked myself.

When we consider the appeal of vampirism to the young, naturally we think of the immortality, the intensity of passion and emotion in which the young and the misunderstood revel; the tendency toward transgression—especially sexual—etc. (This last is, at least in my opinion, perhaps the most appealing for young people exploring or experimenting with sexuality; the vampire, after all, transcends sex and gender boundaries; it doesn’t locate itself within the confines of heterosexual, heteronormative relationships). This boundary-transcendence, the idea that the vampire is and can be anything, is the freedom so exciting to the young—that and the fact that teenagers are especially attracted to the idea of straying outside conventional norms, if only to enact rebellion for rebellion’s sake. As Nina Auerbach proclaims in her much-revered /Our Vampires, Ourselves/: “Vampires…promised protection against a destiny of girdles, spike heels, and approval”. James Patterson’s novel/Violets are Blue/, in which Alex Cross hunts a gang of serial killers claiming to be vampires, similarly interrogates this issue of the vampiric lifestyle as boundless.

I noticed little of this in my students’ responses to the video; the emerging trend in their responses, interestingly enough, gestured toward the idea of the vampire as embodying physical perfection. We know this, of course; Lucy Westenra, Carmilla Karnstein, Lestat, and that sexy and sparkly Edward Cullen—all seductively attractive, perfect physical specimens—or so they would be if they were “alive”. What struck me was my students’ equation of the vampiric body with the perfect body—a haunting reminder that we still find ourselves spellbound by images of the airbrushed beauty. With the exception of our foul-smelling, coffin-dwelling Dracula, most of the vampires we’re acquainted with are uncommonly attractive. Have you ever seen an overweight vampire? A wrinkly vampire? Of course you haven’t, because the vampiric body is perfect and perfectly preserved; untouched by illness, death and decay—the things we fear most. How paradoxical that the creature who casts no reflection is the very reflection of what we long to be.

What interests me here is not specifically my students’ association of the vampiric body with the ideal physical type, but the fact that the observation was made equally by male and female students alike. I need hardly point out that—in terms of physical fitness and beauty—we have traditionally been subject to a gendered double-standard, with women undergoing far more scrutiny. Yet I begin to wonder whether, given some of my male students’ observations, we might be noticing somewhat of an equalizing shift. It isn’t only the female audience after all who has fallen victim to the cult of Edward Cullen; young men too, if not of their own accord, have likewise been exposed to the phenomenon by way of sisters, friends, girlfriends, etc. they might well question what it is about Edward—and specifically Robert Pattinson’s Edward—that attracts young women. Might they feel a certain inadequacy in the face of such matchless masculinity? We can argue that this is merely fiction, of course, but we likewise cannot deny that Hollywood sets the bar of beauty, for men and women alike, almost beyond the reach of mere mortals (quite literally in this case). I’ve read the Twilight saga of course, and am teaching the first novel and film this semester, and I’m beginning to wonder whether or not it might be interesting to interrogate the ways that Stephenie Meyer handles issues of body-image alongside her treatment of gender and sexuality, morality, etc.—all complex issues with which teens and young adults struggle. Somehow the idea of approaching a discussion of the text and film from this angle looks appealing; I’ve been giving considerable thought to how I might make the story more accessible to my boys—or at least to encourage them to participate in our discussions—and I think, or at least I hope, that using this approach, they might just bite.

Leave a Comment

The Firthday Five: Viewing and Reviewing Colin at his Best

For years–ever since I was a child–I’ve been an avid Colin Firth fan, and over time, my fascination has evolved into an academic investment of sorts,
from the occasional graduate student seminar paper addressing his work in literary adaptation to employing it as a teaching tool in my own courses (God
bless you, Colin, for being almost single-handedly responsible for contributing to renewed student interest in Jane Austen. If literary academia hasn’t
collectively written you a letter of thanks, It’s high time we did).

In a celebratory tribute to the man on his birthday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Colin performances. For purposes of practicality, time, and space, I’ve limited the list to five films, mostly because any more than that would make narrowing my choices considerably more challenging. Four out of five of these films are literary adaptations because I think that this branch of film represents some of Colin’s most impressive work. The intuitiveness with which he brings literary characters to life manages to tap into the popular imagination’s image of that character while presenting an authentic interpretation of his own. So: let’s have a look!

1. A Single Man (2009) This adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same title features Colin as the middle-aged, British English professor George Falconer as he struggles to cope with life following the tragic death of his partner, Jim. After nearly two years since seeing this movie in theater, Colin’s performance still resonates with me—the way he gives every fiber of his being over to the character of George. In general, the movie strikes at the white hot center of life, snaps your head around and challenges you to stare your own mortality in the face, and Colin captures that so well. He dissolves the boundary between actor and audience and invites us into his personal space. At once shocking and sensitive, heart-warming and heart-wrenching, I’ve only since reluctantly forgiven the Academy for overlooking this performance because they redeemed themselves with “The King’s Speech”.

2. The King’s Speech (2010) I’ve never missed an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about this film; Colin’s portrayal of the stammering monarch George VI is masterful; he maneuvers the mechanics of stammering with amazing authenticity and presents an intimate portrait of Bertie as a man, not a monarch. Needless to say, a very well-deserved Oscar. Kudos to the king.

3. Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) Yet another of Colin’s appearances in a literary film adaptation and, I think, one of his best. Here he plays Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. Though his character has little screen time, he is allocated a very pervasive presence throughout the film, and Colin capitalizes on every visible moment he does have. His interpretation of Vermeer is precisely how I imagined him when reading the novel; seemingly withdrawn and enigmatic, with a quiet, mesmerizing intensity, he draws his audience into his gaze and into Vermeer’s world—a world of swirling colors and intense passion. We feel, even as he entraps us in this web of color, that we want to be held captive by his gaze, if only for a moment.

4. Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) This film needs no introduction; in a witty adaptation of Helen Fielding’s novel—itself a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s /Pride and Prejudice/, Colin’s portrayal of Mark Darcy manages to pay tribute both to the Mr. Darcy of Austen’s making that remains one of popular culture’s iconic Byronic heroes and to Fielding’s contemporary recasting of Darcy while reprising his own legendary performance of Mr. Darcy in the BBC/A & E Pride and Prejudice with grace and good humor.

5. The Importance of being Earnest (2002) I first saw this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play as an undergraduate in a Victorian Literature course several years ago, and it’s the Firth film I inevitably reach for when my life needs a little comic relief. Alternately witty and ridiculous, Colin’s spot-on performance of Jack Worthing is one of which I think Wilde himself would have been proud—a true tribute to one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated playwrights.

Finally: two bonus picks:
Pride and Prejudice (1995) I didn’t include this in the above list because I think—and Jane Austen and Colin fans alike will likely agree with me—this performance defies categorization. A staple of the Austen film phenomenon, Colin’s Mr. Darcy brings our beloved hero to life in a memorable and, I think, unmatchable performance.

Lastly: The Secret Garden (1987) I’ve included this one purely for sentimental value; Colin appears briefly here as the adult Colin Craven in Hallmark’s television adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, and it was my first encounter with Colin. Short-lived and little-known though this role is, I remember, as an eleven year-old girl, being mesmerized by that face. There wasn’t anything immediately remarkable about it;
so neutral in appearance, so passive in expression, but with a hint of something rippling beneath the surface like a lake stirred by a light wind. That
was what intrigued me; that carefully modulated reserve; that passion kept in check, a characteristic Colinesque trait that fans have come to love and admire over the years.

So, Happy Birthday, Colin Firth; your talent is a gift that many cherish. Thank you for serving as a constant reminder to me, as to many others, that a life without laughter is no life at all.

Leave a Comment

Older Posts »