THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppets

11 May, 2019 at 8:38 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Three years after this, the next film picks up mere seconds after this film’s conclusion, and dueling Kermits vie for control of the troupe in a trope-filled trip across Europe.

TITLE CARD: The Muppets (2011)

Well, it’s a small thing, but the second The Muppets begins, with the above title card floating in a hazy 4:3 aspect ratio in the middle of a wide screen, this film marks itself as separate from all other Muppet films: by unadorned use of pop music. The Muppet Show was, of course, no stranger to either use of or focus on a contemporary hit or a died-in-the-wool radio classic, let alone folk songs or ballads. But while covers and musical guests filled out the television shows, the films have always seemed to eschew anything except original music. The Muppets has its fair share of original songs, but the very first impression is one of nostalgia, deliberately evoked by Paul Simon’s ’72 release “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. For a film that’s about creating a bridge between the current generation and the previous, culminating in a demonstration that the fans of the Muppets never really went away, it’s a clear (possibly manipulative) way of evoking the past. This is undercut only by the fact that young people may not actually connect with a chipper playground tune by half of a sixties folk-duo, and not-young people, like me, may have the song already firmly and inexorably assigned in their heads to the Royal Tenenbaums montage.

About a third of the way through the film, we have a second pop needle-drop, with the accumulated Muppets rebuilding the dilapidated Muppet Studios to a montage of Starship’s “We Built This City”, a tune I still vividly associate with watching animation from Kidd Video one Saturday morning in 1985. It’s a strange choice, in that apparently it’s a song that has largely been reduced to the internet’s lazy choice for “worst song ever” (an achievement I usually still reserve for Dave Barry’s choice of “MacArthur Park”), and again therefore doesn’t seem like the likeliest of affecting bridges between the old generation and the new.

The next two homages feel more appropriate: two skits in the Muppet Telethon do a good job of capturing the kind of viral reappropriation the Muppets had excelled at in 2008 and 2009. The first is the eyebrow raising of Camilla and the chickens covering Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” — a very strange thing to see as the title of an entry in the Muppet Wikia pages — which is fun in that since the entire song is performed in Chicken, the existence of profanity is skated over, but still feels like an edgy choice for a Disney production. Similarly, the necessity of kids having to ask their parents, “Hey, what’s a “libido”?” is handily evaded by having Beaker sing and therefore garble that particular word in the barbershop quartet cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, mee mee mee mo(Both these songs, by the way, are performed in abbreviated versions in the film’s montage of the telethon numbers, but get full, extended versions on the soundtrack. I gambled the the $1.29 each on iTunes, and it turns out I much prefer the full-length editions. “Teen Spirit” removes all of the Jack Black, thus emphasizing the barbershop quartet harmonies, and “Cluck You” enjoyably pushes its simple punchline to a full two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.)

It’s a curious blend of Muppet Show technique with Muppet Movie expectations, culminating in a cast-wide rendition of “Rainbow Connection”, perhaps the Muppets’ most famous contribution to pop culture. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppets Most Wanted

4 May, 2019 at 9:04 am (film, muppets)

Title card: Muppets Most Wanted

The second of the pure-Disney release Muppet films and the most recent theatrical Muppet Movie, we begin our peeling back of the Muppet onion with a great opening: the ending of the previous film. I’m not often a fan of “five minutes later” continuity (one of my main problems with The Incredibles 2), as it tends to mean that characters are plunged back into the waters of conflict after we’ve just reached some sort of catharsis and reconciliation, even if it was actually several years ago from the audience’s perspective. However, it’s hard not to be charmed by the audacity of beginning a film with fireworks and a “The End” card. (Especially as that’s the opening of my own unfinished screenplay…)

The film then charges into choppy waters. The very first scene is promising, in that it establishes that the end of the previous movie is the end of the filming of that movie, tapping into a conceit that is long rumored to be a key aspect of Muppet Movie-making: that all of the Muppet movies after The Muppet Movie are the movies that the Muppets made as part of their deal with Lew Grade. (Listen to film nerd and Muppet fan Griffin Newman speak on this as a guest on the No Excuses podcast.) The Muppet Movie is, after all, a screening of the Muppets watching “The Muppet Movie”, an “approximately how it happened” biopic of how The Muppets really got started. It’s an A Star Is Born narrative with the Muppets playing themselves, and most of the rest of the films are supposed to be films of the Muppets continuing to play the Muppets in various scenarios. The Great Muppet Caper perhaps does this metafiction best, with The Muppets Take Manhattan blurring the line the worst, but providing an explanation as to how Kermit and Piggy get married at the end of that film and yet remain romantically separated for the rest of their careers.

So this first scene starts in line with the metafictional expectations of certain Muppet fans — so far, so strong — but then immediately wrong-foots itself by launching into a backlot song-and-dance number. The song is moderately catchy but a little flat. I found the Hollywood backlot stuff confusing, as I didn’t click with the decision the grips and wardrobe people performing in a vaguely ’40s atmosphere, which serves as homage, but adds little else. The main problem is that the dancing line of the main Muppet cast is stiff, and lacks depth or interesting choreography, and the stilted Singing in the Rain antics of the humans does not make up for it, especially as the action is so obviously segregated on two planes. The film satire montage is fun, but both it and the retro heart of dance number seem to essentially misjudge the audience.

Thank goodness for the insane cut to Constantine: The World’s Most Dangerous Frog.

CONSTANTINE: The World's Most Dangerous Frog

“It’s like ’83 all over again. Out of the shadows and, ‘All right, squire?
Trust me.’ and gone before you know it. Christ, that was a laugh…”

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Someday We’ll Find It: THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN

21 April, 2019 at 9:12 pm (clerical, film, muppets)

After the moderate success (read: I believe I still haven’t written at all about The Constant Gardener and my thoughts about Tinker, Tailor, Commissioner, Gordon are still conflicted and incomplete) of my series leading up to the release of the largely unheralded le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor, I dabbled with the idea of blogging about each of the Oceans movies leading up to the release of Ocean’s Eight in 2018. The plan was to write about the Rat Pack original, the Clooney trilogy, and then Logan Lucky (aka “Ocean’s 7-11”) during the weeks leading up to number-one-with-a-Bullock release on June 8. (There was even a plan to cap it off the next week with a review of The Deep End of the Ocean full of complaints about how they totally violated the spirit of the franchise. It was going to be absurd, and may actually have stretched successfully to funny. We’ll never know.) It would have been a more manageable project with only six films, versus nine intended le Carré entries.

I have little memory of how I dropped that particular ball last year, but looking back on my calendar, it seems I watched the original Ocean’s 11, took some notes about some research I needed to do — including finding that elusive article about how the Soderbergh Eleven was picketed by men in Rat Pack cosplay, protesting that it was being remade — and then I was overwhelmed by two twentieth reunions, supervising a TedX event, and family visiting from out of town. Real life sometimes gets in the way of even a dedicated commitment to pursuing an existence of entertainment.

So that plan was shelved, barring the slim possibility of a Bullock/Blanchett Ocean’s Nine. But then I noticed recently that we were coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the theatrical release of The Muppet Movie on June 22, 1979. This seemed like a good opportunity to do a countdown to that event, reviewing the other theatrically-released Muppet films that spun out of that original, ahem, leap to the big screen.

What insights do I hope to gain by watching the theatrical Muppet films in reverse order? Is this a kind of return-to-basics, purity test, where I strip away all of the hullabaloo and see, progressively, what about the characters the audience wasn’t expected to take for granted? Is it a paean to primitivism, as the films in reverse chronology lose more and more special effects and trickery and revert to basic, essential puppeteering?

Maybe. Mostly, it will give me a chance to watch the newer films without comparing them to the earlier films I know best. I’ve watched The Muppet Movie easily a dozen times, and Great Muppet Caper half that. From there, my drop-off of exposure is precipitous, so much so that I haven’t ever seen the two post-Henson “storybook” adaptations. While Muppet Christmas Carol has become a staple in many of my peers’ holiday households, I’ve only ever seen the occasional clip from the film. So this will give me an opportunity to visit and revisit the films without the memory of my childhood ringing immediately in my ears, and perhaps therefore judge the films on their own merits.

BlogalongaMuppets

May 4 — Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
May 11 — The Muppets (2011)
May 18 — Muppets From Space (1999)
May 25 — Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
June 1 — A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
June 8 — Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
June 15 — The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
June 22 — The Muppet Movie (1979)

 

Related Links:
+ A YouTube clip of the scene from the above screencap.
+ Review of the Kermit’s 50th Anniversary DVD edition of The Muppet Movie.
+ A pretty good Vox longread about the issues surrounding Kermit’s character, cultural footprint, and the firing of Steve Whitmire in 2017.

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Today in Charade: Stanley Donen

23 February, 2019 at 3:43 pm (charade, film)

Stanley Donen speaks with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn behind the scenes of Charade.Coming hot on the heels of the announcement of the death of actor Albert Finney, we discover today that his director of Two For the Road, Stanley Donen, has died.

It’s been a long time since I watched 2ftR (as no one is calling it), and I had intended to give it a rewatch after learning of Finney’s passing. My main memory of it is that it did an amazing and convincing job of making the actors seem young at the beginning and older over the course of the film — no mean feat considering we had watched co-star Audrey Hepburn age onscreen over the previous decade and a half. I also was bemused by some of the late-sixties mod styles of clothes and automobiles, and overall enjoyed the push-pull of the evolving and maturing relationship between the characters. I didn’t know how to place the film in Donen’s opus, as it wasn’t as comic as most of his works with which I was familiar. Even his pictures that bent serious did so within genre conventions, so while I felt I knew how to evaluate Arabesque or even Blame it on Rio, 2ftR had been hard to pigeonhole.

In the end, I decided to watch Finney’s performance in Murder on the Orient Express, which I’d never witnessed, and put off Road for a future day in which I was feeling maudlin about relationships. It seemed easier than opening up the can of worms that I was really avoiding: that all the film buffs I know have a deep, classic appreciation for Donen as choreographer-turned-director, and I do not. So as someone who still largely eschews musicals, my trying to figure out where that film fit amongst Donen’s work would be impossible. Because most of his work still eludes me. Read the rest of this entry »

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IMDBLR: I’d Just Like To Thank The Academy

22 August, 2018 at 11:55 pm (film, imdblr)

It’s been more than four years since I last sat down and catalogued my contributions to the credits of movies made with the assistance of crowdfunding platforms. This is, in part, because my commitment to ego-blogging wanes considerably with age, but also because Kickstarter is a slow and patient process. The first project I ever backed is still years from completion, and while I’ve received my backer party favors for believing that Detroit deserves a Robocop statue, it’s taken Detroit quite some time to find it a proper home. So films that I excitedly send off my support for don’t always turn around and fly into my mailbox as quickly as my donation flew out of my inbox. So to speak.

But I do enjoy the process of opening up the old Kickstarter account and checking in to see how many projects have actually finished up. Many of them have done the Robocop route of sending out rewards to contributors, but haven’t yet been able to finish wrapping up the project those rewards represent. And with film projects, that’s rarely surprising. Films seem to regularly cost more than expected, and so frequently one of the Kickstarter “prizes” for backing a project is a digital download or stream of the finished video. When this is the case, I leave the little “Got it!” box unchecked in a fit of pique, even if I have accounted for all the sparkly physical gewgaws and whatsits that were promised.

All of which is to excuse my lack of urgency in checking up on how many times I’ve appeared in the credits. But let’s not only make this about me. Let see how often and in what way crowdfunding is acknowledged in the credits of films…

 

WISH I WAS HERE (Raised its minimum funds on May 24, 2013, released on July 25, 2014)

WISH I WAS HERE -- Title Screen

WISH I WAS HERE -- Kickstarter Credit
Availability to be in the credits: Originally, pledgers at the $200 level were going to have their names be graffiti in a scene in the film. If memory serves, the select backers listed in the credits were those people, as the scene didn’t scan sufficently.
Expectation of me being in the credits: None. I backed at the Special Q&A in Boston level.
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OSCARS: Seven of Nine

4 March, 2018 at 8:05 pm (film)

Oscars 2018: Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards...

Well, it’s been ten years since I weighed in on the Oscars Best Picture race, and nine years before that since I went back to my alma mater to hammer out a post-grad defense in the student newspaper of Shakespeare in Love having taken home the old Golden Boy. In general, I find the exercise of handicapping the proceedings to be less revelatory than the amount of weight of commentary might otherwise indicate. I feel that my prior comment on the nature of What Is Best lends itself to no particular new insight, so I’ll let my early ham-handed postings remain for anyone who couldn’t deduce my point of view with their own fifteen seconds of introspection. The only thing I’ll add is that wiser word-processors than mine have already looked at the fact that the victors are often less Best picture and more Trendiest Picture, representing a particular cultural windsock more than any larger zeitgeist.

In 2008, I really did feel that any of the winners would have been worthy. That it was a banner year for taste amongst the selection, and that even the slightest entry of the five still had yards of appeal. And in the post-The Dark Knight explosion of Best Picture nominees, allowing up to ten possible candidates, that the entries have never been as lean and incisive again.

This year is a particular exception. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: Our Kind of Traitor

8 July, 2016 at 11:41 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: I watched every feature film adaption of a John le Carré novel in preparation for the U.S. theatrical release of this film, in order to write about them each in sequence.

US theatrical release poster for Our Kind of TraitorCURRENTLY: Well, let’s get down to it. Is this the apex of the Carré Canon? Obviously not, as some of the earlier efforts are considered stone-cold classics and are not going to be re-evaluated in comparison to the strengths of a film that has received a thorough critical meh in the UK upon release. It’s difficult to know exactly what the critics were hoping for, as I’ve been avoiding their write-ups for the past few weeks in order to go into my own viewing as untrammeled as possible. Now having watched the movie and weighed it, I plan on writing about it in a more free-form manner than my previous reviews, all of which were able to be planned and sourced by years if not decades of critical response, by DVD release and multiple viewings. Sure, I’d never seen Deadly Affair or Looking Glass War before, but their very absence was part of the shadow that they cast in a minor film nerd’s hunt-and-pecking through the feed trough of cinema history. I have seen this once — in a mostly empty screening populated by three elderly couples, one of whom felt like they were obligated to share their confusion with the plot and their lives with the rest of the audience &mdsah; and won’t be able to review the materiel with quite the same ease as the other titles in this series. So I plan on rambling for a bit, reacting to the reviews and any press materials that seem germane, and then putting this little experiment in using WordPress’ post-dating ability to rest. Won’t you join me for this final installment of Putting Le Carré Before Le Source?

We begin with a reasonable amount of Russians speaking Russian, mostly with subtitles, sometimes without, depending upon whether director Susanna White (Bleak House, Generation Kill) wants us to be given information or to be given tone. Her decision to have the characters talk on cell phones or murmur to each other without transition attempts to force the audience to pick up on what’s going on by watching the characters’ intent, their eyes, and by listening to the susurrus of ordinary vocal timbre. Obviously, this requires the sort of audience that is going to try and find meaning when obvious information is not provided, that is going to search for clues and not instead fold into a sulk of alienation. Bit of a risky proposition, I feel, having ridden many polyglottal subways and seen passengers threatened and worried by the indecipherable multicultural human interactions around them. I mention again the aged couple that sat a few rows behind me, mumbling through each ambiguity in a sour hunt for step-by-step plotting and motivation.

Not that this film was completely devoid of signposting, it just occasionally gave us the conflict first and the reasons a little later. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: A Most Wanted Man

30 June, 2016 at 6:41 pm (batman, film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Commissioner Gordon ultimately takes over MI6 after discovering the Kingsman mole in his midst. Remember: everything is in continuity.

CURRENTLY: I first saw this film in the cinema, where the experience of watching it was weighed down with the knowledge of the death of its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin between the film’s premiere at Sundance in January of 2014 and it’s wide release in September of that year, and reports and remembrances in the interim painted a picture of a man who was intense in his work and seemingly unable to leave that intensity at work. So while watching his portrayal of a man bent under pressure to stop the next global terrorist act, it was difficult not to imagine him carrying that intensity around with him, and looking to chemical relief. It made it hard to watch, and made me feel complicit in his demise, because this was the kind of intense emotional work that I wanted him to labour under, to provide for me. I’m not sure I wholly understand the message that Haneke was going for in Funny Games, especially as I have no desire to ever watch it, but it has filtered through to me that the film is about villains’ agency to fulfill the audience’s desire to watch terrible things happen, that their motivation is not as characters but as avatars for our collective desire for bloodlust masquerade. We are supposed to feel guilty for what happens to the characters. Similarly, I felt a twinge of responsibility, however accurate, for providing a marketplace for Hoffman’s lack of catharsis.

the Viking paperback edition of A Most Wanted Man by John le CarréBecause I spent my initial screening of A Most Wanted Man watching Hoffman’s onscreen pain, and projecting his apparent real life pain onto that performance, there were some aspects of the film that I missed the first time ’round. In particular, I missed entirely that this film was post-9/11 storytelling and filmmaking. I certainly didn’t catch or remember the introductory text mentioning that the planners of the Sept. 11th attacks planned their assault from Frankfurt, and the multicultural port city continued to actively search for future terrorist activity that might originate with their Muslim populations. It isn’t given undue mention subsequently, but in his notes on still photos he took during the production, director Anton Corbijn makes an explicit reference to what is the background to everyone’s actions and motivations. While narrating images from scenes where the Muslim Chechen at the center of the story spends his time holed up in an abandoned apartment, tossing paper airplanes around the space, Corbijn says that Issa tossing the paper distractions at the plastic construction sheeting in the apartment is “Obviously… a reference to 9/11” (p.106).

I was astonished by this claim, and if it had been made by anyone other than the film’s director, I would have dismissed it as the worst kind of symbolic and interpretive overreach. However, when I noticed that the first British editions of both the hardcover and paperback print runs of A Most Wanted Man had also seized upon that image, I began to feel like I was the fool who hadn’t notice the glaringly obvious visual miming. However, when Corbijn later uses that same plastic sheeting as a metaphor that allows Issa “visually [to] go from a ‘terrorist’ to a ‘martyr'” (p. 109), I returned again to my comfortable stance that this imagery was more than a little abstruse, and that it’s injected meanings might be falling well short of the viewer.

Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Tailor of Panama

10 June, 2016 at 10:48 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: I’m so enamored of Michelle Pfeiffer that I forget to mention the 28-year age difference between her and her co-star, one of the emerging themes of this commentary. It’s almost certainly because in this case I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to hurdle that particular distance, in fiction or in real life.

CURRENTLY: The sequel to The Tinker of Panama (we’re still waiting for the third and fourth in the series) begins with Pierce Brosnan getting reassigned from his post in Spain, where he later tells us he had an affair with the ambassador’s mistress, to instead be located in Panama, where British interests are worried about the stability of local control of the canal. We are told about its return to the Panamanians in 1999 in a leaden infodump which accompanies an incredibly fake-looking CGI airliner and a ham-handedly stilted introduction to Geoffrey Rush’s eponymous character. Brosnan is blunt, crude, and specifically presented in contrast to the thin slice of suave that he’d carved out in the Bond franchise for the previous seven years. Brosnan didn’t play just Bond during his tenure, he didn’t rest on his laurels and let people think of him as nothing but 007, appearing in nine other films between Goldeneye and The World is not Enough. While only one of those nine movies seemingly traded off his Bond-based slickness — the Thomas Crown remake paints him with the same wry, uber-competence that he brought to his interpretation of Bond — and one could easily assume therefore that the audience would know him for other reasons and with other ranges, Tailor of Panama seems to be aggressively stepping forward to let us know, Ey, e’s not Bond, alright? Alright, squire? Got it? Not Bond, right? Right? A cursory Google full-text search of the original book seems to indicate that the character of Andy Oxnard never utilized the C-word in casual conversation (and lest you think that this is Google being wary of prurience, similar searches for shit and fuck come up gangbusters — 11 and 38 respectively), whereas director John Boorman has Brosnan drop it twice.

Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama
The opening sequence is oddly garish. It’s not just the aforementioned implausible exposition, which not only uses stock footage and voice-over narration that wouldn’t be out of place in a terrible travelogue (and which, incongruously, is never used again in the film), but also incorporates a terrible stock font. I don’t remember which wag of a graphic designer I saw efficiently take down James Cameron’s use of Papyrus in Avatar, but only because I had been struck the same way: no multi-million dollar film should be introduced by graphics readily available in Microsoft Word. A quick online font analysis tells me that the above titles are a variant on another Microsoft classic, Dom Casual, which Wikipedia informs me was also used on Bewitched and Barney Miller. That is not the kind of tone I expect from Le Carré. I don’t care if you’re trying to be arch in your not-Bond satire, swinging all the way to evoking sit-coms is a pendulum too far.

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Russia House

3 June, 2016 at 6:36 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Rep actress Diane Keaton is recruited to act as a honeypot double-agent and seduce a Palestinian bomber who listens to faux-Kraftwerk and looks weirdly like a young Lord John Marbury. Trauma ensues.

Penguin Modern Classics Edition of 'The Russia House'CURRENTLY: This was the start of my serious relationship with Le Carré. Hot off of “discovering” Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, I went to my local video store, which had shelves dedicated to specific actors of note, and did a deep dive into the back catalogue of Ms. Pfeiffer, trying to figure out whether she was just a luminous pair of eyes that beamed directly into my adolescent heart, or if there were real acting chops there. My friends at the time said it was the former. They pointed at her stilted line delivery and her slightly lopsided duckface and they dismissed my film crush. And yes, perhaps if I had stopped at the haughty artificiality of The Age of Innocence and the choppy garishness of Married to the Mob, or if I had first been exposed to her during the warbling commercialism of Grease 2, I would have written her off. But it’s a mistake to confuse the limitations of casting directors with the limits of a performer’s range. And while Pfeiffer may have been assigned to a number of roles characterized by a kind of brittleness, she brought and brings human subtlety and curious languor to her parts as well. The showstopper for me was and is Dangerous Liaisons, but Russia House lags not far behind. Really, it’s a matter of mood. While it may come as some surprise at this point in this series of write-ups to say that any other film could be more cynical than the works of Le Carré, director Schepisi instead brings a lush romanticism to Russia House, transforming treason into an act of nobility that is, paradoxically, deserving of a sentence of life instead of death. Liaisons, on the other hand casts love, true love, as the incentive for death. Romance has rarely been bleaker (although I also saw Damage at about that same time, and that’d give Liaisons‘ bleakness a run for its proverbial money).

But I digress before I begin. Russia House‘s sweeping romanticism appealed to my desired teenaged achetypes, and so I had the advance teaser poster hanging on my wall, and the soundtrack on regular repeat on the dashboard cassette deck on my way to and from school and work. I listened to the abridged audiobook on tape, focusing on Le Carré reading his own words to try and get additional insight into the subtext and the choices underlying the performances. And with a deep crush on Ms. Pfeiffer, I found delight and clarity in passages like:

'Photographs don't lie but they don't tell the truth either, Barley was thinking...' (p.126)
which allowed me to bask in the memories of her face on the screen. The book fed my memories of the adaptation, and clips of key quotations from the film recorded to audiotape made the recollection of accompanying images remain strong. It all swirled together, the celebrity and the heroine, the idealism of the civilian characters and the cynicism of the author’s espionage proxies.

And oh how many proxies there are. Read the rest of this entry »

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