Category Archives: Movies

A Little Love Goes a Long Way: How Mr. Rogers Shaped My Teaching Philosophy

“Love is at the root of all learning.” These are the words that resonated most poignantly with me after finally seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Fred Rogers. As a part of the generation of children who grew up in his neighborhood, I came away from the film feeling like I’d just spent nearly two hours hugging my long-lost grandfather. I’m not setting out to offer anything like a balanced review of the documentary, as much as the academic portion of my brain is itching to analyze the rhetorical devices the narrative employed. What I can say is that this is not a film for skeptics; the target audience is clearly those who spent their mornings or afternoons in the “neighborhood.” It’s a film that, whatever else it does, activates the nostalgic nerve endings of childhood memory.

Beyond that, though, the film was, at least for me, an invitation to reflect on Mr. Rogers’s legacy and a call to those of us who’ve now taken places as adults in our own neighborhoods to live out that legacy. As I listened to the story of his life, I realized in one of those rare Road-to-Damascus epiphanies that Mr. Rogers’s assertion that “love is at the root of all learning” encapsulates my philosophy as a teacher. If you are a teacher, whether you teach children or adults, your first goal is to motivate, because motivation is the momentum that fuels learning. Students must want to learn, and in my experience, the key ingredient is encouraging them to believe that they can learn; learning might not come easily, but it can come. When I encourage my students to learn, to keep trying, to revise mistakes in their writing, or to revisit passages in a text they’ve been grappling with, I’m telling them that I believe in their capacity to learn, and more than that, I believe in their capacity to succeed. I believe in who they are and what they can accomplish in this world, and for that faith to be authentic, it needs to come from a place of love.

Mr. Rogers teaches us that we need to learn to expect and accept mistakes, because mistakes are a part of how we learn. Guiding a student through a path of mistakes to understanding requires patience; what is patience if not a form of kindness, and what is kindness if not a form of love? Of course, we teach by example; if we want to teach others to cultivate self-confidence, we must demonstrate that in ourselves. Growing up as the only student with a disability in a very small elementary school, I spent much of my childhood struggling to find my place in a world where I never seemed to fit. Classmates jeered at me to get out of the way when I had to stand inches from the blackboard to decipher the day’s instructions or laughed at me if I was a page behind the rest of the class when we read aloud. One of my first and most vivid memories of school involved being held down on the playground while boys shoved leaves in my hair. Sometimes I’d sit on the curb during recess and wonder, if God had made me as I was, why were others so unkind? When I’d hear Daniel the Tiger singing “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake,” he articulated my own confusion; why did God make me as he did if he knew the struggles I’d have to face? Then, after school, or on days when I was home sick, I’d sit in front of the TV, just close enough to see Mr. Rogers looking out of the camera, directly at me as he sang, “I like you as you are, exactly and precisely.” Mr. Rogers didn’t know my name; he didn’t know where I lived or went to school, and yet he looked into my heart and told me precisely what I needed to hear.

Most often when I think of Mr. Rogers, a single, vivid memory comes to mind. In this memory, I’m no older than 4 or 5, curled up on the sofa beneath a pile of blankets, home sick from preschool and watching PBS. Mr. Rogers appears on the screen, singing “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and I smile, tummy ache, aching throat, or whatever childhood ailment I’m suffering now forgotten.
“Okay,” I reply, directing my words to the TV. “I’ll be your neighbor. Just let me get a little closer.” I climb down from the sofa and cross the room, tangle of blankets and all, until I’m close enough to the TV screen that I can place the palm of my hand against the glass as if I could touch his face.

At that age, I almost invariably had to sit within a foot or two of the TV screen to see clearly, but this was more than the mere pull of a childish curiosity to see; this was a desire for physical closeness. I believed, perhaps, in my 4 year-old mind, that if I got close enough, I could throw my arms around Mr. Rogers in a hug and feel the fabric of his sweater tickling my cheek. In a blurry and confusing world, I’d found a space where I felt safe to grow—a place where I felt cherished, and this yearning for contact felt no less natural than cuddling up to my father or my grandfather.

Now, roughly 30 years later, I find myself striving to cultivate that trust when I stand in front of a class. I know that when students enter my classroom, their bookbags aren’t the only baggage they carry. Those burdens, whether caring for family members or juggling multiple jobs, can sometimes make the task of writing a 3-page paper or reading a textbook chapter seem insurmountable, and a little love and encouragement can go a long way toward lightening the shadow cast by such obstacles. I’ll try to chat with individual students before class, and always, regardless of what’s on the day’s agenda, I spend the first few minutes of every period asking everyone how they’re doing. More importantly, I conclude each lesson by wishing them well for the rest of the day and reminding them that my office door is always open. This is not just a formality; it’s an invitation. It’s a way of letting them know that they always have someone to turn to, and I know when I extend this invitation that on any given day, there might be a student for whom this gesture of kindness, however small, is the only one they’ll receive. Of course, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Mr. Rogers alone taught me this; I was blessed with many teachers who exemplified the link between love and learning. I like to think, though, that perhaps just a little, I’m helping keep Mr. Rogers’s legacy alive—just, as he might put it himself, by being me.

From Hilarity to Heartbreak and Back Again: some Thoughts on Seeing “Kingsman: the Golden Circle”

When news broke that “Kingsman: the Secret Service” (2015) would be followed by a sequel, my initial reaction was one of skepticism. I only became a convert after the trailer dropped at this year’s comic Con, and I approached the film much as I approach any film that falls somewhere on the parody spectrum—fully intending to embrace it for what it was without allowing my hyper-critical eye to interfere with my enjoyment. When I finally saw “Kingsman: the Golden Circle” on opening weekend, I didn’t expect my emotions to run the gamut from hysterical laughter to heartbroken in what amounted to 2 hours and 20 minutes of emotional whiplash.

In short, after the Kingsman headquarters are destroyed, the agents journey to America and team up with their “American cousins,” the Statesman, and work to bring down a drug cartel known as the Golden Circle.

*****WARNING!***** Some of what follows is shamelessly spoiler-y. I make no further apologies. Read on at your own risk.

Given that the first film left me reeling, I recognize in hindsight that I should have braced myself for the roller-coaster. Even after having weeks to reflect and process, my emotions are still spinning madly in multiple directions, so what follows amounts less to a review than a list-style breakdown of the key takeaways for me.

Happy-Making Things

Eggsy- When I reviewed “Kingsman: the Secret Service,” I observed that Taron Egerton held his own remarkably well amongst the likes of seasoned actors including Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, and Colin Firth. In “The Golden Circle,” Egerton owns the screen. Now adorably awkward, now authoritative, Egerton has matured both as a Kingsman agent and as an actor. Committed to putting his training into practice and living out Harry’s legacy (more on that later), he still maintains a certain tenderness beneath his toughened armor that made us first fall in love with and cheer for Eggsy.

Merlin- Mark Strong brings immense depth to this character. Alternating between tough and tender, he’s clearly shouldered the responsibility of filling (or at least trying to fill) the void that losing Harry has left in Eggsy’s life. Beneath the repeated remonstrances to “remember your training,” Merlin’s respect for Eggsy not as a mentee, but as a fellow agent shows itself markedly when the pair find themselves the only survivors after their headquarters are destroyed and together they must bear the grief of their lost colleagues as they continue the work they’ve set out to do. Not to mention (SPOILER ALERT!) you can’t help but admire a man who can muster the strength to belt out a chorus of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in his final moments as he stands on a landmine.

Harry Hart- Once again, Colin Firth delivers an exquisitely nuanced performance. With seamless precision, he balances tender timidity with—there’s just no other way to put this—ass-kicking authority. The scene in which Eggsy uses the puppy to trigger Harry’s memories demonstrates this balancing act most effectively; in the instant that Harry regains his awareness, we can almost hear a click in Firth’s brain as he activates that switch. Can I just say here that their embrace, with Harry cradling the puppy in one arm, is pure hurt/comfort fanfiction gold? My heart crumbled like a warm brownie straight from the oven.

Admittedly, the idea of resurrecting Hart by injecting fluid into the brain after covering the eyes with something that resembles the plastic wrap in my kitchen cupboard stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but Matthew Vaughn never promised us plausible. On the contrary, from the moment we learned that Harry Hart would be returning from the dead, Vaughn was basically saying “check plausible at the door. Here are your suspension of disbelief glasses. Have fun.”

Poppy- Julianne Moore makes a delightfully devilish villain, and this is quite possibly one of my favorite of her performances. Saccharine sweet and smooth-talking, she utilizes every moment of her screen time to hypnotize her audience. If she can convince one of her henchman to swallow a bite of a meat pattie consisting of one of his own dismembered limbs, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Go home, villains of the world. Poppy’s got this one covered.

Critical Concerns

Storyline- admittedly, the plot is all over the map. from Eggsy’s relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Ahlstrom), to Harry’s Amnesia, to the war on drugs, we never quite know where to look. Despite this fact, however, the film still works, because what it might lack in plot continuity, it more than makes up for with character dynamics. These characters—and the actors who portray them—have established such clearly authentic bonds of friendship that we want to spend more time with them in whichever wacky direction they choose to take us. Most of those adventures predictably involve some heavily alcohol-lubricated, testosterone-charged male bonding, but when you give me Colin Firth cuddling a puppy, my iron feminist resolve will immediately crack. I’m sorry, but you can’t read the words Colin Firth and puppy in the same sentence and not feel, just for a moment, that nothing bad will ever happen to the planet ever again. Don’t judge. On that note, though…

Ginger Ale- In an otherwise scathing review, the New York times pointed out, not altogether unfairly, that The Golden Circle is a man’s film, and women have to get behind. Unfortunately, this proves largely true in the case of Halle Berry’s brilliantly-played Ginger Ale. Intelligent and capable, she can clearly hold her own amongst the male agents and can handle far more than tech support, yet she constantly gets passed over for field work when Agent Whiskey (excellently portrayed by Pedro Pascal) votes her down. In fairness, however, “The golden Circle” manages a challenging balancing act in a film that’s part-parody, part-tribute to the spy genre—a genre that has a notorious reputation for being less than kind to female characters. Of course, Ginger Ale does get her moment of glory in the end, and while I’d have liked to see her character developed further, her promotion gestures toward that potential development since whispers have already begun circulating about rounding the franchise out into a trilogy.

“The Golden Circle” also boasts performances from Jeff Bridges (Champ), Channing Tatum (Tequila), and a hilariously outlandish appearance by the one and only Elton John. If audiences continue to respond well to the film, the likelihood of that third sequel materializing will increase. It finished first in the box-office on opening weekend, grossing $39 million in the U.S and $100 million worldwide, and its earnings have since nearly doubled its $104 million production budget. Despite mixed critical reviews, fans have clearly not been disappointed, and I for one am already on board with Eggsy, Harry, and the rest of the gang in whatever adventures await them.

It Isn’t Only a Diary: How Bridget Jones Helped Me Find Myself

Dear Bridget,
I’ve wanted to write this for some time now, but whenever I sit down to draft a letter, the words get stuck between my brain and the page. It seems odd, really, to suffer an attack of writer’s block when addressing a woman who was once famously accused of verbal incontinence. You, with your candor and ready wit and your lack of (or perhaps refusal to activate) your brain-to-mouth filter, have often inspired me to practice greater honesty in my life, with others and, more importantly with myself. I have also discovered, as have you, that alcohol, while a seemingly effective tongue lubricant for confessing honesty, occasionally does more harm than good. Over the years, I’ve tried to express to others how much your story means to me, but nothing I’ve ever said has felt like an adequate tribute, so in honor of the 20th anniversary of your story’s publication this year as well as your return to the silver screen this month, now seems a fitting moment to thank you.

I first met you as an overwhelmed, twentysomething, budding feminist graduate student in English Lit, between crying over my inability to grasp Michel Foucault and eating entire cartons of ice-cream. When not slaving over novels that I seemed destined never to finish reading and feeling intellectually inadequate because I couldn’t use the word epistemological in a sentence, I gradually discovered that my social life had slunk off into the darkness, crawled beneath a pile of dirty laundry, and died. As I slumped on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a bag of pretzels, I convinced myself, in a fit of despair reminiscent of my elementary school days, that no one wanted to befriend the strange, bookish blind girl; never mind that I was pursuing a graduate degree in English and was entirely surrounded by strange, bookish people. I imagined everyone was attending swanky wine and cheese parties on Saturday nights and couldn’t be bothered inviting me because no one wanted to give me a ride. The fellow graduate student on whom I’d been crushing turned out to be a Mormon divorcee with three kids who flirted blatantly with me while being engaged to another woman and then tried to set me up with one of his friends. Had I known the textbook definition of a fuckwit at that time, I might never have landed in that particular mess, but I digress. To add insult to injury, my roommate (an undergraduate who was also blind) told me one night that “you dress like a woman twice your age, and it’s really off-putting. People think you’re older than you are.” So now I was not only unpopular; I was so criminally unfashionable that even other blind people shunned me.

Thus I found myself, during winter break after that first semester, de-fogging my brain with your diary. As you poured your heart into my lap, counting calories and alcohol units, self-consciously scrutinizing yourself in dressing-room mirrors, and worrying about dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian, I realized something. Your struggles, your insecurities, your doubts, your fears were mine too. When I agonized over whether or not the size of my butt was the reason I couldn’t get a date or sulked about not being invited to any fabulous parties, you were doing the same. For one of the few times in my adult life, I experienced the thrill of bonding with another woman over the struggles of, well, simply being a woman.

I had spent most of my life struggling to fit comfortably in my own body, let alone fitting in everywhere else. Rationally, I knew that I couldn’t bow to the stigmas of disability; I couldn’t conform to the image that many people associated with a blind person who groped every day for one of three identical pairs of jeans to avoid a citation from the fashion police. How though, I wondered, could I construct a body image that reflected my personality without having my physical appearance and fashion trends filtered through the eyes of others? Trips to the mall were my personal purgatory, spending hours in front of a mirror that reflected nothing to me, relying on others to tell me honestly whether or not horizontal stripes made me look like a circus tent. This reliance on the judgement of others’ opinions of my body, believing that I couldn’t construct a self-image without the ability to see my own reflection, instilled me with a deep sense of self-loathing. I believed that if someone else told me that I was too tall, or too fat, or my hair looked like a bird’s nest, then it must be true, because they could see what I couldn’t. My body was disabled, abnormal, and therefore unattractive, and this, I gradually learned to believe, explained why I seemed to be a social pariah.

Then, Bridget, I met you, and I felt, for the first time, that someone understood me. My struggles, my self-scrutiny, my feelings of inadequacy had nothing to do with my disability and everything to do with the realities of being a young woman trying desperately to keep up with, as you put it, “Cosmopolitan culture.” You, Bridget, helped me to recognize that what I see in the mirror every day is as much a projection of what I believe my self-image to be as what is actually reflected there. On the one hand, you critically yet comically revealed a sadly enduring pressure on women to maintain unrealistic body image standards; on the other, you revealed to me that I wasn’t alone in my insecurity. My seeming inability to maintain a steady, healthy relationship with a mature adult male had nothing to do with my so-called disabled, abnormal body or the circumference of my thighs and everything to do with the fact that I simply hadn’t met the person who was ready and willing to love me just as I am; moreover, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter if I ever do, because being a woman of substance means loving myself with all of my flaws, not defining myself in terms of how others, especially others of the opposite sex, choose to see me. You gave me the courage to believe that if I choose to pursue love, I should settle for nothing less than someone who celebrates my strength and values me as a strong, independent woman; if I choose to remain single, my life and my work make no less valuable contributions to society because of that choice.

In the same way that you dramatically imagined that everyone had forgotten to invite you to their Christmas parties, I allowed my acute loneliness to exaggerate the perfection of everyone else’s lives. I imagined that everyone else had a successful job, a fashion magazine-approved BMI, glamorous circles of friends, and wildly sensational sex lives. Their reality, I gradually discovered, was far closer to my own. You gave me what I’d spent most of my life searching for: the validation that my lived experiences as a woman were, in many ways, no different than those of other women despite sometimes being constructed through the lens of disability.

After connecting with your story, my life didn’t magically change overnight, but that reading experience opened a space for me within the communities of women I began to encounter. You helped me to find a voice to participate in the narratives that women told and bonded over every day, from agonizing over the seemingly unattainable quest to find a perfectly-fitting pair of jeans to wondering if the barista at Starbucks who always gave me extra foam was hitting on me. Having reached this realization, I gradually found myself forming deep, enduring female friendships with women who have loved me, laughed with me, cried with me, eaten countless trays of chocolate chip cookies with me, drunk through enough bottles of wine to fill a black hole, and endured hours of agonizing dressing-room scrutiny and relationship analysis as only women can. You, Bridget, with your self-deprecating humor and your willingness to keep buggering on, taught me to embrace the wonderful, tumultuous, imperfect beauty of simply being a woman.

5 Times We Fell in Love with Colin Firth

He’s left audiences spellbound with his Academy Award-winning portrayal of King George VI in “The King’s Speech.” He’s displayed a surprisingly impressive set of stunt skills in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: the Secret Service.” He carved a permanent place for himself in the hearts of women the world over with his tenderly authentic portrayal of Mark Darcy in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” But there’s a bit more to Colin Firth than a dive into a lake and the fact that thanks to him no one else can ever win an ugly sweater contest ever again. Ever.

Photo of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy wearing his reindeer jumper in Bridget Jones's Diary
Colin Firth as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), image credit Miramax

In honor of his birthday today, here’s a look at 5 times the world fell in love with Colin Firth.

1. His 2011 Golden Globes acceptance speech

When he scooped up his Best Actor award at the Golden Globes in 2011 for “The King’s Speech,” the first of many accolades, it was easy to forget for 50 seconds that Firth was drawing on the talent for which he was being awarded. Nonetheless, post-gameshow press recaps praised him for essentially showing showbiz how it’s done.

Go home, Hollywood. Colin’s got this one covered.

2. His moment of gallantry at the 2012 BAFTA Awards

Colin Firth doesn’t break the Internet very often, but we all remember flailing when Meryl Streep, in an adorable if inadvertent Cinderella impression, lost a shoe while mounting the stage to accept an award, and Firth, in true Prince Charming mode, retrieved it for her while his wife Livia looked on with an expression that clearly said, “Sorry, ladies. This one’s mine.”

On a side note, reenacting this scene in the rain while running to teach a class doesn’t conjure Colin from the shadows to save you, as I discovered, to my acute embarrassment. But that’s another story.

3. His jab at Ricky Gervais at the 2012 Golden Globes

Colin Firth is the king of deadpan, and that is all. When Ricky Gervais, albeit jokingly, called him a racist kitten-puncher at the 2012 Golden Globes, this was Firth’s response.

Colin Firth 1, Ricky Gervais 0.

4. His moment of appreciation for Jane Austen

In a 2006 interview, when asked to name the women in his life, Firth replied, “my wife, my mother, and Jane Austen.” While some of us have since speculated that this was largely a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that his role in the BBC’s wildly popular adaptation of Pride and Prejudice forever entrenched him in Darcy mania, I have to confess that despite my healthy skepticism, I allowed a tiny piece of my heart to drop into his hand at that moment. You’ve said it, Mr. Firth, and you can’t take it back.

5. His flawless improvisation as Mark Darcy

We’ve all seen “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” We all remember that fateful snowy kiss that was likely the primary catalyst for my decision to drag my last boyfriend with me to a wedding in Wisconsin in the dead of winter in the hope that he might be similarly inspired. (He wasn’t. Because you were wondering. And he’s not my boyfriend any more, for entirely unrelated reasons. Let’s be clear on that). But many people don’t know that Firth ad-libbed Mark Darcys forever classic line at the conclusion of that snowy kiss scene.

Pro tip, nice boys: that’s how it’s done.

So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Firth!

Question

What are your favorite Firth moments?

“Kingsman: the Secret Service” Movie Review

Ever since the 20th Century Fox panel at the 2014 Comic Con in July featured Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming film, “Kingsman: the Secret Service,” starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, and Samuel L. Jackson, social media and the popular press has been abuzz with speculation, and the question at the tip of every tweeter’s tongue has been: since when is Colin Firth an action hero? After months of anticipation, debates over the film’s supposed hyper-violence, and teasing trailers featuring Firth displaying an impressive set of stunt skills with—of all things—a weaponized umbrella, all questions were finally put to rest this past weekend with the film’s release. Take a look:

The story, based on the 2012 comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, tells of a secret, gentleman spy organization and how Harry Hart (Colin Firth) works to train a troubled-but-promising street boy, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) to work for the organization. As a debt of honor to Eggsy’s father, who had been a part of the organization and had lost his life to save Hart’s, Hart rescues the boy from a life of petty crime to mentor and train him. At the same time, the world is under threat from the villainous Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a comically-twisted tech genius hell-bent on destroying the planet.

With film-producing credits like “X-Men: First Class” (2011) and “Kick-Ass” (2010) to his name, Matthew Vaughn clearly knows his genre and his audience well. At once hilarious and hair-raising, the film both satirizes and pays homage to the spy films of the 1960s and 70s; indeed, several scenes in which Hart and Valentine casually and comically converse about the genre, referencing such touchstones as the iconic James Bond movies, might just as easily be Firth and Jackson nostalgically reminiscing about such films. For me, the scenes involving Hart and Valentine were some of the most rewarding to watch; there is something deeply satisfying about seeing two seasoned actors at the top of their game facing off against one another and clearly enjoying every minute of it. The action sequences, which have raised a few concerned debates about hyper-violence, are no more than one would expect from a film of this genre; the weaponized umbrellas, explosives inconspicuously imbedded in a gentleman’s ring, and heads exploding spectacularly to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” are all just tricks of the trade in the world of comic book heroes and gentleman spies.

Firth and Egerton have incredible screen chemistry, the mentor/mentee relationship between long-time actor Firth and newly-rising star Egerton lending a layer of realistically tender authenticity to the almost father-son bond that Hart and Eggsy form. Egerton shines brilliantly amidst the likes of Firth, Jackson, Mark Strong, and Michael Caine. Aside from the impressive action sequences, Firth’s role is not as much a departure from his usual work as speculation has led us to believe, for Hart’s character is deeply rooted in the trope of the English gentleman that often times seems as much Firth himself as the characters he portrays.

Vaughn has masterfully assessed his audience with this film, casting a wide enough net to ensure that there would be something for everyone to enjoy—especially on an intensely competitive box-office opening weekend, when the date-night entertainment tossup was a choice between “Kingsman” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” While Vaughn’s latest film scored second in the President’s Weekend box-office total (with $42 million compared to “Fifty Shades’s” $94.4 million), it earned considerably more than “Kick-Ass,” which took in an estimated $19 million on opening weekend according to Entertainment Weekly’s latest report. Comic book and espionage film enthusiasts will appreciate both the action and satire of the genre, and Colin Firth fans will applaud his seamless transitioning between bespoke-suited gentleman and action hero. All in all, a well-rewarded wait for a much-anticipated movie.