Aughts Movie Pick of the Week: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

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After struggling for several weeks to fulfill her duties as the second assistant to Runaway magazine’s dictatorial editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) tearfully breaks down in front of a co-worker and vents her frustration at being underappreciated. The Northwestern graduate, who once won a college journalism competition for an article about mistreated union workers, does not resent spending her days fetching lattes and confirming appointments. She resents the fact that Miranda never acknowledges her efforts. Her co-worker, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), tells her to stop whining—a million girls would kill for her job—and start trying harder (by which he really means start dressing better). A makeover ensues with Nigel taking the formerly drab Andy and transforming her to look like the models that grace Runway’s pages. From that moment on, Andy excels at her job. The errands she struggled to complete on time no longer pose a challenge; the numerous contacts she failed to remember are now locked in her memory. This chic wardrobe inexplicably gives her abilities she failed to gain during four years at a prestigious university, and looking like a material girl actually enables her to become the world’s most competent assistant. Perhaps clothes do make the man or in this case, the woman.

While this transformation makes no sense whatsoever, it works nicely as an allegory for Andy’s character arc. After moving to New York, she and three of her closest friends quickly learn that their college credentials mean little in the real world and they must pay their dues at menial jobs before moving on to their dream careers. For Andy that career is journalism, so she enslaves herself to Miranda (a character supposedly based on notorious Vogue editor Anna Wintour) hoping that one year of servitude will open the necessary doors. She approaches the job without any emotion, pledging not to let Miranda’s demands bother her. However once Andy drinks the fashion industry’s Kool-Aid – courtesy of the aforementioned makeover – she fully assimilates into the world Miranda presides over. The once idealistic college journalist begins to mirror her boss’ ruthless ways. This impresses Miranda, who promotes Andy to the position of first assistant, but Andy’s friends wonder what happened to the wide-eyed girl who used to dress in plaid skirts and cumbersome sweaters.

The basic story – young professional sacrifices integrity to get ahead – is not novel but looking at it from a female’s perspective felt fresh in 2006. Double standards exist in the professional world and, as Andy points out, if Miranda was a man people would only know that she was good at her job—her cold-hearted behavior would go unnoticed. Consider how our culture regards Donald Trump as a player and Martha Stewart as a shrew.

Such insights into the professional world are few and far between, but The Devil Wears Prada provides an entertaining peek into the cutthroat world of top tier fashion. Meryl Streep’s scene stealing performance as Miranda keeps every moment interesting; she emanates cold vanity while still bringing the slightest bit of humanity to a character most actresses would play as a bad stereotype. Tucci is no less brilliant as Nigel, a man who recognizes the absurdity of the world he inhabits but never questions his part in it, because at this point in his career he has no other options. It’s a grand piece of escapist entertainment that has a heart under its beautiful surface.

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Aughts Movie Pick of the Week: Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)

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The 2005 World War II comedy/drama Mrs. Henderson Presents features another typically strong performance from one of England’s most beloved cultural exports, Dame Judi Dench. As Laura Henderson, a high society widow who buys a London theater out of sheer boredom, Dench spends a large portion of the film shocking the conservative British establishment with her unorthodox viewpoints and liberal use of profanity. The film is arguably the apex of comedy for anyone who enjoys watching an elderly woman use dirty words while fellow elders gasp and recoil with horror.

After purchasing The Windmill Theater, Mrs. Henderson hires crotchety theater manager Vivian Van Damm (the late and great Bob Hoskins) and stages a conventional variety act. This strategy quickly attracts an audience of almost no one. Bored and fast approaching financial ruin, she decides to create a show featuring nude women, a titillating tactic that promises to differentiate her brand of theater from that of her competitors. Despite the objections of the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), who sanctions the idea on the condition that the women remain motionless while undressed, Mrs. Henderson’s new variety act becomes very popular very quickly, proving that loosening social mores is not a surefire path to the hell. When the Germans begin bombing London, Mrs. Henderson’s theater becomes an unexpected symbol of British resistance, stubbornly refusing to close its doors or cover its actresses.

The film’s most shocking attribute, however, is not the bare women that adorn Mrs. Henderson’s stage, but the inherently sexist argument its protagonist articulates over and over again. Without any subtlety Mrs. Henderson suggests that young women can best serve their country during war by transforming themselves into sexual fantasies aimed at lifting male soldiers’ spirits. Near the film’s conclusion, she assures a group of men headed to the front lines that so long as conflict ensues, her theater will remain open and provide plenty of naked ladies to gawk at.

The narrative reinforces Mrs. Henderson’s point of view by portraying the female performers as more than willing to embrace their roles as heroine sex symbols. This idea is somewhat disconcerting, considering that at that same time American women were punching factory time cards in support of the war effort. I have a hard time picturing Rosie the Riveter getting on stage and dropping trou, even for the benefit of the cause.

So while the plot of Mrs. Henderson Presents revolves around subverting hoary morals, the film simultaneously presents a somewhat antiquated viewpoint of its own, and this unexpected twist makes it quite compelling in spite of the often forced “I hate you/I love you” routine perpetuated by Hoskins and Dench.

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Aughts Movie Pick of the Week: Breach (2007)

Watch the trailer.

Unlike most spy thrillers, which rely on high-speed chases and gunfights to create suspense, Breach, a 2007 film about the high times and (eventually) prosecuted crimes of convicted spy Robert Hanssen, uses meticulously paced character development and the eerie banality of everyday espionage work to keep viewers engaged and, at times, slightly uncomfortable. Credit unheralded writer/director Billy Ray, who has not directed a film since Breach but has received writing credits on The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips, for concocting a creepily intriguing film in a genre that so often produces staid schlock.

For those unfamiliar with Hanssen (played in Breach by the always excellent Chris Cooper), he was an FBI agent based in Washington, D.C.,  who spent the last two decades of his career spying for the Russians. In spite of his prolific espionage work on behalf of the Reds, federal agents did not arrest Hanssen until 2001. They were able to do so largely thanks to the efforts of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an FBI recruit who was assigned to work as Hanssen’s personal assistant and went on to gain the incriminating evidence bureau officials needed to make a case against Hanssen. Unlike James Bond and Jason Bourne flicks, the majority of Breach takes place in the dimly lit and poorly designed hallways of FBI offices, workplaces where mind-numbing bureaucracy and cutting-edge detective work weirdly coexist.

Breach emphasizes the obvious and sometimes disturbing contradictions in Hanssen’s personality, such as the fact that he was a devout Catholic who made amateur porn videos. But the film never attempts to explain his motivations for spying. This was a wise move since psychoanalyzing why a seemingly patriotic individual would suddenly turn against his country could have been a tedious and unnecessary subplot. By leaving the why something of a mystery, Ray’s film suggests that even a dedicated worker with a long history of public service can snap for no particular reason and go to work for the other side, a somewhat disconcerting notion for those inclined to believe our little spy games play an integral role in national security. The film does a nice job portraying O’Neill, an ambitious whippersnapper who initially admires Hanssen’s dedication and lifestyle before uncovering the depths of his betrayal and perversions.

Chris Cooper gives another magnificent performance as Hanssen, simultaneously communicating the gravitas and insecurity that seemed to be cornerstones of Hanssen’s character. Laura Linney unexpectedly disappoints as Kate Burroughs, O’Neill’s supervision. The usually vibrant actress spends the films going through the motions rather than imbuing her character with memorable tics.

The real surprise of Breach is Phillippe, a pretty face who first made a name for himself in awful pictures about the supposed cutthroat nature of American adolescence, but slowly grew into a reliable actor. Unfortunately, Breach may have been Phillippe’s apex as a leading man. He hasn’t had a significant leading role since, and slid back into his typecast as a mischievous youth who refuses to grow-up in The Lincoln Lawyer.

Breach is an underrated film from the Aughts and remembers one of that decade’s most significant inside-the-beltway stories.

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2002: Red Dragon and Philip Seymour Hoffman

On Sunday, February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away.

Hoffman is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest actor of the past 20 years, and a significant chunk of his best work arrived in theaters during the aughts. Since Hoffman has already been masterfully eulogized in publications such as Slate, Grantland and The New Yorker, I see no reason to augment the now sufficient canon of career retrospectives. Rather I’d like to briefly examine one film in which Hoffman played a supporting a role. A film that I’ve long thought never received its critical due: Red Dragon.

Released in September 2002, Red Dragon is the prequel to the Academy Award winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs. It was the second film in which Anthony Hopkins reprised one of the iconic roles in film history: the brilliant psychiatrist turned cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter. One year prior, Hopkins had brought Lecter back to the silver screen in the distorted and rightly-maligned Hannibal, the sequel to Lambs. And by 2002, it was unclear if audiences or critics could stomach more Lecter—given Hannibal’s inability to even approach the brilliance of Lambs it seemed, at the time, more prudent to relegate the character to the past rather than bring him back for one last go around.

But Red Dragon, at least in the opinion of this writer, proved that in 2002 Lecter still had staying power. From the opening scene, in which FBI agent Will Graham (a male version of Clarice Starling played by the often underappreciated Ed Norton) exposes Lecter as a serial killer, and in the process almost loses his life, the film ingratiates the viewer with the seductive mix of suspense and general weirdness any good serial killer story requires. The bulk of the film, like in Lambs, sees Lecter behind bars—the great oxymoron of the Hopkins “trilogy” is that Lecter nonsensically seems more sinister and dangerous when he’s cooped up in a cell rather than when he’s on the loose (as he is for the duration of Hannibal.) Graham, like Clarice Starling after (before?) him, makes frequent visits to Lecter’s jail cell. The reason: He seeks Lecter’s help in pursuing a new serial killer dubbed the “Tooth Fairy,” who has gruesomely murdered two families in a manner that suggests similar atrocities will follow. Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderfully terrifying performance as the “Tooth Fairy” (this must have been the film which convinced Warner Brothers Fiennes could play the part of Lord Voldemort—unfortunately the later Harry Potter films negated Fiennes’ natural ferocity with an overly thick coating of make-up and CGI but that’s a topic for another post.)

So where does Hoffman fit into all of this? He has a small part as an ethics-free tabloid reporter who stalks Graham in hopes of obtaining fodder for sensationalized stories. At first Graham and his FBI boss (played by the always capable Harvey Keitel) treat Hoffman’s character like a nuisance. They then decide to feed him a fake story, hoping that the publication of incendiary lies will help suss out the Tooth Fairy’s whereabouts. The strategy (sort of) backfires: The Tooth Fairy is offended by the story and retaliates by capturing Hoffman and subjecting him to a fairly memorable on-screen demise.

While the role is small and of secondary significance to the plot, Hoffman, like he so often did, imbued it with life, zest and the kind of onscreen presence that demands to be watched. His appeal as an actor did not spring from good looks or a classic movie star persona but from the ability to completely lose himself within whatever character he was playing. In Red Dragon, he exudes an oily smugness that’s similar the privileged smarminess he displays in Patch Adams and Scent of a Woman. His character is meant to be disliked, and Hoffman does such a good job of ensuring this is the case that when he finally meets his end the viewer is appalled but also slightly happy, because on some level, such a fictional sleezeball deserves no less.

In singing the praises of Hoffman, many writers and critics have rightly pointed out that his presence alone often elevated subpar films to planes of excellence they had no right occupying. I heartily agree, though it makes me wonder why Red Dragon, a great film on its own right albeit one which Hoffman helped make even better, still fails to receive the critical due it deserves. Critics didn’t pan it upon its release, but they certainly didn’t embrace it. And it’s long since been forgotten rather than canonized with Hollywood’s other great serial killer flicks. This lack of adoration may stem from the fact that it follows in the footsteps of a classic and is therefore derivative by its very nature, or maybe it has something to with its director Brett Ratner, someone critics love to dislike. Whatever the reason, cinephiles should take the time to appreciate Red Dragon. It’s a wonderful suspense film filled with first rate acting. After a recent viewing, my only criticism is that it’s too short. It covers significant narrative ground in two hours, and at times feels a bit rushed. Ratner & Co. could have added another 30 minutes without making it feel long or bloated. I would have enjoyed watching Norton, Fiennes, Hoffman and Keitel for hours on end.

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The 2000s: Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Legacy in a Mediated Culture

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Peyton Manning played a lot of football during the Aughts.

Super Bowl XLVIII gave fans glimpses of the foreign and the familiar.

For the first time in NFL history, confetti rained upon the team from America’s northwest corner. A quixotic franchise best known for its atypically loud home stadium and striking monochromatic uniforms became world champions nearly 12 years after switching conferences for a second time. If the Seattle Seahawks seem to lack a traditional NFL identity, it’s because 1) football fans of a certain age will always associate them with the AFC and classic games against the Oakland/Los Angeles Raider, and 2) they are one of the few current franchises whose head coach is arguably more famous than any individual player—or at least that was the case before a certain post-game interview turned the sports world upside down two weeks ago. The Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory constitutes newfound territory for professional football, though the team’s oodles of talent and relative youth this may allow Pete Carroll & Co. hoist the Lombardi Trophy many more times in the near future.

Not for the first time in NFL history or even recent memory, Peyton Manning, the reigning god of football’s regular season, walked off the field sporting a look that combined consternation, disappointment and more than a hint of petulance, his team humiliated in a game that served as confirmation of a long-held adage: great defense trumps great offense. Because Manning is the most recognizable player in professional football if not all of American sports, his narrative within the context of this game will receive significant attention. As the legion of fans, media members and corporate sponsors file out of East Rutherford, New Jersey, our mediated culture will turn its attention to the subjective exercise of re-evaluating the aging quarterback’s legacy.

In one sense, Sunday’s game didn’t reveal anything new about Peyton Manning so much as confirm what history has already shown: In spite of his penchant for smashing passing records and dominating the regular season, he is very much prone to lackluster playoff performances. That’s not to say the blame for Denver Broncos 43-8 loss to the Seahawks falls entirely in Manning’s lap. Seattle thoroughly outplayed Denver in every phase of the game. But the Seahawks defense did expose Manning for what he has become: An immobile quarterback with spotty downfield arm strength.

All the quick slants, bubble screens and check-down passes that worked so well for the Broncos offense during the regular season failed to make a dent against the superb Seahawks defense, the strangely nicknamed Legion of Boom (title of a bad flick staring Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson?) Unlike his shifty counterpart, Russell Wilson, Manning could not escape the pocket when Seattle’s pass rush brought pressure. He couldn’t connect on the deep ball to any of his talented wide receivers. And on two occasions he very much tried to force the issue, decisions that resulted in interceptions on both occasions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by game MVP Malcolm Smith.

Peyton Manning played poorly on American sports biggest stage. But one terrible Super Bowl performance cannot negate all Manning has accomplished. The records, the wins, his comeback from a debilitating neck injury, the fact that he brought two different franchises to the Super Bowl. These achievements speak to Manning’s singular greatness. And if Sunday proves to be the last time number 18 takes the field as an NFL player—according to ESPN Manning will undergo an offseason exam on his surgically repaired neck to determine whether or not he can continue to play—that’s a shame for football fans, because watching Peyton Manning play football has been one of the great and comforting joys of Sundays in Autumn for the past 16 years.

So what is Peyton Manning’s legacy? Where does he belong in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks? In considering this question, some surprising comments made this week by former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, the player who was the celebrity face of the NFL before Manning’s ascendancy, come to mind. Prior to the Super Bowl, Favre compared himself to Manning and suggested that from a legacy standpoint he and Manning are quite similar.

Upon first read, the link between Favre to Manning seems ludicrous, since in so many ways the two players display polar opposite tendencies. Throughout his career, Favre was the quintessential gunslinger, a player who thrived on disorder and displayed a preternatural gift for rising above the on-field pandemonium that is professional football and making plays based on whim and guts. He was all heart, instinct and arm strength, a player who made Sunday afternoons at Lambeau look like just a slightly more complicated version of tossing the pigskin in the backyard with a couple of friends.

Manning, on the other hand, is all precision and preparation. His signature in-game tic is not rolling to his right and hurling the ball downfield but changing the play at the line of scrimmage with rapid-fire bursts of speech. He thrives on well-orchestrated play calling made possible by almost unfathomable levels of pre-game study. An opposing player once compared him to a Macbook for his unmatched ability to read defenses and implement the correct read in each situation. He’s more reminiscent of the high school geek who stays in the library memorizing every possible answer to next week’s trigonometry test than he is of the stud senior quarterback who makes playing football look easy. He is mind, effort and intellect to Favre’s heart and easygoing flicks of the wrist.

And yet despite these striking stylistic differences, the two quarterbacks share certain characteristics that bind them in an undeniable way. Both hold many significant individual passing records. Both showed amazing longevity and the ability to stave off injury throughout their careers. Each man won a single Super Bowl, though neither played particularly brilliant in the championship game that their respective teams won. Both were the “face of the league” during their heyday, recognizable via their frequent commercials and memorable on-camera interviews. Each found success with a second team in the twilight of their careers—Favre came within three points of making the Super Bowl as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.

Perhaps this is how we should think about Peyton Manning. An updated version of the genial if flawed Favre. A semi tragic athlete destined to wow us in the regular season and then come up just short on the biggest stages. A player who seems unstoppable every time he walks onto the field yet doesn’t surprise us when he is, inevitably, stopped. Unlike his contemporary Tom Brady, whose good looks and celebrity status can at times make him seem too perfect—like he’s some untouchable, athletic robot created to serve the malevolent genius Bill Belichick—there’s something touchingly human about Manning. Maybe it’s the aw-shucks affectations of his southern drawl or the way he classily answers every question, even the stupid ones, posed to him during post-game press conferences. Like Favre, he comes across as so much more down-to-earth than his contemporaries—if you saw Peyton Manning standing on the sidelines of a neighborhood high school football game casually chatting up the coaches and players would that scene not seem strangely normal? The result of Manning’s layman appeal is that when he loses it’s hard for all fans, even those who tend to root against him, not to feel a little pang of disappointment for the man. The world seems to make more sense when Manning emerges as the victor, which is why his frequent losses on the biggest stages serve as symbolic confirmations that life is, in essence, a damningly confusing undertaking.

If it’s any consolation to these two old-school pocket passers, the records they set may never be touched. The new generation of quarterbacks—the Russell Wilsons and Colin Kaepernicks of the league—are duel offensive threats, and because they concentrate almost as much on rushing as they do on passing, they may never match the stats of their quarterback forebears, even as they rack up the wins. So as Manning sits on the precipice of possible retirement, let’s not bemoan another game in the postseason “L” column—this is part of what he does and part of who he is—but remember him for the great games, great commercials, and everyman appeal he has always brought to the game of football.

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My father the dancer…

… got his start in the early Aughts.

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Aughts Movie Pick of the Week: My Life Without Me (2003)

Ten years ago Sony Pictures Classic distributed the small scale drama My Life Without Me. The film received above average reviews and subsequently fell off the public’s radar. This was/is unfortunate because few films more movingly address issues of mortality, life regrets, and basic humanity. Sarah Polley gives an extremely affecting performance as a 23-year old nightshift janitor with a husband and two daughters, who one day gets railroaded with a diagnosis of terminal cancer and two months to live. Writer/director Isabel Coixet doesn’t treat the grave material with kid gloves or bursts of melodrama. She allows the story to develop organically, and her patient directorial style pays dividends as the film comes to a heartbreaking conclusion.

My Life Without Me won’t leave you feeling great about the world, but the beautiful storytelling in this powerful film also won’t leave your conscience. Look for an excellent performance from a young Mark Ruffalo.

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