Tag Archives: Adam Tawfik

Black Heroes of Entertainment

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Although blacks have continually been treated as if they were second-class citizens for hundreds of years they, arguably more so than any other group of people, have played a fundamental role in the foundation of the American identity as we know it. While many choose to (literally and figuratively) whitewash the history of popular culture and exclude the number of talented black artists from their narratives, I would like to recognize some of these individuals who have enriched our society with their originality. It would be impossible to give justice to every talented black artist in a single blog post, so I’ll start out by paying tribute to 5.

Pam Grier

Courtesy of theroot.com

Courtesy of theroot.com

Alas, she wasn’t one of the million black women named by Halle Berry in her rambling Oscar speech; though that isn’t too surprising as she tends to be snubbed in “respectable” circles because of her prolific association with the Blaxploitation film industry. The films’ ultra-low budgets and salacious content lead many to write off these films and the numerous young women who starred in them as less-than-worthy, but what people tend to forget is that there were few opportunities for black actors (particularly women) in mainstream cinema, and most of those roles were reduced to peripheral saintly Negro parts. Artistic merits of the films aside, they gave black female characters not only leading roles, but ones with agency and where they kick ass. Even in the early days amidst the large female ensembles, Grier proved that she was more than just T&A, as she enlivened her roles with genuine eroticism, but more importantly she exhibited a gift for intelligence and gravitas. To see her acting skills, check out her affecting performance as Jim Brown’s long-suffering wife in Mars Attacks! (1996) and as a tough but ethical states attorney who sparred with Stabler and Benson on occasion on Law and Order: SVU.

Billie Holiday

Courtesy of last.fm

Courtesy of last.fm

Like many icons, Holiday tends to be remembered as a one-dimensional myth. As popularized by the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday is conceived of as a poor lost soul who abused heroin as a means of enduring physical and emotional abuse from a string of worthless men. This is certainly all true, but it is only one side of her dynamic, multifaceted personality. While her life was strafed with tragedy and hardship, Holiday by numerous accounts lived life to the fullest and had a wild, raucous sense of humor. Other than her otherworldly vocal adeptness and one-of-a-kind phrasing, I’ve always gravitated towards her straight-forward philosophical insightfulness that permeated her songs, interviews, and her autobiography (also titled Lady Sings the Blues). The ironically named “God Bless the Child” remains a timeless and salient critique of the inequality of the status quo and how it’s predetermined from childhood. She always remained true to her voice, which is a near impossible thing in the music industry. The consumer has benefitted from her bravery; the minimalism of her voice and arrangements still feels fresh and contemporary today as then with none of the overproduced saccharine popular in the 1940s and 50s. She was light years ahead of her time, perhaps still way ahead of ours.

At a time when lynching was still legal, Holiday boldly sang “Strange Fruit” as a closing song after nearly every show, often with just a piano background and a spotlight on her face to make the harrowing lyrics inescapable. In her compelling autobiography, she frankly discussed the horrors of being raped (even using the word at a time when it simply wasn’t discussed) and articulated the futility of “The War on Drugs” and how addiction should be treated as a sickness rather than a crime. She may have not overcome all of her demons in the end, but she is far from being a victim and should be celebrated for her trailblazing accomplishments rather than lamented for her tragic demise.

Viola Davis

Courtesy of independent.com

Courtesy of independent.com

No, I’m not including Davis because she is a fellow alum of Rhode Island College (though that doesn’t hurt). I’m blowing my horn (though it’s the complete truth), but I was a diehard Davis fan before she achieved her long-overdue critical and mainstream success. The first Davis performance to blow me away was her guest appearance on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, where she played the ringleader of a group of murderous cops with chilling intensity. This character is interesting in that she is an insecure outcast with some some justifiable anger. She was a formidable opponent for Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio); in one memorable scene, she shows her intelligence where she profiles Goren with the same, sharp observation skills as the detective. Her portrayal was so convincing that it sparked controversy among black organizations. She is one of the few bonafide scene stealers in the business. In just a minute or two of screen time, Davis rose above the tedium of Denzel Washington’s directorial debut Antoine Fisher, contributing a mesmerizing performance as the titular character’s drug-addled mother, one made mostly of reactions of grief and pride. She first rose to widespread prominence with her 15-minute bravura performance in the otherwise dreary drama Doubt, where she etches the only human character as the mother of a student who might have been raped by a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who pleads mercy with a nasty self-righteous nun (Meryl Streep).

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

Again, she was stellar in The Help, transforming her archetypal servant role to something profound, giving a three-dimensional performance of a kind, intelligent woman who is stifled and quietly angry by her lack of opportunity. While the film on the whole was lightweight and frivolous, Davis was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar. Many speculated that she would have had the award in the bag had she campaigned for Supporting Actress, but she bravely (and rightly) went for the top prize because she wants leading roles where her character has agency, and she’s still strongly vying for that goal even though she’s almost 50. Let’s hope she makes it as she certainly has the talent and charisma.

Ivan Dixon

Courtesy of nndb.com

Courtesy of nndb.com

Even if you don’t recognize Dixon’s name, if you’re of a certain age or a classic sitcom buff, chances are good that you’d know his face, as he was the sole black cast member of the 1960s WWII sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. It is a pity that it is his best-known work as the limited, token part gave him the least room to show his quietly powerful acting where he played complex characters who were not always sympathetic. Higher quality roles came from guest appearances on other TV dramas of the time. Highlights include the dark and dramatic pilot of I Spy (the first show to feature a black actor, Bill Cosby, in a leading role), where he plays a sports star who defects to China for monetary reasons with abrasive gusto; as the cold and clinical psychologist and a gentle and generous African ambassador on separate episodes of The Fugitive; as a hard, militant but intelligent black power leader and a nonconformist and idealistic politician on separate episodes of The Name of the Game. He received an Emmy nomination for his starring role in a TV special The Final War of Olly Winter, which from what I’ve read is one of the first hard-hitting portrayals of the Vietnam War; it is perhaps more notable for having a black man and an Asian woman (Tina Chen) as the protagonists. By the 1970s Dixon almost exclusively directed films and TV episodes.

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

His most notorious effort was the highly controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door that was a hit before it was abruptly seized by the FBI who feared that the content would incite blacks into overthrowing the government. It didn’t see the light of day until its release on DVD in 2004. Spook, a favorite of the Black Panthers, is about a man (Lawrence Cook) who is the token black hire for the CIA. Angered by the racist and condescending treatment by the bureau, he uses his training and organizes a race war. It is more known for its unrelenting treatment of its subject and message than final artistic product, but that message continues to impact audiences today.

Ice-T

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Throughout its entire stay, most cultural critics have decried rap music as a crass and immoral force on (white) American society. Certainly like every other musical form, rap produces its fair share of mind-numbing inanity and no-talents. However, there are some thoughtful artists like Ice-T who have used rap as a means of protest, to illuminate the hard truths of the ghettoes that Middle America and the news media choose to ignore.

Ice-T’s 1992 punk song “Cop Killer,” about a vigilante killing cops who have systematically abused him, sparred national controversy and made him the target of criticism from the LAPD and President George Bush Sr. Like many of the edge 90s works, it was wrongly branded as being gratuitous. The impact of the song is how it unflinchingly reflects the deep seated antagonism between the police and people on the streets and its suggestion that the two can’t co-exist, which might be true. Although he’s shifted to acting these days (ironically most famous as a cop on TV), Ice-T hasn’t lost his edginess. As one of the SVU detectives on the dark series Law and Order: SVU, he gives his role a gritty realism and a flawed, but overall decent character, not like the typical clean-cut cop.

Tune in next time for more tributes of some iconic black artists and entertainers. Who you include on your list?

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Raging Brokers

Courtesy of clemmiepem.com and complex.com

Courtesy of clemmiepem.com and complex.com

Review of The Wolf of Wall Street

By Adam Tawfik

A majority of people worldwide were blindsided by the meltdown of the global economy in the summer of 2008. Like all other historical fiascos, it was the culmination of a series of unfortunate events. The roots of this disaster originated back to the 1980s when President Reagan implemented deregulation, which gave big business license to do whatever they hell they wanted. The financiers on Wall Street, who have always been ingenious at subverting legal loopholes for their own opportunistic means, had a field day with laissez-faire Reagonomics.

Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, uncomfortably closely thrusts the viewer into the twisted mind of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an entrepreneur who began his stock-market empire by selling worthless penny stocks to working class schumcks before infiltrating the pocketbooks of the wealthy and becoming one of the most notorious but most desired people to work for.

Courtesy of themovieblog.com

Courtesy of themovieblog.com

The film’s success is first and foremost attributed to screenwriter Terence Winter. Winter, the visionary behind the gritty HBO crime series The Sopranos, imbues Wolf with a visceral black humor and creates a cesspool populated with irredeemable but eminently fascinating diabolical antiheroes, whose crudeness and ruthlessness matches those of mobsters. At various points, I felt as though I knew what was going to ensue since the characters were predictably reckless, but Winter consistently raised the stakes of insanity and the outcomes led to something satisfyingly unexpected, which kept the film accelerating at a queasy pace. The voiceover is cleverly written as it leads us to unequivocally trust Belfort because of his brash, tell-all style, though by the second act, we begin to realize that he is a sneaky and highly unreliable narrator.

Wolf being classified as a comedy at awards shows has inspired much snarky dissent from the internet. Certainly, the surface plot has all the elements of a dark, depressing piece, but on-screen the action is expertly executed with kinetic comedic timing. There are several vignettes of unrelenting broad hilarity, with a deeply vitriolic subtext, that also with Winter’s savvy writing advance the plot.

The script’s only weakness is in the prologue scenes where Belfort learns the ropes from experienced Wall Street parasite Mark Hanna (well played by Matthew McConaughey); I didn’t buy Belfort’s naiveté, it felt too forced and obligatory to contrast his later ruthlessness. They’re the only pedestrian scenes in a highly outrageous story.

Courtesy of honeycuttshollywood.com

Courtesy of honeycuttshollywood.com

After making sprawling, but ultimately disappointingly conventional films for the past few years, Wolf finds Scorsese back to his raw, unique style of filmmaking. He demonstrates a deft visual touch of orchestrating debauchery both on small and epic scales with abandoned irreverence. The composition of excessive crowd scenes matches the glorious prodigality of 1920s silent film sagas. Scorsese could have easily trimmed thirty minutes by eliminating several of the slow-motion drug taking scenes, which felt gratuitous after a while.

Wolf will not really be an iconic Scorsese film, due to the missed opportunity in the mise-en-scene to capture the gaudy, audacious 80s style. Sandy Powell’s costumes (save for Jonah Hill’s multi-gumdrop colored shirt and mom-jeans in his first scene) and the makeup department’s efforts look more Mad Men. Bob Shaw’s sets and Chris Shriver’s art direction have a generic, overly formalistic look. This is disappointing as Scorsese’s films usually have excellent mise-en-scene, like Taxi Driver whose barren, apocalyptic New York City greatly increases the tension, or Raging Bull, whose dark black and white cinematography and grungy sets create the aura of claustrophobia.

The eclectic soundtrack consisting of an assortment of Motown, bebop, and old school rap is in tune with the frenetic pace and Wolf’s overall wonderful discombobulation. As a diehard jazz lover, I especially liked the use of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’ vocalese classic “Cloudburst” and pianist Ahmad Jamal’s “Reefer Madness” rendition of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”

Courtesy of drafthouse.com

Courtesy of drafthouse.com

Leonardo DiCaprio has skillfully played several difficult antiheroes on-screen for nearly twenty years, yet there’s still a tendency to underestimate his talent because of his handsome appearance and relative youth. His work in Wolf should dispel any doubts. His combination of movie star and serious actor make him ideal for the megalomaniacal Belfort. Dicaprio flares the screen with manic energy, but behind the excessive exuberance, there’s a cool, calculated mind that’s equally forceful. At some points especially when he put on sunglasses in the boat scene, DiCaprio looks like and has the manic essence of Jack Nicholson.

Although Jonah Hill’s name appears below the main title, he is truly co-lead alongside DiCaprio. Hill stellarly portrays Donnie, Belfort’s best friend and partner-in-corruption, using his obese, average looks to make the gleefully soulless monster inside of his character more alarming. Many times when he’s sweaty and ungainly we think that he might cave in to the pressure, but he’s a very smooth operator. Hill has many of the most audacious one-liners all of which he delivers with relish.

Courtesy of thedailybeast.com

Courtesy of thedailybeast.com

There is a great supporting cast comprised of relative newcomers and veteran performers. Rob Reiner is hilarious as Belfort’s volatile and exasperated father, who tries to act as his son’s conscience in a morally dubious manner. Kyle Chandler turns in another great character performance as the ethical FBI agent determined to stop Wall Street corruption. Jean Dujardin is droll as an underhanded Swiss banker. P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, and Henry Zebrowski are perfectly slimy and crass as Belfort’s business cronies.

There are several female performers who shine in capsule-sized roles. Aya Cash as Belfort’s menacingly barking assistant and Stephanie Kurtzuba as a wired stockbroker add a crude and ferocious humor to their roles. Joanna Lumley gives a charming performance as the adventurous English aunt-in-law who participates in Belfort’s money laundering scheme. As another money launderer, Katarina Cas imbues her part with a hard-boiled femme fatale allure.

Courtesy of unifiedpoptheory.com

Courtesy of unifiedpoptheory.com

Following the trend of most Scorsese films, the leading female characters (Margot Robbie and Cristen Milloti), who do little other than cannily emulate the Queens accent, are the weakest in the cast. Millotti is overly syrupy as Belfort’s loving and naive first wife. The role of Naomi, Belford’s second wife, initially offers Robbie a chance to be deliciously bawdy and bitchy, but the character and her performance become too opaque in the film’s second half.

This year Wolf is the target film for the reactionary legion of political correctness, who claim that the film condones Belfort’s tactics, once again forgetting that representation does not necessarily equal endorsement. The filmmaker’s exuberant depiction of the excessive drugging and gambling could be construed as glorification of greed. Behind the façade is a cautionary tale of the ugly underbelly of capitalism. The conflict is ours; we despise them, yet we envy them. Ultimately, we empower them by our unwillingness to change the system as we see ourselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The final shot of a bunch of eager highly average-looking people of diverse ages, classes, and races attending Belfort’s seminar, is a horrifying image as it indicts all of us and how we want a part of the action, forsaking all our morals and good sense in the hopes of becoming rich. It is one of the best final visual shots since the famous kaleidoscopic mirror shot of an opportunistic, scheming fan going after an equally unscrupulous actress in All About Eve.

Underrated Classic: No Down Payment (1957)

Suppressive Suburbia: Review of No Down Payment 1957

Courtesy of deathmetalverses.blog.bg

Courtesy of deathmetalverses.blog.bg

By Adam Tawfik

In 1945, most Americans felt that happy days were here again. After nearly twenty years of dire economic hardship and four years of a psychologically and physically catastrophic war, Americans were eager to celebrate. They finally had the finances to live large. As the economy exploded and emphasis on mass consumption increased, a newly created large middle-class moved out into the spacious suburbs where they could have more property and goods than ever before.

Theoretically these new communities perfectly embodied democratic principles. As historian Lizabeth Cohen explains, “As Americans lived better and on a more equal footing with their neighbors, it was expected the dream of a more egalitarian America would finally be achieved.” That vision did not really pan out; instead, many new sociological problems emerged.

Although the majority of the popular culture (particularly TV sitcoms) at the time celebrated (or at least didn’t question) suburban living, there were a sizable number of films that showed the darker side of this supposed paradise. While it hasn’t received a fraction of the attention of films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life (1956), or The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), No Down Payment, a 1957 Twentieth-Century-Fox film, provided one of the sharpest and most critical treatises on the new living model, tackling a myriad of social issues through the trials and tribulations of four suburban families.

Courtesy of jeffreyhunter.net

Courtesy of jeffreyhunter.net

Everything starts off auspiciously. Newlyweds David (Jeffrey Hunter), an up-and-coming engineer, and his pretty wife Jean (Patricia Owens) venture out of the city to the countryside where they pass by a succession of advertisements for suburban developments, all promising a better, more plentiful lifestyle. They settle on Sunrise Hills whose slogan is “the happy ending to your house hunting.”

In public, neighbors Betty (Barbara Rush) and Herm (Pat Hingle), Isabelle (Sheree North) and Jerry (Tony Randall), and Leola (Joanne Woodward) and Troy (Cameron Mitchell) gush about Sunrise Hills, almost to the point of obsession. Behind closed doors, the couples reveal feelings of despair, deflation, and entrapment in their environment. Sunrise Hills (and suburbia) is neither happy nor the end to these characters’ house hunting, as no one’s ambitions are sufficiently fulfilled and all of them are already living well beyond their means. These same sentiments extend to the marriages as well, although levels of unhappiness and dysfunction vary.

As the plot progresses, the characters’ actions reveal that Sunrise Hills is more elitist and racist than its down-to-earth façade of the neighborhood barbecue parties leads one to believe. Troy and Leola, two uneducated Tennessee country folks, feel maligned by the other residents.  Leola sequesters herself in her home while Troy, a decorated GI, aggressively manifests his resentment towards the college educated David and Jean.

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Meanwhile Herm, a kindly and unpretentious general-appliance store owner, genuinely wants to help his employee Ito (Aki Aleong), a hard-working Japanese family man (who is virtually identical to the average suburbanite in every regard except race), move into Sunrise Hills, but caves to the protestations of the supposedly religious Betty, who fears the objections the neighbors will raise and the potential loss of their property value. She later sees the errors of her ways and prods Herm to do the right thing in her characteristically bullying manner.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, one of the few scholars to give Payment critical attention- praising it as “one of the most compelling dystopian visions of the 1950s” – argues that Payment through its “noirish black and white lighting, brutal mise-en-scene,” single-mindedly materialistic characters, and the frantic paranoia of keeping up appearances, fits into the parameters of film noir. Certainly this valid argument can be substantiated by previous works of two of the film’s key personnel: screenwriter Philip Yordan (alias Ben Maddow) penned The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of the darkest, most unrelenting film noirs and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who won an Oscar® for photographing the stylistic classic Laura (1944).

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

An equally compelling case can be made for examining the film in terms of “American kitchen sink realism,” with its ominously sparse uniformly charmless houses, and its long drawn-out scenes where a few characters take center stage to reveal their angsts and desires. LaShelle was also the cinematographer for Marty (1955), arguably the most critically acclaimed and financially profitable film of this type. In Payment, his claustrophobic camera work counteracts the typical glossiness of the Cinemascope widescreen process. LaShelle’s juxtaposition of tight close-ups and intensely dark shadows in the rape scene is one of the most innovative means of dodging the censors, whilst retaining the gravity and psychologically harrowing implications of this heinous act.

Upon its initial release, Payment generally received commendable but not enthusiastic notices. The New York Times reviewer scoffed that, “Despite the producers’ frank and forthright approach, a viewer is left with the feeling that these harried folks do not represent the average, that their stories are only partially told and that undue emphasis is placed on unpleasant aspects of their lives,” thereby reducing the material to melodrama.

Courtesy of filmnoirphotos.blogspot.com

Courtesy of filmnoirphotos.blogspot.com

The ensemble cast, under the direction of Martin Ritt, a former actor and teacher at the prestigious New York-based Actors School (while he was unfairly blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 50s), justifiably received rave reviews. Joanne Woodward got best-in-show notices, although these were overshadowed by the accolades of her tour-de-force headlining role in another controversial film The Three Faces of Eve released one month before Payment. Martin Ritt biographer Gabriel Miller conjectured that this was due to Woodward’s training at the Actors Studio, making her the most compatible cast member with Ritt’s methods.

While Woodward’s combination of childlike vulnerability and wild sexuality is sublime, the other actors provide equally vivid performances. Sheree North, who was wrongly stigmatized as a 50s cheesecake bombshell a la Marilyn Monroe in spite of excelling in a variety of character parts for over thirty years, excels in her first dramatic assignment. Sporting a bob of mousy brown hair, North’s fawn-eyed expressions, whispery voice and hunched shoulders convey the pent-up repression and helplessness of Isabel.

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Barbara Rush, another highly underrated actress who was mostly used as eye candy in films, strips away most of her otherworldly glamour, portraying a stern and strident Christian with abrasive gusto. Pat Hingle, a burly theatre actor who went on to become one of the more recognizable Hollywood character actors, nicely underplays the sanest character who acts as the peacekeeper of the community.

Cameron Mitchell, best known for the 1960s and 70s TV Western The High Chaparral, gives a raw and frightening performance as the angry, volatile PTSD-afflicted mechanic. Patricia Owens, a normally competent actress, delivers a stellar performance as an intelligent and sympathetic (but very sexy) woman with a slightly checkered past who is trying to establish a more respectable life.

Courtesy of premiere.fr

Courtesy of premiere.fr

The biggest surprise is Tony Randall, best known for his neurotically straight laced characterizations in the Doris Day- Rock Hudson comedies and the TV series The Odd Couple. He significantly departs from that persona, rendering a pathetic, sleazy characterization of an adulterous, alcoholic used-car salesman, constantly devising futile get-rich-quick schemes.

While only a handful of people seem to have seen Payment since its initial release, those who have regard it with nothing but the highest praise. Notable in this select group is David Bowie. In a 1967 correspondence with his first American fan, long before he became a megastar or created satirical, astute songs about America, Bowie cited Payment as “a great film, but rather depressing if it is a true reflection of The American Way Of Life.”

This section contains SPOILERS

Many critics complained about what they considered to be a “pat” ending, where three of the four couples (plus Ito and his family) cheerily depart from church. Martin Ritt expressed regrets over the film’s conclusion, citing Twentieth-Century-Fox executives’ trepidation of offending the suburban audience. They issued this following statement to the press: “Church-goers, despite the sensational aspects of the picture [it includes a rape], will find it worth while (sic) since the picture opens and closes with church-going scenes.”

Courtesy of www.postmodernjoan.com

Courtesy of www.postmodernjoan.com

Actually, the film technically doesn’t begin or end with these church-going scenes. In fact, the finale is more ambiguous and downbeat as it closes with Leola departing Sunrise Hills in a taxi, looking back in sorrow, with the camera sinisterly lingering on the misleadingly cheery Sunrise Hills sign. Even the overtly chirpy churchgoing scenes can (and should) be interpreted with skepticism. Sandwiched in-between many stark dystopian scenes, the symmetry of the church scenes creates the impression that the characters’ problems continually circulate in ebbs and flows. Everybody suppresses their true emotions to give the appearance of a happy, well-adjusted suburban family, but ultimately all their grievances will resurface again and again.

Sources:

NYT review of No Down Payment

– Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia

-Gabriel Miller, The Life and Films of Martin Ritt

-Colin Young, “The Hollywood War of Independence,” Film Quarterly 1959

The Real Christmas

By Adam Tawfik

Madtvbanner

MADtv, wrongly dismissed as “the poor man’s SNL,” was a vastly overlooked American sketch show that for the majority of its 14-year run produced innovative and irreverent content that pushed the boundaries of good taste in a funny and often thought-provoking way. Although best known for their pop culture parodies and celebrity impressions (like Phil Lamarr’s freakishly spot-on white Michael Jackson or Debra Wilson’s hilariously cracky Whitney Houston), MADtv’s real genius manifested in its character-based original content. Constructed like short films, these vignettes take their time to establish the characters and situations and letting the tension bubble until it enteris the realm of pure mayhem.

The Christmas episodes of many TV shows, even the good ones, tend to mindlessly contribute to the endless output of excruciatingly mediocre and cliché Christmas-fare. Luckily, MADtv keeps delivering the razor-sharp satire that debunks the misguided perception that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Merry Freakin’ Christmas!

Expectations are a bitch. When it concerns Christmas presents, they’re 100 times worse (thanks retail!). One mother (Stephnie Weir), ruins Christmas Day with her eternal woe of giving her family the perfect present, while her long-suffering family (all of whom love their gifts) painstakingly try to console the inconsolable matriarch.

What do you get when you fuse Martin Scorcese’s gangster films with the claymated world of Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer? Musical numbers, power struggles, violence, and a whole lot of blood. There’s something for the entire family (except perhaps for children).

If your family is a hot mess, that won’t magically change at Christmas. The Shanks (expertly portrayed by Mo Collins and Ike Barinholtz), are a co-dependent husband and wife that endlessly yell and beat each other up; she is a raging shrew and he an unemployed loser. Caught in the middle are a well-meaning but highly senile grandfather who thinks everything is a PlayStation, their Prozac infused daughter (Stephnie Weir), and a couple of neighbors who have the bad luck to be houseguests after their home burned down.

While Christmas rarely brings sunshine and roses, it often illuminates other, less flattering parts of certain family members. A couple (Mo Collins and Michael McDonald) are awoken by their gift deprived children who are devastated that Santa forgot them. They learn the truth when their parents half-assedly pass on stuff from their bedroom. Unfortunately for the children, there are far worse skeletons to come out of the closet.

Every great piece of black humor should involve emotional harm to children. April (Stephnie Weir), a cute little girl discovers the brutal consequences of encountering Santa (Michael McDonald), who turns out to be an eccentric crazy-man with a murderous streak. For five hilarious minutes, we watch April plead for her life while Santa tries to ease her into death in a none-too-refined method.

Political correctness is a killjoy, especially at the holidays. A new employee is surprised to find that Christmas is banned in his office. Several repressed employees, tired of a “cheer of a non-specific, non-traditional, non-religious nature,” plan an ultra-underground Secret Santa, which sets off a chain-effect of cultural cacophony.

 

Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

How to Make a Profit and Save Lives

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

By Adam Tawfik

Dallas Buyers Club has all of the elements for a Lifetime-esque treatment. The protagonist, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic white-trash drug and sex addict, who receives a shattering HIV diagnosis giving him 30 days to live. In order to fight the odds, he must stand up to the FDA and medical establishment by smuggling and using illegal drugs.  He encounters a flamboyant transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), who becomes his business partner, and an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who initially opposes his tactics.

Under the helm of director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas resists all temptations to be pat and preachy (save for a couple of scenes, but they’re minor enough to be forgiven). Dallas instead opts for a lucid and intellectual approach to AIDS, a disease that tends to get overly politicized and emotionalized in popular discourse and films due to its characterization as a gay disease. The film widens its scope so that it’s more than about rectifying homophobia, or about homosexuality and AIDS, or simply one man fighting against the government; it illuminates all of the above.

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

The filmmakers wisely let the facts and the characters speak for themselves. The first act consists of a subtle ripple effect of Ron coming to terms with his diagnosis. Although he acts like he’s invincible on the outside, little things show us he’s frightened. As he reads articles and realizes his drug use and unprotected sex gave him AIDS he is uncharacteristically unable to participate in the orgy in his trailer. There is an almost subliminal split-second image of him looking at the calendar and a flashing of red for 30 days representing his limited life span.

Dallas also shows how AIDS victims were ostracized. First, we see in a bar scene that Ron’s friends fear that he’s infectious. When he spits on them after a fight, they freak and cleanse themselves of the evil germs. Then his community shuns him by menacingly standing over his car and not letting him come to work and shutting off his trailer with an eviction notice. This is shown with surgical precision, using concise, short scenes.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Ron puts himself in danger by illegally taking AZT and almost dies, but we understand why he takes the risk, as doctors simply gave him 30 days to live, with no hope or medical options. They are impervious to the urgency the AIDS victims are feeling. Once Ron figures out there are more effective treatments that are illegal in the US and begins importing them from other countries, he sets up a distribution center, which he calls the Dallas Buyers Club, making them available to anyone with money by monthly subscription.

The rest of the film then centers on the legal tug-of-war between the FDA and the Dallas Buyers’ Club.  There’s an excellent monologue delivered by a Supreme Court judge where he explains that the law isn’t logical or fair when ruling against Ron’s petition to continue the buyers’ club. This is still timely, considering the healthcare crisis today.

Courtesy of gazette.com

Courtesy of gazette.com

Even as Ron’s life totally changes, the film doesn’t magically transform him into a saint. He remains a character we admire more than like. He manages a true trajectory, beginning as a disgusting, rude, uncouth rube, slowly transforming his life.  He is never a part of the gay scene and stays resentful of his forced association. But from the beginning his ethical streak is evident and grows as the film progresses.  He approaches the Dallas Buyers Club as a business and he’s always a bit of a huckster, as is his partner, Rayon, whom he enlists to get more clients, particularly the flamboyantly gay ones, with whom Ron is very uncomfortable.

He never entirely gets over his homophobia. So his final scene with Rayon is touching, because the script shows that although he cares about Rayon (even though they constantly spar), he still is squeamish and is reluctant to hug him; this rings true and feels human. He manages to see each individual as a person regardless of their sexuality.

Courtesy of eonline

Courtesy of eonline

McConaughey once again proves that he’s more than a pretty boy and gets full in to his physically demanding role. There’s considerably little of his trademark roguish charm. He gives full conviction to his unsympathetic character, adding moments of humor while never losing sight of the gravity of his situation.  He undergoes a subtle yet alarming physical transformation. In early scenes he is active and physical and as his disease progresses he becomes thin and fragile, all the while maintaining a fierce emotional spirit. This is probably his best dramatic role.

Jared Leto, returning to the big screen after a five year acting hiatus, is back in excellent form.  He delivers a confident, flamboyantly gay character; he portrays the bitchy “queen” very well.  Rayon is also the first character to stand up to Ron and force him to meaningfully consider his situation. We gradually learn it’s all a façade. Rayon has a lot of insecurities. He has been beaten down by life. As he’s in final stages of the disease we see he’s not dying with dignity. He attempts to numb his pain and sorrow with cocaine, thus speeding up his death sentence. It’s made more haunting by the last image we see of him, saying “I don’t want to die” and coughing up blood.

Courtesy of apnatimepass

Courtesy of apnatimepass

[Interesting trivia: some of the wonderful supporting Dallas cast were also featured in the marvelous 12 Years a Slave. J.D. Evermore shines as the hateful, stupid and despicable best friend who becomes the ringleader in ostracizing Ron.  Deneen Tyler, with her cigarette-inflected baritone timbre, brings the right amount of sleaze, toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of the Buyer’s Club manager. ]

The sorely underrated Griffin Dunne is almost unrecognizable as a rogue hippie doctor practicing alternative medicine in Mexico, who becomes Ron’s first ally.

Courtesy of filmequals.com

Courtesy of filmequals.com

I was most pleasantly surprised by Jennifer Garner’s character and acting. The female character in male-oriented dramas usually lacks depth and is reduced to a love object. Here, Dr. Saks is a well-defined character, and has agency occupying her own storyline. She progresses from an idealistic, but very by-the-book, doctor to one who rebels against protocol for her patients’ best interests. Garner, who’s drop-dead gorgeous in a girly way, subtly plays down her looks.  She nicely shows intelligence and inner strength, and makes the transformation of initially opposing Ron to allying with his cause believable.

The film tastefully and subtly portrays the victims’ progressive decline due to the disease and the makeup and drastic weight loss wasn’t gimmicky, allowing the characters to maintain center stage.

Yves Belanger’s cinematography has an intriguing balance of impressionistic beauty, whilst maintaining the seediness of the locations, especially in the rodeo scenes. Martin Pensa and Jean-Mark Valleé’s brisk and frenetic editing sets the stage for the film’s theme of urgently racing against the clock.