Tag Archives: satire

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: Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate the Great

Courtesy of impawards.com

Courtesy of impawards.com

Blue Jasmine Review

By Adam Tawfik

The film industry hails Woody Allen as something of a god even if much of his iconic status is residual from accomplishments including Manhattan, Sleeper, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and especially the most definitively Allen-esque Annie Hall.

In these films, the writer-director (and sometimes leading man) cultivated a unique brand of urbane humor that borrowed the frenetic, silly pace and hyper-neurotic characters of the silent-era and screwball comedies, updating them with franker sexuality and more emotional baggage.

Courtesy of pitch.com

Courtesy of pitch.com

Although the energetic Allen consistently produces films featuring eclectic ensembles of celebrities and character actors, few of his efforts of the last twenty years equal those of his artistic zenith (roughly the 1970s to mid-1980s). Around the same time Allen married his adopted Vietnamese daughter his films largely tended towards an endless droning of shrill and whiny characters, and an unconvincing coupling of an older man (often portrayed by Allen or an Allen surrogate) and an inappropriately younger woman (usually Scarlett Johansson, unfortunately).

Amidst the heap of subpar films, Allen occasionally produces a worthwhile venture. Blue Jasmine, his latest release, not only finds him returning to good form, but ranks amongst one of the strongest films in his entire oeuvre.

Courtesy of pastemagazine.com

Courtesy of pastemagazine.com

Jasmine, a biting satire and bleak drama, delves into the misfortune of a recent widow (Cate Blanchett) whose husband’s (Alec Baldwin) Ponzi scheme (and eventual arrest and suicide) leaves her broke and addled, forcing her to flee from her NYC penthouse to her working class sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) small San Francisco apartment, where she wreaks havoc on everybody’s life while self-imploding in her narcissism and delusion.

The power in Allen’s screenplay is in its amusing but unflinchingly adult treatment of its characters. The film provides a strong framework to elicit sympathy for Jasmine, a woman over forty who has to support herself after years being provided for during her marriage and learn the most basic life skills such as learning to operate a computer in order to get a college degree for interior design. At the same time, the strong emphasis on her many flaws tempers any sympathy felt for her.

From the very beginning from the way Jasmine babbles nonstop to the passenger next to her on the plane about her recent misfortunes, we know she’s going to be unsympathetic. Jasmine makes her contentious relationship with Ginger worse by her snobbery and condescension towards her sister (whom she feels is an underachiever) and her gruff boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and his friends. A great deal of the humor and the gravitas comes from Jasmine’s inability to rise from being a flat character, but what makes it interesting is that it has dramatic repercussions as the world around her changes.

Courtesy of voraciousfilmgoer.blogspot.com

Courtesy of voraciousfilmgoer.blogspot.com

This by no means suggests that Cate Blanchett gives a one-note performance. In fact, the magnificent Blanchett is by far the film’s largest asset. It’s been too long since she’s had a strong protagonist role and she’s one of those actresses whose supernatural talent can almost singlehandedly carry a film, like here (or sometimes, as in the case of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, her dynamic presence is the only reason to watch).

Jasmine has tapped into new depths of Blanchett’s range. Blanchett, who often has an androgynous quality (that makes her the perfect choice to play people like Galadriel or Bob Dylan), plays her first ultra-feminine character since Notes on a Scandal. In her hands Jasmine comes across like a more cynical and savvy Mad Men-era wife.

More remarkably, Jasmine gives Blanchett an opportunity to introduce her great skills as a comedian, imbuing the film’s tone with her droll readings. Where many actresses would probably approach the histrionic character with overly-theatrical ballyhoo, Blanchett’s understatement heightens the humor of her character and the situation. Blanchett shows the craziness in her face, progressively turning more troll-like. She also conveys haughtiness through her expression, having great capsule moments; the total register of disgust on her face when Chili’s friend wants to date her is hilarious.

Courtesy of unsungfilms.com

Courtesy of unsungfilms.com

Sally Hawkins as the other major character is the perfect foil for Blanchett’s staidness. It’s Ginger who is the dynamic character and film’s heart, as she convincingly portrays an unsuspecting basically happy-go-lucky woman in spite of the adversity in her life and the only one who gives Jasmine any compassion; it’s funny and heartbreaking when she has a brief falling out with Cannavale because she buys into Jasmine’s notion that she’s an underachiever, and embarks in an ill-fated fling with a seemingly sweet and respectable man (Louis CK).

Cannavale convincingly shifts between Chili’s charismatic gregariousness, volatility, and insecurity, often within seconds. Scenes between him, Hawkins, and Blanchett explore the tension and differences between them with comedy and drama shifted between; for example when Chili finds out about Ginger’s fling, there are some genuinely frightening moments, such as when Cannavale unhinges the phone off the wall in his character’s drunken rage; but Blanchett’s nasty one-liner comments offset that with humor.

Courtesy of thelmagazine.com

Courtesy of thelmagazine.com

The film’s only flaw is the New York flashback passages which are mostly ineffectual because the country club characters don’t develop past the point of window dressing and the scenes aren’t well integrated into the film. The biggest missed opportunity is in the major underdevelopment of the husband, leaving Alec Baldwin, who just got off a stint of 30 Rock where for seven years he made an unscrupulous executive imminently compelling and hilarious, nothing to do but give a stiff and bland performance.

Some of this undefined disparity between the two cities in the script is rectified by the strong technical crew. Set designers Kris Boxell and Regina Graves deserve praise for providing some of the more memorable scenery in an Allen film, providing an interesting contrast between the stuffiness of upper crust NYC with lots of whites and creams while painting an eclectic San Francisco with an array of soft pinks, greens, and yellows.

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Suzy Benzinger’s assemblage of breathtakingly gorgeous and chic outfits heightens the personification of Jasmine as a decadently rich ice princess flaunting her upper echelon status. The deep red cocktail dress at Jasmine’s birthday party in particular is a standout, doing wonders for Blanchett’s ivory skin.

It’s interesting to read that at a little over $31 million Jasmine is Allen’s most commercially successful film; considering his longevity, he’s still a niche director. As one woman in the audience loudly exclaimed as she left the theater, “I’ve never liked that Woody Allen.” Even if you’re not an Allen fan, you should still check out Jasmine for Cate Blanchett.