Tag Archives: comedy

Why I want 12 Years a Slave to win the Best Picture Oscar

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Yesterday I did a two minute sound bite on a local cable news station following the Oscar nominations. During this discussion, in addition to forgetting Robert Redford’s name, I said that I thought Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave had a good shot at winning the Best Picture Award, making it the first film by a black director to do so. And who knows, maybe McQueen would win Best Director too, another first.

Not exactly stepping out on a limb there. But then I added that I hoped 12 Years did win. Before I could explain my reasons for this, we were on the topic of snubbed performances and that’s when I blanked on Redford’s name (now that I think of it I also forgot to mention the cat, or cats, in Inside Llewyn Davis, who I thought should have gotten some recognition. Damn!)

After the broadcast, my colleague Laura Frank Clifford, who was kind enough to watch, mentioned via Facebook (and I thank her for overlooking my Redford senior moment) that my endorsement of 12 Years a Slave seemed to contradict an earlier posting on Artsfuse where I had in fact listed the film among as number one among the worst films of 2013.

Another senior moment? Perhaps not. As I noted to Laura, that “worst” film  list referred not necessarily to really awful films, but to films that either failed miserably to live up to expectations or were vastly overrated (okay, an amended list also included Grown Ups 2 and A Madea Christmas, which were indeed very awful films). And my reservations about the film remain – I am definitely with Gerald Peary and Jonathan Rosenbaum and even the printable version of Armond White’s opinion on this one.

At any rate, if quality was the issue I would not think 12 Years is deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. It’s not the worst of the nominees (I’d award that prize to Gravity, which barely missed inclusion in my ten worst list) nor the best (I’d go with Her, but probably would have opted for Llewyn Davis if it made the cut).

But as all but the most ingenuous or disingenuous would acknowledge, quality has little to do with who gets an Oscar. It is about image and p.r. and politics and making money.

Image-wise, an Oscar for 12 Years could serve to counter the Academy’s well-deserved reputation as a segregated bastion of white, male, middle-aged privilege that has denied access and recognition to minorities and women. It would be a historic first, a sign of better times to come!  Just like giving Kathryn Bigelow Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Hurt Locker in 2009. And we all know how that threw open the doors for women directors in Hollywood.

It would be great for Hollywood’s image, then, but substantively meaningless when it comes to opportunities for black or other minority filmmakers. It’s an award that would honor the Academy more than the recipient. As was the case with Bigelow, McQueen doesn’t need this bogus imprimatur to prove that he is a brilliant filmmaker. Though not a fan of 12 Years, I believe his  previous two films, Hunger (2009)  and Shame (2011) are evidence of a major auteur. Whether he gets an Oscar or not, he’ll be making many great films and has at least a few masterpieces in him.

So I don’t think 12 Years should win the Best Picture Oscar either because it is the best film among those nominated or because it can serve as a token gesture that will make no difference in the fundamental racial imbalance of Hollywood. I think it should win because it might get more people to watch it.

I’m not talking about the already converted, those who know that slavery was an abomination and should not be forgotten or forgiven and who realize that the malignant racism that engendered that monstrous institution still lies not so far below the surface in our society.

Nor am I talking about those unembarrassed by their recidivist racial attitudes, like the fans and defenders of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty who agree with his belief that African-Americans had it pretty good before the Civil Rights movement made them all uppity and angry. People like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, etc… For if even by some miracle those people are prodded into watching the film, they will no doubt dismiss it as a fabrication by the left wing traitors of Hollywood and the liberal-biased lame stream media.

Instead, those who would most benefit from watching the film are those who feel satisfied that the battle for racial justice is a done deal. And maybe overdone. These are people who don’t think much about these issues but who if pressed might be on the fence about whether we’re making too much of a fuss out of voting rights, equal opportunity, social programs for the poor. You know, the kinds of things that Martin Luther King Jr. and others spent decades fighting, and sometimes dying for.

It’s not an easy movie to watch. And in some ways it’s not even a very good movie. But it is a brutally efficient history lesson. It tells the truth about a terrible thing that most people would just like to forget about. If giving an Oscar to 12 Years a Slave in any way helps preserve the progress we’ve made in the 149 years since slavery was abolished, I’ll be rooting for it.


Some Christmas Coal.

“Christmas comes but once a year” is beginning to sound more like a promise from the major Hollywood studios than an expression of seasonal joy. There were some good films worth discussing; some bad films worth excoriating. But mostly we were served helpings a plain, squishy vanilla, movies so devoid of, well, almost anything, that they evoke as much a discussion as “Didja like it?” “Eh.”

So here, in no particular order, are some of our Yuletide visitations.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.  No doubt lots of people were quick to call this latest Will Ferrell comedy dumb (even if as in “dumb but funny”), but I wonder if any in the audience realized that the movie called them stupid. Set in the very early 1980s, the movie takes the start of 24-hours cable news as its backdrop and says outright that CNN (called GNN in the movie) and its imitators were/are so successful because the pander to the emptiest part of the American brain. And that’s all of the American brain; no one in the movie differentiates between a smart American audience and a stupider one. We’re all idiots together as far as the movie is concerned. Well, good point.

Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and his misfit news team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner) are disappointed to find themselves relegated to the graveyard shift at the upstart news operation, so much so that Burgundy takes it into his head to dedicate their hours to “America,” meaning cute animal and mawkish human interest stories. They area hit of course.

So much for the clever stuff. Otherwise, the movie is a rehash of the jokes in the first go-round, endlessly recycled. Carell’s character, the weatherman, is still a schizophrenic who spouts non-sequiturs; once more, Koechner is the clueless sports anchor who has a gay crush on Ron (is that gay “joke” still funny? was it ever?); and Rudd’s investigative reporter is still, well, kind of a womanizer, but in a nice way because he’s Paul Rudd. Typically for a Ferrell movie, if he and his director Adam McKay think they’ve got ahold of a funny joke they milk it until the cow runs dry. Whether you think the movie depends on your patience, your appetite for repetition, and your gratitude for a movie that has even a teeny tiny taste of satire.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Peter Jackson continues his vain effort to craft a trilogy out of J.R.R. Tolkein’s slight, unexpected bestseller, the one which prompted the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even squeezing borrowed and invented characters to fill out the relatively scant dramatic landscape, Jackson has harvested acres of nothing. As he did in part one, Jackson employs the simplest of structures: some characters travel for a while, fight, travel again, fight, travel, fight, and so forth and so on. Such bare bones would be fine if Jackson sutured some flesh onto them, but there’s nothing with blood in its veins on the screen. In place of the painfully unfunny “comic” scenes of the last movie, Jackson has relied on two action scenes: one with giant spiders (shades of Bert I. Gordon!) and a way, way too long climax starring a dragon. Partly as a result, the enterprise doesn’t resemble The Lord of the Rings movies anywhere near so much as Jackson’s gaseous, ponderous King Kong.

August: Osage County.  A Pulitzer Prize? Well, OK. This hackneyed tale of family woe in the boondocks was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play and directed by John Wells with that misplaced reverence due Broadway tales of the common folk (think Bus Stop). Tell me if you’ve heard this before: A family patriarch dies and so relatives, their spouses and children come from near and far to join the stay-at-homes in an outpouring of vitriol and decades-old resentments, not to mention the revelation of scandals.

These machinations have chugged across movie screens so long that their operators have had to raise the scandal stakes and the scandals in such a recent rehash as this reach such ludicrous heights (or depths) that it’s hard not to giggle from the very first.

Out on the Oklahoma plain – which we see every once in a while on typically over-composed, postcard-perfect images –old man Weston has drunk himself to death, leaving behind his widow, pill-popping Violet Weston. Because she is the most mentally deranged member of her clan, Violet assumes the status of lacerating truth-teller, the one who slashes through pieties, battling one army of clichés with legions of her own.

Violet is played by Meryl Streep, a cold performer who acts like she’s a telegraph operator tapping out her meanings in broadly worded transmissions. There isn’t much scenery in the old dark house Violet inhabits, but there’s even less by the time Streep is done chewing and swallowing it. She is surrounded by a name cast whose names you will recognize but whose performances are unmemorable.

47 Ronin. Given its budget and what I assume were its ambitions, this is truly the worst movie of the year. Keanu Reeves stars as a half-Japanese, half-European young (?) servant in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. In an opening voice-over, a narrator refers to the shogunate era as “ancient Japan.” The shogunate existed from 1600 to 1868 so you’re tipped off literally from the movie’s opening that the movie has no respect for Japan, its history or culture.

Actually, you’re tipped off by the movie’s title. The tale of the 47 ronin is an old one which has been made into at least six movies. The most famous is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 The 47 Ronin which he made under the orders of the Japanese wartime government. The emperor’s regime wanted a pro-war, militaristic propaganda film, but Mizoguchi returned with a magnificent anti-war drama that, even without its background, is a classic. But there have been other good versions, too: Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 Chushingura and Kon Ichikawa’s 1994 47 Ronin.

This movie, directed by Carl Rinsch, is essentially a showcase for barely adequate special/digital effects, so-so action scenes, and dramatic scenes that would be more at home in a second-rate manga. It drrraaaggsss, in other words. The whole point of the story is lost in what, I suppose, you could call an update, the story rearranged to appeal to a modern audience. If this movie had another title, it would be terrible, miserable, awful. With the title it does have, it’s also a travesty.

–Henry Sheehan

A matter of taste

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The first time I laughed at the new Woody Allen movie “Jasmine Blue” – and I must confess I have had only intermittent interest in his films (liked “Midnight in Paris,” skipped  “To Rome With Love”) for a while and had no idea what the film was about – happened very early on. Later I realized that the gag, which was indeed funny at the time, or at least I wasn’t the only person laughing (which has been happening these days with increasing frequency) was, in retrospect, not funny at all.

To cite the difference between comedy and tragedy as defined in Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (“If it bends, it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy” and “comedy is tragedy plus time”), this was tragedy. However, the scene inverts the other part of the definition, because this was a case of tragedy being comedy plus time.

I’m referring to when Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), disembarking a flight at the San Francisco airport, enthusiastically engages an elderly woman in a conversation, or rather a monologue, talking with intimate detail about her husband, her friends, her chi-chi lifestyle, dropping names and labels and price tags. They pick up their luggage (Jasmine’s is Louis Vuitton), the older woman’s husband arrives, they go their separate ways, and it becomes obvious that the woman is not an acquaintance of Jasmine, but a total stranger who had the misfortune of sitting next to this crazy person who, in lieu of talking to herself, has unloaded on her fellow passenger her whole delusional life history.

No more bending – it’s broken.  And with that the laughter stops.

Jasmine, as the expertly wound and uncoiled exposition eventually establishes, had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Bernie Madoff-like high-stakes financial conman. After Hal got busted, Jasmine was left disgraced and penniless, and her husband’s fall also took with it the nest egg of Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger’s husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay),

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in effect ending their marriage.

Now Jasmine is forced to seek a place to live with her sister in her meat-and-potatoes San Francisco apartment.

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There she descends like a queen, in denial about her fall from the upper class, picky and bitchy and, Blanche Dubois-like, alienating Ginger’s new, Stanley Kowalski-like boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) – hey, why not throw in the “two guys named Cheech” from “Annie Hall?”

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– who hates Jasmine’s undeserved sense of entitlement, her condescension and disapproval, her meddling, and her hoity-toity ways.

Yes, it’s A “Streetcar Named Desire.” But the theme of class and cultural differences has underscored many of Allen’s films, going back at least to his first “serious” movie, the pseudo-Bergmanesque-with-sidetrips-to-Chekhov “Interiors” (1978), in which the patriarch of a snooty waspy family dumps his brittle, joyless wife for a bubbly “vulgarian” – a long-in-the-tooth party girl. There are sister problems in that film, too.

Though “Blue Jasmine” draws on many such long-established Allen – not to mention Tennessee Williams – themes, it does break new ground. I’m not positive, but I think this is the first of his films that cleaves so intensely to one character’s point of view, to the extent that it is never altogether clear whether a sequence involves a flashback, a hallucination, or both.

A couple of notes about Blanchett’s performance. I would say that it is the best I have seen in any Allen film. Hypnotic, unrelenting, it inundates the screen with nuanced misery, anger, self-deception, unearned arrogance, snobbery, pathos, prickly resilience, petty resentment, deluded self-entitlement, and despair. And sweat. This is not a woman you should ask out on a date, even though Peter Sarsgaard’s slick and wealthy widower gives it a shot.

The portrayal affected me so much that by the end of the film I found myself sweating as much as Jasmine. Here’s an observation I have made about sweating actresses: the last non-American English-speaking actress who sweated this much, to the point of having visible half-moons of perspiration under her arms, was Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton” (2007).

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She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I foresee a Best Actress nomination, at least, and possibly an Oscar for Blanchett, but she would probably have accomplished the same whether she was sweating or not.

Nonetheless, Blanchett’s tour-de-force performance has the paradoxical effect of concealing what it is that makes her character so crazy. She wraps the viewer so thoroughly in Jasmine’s unreliable point-o- view that the reasons for her downfall and ostracism are hard to figure. Since this is a tragedy, and Jasmine ostensibly is the tragic hero, what is her harmatia, her fatal flaw?

Is it the fact that she’s a snob? A compulsive liar? A narcissist incapable of empathy or self-awareness? In a state of constant denial? Is it simply because she enjoys the buzz from a couple of bottles of wine or three or four Stoli martinis and a dozen Xanaxes? And then there’s her poor judgment in men:

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she sure knows how to pick them – both for herself and others, and when she actually finds a keeper, she doesn’t have the moral fiber or good sense to capitalize on it.

Maybe she’s simply guilty of denial, willfully blind to the failings and treachery of a man she idolizes. For in addition to bilking friends out of billions and cheating on his wife, Hal commits the unforgiveable offense of equating price tags with value, of adorning his property with artworks for which he has no appreciation except as status symbols.

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Jasmine is no better. When you come down to it, her ultimate crime is that she has bad taste.

— Peter Keough