Author Archives: Adam Tawfik

About Adam Tawfik

I own and operate the entertainment site The Tawfik Zone where I review classic and current films, TV shows, music, as well as share rare and funny entertainment gems at tawfikzone.com.

Take 5/Obit Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

Courtesy of Boing Boing

Aretha Franklin’s musical legacy is a testament to the importance of having the right collaborators at the right time. Aided the cheerleading of her doting father Rev. C.L. Franklin and her impressive gospel recordings, Franklin’s talent was recognized at an early age by the industry. She was signed by Columbia Records, for whom she recorded 9 albums over 6 years. However, the material given to her – a clunky hodge podge of easy listening, pop, and jazz – stifled her larger-than-life soulful talent. Listening to these early songs, it is clear that Columbia didn’t know what to do with her.

The Aretha Franklin that we all love and revere emerged in 1967 when she traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Under the guidance of genius producer Rick Hall, she gave to the world the album I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You). In addition to the title track, her inaugural album contained “RESPECT” and “Dr. Feelgood,” which remain iconic numbers in her repertoire.

This and the other recordings she made with Atlantic records remain as fresh and vibrant today as when they were originally produced. Even in an era (1967-1975) that was a Renaissance for virtuosic American vocalists, Ms. Franklin had that something extra that made her stand out from the pack. Listen to Ms. Franklin’s version of “The House That Jack Built” vs the originator Thelma Jones. Jones gives a spirited performance, but Franklin’s soulfulness better savors the rueful lyrics and her head and chest phrasings have more zing as she belts out the high notes. Consider a side by side of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man:” Etta James’ feisty, assertive version is edged by Franklin’s quietly poignant cover which makes the song more personable.

Courtesy of E! News

Aretha Franklin’s status as The Queen is complicated at best. In its prime Ms. Franklin’s voice combined a euphoric blend of heavenly and earthly tones that conveyed volcanic strength with a naked, raw, gut wrenching world weariness. While many of her peers such as Nancy Wilson, Etta James, and Tina Turner maintained and expanded their gift, Ms. Franklin squandered hers. Quite honestly, for most of her career, she has coasted on her decade of sublimity. Like many of the most supremely talented artists with natural ability, Ms. Franklin’s hedonism (smoking and fatty eating) and lack of discipline eventually diminished her umami of her voice, though glimmers of it tauntingly remained. Despite performing at 10% of her capacity, Ms. Franklin demanded to be treated (and called) as The Queen of Soul unconditionally.

For the last 30 years, Ms. Franklin gave the impression that performing was a chore and that she was doing audiences a favor with her presence. (In several of her live concerts in the 80s, Franklin stops short of rolling her eyes). Nevertheless, Franklin never left the spotlight, touring constantly and releasing several albums. Even if those records, produced by the white bread Arista, were nowhere near the quality of her Atlantic discography, there is something to be said for her willingness to continually produce new music, as opposed to just settling for nostalgia tours like so many musicians do for most of their careers. All this goes to show the strong survivor she was in her own rough way.

Courtesy of Vox

It is astonishing the many obstacles she overcame; pregnancy at 13, not finishing high school, abusive relationships, enduring the brutal murder of her father and the deaths of her sisters to debilitating cancers. It’s a shame that Ms. Franklin wasn’t able to let go of her feeling of lack, which led her to compete, rather than collaborate. This wasn’t restricted to her colleagues such as Whitney Houston and Mavis Staples (where she had the studio engineers virtually render her duet partner a background singer in post). She also undermined her own sisters professionally. The most egregious incident happened when Ms. Franklin was at the zenith of her career; when she found out that Carolyn was recording the soundtrack to the musical Sparkle, she used her clout to commandeer the project for herself. The brutal truth of the matter is that Sparkle wouldn’t be a monumental album in the hands of Carolyn, a good, but not spectacular vocalist. Sparkle marked the last stellar album for Aretha Franklin; a bittersweet last hurrah indeed.

I cannot share the enthusiasm that Carole King, Barack Obama, and social media felt when she sang Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center in 2015. Perhaps people responded to the fact that for the first time in a long while, she didn’t seem contemptuous of her public. Despite her gameness, her voice was drained and trailing. Thankfully we can always revisit the recordings when Ms. Franklin had the magic. For those precious songs, I will always love and cherish her.

Paring down a top 5 is super hard, but here I go.

I Say a Little Prayer For You

Although Dionne Warwick put Burt Bacharach’s songs on the map, Ms. Franklin’s cover elevates this sweet, catchy ditty to sublime bliss. This version is the tops.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Ms. Franklin’s gentle piano playing alongside her powerhouse gospel vocals, on-point harmonies from the backup queens, and a fiery organist make for a stirring, sumptuous rendition of this Simon and Garfunkel song.

Call Me

In addition to fierce singing by Ms. Franklin and her backup goddesses, Call Me also demonstrates Ms. Franklin’s songwriting talent. There are so many good live versions of this song, but this one edges them out because of the way she goes to a hushed lullaby to a spirited riff at the end.

Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)

Ms. Franklin’s heavy piano pounding and uninhibited belting make for one of the best renditions of anger and heartbreak ever captured. The background singers are pretty, but pretty useless. Never mind, Ms. Franklin more than carries the song.

(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman

The slower tempo of this version gives Ms. Franklin more opportunity to wax the gorgeous Carole King lyrics, and when she belts “makes me feel so aliveeeeee,” honey, she soars through the speakers. And the way she slides those chest notes at the end is magical.

Very, very close 2nds: Angel, A Deeper Love (a guilty pleasure), Ain’t No Way, See Saw, You’re All I Need to Get By, I’m In Love, Spanish Harlem, and Brand New Me. Also check out an overlooked acid soul Mr. Spain.

Obits: Dorothy Malone & Bradford Dillman

This New Year the celebrity graveyard has commenced, taking away two classic movie/TV stars, Dorothy Malone, 92 and Bradford Dillman, 87. Although neither one has become an immortal screen icon, both had long and varied careers.

**************************

When Dorothy Malone changed her hair color, her screen roles transformed considerably. As a brunette in Warner Brothers and Universal pictures, Malone played the good girl. In those roles Malone always underplayed to good effect with a sensible, empathetic warmth. In her early career she’s probably best remembered for her brief, but excellent scene in The Big Sleep where she brought sauciness and smarts as a keen book store salesclerk who helped Bogie’s Marlowe uncover a major clue.

Courtesy of wallpaperup.com

Perhaps her best role in this era was in Raoul Walsh’s stellar Western remake of High Sierra, Colorado Territory, about two sympathetic antiheroes against a bunch of fickle “respectable” people. Malone is well cast as the seemingly nice girl who callously betrays outlaw Joel McCrea in a swift second at the first whiff of adversity.

Regarding Malone’s screen roles, blondes didn’t have more fun. But blonde Malone found more acclaim with meatier roles as crazy, mixed-up, slightly mysterious women. Her most famous role is her Oscar-winning turn as an out-of-control alcoholic nymphomaniac socialite who wreaks havoc on Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall in Douglas Sirk’s opulent melodrama Written on the Wind. The most memorable sequence is when Malone’s character dances maniacally as her father dies of a heart attack.

Courtesy of otrasactrices.wordpress.com

Her film career was somewhat derailed by her first and only starring vehicle, Too Much, Too Soon, a melodrama based off of troubled actress Diana Barrymore, which was savaged by critics and box office returns, and featured a way past his prime Errol Flynn as her leading man.

In the early 60s she delivered poignant performances as enigmatic women whose pasts with dangerous men caught up with her in well-written bittersweet episodes of Route 66 and Checkmate. In 1964, she scored a major coup when she starred in the revolutionary and super popular soap opera Peyton Place. Initially it was an ideal setup as she was the Grande Dame and had clout to set normal working hours to spend time with her children. By the second year, younger actors Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, and Barbara Parkins got more fanfare.

After the show ended in 1968, Malone acted here and there until 1992. Her final role in Basic instinct as a woman who got away with murdering her family was exciting on paper but translated as a random and skimpy cameo on screen.

****************************

Like so many of the male and female starlets groomed by the major studios in the late 50s, Bradford Dillman didn’t achieve major movie stardom like the actors under contract during the Hollywood Golden Era of 1930 to 1950 or the Hollywood New Wave of 1967 to 1975. Other than Compulsion, where he received good notices for playing a rich sociopathic murderer, Dillman’s early filmography at 20th Century Fox was forgettable.

Courtesy of IMDb

Starting in the early 60s, Dillman maintained a prolific career guest starring on TV shows. His first set of guest appearances are his best because the 1960s was a prime time for well-written character-driven TV. He excelled at playing deviants and neurotics. He was uncompromisingly raw as a psycho in an uncharacteristically dark episode of Dr. Kildare who rapes Kildare’s (played by youth idol Richard Chamberlain) girlfriend in front of him and continues to taunt both of them before he is apprehended. He is equally unsettling in a shocking episode of Ben Casey where he is an intelligent, but devious patient who gaslights his dumb, but sweet roommate and tries to steal his sexy fiancée (MASH’s Sally Kellerman).

He also did his share of schlock because they helped put his five daughters through school. By this time his wife Suzy Parker had put her iconic modelling and brief critically panned acting career behind her. In between, he also did character work in movies he was proud of such as The Way We Were and The Iceman Cometh.

Regarding his career Dillman remarked “I’ve had a wonderful life. I married the most beautiful woman in the world. Together we raised six children, each remarkable in his or her own way and every one a responsible citizen. I was fortunate to work in a profession where I looked forward to going to work every day. I was rewarded with modest success. The work sent me to places all over the world I’d never been able to afford visiting otherwise.”

Podcast: 1950s Horror

Hi everybody,

I’ve started a new position at my local library and I’ve met a colleague and friend Eddie Whitlock who listened to previous episodes of the Alternative Oscars and immediately proposed that we do a podcast on classic horror. Everybody at the Tawfik Zone, me, Candace and Tia, was all for it from the get go. The four of us discuss the state of horror in the 50s and mention many titles including House of Wax, Night of the Demon, The Wasp Woman, Curse of the Warewolf, and The Bad Seed. We give our definitions of horror. We ask you, what makes a movie horror?…..

If you want to catch up on our other podcast episodes, click here.

Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

The Mediocre Jessica Williams

Courtesy of Essence

A year or two before Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show in 2015 he was visibly not as sharp as he was in for the previous decade he fronted the program that he transformed into one of the best US contemporary political TV satires. Several of his greatest correspondents including Stephen Colbert, Jason Jones, Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee were long gone and doing their own things.

In a group of mostly ho hum supporting talent, Jessica Williams, an acerbic millennial 6-foot black woman, was clearly the audience favorite. She had so much goodwill that several Daily Show launched campaigns for her to replace Stewart. Many went berserk when Trevor Noah got the job. I was never on the Jessica Williams bandwagon; I found her segments lacking in originality and the faux-bemused straight-talking shtick always fell a bit flat on delivery.

In spite of my bias against Williams, I wanted to like her newest movie, The Incredible Jessica James. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this wasn’t going to be the movie for me. Writer-director Jim Strouse, who cast Williams in a supporting role in his 2015 indie film People Places Things, was captivated by her and felt that she needed her own vehicle.

Courtesy of Okayplayer.com

In Jessica James, Williams plays a 25-year-old aspiring playwright in a creative and personal funk after a break-up with her ex (Lakeith Stanfield). Watching Williams headline a 90-minute feature, I had a clearer picture of why I am not a fanboy. Towards the end of the film, James’ sort of love interest (Chris O’Dowd), who binged read her plays, remarked that her body of work reveals her complexity as a person.

The problem is, we don’t see James’ multifaceted personality because Williams doesn’t show it to us. For the most part Williams is replicating her Daily Show persona. Her character is intended to be intelligent and prickly, in part due to her frustration of being an unproduced playwright. We get that. The problem is Williams is incredibly guarded and unapproachable which makes it very difficult to be invested in her character. She’s poker-faced, but she’s not droll and there’s no mystery lurking beneath.

On The Daily Show, Williams preached to the choir. In Jessica James, she talks down to the audience. The only scenes Williams seemed to halfway enjoy performing are when she berates characters who don’t share her supposedly contradictory profound insights, such as her tinder date who isn’t romantically sexually aggressive enough or a suburban mom at her sister’s baby shower who is befuddled by James’ revisionist feminist children’s book.

Courtesy of The Guardian

Williams is unconvincing at showing the warmer side of her character, the one that encompasses a sister-like friendship with a struggling actress (Noel Wells) and a job as a drama instructor for underprivileged youth. These subplots are particularly ponderous to watch with their lack of charm and a sense that they’re more obligatory than organic.

The obsessive emphasis on Williams creates a large vacuum for the rest of the film. Chris O’Dowd, who shares the most scenes with Williams is particularly constrained. O’Dowd, who excels at goofy, broad comedy (his work in the brilliant sitcom The IT Crowd is excellent), visibly struggles with his dour character, an App developer who isn’t over his ex-wife but has feelings for James. It doesn’t help that he and Williams have no chemistry (it should be noted that Williams doesn’t convincingly interact with anybody).

The only source of amusement comes from nightmare sequences where James’ ex confronts her at unexpected places and aggressively corners her about their break up before being killed by a large, random object.

Courtesy of Heavy

Stanfield’s was the only mildly interesting performance, a big feat considering that his is a hodge podge abstract role with little screen time. With the charismatic twinkle in his eyes, he is personable and vivacious, unlike the rest of the film which is frigid and stiff. You can see why he is in demand.

A friend who watched Jessica James thought it would work better as a TV show. Considering how popular Williams is and how gung ho Netflix is in making TV series and how TV is as much of a cesspool for remakes as movies and Broadway these days, it’s entirely plausible that a TV version could materialize. If it does, I’ll skip it.

Interview: Jason Fisher Writer-Director-Producer

Making movies isn’t for the easily discouraged. Ask Jason Fisher who is about 250 drafts into a feature film script that he’s been revising and revising for the past 20 years.

The screenplay was inspired by a colleague (who I’ll call “Jamal”) with whom Fisher worked at Pizza Hut at Cincinnati. They had a cordial relationship on the job, which organically developed into a friendship. One day Jamal told Fisher that one day he would reveal what brought him to Cincinnati. At the time Fisher thought it would be something along the lines of a bad break up.

Jamal’s confession was a bombshell, and one that immediately got Fisher’s creative wheels spinning. He told Fisher that he grew up in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood and got involved in the drug ring transporting drugs from Brooklyn to Ohio. One day, he got busted, though comparatively speaking, he got lucky. “Had they caught me like 24 hours before, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today, because I had way more [drugs]. I took the first plea bargain they offered [which was 2 years in prison].”

Fisher’s script approaches this subject from the point of view of “an average middle man…who isn’t making millions of dollars…how [most] likely if you stay in it long enough, eventually, it’s going to be your turn to get caught.”

Although Fisher has always loved films and filmmaking, it wasn’t always the dream goal. He initially pursued what he thought was a more realistic career in college, sports management. It didn’t stick. This would be the case with most of his majors. In the midst of his indecisiveness, he met a woman involved with local theater who thought he had acting potential and invited him to audition for upcoming productions.

He didn’t click with the material. “I had this one audition” he remembered “I was playing a waiter who was a male, or not a male… or androgynous? It was some sort of comedy.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the part. “I believe I was not yet confident enough as an actor, nor mature enough to handle the material, but today I think producing a project like that would be hilarious” he added.

“I was living in a house with a lot of friends and whining about the plays which were either the classics or this off the wall stuff. They said, ‘you have a lot of good ideas. Why don’t you start writing.’”

He took their advice. Early on, he knew he wanted to write for films, not theatre. Like all aspiring filmmakers, Fisher did trek out to LA, though he didn’t stay long. He realized that not only were industry jobs competitive, but all jobs were highly competitive. This made paying the rent a real problem.

Next stop, Vegas. Not knowing anybody, he figured he try to connect with fellow writers via Craig’s List. The response rate was high, and he eventually formed a writers group, which remains a tight knit community. When Fisher was ready to take the plunge into making a movie, a cinematographer of note reached out to him and offered to shoot it.

A.K.A The Surgeon, a 25 minute action short was initially conceived as a modest low-budget one or two day shoot. While filming, Fisher decided to rev up the scale- increasing the budget, the shoot time to 20 days (over a year and a half), and 18 locations. He is grateful that he had “the courage and stubbornness” to go the “mini feature” route because it was a closer simulation to the logistics and budgeting of making a feature.

Although Fisher made a lot of contacts and projects in Vegas, he eventually gravitated towards Georgia because its East Coast culture and weather was more similar his home state of Ohio. Naturally I asked if he was optimistic about Georgia’s ability to sustain itself as a filming hub. He is.

What about the fact that most of the people down to the caterers are transplants from New York and LA and that very few people working on sets are Georgia residents? Fisher admits that is a problem and that most of the people attached in his upcoming projects are non-Georgians (though he does have a few locals in the Atlanta and Athens area on his team).

He plans to include Georgians on the action, including the possibility of shooting films in Athens and Atlanta. But “the thing is I need to get a cast and crew that have some sort of track record to go with mine – mine’s not strong enough by itself.” Fisher is working very hard to up his street cred. A script he co-wrote was a semifinalist at the well-known Slamdance screenplay competition. Another was optioned by Paramount. He has involved himself with several projects in various capacities. The scale of the projects vary too from the micro budget art movie Crossing Flowers Motel to a higher budget, popcorn action flick Bounty Hunter (which has had nibbles from fairly famous actors).

Producing is a natural fit for Fisher who has been a manager at various companies for several years. He is no stranger to the hectic duties of coordinating with loads of admin, overseeing lots of different departments and ensuring maximum cost effective productivity. One of his most arduous, but rewarding stints was at a sheet metal manufacturing firm. “Each quarter (three months) was the equivalent of a feature” Fisher remembers.

At one point Fisher’s company bosses were frantic about fulfilling a large order with a looming deadline and a relatively small operation. Fisher found the solution by delving into the frugal filmie side of his brain. Instead of overtime, he proposed staggering shifts where half the workers would take a break while the other half continued working so that parts continually moved throughout the day. During his tenure there, the company’s revenue went from $5 million to $15 million.

Fisher has seen several of his friends and colleagues take indefinite hiatuses or leave the film scene altogether. Why hasn’t he given up too? “I love it too much.” He pauses briefly. “While I’ve run into frustrations, I continue to go at it because I keep thinking, OK, I trained myself all these years to get from one mountain range to another one and another one and all I can see in the horizon is more mountain ranges.” He adds, “What if I’m really close? And I think I am.”

UPDATE 31 AUG 2017. An earlier edition of the article stated the sheet metal company’s profit’s went from $5 to $15 million. Those figures were actually the revenue.