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 Sarah Vaughan

Courtesy of National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Some singers can have all the formal training in the world and hit the right notes. Others, like Sarah Vaughan, can open her mouth and radiate divine and sassy otherworldliness. Though racism in the country and the conservatories barred her from her dream of studying opera, Vaughan, with her three octave range, had the power and the vibrato to match, even surpass any classical prima donna. Her baroque grandiosity and playful joie de vivre was clearly better suited for jazz where she was equally at home doing scat-filled bebop and searing ballads delivered as torchy arias.

She honed her piano and vocal abilities in church. Initially Vaughan entered herself in the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night as a pianist, where she did very well, winning second prize. As good as her piano skills were, her singing was her forte. When she reentered as a singer, she won top honor and scored a recording contract with Mercury Records.

Her warm, personable voice helped her become one of the most in-demand vocalists. Widespread success was a bit of a double edged sword as she wound up recording a fair amount of subpar novelty songs (like “Broken Hearted Melody,” which she later denounced strongly) with maudlin easy listening arrangements. However, she never entirely embraced being a jazz vocalist as she crossed over into other genres. (Some of her pop material like “Brazilian Romance” was quite good).

Later in her career, she boldly displayed her impressive range and cute silly humor in performances. While some critics found some of her later work to be heavy-handed, I found her to be at her best when she was at her biggest (though I will concede that she sometimes took it a bit too far with her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”)

Although Vaughan chain smoked, boozed and feasted freely, you’d never know by listening to her sing. Her voice and her technique sounded more impeccable and effortless. If her hedonism didn’t tarnish her talent, it eventually got her body. After a year of struggling with emphysema, Sarah Vaughan died in 1990 at the age of 66. Here are five performances that represent her superhuman talent.

Easy Living

She performed several different, but wonderful renditions of this ballad. I like this version best because it’s the most playful (I love the way she delivers “but it’s fun”) and the most virtuosic. The way she slides from baritone to soprano is jaw dropping.

Sassy’s/Scat Blues

This entirely vocalese number demonstrates Vaughan’s brilliant ability to swing, belt, and sound bluesy at the same time whilst switching octaves in split seconds.

I Remember April

Although she more often sang vocalese, she was equally adept at fast paced scat as she does here with gusto. The pianist is also on fire.

Black Coffee

Even at in this minimalist, quiet rendition of this torch song, Vaughan conveys so much. Listen side by side with other versions by Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney and you’ll appreciate how special Vaughan’s voice is.

Bill Bailey

You can tell that Sarah Vaughan loved to perform, and her infectious energy rubs off on this Swedish audience who commanded to take not one, but two encores. Vaughan really works it out here.

Review: La La Land (2016)

La La Land: City of Dim Stars

By Adam Tawfik

La La Land, like every Oscar frontrunner is bound to face a wave of backlash. From its premiere at Sundance last January, La La Land was hyped, and hyped, and hyped by everybody, including the highbrow critics, the awards pundits, and the industry bigwigs. Around September, the unfiltered euphoria was challenged by editorials suggesting that La La Land was overrated. Closer to awards season as La La Land usurped prizes left and right, the criticism took a more pointedly aggressive turn.

Having seen it myself, I can understand the visceral reaction around this film. My experience was akin to eating a store-bought cake; in spite of my reservations to the fake vanilla and the stale batter, I still eat it for that taste of sugar. In the end, the aftertaste of artificiality lingers in my mouth and my mind. With La La Land, I was reasonably entertained in the moment, but its flaws resonated with me longer.

Although its over representation at the awards show is certainly annoying (considering that it ties for the same amount of Oscar nominations as my darling All About Eve), what really galls me most about La La Land is the overabundance of commentary of the behind-the-scenes technical challenges and all of the side by side comparisons of scenes La La Land and scenes from classic films that Damien Chazalle clunkily “paid homage to.”

The Bandwagon, 1953. Courtesy of cliqueclack.com

What makes the musicals by Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Astaire endure the test of time is their ability to be effortless yet superhumanly multitalented at the same time. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a 32-year old Harvard graduate, conversely, slaps you in the face with his technical and film geekery. This approach inadvertently spotlights La La Land’s mediocrity, from the songs, the breathy auto tuned singing voices of the entire cast, the costumes, and worst in my mind, the negligible choreography which is one step above a beginners swing dance course. For this reason, La La Land lacks the magic spark that makes masterworks like Singing in the Rain and others dazzle. As Richard Brody sharply observed, “Chazelle strives to impress, to wow, to dazzle…[the numbers] close off the imagination rather than opening it. [And] The one thing that Chazelle seems to have little interest in is life.”

The only person to escape criticism is Emma Stone. I think that her “it girl” status of 2016 has given her this immunity. Richard Brody faulted Chazalle’s characterization of Mia, rightly pointing out that she is nothing more than a “cipher.” However, he praises Stone, dubiously claiming that “all the movie’s charm emerges from her performance.” Like with so many of the “it girls” of recent years- Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, etc.- Stone is a watchable actress, but one with a decidedly limited range.

Courtesy of www.elantepenultimomohicano.com

As in Birdman, Stone proves that she can handle snarky comedy “one liners” well. She’s in her element where she can utilize her easygoing, sarcastic vibe to mock Seb (Ryan Gosling), who is an uptight, sullen self-proclaimer of “pure jazz.” She is considerably buoyed by Gosling’s intensity and moroseness, which compliments her light touch. With the exception of a montage where Stone amusingly auditions for a series of unsuitable roles, she lacks dynamism in her solo scenes. From the films I’ve seen Stone in, she doesn’t have a flair for grief and sadness. Like the Oscar bait monologue in Birdman, Stone in her “made for Oscar” number (“Here’s to the Ones who Dream”) overdoes the eyes and nostrils while her overall presence underwhelms as she strains to convey pathos.

It is an interesting aspect of current film criticism that male directors and male actors/characters are intensely scrutinized for faux pas’ while female counterparts’ flaws are cast under the rug. Much has been made (and to a degree fairly so) about Gosling’s “white savior” jazz appropriator and the way he supposedly “mansplains” jazz to Emma Stone (I think this is a bit overwrought). In an interesting perspective, Will Brooker argues that La La Land’s (evil) genius is that it symbolizes how 2016 is the year where mediocre hacks reign supreme. Brooker makes parallels between Ryan Gosling and Donald Trump:

“Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new president of the United States can take over with no training. His reality-show-standard song and dance routines are perfectly suited to this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate television celebrity can become Commander-in-Chief.”

Courtesy of IndieWire

It’s true that Gosling isn’t a singer or a hoofer, but why is he faulted when Stone isn’t any better at either (and in my opinion she’s worse on both counts)? I agree that Seb is too cocky in his pedestrian opinions of jazz as well as in his actual ability as a musician.

At the very least Gosling overcomes the many shortcomings of his character by coming the closest to La La Land’s goal of combining the old movie cocksure naiveté with modern cynicism. Although Seb, as conceived by Chazelle, is problematic in many ways, at least he has a logical arc that Mia sorely lacks. We at least get a glimpse of Seb’s process as well as his (limited) ability as we see him in action. It is insinuated that Mia’s self-financed one-woman show is great, but there’s no way to gauge for ourselves as we don’t get to see it for ourselves. That doesn’t stop the film and Stone stridently instructing us to empathize with Mia’s heartbreak over the lack of attendance and her inability to pay her costs.

Courtesy of The New York Times

Seb’s trajectory from a struggling jazz musician to a keyboardist for his friend’s sellout electronica group (making $1000 a week) to the proprietor of his own jazz bar is wishful thinking. But Mia’s rise from barista to being discovered by an agent who was one of 3 people in attendance for the one-woman show who just happened to remember Mia several months after the fact, leading to a starring role with a script that will be based around her for a film in Paris, which makes her an A-list movie star is truly fantastical.

Certainly, Chazelle’s underwriting of Mia is a huge handicap, but in the end, Stone is wrong for the role because she is too mainstream, too trendy to be a credible underdog. Basically, the film assumes that we’ll root for Mia because Emma Stone is America’s Sweetheart; it seems to have worked as Stone is a shoo-in for Best Actress. Mia truly is the most entitled and undeserving character I’ve seen on film in a long while.

La La Land is the lucky recipient of a widespread nostalgia about the glamour and escapism of old Hollywood musicals, and from the fact that very few are knowledgeable of the movies themselves. In the long run, I do believe that La La Land will be contextualized correctly as another one of those lily-livered Best Picture winners that bested more original and innovative movies. (I guess it’ll make the Alternative Oscars relevant for years to come.)

Podcast: Alternative Oscars Episode 5 – 1953

The Tawfik Zone Alternative Oscars Podcast Logo

Hi everybody.

It’s been a long gap between episodes. My fault entirely. I’m thrilled to unleash our 5th episode of The Alternative Oscars Podcast. This episode, we discuss movies of 1953. We dish our thoughts on the five films nominated that year and then offer our nominees of films eligible in 1953 that we think are better.

What did you think about the Best Picture nominees? Or our nominees and winners? What would be your picks for 1953?

Review Short Film: Here Lies Joe (2016)

One of the most common complaints about Hollywood films is how predictable and formulaic they are. In the 90s, film festivals like Sundance were in their zenith when they provided a platform for writer/directors such as Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch, who delivered films that brazenly asserted an edgy, idiosyncratic style, often mixing the irreverent with the absurd.

Over the years, Sundance and indie films in general have lost their cachet as many of the films that come out of the festivals have arguably become as formulaic as blockbuster flicks, yet often without the slick efficiency. One of the stalest forms of American indie movies is the emo rom-com between suicidal depressives.

The new short film Here Lies Joe checks most of the boxes of the aforementioned genre: washed out color palette, slow mumbly alternative soundtrack, gratuitous long takes that are supposed to signify how bare the protagonist’s life is, and forced snarky-cutesy banter between a man and woman.

Writer-director-cinematographer-editor, etc. Mark Battle has some flair for morose comedic awkwardness as evidenced in the suicide anonymous group meeting scene (buoyed by an amusing performance by Mary Hronicek as an emotional wreck).

Joe loses momentum when it hinges on a meandering series of awkward scenes between the titular character (Dean Temple), a former professor? living in his car, and Z (Andi Morrow), an intellectual and brash, but self-destructive woman.

There are hints that Temple and Morrow, are sensitive performers, but they are constrained by the overly self-conscious archetypal nature of their characters.

Morrow is better at asserting the abrasive elements of her character than the more vulnerable side, which as written feels more obligatory than organic. If the character of Z is overly snarky, Joe is on the wrong side of understated; underdeveloped. While protagonists in many films overexplain themselves, we never conclusively know anything about Joe (the scraps of evidence of his past are never tied in to the story, alas), and therefore have very little connection with him.

What Joe lacks in originality, it makes up for in overall competency, which puts it way ahead of most low-budget small crew short films in the festival circuit.

Good Nightly to The Nightly Show

I was mindlessly checking Facebook one afternoon and was completely stunned and saddened to learn that one of the few new shows that I regularly watched, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was cancelled by Comedy Central after two seasons.

Wuuuuuut?

Courtesy of littlegreenfootballs.com

Courtesy of littlegreenfootballs.com

Actually, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as there have been continuous signs that the show hasn’t clicked with many people. Ratings were always low and very rarely got media attention, until the announcement of the untimely cancellation, where the consensus is that this is a huge injustice and will leave a vacuum for sharp political commentary.

I am certainly disappointed by this news, even though it wasn’t a perfect show. In fact Nightly had lots of rough patches. Quite a number of the sketches from the earlier run such as the amateur theater reenactments of headline news were embarrassingly lame. There were far too many editions of “Nightly, Nightly” a misfire parody of the celebrity driven Entertainment Tonight-style of news stories, made totally unbearable by Grace Parra’s annoying overacting.

The most problematic element of the show, the panel discussions, were usually mediocre at best, hampered in part by the brevity of each episode and partly by the guests, entertainers who didn’t always have the best grasp of politics. Wilmore wasn’t always a forceful moderator, often kowtowing to guests, even when they’re obviously babbling idiocy, like ignorant loudmouth Anthony Anderson ranting about a New Zealand basketball player’s use of the word “monkey,” oblivious to the cultural differences of the word.

But out of that messiness came its greatest strength, originality. As network late-night is more about a set-in-stone brand, Wilmore’s flexible formula gave him a chance to create his own vibe of a no-nonsense truth teller who was also highly personable and compassionate.

Wilmore was better than anyone (yes, including John Oliver whose jokey asides often feel intrusive and pale to his sharp journalistic analysis) at seamlessly blending sardonic quips in the midst of commenting on tragic stories.

Social media went wild for Jon Stewart’s somber, no joke take on the Charleston church shooting, but while Stewart and others threw their hands up in the air, Wilmore immediately contextualized the tragedy and making mincemeat out of the ever-tacky Fox News who wasted no time spinning the shooting as a war against Christians rather than the race issue that it clearly was.

When everybody else dodged with sending their “thoughts” to the Paris terror victims for days after the massacre, Wilmore again was a first comedy responder. He humorously reminded his audience about France’s role in forming America, as well as some of America’s stupid foreign policies under Bush, all in the spirit of a genuine sense of grief.

I’m just as sad for the core team of correspondents as I am for Wilmore, most of whom I suspect will struggle to find another gig for a while. I greatly respect Wilmore for sharing the spotlight with strong scene-stealing comedians, especially MVP Mike Yard. Out of all the staff, Yard is consistently the sharpest and most subversive voice on the program and has a special knack at starting with an unexpected angle and taking it to an even more surprising direction; his report on the plantation weddings highlights his ability at uncomfortable hilarity. Even in the panel discussions where most people mince their words to act as a mutual agreement society, Yard is one of the only ones willing to say the hard truths, even when they weren’t met with wild applause.

My second fave is Holly Walker who brought an invigorating audacity to her slightly unhinged characters, best of which was the “incognegro” truther. I even kind of warmed to people who really put me off at first like Franchesca Ramsey and Robin Thede.

What galls me most about this cancellation was how little time they gave the fans. I’m not asking for a year’s notice a la Oprah, but certainly Comedy Central could have given us more than a week to process the news, most businesses at least give two weeks’ notice. Even Wilmore was blindsided, causing him to rightly quip, “…keeping it 100, I guess I hadn’t counted on ‘The Unblackening’ happening to my time slot as well.”

While Nightly may not have had the viewership that Comedy Central wanted, they have made a huge mistake of ending the only show on its network to substantially skewer our thoroughly demented and fraught socio-political climate and call out the entertainment media for its lopsided coverage and extreme intellectual dishonesty. Meanwhile, the craziness continues and late-night remains the same old, same old.