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.

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.

News & Views: Tina Fey and The Satire Backlash

The tragic death of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer at the hands of a white nationalist in Charlottesville has naturally sparked anger, fear, and despair towards the reemergence of old school apple pie pernicious American racism.

Tina Fey, a graduate of UVA, the school that was the epicenter of the carnage, did a widely viewed segment where she denounced the KKK and other white nationalist groups via a sheet cake which she savagely devoured over the course of six-minutes.

It was a big hit with many viewers. But it royally pissed off others. Several commentators found her stance to reek of a 21st century Marie Antoinette-esque white privilege.

Quite frankly, I find the backlash is overwrought, like much of the commentary about satire these days. There has been a trove of bizarre think pieces, such as an article in The Atlantic that argue that satire is responsible for Donald Trump and anti-intellectualism. This is a patently ridiculous assertion because satire doesn’t cause events, it responds to things already taking place. This means that the argument that Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin made her unelectable is just as false as the declaration that Fey’s current segment is an anti-activist screed.

Another thing I admired about the segment is that it tackled satire from a different angle. Usually satire is a complete and total mockery of a public figure, often somebody in a position of power (although with reality TV and 24-hr entertainment cable news “power” is a bit more relative). In Fey’s segment, Trump’s dickishness in refusing to disavow white supremacists is a large butt of the joke, but she also deftly interweaves the helplessness that the average disgruntled feels in these turbulent times. She brilliantly used the cake as both a prop for fantastic physical humor but also as a symbolism of catharsis of sorts.

Many of her critics fault her segment for being too shallow and light. These articles instead praise responses by Late Night hosts Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, whose monologues take on a somber tone and denounce #45 as a totally immoral, hate mongering man unfit to be President. Their points are valid, but they also state the obvious. It doesn’t do anybody any favors to recast comedians as morality gatekeepers when comedy by nature is about subverting rules and expectations. I think Fey invoked the wrath she did because she was willing to go for the jugular when a situation was still raw. I have been frustrated with many comedians who are almost waiting for Godot when it comes to delivering their take on tragic current events. We look to them for a thoughtful, humorous slant.

There is a wrongheaded, but increasingly popular idea that anything that counters your views is not only wrong, but must be stopped in its tracks. On a British panel show Jack Dee’s Help Desk, which pokes fun at the televised Q&A town halls between public figures and normal people (yes the UK and Australia have those shows for real), there was a special episode aired after the US Presidential Election. Naturally, the audience and the panel of comedians were a little more rattled than usual and many of the questions and answers had a lot of anxiety wrapped up in tongue and cheek humor.

One young woman casually asked (at about 17:45) “how can I ensure that people only tell me things I agree with?” Her rationale was if politicians could cherry pick truths, she should be able too. Sara Pascoe quickly pointed out that cleansing the world was a “slippery slope.” Romesh Ranganathan remarked that Brexit was a shock to many because they surrounded themselves with people who shared their views. He suggested that she “cut off people who agree with her” and only follow people who disagree with her so that “when you leave the house, you think, oh everybody’s not an asshole.” Taken aback by the passionate responses, she remarked “it’s turning a bit more serious than I intended.”

Absolutely, the facts matter. That is why we need more satire, not less, to cleverly and humorously shine a spotlight on and compete with the insanity and evil in the world. If we don’t, Trump and the other loonies will have a total monopoly on the absurd.

Review: Night Job (2017)

Courtesy of @NightJobMovie

Editors and sound technicians typically don’t get the praises that directors, writers, and actors do because their contributions are to highlight the action on the screen. While actors and directors tend to have ups and downs before eventually falling out of favor, many of the top editors and sound people tend to amass hundreds of credits over several decades. This has to do with the consistency they bring to their craft. Perhaps more than anybody, they are responsible for giving the movies the major seamless factor that audiences crave.

You really appreciate how much a great editor and sound department add when one or both of these elements aren’t good. Unfortunately in the new indie film, Night Job, both the editing and sound are severely lackluster throughout. Several stretches where the last syllables of words are snipped off or where whole sentences are MIA make the amateurishness painfully obvious.

One of the principals of editing is to trim the banality of everyday life and focus on the extraordinary. The filmmakers of Night Job took that rule too literally. They employ a consistent, but arbitrary pseudo jump cut (but it’s too sloppy and undisciplined to be accurately called jump cuts) motif of snipping out characters walking from one part of the lobby to another. Not only is this the most jarring element, it brings the most attention to Night Job’s biggest failure; it’s a sluggish bore. Night Job only runs for 82 minutes, but the low energy directing and bland, talky script make it feel like a grueling 8 hour school day.

Courtesy of @NightJobMovie

In an early scene the protagonist James, a temp doorman/receptionist in a NYC apartment complex on his first night who is already bored and disillusioned with the job, and a man who works as a night shift doorman in another building discuss the skeeviness that is more rampant in the evening. “Why do you think things get crazier at night?” James asks. “People just use the night to become someone different.”

Although several characters whine about craziness, not enough craziness transpires on screen. When I lived in the North East, I enjoyed people watching because I found many Yankees wonderfully expressive and idiosyncratic even when they were curt and testy. There were several instances where Night Job seemed like it would delve into the interesting dynamic between customers and a service industry worker where either party might hesitate for a millisecond or come on too strongly, setting off the other who starts shouting, causing the other person to sass back for a heated (yet bizarrely humorous) back and forth.

Instead, James’ encounters with a revolving cast of slightly neurotic characters follow a staid track, and he never truly gets sucked in the drama. Nobody hurls any abuse at him, which is perhaps the most improbable element in this film, because people in the service industry are punching bags. Actually, the characters are too restrained and polite; it’s hard to achieve comedy from (relatively) good manners.

Courtesy of @NightJobMovie

Every now and again, there are references about the previous doorman, who a character early on warns James was into some sketchy dealings with homeless people. Presumably this is important to the plot and could have been a source for black humor, but this storyline is so haphazardly applied and is only memorable for the fact that it results in one of the most amateurishly choreographed fight scenes I have ever seen. (It fares badly even by home movie standards).

When I interviewed several film professionals about their pet peeves in modern movies, a program director emphatically stated that shooting movies in black and white for no apparent reason put her off most. Movies like Night Job make me see her point. The black and white cinematography (which I assume is supposed to signify James’ humdrum and mildly depressing life) is not only arbitrary, but also is aesthetically wrong for this film. The mise en scene of the lobby is shiny, industrial, clean, and modern; in short, antithetical to the shadowy, claustrophobic film noir imagery that the cinematography is trying to invoke.

One tiny thing working in the filmmakers’ favor is their restraint in using the musical score (which is not good, but not awful) in an era where many films (even some good films) overburden the audience with a soundtrack, hoping it will act as life support for a lifeless story.

If you want more info on Night Job, click here.

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.)