Tag Archives: Adam Tawfik

Review: In a World/Enough Said (2013)

Two Rom Coms: Half a Gem

Courtesy of circlecinema.com

   Courtesy of circlecinema.com

Courtesy of perezhilton.com

Courtesy of perezhilton.com

In a World/Enough Said Review

By Adam Tawfik

Judging by a majority of the romantic comedies that are churned out, the businessmen who create these vehicles seem to think that women, to whom they target their cynically sentimental drivel, have the collective IQ of a gumdrop. More insidiously, this genre has a tendency to espouse an evil ideology where characters (particularly the female ones) are reduced to their love lives and being romantic objects, and they perpetrate the status quo where men are in authority and women and children are subordinates, doing it in such a cutesy manner to cover up the sweeten the cyanide.

Unlike most years where romantic comedies pollute the cinemas in the early season and the summer, they have largely been abandoned this year by the major studios, with more hyper masculine action packed pelt-‘em-ups in their place.

Interestingly this autumn indie female directors and writers have coopted the genre as a way to provide a more insightful character study of a female protagonist. While the results are not as crass as their mainstream counterpoints, out of a sampling of two recent films, In a World and Enough Said, the final results are decidedly mixed. Let’s get the negativity out of the way.

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

It’s not unreasonable that many creative people in front of and behind the camera would come on board with Lake Bell’s most recent project, In a World. World, which Bell wrote, directed, and starred in, has an intelligent thesis about the sexism in the oft forgotten voiceover-world and how women’s voices in that profession are either very girly or sultry.

I must confess that I was excited to see this film after hearing Bell’s amusing and insightful NPR interview, but honestly she pretty much lifted her talking points from the final scene in the film. Unfortunately, there’s 90 minutes of mostly humdrum inaction before that moment. Bell, instead of being a triple threat, ends up being uninspired on three counts.

Courtesy of digitalshortbread.com

Courtesy of digitalshortbread.com

Her screenplay never achieves a consistent tone, swinging from moments of uncontrollably broad humor to chunks of pseudo-naturalistic awkwardness, neither of which comes off with precision. Subsequently, there’s a gaping discrepancy between characterizations and performances. Fred Melamen as Bell’s jealous and unsupportive father, Ken Marino as a narcissistic misogynous voice actor, and Stephanie Allynne as an obnoxiously idiotic receptionist are cloying caricatures while Michaela Watkins as Bell’s uptight and disciplined sister and Dimitri Martin as a socially awkward recording producer enamored with Bell’s character are cookie-cutter indie comedy archetypes.

There is sentimentality that feels more in place with a 1943 film than one in 2013. At one point, when Rob Corddry (delivering one of the few good performances), as Watkins’ mild-mannered and patient husband, discovers a romantic recording of his wife and an Irish guest at her hotel, we learn that it’s not as bad as it sounds. As if this isn’t annoying enough, this plotline has the annoying resolution of an audio recording of Watkins expressing her love for Corddry courtesy of the chirpy do-gooder Bell.

Courtesy of krellabs.blogspot.com

Courtesy of krellabs.blogspot.com

The single worst moment is when Melamen, who viciously undermines his daughters for most of the film, has a very public change of heart after a pep talk from his chirpy and much younger girlfriend (Alexandra Holden). This is also the point where we see she may act like a bimbo for 90 minutes but isn’t actually a bimbo, in one of the film’s many crude attempts to try to show us that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they look and speak.

Lake Bell, who has provided solid support in various films and TV shows, is too wise and grounded to make the flighty and quirky aspects of her character believable. Ultimately, she doesn’t have enough dynamism to carry the film.

Geena Davis, making a rare recent screen appearance, shows us what real star quality is in about a minute of screen time. Portraying a video game executive with a feminist agenda, Davis shows how her character is a cynical hard-ass about getting her larger message out there, providing a nuance that most of the film lacks.  I can only recommend World for those that indiscriminately feed off of feel-good fare.

Courtesy of blogs.commercialappeal

Courtesy of blogs.commercialappeal

If you can stomach a small dose of genuine pathos in exchange for a higher quality film, then check out Enough Said. Written and directed by indie favorite Nicole Holofcener, Said follows the life of Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged divorced masseuse whose monotonous life is interrupted by her daughter (Tracey Fairaway) leaving home to go to college and the meeting of two important people, her future best friend and client, an affluent and influential poet, Marianne (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini), the first man to win her heart in a long time.

Said does not make a good first impression as the earlier passages have a sitcomish construction, sort of a third-rate copycat of The New Adventures of Old Christine or Seinfeld, with the punch lines or comic timing not as sharp. Stay with it as the film hits its stride in a big way when it establishes its unconventional triangle and how Eva eventually figures out that the ex about whom Marianne incessantly complains is actually Albert and how she slowly becomes more and more like Marianne in her relationship with him. The funny and sometimes strange romance between Albert and Eva is wonderful to watch as Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have great screen chemistry.

Courtesy of latimes.com

Courtesy of latimes.com

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, an iconic TV comidienne who’s made supporting performances in lackluster films, is impressive in her first film lead. She brings some of her neurotic and abrasive qualities of her sitcom persona, but also proves herself to be a compelling dramatic performer and convincingly shows vulnerability the final act where she tries to repair the damaged relationship with Albert and how she forms an inappropriate relationship with her daughter’s best friend (Tavi Gevinson). She makes for an emotionally flawed, but highly empathetic if not always likeable, character.

Apparently James Gandolfini, best known for his intensely dramatic work, had trepidation about taking on a romantic lead. Onscreen he seems completely at ease with the film’s lightly comic tone, bringing a kindness and gentleness interspersed with a droll delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines. In many ways he is the film’s heart as his character is unpretentious and comfortable with himself.

Courtesy of cinemaviewfinder.com

Courtesy of cinemaviewfinder.com

Marianne’s lack of nuance hurts the comedy triangle. It’s hard to figure out why Eva is so awed by Marianne. Supposedly, she’s chic and sophisticated, but her costumes are frumpy, the dress she wore at the party looked like a beige potato sack and her hair is a mousy brown and unkempt. Her house is supposedly superior to Eva’s and allegedly slobby Albert’s; while perhaps a bit more colorful, all the sets had a certain sanitation and classiness. Keener, with an unsettlingly hoarse voice, is transparently a shrew, and had she had some dimension like Albert and Eva, it would have elevated the triangle and given Eva more motivation to go against Albert.

A few of the other supporting characters never really gel. Other than in scenes where they take Eva to the party or where they act as a counterweight to Eva’s belittlement of Albert on their double date, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone), a married couple who incessantly bicker, are mostly irritatingly superfluous intrusions.

Marcelo Zarvos’ overblown score is the single most abrasive element. It never fits in with the quiet low-key charm of the overall film and it often arrives at the most inopportune moments, inadvertently undermining the quirkiness of many of the scenes and giving it a glibness that isn’t on the screen.

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Courtesy of zimbio.com

Holofcener, who has written and directed feature films for nearly twenty years, has carved out a sizable niche for herself. Yet Enough Said is the first work of hers that I’ve seen. Maybe because she is close to the age of her protagonists’ accounts for the authenticity she brings to the story. Admittedly, I never took the time to catch her other films as they always struck me as pedestrian looking, but I suppose I’ll Netflix some of them now.

Review: Prisoners (2013)

Hearts of Darkness

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

 Review of Prisoners (2013)

by Adam Tawfik

At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of entrepreneurial men and women ingeniously concocted a simple but effective formula that have kept motion pictures as one of the more entertaining diversions for over 100 years. In film’s illustrious history, a vast majority of the products are imminently forgettable seconds after consumption. Every few years there’s one film that goes beyond rousing entertainment and worms its way into your psyche for its haunting provocativeness. In 2010, that film was Incendies, written and directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, a gut-wrenching account of a modern civil war.

While (unfortunately) it lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to an inferior In a Better World, it put Villeneuve on Hollywood’s radar. In many cases, a Hollywood career tends to rob distinctive directors of their unique voice. While Prisoners, Villenvue’s debut Hollywood film is not standard assembly-line work it lacks the nuance, intelligence, and humanity of his prior Oscar-nominated effort.

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

Courtesy of mechodownloads.com

His direction and the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski are ambitious and clearly aimed for sophisticated audiences, even if its basic premise seems to resemble an action flick; on Thanksgiving, the youngest daughters of two friends the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped and Keller Dover sets out to rescue them, often resorting to vigilante tactics. But there’s not enough substance in terms of twists and turns or character developments to justify its 153 minute running time.

Firstly, it’s a structural mess. From the first act where Jackman and son are killing the deer, and we see Jackman’s (the Dovers) and Howard’s (the Birches) families enjoying Thanksgiving for about twenty minutes before the kidnapping of their two youngest daughters, it is apparent that this film is going to be overlong. The second act drags because it spends too much time focusing on Keller’s sadistic torturing of Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a retarded man whom Keller thinks is the kidnapper.

Courtesy of joblo.com

Courtesy of joblo.com

Many critics hail Hugh Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as his best. While he certainly has some stellar microcosmic moments – his delivery of the line “the moment he took our son he stopped being a human being” or his breakdown in the car when he’s yelling at Gyllenhaal about how it’s on him to find his daughter- he’s basically playing Wolverine again (complete with the rugged beard and animalistic rage) minus the supernatural powers and the CGI blades.

Guzikowski deserves part of the blame as the character as written is a one-note volatile lunatic from the opening scene. It’s impossible to have much empathy with him and as a result we’re not as invested in his plight, giving the overall film a repetitive tediousness.

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

Courtesy of vzmoviefree.blogspot.com

The character of Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is too elusive for two thirds of the film, only making an impact in the final act. Gyllenhaal emerges as the best in show as he gets ample opportunity to emote the emotional weight of his inability to solve the case and haunted by the memory of the girls still missing. This gets undermined in the last few minutes by the script’s tendency to wrap things up too neatly and to grab at straws for plausibility.

As this is essentially a two-person drama, everyone else in the very talented ensemble is relegated to the background. Viola Davis and Terence Howard act with professional dignity but they are stuck with characters who are limited to protesting Jackman’s sadistic methods but not stopping them.

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Courtesy of minority-review.com

Maria Bello does some harrowing grieving, but she doesn’t get a chance to do anything more. Paul Dano is reduced to whimpering and screaming, mostly in a box as a tortured victim to Jackman’s wrath. Melissa Leo as Dano’s aunt nicely underplays her part in earlier segments, but her role veers towards the outlandish as the film progresses, especially in her final scenes.

The technical side isn’t much better. Roger Deakens, one of the more distinctive working cinematographers, delivers surprisingly uninspired work, casting the film with a monosyllabic shade of grey. The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is sloppy. I particularly found that the long fade to blacks glaringly emphasized the film’s disjointedness.

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

Courtesy of reverseshot.com

A lot of the narrative conventions are recycled from Incendies, none of which here are as good as in the former film. We have two protagonists, Det. Loki and Keller, but neither is well defined enough as a character, so shifting between the two is usually more jarring than interesting.

Another thing borrowed is a certain object that becomes important for revealing the twist in the story, but sadly like everything else, it’s too singular. It’s such an obvious motif that I was surprised that Det. Loki didn’t figure it out sooner.

Prisoners is a harrowing journey that has moments of quality, but for a cinematic experience that leaves you with total emotional and intellectual shell shock, watch Incendies.

Take 5 Retrospective: Liane Carroll

Courtesy of thekeyboard.co.uk

Courtesy of thekeyboard.co.uk

By Adam Tawfik

While I have nothing productive to show 95% of the time I binge on TV, every now and again this medium helps me discover something new and wonderful. One evening I stumbled across a concert on BBC (which has recently surfaced on YouTube thanks to the independent music label Splash Point Music) by an artist with whom I had absolutely no familiarity. This time my curiosity served we well.

From the moment Liane Carroll opened her set with her energetic piano playing skills and smoky soulful vocals on the swinging “That Old Black Magic,” I was a fan. In this performance (like in all her other concerts and CDs) Carroll enlivens her arrangements of an eclectic mix of old standards and more modern covers (of songs by The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waitts, among others) with a highly original footprint that feels fresh and modern without disregarding the integrity of the original material (and in many cases improving on it).

Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk

Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk

Several vocalists are also talented instrumentalists but don’t accompany themselves due to the difficulty of doing both at the same time. Carroll makes singing and playing piano simultaneously look effortless while doing both with gusto.

After being the first woman to win the BBC Jazz Awards twice, Carroll has built up a considerable fan base in Britain but still remains virtually unknown in the States, only having made her American debut in 2009 and touring here very seldom. At least she records albums regularly, most of which are available on Amazon and iTunes.

From interviews and fan recordings and testimonials, the Hastings-born Carroll seems approachable and totally unpretentious about her musical virtuosity. When she’s not on tour, Carroll performs at a local pub in her native Hastings, where she resides with her husband and sometimes collaborator, bassist Roger Carey.

Here are five tracks that demonstrate the versatility and dynamism of Liane Carroll.

5. How Insensitive

Although the bulk of Carroll’s work is solo, she collaborates with other musicians, the results are no less stellar. The usually bombastic and groovy Carroll gives a beautifully understated rendition of this Jobim classic. Bobby Wellen’s sax beautifully compliments her sultry voice.

4. Unknown

Full confession: Carroll does mention the name of the tune, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. But that doesn’t detract from my love for this upbeat scattastic track. In addition to Carroll’s soulful scatting, there are excellent solos from Roger Carey and drummer Greg Leppard.

3. Pennies from Heaven

Carroll’s smoky voice gives this delightfully old fashioned 1936 standard a more contemporary vibe whilst retaining the nostalgic pep in her piano playing. There’s also some great a cappella scatting to look forward to.

2. Wee Small Hours/River

Out of all her solo performances, her powerhouse medley of two heartbreak songs is my favorite. Carroll begins by delivering David Mann’s 1950s ballad “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” as a mournful lullaby, before she crescendos to Joni Mitchell’s “River” with a more animated sense of urgency.

1. Eleanor Rigby

Carroll’s gospel-sounding vocals and jazzified mid tempo give this Beatles cover poignant empathy and gravitas for the titular character and “all the lonely people” missing in the lethargic original version.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take 5: Dakota Staton

dak ft

By Adam Tawfik

Every profession has its obstacles, but few match the challenges of survival in the cutthroat and fickle music industry. Millions of so-called musicians (really glorified noisemakers) have had a one-night stand with fame, but every now and again, there is an artist who has been criminally overlooked and ripe for rediscovery. Dakota Staton definitely falls into that latter category.

While Staton has achieved more than 15-minutes of fame, she has never matched the success of her debut 1957 LP “The Late, Late Show.” While full of pep, “Late Show” only scratches at the surface of Staton’s amazing talents.

Courtesy of nytimes.com

Courtesy of nytimes.com

Many attribute Staton’s decline in popularity to her conversion to Islam and marriage to the controlling and divisive trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud. If this is the case, it is wholly the consumer’s loss as they’ve missed out on an impressive body of work that showcases a powerful, soulful voice that became even better with age. Although she passed away in 2007, her work will live on.

Here are five songs selected to turn you into a diehard Dakota Staton fan.

5. It Could Happen to You

While Staton hadn’t quite developed the huskiness in her voice at this early point in her career, she had vivid, dynamic energy that is fully realized in her rendition of this song (I know the video says it’s “Some Other Spring,” but trust me, it’s not). The album’s title “Dynamic” is fully earned.

4.  Jim

Staton effectively delivers a restrained performance on this track, poignantly narrating the tragic saga of a woman who “will go on carrying the torch for Jim,” a ne’er-do-well who doesn’t love her. This is the first time I’ve heard this tune, but it’s becoming one of my favorite heartbreak songs.

3. Young Generation

When Jazz fell out of favor with American audiences’ in the mid-1960s throughout the 1970s, many artists in the field dabbled in R & B, Disco, and/or Pop. Staton is one of the few to satisfyingly crossover, with this 1970 R & B/Funk song as the strongest. It’s intelligent, catchy lyrics and groovy beat (and of course the powerhouse Staton herself) make this song the perfect tribute to the brave young men and women who crusaded the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam protests and fought valiantly for a more equal, just world.

2. I Thought About You

This one is on the list as much for the fact that it’s one of the few pieces of footage of her available on the internet, even if the quality is shoddy. But for the few seconds that the videographer actually films Staton, we get a glimpse of a remarkable diva, with her larger-than-life poodle-esque mane of hair and heavily beaded white blouse and trousers which emphasizes her hefty bosom and voluptuous figure. As always, she goes against the grain in her interpretation of standards making this song, which is normally performed as a languid ballad, a groovy foot-tapper.

1. Mean to Me

I’ve heard this standard serviceably recorded by several other jazz singers, but Staton with her powerful smoky voice and bluesy phrasing imbues a sense of passion and gravitas lacking in other interpretations. This definitely is her best individual performance and possibly one of the best recorded ballads of jazz history.