Tag Archives: The Tawfik Zone

Obit: Doris Day (1922-2019)

Every year is regarded by pop culture fans as a “celebrity deathyard” year. 2019 is no different with the passings of directors Stanley Donen, Larry Cohen, and John Singleton, Ingmar Bergman muse Bibi Andersson, Creature of the Black Lagoon actress Julie Adams, legendary British thespian Albert Finney, veteran character actors Morgan Woodward and Richard Erdman, and Richard Bucket AKA Clive Swift, to name a few. Doris Day, who died May 13th at the ripe old age of 97, is the newest saint to march on.

In one section of her fascinating book on the Hollywood Studio System, The Star Machine, Janine Basinger writes about two blonde singer-actresses on whom the studio took big gambles: Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. On paper, both should have risen to meteoric movie stardom. But Clooney’s frigid, stiff screen presence didn’t endear her to a mass audience.

Day, on the other hand, possessed the It factor right away in her debut film, Romance on the High Seas, where she portrayed a plebeian band singer hired to masquerade as a socialite on a cruise. Despite her total inexperience and deep insecurity as an actor, veteran filmmaker Michael Curtiz intentionally provided minimal direction, wisely sensing that her natural vivacity and charisma was perfect for the role. He was right, and even today it remains one of her most endearing performances and established her as one of the top box office stars for the rest of her career. Her earnest and charming rendition of the sweet ballad “It’s Magic” (vastly superior to the hokey “Que Sera Sera”) kickstarted her solo recording career.

Although the majority of her films throughout 1957 were musical-comedies, she was occasionally cast against type. The most striking example in her early career was Storm Warning, a gritty crime expose reminiscent of the gangster movies Warner Bros. made in the 30s about a small town ruled by the KKK (interestingly, the movie never delves in white supremacy, instead focusing on corruption). Day is poignantly naturalistic as a battered wife of a Klansman, who…SPOILER, is murdered at the end!

Perhaps the best performance in her early career is in the underrated musical biopic I’ll See You in My Dreams. Day finds the right balance between presenting Grace Kahn, wife of songwriter Gus Kahn, as a well-meaning woman who believes in her husband’s talent with all her soul which leads her to become an overbearing manager.

In spite of her varied career, Day is cemented in the minds of many as a sunny, plucky wholesome girl next door. This perception also led cultural critics to single her out as the face of sterile midcentury repression amongst a turbulent, transformative sociopolitical era. The backlash at the time is understandable considering that the nonconfrontational air of her films is starkly different from theatrically adapted melodramas starring method actors. In the 1960s, the disparity between movies made by the old-guard studio moguls and rebellious, transgressive films from a newer crop of artists in the US and worldwide reached its zenith, in the process rendering Day and her work as “square.” Day rejected the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, which became 1967s top grosser and helped make “New Hollywood Cinema” popular and lucrative.

Looking at her films fifty years later, most are undoubtedly old-fashioned, but with the exception of a few cringeworthy cornball duds such as Lucky Me or the tepid musical drama Young at Heart, they remain infectiously entertaining in large part due to Day’s unpretentious optimistic can-do charm.

The first film to give Day critical acclaim was Love Me or Leave Me, a dramatic musical biopic based on the life of 20s singer Ruth Etting and her stormy marriage to gangster Marty Snyder who bankrolled her career. She is effective at frankly conveying Etting as a highly ambitious woman willing to do anything to get to the top (Etting reportedly found Day’s performance too hard bitten). Day falters somewhat in the third act when required to be histrionic and gets outacted by James Cagney, an experienced hand at scenery chewing rage.

She’s even better in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the master of suspense drew a beautifully realized performance as a mother whose family is unwittingly foiled in an assassination plot while on holiday in Morocco. (Other distressed women films, Julie and Midnight Lace, veer towards camp).

She survived the decline of movie musicals in the late 50s with a series of romantic comedies, the first being Teacher’s Pet a gentle comedy, where Day is charming as the idealistic journalist who mellows cynical reporter Clark Gable. The following films have a more manic bent, including a trio of battle-of-the-sexes comedies in which she is cheekily deceived by Rock Hudson. She received her sole Oscar nomination for Pillow Talk, probably in large part due to her hilarious sobbing montage.

While lacking the sophistication of the aforementioned films, other vehicles such as Move Over Darling and The Glass Bottom Boat are fun in a very 60s madcap way. In the former Day attacks the role of a wife who returns from a shipwreck the same day her husband remarries with zany gusto and is aided by equally vivacious co-stars. In the latter, Day is a good sport as she is continually harassed by several oddballs who think she is a Russian spy in Frank Tashlin’s cartoony camp fest.

Part of Day’s enduring legacy was her constant resolution in the face of adversity. A major blow came early in her life when a car accident prevented her from pursuing her dance career. She instead learned singing and became a popular vocalist with several Big Bands throughout the 1940s. Her third husband, Marty Melcher gambled all her money and committed her to a sitcom without her consent. Nevertheless, she dutifully did the soul-crushingly awful show for five years and recouped enough money to retire and live on her own terms for the rest of her life, converting her estate to an animal shelter.

Take 5/Obit: Nancy Wilson (1937-2018)

Andy Williams’ prescient introduction of Nancy Wilson stated “To make a common name like Wilson stand out… you have to have an uncommon talent like Miss Nancy Wilson.” When googling “Nancy Wilson” many of the results include Nancy Wilson, one of the duo from the rock group Heart or the similar sounding Mary Wilson, the least controversial Supremes.

Wilson, who recently died from a long illness was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1937 (like Judy Garland’s spunky heroine in The Harvey Girls), to an iron-worker father and a domestic servant mother. After winning a local TV talent show at 15, she worked at many nightclubs in addition to her regular appearance on a local TV show Skyline Melodies. In the next few years, Wilson caught the attention of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who encouraged her to move to New York.

In 1960, she signed with Capitol Records, making her debut album Something Wonderful. It was a solid first effort featuring her signature song “Guess Who I Saw Today.” Her next album, a collaboration with Adderley, she grew in range and it might be her best recorded work, featuring another famous tune “Save Your Love for Me.” Throughout the 60s, she made recordings that were in a pop-jazz style, veering more into R&B/soul by the end of the decade throughout the mid-1970s. It is her work in the latter era that I think has her most underrated, consistently good material. “But Beautiful,” which features earthy, minimalist renditions of classic jazz standards and “Kaleidoscope,” which has slick and slightly funky orchestral arrangements that accentuate Wilson’s sultry vocals.

As was the norm for artists signed to a major record label in the mid-century, Wilson constantly churned out album after album, most of which contained a few gems, but a lot of filler. It would be fair to say that most of Wilson’s albums don’t fully capture her vitality, which is readily apparent in all of her live performances.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Wilson’s albums were the equivalent of heirloom strawberries topped with cool whip. In her middle age, Wilson was at the zenith of her vocal prowess. Her rich velvety tones were enriched like fruit soaked in rum, her phrasing and vocal range got only stronger, and her ability to go from whisper to a roar in a split second dramatically increased. The dated electronica arrangements (which thankfully died with the 80s), on the other hand, often sound like rejected Sonic the Hedgehog scores.

Wilson’s greatest asset as a singer was her unique ability to internalize every lyric of a song and turn it into a personal narrative (hence the term “song stylist”). This proved especially useful for cumbersome and corny songs such as “You Can Have Him” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (which have tripped up vocal greats like Ella and Nina Simone).

Although she resisted the term “jazz singer” (not only because it’s box office anathema, but because she crossed over into virtually every genre), Wilson returned to straight ahead jazz for her final records, winning two of her three Grammys for her final two albums, RSVP and Turned to Blue. She lost a little bit of the projection from her prime, but her feeling and phrasing remained impeccable to the end.

Unlike most singers who take 20 years to retire, Wilson actually retired when she said she would (save for a couple of guest tracks). Her ability to quit while she was ahead further proved her class and good sense.

Here are 5 tracks that show the mastery of Miss Nancy Wilson.

The Masquerade is Over

This early track demonstrates how sophisticated and confident Wilson from the beginning as well as giving insight into her storytelling skills.

Ode to Billie Joe

Wilson’s more personable approach magnifies the cruelty and tragedy of Bobbie Gentry’s haunting ballad.

Guess Who I Saw Today/Teach Me Tonight

In the first of the double bill, Wilson projects a calculating sweetness that belies a simmering rage, while on the second Wilson swings out with a classy sauciness.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight

Wilson’s rawness and the soulful arrangement elevate this 70s standard.

How Glad I Am

This 1987 live performance of one of her most famous songs demonstrates Wilson’s exuberance for her craft.

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.

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.







Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

The Godless Jungle

Courtesy of Filmes-Torrent.net

Courtesy of Filmes-Torrent.net

Only God Forgives (2013) Review

By Adam Tawfik

At the most basic plot level, Only God Forgives seems identical to countless other male-oriented revenge action flicks; a handsome, young white man Julian (Ryan Gosling) is pressured to avenge the murder of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). In the hands of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, God rises above the tediousness of most action fare on every level.

Amidst an epidemic output of gimmicky CGI or 3D flicks or equally unimaginative remakes of iconic classics that have flooded the Hollywood market in the last few years, God’s commanding surrealistic scenery is welcomed in an era where most directors pay little (if any) attention to mise-en-scene.

God, like Drive, Refn’s pervious film (also starring Gosling), is primarily a stylistic achievement. Although Drive sported some of the most jaw-dropping cinematography with virtually every frame as a colorful phantasmagoric orgasm, a vapidity in the narrative bogged down the overall film.

God evocatively employs mise-en-scene to convey the ominousness of the seedy side of Bangkok, particularly in its innovative but unsettling low-key neon red and yellow color scheme. Fused with a flurry of deep dark shadows, these normally warm colors add an anarchic psychedelic layer to a somber noir-like landscape.

Courtesy of RopeofSilicon.com

Courtesy of RopeofSilicon.com

The squalidness is reinforced in the background scenery. The large warehouse-like quality of many of the locations contribute an animalistic, subhuman quality to the proceedings. Alternately, other locations such as the nightclub with heaps of Chinese Lanterns and crowds of people still project a hollow emptiness in spite of the clutter. The nightmarish dream sequences with characters running around narrow corridors with red walls are aesthetically similar to Dario Argento’s Inferno and carry the paranoia and perplexity of the corresponding scenes, minus the camp.

God’s story and atmosphere is certainly harsher (perhaps too rough for many critics’ and audiences’ tastes), but ultimately more compelling than Drive’s. Yet it has been widely condemned as an incoherent, gratuitously violent mess.

This is because the filmmakers take an abstract, often un-PC stance on violence. On the one hand, they effectively present a dystopic world where violence is a necessary evil for survival, but at the same time, show how it spawns a vicious cycle of insanity. What gives God its power to disturb and transfix is its handling of the uneasy balance between rapid, senseless acts of violence and calculated personalized murders committed at an uncomfortably prolonged pace.


Courtesy of theendofcinema.blogspot.com

Courtesy of theendofcinema.blogspot.com

The lapses of silence in these latter types of sequences don’t feel ponderous like they did in Drive, because they all contribute to creating mood and character. In one particularly off-kilter sequence, all the clients and prostitutes of the nightclub blankly stare (with the exception of a female prostitute) as head vigilante Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) progressively slices a henchman associated with Julian’s family (Gordon Brown) to death, giving the impression that this kind of brutality is quotidian.

The moral ambiguity of the central characters gives the actors something to sink their teeth into. In his previous film with Refn, Gosling’s pretty-boy mannequin-esque persona struck me as too inorganically sanitized for the role of a daredevil stuntman-by-day-hit-man-by-night operating in LA’s criminal underworld and the romantic subplot with Carey Mulligan was pointless.

Courtesy of scriptshadow.net

Courtesy of scriptshadow.net

God lets him draw on his delicate looks to create a vulnerable character whose cerebral demeanor isolates him from the ultra-sadistic misogynists surrounding him. Gosling convincingly shows the inner turmoil between taking issue with the violent status-quo (in particularly in avenging the death of his murdering rapist brother) and latent violent misogynist urges acted out towards Mai, an “entertainer” (bewitchingly portrayed by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) in his fantasy to compensate for his impotence.

Due to the predictably linear narrative and one-note archetypes in Drive, there was no doubt that the protagonist would be victorious. God offers no such assurance for Julian. Gosling bravely sheds the infallibility of the typical action hero as he allows himself to be beaten to a pulp several times on-screen by several people less virile than himself.

Courtesy of LondonCityNights.com

Courtesy of LondonCityNights.com

The most surprising adversary is Lt. Chang. As an average height, slightly portly middle aged man with soulful eyes, he hardly seems to be a formidable opponent for the muscular Gosling. But deception is his strength and Pansringarm believably projects a quiet but deadly ferocity, and in some scenes he appears and disappears as rapidly as a phantom. Even at his most heinous, Pansringarm brings an earnest and wise quality to his role.

In many respects Chang, not Julian, is the film’s true hero as he is the off-kilter God. Only he can exercise the right to moral vigilantism. In one altercation with the distraught father of the slain prostitute, who has just murdered Billy, Chang chops off his hand, reminding him that “This isn’t about your dead daughter. It’s about your three living daughters. This is to make sure you never forget them.” At the same time he is the most grounded character; he is the only one with a stable family unit and sings karaoke with his colleagues.

Courtesy of DCFilmGirl.com

Courtesy of DCFilmGirl.com

The most astounding revelation is Kristen Scott-Thomas, who sheds all traces of her elegant English sophistication in a bravura performance as Crystal, Gosling’s sadistic revenge-crazy matriarch. Audaciously resembling a white-trash komodo dragon, her uninhibited kinkiness and aggression is the root of Julian’s central conflict between his reluctance and morbid fascination with sex and violence.

Crystal makes no pretense of her partiality towards the brutish Billy over the passive Julian, whom she considers weak. In one darkly humorous scene, she belabors her comparison of Julien’s average-sized cock in favor of Billy’s “enormous” one in front of Mai, whom he has hired to act as his girlfriend, while he silently sits in shame. Hearing Scott-Thomas call Mai’s vagina a “cum-dumpster” makes this film required viewing.

Courtesy of IMDb.com

Courtesy of IMDb.com

God’s divisively zealous reception resembles that of Oliver Stone’s 1994 classic Natural Born Killers, which was also met with heaps of controversy and disparagement for its excessive violence. Stone and Refn are savvy at translating their heavy-handed directorial style into energetic, stylistic films that have the courage to provoke and disturb. If Killers can receive the love it deserves (even if it was ten years belated), here’s hoping that God will receive its deserved glory too.