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Assal Eswed: A Fish out of the USA
Ahmed Helmy’s latest offering finds him playing an Egyptian American who returns to Egypt with naïve enthusiasm after twenty years abroad. In an attempt to convey the protagonist’s background and to set the tone, the filmmakers benevolently named their main character Masry Arabi (the Egyptian Arab), eliminating the need for any kind of setup or back-story; and creating a sluggishly blunt poise that continues throughout the film.
Assal Eswed is Arabic for molasses and literally translates into black honey. We Egyptians have a pathological need to sugar-coat reality, and Assal Eswed not only projects a polished Cairo full of lovable grifters; it also drenches you in the thick molasses of self-denial. The film’s central argument is summed up in the song playing over the closing credits: what makes Egypt so special? The song answers by repeatedly asking the question– the film’s ambition is only matched by its naiveté.
Masry (Helmy) returns to Egypt, having accidentally left his American passport behind. Little is known about him, his past or his plans. In fact, there is little that Masry knows himself. This ripe setup could have led to interesting social commentary, yet Assal Eswed keeps milking every possible joke out of the setup throughout the film’s two hours.
During the first half, the film plays like a tourist horror comedy: Masry suffers through every tourist rip-off cliché imaginable until he finds his old home again.In his old house, Masry is reunited with his neighbour and childhood friend Said (Edward) and his family, who embarrass him with typical Egyptian hospitality. Unaccustomed to people extending a hand of help and wanting nothing in return, Masry asks the warm family how much he should pay for their graciousness, to which they all collectively blush and remind him that he’s not in America anymore; here, we look out for one another.
Assal Eswed tries to the best of its abilities to ponder the reasons holding this country and our culture back; yet, instead of criticizing, the film ends up as the biggest apologist for Egyptian ambivalence– hokum is the light at the end of the film’s tunnel, not salvation.
Although Egyptians may find reassurance in the film’s sentimentality, non-Egyptians may detect an echo of the vacant nationalism that feeds many Egyptians’ sense of entitlement. In either case, what Assal Eswed really desperately needs is box office earnings and ensuring that product placement gets a sizable screen time. Subtlety is a sin in this film’s book.
Emerging from a lesser-known comic-book line, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy – Marvel’s tenth, and possibly quirkiest, offering – proves to be a risk well taken.
Set entirely in the galactic immensity of outer space, Guardians of the Galaxy follows the story of Peter Quill (Pratt); a twenty-six-year-old Earthling who was abducted as a young boy and raised by The Ravegers – an alien gang of thieves led by the notorious, Yondu (Rooker).
Far away from home, Peter – a.k.a Star Lord – now roams the cosmos and soon comes across a special orb; a silver infinity stone that holds an incredible amount of power. Unfortunately, he’s not the only interested party and he is soon confronted by Korath (Hounsou); the right-hand man of one of the most villainous terrorists in the galaxy, Ronan (Pace), who wants to use the orb to overthrow a rival civilization run by Nova Prime (Close).
Intrigued by the high interest in his new discovery, Peter turns his back on Yondu, who sends assassin, Gamora (Saldana), to retrieve the orb.
He also soon attracts the attention of bounty hunters, Rocket (voiced by Cooper) – a sly raccoon warrior – and his best pal, talking tree-like human, Groot (voiced by Diesel).
After causing a public disturbance, Peter and his pursuers are soon put in prison and form a temporary bond, along with muscular inmate, Draz (Bautista), in order to break out and prevent the precious stone from falling into the wrong hands.
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, Guardians of the Galaxy is refreshingly off-beat, steadfast and full of character. Visually, Gunn paints his intergalactic backdrop with plenty of colour, however some of the CGI tends to feel a little overcooked and the action-scenes – although pretty entertaining– feel a little unrefined.
Pratt – whose character and performance has already drawn comparisons to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones – proves to be a solid and extremely likable lead, while Saldana uses her trademark femme fatale penchant to great use . However, it’s Cooper as the chatty and cheeky raccoon, Rocket, and Diesel as the human-tree, Groot, that steal the show, adding a whimsy rarely seen in modern comic-book film adaptations.
Without household comic-book names to inject a bit of weight into proceedings, this is a film that could have found itself in the annals of failed comic-book adaptations, alongside Marvel flops such as Daredevil, Elektra and Ghost Rider.
But, armed with a funky 70’s soundtrack, likable characters, a witty temperament and thrilling action, Guardians of the Galaxy has arrived at the perfect time for Marvel, who – despite huge box office earnings with Captain America, The Avengers et al – were in dire need of a fresh canvas.
DisneyToon Studios certainly didn’t waste any time before knocking out a sequel to 2013’s Planes; the relatively profitable spin-off of the popular animated series, Cars. With only a year since the first film, Roberts Gannaway’s Planes: Fire and Rescue manages to slightly expand on the simple premise and proves to be a definite improvement over its predecessor.
Scripted by Jeffrey M. Howard, the sequel catches up with the crop-dusting champ, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Cook); a champion air racer who now faces the possibility of never racing again due to his reductive gearbox flopping and breaking down and the manufacturer discontinuing his model-type.
While his friends - Skipper (Keach), Dottie (Hatcher) and Chug (Garrett) - work extremely hard on finding the needed part, Dusty decides to go off and train with an elite Fire & Rescue squad, in order to assist the aging fire and rescue truck, Mayday (Holbrook).
However, before he can officially join the team at Piston Peak National Park, he must first pass the test - and acquire the certification - from Blade Ranger (Harris); a veteran helicopter haunted by a troubled past. Before long, Dusty’s talent and skills are put to the test when a massive forest fire threatens to destroy a well-known landmark resort; can Dusty prove that he’s got what it takes?
While the first film was considered nothing but a quick cash-crab on the lucrative Cars film franchise, the second instalment proves that there is something there after all. The technical improvement in the animation department is a definite step-up; the colours are livelier, the action sequences thrilling and there is a sense of general cheerfulness throughout. The story, however, is still as simple as they come – despite a handful of unrealised subplots – and the characters seem somewhat unadventurous and thinly-drawn.
The entire cast offered relatively decent voice support - despite the script’s shortcomings - and although Cook, who returns to reprise his role as Dusty, is still supposed to be the star of the picture, he is overshadowed by Bowen, as the flirtatious Lil Dipper, who offers most of the laughs.
Planes: Fire and Rescue offers a fun and a generally undemanding viewing experience; inviting and simple, it’s a technically advanced addition to DisneyToons’ ongoing animation repertoire. The kids will love it, but the adults will likely not.