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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.
Pierce Brosnan returns to the world of action films as an ex-CIA operative in Roger Donaldson’s latest espionage drama, The November Man; a clichéd spy thriller that relies heavily on outdated tactics to deliver the goods.
Written by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek, and set mostly in Eastern Europe, the film opens in 2008 with the veteran CIA operative, Peter Devereaux (Brosnan), teaching the tricks of the trade to new recruit, David Mason (Bracey), whilst out on a mission. However, when Mason fails to follow through with the instructions given, the mission – although successful – leave an innocent civilian dead.
The story then fast forwards to five years later, with the now retired Devereaux drinking his pension away. He is soon approached by his former colleague, John Hanley (Smitrovich), who wants him to get back into the game for one last job; travel to Moscow and help extract a CIA contact who holds valuable information on the soon-to-be president, Arkady Federov (Ristovski).
With a little bit of Bourne, Mission Impossible and Bond thrown into the mix, it’s easy to see where inspiration has been drawn for The November Man. Loosely based on Bill Granger’s 80’s novel, There Are No Spies, Roger Donaldson – see Cocktail and Dante’s Peak – manages to offer a couple of relatively interesting action set-pieces; however, with the incorporation of every single espionage trick in the book, the minutes tend to feel a little predictable, outdated and, most of all, terribly clichéd.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, Brosnan manages to hold his own and although his particular action mould lacks edge, he still manages to charm his way through the film and delivers a performance that’s relatively entertaining, if a little too wholesome in the context of modern action films.
On the whole, The November Man is a generic and a somewhat conventional thriller but for those looking forward to seeing Mr. Brosnan back in the spotlight, it does provide a certain level of enjoyment.
In 2006, John Carney wrote and directed a small indie-romance breakout hit, Once, and ended up walking away with an Oscar for Best Song, a Grammy for its folksy soundtrack and a Tony for its stage adaptation. In 2014, he returns to direct another musical-drama, Begin Again; a joyful and a moving story of music and lost souls which, despite its subtle corniness, still manages to hit the right notes.
Scripted by the Irish-born director himself, Begin Again is centred on Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo); a down-on-his-luck record label exec and self-described “selfish, depressed pr*ck” who’s just been fired from the very same company he helped build. His drinking problems, brought on by the bitter divorce from his wife, Miriam (Keener), and a strained relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, Violet (Steinfeld), doesn’t help his situation much and Dan – who is growing more cynical by the minute – is in desperate need of salvation.
His luck soon turns for the better when he meets Greta (Knightley); a British singer-songwriter who reluctantly agrees to play one of her songs during an open-mic night. Immediately taken by her performance – a soulful Norah Jones-like guitar solo – Dan soon begins to create his own music by visualising the instruments surrounding her playing on their own and very quickly decides to offer the Brit a chance to record an album together.
Greta, who is getting over her breakup with her rock-star boyfriend, David Kohl (Levine) – a self-centred musician who is slowly beginning to climb the ladder of success – was scheduled to fly out of New York the very same day. However, she too is taken by Dan’s enthusiasm and agrees to stay behind.
As previously demonstrated in his magnificently unassuming Once, John Carney once again allows the story to flow naturally; fluid and full of grace, Begin Again never feels forced. Some of the film’s best moments are the quiet ones, where no words or dialogue is needed. Naturally, the music is one of the film’s major components and, although the songs tend to feel a little sappy in the beginning the playlist of indie-folk and pop tunes slowly begin to grow on you as the minutes go by.
The performances delivered by the two leads are incredibly sincere and organic and for those doubting Knightley’s singing abilities will be delighted to learn that the young actress handles her task well. The chemistry shared between her and the deliciously neurotic Ruffalo is easy, off-beat and, most of all, engaging, while Levine should probably take a few extra acting lessons before deciding to make another big-screen appearance.
There is a sense of vagueness and general unpredictability that follows the story from beginning to end and that’s probably why Begin Again works. Modest, grounded and incredibly uplifting, it’s one of the year’s best feel-good film.