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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.
Rough around the edges and not as ‘focused’ is it could be (ha!), the team behind entertaining, but flawed, 2011 rom-com, Crazy, Stupid, Love, apply the comedy treatment to action flick, Focus.
This is not by any means an intellectually challenging film, but, no matter how predictable and fluffy its premise may be, it still boasts plenty of energy and holds enough charm to maintain engagement.
Jess Barrett (Robbie) is an inexperienced grifter, who – after trying and failing to con the ultimate conman himself, Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) – insists that he take her under his wing.
As Jess slowly proves herself, she is recruited by Nicky and his crew, though their business relationship briefly turns into a romantic one; but after a successful one million dollar heist during the Super Bowl in New Orleans, they part ways, leaving Jess heartbroken.
Three years down the line, the story moves to Buenos Aires where Nicky is preparing another huge con – so huge in fact, that he seeks out Jess once more.
Slick and glossy, Focus is best enjoyed if you don’t think too much about its inner-workings; if you do allow yourself to get way inside its shallow mechanisms, however, you’ll almost certainly walk away feeling a little underwhelmed with the entire experience. The dialogue is quite often sharp and witty, but the film isn’t in the same mould as the recent heist-clicks like Ocean’s Eleven; there’s more of a focus on the two main characters and their evolving relationship and it can be argued that this is one of its biggest mistakes for the simple reason that there just isn’t enough room for complex arcs in a film that brings a very particular type of action movie together with comedy.
Despite this, there are still plenty of memorable set-pieces and, as the dexterous and charming Nicky, Smith is his usual magnetic self, though he doesn’t stray far from his usual routine. Standing strong by his side is his equally magnetic Aussie co-star, Margot Robbie, who once again proves that she is capable of holding her own amongst some of Hollywood’s biggest names. The pairing, though seeming inapt at first, carries the film through to be a one-hundred-and-four minute of easy watching – it’s a typical cinema-and-popcorn movie that doesn’t try to be more than it is.
Justin Reardon’s feature-length directorial debut, Playing it Cool, sees an attempt at bring some freshness and originality to the rom-com genre falling into the same old clichés.
Dreaming of one day becoming a successful action screenwriter, the main character of the piece – simply referred to as ‘Narrator’ and played by Chris Evans – isn’t all that enthusiastic about being handed the task of scripting a romantic comedy. See, he’s never been in love – a side-effect from his mother’s abandonment when he was only a young boy – and therefore, he’s unable to see himself writing something that he ‘doesn’t believe in’.
Enter ‘Her’ (Monaghan); a beautiful young woman he meets at a charity event. Sparks fly and he is instantly smitten; however, she’s already engaged to be married to handsome and aloof Brit, ‘Stuffy’ (Gruffudd). Powerless to get her out of his mind – a place filled with a vivid, and often dramatic, writer’s imagination – emotions soon spiral out of control and, well, you know the rest.
Desperately trying to swerve away from the lovely-dovey trappings of the genre, Playing it Cool is the kind of film that’s really difficult to pin-down. Is it a rom-com parody? Or, is it just another movie that begins by dismissing the very notion of romance before eventually falling into the very hole it’s been trying to avoid from the beginning? We’ll go for the latter. Already drawing comparison to movies such as Amelie and 500 Days of Summer – a notion that’s awfully difficult to grasp to begin with – the story lacks the charm, focus and the overall substance that made the aforementioned movies the cinematic success they are.
In fairness, though, the two leads do share some genuine onscreen chemistry; however, the movie’s relatively unexciting script is not smart, strong -or creative enough to take advantage of the fact. Monaghan is the stronger of the two; her charm is infectious and it’s easy to see why any guy would fall for her while Evans, who just doesn’t seem right for the role, tries his best to stick it out. However, just like the story itself, he just doesn’t seem comfortable in his own skin – stick to being Captain America.
Essentially, the problem here is that this is a film that tries too hard to be unique, quirky, ironically, doesn’t play it cool one bit.