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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.
Following in the footsteps of the 2014 teen- tear-jerker, The Fault in Our Stars, R.J Cutler’s onscreen adaptation of yet another best-selling young-adult novel explores the perils of young love in the terribly formulaic and melodramatic, If I Stay.
The story is centred on Mia (Moretz); a shy high-school junior who dreams of one day becoming a great concert cellist. Her super-cool, rock-loving parents, Kat (Enos) and Denny (Leonard), are very supportive of her dreams; however, Mia – who constantly doubts her own talent – is not so sure that she will be able to make the cut when she auditions for the Julliard School of Music in New York.
As Mia awaits the news that will determine her future, her relationship with Adam (Blackley), the lead singer of a local rock band, is not doing so well, as his career and schedule begins to take him away from the relationship. Uncertain what her future holds, Mia’s world is soon turned upside down when she and her family are involved in a horrifying car accident that leaves both her parents dead, her younger brother Teddy (Davies) fighting for his life and Mia in a coma.
Stuck in between the two worlds, Mia begins to undergo a lengthy out-of-body experience and soon finds herself examining and questioning her entire life – through a series of flashbacks – and quickly comes to the realisation that it is up to her whether to let go and walk towards the light – literally – or wake up and deal with the fact that her life, as she knew it, will be forever changed.
Scripted by Shauna Cross, If I Stay does very little to break away from the usual patterns of young-adult novel adaptations and once again lends its entire focus on the workings of a romance between two young teens under the burdens of life and big decisions. Weighty subjects are thrown around, but never fully explored and the gaps in the logic – mostly to do with the supernatural part of the tale – are vast and, frankly, a little baffling.
Nevertheless, Moretz proves to be a reliable and capable lead, though the chemistry shared between her and Blackley doesn’t really resonate. As her extra-hip parents, Enos and Leonard, came off as a little forced – and a little hard to take seriously – while Keach, playing Mia’s loving grandfather, is the only one who brings a bit of sincerity to his role.
Told mostly through flashbacks, If I Stay is paced well and there is certain lightness to its step. However, it’s all a little bit too cutesy to take seriously.
Lasse Hallstrom’s latest onscreen efforts – following his generous offering in 2000’s Chocolat – is yet another delicious treat that celebrates the power of food and the importance of family traditions in the predictable but exceptionally charming, The Hundred Foot Journey.
The story is centred on the Kadam family from Mumbai, who, after having experienced a personal tragedy and the loss of their beloved family-run restaurant, decide to flee to Europe in search for a better life. However, after failing to make it in the cold British weather, the Kadams, led by Papa (Puri), decide to head further south.
The family of six, which includes Hassan (Dayal) – a young aspiring chef - soon stumble upon a small village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, located in the south of France. Immediately taken in by its small-town charm, Papa decides to explore the village and after laying his eyes on a piece run-down of property, he decides that his family will settle and try to reopen their family restaurant.
After many objections from the rest of the family – who believe that the French are not accustomed to Indian cuisine – the rebuilding soon begins; however, problems soon arise when they learn that their new restaurant is located exactly one hundred feet from a Michelin-starred restaurant run by uncompromising food-snob, Madame Mallory (Mirren). Naturally, she isn’t too welcoming of competition.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first; it is highly advisable not to go on The Hundred-Foot Journey on an empty stomach. If you do, know that it is at your own risk.
Adapted from the pages of Richard C. Morais’ novel of the same name – and produced by the unlikely pairing of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey – the story is very, very simple. Regardless of its rather predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental premise, however, it manages to create an inviting world that is pretty hard to resist. Easy on the eyes, the refined and somewhat old-fashioned cinematography – which embellishes most of its shots with a sun-kissed glow – adds to the overall experience and manages to awaken and breathe life into everything it touches.
Mirren, who seems to have mastered the French accent pretty well, shows great versatility in her role of the icy restaurant owner whose hard-as-nails exterior slowly begins to melt away as the minutes go by, while Puri, as the sensitive and the exceptionally stubborn father determined to make it, is simply irresistible.
However, it’s Dayal as the passionate chef who serves as the secret ingredient to the mix and although his romantic attachment to a sous chef named Marguerite doesn’t really translate all that well, he still manages to carry and convey Hallstrom’s obvious passion and love for food to an audience who will more than likely be summoned to stop by for a quick Chicken Tikka Masala on their way home.