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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.
There’s plenty of action, but little excitement in the latest Bruce Willis-starring thriller, Precious Cargo, whose seemingly unoriginal and cliché-heavy plot offers almost nothing to take it above being just another thoughtless and unmemorable actioner.
The film opens with Karen (Meet Joe Black’s Forlani); a two-faced thief attempting to pull off a multi-million dollar caper for unforgiving crime-boss, Eddie (the painfully passive Willis). Of course, it all soon goes wrong and Karen is forced to go on the run with Eddie promising to kill her if she doesn’t come up with the full amount of the heist.
With nowhere else to go and with Eddie’s men hot on her tail, Karen decides to turn up at the doorstep of ex-boyfriend Jack (Gosselaar, of Saved by the Bell fame); a fellow criminal referred to as the ‘Michelangelo of Thieves’. Claiming that she is pregnant with his child, she asks him for help in pulling off ‘one last job’ together involving a truck full of diamonds. Reluctantly, Jack agrees to the heist and sets out to collect a multi-million-dollar prize which, of course, Eddie and his men also want to get a piece of.
Despite getting top billing, Willis only makes relatively scattered and brief appearances throughout the film, turning in another dispassionate performance as a supposedly evil criminal kingpin with a short fuse. Aside from one decently shot action-sequence involving a jet-ski, there’s nothing remotely interesting or thrilling about the script and the plot racks up a bigger body-count than it builds any kind of real tension or excitement. The dialogue is atrocious and the film seems almost unapologetically unimaginative as it embraces every possible heist-thriller trope in the book, while the chemistry between the leads, especially Gosselaar and Forlani, is pretty much non-existent.
Unless you are a super hard-core Bruce Willis fan, there's little to gain from Precious Cargo - a piece that serves no more purpose than to be an excercise in how not to make a film. As for Willis, well the less said the better for this once reliable action lead.
Many were concerned that Disney’s revisit to the story of Jungle Book would find it hard to be as fun or as magical as the original. Luckily, however, with an excellent voice cast and an impressive array of visuals, The Jungle Book is something of a technical marvel which manages to retain the heart and the essence of the story’s long-established roots.
Mowgli (Sethi) is a young boy - a.k.a ‘man-cub’ - who was found abandoned in the Indian jungle by a panther named Bagheera (voiced brilliantly by Kingsley) when he was only a toddler. Brought up by a wolf pack - led by leader Akela (Esposito) - Mowgli has been accepted as one of the jungle’s own.
However, there’s one member of the jungle who’s not so keen on having a human living in their midst; vicious Bengal tiger, Shere Khan (the absolutely magnificent Edris Elba), worries that the boy will soon grow into a ruthless man who will bring nothing but destruction and devastation to them all. Coming to the conclusion that it’s in everyone’s best interest if he leaves, Mowgli embarks on a journey through the jungle where he meets and quickly befriends a friendly bear named Baloo (the always excellent Bill Murray) who convinces the young boy to stay, as he finds himself returning home to face Khan.
Infusing the story with plenty of heart and an incredible sense of visual grandeur, director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks pull together elements from both the Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation and Rudyard Kipling’s original collection of stories to great effect. In addition, there are refreshingly darker, less happy-go-lucky moments throughout the film, with Elba’s chief antagonist, Khan, being astonishingly affective as the villain of the piece, while Johansson’s Kaa is just as hair-raising.
The brilliant voice performances, which give their gorgeously rendered and astonishingly real-looking CGI-generated characters plenty of personality, charm and wit, is definitely one of the strongest aspects of the story, with Elba and Murray coming out on top as the most scene-stealing of the bunch. Sethi is equally wonderful as the young Mowgli, filling his character with plenty of genuine childlike wonder, while Walken is absolutely superb as the singing Gigantopithecus, King Louie.
Wonderfully told and gorgeous to look at, The Jungle Book is not only a marvellous technical achievement in filmmaking, but a commendable and surprising achievement in storytelling.