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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.
Let’s dive in and get to the point; there is little-to-nothing new or innovative about Mark Neveldine’s young-woman-possessed-by-a-demonic-spirit offering in The Vatican Tapes – a generic and uncreative horror entry that fails to inspire, move or frighten.
The film begins with a brief video scene showing a possessed woman named Angela (Taylor Dudley), before switching back through the plot’s timeline to find the main character preparing to celebrate her birthday with boyfriend, Pete (Amedori). After unexpected visit from her God-fearing father, Roger (Scott), and a minor accident that sends her to the hospital, Angela begins to show some troubling signs of aggression and unusual behavior. We come to learn that this is the beginning of a systematic demonic takeover, which soon catches the attention of Father Lozano (Pena), who subsequently takes the case to the Vatican when he begins to suspect that Angela may have been chosen as a vessel for the Anti-Christ. Are you still with us?
The Vatican Tapes marks the very first horror film for the director of the Crank film series, Mark Neveldine whose seeming inexperience in the genre is evident throughout. Written by Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin, there’s very little to the story – it’s as basic, straightforward and predictable as you can get – and its clumsy execution only goes on to exacerbate. Possessed (ha!) by a level of incoherence, the film and its undeveloped and plain uninteresting characters make it near impossible to invest in the film.
Told in flashbacks and with the shaky found-footage format that just refuses to go away, the plot never really finds its footing and seems rushed, making it awfully difficult to figure out what’s actually going on at times. Similarly, the acting suffers, especially the picture’s biggest name, Michael Pena, who seems uncomfortable in his own skin throughout.
With a reported budget of $13 million, the film has thus far only made $900,000 return and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the production failed to recoup its expenditures. But then what can you say for a film that, in some scenes, looks like it came from a Wayans brothers’ horror spoof in a sub-genre that hasn’t produced a film to top the one that started it all off, The Exorcist?
Following the seemingly unbridled success of the Despicable Me films, a Minions spin off was inevitable. The yellow Tic-Tac shaped rascals, despite essentially being background characters to Gru and co, were by far the most striking and memorable visual of the Illumination Entertainment franchise.
Acting as a prequel, the very notion of a standalone minions film doesn’t quite register – not only are they background characters, but they also don’t speak. Luckily, however, the film is conceived in the real world, with our heroes even interacting with historical figures.
The story goes like this; the minions are a race that has existed on earth for millions of years and have one sole goal in life – to serve the needs of super-villains. Throughout time, they have worked for the Pharaohs, Napoleon and even Dracula amongst others, but their unrelenting devotion to their master is undermined by one thing; their adorable incompetence. You see, they have a habit of accidentally killing each and every one of their adoptive leaders.
A subsequent crisis in confidence sees the minions make Antarctica their new home, where their lack of villainous endeavours eventually prompts a minion named Kevin to travel to Villain-Com – the world’s most prestigious convention for super-villains.
Hoping to find a new leader, Kevin is joined by fellow minions, Bob and Stuart, and wind up lining up behind the world’s first female super-villain, Scarlet Overkill – ably voiced by Sandra Bullock – who takes them to the UK for their first mission.
Boasting a cast that also includes a resurged Michael Keaton, an underused John Hamm and other familiar names, Minions is an utterly goofy film – and that’s why it’s hard to really condemn it in any real analytical way. As the film’s eponymous characters have come to embody, this film is cutesy and silly in the best of ways.
There’s something to be said for the lack of any real arc or engaging character-relationships, but the sheer ridiculousness of it all, the many pop-culture references and kitschy soundtrack all come together to meet expectations. This is far from a perfect film when compared to the likes of Toy Story, Shrek, et al, but there was no other way to approach a film based on a race of miniature, yellow pill-shaped creatures than complete and utter absurdity.
The film eventually comes to hint at and vaguely explains the connection between Minions and Despicable Me which holds a certain satisfaction in itself, but this will certainly satisfy minion-fans, if not particularly wow the rest of us.