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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.
Despite the familiarity in The Gift’s conventional, and somewhat predictable, stalker-thriller setup, Joel Edgerton – who writes, directs and stars as the lead – has managed to deliver a quiet and lingering psychological drama that isn’t all bad.
Tired of Chicago and its relentlessly cold weather, Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) have decided to move to Simon’s hometown of Los Angeles and make a fresh start. Purchasing a modern and uniquely designed home, Simon – a sales executive working for a computer security firm – soon begins his new corporate job, while Robyn – an interior-designer dealing with a case of mild depression – works from home and take care of their dog, Jangles.
During one of their shopping outings, the pair runs into Gordo – short for Gordon - (Edgerton); a socially awkward high-school classmate of Simon’s who wishes to reconnect with his old bud - and his wife - by showering them with gifts and unexpected house visits. Robyn is instantly intrigued by Gordo’s peculiar ways and wishes to get to know him better while, Simon is annoyed with his presence and wants nothing to do with him. Uncomfortable with the way Gordo is smothering Robyn with attention, Simon soon confronts him and asks him to leave them alone; however, Gordo is not willing to go away so easily.
The Gift marks the directorial debut for the Aussie actor, Joel Edgerton –previous screenwriting credits include 2008’s The Square and 2013’s Felony - who successfully handles the job at hand and delivers something that is both intriguing and beautiful to watch. Maintaining a sense of surprise and a hefty dose of stalker-induced tension, The Gift is far from an original piece of storytelling – Edgerton is happy to borrow from other similarly told thrillers – however, even though if the plot plays out as expected, there is still a certain element of surprise and allure to keep everyone engaged.
On the downside, however, the idea to incorporate the cheap – sometimes relatively effective – jump scares Blumhouse Production is known for, is what downgrades The Gift’s initial potential, while a couple of subplots are left totally unexplored. Luckily, the commitment from all three actors is what helps keep The Gift with its head above water at its with both Hall – as the somewhat lonely and insecure woman dealing with anxiety – and Edgerton – as the subtle and terrorising weirdo - coming out on top. Bateman, known for his deadpan humour, is given the opportunity to showcase his more dramatic side and for what it’s worth, he does so brilliantly.
Anchored by a few strong performances and an intriguing central story, The Gift is certainly not without a fault, but it’s got enough about it to leave it lingering in your mind after the credits roll.
Engaging but not particularly remarkable, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania 2 is, unfortunately, not much of an improvement from its equally mediocre 2012 predecessor. Light on intelligent humour, heavy on the slapstick, the result is once again a mixed bag; an animated effort which will please the young viewers, but not anyone older than maybe 10.
Taking place in and around the titular hotel, the story is once again centered on Dracula (voiced by Sandler); the human-hating owner of the hotel who - in the previous film - has tried so hard to destroy the romance between his daughter, Mavis (Gomes) and her goofy human-backpacker beau, Jonathan (Samberg) but ultimately, failed to get very far with his plan.
Now, five years later after his daughter’s wedding, Dracula has to deal with yet another troubling obstacle; his half-human, half-vampire grandson, Dennis (Blinkoff) who is refusing to give in to his vampire side. Desperate for an heir, grandpa Dracula – who has opened his doors to the ‘normal’ people ever since his daughter’s wedding – decides to send the happy couple to California so that Mavis can meet her in-laws whilst, he can hang back and show his grandson the ropes of being a monster.
Working from the script written by Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler, Hotel Transylvania 2 is not a total miss. Told through a series of colorful and highly-spirited dynamics, the story is designed to appeal to a much younger audience and for those kids who found the first movie likeable and engaging, won’t have a problem connecting it to it the second time around. However, it is once again having problems in reaching out to the older crowd and even though, the writers have decided on a slightly different approach to the humor – fewer fart and bathroom jokes this time – the overall effect is still pretty underwhelming.
Sandler - in his first-ever animated sequel - is surprisingly pleasing as the desperate father and grandfather who will do anything to pass on his wisdom – and vampire customs – to his grandson. Meanwhile, as his one-hundred-and-eighteen year-old daughter, who too is being thrown into her own world of anxieties, Gomes has once again managed to come across as a relatively likable young woman, while Samberg’s over-enthusiastic ways tend to be a little infuriating.
On the whole, Hotel Transylvania is an entertaining animated diversion and a passable effort from the folks over at Sony; colorful, dynamic but a tad chaotic towards the end, it definitely has its flaws but, still plenty of fun for the under-ten-year-olds in the crowd.