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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.
The fourth and final instalment in The Hunger Games film series is upon us and director Francis Lawrence has injected the closing chapter of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling dystopian adventure with a bit more heart and oomph than from what was witnessed in the first and rather dreary half of this two-part tale. However, although Mockingjay Part 2 is definitely a better and more exciting offering, it’s still not completely free of fault.
Mockingjay Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) trying to recover after almost being choked to death by her former ‘lover’ and ally, Peeta (Hutcherson), who by the looks of things, seems to have been brainwashed and poisoned with thoughts of killing Katniss. Driven by the anger and her pure hatred for President Snow (Sutherland), Katniss soon escapes District 13 to join an assault on The Capitol under rebel leader, President Coin (Moore), only to discover that there is one last version of the Hunger Games still to play.
One thing’s for sure; Part 2 is a definite improvement over Part 1, which spent most of its time shifting about and setting things up for the big payoff. It’s a problem that we’ve seen before in the waves of adult-fiction novel adaptations – the first half spends so much energy in setting up the second that it fails to convince a stand-alone film. Although the pace picks up, there’s no sense of grandness to what is meant to be a huge finale and, actually, some may even feel underwhelmed by how the plot plays out.
On the plus side, the action is engaging and some of the battle scenes are staged with great attention to detail. In addition, Lawrence is, as always, her fantastic self and she’s once again the anchor on what has been a shaky ship.
As a story which has always attempted to frame the horrors of war through the eyes of a fiercely brave young heroine, so much more could have been done – much like the whole series, there’s something engaging about the finale, but it all feels like a chance missed.
Undermined by predictability, culinary drama, Burnt is surprisingly bland and unexcitingly seasoned for a kitchen-based flick that sees Bradley Cooper step into the role of a bad-boy chef on the road to redemption.
Set in London - or at least some Hollywood version of it - the story follows Adam Jones (Cooper); a brilliant but arrogant chef who, after becoming embroiled in the drugs, alcohol and women of Paris, is eager to get his life back on track. After spending a few years doing penance in New Orleans, Adam arrives in London with the hopes of persuading restaurateur and friend, Tony (Bruhl), to give him another chance, so that he can try and build a brand name and give his greatest rival, Reece (Rhys) - who has also set up shop in the area - a run for his money.
Setting out to get his dream-team of cooks, Adam recruits a seemingly rag-tag team, including Michel (Sy) - a sous chef whose restaurant Adam sabotaged - as well as Max (Scarmarcio); an assistant-to-the-chef who has just recently been released from jail.
Directed by John Wells and written by Steven Knight, it is unlikeable characters that haunt this foodie-feature, which spends most of its running time following a fairly conventional setup. Playing to an awfully predictable beat of redemption, Burnt feels overwritten and undercooked at the same time - trying to squeeze in one too many subplots - and apart from a few wonderfully-shot close up food shots, there’s not much that can be considered exciting - or appetising – about watching Burnt unfold or watching one constantly dissatisfied and seemingly conceited chef at play.
Which brings us to the cast of Burnt; apart from Sienna Miller - who plays a single mom and a gifted sous chef with a romantic tie to Adam - and Emma Thomson as Adam’s therapist and counsellor, no one really has the space to perform.
Even Cooper himself fails to connect to the material given; channeling his inner Gordon Ramsey, there’s a lot of ego and profanity at display, but, unfortunately, not a lot of substance or meaning to warrant Burnt as a necessary viewing. This is not the first time Cooper has played the role of a chef; he starred in underrated sitcom, Kitchen Confidential, which was based on a best-selling book by infamous chef, Anthony Bourdain. Though it was cancelled after 13 episodes, the show also showed its main character as rebel with a talent – the only difference being that Kitchen Confidential had likeable characters, a jovial sense of humour and generally more heart. It's a shame; Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Omar Sy, Emma Thompson is a great cast.