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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.
Well-deserving of all the attention it’s been getting, James Marsh’s Theory of Everything – an emotional and a rousing look inside the life of one Professor Stephen W. Hawking and his loving but, turbulent thirty-year long marriage to Jane Hawking – is nothing short of wonderful.
Sourced from Jane’s 2008 memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the story begins in 1963, with an exceptionally charming twenty-one physicist, Stephen Hawking (Redmayne), on his way of pursuing his doctorate from the University of Cambridge.
It is there that he first meets the beautiful literature-major student, Jane Wilde (Jones); a devout Christian whose outlook on life – and science in particular – doesn’t necessarily fall in line with his more agnostic and mathematical assessments of human existence.
Just as the love between the two begins to blossom and Stephen begins preparing for his final thesis, he discovers that he is suffering from motor neuron disease; an illness that will soon begin to take away his ability to walk and talk, amongst other things. Having been given only two years to live, the young and the highly-intelligent physicist – whose thirst for knowledge and passion for life refuses to surrender – slowly begins to challenge his weaknesses. However, as he continues to grow professionally, his life at home with Jane – who is single-handedly carrying his physical limitations on her frail shoulders – begins to show signs of despair.
While this is in fact a biopic – a simple and a straightforward one at that – which celebrates the life and work of Hawking, it is also very important to note that this is not a story that goes deep into his rise to fame as the renowned physicist we know today. It’s a much smaller scale story of love and compassion and a one focuses on human endurance, courage and, most of all, hope.
The Theory of Everything is shot beautifully and a real sense of romanticism and nostalgia – driven by a sensual and a tear-jerking classical score – can be felt throughout. It’s an emotionally-rich drama that, although sometimes can feel a little too sugary, manages to stay grounded. It is, to a large degree, thanks to Redmayne’s extraordinary performance audiences will be able to appreciate what is an insightful and meaningful peak inside the private life of one of the most respected and remarkable minds living today.
There’s quirky and then there is the outright ridiculous. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that best fits Johnny Depp’s Mortdecai performance.
Based on Kyril Bonfiglioli's 1973 book anthology, Don’t Point that Finger at Me, the film follows the eccentric and the unconventional life of swindling British art dealer, Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), who seems to have fallen into a financial rut. His lavish family estate – which he shares with his wife, Joanna (Paltrow) – is now in danger of being taken away from him and his long list of clients have caught onto his deceitful ways.
To make things even worse, Charlie soon finds himself at odds with Joanna, who is refusing to speak to him until he gets rid of the ridiculous handlebar moustache.
It’s not until Inspector Martland (McGregor) – Charlie’s old college roommate – shows up asking for help with a murder case that’s linked to the theft of a lost Goya painting that things begin to look up. Hoping that the finder’s fee will help him, Charlie – with the assistance of his loyal manservant, Jock Strapp (Bettany) – soon finds himself trotting around the globe looking for a painting that is not only valuable, but one that may lead them to a hidden treasure of gold.
Adapted to the screen by Eric Aronson, Mortdecai’s story is overly complex and disjointed to the point of complete and utter breakdown. The pace is relatively brisk and the gags – mainly involving Charlie’s moustache – are aplenty; however, the jokes are forced and never really hit their mark, leaving the whole development of the plot a little exhausting.
Depp – someone who has grown accustomed to odd-ball roles such as this – seems to be happy to step into the part of the eccentric British aristocrat, however, his usual charm and irresistible unconventionality seem to be a little on the off-side. Lacking originality and character, Depp is a babbling mess while Paltrow, McGregor and Bettany, were all a little lost in their respective roles.
Succumbing to a series of cheap gags and an ongoing barrage of humourless quips, Mortdecai – probably best described as Austin Powers meets James Bond – feels like a missed opportunity considering its accomplished and talented cast.