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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.
Taking on what’s probably one of the most implausible premises known to man, the latest offering from Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua, goes a little too far on bending the laws of reason and logic in the exceptionally contrived, cheesy and the remarkably violent, The Equalizer.
The story follows the life of one Robert McCall (Washington); a friendly, cautious and an unassuming middle-aged man who spends his days working the floors of a local Home-Mart, before returning home to a tidy one-bedroom apartment to eat his dinners alone. Suffering from a serious case of insomnia – and what appears to be a generous touch of OCD – Robert spends most of his evenings at a local diner, rearranging cutlery, reading books and enjoying the unobtrusive company of other restless souls.
On one such night, he befriends Teri (Moretz); a troubled young woman - and a frequent diner visitor – who earns her cash working as a high-end hooker for anunforgiving Russian pimp, Slavi (Munier). It’s obvious to Robert, who takes an instant liking to the young girl, that she has lost her way and encourages her to change her world and pursue her dreams of becoming a singer. Unfortunately, things don’t go so well for Teri, who - as Robert soon finds out - is landed in the hospital by her employers.
Unable to sit back and ignore, Robert decides to take matters into his own hands and soon finds his way to Slavi – and the rest of his crew - to buy Teri’s freedom from them. However, when the Russians decline, Robert has no choice but to take extreme measures; a move which quickly puts him in the crosshairs of the Russian mob.
The Equalizer is actually based, very loosely, on a little television show from the late eighties. However, the similarities stop at the character’s name; everything else has been changed and tailored to fit Washington’s trademark bad-ass passiveness, which just so happens to echo his character from the highly superior Man on Fire. Taking its time to develop, the first half of the film is dedicated to introducing us to the main character which is actually pretty engaging. However, the script loses its shape the minute the violence is unleashed. It's here that Fuqua, who also decides to channel in every single cliché from the book of revenge, crumbles and the idea of a man fighting – totally unaided - against the Russian mob seems like something that is probably better saved for the Die Hard franchise instead.
One thing is for certain, though, without Washington’s captivating and grounded presence, The Equalizer wouldn’t have amounted to very much.
Lasse Hallstrom’s latest onscreen efforts – following his generous offering in 2000’s Chocolat – is yet another delicious treat that celebrates the power of food and the importance of family traditions in the predictable but exceptionally charming, The Hundred Foot Journey.
The story is centred on the Kadam family from Mumbai, who, after having experienced a personal tragedy and the loss of their beloved family-run restaurant, decide to flee to Europe in search for a better life. However, after failing to make it in the cold British weather, the Kadams, led by Papa (Puri), decide to head further south.
The family of six, which includes Hassan (Dayal) – a young aspiring chef - soon stumble upon a small village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, located in the south of France. Immediately taken in by its small-town charm, Papa decides to explore the village and after laying his eyes on a piece run-down of property, he decides that his family will settle and try to reopen their family restaurant.
After many objections from the rest of the family – who believe that the French are not accustomed to Indian cuisine – the rebuilding soon begins; however, problems soon arise when they learn that their new restaurant is located exactly one hundred feet from a Michelin-starred restaurant run by uncompromising food-snob, Madame Mallory (Mirren). Naturally, she isn’t too welcoming of competition.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first; it is highly advisable not to go on The Hundred-Foot Journey on an empty stomach. If you do, know that it is at your own risk.
Adapted from the pages of Richard C. Morais’ novel of the same name – and produced by the unlikely pairing of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey – the story is very, very simple. Regardless of its rather predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental premise, however, it manages to create an inviting world that is pretty hard to resist. Easy on the eyes, the refined and somewhat old-fashioned cinematography – which embellishes most of its shots with a sun-kissed glow – adds to the overall experience and manages to awaken and breathe life into everything it touches.
Mirren, who seems to have mastered the French accent pretty well, shows great versatility in her role of the icy restaurant owner whose hard-as-nails exterior slowly begins to melt away as the minutes go by, while Puri, as the sensitive and the exceptionally stubborn father determined to make it, is simply irresistible.
However, it’s Dayal as the passionate chef who serves as the secret ingredient to the mix and although his romantic attachment to a sous chef named Marguerite doesn’t really translate all that well, he still manages to carry and convey Hallstrom’s obvious passion and love for food to an audience who will more than likely be summoned to stop by for a quick Chicken Tikka Masala on their way home.