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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.
Tapping into the historically disappointing world of videogame adaptations, Duncan Jones’ rather ambitious take on Warcraft – a popular real-time strategy game played by millions of fans around the world– hasn’t done much to change the perception that games just don’t translate all that well into films. While it has a big, sprawling universe to play with, Warcraft’s timeworn plot and over-the-top epic fantasy ambitions are difficult to digest.
The story begins with a fearsome tribe of giant Orcs fleeing their former rundown land of Draenor and entering the peaceful realm of Azeroth - a land ruled by King Llane (Cooper) and Lady Taria (Negga). Guided by Orc chief Blackhand (Brown) and Gul’dan’s (Wu) fearsome and unwavering leadership, the Orcs soon begin waging attacks on unsuspecting humans with the intention of claiming their land as their new home.
However, not all Orcs are happy with the savagery of the recent attacks, including Orc Soldier Durotan (Kebbell), who is worried about Gul’dan’s ruthless tactics and believes that a co-existence with the humans is possible. Meanwhile, in Azeroth, the King has called upon his loyal knight, Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), to come up with a plan of defense against the merciless tribe.
This basic plot is just the tip of the iceberg; with at least another ten characters and a handful of other subplots, Warcraft is one complicated and overwritten mess. Those unfamiliar with the videogame will definitely have a hard time understanding what’s going on, with Jones – who co-writes the script with Charles Leavitt - offering very little explanation and background to the creatures and the history behind the fantasy worlds they inhabit. Featuring every single epic fantasy trait under the sun, the film struggles to balance one too many ideas and never really stops for effect or any significant development for audiences to connect to.
The heavy CGI presence – you can almost see the green screens – is also another damaging factor to the production. While one could reasonably argue that there is plenty of craftsmanship involved with each and every shot, the sloppy and often heavy-handed editing, as well as the synthetic feel of the entire setup, gives this overcrowded film a seemingly empty presence. Another videogame movie misfire.
The idea of basing a film on a video-game hasn’t always proved successful – Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat are great proofs – and with yet another gaming-adaptation upon us, one is naturally a little skeptical about what to expect.
Luckily, first-time feature directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly have managed to keep the story of Angry Birds relatively exciting, inducing the story with just enough colour, character and infectious energy to keep the cynics at bay.
The Angry Birds Movie follows the story of Red (aptly voiced by Sudeikis); a permanently short-tempered resident who, thanks to his enraged disposition, has been forced into anger-management classes taught by Matilda (Rudolph). There he soon meets and befriends fellow students, including Chuck (Gad); a seemingly hyperactive yellow canary, Bomb (McBride); a typically docile blackbird with very little control over his feelings once his fuse blows and Terence (Penn); a behemoth bird who only grunts.
When a boatload of green pigs, led by the dubious-looking Captain Leonard (Hader), sail up onto their land bearing free food and catapults to help them fly, Red is instantly suspicious of their true motives but, of course no one believes him. When his suspicions turn out to be true and the pigs end up taking what is most precious to the them, Red – along with Chuck, Bomb and Terence – takes it upon himself to lead an attack on pigs in order to take back their precious keeps.
While it may stand as one of the most popular freemium game series of all time, The Angry Birds Movie - despite its best intentions - may not resonate as one of the finest video-movie adaptations made to date. But that is not to say it doesn’t have its charms. The colorful visuals are captivating, a couple of sequences – including a pig sing along – are creatively thought-out, while the voice work from the entire cast is spot-on, with both Sudeikis – a great fit for the sarcastically-loving Red - and Frozen’s very own Josh Gad coming out on top.
On the downside, however, the story – can feel a little slow with writer Jon Vitti – from The Simpsons, Alvin and the Chipmunks – taking a while before bringing the story to any kind of development, while the internal logic behind some of the story’s trademark features is a little flimsy.
Even though it may not turn into a must-see classic anytime soon, there is still plenty of whimsy, colour and slapstick comedy present in The Angry Birds Movie to keep the adults relatively entertained and the kiddies – who are more than likely to be the most entertained - giddy with joy.